Richard Dix: Of Westerns and “The Whistler”

Most people who know the name Richard Dix (Ernst Brimmer, 1893-1949) today probably know it from a single quip spoken by David Huddleston in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Dix was indeed associated with westerns; he also had a name that was conducive to punchlines, in a benighted age when some people thought penises were intrinsically funny. Dix was indeed a well-known movie star for close to 30 years, during the silent era as a handsome matinee idol, and in the sound era, as a sort of gone-to-seed leading man.

Originally from St. Paul, Dix worked with stock companies and on Broadway before coming to Los Angeles and becoming the leading man at Morosco’s theatre. His screen career began in 1917 and included such significant films as Cecil B. DeMille’s original 1923 The Ten Commandments (in which he played the lead, which counterintuitively was not Moses), 1925’s Too Many Kisses (the only movie in which Harpo Marx “speaks”), and The Vanishing American (1925). Important early sound movies include the 1929 version of George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1929), the 1931 version of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron (for which he was Oscar nominated), Hell’s Highway (1932), and Stingaree (1934), Most of his sound pictures were B movie style westerns: in three of them he played historical figures: Sam Houston in Man of Conquest (1939), Wild Bill Hickok in Badlands of Dakota (1941) and Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die (1942). Nowadays one of his best remembered later films is Val Lewton-produced The Ghost Ship (1943), directed by Mark Robson for RKO — he’s a mean varlet in that one, an impression reinforced by his late career mustache. From 1944 through 1947 he starred in seven films based on the radio series The Whistler. The Thirteenth Hour (1947) was his last movie. He died of a heart attack two years later at the age of 56.

For more on silent film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.