Fates Worse Than Death: Ace Drummond


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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.


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!”


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”


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


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


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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


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!

Fates Worse Than Death: Panther Girl of the Kongo


While filming wildlife in the jungle for a foundation, Jean Evans and her native guides stumble across a terrifying monster: a giant, horse-sized crustacean with huge pincers. The chief of the Utanga people, Evans’ hosts, suggests that she contact Larry Sanders, a hunter on safari in the area, and enlist his help: “Bwana Sanders big hunter,” says Timbu, Evans’ rifle bearer. “He go with us, me go.”


In the mean time, two other white men in the area are causing trouble: Cass and Rand, first posing as hunters, try to intimidate Sanders into leaving the area. As the audience soon finds out, the pair is in the employ of Morgan, a chemist living on his own in the jungle. Morgan has discovered that an abandoned gold mine in the jungle is full of diamonds, and he’s using a “hormone compound” of his own creation to turn ordinary crawfish into the giant “devil beasts” to scare off intruders. He must be careful, however: the monsters are useful if they frighten the natives away from the mine, but if Evans and Sanders are able to bring proof of their existence to the colonial authorities, a force of soldiers is sure to be sent in to clean up the district, spoiling Morgan’s plans.


So begins Panther Girl of the Kongo, almost the last serial Republic produced (only one more, King of the Carnival, followed). Since I’ve been watching serials for Fates Worse Than Death, I’ve idly speculated about a combination of the serial format and its two-fisted plotlines with the monster movie, another favorite genre. Panther Girl is in many ways that film, although it is closer in spirit and technique to Them! and the other “giant bug” movies of the 1950s than it is to Godzilla or any of the rampaging kaiju films that followed.


It should be immediately apparent that the “devil beast” (alternately, “claw monster”) actually is a normal crawfish filmed in extreme close-up to make it look large, sometimes surrounded by miniature props (provided, as always, by the Lydecker brothers, Howard and Theodore, who at least receive onscreen credit this time) to give it a sense of scale. Even better, the actors are sometimes inserted into the foreground via rear projection, relying on perspective to enhance the illusion, but just as often the creature’s size is implied through the magic of editing. And when someone is unfortunate enough to be attacked by the devil beast, it takes the form of a single enormous claw extending from offscreen, like the giant hand grabbing Fay Wray in King Kong.


Other than the formal restraints placed on it by being a serial–division into chapters with contrived cliffhanger endings–Panther Girl feels very much of its time: by comparison to the often melodramatic serials of the 1930s, it’s very no-nonsense, with an emphasis on the professional competence of the two leads. Although thankfully not as inert as Radar Men From the Moon, the characters are fairly dry, emphasizing that they have jobs to do and they’ve got to be done right. Even the “mad scientist,” Morgan, plays things cool: he’s in it for the money, not revenge or a grand scheme to remake the world. Other than the trendiness of the mammoth crawfish (which invite comparison to director Bert I. Gordon‘s similar low-budget giants), the small scale of the action and limited number of characters make it feel very much like a television production.


Television was surely having an impact: although Panther Girl was released in theaters, Republic obviously made the film with an eye toward repackaging it for broadcast. Other than the first chapter, which is about twenty minutes long, all the chapters are about thirteen minutes in length. Two chapters could be aired during a half-hour block with room to add commercials. A number of serials had already been cut down to feature length and licensed for television broadcast, and several characters who had appeared in theatrical serials had made the jump to TV-only productions. Even the actors in Panther Girl were doing most of their work for the small screen. In the face of competition that kept audiences–especially kids–at home, the serials were on their way out.

The lead actress, Phyllis Coates, had played Lois Lane on television opposite George Reeves in Adventures of Superman (she had also appeared in a previous serial, Jungle Drums of Africa, with Clayton Moore, television’s Lone Ranger; I haven’t seen it, but it doesn’t seem to have been very impressive). Myron Healey, who played Sanders, was a prolific character actor usually cast as the heavy; most of his credits were from television. In 1955, the year Panther Girl was released, he had parts in over twenty films or TV episodes. His performance here reminded me of Russell Johnson’s Professor on Gilligan’s Island.


Commentators have noted an increased reliance on stock footage during Republic’s later years, another sign of pinched budgets. In the case of Panther Girl, the scenes of Evans (who, in a flashback, earned the title “Panther Girl” by saving the Utanga village from a black panther that had been prowling around and attacking the villagers) swinging from vines and mounting a tame elephant were repurposed from Jungle Girl, an earlier serial starring Frances Gifford. That is apparently the main reason Evans appears to have gone native in a short buckskin tunic.


Her costume and familiarity with vines aren’t the only traits she owes to Tarzan and the jungle monarchs who preceded her. Both Evans and Sanders take the natives’ obedience for granted: the Utanga speak pidgin English and address the whites as “Bwana” (“boss,” “master”) and although they sometimes have to be persuaded to take a course of action, they mostly fall in line. When Evans and Sanders conceive of digging a pit to trap one of the devil beasts, Sanders says, “Let’s head back to the village and get the natives started.” (Morgan also has a tribe of natives to boss around in addition to his two white henchmen: the Returi are addicted to a “tonic” he supplies them with and will do his bidding to get it.)


Although minor, there are pleasures to be found in Panther Girl of the Kongo: the giant crawfish is imaginative, if not exactly scary, and the two leads are a pair of likeable squares who work well together. Morgan (Arthur Space) isn’t the most compelling villain but his plans lead to a dramatically satisfying increase in peril for our heroes, from stolen evidence to quicksand, then to being shot at and blown up with dynamite. On the negative side, the representation of African natives obviously wouldn’t be acceptable today; it’s one cannibal cooking pot away from hitting almost every stereotype imaginable and says more about the popular image of colonialism than the reality. (A pair of stiff-upper-lipped Brits in pith helmets show up to handle the Returi tribesmen toward the end, but they’re hustled offstage quickly so that Evans and Sanders can confront Morgan by themselves. If those British soldiers wanted in on the action, they should have gotten their own serial.)


What I Watched: Panther Girl of the Kongo (Republic, 1955)

Where I Watched It: The whole thing is posted on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Test of Terror” (Chapter Five). The test in question is the “Test of the Lion Men,” in which Jean Evans reassures the doubting natives that she still has the protection of the gods by entering an arena and killing a lion. Based on the costumes, and the fact that this interlude makes no sense, I assume it’s also cribbed from an earlier film.


Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Three (“The Killer Beast”), Evans is captured by the Returi and tied to a tree while one of the tribesmen plays a drum to lure predators from the jungle. The goal is to fool the Utanga into believing that the Panther Girl has been slain by wild animals. A gorilla attacks her while she’s tied up, and Sanders is unable to help her after being knocked out by the Returi.

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Most of the cliffhanger resolutions play fair. The most questionable is at the end of Chapter Ten (“Blasted Evidence”), in which Cass and Rand throw a bomb through the window of Evans’ house where she and Sanders have just shown the district police inspector the film of the devil beast, convincing him to send reinforcements to the district. It appears that the bomb explodes immediately, engulfing the house in a great fireball.


However, as shown at the beginning of Chapter Eleven (“Double Danger”), the bomb doesn’t detonate right away, and the three have the chance to flip over a table and shield themselves from the blast. Even so, I’m not sure how they escaped being burned alive.

Biggest Surprise: I fully expected the mad scientist Morgan to die at the hands–er, pincers–of one of his own devil beasts. It just made sense: he grows the things in a crate right in front of his own house where the final showdown occurs, and the filmmakers even make a point of having Evans and Sanders discover it, solving that part of the mystery. But that’s it: I won’t share how he gets his comeuppance, but it isn’t death by claw. Perhaps there was originally an intent to deliver poetic justice but filming it didn’t work out. In any case, the ending makes it seem that the devil beasts aren’t really that dangerous, aside from that nasty pinch.

Sample Dialogue: “Panther Girl bad magic, bring devil beast, make pictures for her. Devil beast kill natives. She no care!” –Returi tribesman, sowing discord among the Utanga (Chapter Five, “Test of Terror”)


What Others Have Said:Panther Girl of the Kongo could not save the Republic serial from extinction. The first and last female serial star from that studio wore the same jungle garb. But the clothes and every setting and situation they appeared in, in 1955, was secondhand and worn out.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury

What’s Next: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars

Fates Worse Than Death: Undersea Kingdom


A troubling rise in earthquake frequency and intensity has led Professor Norton to build an earthquake prediction machine, with which he also hopes to prevent future quakes. Guessing that the earthquakes are somehow being caused by radio signals from deep beneath the sea, Norton plans an aquatic expedition to find its source. “I hope you’re not going to spring that yarn of the lost continent of Atlantis,” chides reporter Diana Compton, but oh, yes! The Professor has his suspicions, and the discovery of oricalcum–the legendary metal that Plato described as unique to the sunken realm–gives the Professor all the evidence he needs to proceed.


Naval Lt. Ray “Crash” Corrigan, all-around athletic champion and straight arrow, is Professor Norton’s only choice to accompany him in his experimental submarine (an excellent miniature, one of many created by Howard and Theodore Lydecker). The submarine’s crew grows when Diana invites herself along for a story too good to resist, and again when it’s discovered that Professor Norton’s young son Billy has stowed away. The sub’s pilot cracks under the pressure when he realizes how deep the Professor intends to take it, and in his madness sends the sub into a steep dive.


Little do the submariners know that Atlantis survives under a great dome of oricalcum, like a bubble at the bottom of the sea, and even now is riven by conflict: Unga Khan, usurper to the throne, is laying siege to the city of Atlantis, where high priest Sharad, described as the last of the true Atlanteans, is the only force remaining to stand up to Unga Khan. From his metal tower, Unga Khan commands a legion of black-robed horsemen and soldiers; robotic “Volkites;” airships; and the juggernaut, a fast-moving electric tank. It’s only a matter of time before Sharad’s defenses give way.


Unga Khan, detecting Norton’s submarine, latches onto it with a magnetic beam and brings it safely into Atlantis’ inland sea, hoping to turn it to his own advantage. Upon discovering Professor Norton’s scientific abilities, Unga Khan brainwashes him with a “transformation chamber” and puts him to work building engines to turn his tower into a rocketship, so that he may ascend to the surface world and either conquer or destroy it! Only Crash Corrigan and his allies can prevent Unga Khan’s mad plans from wreaking havoc on both Atlantis and the surface world in the 1936 Republic serial, Undersea Kingdom!


Undersea Kingdom has similarities to both Flash Gordon (released the same year) and The Phantom Empire, which had come out the previous year. Like The Phantom Empire‘s underground kingdom of Murania, Undersea Kingdom‘s Atlantis is a classic “lost world,” a remote corner of the world untouched by modernity but paradoxically full of superscience. Other than its underwater location and the mention of oricalcum (dropped after the first chapter), there’s not much to connect the film’s Atlantis to Plato’s account, but it is part of a long tradition of using the name as a code word for a hidden place where anything becomes possible. And like Murania and Flash Gordon‘s Mongo, in Atlantis ancient swords and chariots are used side-by-side with atomic rays and futuristic war machines: boundaries between science fiction and fantasy were not so rigidly defined before World War II.


Just as singing cowboy Gene Autry starred in The Phantom Empire as singing cowboy Gene Autry, Undersea Kingdom stars “Crash” Corrigan as a fictionalized version of himself and gives him plenty of room to show off his talents. As an actor, he does OK with dialogue, which is largely functional (“At least those mechanical men can’t follow us through those flames!”), but it’s displays of athleticism that are the real draw. Corrigan was a trainer and bodybuilder who started out in film as a stuntman, often portraying gorillas (he played the “sacred orangopoid” in Flash Gordon), and as a leading man his onscreen persona emphasized his mastery of physical culture and sports. Just as The Phantom Empire gave ample opportunities for Autry to sing within the story, every chapter of Undersea Kingdom finds Corrigan wrestling, climbing, pole-vaulting, swimming, or even walking a tightrope, and that’s aside from the usual running, riding, and fighting that are typical for serial heroes.


The other characters fit into clearly established types: Professor Norton (C. Montague Shaw) is the inventor whose submarine makes the adventure possible but then spends almost the entirety of the serial enslaved by the villain (and unlike Flash Gordon‘s Dr. Zarkov, Norton is so completely brainwashed that he actively resists rescue and demands to be taken back to his “Master” until he is restored in the transformation chamber). Speaking of the villain, Unga Khan (Monte Blue) is cast from the same mold as Ming: imperious, given to grandiose monologues (“With Crash Corrigan out of the way, nothing can interfere with my plans to conquer the upper world!”), and ruthless in carrying out his scheme. The fact that his plans are so over-the-top crazy is one of the pleasures of this kind of pulp.


As mentioned, Unga Khan has quite a bit of futuristic hardware at his disposal, including a “disintegrator ray” that strangely takes the form of a missile (recycled from The Phantom Empire). Also as in The Phantom Empire, television is an object of fascination, with Unga Khan observing the surface world, the Atlantean countryside, and even Sharad’s inner sanctum through his “reflecto plate,” all without any indication of having cameras in those places. Some of Unga Khan’s doomsday weapons are even more vague than is usual for serials, but they sure look cool. The standout is his army of Volkites, mechanical men armed with “atom guns,” old-school cylindrical “water heater” robots that look intimidating but move slowly and are clumsy enough that Corrigan is able to hang one from a suspended hook at one point without much trouble.

They break into old people's houses and steal their medicine to use as fuel.

They break into old people’s houses and steal their medicine to use as fuel.

Diana Compton (Lois Wilde) is a gutsy, brassy reporter, and while she talks her way onto the submarine, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything she actually does other than offer commentary and occasionally fall into some peril from which she must be rescued. As formulaic as that role is, however, it’s worth mentioning that she is literally the only woman in the entire serial: the above-ground scenes with which it begins take place at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and the Atlantean scenes are divided between Unga Khan’s tower and Sharad’s city, both militarized settings filled with soldiers (the latter resembles a Spanish mission or French Foreign Legion outpost dressed up with a few exotic props). And while Diana and Crash end up together, there’s little romantic spark between them: this is boy’s adventure, through and through.


There is a literal boy, as well, and Billy Norton (Lee Van Atta) divides his time between dialogue even more functional than Corrigan’s (“Boy, I’d sure like to explore that city,” and cheering on the hero with “Let ‘im have it, Crash!”), engaging in junior acts of derring-do, and being rescued himself. He’s more a sidekick than an audience-identification character (he doesn’t have anything like the screen time or personality of Frankie and Betsy Baxter in The Phantom Empire), but there is some pathos when his own father, brainwashed by Unga Khan, doesn’t recognize him.


Smiley Burnette is also along to provide (mercifully brief) comic relief: he and Frankie Marvin play submarine crew members who, along with their mischievous parrot Sinbad, take off to explore Atlantis on their own, getting in and out of trouble with prankish incaution. Burnette performs some of his usual shtick, such as playing the harmonica and causing slapstick trouble with explosives (including a stunt that I’m sure would have left at least one black-robe guard dead), but unlike in The Phantom Empire his and Marvin’s antics don’t have any bearing on the story, and could in fact be cut entirely without affecting the plot. (According to Jerry Blake these scenes were added after the fact to pad out the serial’s run time, and it shows.)


Finally, Crash Corrigan himself–the fictional version, that is–is every bit the strong-jawed hero of this era’s serials, pulp magazines, and comics. In a development that will be very familiar to readers of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard, Corrigan inserts himself into the Atlantean conflict, first inadvertently and then by appointment. Captured by Sharad’s forces (who suspect him and the other surface-dwellers of being spies in the service of Unga Khan), Corrigan is forced to fight a group of prisoners to the death. After demonstrating his superiority by wrestling them into submission, he refuses to deal a killing blow, assuring the loyalty of Moloch (John Merton), the opponent whose life he spares.


Moloch becomes a trusted friend and ally during Corrigan’s time in Atlantis (a character as useful to the writers as to Corrigan, allowing for fight scenes that don’t rely entirely on Corrigan to carry them), a native brother-in-arms like Tars Tarkas or Umslopogaas. Then, after saving the high priest Sharad’s life, Corrigan is offered command of the Atlantean White Robe Army (“Commander of the army? Oh boy, oh boy!” says Billy) and the magnificent uniform that comes with it. The loyalty of the White Robes to Corrigan is unquestioned, and like John Carter, Flash Gordon, and others, Corrigan proves that what the Atlanteans need for victory is a strong American leader at the front.


What I watched: Undersea Kingdom (1936, Republic)

Where I watched it: A DVD from TV Serial Classics. I don’t usually comment on my sources unless they’re especially high- or low-quality, but I do want to point out one of the ugliest menu screens I’ve run across (especially in comparison to Republic’s typically excellent titles):


No. of chapters: 12

Best chapter title: “Revenge of the Volkites,” Chapter Four. I’m not really sure where the “revenge” angle comes in, as the robotic Volkites are neither paying back the surface dwellers for an earlier defeat nor turning on their master, Unga Khan. It’s surely the kind of title George Lucas had in mind when naming his Star Wars episodes, however, and with about as much connection to the actual story.


Best cliffhanger: This one is easy. At the end of Chapter Eight (“Into the Metal Tower”), Crash Corrigan, captured by Unga Khan’s Black Robes, is lashed to the front of the juggernaut and driven to the gate of Sharad’s city. If the gates are not opened to the invading army and Sharad given up, the juggernaut will ram the gates, crushing Corrigan. In the face of such barbarism, Corrigan defiantly tells the juggernaut’s driver, “Go ahead and ram!”


The image of Corrigan strapped to the front of the juggernaut like a human hood ornament looked teasingly familiar, almost as if I had seen it somewhere recently . . . but where?


Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: Republic seems to be the worst offender in this (and in fact Harmon and Glut in The Great Movie Serials cite the juggernaut cliffhanger as a textbook example of a cheat), so as always there are several candidates. At the end of Chapter Eleven (“Flaming Death”–honestly, all of the chapter titles are pretty good), Moloch, Corrigan, and Professor Norton are trapped beneath the rocket engines that will lift Unga Khan’s towers to the surface when they begin firing. There’s no way they’re getting out of there without being burned to a crisp, right? Right?

Well, I don’t think it will spoil the movie to say that Corrigan gets away at the beginning of Chapter Twelve, and the hole in the floor that he conveniently falls through at the very moment of the rocket’s ignition definitely wasn’t there at the end of Chapter Eleven.

A word on costuming: The 1930s were the heyday of art deco in film, and that extended beyond titles and set design to the costumes themselves. Like other space operas and lost worlds of this time period, Atlantis is a jumble of medieval, Romanesque, and completely fanciful motifs. Uncredited but attributed to Robert Ramsey, Undersea Kingdom‘s costumes are partially unified by the importance of finned headgear: like the intricate tail feathers of male birds, the number and complexity of fins indicate the strength and importance of the wearer. Most of Unga Khan’s Black Robes have only a single dorsal fin on their headgear (right), while leaders like Captain Hakur (left) and Unga Khan’s major domo Ditmar have a trifold fin (and check the zig-zag lightning motif that also appears on Unga Khan’s throne).


Those pale, however, before the righteous plume that decorates Corrigan’s helmet once he takes command of the White Robe Army (a force whose uniform is otherwise completely unfinned: the entire budget for military bling went into this one outfit): look upon it, and mourn for the days such a costume could be worn without any self-consciousness.


Sample dialogue: Too much to choose from!

“Little do the people of the upper world realize what is in store for them. . . . Start the disintegrator. . . . Start the earthquake!” –Unga Khan, Chapter Eight

“Is my plan of empire to be wrecked by this handful of strangers from the upper world!?” —ibid.

“They’ll never expect to find any Volkites in the submarine!” –Captain Hakur (Lon Chaney, Jr.), Chapter Eleven

“Prepare the disintegator [sic]!” –Unga Khan, Chapter Twelve

What Others Have Said: “The serial features few of the fistfights common to Republic’s later serials, but compensates by including some truly unique action sequences, chief among them the large-scale attacks on Sharad’s Sacred City by the Black Robes; these battle scenes are beautifully staged by directors Joseph Kane and B. Reeves Eason (Eason directed many similar sequences in silent and sound “spectacles” like 1925’s Ben-Hur and 1936’s Charge of the Light Brigade).” –Jerry Blake, whose blog Files of Jerry Blake includes extensive reviews and commentary on movie serials and “other cliffhanging material.”

What’s Next: The New Adventures of Tarzan