Fates Worse Than Death: Pirate Treasure

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Dick Moreland, after returning from a triumphant flight around the world, announces to his comrades at the Aero Club that his next feat will involve digging up a treasure his pirate ancestor, Sir John Moreland, buried centuries ago. The chart describing its island hiding place has been in Moreland’s family for generations, but he is the first member of the family to take it seriously and attempt to recover the treasure. Unfortunately for Dick, a new member of the club, Staley [sic] Brassett, isn’t the honest friend he appears to be: he’s been searching for Sir John’s treasure himself, and he immediately dispatches his henchmen to break into Dick’s house and steal the chart.

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Chasing the henchmen, Dick enlists the aid of a young woman, Dorothy Craig, by falling into the street in front of her car. Dorothy turns out to be the daughter of an airline owner who becomes involved in the expedition and supplies a ship; and since she’s on the lookout for some excitement herself, she comes along as well. Brassett, still pretending to be a good guy while guiding the henchmen from behind the scenes, allows himself to be persuaded to join the search, too. For the majority of Pirate Treasure‘s running time, even as they travel to the island, Dick and co. assume that the lead henchman, Curt, is the head of the gang that has been hounding their steps, with Brassett taking increasingly convoluted steps to preserve his plausible deniability.

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Pirate Treasure is neither the best nor the worst serial I’ve watched since beginning this series, but it may be the most elementary in its appeal. Serials were no strangers to formula, but Pirate Treasure goes beyond cliché to an almost Platonic ideal of wish-fulfillment with almost every element stripped down to its essentials. The secret map to buried treasure in the Spanish Main (a map which is also an ancestral inheritance); the brave and capable girl who nonetheless needs to be rescued and protected; the sneering villain who pretends to be the hero’s friend; the trusty sea captain who can palaver with the natives (who are themselves a composite of every “jungle savage” you’ve ever seen on screen); and of course the hero is not only strong and clever enough to come out on top, but the kind of mensch who will even rescue his enemies rather than let the natives burn them at the stake (and probably eat them). This is a serial that begins with the hero making a record-breaking solo flight around the world, just so that he can finance the adventure he really wants to go on.

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It was, of course, made early enough that many of these plot devices were still fresh and didn’t require much in the way of “twists” for sophisticated audiences; the clichés were in the process of being born. Likewise, unlike many later serials, there is no reliance on a library of stock footage, and the stunts have more in common with the death-defying realism of the silent serials than with the careful montages of disguised stunt performers of later years. Pirate Treasure was Universal’s follow-up to The Perils of Pauline, but it feels like a product of an earlier era.

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Leading man Richard Talmadge brings his acrobatic experience to his action scenes: in some scenes he leaps from one rooftop to another like a 1930s parkour star, and many of his fight scenes take advantage of his tumbling skills. (I was strongly reminded of Charles Quigley in Daredevils of the Red Circle, who combined tumbling and judo in a similar way.) Talmadge also makes a specialty of leaping from great heights: into a moving car, into the water from the rigging of a ship, or on to his enemies in the many brawling fist fights that occur. All of this is filmed as it occurs (sometimes with a little undercranking to juice it up), giving the action an immediacy and a sense of realism that counteracts and grounds the unreality of the plot.

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Talmadge is less assured when it comes to dialogue, however: his voice is light and almost childish, and occasionally halting in ways that give away the scripted nature of his lines. (I will say, however, that unlike many films from the early 1930s, the dialogue is crystal clear and easy to understand; between the clarity of the sound and the largely functional dialogue, Pirate Treasure was one of the easier to follow serials I’ve watched.)

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Lucille Lund, who plays Dorothy Craig, also does her share of stuntwork: she’s something of a Pearl White type, doing double duty as both action heroine and damsel in distress. The one thing she doesn’t do is get involved in fights: even the most thuggish henchman won’t hit a woman in this kind of film, so unless she’s being grabbed and tied up, she is ignored when fights break out, leading to several amusing scenes of men grappling in the foreground while Dorothy stands aside screaming or looking worried. Lund is also a better actor than Talmadge, subtly supporting her costars by reacting to them as a thrill-seeking heiress who gradually finds herself out of her depth, terrorized by henchmen and natives, and whose growing affection for Dick Moreland grows naturally and believably. (The integration of action and romance also seems like a throwback to the silents, or at least the more mature storytelling found in features.)

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Beyond the leads, Pirate Treasure has a strong supporting cast including frequent heavy Walter Miller as Brassett, who is suitably oily as a villain hiding his true colors (I think my favorite moment is when he recommends one of his own men as First Mate on the sea voyage, assuring Moreland that his pick is “one hundred percent loyal” and “you’ll be surprised at the thoroughness with which he does things”). As “spearhead” henchman Curt, Ethan Laidlaw gets to play a more traditionally villainous role, and makes the most of the active part (he also has a fine mustache so you can tell him apart from the other henchmen). Pat O’Malley plays John Craig, Dorothy’s father, without much color but with a stoic reserve that gives way in affectionate scenes with his daughter.

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Finally, William Desmond is Captain Carson, a convincingly salty sea-dog whose friendship with the natives and knowledge of their “lingo” (which mostly sounds like Spanish) saves the day. Incidentally, the Captain’s ship is the Lottie Carson: named for a lost love, or perhaps the Captain’s mother? If Captain Carson were one of those sailors with MOM tattooed over his heart, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. He and the rest of these characters would be right at home in something like Captain Easy or Tintin, series with which Pirate Treasure shares a milieu and a considerable family resemblance.

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What I Watched: Pirate Treasure (Universal, 1934)

Where I Watched It: This was another of the DVD transfers I bought in a lot from eBay. The picture quality isn’t great, so please forgive the blurry screen shots. This serial doesn’t appear to be available to view online, but “pirate treasure” is a phrase that brings up thousands of hits when you search for it, so I could be wrong.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: In keeping with the streamlined approach, many of the chapter titles are very literal (“Stolen Treasure,” Chapter One; “Mutiny!”, Chapter Eight). There is “The Death Plunge” (Chapter Two) as well as “The Fatal Plunge” (Chapter Eleven), “The Death Crash” (Chapter Six) and “Crashing Doom!” (Chapter Seven). My favorite, however, is “The Wheels of Fate” (Chapter Three), which is at least mildly poetic and (in true serial fashion, the chapter title often foreshadowing the cliffhanger at its end) sets up an exciting highway chase and a stunt of Talmadge jumping off a motorcycle speeding across a bridge onto a moving train below.

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Best Cliffhanger: The chapter endings in Pirate Treasure run the gamut from genuinely suspenseful “how are they going to get out of that one?” cliffhangers to rather abrupt cuts to black following a fall. Some of the best involve vehicle crashes (a speedboat crashing into a buoy at the end of Chapter Four, “The Sea Chase”; a car plunging down a hillside and rolling over at the end of Chapter Six, “The Death Crash”). I’ve complained about cliffhanger resolutions that neither get the heroes out of the jam before the crash nor come up with a plausible excuse for their survival, and both of these are prime examples: after the dramatic crash–the boat splintered to pieces in one case, and the open-top car rolling down the hillside in the other–Dick and Dorothy brush themselves off and are okay.

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The best cliffhanger in Pirate Treasure is also the worst offender in its resolution: at the end of Chapter Nine (“Hidden Gold”), Dick and Curt are fighting at the top of a tall, rocky cliff, when Dick loses his footing and falls down, down, down to the jungle floor below, the camera lovingly tracking his body as it bounces off rocks before hitting bottom. Falling bodies are, for some reason, one of the hardest effects to get right, even today with modern CGI and its vaunted “ragdoll physics”; just throwing a dummy down the cliff, as they did in the serial days, usually doesn’t look very convincing. This one, however, is pretty good, while still clearly a dummy. There’s no way Dick could have survived, at least without serious injury (or a massive cheat). However, at the beginning of the next chapter, he gets up after being momentarily stunned; he briefly holds his arm, as if it might be broken; but no, wait, it’s all right; and he’s off to meet the next challenge. From now on, I’ll just refer to this kind of save as a “walk it off” resolution.

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Sample Dialogue:
Captain Carson: I’ve seen lots of treasure hunts. Most of them end in disaster.
Dick Moreland: Ha ha! But not this one.
–Chapter Five, “Into the Depths”

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What Others Have Said:Pirate Treasure featured Richard Talmadge, who followed the tradition of Helen Holmes, Pearl White, Helen Gibson, and Joe Bonomo as an action stunt pioneer and innovator, doing things ‘the way you do it–making movies.'” –William C. Cline, Serials-ly Speaking

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What’s Next: Join me next time as I take my first dip into the “Canadian mountie” subgenre with Republic’s King of the Royal Mounted!

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