Mike's in-depth, fully illustrated biography on
Herman Brix / Bruce Bennett
PLEASE DON'T CALL ME TARZAN
The silver screen’s greatest apeman
emerged from the forests of the Evergreen State
By Mike Chapman
(Originally published in "washington" magazine, circa 1989-90)
Article transcribed and Submitted by John Martin
Millions of adventure-fantasy fans are convinced that Tarzan of the Apes spent his youth in the jungles of Africa, growing to manhood there. If they are speaking of the “real” Tarzan, the immortal fictional creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, they are correct. But when it comes to the “reel” Tarzan, there are many different homes. To date, 17 men have cavorted across the silver screen as Tarzan, dating back to bare-chested Elmo Lincoln’s debut in 1918.
In the opinion of many Tarzan fans, the greatest of the reel Tarzans is a Washington State product, who built his muscular frame in the woods near Tacoma and honed his considerable athletic skills in Seattle. Herman Brix was born and raised in Tacoma, the fourth of five children. His father worked in the lumber business, and Herman benefited from the association with his father’s physically demanding job. “I worked a lot in the lumbering business as a youngster,” says Brix, recently interviewed in his Beverly Hills office, where he is in the real estate business. “I spent most of my summer vacations in the woods, or in the logging camps. Just plain hard work helped me develop my physique.”
Brix was a natural athlete as well. In high school, he participated in football, basketball, track and soccer, earning a total of 16 letters. He and his brother, Egbert, both enrolled at the University of Washington, and became football standouts. Egbert earned letters in 1924 and ’25, while Herman was a starter for three years – 1925, ’26 and ’27. The 1925 Washington team posted a 10-1-1 record, opening with a 108-0 rout of outmanned Willamette and closing with a 20-19 loss to Alabama in the Rose Bowl.
But it was in track and field that Herman Brix really excelled. Quick and skilled as well as powerful, he ran the hurdles, threw the javelin and heaved the shot.
“In those days, I was called the ‘blond giant,'"he says with a chuckle. “I was six feet, two inches tall and weighed about 195 pounds. The heaviest I ever got was 201 pounds, but that was pretty big then, I guess.”
During his Seattle years, Brix matured into the nation’s best shot-putter. He was undefeated for over five years in his specialty in all types of competition, and earned a total of seven national titles, including the NCAA crown in 1927. In 1928, he finished first in the United States Olympic trials, and wound up with a silver medal at the Olympic Games in Amsterdam. The former Seattle star broke the Olympic record on his first effort in Amsterdam, and led the competition until the final toss of the day. John Kuck, his teammate from Kansas, unleashed a toss that edged Brix’s by several inches, giving the US the top two spots.
At the games, Brix became friends with two swimmers. Remarkably, within just six years all three of them were in Hollywood starring in Tarzan films for three different companies. “Sure, I can remember being over there with Johnny (Weissmuller) and Buster (Crabbe),” says Brix. “We hung around a little together on ship and cheered for each other.”
After the Olympics, Brix returned to Seattle prepared to find a job, but when he was contacted by the Los Angeles Track Club he moved to California. His life was about to take a dramatic turn.
“I met Douglas Fairbanks at a track meet and he invited me to train at his personal quarters,” explains Brix. In the 1930s, Fairbanks and his dazzling wife, Mary Pickford, were the reigning royalty of Hollywood. Brix continued working hard at the shot put, until the day he heard about MGM’s tryouts for the lead role in a Tarzan movie. He hustled over at Fairbanks’ urging and got the role. First, however, there was the matter of a minor part in a movie entitled “Touchdown.”
Brix showed up for the first day of shooting, and proceeded to break his arm in a freak accident. The arm was in a cast for six weeks, knocking him out of both films. MGM, unable to wait for Brix’s arm to heal, selected a lanky swimmer for the lead in “Tarzan the Ape Man” and Weissmuller proved an immediate sensation.
Author Burroughs, despite the enormous financial success of the MGM films, was hugely disappointed by the manner in which Tarzan was portrayed. He had conceived the apeman as a physical Adonis with a mind to match, a renaissance man fluent in several languages. MGM saw Tarzan as a buffoon, upstaged by chimpanzees, Jane and Boy. When another film company came out with the equally disappointing “Tarzan the Fearless” in 1933, starring Crabbe, Burroughs was prodded into action. He and several businessmen formed their own company, determined to depict the apeman as he was written. An extensive search was organized to find the ideal Tarzan – and Herman Brix was selected.
In late 1934, a cast and crew of 29 left California on the appropriately named liner “Seattle” for Guatemala. The ship reached its destination in the midst of a howling storm, and much of the filming took place in remote highlands under adverse and primitive conditions. “The filming was arduous,” recalls Brix, who was instructed to dye his hair black for the role. “I was in the hospital a number of times with cuts and abrasions. I weighed about 190 pounds when we got there, and was down to 171 pounds by the time we finished up.”
In spite of the considerable hardship, Brix was magnificent in his first starring effort. Moving with the ease of a great athlete, he appeared comfortable in all of the action sequences. His physique, with its hard, cordlike muscles, provided a sharp contrast to the more smoothly muscled bodies of Weissmuller and Crabbe. In one scene, the physique was shown to particular advantage. Tarzan is tied to a post, left to be eaten by savage jungle predators. He escapes by simply tensing his muscles until his bulging sinews actually pull the ropes apart – an easy feat for today’s special effects wizards, but Brix did it with his own natural strength.
The movie was released first as a feature – New Adventures of Tarzan – and then as a serial, “Tarzan and the Green Goddess.” Well received at the time, they have since become highly regarded by Tarzan purists.*
“Brix’s portrayal was the only time between the silent and the 1960s that Tarzan was accurately depicted in films,” wrote Gabe Essoe in is book “Tarzan of the Movies.” “He was mannered, cultured, soft-spoken, a well-educated English lord who spoke several languages and didn’t grunt, and because of its fidelity to the books, the film has become a classic…”
Unfortunately, the movie was marred by an atrocious soundtrack, actually apologized for in the credits. It was redubbed for TV, so viewers today get a better audio, but the voice of Tarzan does not belong to Brix.
Brix was typecast by his Tarzan performance, and in the next few years was able to land only a few roles in serials, the bottom of the filmmaking world of the 1930s. One such serial, Republic Studio’s “Hawk of the Wilderness,” furthered Brix’s typecasting, but gave audiences another chance to see the magnificent athlete at his physical best, once again portraying a white hero marooned in the wilderness, and supreme in his primitive world.
Despite the success of “Hawk of the Wilderness,” Brix decided to leave the film scene for a few years to study acting. His return was hastened by the advent of World War II. Adopting the screen name of Bruce Bennett, he found many roles beginning in the early ‘40s. He is perhaps best known for his role as the heroic tank commander in “Sahara” who treks across the desert to get help for his besieged company. As Bennett, he appeared in nearly 140 more films, in major roles and in films that have become legends. He was Joan Crawford’s husband in “Mildred Pierce,” the role that earned her an Academy Award. In “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” he was punched by Humphrey Bogart. In “The Last Outpost,” he played opposite Ronald Reagan, and later served on the board of the Screen Actors Guild when Reagan was its president.
Today, Brix and his wife of many years, Jeanette, live in Beverly Hills, not far from his downtown office. They take long trips in the summer, to such places as Australia, the British Isles and Santorini, the crater island in the Aegean that many are convinced is ancient Atlantis.
Although there was a time when Brix was not overly fond of his days as Tarzan, he finally has come to enjoy the attention it brings him. He continues to receive mail from around the world, asking for autographs and photos. Many Tarzan fans now regard him as the best “reel” Tarzan of ‘em all.
*Actually, "New Adventures" was the serial (1935) and "Green Goddess" was the feature film (1938).
Note: Brix/Bennett passed away Feb. 24, 2007
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