Short Fiction at Defenestration


I’m pleased to announce that a short “fake nonfiction” piece of mine has been published at Defenestration, “A Literary Magazine Devoted to Humor.” “Queen Aura’s Address to the People of Planet Mongo Upon Her Coronation Day” is just what it sounds like, a speech by the erstwhile Princess of Mongo eulogizing her father, Ming the Merciless, and setting a course for her planet’s future destiny. Regular readers of Fates Worse Than Death will recognize this as an outgrowth of my interest in pulp characters and, from my review of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial, my conviction that Aura is “the real hero of the story, resourceful, determined, and intense.” I hope you enjoy it.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with Sarah Chang, Violin

Wichita Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Hege, Music Director and Conductor
Sarah Chang, Violin

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Richard Strauss
West Side Story Suite for Violin and Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein (arr. David Newman)
Tzigane, Maurice Ravel
La Valse, Maurice Ravel

I reviewed the opening concert of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Concerts series for The Wichita Eagle; the article can be read here.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra: Disney Magic


Saturday’s Wichita Symphony Orchestra Pops Concert, “Disney in Concert,” was subtitled “Magical Music from the Movies.” As such, it was as much stage show and multimedia event as orchestral concert. Playing to an enthusiastic audience that included both costumed children and regular Symphony attendees, Guest Conductor Robert Bernhardt took the podium in Century II Concert Hall and shared the stage with four singers: Juliana Hansen, Stephanie Burkett Gerson, Kyle Eberlein, and Nathan Andrew Riley. All four are veterans of Disney stage productions, with experience putting their own spin on characters already familiar to the audience through the classic film versions. Throughout the performance, clips and still images from Disney movies accompanied the music on a large video screen; expressive stage lighting also contributed to the spectacle.

Unsurprisingly, the program leaned heavily on movies spanning the last twenty-five years, from the Menken-Ashman scores from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, to the ubiquitous hit “Let It Go” from 2013’s Frozen. There was time for history as well, however: the orchestra got things rolling with an instrumental medley (arranged by Bruce Healey) that combined favorites “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and several songs from Mary Poppins and Cinderella with non-film classics “Mickey Mouse March” and “It’s A Small World.” Later selections paid tribute to The Jungle Book and (again) Mary Poppins.

The four vocalists, at first introduced one by one, took turns playing emcee, soloist, and backup singer: Hansen lit up the stage as Ariel from The Little Mermaid, before turning the lead over to Gerson for a gorgeous rendition of “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. A suite of songs from Beauty and the Beast was an opportunity to unleash some inventive staging, with the four soloists reenacting the opening ensemble “Bonjour!” with Hansen as Belle. Later in the same number, Eberlein showed off his comic chops as Lumiere for “Be Our Guest,” again joined by the other three for a rambunctious performance that climaxed with an energetic kick-line. (Eberlein in particular has a knack for bringing characters to life without simply imitating Louis Prima or Robin Williams: to say he stole the show would be unfair to the other singers, but he displayed the most individual personality.)

The orchestra played strongly under Bernhardt’s unfussy baton, especially in a few purely instrumental selections (fittingly, as Bernhardt pointed out, they performed a suite from Klaus Badelt’s score from Pirates of the Caribbean on “Talk Like A Pirate Day”): Alan Menken’s score for The Hunchback of Notre Dame had plenty of big moments that showed off the brass (always important in film scoring!) and percussion. (The arrangements often incorporated elements from the score in interesting ways: the Beauty and the Beast suite, for example, began with the celebratory music of the Beast’s final transformation, a good example of composer John Oswald’s adage that when repurposed, “endings make good beginnings.”) Principal oboist Andrea Banke’s fluent playing also provided the requisite Middle Eastern flavor between vocal selections from Aladdin.

A few numbers pushed at the limits of what could be recreated live, and two numbers suffered from the combination of a resonant hall and live mics: in Riley’s “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid and Eberlein’s “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book, the sound was muddy and the drum-heavy rhythms didn’t show off the orchestra at its best. In both cases, however, the soloists poured on the energy, bringing the audience to its feet. The bottom line is that when the singers are so evidently having this much fun, it’s hard not to join in. (A few numbers were sing-alongs, with lyrics displayed on the screen; my five-year-old son, at his first orchestra concert, was having just as much fun mimicking the instrumentalists, enthusiastically beating on invisible drums or sawing away at a phantom double bass.)

Two highlights capped the evening: Gerson took the lead on Frozen‘s “Let It Go” in an arrangement that followed the film version closely, but with added harmonies from the other three singers. The effect was dazzling in its precision, and gave the audience a chance to hear a very familiar piece of music in a new setting. Finally, the orchestra and singers left it all on stage with selections from The Lion King (a collaboration of Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer), including “The Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” (which had much cleaner sound than the other rhythmic numbers), and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” It was a strong note to end on; with the beginning of the Classics series next month, the Wichita Symphony has the makings of a strong season ahead of it.

Medleyana: Year Two

A year or two before I began Medleyana, I idly mentioned my interest in starting a blog to a friend. “No one reads blogs anymore,” he said. That gave me pause, but eventually, I went ahead and started anyway, and the result is this blog, now two years old, give or take a day.

Within the first six months of blogging, I realized that a lot of my articles started with a reminiscence such as the one above, with the rest of the article enumerating the reasons the other person was wrong. I quickly found that as tempting as that rhetorical device can be, I needed to use it sparingly, lest the entire blog become a giant exercise in “staircase wit,” a compendium of the things I should have said, if I’d only had the presence of mind. (Of course, if I argued as vociferously in person as most people do on the internet, I’d have no friends left, online or off-.)

So, as I celebrate Medleyana’s second birthday, I don’t bring up that friend’s offhand comment to prove that he was wrong. In fact, in many ways, he was right: the time in which a blog could amass a large readership just by being out there is long passed. This summer has proven to be something of a reckoning, not just for bloggers but for all kinds of “long form” writers on the internet.

In addition to the abrupt closure of The Dissolve, “free-form” radio station WFMU’s Beware of the Blog ceased posting; as of July, both exist online now only as archives of past content. I’ll admit I wasn’t a regular visitor to WFMU’s blog lately, so maybe I’m part of the problem, but when I first discovered it I spent quite a bit of time browsing its posts and downloading files from its collections.

Looking at it now, its mixture of original articles and reposts of unusual tapes and records, comics, and other found oddities are a good example of what the web used to be like as recently as ten years ago. Industrious writers with scanners and mp3-editing software could clean out their closets and share whatever weird stuff they found with the world instantly. It’s not just that the early internet was less commercial in nature (although that’s certainly part of it–Beware of the Blog was a volunteer-driven affair): it was countercultural, picking up the habits of reclamation and subversion that had driven the alternative press in the ’80s and ’90s. And it went both ways: like many of the blogs and websites that emerged around the turn of the century, it developed a culture of users (both writers and commenters) that gave it an identity. In the past, I’ve compared online forums to bars or coffee shops that are always open, and that was especially true of the websites that attracted regulars, “where everybody knows your name.”

The passing of this ethos is part of what Vox editor Todd VanDer Werff laments when he calls 2015 “the year the old internet finally died:” now there’s so much emphasis on social media and going viral, it’s harder to create a website with an identity that is a destination, rather than a source of memes and videos to share. The content is often no less quirky than before, but the context is quite different: instead of being part of an ongoing discussion with a community of writers and commenters (something The Dissolve excelled at), each picture or link is encountered as part of the reader’s Facebook or Twitter feed; to the extent that it has any attribution, it’s more like a brand than a source to return to (one reason a lot of these meme-mills are radio stations). According to VanDer Werff, writers of longer articles (what used to be the expectation for writers and journalists) are in trouble unless they can also provide the quick hits that generate clicks.

Of course, Medleyana isn’t really playing on the same turf as The Dissolve (or the A.V. Club, or Grantland): it’s just me, not a staff of writers, and it’s a labor of love, not a job. But the landscape has changed for bloggers, as well: the same month that The Dissolve and Beware of the Blog shuttered, Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan wrote about the world he remembered before he was sentenced to six years in an Iranian prison for his writing:

Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. Everybody I linked to would face a sudden and serious jump in traffic: I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted. People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, and even many of those who strongly disagreed with me still came to read. Other blogs linked to mine to discuss what I was saying. I felt like a king.

Again, I’m not sure I have much in common with Derakhshan; it’s hard to read his comments and not feel that he mourns the influence he once wielded as much as the changing structure of the internet. And while he isn’t wrong about the changes in the way we exchange ideas online, there are simply more people writing then there were before, making it harder for individual voices to stand out. The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this post didn’t say anything about people not writing blogs anymore, after all.

More seriously, Derakhshan goes on to point out how commercialized and homogenized the dialogue is when it’s in the hands of corporate social networks like Facebook: “The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex–and secretive–algorithms.” Those algorithms tend to emphasize what users have already shown that they like with their clicks and upvotes, contributing to the echo-chamber quality of such networks. That’s a fair concern, and one shared by many observers: that the internet will become more like television, with a fragmented but largely passive audience, faced with an infinitude of choices, but less likely to be challenged by different perspectives.

Ultimately, while my readership is not large, at least not in comparison to the heyday of the form, it has been growing: this summer’s Fates Worse Than Death has been a success, at least measured in comments and discussion (some of which have taken place, yes, on Facebook and Twitter). This year I stretched myself more to post on a weekly basis, and I experienced and learned about some fascinating films that I might not have been motivated to explore otherwise. And just personally, I’m pleased that I was able to stay on my self-imposed schedule with some late nights (and a few very late nights!). I’d probably try to keep this series going all year round but for two factors: first, it’s too time-consuming, and I would burn out if I tried to keep it up for much longer; second, I have other things I’d like to pursue as well. To those of you who may have found your way here for coverage of serials, I hope you’ll check out some of the other topics. And rest assured that I’ll still be covering them in one way or the other.

Finally, thanks for visiting, and for reading. If you’ve taken the time to comment, or contacted me personally, or if you’ve shared one of my articles, know that I appreciate the feedback. If there’s anything I can to do to improve your experience in the coming year, or you have a suggestion for a topic you’d like to see covered, or you just want to say hi, please don’t hesitate to comment, send me an e-mail through the contact page, or find me on Twitter!

P. S. And keep writing!

Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe


A mysterious plague is sweeping the Earth: known as the “Purple Death” because of the single purple spot it leaves on the skin of its victims, the disease is responsible for the deaths of thousands, and authorities are helpless to stop mounting panic. Professor Gordon is one of the scientists struggling to find a cure, and it is his son Flash (already a hero for saving the earth several times over) who, with Dr. Zarkov and Dale Arden, discovers the culprit. A ship from Mongo is spotted high in the atmosphere, dropping the malign dust that causes the Purple Death.


Starting for the planet Mongo at once in Zarkov’s rocket ship, the trio face aerial combat with the invading ship and, feigning a crash, descend to Arboria, the home of Flash’s ally Prince Barin. Barin confirms that Emperor Ming yet lives and is undoubtedly behind the attacks on Earth, and a council of leaders who are opposed to the merciless dictator soon convenes at Barin’s palace.


The only antidote for the Death Dust is the element “polarite,” which can be found in the far Northern reaches of Frigia, represented by Queen Fria. The expedition to the icy realm is bulked out with footage from an earlier polar exploration film, White Hell of Pitz Palu; footage of downhill skiers appears in the montage that opens each chapter, leading me to expect a snowbound assault on Ming à la The Spy Who Loved Me or Inception, but it never happens. (Also, it wasn’t until I was selecting screen caps that I noticed Flash and Dale in their cold-weather gear bear a strong resemblance to Santa and Mrs. Claus.)


Although the threat of the Purple Death doesn’t take twelve chapters to resolve, it’s the inciting incident that kicks off the latest round of strikes and counter-strikes in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the third and final serial in Universal’s epic adaptation of Alex Raymond’s popular comic strip.


Despite, or perhaps because of, its references to the events and characters of the 1936 and ’38 serials, Conquers the Universe shows just how much time has passed since the success of the first Flash Gordon. Many aspects of the production, impressive in ’36, would have seemed crude just four years later, especially with Republic’s slick, streamlined adventure serials entering the market in the mean time. The static recap cards from the earlier serials have been replaced by scrolling titles; this now-familiar format had been used in Buck Rogers (also starring Flash Gordon lead Buster Crabbe) and would appear in other serials of the 1940s (and of course was the inspiration for the similar opening crawl in the Star Wars films).


The pacing is rapid throughout, with clear but often functional dialogue that serves the plot; Flash Gordon was never about deep characterization or philosophy, but Conquers the Universe is especially plot-heavy. And while many effects look quaint to modern eyes (Mongo’s giant iguanas make an appearance, and electrical effects are frequently accomplished with zig-zag lightning bolts scratched directly onto the film), just as many impress with how effective simple devices can be, and there are enough new settings and perils that the serial doesn’t feel like a retread.


Of particular note are an assault by exploding robots (Chapter Three, “Walking Bombs”), given an uncanny mechanical gait through the magic of undercranking, and the tribe of “Rock Men” who dwell in Arboria’s “no man’s land.” (Unlike the Clay People of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, the Rock Men only dress as rocks to camouflage themselves from the giant lizards.) The Rock Men speak backwards, and once Dr. Zarkov realizes that their language is the same as that of a “lost tribe” that once inhabited Earth’s Gobi Desert, he is able to communicate with them; after Flash saves the Rock King’s son from a disaster, they aid the Earthlings in their fight against Ming.


Several plot elements that were missing from Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars reappear in Conquers the Universe: Ming once again hopes to make Dale his bride, and Ming’s daughter Princess Aura reappears, still happily married to Prince Barin. The cast has been shuffled–Carol Hughes replaces Jean Rogers as Dale, and both Barin and Aura are recast (by Roland Drew and Shirley Deane, respectively)–but Buster Crabbe reprises the title role, Charles Middleton returns as Ming, and Frank Shannon again plays Dr. Zarkov.


Speaking of Barin and Aura, the happy couple looks quite different from their earlier incarnations. As Barin, Drew cuts a more dashing figure than Richard Alexander: with his trim mustache and forest costume, he strongly resembles Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. As for Aura, the changes to her personality outweigh those to her appearance: instead of the scheming, morally flexible antiheroine of the 1936 serial, she is here entirely settled and content in her life in Arboria, and her reaction to being pulled back into her father’s evil machinations is passive terror and indignation. Marriage has domesticated her.


Fortunately (or not, depending on your perspective), the lack of Aura’s feminine wiliness is made up for by the introduction of Lady Sonja (Anne Gwynne), an Arborian lady-in-waiting secretly loyal to Ming. Once Sonja lures Aura to Arboria’s Red Forest to be abducted by Ming’s forces (for even he would not bomb Arboria without first making sure his daughter was safe), the treacherous lady becomes half of a villainous double act with Captain Torch (Don Rowan). Together, Torch and Sonja, along with Lieutenant Thong (tee hee), shadow Flash Gordon & co. and bedevil them in a variety of ways, carrying out missions for Ming.


Sonja doesn’t have the depth of Aura–she’s purely spiteful and untrustworthy, without even the motivation of misplaced love–but it’s worth noting the number of female characters in the Flash Gordon serials and the range of their motivations. Aside from Dale, Aura, and Sonja, there’s Queen Fria of Frigia (an uncredited Luli Deste), who expresses a hope that Flash Gordon might be convinced to lead Frigia’s armed forces, teasing a source of tension with Dale (this comes to nothing, although it may be more fleshed out in the comic strips that are the basis of the story).


In fact, Flash Gordon does a better job of female representation than the original Star Wars trilogy that it inspired: in Conquers the Universe, Dale is revealed to be an expert chemist and radio operator, a detail I don’t recall being mentioned before, but which gives her more to do than simply be kidnapped. It’s true that at least some of the women on-screen are purely eye candy, and there’s less of the emphasis on Buster Crabbe’s physique that made the 1936 serial an equal-opportunity source of titillation (like the Tarzan series, Flash Gordon in all its iterations has celebrated the body beautiful). Still, compared to the many serials I’ve watched that have only a single token woman, it’s refreshing that the population of the fantasy world of planet Mongo at least contains individuals of both sexes.


Ultimately, Ming’s greatest weakness is the number of people in his service–guards, scientists, soldiers–who are willing to turn against him. The political subtext is no more complex or subtle than before–dictators are bad–but the story emphasizes that those who take power by force and cruelty will never have the loyalty of those they conquer. Rather, they will only breed a thirst for revenge in their underlings. As always, Flash Gordon inspires trust and confidence in those he meets simply by doing the right thing.

And what about that title, anyway? Conquering isn’t really Flash’s bag. As silly as it sounds, Ming in his arrogance declares at one point, “I am the universe!” So, by the transitive property, when Flash inevitably conquers Ming . . . well, you get the idea.


But just in case you didn’t, Zarkov explains it.

What I Watched: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A two-disc DVD set from Timeless Media Group

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Doom of the Dictator” (Chapter Twelve). Alliteration!


Best Cliffhanger: Another plot thread that continues from the earlier serials is Ming’s desire to have Zarkov’s scientific genius at his command. So, in Chapter Four (“The Destroyer Ray”), when Ming has Zarkov captive and the Earth scientist refuses to serve him, Ming orders his execution. A death ray slowly moves toward the chained scientist, and when Flash shows up to rescue him, he appears to be caught in it, too. What really elevates this is that Ming, surrounded by his retinue, has forced Dale (also captive) to watch the scene unfold. She begs Ming to spare them, beating on his chest with her fists, and then covers her face, unable to watch, while Ming cackles at his victims’ helplessness. “He has chosen his own death!” he sneers. This is what we watch serials for.


A Note on Costumes: Although there’s still a great deal of space opera exoticism, including long looks at the harem-like entertainments Ming has at his disposal, the costumes and sets display fewer of the ancient or near-Eastern motifs that were prominent in the earlier serials. Barin’s palace resembles a traditional European castle, with parapets and everything, and most of the male characters dress in military uniforms with braids and epaulets; except for the ray guns and space ships, Arboria might as well be Ruritania, an imagined Mitteleuropa in outer space.


Even Ming gets in on the act, assuming a high-plumed dress uniform, “now more a wicked general than Satan” in the words of Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut. One could assume that proximity to Earth has affected Ming’s tastes: although most of Ming’s pleasures are accompanied by stereotypical “Oriental” music, the soundtrack is a distinctly modern rhumba in Chapter Four, leading me to imagine Xavier Cugat and his orchestra chained to a bandstand and forced to play just off-camera. You’re a peacock, Ming. Strut, Ming, strut.


Sample Dialogue: “Seems like old times, being at war again with Ming, Zarkov.” –Flash Gordon, Chapter Two (“Freezing Torture”)


What Others Have Said: “Earth heroes have journeyed to other worlds by Crystal Door and spaceship. Our own planet has been invaded many times by alien menaces bent on dominating the Earthlings. In all these instances there have been mighty conflicts between good and evil. But after the holocaust of ray zapping and atomic blasting had settled, the audiences huddled in the safety of terran movie houses admitted one important fact: There was only one alien tyrant capable of conquering the universe, Ming the Merciless. And there was but a single hero able to defeat him–Flash Gordon.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

That brings this summer’s serial coverage to an end. I’ll probably still have a few serial-related articles coming up, and Medleyana will continue to update on other topics, but that’s it for regular entries until next summer. Until then, thanks for reading along, and thanks for all the comments and support!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Fighting Marines


On land or sea in polar night
Or sweltering tropic scenes
Where e’er there’s fighting
You will find U. S. Marines.

–introduction to The Fighting Marines


The action of The Fighting Marines begins in media res (unusual but not unheard of for serials): Corporal Larry Lawrence (Grant Withers) and Sergeant Mack McGowan (Adrian Morris) of the U. S. Marine Corps are battling a gang of bandits in a jungle, trying to rescue their friend and fellow Marine, Sergeant William Schiller (George J. Lewis). Schiller is the inventor of a new “gyro compass,” and the bandits hope to learn its secret from him. After Schiller’s rescue, the real story begins: Schiller’s gyro compass will make it possible for the Marines to build a base on remote Halfway Island in the Pacific Ocean. So far, the island has been inaccessible because of a “magnetic dead spot” that causes ships and planes to crash short of the island. A businessman named Douglas (Robert Frazer) hopes to build a floating airstrip outside of the dead spot, and he stands to lose a fortune if the Marines succeed in building on the island.


At the same time, unbeknownst to the Marines, Halfway Island is being used as a base by a notorious pirate known only as the Tiger Shark. As in Batman and Robin and Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion, even the Tiger Shark’s own men don’t know their boss’s identity, but they refer often to those poor suckers in the organization who had tried to find out, or who had tried to claim their shares of the loot before the Tiger Shark was ready to dispense them.


It is the Tiger Shark, who always appears in a fashion-forward leather flying suit and goggles, who is responsible for the dead spot, employing a “magnetic ray gun” to scramble approaching planes’ instruments. In addition, the Tiger Shark seems to know too much about the Marines and their operations, even before Larry and Mack are able to land on the island and discover the pirate’s base. It’s strongly implied that Douglas is the Tiger Shark, but could it be Buchanan (Frank Glendon), the head of the Oriental Navigation Company, who also has an interest in the region? Or could it be someone even closer to the Marines? Needless to say, the mystery is teased out until the very last chapter, when the villain’s identity is revealed.


I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to watch The Fighting Marines if I weren’t writing this series. Aside from its lack of recognizable characters, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the title sequence, which combines Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” march with stock footage of Marines in dress uniforms marching in parade formation. The premise seemed to suggest either a war movie (a genre I don’t usually go out of my way for) or, worse, high jinks on a military base. I needn’t have worried: with a few exceptions, The Fighting Marines is pure serial formula, from its mysterious costumed villain to his army of interchangeable henchmen and the gauntlet of fist- and gunfights, car chases, and other perils that the heroes face.


There is also a distinctly pulpy, futuristic edge to the Tiger Shark’s equipment, although it is mostly limited to his base on Halfway Island. In addition to the magnetic ray gun, the Tiger Shark’s forces use television to communicate. However, unlike characters in other serials, the Tiger Shark’s henchmen must wear an elaborate headgear to use the television, whether necessary to make the technology work, like a radio headset, or simply to disguise their identities, I don’t know. Television is so often treated like a kind of magic in films of the 1930s that it shouldn’t be surprising that it requires a special costume to use it, like the ephod worn by the priest who handled the Ark of the Covenant. In some ways the ray gun and other high-tech gadgets make The Fighting Marines an early example of “spy-fi” à la James Bond or The Man From UNCLE rather than a purely military escapade.


Other elements beside the costumed villain and his high-tech toys suggest similarities with other serials: although the two heroes are Marines under the authority of their Colonel (Robert Warwick), and wear uniforms and report to the Marine base, and even in a few chapters take part in military operations with larger squads, they mostly work on their own, with a free hand to track down clues and take on the bad guys by themselves. The format of their adventures isn’t that different from those of the independent agents in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island or The Miracle Rider, or the team of unofficial deputies in Daredevils of the Red Circle (or an episode of JAG, for that matter).


The Fighting Marines was the last serial made by Mascot before the mergers that would lead to the birth of Republic, the studio that would be synonymous with serials for the next two decades. Producer Nat Levine had grown dissatisfied with the Mascot formula, and while I love some of Mascot’s serials, it’s not hard to see the growing pains that the format was suffering. The Fighting Marines is uneven, with choppy, often redundant storytelling (seriously, was it necessary to have flashbacks to previous scenes in three different chapters?). Characters come and go haphazardly: Douglas, after being established as a likely suspect for the Tiger Shark’s secret identity, disappears, replaced by Buchanan in Chapter Five; they don’t appear together until Chapter Eight, leading me to wonder if I had somehow confusedly given the same character two names. Larry and Mack are established as rivals for the affections of Schiller’s sister, Frances (Ann Rutherford), and she plays an important part in the first half of the serial; however, once the action moves to Halfway Island, not only is the love triangle forgotten, so is Frances. Finally, the many cheats used to resolve cliffhangers (see below) insult not only the intelligence of the viewer, but the idea of continuity itself.


Having said all that, however, I really enjoyed most of The Fighting Marines, and I’m glad I checked it out. Despite its rough edges, it’s imaginative and full of retro cool: I’ve alluded to the Tiger Shark’s sense of style, but did I mention he flies an auto gyro?


Or how his victims are left with the “Mark of the Tiger Shark” imprinted on their necks?


And I live for scenes like the one where the Tiger Shark strafes a Marine encampment from a biplane with a Tommy gun, an image worthy of Dr. Strangelove:


I also haven’t mentioned the Tiger Shark’s Halfway Island henchmen, a crew of roughneck sailors straight out of a Popeye cartoon:


Or the tribe of natives who also call Halfway Island home, and their Hollywood Central Casting penchant for human sacrifice:


And a few things that should be considered SPOILERS: First, one that I’m not sure is really a spoiler because it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the plot: it’s just a surprise. In the last chapter, when the Tiger Shark’s empire is collapsing around him, he consults with the chief of the Island natives. Like all of the natives, the chief wears a sarong and has a terrible afro; the chief pulls his afro wig off and it’s revealed that he’s not a native at all, just one of the Tiger Shark’s henchmen. So, does that mean all the natives are white men in disguise? That would explain why they all look so fake–they all have the same ridiculous-looking afros, for one thing–but apparently not. It’s just him. So how did he become chief?


There’s no time for that, because we finally learn the real identity of the Tiger Shark (DOUBLE SPOILERS): It’s neither Douglas nor Buchanan, but Kota, Colonel Bennett’s Japanese valet. This actually explains a lot, not least the casting of a relatively high-profile actor (Jason Robards, Sr.) in a role that hadn’t had more than five minutes of screen time until the big reveal. Note that it wasn’t unusual for a white to play an Asian character at the time: Keye Luke was more the exception than the rule. At least Kota isn’t a grotesque caricature like Batman’s foe Dr. Daka, but he isn’t very convincing, either. I didn’t even realize he was supposed to be Japanese until the second scene he showed up in.


The reveal also brings the conflict into focus in a way that is still subtextual but is obvious in hindsight: I’ve often harped on the way shadowy villains in the narratives of the 1930s could stand in for real-world political anxieties, and while no mention is made of why the Marines wish to build their base on “Halfway” (a clear stand-in for Midway) Island, it probably didn’t need to be explained to audiences in 1935 who were increasingly wary of Japanese aggression across the ocean. The narrative demand for a “the butler did it” twist is satisfied, with the real Tiger Shark hiding in plain sight, and while he is only a pirate, not an overtly political villain, one can hardly believe that his real identity or the location of his hideout are accidental. At the very least, it’s comparable to the decision to give villains Russian or German accents in films of subsequent decades: just as that choice gives modern film villains a threatening edge, so was the obsequious but treacherous character of Kota’s race taken for granted and was thus a socially acceptable storytelling device. But like I said, that seems more obvious from a contemporary vantage point: the main message The Fighting Marines sends is that nothing–not profiteers like Douglas, nor lawless pirates like the Tiger Shark–will stand in the way of the Marines when they set their minds to something. As Colonel Bennett says, “Remember what I said about the Marines always finishing what they start!”

What I Watched: The Fighting Marines (Mascot, 1935)

Where I Watched It: The whole thing is on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Two Against the Horde” (Chapter Twelve)

Best Cliffhanger: In one of many chase scenes, at the end of Chapter Ten (“Wheels of Destruction”), Larry and Mack are following two of the Tiger Shark’s henchmen, who have abducted Buchanan in the belief that he is the mysterious crimelord. The henchmen’s tricked-out car is equipped with a smokescreen that pumps thick, opaque clouds from the car’s exhaust pipe. Unable to see through the smoke, Larry and Mack drive their car right through the guardrail on a curve and plunge over the hillside, rolling repeatedly before landing at the bottom of the hill.


Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Man, does The Fighting Marines ever cheat! In this case, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one (in fact, the cliffhanger in the aforementioned “Wheels of Destruction” is notable for not cheating: unbelievably, the two Marines are stunned but otherwise completely uninjured after rolling their roofless car multiple times, without even seat belts to keep them from being thrown out). Whether it’s a plane crash, a gunshot, or a fall from a high window, several cliffhangers are restaged to change or undo the surely-fatal peril our heroes were left in at the end of the previous chapter. Probably the most shameless is at the end of Chapter Six (“Robbers’ Roost”), in which Larry and Mack have cornered the Tiger Shark’s henchmen in a warehouse just as the Tiger Shark himself has landed his auto gyro on the roof. Coming down the stairs, the Tiger Shark opens fire on an unsuspecting Larry, who clutches his chest and slumps over. At the beginning of Chapter Seven (“Jungle Terrors”), however, Larry dodges the bullet and returns fire, as hale and hearty as ever. CHEAT!!!

Sample Dialogue: Mac: “Hey, if ya ask me, I think that fella Douglas is the Tiger Shark!”
Larry: “Sure took you a long time to figure that out!”
–Chapter Two (“Isle of Missing Men”)

What Others Have Said: “Levine decided that his new Republic serials would be vast improvements upon those turned out under the Mascot trademark. Analyzing his past products, he realized that perhaps the old Mascot plots were at times too involved. . . . The absence of music, such a hazard for the Mascot chapterplays especially in the action scenes, would be corrected with powerful scores to accompany all moods and situations. Furthermore, comic relief characters would be played down in future scripts.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

(If it were really Levine’s intention to downplay comic relief characters in the Republic serials, I’m not sure what happened, as they seem even more formulaic in the ones I’ve watched. Harmon and Glut are correct about the lack of music, however: The Fighting Marines has only “Semper Fidelis” to serve as a theme song and no other background music.)

What’s Next: In one week, I’ll bring this summer’s serial coverage to an end with the third and final Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Fates Worse Than Death: The Green Hornet Strikes Again


Sentinel publisher Britt Reid, taking a much-needed vacation in Hawaii, has left his newspaper in the hands of an editor named Harper. While Reid is gone, his secretary Leonore Case and reporters Axford and Lowery begin to suspect that Harper is connected with the criminal Syndicate running rampant in the city: Harper has killed stories about big crimes and even refuses to expose the racketeers when given information straight from the District Attorney. Harper is a member of the Syndicate, secretly run by a man named Crogan, and while Axford and Case send telegrams urging Reid to return from Hawaii, the Syndicate’s men on the island try to prevent him from doing so. First they try to discourage him indirectly, and when it’s clear that he’s heading back to the mainland they kidnap him and his valet Kato, tying them up in a fishing shack with the intention of feeding them to the sharks in the morning.


The Syndicate’s island force is headed by a man named Bordine, who already has a grudge against Reid for uncovering the truth about a past crime Bordine had pinned on an innocent man. When Reid and Kato escape the fishing shack (with a little help from Reid’s alter ego the Green Hornet) and make it to the departing ship, Bordine follows them in hopes of finishing them off. An unrelated fire that begins in the boiler room derails his scheme, however, and endangers everyone on board. And this is just in the first chapter of The Green Hornet Strikes Again!


As should be clear from the summary of Chapter One, The Green Hornet Strikes Again has no shortage of twists and turns. In fact, it has one of the most convoluted plots of any serial I’ve watched yet: while in broad outline it follows a similar plot to The Green Hornet (from earlier in the same year), with its overarching Syndicate being broken apart by the Hornet one racket at a time until he can finally confront the big boss, it has more chapters, more characters, more settings, and, like most sequels, is generally overstuffed. (Of course, it was meant to be watched on a weekly basis rather than all at once, but I’m not sure how it would have been any easier to keep track of with a week elapsing between each chapter.) Having said that, there are many enjoyable scenes and chapters in this, and plenty of action in the serial tradition.


The Green Hornet Strikes Again features a different actor in the title role (Warren Hull, who unlike his predecessor Gordon Jones also provides the Hornet’s voice while in costume), but otherwise brings back the main cast of the earlier serial. Keye Luke plays Kato, Anne Nagel plays Leonore Case, and Wade Boteler plays Irish policeman-turned-reporter Michael Axford. Instead of Jenks, the ambitious young reporter is Lowery (Eddie Acuff), whose antagonistic partnership with Axford is the main source of comic relief. A few references are made to events from The Green Hornet, but the Syndicate in Strikes Again isn’t the same one that was defeated in the first serial.

The Syndicate’s plots are also more ambitious than those of its predecessor: in addition to the attempt to take over the Sentinel, there’s a plot to replace the heiress to an aluminum fortune with an actress, allowing the Syndicate to control the aluminum company’s board of directors; an attempt to sabotage the source of the aluminum plant’s electricity when that scheme fails; a plot to develop a “magnetic bomb” in a secret laboratory in a steel plant; and even some that don’t involve metal or factories. This provides ample room for stock footage, often integrated smoothly through the use of rear projection: it really looks like Reid and Lowery are on the floor of the steel plant, and through quick editing they appear to be in real danger of having molten metal “accidentally” spilled on them. In other scenes, the Green Hornet is called on to commandeer speeding cars, trucks, or airplanes, and survives all kinds of crashes, explosions, and building collapses (including one caused by a bolt of lightning!). In almost all the crimes perpetrated by the Syndicate, there’s a theme of urgently-needed wartime materiel being diverted to foreign buyers, and again there’s no need to specify who they are, or why they are bad news.


Kato, who is both Reid’s manservant and the Green Hornet’s faithful ally, doesn’t have as much to do in this serial, unfortunately: in The Green Hornet he got to karate chop a few bad guys, but in Strikes Again he mostly drives the car and pulls the Green Hornet out of the rubble after the aforementioned disasters. I wanted to mention him, however, because there’s a good case to be made for Kato as the most interesting character in the Green Hornet saga. According to the exposition at the beginning of The Green Hornet, Kato is loyal to Britt Reid for saving his life in his native Shanghai; although Kato’s subservience fits the “Oriental houseboy” trope, he has always been portrayed as intelligent and capable. In addition to his martial arts skill, he designed and built the Green Hornet’s gas gun and equipped their customized automobile, the Black Beauty.


Kato has been well-represented in the movies as well: Keye Luke, who originated the role on film, first became prominent playing Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son,” Lee, and had a distinguished career as a character and voice actor in film and television, including a recurring role on Kung Fu. In the 1966 television series, Kato was played by up-and-coming martial arts icon Bruce Lee, who was so popular in his native Hong Kong that the series aired as The Kato Show there. In 1974, three episodes of the program were edited together into a theatrical Green Hornet film to take advantage of Lee’s growing fame.


Finally, the comedic, Seth Rogen-starring 2011 Green Hornet feature leans heavily into the realization that Kato (played by Jay Chou) is the skilled one while Rogen’s Britt Reid is a clueless party animal who at first gets into the hero business for kicks and only gradually realizes his responsibility. Like Big Trouble in Little China and the 2013 Lone Ranger film, the 2011 Hornet delights in reversing the expected relationship between hero and sidekick, and the pair can only work together effectively when Reid is able to see Kato for what he has always been: a partner.


What I Watched: The Green Hornet Strikes Again (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A Pacific Entertainment DVD, which, since it was sourced from videotape, manages to look worse than The Green Hornet did when I watched it on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Racketeering Vultures” (Chapter Fourteen)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Twelve (“Crashing Barriers”), Michael Axford and Leonore Case have been taken hostage by the Syndicate and taken to a warehouse to be disposed of. Following in another car, the Green Hornet drives straight through the warehouse’s freight door–and right into a huge pile of explosives stacked inside, which detonate immediately!


Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: All but one of the cliffhangers in this serial feature Britt Reid in his role as the Green Hornet, but the end of Chapter One (“Flaming Havoc”) allows him to take heroic action as himself. When a fire breaks out on the ship heading back to the mainland, Reid rescues Gloria (a character whom I thought would continue to be important, but who turned out to be another member of the rotating cast, never to be seen again), carrying her through a blazing hallway to the open deck. The serial appears to be over before it’s even begun when a flaming rafter falls directly on top of them and the screen fills with the ever-growing fire. In my notes for the beginning of Chapter Two (“The Plunge of Peril”), I have simply jotted, “they make it,” indicative of how little danger these mishaps actually pose for our heroes. The boat still sinks, however.


Favorite Character (Aside from Kato): Every once in a while a secondary character shows up and steals the movie for a chapter or two. Frenchy Ludoc in Gang Busters was one such character; Vultan in Flash Gordon was another. In Chapter Fourteen of The Green Hornet Strikes Again, it’s Foranti (Jay Michael), a racketeer illicitly placed in charge of the Builders’ Association by the Syndicate. While skimming off Association funds for his own use, Foranti is funneling money toward the construction of an expensive house, ultimately to belong to Crogan. When the Sentinel prints the truth about him, he shows up to intimidate Britt Reid in person.


Although soft-spoken, every line he speaks sounds like it was written for Edward G. Robinson, see? He just figures Reid needs to be leaned on a little, see? And the squealer who fed the Sentinel the information about Foranti is dead now, see? You get the picture. Foranti isn’t exactly comic relief (that’s what we have Axford and Lowery for), but as a parody of the popular gangster, he veers farther into camp than the rest of the film; he’d be more at home in Columbia’s Batman serials. This chapter also makes good use of the conceit that the Green Hornet poses as a criminal to get information, and here he gets Foranti to turn on his associate Breedon by playing to his paranoid fear that Breedon is betraying him. On top of all that, Foranti has the distinction of being gassed twice in the same chapter by the Hornet, the only villain so treated.

Sample Dialogue: Crogan (Pierre Watkins), to his men (sarcastically): “Yes, that’s right, the Green Hornet: a lone wolf who plays your own game and makes monkeys out of all of you!” (Chapter Twelve, “Crashing Barriers”)

What’s Next: Join me next week for The Fighting Marines!