Fates Worse Than Death: Shadow of Chinatown and Big Trouble in Little China

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“China is here, Mister Burton.” –Uncle Chu (Chao Li Chi), Big Trouble in Little China

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Like most fans of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, I didn’t see it during its 1986 theatrical release, but came to love it through its repeated airings on cable and home video. Starring Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, a clueless trucker drawn into a supernatural battle in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and full of martial arts action, special effects, and comic banter, it was one of those movies that if I ran across it on TV, I had to watch to the end (so I’ve seen the middle and ending many more times than the beginning). It was probably the beginning of a fascination with Orientalism–both the legitimate history and art of the Far East, but also those hybrids of detective, occult, and political fantasy produced in the West and collectively referred to as “Yellow Peril.”

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Although always questionable from a perspective of accuracy and cultural sensitivity, stories set in Chinatown have proven irresistible to pulp and comic book writers and filmmakers alike (one collection of pulp stories bears the memorable title It’s Raining Corpses in Chinatown). The idea of an enclave of exotic, unknowable foreigners at one’s doorstep, perhaps possessed of uncanny abilities and ancient wisdom, was catnip for writers who needed simple, lurid story hooks and artists who were tired of drawing white guys in fedoras.

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And of course, a story set in an Asian enclave in the West has a very different dynamic from one set in a purely Asian culture: one gets the sense of a hidden world, the door to which just happens to be a cab ride or subway stop away. Such stories are inevitably told from the perspective of a white (or at least non-Asian) outsider drawn into the web, pulling back the curtain to discover whatever is really going on behind the curio shops and chop suey palaces, be it the opium trade, “white slavery” (i.e., human trafficking), or a brewing tong war. A 1909 article about New York’s Chinatown summed up this juxtaposition of the exotic and the familiar in language that could have been pulled from any number of pulp stories or movies of later decades:

There it lies, unfathomed and unknown, in the very ear of the city where all things come to be known–where a pin dropped on the other side of the world is heard an instant afterward–contemptuous, blandly mysterious, serene, foul-smelling, Oriental, and implacable behind that indefinable barrier which has kept the West and the East apart since the centuries began. Within the boundaries of the three acres which it occupies, five thousand slant-eyed children of Cathay and three or four hundred whites, who have cast their lot with them, order their existence like rabbits in a warren.

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Really, it’s all there: physical stereotyping, the “inscrutability” of the Orient, even the “foul” smells of another culture. Hinted at in this excerpt, and persisting throughout the article (“Slumming in New York’s Chinatown,” reprinted in the book Tales of Gaslight New York), is the unshakable belief that the Chinese population is up to something, that they hide their real intentions and loyalty, and that their influence on whites can only be a corrupting one. Framed as an exposé, “Slumming in New York’s Chinatown” presents many of the same arguments that were used to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and which today target other immigrant populations. In this point of view, summed up nicely by the quotation with which this article began, Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves are really extensions of the Old Country: step in, and you are effectively in foreign territory.

So how can I justify being a fan of a genre frequently steeped in ugly stereotypes and often pointedly racist in its political undertones? Were I of Chinese descent, I am sure I would not be so blasé about such issues, and I would surely take them more personally. Here, at last, I must address an issue that I have circled and sometimes approached in this series, but never taken head on.

The serials (and the other pulp fiction and comics that I write about) were made during a time in which racism was not only a tolerated but an actively endorsed part of life–not by everybody, of course, as even in the days of Jim Crow laws and the kind of housing discrimination that led to the formation of Chinatowns and other ghettos in the first place, there were brave voices willing to speak up for equal treatment of their fellows–and their content often reflects prevailing attitudes, some of which seem merely quaint today and some of which were downright ugly. I hope it is clear to my readers, however, that I don’t bring up these attitudes to burnish my own image or simply congratulate myself for living in a more enlightened time. I genuinely enjoy the entertainment of this period, and while I may take a good-natured poke at the sillier contrivances I encounter, I wouldn’t bother with it if I didn’t find that it rewarded the time I’ve invested in watching and researching these films. If the writing, production, and cultural context of serials are worth taking seriously, then so are the issues of representation they bring up.

To me, this is an appropriate place to deploy the word “problematic:” it may be overused, but I think it accurately describes art that provides substantial entertainment or edification but which has issues that can’t simply be dismissed. After all, if a work has no redeeming value at all, that’s not really a problem, is it? It can be safely dismissed as racist trash. Rather than perform mental gymnastics to prove to myself that a given representation isn’t really offensive, just because I happen to like the work it is a part of, it’s probably healthier to simply acknowledge that we can enjoy works without endorsing every part of them or the politics that underlie them. (And here I’m not so much referring to Big Trouble in Little China, which I consider a knowing riff on Chinese fantasy themes, as I am the pre-war serials and stuff like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels; however, others may draw those lines in different places, and that also comes with the “problematic” territory.) For fans of the pulp era, that requires some self-examination to ensure that we’re not nostalgic for the wrong things (or for a world which was largely a simplified, fictional construct in the first place).

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Anyway, this is all preamble to this week’s serial: knowing that I would be attending a theatrical screening of Big Trouble in Little China (thanks to Big Screen Wichita’s Return of the Cults series) last week and that a remake of the film starring Dwayne Johnson is scheduled for 2016, it seemed like a perfect time to look back at a serial on a similar subject: Victory’s 1936 serial Shadow of Chinatown, starring Bela Lugosi. It turned out to be an even more illuminating comparison than I expected.

Lugosi, of course, needs no introduction: he’s an icon for his performance as the title character in Tod Browning’s Dracula, a role that fit him so perfectly he never really found another one to match it. The story of his decline is also well-known, as changing styles and his own drug addiction forced him into smaller, tackier films, including some truly awful garbage (and I’m not even referring to his final films with Edward D. Wood, Jr., which at least have their own kooky charm). Lugosi escapes Shadow of Chinatown with his dignity intact, however: while it’s not high art, the serial provides him with a role that allows him to purr seductively, rage and monologue, and employ the famously intense gaze (“more sinister than sinister” in the words of one character) that made him such a compelling vampire.

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Lugosi is first billed, but as the villain of the piece; the hero is played by Herman Brix (who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett). This is the third serial with Brix that I have watched, and the first one in which I was acutely aware of his shortcomings as an actor. Although John Taliaferro characterized Brix’s performance as the title character in The New Adventures of Tarzan as “stiff,” I thought he was fine in what was primarily a physical role; in the same vein, Brix was part of a trio of leads in Daredevils of the Red Circle, and had more stunts and fight scenes than spoken lines. Shadow of Chinatown gives Brix much more dialogue than either of those films and asks us to believe that he is simply a writer, unwillingly dragged into the action; and, much worse, gives him the task of engaging in “playful” banter with his female co-star, Joan Barclay, that would sound mean-spirited even if delivered by Cary Grant. Needless to say, Brix is no Cary Grant.

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As Shadow of Chinatown begins, Sonya Rokoff (Luana Walters), the representative of a European department store syndicate, is scheming to eliminate competition from the merchants in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She hires Victor Poten (Lugosi), a “Eurasian” scientist in need of funds, to help her destroy the merchants (at first by hiring white gangsters to dress up as Chinese and riot in the streets of Chinatown, scaring tourists away; later, the plans get more elaborate). It isn’t long before Poten is running things, controlling Rokoff through intimidation and (later) hypnosis. Although her plan was to put the Chinese out of business for her employers, Poten is motivated by hatred of “both the Oriental and Occidental races;” his ultimate goal is to begin a race of his own.

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It’s an interesting transformation for Lugosi’s character: in the first chapter he is little more than a henchman, with Rokoff calling the shots, and he wears a telephone repairman’s coveralls as he sneaks from place to place executing Rokoff’s orders. As his power and confidence grows, so do the abilities he displays: his technology becomes more like magic; he’s a master of disguise; he controls people by hypnosis. By the last few chapters, he has miniature spy cameras planted in the homes and offices of every prominent person in Chinatown: nowhere is safe from his prying gaze. In effect, he grows into a particularly intense version of the all-powerful, all-seeing mastermind of paranoid fantasy, Fu Manchu in all but name.

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The central joke of Big Trouble in Little China is that Jack Burton, for all his John Wayne swagger, is actually the comic relief sidekick: it’s his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who understands what is going on and has the connections and skills to rescue the damsels in distress and defeat the evil Lo Pan, while Burton loses his knife, forgets to take the safety off his gun, accidentally knocks himself out, and struggles to move after the one bad guy he kills falls on top of him. Burton has his moments, to be sure, but his role is summed up by an exchange in which he complains that he feels like an outsider and is told in no uncertain terms, “You are.”

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Surprisingly, Shadow of Chinatown plays with that dynamic as well, although not to the same degree. When Rokoff’s and Poten’s schemes start causing trouble in Chinatown, the mayor of San Francisco invites author Martin Andrews (Brix) to consult with the merchants on the basis of a book Andrews has written that makes him an authority on Chinatown. In reality, everything Andrews knows has been gleaned from his Chinese man servant, Willy Fu (Maurice Liu), who has been feeding him gossip (and his own fabrications) for use as story ideas.

Willy is the most clichéd character in the serial: he speaks with a heavy accent, addresses Andrews as “honorable master,” and is given to pseudo-Confucian aphorisms (“Detective instinct bloom like beautiful chrysanthemum in your honorable head!”). Willy is capable (especially at pushing Andrews to doing the right thing when he rather sensibly balks at getting involved with things the police should handle), but he never meets a stereotype he doesn’t lean into with gusto. In a final irony, Rokoff and Poten draw the methods of their attacks on Chinatown’s merchants from Andrews’ book, causing a suspicious police captain (Forrest Taylor) to treat the reluctant author as his number one suspect.

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The fact that most of the lurid preconceptions about Chinatown turn out to be false largely passes without comment, but it’s hard to miss. When eager reporter Joan Whiting (Barclay) tries to pump a police officer for information, she’s certain she’s on the trail of the kind of sensational story quoted above, rattling off the thrilling scenes she (and the audience) expect to see: “I want to know who started the trouble, which tongs are fighting, are there any hatchet men, how many people killed. . . .”

As the audience already knows, the “hatchet men” are impostors, and the troubles are completely the work of the Russian-sounding Sonya Rokoff (who may wear a “dragon lady” dress, but who doesn’t look Asian at all, and is described as being of “mixed blood”) and the “Eurasian” Victor Poten. In fact, the message (typical for the inter-war years) seems to be that the Chinese people want only to live in peace without trouble, but must remain vigilant against “foreign” agitators. Of course, this message of brotherhood with the Chinese comes at the expense of demonizing those of mixed heritage (and as I have argued, “Eurasians” and other unnamed foreigners were often code for powers with which America was not yet at war, left conveniently indeterminate), but baby steps, I guess.

In fact, the serial’s treatment of its female lead is more striking (and not always in a good way) than its Chinese window dressing (although again I don’t expect it to stand up to twenty-first century gender norms). Joan Whiting is a fantastic character, a gutsy woman who’s determined to get her story with a combination of chutzpah, gumption, and moxie. She pushes her way into rooms where she thinks she can get information, doesn’t take no for an answer, and, like Willy Fu, isn’t afraid to push other people into danger if it means getting to the bottom of the mystery. She and Martin Andrews have a combative relationship, with him continually insisting she should stay out of danger (even convincing the police and her editor to order her to stay away) and her finding ways to get back into the action, even as they secretly worry for each other’s safety.

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The banter between the pair (and this serial as a whole has a lot of memorable dialogue, including some absolutely cold put-downs) aspires to the irreverent and breezy, but too often it veers into mean-spirited: when Joan wonders if Poten is a mind reader, Martin says, “He’d draw a blank if he tackled you.” Boom, roasted! There’s a lot more where that comes from, and with Brix’s whitebread personality and rather flat delivery, it comes off like Bing Crosby at his most paternalistic, shutting down the little woman for her own good.

The His Girl Friday dynamic is much more successfully pulled off in Big Trouble in Little China, in the characters of Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and Margo Litzenberger (Kate Burton), a crusading lawyer and reporter (with the Berkeley People’s Herald) looking for her big break respectively. Rewatching the film again this week it was clear how much Cattrall’s Gracie is a direct descendant of the brassy, fast-talking reporters of which Joan Whiting is a prime example. John Carpenter in his director’s commentary mentions his desire for a Howard Hawks-like “pop” to scenes where Gracie and Jack spar verbally, and expresses admiration for the speed with which Cattrall could spit out rapid-fire exposition. (It’s Margo who gets the real mouthful, however: “You mean David Lo Pan that is chairman of the National Orient Bank and owns the Wing Kong Import/Export Trading Company, but who’s so reclusive that no one’s even laid eyes on this guys in years?”, one of many moments that call attention to the film’s B-movie heritage).

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As an aside, one of the true pleasures of revisiting so many old favorites in the Return of the Cults series after having delved into serials and learning more about the history of film in general is in making these kinds of connections and adding new layers of enjoyment to movies I thought I knew well. Big Trouble in Little China is usually cited as Carpenter’s take on Wuxia (martial arts fantasy) movies; it is undoubtedly that, but realizing that it also falls firmly into the “Chinatown exposé” genre has allowed me to see it from a whole different angle, almost like a brand new film.

To return to Shadow of Chinatown, the most striking quality of this serial is its breadth of tone: although the ingredients are not always combined completely successfully, there are elements of action, suspense, horror, romance, comedy, and noir threaded through its fifteen episodes. That in itself is not so unusual for a serial, but the degree of change many of the characters undergo is striking. Often the formulas of pulp storytelling don’t allow for much character development (except in the sense that the villain might change from alive to dead by the end of the last chapter), but most of the characters are in very different places at the end of this serial and have revealed sometimes surprising truths about themselves through their actions. According to John Carpenter, one of the complaints leveled against Big Trouble in Little China was that audiences never felt the lead characters were really in any danger: there were no stakes. The same criticism could easily be leveled against most serials, including Shadow of Chinatown, but more than one character undergoes changes that couldn’t be predicted from the first chapter, and in all of this the original motivation–the European department store trying to eliminate Chinese competition–is little more than an afterthought. Towering above it all, Lugosi gives a performance that is bigger than a mere serial can contain.

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What I Watched: Shadow of Chinatown (Victory, 1936)

Where I Watched It: This serial is on YouTube, but the audio was badly out of sync in some of the chapters, so I ended up watching it at the Internet Archive.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death on the Wire” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: There are several good ones, including a few classics like the room with walls closing in (Chapter Two, “The Crushing Walls”) and a gruesome trap involving a poisoned needle embedded in a telephone receiver (the aforementioned “Death on the Wire”), but I think the cliffhanger most worthy of comment is at the end of Chapter Five (“The Sinister Ray”). Martin Andrews is knocked out in his home and Poten prepares a gruesome fate for him: he adjusts a suspended fishbowl so that the sun’s rays are focused on Andrews’ face, where it will burn him to death . . . eventually. Before moving the bowl, Potens orders his henchman, “Don’t hurt the fish!”

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Most Tragic Character: Special note must made of Poten’s henchman, Grogan (Charles King). Grogan starts out as a typical enforcer, doing Poten’s dirty work and taking his boss’s abuse when he fails to eliminate the meddling Martin and Joan. Sensing that he’s working for a madman, he appeals to Sonya, who is at first happy to have someone she might be able to keep on her side in the event of a split with Poten. When it’s clear that Grogan wants more than steady employment from her, she rebukes him and he threatens her. Then it starts getting weird: Grogan attempts to kill Poten on board a ship, but Poten manages to put Andrews in Grogan’s noose (at least temporarily). When Grogan is ready to talk to the police, Poten shoots him with a poison dart that makes him appear dead. Taking him from the ship’s sick bay, Poten revives Grogan and disguises him as an old man. From then on, he is a broken shell, susceptible to violent outbursts and nonsensical raving, but he is still in Poten’s thrall, taking orders to hurl a live grenade at our heroes or attacking Andrews on the roof of Sonya’s apartment building: a strange and gruesome fate for a character who at first seemed like just another disposable henchman.

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Sample dialogue: Grogan: “I’ll get him next time. He can’t make a sap out of me!”
Poten: “No, your parents already did an excellent job of that!”
–Chapter Three (“13 Ferguson Alley”)

What Others Have Said: “Yellow Peril . . . how can a phrase that reeks so of racism and paranoia yield a body of fiction so . . . cool?” –F. Paul Wilson, Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong (Foreword)

What’s Next: I haven’t decided. Maybe I’ll let it be a surprise. If you have any suggestions or requests for future serials, feel free to list them in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter.

Fates Worse Than Death: Daredevils of the Red Circle

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Thirty-Nine-O-Thirteen! The number strikes terror into the hearts of an innocent citizenry as Harry Crowel, escaped from the prison to which he was sentenced for unnamed crimes, orchestrates a campaign of bombings and sabotage, revenge against those who convicted him. First among his targets are business interests of his former partner, Horace Granville. When 39013 (the name taken from Crowel’s prisoner number) strikes the Granville Amusement Center by sabotaging the diving tank of the three-man Daredevils act, leading to the death of one Daredevil’s brother, the three men are motivated to lend their talents to the search for the criminal mastermind.

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Leading the Daredevils is Gene, an acrobat and older brother of the victim; the other two members are Bert, an escape artist, and Tiny, a strongman. With their combined abilities, they make an able team of detectives, and their attention is divided between saving Granville’s holdings from destruction and protecting Granville’s granddaughter, Blanche. But what of old man Granville, so frail since his recent stroke that he must stay enclosed behind glass windows in a sealed room, communicating with police forces and the Daredevils by telephone? And who is the mysterious “Red Circle” who sends the Daredevils helpful tips by placing anonymous notes for them to find? Through twelve chapters of action, suspense, and varied locations, these mysteries and more are solved in Daredevils of the Red Circle!

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First things first: it’s revealed right away in the first chapter that Crowel, alias 39013 (Charles Middleton, Flash Gordon‘s Ming and The Miracle Rider‘s Zaroff, among many other villainous roles), is impersonating Granville. The real Granville is being held captive in the basement of his house, the better for 39013 to torment him with the destruction of everything Granville worked his whole life to build. It’s easy to imagine a modern film making the reveal of 39013’s imposture a big third-act twist, but in Daredevils of the Red Circle it’s played for mounting tension–the audience knows “Granville” is a fraud, seeking to trap the Daredevils–and gives Middleton copious opportunities to gloat, to “monologue” to his prisoner. When in disguise, 39013 is played by the same actor as Granville (Miles Mander; he even says that he will only speak in Granville’s voice while in disguise, getting around any need for Middleton to dub lines), so these sessions are the meat of the role for Middleton. When the disguised ex-con confronts his old partner, the effect is achieved with a well-done split screen.

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I was initially under the impression that Daredevils of the Red Circle was set at the circus, but that’s not quite true: the Granville Amusement Center is more like New York’s Coney Island or the amusement parks that were built along southern California’s piers, and that setting is left behind after the first chapter. The performing background of the Daredevils is important, though, and provides a connection to the superheroes who were just becoming popular in comic books (and would soon appear in their own movie serials). The skin-tight costumes most superheroes still wear derive from the leotards and bodysuits of circus performers, and in the Golden Age of comic book heroes, when the circus was a more prominent cultural influence, a number of heroes were said to have gotten their athleticism and unique skills from circus training (Batman’s sidekick Robin is the best-known example). The Daredevils even have a logo: the red circle on their costumes, later appropriated by the mysterious helper who draws it on notes to get the Daredevils’ attention.

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In addition to their circus costumes (traded in for suits and fedoras after the first chapter), the Daredevils’ skills translate well to detective work, at least the kind of physical confrontations typical for serials. Gene (Charles Quigley) is the acrobat of the group, and although he performs a few stunts and displays some wicked judo-like moves during fight scenes, that mostly translates into him being faster than the others. Bert (David Sharpe) is an escape artist, bringing with him a set of skills and equipment (lock picks, files, etc.) that have proven handy for a diverse range of heroes that includes Batman, Sam Spade, and Houdini himself. (The great escapist is mentioned by name, and it’s worth noting that Houdini had been the star of several films and stories–including one ghost-written by H. P. Lovecraft–that positioned him as a real-life pulp hero.) And every team of heroes needs some muscle: Tiny (Herman Brix, who had played the lead in The New Adventures of Tarzan, and who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett) performs feats like lifting a car by its back end before it can drive away, battering down doors, and even punching through a wall to get to 39013, in addition to the numerous fights he gets into.

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There are a few surprising twists that it would be better not to reveal, but Daredevils of the Red Circle deserves credit for giving depth to characters so obviously rooted in formula. As in many serials, Blanche (Carole Landis) is the only prominent female character, but there is more to her than is obvious at first. Also, I fully expected Gene’s kid brother Sammy (Robert Winkler) to tag along with the adult characters like Billy Norton in Undersea Kingdom, so I was genuinely shocked when he died in the first chapter (trapped in the burning Amusement Center, a scene more harrowing when it is repeated in a later flashback). In retrospect, I should have recognized his scenes of character development as the equivalent of the buck private who gets shot first, or the cop only one day from retirement. Sammy’s death gives Gene and the other Daredevils a classic motivation for joining law enforcement: revenge justice.

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There are two characters in Daredevils of the Red Circle who share names with the characters they play. The first is Tuffie, the Daredevils’ dog, who accompanies them on their adventures and does movie-animal things like sniffing out evildoers and calling attention to clues. The other is Snowflake, the African-American servant who prepares and serves meals in the Granville house, played by Fred “Snowflake” Toones, a character actor who made a specialty of servile comic relief characters. To modern eyes, Snowflake is a regrettable stereotype, a clumsy, cowardly fool who speaks in “sho’ nuff” dialect: he whines and rolls his eyes, thinking a ghost has taken his newspaper when Tiny simply slipped it away when he wasn’t looking; he gets his head stuck when a sliding wall panel closes on it; he drops trays of dishes whenever Tuffie or one of the Daredevils rushes past him.

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Fred “Snowflake” Toones in a typical role

On the one hand, Snowflake is playing a comic relief character in the mold of Smiley Burnette: Smiley was known for playing a likeable dope who often got in the way or loused up whatever he was doing, and, like Snowflake, he often played characters who shared his name. For a character actor, having an established persona was a boon: type-casting wasn’t necessarily a bad thing if it led to steady work. I’m sure Snowflake made a good living playing such characters (although director William Witney stated in his autobiography that Snowflake ran the shoeshine stand at Republic in addition to his film roles). On the other hand, Smiley Burnette was one of many white men in the films he made, and didn’t have to bear the burden of representation; at least in Daredevils, Snowflake is the only black character, and his role–not only a servant but also a clown–is all too typical of the roles black actors had to take (and often still have to take), when they were shown on screen at all. (At least the Republic serials and Westerns Snowflake appeared in were set contemporaneously or in the past: it’s cringe-inducing to see the same stereotypes appear in ostensibly futuristic fare like E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series.)

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Still, it’s not hard to see why Daredevils of the Red Circle has such a high reputation among serial fans: it hums along, rarely growing slack, and for the most part balances action, suspense, and humor expertly. Directors John English and William Witney (responsible for many classic Republic serials) had a knack for staging scenes of dialogue and exposition in engaging ways, so that audiences aren’t simply waiting for the next big fight or car chase. There are spectacular scenes aplenty, including some set in interesting and hazardous locations such as a gas plant full of ladders and catwalks, a flooding underground tunnel, and a burning oil field.

Many of these locations were recreated with miniatures made by the uncredited Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and integrated almost seamlessly; along with the use of rear projection and split screen, Daredevils of the Red Circle is an excellent example of the era’s practical effects and stunt work (famed stuntman Yakima Canutt appears as an uncredited G-man, indicating his likely presence as a stunt coordinator). The score, credited to William Lava but with contributions from Cy Feuer and others, is exciting and imaginative (within the formulaic constraints of the style, which owes much to the operatic scores of Rossini and Weber). It’s worth a watch.

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What I Watched: Daredevils of the Red Circle (Republic, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A VHS set from Republic Home Video, vintage 1985 (this very edition, in fact):

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Screen caps are from YouTube, however.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Red Circle Speaks” (Chapter Eleven)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Five (“The Ray of Death”), 39013’s men surreptitiously change the wiring in a “gamma ray” at the Black Electro Therapeutic Clinic (another Granville holding) so that it will kill District Attorney Graves when he arrives for his treatment. The Red Circle tips off the Daredevils, who have intercepted the new wiring diagram and take the place of the messenger delivering it to the clinic. After being discovered and imprisoned in a basement vault, Gene escapes and pushes the District Attorney’s gurney out of the ray’s path just in time to save him. But as deadly sparks shower from the ray machine, can he save himself?

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: At the end of Chapter Four (“Sabotage”), the Daredevils are tied up by members of 39013’s gang at the Tri-City Gas Plant, with the boilers rigged to explode. The Daredevils break out of their trap and rush to the boiler’s release valve–but too late! The boilers erupt into a fiery inferno!

At least, that’s how it appears at the end of Chapter Four. However, somewhere between chapters the production slipped through a wormhole and was transported to a parallel dimension. Over in Earth 2, as shown at the beginning of Chapter Five, Gene gets to the release valve in time and diverts the boilers’ pressure. Thank goodness for quantum relativity!

Sample dialogue: “Well, Thirty-Nine-O-Thirteen has added up to zero.” –Gene, Chapter Twelve (“Flight of Doom”)

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What Others Have Said: “The times dictated that serial heroes be white, so talented black performers like Snowflake, whose real name was Fred Toones, were relegated to minor roles, providing corny laughs in otherwise excellent serials like Hawk of the Wilderness and Daredevils of the Red Circle.” –Alan G. Barbour, Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial

What’s Next: Bela Lugosi stars in Shadow of Chinatown!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Green Archer (1940)

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For generations, members of the Bellamy family have lived in Garr Castle, an actual European castle brought to America stone by stone and maintained as a tourist attraction. According to family lore, a mysterious archer has appeared in times of trouble to protect the Bellamys. Now that Abel Bellamy has managed to put his brother (and rightful heir) Michael out of the way (framing him and then arranging for the derailment of the train taking him to prison), he has closed Garr Castle to the public and is using it as a base of operations for his diverse criminal enterprises. His henchman Brad, dressed in the Green Archer’s costume and mask, serves to keep intruders off the property and keep alive the legend of the family’s protector. Abel even goes so far as to invite Michael’s wife Elaine to the castle and then hold her prisoner, guarded by the matronly Mrs. Poole in one of the secret chambers that honeycomb the castle.

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Despite his aloof posture, Abel doesn’t quite have everything under control: insurance investigator (and friend of Michael Bellamy) Spike Holland has been snooping around, suspicious of Abel’s version of events. He’s even arranged to move Elaine’s sister Valerie Howett and their father into the Lady’s Manor next door to the castle so they can keep an eye on Abel’s comings and goings. Worst of all, another Green Archer has inserted himself, sending warnings via arrow and protecting Spike and the Howetts from Abel’s deadly schemes, and this Green Archer seems to know the castle grounds and its secret passages as well as any of Abel’s henchmen. With the stranger’s help, Spike Holland hopes to bring Abel Bellamy to justice, clear Michael’s name, and rescue Elaine in the action-packed 1940 serial The Green Archer!

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It’s fair to say that archery has experienced a tremendous vogue in the last decade and a half, probably beginning with Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of Legolas in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and getting major boosts from Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a renaissance in both comics and films for Marvel’s Hawkeye, and the popularity of DC’s Green Arrow on TV’s Arrow. But archers have always had at least some presence in popular culture, most descending from Robin Hood, to whom the Green Archer owes a debt in terms of costume, methods, and mission. Aside from the loose cloth that covers his face, the Green Archer looks very much like the stereotypical medieval woodsman, with a peaked cap, tights, and jerkin.

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The Green Archer was based on a 1923 novel by Edgar Wallace (which I haven’t read); I assume there were quite a few changes in turning the book into a serial, but at least on film the title character has much in common with the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro: although superficially similar to the masked superheroes just coming into vogue, the Archer has a narrow mission of righting a wrong rather than a mandate to protect the public at large. During the course of the serial, several characters are teased as being the real Archer–Parker Howett (Forrest Taylor) always seems to come into the room just after the Archer has left; Howett is a crack shot with a bow and arrow, but so are Henderson the butler (Herbert Evans), and even Spike Holland (Victor Jory, sounding a lot like Burgess Meredith) himself–but his true identity isn’t revealed until the final chapter. (It isn’t hard to guess the solution, but I’ll leave it to viewers to figure out for themselves.)

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As in a lot of serials, there are several genres mixed together, but in The Green Archer the dominant idiom is gothic: although the compositions and staging rarely rise above competent, there are many scenes set at night or bathed in shadow, creating an oppressive gloom, and the fact that the heroes literally live next door to the villain (and the two parties are constantly crossing into each other’s territory through invasion or abduction) gives events an air of cat-and-mouse.

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More importantly, the castle is full of secret passages and listening devices, leading to overheard conversations and mysterious screams, and multiple tableaux of imprisonment and enclosure. All kinds of death traps await the foolhardy visitor to Garr Castle as well, including such classics as the spiked ceiling that slowly descends to crush its victims; the oubliette that fills with water; and even a false floor that gives way into a pit of flames. That’s not even mentioning the vicious guard dogs.

Such things are clichés, already familiar to me in childhood from the Indiana Jones movies, Goonies (itself a throwback to the adventures of Our Gang, the Bowery Boys, and the like), and countless other shows, but they are presented in The Green Archer in a high style that reminds me more of Richard Sala or Lemony Snicket, artists who take such stock elements to mannered extremes, refining the iconography and intrigues of the genre into a nearly injectable concentrated form.

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Richard Sala’s Mr. Murmur

Also gothic is the theme of the double that runs through this serial. No serial is as consistent in exploring and developing thematic symbols as a feature might be, but there are several instances of lookalikes and mistaken identity. The most notable is the fact that there are two Green Archers, one good and one evil. Sometimes the duplication is played for laughs, as when comic-relief henchman Dinky (Kit Guard) frequently attacks Brad, the Archer in Abel Bellamy’s employ, or when Dinky trusts the unknown Archer, thinking that it’s Brad in costume. Other times, the question of which is which is a matter of life and death.

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There’s also a two-chapter sequence in which Spike is impersonated by Madison, a master of disguise who makes himself up to look just like the investigator so he can steal a formula for synthetic radium (the only plot element that really dates the serial: as mentioned last week, secret formulas and inventions just waiting to be lifted by spies or criminals were all over the popular fiction of the 1930s and ’40s). Spike faces off against the impostor (who is of course played by Jory when “in disguise;” the inevitable fistfight gets around this by using wide shots and keeping hats firmly on both stunt performers’ heads), and for a while turns the tables by taking Madison’s place.

More traditionally gothic is the contrast made between Abel the usurper and his brother Michael. The burdens of lineage are a frequent theme of gothic novels, and although Garr Castle isn’t cursed as such, it’s telling that Abel claims he has always hated the place and is happy to close it down. The phantom archer that protects the family is a symbol that Abel tinkers with at his peril: by using it for his own evil ends, he invites destruction.

Abel Bellamy (James Craven) is a captivating villain, cool and arrogant, even amused that Spike Holland should be foolish enough to tangle with him, until things start to slip from his control and he starts to get rattled and increasingly unhinged. It’s the kind of role Vincent Price or Peter Cushing would get in a few decades, and Craven plays it to the hilt. Without him and Jory as Spike centering the action, the multiple subplots and large cast of characters would spiral into confusion; although the Green Archer is the title character and a vital piece of the story, the conflict is really a chess game (or a card game; see below) between two expert players.

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However, much of the serial is executed with tongue firmly in cheek; James Whale had tweaked gothic conventions in The Old Dark House, and even Universal’s monsters were starting to deviate from the pure horror that had made them famous, so perhaps the filmmakers simply assumed that no one would be able to take this material seriously. As Alan G. Barbour notes, Columbia descended into comic treatments in the early 1940s: “director James Horne took over and serials like The Iron Claw, Deadwood Dick, The Green Archer and The Spider Returns set serial fans’ funny bones in motion with their ludicrous sight gags and ridiculous situations (i.e., gangsters playing jacks, hanging out their laundry, wearing silly party hats, etc.).” (In The Green Archer, Bellamy’s gang is shown playing tiddly-winks during their down time, a scene apparently important enough to be included in the “coming next chapter” teaser.)

There are several characters who are primarily comic: bumbling police captain Thompson (Fred Kelsey) is easily turned against Spike and spends much of his time trying to apprehend the investigator. Bellamy’s henchman Dinky is apparently supposed to be English, calling his boss “Guv’nor” and intermittently saying his lines in a Cockney accent, and as mentioned he gets into lots of slapstick trouble when he can’t tell the two Archers apart. Dinky gets a few moments to shine at the end, however: of all Bellamy’s henchmen, he’s the only one who sticks with him and seems to care what happens to him. Still, for the most part I found this serial more over-the-top than deliberately ridiculous; a fine distinction, perhaps, but an important one. The Green Archer isn’t anywhere near as dark (or as well-executed) as the superior Gang Busters, but there’s a similar fascination with the underworld and the broad variety of types found among criminals.

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As for unintentional comedy, there are so many fistfights in this serial, and most of them begin so abruptly, that I came to expect one practically any time either the hero or the bad guys entered a room. The way the players charge at each other, you could add a ringside bell to the soundtrack to signal the beginning of the mayhem and it wouldn’t be too out of place. The fights don’t look quite as silly as those Columbia would stage for the Batman serials later in the decade, but that’s a low bar to hurdle. Compared to Columbia’s Batman, the Green Archer is seriousness incarnate: a creature of the night, able to strike terror into the hearts of criminals (a superstitious and cowardly lot), both a dark knight and a detective–hey, this is good stuff! Somebody should publish a graphic novel about this character.

What I watched: The Green Archer (Columbia, 1940)

Where I watched it: Pacific Entertainment’s DVD, a sloppy transfer from an obvious videotape source. I wouldn’t recommend it unless, like me, you found it at a bargain price.

No. of chapters: 15

Best chapter title: “The Devil’s Dictograph” (Chapter three). There are several good chapter titles, even if they are given to puffery: there is both a necklace and a mirror of treachery, not to mention a “deceiving microphone.”

Best cliffhanger: Abel Bellamy’s criminal syndicate grows larger and more elaborate as the serial progresses and he calls in more exotic accomplices to get rid of Spike Holland. By Chapter nine (“The Mirror of Treachery”) he has lured Spike and Valerie (Iris Meredith) out to a roadhouse in the country, and when they make a break for it, Abel summons a “crook aviator,” a pilot who drops actual bombs on the couple’s car from a plane. They hide in a small roadside shack, which is completely obliterated by one of the falling bombs.

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: There aren’t any examples of the “rewritten history” cheat, but there are a few cliffhanger resolutions that test credulity. Several times the Green Archer shows up to pull Spike out of a deathtrap, and in a few cases he shakes off seemingly life-threatening injuries. The most suspicious is at the end of Chapter ten (“The Dagger That Failed”), in which Spike opens a safe in Abel’s office, setting off a booby trap that blasts him with a double-barreled shotgun at point blank. Spike certainly looks as if he’s been struck, but at the beginning of the next chapter he recovers and is completely fine, without so much as a mention of a “bullet-proof vest” or other narrative excuse. Pretty fishy if you ask me.

Sample dialogue: “We’re playing a game and you’re dealing from the bottom. But I’m holding a hand you’ll never beat: the law!” –Spike Holland to Abel Bellamy, Chapter Nine (“The Mirror of Treachery”)

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What others have said: “Victor Jory had long since established himself as an excellent film and stage actor, appearing in many quality productions (including Gone With the Wind), so his tour of duty as a matinee star was strictly a lark. . . . James Craven was always good for a few laughs as he seemed always to play a hypertensive villain in vehicles like The Green Archer, White Eagle and Captain Midnight. His henchmen never could do anything right, and Craven’s ranting and raving grew progressively wilder with each chapter.” –Alan G. Barbour, Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial

What’s next: Join me and help solve a mystery at the circus in Daredevils of the Red Circle!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Miracle Rider

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Tom Morgan, Texas Ranger, has been a friend to the Ravenhead Indians since his father, also a Ranger, died protecting the Indians’ land from “reservation jumpers,” and has even been made an honorary chief of the tribe. But now the Ravenhead face a threat that has even Tom Morgan stumped: attacks by the legendary “Firebird” have some members of the tribe agitating to leave their land. Morgan doesn’t believe in native superstitions, but who could gain from forcing the Indians off their land? Could it be merchant Emil Janss, who depends on the Indians for trade but who is also hoping to sell a large parcel of land to the government for use as a new reservation? Is it Longboat, a disgruntled member of the Ravenhead who hopes to usurp the rightful chief? Or is it Zaroff, an oil baron who appears to have an unusual interest in the reservation land? These questions and more are answered in The Miracle Rider, starring beloved Western icon Tom Mix!

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Actually, it doesn’t take long for the audience to find out that it is Zaroff (Charles Middleton, Flash Gordon‘s Ming) behind the attacks; posing as an oil man, Zaroff is secretly mining “X-94″ on Indian lands, an incredibly powerful explosive which he plans to sell to an unnamed foreign power. In addition to refining and finding applications for X-94 (which later include a super-fuel), Zaroff’s chief scientist Metzger (Niles Welch) has created the high-tech gadgets that have the Ravenhead convinced that they are under attack. An Archimedes’ mirror-like heat ray causes fires to “spontaneously” ignite on the reservation, and a remote-controlled rocket glider with a whining electric siren is the Firebird itself.

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The Miracle Rider was Mascot’s follow-up to The Phantom Empire, and because of its infusion of the modern Western with up-to-the-minute scientific speculation, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut considered it as part of the “zap-gun Western” fad in their book The Great Movie Serials. However, as I argued in a recent look at science fiction Westerns, The Miracle Rider isn’t nearly as fantastical as The Phantom Empire. Although there is some novelty in seeing Tom Mix in his giant cowboy hat ride the bat-winged rocket glider, Zaroff and his weaponsmith Metzger are not very different from the criminal masterminds and spies that other serial, pulp, and comic book heroes were facing in the mid-1930s.

Most of the super-scientific inventions the writers of these stories came up with were just refinements of existing technologies (communication and remote control by radio; ever-more powerful explosives) or inventions that were widely regarded as just around the corner (television). Plot-wise, X-94 is less important as a scientific discovery than as the MacGuffin that motivates the plot: in the inter-war years, as in the Cold War, espionage often took the place of actual combat, so a new invention or discovery in danger of being stolen by the enemy was a reliable story starter. Finally, the rocket glider, which is genuinely eerie, crashes in only the second chapter, snuffing out any potential for airborne thrills.

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Modern viewers will also recognize quite a bit of Scooby-Doo in the basic plot, with one meddling Texas Ranger the only thing standing between Zaroff and his goal to be “the most powerful man in the world” (as he says out loud several times). At first, Zaroff throws suspicion on Janss, the merchant (Edward Hearn), but when Janss figures out what’s going on he demands to be cut into the deal. Longboat (Bob Kortman), the treacherous Ravenhead, is also under Zaroff’s thumb: in addition to his desire to be chief, Longboat is secretly a “half-breed,” making him vulnerable to Zaroff’s blackmail. With the addition of Zaroff’s gang of interchangeable henchmen and his right-hand man Carlton (Jason Robards, Sr.), that makes for quite a few villains Tom Morgan must get through before he can accuse and apprehend Zaroff.

The Miracle Rider begins unusually, with a fifteen-minute prologue dramatizing the shrinking of the Indians’ land in the face of white incursion. (I suspect this prologue was cut off in at least some markets; I’ve seen versions of The Miracle Rider that omit it, and it adds only background information not vital to the plot.) From 1777 up to Custer’s Last Stand, the struggle for land is dramatized as a series of historical figures including Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill Cody stand up to white poachers and claim jumpers to whom government agreements with Indians mean nothing. The invaders say things like “The sooner we kill off the Indians, the better it’ll be for all of us!” and “The Indian thinks he can keep land once the white man wants it!” Despite the efforts of the “friends of the Indian,” history is not on their side, as an animated map shows the spread of white settlement, with Indian territory squeezed into ever smaller spaces. By the time the U.S. government is shown granting the Ravenhead tribe a reservation twenty miles long “for all time,” it’s both pathetic and obvious that this will be just the latest in a long string of broken promises, but the filmmakers evidently intend it to be taken in earnest.

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There’s much in The Miracle Rider that modern viewers could take issue with: most (though not all) of the Indians are played by white actors, and the Ravenhead are dependent on their “white brother” (or even “white chief”) Tom to protect them from those who would exploit them. But The Miracle Rider is surprisingly frank about the injustices suffered historically by Native Americans without making unrealistic saints out of them. Early on, the Ravenhead chief Black Wing (Bob Frazer) is killed by one of Zaroff’s men, leaving an opening for the corrupt Longboat to argue that the reservation land is cursed and they should migrate elsewhere. Black Wing’s daughter Ruth (Joan Gale) pleads with Tom to convince the tribe to stay; as the son of a Ranger who gave his life for the Ravenhead, Tom grew up among them and knows their ways (there’s that “best of both worlds” trope again). There’s no question that he would do what he can to help, but unlike more modern depictions that feature a corrupt or unreliable government, Tom is backed up by a solid and dependable Indian Agent, Adams (Edward Earle). Despite the presence of bad men like Zaroff, the forces of law and order haven’t given up; The Miracle Rider doesn’t claim that history could have been any different, but it does suggest that it’s at least possible to treat people, Indian or otherwise, with dignity and fair play.

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As for leading man Tom Mix, The Miracle Rider was both a beginning and an ending: Mix had made dozens of films (mostly Westerns, in many of which he played characters named Tom) and had been a huge star in the late teens and 1920s, famous for his flashy Western costumes and ten-gallon hat and his “million-dollar smile;” one of the first multi-media stars, Mix was at home in the circus performing Wild West routines and would later have a successful radio show. But Mix’s films in the ’20s had been silent, and the talkies he made in the ’30s were seen as something of a comeback, to varied success. Mix was in his fifties when The Miracle Rider was made, and while he still rides and shoots like a pro, he’s no longer the youthful romantic hero of his earlier films: at the end, after he’s been promoted to Director of Indian Affairs, he asks Ruth to come to Washington with him . . . as his secretary. “And here’s the contract,” he says: it’s a handshake. The Miracle Rider would turn out to be his last major film and his only sound serial.

Despite some draggy sections (it’s gotten to the point where I inwardly groan when I see that a serial has 15 chapters), The Miracle Rider is the work of a man still innovating. In the very last chapter, Tom Morgan is held at gunpoint by Zaroff and two of his henchmen; when asked if he has a last request, Morgan asks to make a cigarette. After he takes too long, Zaroff impatiently bats the rolling papers away, sneering, “An old trick, Morgan! Trying to blow tobacco in our eyes, so we couldn’t see, eh?” At that moment, Tom’s horse (Tony Jr.) sticks his head in a car parked outside and honks the horn, distracting Zaroff and his men long enough for Tom to turn the tables. “That’s another old trick, Zaroff,” he says, “but you’ve got to have a good horse to do it.”

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What I watched: The Miracle Rider (Mascot, 1935)

Where I watched it: I watched the whole thing on YouTube, which is why I haven’t included very many screen shots. My apologies; you can pretend it’s a radio program if you like.

No. of chapters: 15

Best chapter title: “Danger Rides With Death” (Chapter 12)

Best cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter 2 (“The Firebird Strikes”), Tom Morgan has infiltrated the Indian Cave hideout in which the “Firebird” rocket glider is stored; during a fight with Zaroff’s men, he climbs inside it and is stuck inside when it takes off. The chapter ends with the glider, remote-controlled by Zaroff, crashing to the ground in a fiery explosion. (Needless to say, Tom survives, in this case by parachuting out before the crash.)

Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: In my discussion of Undersea Kingdom, I noted that Republic seemed to cheat its cliffhanger resolutions more frequently than other studios, but I think that habit began at Mascot, the studio that later became Republic. The resolution of the cliffhanger that ends chapter 6 (“Thundering Hoofs”) isn’t quite as mind-bending as the Annie Wilkes Award winner for Fighting with Kit Carson, but it plays pretty fast and loose, as do some others in this serial. In this one, Tom is riding with his captive, Sewell, tied up behind him, chased by one of Zaroff’s men on a motorcycle. Passing under a tree branch, Sewell reaches up and catches it with the ropes that bind him, hanging himself in the tree and pulling Tom to the ground, where he is in imminent danger of being trampled by horses. However, as the scene is reset at the beginning of chapter 7 (“The Dragnet”), the gang on horseback is distracted by Sewell hanging from the tree and simply stops riding. They don’t come anywhere near Tom, who is able to pick himself up with no problems. I can hear Annie Wilkes screaming about this one from here.

Sample dialogue: “Today the Ravenhead tasted the tongue of the Firebird–tonight they’ll fell its claws!” –Zaroff, Chapter 1 (“The Vanishing Indian”)

What others have said: “The present writers lack the psychic insight of some reviewers to know whether Tom Mix was bored with the serial or not, but certainly, what appears on the screen in private showings is a quiet professionalism. Tom Mix had ridden these familiar trails many times before, but nobody knew how to ride them better.” –Harmon and Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s next: The Green Archer

Fates Worse Than Death: The New Adventures of Tarzan

Guatemala: jungle land of mystery! Homeland of the lost Maya! Cradle of secrets! It is to this land that Major Martling brings his expedition in search of the Green Goddess, a mysterious idol said to contain an unknown but highly potent explosive formula, as well as a fortune in jewels. Along with his daughter Alice and her fiancé Gordon, Martling is accompanied by his friend Lord Greystoke, who has some experience in the wilderness himself. Greystoke has come to Guatemala to find his old friend Lieutenant D’Arnot, a pilot who crash-landed in the Central American jungle.

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Of course there are complications: in addition to the typical jungle perils of wild animals and hostile natives, Martling is hounded by Raglan, a rival explorer in the employ of a munitions company that hopes to recover the explosive formula for its own use. In addition, both parties are being shadowed by a mysterious woman, Ula, who claims to be the widow of D’Arnot’s co-pilot, and who seems to have unfinished business with Raglan. She tries to foil Raglan’s plans, but is she on Martling’s side? What is her real aim?

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Deep in the jungle lies the Dead City, home to a tribe and a cult that is very much alive, worshiping the Goddess under the leadership of a tiger-striped high priestess. They threaten Martling’s party with sacrifice, even as Raglan steals the idol while the cultists are distracted. Were Martling and his party alone, this might be their end, but Lord Greystoke is not just the worldly traveler he appears to be: he is also Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle! Through an action-packed twelve chapters that includes fights with jungle cats, explosions, gunfights, espionage, and more, Tarzan and Martling race to recover the idol before Raglan can get it onto a ship bound to Europe, all while fending off the vengeful natives and the hooded warriors who will likewise stop at nothing to recover their Goddess, in The New Adventures of Tarzan!

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I’ll admit I had a hard time getting into The New Adventures of Tarzan at first, for a couple of reasons. In the copy I was watching, the sound started out kind of fuzzy, making it hard to hear the dialogue, and there is a lot of exposition to get out of the way, with numerous characters and their histories and motivations being introduced. Because The New Adventures was based on storylines from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels (although not directly on any one novel), it is less streamlined than many later serials, and the accumulation of multiple subplots and shifting settings feels surprisingly modern, like an overstuffed summer blockbuster.

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The first chapter is also forty minutes long, and contains several set pieces that could easily have been cliffhangers between chapters (Tarzan wrestles with crocodiles in a river, and later saves Major Martling’s daughter from a snare that suspends her over a jaguar pit). I have grown so accustomed to the rhythms of the serial that when these crises were resolved without chapter breaks and the chapter crept toward twenty-five, thirty, and thirty-five minutes in length, I started to wonder if the DVD producers had edited out all the chapter breaks (a move that would compromise this project, to say the least). But no, the first chapter is just extra-long, and does eventually end on a cliffhanger, like the other, shorter chapters.

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I’m glad I stuck it out, however, as once the slow engine of story got underway and the excess baggage of characters and subplots was shed, The New Adventures of Tarzan turned out to be an engaging serial with a variety of colorful settings and some exciting action sequences. The main conflict, in which a well-intentioned, patriotic explorer and an unscrupulous mercenary fight over an ancient, powerful artifact, recalls both the 1933 Perils of Pauline and, of course, the later Raiders of the Lost Ark. (There’s also Martling’s notebook which contains the code necessary to open the idol, and which changes hands several times.)

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Much of the serial was filmed on location in Guatemala, including Chichicastenango and the ruins of Tikal, by producer Ashton Dearholt; the conditions turned out to be almost as difficult for the cast and crew as for the characters on screen, with illness and bad weather taking their toll. The role of Raglan, credited to Dan Castello, was actually played by Dearholt himself after Castello had to drop out early on. The expense and danger of the production mostly end up on the screen, however. The big cats Tarzan fights are real (at least up until the moment an obviously stuffed cat is thrown down; some of these fights are better edited than others); the giant waterfalls over which characters (or, again, their dummy stand-ins) plunge are suitably impressive, giving the film an epic scope.

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On the other hand, the film shows some of the limitations of independent production: other than the chapter titles, there is little to no background music; combined with the relatively meager dialogue during Tarzan’s many solo excursions and only ambient sound, long stretches of The New Adventures could pass for a silent movie. One strange touch occurs in the Dead City: a recurring gong, sometimes the only thing heard on the soundtrack, is distorted enough to sound like the disturbing, unexplained drones David Lynch frequently includes in his films, and is a surprisingly eerie match for the scenes of torture and imprisonment by hooded inquisitors. (No, I never expected to make a comparison between a serial and Lynch either, but here we are.)

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Tarzan himself (Herman Brix, who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett) is not the monosyllabic wild man of popular culture; because this serial was produced by Tarzan’s creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, it reflects the character as he appears in the books, speaking perfect English and transitioning effortlessly between his identities as Lord Greystoke and Lord of the Jungle. This version of Tarzan never says anything like “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” not least because Jane isn’t in this story.

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Whereas other film representations of Tarzan emphasized the noble savage or fish-out-of-water elements in his story, The New Adventures treats him more like a superhero: as Greystoke he wears his wealth and title easily, an aristocratic Bruce Wayne, but when there’s trouble he strips down to a loincloth and takes to the jungle, swinging on vines and talking to animals. His identity is far from secret, however, and he’s treated like a celebrity: Martling’s valet George, in fact, is described as “the flunky who joined the expedition to be closer to his idol, Tarzan.” Burroughs’ Tarzan represents a colonialist ideal: the “best of both worlds,” with all the education and material advantages of Western civilization and all the vigor, toughness, and native wisdom of his adoptive culture.

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In addition to its ambitious location shooting, The New Adventures stands out from the serials I’ve watched in other ways. Burroughs’ stories could be quite bloody, emphasizing “nature red in tooth and claw” and featuring villains evil enough to justify just about anything the good guys might do to them. That’s often sanitized in film and TV retellings, which are more kid-oriented than the books they’re based on. Although not especially graphic, The New Adventures includes gunplay, stabbings, explosions, and more, with (mostly) realistic consequences. No bloodless fistfights here: Tarzan and co. don’t mess around. The most surprising sequence involves George (who is otherwise comic relief) spraying machine gun fire at attacking waves of tribesmen from the Dead City as if in flashback to the Great War. Even Indiana Jones would save that kind of move for Nazi soldiers.

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As I mentioned, the rhythm of this serial is also somewhat odd, with a profusion of subplots (especially at the beginning) that gradually thin out as D’Arnot is recovered and leaves with Alice and Gordon, and Ula joins Martling’s party. Once the idol is stolen, the vengeful warriors from the Dead City don’t pick up Raglan’s and Martling’s trail until Chapter Seven, and the action is essentially resolved in Chapter Eleven. Many serials include an “economy chapter,” in which flashbacks to earlier events are included to catch up latecomers: The New Adventures treats the last chapter as a recap, an anticlimax that serves only to tie up a few loose ends and put a cap on the serial. Still, I’ve come to appreciate the looser, less formulaic serials of the early ’30s, if only because they have more capacity to surprise; however lumpy its storytelling, The New Adventures of Tarzan is full of invention. No one is phoning it in.

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What I watched: The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935, Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises)

Where I watched it: Pop Flix’s 2-DVD Classic Tarzan Collection, which also includes three features: Tarzan the Fearless, Tarzan’s Revenge, and Tarzan and the Trappers.

No. of chapters: 12

Best chapter title: “Devil’s Noose” (Chapter 3)

Best cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter 10 (“Secret Signals”), Tarzan confronts Raglan on the dock in Mantique as Raglan prepares to load the Goddess idol onto Simon Blade’s ship. There’s a scuffle with Raglan and his crew, during which the idol drops over the side of the dock, where it hangs from a rope. Raglan pulls a gun and commands Tarzan to step away from the idol, promising this will be “the last time you meddle in my business!” In a sequence straight out of a gangster film, after a close-up of Tarzan, the shot reverses to Raglan, the camera pointing straight down the barrel of his gun. Bang!

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: In Chapter Nine (“Doom’s Brink”), one of the most action-packed chapters, the members of Martling’s party have been captured separately and taken to the Dead City by the Goddess’ worshipers. Each faces a different peril: Martling and George are taken to a torture chamber (!), Ula is imprisoned in a cell with an old woman who attempts to stab her, and Tarzan is tied up in the cell next to Ula’s with a chained lion. After overcoming the old woman, Ula uses her knife to dig through the wall separating herself from Tarzan. As Tarzan hurries to untie himself, the lion’s chain gives way; the last shot of the chapter is of the lion’s slavering jaws as it lunges at the camera.

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It looks like the game is up for Tarzan, no? As the beginning of Chapter Ten resets this peril, however, not only does Ula make a hole big enough to pass Tarzan the knife, he has time to untie himself and maneuver to the hole before the lion attacks, so he’s not even in the same place when the lion lunges off of its chain. (This is at least more satisfying than the chapter where Tarzan is caught in a spiked tiger trap, only to be grazed by the spikes instead of impaled: such “oh, I guess he’s okay” resolutions are even more anticlimactic than straight-up cheats, in my opinion.)

Funniest moment: Martling’s valet George (Lewis Sargent) has a lot of similarities to Professor Hargrave’s secretary Dodge from The Perils of Pauline, but despite his silly attachment to his yo-yo, his always-growling stomach, and his panicky reactions to mundane jungle plants and animals, George has a few serious moments. His machine gunning of natives from the Dead City (see above) is later paid back when George is the first to be tortured in Chapter Nine. Still, most of George’s scenes involve clowning of one kind or another, and I’ll admit to laughing when, in Chapter Seven (“Flaming Waters”), George is bitten and chased by a bunch of water turtles, an ordeal to which Tarzan responds with an epic eye-roll.

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Sample dialogue: “He reminds me of some of the jungle cats I’ve known: they’re most dangerous when they purr.” –Tarzan, referring to Captain Blade, Chapter 11 (“Death’s Fireworks”)

What others have said: “At one point, Burroughs had worried that so much local scenery had been eliminated from the episodes that the whole thing might just as well have been shot in Hollywood. But in the final edit, enough Mayan ruins, colonial cities, and Guatemalan Indians survive to create a richly exotic and authentic backdrop. And for once, Tarzan is able to swing through trees other than the sycamore and eucalyptus so predominant in earlier films shot in or near Los Angeles.” –John Taliaferro, Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan

What’s Next: The Miracle Rider

Fates Worse Than Death: Undersea Kingdom

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A troubling rise in earthquake frequency and intensity has led Professor Norton to build an earthquake prediction machine, with which he also hopes to prevent future quakes. Guessing that the earthquakes are somehow being caused by radio signals from deep beneath the sea, Norton plans an aquatic expedition to find its source. “I hope you’re not going to spring that yarn of the lost continent of Atlantis,” chides reporter Diana Compton, but oh, yes! The Professor has his suspicions, and the discovery of oricalcum–the legendary metal that Plato described as unique to the sunken realm–gives the Professor all the evidence he needs to proceed.

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Naval Lt. Ray “Crash” Corrigan, all-around athletic champion and straight arrow, is Professor Norton’s only choice to accompany him in his experimental submarine (an excellent miniature, one of many created by Howard and Theodore Lydecker). The submarine’s crew grows when Diana invites herself along for a story too good to resist, and again when it’s discovered that Professor Norton’s young son Billy has stowed away. The sub’s pilot cracks under the pressure when he realizes how deep the Professor intends to take it, and in his madness sends the sub into a steep dive.

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Little do the submariners know that Atlantis survives under a great dome of oricalcum, like a bubble at the bottom of the sea, and even now is riven by conflict: Unga Khan, usurper to the throne, is laying siege to the city of Atlantis, where high priest Sharad, described as the last of the true Atlanteans, is the only force remaining to stand up to Unga Khan. From his metal tower, Unga Khan commands a legion of black-robed horsemen and soldiers; robotic “Volkites;” airships; and the juggernaut, a fast-moving electric tank. It’s only a matter of time before Sharad’s defenses give way.

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Unga Khan, detecting Norton’s submarine, latches onto it with a magnetic beam and brings it safely into Atlantis’ inland sea, hoping to turn it to his own advantage. Upon discovering Professor Norton’s scientific abilities, Unga Khan brainwashes him with a “transformation chamber” and puts him to work building engines to turn his tower into a rocketship, so that he may ascend to the surface world and either conquer or destroy it! Only Crash Corrigan and his allies can prevent Unga Khan’s mad plans from wreaking havoc on both Atlantis and the surface world in the 1936 Republic serial, Undersea Kingdom!

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Undersea Kingdom has similarities to both Flash Gordon (released the same year) and The Phantom Empire, which had come out the previous year. Like The Phantom Empire‘s underground kingdom of Murania, Undersea Kingdom‘s Atlantis is a classic “lost world,” a remote corner of the world untouched by modernity but paradoxically full of superscience. Other than its underwater location and the mention of oricalcum (dropped after the first chapter), there’s not much to connect the film’s Atlantis to Plato’s account, but it is part of a long tradition of using the name as a code word for a hidden place where anything becomes possible. And like Murania and Flash Gordon‘s Mongo, in Atlantis ancient swords and chariots are used side-by-side with atomic rays and futuristic war machines: boundaries between science fiction and fantasy were not so rigidly defined before World War II.

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Just as singing cowboy Gene Autry starred in The Phantom Empire as singing cowboy Gene Autry, Undersea Kingdom stars “Crash” Corrigan as a fictionalized version of himself and gives him plenty of room to show off his talents. As an actor, he does OK with dialogue, which is largely functional (“At least those mechanical men can’t follow us through those flames!”), but it’s displays of athleticism that are the real draw. Corrigan was a trainer and bodybuilder who started out in film as a stuntman, often portraying gorillas (he played the “sacred orangopoid” in Flash Gordon), and as a leading man his onscreen persona emphasized his mastery of physical culture and sports. Just as The Phantom Empire gave ample opportunities for Autry to sing within the story, every chapter of Undersea Kingdom finds Corrigan wrestling, climbing, pole-vaulting, swimming, or even walking a tightrope, and that’s aside from the usual running, riding, and fighting that are typical for serial heroes.

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The other characters fit into clearly established types: Professor Norton (C. Montague Shaw) is the inventor whose submarine makes the adventure possible but then spends almost the entirety of the serial enslaved by the villain (and unlike Flash Gordon‘s Dr. Zarkov, Norton is so completely brainwashed that he actively resists rescue and demands to be taken back to his “Master” until he is restored in the transformation chamber). Speaking of the villain, Unga Khan (Monte Blue) is cast from the same mold as Ming: imperious, given to grandiose monologues (“With Crash Corrigan out of the way, nothing can interfere with my plans to conquer the upper world!”), and ruthless in carrying out his scheme. The fact that his plans are so over-the-top crazy is one of the pleasures of this kind of pulp.

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As mentioned, Unga Khan has quite a bit of futuristic hardware at his disposal, including a “disintegrator ray” that strangely takes the form of a missile (recycled from The Phantom Empire). Also as in The Phantom Empire, television is an object of fascination, with Unga Khan observing the surface world, the Atlantean countryside, and even Sharad’s inner sanctum through his “reflecto plate,” all without any indication of having cameras in those places. Some of Unga Khan’s doomsday weapons are even more vague than is usual for serials, but they sure look cool. The standout is his army of Volkites, mechanical men armed with “atom guns,” old-school cylindrical “water heater” robots that look intimidating but move slowly and are clumsy enough that Corrigan is able to hang one from a suspended hook at one point without much trouble.

They break into old people's houses and steal their medicine to use as fuel.

They break into old people’s houses and steal their medicine to use as fuel.

Diana Compton (Lois Wilde) is a gutsy, brassy reporter, and while she talks her way onto the submarine, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything she actually does other than offer commentary and occasionally fall into some peril from which she must be rescued. As formulaic as that role is, however, it’s worth mentioning that she is literally the only woman in the entire serial: the above-ground scenes with which it begins take place at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and the Atlantean scenes are divided between Unga Khan’s tower and Sharad’s city, both militarized settings filled with soldiers (the latter resembles a Spanish mission or French Foreign Legion outpost dressed up with a few exotic props). And while Diana and Crash end up together, there’s little romantic spark between them: this is boy’s adventure, through and through.

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There is a literal boy, as well, and Billy Norton (Lee Van Atta) divides his time between dialogue even more functional than Corrigan’s (“Boy, I’d sure like to explore that city,” and cheering on the hero with “Let ‘im have it, Crash!”), engaging in junior acts of derring-do, and being rescued himself. He’s more a sidekick than an audience-identification character (he doesn’t have anything like the screen time or personality of Frankie and Betsy Baxter in The Phantom Empire), but there is some pathos when his own father, brainwashed by Unga Khan, doesn’t recognize him.

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Smiley Burnette is also along to provide (mercifully brief) comic relief: he and Frankie Marvin play submarine crew members who, along with their mischievous parrot Sinbad, take off to explore Atlantis on their own, getting in and out of trouble with prankish incaution. Burnette performs some of his usual shtick, such as playing the harmonica and causing slapstick trouble with explosives (including a stunt that I’m sure would have left at least one black-robe guard dead), but unlike in The Phantom Empire his and Marvin’s antics don’t have any bearing on the story, and could in fact be cut entirely without affecting the plot. (According to Jerry Blake these scenes were added after the fact to pad out the serial’s run time, and it shows.)

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Finally, Crash Corrigan himself–the fictional version, that is–is every bit the strong-jawed hero of this era’s serials, pulp magazines, and comics. In a development that will be very familiar to readers of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard, Corrigan inserts himself into the Atlantean conflict, first inadvertently and then by appointment. Captured by Sharad’s forces (who suspect him and the other surface-dwellers of being spies in the service of Unga Khan), Corrigan is forced to fight a group of prisoners to the death. After demonstrating his superiority by wrestling them into submission, he refuses to deal a killing blow, assuring the loyalty of Moloch (John Merton), the opponent whose life he spares.

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Moloch becomes a trusted friend and ally during Corrigan’s time in Atlantis (a character as useful to the writers as to Corrigan, allowing for fight scenes that don’t rely entirely on Corrigan to carry them), a native brother-in-arms like Tars Tarkas or Umslopogaas. Then, after saving the high priest Sharad’s life, Corrigan is offered command of the Atlantean White Robe Army (“Commander of the army? Oh boy, oh boy!” says Billy) and the magnificent uniform that comes with it. The loyalty of the White Robes to Corrigan is unquestioned, and like John Carter, Flash Gordon, and others, Corrigan proves that what the Atlanteans need for victory is a strong American leader at the front.

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What I watched: Undersea Kingdom (1936, Republic)

Where I watched it: A DVD from TV Serial Classics. I don’t usually comment on my sources unless they’re especially high- or low-quality, but I do want to point out one of the ugliest menu screens I’ve run across (especially in comparison to Republic’s typically excellent titles):

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No. of chapters: 12

Best chapter title: “Revenge of the Volkites,” Chapter Four. I’m not really sure where the “revenge” angle comes in, as the robotic Volkites are neither paying back the surface dwellers for an earlier defeat nor turning on their master, Unga Khan. It’s surely the kind of title George Lucas had in mind when naming his Star Wars episodes, however, and with about as much connection to the actual story.

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Best cliffhanger: This one is easy. At the end of Chapter Eight (“Into the Metal Tower”), Crash Corrigan, captured by Unga Khan’s Black Robes, is lashed to the front of the juggernaut and driven to the gate of Sharad’s city. If the gates are not opened to the invading army and Sharad given up, the juggernaut will ram the gates, crushing Corrigan. In the face of such barbarism, Corrigan defiantly tells the juggernaut’s driver, “Go ahead and ram!”

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The image of Corrigan strapped to the front of the juggernaut like a human hood ornament looked teasingly familiar, almost as if I had seen it somewhere recently . . . but where?

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Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: Republic seems to be the worst offender in this (and in fact Harmon and Glut in The Great Movie Serials cite the juggernaut cliffhanger as a textbook example of a cheat), so as always there are several candidates. At the end of Chapter Eleven (“Flaming Death”–honestly, all of the chapter titles are pretty good), Moloch, Corrigan, and Professor Norton are trapped beneath the rocket engines that will lift Unga Khan’s towers to the surface when they begin firing. There’s no way they’re getting out of there without being burned to a crisp, right? Right?

Well, I don’t think it will spoil the movie to say that Corrigan gets away at the beginning of Chapter Twelve, and the hole in the floor that he conveniently falls through at the very moment of the rocket’s ignition definitely wasn’t there at the end of Chapter Eleven.

A word on costuming: The 1930s were the heyday of art deco in film, and that extended beyond titles and set design to the costumes themselves. Like other space operas and lost worlds of this time period, Atlantis is a jumble of medieval, Romanesque, and completely fanciful motifs. Uncredited but attributed to Robert Ramsey, Undersea Kingdom‘s costumes are partially unified by the importance of finned headgear: like the intricate tail feathers of male birds, the number and complexity of fins indicate the strength and importance of the wearer. Most of Unga Khan’s Black Robes have only a single dorsal fin on their headgear (right), while leaders like Captain Hakur (left) and Unga Khan’s major domo Ditmar have a trifold fin (and check the zig-zag lightning motif that also appears on Unga Khan’s throne).

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Those pale, however, before the righteous plume that decorates Corrigan’s helmet once he takes command of the White Robe Army (a force whose uniform is otherwise completely unfinned: the entire budget for military bling went into this one outfit): look upon it, and mourn for the days such a costume could be worn without any self-consciousness.

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Sample dialogue: Too much to choose from!

“Little do the people of the upper world realize what is in store for them. . . . Start the disintegrator. . . . Start the earthquake!” –Unga Khan, Chapter Eight

“Is my plan of empire to be wrecked by this handful of strangers from the upper world!?” —ibid.

“They’ll never expect to find any Volkites in the submarine!” –Captain Hakur (Lon Chaney, Jr.), Chapter Eleven

“Prepare the disintegator [sic]!” –Unga Khan, Chapter Twelve

What Others Have Said: “The serial features few of the fistfights common to Republic’s later serials, but compensates by including some truly unique action sequences, chief among them the large-scale attacks on Sharad’s Sacred City by the Black Robes; these battle scenes are beautifully staged by directors Joseph Kane and B. Reeves Eason (Eason directed many similar sequences in silent and sound “spectacles” like 1925’s Ben-Hur and 1936’s Charge of the Light Brigade).” –Jerry Blake, whose blog Files of Jerry Blake includes extensive reviews and commentary on movie serials and “other cliffhanging material.”

What’s Next: The New Adventures of Tarzan

Fates Worse Than Death: Batman and Robin (1949)

Welcome back to Fates Worse Than Death (#summerserials on Twitter). I’ll be exploring the legacy of the motion picture serial every week this summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day (which, yes, is more ambitious than last year’s biweekly schedule, so wish me luck). You can read the introduction to last year’s series here to see what this is all about, and you can access the complete list of last year’s entries by visiting the Series page.

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“Crime, stalking our city by night and day, is on the increase! Our undermanned police force is helpless to cope with the situation. But they have an ally: Batman, who, with the faithful Robin, wages unending war against all criminals!” The stentorian voice-over is accompanied by a montage of the Dynamic Duo fighting it out with a variety of gangsters and henchmen interspersed with spinning headlines describing their victories. Batman and Robin are already established crimefighters with a reputation for cleaning up the streets. However, their greatest threat looms before them: will they have what it takes to wrest Gotham City from the remote-control terror of the masked villain known only as the Wizard?

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After I reviewed 1943’s Batman serial last summer, a friend warned me that the 1949 follow-up Batman and Robin was “less racist but somehow more terrible.” Batman and Robin is much less offensive: unlike the wartime Batman, Batman and Robin has no need to demonize the Japanese or anyone else, and is purely cops-and-robbers. It’s unfortunately deficient in energy and suspense, however, so my friend’s warning proved sadly apt.

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The problems start with leads Robert Lowery as Bruce Wayne/Batman and John Duncan as Dick Grayson/Robin, who are not very convincing as either superheroes or their civilian alter egos. (Duncan in particular is cursed with marble-mouthed line delivery and is just plain too old to be the “Boy” Wonder.) They continue with a plot that, in true serial fashion, is at once baldly simple—a criminal mastermind who calls himself the Wizard has stolen a high-tech gizmo that allows him to take control of any vehicle at a distance, bringing Gotham City to its knees—and at the same time confusingly roundabout, with a boatload of characters and each chapter featuring its own distinctive crisis or mission.

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It’s not all bad, however (and Batman and Robin is far from the worst serial I’ve seen). For fans of the comics, Batman and Robin gets closer to the character’s essence than Batman, and includes such familiar characters as faithful butler Alfred (who has much more presence here, and participates by wearing some disguises and driving the car) and Commissioner Gordon, and such essential props as the Bat Signal (there’s still no Batmobile as such, however: at least once the villains wonder why Batman showed up driving Bruce Wayne’s car). There are no criminals left for the police with the “sign of the bat” stamped on their foreheads, nor is Batman presented as a government agent secretly working with Uncle Sam. One new character, photographer Vicki Vale, would prove popular enough to appear in Batman’s comic book adventures, where she is now an established part of his mythos (just as the Bat Cave was introduced in the ’43 serial and has become a constant fixture of Batman’s adventures).

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The biggest change for comics readers is the villain: the Wizard himself, a hooded, cloaked figure of scientific genius and unshakeable confidence (“I always have a plan!” he states more than once), is a type frequently found in contemporary pulp magazines and in other serials. Unlike the themed villains that were already facing off against Batman in the comics, the Wizard is fairly generic, using superscience to project his image at great distances, extract secrets by hypnotic suggestion, controlling his henchmen from a secret lair accessible only by submarine, and even making himself invisible for brief stretches.

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As is often the case, his identity is unknown until the final chapter, but several candidates are presented to the audience: is the Wizard actually radio newsman Barry Brown, whose broadcasts always seem to include information that the Wizard’s gang needs to commit their crimes? Or is it wheelchair-bound Professor Hammil, the inventor of the remote control device, who regularly visits a secret laboratory and rejuvenates himself so that he can stand and walk for periods of time? Or perhaps it is the private detective Dunne, who always seems to turn up after the Wizard’s crimes have been committed, and claims to be on the trail of the stolen device?

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From one perspective, the problems with Batman and Robin are problems with serialized stories in general, and they are the same problems that comic books, serialized TV shows, and the interconnected feature films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have all had to deal with. To wit, it’s necessary that each installment tell a complete (or nearly complete) story while contributing to the larger arc and teasing a cliffhanger or loose thread that will intrigue audiences enough to return for the next episode. Furthermore, while self-contained stories generally feature change, the classic superheroes are largely static: if one villain is defeated, another will simply arise to take their place.

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Superheroes are often described as “timeless,” and even compared to the gods and heroes of mythology; surely their simple, stylized appearance and highly formulaic (ritualized, one might say) storylines contribute to this feeling, but could their “timelessness” not also be a side effect of the sliding timeline that has made these characters contemporary–and roughly the same age–for over three quarters of a century? A few literary characters have been reinvented in contemporary fashion, their adventures updated so that Sherlock Holmes, for example, has exercised his powers of deduction during both World War II and the War on Terror, and Dracula has awoken to terrorize horror audiences in the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s (he’s already immortal, though, so perhaps he doesn’t count). That’s different from, say, Indiana Jones, who is inseparable from both a milieu and a definite timeline.

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Timeless, iconic characters, while attractive from the perspective of intellectual property and merchandising, however, must still be able to take part in actual stories–stories where the setting and action are sharpened from the vague dreamtime of the iconic to the specific here and now of this time, this place–if they are to remain current and alive, lest they become only a brand.

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Batman, in particular, is a character that has been interpreted in many different ways, from the kid-friendly “happy warrior” of the Adam West-starring TV show and the Super Friends cartoons to the wounded child of Tim Burton’s films and the Arthurian scion of Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and that’s only looking at film and television portrayals. Of those, only Burton and Nolan are interested in exploring Batman’s origins and asking (as comics did, post-Watchmen and post-The Dark Knight Returns) why an orphaned millionaire might choose this particular form of costumed vigilantism instead of, say, investing in social programs; and only Nolan chose to bring the Batman myth-cycle to its conclusion, asking what specific act of justice would heal Bruce Wayne sufficiently that he could hang up the cape and cowl for good.

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Although neither serial addresses Batman’s origins, it’s likely that viewers familiar with the comics would at least be aware of his adventures in the comics, and possibly the earlier serial as well, so it doesn’t seem unfair to compare the 1949 serial to other portrayals of the character. All adaptations carry the baggage of already-familiar characters, even if fans in the 1940s wouldn’t have expected their voices to carry like they do now. It’s useful to ask, at least rhetorically, what does this specific version bring to the table, and why was this interpretation resonant at the time it was made? (It’s not necessary for the filmmakers to be conscious of such questions, of course: it wasn’t a given that costumed heroes had anything to say about their cultures in those days, and writers weren’t churning out “thinkpieces” about either the comics or the movies.)

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In this context, the 1943 Batman serial is the wartime Batman: its excesses are those of a nation throwing all of its resources into existential war, and while that doesn’t excuse the racist caricature of Dr. Daka it gives the serial a definite identity, a context in which Batman, like all other costumed heroes of the time, were on the side of good, which meant fighting America’s foes. The 1949 serial has no such purpose, and has no dramatic vision to replace it; like many of the later serials, it is primarily aimed at children, and even within that context it’s mostly going through the motions.

What I watched: Batman and Robin (Columbia, 1949)

Where I watched it: Mill Creek Entertainment’s 2-disc Gotham City Serials, which also includes 1943’s Batman

No. of chapters: 15

Best chapter title: “The Wizard’s Challenge” (chapter 13)

Best cliffhanger: At the end of chapter 14 (“Batman vs. Wizard”), the Wizard, turned invisible by the combination of the remote control device and a “neutralizing ray” designed to counter it (just go with it), attempts to kill Commissioner Gordon (as he has previously threatened to do) by hanging from a rope and shooting Gordon through his office window while Batman and Vicki Vale stand by. The Wizard is invisible, but the rope and gun aren’t, so Gordon appears to be shot by a gun floating in mid-air. (Fortunately, Vicki is able to take a picture of the unmasked Wizard using a special infra-red flash bulb devised by Batman. Whew!)

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Best character: The only person who looks like he’s having any fun in Batman and Robin is William Fawcett, who plays the wheelchair-bound Professor Hammil. An actual Ph.D. and professor of theater with hundreds of credits to his name (mostly in Westerns and television programs), Fawcett would have been an obvious choice to play Captain Marvel’s nemesis Dr. Sivana if he had ever been portrayed onscreen. (There was a Captain Marvel serial, but it had a tenuous connection to the comic book, and Sivana is nowhere to be found in it).

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The wiry and cantankerous Professor Hammil steals just about every scene he’s in. Right off the bat, as the inventor of the remote control device everyone is searching for, Hammil demands to be driven to the research plant just to insult everyone when the device is stolen. (“You’re a pack of careless idiots! Whoever stole it probably has more brains than all of you!”) For another thing, Hammil’s house is nicer than Bruce Wayne’s (the Bruce Wayne I know wouldn’t live in the suburbs!), and even includes a secret laboratory like the Bat Cave (see Matt Singer’s comments below). Hammil actually is known to the public as an inventor, of course, so security is presumably a bigger concern than secrecy, but still: both Hammil and Wayne know that no mansion is complete without a secret passageway to a hidden lair. I’m not going to say whether Hammil is the Wizard or not, but he is nonetheless not a person to be tangled with.

Sample dialogue: “Batman gets entirely too much credit as it is, Vicki. . . . I get tired just hearing about it.” –Bruce Wayne in Chapter 1 (“Batman Takes Over”)

What Others Have Said: “The notion of an evil version of Batman is an intriguing one. . . . Hammil is a near-perfect doppelganger for Bruce Wayne: He lives in an enormous estate on a hill with his own butler to attend to all his needs (along with that hidden, high-tech cave beneath his house). He’s an ideal antagonist and dark mirror image for our hero.” —Matt Singer, whose “Complete History of Comic-Book Movies” at Screencrush is well worth checking out. Singer is, if anything, harder on Batman and Robin than I am.

What’s Next: Join me next week as I explore Atlantis in Undersea Kingdom, starring Ray “Crash” Corrigan.