James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) are two explorers who travel to Africa in search for legendary elephant burial grounds and their ivory. Parker's daughter Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) joins them. While they make their way through the jungle, Jane is kidnapped by the jungle's guardian, the mysterious Tarzan (Weissmuller) and his ape allies.
The film introduced several features that would make Tarzan a pop culture icon, most notably the signature yell. Eleven sequels starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan would follow until 1948. The first of them, Tarzan and His Mate, came out in 1934.
Not to be confused with the 1981 film of the same name.
Tarzan the Ape Man provides examples of the following tropes:
- Action Girl: Jane convinces her father that she's worthy of accompanying him on his quest to find the Elephant Graveyard by shooting poor Beamish's hat from a distance with a carbine.
- Adaptational Dumbass: Tarzan is reduced to monosyllabic words and grunts in this movie and its sequels, a far cry from the articulate Tarzan of the books who taught himself written English in his teens and became fluent in over twenty languages by the later books. This change annoyed Edgar Rice Burroughs and continues to irritate strict purists of his work.
- Adaptational Name Change Adaptational Job Change: Professor Archimedes Q. Porter becomes James Parker, hunter.
- Adaptation Distillation: A lot of material from Tarzan of the Apes is Adapted Out to focus on Tarzan and Jane's love story.
- Adapted Out: Pretty much all of the supporting cast of the novel are cut and most of its plot lines are removed.
- Blackface: The tribe of African dwarfs that was made to look like pygmies (all males) was actually a bunch of white midgets with blackface makeup.
- Canon Foreigner: Cheeta and Harry Holt.
- Cheeta is vaguely taken from Nkima, Tarzan's monkey companion in the later novels.
- Holt seems to be very loosely based on William Cecil Clayton.
- City Mouse: Jane brought quite the cargo of nice clothes and beauty products with her, whereas her father is content with having just soap and water to wash and shave. That's not saying she can't adapt to life in the jungle.
- Did They or Didn't They?: It's implied after they swim in the river, Tarzan takes Jane up to the trees to make love.
- Elephant Graveyard: What the Parkers and Harry are looking for initially. They eventually find it, but James doesn't live to tell the tale.
- The Kindnapper: Tarzan kidnaps Jane and this understandably worries her father's party, but he means no harm to her.
- Misplaced Wildlife: As would be the case with most Weissmuller Tarzan films, the elephants are Indian (smaller ears), rather than African. Large fake ears and fake tusks were fitted onto the animals.
- Super Swimming Skills: Tarzan is a damn fast swimmer (being played by an Olympic swimmer who was the fastest of his era helped), out-distancing a crocodile at one point in the climax.
- Stock Footage: The white actors were superimposed on some Real Life footage of Sub-Saharan African people in ceremonial outfits.