Despite a few attempts in the '80s and '90s to revive the series, the character of Tarzan is not particularly well-represented in the 21st century. People with faintly-formed ideas of the character might resist the idea of a four-pack of 1930s Tarzan films, but the good entries contained in this package still feel surprisingly contemporary, more than seventy years after they were made.
The formula is fairly simple: a group of well-off white people enter the territory of Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) for one reason or another, and find themselves fending off dangerous jungle tribes, ferocious animals, or Tarzan himself, depending on their ulterior motives. Tarzan usually communicates with these people through his faithful wife Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), who sees the kind-hearted spirit inside the man spooked tribes refer to as "the white ape." Three of the chapters included here also make reference to an elephant graveyard filled with valuable ivory (identified as the "Mutier" escarpment in the original, and "Mutia" in the sequels).
The first two Tarzan films are the best, blending fairly clever special effects with still-impressive physical stunts. The use of rear projection and stock footage of the jungle is always obvious, but the films corral a wide range of authentic animal-based tricks that hold up even today. An impressive team of stuntmen are also on board to flesh out the abilities of the title character, performing Tarzan's high-flying acrobatics and going face-to-face with some of the jungle's most dangerous creatures. Maybe some of it is Weissmuller himself (although it's hard to imagine they'd let their star do anything remotely dangerous), but either way, seeing a human being facing off against a real lion is instantly exciting.
As far as acting chops go, Weissmuller is a durable, believable Tarzan, playing primitive and inquisitive without coming off as a moron. His vaguely gloomy disposition isn't necessarily the first thing one expects to see from Tarzan, but it gives the character a bit of nuance that staves off the potentially monotonous nature of the character (although, it must be said, one gets tired of hearing his infamous cry in a real hurry). Most importantly, he forms a genuine bond with co-star Maureen O'Sullivan, whose irresistable charm single-handedly buoys the first two movies. She's witty, a good sport, and a knockout to boot; it's no surprise that the films dipped in quality as her interest in making them began to wane.
Aside from making a fine double feature, Tarzan, the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate are the only two that boast recurring characters other than Tarzan and Jane. Most interesting is Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), an ivory hunter who has his eye on Jane. Although the second film ultimately sends the character off in less-than-satisfying fashion, Holt has an interesting and nuanced arc, with loyalties lying firmly in a gray area between Tarzan, Jane, and his desire to bring back a hefty score. The other two are signficantly lesser films, with Tarzan Escapes faring the worst; the film is an uninteresting rehash of the previous two pictures with weakly written new characters, poorly-staged action, and lacking investment from O'Sullivan. Tarzan Finds a Son invigorates the formula a little and features better stunts, but the sense of novelty is still worn off.
Like the other entries in TCM's Greatest Classic Films collections, the Tarzan Volume One Collection arrives in a standard 2-disc case with a flap tray, featuring a four-square cover design with a picture from each movie, and a back cover filled up by billing blocks. Since the films are short and don't include any extras, this is also the rare TCM release that contains single-sided discs (the same discs Warner previously released -- more on this in the Conclusion section of the review). The case comes with a foil slipcover that looks the same on the front but includes short box copy for each film and some photos on the back (so, if you need to know what each film is about, don't lose the slipcover). The only real complaint: the films are not presented on the discs in chronological order! The first film on Disc 2 is the second film in the series, so one will have to switch back and forth to watch them in the correct sequence.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, these are adequate but somewhat dated transfers. Detail and contrast are strong for such old films, exhibiting a good amount of fine detail, but lines, scratches, dirt and debris are always visible, and it's hard not to look at the picture and believe these films could benefit from a frame-by-frame restoration. Similarly, the Dolby Digital Mono soundtracks sound slightly tinny, with a hint of echo, crackle, and fuzziness, but the tracks are always clear enough to discern the dialogue. In a four-movies-for-$15-DVD-set, the presentations are perfectly enjoyable, but if Warner plans on upgrading these movies to high definition at some point, they'll need to do more work. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included on all four features, while optional French is included on three (no French on Tarzan and His Mate).
Back in 2004, Warner first released The Tarzan Collection, a four-disc box set collecting all six of the Weissmuller/O'Sullivan films, as well as a bonus disc with a handful of extras, and this set is the first two discs of that collection -- same disc art and everything -- in a new package. The question is: why buy this package over that one? Well, I'm a bit surprised that box set is still fetching $50 on Amazon, and not everyone cares about extra features; plus, if the films keep decreasing in quality, the two missing films won't be worth owning. Still, the set will only appeal to a small portion of what is already a specific audience: Tarzan fans or curious newcomers who want to own multiple films in one package, didn't buy the bigger box already, and won't mind the omission of the last two Weissmuller and O'Sullivan films or the extras, so I'm going to have to give this set a rent it advisory, so that one can choose between 2004 set or this one.