When an English lord and lady find themselves stranded in the jungle, it’s only a matter of time before they die off and their infant son is raised by apes. The very first screen adaptation of the famous vine swinger stars Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan and Enid Markey as Jane.
Watch out for that tree!
To many movie fans, Johnny Weissmuller is Tarzan, no ifs ands or buts. The distaste for pronoun declension, the distinctive scream, the ape with the idiotic name of Cheeta… So many elements of his Tarzan have wormed their way into our pop culture. (Seriously, Cheeta? That has always bugged me.) You could say I’m not a fan and not just because of his abuse of the perpendicular pronoun. I find the first Tarzan movies to be pervy pre-Code duds and avoid the rest of the series at all costs.
Weissmuller may be iconic to many but he was not the first Tarzan. That honor goes to Elmo Lincoln, who was noted for his strongman roles. He decapitated with great vigor in Intolerance and had played toughs and henchman of all stripes. Tarzan was the role that would define his career.
We must also have a Jane to go with our Tarzan and the very first screen Jane was Enid Markey. Markey’s silent roles are not easy to come by and she is probably best known as Mrs. Mendlebright, Barney Fife’s fussy landlady in The Andy Griffith Show.
Before we start with the review proper, I must bring out something important about the home media releases of this film. The DVDs of this film all run just shy of one hour. Some modern sources list the film’s original length as ten reels (which would bring it in the ballpark of two hours plus) but contemporary accounts mention seven or eight reels. In any case, it’s obvious that the available versions of this film are truncated. As a result, the plot is a bit choppy.
The film opens in England. It seems that Lord Greystoke (True Boardman, who died in the influenza epidemic soon after this film was released) is being sent to somewhere terribly colonial and exotic. Lady Greystoke (Kathleen Kirkham, last seen as Rudolph Valentino’s sugar mama in The Married Virgin) insists on accompanying her husband on his dangerous mission.
Our couple take a ship to their destination but there is a mutiny en route. It looks bad for the Greystoke duo but a sailor named Binns (George French) intervenes and the pair are marooned instead. Binns jumps ship to try to join them but is captured by Arab slavers instead. To make matters more complicated, Lady Greystoke is pregnant.
So here I was all ready to settle in for some survival drama (I love those kinds of pictures!) when the scene changes and Lady Greystoke is already dead from an undisclosed illness. Lord Greystoke is killed by apes soon after and their infant son is adopted into the primate tribe. (Well, technically a group of apes is called a “shrewdness” but let’s not get nitpicky.) But I wanted more of Lord and Lady Greystoke! I liked them! I protest!
A decade passes and young Tarzan (Gordon Griffith) thinks he’s just one of the apes. The first part of this section is taken up with our nude hero stealing a grass skirt from the local tribe and then setting off to explore the jungle once he is suitably attired. (Why the filmmakers thought it necessary to show in detail how Tarzan came to have clothes is an utter mystery. Most viewers are more than willing to suspend disbelief in this regard.)
Tarzan stumbles on his parent’s old cabin and, in one of the more poignant scenes in the film, discovers their skeletons but fails to recognize their significance. He is far more interested in a knife and a picture book with which he begins to realize that B is for boy and M is for monkey.
Young Tarzan manages to kill a rather unconvincing gorilla with his new knife and thus becomes king of the apes. Binns, meanwhile, has finally managed to escape his captors and goes looking for chez Greystoke. Instead, he meets Tarzan, puts two and two together and decides take the boy back to England after taking some time to help him learn to read. Those nasty slavers are on their trail, though, and Binns is forced to leave Tarzan behind for some convoluted reason I was unable to discern.
(Also, if Tarzan learned his English pronunciation from Binns, wouldn’t he have picked up his accent?)
Fast forward some years later and Tarzan is now played by the husky Elmo Lincoln. He still rules over the apes and seems to have no interest in interacting with his fellow humans. Tarzan continues to occupy the cabin of his parents, which still contains their skeletons. (One wonders why Binns did not bother to bury them.)
At long last, a rescue party has arrived from England. It’s about thirty years late but it’s the thought that counts. There are assorted men in the group but the person we are most interested in is Jane (Enid Markey). The party soon discovers Tarzan’s cabin and the bodies within. They assume that an ape infant corpse is the son of Lord and Lady Greystoke (the search party is not going to split the atom) and decide that Binns was either mad or lying.
Of course, Tarzan is close at hand and he is completely smitten with Jane. Look at her cute little face! Who wouldn’t fall for her?
Will Tarzan figure out how to pitch woo? Will Jane accept him? Will the scientists in the rescue party learn the difference between apes and humans? Find out in Tarzan of the Apes.
So, the first Tarzan is… mixed. The beginning is strong, though a bit rushed. Things get a bit iffy once tween Tarzan shows up on the scene but picks up once Elmo Lincoln is brought on the job.
Lincoln’s appearance is very much in the mode of strong men of the ‘teens; that is to say, he is a bit on the chunky side by modern standards. This clearly was not a problem for audiences of 1918 and if there was ever time for the “let’s look at context” line, this is it.
Acting? Lincoln does get a bit carried away at times but he is appealing and likeable in the part. More than anything, he looks like he is having fun, which is an underrated aspect of the Tarzan persona. Swinging through trees with his ape friends? Pulling lions by the tail? Come on, this man is living the dream! (Rumors that Lincoln killed a lion for real during filming don’t pass the smell test, in my opinion. It seems pretty clear to me that Lincoln ruthlessly killed a lion rug.)
I have to admit, though, I really watched this movie because I have been completely taken with young Enid Markey. Not classically beautiful like, say, Alice Joyce or Marjory Daw, Markey’s main appeal was an adorable face and a personality to match.
Jane is not the most interesting character, she mainly defined through her relationship with Tarzan and there’s no upstaging a guy who was raised by apes. Further, no English characters in this film display a shred of common sense and Jane is no exception. You know, the “hey, I guess I will go wandering through the jungle alone!” thing.
So with all of these challenges, Markey still manages to make Jane appealing. It’s not quite as fun as her quick-thinking heroine in The Taking of Luke McVane but Markey doesn’t seem to be taking things too seriously. She and Lincoln have a cute scene in which he tries to impress her by giving her his gorilla killing knife as a gift. Well, I suppose it’s good for couples to share hobbies.
Lincoln and Markey do not share much time onscreen (tween Tarzan frittered away much of the film’s middle section) but they do have good chemistry and even manage to generate a little heat when the overenthusiastic Tarzan finally gets Jane alone.
Some wiseacres like to say that Gordon Griffith is technically the first screen Tarzan because he showed up first in the film. In addition to being maddeningly hair-splitting, this argument ignores the fact that we think of Tarzan as an adult and no one was asking who the first peewee Tarzan was. If someone pulls this routine on you, I suggest you respond with requests for autographs as they are clearly the smartest person ever.
Griffith grins, mugs and rolls his eyes outrageously. I couldn’t wait for Tarzan to grow up. If the kid had stayed on the screen much longer I was going to start throwing things. Griffith would go on the play Mary Pickford’s older brother (!) in Little Annie Rooney (his acting had improved in the interim) and found success as an assistant director and producer later on.
The film moves along at a fierce clip but that’s hardly surprising. You recall that somewhere between two and five reels were cut from the film. So, now we have the big question: what was cut? From magazine accounts, it looks as if there was a parallel plot involving Tarzan’s wicked uncle and his equally wicked wife, who usurped his fortune and title. When Binns returns with news of the boy’s survival, the wicked wife has him committed. It seems that the scenes in England are what got trimmed and the actual Tarzan content was untouched in the recut.
The problem with the English estate subplot is that (spoiler coming) the movie ends with Tarzan and Jane in a jungle clutch and nothing is done about that wicked uncle. If a film establishes a villain and has this villain commit villainy in a villainous manner, it’s not really fair to just leave the audience hanging unless a sequel is expressly promised. (I checked, the jungle clutch ending is how the uncut film finished as well and critics did complain about being left with the unresolved plot threads.)
I would argue that these cuts actually improve the story. Other than Binns’ odd choice to leave Tarzan behind and some mystery as to why the English dawdled so long in seeking out young Greystoke (which could easily have been cleared up with one title card), the film makes sense and is easy to follow. Because we are spared the evil uncle subplot, we are not left hanging at the end of the picture. Would I like to see the missing footage? Sure but the movie does not suffer without it.
(A direct sequel to this film, The Romance of Tarzan, tied up these loose ends and was released later in 1918. It is now missing and presumed lost, though I found an offhand mention of some footage having been discovered. I have been unable to track down the original source of this information so if you have a link, I would be most grateful if you were to toss it my way. There were a lot of Tarzan movies and serials being made during this period and it is possible that there was a mixup.)
The elimination of the evil uncle and evil wife subplot also dramatically cuts down on the classism that was (and remains) an integral part of popular entertainment. The uncle, we are told, is not only a useless fellow but has actually married a bar maid! Quick! Where is my fainting couch?
Here’s a clipping from Motion Picture News, which nicely condenses the plot and shows what was lost:
You probably noticed that some of the racial content is a bit… yeah… Okay, a lot racist. I wish I could tell you that the synopsis makes it sound worse than it is. I can’t. It’s every bit as icky in the actual film. Tarzan tales in general are a veritable minefield of questionable material on race and culture and this film seems to be going for some kind of record. (But nothing can beat the “pygmies” in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man. You win this round, Weissmuller.)
The official budget for Tarzan of the Apes was $193,000, though there is no way to confirm that number. A handsome budget for its day, the studio claimed that the money was spent schlepping everyone hither and yon for the jungle stuff. You’d think that within that budget, they would have found some cash for better gorilla suits but there it is.
Amusingly, Motion Picture Magazine marveled at how as viewers “we are conducted from one period to another and from England to South Africa as if years were but minutes and leagues were but inches.” I didn’t think that changes of scene and location would be so thrilling by 1918. Scene and time jumps were quite standard and had been for years. Perhaps the reviewer was the magazine owner’s cousin and had never actually seen a movie before getting the job.
One person who was not a fan of the film was Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. He disliked Elmo Lincoln’s Tarzan and particularly targeted Enid Markey for scorn. But then Burroughs also complained about Tarzan being taught to read by an English sailor instead of stumbling on the books and learning to read all by his lonesome.
(Huh? What the heck? Yes indeed. Tarzan of the books taught himself to read simply by finding books in English even though he had never spoken the language. But English uses letters that bear no relation to either sound or meaning. I mean, at least Korean is designed to emulate the shape of the tongue, teeth or throat as it makes the sound. English? Arbitrary to say the least. Even if the book has pictures, there’s no way someone could guess that an S sounds like sssss and don’t even get me started on silent letters and diphthongs. How could he… I mean, how… Oh never mind. I give up.)
So, how does the original Tarzan hold up for those of us who are not Burroughs? Well, Lincoln is over-the-top in kind of a fun way and Enid Markey is a doll. In the minus column, the racial views are horrendous and I do wish that young Tarzan had not been so long about finding a skirt. The film is deeply flawed but I was entertained from beginning to end. Modern viewers are advised to go in prepared but there is plenty of good stuff to be found.
Movies Silently’s Score:★★★
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD. I like the Grapevine edition.