Fates Worse Than Death: Fighting with Kit Carson

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Famed scout Kit Carson is tasked with accompanying a shipment of government gold across hostile Indian territory.  Although it would be safer to wait and travel with the wagon train that will be arriving soon, Carson’s superiors insist that the gold shipment is urgent and that he hire some unfamiliar locals to ride with him.  Unbeknownst to him, the riders are part of a gang secretly run by fur trader Cyrus Kraft, who plans to steal the gold and use it to cement his control of the Southwest.  Sure enough, the party is attacked by Indians, and Carson is accused of betraying the riders by Reynolds, one of Kraft’s gang.  Carson is locked up to await trial for treason.

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Elsewhere, Kraft parleys with Cheyenne chief Dark Eagle in his trading post office.  Kraft encourages Dark Eagle to make war against the settlers filling the territory, the better for Kraft to control it, but the Cheyenne have no quarrel with their white brothers and Dark Eagle refuses.  (A memorable part of Kraft’s shtick is the knife which he toys with while in conversation; if Kraft hears something he doesn’t like, he drops the knife, seemingly by accident, a signal for his hidden confederate to kill whomever Kraft is talking with.) For his obstinance, the Cheyenne chief is murdered and his body is left in the path of the wagon train so that his tribe will blame the settlers.  Dark Eagle’s son, Nakomas, at first takes the bait, but Carson suspects foul play and convinces the young chief to join forces so they can uncover the truth.

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In the mean time, the gold is missing: Carson’s friend Matt Fargo, who also rode with him, suspected that something was up when the Indians attacked, and hid the gold before it could be stolen.  Fargo’s little daughter Joan disguises herself as a boy and stows away on the westbound wagon train to find her father.  Carson escapes from jail to find Fargo and the gold, and clear his name; when the wagon train is attacked by the enraged Cheyenne, Carson and “Johnny” Fargo end up on a runaway wagon, careening toward a stand of trees.

The 1933 serial Fighting with Kit Carson is the first serial I have watched based on a historical figure: Christopher “Kit” Carson (1809-1868) really was a famous tracker and scout, blazing trails across the Southwest, negotiating with (and ultimately warring against) the Indians.  The subject of hagiographic dime novels even during his own lifetime, Carson has fallen out of public favor in recent decades as the history of the Indian Wars is no longer taught in such a one-sided fashion and the bloody conquest of Native peoples no longer seems so glamorous.

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Needless to say, Fighting with Kit Carson is in the dime novel tradition, crafting a typical pulp narrative around a few familiar names and character traits.  However, while the Carson of the serial is unambiguously good (and Kraft equally evil, even stooping so low as to shoot his own men to gain Matt Fargo’s trust), the conflict is not the simple “cowboys vs. Indians” one might expect from a 1930s Western.  Part of Carson’s legend is that he was a friend to the Indians (they refer to him as “White Chief” in the serial), equally trusted by the Cheyenne, settlers, and the Army.  The Cheyenne are presented as honorable, if volatile: Dark Eagle refuses to be manipulated into war by Kraft, and his son Nakomas, while quick to judgment, is an equal and ally of Carson. Of course, the surest way to introduce conflict is to call Carson’s trustworthiness into question, something that happens over and over again as Kraft works to undermine him in private while claiming to support him in public.  (The “Mystery Riders,” a band of masked and cloaked vigilantes under the control of Kraft, are another clearly cinematic element, complete with their own song that they sing as they ride, and which doubles as the theme song for the serial.)

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Fighting with Kit Carson stars Johnny Mack Brown, a college football star who got his start at MGM, as the title character.  Brown would go on to specialize in Westerns, having first played Billy the Kid opposite Wallace Beery in 1930.  Beery’s brother Noah plays Kraft, exactly the sort of sneering, scenery-chewing “heavy” that the serials were famous for, in a performance reminiscent of Edward G. Robinson.  (With his imposing size and mixture of bonhomie and sudden violence, Kraft would be a great role for John Goodman today.)  Noah’s son, Noah, Jr., plays Nakomas in braids and bronze makeup (a common practice then).  Rounding out the main cast (and second billed, above Beery Sr. and Jr.), Joan Fargo is played by Betsy King Ross, a rodeo performer and child star whom Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials describe as Mascot’s answer to Shirley Temple.

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Fighting with Kit Carson is much less linear in its storytelling than the serials I’ve watched so far: leaving aside some of the backtracking in resolving its cliffhangers, the serial cuts back and forth in time, revealing new information about settled events, and the use of flashbacks is more extensive than the simple recapping used in the typical “economy chapter.”  (There are also some interesting graphic effects, like the use of double exposure to show the passage of time when Carson is tracking, and a dotted line representing the secret passageway between Kraft’s office and the barn that is the secret meeting place of his gang.)  The end result, while introducing variety, is frequently disjointed and hard to follow.

There are exciting stunts aplenty, however, and as in all serials there is a premium on action.  Many of the fight scenes are edited to within an inch of their lives: according to Harmon and Glut, the standards of the time required that

Bullets could not be shown striking a man’s body; the gun and the human target had to be separated by cuts from one camera angle to another.  The same rule held true for a man being struck with a club; the swing of the gun butt or blackjack had to be shown from one angle, the victim falling from another.

Perhaps it is because the Western setting puts more emphasis on gunplay than on the fistfights of Batman, but this was very noticeable in Fighting with Kit Carson, and to the blackjacks and gun butts I would add tomahawks, which were also evidently subject to this rule.

The wagon and horse chases fare better: famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, while not credited, is recognizable for his hand in a scene where Carson leaps from horse to horse on an out-of-control wagon team and is then dragged underneath the wagon, a stunt Canutt pulled off in dozens of Westerns (and which was an inspiration for the similar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones is dragged underneath a speeding truck).

Fighting with Kit Carson is a bit of a mixed bag, less streamlined than the serials Mascot’s successor studio Republic would be making in just a few years, but with some memorable performances (in addition to the cast already mentioned, Edmund Breese as Matt Fargo is quite good) and some literally explosive action sequences (of which more momentarily).

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What I Watched: Fighting with Kit Carson (1933, Mascot)

Where I Saw It: It is on YouTube, starting here.  (This accounts for the lower quality screenshots—sorry about that.)

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Secret of Iron Mountain” (Chapter Six)

Best Cliffhanger: For the first two thirds, the cliffhangers are pretty underwhelming: in my notes I’ve included “Carson and Nakomas fall down cliff,” “Carson shot?” (he fell down when the shot was fired to fake out his attacker, something that happens several times in this serial), “Carson and Nakomas fall down cliff again,” and “Joan Fargo falls off horse.”  Things heat up considerably in the last few chapters, however, starting with the end of Chapter Eight (“Red Phantoms”), in which Carson appears to be shot just before his wagon plunges into a canyon.  I say “appears,” as of course added footage in the next chapter shows that he not only wasn’t shot but actually jumped from the wagon before its fall.  Even Carson’s enemies are suspicious, saying uncharacteristically sensible things like “How do you know he didn’t jump?” and “Funny we haven’t found any trace of Carson’s body.” This overturns a longstanding convention of the serials, in which henchmen are constantly assuring the villain that the hero is dead, only for him to keep coming back, over and over again.

The filmmakers were obviously saving their budget for Chapter Nine (“The Invisible Enemy”), because suddenly all hell breaks loose, with Carson DROPPING A BOULDER on the Mystery Riders and leading them on a merry chase up and down the cliffside through misdirection (at one point, Carson throws a cocked rifle off the cliff, counting on it to land on a rock and fire, which of course it does).  The wagon was full of black powder (“Hey, be careful with that powder!”) which the Mystery Riders plan to use to blow up the settlers who are riding into the canyon.  Carson rushes to get the powder keg out of the way, but IT EXPLODES AS SOON AS HE PICKS IT UP! HOLY DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT, BATMAN!

At the beginning of Chapter Ten (“Midnight Magic”), we back up, and this time Carson picks up the powder keg and hurls it at a group of Mystery Riders, where it blows them up (I should point out that the keg was lit with a line of powder on the ground, not a fuse, so in order for it to explode after being picked up it’s necessary for Carson to throw the keg into a conveniently-placed campfire).  I could only imagine the confusion and cries of “CHEAT!” that must have greeted this development in the movie theater in 1933.

I was boggled: how could this have happened? I went back and watched both the cliffhanger and the resolution closely, again and again, as if it were the Zapruder film.  Ultimately, I decided there were only two explanations: either Kit Carson had the ability to warp time and space (“midnight magic,” indeed!), or those cockadoodie dirty-bird screenwriters counted on everyone in the audience to get amnesia.  There is no question that both “Best Cliffhanger” and the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat goes to Kit Carson, Master of Time and Space, getting blown up at the end of “The Invisible Enemy.”  After this, Kraft’s comeuppance in Chapter Twelve, as explosive as it is in its own right, could only be anticlimactic.

Sample Dialogue: “If I can only live long enough to tell the gang about this!” –a Mystery Rider named Rawlins, after being shot in the back by Kraft, his own boss (Chapter Four, “The Silent Doom”)

What Others Have Said: “The old breed of cowboy star was a lot tougher and gutsier than today’s star is.  Course, most of the old ones was real cowboys and circus stars at one time too, and this all helped them as film stars.  But today’s cowboy star never has the chance or the rugged real-life experiences on the range the old stars had, so they naturally are softer when it comes to the he-man action stuff.” –Noah Beery, Jr., interview with Lee O. Miller in The Great Cowboy Stars of Movies & Television

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I acquaint myself with one of the most famous names in the serials. Can you guess?

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Art Isn’t Easy: Five Examples

Most artists like to talk about their creative work: they give interviews, write program notes, or even try to share their knowledge through teaching or writing how-to books.  It’s a different matter, however, to get across one’s ideas about the urge to make art, or the creative process itself, within an actual artwork.  To some degree, every work of art has something to say about the way it was conceived and constructed, but it’s not always obvious without knowing the artist’s work intimately and/or spending time decoding the work.  At the other extreme, not every look at an artist’s life (including many autobiographies) has anything meaningful to say about where artists get their ideas or the inner resources that they draw on to face artistic challenges.

Within the somewhat rarefied field of “artwork that says something about the creative process,” I have a few favorites that have been important to me.  Some I’ve mentioned previously in this blog; most are centered around an artist actively creating, either as biography or autobiography, yet all have qualities of fiction, even if based on a real person.  Indeed, no one’s life is a perfect vehicle for a statement about art: there are too many accidents and interruptions to line up neatly with any particular theory.  Yet, on the other hand there are often real-life coincidences and symmetries that would be too far-fetched if part of a completely fictional life.  In the spaces between mundane fact and pure fable, the writer or artist is able to express their own viewpoint.

(As an aside, I wonder if this is why there have been so few satisfactory depictions of the Beatles as characters?  There was hardly a single day of their professional career that went undocumented, and their every utterance has been recorded and examined closely.  Is there any room for them to be reconceived in a fictional context without doing violence to the record?)

Fidelity to the facts isn’t a primary concern for Amadeus, the dramatization of composer Antonio Salieri’s supposed plot to eliminate his hated rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  As much as I love Milos Forman’s 1984 film, it is in some ways too successful: like the best period films, it wraps its characters in the physical trappings of their time, drawing us in and convincing us, through dramatic means, that it must have happened just this way.  For the last thirty years, musicologists have diligently corrected the many misconceptions spawned by the film (which is not always a bad thing, if it leads to fruitful discussion and understanding the difference between art and history).

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Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, the basis of the film, is much more clearly using historical figures as an allegory for the contest of mediocrity and genius.  As for Salieri’s role in Mozart’s death (a myth that may have had its roots in Salieri’s dementia in his later years, and which before Shaffer was dramatized by Pushkin and others), it might as well be Cain and Abel, or Jacob and Esau: it is the mythic resonance, the archetypal conflict, that interests Shaffer, not documentary accuracy.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ve actually learned about creating art from Amadeus, but it does speak to the reality that talent is spread unevenly in the world, and that wanting to create isn’t enough.  Salieri’s desire to be a good composer, and a good man, to speak for God, isn’t enough, isn’t even relevant.  “Was Mozart good?” he asks.  “Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art.”  (Again, we don’t know if the real Salieri said anything of the kind, or how he even felt about Mozart; but haven’t we all felt like the fictional Salieri at one time or another?)  On the other hand, one could take from Amadeus the lesson that even for the world’s Mozarts success isn’t guaranteed, that there will always be challenges even for the most gifted among us.

Sunday in the Park with George, the 1984 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is one of its composer’s most direct statements about the creative process, to the point that Sondheim borrowed the title of the song “Finishing the Hat” for his collected lyrics.  The phrase has become a kind of shorthand for the endless labor and attention to detail necessary to create something out of nothing (“where there never was a hat”).  In the context of the musical, it also stands in for the real life painter George Seurat puts on hold in order to complete his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.  All his subjects, and especially his model and muse, Dot, have lives and stories of their own, but to him they are largely formal elements, puzzle pieces to be fit into his great composition.

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It’s not hard to see why Sondheim identified with his fictionalized Seurat: the precision and formal clarity Seurat brought to his pointillistic canvases is a good match for Sondheim’s hyper-articulate wordplay, and the fragments of speech that Sondheim pieces into a mosaic of conversation, Robert Altman-style, is a fitting counterpart to Seurat’s modular approach to form.  Sondheim’s formidable talent for meter and rhyme elegantly sets up the Act I finale in which George marshals his subjects into the final form of his painting.  (If anyone ever tries to produce Tetris: the Musical, I can think of no other composer for the job.)

Sacrifices of a different kind are entailed in Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery.  King has never been shy about sharing his view of writing—how many of his novels are about writers, and how many of his stories feature writers’ creations and alter egos taking on lives of their own?—but Misery is probably his ultimate (fictional) statement about the work itself (I assume: I’m far from a King completist).  As his stand-in Paul Sheldon struggles to complete a novel for his captor, Annie Wilkes, King speaks directly about both the urge to escape into stories and many of the mechanical aspects of constructing and maintaining a narrative.  I was struck by the observation that “there was always a deadline,” even for books written on spec: “If a book remained roadblocked long enough, it began to decay, to fall apart; all the little tricks and illusions started to show.”  There is a time and a place for every creative work, and some can stay on the shelf longer than others; for some the phrase “strike while the iron is hot” is imperative.  One hears about novels and operas written over the course of years, even decades, but that’s never been King’s style.

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Director Edward D. Wood, Jr. has been called the “worst director of all time,” and his movies are memorably batty in conception and clumsy in execution.  I don’t think he deserves that title (there are many worse films than his, and at least Wood’s work is entertainingly bad), but it’s unlikely that Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood would have had the same combination of humor and pathos if it were about someone more accomplished.  The film takes plenty of liberties with the real Wood’s life, mostly concentrating on the making of Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space.  While Wood is the kind of outsider Burton has identified with throughout his career, it was Wood’s relationship to fading star Bela Lugosi that really attracted him to the material, reminding him of his own friendship with Vincent Price; I think it’s fair to read the movie as being more about Burton than Wood.  The movie has an optimistic tone despite the ineptitude of its title character; it’s possible that Johnny Depp’s performance is how the real-life Wood saw himself, perpetually chipper and energetic in the face of constant failure.  In any case, the goodness or badness of Plan 9 is beside the point: Ed Wood promises a look at the making of “the worst movie ever made,” but it’s really about the joys and frustrations of creating something, which is why it’s so relatable to anyone who’s tried.

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Ed Wood also shows that no matter how much you enjoy creating, it’s impossible to predict how the finished product will turn out or how it will be received.  If Wood’s work suffered from a lack of critical discernment, it’s even worse when self-criticism stops you before you’ve begun.  That’s a central theme of Lynda Barry’s “Two Questions,” a short comic strip story that appeared in McSweeney’s and has been reprinted in a few places since then.  “’Is this good?’  ‘Does this suck?’  I’m not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something I called ‘my work’—I just knew I’d stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it,” begins Barry’s story.  The process by which she learns (and relearns, over and over again) to let go of those preconceptions, “to be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape,” is one that I recognize, as I recognize the paralysis of engaging in judgment too soon.  As Barry says in a note accompanying “Two Questions” in The Best American Comics 2006,  “trying to write something good before I write anything at all is like refusing to give birth unless you know for sure it is going to be a very good baby.”

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It’s probably telling that most of the works I’ve mentioned were published or released during my teenage or twenty-something years, the age at which I was most engaged with honing my own craft and wrestling with what it means to be an artist.  Which aspects of these stories affect me the most depends very much on the day and my own state of mind: sometimes I feel chained to the desk like Paul Sheldon (though not literally, thank God), praying for the tiniest bit of inspiration like Salieri or dreading the oppressing self-judgment of Lynda Barry’s two questions; other days I feel my creative juices flowing as freely as Mozart must have (my excitement tempered by the knowledge that Ed Wood probably felt the same way).  At still other times I’m preoccupied with business matters, also touched on by these works.  Perhaps that’s why I continue to return to them for inspiration and perspective: there’s an understanding born of experience in each one of them.

Do you have a favorite work of art that conveys the creative experience?  Share it in the comments!

Fates Worse Than Death: Batman (1943)

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Industrialist Martin Warren, after serving his sentence for an unnamed crime, is about to be released from prison; his niece, Linda Page, asks (her boyfriend? fiancée?) playboy Bruce Wayne to accompany her to pick him up.  Although Wayne’s life of leisure doesn’t allow him to get out very early in the morning, he promises to accompany her.  But before they arrive, Warren is picked up by some other old acquaintances, who coerce him to meet their boss, Dr. Daka.  Daka is a Japanese spy striking at the United States from within, and if Warren doesn’t join Daka’s ring of “dishonored” engineers, bankers, and other professionals and agree to serve his “League of the New Order,” he’ll be turned into a mindless zombie by one of Daka’s inventions.  In the mean time, the costumed crimefighter known only as the Batman, with his sidekick Robin, leave a pair of crooks (complete with the “mark of the Bat” on their foreheads) for the police to pick up.  Who are Batman and Robin, and what do they have to do with Bruce Wayne and his young ward, Dick Grayson?

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There can be hardly anyone reading this who isn’t aware that Bruce Wayne and the Batman are one and the same, of course, and the 1943 Batman serial wastes no time in letting the audience in on that information.  In making the leap from the comics to the screen, only the core trio of Bruce/Batman, Dick/Robin, and Alfred the butler were retained (Batman’s police contact is Captain Arnold, not Commissioner Gordon), but their characters and identities are recognizable to readers of the comic book (for the most part: Alfred is relegated to comic relief, skittish and easily flustered, but he still comes through when his services are needed).  None of Batman’s usual enemies like the Joker or Penguin are present (many of the most familiar villains weren’t created until later anyway); Batman was made during wartime, and the enemy he faces in Dr. Daka is a nationalistic one.

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Even allowing for its wartime origin, it saddens me to report that Batman is incredibly racist.  As a cringe-inducing caricature of the effete, treacherous Oriental, Daka is grossly offensive, but if the serial stopped there Daka would fit in with the pseudo-exotic threats I’ve mentioned before (and he is, after all, supposed to be a villain).  But that isn’t enough: Daka’s lair is located on a street in “Little Tokyo,” which according to the enthusiastic narrator has been nearly empty “since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.”  That’s in the first chapter and it doesn’t get any better: even Daka’s own henchmen despise him and throw around racial slurs behind his back.  “I’m not afraid of him or any other squint-eye,” says one named Forrester before rebelling.  Forcing Daka to surrender, Forrester tells him “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin,” when he (briefly) has the advantage over him.  Subtle it is not. (Unsurprisingly, Daka was played by a heavily made-up white actor, J. Carrol Naish, a common practice in 1940’s Hollywood.)

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The wartime angle is also apparent in constant references to America’s fighting spirit and the important work being done by the armed forces and munitions manufacturers.  In a twist from the comics, Batman and Robin undertake secret missions for the U. S. government, receiving coded messages from contacts about threats to America’s intelligence and infrastructure.  (According to Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, rigid censorship ensured that serial heroes were never shown taking the law into their own hands.  Since being a vigilante is central to Batman’s identity, in the serial he remains independent from the police, taunting an exasperated Captain Arnold who nonetheless depends on the cases his “best agent” wraps up for him, but ultimately Batman gets his orders from Uncle Sam.)

After the generic “spy ring” of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, Batman has a refreshing specificity: Daka plots to steal radium (both to fuel a superpowered “radium gun” and to build an even larger one), blow up a supply train, steal an experimental plane, jump a claim on a radium mine (truly a magical element that allowed screen writers to add a contemporary touch to the hoariest plots), and more.  The political context may have brought out some ugly, jingoistic racism, but there is also never a question of the time and place and what the stakes of the conflict are.

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The oddest aspect of this propagandistic impulse is in the setup of Daka’s Little Tokyo hideout: the League of the New Order has its headquarters hidden in a “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” a wax museum primarily containing tableaux of Japanese war atrocities.  Every time the front of the business is shown, a carnival barker is pitching its importance to the war effort: “See the life-size models of the victims of our savage enemies! . . . See how they treat their prisoners. It’ll make your blood turn cold!”  It almost seems as if the filmmakers intend the barker’s words to represent the serial itself: “Come on in here and spend a dime, my friends, and wise yourself up. It’s not a circus, it’s not a carnival—this is a serious proposition!”  Yet the carnival barker is in league with Daka, sending his henchmen to the secret entrance and selecting victims to be brainwashed.  It’s either brilliantly self-referential, a commentary on the bottomless duplicity of the enemy, or just goofy.  Daka believes in hiding in plain sight, apparently.

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The seriousness of Japan’s Imperial ambition isn’t necessarily foreign to either the serial format or Batman as a character—both have featured their share of would-be world conquerors—but it is an odd fit with the tone of the 1943 production, which is frequently light, even whimsical.  Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin appear to be having a ball whether in costume or out: this isn’t the grim, tortured Batman of Christian Bale, or even the reclusive weirdo Michael Keaton portrayed.  Even Naish as Daka gets to rub his hands gleefully and display a few moments of humor, like when he feeds raw meat to his pet alligators and briefly considers throwing a zombie to them as “something special.”  The actors and narrator embrace even the most absurd contrivances with gusto, and I’m not convinced this is entirely a case of straight-faced material only appearing funny in hindsight: comic relief was an essential component of the serial, and I daresay the funny parts are fresher and more entertaining than the repetitive fistfights and formulaic cliffhangers.  (It became very easy to predict what the cliffhanger would be in each episode, as the same beats were employed to set the stage each time. When, as in Chapter Six, a thug says, “Let’s get out of here before that chemical reaches those wires!” you know exactly what’s going to happen next.)

The 1943 Batman serial is likely to be of interest primarily to Batman completists, but I doubt it will satisfy any fan who would describe themselves as such.  It was rereleased to theaters in the 1960s as a camp film, where it influenced the next wave of Batman adaptations. Fans of the 1966 Adam West Batman TV show will recognize many elements: the deadpan acceptance of ridiculous situations, enthusiastic narrator, and even the two-part episodes with cliffhangers very much in the serial style.

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So what works?  For all the fistfights, Batman engages in quite a bit of detective work in this serial: not only does he find and analyze clues, he goes undercover (he disguises himself as a thug named “Chuck White,” and sends Alfred out in disguise a couple of times), gets information out of Daka’s henchmen through a variety of means, and even manages to turn their traps around on them, all while maintaining his secret identity.  Batman also delegates responsibility to Robin and Alfred, who several times come to the rescue.  The complexity of the puzzles is laughable and the level of thought isn’t that deep, but within the bounds established by the script, it’s easy to believe that Batman and Daka are waging a high-stakes chess game against each other, striking and counter-striking until the big confrontation.

I also liked Lewis Wilson as the title character more than I expected: to cover his real purposes, his Bruce Wayne is vapid and silly, and his excuses for not being around—he took Dick to a polo match or an amusement park; he doesn’t get moving until around noon—are amusingly flip.  He expects Linda to believe him, because what red-blooded man would use such indolence as an excuse unless it were the truth?  When one of Daka’s henchmen suggest that Wayne might be the costumed troublemaker, Daka sneers, “Don’t be absurd—that simpering idiot could never be the Batman!”

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What I Watched: Batman (1943, Columbia)

Where I Saw It: I watched a Columbia Pictures DVD set, but it is on YouTube (in many parts) starting here.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Almost all the chapter titles are pretty great, with the kind of snappy immediacy and hint of exciting developments that all the best pulp titles have.  If forced to choose, I’ll go with Chapter Four, “Slaves of the Rising Sun” (balanced out by the fifteenth and final chapter, “The Doom of the Rising Sun”).

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Thirteen, “Eight Steps Down,” ends with a double cliffhanger: Batman, trying to sneak into Daka’s lair, is threatened by the classic spiked-walls-closing-in trap, while at the same time, Linda Page is about to be turned into a zombie by Daka’s mind control device.  However will they escape?

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Many of the escapes in Batman are of the kind that would infuriate Annie Wilkes: a train bears down on the hero, or an armored car plummets off a cliff and explodes, only to be revealed in the next chapter that Robin pushed Batman off the railroad trestle or Batman leapt from the armored car just in time, all shown from a different angle.  If any of those are cheats, then they all are.  However, I can’t say any of them explicitly undo the setup of the cliffhanger.

Actually, my favorite is the resolution to the cliffhanger of Chapter Fourteen (“The Executioner Strikes”), in which Batman, knocked out and placed in a coffin-sized wooden crate, is carried to Daka’s lair; the box, unopened, is dropped into Daka’s alligator pit.  At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, it’s revealed that Batman had escaped before the crate was even brought to Daka’s lair, and it was Daka’s henchman Wallace in the box.  You can bet he didn’t get the benefit of a last-minute cheat.

Sample dialogue:

Bruce: “Well, we never got to the cave.  It was so hot out, we laid down by the side of the road and took a nap.”

Linda: “Asleep! Just when I needed you both so much.  If it hadn’t have been for the Batman I’d be dead in the cave!”

(Chapter Nine, “The Sign of the Sphinx”)

What Others Have Said: “Where could even a Japanese spy get enough ration stamps for all that meat?” Harmon and Glut, referring to the fodder for Daka’s pet alligators

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I vicariously travel the Western frontier through Fighting with Kit Carson.

Afterlife with Archie: “Escape from Riverdale”

“Sometimes dead is better,” witches Hilda and Zelda Spellman tell Jughead Jones after their magic is unable to save his dog Hot Dog from a fatal injury.  If only he had listened!  Struck by his obvious pain, their niece Sabrina (i.e., the Teenage Witch) uses forbidden magic from the Necronomicon to bring Hot Dog back to life.  Like the resurrections in “The Monkey’s Paw” and Pet Sematary, it doesn’t work out as planned: Hot Dog returns, but as a horrible undead monster with a bite that spreads a terrible infection.  Soon, the town of Riverdale (home of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the rest) is at the center of a zombie epidemic straight out of Night of the Living Dead.

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Since last fall, the first comic I read when I get it home from the store has been Afterlife with Archie, an unlikely hit from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla.  The bimonthly book recently finished its first five-issue arc, “Escape from Riverdale,” and with the promise of big changes starting in the next issue, this seemed as good a time as any to examine the series (and encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it to give it a look: the first arc was just released in a collection last week).

As its name implies, Afterlife with Archie is a spin-off of Archie and the series with which it shares a universe (including Sabrina, Josie and the Pussycats, and more), with the familiar kid-friendly characters run through a George Romero- and Stephen King-style wringer.  As I wrote in my series on doppelgangers and copycat characters, writers often use thinly-veiled pastiches of familiar characters when they want to explore their darker sides; however, it is increasingly common for publishers to give writers free rein with out-of-continuity or alternate-universe stories starring their name-brand characters (Marvel has had a Marvel Zombies series for several years now, as an obvious example).

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At least since the late 1980s, following the success of the dark, adult-themed comics work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, it’s been known that “grim and gritty” sell.  Fashions change, but it seems like every few years there’s another round of “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” stories and another slew of comic anti-heroes committing rape, murder, or whatever transgression it takes to get the spotlight in a competitive field.  (I don’t have a problem with comics tackling adult themes, of course, but it’s often the titles that loudly insist on their “adult” status that seem the most adolescent.)  Even without resorting to graphic sex or violence, “going dark” is a giant cliché, and obviously zombies have been trendy for years now, so it would be easy to dismiss Afterlife with Archie as just another fad book.  Yet it’s become one of my favorites: what gives?

Why does Afterlife with Archie succeed where others fail?  For one thing, the affection the creators have for both the horror genre and Archie Comics is obvious and infectious.  Aguirre-Sacasa knows the characters of the Archie universe and respects them; the darkness isn’t something laid on top of the characters, it’s an artful drawing out of themes already present in their usual, more cartoonish depiction.  Archie Andrews is still good-hearted and willing to go out on a limb for his friends and family; Reggie Mantle is still a selfish snob; Betty and Veronica still fight over Archie while trying to remain “BFFs.”  Francavilla’s semi-realistic art, filled with expressionistic shadows and dramatic, off-kilter angles, is matched by dialogue that is by turns naturalistic—the teens don’t sound like overly-cool caricatures of high-schoolers—and appropriately heightened for the gothic excess of the book.  (Veronica’s father Hiram Lodge probably wouldn’t call Archie an “insolent whelp” in one of his regular appearances, but the dynamic of overbearing patriarch to a young, unwanted suitor isn’t a stretch.)

Even the more ghoulish elements are incorporated in ways that play with well-known character traits: it might seem like a cheap joke that the voracious Jughead is the first infected and becomes a flesh-devouring zombie, but it’s just as equally the kind of twist associated with the EC Comics that are another point of reference.  His first teen victim: “Big” Ethel Muggs, a character who has always made me cringe in the original comics with her slow-witted “hick” speech pattern and unrequited crush on Jughead.  (Ironically, as horrible as her death is in Afterlife, her brief appearance has more dignity than the regular version of the character has ever had.)

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Flashbacks fill in the characters’ history, making them three-dimensional: in issue no. 4, the most emotional of the five, Archie is saved from the undead Hot Dog by his own dog Vegas, and then is confronted by his own father, now an infected zombie.  In both cases, the memories of happier times are intercut with the current struggle. (It’s the rare horror comic for which you’ll need a tissue!) Memory also weighs heavily on Hiram Lodge and his butler Smithers; it’s implied that Hiram was unfaithful to Veronica’s mother, and Smithers, as a second-generation servant of the Lodge family, is a discreet repository of all the town’s secrets.  Along with the incestuous relationship of Jason and Cheryl Blossom and the down-low lesbianism of Ginger Lopez and Nancy Woods (both interpretations that are original to this series, obviously), the constant web of secrets and lies make Afterlife’s version of Riverdale resemble Peyton Place, even before the supernatural elements are introduced.  The tone is very much like a contemporary teen soap opera.

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The “Escape from Riverdale” arc ends with Archie leading the town’s survivors from the dwindling safety of Lodge Manor out of town.  Sabrina, who was banished to another dimension for her actions in the first issue, is scheduled to return to Riverdale in issue 6, presumably introducing a more cosmic angle to the ongoing horror, but who knows what other characters will show up?  Josie and the Pussycats are still out there, somewhere, so far unused, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla indulge in some deep cuts from the world of Archie: most of the weirdest Archie concepts are technically alternate universes, but so is Afterlife, and it’s clear the creative team know their stuff, so who knows? I’m hoping for Jughead’s Time Police, myself.

Or maybe they’ll take some inspiration from Spire Christian Comics (which licensed Archie characters to spread the Good News), and we’ll get the gritty reboot of The Gospel Blimp the world has been crying out for.  Or a grown-up Hansi, the Girl Who Loved the Swastika?  After the real-life horrors of that story, zombies should be no problem.

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All kidding aside, I do give Archie Comics a lot of credit for remaining a comics company first instead of a “media” company: although many of the attention-grabbing developments of recent years, such as Archie’s marriage and impending death in Life with Archie (the series which Afterlife with Archie sprang from, initially as a joke) and the introduction of openly gay character Kevin Keller, could be seen as publicity stunts, they’ve remained dedicated to a medium that the Big Two comics companies have increasingly turned into ancillaries of big budget movies and little else.  On the other hand: an Afterlife with Archie movie?  I can think of less likely properties to adapt for film.  In the mean time, I look forward to seeing what else Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla come up with.  (And I just found out that Sabrina will be appearing in another, “much darker” ongoing series following the success of Afterlife; “much darker” than what we’ve seen so far? Wow.)

Fates Worse Than Death: Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island

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The year is 1936.  The leaders of Pacific Dirigible Airlines are monitoring the maiden voyage of the airship San Francisco between California and Australia.  Just before the dirigible reaches the mid-point refueling station at Clipper Island, disaster strikes!  The radio operator on Clipper Island, half dead, reports that something has destroyed the fuel tanks.  The island is taboo to the native Komatoans; have they risen in revolt, or was it the vengeance of their volcano god, Pele?  The three directors, Ellsworth, Canfield, and Jackson, don’t have time to worry about that: if the San Francisco is forced to turn back, the fledgling company will be ruined.  Suddenly, the airship itself is on fire and doomed to crash before it ever reaches the island.  Oh, the humanity!

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Ellsworth and his board suspect sabotage, and a government agent, Mala, is called in to investigate.  Posing as the new radio operator, Mala travels to Clipper Island, where he gets mixed up with Melani, the Komatoan princess, and the high priest Porotu, who schemes to take her throne.  Working with Mala are Scottish Hank McGlaurie and English novelist Anthony Tupper, as well as the second-billed stars Rex and Buck, a horse and a dog respectively. (Both Rex the “Wonder Horse,” aka “King of the Wild Horses,” and Buck were already animal stars, and they assist by attacking and harrying the bad guys, protecting the princess, and even going for help when Mala is in trouble, as in “I think he’s trying to tell us something!”)

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Unbeknownst to both Mala and Melani, Porotu is secretly in league with a spy ring called the “Black Chamber,” led by a mysterious person known only as “H. K.”  (Whenever H. K. is shown on screen, his face is blocked by a lamp, and his voice is dubbed.)  The spies have a base in an old stone fort atop the volcano on Clipper Island, a location convenient for them to tap into the Trans-Pacific Cable to intercept secret messages (the main part of the villains’ lair that we see is an elaborate code-breaking operation led by Draker, the head of the Clipper Island branch).  Porotu and the Black Chamber are working together to keep unwelcome guests off the island.

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Will Mala gain the trust of Princess Melani and her people?  Will he discover the true identity of “H. K.” and smash the spy ring?  Will the successful establishment of a dirigible route across the Pacific ensure that airship travel is the wave of the future?  These questions and more are posed over the fourteen episodes of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.

Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island was only the fourth serial produced by Republic Pictures, but it already included many elements of the Republic formula: a capable (if bland) hero backed up by comic relief sidekicks, lots of fistfights and daring stunts (including vehicular mayhem and the destruction of a mountainside fort, accomplished with miniatures), and a nefarious criminal organization led by a shadowy figure whose identity would only be revealed in the last chapter.  (Some of the fights feature noticeable “undercranking”: it was a common practice to roll the camera slightly more slowly than normal, so that when the film was projected at regular speed all the action would appear sped up, increasing the excitement.)

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Despite its trailer’s claim to be “based on a novel all youth loves,” Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island bears almost no resemblance to Defoe’s classic.  In fact, despite the island setting, at no time is the hero ever truly a castaway—he doesn’t have to forage for sustenance or improvise his own shelter—and he hardly ever lacks for company.  (The title comes from the nickname bestowed on Mala by Tupper, who notes the irony of a Native Crusoe assisted by a white Man Friday in the person of McGlaurie.)

The hero is played by Mala (aka Ray Mala, née Ray Wise), a half-Native Alaskan who had already come to fame as the star of Eskimo (aka Mala the Magnificent) and the Tahiti-set Last of the Pagans, and who would lend his lean, athletic presence to several more features (and two more serials) as both an actor and as a cameraman and cinematographer.  Mala is celebrated as the first Native American movie star, and is a notable exception to the almost exclusively white serial heroes.  The character he portrays is also named Mala, but as an apparently Polynesian g-man, it would be a stretch to say he appears as “himself,” even by the loose standards of Hollywood.

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I previously mentioned the deliberately apolitical invaders and menaces in the serials, pulps and comics of the 1930s.  Robinson Crusoe is more down to earth than Flash Gordon but no less circumspect: H. K. and the Black Chamber are not identified with any nation or cause.  The Pacific setting implies a Japanese connection, but the Black Chamber is shown to have branches all over the world.  Depending on one’s perspective, the spy ring could represent fascism, international communism, or even gangsters intercepting government secrets for their own financial gain.  The filmmakers may have had their own politics, but vagueness was undoubtedly better for business.

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Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island transposes many conventions of jungle adventure—primitive tribes, wild animals, and exotic locales—to its island setting.  Like the “modern Western” and “Canadian mountie” genres that were also popular, it combines the picturesque setting and colorful native peoples of the frontier with such contemporary touches as automobiles, airplanes, and radio. Over the course of the serial, a fleet of vehicles are featured traveling by land, sea, and air: dirigibles, a submarine, seaplane and biplane, and more.

Also like some other serials, it features white evildoers manipulating presumably superstitious natives through modern technology: Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island includes a volcano that can be made to erupt at will, allowing the spies to pose as the Komatoans’ god and strengthening Porotu’s position. The high priest claims that “Pele is quick to destroy those who arouse the wrath of the gods!”, even threatening to sacrifice first Mala and later Melani in a pit of molten lava, but the technology that stokes the volcano predictably gets out of control and destroys both the spies’ fort and Porotu by the end.

The Komatoans themselves are a Hollywood version of Pacific Islanders, living in thatched huts among a mélange of tiki idols and masks (not to mention an Easter Island head inside the sacred Cave of the Winds).  Both the Black Chamber and Pacific Dirigible Airlines require the cooperation of the Komatoans (to whom Clipper Island is taboo) to carry out their activities, so Mala’s interest in protecting and (later) restoring Melani spring from more than altruism.  The fact that Melani (Mutiny on the Bounty‘s Mamo Clark) is beautiful and smart surely doesn’t hurt, either.  (Robinson Crusoe doesn’t get bogged down in mushy stuff, however: even with a nudge from Rex, Mala only says “You have rewarded me with your friendship,” and the concluding chapter fades out before they can do so much as embrace.  The love triangle of Flash Gordon is positively steamy by comparison.)

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What I Watched: Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936, Republic)

Where I Saw It: I watched a Hal Roach Studios DVD, but it is on YouTube starting here.

No. of Chapters: 14 (According to the DVD liner notes, this unusual number was a result of the production going over budget, requiring the addition of an inexpensive “economy chapter,” recapping earlier events and increasing the serial’s revenue by an additional week.)

Best Chapter Title: “Jaws of the Beast” (Chapter Eight)

Best Cliffhanger: “Trail’s End” (Chapter Seven): After rescuing Melani from Porotu’s attempt to sacrifice her to Pele, Mala tries to leap with her across a boulder-strewn gorge.  The boulder they land on isn’t steady enough, and the two fall helplessly into the abyss.  How are they going to get out of this?

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Weeeell, as it happens “Trail’s End” doesn’t play quite fair.  At the beginning of Chapter Eight, Mala and Melani grab a vine and pull themselves to safety in noticeably different footage.  I wrote CHEAT!!! in my notes.  “Trail’s End” is only the runner-up for this award, however, as Chapter Ten (“Wings of Fury”) features an even more blatant cheat.  Mala, back in San Francisco, is chasing down a member of H. K.’s organization, a pilot.  The pilot jumps in a biplane and takes off, with Mala clinging to the side of the cockpit.  The pilot tries to shake him off, but when Mala gets him in a headlock the pilot loses control of the plane, and it crashes into the water of San Francisco Bay . . . until the beginning of Chapter Eleven, that is, when the biplane pulls up and avoids the water at the last minute.  The cockadoodie plane crashed, I tell you!  I saw it! CHEEEEEAAT!!!!!!

Sample dialogue: “As you leap into the fire pit, Princess Melani, remember the vengeance of the priest of Pele!” –Porotu, Chapter Six (“God of the Volcano”)

What Others Have Said: “While I have mentioned the better performances, there were a number of rather awful serial performances that do deserve some mention: the four leads [in The Masked Marvel] probably rate our booby prize for bad acting, while following close behind are Mala in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island and Bill Kennedy in The Royal Mounted Rides Again.” –Alan G. Barbour, Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial

What’s Next: In 1943, a costumed crime-fighter made the leap from the comics to the big screen, not for the last time.  Join me in two weeks for a look at Batman.