Fates Worse Than Death: The Shadow of the Eagle

In the sky, high above the fairgrounds on which Col. Nathan Gregory’s traveling carnival is pitched, a stunt plane writes a message in the clouds: “MAY 23 1918 THE EAGLE.” What could it mean? To Gregory, it’s a reminder of the past: on the date in question, the ace pilot known as “the Eagle” was shot down by members of his own squadron, not recognizing one of their own returning from a mission in a captured enemy plane. For members of the Evans Aero Corporation’s board of directors, it’s a threat: many of them flew with the Eagle and still live with the guilt of that day’s events. Has the Eagle returned for vengeance, or does someone know a secret that they are leveraging for blackmail?

The skywriting pilot doesn’t know: Craig McCoy works for the carnival, and he wrote the message after someone dropped him an envelope with a hundred dollar bill in it. That doesn’t stop the board members from accusing him: it turns out that Gregory was “the Eagle,” long thought dead. In addition to the friendly fire that brought him down, Gregory claims the company’s success is built on an invention stolen from him. It’s only logical to think that he’s using McCoy to execute his long-planned revenge. Soon, however, another plane appears, and it begins writing the names of the board members and crossing them out, making the threat more explicit; not to mention the appearance of two thugs, Moore and Boyle, who claim to be working for the Eagle. It’s up to McCoy (John Wayne), along with Gregory’s daughter Jean (Dorothy Gulliver), to protect Gregory and his carnival from false accusations and the violent repercussions that follow, and ultimately solve the mystery. And it’s not long before they face danger themselves, as the first chapter of The Shadow of the Eagle ends with the unknown plane chasing the two of them across a field at ground level, threatening to run them down!

Despite Craig McCoy’s job as a pilot and the importance of skywriting and aircraft to the plot, The Shadow of the Eagle isn’t totally focused on aviation, and there’s only a little aerial danger in the form of dogfights or crashes. The youthful McCoy is more Tailspin Tommy than Ace Drummond. The carnival setting is much more important, providing a colorful backdrop and cast of supporting characters. In addition to McCoy and Jean, Col. Gregory is supported by little person Billy (billed as “the Midget”), a strongman (Ivan Linow), and a ventriloquist (James Bradbury Jr.), among a few others. As in Daredevils of the Red Circle, they form a team of varied abilities, so there are many fun scenes of Billy fooling the bad guys as a decoy (even disguised as a baby in a basket at one point), the ventriloquist imitating other peoples’ voices to get information or create distractions, and the strongman, well, being strong. The sense of family and camaraderie between them lends itself to banter and kidding (little Billy has a few catchphrases, including bossing the strongman around and calling him a “palooka”); and of course, all of them have the showbiz lifer’s loyalty to their patron and father figure, Gregory. (The dark side of that loyalty is that if you cross one of them, you cross them all: see the cliffhanger at the end of “The Code of the Carnival,” below.)

Dating from 1932, this is actually the earliest sound serial I’ve reviewed for this series so far, and it has many of the dated elements that I’ve seen in other serials from the time period: there is no non-diegetic music at all, other than the theme that opens each chapter, and there are often long stretches of silence without even sound effects. (I do like the voiceover that provides recaps, as the narrator’s creaky voice makes it sound like a storyteller relaying something nearly lost to the mists of time.) The plot has the sense of broad strokes seen in serials like Pirate Treasure, as if the filmmakers said to themselves, “What do kids want to see on screen? Airplanes! Carnivals! Chases! Fights!” and wrote it up accordingly. The and-then-there-were-none plotting of the board of directors being eliminated one by one, while one of them is secretly the Eagle, is not handled as slickly as it would be in later serials, but it’s clear enough. Finally, The Shadow of the Eagle has the casual relationship with cause and effect I’ve noticed in other Mascot serials. Let one example stand in for the whole: at the end of Chapter Nine, “When Thieves Fall Out,” McCoy and Henry drive off, only for the Eagle’s henchmen, Moore and Boyle, to appear on the side of their convertible, demanding they stop and provoking a fight within the moving car. Where did they come from? The implication is that they were on the car’s running board, hidden from sight until the car started moving, but it’s the kind of thing that would be set up much more clearly in later serials.

Having said all that, The Shadow of the Eagle has one virtue that goes far in overcoming those flaws: it moves like a demon, flowing swiftly from one scene to the next, and the lulls are few and far between. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, and it definitely challenges the kind of close watching I usually try to do with these films, but if you sit back and allow it to wash over you—arguably, the mindset in which it was meant to be seen—it’s a ton of fun, full of the styles, situations, and twists that are really more important to the serial experience than something as skimpy and inconsequential as plot. I’ve argued that the Mascot serials of the 1930s often feel like dreams, and like dreams, they often circle back to moments of crisis, repeated with variation as if fixated.

As is true of many serials, captivity is a recurring theme, with Gregory abducted multiple times, once even being dropped off at a sanitarium along with his daughter (by Moore and Boyle posing as family members concerned about Gregory’s “persecution complex”). Characters hide or are trapped in trunks, bins, and cabinets, including a magician’s vanishing cabinet. Costumes and disguises are likewise employed by both heroes and villains to misdirect their enemies (and the audience). Even these formulaic devices are deployed less consistently than they would be later on: sometimes the Eagle would appear disguised as Gregory, wearing the same slouch hat and coat to impersonate him; sometimes he would be a disembodied voice, proclaiming, “You are under the shadow of the Eagle!” before striking; other times he would be behind a console, controlling the robot plane by remote.

The slipperiness and seeming carelessness with which these plot twists unfold may appear as defects to those who prefer the consistency and craftsmanship of the Republic serials, but I loved the exuberance with which classic set pieces and plot elements were stuck together in ways that could still be fresh and surprising in those days. More than once I’d cackle as a character announced that he knew who the Eagle was and he would remain silent no more, knowing that as soon as he said, “the Eagle is—” the lights would go out and a knife would go in, or a shot would strike him from some offscreen hiding spot, and the Eagle’s secret would be safe for another chapter. Things like that were already clichés in the early 1930s, but the filmmakers are aware of their audience’s familiarity with them, so they look for new ways to ring changes on the old material. As with other serials from these early days, it helps that all of the stunts are original, without the reliance on the backlog of stock footage from which later serials suffer.

The Shadow of the Eagle is most notable for starring John Wayne as Craig McCoy. Before John Ford made Wayne the icon he would become, the young actor spent more than a decade in the trenches making B-movies and serials (The Shadow of the Eagle isn’t even the only serial Wayne headlined in 1932: the same year he would lead another Nat Levine-produced serial, The Hurricane Express), including a stint in the long-running “Three Mesquiteers” series. Many of these films were Westerns, but not all of them. It’s fascinating to see (and hear) a young but recognizable Wayne at about age twenty-five: he’s a capable serial man of action, but it would have been hard to predict how big he would become later as a laconic, weatherbeaten symbol of the West.

Other familiar faces from the serials include famed stuntman and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt as henchman Boyle and Ernie Adams as Kelly, “The Man Who Knew” (Chapter Ten). “Little Billy” Rhodes was often seen in comic and circus-related roles in the 1930s and would go on to appear in The Terror of Tiny Town and The Wizard of Oz. Finally, Walter Miller appears as Danby, one of the board of directors. Miller appeared in many serials; sometimes he played a good guy, but often he was a slick villain. Miller keeps the audience guessing in this one; familiarity with his other roles doesn’t guarantee that viewers today will guess the Eagle’s true identity. . . .

What I Watched: The Shadow of the Eagle (Mascot, 1932)

Where I Watched It: I found it by chance on the free ad-supported streaming platform Tubi. Tubi is increasingly home to all kinds of genre oddities and interesting programming, despite (or because of) its seemingly casual approach to curating its library; I probably spend us much time watching Tubi as I do Netflix nowadays.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Man of a Million Faces” (Chapter Four) This chapter introduces Henry the ventriloquist’s talent for imitating other people, so it should really be “The Man of a Million Voices,” but whatever.

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Six, “The Code of the Carnival,” Moore and Boyle have successfully framed McCoy, “catching” him after the remote-controlled plane wrote another of the Eagle’s warnings in the sky. Seemingly convinced that McCoy is guilty of betraying her father, Jean refuses to let the police take McCoy, insisting that the carnival has its own punishment for those who break its code. To everyone’s horror (and McCoy’s disbelief), she orders the roustabouts to “peg out” McCoy: a patch of tent canvas is pegged to the ground with McCoy trapped under it, still protesting his innocence. The last we see before a flap of the tent obscures the scene is one of the carnies about to drive a long stake right through the center of the bulge under the canvas.

Sample Dialogue:

Billy: “Ain’t he the greatest flyer you ever saw?”

Gregory (once known as the Eagle): “I’ve only known one as good, an Army flyer. They called him the Eagle. He was shot down May 23rd, 1918.”

What Others Have Said: “From the time he exited [Fox] until [director John] Ford called him, [John Wayne’s] career moved up and down. At one point it went so far downhill that Duke called the Westerns ‘Z’ films. But they were actually ‘B’ films. He scraped along, grinding out one after another, until Republic Pictures was born in 1935, and the decision was made to upgrade its star and its Westerns. During this period Wayne was gaining invaluable experience, and one ‘invaluable’ person rode into his life: rodeo rider-stuntman, Yakima Canutt. Wayne learned how to really ride from him, how to fall off of a horse; he copied his gait and his speech; together they worked at perfecting the barroom brawls. . . . Today every battle reflects their years of work.” –Gone But Not Forgotten, Patricia Fox-Sheinwold

What’s Next: As I mentioned, this was a chance discovery and I happened to be in the mood to watch it, so I can’t promise I’ll get to any more serials before this summer. But you never know, so subscribe to this blog to receive updates as they happen!

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.