I was right there for the big Edgar Rice Burroughs boom of the early 1960s. When I was 13 years old, no one could have convinced me that ERB wasn’t America’s greatest writer. And when the movies were in their adolescence, Burroughs first came to the screen in “Tarzan of the Apes,” directed by Scott Sidney, who directed 69 films before his death in 1928. No, you’ve never heard of any of the others.
The fact that you have heard of #33 on the list owes everything to its source novel and little to Sidney’s skill. If ever a director made a negligible contribution to a finished product, this is that director and this is that product. The film’s only memorable visuals are several shots in silhouette, presenting the central images as it they were interior illustrations from one of the pulp fiction magazines in which the Tarzan stories were first published. Other than that, the pictures are mostly dull, static medium shots, the acting is bombastic, and the plot has been stripped of any psychological interest it might have contained.
John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (True Boardman) sails to Africa to put a stop to the Arab slave trade there. Accompanying him is his wife Alice (Kathleen Kirkham). A mutiny occurs on their ship and the two passengers are set ashore on a jungle coast. One of the sailors, Binns (George B. French) argues with the mutineers for their safety, but he is ignored and later returns to England.
Lord and Lady Greystoke build a small cabin but they soon succumb to the rigors of their castaway status. Alice dies in childbirth and John soon follows her. In death, not childbirth.
In a cross story, Kala, the great ape, loses her child. She hears the young Greystoke heir crying for food. Curious, Kala enters the hut and, seeing the helpless human baby, exchanges the corpse of her own infant for the human. Named Tarzan by his adopted family of apes, the boy has no idea that he is any different from his primate clan until as a boy he sees his reflection in a pool of water.
Here it’s time to pause and point something out to the movie trivia buffs. Elmo Lincoln, who plays the adult Tarzan in this picture, is not the first actor to essay the role. The boy actor who portrays the young ape man is Gordon Griffith and he is actually the first screen Tarzan. He’s also more energetic and convincing than Lincoln. Keep his name in mind and you can win some bar bets with it.
So Tarzan finds the ruined hut of his parents, with its picture books and, more importantly, a knife. He discovers the use this tool has and suddenly he is as dangerous as any of his primate fellows.
Back in England, the guilt-heavy Binns convinces a group of Greystoke’s relatives and a party of scientists to travel to Africa on a rescue mission. Remarkably enough, they land on the coast just where John and Alice had been abandoned and find the cabin. One of the group, Greystoke’s nephew (Colin Kenny) proposes to the young woman Jane Porter (Enid Markey), but she rejects his affections. In a rage, he makes to attack her. The adult Tarzan reaches through the cabin’s window, grabs the young man, and shakes him.
As if the tale up to this point hasn’t been melodramatic enough, the movie explodes from here like a bombshell packed with implausibilities. They are all pure Burroughs, but reading them doesn’t create the same urge to head-scratch and grin stupidly as the seeing them enacted by third-rate thespians. Binns is captured by Arab slave traders, and escapes, and teaches Tarzan the basics of readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic. Jane is captured by the local native tribe, the leader of which smiles like Gene Simmons and has to be taught his place by the White Lord of the Jungle. Jane is rescued but then is just as terrified by the hulking Tarzan as she has been by everything else that crawls, growls, flies, swims, bites, or has rape on its mind.
She will come to appreciate Tarzan’s manly and noble qualities, of course. “His great love’s courage shielded her from all harm,” a title card reads. Yeah, that and his knife. Lincoln actually killed a lion when it got a little too rambunctious during one of the wrestling scenes. The producers had it stuffed and it made the publicity tour.
All this jungle jive comes from Burroughs’ novel, there’s no denying that. ERB’s imagination always operated at the most elementary level. Hell, the man died in 1950 while reading a comic book in bed. But one approaches a Burroughs book—at least, one does the second time—with an expectation of the wildest kind of escape-and-capture pop fiction. The author’s magic lay in the fact that he could make the most absurd fantasy seem possible for the length of time it takes to read the book.
Movies can do the very same thing, but this “Tarzan of the Apes” doesn’t pull it off. Everything about it is pedestrian at best. If it had been made 20 years later, you’d swear it had been cobbled together from bits and pieces of other movies. There is no cohesion.
You can overlook the guys from the New Orleans Athletic Club who donned grotesquely inadequate ape costumes to play the tribe of Kala, knowing that nothing else could have been done in 1918. But Lincoln doesn’t look right. Hell, he’s not even tanned. (Truly frightening is the report that Clark Gable was considered for the part for the 1932 version that eventually starred Johnny Weissmuller. Gable was deemed too unknown. Whew. Hollywood.)
“Tarzan of the Apes” should be seen by fans of the character and lovers of silent movies, but be warned that it is impossible to take it seriously. One always hopes that a silent film can be approached in the spirit of its times and enjoyed as more modern pictures are, but this one, unfortunately, will only generate condescending laughter. Too bad. That magnificent pop genius Edgar Rice Burroughs deserves a better adaptation. Thank goodness he later received it.