Fates Worse Than Death: Serials at Feature Length


The studios that produced serials were nothing if not parsimonious: considering the ways in which stock footage, costumes, and other production elements were reused, it is not surprising that the films themselves would be repackaged and rereleased as many times as were profitable. During the heyday of the serial format, a popular serial could be rereleased in its entirety after a few years (there were no options for viewers to see them in any other way, of course, and since most were aimed at youngsters, a new audience would arise over time).

Serials were also frequently edited down to feature length (anywhere from sixty to a hundred minutes), either released simultaneously with the serial or later rereleased as “B” pictures. The arrival of television introduced a new market for “featurized” serials, as well. (As an example, in 1966, Republic made a number of its films available to television, both complete serials and several cut down to one hundred minutes.) Sometimes, but not always, these shortened serials reappeared under new titles: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was released simultaneously with the feature-length Mars Attacks the World, its title chosen to exploit the notoriety of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast; Undersea Kingdom surfaced on television as Sharad of Atlantis; and so on.

(Note that the photos on the poster are drawn from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial.)

(Note that the photos on the poster are drawn from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial.)

Since I began exploring the serials last summer, I’ve been curious about these feature-length cuts: how do they differ from the serialized originals, and how effective are they at conveying the story and its thrills? There is no one answer: even a cursory survey reveals differing approaches to editing and marketing, and the context of production and the studio’s goals can have a big impact on the final product. In theory, one could cut the titles and credits and the redundant material from the cliffhangers and have a perfectly serviceable movie. In reality, the end product would still be too long for what was considered “feature length” in the mid-twentieth century and the pacing might prove unsatisfying for one sitting. From what I can tell, most cut-down serials come in somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half. (Editing down a serial into a more modern feature length would undoubtedly be an interesting project for a film student or anyone who wants to learn more about the pacing and construction of these films. Indeed, YouTube searches reveal a range of cleaned-up and “restored” versions; how far these restoration efforts extend into actual recutting is a question I haven’t explored in depth.)

For purposes of comparison I sought out a few “featurized” versions of serials I have already reviewed for this series. An approach that I would assume is typical is seen in the shortened cut of Shadow of Chinatown: at a brisk 69 minutes, the feature zips through the major events of the serial. Much of the “Oriental” color is done away with, as are scenes that have Martin Andrews’ manservant Willy Fu briefly kidnapped, and a car chase between Los Angeles and San Francisco. What is mostly eliminated is repetitive or slow-moving, however; everything that’s left is worthwhile, and more importantly the story makes sense. Willy gets in a few of his pseudo-Confusion aphorisms, and Bela Lugosi still has enough screen time to justify his top billing.


Interestingly, however, the reduction of the action to its most exciting elements makes reporter Joan Whiting a more obvious (and sympathetic) lead character than the mansplaining Andrews, at least for a while. Also, the ending cuts off one final twist in which Lugosi’s character comes back from an apparent death to strike at Andrews: this time, he gets his comeuppance the first time. There are a few other small changes, such as the addition of musical underscore to scenes that were without accompaniment in the serial, at least the version I watched; that seems to be pretty standard practice, a way of covering the seams and updating the production. Although I enjoyed the full serial of Shadow of Chinatown, I would consider the feature version an adequate substitute for an interested viewer.


By contrast, the feature-length cut of The Phantom Empire feels rushed. Admittedly, its story is complex, with Gene Autry and his Radio Ranch friends pitted against both an unscrupulous radium-hunting scientist and denizens of Murania, the hidden realm located 25,000 feet beneath the surface. Much of what I appreciate in this serial is around the edges, however: those small atmospheric moments or character beats that make it unique. As a feature, The Phantom Empire is still very distinctive. Autry’s musical numbers, integral to the plot (he must broadcast every day or else lose his radio contract, and thus the ranch), are still there, as are Frankie and Betsy Baxter’s DIY electronics lab and their club, the Thunder Riders. Missing, however, are those scenes in which Murania’s Queen Tika spies on the surface world through her television, seething with disdain, as well as a similar scene in which she shows Autry the realities of poverty and war on the surface. Gone also are most of Autry’s fight scenes and a sequence in which, near death, he mumbles in the backwards “language of the dead” before being revived by the miracle of radium. The murder of Tom Baxter is glossed over even more than in the serial, without much time given for it to sink in.


The biggest loss is the erasure of Queen Tika’s motivation for keeping Murania hidden and, ultimately, deciding to stay with her kingdom during its destruction instead of fleeing to the upper world with Autry. Speechifying is something sci-fi fans often tolerate rather than enjoy, and it’s usually the easiest thing to cut when editing for length, but in this case reducing Tika’s presence drains the serial of much of its personality, turning her into another cardboard villain. If most viewers between the 1950s and 1990s were only able to see the feature-length cut, it’s not surprising that The Phantom Empire is appreciated only by aficionados: without the atmosphere and dramatic build-up found in the full version, it comes off as a diverting novelty in the mold of Undersea Kingdom.


The New Adventures of Tarzan was actually edited into two feature films. The first, also called The New Adventures of Tarzan, is a longer version of the first two chapters of the serial, in which Tarzan joins the Guatemalan expedition of Major Martling in order to find his friend, the downed pilot D’Arnot, who is trapped in the same “lost city” in which Martling hopes to find a legendary idol, the Green Goddess. Also hunting for the idol is Raglan, a rival explorer working for a foreign company that wants the explosive formula hidden inside the idol. Although two chapters doesn’t sound like very much, the first chapter of the serial is an unusual forty minutes long, so stretching the film to seventy minutes isn’t as odd as it sounds.

(Also worth noting: while the feature’s release date is given as 1935, a release simultaneous with the serial, the version I watched is obviously a later rerelease, as the leading man is listed as Bruce Bennett; Brix changed his name to Bennett in 1939, a change that coincided with a transition into more prestigious Hollywood fare such as Sahara, Dark Passage, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The music that accompanies these updated credits also sounds like something from the 1940s.)


As I mentioned in my review of the serial, I had trouble following the first chapter’s setup, as the sound was patchy and some of the dialogue was hard to understand. The feature version clarifies things a great deal by including extra scenes of dialogue and improving the sound. Some of the dialogue is obviously dubbed, and the voice coming from Tarzan’s mouth doesn’t sound like Herman Brix; I wonder if this version was the cause of John Taliafero’s complaints about Brix sounding like a “school master:” it’s both higher and fussier than Brix’s normal speaking voice, and it doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of the lord of the jungle. As for the rest of the dubbing, it at least helps the story make sense, and there are also added background music and sound effects that give the film a more complete, modern atmosphere.



Even so, the film begins with an apology for the sound quality, recorded under difficult conditions, and begs for the indulgence of the audience. It’s hard to imagine any modern film making such a plea, unless it were a documentary. Taliafero mentions that the Ashton Dearholt expedition that filmed The New Adventures in Central America ended up with enough footage for both a serial and a feature film, and sure enough there is a great deal of footage that doesn’t appear in the serial. Much of it is atmospheric footage of wild animals, natives, and the exotic country, and while it is impressive on its own, its inclusion in the finished film often smacks of padding, giving the film the air of a travelogue punctuated by a few scenes of action. (Particularly shameless is a flashback to D’Arnot’s plane crash that includes almost five minutes of aerial footage of animals before the actual crack-up.)

Some of the events from the serial are rearranged slightly (and obviously the cliffhangers from the serial are simply played out as action scenes without interruption), but the biggest change is at the end: in the serial, Raglan is able to steal the idol from the lost city and make away with it, with Martling and Tarzan on his trail. In the feature, Tarzan recovers the idol from Raglan almost immediately after he steals it and Martling is able to open it right there, finding the jewels inside. A happy ending for all!


Of course, Raglan gets away, and his (as well as the lost city cultists’) attempts to take back the idol are the main thread of Tarzan and the Green Goddess, the 1938 feature that includes the rest of the serial. In this film, the raw material of The New Adventures undergoes a more interesting transformation. The last chapter of the serial takes place at Lord Greystoke’s British estate, where he is holding a Gypsy-themed costume party; some of his guests ask him to recount his recent adventure in Guatemala, and he does so in flashback, turning the last episode into a belated “economy chapter.” Green Goddess puts this frame device around the entire film, which takes up the action following the escape from the lost city. The movie barely reaches an hour in length, and without the padding found in the first feature the plot moves at a breakneck pace (although it still finds room for a scene in which Martling’s valet George chases a monkey who has stolen his yo-yo). Despite being edited together with more sophistication than the 1935 releases, I’m glad I had seen the whole serial before watching this, for the sake of clarity.


Finally, there is the issue of availability. After long years of being hard to find, even for collectors (Harmon and Glut’s 1972 The Great Movie Serials, a book I have found an invaluable resource for this series, was partially based on memories of serials sometimes seen years before, and occasionally the distance shows in distorted or jumbled details), home video made it possible for many serials to be seen as they were originally released, and websites like YouTube and the Internet Archive have made it even easier for anyone with an internet connection to watch these films. In the case of feature-length cuts, the internet is frequently the only choice, as even high-quality restorations for home video don’t usually see fit to include them (I watched the feature versions of both Shadow of Chinatown and The Phantom Empire on YouTube).

Having said that, since many serials and their feature cuts are in the public domain or can be considered “orphan works,” I have found that they also turn up on cheap movie-compilation DVDs. Both of the Tarzan features I have discussed here are included on a Mill Creek collection entitled Wrath of the Sword: 20 Legendary Movies, which includes several Tarzan movies from the 1930s, a bunch of sword-and-sandal movies from the ’50s and ’60s, and (for some reason) one random Christopher Lambert movie from 2005. There’s nothing in the packaging of Wrath of the Sword that would indicate that the two Tarzan movies are related sequentially or derived from the same serial, but that’s part of the fun of this sort of quantity-over-quality package: you never really know what you’re going to get, and you have the opportunity to make discoveries and draw your own conclusions.


Next week I’ll be back with regular serial coverage as I examine The Green Hornet.

Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars


At the end of Universal’s 1936 serial Flash Gordon, Flash, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov are bound for Earth by rocket ship after saving the planet from destruction by the invading planet Mongo and its ruthless Emperor, Ming (who was, to all appearances, burned to death in the “Tunnel of Terror,” leaving his daughter Aura and Prince Barin to rule over Mongo with a presumably gentler hand). As the 1938 sequel Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars begins, the people of Earth are still awaiting that rocket ship, which successfully lands in the first chapter. That makes Trip to Mars a direct continuation of the original serial, and in many ways it’s a sequel in all the modern senses of the word: it has most of the same cast as the first (although as Dale Arden, Jean Rogers has inexplicably let her hair return to its natural brunette during the trip from Mongo to Earth), and is in all ways bigger, with more ambitious effects, more locations, and greater length (fifteen chapters instead of thirteen). There are even some flashbacks to the 1936 serial spliced in to explain plot developments.


It’s worth noting that the practice of making sequels and series, what we now call film “franchises,” is nothing new, and wasn’t even new in 1938. Some of the long-running episodic serials like Hazards of Helen were closer to ongoing series than the closed narratives of the serials I’ve been examining here. Beginning in the silent era, popular characters such as Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, and Tarzan had proven that cinema audiences liked to catch up on the adventures of familiar characters just as much as book and magazine readers did. By the time Flash Gordon was taking his trip to Mars, the Andy Hardy series was already on its fifth installment, and it had only started the year before! Similarly, the Dead End Kids made six films for Warner Brothers between 1937 and ’39. The Blondie series, which would eventually run to twenty-eight films, also began in ’38.


No sooner have Flash (Larry “Buster” Crabbe) and company returned to heroes’ welcomes (SUPER-MEN OF CENTURY WIN WORLD ACCLAIM! reads my new favorite newspaper headline) when Earth suffers an attack similar to that which opened the ’36 serial. Disasters and weather events threaten the planet, this time tied to mysterious beams of light emanating from the planet Mars. Suspecting the hand of their erstwhile foe Ming, Flash and his allies (joined by a reporter who stows away on the rocket ship) take off for Mongo. However, unlike Abbott and Costello, Flash does actually end up on Mars, as the deadly beam interferes with their ship and causes them to crash on the red planet.


In a twist that will surprise no one, Ming (Charles Middleton, in fine scenery-chewing form) is on Mars, having survived the flames of the Tunnel of Terror (it’s eventually explained that he can walk through flames without injury), and he is cooperating with the Martian Queen Azura, using the beam to draw “nitron” from Earth’s atmosphere, which Azura can use as an explosive in her war against the Clay Kingdom (and without which the Earth will die, suiting Ming’s purposes nicely). Ming’s goals are conquest and revenge upon the Earthlings who thwarted him before; his previous goal of marrying Dale Arden is never mentioned.


As the events of the serial take place on Mars, there are several new settings and exotic races for Flash and company to encounter and either overcome or win to his side. The Fire People live in a gnarled forest, dressed in caveman furs and worshipping idols; loyal to Ming, they imprison Flash the first chance they get, leading him to a reunion with his old ally Prince Barin (Richard Alexander), also a captive of the Fire People. The Martians themselves, Azura, and her palace are pure art deco space opera, equal parts Galactic Empire and Emerald City of Oz. In fact, the embrace of fantasy is even more committed here than in the first Flash Gordon serial: although there’s still a great deal of pseudoscientific rationalization with rays and “nitron” and “televisors” and so on, at some point the writers threw their hands in the air and said, “Fuck it, it’s magic.” The Glenda-like Azura is described as a “Queen of Magic,” with a white sapphire that allows her to teleport in a puff of smoke and lay curses on her enemies.


The victims of one of those curses, the Clay People, were once normal Martian men until they rebelled against Azura, and she transformed them into mud monsters, exiled to a remote cave. As the Clay King, British actor Montague Shaw delivers his lines through an immobile rubber mask, the equivalent of casting Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in Star Wars and having them play Jawas. The Clay People occupy the moral middle ground that Vultan and his Hawk Men occupied in the first serial: waging war against Azura and suspicious of spies, they at first capture Flash and his friends, holding Dale hostage until Flash can bring the Queen to them and force her to undo their curse. After winning their trust, however, Flash and company find the Clay People capable allies, and they’re eventually able to help them regain their human forms.


As far as the new additions to the cast go, reporter “Happy” Hapgood (Donald Kerr) is a typical sequel misstep: the “cool” character who comes along for the ride (in this case literally) to provide comic relief and deflate the stuffiness of the proceedings, but who doesn’t add as much as he detracts. Such characters are sometimes meant to be audience surrogates, seeing with fresh eyes the wonders that the heroes take for granted. In the case of Flash Gordon, however, that isn’t really necessary, as his essentially open nature is part of the character’s appeal; he may not be impressed by the likes of Ming, but he doesn’t really do “jaded,” either. Also, Hapgood’s one-liners, delivered with “make ’em laugh” intensity and frequency, just aren’t that funny. Fortunately, after the first couple of chapters he isn’t that prominent in the serial, providing Dale some company while she’s held hostage and providing the fight scenes an extra body when rough stuff is necessary, limiting his jokes to only one or two per chapter.


On the plus side, I’ve made no secret of my appreciation for the haughty, imperious women who often turn up in the serials: think of Princess Aura, or Queen Tika from The Phantom Empire. So it will be no surprise that I enjoyed Beatrice Roberts’ performance as Azura, her eyes flashing and lip curling with amusement at the primitive Earthmen opposing her, and delivering lines like “Thus do I banish all traitors!” Of course, Azura learns what stern stuff Flash is made of, although it’s noteworthy that she doesn’t fall in love with him. Like Tika, she’s ultimately a tragic figure who realizes too late that she’s cast her lot with the wrong side. (Another connection to Tika is the presence of mustache-twirling character actor Wheeler Oakman, who played the treacherous Lord Argo in Phantom Empire. Here Oakman plays Azura’s captain of the guard Tarnak, who willingly serves Ming until he realizes that the Emperor intends to follow up destroying Earth by doing the same to Mars after it has served his purposes.)


If anything, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars sets the template for Star Wars even more clearly than the 1936 serial: there are broad similarities, shared by many serials, such as the blend of exotic locations, flashy visuals (including cutting-edge effects and immersive production design), and fast-paced action, combined with the fairy-tale clash of good and evil. The stirring music (including a version of the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet) and remixing of ancient and medieval motifs with futuristic elements is also something that George Lucas would update for his space fantasy. But there are little moments, too, that stick out: the quirky music that accompanies the Clay People, for example, is echoed in the Jawas’ theme; the repeated back-and-forth as Flash and his allies return to Azura’s high-tech city for one reason or another–to destroy the “nitron lamp” that is slowly draining the Earth; to find an antidote for the “Incense of Forgetfulness”; to confront first Azura and then Ming–is one source for Luke Skywalker and the Rebels’ infiltration of the Death Star and their later raids on it (and its successor in Return of the Jedi). Flash even rescues Queen Azura from falling off a “light bridge” by swinging on a cable, a move borrowed from Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn and recreated by Mark Hammill with Carrie Fisher.


It all comes down to a final confrontation, and although Crabbe would return as Flash one more time in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, it appears that Ming is defeated, and Mars, like Mongo, is left in better hands. The four heroes return to Earth, and to my amusement the newspaper headline again reads SUPER-MEN OF CENTURY WIN WORLD ACCLAIM! (I like to imagine an editor, knowing that he already struck gold once with that headline, saying to himself, “Why mess with perfection?”)


What I Watched: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Universal, 1938)

Where I Watched It: It’s on YouTube in its entirety.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “The Black Sapphire of Kalu” (Chapter Eight). I usually define “good” chapter titles as having a certain punch or flair, or capturing the tone of the serial especially well, and there are several chapter titles in Trip to Mars that meet that standard. I chose this one, however, because of its specificity, a somewhat rare quality in chapter titles.

Best Cliffhanger: Just as Flash Gordon found its titular hero robbed of his memory thanks to one of Princess Aura’s schemes, so here does Flash’s paramour Dale Arden experience the “Incense of Forgetfulness” in the Temple of Kalu at the end of Chapter Ten. Convinced that she is a servant of the forest people’s god, she stabs Flash in the back when he shows up to rescue her. (Flash recovers from his wound, but only by returning to Azura’s city are Flash and Zarkov able to find an antidote so Dale can recover her memory.)


Another Note About Costumes: In my review of Undersea Kingdom, I noted the prominence of Roman-style helmet crests and other kinds of cranial plumage in the costume design. Mars appears to have a similar taste for adornment based on the uniforms of Queen Azura’s soldiers (here, Flash, disguised as a member of Azura’s Death Squadron, pretends to hold Dr. Zarkov prisoner):


And just look at this fellow on the left:


Sample Dialogue: “I’d feel a lot better if I had a parachute instead of these Martian wings!” Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), just before bailing out of a “stratosled” (Chapter Four, “Ancient Enemies”)


Bonus Sample Dialogue: “I wonder what the wife’s going to say when I get home!” –“Happy” Hapgood (Chapter Fifteen, “An Eye For an Eye”)

What Others Have Said: “We tried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon from King Features but the deal would have been prohibitive. They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer.” —Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times

What’s Next: After the epic length (about five hours) of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, I’m going to take next week to focus on a special topic: serials cut down to feature length.

Fates Worse Than Death: Panther Girl of the Kongo


While filming wildlife in the jungle for a foundation, Jean Evans and her native guides stumble across a terrifying monster: a giant, horse-sized crustacean with huge pincers. The chief of the Utanga people, Evans’ hosts, suggests that she contact Larry Sanders, a hunter on safari in the area, and enlist his help: “Bwana Sanders big hunter,” says Timbu, Evans’ rifle bearer. “He go with us, me go.”


In the mean time, two other white men in the area are causing trouble: Cass and Rand, first posing as hunters, try to intimidate Sanders into leaving the area. As the audience soon finds out, the pair is in the employ of Morgan, a chemist living on his own in the jungle. Morgan has discovered that an abandoned gold mine in the jungle is full of diamonds, and he’s using a “hormone compound” of his own creation to turn ordinary crawfish into the giant “devil beasts” to scare off intruders. He must be careful, however: the monsters are useful if they frighten the natives away from the mine, but if Evans and Sanders are able to bring proof of their existence to the colonial authorities, a force of soldiers is sure to be sent in to clean up the district, spoiling Morgan’s plans.


So begins Panther Girl of the Kongo, almost the last serial Republic produced (only one more, King of the Carnival, followed). Since I’ve been watching serials for Fates Worse Than Death, I’ve idly speculated about a combination of the serial format and its two-fisted plotlines with the monster movie, another favorite genre. Panther Girl is in many ways that film, although it is closer in spirit and technique to Them! and the other “giant bug” movies of the 1950s than it is to Godzilla or any of the rampaging kaiju films that followed.


It should be immediately apparent that the “devil beast” (alternately, “claw monster”) actually is a normal crawfish filmed in extreme close-up to make it look large, sometimes surrounded by miniature props (provided, as always, by the Lydecker brothers, Howard and Theodore, who at least receive onscreen credit this time) to give it a sense of scale. Even better, the actors are sometimes inserted into the foreground via rear projection, relying on perspective to enhance the illusion, but just as often the creature’s size is implied through the magic of editing. And when someone is unfortunate enough to be attacked by the devil beast, it takes the form of a single enormous claw extending from offscreen, like the giant hand grabbing Fay Wray in King Kong.


Other than the formal restraints placed on it by being a serial–division into chapters with contrived cliffhanger endings–Panther Girl feels very much of its time: by comparison to the often melodramatic serials of the 1930s, it’s very no-nonsense, with an emphasis on the professional competence of the two leads. Although thankfully not as inert as Radar Men From the Moon, the characters are fairly dry, emphasizing that they have jobs to do and they’ve got to be done right. Even the “mad scientist,” Morgan, plays things cool: he’s in it for the money, not revenge or a grand scheme to remake the world. Other than the trendiness of the mammoth crawfish (which invite comparison to director Bert I. Gordon‘s similar low-budget giants), the small scale of the action and limited number of characters make it feel very much like a television production.


Television was surely having an impact: although Panther Girl was released in theaters, Republic obviously made the film with an eye toward repackaging it for broadcast. Other than the first chapter, which is about twenty minutes long, all the chapters are about thirteen minutes in length. Two chapters could be aired during a half-hour block with room to add commercials. A number of serials had already been cut down to feature length and licensed for television broadcast, and several characters who had appeared in theatrical serials had made the jump to TV-only productions. Even the actors in Panther Girl were doing most of their work for the small screen. In the face of competition that kept audiences–especially kids–at home, the serials were on their way out.

The lead actress, Phyllis Coates, had played Lois Lane on television opposite George Reeves in Adventures of Superman (she had also appeared in a previous serial, Jungle Drums of Africa, with Clayton Moore, television’s Lone Ranger; I haven’t seen it, but it doesn’t seem to have been very impressive). Myron Healey, who played Sanders, was a prolific character actor usually cast as the heavy; most of his credits were from television. In 1955, the year Panther Girl was released, he had parts in over twenty films or TV episodes. His performance here reminded me of Russell Johnson’s Professor on Gilligan’s Island.


Commentators have noted an increased reliance on stock footage during Republic’s later years, another sign of pinched budgets. In the case of Panther Girl, the scenes of Evans (who, in a flashback, earned the title “Panther Girl” by saving the Utanga village from a black panther that had been prowling around and attacking the villagers) swinging from vines and mounting a tame elephant were repurposed from Jungle Girl, an earlier serial starring Frances Gifford. That is apparently the main reason Evans appears to have gone native in a short buckskin tunic.


Her costume and familiarity with vines aren’t the only traits she owes to Tarzan and the jungle monarchs who preceded her. Both Evans and Sanders take the natives’ obedience for granted: the Utanga speak pidgin English and address the whites as “Bwana” (“boss,” “master”) and although they sometimes have to be persuaded to take a course of action, they mostly fall in line. When Evans and Sanders conceive of digging a pit to trap one of the devil beasts, Sanders says, “Let’s head back to the village and get the natives started.” (Morgan also has a tribe of natives to boss around in addition to his two white henchmen: the Returi are addicted to a “tonic” he supplies them with and will do his bidding to get it.)


Although minor, there are pleasures to be found in Panther Girl of the Kongo: the giant crawfish is imaginative, if not exactly scary, and the two leads are a pair of likeable squares who work well together. Morgan (Arthur Space) isn’t the most compelling villain but his plans lead to a dramatically satisfying increase in peril for our heroes, from stolen evidence to quicksand, then to being shot at and blown up with dynamite. On the negative side, the representation of African natives obviously wouldn’t be acceptable today; it’s one cannibal cooking pot away from hitting almost every stereotype imaginable and says more about the popular image of colonialism than the reality. (A pair of stiff-upper-lipped Brits in pith helmets show up to handle the Returi tribesmen toward the end, but they’re hustled offstage quickly so that Evans and Sanders can confront Morgan by themselves. If those British soldiers wanted in on the action, they should have gotten their own serial.)


What I Watched: Panther Girl of the Kongo (Republic, 1955)

Where I Watched It: The whole thing is posted on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Test of Terror” (Chapter Five). The test in question is the “Test of the Lion Men,” in which Jean Evans reassures the doubting natives that she still has the protection of the gods by entering an arena and killing a lion. Based on the costumes, and the fact that this interlude makes no sense, I assume it’s also cribbed from an earlier film.


Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Three (“The Killer Beast”), Evans is captured by the Returi and tied to a tree while one of the tribesmen plays a drum to lure predators from the jungle. The goal is to fool the Utanga into believing that the Panther Girl has been slain by wild animals. A gorilla attacks her while she’s tied up, and Sanders is unable to help her after being knocked out by the Returi.

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Most of the cliffhanger resolutions play fair. The most questionable is at the end of Chapter Ten (“Blasted Evidence”), in which Cass and Rand throw a bomb through the window of Evans’ house where she and Sanders have just shown the district police inspector the film of the devil beast, convincing him to send reinforcements to the district. It appears that the bomb explodes immediately, engulfing the house in a great fireball.


However, as shown at the beginning of Chapter Eleven (“Double Danger”), the bomb doesn’t detonate right away, and the three have the chance to flip over a table and shield themselves from the blast. Even so, I’m not sure how they escaped being burned alive.

Biggest Surprise: I fully expected the mad scientist Morgan to die at the hands–er, pincers–of one of his own devil beasts. It just made sense: he grows the things in a crate right in front of his own house where the final showdown occurs, and the filmmakers even make a point of having Evans and Sanders discover it, solving that part of the mystery. But that’s it: I won’t share how he gets his comeuppance, but it isn’t death by claw. Perhaps there was originally an intent to deliver poetic justice but filming it didn’t work out. In any case, the ending makes it seem that the devil beasts aren’t really that dangerous, aside from that nasty pinch.

Sample Dialogue: “Panther Girl bad magic, bring devil beast, make pictures for her. Devil beast kill natives. She no care!” –Returi tribesman, sowing discord among the Utanga (Chapter Five, “Test of Terror”)


What Others Have Said:Panther Girl of the Kongo could not save the Republic serial from extinction. The first and last female serial star from that studio wore the same jungle garb. But the clothes and every setting and situation they appeared in, in 1955, was secondhand and worn out.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury

What’s Next: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars

It saddens me to say that The Dissolve, my favorite site on the Internet for the last two years, is closing up shop. The whole thing happened rather suddenly, but has been confirmed by an announcement from Editor Keith Phipps. I’m saddened to lose the insights of Phipps and the other writers for the site, but I’ll also miss the lively discourse among the commenters and the general culture of sincerity and encouragement. Despite The Dissolve’s official focus on movies, subjects under discussion often ranged widely both in the regular articles and in the comment sections. There are at least four articles on this blog that got their start as comment-section projects (my Lovefests on Addicted to Love and Cowboys & Aliens, my Scarefest on The Visitor, and my tribute to former Dissolve writer Nathan Rabin, Guardian of the Gods). That’s not even mentioning The Solute, the site launched as both a tribute to and an extension of its parent site. I’ll continue to post over there, and if the current influx of commenters over there is anything to go by, it may well end up being a continuation of the lively forum we had at the Dissolve; I invite you to read wallflower’s memorial, which eloquently sums up the feelings of so many of us.

R.I.P. The Dissolve, and good luck to its staff as they move forward.

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

No. of Chapters: 15

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

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


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


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

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

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