Fates Worse Than Death: Haunted Harbor

Captain Jim Marsden is in trouble: his schooner Dolphin disappeared with a million-dollar shipment of gold bullion, and he’s deep in debt. To compound the suspicion, Vorhees, the man Marsden owes, has been murdered, and Marsden was discovered with the body. Before dying, Vorhees gave Marsden a name and a location–“Carter . . . Haunted Harbor”–but it won’t do him any good if he hangs for Vorhees’ murder.

Broken out of jail by his crew and offered a place out of the law’s reach by a businessman friend, Marsden makes for the island of Pua Mate to run the trading post and investigate Haunted Harbor. On the way there, he and his crew rescue an injured doctor and his daughter stranded by a storm. Once on the island, Marsden and his new friend Patricia Harding search for the identity under which Carter hides: is it Dranga, the assistant at the trading post? Or Kane, who operates a gold mine? Or is it . . . well, actually we know right away that it’s Kane, and there really aren’t very many other suspects, but it takes a while for all of this to come to light. In the mean time, in addition to the danger and double-crosses that come from his search for Carter, he attempts to solve the mystery of Haunted Harbor, which the natives fear to approach. Are the two cases related? I think you know the answer to that.

As Patricia Harding, Kay Aldridge has Big Hermione Energy.

Despite its Pacific island setting, Haunted Harbor is stylistically similar to Zorro’s Black Whip, which would immediately follow the same year. Aside from leads Kane Richmond (Spy Smasher) as Marsden and Kay Aldridge (Perils of Nyoka) as Patricia, it shares a few cast members with the other serial, as well as both directors (Spencer (Gordon) Bennet and Wallace Grissell). Most notably, George J. Lewis, who would play the hero of Zorro’s Black Whip, plays the duplicitous Dranga, a role apparently more typical for him. The most prominent side characters are Marsden’s crewmen and friends Yank (Clancy Cooper) and Tommy (Marshall J. Reed), and Kane/Carter’s chief henchmen, Snell (Bud Geary) and mine foreman Gregg (Kenne Duncan). (In typical serial fashion, Kane/Carter works his evil through his henchmen for as long as possible to keep Marsden from suspecting him: at one point Marsden even turns Gregg over to Kane, believing that the foreman is Carter.)

Stuntmen Dale Van Sickel and Tom Steele also appear in the casts of both films, a sure sign of energetic fisticuffs to come. As in Zorro’s Black Whip, the fight scenes–and there are many–are chaotic brawls, full of leaps and falls, taking place on sets crammed with breakaway furniture and loose objects that can be thrown or scattered around (the interior of the trading post is trashed several times, but is always straightened up in time for the next bout!). Of course, the men’s hats stay firmly on their heads, the better to disguise the use of stunt doubles.

Patricia mostly gets knocked out during these struggles, and she gets tied up more than once; I haven’t yet seen Perils of Nyoka (it’s on my list), but stills from it suggest that being bound was an Aldridge specialty. Typically, Patricia is the only female character, and while it’s a foregone conclusion that she’ll end up falling in love with Marsden (“Jim don’t need any help now,” Galbraith tells Yank after everything has been wrapped up), any potential chemistry is sublimated through the cinematic power of terrified screaming on her part and take-charge masculine problem-solving on his. Solve the mystery of Haunted Harbor, and you have solved the mystery of the human heart.

There is also gunplay, but most of the time when someone gets the drop on another character and says “hold it right there,” their quarry is able to twist the gun out of their hand, or kick some object into them to knock the gun loose–moves that would surely get someone killed if they weren’t very lucky–and the scramble starts all over again. (Of course, when the plot dictates that a character’s time has come, the bullet is suddenly very accurate.) It’s worth noting that Kane/Carter (played by career heavy Roy Barcroft) has one of the most gruesome comeuppances of any serial I’ve seen, but it occurs just off screen, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks with their imagination.

The most distinctive feature of Haunted Harbor is the location that gives the serial its name: the natives have stopped working to harvest copra* for the plantation (owned by Galbraith, the same man who owns the trading post Marsden manages), frightened off by demons and sea monsters. (The natives are mostly an abstraction, talked about more than seen, although one chapter takes place in the natives’ village.) It takes Marsden a while to get to the harbor to investigate for himself, but when he and Patricia take a boat out onto the water, the surface is disturbed by a horrible-looking sea serpent spouting steam from its nose. It sinks and pops back up in several locations, never attacking but looking menacing nonetheless. Marsden fires at it, but the bullets have no effect (his rifle had previously been loaded with blanks by Dranga, covertly working for Kane/Carter, but Marsden doesn’t know that). Real, honest-to-God monsters aren’t too common in the serials, especially those that aren’t otherwise science fiction, but the Haunted Harbor sea serpent is a memorable and well-designed creature, a candidate for a “deep cut” when discussing the sometimes quaint beasts that haunt old black and white movies. (The Lydecker brothers, Theodore credited and Howard uncredited, are responsible for the serial’s many effects shots, but I’m not sure if they actually designed the creature’s appearance.)

* the dried kernel of the coconut, from which oil can be extracted–see, I’m learning stuff from this!

Other than appearing in title cards at the beginning of each chapter, the first glimpse the audience gets of the sea serpent is at the end of Chapter Five (“Harbor of Horror”), where its appearance and Marsden’s attempt to fight it form the cliffhanger, and then we don’t see it again until the last few chapters. It’s not hard to see why: as cool as the design is, the creature barely moves, its rigid expression frozen in place, relying on surprise and superstition to scare off the unwary rather than a real physical threat. As anyone who’s seen an episode of Scooby-Doo might guess, the sea serpents are fakes, mechanical monsters controlled from a remote switchboard and placed in the harbor to scare the natives away, allowing Kane/Carter to carry out his real scheme undisturbed. Although he doesn’t say so right away, Marsden clearly suspects this, but it isn’t until he can get a diving rig and crew to the harbor that he can prove it.

Like most of Republic’s output, Haunted Harbor goes down easily: it’s slick and entertaining, and the story is so straightforward that there’s not much risk of the audience getting confused. Transplanted to television, the narrative formulas established in serials like this would continue for decades (in particular, the “man on the run” aspect of this story foreshadows series like The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk, and it is episodic enough that one could imagine it being much longer, stretching out Marsden’s search for Carter in order to clear his name). It’s worth noting that Haunted Harbor was based on a novel by “Dayle Douglas” (a pen name for screenwriter Ewart Adamson) and was the last direct serial adaptation Republic made (although there would be a few more Zorro titles, presumably original stories licensing the character).

What I Watched: Haunted Harbor (Republic, 1944)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Pictures Home Video (The title card on the tape version actually calls it Pirates’ Harbor, the title under which Haunted Harbor was rereleased in 1951.)

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Crucible of Justice” (Chapter Fifteen)

Best Cliffhanger: Republic in the mid-’40s seems to have rediscovered the element of sex appeal that had been toned down in some of their earlier serials. A “damsel in distress” bound, gagged, and in immediate mortal peril is a common shorthand for the serials, and while the ubiquity of this device is frequently exaggerated, there are nevertheless examples that justify the image. In Haunted Harbor, Patricia Harding is often on the receiving end of such treatment, nowhere more graphically than at the end of Chapter Nine, “Death’s Door.” In this chapter, Patricia has been abducted by Carter’s men and is held hostage in exchange for Dranga, whom they suppose to be injured and at risk of spilling Carter’s true identity. While the henchmen wait for Dranga to be delivered, they tie Patricia to a post in Kane’s mine and aim a powerful air drill at her, its trigger tied to the door so that if anyone enters the machine will fire its (loosened) bit through her skull. As in most cliffhangers, the threat is established, and then we are reminded of it via crosscutting between the outside room (where Marsden, having disguised himself as the actually deceased Dranga, is fighting it out with Carter’s henchmen) and Patricia at the post, quaking with fear, her eyes bulging. It’s a strong image, the kind of thing that makes an impression and looms larger in the memory than the more numerous prosaic scenes: no, women weren’t being tied up all the time in the serials, and this is just one cliffhanger out of many in this specific serial, but I can see why it tends to be remembered over other, less primal, scenes. (This was the era of Wonder Woman, after all.) Of course, once Marsden has finished mopping up the bad guys, he goes to the door and pulls it open: the air drill comes to life, and the bolt is fired. . . .

Best Resolution: At the beginning of the next chapter (“Crimson Sacrifice”), when Marsden opens that door, activating the air drill, Patricia simply ducks, sliding down the pillar so that the bit drives into the wood just above her head.

No offense, but that’s kind of anticlimactic. It means she wasn’t really tied that tightly in the first place, doesn’t it? My favorite resolutions tend to display the characters’ (and writers’) ingenuity in finding surprising ways out, but this is a bit of a shrug. In any case, as the story continues, Marsden gets into trouble for presenting the chief of the natives with a radio, a radio that has been hooked up with an explosive by Carter’s men so that it will take out the chief and make Marsden look bad. Sure enough, after the explosion of the chief’s hut, Marsden is accused of witchcraft (“You brought the devil box here to slay our chief!”) and immediately seized; in no time at all, he’s been tied to a platform suspended over a raging funeral pyre. The chapter ends with the flames surrounding him and the platform collapsing into the bonfire.

But wait! As resolved in the next chapter (“Jungle Jeopardy”), Patricia, who has been forced to stand by and watch, grabs a gun from her captors and shoots the ropes that bind Marsden (through a wall of flames and at a distance, the kind of one-in-a-million shot that serial heroes routinely make), then covering his captors so that they can both escape. Now, that’s more like it.

Sample Dialogue: “Haunted Harbor certainly seems quiet and peaceful enough. . . . A sea serpent!” –Patricia Harding, Chapter Five (“Harbor of Horror”)

What Others Have Said: “[Roy] Barcroft played many minor parts in serials until 1944. That year he took the lead villain’s role in Haunted Harbor at Republic, and launched an amazing career. For the next ten years, he played a succession of bad guys probably unequalled by any other actor in the field–pirate, outlaw, gangster, crooked cop, spaceman, renegade, crooked sheriff, saloon keeper, politician–you name it. He was Republic’s top villain for those ten years, and the man the fans ‘loved to hate.'” –William C. Cline, “Good at Being Bad” from Serials-ly Speaking

What’s Next: I’m taking a slight detour from my “summer of VHS” to examine a late Universal serial, Lost City of the Jungle!

Fates Worse Than Death: Darkest Africa

While showing off his African base camp to a pair of circus promoters, animal trainer Clyde Beatty is called to action: a lion has escaped its confinement and ended up in the same cage as a tiger. Immediately, Beatty steps in to prevent the big cats from tearing each other apart. Just as he did in his circus act, he calms and separates the two animals with only a metal chair, a whip to get their attention, and a pistol (loaded with blanks). Afterwards, Beatty decides he might work that up as part of his act, but he can’t explain why a tiger, native to India, was loose in the African jungle. Later, making his way to a nearby village, he discovers that someone–white men, based on the prints of boots in the soil–has been disturbing his animal traps.

Little does Beatty know that he is being watched, not by whomever emptied his trap, but by a young boy and his seemingly tame companion, a large gorilla. At the village, the boy, clad only in a fur loincloth, reveals himself in order to rescue a baby threatened by a lion. Using just a stick, the boy holds off the lion as well as Beatty could have! Impressed by the boy’s skill and shocked at his appearance, Beatty approaches him and hears a seemingly impossible tale: Baru, the son of missionaries, was raised alone in the jungle by animals after his parents’ death. Bonga, his ape companion, befriended him after Baru’s escape from the lion pit in the city of Joba. Joba is known only as a legend, a city that lies beyond a taboo region the natives consider haunted, and one which outsiders are never permitted to leave alive. Worse yet, Baru’s sister Valerie is still being held at Joba, where the high priest Dagna has installed her as a goddess (thereby keeping a strong grip on power); it was in trying to help Valerie escape that Baru was captured in the first place.

Beatty immediately takes this story at face value–perhaps convinced by the boy’s amazing rapport with animals–and agrees to help rescue Valerie. This conversation, held in full view of the village, gets the attention of Craddock and Durkins, the crooked traders and ivory smugglers who have been messing with Beatty’s traps, among other crimes. They notice the unusual clasp on Baru’s loincloth, inlaid with rare green diamonds: the jewels too are from Joba, and the pair take an immediate interest in shadowing Beatty as he accompanies Baru back to Joba on his mission of rescue, becoming the secondary villains of the film. It’s quite a bit of plot to set up so quickly, an almost literal “call to adventure,” but there’s never any question that Beatty will lend his support to rescue the “beautiful blonde goddess” held against her will. Before you know it, Beatty has had his manager and aide-de-camp Hambone prepare bearers for an expedition into Darkest Africa!

Republic came out of the gate strong with Darkest Africa, its first serial, but of course the Republic formula was built on the previous success of Mascot, the studio that preceded Republic prior to a merger and reorganization, and the skills of the old hands producing their serials. Co-director (with Joseph Kane) B. Reeves Eason had a career that went back to Vaudeville and the silent era and had helmed several serials for Mascot (and would continue to direct for Republic). Clyde Beatty had also previously starred in The Lost Jungle for Mascot. Beatty was the leading lion tamer of his day (he’s billed as the “world’s greatest wild animal tamer” in this), joining his first circus at age 16 as a “cage boy” and working his way up until he had formed his own show in partnership with the Cole Brothers in 1934; the 1930s and ’40s were the highest points of his fame, and in addition to making films he wrote several popular books about his exploits. Beatty was primarily an animal tamer and performer as opposed to a collector like Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck, but his public persona was that of a big game hunter (he preferred training wild animals to those raised in captivity, as he felt captivity dulled their wits): as Rhina Kirk describes in Circus Heroes and Heroines, “For his performances and public appearances Beatty dressed like an African hunter of Hollywood movies–shiny boots, flaring white breeches and pith helmet.”

Naturally, when he appeared in those Hollywood movies, the setting is the jungle rather than the circus. Beatty is playing “himself,” as he did in The Lost Jungle, and as in other cases the story is written around those talents he was known for: obviously, each chapter gives him an opportunity to face off against one or more big cats, either in a cage or in the wild. His act usually included mixed lions and tigers, their natural animosity to each other making for dramatic situations and heightened stakes, so a contrivance is introduced to justify the appearance of tigers in the African jungle. Part of Beatty’s act included him “staring down” a lion or tiger, subduing it with his dominating will, so Beatty the character also does it a couple of times to escape from being mauled.

Despite its title and focus on jungle cats, Darkest Africa is mostly a “lost world” story, with similarities to The Phantom Empire and Undersea Kingdom (the next Republic serial, also directed by Eason). For creators of H. Rider Haggard’s and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ generations, those blank, “unexplored” sections of the map were tempting invitations to free-associating invention. The mysterious city of Joba lies in a “haunted” region in the “mountains of despair,” taboo to the natives, beyond a volcanic region and adjacent to the territory of the “tiger men” (the tribe venerate the tiger and are the source of the tigers found in the jungle). As a writer, once you’ve set up all those barriers, you can put absolutely anything you like in there, from survivals of ancient civilizations (some of the title cards suggest that Joba was founded by Solomon) to secret high technology (the city is protected by winged “bat-men”–I assume their uniform is a winged flying harness rather than the natural wings of Flash Gordon‘s hawk-men, but the effect is the same). Joba is also described as the “city of the Golden Bat,” with the old god having slept in the temple for three thousand years (this last fact is something of a throwaway: it only comes up once, when the high priest Dagna commands Hambone to use his magic to reawaken the Golden Bat, apparently a plan B to cope with the loss of Dagna’s chosen goddess Valerie, but it’s the kind of detail I dearly love in stories like this). Joba would make a kick-ass setting for a fantasy role-playing game.

Once the action centers on the city itself, it might as well be on the planet Mongo as anywhere else, as it is pure fantasy. Valerie (the beautiful Elaine Shepard) is indeed being held against her will by Dagna (Lucien Prival, who had appeared in Bride of Frankenstein, among many other films), forced to play the role of “Goddess of the Golden Bat” with the elderly Gorn (Edward McWade), keeper of the sacred books, her only companion and advocate. Valerie’s situation is an interesting twist on the “white goddess” character (a type I have some fondness for, even as I’ve acknowledged ways in which it can be problematic): she has the love of the people, and privileges, such as a sanctuary closed even to Dagna, but no freedom, so despite her exalted position she is another example of that standby of the serials, the damsel in distress (until, at least, the end of the serial, when she threatens to sacrifice herself to force Dagna’s hand).

The supporting heroes are also quite diverse (in character type, at least)–there’s no worry of getting characters mixed up in this one! Baru is played by Manuel King, billed as the “world’s youngest wild animal trainer”; he was thirteen years old when Darkest Africa was made, and it was apparently the only film he was ever in, but he lived to be 92 years old, only passing away in 2016!

Bonga, the “ape with almost human understanding,” is credited as playing himself, as if he were an animal star like Rex the Wonder Horse or Rin-Tin-Tin, but in reality Bonga was played by stuntman (and star of Undersea Kingdom) Ray “Crash” Corrigan, the all-around athlete, stunt double, and (later) owner of the extensive studio ranch dubbed “Corriganville.” Corrigan was a “gorilla man,” one of a subset of stunt performers who specialized in playing simians and most of whom owned their own costumes, and while it is clear that Bonga is a man in a suit, he is still a strong, vivid character, with both impressive physicality (Bonga swings from tree to tree on vines, for example) and expression (see below for more on this specialized art).

Then there’s Hambone (Ray Turner), Beatty’s comic-relief factotum; on the surface, Hambone is a walking stereotype, a pop-eyed fraidy-cat bumbler, a black American (as opposed to the mostly anonymous African natives) in the Stepin Fetchit mold. As the story continues, however, Hambone reveals depths of shrewdness and resourcefulness. When Beatty’s bearers return to the village without their boss, scared off by Joba’s patrolling bat-men (or “wind sentries,” a nicely evocative name), Hambone heads into the jungle alone to track down Beatty and rescue him if needed. Overburdened with duffel bags and an enormous elephant gun, Hambone’s separate adventure, shown intermittently, plays like a spoof of Beatty’s journey: Beatty runs afoul of the tiger men and is thrown into a tiger pit, which he gets out of through a combination of his skills and Bonga’s help; later, Hambone is cornered by the same tiger men and manages to avoid being thrown in the pit by the good fortune of his grenade belt landing in the fire and scaring the tribe away; and so forth. Once Hambone arrives at Joba (and wanders in the front door unseen, as opposed to the arduous secret entrance Beatty and Baru made, spied on at every turn by Dagna’s sentries), he rejoins the main plot, doing his part to help Clyde Beatty save Valerie . . . and the day.

What I Watched: Darkest Africa (Republic, 1936)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Home Video (continuing my summer of VHS, this included having to open the case and clean the heads on my VCR to get it playing correctly–thank goodness for YouTube tutorials!)

No. of Chapters: 15 (but most are only about 15 minutes long)

Best Chapter Title: “Trial by Thunder-Rods” (Chapter Ten) The two smugglers, Craddock (Edmund Cobb) and Durkin (old reliable Wheeler Oakman), have forged an uneasy alliance with Dagna, warning him of the approaching “outlanders” (Beatty and Baru) and offering the high priest a shipment of rifles in exchange for more of the green diamonds they covet. Once Hambone arrives with his elephant gun, Dagna has the idea of testing it against the smugglers’ “thunder-rods” to determine which is more powerful–by having Craddock and Hambone aim at each other and fire simultaneously! Amazingly, this is not the actual cliffhanger of this chapter.

Best Cliffhanger: Unsurprisingly, most of the cliffhangers involve lions or tigers, with Beatty’s skills put to the test to get him out of the jam in the following chapter. There are also a few actual cliffhangers, as in the first chapter (“Baru–Son of the Jungle”), when the ledge supporting Beatty and Baru collapses during an earthquake and they appear to be buried in an avalanche. There are also two cliffhangers in which Beatty hides behind something and is detected, leading to enemies attacking his hiding spot with spears or rifles. However, my favorite cliffhanger is in Chapter Nine (“When Birdmen Strike,” another great chapter title). Beatty has escaped through the mines beneath Joba into the jungle in order to find the ammunition cached by Craddock and Durkin. After finding the crate of ammo, he attempts to cross a clearing with it, drawing the Bat-men away from Baru. Shown zig-zagging across the clearing from overhead, Beatty is an easy target, and without actually showing the hit, the last shot reveals Beatty, prone, with a spear appearing to skewer him. (As the following chapter reveals, Beatty once again feigned death, the spear having passed under his arm and stuck into the ground. Repeat after me: “That was a close one!”)

Sample Dialogue: “You must not forget that Beatty enjoys the reputation of being the world’s greatest wild animal trainer.” –Durkin, warning Dagna not to underestimate Beatty (Chapter Seven, “Swing for Life”)

What Others Have Said: In light of “Crash” Corrigan’s performance as Bonga, let us check in with a “gorilla man” from a later generation, special effects artist and collector Bob Burns. Burns explains how he learned the ropes from ape performer Charles Gemora: “He shared with me some of his trade secrets for bringing life to a mask that was limited, mobility-wise, to simply opening and closing its mouth. For example, he explained that if you wanted to look ferocious you should rear back your head while opening the mouth, which shows the audience more teeth and creates an illusion of facial expression. He also stressed the importance of acting with your eyes, as they are the only exposed part of the wearer. Charlie was so skillful in projecting with his eyes that people who have watched his performances sometimes swear they saw the gorilla’s brow and other facial muscles move–even though everything is immobile.” –Bob Burns with John Michlig, It Came From Bob’s Basement!: Exploring the Science Fiction and Monster Movie Archive of Bob Burns

What’s Next: Join me next time as I tackle another Republic serial, 1944’s Haunted Harbor!

Fates Worse Than Death: Junior G-Men

Which is more terrifying: to be trapped in an out-of-control elevator, plummeting down the shaft to the basement, or to be in the bottom of that shaft, trapped as the elevator descends to crush you? Billy Barton and Harry Trent, the heroes of the 1940 serial Junior G-Men, face both situations: the first as enemies thrown together by chance and the second later as allies, once street kid Billy has seen the necessity of joining forces with the Junior G-Men, perhaps even signing up to become one himself! In between those two cliffhangers, they and their friends face off against kidnapping attempts, fires, and explosions, even experiencing a building coming down around them! It’s all in the line of duty for the Junior G-Men!

Several times during this series, I have commented on the necessity of combining the action and mystery formulas of the serials with other genres: of course there are superhero, Western, and jungle adventure serials, to name a few, settings capacious and widespread enough to encompass whole strands of serial style. One can be a fan of one of those formats and have plenty to watch without ever having to branch out. But there are also settings and premises that were only adapted to the serials a few times: the “giant bug” creature feature of Panther Girl of the Kongo comes to mind, and Junior G-Men is an example of the serialization of the “juvenile gang” film. Kid characters aren’t too unusual in serials, but Junior G-Men is a vehicle for the Dead End Kids, essentially a genre unto themselves. The Dead End Kids began as a group of young actors who broke out together in the Broadway play (and 1937 feature film) Dead End, a slice-of-life drama about tenement life in Lower East Side New York. They went on to star in numerous films together in different combinations, eventually devolving from the socially-conscious melodrama of Dead End and Angels With Dirty Faces to the goofy, sitcom-like antics of the Bowery Boys in the 1950s. The additional billing of the “Little Tough Guys” in the cast of Junior G-Men does not indicate a second group, but rather an attempt to rebrand the troupe after moving from Warner Brothers to Universal; it’s a little confusing. (Trav S.D., author of books on Vaudeville and film comedy, has a more detailed breakdown of the Dead End Kids and their various spinoffs here.) Notably, Leo Gorcey, whose name is most closely associated with the later Bowery Boys, does not appear in Junior G-Men.

As Junior G-Men begins, we observe Billy Lang’s gang in its natural habitat, the city streets, engaging in the kind of behavior teenage boys get up to in packs: rough-housing, verbally busting each other’s chops, catcalling women, and cadging apples from street vendors (okay, that last one is a bit more specific to their time and place). The only indication that these tough kids might be more than loudmouthed delinquents is when Billy (Billy Halop) pushes one of his fellows out of the way of a speeding car. You could call it Billy’s “Save the Cat” moment, but it just ends up causing more trouble, resulting in a wreck and traffic jam that spirals into a fight between the drivers.

While the cops are distracted and the other adults are rubbernecking, Billy and the boys help themselves to the pies from the back of a stalled bakery truck. A slick-looking, better-dressed boy observes them at a distance, and once they’ve left, helps the cops track down the teenage pie thieves. That boy is Harry Trent, head of the local Junior G-Men chapter and an aspiring Fed, just doing the right thing in the name of law and order; once Billy and his gang find out who squealed on them, they invade the Junior G-Men’s clubhouse and beat the snot out of them, at least until one of the junior agents is able to place a call and summon the police.

It might end there, but once Harry’s uncle, FBI agent Jim Bradford (Phillip Terry), arrives, he learns that “Billy Lang” is actually Billy Barton, the missing son of one Colonel Barton, a scientist and inventor who had disappeared years earlier. (Col. Barton had placed his son in a military school before going on the mission during which he went missing, a school which Billy ran away from, leading to life on the streets and his new assumed identity.) Bradford realizes that Billy may be the key to defeating the Order of the Flaming Torch, a secret organization dedicated to overthrowing the United States government.

With their choice of iconography, an arm holding a raised torch, and their penchant for Roman columns in their hideout, the Torch gang (or “Torchies,” as they are frequently called later) suggests a fascist insurgency, but as usual their exact politics are left a mystery beyond their goal of replacing democratic government with their own rule. And they seem close to achieving it: their cells are spread out across the country, and they’ve succeeded in kidnapping several scientists and other prominent individuals, like Barton, to force them to work for their cause. Col. Barton (Russell Hicks) is the inventor of a new explosive (“Bartonite,” of course) that is not only more powerful than any yet developed, it can somehow cause the detonation of any other explosives within a range dependent on how much of the substance is used. Barton has thus far refused to share the formula for his explosive, only preparing small amounts for the Torchies to test; while he maintains that leverage, he remains alive. Once the Torchies, and their leader Brand, have the formula, they can manufacture as much of the substance as they want, and they will be ready to make their move. Brand learns that Billy is Col. Barton’s son, and immediately plans to kidnap him, hoping to use Billy to force his father’s hand.

Many serials and pulp narratives start out with characters suspicious of or antagonistic to each other, but Junior G-Men really goes the extra mile in establishing Billy’s dislike for Harry. Harry Trent (played by Kenneth Howell, not one of the regular Dead End Kids) is an uptight square, at first appearing to be the kind of rich “softy” the Dead End Kids beat up for laughs in their earlier films. His efforts to bring the kids to justice for stealing a few pies shows, at best, an eagerness to show off and be part of the system, and he seems to expect Billy to thank him for showing him the way back to the straight and narrow.

Because of the Production Code and the need for clearly-drawn heroes and villains, the serials were generally pro-law-and-order (their earnest squareness is a frequent target of later spoofs), so making the anarchic, sarcastic, and authority-defying Dead End Kids the heroes (and keeping the antagonism going for as long as it does–it’s about halfway through before Billy really commits to working with Harry and his chums) makes for an unusual change of pace. When Jim Bradford appeals to Billy’s sense of patriotism, the word hardly has any meaning, he’s been pushed around so much. “The government or the cops never did nothin’ for me!” Billy sneers. “Stop preachin’ to me, wiseguy.” Proof that the “juvenile delinquent” archetype of the 1950s had deeper roots than many think.

At first Billy doesn’t believe Bradford’s claim that the Torchies are holding Col. Barton, but once he sees the evidence for himself he acts: at first on his own, still refusing the aid or advice of the FBI (“I’ll find him without the help of any copper!”), and later only grudgingly cooperating. Most of the middle chapters feature at least one scene in which Billy observes Harry’s cutting-edge police work, so like the Dick Tracy serials, and says something like, “That scientific stuff of yours is pretty good.” There’s even a montage in which Bradford explains the FBI’s fingerprint database, complete with stock footage of agents combing through thick files and using the latest technology like computer punch cards.

Billy is won over as much by the cool radio equipment and good food at the Junior G-Men clubhouse as he is by Harry’s and Bradford’s efforts at persuasion. Eventually he agrees to “put our wallop together and go after those Torchies.” Even then, Billy and his gang do things their own way, and they don’t really change character. It’s sometimes a little frustrating–there are plenty of times Billy takes dumb risks instead of waiting for backup, but that’s what we love about the loose-cannon detectives in later mismatched buddy cop comedies, isn’t it? Serial heroes can sometimes be a little too perfect, so the often-fractious efforts at teamwork between the raucous kids and the straitlaced FBI makes for a lively, colorful adventure. It’s also generally exciting and satisfying to see the kids get one over on the pompously assured Brand (Cy Kendall, seen before in this series in The Green Hornet and Jungle Queen). “They got away, as usual,” Brand’s right-hand man, Severn (Ben Taggart), says morosely after yet another failed encounter.

Aside from Billy, the Dead End Kid who gets the most screen time is Gyp, the cut-up (and would-be lady’s man) played by lanky, rubber-faced Huntz Hall. Most of the overt comic relief comes from Gyp (or at his expense), giving Billy space to brood and take charge of situations. Many of Gyp’s lines, mostly “so’s your old man” non sequiturs, are really memorable because of Hall’s delivery: when Gyp–who is earlier shown learning how to drive–jumps into Harry’s car after Billy and Harry have been grabbed yet again by the Torchies, he yells at a pedestrian, “Hey, whadya wanna do, become an angel or somethin’?” It’s funnier on screen than it is in print.

Other gang members, regular members of the troop, include Lug (Bernard Punsly) and Terry (Gabriel Dell), but they don’t get more than a few lines at a time and are mostly noticeable when the kids have to split up into different groups for plot reasons (that’s pretty much the way the formula plays out in regular Dead End Kids or Bowery Boys vehicles, as well). They still come off better than the Junior G-Men, however: aside from Harry, I couldn’t remember the names of any of the others, and they’re pretty much completely interchangeable. The numbers of kids pays off in fight scenes, however, which they throw themselves into with gusto, filling the screen with action and practically tearing the sets down (that rowdiness apparently continued off the set, and was one of the reasons the troupe passed under different studios and producers over the years).

As far as I can tell, Junior G-Men lies halfway between the soapy but plausible mixture of drama and comedy in the early Dead End Kids films and the kooky, formulaic encounters with ghosts, psychics, and Russian spies in the Bowery Boys pictures. Already, Billy’s gang is shown living out the teenage fantasy of independence, with a cool junkyard clubhouse (hidden behind a secret entrance in a fence, of course), and it goes without saying that their battles with the Torch gang are pure pulp. With America pulling out of the long Depression, even such concerns as hunger and physical danger are mere inconveniences or opportunities for adventure rather than the soul-destroying epidemics of Dead End. Conversely, Billy’s disillusionment with the government is mined for drama, and the Torch gang isn’t playing around (interestingly, gunplay is largely avoided because the FBI doesn’t want to start shooting with kids around, and the Torchies don’t want to lose their leverage over Col. Barton by accidentally killing his son). Much of the charge in Junior G-Men comes from characters from two different genres–the slapstick and sarcasm of the kid gangs and the clipped “Now see here” patter of the crime serial–bumping against each other. The result is a unique and entertaining film in which the roots of many future kiddie adventure flicks can be seen.

What I Watched: Junior G-Men (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Rhino Video (It is also on YouTube, which is where I grabbed the screen caps.)

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Trapped by Traitors” (Chapter Six); but have no fear, victory is ultimately assured by “The Power of Patriotism” (Chapter Twelve)!

Best Cliffhanger: In the aforementioned “Trapped by Traitors,” Billy and the gang trace the Torchies to their city hideout in an unfinished apartment building and decide to do some snooping without involving Bradford. However, Bradford overhears the boys’ plans and summons his own G-men to raid the hideout. Bradford arrives just in time to help Billy and Harry out of a trap and shake off their would-be captors, but unbeknownst to our heroes, Brand has had both towers of the apartment building wired with explosives that can be set off remotely. Learning that their cover has been blown, Brand gives the signal, and stock footage of the apartment tower collapsing are alternated with interior shots of billowing dust and rafters caving in. Will the senior and junior G-men make it out in time? (Dialogue from Chapter Six, including “Oh boy, that was a close one!”, suggests they will.)

Sample Dialogue:

Bradford: Did the Torch gang clear out?

Gyp: Yeah, but they won’t get far.

Bradford: Why not?

Gyp: I knifed one of them.

Bradford: Knifed ’em?

Gyp: Ehhhh, I knifed one of their tires.

(Chapter Seven, “Flaming Death”)

What Others Have Said: “A big, stout, lumbering man, whose first impression of drowsiness or laziness was disarmingly deceptive, [Cy Kendall] portrayed with finesse the sly, crafty, insinuating gang boss who badgered those around him with guile and deceit, praising them with a sarcastic display of oily supercilious charm, while constantly nagging them with a cynical sneer of thinly disguised contempt. His ‘boys’ never knew what he really thought of them, but the audience did. He was so easy to hate that regular serial fans grew to love him.” –William C. Cline, In the Nick of Time: Motion Picture Sound Serials

What’s Next: The Dead End Kids starred in two more serials for Universal, Sea Raiders and Junior G-Men of the Air, which I may get to, but for now I’m heading back to the jungle with Clyde Beatty in Darkest Africa! See you next time!

Fates Worse Than Death: Jungle Queen

A plane flies over the African jungle in darkness: aboard are two American hunters, Bob Elliot and Chuck Kelly, and Pamela Courtney, niece of the world-famous British explorer Alan Courtney. Although neither quite trusts the other yet, Bob and Pamela are both heading to the village of Tambosa for the same reason: Alan Courtney, known and respected by the Tongghili tribesmen, is the only white man who knows the secret to the Sword of Tongu, the emblem of office held by the head man of all the regional tribes, and the key to controlling the territory. Back in Nairobi, where the plane took off, the mechanic who readied the plane predicts that it is about to develop engine trouble; no one will question the plane’s disappearance, and there will be no survivors. When addressed as “Johann,” the mechanic quickly corrects his interviewer: he may be “Johann” back in Berlin, but here he’s “Jack.” Yes, the Germans have an interest in the Sword of Tongu and control of the jungle as well, and they have many eyes and ears in America and Great Britain to keep track of their rivals. The year is 1939, and the Nazis are making plans to conquer first Europe, and then the world, with central Africa an important part of their strategy. Sure enough, miles from any safe landing spot, the plane begins to sputter and smoke; a last-ditch effort is made to land in a clearing, but can anyone survive the crash and resulting fireball? Have our American and British heroes met their fate before their true purpose is even known to each other? So ends “Invitation to Danger,” the first chapter of Jungle Queen!

Along with the image of the helpless damsel tied to a railroad track or a conveyor belt leading to a buzz saw (a premise nowhere near as common in actual serials as in the popular imagination), one of the most common latter-day representations of the serials involves a strong-jawed hero clobbering a hapless Nazi (in full uniform, of course) for the good ol’ U. S. of A. As I’ve pointed out before, however, the serials I’ve reviewed so far were for the most part much less explicit in their politics than we tend to remember: usually, when a rival nation is the enemy, it’s presented in vague terms, clear enough to read between the lines but easy to ignore for those who, back then just as today, prefer to think of their entertainment choices as apolitical. Even Captain America, a hero explicitly created to fight Nazis (and famously shown punching Hitler on the cover of his first issue), was made into a crusading district attorney and crimebuster when he made the leap to the serials.

There are exceptions, of course: the first Batman serial is explicitly anti-Japanese, to the point of actively endorsing the internment of Japanese-American citizens, making it hard to watch without wincing today. And there is Jungle Queen, produced in 1945 but set in 1939, before the invasion of Poland, and depicting Nazi machinations in central Africa for strategic control of approaches to Europe. While American movie studios in the 1930s didn’t want to alienate audiences who preferred to stay neutral or may even have been sympathetic to Germany (a dirty little secret of American politics that was conveniently forgotten once war was declared), by 1945 there was no risk in being explicitly anti-Nazi. (Making Bob and Chuck “volunteers” also makes a point: “See, America was involved, we just couldn’t make it official!”)

The word “Nazi” is frequently used in Jungle Queen, the nationalities of the characters are stated out loud, and if the visual cues of polished black boots and references to Mauser rifles weren’t clear enough, the frequent appearance of swastikas, death’s heads, and stock footage of Nazi troops on parade in Berlin make this by far the most politically explicit serial I’ve seen (and a clear forebear of the Nazi-punching Indiana Jones movies). Note that while Jungle Queen makes it clear that the Nazis are bad guys, it only takes issue with their lust for power in the abstract and their violent methods, making no mention of the racism and anti-Semitism at the root of their movement. It’s the same kind of portrayal of Nazis as cartoonish thugs, without reference to ideology, that Steven Spielberg later disavowed (but as I said, it’s at least more specific in comparison to other serials of the time).

The (slightly) more realistic politics in Jungle Queen lead to a greater emphasis on the characters’ international background and support systems than is usual as well: while American adventurers Bob Elliot and Chuck Kelly carry most of the serial’s action, we also see events orchestrated by the British spymaster “Mr. X” in London and Commissioner Chatterton in Tambosa, and on the other side by an unnamed German officer in Berlin supervising the Nazi spies. Each chapter begins with one or more of these figures receiving reports that bring the audience up to date on the situation in Africa, also serving to remind us of the area’s strategic importance. It’s one of the more complex depictions of international relations I’ve seen in the usually action-oriented serials, and the degree of intrigue, espionage, and counter-espionage is like something out of a Carol Reed film.

But back to the action: before too long, Bob and Pamela come to accept that neither one is a Nazi spy, and they can work together. Bob and Chuck were sent by American intelligence to secretly aid the Brits, just as Pamela was sent by Mr. X to find her uncle, in the belief that she is the only person Alan Courtney would trust. They’re just in time, too, as the jungle region is practically overrun with German spies and collaborators, and their plan is already in motion.  A Swedish scientist named Dr. Elise Bork(!) runs an experimental farm outside of Tambosa; she is actually the local Nazi ringleader, overseeing Lang, her safari boss, and Danka, the farm’s foreman. Hidden in the farmhouse is a direct line to a Nazi listening post in the jungle, through which they relay their communications with Berlin. (There are three important female characters in this: Pamela Courtney, Dr. Bork, and Lothel, the mysterious “jungle queen” of the title. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually pretty good for a serial.)

The German plan is straightforward enough: the village of Tong-Gara is home to a Judge who controls the diverse villages of the Tongghili tribe; the current Judge, Tongu, is friendly with the British, but the Germans hope to replace Tongu with a tribesman whom they can control. When Tongu is slain, his successor, Godac, prepares to name his own successor, Maati. Unbeknownst to Godac, Maati is a traitor, secretly working with Lang, and he plans to kill Godac once he is named successor, after which he will cooperate fully with Germany. Maati is possibly the least sympathetic character in the serial, not only a traitor but an obvious fool, concerned only with taking power locally and quite uninterested in the Nazis’ larger ambitions.

However, before Godac can name Maati, a gong sounds in the temple, announcing the arrival of Lothel, “mysterious queen of the jungle.” Lothel appears from within the flames that only the innocent can walk through and delivers a warning: there are enemies among them, and Godac must choose wisely! Godac opts to delay his decision until the situation is clearer to him. Lothel (played by Ruth Roman, in her only serial role) is a white woman (we are told that her name means “white butterfly”), a “white goddess” in the tradition of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. (One could even trace such characters back to the medieval legend of Prester John, the potentate imagined to rule a Christian empire somewhere in India or the Far East).

Lothel is obeyed and trusted implicitly by the black tribesmen, and why not? She alone can walk through the flames that burn eternally within the temple, and her comings and goings all over the jungle are sudden and unexplained enough–she appears out of nowhere to deliver her messages or protect those she favors–to be the product of magic. She seems to know things that others don’t, as well: she is aware of the foreign interlopers in the jungle and has definite ideas about who is good and who is evil, regardless of their outer appearances. (Lothel is also frequently framed by archways, her arms raised, as if she were singlehandedly holding up the temple or was perhaps prepared, Samson-like, to tear it down.)

As in many serials, the characters are mostly stock types; Bob Elliot (Edward Norris) is blandly heroic, the better for audience members to project themselves onto; ditto for Pamela Courtney (Lois Collier). Chuck Kelly, played by Eddie Quillan, however, is the comic relief, so he gets to have a personality, mostly catty. He may be two-dimensional, but that’s twice as many dimensions as most of the other characters get: he’s an astrology buff, and he’s from Brooklyn (“The U. S. is the other half of Brooklyn,” he says). He refers to Lothel as “Queenie,” and is full of opinions, but mostly he’s a foil for Bob’s stoic manliness and Pamela’s stiff upper lip, giving them someone to explain things to and saying things out loud no one else will: a Thelma Ritter of the jungle.

The other colorful characters tend to appear in only a few chapters, such as Tambosa Tim (Cy Kendall), the shady operator of the local watering hole, and Captain Drake (Oliver Blake), a flinty seaman who has a few secrets of his own. Dr. Bork (Tala Birell) plays deception well, appearing warm and friendly to Commissioner Chatterton (Lester Matthews) and haughty and cold when among her fellow Nazis. The “spearhead villain,” Lang, who does most of Dr. Bork’s dirty work, is played by Douglas Drumbille in the same vein as Wheeler Oakman’s many henchman roles (he’s got a mustache, so you know he’s evil).

Finally, Jungle Queen gets partial credit for differentiating its African tribesman characters (and they are all men); there are still plenty of scenes of exotic jungle drums and attempted human sacrifice, but the scenes of the Judge in council with the heads of the tribes are treated seriously, and the internal politics of the Tongghili are given equal weight with the external maneuvering of the great powers. Most important among the tribal characters is the elderly, dignified Godac (Clinton Rosemond); the treacherous Maati (Napoleon Simpson); and Kyba (Clarence Muse), the rightful leader whose loyalties are torn between following Lothel and doubting the wisdom of her counsel.

In discussing the political dimensions of Jungle Queen or any other serial, of course I don’t mean to suggest that children (the primary audience for the serials) demanded absolute realism or fidelity to outside events in their entertainment: it’s called “escapism” for a reason. Still, even fantasy benefits from some contact with the real world, the addition of depth and complexity that comes from the feeling that the writers know something of the world and are willing to confront it in their work. Compared to the cardboard characters and storybook settings of something like Captain Africa, Jungle Queen has the breath of life in it (although characterization isn’t really Jungle Queen‘s strong point, either). However, once the real world is let in, it isn’t easy to cordon off parts of the story from implications we’d rather ignore. Like many of the serials I’ve examined, Jungle Queen engages with its African characters from a colonialist point of view. Some are good and some are bad; it’s not the worst example I’ve seen, but it’s not the best, either. It goes without saying that Lothel is a literal “white savior,” the “white goddess” trope being rooted in white supremacy, no matter how benevolently it is depicted. Perhaps this is why the racial ideology of Nazism is never brought up: the beautiful Lothel, lording over the black tribesmen, is a little too close to Nazi fantasy for comfort, and saying it out loud would raise the question of why the Tongghili need to be lead by outsiders at all. The British influence is depicted as peaceful and mutually beneficial, but that’s colonialism in a nutshell, isn’t it: at least our brand of exploitation is better than theirs.

Spoilers for the last chapter of Jungle Queen: Jungle Queen teases the audience throughout with the explanation of Lothel’s presence. Before he dies, Alan Courtney (Boyd Irwin) says cryptically, “The secret of the sword is . . . Lothel.” When Maati is about to take power, Lothel appears again and reveals that there are actually two swords, and Godac has given Maati the decoy, which she is able to prove; how does she know such secrets?

It turns out that the explanation for Lothel’s power over the Tongghili is . . . that there is no explanation! Usually, a “white god/goddess” character is explained as being the child of an explorer or castaway, or some such Tarzan-like origin; or the possessor of some mystic secret, like Haggard’s Ayesha; or perhaps they are a secret agent, sent by one of the Western countries to be an ally or protector (or, like the Phantom, it could be a combination of all three). Any of those explanations could be true of Lothel, but the filmmakers are uncharacteristically willing to let the mystery go unexplained. Perhaps she even has genuine magical powers?

During the climax of the final chapter, Dr. Bork, her spy ring destroyed, the Nazi plan failed, almost gets away . . . almost. After wiring her jungle mountain hideout to explode, taking the evidence of her activities with it, she is stopped by the appearance of Lothel, the first time the two have faced each other directly. The jungle queen’s fury is finally unleashed: “German weapons kill Germans!” she says when Dr. Bork shoots at her, to no effect. “Nazis kill Nazis!” Then the mountaintop explodes, seen from below by Bob and Chuck. The heroes never see Lothel again, but the last shot reveals her still walking through he flames in the temple at Tong-Gara, unknowable to the last.

What I Watched: Jungle Queen (Universal, 1945)

Where I Watched It: DVD released by VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Invitation to Danger” (Chapter One)

Best Cliffhanger: Most of the cliffhangers in this serial are a little abrupt. Almost all of them cut quickly to the come-on for the next chapter once the danger to our heroes is established, but the amount of preparation and foreshadowing is what really determines how sudden the peril feels, whether it comes out of the blue or seems like the logical outcome of an unfolding process. This serial follows the general rule that the chapter title foreshadows the nature of the cliffhanger that ends the chapter, so “Wildcat Stampede” (Chapter Four) ends with Maati and his tribesmen releasing captive leopards and lions in Alan Courtney’s camp as a distraction, with one of them attacking Pamela, and so forth. A few cliffhangers take more time to generate actual suspense by establishing the threat: the more the audience knows about the approaching danger, the more tension it creates. A lion leaping directly at the camera is a shock, but directors Ray Taylor and Lewis Collins would have to linger on the moment and (for example) show Pamela attempting to fight it off in order to generate more than passing surprise.

In “Trip-Wire Murder” (Chapter Seven), Chuck and Pamela have been captured by Captain Drake and tied up aboard his schooner, the Silver Star. Just in case anyone should think to nose around his ship, Drake has rigged a trip-wire in the hall outside his cabin, set to fire a machine gun through a hidden hole in the door at anyone in the hall. Not only do we see Drake lay the trap, we see Dr. Bork almost set it off, but then avoid it, when she enters the cabin, and Bob’s later entry (the one that sets off the trap and forms the cliffhanger) is liberally cut with shots of the wire and the gun hidden behind the door. The suspense isn’t in wondering what will happen–that is made extremely clear–but when, and how Bob will survive it.

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Part of the reason so many of the cliffhangers seem abrupt is because of the way their resolution is put together. Several resolutions rely on an old trick that a purist like Annie Wilkes would probably consider a cockadoodie cheat. Late in the serial, at the end of Chapter Twelve (“Dragged Under”), Chuck is chased through the jungle by Maati’s tribesmen. Desperately, he plunges into a shallow river and swims across; Maati looks on in satisfaction, predicting that Chuck will be no match for the crocodiles that swarm the water. Sure enough, the chapter ends with a shot of thrashing crocodiles in a feeding frenzy.

However, as the next chapter begins, after Maati points out the crocs, a whole new sequence is inserted: Lothel appears on the riverbank holding a large hunk of meat. She throws it into the water to distract the crocs, and Chuck escapes while they devour the meat: the same footage shown in the previous chapter, but now with a totally different meaning. (Needless to say, Chuck is never actually onscreen at the same time as the crocodiles.) Throughout Jungle Queen, scenes are edited to show that the context of the cliffhanger wasn’t quite what it appeared, without outright contradicting a frame of what was shown before. (Because of this, it would probably be a challenge to preserve even the minimal suspense of these perils in a feature-length edit; the “trip-wire murder” described above is an exception.)

Sample Dialogue:

Bob: Look Chuck: if we can help the English, that’s okay. They don’t want it, we’ll just hunt lions.

Chuck: Well, here’s hoping the English can use some volunteer Americans, because I’d rather hunt Nazis!

(Chapter One, “Invitation to Danger”)

What Others Have Said: “The movie serial, of course, was involved symbolically in the struggle before it began. As World War II approached, those foreign powers bent on stealing the destructive ray gun or ultra-powered explosive began to look more and more like Axis nations. When hostilities began, it was necessary only to identify the spies or aliens of the ‘steal-the-secret’ serials as Germans or Japanese. . . . No doubt about it, in jungle, prairie, or metropolis, the cliffhanging heroes and heroines did their part in the war effort–though one must overlook their apparent aversion to ordinary service in the armed forces. Scenes of battle action were no more than inserts in tales of spy fighting or fifth-column activity.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: As I mentioned last time, earlier this year I bought a big box of serials on VHS. Reaching into the box to pull one out at random, my next installment will cover . . . the Dead End Kids in Junior G-Men! See you then!

Fates Worse Than Death: Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery

When last we saw “Tailspin” Tommy Tompkins, the youthful daredevil pilot from Littleville, he had a steady job at Three Points airfield and a steady girl in Betty Lou Barnes, and was even something of a celebrity, having acted in a movie. As the second Tailspin Tommy serial begins, Tommy and his partner “Skeeter” Milligan are still working out of Three Points, with Skeeter operating a camera as Tommy flies them over fleet maneuvers for the Navy. Once they finish up, they get their next job offer: Betty Lou’s uncle Ned Curtis hires the pair to make an aerial survey of a tropical island and blaze trails for the oil pipelines Curtis and his partner, Don Alvarado Casmetto, are laying. Tommy and Skeeter are to join Betty Lou, her uncle, and Don Casmetto’s niece Inez on a dirigible bound for the island of Nazil.

However, after a detour to Littleville, Tommy and Skeeter miss their flight; they decide to follow the dirigible’s path in their own plane with the intention of docking in mid-air. The captain refuses at first, but then a mysterious plane decorated like an eagle appears, and its pilot–also wearing an eagle-themed suit and helmet–sends a message instructing the dirigible to take the boys on board. The eagle plane lays down a smoke screen and vanishes as quickly as it had appeared. Soon the boys have docked and joined their party. But a storm blows up, and with the dirigible’s radio damaged, the only chance to send an S.O.S. is the radio in Tommy’s still-docked plane. He descends into the cockpit while the storm rages around him; suddenly the wind knocks the plane loose from its mooring with Tommy inside it; it plummets toward the ocean below while the dirigible collapses. Will Tommy’s adventure be over before it even begins? Audiences in 1935 would have to wait a whole week to find out in subsequent chapters of Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery!

During the 1930s, the promise of freedom and adventure in the skies fueled an entire subgenre of aviation-themed comic strips, books, and movies. Hal Forrest’s Tailspin Tommy, a footnote today, was one of the most popular, branching beyond the comics to radio, Big Little Books, and, of course, motion pictures. Like so many of the kids in his audience, Tommy Tompkins was a small-town boy obsessed with airplanes and flight, and his first serial relayed his journey from wannabe to hero pilot in compressed form, stringing together several episodes from his comic-strip adventures over an unusually long period of time.

Filmed just a year later, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery is a much more typical serial, focused on a single plot: when Tommy and Skeeter and the rest finally arrive at the island of Nazil, they find that it is disputed territory. Don Casmetto’s half-brother, Manuel (Herbert Heywood), has a base on the opposite end of the island, and with the encouragement and financial backing of an unscrupulous oil speculator named Raymore (Mathew Betz) he is making war with the goal of taking over Casmetto’s lucrative oil fields. Manuel has airplanes and pilots of his own at his disposal, so the situation provides plenty of opportunities for scenes of aerial reconnaissance, chases, dogfights, crashes, and daring rescues (not to mention the kinds of fist fights and cave-ins that provide the thrills in all serial genres). Nazil is Hollywood-exotic, combining elements of the island/jungle genre (namely, an active volcano and aggressive natives on a neighboring island) with the kind of Spanish colonial color–haciendas, mariachis, and the elegant lifestyle of the dons–seen in the Zorro series. The story’s self-containment in an exotic locale is somewhat similar in that regard to the near-contemporary Ace Drummond, with a south-of-the-border setting in place of that serial’s Mongolia.

One of the chief elements of suspense is the eagle-themed plane and its pilot, nicknamed “El Condor” by Manuel’s men: who is he, and how does he achieve such amazing aerial maneuvers and disappear so quickly once he is no longer needed? From the very first chapter, El Condor appears to be on Tommy’s side (and, by extension, Don Casmetto’s); he is an example of a standard character type in the serials, the masked hero who is not the main protagonist, but who comes to the aid of the main characters and whose identity is eventually revealed to them. (The solution to this mystery is one that is in plain sight, but one could be forgiven for missing the significance of a few lines of dialogue by a secondary character in the first chapter.) Although the mysterious plane isn’t treated as a macguffin like in some serials, there is a nod toward the trope of high-tech equipment that mustn’t fall into the “wrong hands”: once Tommy has learned El Condor’s true identity and flown with him, experiencing one of the plane’s miraculous getaways for himself, El Condor says with understandable pride, “A great weapon for war, Tommy,” to which Tommy immediately replies, “A great weapon for peace, you mean.”

However, El Condor is not the only masked flyer in the serial, nor the only character who has secrets. One of Don Casmetto’s friends, Enrico Garcia (Paul Ellis), is quickly shown to be a traitor, feeding damaging information to Manuel and Raymore, as well as taking to the air himself as “Double X,” retaining his anonymity with an aviator cap and goggles marked by twin Xs, a literal “double cross.” Garcia is able to play both sides for quite a while, and is even able to convince Don Casmetto for a time that he is the mysterious “El Condor.”

Another character, Bill McGuire (Jim Burtis), first appears as a cook and gopher for Manuel, but he is actually a reporter and a friend of Tommy’s, working undercover as he gathers information for a big story. In several chapters he helps Tommy and Skeeter by setting them free from Manuel’s dungeon or giving them key information; he also, it turns out, knows the real identity of El Condor, making him critical to the serial’s climactic chapters. At the same time, he occasionally serves as a surrogate character for the audience, watching events unfold from the ground and exchanging a “gee, whiz” or a whistle of amazement with his pet parrot. (He provides a bit of comic relief, but he’s not a bumbler in the Smiley Burnette mold; he only appears to be one when serving Manuel to avert suspicion.)

Despite the short time between the two serials’ production, Great Air Mystery recasts most of the main characters, with Clark Williams taking the title role in place of the first serial’s Maurice Murphy; Jean Rogers, the future Dale Arden, now plays Betty Lou, replacing Patricia Farr. (Such recasting occasionally happens today, but it was even more common in the studio era when film production was more akin to an assembly line.) Fittingly, Noah Beery, Jr. returns to play Skeeter, the most distinctive character among them, but even here his shtick is changed: as a comic relief sidekick, Skeeter usually has a running gag: in the first Tailspin Tommy serial, he had a tendency to make a proclamation or observation and proclaim it an “unwritten law.” In the 1939 feature Sky Patrol, Skeeter was given to malapropisms, mangling or misusing polysyllabic words. In Great Air Mystery, however, Skeeter’s comedy isn’t that broad, mostly limited to attempts at card tricks (in one sequence he attempts to use one to distract Manuel’s men after being captured) and his nervous reaction to Inez Casmetto’s obvious come-ons (not an unusual trait for a comic sidekick at the time).

Of course, Betty Lou isn’t content to sit back and let the boys have all the adventure: recall that in the first serial, it was she who first had her pilot’s license and was Tommy’s introduction to the world of flying. In Great Air Mystery, despite Tommy and Skeeter’s efforts to keep her away from danger, she several times either stows away (hiding in a truly tiny-looking compartment in Tommy’s plane!) or flies off on her own, alone or with Inez (Delphine Drew). (Needless to say, this sometimes does put her in danger, but that just puts her on the same footing as everybody else in this serial.) Betty Lou’s attitude is summed up in Chapter Seven (“The Crash in the Clouds”) when she arrives at Don Casmetto’s oilfield in her own plane with Inez after being told to stay away. Skeeter tells her, “Hey, don’t you know this is men’s work?”, to which she replies, “Where’s the sign?” When Skeeter asks what sign, she spells it out for him: “Men. At. Work.” (No, it’s not exactly Preston Sturges.)

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery isn’t bad: it features likable characters in a colorful environment and keeps the plot moving along. Of course, the main draw is the aerial action, which is for the most part exciting and not hard to follow, and there are several well-done action set pieces. (Apparently it was the practice to blaze trails by flying above the territory and dropping grenades on the jungle below, and you can bet all those explosives find other uses, blowing up warehouses, hangars, and airplanes on the ground alike!) On the other hand, Great Air Mystery doesn’t have the small-town charm of the first serial, so nothing about it stands out from the other aviation-themed serials that were being churned out in the mid-’30s. Needless to say, however, there is the possibility that I am simply becoming jaded and harder to surprise as I watch more of these films. As always, YMMV.

What I Watched: Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (Universal, 1935)

Where I Watched It: This serial ran on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday mornings last summer, and I recorded it on my DVR. I had originally promised to write this up last fall, but it didn’t quite work out that way (I remember why I usually write these articles in the summer!). As it happens, since TCM didn’t make it easy to record the whole thing as a series (a pet peeve of mine!), I missed recording about an episode and a half. The only place I found to watch the missing parts online was at Night Flight Plus behind a paywall (and knowing how these deals work, I assume that TCM and Night Flight licensed the same restoration, and this new financial investment is the reason the serial has been scrubbed from YouTube). It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Crossed and Double Crossed” (Chapter Nine) I like this one because, in addition to its nice use of repetition, it accurately describes the main action of the chapter, in which El Condor is captured and impersonated and then reclaims his identity. It also involves a pun, as this chapter is the climax of Garcia’s arc as the masked “Double X” flyer.

Best Cliffhanger: Unsurprisingly, there are several cliffhangers in this serial involving plane crashes, or planes exploding or colliding in mid-air. There are also no fewer than three cliffhangers in which a building is blown up while one or more of our heroes are inside (or are they?). I particularly like the ending of Chapter Two (“The Roaring Fire God”) in which, after another skirmish with one of Manuel’s planes and a timely rescue by El Condor, Tommy loses control of his plane, goes into a dive, and appears to fly straight into the smoking crater of a live volcano.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the peril at the end of Chapter Six (“Flying Death”): Tommy and Skeeter have stolen one of Manuel’s planes, a bomber specially brought in by Raymore to attack Casmetto’s oil fields, but little do they know that onboard the plane is a time bomb, set specifically to prevent such a theft. Such a cliffhanger, complete with a countdown to the deadly explosion, wouldn’t be too unusual, but for the large “TIME BOMB” label on the control panel that neither seems to notice. (The solution to this cliffhanger is singled out by Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials, a book I have frequently referred to in this series, as an example “typical of the hokum of the medium.”)

Sample Dialogue: “What a twist! Is that a story or is that a story!”

–Bill McGuire, after Raymore experiences a particularly ironic comeuppance (Chapter Twelve, “The Last Stand”)

What Others Have Said: “After Universal released Tailspin Tommy back in 1934 [notably the first serial based on a newspaper comic strip], they couldn’t wait to get its sequel into release. Exactly 12 months later, they released Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery, and then in succession at least one comic strip every six to ten months for the next seven years, up to Don Winslow of the Coast Guard in December 1942.” –William C. Cline, “Coming Back Like a Song” in Serials-ly Speaking

What’s Next: This is just a one-off entry for the spring, but I intend to return to my regular schedule of serial coverage this summer; I usually begin on Memorial Day and publish an entry every one or two weeks. Earlier this year I bought a big box of serials on VHS; I’m not nostalgic at all for videotape, but the price was right, and it will keep me in serials for months to come. I hope you’ll join me then!

Fates Worse Than Death: Adventures of Captain Marvel

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Deep in the rugged mountains between Siam and Burma, the Malcolm Archaeological Expedition has reached its destination, the Valley of the Tombs, in the shadow of Mount Scorpio. Despite warnings from local tribesmen that the Valley is taboo, John Malcolm is determined to open the sealed inner tomb, unlocking the “lost secret of the Scorpion Dynasty.” The expedition’s translator, native Tal Chotali, reads an inscription: “Let what reposes behind this stone remain hidden from the eyes of mankind for all time.” A terrible curse is about to be unleashed! The youngest member of the expedition, Billy Batson, wants no part of tomb raiding, so he leaves the room. The expedition members open the tomb without him, uncovering a fabulous scorpion-shaped idol holding a series of lenses in its claws. As soon as they move the lenses to line up with a beam of sunlight, it releases a burst of energy that shakes the earth and traps the men inside the chamber.

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Meanwhile, Billy wanders into another chamber of the tomb; to his shock, a previously sealed tomb opens, and an impossibly old man steps out! Because he did not desecrate the tomb, Billy Batson is to be given the mantle of Captain Marvel to protect the innocent from the power the scorpion idol is about to unleash. Captain Marvel combines the virtues of six mythological figures: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. The initials of these six names combine into the magic word “Shazam” (also the name of the wizard), with which Billy transforms into Captain Marvel and back again. He is put to the test immediately, becoming Captain Marvel to rescue the explorers who have been trapped in the cave-in.

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Once everyone is outside and reunited (and Billy is himself again), the members of the expedition learn just how powerful the scorpion idol is: sunlight focused through its lenses in the right order can turn ordinary rocks into gold, or generate an incredibly powerful ray (later it is referred to specifically as a “solar atom smasher”). Recognizing that the idol is too powerful for one man to control, and that it would be a target for theft, the members of the expedition divide the lenses between themselves, each man to guard and keep one safe; the power of the idol will never be used unless it is by the assent of the entire group.

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That night, the expedition’s stockade is attacked by native tribesmen on horseback, led by a hooded mastermind who calls himself “the Scorpion.” The Scorpion claims to speak for the tribe’s god, and his goal is to reunite the idol with its lenses and use its power for conquest. During the assault, one of the expedition members is killed and the idol stolen. Billy Batson goes into action as Captain Marvel once again, routing the attackers, but unbeknownst to him the tribesmen have also planted dynamite beneath the bridge leading from the encampment: will the expedition’s retreat be thwarted by the explosives, or will Captain Marvel save the day? All of this occurs in the first (double length) chapter of the classic 1941 Republic serial, Adventures of Captain Marvel!

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Captain Marvel, co-created by Fawcett writer Bill Parker and artist C. C. Beck, was one of many superheroes who appeared in the wake of Superman’s success, and among the most popular, even outselling Superman himself during his heyday. Much has been written elsewhere about the lawsuit National (later DC) filed against Fawcett alleging copyright infringement, and the long legal battle that followed (I have touched on it here). Ultimately, Fawcett ceased publishing Captain Marvel comics in 1953, exhausted by the legal battle and faced with declining sales, and the hero was licensed by DC in the 1970s as “Shazam” (the name “Captain Marvel” having been claimed by Marvel Comics in the interim) and bought outright in 1980; a live-action Shazam movie is scheduled to be released in 2019 as part of DC’s ongoing film universe.

 

As of 1941, however, Captain Marvel was riding high, and became the first comic book superhero to make the leap to the big screen (ironically enough, Republic tried to make a deal to adapt Superman first, but it ultimately fell through and Superman first appeared in theaters in a series of animated cartoons; the hero would be a latecomer to the film serials, not appearing in live action until 1948). In reading about Adventures of Captain Marvel (no “the”), I was struck by the way it follows typical serial procedure in adapting its source material, tying the hero’s origin to its villain and putting the scorpion idol and its lenses at the center of the story. I assumed that it was another case of Republic adapting the source material “in name only” as they would later do with Captain America, so it was a pleasant surprise to see how faithful to the comics the serial was in many other respects.

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The biggest difference is the serial’s connection of Shazam to the Scorpion tomb, but otherwise Captain Marvel’s origin in the comics was similar: in Whiz Comics no. 2, Billy Batson, an orphaned newsboy (an actual boy, unlike the boyish young adult Billy played by Frank Coghlan, Jr. in the serial) was led to the wizard Shazam in an abandoned subway tunnel, and he was given the assignment to protect humanity as an ongoing mission rather than a specific task. But the magic word, the mythological connections, and Captain Marvel’s powers are all there. What’s more, the serial Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) looks a great deal more like his comic book counterpart than the serial versions of Batman or Captain America do, wearing a good-looking uniform and even appearing to fly through the air.

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All of the effects in this serial, by Republic’s stalwart team of Howard and Theodore Lydecker, are top-notch, including those convincing flight sequences and many of the miniatures (sorry, “scale models”) for which the Lydeckers are famous. The illusion of flight was achieved by a variety of techniques, including a papier-maché dummy strung on a wire for the long shots, cut together with shots of Tom Tyler (or his double, legendary stuntman Dave Sharpe) leaping into the air from a hidden trampoline or coming in for a landing in slow motion. (Sharpe was also responsible for Captain Marvel’s athletic moves during fight scenes, including an amazing, back-flipping kick in the first chapter.) The wires are visible in some of the shots of Tyler suspended in mid-air, clouds whizzing by, but they are easy to overlook if you are as fascinated by practical effects as I am, or if, like the young and young-at-heart audiences to which the serial is directed, you’re so swept up in the story that you don’t even notice them. The flight effects look good “for their time,” but even now one has to appreciate the ambition it took to attempt them in live action (recall that the same effects in the later Superman serials were achieved with animation). And like the best cinematic fantasy, the story, in its surging forward motion, demands belief as the price of admission where scenes viewed in isolation might provoke skepticism.

Another contrast with the comics is its tone. Captain Marvel’s adventures in the comics (mostly written by pulpsmith Otto Binder) were fantastic exercises in whimsy, often to the point of silliness, held together with fairy-tale logic or wordplay. Captain Marvel traveled to exotic foreign countries and even other planets; he fought mad scientists and magicians (his most famous recurring nemesis, Dr. Sivana, was the former); he added the growing “Marvel family” to his supporting cast, including Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel, Jr., and even “Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny”; he even made friends with a talking tiger who became his roommate! And all of this is balanced with the fantasy of being a boy but living independently (after being a newsboy, Billy Batson held down a job as an announcer for radio station WHIZ). Binder’s fanciful stories were a perfect match for Beck’s clean, simple drawing style, and the nuttiness of the plots is comparable to the mischief William Marston’s Wonder Woman would get up to over at National, but without the marked gender play (in fact, Captain Marvel is a notably prepubescent fantasy, as the hero would become nervous and shy around women, resisting the overtures of Dr. Sivana’s daughter Beautia). As Matt Singer notes (in his essay accompanying the Kino Lorber Blu-ray), the brilliance of the Billy/Captain Marvel divide was that it “fused hero and sidekick into a single figure.”

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By contrast, the serial’s tone is serious, if not downright grim. Gone are Dr. Sivana’s whimsical schemes (in fact, gone is Dr. Sivana), gone are the talking animals and such fanciful locations as the “Rock of Eternity” (the heaven in which the late wizard Shazam now dwells in spirit form). Instead of being matched against other superpowered beings, Captain Marvel wastes an army of generic fedora-wearing henchmen (and I do mean wastes: writer Tom Weaver points out that Captain Marvel kills more people than the villain in this serial, throwing them off buildings or turning their own guns against them). Animation historian Jerry Beck rightly compares Captain Marvel in his scenes to a Universal monster, breaking down doors and pressing forward in the face of gunfire that bounces off of him harmlessly (at least the thugs don’t try the last-ditch effort of throwing their empty guns at him, as seen so often in the Superman TV series), his smile “more like an animal bearing its teeth.” Once the Scorpion’s men know what they’re up against, their reaction is one of sheer terror.

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Other ingredients that contribute to the serious tone are standard serial fare: the archaeological expedition, as well as the curse that followed the opening of the tomb (inspired by the supposed curse of King Tut’s tomb), were common features of serials in the 1930s (and a prime inspiration for the Indiana Jones series, of course); the serial begins and ends in the Valley of the Tombs (propped up with footage from earlier movies), even though the rest of the action takes place in America. Of course the Scorpion himself, the hooded figure of evil derived from the Grand Guignol theater and the mystery novels of Edgar Wallace, is a key element of the serial vocabulary, as is the Scorpion’s methodical elimination of the expedition members, collecting their lenses one by one, even as he himself is secretly one of their number. Only in the last chapter is the Scorpion’s true identity revealed; in fact, his lines are spoken throughout by uncredited actor Gerald Mohr, just to make sure we don’t guess prematurely. (The need to avoid spoiling the surprise leads to some amusing decisions: in one chapter, the members of the expedition abandon a sinking ship and make their way to land by rope; Betty, the story’s lone female character, goes to her cabin to retrieve something, only to be knocked unconscious by the Scorpion–in costume–and left to sink with the ship. It should be obvious that the Scorpion has no reason to hide his identity from one he believes will soon be dead, and that sneaking around in costume increases the risk of being caught, but the costume is for the benefit of the audience, not the Scorpion’s victims.) Even at the end, when there are only two suspects left, and one shoots the other, revealing his true identity, the scene is filmed in shadow, the voices disguised, so as to preserve the delicious moment when Captain Marvel can pull off the captive Scorpion’s mask himself for all to see.

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Still, the mood is not too heavy, leavened by swiftly-moving action and dialogue and a rapid-fire change of scenes. Coghlan’s Billy, as well as his youthful friends Whitey (William Benedict) and Betty (Louise Currie), are a big part of that, striking a “gee whiz” attitude midway between the kid-oriented comics and the deadly serious business of the Scorpion. Adventures of Captain Marvel is frequently held up as one of the best serials of all time, and it is easy to see why: all of the technical resources of Republic are working at their peak, from the Lydecker brothers’ fantastic effects to the direction of serial superteam William Witney and John English and the stirring music by Cy Feuer. A solid script provides plenty of opportunities for the cast (including, in addition to the leads, such frequently-seen character actors as John Davidson, who plays the enigmatic Tal Chotali) to develop their characters (within a framework primarily defined by action and intrigue, of course).

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Furthermore, while I have sometimes expressed boredom at the formulaic nature of Republic’s later serials in comparison to the wild and weird serials of the 1930s, at the sense that they run too smoothly, Captain Marvel strikes a very satisfying balance between technical precision and characters who still act human, who are capable of surprising. (It probably helps that Republic was not yet at the point of recycling entire cliffhangers, so the situations flow organically from the story.) Betty is a good example of this: when taken captive by the Scorpion’s men, several times she sees opportunities to attempt escape and takes them rather than waiting around for Captain Marvel, even desperately grabbing the Scorpion’s own gun and attempting to shoot him. (This leads to a sequence in which Billy believes the Scorpion has an injured hand and tries to flush him out by gathering the expedition members together.) In addition to lending an unpredictable realism to the proceedings, Betty’s actions (and similar unexpected actions by other characters) drive the story forward: neither the Scorpion nor Captain Marvel have everything their way all the time.

Finally, I have occasionally noticed a generational divide in how the fanciful comic books of the Golden Age and its related media are received, and the commentary on the Blu-ray provides an illuminating example: Tom Weaver, a self-described Baby Boomer, mentions going back to read some of the original Captain Marvel comics (for the first time, as an adult) and his disgust at their silliness is palpable. “The comic book is so juvenile,” he reports, “that I can’t imagine who read it and thought ‘This might be good for a Republic serial.'” He complains that Otto Binder’s Captain cracks corny jokes while fighting, as if that weren’t something common to almost every superhero before the 1980s. For him, and for many viewers like him, the seriousness of the serial is a step up, a necessary refinement of material that is otherwise not worthy of consideration. By contrast, younger viewers and readers, especially those who may have already encountered Captain Marvel in reprints or through one of his post-1970s television iterations at a young age (and that may be the real key, the “Golden Age” being twelve years old and all that), readily accept the childlike fantasy inherent in the character. (On the Blu-ray it is the hosts of the podcast Comic Geek Speak, children of the 1970s and ’80s by the sound of it, who represent this point of view, but I have encountered it among comics fans younger than myself as well.)

Perhaps the balance of light and darkness is the reason Adventures of Captain Marvel continues to be held in such esteem: it convincingly brings to life the power fantasy of the comic book superhero, without treating it as a joke or cutting corners, and satisfies those who like their heroes “grim and gritty,” at least in contrast to the source material; at the same time the line between good and evil is boldly drawn, the characters larger than life, and it is still full of the wonder and excitement of the serial medium and marvelously entertaining in its own right.

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What I Watched: Adventures of Captain Marvel (Republic, 1941)

Where I Watched It: Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release from 2017. As mentioned above, this edition has an informative commentary track including ten speakers (thankfully not all at once: each individual or group gets a chapter or two to themselves) and Matt Singer’s essay. It is, as I have mentioned in the past, exactly the kind of package the serials have long deserved and is highly recommended. However, as I don’t have a Blu-ray drive on my computer, I have once again taken pictures of the screen for screenshots (rest assured that the Blu-ray picture quality is much higher than these pictures show).

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No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Death Takes the Wheel” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: Several of the commentators on the Kino Lorber release take issue with the idea that anyone would be fooled by a cliffhanger that appears to put the invincible Captain Marvel in jeopardy: wouldn’t an audience of kids in 1941 know that something as trivial as gunfire, electric shock, or even molten lava wouldn’t hurt “the world’s mightiest mortal”? Well, yes, and like the later Superman serials, Adventures of Captain Marvel solves this problem by putting supporting cast members in peril instead for most of the cliffhangers. Still, almost any serial cliffhanger assumes that the audience will play along, even if experienced viewers are well aware that the hero is going to get out of whatever jam they’ve been put in: suspension of disbelief applies here just as it does elsewhere.

More importantly, from a narrative perspective, the limits of Captain Marvel’s powers and invulnerability aren’t entirely clear at first, and the serial’s early cliffhangers serve to demonstrate just how strong he is. My favorite cliffhanger is one of these: in Chapter Two (“The Guillotine”), the Scorpion has his henchmen abduct Dr. Carlyle, one of the expedition members, and threaten him with an automated guillotine in order to extract the location of Carlyle’s lens. Captain Marvel trails the thugs to their hideout and breaks up the interrogation. However, during the fight that follows, he trips into the electric eye that triggers a subduing electric charge and starts the conveyor belt that will carry him, unconscious, to the waiting guillotine, a high-tech variation of a classic peril. The resolution illustrates the difference between typical serial protagonists and this new kind of cinematic “super” hero: instead of having Captain Marvel wake up or the conveyor turned off just in time, the next chapter begins with the blade falling onto the hero’s neck, only to break harmlessly against Captain Marvel’s invulnerable skin. I’ve complained in the past about “walk it off” resolutions to cliffhangers in which the hero is simply unhurt, but here the shot of Captain Marvel waking up beneath the shattered blade speaks for itself. Like the scenes of henchmen futilely shooting at Captain Marvel, the bullets bouncing harmlessly off, it announces that this hero plays by an entirely different set of rules.

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Stanley Price Sighting: Stanley Price is included in the full cast billing that begins each chapter, but he really only has one standout scene, as one of the group of henchmen who abduct Betty after she trails them to one of their hideouts on the top floor of a parking garage. It is here that Captain Marvel engages them in the rooftop battle in which he throws an engine block at one thug and throws another off the roof. Knowing that he’s outgunned, Price flees in the elevator, only to have Captain Marvel pull the descending car back up by the cables, a feat borrowed from his comic book appearances. Price’s anxious expressions while standing alone in the elevator are, well . . . priceless (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

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Sample Dialogue: “The Scorpion has triumphed and all the white infidels will be sacrificed to celebrate the victory, even the mighty Captain Marvel. . . . We need fear him no longer, for he is only Billy Batson. . . . Perhaps it’s a powerful drug or some other device which Batson uses to transform himself into Captain Marvel. . . . I must learn the secret of his transformation.” –the Scorpion, Chapter Twelve (“Captain Marvel’s Secret”)

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What Others Have Said: “The saving grace is the near absence of what many serial devotees most like about Republic serials–the stuntwork fist fights. Captain Marvel was too superpowerful to take more than one punch to subdue an ordinary mortal. The screen time had to be filled with something other than punches. This serial had time for plot and characterization, as well as action. The result was what may be the world’s mightiest movie serial.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I return to the subject of “Yellow Peril” with Drums of Fu Manchu!

Fates Worse Than Death: Mandrake, the Magician

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Aboard the S.S. Mohawk, Mandrake, the famous stage magician, is preparing to perform when he receives a telegram from his friend Betty, daughter of the accomplished scientist Professor Houston. Houston’s latest invention, a “radium energy machine” with which he hopes to benefit mankind (and the development of which Mandrake has also had a hand in), has attracted unwanted attention from criminals who hope to use its great power for destructive purposes. Even aboard the cruise ship, Mandrake is spied upon and an attempt is made on his life by henchmen of the mastermind who calls himself “the Wasp.” Upon returning to land and meeting with the Professor and his daughter, Mandrake offers to help protect Houston and his invention, but before the first chapter is over the Wasp manages to kidnap the Professor and steal the radium energy machine, turning it against Mandrake. To make matters worse, Mandrake begins to suspect that the Wasp is actually one of his close compatriots: could the Wasp actually be James Webster, an engineer; Dr. Andre Bennett, a physician; or Frank Raymond, booking agent and magic store proprietor? The truth is revealed by the end of the 1939 Columbia serial Mandrake, the Magician!

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After the Wasp succeeds in stealing Houston’s machine in the first chapter, he isn’t shy about using it (Houston eventually escapes the Wasp, but without recovering his invention): the power of the machine allows the Wasp to strike at buildings and people at a distance, so there are scenes of power lines, a radio tower, and even a dam being destroyed (in miniature, of course). However, the machine the Wasp stole wasn’t the final model, and Houston tells Mandrake that it will wear out through repeated use. A rare element, “platonite,” must be bonded with steel to fashion new, indestructible parts for an upgraded machine. This gives us several directions for the story to unfold: not only is Mandrake trying to track down the Wasp and the stolen machine, the Wasp is still trying to get his hands on the platonite and the formula for combining it with steel, and while he has Houston in his clutches he puts him to work improving the machine.

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Much of the serial is given over to cat-and-mouse games: the Wasp has a listening device planted in the Houston home, so the bad guys can anticipate Mandrake’s moves until he figures it out and uses the bug to set a trap of his own, and there are various other deceptions and subterfuges. When the action briefly turns to Mandrake’s country estate and the Wasp’s men attempt to corner him there, they get more than they bargained for as the magician’s collection of trick items (a gun that shocks anyone who tries to pull its trigger, a vanishing cabinet through which Mandrake escapes, etc.) confound them at every turn. There are a few switcheroos that take advantage of Mandrake’s skills as an escape artist as well, in which the bound and hooded victim of a trap–supposedly Mandrake, caught at last!–turns out to be the hapless henchman who failed yet again to apprehend his man.

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Although Mandrake still has fans today, it would surprise young readers to learn how big he once was: created and written by Lee Falk (who also created the Phantom), the comic strip hero first appeared in 1934 and ran in newspapers well into the current century. Mandrake is even considered one of the first costumed superheroes, although in many ways he is a transitional figure between pulp and literary heroes such as Zorro and the “long underwear” lineage that begins with Superman. Falk, who began the strip when he was only nineteen, single-handedly wrote all of Mandrake’s daily adventures until his death in 1999. Very few comics creators could match either the length of Falk’s active career or the creative control he wielded during that time! Not surprisingly, serial adaptations followed the success of both strips; bearing in mind that the Mandrake strip was only five years old rather than a character with a decades-long legacy when Hollywood knocked, Falk was still (understandably) unhappy with the changes made in the process of bringing the famous magician to the screen.

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In the comic strip, Mandrake wields genuine magic: although partially based on Houdini, and wearing the classic stage magician’s costume of top hat and tails, Mandrake creates illusions by “gesturing hypnotically,” transforms people and things, and turns weapons against their owners, among other astounding feats. Like later imitators Zatara (father of the now better-known Zatanna) and Doctor Strange, the original Mandrake the Magician adapted the stuff of fantasy and fairy tales to the needs of serial adventure, using his amazing powers (and the muscle of his loyal manservant Lothar) to aid those who needed it, including his beloved Princess Narda. Naturally, such a larger-than-life hero had to face off against equally potent enemies, so Mandrake’s cases frequently involved battling evil wizards, mad scientists, and power-hungry dictators; visiting hidden kingdoms; and unriddling seemingly insoluble mysteries. (Although the daily strip ended in 2013 with the retirement of Falk’s successor Fred Fredericks, Mandrake has continued to appear alongside fellow King Features characters the Phantom and Flash Gordon in licensed cartoons and comic books; as always, a feature film is said to be in the works.)

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By now, of course, I am used to the serial versions of licensed characters being a bit . . . different from the originals. Changing the background, abilities, supporting cast, and even the name of the hero is the rule rather than the exception for serials, so it was no surprise that in the Mandrake, the Magician serial (the comma is part of the serial’s title if not the comic strip’s) the title character is a Houdini-like stage magician and escape artist rather than a wizard with the ability to reshape reality or even hypnotize people. One could imagine Mandrake lending itself to fantastic visual effects or mysterious atmosphere as a feature made by Universal or Val Lewton’s RKO production unit, but it was not to be. It was obviously truer to formula (not to mention more economical) for Columbia to have Mandrake demonstrate his bona fides by performing onstage in a few chapters and then throwing a smoke bomb to get out of a jam or two; the rest of the time he solves problems with his wits and his fists like any other serial protagonist.

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Mandrake is played by Warren Hull, who would go on to play the title role in The Green Hornet Strikes Again, and while he makes for a capable serial lead, he doesn’t look much like the comic strip magician. It has been pointed out that Lee Falk could have been a matinee idol himself, and in fact the comic strip Mandrake looks quite a bit like Falk, lean and debonair and possessed of a sleek mustache. Hull, by contrast, is clean-shaven: in the serials facial hair is often code for villainy, or at least a suspicious character. (Consider Mandrake’s engineer friend Webster, played by Kenneth MacDonald, who has not only a pencil-thin mustache but a permanent wave that makes him look like Norman Osborn as drawn by Steve Ditko: Webster comes in for suspicion from his very first scene, and takes the unusual step of protesting his innocence whenever someone looks too closely at his alibis. But having such a prickly character be the Wasp would be too obvious . . . wouldn’t it?)

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In the early comic strips, Mandrake’s hulking manservant Lothar is depicted as a black African wearing animal skins and given to pidgin phrases like “Me coming, Master,” when he speaks at all. The exotic, uncivilized, and deathlessly loyal servant/bodyguard is a problematic character type (but one hardly limited to Falk’s creations) born of colonialism and racial hierarchies considered so obvious as to be unspoken. Yet Lothar is brave and true, especially compared to contemporaneous depictions of Africans and African-Americans (and was eventually revealed to be a king himself in his own native land); is Lothar, as Rick Norwood claims, “the first heroic black man in comics”? Possibly. As with Tonto and the Lone Ranger, one can argue that the important point is the friendship and mutual loyalty of two men across barriers of race and color, and some pulp and comics stories live up to that ideal, but it is hard to deny that in the stories of the ’30s Mandrake and Lothar are clearly master and servant, and Lothar was not given a more realistic (non-caricatured) appearance until the 1960s.

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Like the comic strips and any other popular entertainment of their day, the serials were not free of racial and ethnic stereotypes that now appear offensive, including depictions of “savage” black characters. (I have discussed this issue before, on one side trying to avoid the easy self-congratulation that comes from pointing out politically incorrect depictions from the past as a sign of how much more enlightened we are today–a self-satisfaction that is rarely justified, especially now– but at the same time making sure that as modern audience members we don’t fall into the seductive fantasy of believing that things were simpler then, or that race wasn’t an issue, or whatever illusion we care to project onto stories which themselves were far simpler than reality ever was: in short, let us engage in a little self-reflection to make sure that we aren’t enjoying these old films and comics for the wrong reasons.)

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However, the Mandrake serial goes in a different direction, casting the Hawaiian-descended actor and stuntman Al Kikume as Lothar. The serials’ Lothar (pronounced lo-THAR most of the time) is likewise a man of few words and refers to Mandrake as “Master,” but he is neither primitive nor brutish. While Kikume is imposing enough to play the strongman character, his casting suggests the possibility that non-white ethnicities were considered interchangeable, or that a Pacific islander would be less threatening as Mandrake’s bodyguard–or perhaps Kikume was simply available. Is this a form of erasure? As we have seen, serial producers had no qualms about changing details to suit their budgets, shooting schedules, or simply their whims. Mandrake, the Magician isn’t as disgustingly racist as Batman–in fact, few of the serials I’ve watched are–but as a data point it is part of a larger pattern, and one that is still the norm, even if things have improved over the years.

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Also essential to the plot are Professor Houston (Forbes Murray) and his daughter Betty (Doris Weston), who play the classic pulp roles of the scientist whose invention attracts dangerous attention and the dutiful daughter who enlists the hero’s aid. (There are suggestions that Mandrake and Betty are into each other throughout, but only at the very end is there confirmation of an actual romance—as frequently occurs, Betty is the only prominent female character in this serial.)

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Professor Houston’s young son, Tommy (Rex Downing), is also along for the ride, but aside from a scene introducing the “Junior Magicians Club” (which adds exactly zero to the plot) and asking some questions that introduce helpful exposition, Tommy doesn’t have that much to do and could be edited out completely with little loss: his character is a serial standby, the youthful, enthusiastic kid hero or sidekick, but in almost vestigial form. Junior leads can be annoying when written or acted poorly, of course, but over the course of a 215-minute run time I would happily trade some of this serial’s repetitive fist fights for more scenes of Tommy or his friends helping out.

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Mandrake’s opponent, the Wasp, is also standard fare for serials: the Wasp is a ruthless criminal of unknown identity and above-average technical ability, and the narrative conceit by which he is secretly one of Mandrake’s confidants, to be unmasked only in the final chapter, is also something we’ve seen before. (The Wasp’s get-up, which includes a shiny half-mask, an embroidered cape, and a PUA-style fedora, is so gaudy even a professional wrestler might find himself asking “Is this too much?”) As in other serials, the Wasp is primarily shown in isolation at his headquarters, behind a control panel through which he operates the ray and communicates with his underlings, so as not to confront the hero directly until the end. At first the gang only hears from the Wasp through a two-way television screen while they hole up in a fake sanitarium, and later they report to him in his actual lair, hidden in an ordinary city block behind a maze of empty rooms.

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Dirk (John Tyrrell), the Wasp’s second-in-command, is less like the typical “spearhead villain” and acts almost like a dispatcher, relaying the Wasps’ orders and encouraging his guys to hustle because the boss is really breathing down his neck. (Unsurprisingly, Dirk doesn’t make it to the end of the serial.) Most of the Wasp’s other henchmen are interchangeable in role and personality, moreso than usual, although Columbia rounded up a colorful-looking range of mugs from their stable of regulars to fill out their ranks.

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Quite a few serials don’t really start coming together until a few chapters in, after some scene-setting and moving the pieces into position. Mandrake takes longer than most to “get good,” and while the last few chapters feature some exciting set pieces and drama, far too many chapters are given over to the perfunctory story-telling and sloppy action (especially the fist fights, which are mostly artless brawls) that are all-too typical of Columbia’s serials. I’m thankful that at least Mandrake has only 12 chapters rather than (shudder) 16. Maybe I’m being too hard on Mandrake simply because I’ve seen enough serials by now that it’s harder to surprise me. But I also think Columbia’s house style just isn’t to my taste (although Mandrake precedes the descent into self-parody that marks the Columbia serials of the 1940s).

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However, I’m willing to point out scenes and ideas that do work, most of which are in the last few chapters. A highlight is Chapter Ten, “The Unseen Monster.” Mandrake, rendered unconscious by a train wreck at the end of the previous chapter, is picked up by the Wasp’s henchmen, disguised as ambulance drivers. They take him to “Green Valley Rest Home,” a sanitarium that is actually a false front for the Wasp’s gang. It’s a great setting, and the ruse has great potential for drama. Once Mandrake is free and reunited with his friends (who have traced him to the Rest Home), there is a fantastic sequence in which the Wasp observes their progress through a “photo-electric table,” a sort of primitive view screen that resembles the top-down view of a video game (or the tracking device used to such suspenseful effect in Aliens), closing automatic doors and detonating explosives at key points to block routes of escape. This is the kind of thing one hopes for when watching serials, even if it takes ten chapters to build toward it.

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What I Watched: Mandrake, the Magician (Columbia, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A two-disc DVD set from VCI Entertainment (The first few scenes of Chapter One include some dialogue that is obviously dubbed by modern actors, apparently replacing damaged or missing sound; it’s a little distracting, but since I have complained in the past about garbled or muffled dialogue that is hard to follow, I guess I should at least be grateful for this attempt to enhance my viewing experience.)

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No. of Chapters: 12

Best Title Chapter: “Terror Rides the Rails” (Chapter Nine) All of the chapter titles are pretty good in Mandrake; as it suggests, this one involves an attack by the Wasp on the train in which Mandrake and Lothar are riding.

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Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven (“At the Stroke of Eight”), Professor Houston has gathered Mandrake and his colleagues to see a demonstration of his latest invention, a “nullifier” that can counter the radium energy machine the Wasp stole. Mandrake suspects that one among the group is secretly the Wasp, and his suspicions are confirmed when one of the guests sabotages the nullifier at the last moment. Suddenly, Betty and Thomas run into the room: the lights have gone off upstairs! Mandrake confirms that the Wasp is (remotely) turning his ray on the very house in which they stand! Sparks begin flying out of every corner, and we are treated to several quick shots of the assembled guests panicking, surrounded by gouts of flame, and the whole thing culminates with the complete collapse of the house on top of our heroes.

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Cheats: The end of Chapter Six (“The Fatal Crash”) sees Mandrake in an airplane, shot down by an enemy pilot in the employ of the Wasp; the plane goes into a steep dive and crashes. At the beginning of Chapter Seven (“Gamble for Life”), Mandrake puts on a parachute and jumps out of the plummeting aircraft just in time.

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The end of that same chapter finds Mandrake and one of the Wasp’s men struggling in a cable car suspended over a deep chasm; as they rock the car with their fighting, the hook suspending the car aloft weakens, until Mandrake succeeds in pushing his opponent overboard and the hook finally gives way, sending the car plummeting to the bottom. The next chapter repeats the action, but this time Mandrake leaps from the falling cable car and hangs onto the cable, pulling himself hand over hand back to safety. Look, I don’t even get upset about these things any more, but if you want further evidence of the way cliffhangers play fast and loose with consistency in order to gin up suspense, these are typical examples.

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Sample Dialogue: “I guess that’s the last we’ll see of Mandrake. Let’s go.”

“Look! Mandrake!”

(exchange between two henchmen in Chapter Six, “The Fatal Crash”)

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What Others Have Said: “I remember him [Falk] saying that as he was delighted with the [1996] production of The Phantom, he was a bit disappointed that Mandrake, the Magician (who could easily be viewed as a Lee Falk look-alike) had not made it to the screen first. He mentioned that Federico Fellini had shown interest in such a movie, but it never materialized. There had been a 1939 serial, Mandrake, the Magician, starring Warren Hull, but he discounted that version just as he did the 1943 Phantom serial starring Tom Tyler. He felt that neither portrayed his characters as he had conceived them.” –Bob Griffin, “From Fan to Friend: My Memories of Lee Falk,” included in Mandrake the Magician, The Dailies Volume 1: The Cobra

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What’s Next: Join me in two weeks for cops-and-robbers action in Chinatown as Buster Crabbe plays detective Red Barry!