I’ve got another one at The Solute today, and this one’s a long one. I examine several movies about or featuring bands, marching and otherwise, and examine the different ways this unique form of social and educational music-making have been portrayed on film. You can read it here.
(And don’t worry, this isn’t the end of long-form content here at Medleyana: I will still be posting longer articles here as well!)
It’s always nice when circumstances converge to provide an opportunity for me to write about things I wanted to write about anyway. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow opened ten years ago today, so I wrote a remembrance of it for The Solute. As with Shanghai Surprise, I was interested in revisiting it in light of my recent exploration of serials from the 1930s and ’40s, one of the major sources of Sky Captain‘s plot and visual style. My article for The Solute focuses on the film’s then-groundbreaking combination of live action and CGI backgrounds, but regular readers will recognize many of my usual preoccupations with pastiche and stock character types.
Today I took a look at the 1986 Madonna/Sean Penn vehicle Shanghai Surprise over at The Solute. It’s an auxiliary to Julius Kassendorf’s series examining all of Madonna’s film roles, but readers of my recent Fates Worse Than Death series will find many connections made with both the serials of the 1930s and the post-Raiders of the Lost Ark imitators that flooded theaters in the 1980s. Upon its release, Shanghai Surprise was an enormous flop and the passage of time has done little to rehabilitate it; however, I found some things to enjoy in it, which you can read about right here.
Wow, it’s been a whole year already! Medleyana became a part of my life so quickly that it’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t trying to shape my thoughts into blog posts on a regular basis. In a lot of ways, this has been good for me to undertake, even though it’s been a lot of work. I probably should have started blogging a long time ago: there’s a big difference between having a thought and putting it in a form for others to read. There is often research involved, and it’s surprising how many leaps in logic one can make that only come to light when trying to write an idea down or explain it to somebody else. As someone who often reaches conclusions by intuition or lateral thinking, blogging has kept me honest and forced me to support my opinions in a more rigorous way.
The reality of blogging has also been different from my expectations. I at first conceived of Medleyana as mostly an essay series, one entry building on another until I had gotten all of my thoughts out, presenting an overarching argument made from many angles. I quickly realized that most people, including myself, don’t read blogs in that way: the format lends itself to browsing, with the expectation that not all readers will be interested in every subject a writer chooses to explore (especially true for a blog like mine, tackling a variety of subjects), and each entry needs to be able to stand on its own rather than building directly on its predecessor (not that I haven’t had some threads running through). In some cases I’ve responded to current events or arguments, but mostly I don’t consider Medleyana to be a “headline news” kind of blog; perhaps that is something to consider expanding into in its second year.
Overall, although some entries didn’t quite get where I wanted them to go, I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made as a writer, and I’ve proven to myself that I can stay on a schedule (most of the time). I’ve also found it necessary to branch out in search of new subjects to write about, after exhausting most of the things that had been building up inside, the ideas that drove me to start blogging in the first place.
Fates Worse Than Death, for example, my exploration of movie serials, was a product of happy circumstance: I had a few serials on DVD but was having a hard time committing to watch them. So, like so many bloggers before me, I began a series, thinking that the summer would provide the free time to watch them with the side effect of providing a little content for the blog. How wrong I was! It turns out that watching and writing about a four-hour long movie, even on a biweekly basis, is rather time-consuming! As I often tell my wife, I don’t really take on big projects anymore: I just take on projects that I think will be small, and wait for them to expand! It has been an enjoyable process, however, and I’ve even made some friends in researching and discussing this material (and I still have plenty to look at for next summer!).
The most surprising development of the last year is how quickly I have been able to find other outlets for my writing, including The Solute (for which I will have some pieces upcoming, I promise!) and The Wichita Eagle. I’m also still awaiting publication of The Lost Worlds of Power (now expected at the end of October) and I’ve got a few other projects in the works. Some of them are larger in scale (so maybe I exaggerated when I said I never take on big projects) and might demand more of my time. My goal is to keep posting at least once a week here, but after proving I could do it for one year I’m going to be more forgiving of myself if I don’t, and I’ve got an ample backlog of material for anyone who gets impatient for more reading.
Finally, if there is one thing I appreciate from readers, it’s feedback. I have a general idea of readership through the number of “hits” this site gets each day; I can see what search terms are leading readers here (and frankly, some of you should be ashamed of yourselves). I’m aware of which posts are the most popular (for the record, it’s “Instruments of Death” by a long shot), but unless I hear from you, I don’t really know what you think. If you’re reading this, why not consider commenting and letting me know you’re there? If the commenting system is too restrictive or you just prefer to remain private, drop me a line through my Contact page. Criticism is as welcome as praise, as long as it will help me make this a blog that you will want to keep reading.
Calling the police. Calling the G-men. Calling all Americans to war on the underworld. Gang Busters, with the cooperation of law enforcement officers of the Unites States, presents a picture of the endless war of the police on the underworld, illustrating the clever operation of law enforcement officers in the work of protecting our citizens: the all-American crusade against crime!
That announcement, combined with the sounds of sirens, gun shots, and tramping chain gangs, opens each chapter of the 1942 serial Gang Busters, based on the popular radio show of the same name.
For over twenty years, producer-director Phillips H. Lord dramatized stories of true crime with the close cooperation of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. (In addition to the serial, a television series and a comic book were spun out from the original property.) On the radio, Gang Busters had a similar opening montage of sound effects and voice-over and, while based on true cases, dramatized its stories with broadly drawn characters and zingy, hard-boiled dialogue (“That music sounds pretty. . . . Now let’s have the music of the cash register opening!”). The serial, while fictional, is similar in tone, using voice-overs and newspaper headlines to give each chapter the urgency and documentary quality of a newsreel, at the same time drawing situations and characterizations straight out of contemporary gangster films.
The action begins with a crime wave in progress: seemingly unrelated robberies and destruction are terrorizing the city. Detective Lieutenant Bill Bannister (Kent Taylor) suspects that a single gang is behind the coordinated attacks, but it isn’t until a strange message is broadcast that his suspicions are confirmed. “Hello, citizens. You are listening to the voice of Death,” begins a cool, even-toned voice over the radio (in one of many effective uses of mass media, this scene suggests the chill listeners might have gotten from programs like Suspense). The disembodied voice is that of “Professor Mortis” (Ralph Morgan), whose terroristic attacks are explicitly meant to turn the citizenry against their police and government, demanding their removal.
Professor Mortis (“probably an assumed name,” Bannister astutely notes) claims to represent “The League of Murdered Men,” all of whom have grudges against the legal system. He promises that the attacks will continue until Mayor Hansen, Police Chief O’Brien, and every other authority is deposed. Mortis’ claim that all the members of his League have died and been brought back to life is too ridiculous to be believed, of course—but how can Bannister explain the fact that fingerprints recovered from the crime scenes match criminals who committed suicide in prison months ago? And how is it that Mortis seems to know what the police are planning at every turn?
The police are about to get a break: Bannister’s brother, framed for a gangland murder he didn’t commit, is being released from prison, and he claims to have information about the gang and its methods. Two nosy reporters, Vicki Logan (Irene Hervey) and Happy Haskins, talk their way into accompanying Bannister (as they seem to be able to talk their way into the Chief’s office, the lab, and anywhere else they want to go). Speaking to Bannister in private, his brother says he was approached in prison and given a set of instructions for escaping; before he can finish, he is gunned down by a pair of window washers who just happened to be cleaning the windows of Police headquarters.
The thirteen chapters that follow are full of action and intrigue: car chases and firefights, kidnapping and fisticuffs, and even the explosive demolition of the still-under-construction City Hall—with Vicki and Bannister still inside! There are twists and turns aplenty as the League of Murdered Men attempts to either draft or eliminate Bannister, and Bannister (with Vicki’s help) attempts to unravel the mystery of Professor Mortis’ identity. (Although his story is not revealed in detail until nearly the end, it’s clear from the beginning that his is a tortured soul, living only to exact revenge on those who wronged him. In comparison to the thugs who do his bidding, Mortis is cultured and intelligent: he demonstrates great scientific expertise, bringing members of his League back from the “death” he chemically induces and performing plastic surgery to hide their identities.)
True to its subject matter (and in contrast to many serials where every character is exactly what they seem), Gang Busters sets its heroes adrift in a dangerous world where no one can be trusted. Bannister isn’t wrong: someone is leaking information from the police to the League. Is it the Mayor, suspiciously eager to get Bannister taken off the case? Is it Bannister’s assistant, Detective Tim Nolan? Even a humble newspaper seller is more deeply involved than anyone would expect.
Then there are those fascinating characters on the margin, such as Frenchy “the Duck” (Edward Emerson, uncredited), who runs a dockside club catering to criminal types. Frenchy wants nothing more than to avoid police entanglements, but sometimes the money, she is too much to resist, mais non? If Frenchy’s establishment happens to have a water trap installed by the bootlegger who used to own the place, so much the worse for any nosy cops who blunder into it, ne c’est pas? (Yes, he is that broad: imagine Lando Calrissian crossed with Pepé Le Pew.)
Gang Busters is also a reminder of how vital the newspapers once were as a source of up-to-the-minute information. Even more than the radio, the papers are used by both the League and the police to send messages to each other, through advertisements or headlines; they’re also a convenient way to convey exposition to the audience quickly. (MORTIS’ GANG ABDUCTS GIRL REPORTER is followed up by JOURNAL CAMERA GIRL ESCAPES FROM MURDER CAR; with all the special editions and updates, the printing presses at the Journal must never stop running.)
Almost every chapter begins with a blazing headline and a burst of action: instead of simply rewinding to a point before the cliffhanger, as most serials do, Gang Busters stages a vignette about yet another atrocity perpetrated by the League, tying it into the peril in which we last saw our heroes. It’s very effective at catching the audience up without being too repetitive when watching several chapters in one sitting.
Finally, Gang Busters is a very satisfying mix of down-to-earth police work and politics with a flamboyant criminal mastermind. The sciences of fingerprinting, ballistics, and radio signal triangulation are balanced with suspended animation, remote control bombs, and a gun hidden in a camera (switched with Vicki’s: the next time she takes a picture of Bannister in action—bang!). Professor Mortis himself is a great theatrical creation, a brilliantly twisted egotist with a personal vendetta against the forces of law and order; cloaked in expressionistic shadows in his lair under an active subway tunnel, performing illegal medical experiments and speaking to a terrified public over the radio “from beyond the grave,” Mortis embodies the “gangland gothic” aesthetic of the production. There’s a lot of Dick Tracy in Gang Busters, but Batman would fit right in, too.
What I Watched:Gang Busters (Universal, 1942) Where I Watched It: A pair of Alpha Video DVDs, sold separately. Vol. 1 contained chapters 1-6, Vol. 2 contained chapters 7-13; seriously, who watches half a serial? (It can also be seen online.) No. of Chapters: 13 Best Chapter Title: Murder by Proxy (Chapter Eight) Best Cliffhanger: True to serial tradition, the chapter titles often point to the peril that awaits the hero at the end of that chapter. Chapter Two, “The Death Plunge,” is one of several cliffhangers in Gang Busters involving a moving vehicle crashing or falling off a bridge or cliff, but in this case a car chase in a parking garage leads to the hero’s car plummeting several floors down an elevator shaft. Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: Alas, when will the producers of serials learn that cheaters never prosper? Gang Busters is mostly guilty of the “hero jumps out of the car/plane just before it plunges over the bridge/canyon” cheat, although most of the cliffhanger resolutions play fair. The most obvious is the cliffhanger to Chapter Ten (“Mob Vengeance”), in which Bannister attempts to redirect a truck full of dynamite (intended to blow up Police headquarters) over a bridge. In the cliffhanger, he’s still hanging on to the side of the truck when it goes over, while the driver rolls out and runs off. In the resolution, not only does Bannister jump in time, the driver—who appeared to be running off—runs headlong into a pylon and kills himself. It’s kind of hard to describe: you really need to see it to believe it.
Sample Dialogue: “The nerve of that guy Mortis! He’ll try anything!” –Detective Tim Nolan, Chapter Seven (“The Water Trap”) What Others Have Said: “Gang Busters has exciting cliffhangers and contains some unexpected twists. The plot takes more than a few extraordinary turns, and the ending is exceptional. This is one of Universal’s most complex serials, with many chases and thrilling scenes skillfully staged in outside locations.” –Matinee Classics
Epilogue: I sought out Gang Busters on the basis of its trailer. I haven’t discussed the trailers for serials much: suffice it to say that they are examples of the “hard sell,” emphasizing the thrills and excitement awaiting audiences. Given that Gang Busters affects a breathless “breaking news” tone, it’s not surprising that the trailer would be even more over-the-top than usual. If the sequence beginning at 2:00, teasing each of the cliffhangers in compressed form, doesn’t get you excited for this film, maybe serials just aren’t for you.
In watching and researching motion picture serials over the past few months, I’ve run across many based on characters from other media: comics, radio, and literature. Allowing for the vagaries of art and commerce, I’ve been struck by the absence of several characters who one might expect to be adapted as source material. What follows is necessarily speculative, but I’ve compiled a list of characters, popular at the time, who could have appeared in a serial but didn’t, for whatever reason.
Perhaps arbitrarily, I’ve excluded characters who appeared in feature films or cartoons during the “Golden Age” of the serials: Sherlock Holmes and Dracula may not have appeared in serials, but they are well-represented on film. I’m more interested in characters whose film appearances are either limited to the modern era or who haven’t appeared on film at all (yet).
John Carter of Mars
From one perspective, it isn’t surprising that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ interplanetary hero didn’t make the leap to the big screen until 2012’s poorly-received adaptation. Although John Carter set the pattern for the early space heroes, appearing in print in 1912, both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were featured in serial adaptations during the Golden Age of science fiction (in 1936 and 1939 respectively). It was Gordon and Rogers who cemented the conventions and story beats of space opera for film audiences and became household names in the process. Later, Star Wars and other science fantasy epics would borrow elements of Carter’s adventures (what is Tatooine but Burroughs’ dying Mars?), further stealing the series’ thunder.
On the other hand, clearly there was a market for science fiction adventure, and Burroughs was aware of the power of licensing his creations: his other famous character, Tarzan, was featured in numerous film adaptations in the 1930s and ‘40s (continuing to this day), including one produced by Burroughs himself.
Perhaps it was the extravagant native fauna of Barsoom (the locals’ name for Mars) that made it prohibitive to film: in his adventures, Carter faces the four-armed giant Tharks (Green Martians), rides eight-legged thoats, and encounters other multi-limbed creatures that would have been compromised by the special effects of the 1930s, to say the least. (Flash Gordon tries manfully to create convincing space monsters, and is only intermittently successful.) In a similar vein, the fliers and radium guns of Burroughs’ novels might have seemed like a daunting proposition to film, but other science fiction serials and features found ways to create such effects or work around them.
Intriguingly, there was at least one attempt to produce a John Carter film during the Golden Age: in 1935, Warner Brothers animator Bob Clampett approached Burroughs with a proposal to put together an animated John Carter series that, had it been made, would have beaten both Snow White (the first animated feature) and the Flash Gordon serial to theaters. Clampett and Burroughs put together a deal with MGM, but ultimately the project was deemed too weird for audiences. Only a few minutes of test footage remain to show what might have been.
(Thanks to fellow fan Bruce Ross for alerting me to this aborted project, and check out Bruce’s blog to see his impressive custom action figures, including a certain Warlord of Mars.)
Jules de Grandin
The most popular author to appear in Weird Tales magazine wasn’t Robert E. Howard or H. P. Lovecraft: it was Seabury Quinn, a lawyer with a specialty in mortuary law and the funeral business. Quinn’s most popular creation was the feisty French physician Jules de Grandin, a prime example of the “occult detective” character type. With his sidekick/narrator Dr. Trowbridge (clearly modeled after the sturdy Holmes/Watson dynamic), de Grandin defended Harrisonville, New Jersey against supernatural, scientific, and just plain criminal threats in nearly a hundred stories.
Although less well-remembered now, the de Grandin stories contain plenty of ideas that could have made for excellent serials—killer animals, vampires, cults, mad scientists, and more—and were formulaic and action-packed enough to provide what audiences of the time expected. De Grandin, with his cod-French exclamations (not only the time-honored “Sacre bleu!”—de Grandin would frequently vary his patter with insertions of “Parbleu!”, “Mordieu!”, “Zut!”, and odd turns of phrase like “Horns of a little blue devil!”, “Name of a gun,” etc.), was likewise a character whose exaggerated national character would be right at home at Republic or Columbia. (His catch-phrases are no sillier than the “inscrutable” Orientalisms of Charlie Chan or the “By Jove!” English of Anthony Tupper in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.) More importantly, like all serial heroes, de Grandin favored the direct approach, and was as likely to defeat the forces of evil with a sword or automatic as with an incantation or clever trap.
Conan the Cimmerian, et al
Speaking of Robert E. Howard, it’s unlikely that a serial based on his famous creation Conan would have been anything like the 1982 feature Conan the Barbarian, influenced as it was by the success of special effects blockbusters like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the contributions of later authors (not to mention the Frazetta-esque physique of star Arnold Schwarzenegger). However, the ancient past had been represented in epics like Ben-Hur, and fantastical “lost worlds” were featured in serials such as The Undersea Kingdom and The Phantom Empire, so it wouldn’t have been out of the question. A Conan serial would have probably resembled those starring Tarzan or “jungle girl” Nyoka, with an emphasis on action and the lead’s physicality, toning down Howard’s often pessimistic philosophical digressions.
It’s worth noting, however, that Howard created several series characters, in a variety of genres, that could have headlined serials (and to this day, not all of them have been adapted for film). “Last king of the Picts” Bran Mak Morn and medieval Irishman Turlogh Dubh O’Brien represent Howard’s interest in the history and people of the British Isles; King Kull of Atlantis and swordswoman Red Sonja represent a strain of sword-and-sorcery similar to the Conan stories. Of all of Howard’s series characters, probably the closest in spirit to the serials is Steve Costigan, a modern-day merchant sailor and boxer whose stories combined action and wry humor. Although Conan remains Howard’s best-known creation, the author left behind a wealth of material yet to be mined for adaptation.
Cartoonist Will Eisner created the Spirit (the supposedly dead criminologist Denny Colt, going forth from his cemetery hideout to fight crime) in 1940 as the lead character in a series of comic books he produced for inclusion in newspapers owned by the Register and Tribune Syndicate. Ownership of his own character, with little editorial interference, gave Eisner the freedom to explore a variety of story-telling techniques, and due to his innovative approach to composition he is often compared to cinematic masters such as Hitchcock and Welles. (In Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the title characters are inspired by Citizen Kane to invigorate their own comic book stories with devices such as achronological narratives, alternating points of view, and dynamic, cinematic compositions applied not just to the panel but to the entire page. Although fictional, this is likely a reference to the leaps forward that Eisner made with The Spirit.)
Sometimes the title character was barely featured in stories, making cameo appearances in the stories of a range of urban characters both poignant and humorous; this approach would have fit perfectly with the serials, which often introduced audiences to original characters who had equal screen time with the licensed characters in the title (such as Linda Page and her uncle in the 1943 Batman serial). Quoted in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, Eisner explained,
I began to realize who I was writing for”—that is, an audience dominated by adults, rather than children—and “I suddenly found an opportunity to do what I had really always wanted to do, which was to write ‘seriously’ or write good material, and at the same time stay within the medium I knew and had developed skills for.
Ironically, as Eisner drew from film to develop his sophisticated visual language, the serials were increasingly geared toward children, dropping the nuances of the 1930s serials in favor of formula and non-stop action. Without Eisner’s ambitious style, the Spirit wasn’t superficially different from other masked pulp heroes like the Spider or the Green Hornet, and it is unlikely a Spirit serial would have been very distinguished. (However, many commentators have pointed out that the title character of the 1943 serial The Masked Marvel bears a strong resemblance to the Spirit; in that serial the central mystery of the story was the true identity of the hero, with four possible candidates.)
Tom Steele as the Masked Marvel
Seriously, what gives? Despite the news that DC’s premier superheroine—the female superhero in the mind of the public—will appear in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman is severely underrepresented on film. She has yet to headline her own theatrical feature film, and has only a single direct-to-video animated feature to her name. Considering that Wonder Woman spent World War II fighting Nazis alongside Captain Steve Trevor, a serial would seem to be a no-brainer. But it was not to be.
Created in 1941 by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman reflected his desire to create a strong but loving role model for girls, an Amazon princess fighting for equality in “Man’s World;” in his words, she would be “a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Marston modeled his creation on both his wife Elizabeth and a woman named Olive Byrne who lived with the couple in a polyamorous relationship. Although Marston’s unconventional views on the sexes and Wonder Woman’s fetishistic overtones (including the “lasso of truth” and the notion of loving domination) raised eyebrows in later years, they don’t seem to have been considered problematic during the 1940s. (Certainly the serials had their share of questionable material, and anything objectionable would likely have been removed or changed anyway: some of the changes studios made to comic book characters could be quite drastic.)
Consider the screen presence of Wonder Woman’s fellow heroes: Columbia produced serials starring Batman (in 1943 and 1949) and Superman (1948); Republic brought Captain Marvel (1941) and Captain America (1944) to the screen, and there were numerous less-remembered costumed heroes in serials as well. (That’s not even mentioning the animated Superman shorts from Fleischer or the later Superman and Batman TV programs; as of this writing, Lynda Carter’s portrayal of Wonder Woman is still the only prominent, long-running live-action version of the character.)
Female-led serials weren’t unheard of: I’ve reviewed two this summer, The Perils of Pauline and Zorro’s Black Whip. The star of the latter, Linda Stirling, was actively groomed to be the next Pearl White, appearing in several jungle, Western, thriller, and science fiction serials for Republic. (In fact, it was reading about Stirling’s career that brought Wonder Woman to mind and inspired this article.)
(Interestingly, an issue of DC: Realworlds, an out-of-continuity series in which DC’s heroes are expressly fictional but inspire ordinary people to take heroic action, features a hypothetical Wonder Woman serial. The story centers on an actress who finds the courage to stand up to a Red-baiting politician who combines features of Joseph McCarthy and Ronald Reagan. Perhaps in an alternate universe, audiences are thrilling to Wonder Woman vs. the Nazi Baroness or Wonder Woman vs. the Red Menace.)
What’s Next: In one week, I’ll conclude Fates Worse Than Death (for this summer, at least) with a look at Gang Busters. See you then!