Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom Creeps

Dr. Alex Zorka, one of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds–the most brilliant, according to him–is a proud man. The sacrifices he has made for his work, the depth of his genius, and above all his monumental ego will not allow him to countenance turning over his fabulous inventions to the government–not even on the eve of war, when the world is about to become much more dangerous. Zorka’s wife, Ann, has tried to convince him to turn back before his research takes him too far, even bringing his former partner, Dr. Mallory, to help plead the case. Zorka’s latest invention consists of a small disc that can be planted anywhere (or on anyone), and a mechanical spider that homes in on it; when the spider comes into contact with its target, a small burst of smoke paralyzes anyone within range with a unique form of suspended animation. Mallory urges Zorka to give the disc technology to the government, but Zorka already has a buyer lined up; what they choose to do with it is of no concern to him. Gloating later to his assistant, Monk (an ex-con Zorka freed and disguised, making him indebted to him and practically a slave), Zorka shows off his latest device, a “devisualizer” belt that renders its wearer invisible. “Now, as the Phantom, there is nothing that I cannot do.” Zorka’s pride is already tipping into megalomania, and he hasn’t even revealed his killer robot to the world!

After Dr. Zorka disappears (into a secret laboratory hidden in his house) and then fakes his own death, Captain Bob West of military intelligence gets involved, interviewing Ann Zorka and Dr. Mallory. A nosy reporter, Jean Drew, shows up, but West stonewalls her. When West and his partner Jim Daly load Ann into a plane to take her to identify her husband’s body, Jean stows away, hoping for a scoop. None of them realize that Dr. Zorka, invisible, has planted one of the magnetic discs on the plane with the idea of paralyzing his wife and then claiming her body (under a new identity) to keep her from talking to the authorities. The plan backfires, paralyzing Daly while he’s piloting the plane and causing a deadly crash. Ann dies, and in his grief and madness Zorka blames West and the government. “They shall pay!” he rants in one of his many diatribes. The stage is set for Dr. Zorka to wreak scientific vengeance while outmaneuvering both the G-men and the foreign agents who still hope to obtain his invention.

His final serial appearance, The Phantom Creeps stars the great Bela Lugosi in full scenery-chewing mode as Dr. Zorka. From the beginning, Zorka’s main emotional note is aggrievement: his scientific peers don’t appreciate his genius, he doesn’t owe anything to the government, they’ll see, he’ll show them all, blah blah blah. It’s a character type that was as much Lugosi’s bread and butter as the suave vampire that brought his initial fame. After Zorka’s wife dies and his various plots are foiled, his mania becomes more and more pronounced and his goals proceed from selling his invention for riches to conquering the world, or, failing that, destroying it. The only character he regularly interacts with is poor, put-upon Monk (Jack C. Smith), who follows him out of fear as much as any sense of loyalty. Constantly complaining that he’ll be caught and thrown back into Alcatraz (“It’s where you belong,” Zorka answers dismissively), Monk waits for the opportunity to sell out his boss, and he almost turns the tables more than once before Zorka gets the upper hand again. It is to Monk (and thereby indirectly the audience) that Zorka explains his various devices, revealing the highly volatile element that powers his inventions: the element is deadly unless kept in a shielded box, and even when opened a crack to siphon off its energies it emits deadly fumes. “They must never know about you, the source of all my power,” Zorka says to the box lovingly. But of course “they” do find out, and the box becomes the main MacGuffin of the plot, changing hands between the spies, the G-men, and back to Zorka as they all scheme to hold on to it.

It is perhaps not surprising that the best-known element of this serial is not the precious element in its box or the invisibility device that inspired its title, but the robot (or “iron man”) who serves as Zorka’s guardian and sometimes attack dog. Inside the robot costume is 7’4″ Ed Wolff, a former circus performer who specialized in giant roles. The robot’s appearance is, on one level, ridiculous, a large humanoid machine with a grotesque molded face on an oversized head, a design choice that goes against our usual idea of robots as being more streamlined than their human models (perusing illustrations of early attempts at building robots reveals that many designs made up in baroque style what they lacked in functionality). But however ugly, it is clearly the most visually distinct element in the film. To be charitable, it resembles a pagan idol, and its role in the story is akin to that of a temple guardian, never leaving its one room until the very end of the serial. If serials are part of the modern mythmaking machinery by which ancient fables are dressed anew in contemporary garb (and I think they are), it makes sense that the iron man would continue the lineage of such pre-Enlightenment automatons as the golem or Talos, the bronze warrior from Greek mythology. (Surprisingly, Zorka doesn’t end up dying at the hands of the iron man, an ironic comeuppance that would have been perfectly in line with this kind of storytelling; the robot remains under control to the end. Zorka’s fate is a little more, ahem, explosive.)

The dynamic of the square-jawed hero (Robert Kent as West) and the gutsy reporter who will take any risk for a story (Dorothy Arnold as Jean Drew) is one that has shown up in many serials and pulp narratives (including the other Lugosi serial I’ve covered, Shadow of Chinatown). Filmmakers in the ’30s and ’40s seem to have loved brassy “girl reporters,” partially as a career choice open to independent women that allowed for zany adventures and partially for the opportunity for more level-headed male characters to put them in their place. The Phantom Creeps patronizes Jean an average amount I’d say, with Bob West tweaking her resolve with comments like, “That isn’t like a hard-boiled newspaper girl to faint!”

At least West is motivated by official secrecy to keep her silent, urging Jean to keep details to herself even as her editor hounds her for something fit to print. West’s partner Daly (Regis Toomey) seems more irritated by having a girl nosing around and becomes especially suspicious when he observes Jean leaving a warehouse to which he had trailed the spies (caught unawares by them, she had posed as a fellow operative, hoping to find Zorka’s invention and sell it herself). “Save it for Captain West,” he says: “He likes fairy stories.” Finally, when Jean is rewarded for her cooperation with the story of her career, West compliments Jean’s restraint by saying, “The hardest job for a reporter is the suppression of timely news.” In other words: loose lips sink ships.

The spies, to whom Zorka had initially hoped to sell his invention and who later try to steal it outright, have a few nice touches. The only one of the field agents who has much personality, Rankin (Anthony Averill), is sort of a spearhead villain, indistinguishable from a typical movie gangster, but the head of the spy ring, Jarvis (Edward Van Sloan) is a bit more of a character. The spies maintain an “International School of Languages” as a cover, from which they broadcast cryptic coded messages by radio. As is frequently the case, the spies’ foreign superiors go unnamed except for vague mentions of a “leader” or occasionally “His Highness.” I wonder which foreign governments they might have been thinking of in 1939? I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out this incredible flying costume Jarvis wears in Chapter Four (“Invisible Terror”) during a brief moment when the spies are in possession of the box and try to fly it out of the country.

The Phantom Creeps has many elements that I love in the serials: crazy gadgets, distinctive visuals, colorful characters, and a great villain. The tone, from the ominous theme music to the shadowed interiors of Zorka’s mad science lab (full of Kenneth Strickfaden’s whirling, sparking electrical contraptions) is closer to Universal’s famous monster series than the typical action serials of the day. There is also plenty of drama to be mined in the confrontations of the individual characters and their competing goals; even the small-time spies and beat cops get little character moments as they deal with the unknown menace of the “Phantom.” So I really wish I liked it more, and it saddens me to report that these promising parts rarely coalesce into a satisfying whole.

It’s hard to put my finger on why it fell short for me. Part of the problem is that there is just too much going on: too many characters, too many of whom change their behavior or loyalties depending on the scene in order to keep the story going. The way the action returns again and again to a few locations makes it feel like it’s spinning its wheels (considering that Zorka’s robot never leaves his house, where it is hidden behind a sliding panel, it’s surprising how much use it gets, since characters keep finding reasons to go back there). The ways in which the characters encounter each other are often dependent on coincidence: one might think there was only one road in California for the number of times characters pass and recognize each other, setting off yet another chase (“There go two of the spies in that car!” is a typical line of dialogue). I guess it comes down to too much filler, not enough killer.

There is also the general shabbiness that many serials display, amplified by the sense that The Phantom Creeps is made up of bits and pieces thrown together or borrowed from other productions. Other serials have featured invisible characters and made them spookily effective, but only a few scenes in this truly use the “Phantom” conceit in a thrilling or atmospheric way. (The invisibility effect is little more than a double-exposed smudge of light, or occasionally a shadow.)

The use of stock footage to ramp up the threats to our heroes also becomes excessive (and familiar–it surely doesn’t help that I’ve seen this boat crash, that building fire, and even that shot of the Hindenburg disaster in other serials) as it approaches its literally cataclysmic finale. Or perhaps it’s simply how generic everything seems; one of the best parts of The Phantom Creeps is a short flashback in which Dr. Zorka reveals the mysterious radioactive element that powers all of his inventions: it fell to earth in Africa as a meteorite centuries ago, where it lay buried in the ground until Dr. Zorka arrived to dig it up. The visual of Zorka in a protective hazmat suit, lowered into a crevice by native bearers and chipping the sparking, smoking stone from the rock is specific to the story in a way that too much of it simply lacks (wouldn’t you know it, that sequence turns out to be lifted from the 1936 Lugosi/Karloff feature The Invisible Ray).

What I Watched: The Phantom Creeps (Universal, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from VCI’s “Classic Cliffhanger Collection”

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “To Destroy the World” (Chapter Twelve)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven (“The Blast”), spies Jarvis and Rankin have taken off in their car with the meteorite (and, unbeknownst to them, Zorka in his invisible state); spotting them, West and Jean follow, with Jean driving. Jarvis pulls up at a barricade: the road is closed for blasting, but the workers let the car through. The workers continue preparation for blasting, and because of a faulty detonation plunger one of them lights a long fuse. Just then, West and Jean drive up and spot the barricade. “It may be a trick to stop us,” West says, instructing Jean to keep driving. Despite the protests of the workmen, they drive through the barricade; mere moments later–kaboom!

Breaking news: Like many serials, especially those featuring reporter characters, The Phantom Creeps has some great on-screen newspaper headlines for quick bursts of exposition.

SCIENTIST AND WIFE MEET DEATH SAME DAY IN DIFFERENT ACCIDENTS!

MAD GENIUS RUNNING WILD!

ZORKA SHAKES CONTINENT AS HE PLUNGES TO HIS DEATH

Don’t forget the funny pages: The Phantom Creeps was adapted (very freely) in an issue of Movie Comics; the publication retouched frames from the movies, turning them into comic panels. The eight-page story takes liberties from the very first page, putting Zorka’s laboratory in an old castle instead of a house, and in this version “Phantom” is the robot’s name. Some things never change. The entire story can be read at the blog Four-Color Shadows.

Sample Dialogue:

Monk (invisible, having stolen Zorka’s devisualizer belt): I’m free, Dr. Zorka! I’m stronger than you now! Stronger than the police! You’ll never make a slave out of me again. Ha ha ha!

[Zorka zaps Monk with a “Z-ray” and makes him reappear, briefly incapacitating him]

Zorka: You traitor! You didn’t know that you too had been sprayed with my invisible gas. Get up on your feet! . . . You belong to me! You can never escape me! Go!

–Chapter Seven, “The Menacing Mist”

What Others Have Said: “The contribution of The Phantom Creeps to later serials was an auto chase in which a 1939 black Nash pursued an ancient touring car. The appearance of a vintage vehicle in a chase was a sure sign that sooner or later it would go over a cliff and burn. New cars didn’t match those in crashes in the stock-film library, and stock shots were meant to last many years.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: For what will probably be the last installment of this series for the summer, let’s check out the proto-Raiders adventure, Secret Service in Darkest Africa aka Manhunt in the African Jungles!

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Fates Worse Than Death: Serials at Feature Length

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The studios that produced serials were nothing if not parsimonious: considering the ways in which stock footage, costumes, and other production elements were reused, it is not surprising that the films themselves would be repackaged and rereleased as many times as were profitable. During the heyday of the serial format, a popular serial could be rereleased in its entirety after a few years (there were no options for viewers to see them in any other way, of course, and since most were aimed at youngsters, a new audience would arise over time).

Serials were also frequently edited down to feature length (anywhere from sixty to a hundred minutes), either released simultaneously with the serial or later rereleased as “B” pictures. The arrival of television introduced a new market for “featurized” serials, as well. (As an example, in 1966, Republic made a number of its films available to television, both complete serials and several cut down to one hundred minutes.) Sometimes, but not always, these shortened serials reappeared under new titles: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was released simultaneously with the feature-length Mars Attacks the World, its title chosen to exploit the notoriety of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast; Undersea Kingdom surfaced on television as Sharad of Atlantis; and so on.

(Note that the photos on the poster are drawn from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial.)

(Note that the photos on the poster are drawn from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial.)

Since I began exploring the serials last summer, I’ve been curious about these feature-length cuts: how do they differ from the serialized originals, and how effective are they at conveying the story and its thrills? There is no one answer: even a cursory survey reveals differing approaches to editing and marketing, and the context of production and the studio’s goals can have a big impact on the final product. In theory, one could cut the titles and credits and the redundant material from the cliffhangers and have a perfectly serviceable movie. In reality, the end product would still be too long for what was considered “feature length” in the mid-twentieth century and the pacing might prove unsatisfying for one sitting. From what I can tell, most cut-down serials come in somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half. (Editing down a serial into a more modern feature length would undoubtedly be an interesting project for a film student or anyone who wants to learn more about the pacing and construction of these films. Indeed, YouTube searches reveal a range of cleaned-up and “restored” versions; how far these restoration efforts extend into actual recutting is a question I haven’t explored in depth.)

For purposes of comparison I sought out a few “featurized” versions of serials I have already reviewed for this series. An approach that I would assume is typical is seen in the shortened cut of Shadow of Chinatown: at a brisk 69 minutes, the feature zips through the major events of the serial. Much of the “Oriental” color is done away with, as are scenes that have Martin Andrews’ manservant Willy Fu briefly kidnapped, and a car chase between Los Angeles and San Francisco. What is mostly eliminated is repetitive or slow-moving, however; everything that’s left is worthwhile, and more importantly the story makes sense. Willy gets in a few of his pseudo-Confusion aphorisms, and Bela Lugosi still has enough screen time to justify his top billing.

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Interestingly, however, the reduction of the action to its most exciting elements makes reporter Joan Whiting a more obvious (and sympathetic) lead character than the mansplaining Andrews, at least for a while. Also, the ending cuts off one final twist in which Lugosi’s character comes back from an apparent death to strike at Andrews: this time, he gets his comeuppance the first time. There are a few other small changes, such as the addition of musical underscore to scenes that were without accompaniment in the serial, at least the version I watched; that seems to be pretty standard practice, a way of covering the seams and updating the production. Although I enjoyed the full serial of Shadow of Chinatown, I would consider the feature version an adequate substitute for an interested viewer.

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By contrast, the feature-length cut of The Phantom Empire feels rushed. Admittedly, its story is complex, with Gene Autry and his Radio Ranch friends pitted against both an unscrupulous radium-hunting scientist and denizens of Murania, the hidden realm located 25,000 feet beneath the surface. Much of what I appreciate in this serial is around the edges, however: those small atmospheric moments or character beats that make it unique. As a feature, The Phantom Empire is still very distinctive. Autry’s musical numbers, integral to the plot (he must broadcast every day or else lose his radio contract, and thus the ranch), are still there, as are Frankie and Betsy Baxter’s DIY electronics lab and their club, the Thunder Riders. Missing, however, are those scenes in which Murania’s Queen Tika spies on the surface world through her television, seething with disdain, as well as a similar scene in which she shows Autry the realities of poverty and war on the surface. Gone also are most of Autry’s fight scenes and a sequence in which, near death, he mumbles in the backwards “language of the dead” before being revived by the miracle of radium. The murder of Tom Baxter is glossed over even more than in the serial, without much time given for it to sink in.

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The biggest loss is the erasure of Queen Tika’s motivation for keeping Murania hidden and, ultimately, deciding to stay with her kingdom during its destruction instead of fleeing to the upper world with Autry. Speechifying is something sci-fi fans often tolerate rather than enjoy, and it’s usually the easiest thing to cut when editing for length, but in this case reducing Tika’s presence drains the serial of much of its personality, turning her into another cardboard villain. If most viewers between the 1950s and 1990s were only able to see the feature-length cut, it’s not surprising that The Phantom Empire is appreciated only by aficionados: without the atmosphere and dramatic build-up found in the full version, it comes off as a diverting novelty in the mold of Undersea Kingdom.

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The New Adventures of Tarzan was actually edited into two feature films. The first, also called The New Adventures of Tarzan, is a longer version of the first two chapters of the serial, in which Tarzan joins the Guatemalan expedition of Major Martling in order to find his friend, the downed pilot D’Arnot, who is trapped in the same “lost city” in which Martling hopes to find a legendary idol, the Green Goddess. Also hunting for the idol is Raglan, a rival explorer working for a foreign company that wants the explosive formula hidden inside the idol. Although two chapters doesn’t sound like very much, the first chapter of the serial is an unusual forty minutes long, so stretching the film to seventy minutes isn’t as odd as it sounds.

(Also worth noting: while the feature’s release date is given as 1935, a release simultaneous with the serial, the version I watched is obviously a later rerelease, as the leading man is listed as Bruce Bennett; Brix changed his name to Bennett in 1939, a change that coincided with a transition into more prestigious Hollywood fare such as Sahara, Dark Passage, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The music that accompanies these updated credits also sounds like something from the 1940s.)

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As I mentioned in my review of the serial, I had trouble following the first chapter’s setup, as the sound was patchy and some of the dialogue was hard to understand. The feature version clarifies things a great deal by including extra scenes of dialogue and improving the sound. Some of the dialogue is obviously dubbed, and the voice coming from Tarzan’s mouth doesn’t sound like Herman Brix; I wonder if this version was the cause of John Taliafero’s complaints about Brix sounding like a “school master:” it’s both higher and fussier than Brix’s normal speaking voice, and it doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of the lord of the jungle. As for the rest of the dubbing, it at least helps the story make sense, and there are also added background music and sound effects that give the film a more complete, modern atmosphere.

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Even so, the film begins with an apology for the sound quality, recorded under difficult conditions, and begs for the indulgence of the audience. It’s hard to imagine any modern film making such a plea, unless it were a documentary. Taliafero mentions that the Ashton Dearholt expedition that filmed The New Adventures in Central America ended up with enough footage for both a serial and a feature film, and sure enough there is a great deal of footage that doesn’t appear in the serial. Much of it is atmospheric footage of wild animals, natives, and the exotic country, and while it is impressive on its own, its inclusion in the finished film often smacks of padding, giving the film the air of a travelogue punctuated by a few scenes of action. (Particularly shameless is a flashback to D’Arnot’s plane crash that includes almost five minutes of aerial footage of animals before the actual crack-up.)

Some of the events from the serial are rearranged slightly (and obviously the cliffhangers from the serial are simply played out as action scenes without interruption), but the biggest change is at the end: in the serial, Raglan is able to steal the idol from the lost city and make away with it, with Martling and Tarzan on his trail. In the feature, Tarzan recovers the idol from Raglan almost immediately after he steals it and Martling is able to open it right there, finding the jewels inside. A happy ending for all!

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Of course, Raglan gets away, and his (as well as the lost city cultists’) attempts to take back the idol are the main thread of Tarzan and the Green Goddess, the 1938 feature that includes the rest of the serial. In this film, the raw material of The New Adventures undergoes a more interesting transformation. The last chapter of the serial takes place at Lord Greystoke’s British estate, where he is holding a Gypsy-themed costume party; some of his guests ask him to recount his recent adventure in Guatemala, and he does so in flashback, turning the last episode into a belated “economy chapter.” Green Goddess puts this frame device around the entire film, which takes up the action following the escape from the lost city. The movie barely reaches an hour in length, and without the padding found in the first feature the plot moves at a breakneck pace (although it still finds room for a scene in which Martling’s valet George chases a monkey who has stolen his yo-yo). Despite being edited together with more sophistication than the 1935 releases, I’m glad I had seen the whole serial before watching this, for the sake of clarity.

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Finally, there is the issue of availability. After long years of being hard to find, even for collectors (Harmon and Glut’s 1972 The Great Movie Serials, a book I have found an invaluable resource for this series, was partially based on memories of serials sometimes seen years before, and occasionally the distance shows in distorted or jumbled details), home video made it possible for many serials to be seen as they were originally released, and websites like YouTube and the Internet Archive have made it even easier for anyone with an internet connection to watch these films. In the case of feature-length cuts, the internet is frequently the only choice, as even high-quality restorations for home video don’t usually see fit to include them (I watched the feature versions of both Shadow of Chinatown and The Phantom Empire on YouTube).

Having said that, since many serials and their feature cuts are in the public domain or can be considered “orphan works,” I have found that they also turn up on cheap movie-compilation DVDs. Both of the Tarzan features I have discussed here are included on a Mill Creek collection entitled Wrath of the Sword: 20 Legendary Movies, which includes several Tarzan movies from the 1930s, a bunch of sword-and-sandal movies from the ’50s and ’60s, and (for some reason) one random Christopher Lambert movie from 2005. There’s nothing in the packaging of Wrath of the Sword that would indicate that the two Tarzan movies are related sequentially or derived from the same serial, but that’s part of the fun of this sort of quantity-over-quality package: you never really know what you’re going to get, and you have the opportunity to make discoveries and draw your own conclusions.

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Next week I’ll be back with regular serial coverage as I examine The Green Hornet.

Fates Worse Than Death: Shadow of Chinatown and Big Trouble in Little China

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“China is here, Mister Burton.” –Uncle Chu (Chao Li Chi), Big Trouble in Little China

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Like most fans of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, I didn’t see it during its 1986 theatrical release, but came to love it through its repeated airings on cable and home video. Starring Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, a clueless trucker drawn into a supernatural battle in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and full of martial arts action, special effects, and comic banter, it was one of those movies that if I ran across it on TV, I had to watch to the end (so I’ve seen the middle and ending many more times than the beginning). It was probably the beginning of a fascination with Orientalism–both the legitimate history and art of the Far East, but also those hybrids of detective, occult, and political fantasy produced in the West and collectively referred to as “Yellow Peril.”

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Although always questionable from a perspective of accuracy and cultural sensitivity, stories set in Chinatown have proven irresistible to pulp and comic book writers and filmmakers alike (one collection of pulp stories bears the memorable title It’s Raining Corpses in Chinatown). The idea of an enclave of exotic, unknowable foreigners at one’s doorstep, perhaps possessed of uncanny abilities and ancient wisdom, was catnip for writers who needed simple, lurid story hooks and artists who were tired of drawing white guys in fedoras.

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And of course, a story set in an Asian enclave in the West has a very different dynamic from one set in a purely Asian culture: one gets the sense of a hidden world, the door to which just happens to be a cab ride or subway stop away. Such stories are inevitably told from the perspective of a white (or at least non-Asian) outsider drawn into the web, pulling back the curtain to discover whatever is really going on behind the curio shops and chop suey palaces, be it the opium trade, “white slavery” (i.e., human trafficking), or a brewing tong war. A 1909 article about New York’s Chinatown summed up this juxtaposition of the exotic and the familiar in language that could have been pulled from any number of pulp stories or movies of later decades:

There it lies, unfathomed and unknown, in the very ear of the city where all things come to be known–where a pin dropped on the other side of the world is heard an instant afterward–contemptuous, blandly mysterious, serene, foul-smelling, Oriental, and implacable behind that indefinable barrier which has kept the West and the East apart since the centuries began. Within the boundaries of the three acres which it occupies, five thousand slant-eyed children of Cathay and three or four hundred whites, who have cast their lot with them, order their existence like rabbits in a warren.

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Really, it’s all there: physical stereotyping, the “inscrutability” of the Orient, even the “foul” smells of another culture. Hinted at in this excerpt, and persisting throughout the article (“Slumming in New York’s Chinatown,” reprinted in the book Tales of Gaslight New York), is the unshakable belief that the Chinese population is up to something, that they hide their real intentions and loyalty, and that their influence on whites can only be a corrupting one. Framed as an exposé, “Slumming in New York’s Chinatown” presents many of the same arguments that were used to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and which today target other immigrant populations. In this point of view, summed up nicely by the quotation with which this article began, Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves are really extensions of the Old Country: step in, and you are effectively in foreign territory.

So how can I justify being a fan of a genre frequently steeped in ugly stereotypes and often pointedly racist in its political undertones? Were I of Chinese descent, I am sure I would not be so blasé about such issues, and I would surely take them more personally. Here, at last, I must address an issue that I have circled and sometimes approached in this series, but never taken head on.

The serials (and the other pulp fiction and comics that I write about) were made during a time in which racism was not only a tolerated but an actively endorsed part of life–not by everybody, of course, as even in the days of Jim Crow laws and the kind of housing discrimination that led to the formation of Chinatowns and other ghettos in the first place, there were brave voices willing to speak up for equal treatment of their fellows–and their content often reflects prevailing attitudes, some of which seem merely quaint today and some of which were downright ugly. I hope it is clear to my readers, however, that I don’t bring up these attitudes to burnish my own image or simply congratulate myself for living in a more enlightened time. I genuinely enjoy the entertainment of this period, and while I may take a good-natured poke at the sillier contrivances I encounter, I wouldn’t bother with it if I didn’t find that it rewarded the time I’ve invested in watching and researching these films. If the writing, production, and cultural context of serials are worth taking seriously, then so are the issues of representation they bring up.

To me, this is an appropriate place to deploy the word “problematic:” it may be overused, but I think it accurately describes art that provides substantial entertainment or edification but which has issues that can’t simply be dismissed. After all, if a work has no redeeming value at all, that’s not really a problem, is it? It can be safely dismissed as racist trash. Rather than perform mental gymnastics to prove to myself that a given representation isn’t really offensive, just because I happen to like the work it is a part of, it’s probably healthier to simply acknowledge that we can enjoy works without endorsing every part of them or the politics that underlie them. (And here I’m not so much referring to Big Trouble in Little China, which I consider a knowing riff on Chinese fantasy themes, as I am the pre-war serials and stuff like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels; however, others may draw those lines in different places, and that also comes with the “problematic” territory.) For fans of the pulp era, that requires some self-examination to ensure that we’re not nostalgic for the wrong things (or for a world which was largely a simplified, fictional construct in the first place).

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Anyway, this is all preamble to this week’s serial: knowing that I would be attending a theatrical screening of Big Trouble in Little China (thanks to Big Screen Wichita’s Return of the Cults series) last week and that a remake of the film starring Dwayne Johnson is scheduled for 2016, it seemed like a perfect time to look back at a serial on a similar subject: Victory’s 1936 serial Shadow of Chinatown, starring Bela Lugosi. It turned out to be an even more illuminating comparison than I expected.

Lugosi, of course, needs no introduction: he’s an icon for his performance as the title character in Tod Browning’s Dracula, a role that fit him so perfectly he never really found another one to match it. The story of his decline is also well-known, as changing styles and his own drug addiction forced him into smaller, tackier films, including some truly awful garbage (and I’m not even referring to his final films with Edward D. Wood, Jr., which at least have their own kooky charm). Lugosi escapes Shadow of Chinatown with his dignity intact, however: while it’s not high art, the serial provides him with a role that allows him to purr seductively, rage and monologue, and employ the famously intense gaze (“more sinister than sinister” in the words of one character) that made him such a compelling vampire.

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Lugosi is first billed, but as the villain of the piece; the hero is played by Herman Brix (who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett). This is the third serial with Brix that I have watched, and the first one in which I was acutely aware of his shortcomings as an actor. Although John Taliaferro characterized Brix’s performance as the title character in The New Adventures of Tarzan as “stiff,” I thought he was fine in what was primarily a physical role; in the same vein, Brix was part of a trio of leads in Daredevils of the Red Circle, and had more stunts and fight scenes than spoken lines. Shadow of Chinatown gives Brix much more dialogue than either of those films and asks us to believe that he is simply a writer, unwillingly dragged into the action; and, much worse, gives him the task of engaging in “playful” banter with his female co-star, Joan Barclay, that would sound mean-spirited even if delivered by Cary Grant. Needless to say, Brix is no Cary Grant.

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As Shadow of Chinatown begins, Sonya Rokoff (Luana Walters), the representative of a European department store syndicate, is scheming to eliminate competition from the merchants in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She hires Victor Poten (Lugosi), a “Eurasian” scientist in need of funds, to help her destroy the merchants (at first by hiring white gangsters to dress up as Chinese and riot in the streets of Chinatown, scaring tourists away; later, the plans get more elaborate). It isn’t long before Poten is running things, controlling Rokoff through intimidation and (later) hypnosis. Although her plan was to put the Chinese out of business for her employers, Poten is motivated by hatred of “both the Oriental and Occidental races;” his ultimate goal is to begin a race of his own.

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It’s an interesting transformation for Lugosi’s character: in the first chapter he is little more than a henchman, with Rokoff calling the shots, and he wears a telephone repairman’s coveralls as he sneaks from place to place executing Rokoff’s orders. As his power and confidence grows, so do the abilities he displays: his technology becomes more like magic; he’s a master of disguise; he controls people by hypnosis. By the last few chapters, he has miniature spy cameras planted in the homes and offices of every prominent person in Chinatown: nowhere is safe from his prying gaze. In effect, he grows into a particularly intense version of the all-powerful, all-seeing mastermind of paranoid fantasy, Fu Manchu in all but name.

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The central joke of Big Trouble in Little China is that Jack Burton, for all his John Wayne swagger, is actually the comic relief sidekick: it’s his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who understands what is going on and has the connections and skills to rescue the damsels in distress and defeat the evil Lo Pan, while Burton loses his knife, forgets to take the safety off his gun, accidentally knocks himself out, and struggles to move after the one bad guy he kills falls on top of him. Burton has his moments, to be sure, but his role is summed up by an exchange in which he complains that he feels like an outsider and is told in no uncertain terms, “You are.”

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Surprisingly, Shadow of Chinatown plays with that dynamic as well, although not to the same degree. When Rokoff’s and Poten’s schemes start causing trouble in Chinatown, the mayor of San Francisco invites author Martin Andrews (Brix) to consult with the merchants on the basis of a book Andrews has written that makes him an authority on Chinatown. In reality, everything Andrews knows has been gleaned from his Chinese man servant, Willy Fu (Maurice Liu), who has been feeding him gossip (and his own fabrications) for use as story ideas.

Willy is the most clichéd character in the serial: he speaks with a heavy accent, addresses Andrews as “honorable master,” and is given to pseudo-Confucian aphorisms (“Detective instinct bloom like beautiful chrysanthemum in your honorable head!”). Willy is capable (especially at pushing Andrews to doing the right thing when he rather sensibly balks at getting involved with things the police should handle), but he never meets a stereotype he doesn’t lean into with gusto. In a final irony, Rokoff and Poten draw the methods of their attacks on Chinatown’s merchants from Andrews’ book, causing a suspicious police captain (Forrest Taylor) to treat the reluctant author as his number one suspect.

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The fact that most of the lurid preconceptions about Chinatown turn out to be false largely passes without comment, but it’s hard to miss. When eager reporter Joan Whiting (Barclay) tries to pump a police officer for information, she’s certain she’s on the trail of the kind of sensational story quoted above, rattling off the thrilling scenes she (and the audience) expect to see: “I want to know who started the trouble, which tongs are fighting, are there any hatchet men, how many people killed. . . .”

As the audience already knows, the “hatchet men” are impostors, and the troubles are completely the work of the Russian-sounding Sonya Rokoff (who may wear a “dragon lady” dress, but who doesn’t look Asian at all, and is described as being of “mixed blood”) and the “Eurasian” Victor Poten. In fact, the message (typical for the inter-war years) seems to be that the Chinese people want only to live in peace without trouble, but must remain vigilant against “foreign” agitators. Of course, this message of brotherhood with the Chinese comes at the expense of demonizing those of mixed heritage (and as I have argued, “Eurasians” and other unnamed foreigners were often code for powers with which America was not yet at war, left conveniently indeterminate), but baby steps, I guess.

In fact, the serial’s treatment of its female lead is more striking (and not always in a good way) than its Chinese window dressing (although again I don’t expect it to stand up to twenty-first century gender norms). Joan Whiting is a fantastic character, a gutsy woman who’s determined to get her story with a combination of chutzpah, gumption, and moxie. She pushes her way into rooms where she thinks she can get information, doesn’t take no for an answer, and, like Willy Fu, isn’t afraid to push other people into danger if it means getting to the bottom of the mystery. She and Martin Andrews have a combative relationship, with him continually insisting she should stay out of danger (even convincing the police and her editor to order her to stay away) and her finding ways to get back into the action, even as they secretly worry for each other’s safety.

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The banter between the pair (and this serial as a whole has a lot of memorable dialogue, including some absolutely cold put-downs) aspires to the irreverent and breezy, but too often it veers into mean-spirited: when Joan wonders if Poten is a mind reader, Martin says, “He’d draw a blank if he tackled you.” Boom, roasted! There’s a lot more where that comes from, and with Brix’s whitebread personality and rather flat delivery, it comes off like Bing Crosby at his most paternalistic, shutting down the little woman for her own good.

The His Girl Friday dynamic is much more successfully pulled off in Big Trouble in Little China, in the characters of Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and Margo Litzenberger (Kate Burton), a crusading lawyer and reporter (with the Berkeley People’s Herald) looking for her big break respectively. Rewatching the film again this week it was clear how much Cattrall’s Gracie is a direct descendant of the brassy, fast-talking reporters of which Joan Whiting is a prime example. John Carpenter in his director’s commentary mentions his desire for a Howard Hawks-like “pop” to scenes where Gracie and Jack spar verbally, and expresses admiration for the speed with which Cattrall could spit out rapid-fire exposition. (It’s Margo who gets the real mouthful, however: “You mean David Lo Pan that is chairman of the National Orient Bank and owns the Wing Kong Import/Export Trading Company, but who’s so reclusive that no one’s even laid eyes on this guy in years?”, one of many moments that call attention to the film’s B-movie heritage).

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As an aside, one of the true pleasures of revisiting so many old favorites in the Return of the Cults series after having delved into serials and learning more about the history of film in general is in making these kinds of connections and adding new layers of enjoyment to movies I thought I knew well. Big Trouble in Little China is usually cited as Carpenter’s take on Wuxia (martial arts fantasy) movies; it is undoubtedly that, but realizing that it also falls firmly into the “Chinatown exposé” genre has allowed me to see it from a whole different angle, almost like a brand new film.

To return to Shadow of Chinatown, the most striking quality of this serial is its breadth of tone: although the ingredients are not always combined completely successfully, there are elements of action, suspense, horror, romance, comedy, and noir threaded through its fifteen episodes. That in itself is not so unusual for a serial, but the degree of change many of the characters undergo is striking. Often the formulas of pulp storytelling don’t allow for much character development (except in the sense that the villain might change from alive to dead by the end of the last chapter), but most of the characters are in very different places at the end of this serial and have revealed sometimes surprising truths about themselves through their actions. According to John Carpenter, one of the complaints leveled against Big Trouble in Little China was that audiences never felt the lead characters were really in any danger: there were no stakes. The same criticism could easily be leveled against most serials, including Shadow of Chinatown, but more than one character undergoes changes that couldn’t be predicted from the first chapter, and in all of this the original motivation–the European department store trying to eliminate Chinese competition–is little more than an afterthought. Towering above it all, Lugosi gives a performance that is bigger than a mere serial can contain.

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What I Watched: Shadow of Chinatown (Victory, 1936)

Where I Watched It: This serial is on YouTube, but the audio was badly out of sync in some of the chapters, so I ended up watching it at the Internet Archive.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death on the Wire” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: There are several good ones, including a few classics like the room with walls closing in (Chapter Two, “The Crushing Walls”) and a gruesome trap involving a poisoned needle embedded in a telephone receiver (the aforementioned “Death on the Wire”), but I think the cliffhanger most worthy of comment is at the end of Chapter Five (“The Sinister Ray”). Martin Andrews is knocked out in his home and Poten prepares a gruesome fate for him: he adjusts a suspended fishbowl so that the sun’s rays are focused on Andrews’ face, where it will burn him to death . . . eventually. Before moving the bowl, Potens orders his henchman, “Don’t hurt the fish!”

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Most Tragic Character: Special note must made of Poten’s henchman, Grogan (Charles King). Grogan starts out as a typical enforcer, doing Poten’s dirty work and taking his boss’s abuse when he fails to eliminate the meddling Martin and Joan. Sensing that he’s working for a madman, he appeals to Sonya, who is at first happy to have someone she might be able to keep on her side in the event of a split with Poten. When it’s clear that Grogan wants more than steady employment from her, she rebukes him and he threatens her. Then it starts getting weird: Grogan attempts to kill Poten on board a ship, but Poten manages to put Andrews in Grogan’s noose (at least temporarily). When Grogan is ready to talk to the police, Poten shoots him with a poison dart that makes him appear dead. Taking him from the ship’s sick bay, Poten revives Grogan and disguises him as an old man. From then on, he is a broken shell, susceptible to violent outbursts and nonsensical raving, but he is still in Poten’s thrall, taking orders to hurl a live grenade at our heroes or attacking Andrews on the roof of Sonya’s apartment building: a strange and gruesome fate for a character who at first seemed like just another disposable henchman.

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Sample dialogue: Grogan: “I’ll get him next time. He can’t make a sap out of me!”
Poten: “No, your parents already did an excellent job of that!”
–Chapter Three (“13 Ferguson Alley”)

What Others Have Said: “Yellow Peril . . . how can a phrase that reeks so of racism and paranoia yield a body of fiction so . . . cool?” –F. Paul Wilson, Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong (Foreword)

What’s Next: I haven’t decided. Maybe I’ll let it be a surprise. If you have any suggestions or requests for future serials, feel free to list them in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter. (Edit: I ended up covering Panther Girl of the Kongo.)