May 19th, 1906 — February 24, 2007
Herman Brix stands as a notable exception to the truism that professional athletes make rotten actors. Brix, an Olympic champion, later changed his name to Bruce Bennett and became a respected thespian in A-features, playing important supporting roles in major films for Warner Brothers, Paramount, and other studios. Before his Bruce Bennett days, however, Brix appeared in some of the best serials of the 1930s under his real name. Capable of delivering dialogue with conviction but also eminently convincing in action scenes, he was an ideal serial hero, combining brains and brawn; his characters were usually soft-spoken, dryly witty, and rather cerebral in manner, but always looked (and always proved) able to thoroughly pulverize the bad guys when things got rough.
Herman Brix was born in Tacoma, Washington. As a teenager, he started working in his father’s logging business, which aided him in developing his rugged physique. He also participated in both acting and athletics while in school, and, after college, went on to win a shot-putting medal at the 1928 Olympics. His Olympic victory brought him to the attention of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which considered him a likely movie prospect and arranged to bring him to Hollywood. Through the club, Brix became friends with fellow athlete Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who recommended him for the part of Tarzan in the 1932 MGM film Tarzan the Ape Man. Brix was considered the front-runner for the role until he sustained a serious shoulder injury while working on a football film, causing MGM to bypass him in favor of Johnny Weissmuller. Brix labored in small roles for various studios until 1935, when Edgar Rice Burroughs approved him to play the Ape Man in The New Adventures of Tarzan (Burroughs-Tarazan Productions, 1935). Whether Burroughs was aware of Brix’s near-casting as Tarzan in the earlier movie is not known, but he correctly thought him better qualified to embody the cultured Lord Greystroke aspect of Tarzan’s character than Weissmuller was.
New Adventures was in part a result of Burroughs’ dissatisfaction with MGM’s treatment of his character; his producer friend Ashton Dearholt had managed to convince the author to back a Tarzan film that would be more faithful to the books. The plot of New Adventures had Brix’s Tarzan leading an expedition to Guatemala in search of an ancient idol known as the Green Goddess and Tarzan’s friend D’Arnot, who had disappeared searching for the statue years ago. The expedition was forced to battle all sorts of menaces, from lions, alligators, and leopards to hostile natives to the savage inhabitants of a lost Mayan city to the criminal Raglan (Dearholt), who was after the powerful explosive formula hidden inside the Goddess. D’Arnot (a major supporting character from the Tarzan books), the lost city (modeled on Burroughs’ Opar), and Brix’s portrayal of Tarzan as an articulate aristocrat equally at home in loincloth or evening clothes all mirrored Burroughs’ books to perfection–but a low budget and Dearholt’s decision to shoot the serial on location in Guatemala combined to make the chapterplay’s production values extremely ragged. Technical problems resulting from the tropical weather conditions plagued the filming equipment, while illness and injury bedevilled cast and crew. Brix (who was called on to do most of his own stuntwork) had particularly bad luck, coming down with dysentery, surviving a serious leg infection, and getting badly bitten by a semi-trained chimpanzee. The final product was understandably uneven, unable to compete on even terms with serials from Mascot or Universal, let alone the MGM Tarzan features; however, its authentic jungle locales and many exciting action scenes made it an entertaining if very primitive adventure chapterplay; Brix’s laconically authoritative, quietly cheerful, and physically impressive turn as Tarzan also gave the serial a strong boost.
Above: A dinner-jacketed Tarzan (Herman Brix) exchanges pleasantries with Dale Walsh and Harry Ernest aboard a ship bound for Guatemala in The New Adventures of Tarzan (Burroughs-Tarzan Productions, 1935).
Above: Herman Brix throttles an attacking leopard in this lobby card for The New Adventures of Tarzan (Burroughs-Tarzan, 1935).
From 1936 to 1937, Brix spent most of his time starring in several B-films for the economical Sam Katzman–later the producer of Columbia’s serials but at this time the boss of a shoestring studio named Victory. Brix also found time to appear in two Victory serials. The first of these was 1936’s Shadow of Chinatown, in which he played the hero but took second billing behind Bela Lugosi, who played a deranged criminal mastermind named Victor Poten, who was wreaking havoc in the Chinatown area. Brix was an astute mystery novelist named Martin Andrews, who teamed up with an energetic and impetuous female reporter (Joan Barclay) to stop Lugosi’s crime wave. Chinatown contained its share of absurdities, necessitated by Katzman’s extremely low budget, but Brix gave a convincing performance as a genteel, intellectual, but robust detective-hero; he also displayed a nice rapport with Joan Barclay in their characters’ many bouts of humorous bantering, continually reacting to her breathless enthusiasm with wryly sarcastic bemusement.
Brix’s other serial for Victory was Blake of Scotland Yard (1937), in which he played his only serial villain, an eyepatch-wearing henchman named Adolph. Adolph obeyed the orders of a masked criminal known as the Scorpion, who battled retired Scotland Yard Inspector James Blake (Herbert Rawlinson) over a coveted death ray. In his capacity as the Scorpion’s minion, Brix, who could probably have mopped the floor with the serial’s entire cast, was obliged to suffer the humiliation of being repeatedly beaten up by the elderly Rawlinson and the equally elderly Sam Flint (as Scotland Yard Inspector Henderson).
Above: The heavies of Blake of Scotland Yard (Victory, 1937) spy on the good guys. Bob Terry is foremost; behind him is the eye-patched and mustached Herman Brix; further back is Dick Curtis (also mustached) and in the background is George DeNormand.
Brix seemed to move a step up in the serial world every time he changed studios–from the ragged Burroughs-Tarzan Productions to the cheap but somewhat more polished Victory Productions to Republic Pictures in 1938. Republic’s first release of that year, The Lone Ranger, was the small but professional studio’s most ambitious project yet. A large-scale adaptation of the popular radio show, it departed from the show by featuring five heroes–one of whom, his identity unknown to the audience, was the mysterious Lone Ranger, while the other four were his faithful allies. The five leads all took part in the battle against Jeffries (Stanley Andrews), the would-be dictator of Texas, but four of them met heroic deaths in the course of the serial, leaving the Lone Ranger the only surviving hero. Brix was one of the five Lone Ranger “suspects,” the other four being Lee Powell, Hal Taliaferro, Lane Chandler, and George Letz (later and better known as George Montgomery). The Lone Ranger was one of Republic’s most expensive serials and one of their most popular; it was also the first entirely successful serial of Brix’s career, although as just one member of an excellent ensemble cast, he did not get to hold center stage as in Tarzan’s New Adventure.
Above: Herman Brix (far left) and Lee Powell (far right) aid an injured Lane Chandler (center) in The Lone Ranger (Republic, 1938).
Brix re-teamed with Lee Powell, one of his Lone Ranger co-stars, for his–and Republic’s–very next serial, The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938). Powell, as Marine Lieutenant Tom Grayson, was the leading hero, but Brix as Lieutenant Frank Corby was the co-hero, backing Powell up in almost all the action scenes. Brix, well-cast as the more level-headed member of the pair, played well off the eager, energetic Powell, and even got in a few action scenes on his own, including a battle with a shark. In the first chapter, the two young Marines and their platoon were sent to evacuate imperiled American civilians from the war-torn Asian country of “Lingchuria.” Their detail was sidetracked by the discovery of a Lingchurian fortress occupied by dead men, found lying at their posts without a mark or wound. This grisly discovery launched Grayson and Corby on the hunt for the Lightning, a mysterious madman who was planning to dominate the world with his airborne electrical torpedoes and his “flying wing” aircraft. The Fighting Devil Dogs, although filmed on a low budget (Republic made up overspending on The Lone Ranger by underspending on their following release) was another high-quality Republic serial, probably best-remembered due to the memorably menacing Lightning, but also helped by its two likable lead performances.
Above: Herman Brix holds captured thug Edmund Cobb while Lee Powell makes a radio call in The Fighting Devil Dogs. Lloyd Whitlock is on the far left, Lee Baker on the far right.
Brix’s third 1938 Republic serial gave him his only top-billed role at that studio, and was probably the best of all his cliffhangers. Hawk of the Wilderness was based on a book by William A. Chester, an author who had hoped to ape the success of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan by creating his own jungle hero–Kioga, the “Hawk of the Wilderness.” In the serial, “Kioga” was the son of a scientist named Lincoln Rand, an infant survivor of the shipwreck that claimed his parents’ lives off the coast of an uncharted Arctic island. Accepted, somewhat reluctantly, by the primitive Indians of the island and raised by Mokuyi (Noble Johnson), the Rands’ Indian servant who had also survived the wreck, Kioga grew to manhood as a Tarzan-like king of the wilderness, and was played (naturally) by Brix on his arrival at adulthood. Twenty-four years after the wreck, Rand’s old friend Dr. Munro (Tom Chatterton) arrived on the island searching for survivors of the Rand party, and Kioga was forced to use his skills to protect Munro, Munro’s daughter Beth (Jill Martin) and their expedition from both the Indians (led by Kioga’s lifelong enemy, the witch doctor Yellow Weasel) and the piratical Salerno (William Royle) and his gang. Hawk of the Wilderness, full of beautiful location shooting, exciting action, and good performances, was one of the finest serials ever made, an opinion shared by Brix, who referred to it in an interview as “one of the best.” His own performance was one of the reasons for its success; the Kioga role called for some actual acting talent, to depict the hero’s adjustment to the ways of the outside world, and Brix’s quiet, subtle acting style was perfectly suited to the challenge.
Brix’s last serial was Daredevils of the Red Circle (Republic, 1939). He was the secondary hero again this time, one of a trio of circus acrobats headed by Charles Quiqley, the third member of the group being David Sharpe. Brix was Tiny Dawson, the strong-man member of the D aredevils’ team, and could always be counted on by acrobat Quigley and escape-artist Sharpe when it came time to break a door down or lift a car off the ground (Tiny performed this feat in Chapter Two–it wasn’t as unbelievable as it sounds). They found themselves opposing Harry Crowel, alias 39-0-13 (Charles Middleton), who had been sent to jail for embezzlement by his former employer, tycoon Horace Granville, and escaped from prison and began to systematically destroy Granville’s businesses as revenge. One of the targeted businesses was the Granville Amusement Pier, where the Daredevils performed their daily act. 39-0-13’s men set fire to the pier and Quigley’s kid brother (Robert Winkler) was killed in the resulting conflagration, which caused the Daredevils to swing into action against 39-0-13. Brix definitely ended his serial career on a high note; Daredevils of the Red Circle was yet another of Republic’s best outings, thanks to its impressive villain, its varied action, and its colorful team of heroes.
Above: Herman Brix keeps a Herculean hold on the escape line for the offscreen Charles Quigley and David Sharpe, as a fire threatens to engulf their acrobatic platform in Daredevils of the Red Circle (Republic, 1939).
Brix’s serial career was over, but a whole new career was ahead of him. Later in 1939, he changed his name to Bruce Bennett in order to avoid being identified as Tarzan and thus considered a mere “muscleman” by casting directors. He then signed a contract with Columbia Pictures and began studying acting in a school run by expatriate German filmmaker Max Reinhardt. Brix worked in various Columbia B-films and several stage plays before leaving Columbia around 1945 to sign a contract with Warner Brothers. He worked at Warners until 1949, appearing in Mildred Pierce, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and other well-known pictures, then freelanced at MGM (Angels in the Outfield), Paramount (The Last Outpost), and other outfits throughout the 1950s. His film work began to give way to television work as the 1950s progressed, but he virtually retired from acting in 1961, tiring of the employment scrambles caused by the breakup of the studio system. He subsequently launched a second (and successful) career in sales and real estate, still dabbling sporadically in television work up until about 1973. Slacking off his business activities as he aged, Brix enjoyed a long retirement until he passed away in February of 2007–just a few months short of his 101st birthday. He remained in contact with fans of his films right up through his last years, and retained a remarkably sharp memory of his movie career, including his days as a serial player.
Critics generally consider both serial performers and athletes-turned-actors to be weak in the thespian department, but Herman Brix, serial actor and former athlete, defied conventional wisdom and became a highly proficient actor–which probably surprised everyone but the fans of Brix’s serials, who had liked him all along. Muscled he may have been, but he was intelligent as well, both on-screen and off.
Acknowledgements: For much of the information in this article, I’m indebted to Scott Tracy Griffin’s lengthy interview with Brix/Bennett (“Bruce Bennet: The Burroughs Tarzan”) from the April/May 2003 issue (#96) of Filmfax magazine.