Fates Worse Than Death: The Mysterious Airman

Baker Aircraft, Inc. is thriving, thanks to Baker’s exclusive use of the Joyce Aerometer, a guidance mechanism invented and kept a close secret by James Joyce (no, not that James Joyce!). It’s a good thing company president Frank Baker is engaged to the inventor’s beautiful daughter Shirley (a fine flyer herself!).

But all is not well: a band of renegade “air hawks,” led by the masked “Pilot X,” has been causing trouble, shooting down Baker’s planes and raiding the company’s shipments. Someone is out to get Baker! But who could it be? A likely possibility is William Craft, manager of the competing Globe Air Corporation, who is dying to get his hands on the Joyce Aerometer, so his sweetheart Fawn Nesbit, also a pilot, can make a record-setting flight around the world.

It could also be Perkins, Joyce’s butler, who always seems to be lurking in the background and listening in on conversations; he’s a suspicious one, all right. Or could it be Albert Orren, superintendent of Baker Aircraft; or Henry Knight, a Baker stockholder; or Barney Madden, the company’s seemingly loyal pilot? There are plenty of possibilities, and in reality Pilot X’s true identity isn’t hard to guess, but it still takes plenty of twists, turns, and hair-raising brushes with death before Frank and Shirley find out the truth in the 1928 silent serial The Mysterious Airman!

Made in the waning years of the silent film era, The Mysterious Airman, directed by Harry Revier and with a scenario by Arthur B. Reeve, falls squarely into the aviation craze that stretched from the 1920s into the next decade. Flyers in real life and in the movies were lionized as brave and resourceful men (and, increasingly, women) who took their lives into their own hands while taking to the air. Many of these stories were from the point of view of small-time pilots or airfield owners, giving modern viewers a look back at a less regulated, less consolidated time when learning to fly was as much an entrepreneurial enterprise as a death-defying adventure. While boring details are frequently skimmed over in favor of aerial chases and dogfights, one gets an idea of the day-to-day jobs and problems these small air companies faced.

Also familiar is the plot device of a masked villain bedeviling the heroes, working through agents, and getting away until the last chapter, when their true identity is finally revealed. The Fighting Marines and Ace Drummond, both from the 1930s, had similar plots, and that’s just listing aviation serials I’ve already covered in this column, barely scratching the surface. I gather that it wasn’t too original in 1928, either, but the difference between a good serial and a bad one generally isn’t the level of originality: it’s the skill with which the filmmakers breathe life into and work variations on well-worn formulas.

In that regard, The Mysterious Airman has some nice touches and many assets in the form of its photogenic and experienced cast. Walter Miller, as Frank Baker, is unquestionably the lead, but Eugenia Gilbert as Shirley Joyce gets nearly as much screen time and gets to participate in some of the cliffhangers without coming off as a token or damsel in distress, as so often occurred in later serials. Indeed, as an accomplished flyer and a character with her own motivations and initiative, Shirley is a worthy successor to Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1914) and the other serial heroines of the silent era.

She is joined by fellow aviatrix, slinky Fawn Nesbit (played by Dorothy Talcott); Nesbit and her beau William Craft (Robert Walker) form the second couple and make for an interesting counterpart to the wholesome Frank and Shirley. Craft is presented as the most obvious person to be Pilot X, with his rivalry with Baker and need for the Joyce Aerometer. His meetings with Fawn, in which they discuss their schemes to get Baker to sell them the rights to the aerometer, are frequently interrupted so that Craft can “take care of some business.” In addition to distracting Shirley, Fawn is assigned to work on Baker individually, a subplot we never actually see (although she later uses her wiles on one of Pilot X’s henchmen in an effort to turn him against his boss), but eventually she breaks with Craft and his underhanded plans and becomes a real friend to Shirley.

There are also some of the weird details that I live for when watching serials: in one chapter, Pilot X brings a trained chimp (or “henchmanzee,” as commentator Richard M. Roberts puts it) to the Joyce house to climb into a high window and steal a model of the “Joyce Flying Torpedo,” another invention that serves as a McGuffin. Later, the same chimp appears with an organ grinder and climbs into the window with a microphone to eavesdrop on Frank and Shirley. Then it disappears for the rest of the serial.

However, for a serial focused on the wonders of flight, the dogfight sequences are a mixed bag, at least to my modern eyes. Pilot’s-eye-views of the ground, taken in flight, lend a sense of realism, and the planes themselves are interesting, even if the aerial chases, filmed from a great distance, lack the immediacy of later films. There are some clever editing tricks, like the appearance of painted-on bullet holes to show the effects of machine gun fire, but the filmmakers, already working on a low budget, were understandably not going to crash any planes for real when the story called for it. So plane crashes are accomplished with cardboard cutouts, or with flames scratched directly onto the negative, or with quick cuts to a plane already on the ground. It’s interesting sleight-of-hand, but the “crash” itself usually feels a bit anticlimactic, even making allowances for the time this serial was made.

Another cliffhanger (Chapter Four, “The Flying Torpedo”) finds Frank Baker unconscious in an abandoned barn, which by incredible coincidence is the same barn Pilot X decides to blow up with the stolen Torpedo (to test it out, you see). At the last moment, unaware that he is even in danger, Baker climbs to the roof of the barn, where he is spotted by Shirley and Barney, who (again, by chance) just happen to be flying by. They drop a rope ladder down and pick him up, a split-second before an unconvincing double-exposure blast consumes the barn.

The cliffhangers are better when they stay closer to the ground. For example, at the end of Chapter Seven (“A Leap for Life”), Frank Baker, captured by Pilot X’s men, is tied up in the back seat of a car. He frees himself and fights the henchmen while the car is moving, struggling with the driver just as the speeding car is heading for a cliff! A real car is pushed over the cliff for this one, the vehicle being more expendable than the handful of planes seen throughout the serial. If anyone asks you why serials were known as cliffhangers, you can show them this scene as an example (or one of the many serials that used the exact same setup); tell ’em it’s not a cliché, it’s a classic.

What I Watched: The Mysterious Airman (Weiss Brothers-Artclass Pictures, 1928)

Where I Watched It: It isn’t often that I get to put the spotlight on a “new release” for this column: long thought lost, a nearly-intact tinted nitrate print of The Mysterious Airman was recently discovered, and Sprocket Vault has cleaned it up and made the film available on DVD. (Out of ten two-reel chapters, only one reel was too deteriorated to use: still pictures and captions make up for the missing scenes.) It’s a fine transfer: other than some scratches and signs of deterioration in a few places, the picture is surprisingly crisp, better than many second- (or third-) generation dupes I’ve seen of even newer and more widely-circulated films. What’s more, the DVD features an original piano soundtrack by composer/silent film accompanist Andrew Earle Simpson, a full-length (almost 190 minutes!) commentary track by historian Richard M. Roberts, and a bonus aviation-themed short film from the same year, “Flying Cadets.”

Roberts provides plenty of background detail on the Weiss Brothers, who produced the film (Artclass Pictures was one of the many organizations through which they channeled their business), and the members of the cast and crew. He also places the serials in context within the film business in the 1920s and beyond and relates a number of interesting anecdotes and opinions; he makes for an informative (if sometimes cranky) viewing companion. Ultimately, while I ended up being mostly lukewarm on this serial, I offer my highest praise to Sprocket Vault’s presentation; it’s a terrific package, and one hopes more serials will receive similar treatment. The DVD is currently available from Amazon.

No. of Chapters: 10

Best Chapter Title: “The Girl Who Flew Alone” (Chapter Two)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Six (“The Hawk’s Nest”), Frank Baker, following a clue in a coded telegram (intended for Pilot X but which Fawn Nesbit happened to intercept), travels to an abandoned house in hopes of surprising Pilot X and his gang while they meet. The setup is creepier than most of this serial’s other scenes, with atmospheric shadows and lighting suitable for a detective noir, and evocative use of tinting to darken the day-for-night exterior shots. (Plus, the hat Walter Miller is wearing makes him look like Dick Tracy.) Baker hears the renegades on the other side of a door and surprises them, when he himself is jumped from behind by one of Pilot X’s henchmen. The renegades swarm out of their meeting room and grab Baker. The chapter ends without a direct physical threat, but there’s no question that Baker is in a jam, and it’s more suspenseful and exciting than any of the flimsy plane-crash cliffhangers from other chapters.

Sample Dialogue: “We meet at last, Pilot X–and you seem well pleased–!” –Frank Baker, after being captured, Chapter Seven (“A Leap for Life”)

Sample Commentary: “No airplanes were harmed in the making of this picture.” –RMR

What’s Next: Check back at the beginning of summer for more serial reviews; in the mean time, please visit the Series page to catch up on previous installments of Fates Worse Than Death!

Fates Worse Than Death: Flying G-Men

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“The peace and security of the nation have been threatened by a campaign of espionage and sabotage, conducted by a powerful spy ring whose head is known as the Professor! The Bureau of Investigation has assigned three flying G-Men to the case. They created the Black Falcon, a mysterious masked pilot whose sudden raids spread terror and confusion among the ranks of the conspirators!”

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That burst of breathless narration (or a variation of it) introduces each chapter of the 1939 Columbia serial Flying G-Men, and honestly it summarizes the situation as well as I could, so let’s get to the meat of the discussion. Frankly, I often get hung up on plot, in the sense that when I’m reviewing something, or writing my own fiction, I spend way more time trying to untangle and summarize the action than I do when I’m just watching or reading something for pleasure. All along, I think I’ve been clear that I don’t really watch serials for their timeless stories or (God knows) their deep sense of characterization, but rather for their lurid, punchy aesthetic. An iconic pose; an atmosphere of potent menace; a trained dramatic actor making a meal of a pulp hack’s overheated prose; in short, the “cool factor” are greater contributors to my enjoyment than mere plot mechanics. I get the same kind of pleasure from an isolated image or moment that a really good cover illustration or dramatic turn of phrase conveys.

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Still, unlike a pulp magazine cover or the posters that advertised the serials, movies unfold in time and feature narratives that deliver those moments in a structured way, so as I write I feel that I have to deal with the flow from A to B to C. It’s easy to get caught up in summary that is neither interesting to write nor to read, but is necessary for context when explaining why it’s so cool that it wasn’t really the Black Falcon who got shot by the Professor’s henchmen at the end of Chapter Ten, but rather a captured spy that the G-Men dressed in the Falcon’s uniform to serve as a decoy (or whatever).

Flying G-Men provides many such moments, so I loved almost every minute of it. I think I’ve come to the realization that I enjoy police and gangster serials more than superhero or science fiction serials. In many cases, they are just as fanciful as their high-concept peers, featuring similar costumed characters and high-tech gadgets, but the supposedly more realistic setting forces them to explore that world in greater depth, as well as intersecting with crime pictures, film noir, and other kinds of drama in ways that are surprisingly artistic and expressive. Take a look at the frame below, for example: it’s as absolutely clear as a silent film what’s happening. That’s not to say that such artistic choices aren’t sometimes made in superhero or sci-fi serials, but I have noticed a tendency to lean on the dazzling design elements rather than creative staging in many of them.

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Of course, some exposition is inevitable. The titular G-Men, all in the employ of the FBI’s Air Division, were formerly known as the “Skyhawks,” a foursome who previously set a record flying around the world. (As in Pirate Treasure, an accomplishment that would ensure a lifetime of accolades in real life is here merely part of the heroes’ background; it’s as if Mark Watney’s experiences on the red planet in The Martian had served only to prepare him to stop a jewel heist on Earth.) The designer whose inventions made that flight possible, Ed McKay, has developed a remote-controlled robot bomber for military use, remarkably similar to a modern drone aircraft. Of course such a design is a target for espionage, and under the direction of the mysterious “Professor” a wide-ranging spy ring first kills McKay (leaving behind his sister and young son) and then makes efforts to steal the bomber plans for its own use.

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The spy ring is based on Flame Island, a fortified stronghold off the coast. The G-Men, unsatisfied with their legal remit to apprehend the spies, come up with a costumed identity, the “Black Falcon,” who can act with a free hand (as is frequently the case, this is really a pretext for dressing up in costume and using cool gadgets, because it’s not like the G-Men are held up by such red tape as arrest warrants, inquiries into their use of force, or even trials). The Falcon wears a stylish leather flight suit and face mask with goggles, very similar to the Tiger Shark from The Fighting Marines (and anticipating the twenty-first century tendency to replace spandex superhero costumes with more “realistic” paramilitary-style gear).

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In order to protect the Falcon’s identity, the G-Men do not reveal to anyone (including the audience, until the very end) which of them is wearing the hero’s costume (The opening credits show “? ? as the Black Falcon”). As a proto-superhero, the Black Falcon even has a gimmicky talisman, a dart that he leaves behind to mark his kills (if he remembers, so about half the time).

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Thus, while the identity of the “Professor” is left unsolved only for the first third of the serial, the real mystery is which of the G-Men is the Black Falcon. The fact that Bronson, one of the four G-Men, dies early on would suggest a rather obvious answer to that puzzle, but you won’t get it from me: you’ll just have to watch for yourself. On occasions when the other two G-Men are accompanying the Falcon, they also wear face-covering masks to keep up the air of mystery, but they needn’t have bothered: as three white guys with dark hair and similar builds, I could hardly tell the three G-Men apart even when unmasked unless they called each other by name. (Is it just me? Maybe I suffer from face blindness when it comes to the actors in old black-and-white movies.)

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Flying G-Men is a pleasure to watch even when spinning its wheels: the action, of which there is quite a bit, in the form of fist fights, shoot-outs, and car chases, is generally clear and exciting. Fights are often no-holds-barred brawls, free of the stagey, wooden quality that plagues some serials, and they flow organically from the situation rather than beginning from an arbitrary “time to fight now” beat. The surging, constantly active score (credited to musical director M. W. Stoloff, but the work of diverse hands including composer Mischa Bakaleinikoff) does a lot of the work as well, giving a sense of urgency even to scenes of dialogue. (The main title theme in particular sounds like the Superman march and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” had a baby.) Aerial scenes, oddly enough, are relatively weak, in some cases cut together from obvious stock footage and in most places unclear as to how the combatants are positioned in relation to each other (see my comments below on the end of Chapter Four for a particularly egregious example). Still, these scenes are exciting and unpredictable, and in any case the “Flying G-Men” and the Black Falcon spend as much time fighting the spies on land as they do in the air.

One nice touch is the degree to which events simply refuse to cooperate with the clichés of the genre: for example, disguises are a staple of spy adventures, but almost every time the G-Men attempt to pass themselves off as someone else, they are recognized. Going undercover as workers at an aircraft plant, G-Man Cummings (James Craig) is immediately recognized by Hamilton, the company’s president (and possibly the Professor himself); they had met in the FBI director’s office previously. Cummings offers the lame explanation “Other people have made the same mistake,” but the damage is already done. In another chapter, Andrews (Robert Paige) and Davis (Richard Fiske) invade a hidden lab belonging to the spy ring; after knocking out the lab workers, they don their protective masks and try to take their place when more spies arrive to check on them. “You’re not Walker!” one exclaims after hearing Andrews’ voice, and another fistfight erupts. So much for the art of deception.

Flying G-Men also benefits from a strong ensemble of back-up players. Sammy McKim (young Kit Carson in The Painted Stallion) plays Billy, the orphaned son of the designer killed in the first chapter. Although not involved in every chapter, Billy has just the right amount of presence in the serial: in some chapters he’s put in danger and must be rescued, and in others he contributes to the G-Men’s campaign by being places that only children can go without arousing suspicion. He also has a few scenes with other kids, lending the support of his network of child airplane modelers and HAM radio enthusiasts to the G-Men. (And boy are those kids quick: in one scene, Billy’s aunt Babs is abducted by the spy ring and through quick thinking she drops her brother’s medal out of the car in front of a pair of boys. “Somebody in that car was trying to get a message to the G-Men!” they immediately conclude.)

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Babs (another veteran of the serials, Lorna Gray, who later changed her screen name to Adrian Booth) similarly gets involved in a few of the chapters; aside from being kidnapped a couple of times, she also uses her head and helps the G-Men carry out their plans, mostly by pretending to have some more undisclosed plans for her brother’s designs, as a way of luring members of the spy ring out into the open.

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I haven’t even mentioned the completely superfluous but nonetheless fantastic pretense by which the Professor recruits down-and-outers through his “Historical Study Group”; or the fact that the president of the steel mill in which some of the action is set is named “Lewis Carroll” for some reason; or the garage with a hidden elevator behind a sliding wall that forms a headquarters for the Professor’s second-in-command. Despite Columbia’s reputation for silliness, Flying G-Men largely strikes a satisfying balance between intentional and unintentional comedy: it knows how far-fetched this all is, but doesn’t feel the need to undercut its story with excessive winking and comic relief. Most gratifying to me, it also moves swiftly from one idea to the next, without the stretches of tedium that frequently plague serials (especially those in fifteen chapters). It has, in short, the quality that I value most in serials: it is imaginative, exhilarating, and above all, fun.

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What I Watched: Flying G-Men (1939, Columbia)

Where I Watched It: Flying G-Men was in the batch of DVDs I got from eBay at the beginning of the summer. It can be viewed on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Frequently serial chapter titles will hint at the crisis featured in the episode or the cliffhanger that ends it, but most of the chapter titles in Flying G-Men are either vague enough that they could apply to any episode (Chapter One, “Challenge in the Sky”) or misleading, suggesting a doom that ends up being something else entirely (Chapter Nine, “Wings of Terror,” does include one of the serial’s many aerial dogfights, but ends with the Black Falcon falling off the roof of a building). Chapter Eleven’s title, “While A Nation Sleeps,” is an example of the former, conveying the shadowy, secretive activities of the spy ring, but has little to do with the events of the chapter: it doesn’t even take place at night.

Best Cliffhanger: In keeping with the disconnect between the chapter titles and the chapter endings, the cliffhangers are often somewhat perfunctory or not very well set up, indicating that they weren’t the filmmakers’ highest priority. Most of the chapters have plenty of action within the chapter that may or may not have anything to do with the cliffhanger. So while not the best cliffhanger, the one that has occupied my mind the most since watching it is at the end of Chapter Four, “The Falcon Strikes.” The spies, having publicized an experimental “stratosphere flight” that is actually intended to help them take aerial photographs of coastal defense installations, have ascended high into the sky in a spherical observation vessel suspended from a high-altitude balloon. The Black Falcon, finding out about the subterfuge and determined to stop the spies, attacks the balloon directly from his airplane, strafing the balloon with a machine gun. The editing of the sequence makes it look like the Falcon is diving toward the balloon, firing from above, but when the vessel falls, it lands directly on the Falcon’s plane, which is now somehow below the balloon. Both the vessel and the Falcon’s plane crash to the ground. It’s a real head-scratcher.

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The resolution to this is also a curiosity: previously it’s been established that the Black Falcon sometimes flies a special small plane that can detach from a larger bomber, similar to the robot bombers whose plans are the MacGuffin of the serial. In the resolution to Chapter Four’s cliffhanger, it is shown that the Falcon flew away in the small plane while the spies’ vessel dropped the bomber to the ground. But as a newspaper headline shows, the Falcon’s “piggyback” plane is actually a “pick-a-back” plane. I’d never come across that idiom, but a little digging informs me that “pick-a-back” is actually the original form of the word. Still, according to my sources “piggyback” was current before the end of the nineteenth century, so it seems strange to see the older usage in print.

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Sample Dialogue: “Who knows but that it’ll be the Black Falcon who’ll step in and capture this Professor? This mysterious flyer seems to be doing some excellent work. In fact, he’s what could be considered a first-rate flying G-Man . . . don’t you think so?” –FBI Director Frank Carlton (Edward Earle), Chapter Eleven, “While A Nation Sleeps”

What Others Have Said: “The Falcon has a black leather flying outfit that is handier to get to when needed than the Durango Kid’s horse, while his two remaining partners are stuck with your basic gray . . . and together they are close to being a precursor to “Blackhawk” and his band. . . . Keeping a straight face is not easy to do when facing a gang of henchmen directed by James W. Horne behind the over-wrought narration of Knox Manning.” –Les Adams, summarizing Flying G-Men on the International Movie Database

This concludes this year’s Fates Worse Than Death. Thanks for following along with me! Barring any serial-related articles I may write this fall or spring, serial coverage will resume next summer. In the mean time, I hope you’ll keep following Medleyana, as you never know what I’ll choose to write about next!

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: 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!