Fates Worse Than Death: The Fighting Marines

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On land or sea in polar night
Or sweltering tropic scenes
Where e’er there’s fighting
You will find U. S. Marines.

–introduction to The Fighting Marines

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The action of The Fighting Marines begins in media res (unusual but not unheard of for serials): Corporal Larry Lawrence (Grant Withers) and Sergeant Mack McGowan (Adrian Morris) of the U. S. Marine Corps are battling a gang of bandits in a jungle, trying to rescue their friend and fellow Marine, Sergeant William Schiller (George J. Lewis). Schiller is the inventor of a new “gyro compass,” and the bandits hope to learn its secret from him. After Schiller’s rescue, the real story begins: Schiller’s gyro compass will make it possible for the Marines to build a base on remote Halfway Island in the Pacific Ocean. So far, the island has been inaccessible because of a “magnetic dead spot” that causes ships and planes to crash short of the island. A businessman named Douglas (Robert Frazer) hopes to build a floating airstrip outside of the dead spot, and he stands to lose a fortune if the Marines succeed in building on the island.

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At the same time, unbeknownst to the Marines, Halfway Island is being used as a base by a notorious pirate known only as the Tiger Shark. As in Batman and Robin and Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion, even the Tiger Shark’s own men don’t know their boss’s identity, but they refer often to those poor suckers in the organization who had tried to find out, or who had tried to claim their shares of the loot before the Tiger Shark was ready to dispense them.

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It is the Tiger Shark, who always appears in a fashion-forward leather flying suit and goggles, who is responsible for the dead spot, employing a “magnetic ray gun” to scramble approaching planes’ instruments. In addition, the Tiger Shark seems to know too much about the Marines and their operations, even before Larry and Mack are able to land on the island and discover the pirate’s base. It’s strongly implied that Douglas is the Tiger Shark, but could it be Buchanan (Frank Glendon), the head of the Oriental Navigation Company, who also has an interest in the region? Or could it be someone even closer to the Marines? Needless to say, the mystery is teased out until the very last chapter, when the villain’s identity is revealed.

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I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to watch The Fighting Marines if I weren’t writing this series. Aside from its lack of recognizable characters, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the title sequence, which combines Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” march with stock footage of Marines in dress uniforms marching in parade formation. The premise seemed to suggest either a war movie (a genre I don’t usually go out of my way for) or, worse, high jinks on a military base. I needn’t have worried: with a few exceptions, The Fighting Marines is pure serial formula, from its mysterious costumed villain to his army of interchangeable henchmen and the gauntlet of fist- and gunfights, car chases, and other perils that the heroes face.

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There is also a distinctly pulpy, futuristic edge to the Tiger Shark’s equipment, although it is mostly limited to his base on Halfway Island. In addition to the magnetic ray gun, the Tiger Shark’s forces use television to communicate. However, unlike characters in other serials, the Tiger Shark’s henchmen must wear an elaborate headgear to use the television, whether necessary to make the technology work, like a radio headset, or simply to disguise their identities, I don’t know. Television is so often treated like a kind of magic in films of the 1930s that it shouldn’t be surprising that it requires a special costume to use it, like the ephod worn by the priest who handled the Ark of the Covenant. In some ways the ray gun and other high-tech gadgets make The Fighting Marines an early example of “spy-fi” à la James Bond or The Man From UNCLE rather than a purely military escapade.

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Other elements beside the costumed villain and his high-tech toys suggest similarities with other serials: although the two heroes are Marines under the authority of their Colonel (Robert Warwick), and wear uniforms and report to the Marine base, and even in a few chapters take part in military operations with larger squads, they mostly work on their own, with a free hand to track down clues and take on the bad guys by themselves. The format of their adventures isn’t that different from those of the independent agents in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island or The Miracle Rider, or the team of unofficial deputies in Daredevils of the Red Circle (or an episode of JAG, for that matter).

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The Fighting Marines was the last serial made by Mascot before the mergers that would lead to the birth of Republic, the studio that would be synonymous with serials for the next two decades. Producer Nat Levine had grown dissatisfied with the Mascot formula, and while I love some of Mascot’s serials, it’s not hard to see the growing pains that the format was suffering. The Fighting Marines is uneven, with choppy, often redundant storytelling (seriously, was it necessary to have flashbacks to previous scenes in three different chapters?). Characters come and go haphazardly: Douglas, after being established as a likely suspect for the Tiger Shark’s secret identity, disappears, replaced by Buchanan in Chapter Five; they don’t appear together until Chapter Eight, leading me to wonder if I had somehow confusedly given the same character two names. Larry and Mack are established as rivals for the affections of Schiller’s sister, Frances (Ann Rutherford), and she plays an important part in the first half of the serial; however, once the action moves to Halfway Island, not only is the love triangle forgotten, so is Frances. Finally, the many cheats used to resolve cliffhangers (see below) insult not only the intelligence of the viewer, but the idea of continuity itself.

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Having said all that, however, I really enjoyed most of The Fighting Marines, and I’m glad I checked it out. Despite its rough edges, it’s imaginative and full of retro cool: I’ve alluded to the Tiger Shark’s sense of style, but did I mention he flies an auto gyro?

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Or how his victims are left with the “Mark of the Tiger Shark” imprinted on their necks?

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And I live for scenes like the one where the Tiger Shark strafes a Marine encampment from a biplane with a Tommy gun, an image worthy of Dr. Strangelove:

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I also haven’t mentioned the Tiger Shark’s Halfway Island henchmen, a crew of roughneck sailors straight out of a Popeye cartoon:

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Or the tribe of natives who also call Halfway Island home, and their Hollywood Central Casting penchant for human sacrifice:

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And a few things that should be considered SPOILERS: First, one that I’m not sure is really a spoiler because it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the plot: it’s just a surprise. In the last chapter, when the Tiger Shark’s empire is collapsing around him, he consults with the chief of the Island natives. Like all of the natives, the chief wears a sarong and has a terrible afro; the chief pulls his afro wig off and it’s revealed that he’s not a native at all, just one of the Tiger Shark’s henchmen. So, does that mean all the natives are white men in disguise? That would explain why they all look so fake–they all have the same ridiculous-looking afros, for one thing–but apparently not. It’s just him. So how did he become chief?

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There’s no time for that, because we finally learn the real identity of the Tiger Shark (DOUBLE SPOILERS): It’s neither Douglas nor Buchanan, but Kota, Colonel Bennett’s Japanese valet. This actually explains a lot, not least the casting of a relatively high-profile actor (Jason Robards, Sr.) in a role that hadn’t had more than five minutes of screen time until the big reveal. Note that it wasn’t unusual for a white to play an Asian character at the time: Keye Luke was more the exception than the rule. At least Kota isn’t a grotesque caricature like Batman’s foe Dr. Daka, but he isn’t very convincing, either. I didn’t even realize he was supposed to be Japanese until the second scene he showed up in.

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The reveal also brings the conflict into focus in a way that is still subtextual but is obvious in hindsight: I’ve often harped on the way shadowy villains in the narratives of the 1930s could stand in for real-world political anxieties, and while no mention is made of why the Marines wish to build their base on “Halfway” (a clear stand-in for Midway) Island, it probably didn’t need to be explained to audiences in 1935 who were increasingly wary of Japanese aggression across the ocean. The narrative demand for a “the butler did it” twist is satisfied, with the real Tiger Shark hiding in plain sight, and while he is only a pirate, not an overtly political villain, one can hardly believe that his real identity or the location of his hideout are accidental. At the very least, it’s comparable to the decision to give villains Russian or German accents in films of subsequent decades: just as that choice gives modern film villains a threatening edge, so was the obsequious but treacherous character of Kota’s race taken for granted and was thus a socially acceptable storytelling device. But like I said, that seems more obvious from a contemporary vantage point: the main message The Fighting Marines sends is that nothing–not profiteers like Douglas, nor lawless pirates like the Tiger Shark–will stand in the way of the Marines when they set their minds to something. As Colonel Bennett says, “Remember what I said about the Marines always finishing what they start!”

What I Watched: The Fighting Marines (Mascot, 1935)

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

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Two Against the Horde” (Chapter Twelve)

Best Cliffhanger: In one of many chase scenes, at the end of Chapter Ten (“Wheels of Destruction”), Larry and Mack are following two of the Tiger Shark’s henchmen, who have abducted Buchanan in the belief that he is the mysterious crimelord. The henchmen’s tricked-out car is equipped with a smokescreen that pumps thick, opaque clouds from the car’s exhaust pipe. Unable to see through the smoke, Larry and Mack drive their car right through the guardrail on a curve and plunge over the hillside, rolling repeatedly before landing at the bottom of the hill.

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Man, does The Fighting Marines ever cheat! In this case, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one (in fact, the cliffhanger in the aforementioned “Wheels of Destruction” is notable for not cheating: unbelievably, the two Marines are stunned but otherwise completely uninjured after rolling their roofless car multiple times, without even seat belts to keep them from being thrown out). Whether it’s a plane crash, a gunshot, or a fall from a high window, several cliffhangers are restaged to change or undo the surely-fatal peril our heroes were left in at the end of the previous chapter. Probably the most shameless is at the end of Chapter Six (“Robbers’ Roost”), in which Larry and Mack have cornered the Tiger Shark’s henchmen in a warehouse just as the Tiger Shark himself has landed his auto gyro on the roof. Coming down the stairs, the Tiger Shark opens fire on an unsuspecting Larry, who clutches his chest and slumps over. At the beginning of Chapter Seven (“Jungle Terrors”), however, Larry dodges the bullet and returns fire, as hale and hearty as ever. CHEAT!!!

Sample Dialogue: Mac: “Hey, if ya ask me, I think that fella Douglas is the Tiger Shark!”
Larry: “Sure took you a long time to figure that out!”
–Chapter Two (“Isle of Missing Men”)

What Others Have Said: “Levine decided that his new Republic serials would be vast improvements upon those turned out under the Mascot trademark. Analyzing his past products, he realized that perhaps the old Mascot plots were at times too involved. . . . The absence of music, such a hazard for the Mascot chapterplays especially in the action scenes, would be corrected with powerful scores to accompany all moods and situations. Furthermore, comic relief characters would be played down in future scripts.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

(If it were really Levine’s intention to downplay comic relief characters in the Republic serials, I’m not sure what happened, as they seem even more formulaic in the ones I’ve watched. Harmon and Glut are correct about the lack of music, however: The Fighting Marines has only “Semper Fidelis” to serve as a theme song and no other background music.)

What’s Next: In one week, I’ll bring this summer’s serial coverage to an end with the third and final Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

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Fates Worse Than Death: The Green Hornet Strikes Again

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Sentinel publisher Britt Reid, taking a much-needed vacation in Hawaii, has left his newspaper in the hands of an editor named Harper. While Reid is gone, his secretary Leonore Case and reporters Axford and Lowery begin to suspect that Harper is connected with the criminal Syndicate running rampant in the city: Harper has killed stories about big crimes and even refuses to expose the racketeers when given information straight from the District Attorney. Harper is a member of the Syndicate, secretly run by a man named Crogan, and while Axford and Case send telegrams urging Reid to return from Hawaii, the Syndicate’s men on the island try to prevent him from doing so. First they try to discourage him indirectly, and when it’s clear that he’s heading back to the mainland they kidnap him and his valet Kato, tying them up in a fishing shack with the intention of feeding them to the sharks in the morning.

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The Syndicate’s island force is headed by a man named Bordine, who already has a grudge against Reid for uncovering the truth about a past crime Bordine had pinned on an innocent man. When Reid and Kato escape the fishing shack (with a little help from Reid’s alter ego the Green Hornet) and make it to the departing ship, Bordine follows them in hopes of finishing them off. An unrelated fire that begins in the boiler room derails his scheme, however, and endangers everyone on board. And this is just in the first chapter of The Green Hornet Strikes Again!

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As should be clear from the summary of Chapter One, The Green Hornet Strikes Again has no shortage of twists and turns. In fact, it has one of the most convoluted plots of any serial I’ve watched yet: while in broad outline it follows a similar plot to The Green Hornet (from earlier in the same year), with its overarching Syndicate being broken apart by the Hornet one racket at a time until he can finally confront the big boss, it has more chapters, more characters, more settings, and, like most sequels, is generally overstuffed. (Of course, it was meant to be watched on a weekly basis rather than all at once, but I’m not sure how it would have been any easier to keep track of with a week elapsing between each chapter.) Having said that, there are many enjoyable scenes and chapters in this, and plenty of action in the serial tradition.

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The Green Hornet Strikes Again features a different actor in the title role (Warren Hull, who unlike his predecessor Gordon Jones also provides the Hornet’s voice while in costume), but otherwise brings back the main cast of the earlier serial. Keye Luke plays Kato, Anne Nagel plays Leonore Case, and Wade Boteler plays Irish policeman-turned-reporter Michael Axford. Instead of Jenks, the ambitious young reporter is Lowery (Eddie Acuff), whose antagonistic partnership with Axford is the main source of comic relief. A few references are made to events from The Green Hornet, but the Syndicate in Strikes Again isn’t the same one that was defeated in the first serial.

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The Syndicate’s plots are also more ambitious than those of its predecessor: in addition to the attempt to take over the Sentinel, there’s a plot to replace the heiress to an aluminum fortune with an actress, allowing the Syndicate to control the aluminum company’s board of directors; an attempt to sabotage the source of the aluminum plant’s electricity when that scheme fails; a plot to develop a “magnetic bomb” in a secret laboratory in a steel plant; and even some that don’t involve metal or factories. This provides ample room for stock footage, often integrated smoothly through the use of rear projection: it really looks like Reid and Lowery are on the floor of the steel plant, and through quick editing they appear to be in real danger of having molten metal “accidentally” spilled on them. In other scenes, the Green Hornet is called on to commandeer speeding cars, trucks, or airplanes, and survives all kinds of crashes, explosions, and building collapses (including one caused by a bolt of lightning!). In almost all the crimes perpetrated by the Syndicate, there’s a theme of urgently-needed wartime materiel being diverted to foreign buyers, and again there’s no need to specify who they are, or why they are bad news.

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Kato, who is both Reid’s manservant and the Green Hornet’s faithful ally, doesn’t have as much to do in this serial, unfortunately: in The Green Hornet he got to karate chop a few bad guys, but in Strikes Again he mostly drives the car and pulls the Green Hornet out of the rubble after the aforementioned disasters. I wanted to mention him, however, because there’s a good case to be made for Kato as the most interesting character in the Green Hornet saga. According to the exposition at the beginning of The Green Hornet, Kato is loyal to Britt Reid for saving his life in his native Shanghai; although Kato’s subservience fits the “Oriental houseboy” trope, he has always been portrayed as intelligent and capable. In addition to his martial arts skill, he designed and built the Green Hornet’s gas gun and equipped their customized automobile, the Black Beauty.

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Kato has been well-represented in the movies as well: Keye Luke, who originated the role on film, first became prominent playing Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son,” Lee, and had a distinguished career as a character and voice actor in film and television, including a recurring role on Kung Fu. In the 1966 television series, Kato was played by up-and-coming martial arts icon Bruce Lee, who was so popular in his native Hong Kong that the series aired as The Kato Show there. In 1974, three episodes of the program were edited together into a theatrical Green Hornet film to take advantage of Lee’s growing fame.

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Finally, the comedic, Seth Rogen-starring 2011 Green Hornet feature leans heavily into the realization that Kato (played by Jay Chou) is the skilled one while Rogen’s Britt Reid is a clueless party animal who at first gets into the hero business for kicks and only gradually realizes his responsibility. Like Big Trouble in Little China and the 2013 Lone Ranger film, the 2011 Hornet delights in reversing the expected relationship between hero and sidekick, and the pair can only work together effectively when Reid is able to see Kato for what he has always been: a partner.

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What I Watched: The Green Hornet Strikes Again (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A Pacific Entertainment DVD, which, since it was sourced from videotape, manages to look worse than The Green Hornet did when I watched it on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Racketeering Vultures” (Chapter Fourteen)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Twelve (“Crashing Barriers”), Michael Axford and Leonore Case have been taken hostage by the Syndicate and taken to a warehouse to be disposed of. Following in another car, the Green Hornet drives straight through the warehouse’s freight door–and right into a huge pile of explosives stacked inside, which detonate immediately!

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: All but one of the cliffhangers in this serial feature Britt Reid in his role as the Green Hornet, but the end of Chapter One (“Flaming Havoc”) allows him to take heroic action as himself. When a fire breaks out on the ship heading back to the mainland, Reid rescues Gloria (a character whom I thought would continue to be important, but who turned out to be another member of the rotating cast, never to be seen again), carrying her through a blazing hallway to the open deck. The serial appears to be over before it’s even begun when a flaming rafter falls directly on top of them and the screen fills with the ever-growing fire. In my notes for the beginning of Chapter Two (“The Plunge of Peril”), I have simply jotted, “they make it,” indicative of how little danger these mishaps actually pose for our heroes. The boat still sinks, however.

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Favorite Character (Aside from Kato): Every once in a while a secondary character shows up and steals the movie for a chapter or two. Frenchy Ludoc in Gang Busters was one such character; Vultan in Flash Gordon was another. In Chapter Fourteen of The Green Hornet Strikes Again, it’s Foranti (Jay Michael), a racketeer illicitly placed in charge of the Builders’ Association by the Syndicate. While skimming off Association funds for his own use, Foranti is funneling money toward the construction of an expensive house, ultimately to belong to Crogan. When the Sentinel prints the truth about him, he shows up to intimidate Britt Reid in person.

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Although soft-spoken, every line he speaks sounds like it was written for Edward G. Robinson, see? He just figures Reid needs to be leaned on a little, see? And the squealer who fed the Sentinel the information about Foranti is dead now, see? You get the picture. Foranti isn’t exactly comic relief (that’s what we have Axford and Lowery for), but as a parody of the popular gangster, he veers farther into camp than the rest of the film; he’d be more at home in Columbia’s Batman serials. This chapter also makes good use of the conceit that the Green Hornet poses as a criminal to get information, and here he gets Foranti to turn on his associate Breedon by playing to his paranoid fear that Breedon is betraying him. On top of all that, Foranti has the distinction of being gassed twice in the same chapter by the Hornet, the only villain so treated.

Sample Dialogue: Crogan (Pierre Watkins), to his men (sarcastically): “Yes, that’s right, the Green Hornet: a lone wolf who plays your own game and makes monkeys out of all of you!” (Chapter Twelve, “Crashing Barriers”)

What’s Next: Join me next week for The Fighting Marines!

Fates Worse Than Death: Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion

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A rash of hijackings and acts of sabotage plagues the trucking industry. Because these crimes are disrupting not only regular business shipping but the transport of sensitive military technologies, the government steps in to investigate. The heads of the four big trucking lines that make up the Interstate Truck Owners’ Association meet in their office with special agent Hal Duncan (Walter Reed). With his assistant Sam Bradley (John Pickard), Hal tries to get to the bottom of the mystery by riding along, tracking the hijackers, and gathering evidence.

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Little does he know that the mysterious “Chief” to whom the hijackers report is one of the four bosses of the Association! The Chief meets with his henchmen behind a mirror of one-way glass in an anonymous office: even they do not know his real identity (and neither do we, until the last chapter, although it isn’t hard to guess). Hal soon realizes what is going on when the hijackers are able to coordinate attacks based on information that only the four bosses have. He can only trust his partner Sam, the Association’s secretary Kay Roberts (Mary Ellen Kay), and his gut, but he’s determined to find out the truth in the 1951 serial Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion!

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Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion is on the shorter side (under three hours), which seems typical of the serials Republic was producing in the early 1950s. I’ve compared the serials from the ’50s unfavorably to those from the ’30s for being simplistic and routine, even when dealing with fantastical concepts, but Government Agents held my interest with well-done action and effects. Stuntmen Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel are onboard to coordinate some excellent fights, including an inventive, acrobatic brawl that takes place on a dock; without overstating it, this and other fights reminded me of the choreographed, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink fights of Jackie Chan’s oeuvre. The effects and miniatures are courtesy of the Lydecker brothers, those workhorses of Republic’s model shop, showing why they were legendary in the business (although water effects continue to be one area in which the small scale is clear on screen: below a certain size, waves and splashes just don’t look right, even when slow motion is used). And although there isn’t a cast of thousands, the number of characters isn’t so small that the world of the story feels too small.

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I enjoyed Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion well enough, but it’s hard not to detect a bit of bait-and-switch in its gloriously clumsy title (not to be confused with 1949’s Federal Agents vs. Underworld, Inc. or 1953’s Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders) and the proto-Drew Struzan-style poster, which suggests sci-fi with a side of superheroics. Well, there are government agents in the serial, and the atom-age symbolism is justified by the presence of refined uranium, radar equipment, and electronics being among the goods the truck hijackers are stealing, but that high-tech equipment is for the government: it never actually sees use on screen. The real meat of the action–car chases, fist- and gunfights, traps and cave-ins and explosions–could have been filmed at any time in the previous two decades. (Even the perils that could be termed science-fictional–capsules of poison gas, hidden radio transmitters for eavesdropping, a truck driven by remote control–were being featured in the serials of the 1930s.)

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And what of the “foreign government” the Chief is selling his plunder to? I wonder which government that could be? Like the pre-war serials, Government Agents is coy about naming names, or even ideologies: the uranium, hand grenades, and other goods are necessary for American “defense,” but the Chief’s interest in it is purely monetary. What his foreign customers plan to do with it isn’t his problem. The two main thugs, Regan and Cady (played by Dick Curtis and Fred Coby), might as well be working for the invading Lunarians of Radar Men From the Moon for all their activities reflect any real-world context. On the other hand, of course it wasn’t necessary to name names for the audience to get it, and more explicit references would have both detracted from the serial’s escapist quality and dated the material quickly.

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Although the villains’ organization is never referred to as the “Phantom Legion” within the story, it’s an accurate description of the group, so shadowy that even its members don’t know who their leader is, their actions cloaked in mystery so that the heroes never know from which direction the next strike will come. It’s also worth calling attention to the frequency with which that word, “phantom,” is used in serials and pulps: how fitting that entertainments that reflected popular unease and political paranoia, but rarely named their targets specifically, would cast their villains as invisible, pervasive, and essentially unknowable sources of evil. A serial could tease fears that villains were out there, perhaps hiding behind the faces of friends or acquaintances, but that by their nature they would eventually be conquered by goodness, law, and order. I’m certain that it was with an awareness of the word’s connotations and history within the genre that George Lucas chose the much-ridiculed title “The Phantom Menace” for his Star Wars prequel, which also delved into the political conspiracy at the root of his imagined Galactic Empire.

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Finally, the rather mundane plot makes some of the crazier set pieces all the more surprising: in Chapter Three (“The Death Trap”), Hal needs to stop a train before it rolls over a section of the track that has been rigged with dynamite. He has little time to spare, so he . . . charters a plane? Yes! And then when he has Sam buzz the train to convince the engineer to put the brakes on, the engineer waves them off, thinking they’re joyriding, so he . . . jumps out of the plane in front of the speeding train! Well, what would you do? The cliffhanger at the end of the chapter shows the train rumbling over the parachute laid across the tracks. Other chapters include a mine tunnel race on handcars; an out of control speedboat; and a stolen gas tanker used to create a trail of fire on the road. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but it’s rarely boring.

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What I Watched: Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion (Republic, 1951)

Where I Watched It: A DVD from Cheezy Flicks

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: There were several good chapter titles, including “Doorway to Doom,” “Sea Saboteurs,” and “Perilous Plunge” (what can I say, I’m a sucker for alliteration), but I’ll give the award to Chapter Five, “Deadline for Disaster” (alliteration!).

Best Cliffhanger: There’s quite a bit of vehicular mayhem in this serial, fitting for a case involving hijacked trucks. It’s a tough call, but I’m going to single out Chapter Six, “Mechanical Homicide” (another great chapter title, weakened only by the fact that it doesn’t involve a robot). One of the trucking bosses, Crandall (Arthur Space, whom we last saw in Panther Girl of the Kongo) is planning to defend all of his shipments with armed guards, a decision that puts him in the crosshairs of the Chief and his criminal organization. The Chief has Regan and Cady attach a remote control device to one of the trucks they’ve stolen, with instructions to fill it with explosives and ram it into Crandall’s home, killing him. Hal spots the pair testing the remote control truck and confronts them; after a struggle he is knocked out and locked in the truck’s cab, so that he will be eliminated at the same time as Crandall. With Regan controlling it from outside, Hal can’t stop the truck even after he comes to and realizes what is happening. Through shots from the speeding truck’s POV, the audience sees what Hal sees, swerving through Crandall’s upscale neighborhood, straight toward his house. The chapter ends with the truck bomb slamming into Crandall’s house (or does it?), resulting in an enormous explosion (one of many in this serial).

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Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: No one chapter stands out, but the resolution to “Mechanical Homicide” is typical: in the next chapter, a shot of Hal jumping out of the cab just in time is included, and it’s revealed at the next meeting of the Association that Crandall is alive and well, the truck having only hit his garage. As I said, several cliffhangers involve crashes or explosions of one kind or another, and inevitably Hal is saved by leaping out of the way at the last minute. This was standard operating procedure for Republic by this time.

Sample Dialogue: “This is the soap powder you boys have been looking for, but I don’t think you want it–it really is soap!” –Sam, after Hal has tricked Regan and Cady into hijacking a shipment with disinformation that uranium has been disguised as soap (Chapter Nine, “Peril Underground”)

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What Others Have Said: “Almost always in serial fights, the stuntmen wore hats, fastened to their heads by elastic bands, screening their faces so that telling them from the actors they represented was difficult. (That also answers the question: Why don’t their hats fall off during a fight?)” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s Next: As promised, next week I’ll look at The Green Hornet Strikes Again.

Fates Worse Than Death: The Painted Stallion

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Westward! The trail to empire! From Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe dogged pioneers fought to penetrate a wilderness of savage Indians, massacres and death. Even worse were the white renegades, outlaws and bandits unscrupulous in their greed.

So begins The Painted Stallion, a 1937 serial set along the Santa Fe trail in the early years of the nineteenth century. With some stunning Southwestern scenery, exciting and arduous physical stunts, and a streamlined plot, The Painted Stallion is a prime example of what Republic was bringing to its productions in the late 1930s. It even tops off the entertainment with a minor historical gloss: I wonder how many Depression-era school kids tried to get away with cribbing the preamble text above for writing assignments, or the shorter dedication that preceded subsequent chapters:

To the heroes of yesterday! Those pioneers who braved the perilous trek Westward, defeated a hostile wilderness, and blazed a glorious trail across the pages of American history!

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The Painted Stallion gets underway with several plot threads converging: in Santa Fe, the Spanish colonial government has just been overthrown by Mexican revolutionaries. Dupray, the Spanish-appointed governor (LeRoy Mason), conspires with his right-hand man, Zamorro (Duncan Renaldo), to hold onto his power (and the plunder he is able to collect through taxation and graft) by abducting the incoming Mexican governor before he can arrive in Santa Fe. At the same time, American Walter Jamison (Hoot Gibson) is preparing a wagon train heading to Santa Fe from Independence, Missouri, with the goal of establishing trade between the United States and the new Mexican government. Dupray reasons that if he and his men can destroy the wagon train or force it to turn back, the blow to legitimate trade will strengthen his own position.

The first chapter thus establishes this conflict and puts the characters in their starting places. Although Jamison is the leader of the wagon train, the real hero is Clark Stuart (Ray “Crash” Corrigan, star of Undersea Kingdom), a government agent sent to protect the traders and carrying letters empowering him to negotiate with the Mexican governor. An all-around athlete and stuntman, Corrigan has plenty of opportunities to perform physical acts of derring-do, but they’re a little more organic than the wrestling and high-wire walking he performed in Undersea Kingdom. (Worth noting is the presence of Yakima Canutt in the cast, and you’d better believe his signature stunt–climbing beneath the chassis of a runaway wagon to take control of the reins–is included among the many spectacular set pieces.)

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Stuart is first seen on a riverboat, where a young stowaway (Sammy McKim) saves his life from an assassination attempt by one of Dupray’s men. In return for the boy’s help, Stuart assumes responsibility for him when he is caught by the Marshal; it turns out the boy is a runaway, heading west in hopes of becoming a scout. When asked his name, he answers, “Christopher,” and Stuart muses, “That’s too long a name, we’ll change it to . . .” (dramatic pause) “. . . Kit.” Holy heck, it’s Kit Carson, future scout, Indian fighter, and Western hero!

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That’s not all: young Kit is at first left in Independence to help the storekeeper run things in Jamison’s absence, but he stows away again, hiding in one of the covered wagons. Recognizing an ambition that will not be denied, Stuart accepts Kit as part of the trading expedition and entrusts him to legendary frontiersmen Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, who also just happen to be riding with the wagon train. Between these three role models, young Kit begins learning the ropes of scouting and wilderness survival.

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Also along are Elmer and Oscar, a pair of comic types; in the tradition of comic relief, their characters on screen have the same names as the actors. From what I can tell, the pair frequently worked together, bringing their established personas into the film with them like the Three Stooges (or much as Dan Whitney is usually credited in films under his better-known alter ego, Larry the Cable Guy). Elmer stutters. That’s it: it’s his only defining trait. Like Porky Pig, Elmer struggles to get out a sentence, only to give up and spit out a much pithier paraphrase. Elmer (real name Lou Fulton) is no Mel Blanc: most of his scenes are excruciating, and it only gets worse when he is given a mule with a polysyllabic Spanish name. Oscar (Ed “Oscar” Platt) is slow of speech and wit (yes, that means he has even less characterization than Elmer) but translates for Elmer when the scene is going on too long.

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Finally, Dupray has a number of his men planted in the wagon train as saboteurs. None of them are very interesting or deep, but they need to be mentioned, as their treachery provides the danger in the first few chapters as they attempt to halt the wagon train and/or murder Stuart. Later, after they’ve been discovered and escaped capture, several of them form the gang that supports Dupray in his increasingly desperate maneuvers to hold onto power.

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The titular Painted Stallion belongs to a mysterious Indian rider who appears at opportune times to warn the wagon drivers of trouble or protect them. Although Stuart and the other characters don’t find out for a few chapters, the Rider is a beautiful blonde woman (Julia Thayer) wearing a feathered chief’s headdress; appearing on the top of a ridge or other cinematic vantage point, she fires “whistling arrows” (the sound effect is like a long glissando on a violin) to warn the Americans, send messages, or (sometimes) kill hostile Indians or Mexicans. Speaking only a few words of English, she is shown having the power to command animals (her own horse and a panther, which she sets to guard Stuart after he has been knocked out at one point), and she knows the land intimately, including secret entrances to Dupray’s mountain hideout. Who is she? Why does she ride alone, and why do even the local Indians defer to her? Other than Stuart’s brief expression of surprise when he first meets her, no one has much time for that question until it’s resolved at the very end of the serial.

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Even after the wagon train makes it safely to Santa Fe and Dupray’s plot is discovered, there’s trouble. The new governor won’t sign the trade agreement until the Americans can catch Dupray and the bandits who have been under his leadership all along, and with Dupray having fled Santa Fe, the second half of the serial turns into a series of sieges of both the Presidio in Santa Fe and the gang’s hideout. Any historical animosity between Mexico and the United States is wiped away by their mutual foe, the dastardly Spaniard Dupray. “We’re holding them off successfully, thanks to you Americans!” says the new governor during a fire fight. At one point, Jim Bowie is captured. When asked where he is after the fight, Crockett says, “I don’t know, but those bandits had a prisoner that sure looked like him.”

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After the main conflict has been resolved, and all the villains get their comeuppance (even the Painted Stallion gets to face off personally against Zamorro’s black steed), a bunch of loose ends are tied up in literally the last two minutes. (Spoilers follow if you actually plan on watching this, as if you couldn’t guess these developments.) As the new governor signs the trade agreement, he casually notes a story told of a white child raised by the Comanche, the sole survivor of a massacred settlement, and worshiped as a “Goddess of Peace” by the Comanche because of her blonde hair. I was beginning to think the filmmakers were never going to get around to explaining this, but it’s exactly what it seems, a variation on the “White Goddess” trope as seen in She and Green Mansions, the romantic “best of both worlds” fantasy seen in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a far cry from the complexities of something like The Searchers.

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In addition to this explanation, Kit is taken under the wing of Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, who, like everyone else in the serial, foresee his future as a great Western scout. Elmer gets kicked by his mule and finds that his stutter is gone: he rails at the mule with a stream of articulate invective: “You bothersome beast! I denounce you henceforth!”

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Finally, Stuart and the Rider are shown riding off together after watching the now-successful wagon train head back up the trail. Unlike some of the conclusions of other serials, it’s unclear what their relationship is. In general this is a boy’s affair, like many serials (Thayer is the only woman in the film), but Corrigan and Thayer have real chemistry in their scenes together, so a romantic ending is possible. On the other hand, they don’t so much as hug, so they could just be platonic friends, celebrating their victory over the corrupt Dupray. Even the complication posed by their obvious cultural differences could go either way. I’ll admit that The Painted Stallion has challenged my preconceptions about characters pairing up in formulaic fiction: it’s subtle enough that you could read Clark Stuart as asexual, a progressive representation before its time, or it could just be that the presumed audience of preteen boys wouldn’t want any icky kissing or stuff. And if you wanted to believe that he and the Rider get married and have ten children, you could do that too. Or perhaps I’m overthinking this.

What I Watched: The Painted Stallion (Republic, 1937)

Where I Watched It: A DVD from (ahem) Cheezy Flicks

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Tunnel of Terror” (Chapter Eleven; this is a favorite chapter title, used in many serials.)

Best Cliffhanger: Dupray’s mountain hideout includes a trap door that spills out onto a rugged cliff face, spelling certain death for anyone unlucky enough to fall through it. In Chapter Eight (“The Whistling Arrow”), Stuart is captured by the renegades, but manages to turn the tables on them, holding them at gunpoint as he walks backward through the cave. The tease is a little more artful than usual as we are first shown the trap door, and Stuart almost steps on it, but then doesn’t, but then finally does, giving the bad guys the split second they need to dispose of him (cue footage of a ragdoll-limbed dummy falling down the rock wall).

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Sample Dialogue: “The West is too big for those hankerin’ to spoil it, Kit. They may try for a while, cause a lot of trouble, maybe kill a lot of good men. The West’ll win out. This wild country we’re travelin’ across will someday be settled. There’ll be railroads, pushing all the way across to the Pacific. The land will be covered with farms, ranches, and homes. Youngsters like yourself, Kit, might even be going to school somewheres close by. Heh, heh. Ah, I wonder how many of them’ll be knowin’ a young fellow named Kit Carson, who first became a scout in these here . . .” –Clark Stuart, Chapter One (The scene simply fades out in the middle of Stuart’s speech, implying that he goes on like this for some time. Give the kid a break, Stuart!)

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Sample title cards illustrating the "Chosen One" theme decades before Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter

Sample title cards illustrating the “Chosen One” theme decades before Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter

What Others Have Said: “Several historical personages assisted Corrigan throughout–among them a young runaway named Kit Carson, who was played by Sammy McKim. The young Carson, as befit a future Western legend, was written as less of a ‘kid tagalong’ than as a genuinely helpful junior frontiersman, and McKim’s hardiness and spunk suited the role perfectly.” —The Files of Jerry Blake, “Sammy McKim”

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Point of Connection: While watching The Painted Stallion, I was continually reminded of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., the short-lived but fondly-remembered Western TV show starring Bruce Campbell as the title character. While Brisco County drew from many sources, Corrigan was clearly playing the kind of strong-jawed, wholesome (and completely white-bread) hero that Campbell has, in his own winking way, made a specialty. No one would deny that Campbell is more charismatic than Corrigan (not to snark, but compared to Corrigan, Buster Crabbe is Laurence Olivier), but there’s a resemblance. It didn’t hurt that The Painted Stallion is full of the kinds of pulp bric-a-bric–chases, traps, Western lore, and flamboyant characters–that The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., lovingly indulges in.

What’s Next: Next week I’ll be looking at the Republic serial Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion, again courtesy of (sigh) Cheezy Flicks.

Fates Worse Than Death: The Green Hornet (1940)

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Britt Reid (played by Gordon Jones) is the owner and editor of esteemed newspaper the Sentinel, having inherited the position from his father; every day, surrounded by his staff, he attempts to shine a light on the criminal activities that vex the citizens of his city. Although he officially believes the newspaper should only cover the news and that solving crimes should be left up to the police, he has a secret: at night he becomes the masked hero the Green Hornet, taking down racketeers in a more direct manner. His valet and driver Kato (the prolific Keye Luke) also backs up his heroics with his martial arts skill and mechanical aptitude (it was Kato who constructed the Hornet’s gas gun and customized the duo’s souped-up automobile, the “black beauty”).

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Like Batman, the Green Hornet must affect nonchalance in his civilian identity, and as editor of the Sentinel he even goes along with the fiction that the Green Hornet is just another criminal, only targeting the city’s racketeers because he wants to take their place. The staffers on the paper reflect a range of opinions about the crusader, little realizing that he is in their very midst. Secretary Leonore Case (Anne Nagel) openly admires the Hornet and believes that he is a force for good; Michael Axford (Wade Boteler), a former policeman and now Reid’s bodyguard, accepts the view that the Hornet is a criminal, and he’s gunning for the reward for the Hornet’s capture; reporter Jasper Jenks (Phillip Trent) just wants to get a good story out of the affair.

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Almost every chapter of the serial follows the same formula: word comes to the Sentinel (either by one of the reporters chasing down a story or by someone calling Reid, asking him to cover it) about a racket. The rackets are the kinds of injustices that organized crime might inflict on ordinary people: bridges and tunnels built with substandard materials; a rash of car thefts at a particular parking lot; various protection and insurance rackets that are jacking up prices for dry cleaning or shipping; et cetera. There are no death rays or automatons, nor are the crimes particularly outsized (the biggest is an attempt to elect a mobbed-up mayor through repeat voting and literal ballot box-stuffing), but each one is being helmed by a member of the same criminal Syndicate, taking orders by radio from an unknown Leader.

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Reid goes to check it out in person with Jenks or Axford, but only gets far enough to verify that something crooked is going on. So he returns as the Green Hornet, Kato by his side, to step in; sometimes he is able to prevent the damage the Syndicate is doing, but in all cases he gets the drop on the gangster in charge of the particular scheme and brings them in, dead (always accidentally, of course) or alive. Posing as a fellow criminal aiming to cut himself into the Syndicate’s deal, he tricks them into revealing facts about their operation as he works his way closer to the boss. Frequently, Axford shows up with similar ideas about confronting the Syndicate, complicating things for the Hornet. After the cliffhanger, the Hornet gets away, setting the stage for the next racket to be taken down.

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Obviously, the repetition in the chapters would be less of an issue when viewed on a weekly basis. The Green Hornet had originated on the radio in 1936, and the film serial hews closely to the radio version, even using similar plotlines; the episodic rhythm would have had a comforting familiarity to viewers, much like the majority of series television shows until the last couple of decades. (Indeed, The Green Hornet became a popular TV series in 1966 after Batman became a hit, even crossing over with the Caped Crusader.) Watched back to back, however, it becomes predictable, even for a serial.

From a production standpoint, The Green Hornet is pretty slick, benefiting from Universal’s library of stock footage (some of the bigger set pieces include a burning office building also seen in The Perils of Pauline, a train derailment, and an elaborate carnival). The theme music, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” (the same as in the radio show), is supplemented by other tracks familiar from Universal films, and the titles, newspaper headlines, and other design elements are even better than usual (just look at that title card at the top!). While it is hardly the most sophisticated example of serial storytelling, it does what it sets out to do with style and flair.

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What I Watched: The Green Hornet (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: Funny story: last week I said I would be covering The Green Hornet, knowing I had it on DVD. I guess I hadn’t looked at the case very closely, because the DVD I had bought was The Green Hornet Strikes Again, the sequel from later the same year (!). So I had to go back to YouTube, yet again.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Panic in the Zoo” (Chapter Twelve; it’s just what it sounds like)

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Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eleven (“Disaster Rides the Rails”), the Syndicate plans to ruin John Roberts by wrecking a train carrying shipments for his trucking business, as payback for refusing to smuggle munitions under his bill of lading. The Green Hornet, catching wind of this plot, hops the train and struggles with one of the gang members while the others uncouple the train cars from the engine. The uncoupled cars begin to roll backwards, down a steep mountain–but there’s another train coming up from behind! A collision seems inevitable, unless the railroad attendant can get the tracks switched in time. The cliffhanger cuts rapidly between three perils: the Hornet’s fight on the back of the caboose, the oncoming train, and the attendant’s attempt to manually pry the stuck switch open, diverting the runaway cars.

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: As in many of these serials, some of the least satisfying resolutions involve the Green Hornet (or other characters) simply picking themselves up and brushing themselves off after being in car crashes or trapped in burning buildings. However, the cliffhanger at the end of Chapter Three (“Flying Coffins”) and its resolution in Chapter Four (“Pillar of Flame”) are more typical of what are usually called “cheats:” after forcing the head of a crooked flying school to take off in a plane he knows to be sabotaged, the Green Hornet and the crook struggle while the plane goes down, crashing with a fiery explosion. At the beginning of Chapter Four, however, a shot of the Green Hornet bailing out with a parachute is inserted before the plane crashes (carrying the flying school boss: it’s notable that in all these cliffhangers, the hero never knowingly leaves a Syndicate member to suffer the fate he had in store for the Hornet: he’s a good guy, after all).

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Sample Dialogue: “Open that car door while I get this fruit destroyer ready.” –Syndicate member Sligby, in another sabotage attempt on John Roberts’ shipping company, Chapter Seven (“Bridge of Disaster”). No, we never get to see what a “fruit destroyer” looks like.

What Others Have Said: “Who was to play Britt Reid/Green Hornet [on the radio]? Al Hodge auditioned and got the part! For Britt Reid he used a cultured mid-western voice similar to his own, while for the Hornet he used a deeper, rougher, tougher growl. His Hornet voice was so distinctive that for the first Green Hornet movie serial, in which Britt Reid was played by Gordon Jones, Hodge went to Hollywood and dubbed all the Hornet’s lines.” –“Al Hodge, Before and After Captain Video

What’s Next: I’ll cover The Green Hornet Strikes Again eventually. But next week, we’ll go back to the Old West with The Painted Stallion!