Fates Worse Than Death: The Masked Marvel

Worldwide Insurance has been writing a lot of checks for claims lately, big ones: a series of disasters has befallen Worldwide’s major clients, all of them related to the war effort. While Warren Hamilton, Worldwide’s president, gladly pays out, he hopes that the secretive agent known only as the Masked Marvel will be able to dig up some clues that explain this extraordinary run of bad luck. But perhaps it isn’t luck at all–the Masked Marvel has determined that Japanese spymaster Mura Sakima is hiding somewhere in the U.S., coordinating these attacks on shipping and production. When notorious gangster “Killer” Mace shoots and kills Hamilton in broad daylight, it’s only a matter of time before the murder is traced back to Sakima. In the mean time, Worldwide’s vice president, Martin Crane (secretly in league with Sakima), takes over, and Hamilton’s daughter Alice remains to coordinate the Masked Marvel’s investigation.

So, yes, The Masked Marvel is another wartime serial unafraid to name America’s enemies specifically. Hitler is mentioned, but the focus is on the menace of the Rising Sun, personified by Sakima, who appears in every episode, communicating with his underlings until the final confrontation at the end. Thankfully, the overt racism of the contemporaneous Batman serial isn’t present here: Sakima is played by Johnny Arthur as a haughty, effete stereotype, part Tojo and part Mr. Moto, and his lair is decorated with as much Oriental bric-a-brac as the set dressers could get their hands on so we know he’s foreign, but it could be worse. There are no other Japanese characters to paint with a broad brush, much less the explicit approval of interning Japanese civilians on display in Batman. Sakima prefers to work through American turncoats and mercenaries. All of Sakima’s schemes involve stealing a critical invention for Japan or destroying it so that the Allies can’t use it, or blowing up supply lines with time bombs or explosive fuel additives; the end result is a series of episodes similar to any number of crime or superhero serials, but with a unified (and explicit) political angle.

The Masked Marvel is also an almost-Platonic example of a certain kind of serial in which the hero’s identity is unknown until the end (see also: Flying G-Men). In the first chapter, four insurance investigators are introduced: Frank Jeffers (Richard Clarke), Terry Morton (Bill Healy), Robert Barton (David Bacon), and Jim Arnold (Rod Bacon–Harmon and Glut have him as David’s brother, but that doesn’t appear to be the case). All four will be working with Alice Hamilton to get the Sakima affair settled. What’s more, one of these four men is secretly the Masked Marvel! Presumably he is safer in his civilian identity if it’s not known which one he is (although he reveals his true face to Alice early on).

The four investigators do a lot of detective work, tracking down clues and getting in fights, but when it comes to the really dangerous stuff, the Masked Marvel shows up–in the spirit of similar pulp heroes, he wears the same suit and fedora as the investigators but covers most of his face with a rubber mask stuck on with spirit glue. It’s the Masked Marvel who faces death in most of the cliffhangers, although of course he also rescues Alice a couple of times. Sakima and his underlings attempt to solve the mystery by dividing up or delaying the investigators and seeing if the Marvel shows up, but the Marvel always comes through, even after two of the investigators die in the line of duty over the course of the serial.

I’ve mentioned before how often members of the cast in serials look alike, but in this case it’s an essential part of the mystery, since it would be too obvious if the investigators all had different body types. Unfortunately, the similarity of the investigators undercuts any suspense that might come from not knowing which one is the Marvel: they don’t have any individual personality for us to root for one or the other, nor do they have any differences in skills that might help us figure it out. And as in many serials featuring costumed heroes, the good guys are just as effective when out of costume, so why the secrecy?

As it happens, even eagle-eyed viewers wouldn’t have been able to identify the Marvel through his mask, because when in costume he’s played by an entirely different actor, stuntman Tom Steele, and his voice dubbed by radio actor Gayne Whitman. This is actually typical of the serials: not just the use of stunt doubles, which of course was and remains a common practice, but the use of a different actor to play characters when they are in disguise. The Masked Marvel is unusual in the degree to which it is built around this conceit, but the substitution of actors was common enough in the serials. Tom Steele wasn’t even listed in the credits of the original film (fellow stuntman and fight coordinator Dale Van Sickel was), but his name is on the cover of the videotape I watched, reflecting later fans’ awareness of and interest in the work of unheralded professionals like Steele. (Steele also appears, unmasked, as one of Sakima’s thugs; apparently the original plan was to give him top billing, but when producers changed their minds he received no credit at all.)

Tom Steele, behind the mask

The fact that The Masked Marvel is a showcase for Steele also means that fight scenes–many of them big, set-destroying brawls involving leaps or falls–are the main course, with the Marvel and the other investigators getting into dust-ups in every single chapter, in a variety of colorful settings. Location shooting was at a minimum due to wartime restrictions, so most of the serial was shot on the Republic backlot. A pottery warehouse full of extremely breakable crockery in the first chapter is an illustrative example, but other fights take place on rooftops and in underground tunnels, as well as the more typical houses and places of business. (Several impressive explosions are the work of the Lydecker brothers, as usual.) Regular fistfights are alternated with shoot-outs and car chases, as well as a couple of chases involving motorboats. To me, it gets a little repetitive, but if it’s action you love in the serials, The Masked Marvel has what you’re looking for.

Still, there are plenty of the gimmicks and gadgets the serials are known for: I love that Sakima’s lair is actually located directly under Crane’s house, and that Crane descends in his office chair on a platform when he wants to visit Sakima. (The first inkling the investigators get of this treachery is when one of them observes Mace entering through a secret entrance on Crane’s property.) I love how the Masked Marvel communicates through phonograph records with a custom label resembling his mask, anticipating the pop-art flourishes of the later Batman and Green Hornet television revivals. (In fact, the whole serial is more notable for its sense of visual flair than for its plot: check out the cool title cards!) There is also more than one case of our heroes hiding in trucks and crates, hoping to be taken directly to Sakima. Of course, nothing ever works out quite like we’d hope, but it makes for some exciting and surprising adventure.

The cast includes some familiar faces: Mace is played by Anthony Warde, Buck Rogers‘ Killer Kane, and Alice Hamilton is played by Louise Currie, Adventures of Captain Marvel‘s Betty. As in Captain Marvel, Currie displays a mixture of vulnerability and gutsiness; a chapter in which she goes undercover as a waitress at a spy-run café is a high point.

It is William Forrest, who plays the duplicitous Crane, rather than any of the four investigators, who is first billed; Forrest appeared in a few serials and had small, often uncredited roles in many films in the 1940s, and continued to act, especially on television, into the 1970s.

What I Watched: The Masked Marvel (Republic, 1943)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Pictures Home Video

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Death Takes the Helm” (Chapter Two)

Best Cliffhanger: Interestingly, for a serial that places so much emphasis on action, The Masked Marvel includes one cliffhanger focused not on immediate mortal peril, but on the danger of being discovered: at the end of Chapter Four (“Suspense at Midnight”), Sakima orders Crane to summon the four investigators while he listens in, confident that the Masked Marvel won’t be able to respond in time. Whoever isn’t there must be the Marvel, and so it seems, as Alice asks “Where’s Jim?” “So,” Sakima concludes, “Jim Arnold is the Masked Marvel!” (Not so fast, Sakima!)

But that’s an exception, and the other cliffhangers threaten as much danger as you could wish. The conclusion of Chapter Three (“Dive to Doom”) is particularly good, as the chapter is centered around the freight elevator in a multi-story building. In the course of the chapter, Alice is threatened with being crushed beneath the platform (Mace uses the elevator to crush a barrel to demonstrate); when the Masked Marvel arrives to rescue her and the fight moves to an upper story, the open elevator shaft remains a danger. First, one of the henchmen falls to his death, answered by the terrified scream of Alice, still on the first floor; then the Masked Marvel falls–or at least appears to. (Several of the cliffhangers rely on mistaken identity for their resolution–i.e., it wasn’t really the Masked Marvel you saw getting shot, it was some other guy in a fedora–but I’m too old to get het up about such cheats anymore. Chapter Three’s cliffhanger at least has a more creative solution than that, as in the next chapter Alice is shown raising the elevator so the Marvel doesn’t have as far to fall, saving his life.)

Sample Dialogue: “You wanted to go for a ride in this truck, huh? Now you can go for a ride, by yourself!” –Mace, abandoning a speeding truck in which the Masked Marvel is trapped in the back, Chapter Nine (“Danger Express”)

What Others Have Said:The Masked Marvel‘s impressive action sequences have frequently caused it to be overrated by admirers of Republic’s stuntwork and effects (most notably the great serial buff Alan Barbour, who tended to treat it as one of the studio’s masterpieces); this overrating has in turn led other reviewers (particularly those of the Internet generation) to criticize Marvel far more harshly than it deserves, sometimes dismissing it as completely uninteresting. While it’s quite true that Masked Marvel could have been a much better serial had its plotting and casting been handled with the same care bestowed on its action scenes, it’s still far from a failure–and remains well worth the time of any serious chapterplay fan.” —The Files of Jerry Blake (Blake’s entry includes quite a bit more information on the stunts for those in search of such detail.)

What’s Next: Regular readers of this column know how much I enjoy the weird serials of the 1930s, and have I got a doozy lined up! “Swashbuckle your seatbelts! Cowboys and Cossacks collide in one of Republic’s most curious cliffhangers ever.” From 1936, join me as I review The Vigilantes Are Coming!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.