Forgotbusters at The Solute

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This summer, the writers at The Solute have been exploring once-successful but now-neglected films in a series, “Forgotbusters: The Early Years.” The original Forgotbusters series was written by Nathan Rabin for The Dissolve, so this series, focused on films released before 1980, is a collective tribute to Rabin and the old place. For my entry, I wrote about two blockbuster comedies from 1965, The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. You can read about them at The Solute.

Fates Worse Than Death: King of the Royal Mounted

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At a conference between agents of an unnamed enemy of the British Empire, a spymaster discusses the need for greater supplies of the mysterious “Compound X.” Discovered by a Canadian scientist who is actively mining it, Compound X has been greatly useful in treating infantile paralysis, but one of the spies shows (using a model ship) that adding a small amount of copper sulfide magnetizes it, making it perfect for explosive mines that are magnetically attracted to the steel hulls of blockade ships. The Allies don’t know this, so Kettler (Robert Strange), the spy assigned to mastermind the operation in Canada, has the job of getting more Compound X out of the country while hiding its military value from the Canadian and British authorities.

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Dropped off by a submarine at a remote inlet, Kettler takes command of the local spy ring, a band of ruffians headed by a scarred thug named Garson (Harry Cording). Meanwhile, tipped off to the spy’s arrival, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police organize a dragnet to find him and rid Canada of the spy ring. Sergeant Dave King (Allan “Rocky” Lane) is assigned to Tombstone Landing Station to coordinate the Mounties’ efforts, along with the local Inspector (King’s father, played by Herbert Rawlinson), and Corporal Tom Merritt, Jr. (Robert Kellard), the son of the scientist who has been mining Compound X. (It’s a small world.)

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Things are not as they seem at the Caribou Pitchblende Mine, the source of Compound X. Garson and his men have been stealing as much Compound X as they can smuggle out of the country with the assistance of Matt Crandall (Bryant Washburn), Merritt, Sr.’s partner. Crandall has a shortwave radio hidden behind a wall in the mine’s workshop with which he can communicate with the spy ring. In the first chapter, Merritt, who has suspected Crandall, overhears him making an exchange with Garson and confronts him: Crandall shoots him and fakes an attack by Garson, allowing him to keep his innocent appearance, at least for a while. That’s just in the first chapter of King of the Royal Mounted, and the plot twists more from there, becoming occasionally convoluted but always in motion.

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King of the Royal Mounted is an example of the “Northern” or “Northwestern,” the Canadian equivalent of the Western, popular since the 1910s. As in this one, the heroes are often Mounties, who combine the cinematic virtues of cowboys and police, and instead of prospectors and gunslingers, the local color tends to be made up of loggers and fur trappers, all of this set against the majestic mountains and forests of Canada’s wilderness. As an example, mountain man Vinegar Smith (Budd Buster) is full of lively metaphors (“tougher than skinnin’ a live coyote”) and second-hand Indian wisdom (although there are no actual Indian characters in this serial), and is often in convenient locations to witness strange goings-on or find clues, as when Linda Merritt (Lita Conway) is abducted by airplane and drops her bracelet from the plane attached to a flare in hopes of signaling her location.

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Viewers will also note the frequent references to the Empire; however, like many Northwestern adventures, King of the Royal Mounted is a product of Hollywood. As one might assume, the locations are actually Californian rather than Canadian (mostly filmed in the San Bernardino National Forest, according to always-informative Jerry Blake), but they make for a convincing Great White North on screen. Presumably, this is the reason why the enemy spy ring’s nationality remains unspoken: the U.S. hadn’t yet entered the war against Germany when this serial was produced.

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King of the Royal Mounted displays Zane Grey’s name prominently above the title, but Grey’s involvement was limited: Stephen Slesinger (who was also behind the development of Red Ryder) was the character’s primary creator and writer, with the prolific Western author’s name added for promotional purposes. Slesinger was a pioneer of licensing and merchandising, and Sergeant King, star of comics, Big Little Books, and other spin-offs, was conceived as a true multi-media figure like Tarzan. In 1942, Republic produced another serial, King of the Mounties, based on the same character, but there are several unrelated Mountie serials by Republic and other studios as well. (This also set the pattern for several Republic serials featuring heroes named King, allowing them to use the semi-punning title King of the __________.) The genre goes much deeper than Dudley Do-Right.

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Directed by veterans William Witney and John English, this serial compares favorably to many I’ve watched, with clear, exciting action sequences strung together with well-integrated dialogue scenes. While the emphasis is on the swiftly-moving plot, the dialogue that connects the action set pieces provides a strong sense of character: Kettler and his spy ring are motivated by either nationalism or mercenary concerns, and their continued frustration at King getting in their way turns more and more personal over the course of the serial. King and the Mounties are concerned not only with law and order and the security of the Empire but with the personal safety of their families and with the children who are going to be deprived of life-saving treatment if all the Compound X is stolen.

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In fact, unlike most serials, King of the Royal Mounted isn’t afraid of pouring on the sentiment: the death of Inspector King a third of the way through the serial has weight and the action slows down for a few scenes of mourning. After the Inspector is put to rest, his son is made acting commander of the post, inspiring a few sober words from the otherwise colorful Vinegar Smith: “Best man I ever knew sat in that chair. Any man that takes his place is going to have to do more than just set.” King takes a moment to acknowledge that Garson killed Tom Merritt’s father and (indirectly) his own, and then puts it into perspective, reminding the audience that the fate of the entire British Empire is on the line.

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The Canadian setting provides opportunities for some excellent locations: an abandoned saw mill (and here we get an example of the ultimate serial cliffhanger as Sgt. King, unconscious, is knocked onto a conveyor belt, moving inexorably toward a spinning blade); an abandoned cannery (filled with explosives disguised as crates of salmon); a dam, at which King is almost swept through the spillway, and from which he later dangles by his fingertips; and the best of all, a hidden refinery in a cave, where the spy ring processes its stolen Compound X before smuggling it down the river in hollowed-out logs. After King infiltrates the refinery by hiding in a truck, there’s a fight scene in and around the catwalks and ladders and over an open smelter that’s as good as any I’ve seen. It’s comparable to the fight in the gas works in Daredevils of the Red Circle, but unlike that scene, the refinery is clearly a set rather than an actual location, giving it an odd blend of gothic atmosphere and modern utility. (Of course somebody ends up falling into the smelter during the fight–but who?)

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(For that matter, while the consequences of all this violence aren’t graphically portrayed, there’s quite a bit that, if shown realistically, would be brutal, including fights with axes, sledge hammers, and the like, in addition to the usual fisticuffs and gunplay.)

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Another excellent sequence takes place at “Lakeshore Sanitarium,” a false front set up by the spy ring to assemble fuse caps for magnetic mines. King checks it out when he sees the unusually high shipments of Compound X sent there, and he runs up against “Doctor Shelton” (deep-voiced John Davidson, who we’ve been seeing a lot of this summer), who quickly has his underlings assume the roles of invalid patients. There’s an eerie, paranoid atmosphere in this chapter, as King knows something is wrong (he discovers burn marks and the fuse caps in the “operating room”) but can’t risk a frontal assault without backup. (It’s reminiscent of the excellent Cold War thriller The Whip Hand, which sets up a Communist spy ring in an isolated Wisconsin fishing village, similarly disguising its germ-warfare research as a sanitarium.) Eventually, King flushes out the fake paralytics by setting off the fire alarm, at which they all jump out of their wheelchairs, resulting in another big fist fight.

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Ultimately, while King is the primary hero of this serial, the heart of the story belongs to the Merritt family: Merritt, Sr. (Stanley Andrews), discoverer of Compound X and senior parter in the Caribou mine is killed in the first chapter. His daughter, Linda, carries the torch for his mission: her intimate knowledge of the grounds around the mine and her growing suspicion of Crandall both support King’s efforts and put her in danger. His son Cpl. Merritt is Sgt. King’s right-hand man, and it is he who makes the ultimate sacrifice to stop the spy ring once and for all (allowing King to continue his adventures, of course). The Mounties may always get their man, but sometimes they pay a high price.

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What I Watched: King of the Royal Mounted (Republic, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A DVD from VCI Entertainment. It doesn’t appear to be available to view online beyond a few isolated scenes, but there is a wealth of similar Mountie material on YouTube.

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No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Satan’s Cauldron,” Chapter Eight. (This is the chapter set in the refinery mentioned above.)

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Honorable Mention: “Death Tunes In” (Chapter Seven) is also a good title, and points to the importance of radio in this serial. Both the members of the spy ring and the Mounties communicate by radio, and both spend time listening in on each other, breaking each others’ codes, and tracking each others’ locations by radio.

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Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Six (“False Ransom”), Cpl. Merritt is riding out to meet the henchmen who claim to have Linda held hostage, exchanging the confiscated fuse caps for her safe return. Before he goes, Vinegar Smith tells him to watch out for a bear trap he has set on the trail: “It’s a man-killer!” Now, foreshadowing is typical of the serials, so anyone watching this knows it’s going to come up, but the filmmakers spent a lot of time on the bear trap prop, so we get several good looks at it. When the henchmen arrive (without Linda, as they are planning to ambush Merritt, of course), they accidentally set the trap off: a heavy wooden frame with spikes on it falls to the ground. They decide to reset the trap to use against Merritt, finding that preferable to shooting a Mountie. When Merritt arrives, he notices the rope and steps around the trap. When Sgt. King arrives (having previously rescued Linda from the cabin where she was being held) and fighting breaks out, there are several shots of the rope intercut with the fighting as King and his opponent, wrestling on the ground, inch ever closer to it. Finally, with King directly under the trap, the rope is released, and the chapter ends with a ground-level shot of the trap descending toward him!

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Sample Dialogue: “I didn’t expect a tea party when I joined the Mounties.” –Cpl. Tom Merritt, Jr., Chapter Six

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What Others Have Said: “Allan Lane, they say, was a pure-tee tyrant on his movie sets: wouldn’t let anybody else wear dungarees because he wanted to be the only one wearing them. Pretty rough on co-workers, they say, because he always wanted things done his way. Real ‘stuck-up’ sorehead, they say. Took himself too serious. You know. But when he visited [the Paramount Theater in Concord, North Carolina], the star . . . was a pleasant, jovial man. The people who saw his personal appearances on stage, and those who met him personally, thought he was a pretty nice guy. He readily shared stories of his personal experiences and movie roles with anyone who asked him. . . . Stuck-up? Guess he had us all fooled that day.” –William C. Cline, Serials-ly Speaking, “The Circuit Riders”

What’s Next: In our next installment, we take to the skies again, but this time in the mysterious Far East. Join me as I watch Ace Drummond!

The Secret Life of Sausages

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In The Secret Life of Pets, released last week, rival dogs Max and Duke, on the run after losing their collars and being separated from their owner, sneak into a Brooklyn sausage factory and eat to their hearts’ content. Their binge is interpreted as a dream sequence full of singing and dancing sausage links, set to Grease‘s “We Go Together” in a giant production number. (Co-director Chris Renaud has more to say about it here.) Of course it ends with Max and Duke chomping down on the wieners, even as the musical number continues. Yes, it’s reminiscent of the “Land of Chocolate” sequence from The Simpsons; Secret Life felt like it borrowed quite a few spare parts from other animated films, but that’s beside the point.

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I hadn’t heard about this sequence or seen it in any of the advertising for The Secret Life of Pets, but it’s actually the first of three films scheduled for release this year that feature anthropomorphized hot dogs or sausages. Sausage Party, scheduled for an August 12 release, is an animated feature (story by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) about a hot dog whose idyllic life in the grocery store comes to a horrifying end when he learns that the whole point of his (and his friends’) existence is to be eaten. From the trailer it looks to be a savage, raunchy twist on the Pixar “secret life of _______” formula, but no matter what, it definitely features a crew of talking hot dogs.

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Then there’s Yoga Hosers (September 2), the latest from Clerks mastermind Kevin Smith, and the second installment of his planned “Canadian trilogy” after the gonzo body-horror movie Tusk. Although live action, Yoga Hosers looks to be cartoony in its own way, as it features a pair of convenience store cashiers (Lily-Rose Depp and Harley Quinn Smith) who confront an army of living Nazi bratwursts (“Bratzis,” of course). I’m not gonna lie: as dumb as this looks, it’s the kind of movie I would have loved when I was thirteen, and even now I appreciate a film that takes an absurd-on-its-face premise and runs with it. (At the very least, it’s a suitably weird follow-up to a movie about a mad scientist surgically transforming a man into a walrus.)

So what is the explanation for this coincidence? (Other than sausages being hilarious, I guess.) Paid product placement by Big Sausage (or, more likely, since all of these examples end up making meat-eating look kind of horrible, pro-vegetarian propaganda)? Synchronicity? A message from an alien race of talking wieners? I have no answers. All I know is that these three movies would make for one heck of a triple feature, or at least a very strange montage at the Academy Awards when all three films are inevitably nominated for Best Picture.

Fates Worse Than Death: Pirate Treasure

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Dick Moreland, after returning from a triumphant flight around the world, announces to his comrades at the Aero Club that his next feat will involve digging up a treasure his pirate ancestor, Sir John Moreland, buried centuries ago. The chart describing its island hiding place has been in Moreland’s family for generations, but he is the first member of the family to take it seriously and attempt to recover the treasure. Unfortunately for Dick, a new member of the club, Staley [sic] Brassett, isn’t the honest friend he appears to be: he’s been searching for Sir John’s treasure himself, and he immediately dispatches his henchmen to break into Dick’s house and steal the chart.

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Chasing the henchmen, Dick enlists the aid of a young woman, Dorothy Craig, by falling into the street in front of her car. Dorothy turns out to be the daughter of an airline owner who becomes involved in the expedition and supplies a ship; and since she’s on the lookout for some excitement herself, she comes along as well. Brassett, still pretending to be a good guy while guiding the henchmen from behind the scenes, allows himself to be persuaded to join the search, too. For the majority of Pirate Treasure‘s running time, even as they travel to the island, Dick and co. assume that the lead henchman, Curt, is the head of the gang that has been hounding their steps, with Brassett taking increasingly convoluted steps to preserve his plausible deniability.

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Pirate Treasure is neither the best nor the worst serial I’ve watched since beginning this series, but it may be the most elementary in its appeal. Serials were no strangers to formula, but Pirate Treasure goes beyond cliché to an almost Platonic ideal of wish-fulfillment with almost every element stripped down to its essentials. The secret map to buried treasure in the Spanish Main (a map which is also an ancestral inheritance); the brave and capable girl who nonetheless needs to be rescued and protected; the sneering villain who pretends to be the hero’s friend; the trusty sea captain who can palaver with the natives (who are themselves a composite of every “jungle savage” you’ve ever seen on screen); and of course the hero is not only strong and clever enough to come out on top, but the kind of mensch who will even rescue his enemies rather than let the natives burn them at the stake (and probably eat them). This is a serial that begins with the hero making a record-breaking solo flight around the world, just so that he can finance the adventure he really wants to go on.

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It was, of course, made early enough that many of these plot devices were still fresh and didn’t require much in the way of “twists” for sophisticated audiences; the clichés were in the process of being born. Likewise, unlike many later serials, there is no reliance on a library of stock footage, and the stunts have more in common with the death-defying realism of the silent serials than with the careful montages of disguised stunt performers of later years. Pirate Treasure was Universal’s follow-up to The Perils of Pauline, but it feels like a product of an earlier era.

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Leading man Richard Talmadge brings his acrobatic experience to his action scenes: in some scenes he leaps from one rooftop to another like a 1930s parkour star, and many of his fight scenes take advantage of his tumbling skills. (I was strongly reminded of Charles Quigley in Daredevils of the Red Circle, who combined tumbling and judo in a similar way.) Talmadge also makes a specialty of leaping from great heights: into a moving car, into the water from the rigging of a ship, or on to his enemies in the many brawling fist fights that occur. All of this is filmed as it occurs (sometimes with a little undercranking to juice it up), giving the action an immediacy and a sense of realism that counteracts and grounds the unreality of the plot.

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Talmadge is less assured when it comes to dialogue, however: his voice is light and almost childish, and occasionally halting in ways that give away the scripted nature of his lines. (I will say, however, that unlike many films from the early 1930s, the dialogue is crystal clear and easy to understand; between the clarity of the sound and the largely functional dialogue, Pirate Treasure was one of the easier to follow serials I’ve watched.)

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Lucille Lund, who plays Dorothy Craig, also does her share of stuntwork: she’s something of a Pearl White type, doing double duty as both action heroine and damsel in distress. The one thing she doesn’t do is get involved in fights: even the most thuggish henchman won’t hit a woman in this kind of film, so unless she’s being grabbed and tied up, she is ignored when fights break out, leading to several amusing scenes of men grappling in the foreground while Dorothy stands aside screaming or looking worried. Lund is also a better actor than Talmadge, subtly supporting her costars by reacting to them as a thrill-seeking heiress who gradually finds herself out of her depth, terrorized by henchmen and natives, and whose growing affection for Dick Moreland grows naturally and believably. (The integration of action and romance also seems like a throwback to the silents, or at least the more mature storytelling found in features.)

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Beyond the leads, Pirate Treasure has a strong supporting cast including frequent heavy Walter Miller as Brassett, who is suitably oily as a villain hiding his true colors (I think my favorite moment is when he recommends one of his own men as First Mate on the sea voyage, assuring Moreland that his pick is “one hundred percent loyal” and “you’ll be surprised at the thoroughness with which he does things”). As “spearhead” henchman Curt, Ethan Laidlaw gets to play a more traditionally villainous role, and makes the most of the active part (he also has a fine mustache so you can tell him apart from the other henchmen). Pat O’Malley plays John Craig, Dorothy’s father, without much color but with a stoic reserve that gives way in affectionate scenes with his daughter.

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Finally, William Desmond is Captain Carson, a convincingly salty sea-dog whose friendship with the natives and knowledge of their “lingo” (which mostly sounds like Spanish) saves the day. Incidentally, the Captain’s ship is the Lottie Carson: named for a lost love, or perhaps the Captain’s mother? If Captain Carson were one of those sailors with MOM tattooed over his heart, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. He and the rest of these characters would be right at home in something like Captain Easy or Tintin, series with which Pirate Treasure shares a milieu and a considerable family resemblance.

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What I Watched: Pirate Treasure (Universal, 1934)

Where I Watched It: This was another of the DVD transfers I bought in a lot from eBay. The picture quality isn’t great, so please forgive the blurry screen shots. This serial doesn’t appear to be available to view online, but “pirate treasure” is a phrase that brings up thousands of hits when you search for it, so I could be wrong.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: In keeping with the streamlined approach, many of the chapter titles are very literal (“Stolen Treasure,” Chapter One; “Mutiny!”, Chapter Eight). There is “The Death Plunge” (Chapter Two) as well as “The Fatal Plunge” (Chapter Eleven), “The Death Crash” (Chapter Six) and “Crashing Doom!” (Chapter Seven). My favorite, however, is “The Wheels of Fate” (Chapter Three), which is at least mildly poetic and (in true serial fashion, the chapter title often foreshadowing the cliffhanger at its end) sets up an exciting highway chase and a stunt of Talmadge jumping off a motorcycle speeding across a bridge onto a moving train below.

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Best Cliffhanger: The chapter endings in Pirate Treasure run the gamut from genuinely suspenseful “how are they going to get out of that one?” cliffhangers to rather abrupt cuts to black following a fall. Some of the best involve vehicle crashes (a speedboat crashing into a buoy at the end of Chapter Four, “The Sea Chase”; a car plunging down a hillside and rolling over at the end of Chapter Six, “The Death Crash”). I’ve complained about cliffhanger resolutions that neither get the heroes out of the jam before the crash nor come up with a plausible excuse for their survival, and both of these are prime examples: after the dramatic crash–the boat splintered to pieces in one case, and the open-top car rolling down the hillside in the other–Dick and Dorothy brush themselves off and are okay.

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The best cliffhanger in Pirate Treasure is also the worst offender in its resolution: at the end of Chapter Nine (“Hidden Gold”), Dick and Curt are fighting at the top of a tall, rocky cliff, when Dick loses his footing and falls down, down, down to the jungle floor below, the camera lovingly tracking his body as it bounces off rocks before hitting bottom. Falling bodies are, for some reason, one of the hardest effects to get right, even today with modern CGI and its vaunted “ragdoll physics”; just throwing a dummy down the cliff, as they did in the serial days, usually doesn’t look very convincing. This one, however, is pretty good, while still clearly a dummy. There’s no way Dick could have survived, at least without serious injury (or a massive cheat). However, at the beginning of the next chapter, he gets up after being momentarily stunned; he briefly holds his arm, as if it might be broken; but no, wait, it’s all right; and he’s off to meet the next challenge. From now on, I’ll just refer to this kind of save as a “walk it off” resolution.

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Sample Dialogue:
Captain Carson: I’ve seen lots of treasure hunts. Most of them end in disaster.
Dick Moreland: Ha ha! But not this one.
–Chapter Five, “Into the Depths”

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What Others Have Said:Pirate Treasure featured Richard Talmadge, who followed the tradition of Helen Holmes, Pearl White, Helen Gibson, and Joe Bonomo as an action stunt pioneer and innovator, doing things ‘the way you do it–making movies.'” –William C. Cline, Serials-ly Speaking

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What’s Next: Join me next time as I take my first dip into the “Canadian mountie” subgenre with Republic’s King of the Royal Mounted!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Adventures of Sir Galahad

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After a friendly joust between Camelot and Cornwall, an unknown knight rides forward and challenges the victors, Sir Bors and Sir Modred of Camelot. After defeating them, the stranger requests to be made one of King Arthur’s knights, and reveals that his name is Galahad. Impressed by the young knight’s skills and candor, Arthur agrees to put Galahad to the traditional test: he must stand guard over the sword Excalibur through the night. Through treachery and drugged wine, however, Galahad passes out, but not before seeing a suit of armor move! The mysterious armored knight takes the sword and escapes the castle through a secret passage. The next morning, Galahad is discovered asleep. No one believes his wild story, and Merlin himself accuses Galahad of perpetrating the theft. Even worse, the invading Saxons, led by King Ulric, are attacking! While Arthur defers punishment and Galahad is allowed to ride with the knights, he vows to find the sword and return it to Arthur to clear his name and earn his place at the Round Table.

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Thus begins the twisting plot of The Adventures of Sir Galahad, the 1949 serial from veteran director Spencer Bennet. Along with Sir Bors (also under suspicion because it was he who served the wine that incapacitated Galahad), Galahad infiltrates the Saxon camp, fights against outlaws, and must even overcome Merlin’s magic, all while trying to win over the suspicious knights of Camelot. Ultimately, the villain is the “Black Knight,” the traitor within Camelot who seeks to manipulate the Saxons and outlaws into defeating Arthur in order to claim the throne for himself. He who wields the invincible Excalibur can stand against any foe, so of course the Black Knight keeps it for himself, even while pretending to aid Ulric.

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The legends and romances that make up the Arthurian cycle are so rich and varied that film adaptations inevitably borrow what can be used and discard the rest. Often the forbidden romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere is featured, and the quest for the Holy Grail is another popular subject for film, tackled by both Monty Python and John Boorman. In some versions of the story, Galahad is Lancelot’s son, determined to prove himself before he reveals his identity to his father. The Adventures of Sir Galahad doesn’t deal with any of those plots, but it does an impressive job of creating an original story, combining the source material with the formal demands of a serial.

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In fact, The Adventures of Sir Galahad is unusual in its choice of setting: there are very few serials that deal with medieval or mythological settings (but see Jerry Blake’s comments below). Film studios were regularly releasing features about Arthur, Robin Hood, and other legendary figures, so sets and costumes would have been available for serials (Columbia’s The Green Archer features a castle and a Robin Hood-like character, but is set in modern times), but Galahad remained an outlier. It’s largely a successful hybrid, however: the struggle of the knight and his partner to solve the mystery and prove his innocence lends itself to the episodic rhythm of a serial; there are plenty of opportunities for fight scenes, both skirmishes and full-on battles, and the abundant swordplay makes a nice change from fistfights and shoot-outs; the disguised villain is very typical, comparable to such bad guys as the Scorpion or the Dragon (it ends up being exactly who you think it is, but still); and the frequent magical interference of Merlin (as well as Morgan le Fay, who has a few spells of her own) provide opportunities for unusual and inventive special effects and camera tricks.

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To cite just one example of the serial and fantasy worlds colliding, the cliffhanger of Chapter Eight (“Perilous Adventure”) features Galahad and an outlaw fighting in a wagon pulled by a runaway horse. The scene is identical in blocking and editing to similar fights atop trains or trucks in other serials, down to the use of rear projection, but the medieval setting puts it into a novel context.

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From a story perspective, writers George Plympton, Lewis Clay, and David Mathews also make some smart decisions: by setting Galahad against Merlin and the knights of Camelot at the beginning, the story upends expectations about good guys and bad guys: like Galahad, the audience is unsure who to trust. Merlin appears to be the villain at first; Morgan le Fay offers her own magical help, but what’s her agenda? Arthur (Nelson Leigh, seventh billed) is a distant figure, far from the center of the story. Galahad is left to his own resources, with only the dogged Sir Bors (Charles King) to provide both comic relief and the occasional voice of reason. If these versions of the characters ultimately conform to our expectations of them, it’s not without enough twists and turns to make them feel lived-in, the resolution to the story earned.

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The Adventures of Sir Galahad boasts a large cast for a serial, but the difference between serial and feature shows in the battle scenes, where one might expect hordes of extras: a dozen men on horseback is large enough to make a convincing posse or Indian war party in a Western, but when such a group is meant to represent the entire Saxon army, it’s a little puny. Galahad‘s fight scenes are more impressive when staged in close quarters (such as several fights that take place in an inn, or in mountainous terrain), hiding the small number of men involved and making the fight look more crowded. In many ways, The Adventures of Sir Galahad bears a close resemblance to the low-budget fantasy features that would become popular in the 1950s, such as Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword or the many films about Hercules or Sinbad.

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As Galahad, George Reeves (who would go on to play Superman on TV) makes a convincing hero, eager and brave, but at 35 he is more boyish (at one point a discouraged Bors calls him a puppy, “barking at nothing and chasing his own tail”) than boy (apparently a common pitfall in serial casting). Charles King plays Bors as an over-the-hill Falstaff, accustomed to big meals and the wenches who serve them, but he also becomes Galahad’s most loyal companion and, like all the knights of Camelot, will do what must be done to combat evil.

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The MVP of the cast is William Fawcett, who plays Merlin. Fawcett was the crotchety scientist Professor Hamill in Batman and Robin; he’s just as crotchety here, but with the robes and long white beard of a wizard. He’s clearly having a ball chewing the scenery, throwing flash grenades to mask his magical comings and goings, and waving his hands to cast spells. It’s no wonder Fawcett had such a long career: he’s the quintessential character actor, breathing life into a stock character and stealing every scene he’s in.

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If I could add one thing to this serial, it would be to have Galahad fight a dragon; the only monsters the knight faces are ultimately human ones. Other than that omission, there’s as much Dark Ages atmosphere as you could hope for in The Adventures of Sir Galahad, with secret passages and dungeons, sword fights, magic spells, and mighty feasts. There is even a giant crossbow! The Adventures of Sir Galahad is highly recommended to both serial and fantasy fans.

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What I Watched: The Adventures of Sir Galahad (Columbia, 1949)

Where I Watched It: I bought a batch of privately-burned DVDs of serials from a dealer on eBay, along with several others I’ll be writing about this summer. The transfer is pretty raw, but the price was right. The Adventures of Sir Galahad doesn’t appear to be available to view online.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Not since The Perils of Pauline has a serial emphasized the perils of its cliffhangers this much: in addition to “Passage of Peril” (Chapter Six) and “Perilous Adventure” (Chapter Eight), there’s my favorite, “Castle Perilous” (Chapter Twelve).

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Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter One (“The Stolen Sword”), Morgan le Fay has directed Galahad to find answers in the Enchanted Forest; this is Merlin’s domain, from which no man has returned. As Galahad and Bors enter, they are accosted by strange voices and sounds. Merlin appears and bewitches Galahad so that he can’t move; then Galahad is grabbed by a suddenly mobile tree, while flames dance around him. It’s a pretty intense and strange cliffhanger that lets us know we’re going into the deep end of fantasy here. Alas, my hope that all of the cliffhangers would be magical or fantastic wasn’t lived up to. Some are, and there are a few medieval-specific cliffhangers, like one in which Galahad is strapped down beneath a swinging spiked ball, à la The Pit and the Pendulum; but most are the typical falls or brushes with death common to all serials. But man, that first chapter: it’s a doozy.

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Sample Dialogue:
Bors: Have you never heard it said that rashness is the father of disaster?
Galahad: True, but too much caution is the blood-brother of cowardice.
–Chapter Five, “Galahad to the Recue”

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What Others Have Said:Adventures of Sir Galahad represents its producer Sam Katzman’s second and last attempt to combine the serial and medieval-swashbuckler genres; it’s a huge improvement over Katzman’s previous effort in the same line, the shoddy and tedious Son of the Guardsman–even though Galahad and Guardsman have many sets, costumes, and actors in common.” —The Files of Jerry Blake
(I haven’t seen Son of the Guardsman yet, so I can’t make a comparison.)

What’s Next: X marks the spot! Join me next time for the generically-titled Pirate Treasure.

Fates Worse Than Death: Captain America (1944)

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A bizarre series of deaths, some accidental and some obvious suicides, strikes at wealthy and influential men. The only connection between them is their involvement in an expedition to Central America in search of Mayan ruins, and the jeweled scarabs found in the victims’ possession. The mastermind behind the deaths, revealed to the audience in the first chapter, is Dr. Maldor, a member of the expedition who feels cheated of the glory and wealth that others have claimed. As the Scarab, Maldor is determined to take down his rivals, one by one, all the while posing as the friendly and helpful director of the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences.

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Maldor’s plan might very well succeed, but for the industrious District Attorney, Grant Gardner, and his assistant Gail Richards, who stand in Maldor’s way and get far too close to the truth in their investigations. Even worse, Maldor’s henchmen keep running afoul of the costumed crime fighter known only as Captain America. Could Gardner and Captain America be one and the same? The audience knows, but will the Scarab learn the truth, and what will he do with it?

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These days, when one reads about the 1944 Captain America serial, the focus is on its lack of fidelity to the comic books created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 and published by Timely (now Marvel) Comics. Instead of being Steve Rogers, a runty Army volunteer turned into a titan by the Super Soldier serum, the serial Captain America is Grant Gardner (played by Dick Purcell), a crusading district attorney who dons the costume to bring criminals to justice; no reference is made to his origin. Instead of wielding the iconic shield, Grant Gardner carries a gun, and he gets a lot of use out of it (in fact, considering how many bad guys Gardner kills in his civilian identity without anyone batting an eye, it’s not exactly clear why he needs to step outside of the law and put on a costume at all).

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This Captain America doesn’t even fight Nazis, all the more surprising considering the character’s explicitly patriotic concept and the serial’s wartime production. As in the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, Captain America’s foe follows the serial formula of a far-reaching (but apolitical) criminal mastermind: no Red Skull here, folks. Timely publisher Martin Goodman gave Republic the right to use the character for free (according to Marvel executive Tom Brevoort, speaking in the promotional documentary Captain America: 75 Heroic Years), likely expecting the film to boost sales of his comic books. Whether it had the desired effect, I don’t know, but one wonders what Simon and Kirby, not to mention their loyal readers, thought when they saw “Grant Gardner” going through the paces of a typical Republic adventure.

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I was aware of all that before I watched the serial, but I tried to keep an open mind: although this is an extreme example, it wasn’t unusual for serial producers to change details of their source material to fit into their standard formula, and perhaps the serial would be a success on its own terms, even as it missed the mark as an adaptation. Unfortunately, I ultimately found it tedious and repetitive, even though it had some good performances and some individual chapters that worked well. Like many fifteen-chapter serials, Captain America can’t quite sustain its length, and might have been more effective cut down.

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As both Gardner and Captain America, Dick Purcell has some personality and makes for an engaging central character, and there’s quite a bit of action (much of it supplied by longtime stunt man Dale van Sickel, who actually wore the costume for many of these sequences). He’s not really anything like what I think of as Captain America, being closer to a “cop who bends the rules” type rather than a boy scout, but free of other associations he held my attention. The sheer number of the Scarab’s henchmen that he blows away or throws out high windows, in either identity, would satisfy Charles Bronson.

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Even better is the supporting cast: played by Lorna Gray, Gail Richards is Grant Gardner’s capable assistant, and the only person who knows he’s Captain America. Although she sometimes ends up as the damsel in distress (the memorable cliffhanger in Chapter Five, “Blade of Wrath,” has her tied up and threatened with beheading by the guillotine-like blade of a paper-cutting machine), she also takes the initiative, and clearly takes after her boss. In one chapter, she catches someone tampering with Gardner’s car; when the man pulls a gun in an attempt to abduct her, she whips out her own heater and shoots him dead!

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As Dr. Maldor/The Scarab, Lionel Atwill is the very model of a plummy, cultured villain, complete with monocle. Using the “Purple Death,” he can make men do his bidding or drive them to suicide. Like most serial masterminds, he works through his disposable henchmen, keeping himself at a distance from the violence until the very end. His right-hand man (and also the most active in the field) is Matson (George Lewis), but John Davidson (whom we just saw in Tailspin Tommy) also lends his deep voice to the cause of evil as the henchman Gruber.

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Maldor possesses a cutting wit, often directed at his bungling helpers. In one scene he sarcastically congratulates his henchmen: “You should be proud of yourself. Captain America has made a fool of you in every job you’ve attempted.” In a late chapter, when Maldor starts getting his hands dirty himself, he honest-to-God says “There are ways of making you talk” to the only man who knows how to decipher a Mayan treasure map, before flogging him with a cat-o-nine-tails.

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Later in the same episode, when Maldor learns that Gardner is on his way to the Scarab’s farmhouse hideout, he uses an airplane to personally drop bombs on the house in the hopes of destroying evidence of his presence and (even better) killing his nemesis at the same time (it is in fact the fifth building destroyed directly or indirectly by the Scarab in this serial, a showcase of special effects masters Theodore and Howard Lydecker’s genius). It would be nit-picky to question the efficiency or timeliness of this method. Rather, it points to the ways in which Maldor exemplifies the criminal mastermind: the true master criminal works through others, keeping the dirty work at a distance, as long as necessary; he always has multiple escape routes and alibis; and most importantly, he has the resources and the will to do whatever it takes to remove any obstacle that keeps him from his goal. If that means getting in a plane and blowing up his own hideout, so be it.

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The thread of Maldor’s vengeance against the members of the Mayan expedition is really the only thing that ties together the various episodes, giving the serial a somewhat choppy rhythm: in several chapters, Gardner/Captain America is charged with protecting or rescuing a scientist or executive whom the Scarab threatens. In some cases, that involves recovering or destroying a new invention that the Scarab wants for himself (a “vibrating engine” shakes apart a building in the first chapter; an “electronic fire bolt” allows the Scarab’s gang to cut open bank vaults to finance his operations in the next, and so on). Unfortunately, too much time is spent explaining and talking, or with anonymous henchmen setting up traps without much happening. When Purcell, Atwill, or Gray aren’t on screen, the film lags.

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What I Watched: Captain America (Republic, 1944)

Where I Watched It: The serial is on YouTube in its entirety.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: All the bases are covered by Captain America‘s chapter titles: from the poetic (“Blade of Wrath”; “The Toll of Doom”) to the bluntly literal (“Skyscraper Plunge”), the alliterative (“Triple Tragedy”; “Horror on the Highway”) and the lurid (“The Dead Man Returns”). But before Captain America was “The First Avenger,” there was “The Avenging Corpse” (Chapter Ten), my pick for Best Chapter Title.

Best Cliffhanger: Sometimes simple misdirection makes for the most effective cliffhanger. At the end of Chapter Eleven (“The Dead Man Returns”), Captain America has tracked the Scarab to an electrical laboratory, where Dr. Lyman’s Life Restoring Machine is to be used to revive Matson. As he fights with one of the Scarab’s henchmen, the two of them end up inside of the generator room, which generates the million volts necessary to charge up the machine. Another of the Scarab’s men, Dirk, throws the switch to turn it on: we see a shower of sparks and then the camera cuts to Dirk’s horrified face and we hear a chilling scream. (Of course at the beginning of the next chapter we see our hero leap out of the generator room just in time: the scream belongs to the other guy.)

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Sample Dialogue: “Mister Gardner is a brave man; I’d feel much happier if Captain America were with him.” –Professor Dodge, Chapter Three, “Scarlet Shroud”

What Others Have Said: “Sadly, Purcell died of a heart attack shortly after completing this serial at the age of 35. It was a tragic end for the man who originated the role of a nearly immortal hero (in the comics, Captain America’s died and come back to life at least three different times). Purcell’s Cap isn’t the strongest or most physically fit, but there’s something to be said for the human dimension he brought to the role.” –Matt Singer, The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as we get medieval with The Adventures of Sir Galahad!

Purple Prose, Purple Death

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In watching the 1944 Captain America serial (for which I’ll have a full write-up next week), I was struck by the title of the first chapter, “The Purple Death,” a title shared by the first chapter of the 1940 serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In Captain America, the Purple Death refers to the extract of a rare orchid that makes its victims susceptible to hypnotic control (the “death” part comes when the victims are ordered to kill themselves, helpless to resist); in Flash Gordon, it’s a mysterious, fatal disease spread from Mongo to Earth that leaves its victims marked by a purple spot.

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The pulps (as well as comic strips and serials) were known for lurid, vividly-drawn stories with larger-than-life heroes and impossibly wicked villains to match. Purple is an attention-getting color, to the point that we speak of “purple prose.” I was also reminded of the Purple Empire, one of the enemy nations that Operator #5 fought against in the 1930s. (I thought there might be some significance to that, but the Operator series included a rainbow of enemy nations, possibly influenced by the color-coded War Plans developed by the U. S. military during the 1920s and ’30s.)

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In reading and watching stories from the 1930s and ’40s, I’ve encountered the phrase “purple death,” or uses of purple as a dangerous and dramatic color, enough times that I wondered if there was an underlying connection. So, in the spirit of Philip J. Reed’s Pop Questions, I’m asking: what’s the significance of the color purple in the pulps, and why particularly is death purple? Does it refer to the livid color of a bruise or the marks left by strangulation? Is it the association with royalty, by extension gaudy and powerful? I have a few leads that seem likely, but if anyone reading this has a specific answer, I’d love to hear it.

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Purple is associated with death and mourning in many cultures, including the Victorians of the nineteenth century, for whom purple was the color of “demi-mourning,” to be worn after a period of wearing black. It was also the color of royalty, originally due to the rarity and high cost of purple dyes in the ancient world. It would certainly match both the dramatic style and frequent (if shallow) references to history and classic literature in the pulps if that were the reason. I don’t have statistics at hand, but my hunch is that as comic books became the dominant medium for pulp storytelling, more villains than heroes had purple uniforms or color schemes.

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However, the most likely answer goes back to the 1918 influenza epidemic: the disease killed quickly, and often left its victims purple in color as their lungs filled with blood and starved the body of oxygen. One book on the subject is even titled Purple Death. According to some estimates, as many as 50 million people worldwide died during from the disease. Just as pulp heroes were often veterans of the Great War, so the memory of the epidemic would have resonated with writers and readers in the decades that followed. In Flash Gordon, the Purple Death was also a disease, and the scenes of public panic and the scramble to find a cure hearken directly to the 1918 epidemic; by comparison, the use of the phrase in Captain America is almost poetic, but would likely have still induce a twinge of fear for those who remembered it. Even today, with no direct memory of the influenza epidemic, it sounds ominous.

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So perhaps that’s the answer. If any readers have more details to offer, or facts to contradict my speculations, I’d love to hear them. Any other examples of purple as a color marking death or danger are, of course, welcome.