"That is the man to play Tarzan" -- declared Edgar Rice Burroughs
the famous author of the famous stories without hesitation. Immediately
he noticed an actor of remarkable and striking appearance at one of the
major studios, while Burroughs was on a brief trip to Hollywood. This incident
took place about seven years before Universal ever thought of entering
the Tarzan field.
This man was doing bit parts and "doubling" for other palyers. He had
been boxing trainer to Charles Ray, had boxed and wrestled with Buck Jones
and had "doubled" and played bit parts for a number of players including
Elmo Lincoln, and had been on the stage with a monologue act featuring
athletic stunts, and for a time appeared in stock.
HIs name was Frank Merrill one of the greatest all-round athletes in
the world. At that time Merrill was practically unknown, and had not the
remotest idea he would ever play Tarzan. At childhood Merrill gave promise
of becoming a physical marvel. During his schooldays he was a leading athlete
, and ever since he kept up the strenuous work. The full story goes that
after completing his education, Merrill put together a monologue act featuring
athletic stunts, and for a time appeared in stock.
His embarkation on a movie career resulted from a trip to Los Angeles
to compete in an athletic contest, and while there drifted into the film
game. His remarkable and striking appearance and prodigious strength attracted
the favourable attention of motion picture executives, and he immediately
went into pictures of the action type. Of course most of us know that Merrill
was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 21, 1898. He was adjudged "The
World's Most Perfect Man" in a physical culture contest in Newark, N.J.
and was pronounced 100% perfect by the president of the Medical Association
at Los Angeles. He was holder of more than twenty championships in Roman
rings, rope-climbing, wrestling, boxing, weightlifting, swimming, hurdling,
shot putting, broad jumping, etc. He was the winner of more than a hundred
prizes and medals in athletic contests throughout the world. Let's take
a look at Frank's measurements. He was 6 ft. tall, weighed 185, chest 44,
biceps, 16 1/2, forearms 14, wrist 8 1/2, thigh 22, calves 15. His legs
might appear on the slim side, but, that's strength.
In 1927 Merrill played in a gigantic 10 Episode serial for Weiss Brothers-Artclass
Pictures, PERILS OF THE JUNGLE . . . but that's another story.
Merrill was destined to make a mass of thrilling action pictures in
the meantime, to the intense pleasure of young and old alike. Better than
all your doctor's "tonics."
Merrill justifiably earned the title "Hercules of the screen," just
as Elmo Lincoln was always know as "Elmo the Mighty" and Joe Bonono as
"Samson of the Circus."
Frank made a series of high-class action pictures around 1925, such
as "Battling Mason" . . . "Reckless Speed" . . . "A Fighting Heart" . .
. "Savages of the Sea" . . . "Shackled Lightning" . . . and "Dashing Thru,"
these were released over this side by the Western Import Co. The Renters
Review of these 6 pictures gives the reader some idea of their quality
. . .
"In this series of six pictures Frank Merrill, the athletic star has
climbed the ladder of film fame to a point where he is supreme in his field.
He is a stunt artist whom you can rely upon to deliver new thrills in every
succeeding production. His youth, his daring and his versatility have a
world-wide appeal, and apart from his daring as the holder of forty-two
champs, his acting ability is of the highest order."
In "Battling Mason" Frank treats us to some good grand boxing,
a fight on the roof of a warehouse and goes hand over hand for a good distance
on a cable stretched between two warehouses over a railway goods yard,
He also "juggles" with three men at once.
"Reckless Speed" was a great favourite, a strictly conventional
story of crooked oil deals, mixed up with plenty of quick-firing incidents
The Trade Reviewers comments on this high-powered thriller were as follows
. . .
"Frank Merrill shows tremendous energy in turning somersaults over all
obstacles . . ."
"The future happiness of the hero and his friends depends on an oil
well starting to gush before the stroke of 12 on a certain date.
The hero is the son of the man who holds an option on the oil field
and the heroin is the pretty reporter of a newspaper who has instructions
to make a story out of the possible chances of rival companies -- and the
villain is the representative of the company that will take up the option
if the hero's father fails to strike oil."
"By the exercising of tremendous agility -- "Speed Cresswell" -- (Frank
Merrill, of course), circumvents the villains attempts to retard the working
of the mine and returns with the news a few minutes before the stipulated
In "Dashing Thru" we are treated to some splendid boxing by Merrill
and some excellent construction camp scenes of a construction camp of a
big river diversion belonging to the State of California, which the authorities
kindly lent to the producer . . .
Merrill completed for Hercules PIctures around 1925 . . . "Little Wild
Girl" from the story by Putnam Hoover, had quite an imposing cast.
Lial, Lee, Cullen Landis, Sheldon Lewis, Boris Karloff, Jimmy Aubrey, Bud
Shaw, etc. Merrill was Tavish McBride.
I believe one of the earliest movies Merrill ever appeared in must have
been "Son of Tarzan" a serial, the lead of which was originally assigned
to Jack Hoxie, the popular cowboy star, but was eventually awarded to Kamuela
Searle, who was originally a sculptor. Merrill played the role of the Sheikh.
The cast of "The Son of Tarzan" was given as follows: Gordon Griffith
(Jack at age 15), Dempsey Tabler (Lord Greystoke), Karla Schramm (Lady
Greystoke), Kamuela Searle (Jack), and Frank Merrill (The Sheikh).
Frank made another splendid series of athletic pictures around 1927
which were released by Ideal Films (in England).
They were released under the title of "The Great Athletic Champion"
in a series of pictures by a new kind of hero.
Frank proved he could wear well-cut clothes just as well as an athletic
singlet in these great series.
"Man Proposes" . . . "Dare-Do-Wells" . . . ""Unknown Dangers" . . .
"The Hollywood Reporter" . . . "Cupids Knockout" . . . "The Fighting Doctor"
In "Savages of the Sea" we are treated to some grand glimpses of Merrill's
extraordinary development in the scenes on board the ship, etc. Later he
appears very smart in well-cut clothes and also white flannels.
Merrill did play in another athletic "A Gentleman Roughneck" for Hercules
Film Productions, Inc. around 1925 written and directed by Grower JOnes,
but regrettably it did not come my way.
All the six stunt dramas: "Dashing Thru," "Reckless Speed," etc. were
all produced by Hercules Film Productions, Inc.
In the summer of 1927 some large posters appeared on the hoardings and
outside the picture theatres announcing The Greatest Wild Animal Serial
ever produced -- "Perils of the Jungle" with the greatest aggregation
of wild animals ever assembled. This was a rather controversial serial
produced and distributed by Weiss Brothers, Artclass Pictures of 1540 Broadway,
New York. It was handled by F.B.O. in Britain.
The story was by Harry P. Crist . . . supervision by George M. Merrick,
and directed by that master of serial direction Jack Nelson. Frank Merrill
was the hero, Rod Bedford, a young explorer, and Eugenia Gilbert was attractive
as the girl, Phyllis Marley, who has been shipwrecked on the desolate African
Coast with her father, a scientist and archaeologist.
Milburn Morante also appears and Bobby Nelson, son of Jack Neslon, as
Certain critics attempted to play "Perils" down and ridicule it as a
cheap job, and only made for lowest quality houses. But, I like to give
credit where credit is due.
Weiss Brothers did put out some elaborate advance publicity and exploitation
on this serial. "Ten Episodes of a Thousand Thrills with a Million Dollar
Cast! The fiercest and largest aggregation of wild animals ever assembled.
Anyway, for my money 10-episodes of Frank Merrill PLUS the huge aggregation
of jungle cats, etc. must have given much pleasure week after week to watch
Frank Merrill perform. You've had your money's worth to watch Merrill's
Let us take a brief rundown on the story of "Perils."
Mystery, thrills, and romance marked the opening chapters of this realistically
produced picture of life in the wild African jungles, with the animals
competing with the human actors in securing amazing and startling effects.
Eugenia Gilbert plays the role of the girl, Phyllis Marley, who has
been shipwrecked on a desolate African coast with her father, a scientist
and archaeologist. They have come in search of her sister, Helen, who for
several years has been lost in the interior and is believed to be in the
hands of a wild tribe, known as the "Tiger Men."
The part of Rod Bedford, a young explorer, who has been captured by
cannibals, is played by Frank Merrill and his companion, Joe Marks, who
furnishes occasional comedy is portrayed by Milburn Morante. They are rescued
by Kimpo, a mysterious white boy who is regarded by the natives with superstitious
awe and right there the story begins. Little Bobby Nelson -- of course
-- plays the part of Kimpo.
After their rescue from the natives, Bedford meets Phyllis Marley, whose
father is dying of fever. Her only protector is a sinister-looking companion,
who is called Brute Hanley, portrayed by Albert J. Smith.
It is very evident that the latter has his own special plans about Phyllis
and also that he had some other matter on his mind, which is equally villainous.
What it was, later chapters gradually developed.
The closing thrill of the first episode was a charging Hippo who upset
the raft on which Phyllis was drifting, with Bedford coming into the scene
just in time to prevent a certain casualty.
All the actors do extremely well in their respective parts, but the
medal for realism must go to the hippo who unquestionably meant business.
The audience go the thrill of their lives when he went into action.
Merrill of course wore clothes in "Perils," breeches and a shirt, but
more often than not the shirt was very conveniently ripped off him.
When President Carl Laemmle of Universal decided to make his essay into
Tarzan business in 1928, he immediately enlisted none other than the great
Joe Bonomo -- already known as "Samson of the Circus" and the "Hercules
of the Screen" in the title role of a huge serial based on ERB's famous
book The Jungle Tales of Tarzan.