Fates Worse Than Death: Terry and the Pirates

Dr. Herbert Lee, an American archeologist, leads a scientific expedition into the wilds to uncover evidence of a lost race. The native queen, known as the Dragon Lady, is determined her kingdom shall not be invaded. Fang, a sinister, lawless half-caste, who controls half of the natives and holds the white settlers in fear, seeks the riches hidden beneath the Sacred Temple. After the expedition has gone into the jungle to face unknown perils, Terry, Dr. Lee’s son, and Pat Ryan, his friend, arrive in Wingpoo with important documents for Dr. Lee.

Those words, presented as text crawling up the screen, begin each chapter of the 1940 serial Terry and the Pirates; chapters after the first add another sentence or two to describe the specific situation our heroes were left in, but that’s it. There’s no other recap (beyond the repetition of the last scene that sets up the cliffhanger), but that’s all you need anyway. Terry Lee, like fellow comic strip-turned serial hero Tim Tyler, is living the dream of many a boy in his audience, seeing the world alongside older and more experienced adventurers. Milton Caniff’s comic strip (and the radio serial, which preceded this film) followed the adventures of Terry and his friends, mostly in the jungles and waterways of Asia, for years. Like many serials based on existing properties, the filmmakers could somewhat rely on audiences to be familiar with the characters already, and the beginning of this one drops us into the action with only that text prologue to prepare us.

In Chapter One (“Into the Great Unknown”), when Terry and Pat arrive at the colonial town of Wingpoo, they are surprised to find that Dr. Lee and the rest of his expedition have already headed into the jungle, despite the radiogram Pat had sent alerting them to his and Terry’s imminent arrival. As it turns out, Dr. Lee never received the radiogram because the town’s radio operator, Stanton, (as well as many other people in town) is under the control of Fang, the villainous warlord who resides somewhere in the jungle, terrorizing the peaceful settlers. Using his inside information, Fang has Dr. Lee captured and the rest of his party slaughtered, supposedly during an attack by natives. (Fang has his white “renegades” don animal furs and masks, posing as “tiger” or “leopard men” so they don’t reveal their treachery to the other whites; this allows Fang to present himself as Dr. Lee’s rescuer.)

At first, Fang offers friendship to Dr. Lee, inviting him to study Fang’s collection of native artifacts: he needs the archeologist to interpret the language of the ancients and thinks that Dr. Lee will lead him to the lost treasure upon promise of a share. Dr. Lee, a man of science above all, is horrified by Fang’s plans and rejects this offer; Fang then coldly orders Dr. Lee held prisoner–he will aid Fang’s search, one way or the other. Fang has also ordered the capture of Terry and Pat, thinking to use them as leverage on Dr. Lee, but at least in the first chapter his immediate plan is foiled. (As in many serials, the good guys in this spend a lot of time getting captured and then escaping, with various combinations of the heroes either free or imprisoned.) Dr. Lee (played by John Paul Jones), it should be noted, is a pretty tough customer himself, and not easily intimidated: his love for his son is the weak spot Fang exploits against him more than once.

Terry and his allies are versions of characters from the comic strip: Terry himself, described as “a wide-awake American boy,” is a teenager in the strip. William Tracy, who plays Terry, was already twenty-three when the serial was filmed, but rather than aging up the character to match (like Billy Batson in Adventures of Captain Marvel), or casting a younger actor, the film has Tracy affecting a high, cracking voice and saying stuff like “Gee willikers!”, and an awkward, bow-legged stance, throwing his arms around spastically in action scenes to look younger and shorter than co-star Granville Owen, who plays the older Pat Ryan. (Owen played the lead in Lil’ Abner the same year he made Terry; he later went by the screen name Jeff York.)

Pat is the typical serial man of action, almost always taking on the fight scenes and gunplay himself while protectively keeping Terry out of the fray and chiding him for wasting time taking photographs, but he doesn’t have a lot of character himself. (Terry eagerly gets into a few scrapes–“Don’t worry, Dad!” he says before leaping into a fight with some prison guards–but his enthusiasm often outpaces his competence, and sometimes he makes the situation worse by trying to help.)

Terry and Pat are aided by two Asian characters, Dr. Lee’s servant Connie (short for “Confucius”), played by Allen Jung, and a local native who towers over his fellows and goes by the nickname “Big Stoop” (Victor DeCamp). Big Stoop is first encountered as a street magician; he joins forces with the Lee party when Pat and Terry stick up for him in a fight, and his escape artistry and magic tricks (not to mention pockets full of firecrackers) come in handy throughout the adventure. He also carries some of the comic relief, and doesn’t always think things through. He’s nothing if not loyal, however: at one point, when Pat and Terry are locked up in the Wingpoo jail, Big Stoop and Connie follow them into the cell, even though as Pat points out, they’d be more useful on the outside. Later, Big Stoop catches hold of one of the renegades and chastises him, saying, “You hit Big Stoop very hard.” A single blow to the man’s head, and the rudeness is repaid.

Another notable character is Normandie Drake (Joyce Bryant), the daughter of a local rubber planter; Normandie is brave and capable, joining forces with Terry against Fang’s depredations (in the comics she and Terry have a long, doomed romance, but they don’t so much as hold hands in this), but she also screams a lot. Boy, can she scream. No female character in a serial is a damsel in distress all the time–they have to hold up their end of the story, after all–but Normandie knows how to get her Fay Wray on when the bad guys come calling with their human sacrifices and trained gorillas.

As for the bad guys, they are many of the usual suspects: Dick Curtis, who plays Fang, was a longtime heavy for Columbia and appeared in a number of serials and B-movies, particularly Westerns (of course); he’s been in some of the serials I’ve covered, although not in a leading role that I recall. Fang is an “Oriental potentate” caricature, half wheedling Fu Manchu mannerisms and half vulgar savagery. His dialogue is amusingly prickly, as when he tells right-hand man Stanton (Jack Ingram, another regular heavy), “You have some brains after all. I was beginning to doubt it.”

What are we to make of Fang’s status as “half-caste”? This isn’t the first time such a character has been the villain in one of these stories: the casual racism of white settlers assuming their superiority over the natives is a common feature of the era’s adventure stories, but the implication is that it’s worse to be caught between worlds, without a people to call your own, than to be one of those honest but easily duped natives. Or it could be that making a major character mixed-race makes it easier to cast a white actor to play them. There’s not much ambiguity here: unlike Fu Manchu, who hopes to unite Asia under his own rule against the white devils, Fang is just in it for the money, promising to leave the Dragon Lady alone in exchange for the treasure. He may leave the temple and the Dragon Lady’s people in shambles, but that’s not his problem; he’ll be gone. In that respect, he’s not so different from the planters extracting wealth from the land, he just has an accelerated timetable.

As for the Dragon Lady herself (Sheila Darcy), she’s an ambiguous character type we’ve encountered before, the haughty and indomitable matriarch whose primary concern is her people (I was reminded of Queen Teka in The Phantom Empire). The Dragon Lady of the comics is an ocean-going pirate (answering my lingering question about this serial: where are the pirates?), but in the movie she is a firmly landlocked leader of the natives. At first she assumes that the white explorers are, like Fang, only interested in the treasure hidden in her Temple of the Dawn, and she sees them as enemies, especially after Terry and Pat interrupt a human sacrifice conducted by her high priest; eventually, however, she comes to see Terry and his friends as allies who have her best interests at heart. (She claims that she had forbidden such sacrifices; it takes a little longer for the priest to be won over.) Once Fang steals the Temple’s statue of the god Mara and makes it speak with a hidden phonograph record (“Listen to your god! Fang is my choice as ruler! Obey him in all things!”), turning the natives against her, she has little choice but to throw her lot in with the Lee expedition.

In the past, I’ve been somewhat critical of the Columbia serials I’ve watched, and I know I’m not alone: the consensus is that Columbia tended to cut corners and came to rely on silly physical comedy and gimmicks, turning its serials into parodies of themselves. As Columbia serials go, however, Terry and the Pirates was largely a pleasant surprise. (There is some light-hearted humor, but constant mugging and jokiness was mostly a product of the later 1940s.) Like many serials, it takes a chapter or two for things to really get going, but the middle chapters have some good action and the characters have a nice chemistry together and a combination of motives that keep the plot humming. My interest started to wane in the last few chapters, but as I’ve said before, many serials don’t really have enough story to fill fifteen chapters. It’s not much like the comic strip, which took a hard-boiled approach to war and adventure, but if you can overlook the too-old Terry and the frankly awful gorilla costume, it is a serviceable adventure in the jungle-explorer/lost-world vein.

What I Watched: Terry and the Pirates (Columbia, 1940)

Where I Watched It: This serial has been playing on TCM on Saturday mornings, but I watched the VHS set from VCI Classics (featuring the dubbing of voices in Chapter Four, for which the original audio was lost). It can also be viewed on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “The Dragon Queen Threatens” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: Terry and the Pirates is a goldmine for fans looking for classic serial-style cliffhangers. Many standard types are represented: buildings in which our heroes are (seemingly) trapped catch fire, cave in, or explode; Terry and Pat get caught in traps that slowly fill with water (Chapter Seven, “Angry Waters”) or in which the walls close in, pushing the boys toward a central pit filled with “barbarious” spikes (Chapter Eleven, “Walls of Doom”); Terry falls into a “sacrificial pit” filled with alligators (Chapter Eight, “The Tomb of Peril”); and Normandie is menaced by the gorilla and is nearly sacrificed by the high priest of Mara. Finally, almost the entire party is bound on a gigantic pyre of wood for sacrifice by burning (Chapter Fourteen, “Pyre of Death”). Almost all of these cliffhangers are well-prepared and executed to both make the situation clear and amp up the suspense.

My favorite is at the end of Chapter Nine, “Jungle Hurricane” (as is frequently the case, the chapter titles tend to foreshadow the nature of the peril that will form the chapter-ending cliffhanger): Normandie is hiding out in an abandoned hut with Connie and Big Stoop to ride out a storm, not realizing that Stanton and his men are making for the same hut as a way station on the route to Wingpoo, where Fang has sent them for more supplies. Terry and Pat have the same idea to stop at the hut on their way to Wingpoo, and when they arrive they find Stanton and the other renegades taking Normandie and the boys captive. Pat distracts the renegades, getting them to chase him into the jungle, so Terry can sneak into the hut and free the prisoners, sending Connie and Big Stoop to help Pat while Terry unties Normandie. All of this happens while howling wind blows branches and palm leaves all around, and the walls of the hut shake under the force of the gale. It’s all quite dramatic. Just as Normandie is freed, the entire hut is blown over the side of the cliff upon which it was built, collapsing at the bottom of the hillside. (I fully expected that in the next chapter we would find that Terry and Normandie had slipped out of the hut before its collapse, or they would be revealed to be hanging on the side of the cliff by a vine, but nope: Pat finds them buried under the thatched roof of the collapsed hut, and once freed they’re perfectly fine. The walk-it-off” cliffhanger strikes again!)

Sample Dialogue (from Chapter Six, “The Scroll of Wealth”):

Fang: This is my trophy room. Not a bad collection, eh, Doctor?

Dr. Lee: You’re not fooling me, Fang. It looks more like a torture chamber to me.

Fang: You are right, Doctor Lee, and, ah, here is your iron maiden, waiting for you. (touches spikes) You see, Doctor Lee, the maiden has hidden charms, charms which you will be unable to resist.

What Others Have Said: “It’s a whole lot easier to do Steve Canyon, in that I am able to free-wheel–I can go anywhere, do anything–and Terry never got out of China. I never got tired of doing the Oriental background, because to this day it’s still the greatest place for anything-can-happen stuff, it’s just that he had never come home, and I felt that I should change the scene more frequently, and I wasn’t able to do it during the war years.” –cartoonist Milton Caniff, asked in a 1982 interview about the difference between Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, the strip Caniff turned to in later years

What’s Next: Keeping with the comic strip theme, I’ll take a look at Don Winslow of the Navy!

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.