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Serialized Friday, Chapter One: JUNGLE DRUMS!

As I mentioned last week, recently we’ve acquired quite a few of the old Saturday-afternoon serials on DVD. There’s a lot of hidden treasures to be unearthed there, and for the next couple of columns, I’ll be giving you a rundown of a few of them.



The first one we bought, the one that got a half-dozen others suggested to us, actually caught my interest years ago because of something I saw in a Joe Kubert comic.

Amazingly, I think this is the most ACCURATE Tarzan movie ever made. Yes, way more than Greystoke was.

When DC was doing its Tarzan book, often there would be some sort of extra or filler page thrown in — I think this had something to do with the way the stories were being reprinted overseas, the license required one less story page for the European version or somesuch. Meaning that here in the states the DC Tarzan comics always had to have an extra page of content that could then be painlessly removed in the reprint without screwing up the story.

I love that these are getting the classy reprint treatment, but really you should get the original comics. Many great extras there.

One of the ways Kubert would fill an extra page would be to run a still from one of the many old Tarzan movies and give us a little informative caption. And in one case, he ran a shot from The New Adventures of Tarzan, adding that star Bruce Bennett was one of the few actors to portray Tarzan consistently with the way Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote him, as a well-spoken British nobleman.

Amazing how much Brix looks like Ron Ely, isn't it? But this was in 1935.

Well, I was all over that. If there’s one thing all fans of Burroughs’ Tarzan books agree on, it’s disappointment at how the movies depict him.

Never actually saw any of the Weissmullers, though we have a shitload of others here.

I assure you, those of you still smoldering over the cinematic incarnation of Daredevil or the Fantastic Four have nothing on us fans of the Tarzan novels for bitterness. We’re talking decades of heartbreak here.

Anyway, “Bruce Bennett as Tarzan” sounded vaguely familiar, and sure enough, on a budget Tarzan DVD collection Julie had given me a while back, there was Bennett starring in Tarzan and the Green Goddess.

This is still worth getting for the other two on it, particularly the silent with Elmo Lincoln, the FIRST Tarzan movie EVER.

So I screened it again… and remembered why I hadn’t been able to get through it the first time. I liked Bennett’s portrayal of Tarzan well enough, but the movie was an awful, disjointed mess. I thought at the time, with its breakneck pacing and twisting turning plot, that the effort looked like an old serial more than anything else.

Well, there was a reason. That’s because it was cut together from bits of an old serial, The New Adventures of Tarzan.

This is what you should watch. The whole thing. Don't settle for less.

It took me a while to figure it out because I was not aware that Bruce Bennett, the actor I knew from Sahara and Treasure of the Sierra Madre and other classics, had originally gone by his real name, Herman Brix.

Yes, that's still Bruce Bennett.

The history of this serial has as many wild twists and turns as the story it tells. Let me see if I can sum it up for you.

At the time this was made, 1935, MGM had been very successful with its first two Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller. Burroughs, however, did not care for them and after the first two films, the contract was up with MGM. With the film rights returned to him Burroughs was anxious to see if it could be done better.

Enter Ashton Dearholt, a guy who’d had some minor success in Hollywood with Westerns and knew Burroughs though his daughter. Dearholt persuaded Burroughs to go into partnership with him to form their own film company and produce their own Tarzan films.

A Great Enterprise is launched! Or, uh, not.

Burroughs outlined a story and arrangements were made to shoot in Guatemala, on the theory that it would be both cheaper than a studio shoot and lend an air of authenticity. So they were off and running.

The production was by all reports an extremely rocky experience. Problems with illnesses and customs issues caused enormous cash flow difficulties and Burroughs himself had to step in and bail out the serial, causing him to rethink his relationship with MGM and allow them to renew the option to make more Weissmuller movies. As a result, once the New Adventures of Tarzan serial was actually finished, a great many theaters refused to show it for fear of losing MGM business. The studio had made it very clear that their Tarzan was the official one and with a new Weissmuller movie already in production, most theater owners didn’t see any reason to alienate MGM and lose the box office of a known hit for the sake of running a crappy low-budget serial. Frantic to try and recoup somehow, Dearholt cut together several different versions to hawk to theatres as a one-off feature, including Tarzan and the Green Goddess.

There’s lots more behind-the-scenes stuff like that — really, it could be its own column — but I should skip to the bottom line that concerns us here. Is it worth checking out? Is the movie itself any good?

Story continues below

Well, let’s define our terms a little bit. When you’re watching these old serials, a different standard applies. It has to do with what Stephen King called ‘the set of reality.’ The idea is that you automatically make mental adjustments when you are watching a big-budget Hollywood special-effects extravaganza as opposed to, say, a high school play.

Serials were shot on the cheap and often cannibalized footage from other films in the studio’s library for anything from crowd scenes to an erupting volcano. The actors were usually contract players from — well, call it the shallow end of the talent pool. The scripts were in service to the action, not the other way around. There was very much a quota system in place for fights, damsels in distress, and so on and so on.

Now, for me, that’s why I like them. To me that kind of storytelling in an imposed rigid structure is harder than just writing a story; which is why I always admire the people who can do that and make it work well. The best of the serials were still constructed according to the needs of the formula — there was a set number of chapters, each chapter contained at least one action set piece, and a cliffhanger ended each one — but they felt organic, the seams didn’t show. And if you got lucky, the actors in it, although they probably weren’t ever going to be Oscar winners, were bringing their A-game.

Okay. All that being said, is The New Adventures of Tarzan any good?

Despite all the trials and tribulation it took to get it, I have to say, the actual Guatemala footage is amazing.

Actually, yeah, I thought so. The story works a lot better when you get to see all of it (the total running time for all twelve chapters is five hours, as opposed to a paltry 72 minutes for Green Goddess) and it’s familiar stuff to anyone who’s read the books. It’s a tale very much in the tradition of the later Tarzan novels, not surprising since this was made in 1935 while Burroughs was still writing them — that puts it just after Tarzan and the Leopard Men came out and before Tarzan’s Quest was published. The story concerns Tarzan going off to Guatemala to find his missing friend Paul d’Arnot, and through a chain of coincidences getting embroiled with Major Martling and his search for a mysterious idol called the Green Goddess. There are competing expeditions looking for the idol as well, one led by a woman named Ula Vale and another by the villainous Raglan. There are plenty of fights and cool jungle action sequences, plots and counter-plots, and even a lost city with a hot priestess who’s going to offer up Tarzan and friends as a ritual sacrifice. Vintage Burroughs.

The acting is not great — Raglan is played by Dearholt himself, and Ula is played by his wife — but Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett is pretty good, and the jungle footage and stunts are amazing. Herman Brix did everything himself and the sheer athleticism on display from him is astonishing. He was a college football star as well as a gold medalist in the 1928 Olympics (for the shot put) and only missed the 1932 games because of a broken shoulder. But by the time he made this Brix was in great shape and it shows. All his fighting and vine-swinging and lion-wrestling and so on looks incredible, especially when you remember they were shooting the whole thing in the wilds of Guatemala and there was no Hollywood special effects department backing him up. Here’s a clip demonstrating what I’m talking about — that’s not a special effect where Tarzan is breaking the ropes, Brix really did it, and the lion stuff speaks for itself.

Plus it’s in the public domain, so you can get the DVD for about two dollars.

This is the one you want.

Be sure you get the real one, though, the twelve-chapter serial. In addition to Tarzan and the Green Goddess, Dearholt also cut together another crappy 70-minute movie from the footage, called The New Adventures of Tarzan, after Brix had changed his name to Bruce Bennett and was having some Hollywood success. Don’t be fooled. You want the serial.


And there you have it. Be here next week for our next thrilling chapter: The Trials of Tom Tyler!!


Can we get a link to Amazon, or somewhere?

You can’t search for it yourself?

Of course, but he made a major point of getting the correct version.

Speaking of Tarzan, Greg – you happen to own the old Filmation cartoon version that used to air in the 1970s?

See the weird ear on that elephant Brix is riding? Looks like this is one if those Tarzan movies I’ve heard about where they disguised the elephants. See, African elephants are large with huge ears, but pretty much untameable, dangerous to work with. Indian elephants have been domesticated and are more docile, but are not as big and have much smaller ears.

So sometimes they would use Indian elephants but put fake ears on them so you’d think they were in Africa! Judging by the small size of this one, and the phony-looking ear, I think that’s the case here. It almost looks like Brix is holding it in place!

Like most people, to me Tarzan is a childhood memory, something I used to watch in the b-movie matinees in the afternoon TV. He was never my favorite character, but he made Africa interesting to me, even if it was the Burroughs version of that land. So yeah, I enjoyed it, and while I am aware (now) of the differences between the “real” Tarzan and the Weissmuller version, you have to admit that by default, the latter has become THE Tarzan in pop culture, and has a charm all his own. But thanks for the information on this serial anyway, Greg- it was very interesting, especially the behind-the-scenes material. If I ever run into it in a bargain bin, I’ll buy it.

Btw, I hear there was a Batman/Tarzan comics crossover years ago (with Catwoman as the villain!) I’ve got to see that someday!

The DVD case that is pictured is the correct version. Amazon link here. But the easy way to check it is to look at the running time. 257 minutes is the serial version. 70 minutes is the crappy cut version.

Also, I quite like the Batman/Tarzan crossover…Claws of the Cat-woman by Marz and Kordey. Available as a deep-discounted trade from many online dealers. I think I paid a buck for mine a year ago or so.

And no, I don’t own a DVD set of the Filmation Tarzan, I wasn’t aware one existed other than bootlegs. I am kind of holding out for an official release on that one. Fun fact though — Barbara Benedetto, who worked on the backgrounds for that show and many others at Filmation from the animated Star Trek on up through He-Man, is one of our studio artists at the Bath House, she has a lot of stuff in our gallery. I have a nice story about her that will probably see print sometime in the next few weeks.

Fun column and informative column – I used to absolutely love the Tarzan novels until about the end of my freshman year in high school, and yes, I really hated most of the film/TV versions – the exceptions being that Filmation cartoon from the ’70s and (at least the first time I saw it when it came out) the Greystoke movie with Christopher Lambert.
This one looks like it’s worth a look at least. Thanks for the tip. I just have one question: if your real name is something as cool as Herman Brix, why ever would you feel the need to change it?

if your real name is something as cool as Herman Brix, why ever would you feel the need to change it?

Given the time period, he may have wanted to downplay what is a very German-sounding name.

The fact that Herman Brix does sound a bit “Aryan” occurred to me, but why would an American-born athlete who won an Olympic medal (how much more patriotic can you get?) feel that his name would be a problem at a time when another, much more high-profile actor playing Tarzan was in fact foreign-born (in a village in today’s Romania), very proudly bearing his Volksdeutscher surname, Weissmuller?

Also, as I understand it, the anti-German hysteria really didn’t hit in the U.S. until the very end of the ’30s, or even the beginning of the ’40s, and I don’t think it ever really reached the point where many people with ethnic German sounding names felt the need to change them (a good case in point: Eisenhower).

[…] doing a little series talking about the old black-and-white cliffhanger serials. Last week, I told you about an obscure film that turned out to be a real treat for Tarzan fans. This week, […]

Mike Blake, that is DEFINITELY an Asian elephant!! You can tell by the raised back and the knobby forehead. There are many other differences as well– Asian and African elephants are different genera, not just species. But for some reason, the ears seem to get most of the attention (which is why they thought they could get away with the fake ears). I always thought the back was the best way to distinguish them; you don’t have to get a very good look to see it.
At least it’s not as bad as some Tarzan movies that feature Asian elephants and don’t try to disguise them. (Or worse, have an orangutan!) I also hate it when they try to pass off New-World monkees as Old-World.

(And it is possible to tame and ride African elephants. It just isn’t done as often, because they are harder to handle.)

[…] at several of the old cliffhanger serials over the last couple of weeks. The first installment is here. The second is here. And today we wrap it up with the two I enjoyed the most out of the […]

If you like Brix, be sure to check out “Fighting Devil Dogs”–it’s another great serial. Notable for its villain (the Lightning), who may have been an influence on Darth Vader’s design.

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