Fates Worse Than Death: Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island

RCTitles

The year is 1936.  The leaders of Pacific Dirigible Airlines are monitoring the maiden voyage of the airship San Francisco between California and Australia.  Just before the dirigible reaches the mid-point refueling station at Clipper Island, disaster strikes!  The radio operator on Clipper Island, half dead, reports that something has destroyed the fuel tanks.  The island is taboo to the native Komatoans; have they risen in revolt, or was it the vengeance of their volcano god, Pele?  The three directors, Ellsworth, Canfield, and Jackson, don’t have time to worry about that: if the San Francisco is forced to turn back, the fledgling company will be ruined.  Suddenly, the airship itself is on fire and doomed to crash before it ever reaches the island.  Oh, the humanity!

Headlines

Ellsworth and his board suspect sabotage, and a government agent, Mala, is called in to investigate.  Posing as the new radio operator, Mala travels to Clipper Island, where he gets mixed up with Melani, the Komatoan princess, and the high priest Porotu, who schemes to take her throne.  Working with Mala are Scottish Hank McGlaurie and English novelist Anthony Tupper, as well as the second-billed stars Rex and Buck, a horse and a dog respectively. (Both Rex the “Wonder Horse,” aka “King of the Wild Horses,” and Buck were already animal stars, and they assist by attacking and harrying the bad guys, protecting the princess, and even going for help when Mala is in trouble, as in “I think he’s trying to tell us something!”)

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Unbeknownst to both Mala and Melani, Porotu is secretly in league with a spy ring called the “Black Chamber,” led by a mysterious person known only as “H. K.”  (Whenever H. K. is shown on screen, his face is blocked by a lamp, and his voice is dubbed.)  The spies have a base in an old stone fort atop the volcano on Clipper Island, a location convenient for them to tap into the Trans-Pacific Cable to intercept secret messages (the main part of the villains’ lair that we see is an elaborate code-breaking operation led by Draker, the head of the Clipper Island branch).  Porotu and the Black Chamber are working together to keep unwelcome guests off the island.

Porotu

Will Mala gain the trust of Princess Melani and her people?  Will he discover the true identity of “H. K.” and smash the spy ring?  Will the successful establishment of a dirigible route across the Pacific ensure that airship travel is the wave of the future?  These questions and more are posed over the fourteen episodes of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.

Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island was only the fourth serial produced by Republic Pictures, but it already included many elements of the Republic formula: a capable (if bland) hero backed up by comic relief sidekicks, lots of fistfights and daring stunts (including vehicular mayhem and the destruction of a mountainside fort, accomplished with miniatures), and a nefarious criminal organization led by a shadowy figure whose identity would only be revealed in the last chapter.  (Some of the fights feature noticeable “undercranking”: it was a common practice to roll the camera slightly more slowly than normal, so that when the film was projected at regular speed all the action would appear sped up, increasing the excitement.)

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Despite its trailer’s claim to be “based on a novel all youth loves,” Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island bears almost no resemblance to Defoe’s classic.  In fact, despite the island setting, at no time is the hero ever truly a castaway—he doesn’t have to forage for sustenance or improvise his own shelter—and he hardly ever lacks for company.  (The title comes from the nickname bestowed on Mala by Tupper, who notes the irony of a Native Crusoe assisted by a white Man Friday in the person of McGlaurie.)

The hero is played by Mala (aka Ray Mala, née Ray Wise), a half-Native Alaskan who had already come to fame as the star of Eskimo (aka Mala the Magnificent) and the Tahiti-set Last of the Pagans, and who would lend his lean, athletic presence to several more features (and two more serials) as both an actor and as a cameraman and cinematographer.  Mala is celebrated as the first Native American movie star, and is a notable exception to the almost exclusively white serial heroes.  The character he portrays is also named Mala, but as an apparently Polynesian g-man, it would be a stretch to say he appears as “himself,” even by the loose standards of Hollywood.

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I previously mentioned the deliberately apolitical invaders and menaces in the serials, pulps and comics of the 1930s.  Robinson Crusoe is more down to earth than Flash Gordon but no less circumspect: H. K. and the Black Chamber are not identified with any nation or cause.  The Pacific setting implies a Japanese connection, but the Black Chamber is shown to have branches all over the world.  Depending on one’s perspective, the spy ring could represent fascism, international communism, or even gangsters intercepting government secrets for their own financial gain.  The filmmakers may have had their own politics, but vagueness was undoubtedly better for business.

HK

Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island transposes many conventions of jungle adventure—primitive tribes, wild animals, and exotic locales—to its island setting.  Like the “modern Western” and “Canadian mountie” genres that were also popular, it combines the picturesque setting and colorful native peoples of the frontier with such contemporary touches as automobiles, airplanes, and radio. Over the course of the serial, a fleet of vehicles are featured traveling by land, sea, and air: dirigibles, a submarine, seaplane and biplane, and more.

Also like some other serials, it features white evildoers manipulating presumably superstitious natives through modern technology: Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island includes a volcano that can be made to erupt at will, allowing the spies to pose as the Komatoans’ god and strengthening Porotu’s position. The high priest claims that “Pele is quick to destroy those who arouse the wrath of the gods!”, even threatening to sacrifice first Mala and later Melani in a pit of molten lava, but the technology that stokes the volcano predictably gets out of control and destroys both the spies’ fort and Porotu by the end.

The Komatoans themselves are a Hollywood version of Pacific Islanders, living in thatched huts among a mélange of tiki idols and masks (not to mention an Easter Island head inside the sacred Cave of the Winds).  Both the Black Chamber and Pacific Dirigible Airlines require the cooperation of the Komatoans (to whom Clipper Island is taboo) to carry out their activities, so Mala’s interest in protecting and (later) restoring Melani spring from more than altruism.  The fact that Melani (Mutiny on the Bounty‘s Mamo Clark) is beautiful and smart surely doesn’t hurt, either.  (Robinson Crusoe doesn’t get bogged down in mushy stuff, however: even with a nudge from Rex, Mala only says “You have rewarded me with your friendship,” and the concluding chapter fades out before they can do so much as embrace.  The love triangle of Flash Gordon is positively steamy by comparison.)

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What I Watched: Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936, Republic)

Where I Saw It: I watched a Hal Roach Studios DVD, but it is on YouTube starting here.

No. of Chapters: 14 (According to the DVD liner notes, this unusual number was a result of the production going over budget, requiring the addition of an inexpensive “economy chapter,” recapping earlier events and increasing the serial’s revenue by an additional week.)

Best Chapter Title: “Jaws of the Beast” (Chapter Eight)

Best Cliffhanger: “Trail’s End” (Chapter Seven): After rescuing Melani from Porotu’s attempt to sacrifice her to Pele, Mala tries to leap with her across a boulder-strewn gorge.  The boulder they land on isn’t steady enough, and the two fall helplessly into the abyss.  How are they going to get out of this?

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Weeeell, as it happens “Trail’s End” doesn’t play quite fair.  At the beginning of Chapter Eight, Mala and Melani grab a vine and pull themselves to safety in noticeably different footage.  I wrote CHEAT!!! in my notes.  “Trail’s End” is only the runner-up for this award, however, as Chapter Ten (“Wings of Fury”) features an even more blatant cheat.  Mala, back in San Francisco, is chasing down a member of H. K.’s organization, a pilot.  The pilot jumps in a biplane and takes off, with Mala clinging to the side of the cockpit.  The pilot tries to shake him off, but when Mala gets him in a headlock the pilot loses control of the plane, and it crashes into the water of San Francisco Bay . . . until the beginning of Chapter Eleven, that is, when the biplane pulls up and avoids the water at the last minute.  The cockadoodie plane crashed, I tell you!  I saw it! CHEEEEEAAT!!!!!!

Sample dialogue: “As you leap into the fire pit, Princess Melani, remember the vengeance of the priest of Pele!” –Porotu, Chapter Six (“God of the Volcano”)

What Others Have Said: “While I have mentioned the better performances, there were a number of rather awful serial performances that do deserve some mention: the four leads [in The Masked Marvel] probably rate our booby prize for bad acting, while following close behind are Mala in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island and Bill Kennedy in The Royal Mounted Rides Again.” –Alan G. Barbour, Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial

What’s Next: In 1943, a costumed crime-fighter made the leap from the comics to the big screen, not for the last time.  Join me in two weeks for a look at Batman.

Fates Worse Than Death: “What an Amazing Escape!”

Introducing the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat

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Although the serials are nearly synonymous with cliffhangers—in which the tension builds to a high point before the episode ends, with a character in mortal danger or a major revelation left dangling—they didn’t invent them, and cliffhangers continue to be used on television, in comics, and even in film.  In the nineteenth-century, all kinds of writers serialized their work in popular magazines, from the authors of penny dreadfuls to Charles Dickens, and later pulp writers were similarly aware of the cliffhanger’s power to hold the reader’s interest.  Edgar Rice Burroughs not only used them between chapters, but also between books: he ended his second John Carter novel, The Gods of Mars, with Martian princess Dejah Thoris’ fate unknown, only to be revealed in the subsequent The Warlord of Mars.  (There is, of course, a similar narrative connection between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and indeed it is now common practice for the second book or film of a trilogy to end on an uncertain note.)  Any serialized medium—in which chunks of story are doled out in installments—will sooner or later take advantage of cliffhangers to keep readers or viewers hooked.

As crude a narrative device as they are, however, cliffhangers are popular because they work: already in the short time since I began this project, I’ve sat down more than once with the intention of watching one or two chapters of a serial, only to be drawn forward by curiosity and suspense, and I’ve ended up watching several more than I planned.  I can only imagine what it was like to wait a whole week to find out whether the hero would live or die (and make no mistake, in a very few cases the hero actually did die, only to be resurrected later, or for it to be revealed that someone else had taken his place).  If you were the right age or particularly attached to the characters, it was probably as intense as the wait for a new Harry Potter novel or episode of Breaking Bad in recent years.  For casual viewers, I imagine it was more like my experience of reading daily comic strips or watching soap operas: easy to forget and not think about after the fact, but when reading or watching the next installment it all comes back to me.

Serial chapters always rewound the story to a point before the cliffhanger, both providing context (for anyone who might have missed the previous chapter) and renewing the tension (for new viewers and regulars alike).  Like reading daily comics collected in book form or watching an entire season of television in one sitting, binge-watching a serial makes for an experience with built-in redundancy.  Seeing the cliffhanger and its resolution back-to-back also makes it more obvious when the filmmakers cheat (more on this in a bit).

In Paul Malmont’s The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, a fictional mystery starring several real-life science fiction and pulp authors set in 1943, there’s an amusing scene in which L. Ron Hubbard is trapped in a forgotten, gaslit aqueduct beneath the Empire State Building with a group that also includes Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Walter Gibson (author of the Shadow novels).  A self-styled man of action, Hubbard plans their escape:

Hubbard jerked a thumb back to the bigger hall.  “Why don’t we douse the flame, let the gas fill up, then ignite it with the lighter and blow the lid up there clean off?”

“Are you nuts?” the kid [Asimov] asked.  “Don’t you understand the formula for gas density? . . . It means we’d suffocate before we ever built up enough gas to do anything.”

“And even if we could survive that,” de Camp added, “a basic energy equation shows that the shock wave would kill us even before the roof collapsed on our heads.”

“Well, let’s dam up the stream and just float up and let the water pressure pop the top off!”

“Are you kidding? . . . The hypothermia would kill us.”

“Before we drowned under the ceiling.

The joke isn’t just that Hubbard (then a self-aggrandizing young writer, not yet the father of Scientology) is an ignoramus; rather, he is thinking like the kind of pulp hero he is accustomed to writing about.  Serial heroes, like their magazine counterparts, often relied on the same kind of likely-sounding but scientifically impossible solutions to get them out of jams.  In addition, well-aimed shots, conveniently dangling ropes or vines, and explosions from which the heroes were miraculously thrown clear tended to balance out the contrived death traps that threatened them.

That’s not the kind of cheat that infuriated serial audiences however; as long as the solution played fair and didn’t significantly change the cliffhanger’s setup, it didn’t matter whether it was likely or even possible.  After all, Flash Gordon, the Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry were heroes precisely because they could do things ordinary people couldn’t, and if their array of talents included one-in-a-million strokes of luck, well, that’s what audiences expected from them.

The difference between realistic and fair is explicated as clearly as possible by Annie Wilkes, author Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan” in Stephen King’s Misery. Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates in the 1990 film adaptation) demands that Sheldon, her captive patient, write a novel resurrecting his beloved character Misery Chastain after he had killed her off.  She won’t accept any rewriting cheats to do so, and she uses an example from the serials to explain:

This was a no-brakes chapter.  The bad guys put Rocket Man—only it was Rocket Man in his secret identity—into a car that didn’t have any brakes, and then they welded all the doors shut, and then they started the car rolling down this twisty-turny mountain road. . . .

“And here came the car, with Rocket Man still trying to put on the brakes or bash the door open, and then . . . over it went!  It flew out into space, and then it went down.  It hit the side of the cliff about halfway down and burst into flames, and then it went into the ocean, and then this ending message came up on the screen that said NEXT WEEK CHAPTER 11, THE DRAGON FLIES. . . .

“The new episode always started with the ending of the last one.  They showed him going down the hill, they showed the cliff, they showed him banging on the car door, trying to open it.  Then, just before the car got to the edge, the door banged open and out he flew onto the road!  The car went over the cliff, and all the kids in the theater were cheering because Rocket Man got out, but I wasn’t cheering, Paul. I was mad!  I started yelling, ‘That isn’t what happened last week! . . . Are you all too stupid to remember?  Did you all get amnesia?’ . . .

“He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!  It went over the edge and he was still inside!  Do you understand that?

Even allowing for the small number of serials I’ve watched so far, I’ve known that feeling: the hero didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car before it went over the cliff, or out of the building before the cockadoodie bomb went off, or didn’t switch the cockadoodie train to another set of rails before it crashed.  Some cheats were more obvious than others, and some studios were more prone to pull a fast one than others.  Cheats also became more common later in the serial era, when dumbed-down serials were aimed at supposedly gullible kids.  But there’s an Annie Wilkes in every audience, and they’re watching closely.  So I’m proposing the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat, to be awarded (when deserved) to those moments where the film’s producers don’t quite play fair with the audience, rescuing the hero at the expense of the suspension of disbelief.  I believe I’ll have plenty of candidates.

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