Pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced Tarzan to an appreciative audience in 1912. Conceived as a rebuttal to humanity's increasing urbanization and dependence on technology, the jungle foundling quickly became a cottage industry, endorsing products and starring in silent films, radio shows, and comic strips. Since Burroughs' day, Tarzan has been played by countless actors in projects both high-minded and low, but just as Boris Karloff's take on Frankenstein's monster has superseded even the original novel, Tarzan has become synonymous with the first man to play him in the talkies, Olympic swimming champion turned actor Johnny Weissmuller.
The yell has a lot to do with it. Depending on who's doing the telling, Tarzan's signature cry was either created by the MGM sound department by combining animal sounds with operatic sopranos, or it was a skill Weissmuller picked up while listening to yodelers as an immigrant kid in Chicago. Whichever the case, the sound is as recognizable as the national anthem, and it's a sterling example of early Hollywood's ability to remake the world in its own image. What does yodeling have to do with the African wilds? Absolutely nothing. But try looking at a jungle dripping with vines and not imagining a loincloth-clad ape-man swinging through it.
Weissmuller made his Tarzan debut with 1932's Tarzan The Ape Man, fighting crocodiles and giant apes and courting Maureen O'Sullivan's readily seduced Jane, a process that more or less repeats itself in the series' best follow-up, 1934's Tarzan And His Mate. What's striking about these early adventures is how little adventure there is to them: Weissmuller is never less convincing than when he's asked to fight, and what action there is relies heavily on stock footage left over from the now-forgotten hit Trader Horn. Instead, the films devote much of their run time to O'Sullivan's discovery of how little use she has for polite society. Once she hits the jungle, it's a matter of minutes before her proper English character starts shedding clothes and casting smoky glances in Weissmuller's direction.
The implementation of the Hays Code ensured that this couldn't last, a development instantly announced by O'Sullivan's modest garb in subsequent entries. After bringing a touch of style to Tarzan Escapes (more or less re-shot from scratch after the now-lost original version proved too dark for test audiences), director Richard Thorpe steered the series toward competent predictability. Chimp sidekick Cheeta provides more comic relief with each entry, Johnny Sheffield turns up as "Boy" beginning with Tarzan Finds A Son!, when the chips are down the elephants show up with a well-timed stampede, and Weissmuller and O'Sullivan's home starts to look increasingly like a treehouse precursor of Levittown.
Predictable as they are, the Tarzan movies remain enjoyable to the last, though they aren't always comfortable viewing to contemporary eyes. The animal stunts, for example, all look like they could benefit from the presence of the American Humane Association. (Should chimps really be allowed to taunt leopards?) The portrayal of African natives can hardly be called enlightened, either, but the series' jungle politics hide a subtle critique: Crises only occur when stupid white people show up and start trouble.
O'Sullivan and MGM lost interest in Tarzan after Tarzan's New York Adventure in 1942, but Weissmuller stayed the course, taking the series to RKO and fighting jungle-based Nazis before moving on to the Jungle Jim series. By then, he'd warded off pygmies, lions, scheming Englishmen, and, most impressively, several pretenders to the Tarzan throne, including a competing series launched by Burroughs himself. With his coiffed hair and self-conscious posing, Weissmuller made, by any objective standard, an improbable jungle man. But he's Tarzan through and through. That's entertainment.