Introducing the Kamandi Challenge!

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I’ve written before about my interest in Kamandi, “The Last Boy on Earth,” the futuristic adventure series Jack Kirby created for DC Comics in 1972. So when I learned about DC’s upcoming Kamandi Challenge, described as a “round-robin, no-holds-barred storytelling extravaganza told in 12 issues,” with a separate writer/artist team picking up the thread in each installment, I knew I would be adding it to my pull list at my local comics store (shout-out to Prairie Dog Comics in Wichita). The book will apparently be more than just a showcase for talent: running up to the 100th anniversary of Kirby’s birth (1917-1994), the teams are invited to make things tough for those who follow them: “Each issue will end with an unimaginable cliffhanger, and it’s up to the next creative team to resolve it before creating their own. It’s a challenge worthy of ‘The King’ himself!” They already had me at “Kamandi,” but when cliffhangers are involved, how could I resist?

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To recap, Kamandi (named for “Command D,” the military bunker in which he was raised by his grandfather) is the last ordinary human in a post-apocalyptic world that has been taken over by intelligent animals: not just apes, but tigers, dogs, reptiles, and more. Other humans have been reduced to nonverbal animalism or have developed mutant powers themselves. Monstrous creatures roam the earth, and new animal societies have developed in the ruins of the old world, patterned on the Romans, pirates, or Chicago gangsters. Kirby had been tinkering with Kamandi as a concept for several years (his original idea was to be a newspaper strip called “Kamandi of the Caves”), but the final version owes a clear debt to the popular Planet of the Apes movies while remaining pure Kirby. It’s a set-up ripe for adventure and wonder, and after Kirby’s run on the original series it continued to inspire comics creators (not to mention the influence it had on cartoons such as Thundarr the Barbarian, for which Kirby contributed concepts and designs, and more recently Adventure Time).

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Perhaps to prime the pump for the upcoming series and get new readers caught up on the character and his setting, DC released the Kamandi Challenge Special this week, reprinting the double-sized Kamandi no. 32 (which included a reprint of the series’ first issue) from 1975 and including a pair of “lost” stories. Other than a full-page ad for the Kamandi Challenge, there’s no editorial hand-holding, and even the first issue, which introduces Kamandi and sets his feet on the path of adventure, is printed after the story from Kamandi no. 32, which begins in the middle of the action (just as it was in the original double issue–the reprint is always the backup in such cases). I guess they assume that fans can look up all the context on the internet, or perhaps the real audience is fans like me who’ve ready everything at least once already.

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Of most interest is a pair of stories that were intended for Kamandi nos. 60 and 61, but which were abandoned when Kamandi was a victim of the “DC Implosion,” when rising production costs and a slump in sales led to DC management cutting a third of the publisher’s titles without warning. Finished but unused stories from all the cancelled titles were printed in-house in ashcan editions (low-quality, low-circulation black and white copies); in addition to piecemeal reprints, scans of those stories have circulated online for years, but this is the first time the Kamandi stories have seen print in an official publication.

I’m not sure what a new reader will make of these “rediscovered” stories, to be honest: Kirby had left the book he created some time before its cancellation, leaving it in other writers’ and artists’ hands. In typical Kirby fashion, he had breathlessly filled his issues with ideas and characters, leaving many loose threads and never dwelling on any one idea for longer than a few issues. Writers who followed (including Gerry Conway, Dennis O’Neil, and Jack C. Harris) introduced some ideas of their own, but also revisited and fleshed out many of Kirby’s original concepts, using Kirby’s map of “Earth After Disaster” (also included in the Special) and tying the continuity together (for example identifying Kamandi’s grandfather as OMAC, the “One Man Army Corps,” another orphaned Kirby creation) while crafting some longer, less episodic arcs.

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The “new” stories form the end of one of those arcs, the quest of Kamandi and his friends to help stranded space alien Pyra (the final form of the energy being encountered in the first story reprinted in the Special) power up her spaceship by opening a “vortex” in a mysterious giant energy field in Australia, guarded by the “Kangarat Murder Club.” Kamandi, sucked into the Vortex by a mysterious voice, witnesses the infinite possibilities of the multiverse, and comes to understand that there are many versions of himself living different lives, including some in worlds that did not suffer the “Great Disaster.”

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Given a choice, Kamandi ultimately decides that he owes a duty to his friends, still in danger; before coming back, however, he is picked up by servants of the Sandman, the master of dreams, who mistake him for the Sandman’s friend Jed. (You see, Jed is one of the many alternate lives that Kamandi could have lived, had circumstances been different.) Kamandi’s encounter with the Sandman mostly serves to tee up an unused Kirby Sandman story in which Jed enlists the Sandman’s aid in proving to a miser that Santa Claus is real (this involves a trip through dreamland to the North Pole and a battle with a band of “Seal Men” who are unhappy about the Christmas presents they’ve received in the past). No, it doesn’t fit very well in the (admittedly fantastical) world of Kamandi, but the reprint was mostly to buy time as Harris and company geared up to take the book in a new direction, with Kamandi traveling into space and having yet more bizarre encounters. It was never to be. Nevertheless, it isn’t every day that a story sees the light of day (officially) nearly forty years after it was first meant to run.

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In any case, this is all preamble: the real action starts next week, with the release of Kamandi Challenge no. 1, written by Dan DiDio and Dan Abnett with art by Dale Eaglesham, Keith Giffen, and Scott Koblish. I’m so excited, I’ve decided to accept this challenge: I’m going to review and discuss each issue as it comes out. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you’ll join me.

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Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom (1943)

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At Sai Pana, a trading post in an unspecified part of Africa, an expedition led by Professor Davidson is preparing to enter the jungle in search of the lost city of Zoloz, with the help of a map made of six pieces of ivory that fit together like a puzzle. Only the central seventh piece, which shows the exact location of Zoloz, is missing. Among those traveling with the Professor are his niece Diana Palmer and Geoffrey Prescott, a colleague from Melville University.

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Sai Pana’s resident physician, Dr. Bremmer, shows interest in Davidson’s search, but for his own reasons: Bremmer is actually the head of a ring of saboteurs who are building a secret air base in Zoloz, and he will use any connivance to throw Davidson off the scent so he can keep his activities hidden. At the same time, Singapore Smith, owner of the Trade Winds hotel in Sai Pana, schemes to get his hands on the Professor’s ivory keys (and the treasure it leads to) himself.

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Meanwhile, deep in the jungle at Tonga village, the mysterious figure known as the Phantom has summoned the chiefs of the area tribes for a gathering. The Phantom, through his appearance of immortality and supernatural powers, has kept the peace between the tribes for centuries, but a thug named Long, disguised as a native, strikes the Phantom with a poison dart (an attack instigated by Bremmer, because he needs to be able to control the natives to get his airfield built). The Phantom’s assistant, Suba, ends the ceremony with a puff of smoke, but the damage is already done: the Phantom will die. The only hope for peace between the tribes is to find his son to take his place, as the Phantom identity has been passed down from father to son for generations. In this way, the Phantom is “the man who never dies.”

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The Phantom’s son? Geoffrey Prescott, currently in Sai Pana with Professor Davidson’s expedition! After tracking him down with the aid of trapper Rusty Fenton, Suba brings Prescott to his father, who lives just long enough to pass on the mantle of the Phantom. Now it’s up to the new Phantom to protect Davidson, unravel the mystery of the saboteurs, and keep the peace in the jungle, in the 1943 Columbia serial The Phantom!

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Although never as high profile as Batman or Tarzan, the Phantom has elements in common with both characters and has a long history as the star of a comic strip created by Lee Falk in 1936 (and still running in newspapers with the creative team of Tony DePaul, Mike Manley, and Terry Beatty). According to the strip’s mythology, the first Phantom was shipwrecked by pirates on the African coast in the 16th century. He was adopted by a peaceful tribe who both set him on his mission of fighting evil and taught him the many combat disciplines and sleight-of-hand tricks he uses to further that goal. The 1943 serial doesn’t go into that in any detail beyond the handing down of the Phantom’s identity; serials in general were much less concerned with origin stories than superhero movies in recent decades (the 1996 feature film starring Billy Zane makes for an instructive contrast), but unlike many serials The Phantom is reasonably faithful to the comics (and it’s a damn sight better than the Batman serial that immediately preceded it!).

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The first chapter is entitled “The Sign of the Skull,” and indeed the skull is an important part of the Phantom’s iconography, particularly the carved ring he wears which leaves the imprint of a skull on those on whom he metes justice. Instead of the remote and forbidding Skull Cave, however, the Phantom of the serial keeps his throne in public, in the center of Tonga village, where he ceremoniously makes appearances to speak to the natives and pass judgment on lawbreakers. There’s quite a bit of flair to these proceedings, as Suba uses flash powder to create bursts of flame and smoke, making it look as if the Phantom appears and disappears by magic. (Interestingly, Bremmer manages to use that same sense of theatricality against the Phantom, first setting up a fraudulent “Fire Princess” whose supposed control of flame makes her a challenger to the Phantom’s authority in the jungle, and later putting a Phantom costume on one of his henchmen after thinking he had eliminated the real one, in order to control the natives.)

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The Phantom plays on the superstitions of the natives one-on-one, as well: confronting the rebellious chief Chota, the Phantom “summons the spirit of fire” to burn Chota’s village unless he tells the truth. In another episode, he smokes out a murderer by pretending to put poison into glasses of wine, saying it will only harm the guilty; of course, the killer is betrayed by his own fear rather than by the wine, which is harmless. Like many pulp heroes, the Phantom wins by his wits and his powers of psychology and detection as much as by his fists and weapons. (And like those heroes, there’s a certain unapologetic ruthlessness to his methods.)

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There are certainly enough villains to choose from: right off the bat, Professor Davidson is victimized by both Dr. Bremmer and his saboteurs and the competing forces of Singapore Smith (the “outlaws”). There’s quite a bit of jockeying by both groups as they each try to steal the ivory keys from Davidson, and at times they work together against their common enemy. Given that both groups are white men with stubble wearing khakis and pith helmets, it’s easy to get them mixed up. However, Singapore Smith is so obviously shady that he doesn’t make it to the end of the serial; even in death he causes trouble for the Phantom, who pays him a visit (in disguise as “Mr. Walker”) and is then blamed for Smith’s murder. Meanwhile, Dr. Bremmer, like most classic serial villains, works his evil through proxies (including traitors within the expedition), avoiding suspicion until the final chapter.

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In a late part of the story, the Phantom and Davidson’s expedition run afoul of the Tartar, the strict ruler of a kingdom that resembles Mongolia. The incongruity of a Mongol fortress in the middle of an African jungle, combined with the kingdom’s extreme isolationism (normally, all outsiders are put to death if they enter the Tartar’s kingdom, but naturally the Phantom wins him over), mark this episode as an example of the “lost world” genre embedded in the larger story. However, not even the Professor comments on its strangeness, and there is no explanation offered as to its presence and survival. (Also, it practically goes without saying that all the major characters speak English; there are a few scenes in which natives speak their own language and somebody has to translate, but not so many that it slows down the action.)

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As the Phantom, Tom Tyler is nicely physical and has a commanding presence, and Jeanne Bates is adequate as the headstrong Diana Palmer, but the only antagonist to have much character is oily Singapore Smith (Joe Devlin). As Dr. Bremmer, Kenneth MacDonald has some good moments and is smooth enough to convincingly play both sides, but didn’t leave a strong impression on me. Frank Shannon (Flash Gordon‘s Dr. Zarkov) plays Professor Davidson, but the decline in energy obvious in the later Flash Gordon serials is in evidence here as well. The Phantom’s animal companion Devil, a wolf in the comics, is played in the serial by a German Shepherd, Ace the Wonder Dog.

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Beyond that, the casting of the many African tribesmen seems to have been mixed up with casting for a Western. Serials are not documentaries, of course, but the best of them make some effort to draw inspiration from the real world. In The Phantom, the natives resemble Hollywood Indians, (mostly) white actors with stilted accents and war paint. The Internet Movie Database lists among the uncredited actors playing natives Jay Silverheels (later TV’s Tonto) and Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian immigrant who adopted an Indian identity and made a specialty of playing Indian characters. This knot of tangled ethnic representation is not terribly unusual for the time, but compared to the actual black actors I just saw in Tim Tyler’s Luck, it’s especially phony.

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What I Watched: The Phantom (Columbia, 1943)

Where I Watched It: The whole thing can be watched on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

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Best Chapter Title: “The Road to Zoloz” (Chapter Thirteen) is nicely specific, and also suggests an entirely different film starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. It’s worth pointing out that both of the Phantom’s catch phrases, “The Man Who Never Dies” and “The Ghost Who Walks” are used as chapter titles (Chapters Two and Five, respectively).

Best Cliffhanger: Despite my criticisms of the acting in The Phantom, at least the action is pretty good, and there are not only several good cliffhangers but some exciting action sequences within the chapters. A very well-done cliffhanger ends Chapter Five (“The Ghost Who Walks”), in which the Phantom fights with the saboteurs on a rope bridge overhanging a deep gorge. Earlier, the Phantom, stalking the saboteurs as they drove an oxcart full of contraband ammunition to the secret airfield, had cut partially through the bridge’s ropes to weaken them. When he ends up fighting the saboteurs directly, of course the fight spills onto the damaged bridge, and the ropes give way, (seemingly) dropping them into the river far below.

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Sample Dialogue: In the first chapter, Long (Wade Crosby) returns to witness a gathering at the Tonga village after killing the Phantom, along with fellow saboteur Andy (Sol Gorss) and upstart chief Chota (Stanley Price). To his chagrin, the new Phantom is accepted without question by the natives.

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Long: Why, that can’t be the real Phantom. I know I killed him! This is just a trick to fool the natives.
Chota: No, him Phantom. Him Phantom! Man who never dies.
Andy: Looks like him to me.
Long: Why, it can’t be! He’s a much younger and taller guy than the real Phantom. I’m telling you that guy’s a fake.
Andy: Looks like you missed, Long.
Long: Let’s tell the natives that guy’s a phony.
Andy: Yeah? And when they ask us how we know, we tell ’em you killed the real Phantom. Why, you’d have your head drying over a fire in no time.

What Others Have Said: “Occasionally there was a shock when a player you had always associated as a good guy turned up in a serial as a crook. . . . You just couldn’t believe that lovable old rascal was really one of the baddies. . . . But, the real test of credibility came when Ernie Adams, who portrayed not only bad guys, but sneaky, yellow, cowardly bad guys, was cast in the role of Rusty Fenton in The Phantom in 1943, and you had to believe that the hero would have in him a good, trusted ally.” –William C. Cline, “When the Leopard Changed Its Spots” in Serials-ly Speaking

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(Serials I’ve reviewed in which Adams appeared include The Miracle Rider, in which he played the shady store operator’s clerk, and Tim Tyler’s Luck: Adams played Becker, the henchman whose death by gorilla meant so little to Spider Webb.)

What’s Next: For my final installment of Summer 2016’s Fates Worse Than Death, I will return to the air with Flying G-Men. See you in two weeks!

Fates Worse Than Death: Tim Tyler’s Luck

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A young man attempts to stow away on a boat going upriver, into the dense African jungle. When asked why, Tim Tyler explains that he is looking for his father, Professor Tyler, an expert on gorillas who hasn’t been heard from in some time. Big game hunter Lora Lacey offers to pay Tim’s way, but the captain refuses; no matter, Tim finds his way onboard anyway. Also making the river trek is explorer Garry Drake. However, not all is as it seems: Lora Lacey is actually Lora Graham, looking for the master criminal Spider Webb, who committed a diamond theft for which Lora’s brother is serving the sentence. Her real plan is to search for Spider in the jungle and “bring him back alive” to prove her brother’s innocence, and she recognizes Drake as one of Spider’s men.

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Sure enough, as soon as night falls Drake and his allies kill the captain, taking over the boat and steering it to the shore, where the rest of Spider’s gang will take possession of the weapons and ammunition intended for the Ivory Patrol, the colonial police force. With Tim’s help, Lora escapes the boat and the pair make their way to the Ivory Patrol’s base. With their help, Lora hopes to bring Spider to justice and Tim hopes to find his missing father. But it turns out their goals are related, as Tim learns when he sees that Spider’s men are driving the “jungle cruiser” (an armored tank) Professor Tyler had built for his work. The Professor has a secret, too: he’s located the legendary “elephant’s burial ground,” and men like Spider would kill to find it. It’s man vs. gorilla, horse vs. tank, and good vs. evil, with tons of ivory at stake, in the twelve-part serial Tim Tyler’s Luck!

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Like several of the serials I’ve covered this summer, Tim Tyler’s Luck, about “the All-American boy in Africa,” is based on a comic strip, albeit one I won’t even pretend to be familiar with (but holy cow, it ran until 1996!?). Played by Frankie Thomas (aka Frank Thomas, Jr.), Tim is a happy medium between the unrealistically-competent kid character who can handle any situation like an old pro and the helpless tagalong who’s in constant need of rescue. (Thomas’ career included stints in Broadway, radio, film, and television; after playing Tim Tyler, he appeared as Ted Nickerson in four Nancy Drew films; later, he played Tom Corbett, Space Cadet on TV.) Tim is self-sufficient and can handle himself in the wilderness, and he gets himself and his friends out of a number of jams, but he’s not a superhero; when things get hot, particularly when Spider Webb (Norman Willis) and his gang start shooting, Tim falls back on the support of the Ivory Patrol. (And, as I note below, Tim has a knack for making friends, an invaluable survival skill.)

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Typically, Tim Tyler’s Luck has several connections to other serials: right from the start, the theme music and much of the underscore was familiar to me from the later Buck Rogers serial (which I wrote about this spring for The Solute); Garry Drake, Webb’s right-hand man, is played by Anthony Warde, Buck Rogers‘ Killer Kane; Sergeant Gates of the Ivory Patrol is played by Jack Mulhall, Captain Rankin in Buck Rogers; and the “jungle cruiser,” so prominently featured, had served as the “juggernaut” in Undersea Kingdom the year before (instead of the electric whine the juggernaut produced, the jungle cruiser simply makes engine noises like a truck).

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Frances Robinson plays Lora Lacey/Graham (and yes, she’s the only woman in the cast, but she has much more to do than scream for rescue); she is another resourceful character, but one who can’t do everything herself. Robinson is lovely, with expressive features that serve her in a variety of moods and emotions. A high point is a sequence in Chapter Six (“The Jaws of the Jungle”) in which she pretends to be a criminal herself and demands a cut of Webb’s payday, with her access to Tim as leverage. She adopts a clipped, hard-edged voice for these scenes, playing off Willis’ low-rent Bogart impression with a little Katherine Hepburn of her own.

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Earlier this summer, I described Pirate Treasure as the serial that was “maybe the most elemental in its appeal” for the way it deployed adventure tropes in bold, simplified form. Similarly, Tim Tyler’s Luck may be the most direct expression of the “jungle” genre in anything without Tarzan in its name. Among the touchstones of the genre encountered here are big game hunters, ivory traders, a colonial army, a missing scientist, wild animals, volcanos, quicksand, “talking” drums, and natives both helpful and hostile; there is the theme of man and his technology vs. nature; the man of civilization who has cast off his old identity in the wilderness; and the connection between man and animal. The central conceit of Tarzan and She, the white god or goddess lording it over the black natives, is the only major element of the genre that goes unused (although there are references to a hostile tribe ruled by a white man who has gone native and now directs the tribe to war on other whites; perhaps this character played a greater role in the comic strip, but in the serial he never appears on screen).

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Of course, the “elephant’s graveyard” is a myth, based on the observation that remains of dead elephants were never found in the jungle, but in Tim Tyler’s Luck it turns out to be real, a desolate volcanic region to which elephants instinctively return before dying. Conway (Frank Mayo), one of the heroes’ allies, is an ivory hunter (it wasn’t until the very end of the serial that I realized the title card isn’t meant to resemble Chinese writing: the words are made of piled-up elephant tusks); ivory is just one more natural resource to be plundered, not the moral and environmental outrage it is seen as today. In other words, this story is a product of its time.

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As is almost always the case during this time period, the plot and characters are products of the colonialist imagination. The main characters are white Americans or Europeans adventuring in Africa, with the native tribesmen largely serving as extras in the background; the most notable exception, Mogu (Everette Brown), is one of Spider Webb’s henchmen, and a few others get lines here or there. I haven’t returned to the discussion of representation lately, mainly because there isn’t much new to say: racism and colonialism were so prevalent in the 1930s that it’s less repetitive to point out positive developments such as color-blind casting (such as Philson Ahn’s Prince Tallen in Buck Rogers) or well-developed non-white characters when they do occur. If you’ve followed me this long in this series, the portrayal of Africans in Tim Tyler’s Luck will not surprise you.

On the other hand, in comparison to some serials, there is clearly more of an effort to present a multi-faceted Africa: some tribes are friendly, some are hostile, and they are given their own beliefs and motivations. And there are more black faces on screen than in many films of the time: many are bearers and servants, and many are half-dressed tribesmen with spears and shields, but there are also black troops in the Ivory Patrol, and there’s Mogu. The African characters are no more uniformly good or evil than the white characters. That’s not to say that Tim Tyler’s Luck is “realistic,” exactly–this is a film in which the hero befriends a black panther, and his scientist father has learned to speak gorilla–but the world feels full, complex, and lived in. Africa is more than just an empty playground for whites: there are other stories going on all around them.

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For that matter, and for want of a better term, Tim Tyler’s Luck feels like a movie, not just a serial: throughout this series I’ve been fascinated by the mechanics of serial storytelling: how rhythms are built up, the use of foreshadowing and red herrings to keep the wheels turning, and above all the formal necessity of setting up and resolving cliffhangers. Tim Tyler’s Luck has those things, but it also slows down enough to establish mood and character; the cliffhangers aren’t the most important part of the chapters, and there is enough action that most chapters have at least one or two good set pieces that aren’t tied to the chapter-ending cliffhanger. The scene in which reformed criminal Lazarre (Earl Douglas) tries to silently point out the Professor’s diary to Lora, held prisoner by Garry Drake, succeeds in creating something that is theoretically central to the serial format, but which isn’t always delivered: suspense.

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Obviously, the Indiana Jones films draw from the globetrotting adventure genre liberally: I previously compared The Perils of Pauline to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Tim Tyler’s Luck, with its missing scientist (complete with a diary containing a map to the treasure), shifting loyalties, and running tank battles, feels like a strong influence on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (And tell me that Tim Tyler doesn’t look like River Pheonix as young Indy in his scout uniform from that film’s prologue!)

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And what of the title character’s “luck”? Again, since I’m not familiar with the comic strip this was based on, perhaps it’s a bigger deal in the ongoing story, but there doesn’t seem to be anything notable or supernatural favoring Tim Tyler. One may count his tendency to always be in the right place at the right time, but that’s a trait shared by many serial heroes. (Without the lubricating oil of coincidence, how many pulp-era plots would sputter and grind to a halt before they could even get off the ground?) No, if anything, Tim Tyler’s luck is his knack for winning others to his side by his goodness: he tames the black panther Fang by bandaging him up and treating him well; he wins over Spider Webb’s henchman Lazarre by saving his life, even when it would be to his benefit to let him die; and he offers water and comfort to the dying elephant handler who almost killed him, winning the elephant’s trust and loyalty. It simply doesn’t occur to Tim to act any other way, and his good acts return to him in the form of supportive allies.

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Compare that to Spider Webb, who seems to neither regret nor relish his evil: he simply looks out for number one, and everyone else be damned. Other people are so little to him he can’t even pretend to care what happens to them (watching one of his henchmen sink into the quicksand that surrounds his base, Webb says only, “well, let’s get going”); the Professor, Tim, and Lora are left alive at key moments only because Webb needs them alive for leverage or information. Unlike many serial villains who rant theatrically, Webb is coldly sociopathic, and because of this comes across as more modern than his contemporaries; and just as importantly, he remains cool even as things unravel and he meets his inevitable comeuppance. Webb berates and bullies his underlings, and because of it he dies alone, unloved, and unrepentant; in comparison to many serials about heroes who save the day single-handedly, Tim Tyler’s Luck makes a solid case for the value of friendship and teamwork.

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What I Watched: Tim Tyler’s Luck (Universal, 1937)

Where I Watched It: A non-commercial DVD from the batch I got on eBay earlier this summer. It doesn’t appear to be available to view online.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Jungle Pirates” (Chapter One). As I said, this serial has something of a primal appeal, and the first chapter sets the tone by asking what could possibly make a jungle adventure more exciting: how about jungle pirates?

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Best Cliffhanger: The gorillas of Gorilla Canyon are essentially a force of nature in Tim Tyler’s Luck, a natural obstacle to anyone who ventures into their territory. In other chapters, they throw boulders at intruders, resulting in the destruction of Conway’s ivory safari, and they’re an unpredictable danger to anyone who ventures into the caves that riddle the canyon. Only Professor Tyler, who was lived among them for months, has their trust, and even he has succeeded in taming only one of the beasts. In Chapter Seven (“The King of the Gorillas”), the Professor and Lora are forced by Spider Webb to return to Gorilla Canyon to retrieve the Professor’s map to the elephant’s burial ground. While there, the Professor releases the caged gorilla he had trained in hopes of freeing himself and Lora from Spider’s grasp, but the tame gorilla gets in a fight with an aggressive male, still wild. Meanwhile, Tim and Sergeant Gates of the Ivory Patrol have tracked the cruiser to the canyon and make their way into the caves. Professor Tyler is shot by Becker, one of Spider’s men, just before being killed himself by a gorilla (Spider, ever the practical one, only says “Becker’s done for. Never knew what hit him.”). The Ivory Patrol attacks, driving Spider’s men away, but just as Tim finds the cave with Lora and his father, the bull gorilla attacks and carries him away.

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Honorable mention: Several of the cliffhangers involve animals, wild or otherwise. There is actually a second cliffhanger that involves Tim being carried, unconscious, this time by an elephant (in Chapter Nine, “The Gates of Doom”). Spider’s inside man in the Ivory Patrol, Rocky, has bribed the elephant’s handler to help Spider escape the Patrol’s fort, but once cornered by, he has the elephant grab Tim. The elephant will crush Tim unless the Patrol lets him escape. The fort’s guards close the heavy doors, but the elephant smashes through them with Tim in its trunk!

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Sample Dialogue: “Get this, Tyler: if you don’t tell me where the elephant’s burial ground is, there will be a death in the Tyler family.” –Spider Webb, Chapter Six (“The Jaws of the Jungle”)

What Others Have Said: “Working with the heavies. You ask any actor: the heavies are the nicest people in the world. That’s just the way it works.” –Frankie Thomas, asked in an interview, “What was the high point of working on Tim Tyler?”

What’s Next: Keeping with the jungle theme, let’s check out The Phantom, starring Tom Tyler. That’s not confusing at all!

Fates Worse Than Death: Ace Drummond

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International Airways is under attack! The fledgling enterprise, assembled by a multinational group of businessmen with the intent of uniting the world through travel and trade, is suffering mysterious air wrecks in its Mongolian territory. Construction on the airfield is threatened, and if the wrecks persist it will mean the end of the entire operation. The disasters are the work of the elusive “Dragon,” a faceless criminal mastermind who speaks through special radio receivers hidden in prayer wheels, fans, and even airplane propellers. In response to the attacks, Ace Drummond, “G-Man of the Air,” arrives from his base in Washington to investigate.

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Although he finds many allies–among them young Billy Meredith, son of one of the Airway board members; Jerry, an enthusiastic mechanic and pilot at the airfield; and Peggy Trainor, who has come to Mongolia in search of her missing archeologist father–this foreign territory is filled with potential enemies, any one of whom may be the Dragon or one of his subordinates. Is it Dr. Bauer, the explorer who holds Professor Trainor hostage in hopes of wresting the secret location of a mountain of jade from him? Or is it the monk Kai-Chek, who rails against the intrusion of foreigners and their “devil birds” in Mongolia? Or perhaps it is Henry Kee, the Mongolian member of the committee, or Johnny Wong, the furtive Chinese radio operator. Or it could also be Winston, a member of the committee eager to shut down operations in the face of the Dragon’s terrorism. Or it could be one of the other dozen characters who come under Drummond’s suspicion: the G-Man of the Air has his work cut out for him in the thirteen-chapter serial, Ace Drummond!

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Like Tailspin Tommy, Ace Drummond was a comic strip that rode the wave of the public’s fascination with aviation in the 1930s before being adapted into a movie serial, but Ace Drummond relied on exotic locations and a global scale much more than the down-to-earth Tailspin Tommy. The comic strip was created by World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacker, who lent his name and expertise and contributed scripts to the strip. Every chapter of the serial opens with a portrait of Rickenbacker, “America’s Beloved Ace of Aces,” and recaps the previous chapter with a clip of a newspaper comics page being unfolded and a zoom-in on panels that relate previous events. Rickenbacker also took an active hand in promoting the Ace Drummond serial, forming a “Junior Pilots Club” to generate fan excitement.

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Ace Drummond is also a musical, sort of. Recall that in The Phantom Empire, Gene Autry had to perform a song every day in order to keep his radio contract. One might think that Ace Drummond had a similar contract, as he tends to burst into song whenever a chapter has some time it needs to fill. Leading man John King had been a popular singer before making the jump to acting, and after Ace Drummond he would go on to play a number of singing cowboy roles (most notably “Dusty” in Monogram’s Range Busters series), so it makes sense to feature his talents. Here’s the thing, though: it’s always the same song, “Give Me a Ship and a Song” by Kay Kellogg. Drummond first sings it on the clipper ship into Mongolia to calm down the passengers (understandably nervous, since apparently half a dozen planes have crashed, but this is the first passenger plane to make the trip): a passenger turning the dial on his radio tells a flight attendant, “I’d give a million dollars to hear a great jazz band.” The attendant suggests a station, and the music switches to something that isn’t jazz at all: the intro to “Give Me a Ship and a Song,” which Drummond sings in full to the appreciative passengers. Later, Drummond sings the same song to entertain Peggy Trainor; to entertain the mechanics at the airfield; to test a radio receiver; and he even plays a phonogram record of himself singing in order to fool one of the Dragon’s henchmen sneaking around the airfield. Obviously, the repetition would be less obnoxious if I were watching the serial week to week instead of all at once, but as a transparent attempt to generate a hit, it flopped.

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The action in Ace Drummond fares better: Ace saves the plane from an attack–the Dragon is able to zap the pilots with electric shocks through the radio, as well as having a ground-based “death ray” that can down smaller planes–and, spotting a biplane circling just before the attack, he bails out and tracks the plane to the camp of Dr. Bauer (Fredrik Vogeding) and his associate Wyckoff (Al Bridge). The two explorers claim to be searching for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, but they have Professor Trainor (Montague Shaw) held prisoner in a dungeon. Trainor’s daughter Peggy (Jean Rogers) has just shown up on her father’s trail, and Bauer and Wyckoff hope to hold her as well in order to force her father to give up the jade mountain’s location, but Ace rescues her just in time and takes off in Bauer’s plane. Struck by the Dragon’s death ray, the plane crashes into the wall of the village monastery, bringing in another group of characters.

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The monk Kai-Chek (Chester Gan) calls for the foreigners to be punished for violating the sacred temple, but the Lama (Guy Bates Post) cautions against reacting with anger to what was obviously an accident. Throughout the remainder of the serial, the Lama and his fellow monks are an important resource for Drummond and his allies, translating and providing wisdom as well as communicating with the natives (who are never given much more characterization than a mob of undifferentiated foreigners). More importantly, the monastery is a colorful set full of secret passages and traps, including a room with a mechanized wall designed to close in and crush anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped within. The Lama pleads ignorance of the deadly trap; it’s left unclear until the very end whether the Dragon actually has a connection with the monastery or is simply taking advantage of its secrets.

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Ultimately, that points to the weakness of Ace Drummond: the excessive number of suspects and subplots grows wearisome in later chapters, and when some characters who were under suspicion are later revealed to be innocent, their earlier actions don’t make a lot of sense. It’s one thing for the audience to get confused–that’s part of the sleight-of-hand involved in mystery storytelling–but it’s less satisfying when one senses that the writers themselves don’t quite have a handle on the plot. There are simply too many red herrings, and it’s almost comical to hear the repeated exclamation, “So you’re the Dragon!” aimed at one character after another in the last few chapters, until at last the real Dragon is unmasked.

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Still, that complaint aside, the serial has many good qualities: although there is less time spent flying than in Tailspin Tommy, there is enough aerial action to demonstrate Drummond’s prowess and Rickenbacker’s expertise, and of course the entire plot is motivated by the defense of a commercial airline venture, a business Rickenbacker had also been intimately involved with as the manager (and later owner) of Eastern Air Lines. The Mongolian setting, while open to charges of exoticism (indeed, the lure of adventure in strange foreign places is the entire hook for this genre), is unusual and provides for some original locations and opportunities for action.

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In addition to the actors already mentioned, the cast includes a number of familiar faces: Lon Chaney, Jr. appears as Ivan, the lead henchman; Noah Beery, Jr. plays Jerry, who could be twins with Skeeter, the character he played in Tailspin Tommy; as Billy, Jackie Morrow provides the requisite spunk, without being too annoying; and veteran Montague Shaw is reliably paternal in the kindly old scientist role.

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Finally, the Dragon himself, unrevealed until the last chapter, makes for a dramatic presence, speaking in a booming voice through his spinning receivers, always closing his missives with an authoritative “THE DRAGON COMMANDS!” or “THE DRAGON HAS SPOKEN!” It makes a big enough impression that each chapter ends with the typical title card instructing audiences to see the continuation next week in the same theater, accompanied by a fire-breathing dragon and that same voice over: “THE DRAGON COMMANDS!” It’s not a request.

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What I Watched: Ace Drummond (Universal, 1936)

Where I Watched It: TCM ran several chapters of this serial earlier this summer, but for this article I watched it on (and collected screen shots from) YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “The Dragon Commands” (Chapter Eleven)

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Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Five, “Bullets of Sand,” Peggy and Billy investigate Dr. Bauer’s operation, hoping to find proof that the German explorer is secretly the Dragon. Bauer and Wyckoff are holed up in “the Hall of Dead Kings,” a tomb complex carved into a mountainside and full of treasures. Their camp employs a dozen natives, digging and cleaning up artifacts, including sand blasting jade urns. While snooping in Bauer’s office, a separate building, Peggy and Billy are locked in. Billy climbs up the chimney and escapes, but before he can let Peggy out from the outside, he must hide from the approaching workmen to escape detection. He hides in one of the urns, just before the workmen begin cleaning out the inside of it with the sand blaster! A shot straight up the barrel of the sand blaster ends the chapter, leaving us in suspense.

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Sample Dialogue (from Chapter Thirteen, “The World’s Akin”):
Dragon: “We have a saying in Mongolia: he who smiles at the grave’s edge takes happiness into the world beyond.”
Jerry: “We got a saying in America, too, though: don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched!”

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What Others Have Said: “For a time it was thought that the airplane film might supplant the Western in the affection of the young, but, air age and all, it didn’t happen. Situations involving airplanes were woven into many serials and adventure features; yet the number of serials centering upon aviation never matched that of films set in the West. Nonetheless, in the New Deal era at least one air adventure could be expected to appear each year among the ranks of serial dramas. . . . As a matter of fact, the aviation cycle would soon be lost in space–and in war clouds. Not many old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants flying flims would be made after Flash Gordon took off for Mongo and World War II revolutionized aeronautics.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: Join me next time as I examine Tim Tyler’s Luck.

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: Tailspin Tommy

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Stuck in rural Littleville, young mechanic Tommy Tompkins dreams of nothing more than becoming a flyer: he’s even rigged up an old jalopy with a throttle and flaps so he can practice the controls until he gets a chance at a real plane! Tommy’s opportunity arrives when Milt Howe, a pilot for the Three Points Air Line, makes an emergency stop in Littleville. As a reward for repairing his plane, Howe offers to take Tommy back with him to Three Points. When the injured Howe passes out before they can land, Tommy takes the controls and brings the plane in safely himself. Three Points owner Paul Smith is so impressed with the young man that he offers him a job with the ground crew and the chance to earn his pilot’s license.

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Little do either of them know, however, that a rival air line, owned by Wade “Tiger” Taggart, is trying to muscle Three Points out of the way so that a lucrative gold shipment will be theirs. Worse yet, one of Three Points’ best pilots, Bruce Hoyt, is secretly in league with Taggart! Sabotage, misinformation, financial fraud, and even outright banditry are the weapons that Taggart will use to destroy Three Points and their bright young pilot, “Tailspin” Tommy. Will Tommy catch on to the plot against his employer? Will the traitorous Bruce Hoyt be found out? Will the suddenly successful Tommy remember his roots in Littleville? These and other questions are answered in the twelve-part 1934 serial, Tailspin Tommy!

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Hal Forrest’s Tailspin Tommy was a very popular comic strip (the first to be adapted into a serial in fact), with spin-offs that included a radio show, books, and toys. The serial’s plot covers a diverse range of settings and episodes, I suspect reflecting the variety of adventures that comic strip heroes undertook regardless of their ostensible genre (according to Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, the serial follows episodes from the radio show closely). Obviously, Tailspin Tommy explores the rich, then-contemporary setting of small regional airports and the short-hop pilots who flew by the seat of their pants, romanticized as daring aerial warriors in World War I and now connecting the scattered communities of the United States through faster travel and mail delivery. As the film makes clear, even civilian flying took nerve in the open-cockpit biplanes of the time, and mechanical failure, bad weather, or just plain bad luck could prove as dangerous as enemy fighters. Tailspin Tommy captured the spirit of a young nation enamored of hero-aviators like Howard Hughes and Charles Lindbergh. The character was popular enough to be the subject of a second serial (with an almost entirely different cast) in 1935, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery, and two features in 1939, Mystery Plane and Sky Patrol.

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Although Tailspin Tommy isn’t as well remembered today as many of its comic strip contemporaries, the youthful equation of flight with freedom has continued to inspire creators. One of Dave Stevens’ brilliant strokes in conceiving The Rocketeer was that, while borrowing liberally from such 1950s serials as King of the Rocket Men and Radar Men From the Moon, he transposed the action to this 1930s milieu, a setting in which pulp conventions, references to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the prewar intrigues of Nazi spies and saboteurs could mingle freely. Flight-obsessed George Lucas is another heir in spirit: the portrait of young Anakin Skywalker as an eager, inventive wanna-be pilot in The Phantom Menace could have been drawn directly from Tailspin Tommy‘s first chapter.

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However, in addition to scenes of flight and its attendant perils, the episodic story includes car chases, gunfights, and fist fights–the usual sources of generic serial “action”–as well as more exotic elements like a mad scientist’s lab (in Chapter Four, “The Copper Room”), an earthquake (Chapter Nine, “The Earth Gods Roar”), and the production of a Hollywood movie (in the last three chapters) that gives the filmmakers the chance to indulge in some war movie action even in peacetime. (The mad scientist has a scheme for turning copper into gold, a subplot that is dropped once Tommy and Betty Lou escape from the scientist’s house; at least it isn’t that old standby of the serials, radium.)

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There is a connecting thread in all this: Taggart (John Davidson of The Perils of Pauline) and his attempts to undermine his competition. Most, but not all of the dangers Tommy (Maurice Murphy) and his allies face are set up by Taggart directly or by his mole, Bruce Hoyt (Walter Miller). As good as Davidson is–he’s got a great sinister deep voice–Taggart is a one-note villain. It’s one of the strengths of the film that, in contrast with many serials, Taggart isn’t as interesting or compelling as the conflicted Hoyt or the good guy Tommy and his friends.

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Those friends include “Skeeter” Milligan (Noah Beery, Jr.), Tommy’s partner in Littleville who stows away in Milt Howe’s plane to follow his friend and also ends up working for Three Points. Skeeter, given to pratfalls and one-liners, including a running gag about “unwritten law,” provides most of the comic relief, although he also backs up Tommy when things get rough and in one sequence he’s the object of rescue: after being blinded by a blast of hot oil while working on an engine, Skeeter must be flown to a hospital in Denver to be operated on or else lose his sight permanently; it wouldn’t be a serial if that emergency flight over the Rockies didn’t coincide with the biggest storm of the year, but Tommy makes it.

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Then there’s Tommy’s love interest, Betty Lou Barnes (Patricia Farr), who is a well-rounded and active character in her own right: when Tommy first meets Betty Lou, she’s suffered a flat tire in Littleville, and tells him about Three Points, where she is learning to fly. She works behind the counter at the airfield’s Aileron Café (the kind of diner in which a grease monkey can order coffee and donuts by saying, “Gimme a sleep killer and a coupla spare wheels”). Betty Lou is gutsy, whether literally walking out of a flying lesson with Bruce Hoyt by jumping out of the plane with a parachute, or pulling a gun on some of Taggart’s men when they try to kidnap her and Tommy. In other sequences, she does her own detective work: she is the first to have any concrete proof of Hoyt’s treachery, and she gets lured into a trap herself as a result.

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Betty Lou’s relationship with Tommy highlights another unusual quality of this serial: the amount of time it covers. Unlike the breakneck pace of many serials, Tailspin Tommy takes for granted the passage of time between exciting events (although not between chapters, as cliffhangers are still the rule), as well as giving a sense of Tommy’s development as both a flyer and a hero. At one point, six weeks are mentioned to have passed before Tommy has his pilot’s license; at another, the time it takes for Skeeter to recover from his surgery is similarly glossed over. Reference is made to the awards and publicity that Tommy has received for his achievements. The twelve chapters allow for the natural transformation of Tommy from an unknown who had never even been in a plane in Chapter One to a nationally-recognized hero whose involvement in a movie is assumed to be a draw in the last few chapters.

That sense of growth over time is unusual for a serial, and Tommy’s relationship with Betty Lou undergoes similar development. Unlike many serials, in which the pairing of the male and female leads is held off until the very last minute (or left to the audience’s imagination), Tailspin Tommy has Tommy and Betty Lou as an item midway through its run time, and far from threatening their relationship with complications or misunderstandings, the plot even reinforces it: in Chapter Ten, Tommy has begun filming the war movie Midnight Patrol, but he has no chemistry with the actress who plays his lover and can’t even remember his lines. Seeing how much of a connection he has with Betty Lou when she visits the set, however, the director fires the actress and replaces her with Betty Lou! Their performance of the same scene is like night and day, reminiscent of Naomi Watts’ intense reading of the corny soap opera dialogue in Mulholland Drive.

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Interestingly, while Taggart’s villainy is the connecting thread through much of this serial, he gets his comeuppance early in the last chapter, so that the big question at the end is whether Tommy will appear at the Hollywood premiere of his new film or return to Littleville for a homecoming celebration among the people who love him. Considering we see Tommy make his travel plans and carry them out, it’s a little anticlimactic (the chapter is called “Littleville’s Big Day,” for crying out loud!). I’ve watched enough serials by now to observe that filmmakers of the time didn’t always put a lot of emphasis on suspense or use narrative twists as much as we might assume in retrospect. The template was often that of old-style mysteries in which the audience knows whodunit from the beginning and the real question was when and how the hero would find out. In the serials, sometimes that applied to little mysteries, too.

What I Watched: Tailspin Tommy (Universal, 1934)

Where I Watched It: A DVD from VCI Entertainment. This serial doesn’t seem to be online, although the follow-up is on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Earth Gods Roar” (Chapter Nine)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eight (“The Thrill of Death”), Tommy is leading Three Point Air Line’s team in the Los Angeles Air Meet, an air show in which crews compete in airplane races and timed contests. For the refueling contest, Tommy rides with Bruce Hoyt and climbs out of the ship to attach a mid-air refueling hose from another airplane. Hoyt, sensing an opportunity to serve Taggart and rid himself of a rival, suddenly dives (blaming a snapped rudder cable which he has himself cut), leaving Tommy hanging onto the dangling hose without a parachute.

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Sample Dialogue: “Someday, I’m gonna be a real flyer–a great flyer, too.”

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What Others Have Said: “If you find such a conclusion corny and anti-climactic, you should steer clear of Tailspin Tommy; the ending is of a piece with the rest of the serial, which is chiefly about a small-town boy making good in the adventurous new world of aviation, and only incidentally about his battles with villains. However, those who are interested in old-time aerial excitement, genuine 1930s period flavor, and interesting and well-acted characters, are strongly advised to take a spin with Tailspin Tommy.” —The Files of Jerry Blake

What’s Next: Last summer’s weekly schedule was a bit too much for me to attempt again, so I’ll plan on making biweekly updates to Fates Worse Than Death this year; any extra material I get posted will be a bonus. Join me in two weeks as I examine 1944’s Captain America!

Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe

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A mysterious plague is sweeping the Earth: known as the “Purple Death” because of the single purple spot it leaves on the skin of its victims, the disease is responsible for the deaths of thousands, and authorities are helpless to stop mounting panic. Professor Gordon is one of the scientists struggling to find a cure, and it is his son Flash (already a hero for saving the earth several times over) who, with Dr. Zarkov and Dale Arden, discovers the culprit. A ship from Mongo is spotted high in the atmosphere, dropping the malign dust that causes the Purple Death.

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Starting for the planet Mongo at once in Zarkov’s rocket ship, the trio face aerial combat with the invading ship and, feigning a crash, descend to Arboria, the home of Flash’s ally Prince Barin. Barin confirms that Emperor Ming yet lives and is undoubtedly behind the attacks on Earth, and a council of leaders who are opposed to the merciless dictator soon convenes at Barin’s palace.

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The only antidote for the Death Dust is the element “polarite,” which can be found in the far Northern reaches of Frigia, represented by Queen Fria. The expedition to the icy realm is bulked out with footage from an earlier polar exploration film, White Hell of Pitz Palu; footage of downhill skiers appears in the montage that opens each chapter, leading me to expect a snowbound assault on Ming à la The Spy Who Loved Me or Inception, but it never happens. (Also, it wasn’t until I was selecting screen caps that I noticed Flash and Dale in their cold-weather gear bear a strong resemblance to Santa and Mrs. Claus.)

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Although the threat of the Purple Death doesn’t take twelve chapters to resolve, it’s the inciting incident that kicks off the latest round of strikes and counter-strikes in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the third and final serial in Universal’s epic adaptation of Alex Raymond’s popular comic strip.

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Despite, or perhaps because of, its references to the events and characters of the 1936 and ’38 serials, Conquers the Universe shows just how much time has passed since the success of the first Flash Gordon. Many aspects of the production, impressive in ’36, would have seemed crude just four years later, especially with Republic’s slick, streamlined adventure serials entering the market in the mean time. The static recap cards from the earlier serials have been replaced by scrolling titles; this now-familiar format had been used in Buck Rogers (also starring Flash Gordon lead Buster Crabbe) and would appear in other serials of the 1940s (and of course was the inspiration for the similar opening crawl in the Star Wars films).

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The pacing is rapid throughout, with clear but often functional dialogue that serves the plot; Flash Gordon was never about deep characterization or philosophy, but Conquers the Universe is especially plot-heavy. And while many effects look quaint to modern eyes (Mongo’s giant iguanas make an appearance, and electrical effects are frequently accomplished with zig-zag lightning bolts scratched directly onto the film), just as many impress with how effective simple devices can be, and there are enough new settings and perils that the serial doesn’t feel like a retread.

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Of particular note are an assault by exploding robots (Chapter Three, “Walking Bombs”), given an uncanny mechanical gait through the magic of undercranking, and the tribe of “Rock Men” who dwell in Arboria’s “no man’s land.” (Unlike the Clay People of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, the Rock Men only dress as rocks to camouflage themselves from the giant lizards.) The Rock Men speak backwards, and once Dr. Zarkov realizes that their language is the same as that of a “lost tribe” that once inhabited Earth’s Gobi Desert, he is able to communicate with them; after Flash saves the Rock King’s son from a disaster, they aid the Earthlings in their fight against Ming.

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Several plot elements that were missing from Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars reappear in Conquers the Universe: Ming once again hopes to make Dale his bride, and Ming’s daughter Princess Aura reappears, still happily married to Prince Barin. The cast has been shuffled–Carol Hughes replaces Jean Rogers as Dale, and both Barin and Aura are recast (by Roland Drew and Shirley Deane, respectively)–but Buster Crabbe reprises the title role, Charles Middleton returns as Ming, and Frank Shannon again plays Dr. Zarkov.

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Speaking of Barin and Aura, the happy couple looks quite different from their earlier incarnations. As Barin, Drew cuts a more dashing figure than Richard Alexander: with his trim mustache and forest costume, he strongly resembles Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. As for Aura, the changes to her personality outweigh those to her appearance: instead of the scheming, morally flexible antiheroine of the 1936 serial, she is here entirely settled and content in her life in Arboria, and her reaction to being pulled back into her father’s evil machinations is passive terror and indignation. Marriage has domesticated her.

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Fortunately (or not, depending on your perspective), the lack of Aura’s feminine wiliness is made up for by the introduction of Lady Sonja (Anne Gwynne), an Arborian lady-in-waiting secretly loyal to Ming. Once Sonja lures Aura to Arboria’s Red Forest to be abducted by Ming’s forces (for even he would not bomb Arboria without first making sure his daughter was safe), the treacherous lady becomes half of a villainous double act with Captain Torch (Don Rowan). Together, Torch and Sonja, along with Lieutenant Thong (tee hee), shadow Flash Gordon & co. and bedevil them in a variety of ways, carrying out missions for Ming.

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Sonja doesn’t have the depth of Aura–she’s purely spiteful and untrustworthy, without even the motivation of misplaced love–but it’s worth noting the number of female characters in the Flash Gordon serials and the range of their motivations. Aside from Dale, Aura, and Sonja, there’s Queen Fria of Frigia (an uncredited Luli Deste), who expresses a hope that Flash Gordon might be convinced to lead Frigia’s armed forces, teasing a source of tension with Dale (this comes to nothing, although it may be more fleshed out in the comic strips that are the basis of the story).

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In fact, Flash Gordon does a better job of female representation than the original Star Wars trilogy that it inspired: in Conquers the Universe, Dale is revealed to be an expert chemist and radio operator, a detail I don’t recall being mentioned before, but which gives her more to do than simply be kidnapped. It’s true that at least some of the women on-screen are purely eye candy, and there’s less of the emphasis on Buster Crabbe’s physique that made the 1936 serial an equal-opportunity source of titillation (like the Tarzan series, Flash Gordon in all its iterations has celebrated the body beautiful). Still, compared to the many serials I’ve watched that have only a single token woman, it’s refreshing that the population of the fantasy world of planet Mongo at least contains individuals of both sexes.

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Ultimately, Ming’s greatest weakness is the number of people in his service–guards, scientists, soldiers–who are willing to turn against him. The political subtext is no more complex or subtle than before–dictators are bad–but the story emphasizes that those who take power by force and cruelty will never have the loyalty of those they conquer. Rather, they will only breed a thirst for revenge in their underlings. As always, Flash Gordon inspires trust and confidence in those he meets simply by doing the right thing.

And what about that title, anyway? Conquering isn’t really Flash’s bag. As silly as it sounds, Ming in his arrogance declares at one point, “I am the universe!” So, by the transitive property, when Flash inevitably conquers Ming . . . well, you get the idea.

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But just in case you didn’t, Zarkov explains it.

What I Watched: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A two-disc DVD set from Timeless Media Group

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Doom of the Dictator” (Chapter Twelve). Alliteration!

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Best Cliffhanger: Another plot thread that continues from the earlier serials is Ming’s desire to have Zarkov’s scientific genius at his command. So, in Chapter Four (“The Destroyer Ray”), when Ming has Zarkov captive and the Earth scientist refuses to serve him, Ming orders his execution. A death ray slowly moves toward the chained scientist, and when Flash shows up to rescue him, he appears to be caught in it, too. What really elevates this is that Ming, surrounded by his retinue, has forced Dale (also captive) to watch the scene unfold. She begs Ming to spare them, beating on his chest with her fists, and then covers her face, unable to watch, while Ming cackles at his victims’ helplessness. “He has chosen his own death!” he sneers. This is what we watch serials for.

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A Note on Costumes: Although there’s still a great deal of space opera exoticism, including long looks at the harem-like entertainments Ming has at his disposal, the costumes and sets display fewer of the ancient or near-Eastern motifs that were prominent in the earlier serials. Barin’s palace resembles a traditional European castle, with parapets and everything, and most of the male characters dress in military uniforms with braids and epaulets; except for the ray guns and space ships, Arboria might as well be Ruritania, an imagined Mitteleuropa in outer space.

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Even Ming gets in on the act, assuming a high-plumed dress uniform, “now more a wicked general than Satan” in the words of Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut. One could assume that proximity to Earth has affected Ming’s tastes: although most of Ming’s pleasures are accompanied by stereotypical “Oriental” music, the soundtrack is a distinctly modern rhumba in Chapter Four, leading me to imagine Xavier Cugat and his orchestra chained to a bandstand and forced to play just off-camera. You’re a peacock, Ming. Strut, Ming, strut.

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Sample Dialogue: “Seems like old times, being at war again with Ming, Zarkov.” –Flash Gordon, Chapter Two (“Freezing Torture”)

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What Others Have Said: “Earth heroes have journeyed to other worlds by Crystal Door and spaceship. Our own planet has been invaded many times by alien menaces bent on dominating the Earthlings. In all these instances there have been mighty conflicts between good and evil. But after the holocaust of ray zapping and atomic blasting had settled, the audiences huddled in the safety of terran movie houses admitted one important fact: There was only one alien tyrant capable of conquering the universe, Ming the Merciless. And there was but a single hero able to defeat him–Flash Gordon.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

That brings this summer’s serial coverage to an end. I’ll probably still have a few serial-related articles coming up, and Medleyana will continue to update on other topics, but that’s it for regular entries until next summer. Until then, thanks for reading along, and thanks for all the comments and support!