The Political Fantasies of BrainDead and Vote Loki

from Vote Loki #2, art by Paul McCaffrey, colors by Chris Chuckry

from Vote Loki #2, art by Paul McCaffrey, colors by Chris Chuckry

In 2008, just days after the presidential election, South Park aired an episode exploring Barack Obama’s victory. In the episode, both Obama and his political opponents, including John McCain and Sarah Palin, were shown secretly working together, running an Ocean’s 11-style long con (including faking their identities: the “real” Palin had a posh British accent, for example) in order to steal the Hope Diamond from the Smithsonian via a tunnel hidden beneath the Oval Office. In the B-plot, the conservative residents of South Park holed up in a bunker, readying themselves for the collapse of society they felt sure would follow Obama’s election, while liberal Randy Marsh went on a celebratory spree, leading to telling off his boss and parading down the street naked, so convinced was he that Obama’s victory had changed everything and that things were going to be different now. For such a regularly cynical show, it was oddly reassuring, suggesting that erstwhile political foes could actually work together, even if it was to perpetrate a jewel heist, and the B-plot served to deflate both the apocalyptic and messianic rhetoric that had made the election so divisive. Things won’t change that much, it seemed to say.

Fast-forward to 2016, and such notions of cooperation seem downright quaint; the rise of Donald Trump, Presidential Contender, has raised questions as to whether satire is relevant or even possible anymore. No writer or cartoonist can top the bizarre reality that Trump has built up in his repeated lies, promises, and threats, and that we now find ourselves trapped in. No modern “A Modest Proposal” could be more shocking than some of Trump’s own statements, no discriminatory or unconstitutional policy proposal so disgusting that it won’t find support in at least some portion of the electorate, newly empowered by Trump to express their bigotry out in the open. I’m starting to understand how conservatives suffering from “Obama derangement syndrome” must have felt; recently I had a “step away from the computer” moment when I realized that for my own mental health I couldn’t spend all my time reading and relaying news stories and commentaries about Trump: with more than a month still to go before the election and a flood of ever-more-insane details trickling out every day, I needed to get some fresh air or else I’d go crazy.

So perhaps it’s fitting that two of my summer pleasures channeled this pervasive political anxiety into forms that are both more palatable and which provided the narrative closure that eludes us in real life: BrainDead, a thirteen-episode CBS series that ended two weeks ago, and Vote Loki, a four-issue Marvel comic book miniseries that wrapped up last Wednesday.

Vote Loki #4, cover art by Tradd Moore and Matthew Wilson

Vote Loki #4, cover art by Tradd Moore and Matthew Wilson

In Vote Loki, written by Christopher Hastings with art by Langdon Foss, the Norse god of mischief (and recovering supervillain) Loki manipulates his way into the presidential race, to the consternation of Nisa Contreras, a crusading journalist whose own drive to uncover the truth was fueled by the destruction of her childhood home during a battle between Loki and the Avengers. Contreras’s attempts to reveal Loki’s true purposes are continually co-opted by the candidate himself, spinning every new revelation into more proof that Loki is a “chess master,” an outsider working the system for his own ends. Loki’s ascent, which begins with him saving the two mainstream candidates from an attack by the terrorist group HYDRA, is driven by his celebrity status: at first a novelty, his “plainspoken” openness about his villainous character earns him the loyalty of supporters who feel left out of the process. “I’m going to lie to you right to your face and you’re gonna love it,” he says; his slipperiness is just part of his rakish appeal. (When Contreras provides proof that Loki’s political advisors are actually members of a Loki-worshipping cult, Loki laughs it off: he said he was a god, and doesn’t the First Amendment protect freedom of religion?)

Of course, this is a comic book world, so in addition to HYDRA, other threats to the republic include a destabilized Latveria (home of Doctor Doom, whose absence has created a dangerous power vacuum and a terrorist-supporting regime calling itself “Doom’s Children”) and issues surrounding superpowered mutants and Inhumans. Some of Loki’s Asgardian relatives make appearances, as well, including Thor, who as a member of the Avengers can’t get involved officially but who passes some critical information to Contreras.

Like most “outsider” candidacies, Loki’s first and most important platform is that the other guys, who represent the “system,” are worse, both equally compromised and too indebted to the establishment to change anything. (The two mainstream candidates are a man and a woman, but are unnamed, and there is little else to identify them as Trump or Hilary Clinton.) Again, that’s an argument frequently bandied about by Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein in this election (and by supporters of Bernie Sanders who aren’t ready to accept his concession to Clinton in the Democratic race); it’s complete baloney to say that there’s “no difference” between the Democratic and Republican candidates, especially this year, but it’s an easy sell when the two major candidates are seen so negatively and even members of their own parties are having trouble expressing much enthusiasm for them.

Absurd times call for absurd heroes: Loki joins fellow Marvel character Howard the Duck in mounting an insurgent campaign, and like Howard’s 1976 run, Loki’s campaign is in the tradition of courageous truth-tellers who say what they’re really thinking (and what is Trump if not “outspoken”?) and are loved by voters for daring to speak their mind. Of course, one man’s Man of the Year is another man’s A Face in the Crowd, and the flip side of all that honesty is a loose cannon shooting his mouth off, a demagogue who tells voters what they want to hear and gives them permission to exercise their basest passions.

Early in Loki’s campaign, J. Jonah Jameson challenges Loki during a television interview: “Everyone loves an electoral circus, and now you’re the sideshow! What fun! Until you get so big you get your own tent.” Sound familiar? Over months of mounting alarm over the possibility of a supervillain taking control of the United States through legal means, the American system of politics as reality programming is held up to a funhouse mirror, with Loki’s real intentions hidden (perhaps even from himself) until the eve of the election.

BrainDead, created by Robert and Michelle King (creators of The Good Wife), working with more narrative space and a larger cast of characters on television, takes a different approach, one in which the real action is in Congress. BrainDead explicitly takes place in our world, with frequent references to the Clinton/Trump race and clips of the candidates’ appearances on television screens, but in its own way it’s as far out as the gods and superheroes of Vote Loki, as if the Kings finally had somewhere to put all their ideas that were too crazy for The Good Wife.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy

As BrainDead begins, struggling documentarian Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has reluctantly returned home to Washington, D.C., and her political-dynasty family, to help her brother Luke (Danny Pino), a Senator. At the same time, a strange meteorite recovered from Russia turns out to be full of ant-like parasites that infect their victims by climbing into their ears and eating half of their brains. A few of the infected succumb to Scanners-like head explosions (or “catastrophic head injuries”), but the rest are taken over by the insects and undergo a personality change, becoming more rigid, aggressive, and ideologically-driven. Conservatives are pushed farther to the right, liberals to the left, with no ability to find common ground. Once the meteorite is taken to Washington and members of the political class are exposed to the bugs, the result is chaos and gridlock produced by the already-intense partisanship being thrown into overdrive. Laurel, working in her brother’s office as a constituent liaison, is one of the first to notice something strange is going on.

So BrainDead clearly follows in the footsteps of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, with strong shades of The X-Files. Who can you trust? How can you fight something that most people won’t even believe in without evidence? When even her longtime friends change overnight, Laurel is aided in uncovering the truth by a physician (Nikki M. James) and that standby of conspiracy thrillers, the paranoid loner: Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill), an eccentric autodidact who knows a little about everything and keeps his cell phone wrapped in tin foil so the NSA can’t track his location. The insider’s-view political satire (which is frequently very funny) is tightened and made queasy by its sci-fi/horror flourishes and even moreso by its obvious, if heightened, relationship to the real world.

As good as Winstead is in the lead, the cast’s MVP is Tony Shalhoub as Republican Senator Red Wheatus. Before being infected by the bugs, Wheatus was an unambitious, day-drinking good-ol’-boy politician, but after infection he becomes a laser-focused, uncompromising (even murderous) right-wing warrior (and a teetotaler: among other signs of infection is an aversion to alcohol) and Luke Healy’s nemesis. As the bugs spread to ordinary citizens, Wheatus turns their heightened political passion into a movement (the “One Wayers”) and begins engineering a war against Syria based on false evidence. Wheatus’s Democratic counterpart, the similarly bug-infected Minority Leader Ella Pollack (Jan Maxwell) plays along from her own side of the aisle. The reasoning behind the Syria plan takes a while to unravel, but it ultimately ties into the bugs’ plans to keep the humans divided and our government paralyzed by disagreement.

Tony Shalhoub as Sen. Red Wheatus

Tony Shalhoub as Sen. Red Wheatus

I’ve read criticism that BrainDead indulges in too much “both-sidesism,” a chronic complaint against American political satire that attempts to take on the “system” or politicians at large rather than having a specific point of view. As the old saying goes, the middle of the road is a good place to get run over from both directions. There’s a little bit of truth to that, particularly in light of Laurel’s romantic entanglement with Senator Wheatus’s Chief of Staff, Gareth (Aaron Tveit), an idealistic (and uninfected) Good Republican who couldn’t have been any more of a paragon if he were specifically written to counter charges of liberal partisanship. While Wheatus conducts his secret war plans, murders political enemies who get in his way, and makes a mockery of the political process (in one memorable episode, he holds up an entire committee over naming a kiosk in the Capitol Building after a slain police officer named Sharie because it sounds too close to “Sharia,” an idiotic idea that would be a lot funnier if it didn’t sound like something that could really happen), Gareth’s biggest flaw is that he’s stubbornly straight-arrow, and he can’t get over the possibility that Laurel might have slept with Michael Moore. Conservativism is more savagely satirized on BrainDead than liberalism, if only because the GOP is in such disarray and provides so much material, but it’s extremism, not conservatism itself, that comes in for the most criticism.

But that’s the point: that our democratic system depends on dialogue and compromise, and the real danger to it is a take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth attitude that would rather tear down the whole system than give an inch to the “enemy.” Cronyism and politics as usual make reliable targets, and there is much to decry in the horse-trading and back-scratching of pork-barrel politics, but this is an unusual moment. We are reaping the political landscape that comes from gerrymandering “safe” districts that allow primary challengers to push candidates to extreme positions; the normalization of inflammatory rhetoric; and the echo chambers that arise when every political viewpoint has its own news outlet and we are able to insulate our social media experience from opinions we disagree with. On BrainDead, it’s the politicians who are willing to compromise, to be seen drinking and socializing with their opponents, and who are willing to work the system rather than let it grind to a halt, that are portrayed as heroic–flawed, perhaps, but heroic. The Kings all but spell it out for us by having Laurel herself says as much in episode 11, in which she plays the bohemian artist card to explain her recent obsession with bugs: “I’m a filmmaker, and as a filmmaker, I use the language of metaphor. . . . So all the bug stuff you heard was just my way of talking about all the extremism in Washington. As an artist, I use metaphors a lot, probably too much. I love metaphors.”

In the end, things get back to normal, which is to say the inefficient, corrupt system continues: it’s “politics as usual,” and that’s a relief. Red Wheatus is back to his not-too-bright self, and it turns out that half a brain is plenty to function in Congress (cue laugh track). Similarly, in Vote Loki the title character observes the unrest and even violence that has erupted in response to his candidacy and finally deigns to face his supporters directly. Naturally, they all want different things from him, and when pinned down he finds that you really can’t fool all of the people all of the time. (Of course, maybe he never really wanted to be president, and had other goals in mind the whole time–something that has frequently been said of Donald Trump–but who can say?) As in the 2008 South Park episode, it’s a reassuring (if modest) vision. Both BrainDead and Vote Loki ultimately come down in favor of the status quo, imperfect as it is, and in so doing partake of the oldest myth in America: that as frequently as our system breaks down, as tested as it may be by the original sin of racism, the corruption of big money, and the easy answers of ideology and demagoguery, it is capable of renewal: that out of the chaos of the electoral process, we will pick ourselves up and rebuild, as we do every four or eight years. Can we pull it off one more time? I sure hope so.

Medleyana: Year Three

Well, another year of blogging has passed, and that means it’s time to write a “state of the blog” post again. I can tell this has been a busy year for me, at least based on the gap between posts earlier this spring. As I said then, I’ve given myself permission to not write unless I have something to say, but I still find the discipline and structure of blogging helpful for making myself finish things. Speaking of finishing, I’m finally nearing the end of a project that has taken a lot of my writing time and is probably the number one reason I haven’t posted as frequently in 2016 (more on that as it develops).

I suppose I don’t really have much to say in comparison to previous yearly summaries, but as always I want to say “thank you” to those of you who subscribed, commented, and shared links to Medleyana. I appreciate the feedback and fellowship. And in that spirit, I’d like to turn outward and recommend a few other online sources that I rely on and enjoy.

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First off, I still follow Philip J. Reed at Noiseless Chatter; like Medleyana, Noiseless Chatter covers a wide range of topics–whatever Philip and his guests feel like discussing–so it’s hard to point to a representative sample. Philip recently wrapped up a long, intensive dive into ALF, the television series about an alien puppet who lives with a suburban family and eats cats (seriously, I was never really a fan of the show, but Philip goes into much greater detail). Other articles have provided thoughtful looks at popular culture, the creative process, and heavy topics like mental health and suicide prevention (Philip’s response to the death of Robin Williams, and the dialogue that followed, is one of his finest moments, as far as I’m concerned). If you’ve followed Medleyana for long, you’ve probably seen me mention Noiseless Chatter before, but if you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for?

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I’ve also recently been taken with New Orleans-based Swampflix, a movie review and discussion site run by fellow Dissolver Brandon Ledet, among others. Swampflix casts a wide net in its reviews and articles, including up-to-date releases and older films going all the way back to the silent era, “from the heights of art cinema to the depths of basic cable schlock.” That’s a mandate I can get behind, and it’s just as much fun to read about films I’ve seen to get the writers’ insights and perspectives as it is to browse their reviews to get recommendations for new things to watch.

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Like many sites these days, Swampflix has also spun off into a podcast. I’m not a very regular listener to podcasts–I enjoy them, but it’s not quite a habit for me–but I’ve enjoyed the episodes I’ve listened to. Another podcast I’ve found entertaining and informative is We Love to Watch (formerly Listen To Our Podcast), by Aaron Armstrong and Peter Moran (in addition to their website, they’re on Stitcher and iTunes). They cover a variety of genre and exploitation movies, as well as a few higher-profile selections that dip into those areas (like Deliverance). They’ve also sometimes covered the same movies as Swampflix, giving an interesting range of opinions and perspectives (like when they both covered 1981’s Possession, a bizarre and unsettling film I also caught up with earlier this summer).

I would be remiss if I failed to include the blog of Rick Kelley, aka Luddite Robot, whose coverage of film is deep and always well-researched, and who doesn’t shy away from the political implications of works, even while acknowledging their power (he’s right on about the flimsy allegory of Metropolis, but it’s still one of my favorite films).

Finally, I also want to recommend fellow Dissolver Zack Clopton’s Film Thoughts. Zack is a true “monster kid,” a fan of all kinds of horror and genre fare, as well as a collector of monster toys and action figures. He both writes knowledgeably about a wide range of movies (his “Director Report Card” series is a highlight) and reflects on what those movies have meant to him in his life; Zack’s affection for the genre shines through in every post.

Thanks again for a great year!

Fates Worse Than Death: Flying G-Men

FGM.title

“The peace and security of the nation have been threatened by a campaign of espionage and sabotage, conducted by a powerful spy ring whose head is known as the Professor! The Bureau of Investigation has assigned three flying G-Men to the case. They created the Black Falcon, a mysterious masked pilot whose sudden raids spread terror and confusion among the ranks of the conspirators!”

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That burst of breathless narration (or a variation of it) introduces each chapter of the 1939 Columbia serial Flying G-Men, and honestly it summarizes the situation as well as I could, so let’s get to the meat of the discussion. Frankly, I often get hung up on plot, in the sense that when I’m reviewing something, or writing my own fiction, I spend way more time trying to untangle and summarize the action than I do when I’m just watching or reading something for pleasure. All along, I think I’ve been clear that I don’t really watch serials for their timeless stories or (God knows) their deep sense of characterization, but rather for their lurid, punchy aesthetic. An iconic pose; an atmosphere of potent menace; a trained dramatic actor making a meal of a pulp hack’s overheated prose; in short, the “cool factor” are greater contributors to my enjoyment than mere plot mechanics. I get the same kind of pleasure from an isolated image or moment that a really good cover illustration or dramatic turn of phrase conveys.

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Still, unlike a pulp magazine cover or the posters that advertised the serials, movies unfold in time and feature narratives that deliver those moments in a structured way, so as I write I feel that I have to deal with the flow from A to B to C. It’s easy to get caught up in summary that is neither interesting to write nor to read, but is necessary for context when explaining why it’s so cool that it wasn’t really the Black Falcon who got shot by the Professor’s henchmen at the end of Chapter Ten, but rather a captured spy that the G-Men dressed in the Falcon’s uniform to serve as a decoy (or whatever).

Flying G-Men provides many such moments, so I loved almost every minute of it. I think I’ve come to the realization that I enjoy police and gangster serials more than superhero or science fiction serials. In many cases, they are just as fanciful as their high-concept peers, featuring similar costumed characters and high-tech gadgets, but the supposedly more realistic setting forces them to explore that world in greater depth, as well as intersecting with crime pictures, film noir, and other kinds of drama in ways that are surprisingly artistic and expressive. Take a look at the frame below, for example: it’s as absolutely clear as a silent film what’s happening. That’s not to say that such artistic choices aren’t sometimes made in superhero or sci-fi serials, but I have noticed a tendency to lean on the dazzling design elements rather than creative staging in many of them.

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Of course, some exposition is inevitable. The titular G-Men, all in the employ of the FBI’s Air Division, were formerly known as the “Skyhawks,” a foursome who previously set a record flying around the world. (As in Pirate Treasure, an accomplishment that would ensure a lifetime of accolades in real life is here merely part of the heroes’ background; it’s as if Mark Watney’s experiences on the red planet in The Martian had served only to prepare him to stop a jewel heist on Earth.) The designer whose inventions made that flight possible, Ed McKay, has developed a remote-controlled robot bomber for military use, remarkably similar to a modern drone aircraft. Of course such a design is a target for espionage, and under the direction of the mysterious “Professor” a wide-ranging spy ring first kills McKay (leaving behind his sister and young son) and then makes efforts to steal the bomber plans for its own use.

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The spy ring is based on Flame Island, a fortified stronghold off the coast. The G-Men, unsatisfied with their legal remit to apprehend the spies, come up with a costumed identity, the “Black Falcon,” who can act with a free hand (as is frequently the case, this is really a pretext for dressing up in costume and using cool gadgets, because it’s not like the G-Men are held up by such red tape as arrest warrants, inquiries into their use of force, or even trials). The Falcon wears a stylish leather flight suit and face mask with goggles, very similar to the Tiger Shark from The Fighting Marines (and anticipating the twenty-first century tendency to replace spandex superhero costumes with more “realistic” paramilitary-style gear).

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In order to protect the Falcon’s identity, the G-Men do not reveal to anyone (including the audience, until the very end) which of them is wearing the hero’s costume (The opening credits show “? ? as the Black Falcon”). As a proto-superhero, the Black Falcon even has a gimmicky talisman, a dart that he leaves behind to mark his kills (if he remembers, so about half the time).

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Thus, while the identity of the “Professor” is left unsolved only for the first third of the serial, the real mystery is which of the G-Men is the Black Falcon. The fact that Bronson, one of the four G-Men, dies early on would suggest a rather obvious answer to that puzzle, but you won’t get it from me: you’ll just have to watch for yourself. On occasions when the other two G-Men are accompanying the Falcon, they also wear face-covering masks to keep up the air of mystery, but they needn’t have bothered: as three white guys with dark hair and similar builds, I could hardly tell the three G-Men apart even when unmasked unless they called each other by name. (Is it just me? Maybe I suffer from face blindness when it comes to the actors in old black-and-white movies.)

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Flying G-Men is a pleasure to watch even when spinning its wheels: the action, of which there is quite a bit, in the form of fist fights, shoot-outs, and car chases, is generally clear and exciting. Fights are often no-holds-barred brawls, free of the stagey, wooden quality that plagues some serials, and they flow organically from the situation rather than beginning from an arbitrary “time to fight now” beat. The surging, constantly active score (credited to musical director M. W. Stoloff, but the work of diverse hands including composer Mischa Bakaleinikoff) does a lot of the work as well, giving a sense of urgency even to scenes of dialogue. (The main title theme in particular sounds like the Superman march and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” had a baby.) Aerial scenes, oddly enough, are relatively weak, in some cases cut together from obvious stock footage and in most places unclear as to how the combatants are positioned in relation to each other (see my comments below on the end of Chapter Four for a particularly egregious example). Still, these scenes are exciting and unpredictable, and in any case the “Flying G-Men” and the Black Falcon spend as much time fighting the spies on land as they do in the air.

One nice touch is the degree to which events simply refuse to cooperate with the clichés of the genre: for example, disguises are a staple of spy adventures, but almost every time the G-Men attempt to pass themselves off as someone else, they are recognized. Going undercover as workers at an aircraft plant, G-Man Cummings (James Craig) is immediately recognized by Hamilton, the company’s president (and possibly the Professor himself); they had met in the FBI director’s office previously. Cummings offers the lame explanation “Other people have made the same mistake,” but the damage is already done. In another chapter, Andrews (Robert Paige) and Davis (Richard Fiske) invade a hidden lab belonging to the spy ring; after knocking out the lab workers, they don their protective masks and try to take their place when more spies arrive to check on them. “You’re not Walker!” one exclaims after hearing Andrews’ voice, and another fistfight erupts. So much for the art of deception.

Flying G-Men also benefits from a strong ensemble of back-up players. Sammy McKim (young Kit Carson in The Painted Stallion) plays Billy, the orphaned son of the designer killed in the first chapter. Although not involved in every chapter, Billy has just the right amount of presence in the serial: in some chapters he’s put in danger and must be rescued, and in others he contributes to the G-Men’s campaign by being places that only children can go without arousing suspicion. He also has a few scenes with other kids, lending the support of his network of child airplane modelers and HAM radio enthusiasts to the G-Men. (And boy are those kids quick: in one scene, Billy’s aunt Babs is abducted by the spy ring and through quick thinking she drops her brother’s medal out of the car in front of a pair of boys. “Somebody in that car was trying to get a message to the G-Men!” they immediately conclude.)

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Babs (another veteran of the serials, Lorna Gray, who later changed her screen name to Adrian Booth) similarly gets involved in a few of the chapters; aside from being kidnapped a couple of times, she also uses her head and helps the G-Men carry out their plans, mostly by pretending to have some more undisclosed plans for her brother’s designs, as a way of luring members of the spy ring out into the open.

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I haven’t even mentioned the completely superfluous but nonetheless fantastic pretense by which the Professor recruits down-and-outers through his “Historical Study Group”; or the fact that the president of the steel mill in which some of the action is set is named “Lewis Carroll” for some reason; or the garage with a hidden elevator behind a sliding wall that forms a headquarters for the Professor’s second-in-command. Despite Columbia’s reputation for silliness, Flying G-Men largely strikes a satisfying balance between intentional and unintentional comedy: it knows how far-fetched this all is, but doesn’t feel the need to undercut its story with excessive winking and comic relief. Most gratifying to me, it also moves swiftly from one idea to the next, without the stretches of tedium that frequently plague serials (especially those in fifteen chapters). It has, in short, the quality that I value most in serials: it is imaginative, exhilarating, and above all, fun.

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What I Watched: Flying G-Men (1939, Columbia)

Where I Watched It: Flying G-Men was in the batch of DVDs I got from eBay at the beginning of the summer. It can be viewed on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Frequently serial chapter titles will hint at the crisis featured in the episode or the cliffhanger that ends it, but most of the chapter titles in Flying G-Men are either vague enough that they could apply to any episode (Chapter One, “Challenge in the Sky”) or misleading, suggesting a doom that ends up being something else entirely (Chapter Nine, “Wings of Terror,” does include one of the serial’s many aerial dogfights, but ends with the Black Falcon falling off the roof of a building). Chapter Eleven’s title, “While A Nation Sleeps,” is an example of the former, conveying the shadowy, secretive activities of the spy ring, but has little to do with the events of the chapter: it doesn’t even take place at night.

Best Cliffhanger: In keeping with the disconnect between the chapter titles and the chapter endings, the cliffhangers are often somewhat perfunctory or not very well set up, indicating that they weren’t the filmmakers’ highest priority. Most of the chapters have plenty of action within the chapter that may or may not have anything to do with the cliffhanger. So while not the best cliffhanger, the one that has occupied my mind the most since watching it is at the end of Chapter Four, “The Falcon Strikes.” The spies, having publicized an experimental “stratosphere flight” that is actually intended to help them take aerial photographs of coastal defense installations, have ascended high into the sky in a spherical observation vessel suspended from a high-altitude balloon. The Black Falcon, finding out about the subterfuge and determined to stop the spies, attacks the balloon directly from his airplane, strafing the balloon with a machine gun. The editing of the sequence makes it look like the Falcon is diving toward the balloon, firing from above, but when the vessel falls, it lands directly on the Falcon’s plane, which is now somehow below the balloon. Both the vessel and the Falcon’s plane crash to the ground. It’s a real head-scratcher.

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The resolution to this is also a curiosity: previously it’s been established that the Black Falcon sometimes flies a special small plane that can detach from a larger bomber, similar to the robot bombers whose plans are the MacGuffin of the serial. In the resolution to Chapter Four’s cliffhanger, it is shown that the Falcon flew away in the small plane while the spies’ vessel dropped the bomber to the ground. But as a newspaper headline shows, the Falcon’s “piggyback” plane is actually a “pick-a-back” plane. I’d never come across that idiom, but a little digging informs me that “pick-a-back” is actually the original form of the word. Still, according to my sources “piggyback” was current before the end of the nineteenth century, so it seems strange to see the older usage in print.

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Sample Dialogue: “Who knows but that it’ll be the Black Falcon who’ll step in and capture this Professor? This mysterious flyer seems to be doing some excellent work. In fact, he’s what could be considered a first-rate flying G-Man . . . don’t you think so?” –FBI Director Frank Carlton (Edward Earle), Chapter Eleven, “While A Nation Sleeps”

What Others Have Said: “The Falcon has a black leather flying outfit that is handier to get to when needed than the Durango Kid’s horse, while his two remaining partners are stuck with your basic gray . . . and together they are close to being a precursor to “Blackhawk” and his band. . . . Keeping a straight face is not easy to do when facing a gang of henchmen directed by James W. Horne behind the over-wrought narration of Knox Manning.” –Les Adams, summarizing Flying G-Men on the International Movie Database

This concludes this year’s Fates Worse Than Death. Thanks for following along with me! Barring any serial-related articles I may write this fall or spring, serial coverage will resume next summer. In the mean time, I hope you’ll keep following Medleyana, as you never know what I’ll choose to write about next!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom (1943)

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At Sai Pana, a trading post in an unspecified part of Africa, an expedition led by Professor Davidson is preparing to enter the jungle in search of the lost city of Zoloz, with the help of a map made of six pieces of ivory that fit together like a puzzle. Only the central seventh piece, which shows the exact location of Zoloz, is missing. Among those traveling with the Professor are his niece Diana Palmer and Geoffrey Prescott, a colleague from Melville University.

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Sai Pana’s resident physician, Dr. Bremmer, shows interest in Davidson’s search, but for his own reasons: Bremmer is actually the head of a ring of saboteurs who are building a secret air base in Zoloz, and he will use any connivance to throw Davidson off the scent so he can keep his activities hidden. At the same time, Singapore Smith, owner of the Trade Winds hotel in Sai Pana, schemes to get his hands on the Professor’s ivory keys (and the treasure it leads to) himself.

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Meanwhile, deep in the jungle at Tonga village, the mysterious figure known as the Phantom has summoned the chiefs of the area tribes for a gathering. The Phantom, through his appearance of immortality and supernatural powers, has kept the peace between the tribes for centuries, but a thug named Long, disguised as a native, strikes the Phantom with a poison dart (an attack instigated by Bremmer, because he needs to be able to control the natives to get his airfield built). The Phantom’s assistant, Suba, ends the ceremony with a puff of smoke, but the damage is already done: the Phantom will die. The only hope for peace between the tribes is to find his son to take his place, as the Phantom identity has been passed down from father to son for generations. In this way, the Phantom is “the man who never dies.”

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The Phantom’s son? Geoffrey Prescott, currently in Sai Pana with Professor Davidson’s expedition! After tracking him down with the aid of trapper Rusty Fenton, Suba brings Prescott to his father, who lives just long enough to pass on the mantle of the Phantom. Now it’s up to the new Phantom to protect Davidson, unravel the mystery of the saboteurs, and keep the peace in the jungle, in the 1943 Columbia serial The Phantom!

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Although never as high profile as Batman or Tarzan, the Phantom has elements in common with both characters and has a long history as the star of a comic strip created by Lee Falk in 1936 (and still running in newspapers with the creative team of Tony DePaul, Mike Manley, and Terry Beatty). According to the strip’s mythology, the first Phantom was shipwrecked by pirates on the African coast in the 16th century. He was adopted by a peaceful tribe who both set him on his mission of fighting evil and taught him the many combat disciplines and sleight-of-hand tricks he uses to further that goal. The 1943 serial doesn’t go into that in any detail beyond the handing down of the Phantom’s identity; serials in general were much less concerned with origin stories than superhero movies in recent decades (the 1996 feature film starring Billy Zane makes for an instructive contrast), but unlike many serials The Phantom is reasonably faithful to the comics (and it’s a damn sight better than the Batman serial that immediately preceded it!).

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The first chapter is entitled “The Sign of the Skull,” and indeed the skull is an important part of the Phantom’s iconography, particularly the carved ring he wears which leaves the imprint of a skull on those on whom he metes justice. Instead of the remote and forbidding Skull Cave, however, the Phantom of the serial keeps his throne in public, in the center of Tonga village, where he ceremoniously makes appearances to speak to the natives and pass judgment on lawbreakers. There’s quite a bit of flair to these proceedings, as Suba uses flash powder to create bursts of flame and smoke, making it look as if the Phantom appears and disappears by magic. (Interestingly, Bremmer manages to use that same sense of theatricality against the Phantom, first setting up a fraudulent “Fire Princess” whose supposed control of flame makes her a challenger to the Phantom’s authority in the jungle, and later putting a Phantom costume on one of his henchmen after thinking he had eliminated the real one, in order to control the natives.)

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The Phantom plays on the superstitions of the natives one-on-one, as well: confronting the rebellious chief Chota, the Phantom “summons the spirit of fire” to burn Chota’s village unless he tells the truth. In another episode, he smokes out a murderer by pretending to put poison into glasses of wine, saying it will only harm the guilty; of course, the killer is betrayed by his own fear rather than by the wine, which is harmless. Like many pulp heroes, the Phantom wins by his wits and his powers of psychology and detection as much as by his fists and weapons. (And like those heroes, there’s a certain unapologetic ruthlessness to his methods.)

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There are certainly enough villains to choose from: right off the bat, Professor Davidson is victimized by both Dr. Bremmer and his saboteurs and the competing forces of Singapore Smith (the “outlaws”). There’s quite a bit of jockeying by both groups as they each try to steal the ivory keys from Davidson, and at times they work together against their common enemy. Given that both groups are white men with stubble wearing khakis and pith helmets, it’s easy to get them mixed up. However, Singapore Smith is so obviously shady that he doesn’t make it to the end of the serial; even in death he causes trouble for the Phantom, who pays him a visit (in disguise as “Mr. Walker”) and is then blamed for Smith’s murder. Meanwhile, Dr. Bremmer, like most classic serial villains, works his evil through proxies (including traitors within the expedition), avoiding suspicion until the final chapter.

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In a late part of the story, the Phantom and Davidson’s expedition run afoul of the Tartar, the strict ruler of a kingdom that resembles Mongolia. The incongruity of a Mongol fortress in the middle of an African jungle, combined with the kingdom’s extreme isolationism (normally, all outsiders are put to death if they enter the Tartar’s kingdom, but naturally the Phantom wins him over), mark this episode as an example of the “lost world” genre embedded in the larger story. However, not even the Professor comments on its strangeness, and there is no explanation offered as to its presence and survival. (Also, it practically goes without saying that all the major characters speak English; there are a few scenes in which natives speak their own language and somebody has to translate, but not so many that it slows down the action.)

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As the Phantom, Tom Tyler is nicely physical and has a commanding presence, and Jeanne Bates is adequate as the headstrong Diana Palmer, but the only antagonist to have much character is oily Singapore Smith (Joe Devlin). As Dr. Bremmer, Kenneth MacDonald has some good moments and is smooth enough to convincingly play both sides, but didn’t leave a strong impression on me. Frank Shannon (Flash Gordon‘s Dr. Zarkov) plays Professor Davidson, but the decline in energy obvious in the later Flash Gordon serials is in evidence here as well. The Phantom’s animal companion Devil, a wolf in the comics, is played in the serial by a German Shepherd, Ace the Wonder Dog.

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Beyond that, the casting of the many African tribesmen seems to have been mixed up with casting for a Western. Serials are not documentaries, of course, but the best of them make some effort to draw inspiration from the real world. In The Phantom, the natives resemble Hollywood Indians, (mostly) white actors with stilted accents and war paint. The Internet Movie Database lists among the uncredited actors playing natives Jay Silverheels (later TV’s Tonto) and Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian immigrant who adopted an Indian identity and made a specialty of playing Indian characters. This knot of tangled ethnic representation is not terribly unusual for the time, but compared to the actual black actors I just saw in Tim Tyler’s Luck, it’s especially phony.

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What I Watched: The Phantom (Columbia, 1943)

Where I Watched It: The whole thing can be watched on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

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Best Chapter Title: “The Road to Zoloz” (Chapter Thirteen) is nicely specific, and also suggests an entirely different film starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. It’s worth pointing out that both of the Phantom’s catch phrases, “The Man Who Never Dies” and “The Ghost Who Walks” are used as chapter titles (Chapters Two and Five, respectively).

Best Cliffhanger: Despite my criticisms of the acting in The Phantom, at least the action is pretty good, and there are not only several good cliffhangers but some exciting action sequences within the chapters. A very well-done cliffhanger ends Chapter Five (“The Ghost Who Walks”), in which the Phantom fights with the saboteurs on a rope bridge overhanging a deep gorge. Earlier, the Phantom, stalking the saboteurs as they drove an oxcart full of contraband ammunition to the secret airfield, had cut partially through the bridge’s ropes to weaken them. When he ends up fighting the saboteurs directly, of course the fight spills onto the damaged bridge, and the ropes give way, (seemingly) dropping them into the river far below.

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Sample Dialogue: In the first chapter, Long (Wade Crosby) returns to witness a gathering at the Tonga village after killing the Phantom, along with fellow saboteur Andy (Sol Gorss) and upstart chief Chota (Stanley Price). To his chagrin, the new Phantom is accepted without question by the natives.

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Long: Why, that can’t be the real Phantom. I know I killed him! This is just a trick to fool the natives.
Chota: No, him Phantom. Him Phantom! Man who never dies.
Andy: Looks like him to me.
Long: Why, it can’t be! He’s a much younger and taller guy than the real Phantom. I’m telling you that guy’s a fake.
Andy: Looks like you missed, Long.
Long: Let’s tell the natives that guy’s a phony.
Andy: Yeah? And when they ask us how we know, we tell ’em you killed the real Phantom. Why, you’d have your head drying over a fire in no time.

What Others Have Said: “Occasionally there was a shock when a player you had always associated as a good guy turned up in a serial as a crook. . . . You just couldn’t believe that lovable old rascal was really one of the baddies. . . . But, the real test of credibility came when Ernie Adams, who portrayed not only bad guys, but sneaky, yellow, cowardly bad guys, was cast in the role of Rusty Fenton in The Phantom in 1943, and you had to believe that the hero would have in him a good, trusted ally.” –William C. Cline, “When the Leopard Changed Its Spots” in Serials-ly Speaking

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(Serials I’ve reviewed in which Adams appeared include The Miracle Rider, in which he played the shady store operator’s clerk, and Tim Tyler’s Luck: Adams played Becker, the henchman whose death by gorilla meant so little to Spider Webb.)

What’s Next: For my final installment of Summer 2016’s Fates Worse Than Death, I will return to the air with Flying G-Men. See you in two weeks!

Fates Worse Than Death: Tim Tyler’s Luck

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A young man attempts to stow away on a boat going upriver, into the dense African jungle. When asked why, Tim Tyler explains that he is looking for his father, Professor Tyler, an expert on gorillas who hasn’t been heard from in some time. Big game hunter Lora Lacey offers to pay Tim’s way, but the captain refuses; no matter, Tim finds his way onboard anyway. Also making the river trek is explorer Garry Drake. However, not all is as it seems: Lora Lacey is actually Lora Graham, looking for the master criminal Spider Webb, who committed a diamond theft for which Lora’s brother is serving the sentence. Her real plan is to search for Spider in the jungle and “bring him back alive” to prove her brother’s innocence, and she recognizes Drake as one of Spider’s men.

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Sure enough, as soon as night falls Drake and his allies kill the captain, taking over the boat and steering it to the shore, where the rest of Spider’s gang will take possession of the weapons and ammunition intended for the Ivory Patrol, the colonial police force. With Tim’s help, Lora escapes the boat and the pair make their way to the Ivory Patrol’s base. With their help, Lora hopes to bring Spider to justice and Tim hopes to find his missing father. But it turns out their goals are related, as Tim learns when he sees that Spider’s men are driving the “jungle cruiser” (an armored tank) Professor Tyler had built for his work. The Professor has a secret, too: he’s located the legendary “elephant’s burial ground,” and men like Spider would kill to find it. It’s man vs. gorilla, horse vs. tank, and good vs. evil, with tons of ivory at stake, in the twelve-part serial Tim Tyler’s Luck!

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Like several of the serials I’ve covered this summer, Tim Tyler’s Luck, about “the All-American boy in Africa,” is based on a comic strip, albeit one I won’t even pretend to be familiar with (but holy cow, it ran until 1996!?). Played by Frankie Thomas (aka Frank Thomas, Jr.), Tim is a happy medium between the unrealistically-competent kid character who can handle any situation like an old pro and the helpless tagalong who’s in constant need of rescue. (Thomas’ career included stints in Broadway, radio, film, and television; after playing Tim Tyler, he appeared as Ted Nickerson in four Nancy Drew films; later, he played Tom Corbett, Space Cadet on TV.) Tim is self-sufficient and can handle himself in the wilderness, and he gets himself and his friends out of a number of jams, but he’s not a superhero; when things get hot, particularly when Spider Webb (Norman Willis) and his gang start shooting, Tim falls back on the support of the Ivory Patrol. (And, as I note below, Tim has a knack for making friends, an invaluable survival skill.)

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Typically, Tim Tyler’s Luck has several connections to other serials: right from the start, the theme music and much of the underscore was familiar to me from the later Buck Rogers serial (which I wrote about this spring for The Solute); Garry Drake, Webb’s right-hand man, is played by Anthony Warde, Buck Rogers‘ Killer Kane; Sergeant Gates of the Ivory Patrol is played by Jack Mulhall, Captain Rankin in Buck Rogers; and the “jungle cruiser,” so prominently featured, had served as the “juggernaut” in Undersea Kingdom the year before (instead of the electric whine the juggernaut produced, the jungle cruiser simply makes engine noises like a truck).

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Frances Robinson plays Lora Lacey/Graham (and yes, she’s the only woman in the cast, but she has much more to do than scream for rescue); she is another resourceful character, but one who can’t do everything herself. Robinson is lovely, with expressive features that serve her in a variety of moods and emotions. A high point is a sequence in Chapter Six (“The Jaws of the Jungle”) in which she pretends to be a criminal herself and demands a cut of Webb’s payday, with her access to Tim as leverage. She adopts a clipped, hard-edged voice for these scenes, playing off Willis’ low-rent Bogart impression with a little Katherine Hepburn of her own.

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Earlier this summer, I described Pirate Treasure as the serial that was “maybe the most elemental in its appeal” for the way it deployed adventure tropes in bold, simplified form. Similarly, Tim Tyler’s Luck may be the most direct expression of the “jungle” genre in anything without Tarzan in its name. Among the touchstones of the genre encountered here are big game hunters, ivory traders, a colonial army, a missing scientist, wild animals, volcanos, quicksand, “talking” drums, and natives both helpful and hostile; there is the theme of man and his technology vs. nature; the man of civilization who has cast off his old identity in the wilderness; and the connection between man and animal. The central conceit of Tarzan and She, the white god or goddess lording it over the black natives, is the only major element of the genre that goes unused (although there are references to a hostile tribe ruled by a white man who has gone native and now directs the tribe to war on other whites; perhaps this character played a greater role in the comic strip, but in the serial he never appears on screen).

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Of course, the “elephant’s graveyard” is a myth, based on the observation that remains of dead elephants were never found in the jungle, but in Tim Tyler’s Luck it turns out to be real, a desolate volcanic region to which elephants instinctively return before dying. Conway (Frank Mayo), one of the heroes’ allies, is an ivory hunter (it wasn’t until the very end of the serial that I realized the title card isn’t meant to resemble Chinese writing: the words are made of piled-up elephant tusks); ivory is just one more natural resource to be plundered, not the moral and environmental outrage it is seen as today. In other words, this story is a product of its time.

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As is almost always the case during this time period, the plot and characters are products of the colonialist imagination. The main characters are white Americans or Europeans adventuring in Africa, with the native tribesmen largely serving as extras in the background; the most notable exception, Mogu (Everette Brown), is one of Spider Webb’s henchmen, and a few others get lines here or there. I haven’t returned to the discussion of representation lately, mainly because there isn’t much new to say: racism and colonialism were so prevalent in the 1930s that it’s less repetitive to point out positive developments such as color-blind casting (such as Philson Ahn’s Prince Tallen in Buck Rogers) or well-developed non-white characters when they do occur. If you’ve followed me this long in this series, the portrayal of Africans in Tim Tyler’s Luck will not surprise you.

On the other hand, in comparison to some serials, there is clearly more of an effort to present a multi-faceted Africa: some tribes are friendly, some are hostile, and they are given their own beliefs and motivations. And there are more black faces on screen than in many films of the time: many are bearers and servants, and many are half-dressed tribesmen with spears and shields, but there are also black troops in the Ivory Patrol, and there’s Mogu. The African characters are no more uniformly good or evil than the white characters. That’s not to say that Tim Tyler’s Luck is “realistic,” exactly–this is a film in which the hero befriends a black panther, and his scientist father has learned to speak gorilla–but the world feels full, complex, and lived in. Africa is more than just an empty playground for whites: there are other stories going on all around them.

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For that matter, and for want of a better term, Tim Tyler’s Luck feels like a movie, not just a serial: throughout this series I’ve been fascinated by the mechanics of serial storytelling: how rhythms are built up, the use of foreshadowing and red herrings to keep the wheels turning, and above all the formal necessity of setting up and resolving cliffhangers. Tim Tyler’s Luck has those things, but it also slows down enough to establish mood and character; the cliffhangers aren’t the most important part of the chapters, and there is enough action that most chapters have at least one or two good set pieces that aren’t tied to the chapter-ending cliffhanger. The scene in which reformed criminal Lazarre (Earl Douglas) tries to silently point out the Professor’s diary to Lora, held prisoner by Garry Drake, succeeds in creating something that is theoretically central to the serial format, but which isn’t always delivered: suspense.

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Obviously, the Indiana Jones films draw from the globetrotting adventure genre liberally: I previously compared The Perils of Pauline to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Tim Tyler’s Luck, with its missing scientist (complete with a diary containing a map to the treasure), shifting loyalties, and running tank battles, feels like a strong influence on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (And tell me that Tim Tyler doesn’t look like River Pheonix as young Indy in his scout uniform from that film’s prologue!)

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And what of the title character’s “luck”? Again, since I’m not familiar with the comic strip this was based on, perhaps it’s a bigger deal in the ongoing story, but there doesn’t seem to be anything notable or supernatural favoring Tim Tyler. One may count his tendency to always be in the right place at the right time, but that’s a trait shared by many serial heroes. (Without the lubricating oil of coincidence, how many pulp-era plots would sputter and grind to a halt before they could even get off the ground?) No, if anything, Tim Tyler’s luck is his knack for winning others to his side by his goodness: he tames the black panther Fang by bandaging him up and treating him well; he wins over Spider Webb’s henchman Lazarre by saving his life, even when it would be to his benefit to let him die; and he offers water and comfort to the dying elephant handler who almost killed him, winning the elephant’s trust and loyalty. It simply doesn’t occur to Tim to act any other way, and his good acts return to him in the form of supportive allies.

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Compare that to Spider Webb, who seems to neither regret nor relish his evil: he simply looks out for number one, and everyone else be damned. Other people are so little to him he can’t even pretend to care what happens to them (watching one of his henchmen sink into the quicksand that surrounds his base, Webb says only, “well, let’s get going”); the Professor, Tim, and Lora are left alive at key moments only because Webb needs them alive for leverage or information. Unlike many serial villains who rant theatrically, Webb is coldly sociopathic, and because of this comes across as more modern than his contemporaries; and just as importantly, he remains cool even as things unravel and he meets his inevitable comeuppance. Webb berates and bullies his underlings, and because of it he dies alone, unloved, and unrepentant; in comparison to many serials about heroes who save the day single-handedly, Tim Tyler’s Luck makes a solid case for the value of friendship and teamwork.

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What I Watched: Tim Tyler’s Luck (Universal, 1937)

Where I Watched It: A non-commercial DVD from the batch I got on eBay earlier this summer. It doesn’t appear to be available to view online.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Jungle Pirates” (Chapter One). As I said, this serial has something of a primal appeal, and the first chapter sets the tone by asking what could possibly make a jungle adventure more exciting: how about jungle pirates?

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Best Cliffhanger: The gorillas of Gorilla Canyon are essentially a force of nature in Tim Tyler’s Luck, a natural obstacle to anyone who ventures into their territory. In other chapters, they throw boulders at intruders, resulting in the destruction of Conway’s ivory safari, and they’re an unpredictable danger to anyone who ventures into the caves that riddle the canyon. Only Professor Tyler, who was lived among them for months, has their trust, and even he has succeeded in taming only one of the beasts. In Chapter Seven (“The King of the Gorillas”), the Professor and Lora are forced by Spider Webb to return to Gorilla Canyon to retrieve the Professor’s map to the elephant’s burial ground. While there, the Professor releases the caged gorilla he had trained in hopes of freeing himself and Lora from Spider’s grasp, but the tame gorilla gets in a fight with an aggressive male, still wild. Meanwhile, Tim and Sergeant Gates of the Ivory Patrol have tracked the cruiser to the canyon and make their way into the caves. Professor Tyler is shot by Becker, one of Spider’s men, just before being killed himself by a gorilla (Spider, ever the practical one, only says “Becker’s done for. Never knew what hit him.”). The Ivory Patrol attacks, driving Spider’s men away, but just as Tim finds the cave with Lora and his father, the bull gorilla attacks and carries him away.

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Honorable mention: Several of the cliffhangers involve animals, wild or otherwise. There is actually a second cliffhanger that involves Tim being carried, unconscious, this time by an elephant (in Chapter Nine, “The Gates of Doom”). Spider’s inside man in the Ivory Patrol, Rocky, has bribed the elephant’s handler to help Spider escape the Patrol’s fort, but once cornered by, he has the elephant grab Tim. The elephant will crush Tim unless the Patrol lets him escape. The fort’s guards close the heavy doors, but the elephant smashes through them with Tim in its trunk!

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Sample Dialogue: “Get this, Tyler: if you don’t tell me where the elephant’s burial ground is, there will be a death in the Tyler family.” –Spider Webb, Chapter Six (“The Jaws of the Jungle”)

What Others Have Said: “Working with the heavies. You ask any actor: the heavies are the nicest people in the world. That’s just the way it works.” –Frankie Thomas, asked in an interview, “What was the high point of working on Tim Tyler?”

What’s Next: Keeping with the jungle theme, let’s check out The Phantom, starring Tom Tyler. That’s not confusing at all!

Fates Worse Than Death: Ace Drummond

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International Airways is under attack! The fledgling enterprise, assembled by a multinational group of businessmen with the intent of uniting the world through travel and trade, is suffering mysterious air wrecks in its Mongolian territory. Construction on the airfield is threatened, and if the wrecks persist it will mean the end of the entire operation. The disasters are the work of the elusive “Dragon,” a faceless criminal mastermind who speaks through special radio receivers hidden in prayer wheels, fans, and even airplane propellers. In response to the attacks, Ace Drummond, “G-Man of the Air,” arrives from his base in Washington to investigate.

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Although he finds many allies–among them young Billy Meredith, son of one of the Airway board members; Jerry, an enthusiastic mechanic and pilot at the airfield; and Peggy Trainor, who has come to Mongolia in search of her missing archeologist father–this foreign territory is filled with potential enemies, any one of whom may be the Dragon or one of his subordinates. Is it Dr. Bauer, the explorer who holds Professor Trainor hostage in hopes of wresting the secret location of a mountain of jade from him? Or is it the monk Kai-Chek, who rails against the intrusion of foreigners and their “devil birds” in Mongolia? Or perhaps it is Henry Kee, the Mongolian member of the committee, or Johnny Wong, the furtive Chinese radio operator. Or it could also be Winston, a member of the committee eager to shut down operations in the face of the Dragon’s terrorism. Or it could be one of the other dozen characters who come under Drummond’s suspicion: the G-Man of the Air has his work cut out for him in the thirteen-chapter serial, Ace Drummond!

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Like Tailspin Tommy, Ace Drummond was a comic strip that rode the wave of the public’s fascination with aviation in the 1930s before being adapted into a movie serial, but Ace Drummond relied on exotic locations and a global scale much more than the down-to-earth Tailspin Tommy. The comic strip was created by World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacker, who lent his name and expertise and contributed scripts to the strip. Every chapter of the serial opens with a portrait of Rickenbacker, “America’s Beloved Ace of Aces,” and recaps the previous chapter with a clip of a newspaper comics page being unfolded and a zoom-in on panels that relate previous events. Rickenbacker also took an active hand in promoting the Ace Drummond serial, forming a “Junior Pilots Club” to generate fan excitement.

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Ace Drummond is also a musical, sort of. Recall that in The Phantom Empire, Gene Autry had to perform a song every day in order to keep his radio contract. One might think that Ace Drummond had a similar contract, as he tends to burst into song whenever a chapter has some time it needs to fill. Leading man John King had been a popular singer before making the jump to acting, and after Ace Drummond he would go on to play a number of singing cowboy roles (most notably “Dusty” in Monogram’s Range Busters series), so it makes sense to feature his talents. Here’s the thing, though: it’s always the same song, “Give Me a Ship and a Song” by Kay Kellogg. Drummond first sings it on the clipper ship into Mongolia to calm down the passengers (understandably nervous, since apparently half a dozen planes have crashed, but this is the first passenger plane to make the trip): a passenger turning the dial on his radio tells a flight attendant, “I’d give a million dollars to hear a great jazz band.” The attendant suggests a station, and the music switches to something that isn’t jazz at all: the intro to “Give Me a Ship and a Song,” which Drummond sings in full to the appreciative passengers. Later, Drummond sings the same song to entertain Peggy Trainor; to entertain the mechanics at the airfield; to test a radio receiver; and he even plays a phonogram record of himself singing in order to fool one of the Dragon’s henchmen sneaking around the airfield. Obviously, the repetition would be less obnoxious if I were watching the serial week to week instead of all at once, but as a transparent attempt to generate a hit, it flopped.

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The action in Ace Drummond fares better: Ace saves the plane from an attack–the Dragon is able to zap the pilots with electric shocks through the radio, as well as having a ground-based “death ray” that can down smaller planes–and, spotting a biplane circling just before the attack, he bails out and tracks the plane to the camp of Dr. Bauer (Fredrik Vogeding) and his associate Wyckoff (Al Bridge). The two explorers claim to be searching for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, but they have Professor Trainor (Montague Shaw) held prisoner in a dungeon. Trainor’s daughter Peggy (Jean Rogers) has just shown up on her father’s trail, and Bauer and Wyckoff hope to hold her as well in order to force her father to give up the jade mountain’s location, but Ace rescues her just in time and takes off in Bauer’s plane. Struck by the Dragon’s death ray, the plane crashes into the wall of the village monastery, bringing in another group of characters.

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The monk Kai-Chek (Chester Gan) calls for the foreigners to be punished for violating the sacred temple, but the Lama (Guy Bates Post) cautions against reacting with anger to what was obviously an accident. Throughout the remainder of the serial, the Lama and his fellow monks are an important resource for Drummond and his allies, translating and providing wisdom as well as communicating with the natives (who are never given much more characterization than a mob of undifferentiated foreigners). More importantly, the monastery is a colorful set full of secret passages and traps, including a room with a mechanized wall designed to close in and crush anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped within. The Lama pleads ignorance of the deadly trap; it’s left unclear until the very end whether the Dragon actually has a connection with the monastery or is simply taking advantage of its secrets.

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Ultimately, that points to the weakness of Ace Drummond: the excessive number of suspects and subplots grows wearisome in later chapters, and when some characters who were under suspicion are later revealed to be innocent, their earlier actions don’t make a lot of sense. It’s one thing for the audience to get confused–that’s part of the sleight-of-hand involved in mystery storytelling–but it’s less satisfying when one senses that the writers themselves don’t quite have a handle on the plot. There are simply too many red herrings, and it’s almost comical to hear the repeated exclamation, “So you’re the Dragon!” aimed at one character after another in the last few chapters, until at last the real Dragon is unmasked.

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Still, that complaint aside, the serial has many good qualities: although there is less time spent flying than in Tailspin Tommy, there is enough aerial action to demonstrate Drummond’s prowess and Rickenbacker’s expertise, and of course the entire plot is motivated by the defense of a commercial airline venture, a business Rickenbacker had also been intimately involved with as the manager (and later owner) of Eastern Air Lines. The Mongolian setting, while open to charges of exoticism (indeed, the lure of adventure in strange foreign places is the entire hook for this genre), is unusual and provides for some original locations and opportunities for action.

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In addition to the actors already mentioned, the cast includes a number of familiar faces: Lon Chaney, Jr. appears as Ivan, the lead henchman; Noah Beery, Jr. plays Jerry, who could be twins with Skeeter, the character he played in Tailspin Tommy; as Billy, Jackie Morrow provides the requisite spunk, without being too annoying; and veteran Montague Shaw is reliably paternal in the kindly old scientist role.

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Finally, the Dragon himself, unrevealed until the last chapter, makes for a dramatic presence, speaking in a booming voice through his spinning receivers, always closing his missives with an authoritative “THE DRAGON COMMANDS!” or “THE DRAGON HAS SPOKEN!” It makes a big enough impression that each chapter ends with the typical title card instructing audiences to see the continuation next week in the same theater, accompanied by a fire-breathing dragon and that same voice over: “THE DRAGON COMMANDS!” It’s not a request.

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What I Watched: Ace Drummond (Universal, 1936)

Where I Watched It: TCM ran several chapters of this serial earlier this summer, but for this article I watched it on (and collected screen shots from) YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “The Dragon Commands” (Chapter Eleven)

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Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Five, “Bullets of Sand,” Peggy and Billy investigate Dr. Bauer’s operation, hoping to find proof that the German explorer is secretly the Dragon. Bauer and Wyckoff are holed up in “the Hall of Dead Kings,” a tomb complex carved into a mountainside and full of treasures. Their camp employs a dozen natives, digging and cleaning up artifacts, including sand blasting jade urns. While snooping in Bauer’s office, a separate building, Peggy and Billy are locked in. Billy climbs up the chimney and escapes, but before he can let Peggy out from the outside, he must hide from the approaching workmen to escape detection. He hides in one of the urns, just before the workmen begin cleaning out the inside of it with the sand blaster! A shot straight up the barrel of the sand blaster ends the chapter, leaving us in suspense.

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Sample Dialogue (from Chapter Thirteen, “The World’s Akin”):
Dragon: “We have a saying in Mongolia: he who smiles at the grave’s edge takes happiness into the world beyond.”
Jerry: “We got a saying in America, too, though: don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched!”

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What Others Have Said: “For a time it was thought that the airplane film might supplant the Western in the affection of the young, but, air age and all, it didn’t happen. Situations involving airplanes were woven into many serials and adventure features; yet the number of serials centering upon aviation never matched that of films set in the West. Nonetheless, in the New Deal era at least one air adventure could be expected to appear each year among the ranks of serial dramas. . . . As a matter of fact, the aviation cycle would soon be lost in space–and in war clouds. Not many old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants flying flims would be made after Flash Gordon took off for Mongo and World War II revolutionized aeronautics.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: Join me next time as I examine Tim Tyler’s Luck.

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.