Jun 23, 2016

On DVD: Tarzan the Ape Man (1959) in Technicolor

Early on I wondered what I was in for when watching MGM's 1959 Technicolor take on the Tarzan story. The bongo drums and blaring horns over the opening credits (composed by West coast jazz musician Shorty Rogers) belonged in a drama about teenage delinquents, making me unsure what effect the filmmakers were going for. I recently puzzled over this and other things as I watched the new Warner Archive DVD release of the film.

It's hard to say just who this version of Tarzan was targeting. There are lots of cute baby animal shots, and a clever chimpanzee who is literally the best actor in the movie, all irresistible to kids. But then there is Jane's (Joanna Barnes) near orgasmic groan when she slips out of her corset in the sizzling African heat and the erotic charge she is clearly getting out of splashing in the water with her uninhibited ape man.

As the titular jungle hunk, oiled-up Denny Miller is charisma free, but handsome in a golden California boy way. He is clean shaven and has a perfect blonde bouffant. Apparently that clever chimp is also an expert barber.

Barnes has a bit more life to her as Jane. It's kind of fun watching her go bonkers in the wild, though a scene where Tarzan drags her into his house while she screams in terror is difficult to watch from a modern perspective. She isn't Maureen O'Sullivan, but she brings her own eccentric appeal to the role.

Perhaps one of the most amusing aspects of the film is how much recycled material it contains. With footage from other Tarzan movies and action films like King Solomon's Mines, it is quite the cinematic collage. They even reused Johnny Weissmuller's legendary call from the most famous screen version of the story (this isn't the only time that would happen).

The animals and vegetation are not strictly African, and according to the film, Watusis spend all their time, singing, dancing, paddling canoes and falling off cliffs. Everything is colorful, patched together and a fascinating mess. Sometimes it drags, but it keeps your attention. Great for fans of absurd flicks.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.


  1. The only true Tarzan was Johnny Weissmuller. All others were poseurs, especially the college-educated version played by Ron Ely on the 60s TV series. That is, until about the 9th or 10th sequel, when Johnny began to look like my overweight Uncle Jim at the beach.

  2. I agree with you for the most part, but Elmo Lincoln was pretty good in the silent version. He at least seemed like he'd been living in the wild. I haven't seen the Ely version. You've got me curious!