"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
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 and thrills.
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 dead-line."
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 . . .
picture 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
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
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 Kimpo.
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 feats.
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
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
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.