Fates Worse Than Death: Don Winslow of the Navy

We dedicate this picture to the United States Navy, its officers and men, in grateful acknowledgment of their invaluable co-operation and assistance.

As the above blurb, which appears at the beginning of Don Winslow of the Navy, indicates, the involvement of the U.S. military with Hollywood movie-making has been going on for a long time. Even without that acknowledgment, one could guess by the sheer volume of stock footage–of naval maneuvers, of ships and planes in action, and (in the penultimate chapter) of sailors storming a beach–that there was some connection. Of course, this was released during wartime, so it makes a dandy recruiting film for the Navy, but serials and B-movies generally weren’t going to be critical of the military (or law enforcement) anyway: aside from the demands of the Production Code, it would get in the way of the clear-cut good guys and bad guys narrative that is the spine of such films. Having said that, there are some interesting contrasts here to other pro-military and wartime serials.

The basic setup is a familiar one: Don Winslow, fresh from a stint with Naval Intelligence and recently put back in command of his own ship, U. S. Destroyer 620, is summoned to Pearl Harbor for his new assignment. Supply ships approaching the Pacific island of Tangita, where the Navy is building a new base, have sunk, and sabotage is suspected. Commander Winslow is to take the 620 to Tangita and get to the bottom of the mystery, assisted by his best friend, Lieutenant “Red” Pennington. After another attempt on an approaching ship, Winslow learns that infamous foreign spymaster the Scorpion is behind the attacks, and there must be a base of Scorpion agents somewhere on the island. If the Scorpion’s secret headquarters can be found and the saboteurs wiped out, the Navy base can be completed. So far, so good.

Beyond the unfinished base at Rondana Bay and its community of American workers, Tangita is a movie-land jungle island with all the amenities, including a native tribe with a temple and some crumbling ruins; a gold mine with a separate village for its laborers; and abandoned facilities such as the old smelter and old sea mill, ready to be destroyed in cliffhangers. The audience learns quickly that the Scorpion’s secret base (including an underwater submarine dock) is accessible through a shuttered tunnel in the gold mine, and that the gold mine’s operator, Merlin, is actually “M-22,” the Scorpion’s lead agent on the island. Throughout the serial, Merlin pretends to help Winslow while secretly luring him into traps or away from the real base, even going so far as to kill one of his own agents and plant papers on him to convince Winslow that he got the real M-22. As in many serials, the dirty work is carried out by lower-level Scorpion operatives so that Merlin’s duplicity isn’t discovered until the end. The Scorpion himself never sets foot on the island, instead issuing orders via television, and while Winslow triumphs at the end as expected, the story is open-ended: he moves onto his next assignment in hopes of bringing down the Scorpion for good.

Don Winslow of the Navy is also unusual in the degree to which its hero has it both ways, both commanding from the bridge and operating on the ground. I’ve quoted this passage from Raymond W. Stedman’s The Serials before, but it’s worth mentioning again: “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.” When action heroes are part of the military, they’re often commandos or intelligence agents, or are cut off from their units as a way of justifying their independence. Often, officers are remote characters in this kind of movie, issuing orders from behind a desk, far from the action. Not Winslow! At one point, asked why he always heads into danger alone instead of letting his underlings take the risk, he explains, “The Scorpion wants to get me alive–they’ll shoot the rest of you on sight.” But he also commands a full-sized destroyer, providing scenes of large-scale battle (at one point the 620 even rams a submarine, saving another Navy ship from danger) that are often out of the reach of serial heroes. The scope of the action, and the addition of all that footage from the Navy, makes it feel like a real war picture.

It also brought another genre to mind: this serial may be set on earth, but I think Don Winslow and Buck Rogers would have a lot to talk about. Gene Roddenberry may have pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars,” but one can see the naval influence in the quasi-military treatment of the ship and its crew, and more importantly the balance of ship-to-ship combat and planetside “away missions” that the captain takes part in. Substitute “islands” for “planets” and the roots of the genre are clear: “final frontier,” indeed.

While watching Don Winslow, I also often found myself thinking of The Fighting Marines: there are some similarities, including an unknown master spy and a base on a Pacific island, as well as heroes who are in uniform but given a free hand. But since The Fighting Marines was made in the 1930s, before the war, it’s typically coy about the nationality of the villain. Don Winslow was made in 1941, so it is also not very specific: the Scorpion (played by Kurt Katch) is apparently German, going by his accent, but like many of those villains of the interwar years, his actual goals and politics aren’t mentioned. He’s against America, so that’s all we need to know. The serial began distribution in October of 1941; the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor made it both timely and a little quaint: following the declaration of war, subsequent serials would be less circumspect in naming America’s enemies.

Winslow is played by Don Terry, who is really everything one could expect of an upright, square-jawed, red-blooded serial hero of the time period. Like many of his colleagues, Terry (born Donald Loker) had an athletic background; interestingly, after playing Don Winslow in two serials, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve for real and earned a Purple Heart serving in the Pacific, and he left the film industry shortly after that. Of course, a serial hero needs a supporting cast. In addition to Lt. Pennington (Walter Sande), there’s older Navy man Mike Splendor (Wade Boteler, playing the kind of blustering Irishman he played in The Green Hornet and Red Barry, among many, many Irish cop roles) and civilian construction head John Blake (Ben Taggart). Navy nurse Mercedes Colby (Claire Dodd) and secretary Misty Gaye (Anne Nagel, also seen in The Green Hornet) are established as the only survivors of the shipwreck that serves as the inciting incident, but they go way back with Winslow and Pennington (romance, or at least double dating, is implied, but as in most serials it’s kept in the background).

After a couple of sluggish Columbia serials, Don Winslow of the Navy (also based on a comic strip and radio show) was a breath of fresh air: not only was it a tight twelve chapters, it moved quickly, balancing character scenes with action. Other than the weird Mascot serials of the ’30s, I think Universal’s have been my next favorite; the production is generally (if not always!) good, but not so slick as to be unsurprising and formulaic. In this case, a stirring score helps smooth out the rough edges: the Navy march, “Anchors Aweigh,” forms the theme song, of course, but the incidental music includes a lot of Elgar-sounding stuff and dramatic strains in the vein of Victory at Sea.

What I Watched: Don Winslow of the Navy (Universal, 1942)

Where I Watched It: VHS set from VCI’s Classic Cliffhanger Collection

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Fighting Fathoms Deep” (Chapter Ten)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Nine, “Wings of Destruction,” Winslow sets out to test a new plane, and Mercedes talks her way into going with him. Scorpion agent Barsac (John Holland) gets to the hangar first with the intention of sabotaging the plane, but when he is surprised by Winslow’s arrival, a hastily discarded torch sets a fire. Barsac is confident that the fire will put an end to Winslow’s meddling, but that turns out not to be the cliffhanger. Winslow and Mercedes are able to take off, saving both the plane and themselves from the fire. Meanwhile, Barsac radios one of the Scorpion’s subs, having it launch its onboard plane to bomb the 620, carrying out the other part of the Scorpion’s order. With both planes in the air and bombs falling on the Navy Destroyer, a dogfight ensues; Winslow is grazed by a bullet and falls unconscious, and the plane goes into a dive. By the kind of lucky coincidence serial heroes are blessed with, the plane collides with the Scorpion’s bomber, shearing the bomber’s wing off and causing it to crash. But how can our heroes pull out of the fatal dive with Winslow still unconscious? (Hint: remember that passenger who insisted on coming along for the ride?)

Not the Best Cliffhanger: In a very odd sequence, Winslow darkens his skin and puts on a sarong to disguise himself as a native and investigate an old ruin that Merlin has directed him to (it’s a trap, of course). Aside from the ways in which brownface is problematic (although common at the time), it’s odd because Winslow never makes an attempt to blend in with the natives; he is almost immediately joined by (white) members of his party. At the same time, Merlin has provided the native witch doctor, Koloka, with a loudspeaker and microphone to make it seem as if the temple’s idol is speaking (just like in Terry and the Pirates!), which will allow the corrupt Koloka, a Scorpion loyalist, to usurp the tribe’s rightful chief, Tombana. Meanwhile, Blake (overseeing construction of the Naval base) brings Mercedes to the village to help some sick children.

Once of all of our heroes are at the temple, Koloka stirs up the natives using the loudspeaker in the idol, blaming the white newcomers for the sickness in the village. Chased by a mob, Winslow and the others are cornered; their only hope of escape is for Winslow to dive into the water, distract the natives, and come back for his friends. (I had thought that perhaps this dive was the reason for his native costume, so the filmmakers could insert footage of a Pacific islander diving, but there really isn’t enough to the shot to make such trouble worth it, and it looks like star Don Terry performs the jump.) All would be well, if it weren’t for all the sharks in the water! All of this is in Chapter Six, “Menaced by Man-Eaters”; the other reason it seems out of place is that the natives are hardly relevant to the plot except in this chapter and the resolution in the next. The episode definitely feels like filler to pad out the serial, but I don’t mind digressions when they’re enjoyable.

Sample Dialogue:

Winslow: What do you know about the men who just escaped?

Miner: You mean Spike? Not much. Him and a couple other guys by the name of Prindle and Corley come over here sometimes.

Winslow: Do they work in the mine?

Miner: Sometimes, not regular. Why? They deserters in the Navy?

Winslow: Hardly. We don’t have their kind in the Navy.

–Chapter Eight, “The Chamber of Doom”

For Your Further Don Winslow Viewing Pleasure: This serial was followed up by Don Winslow of the Coast Guard in 1943, also starring Don Terry.

What Others Have Said: “Boys who enlisted in Don Winslow’s Squadron of Peace received along with a bronze ensign’s badge a copy of the creed Winslow himself was bound to uphold. Composed before World War II neared American shores, it is quaintly touching today:

I consecrate my life to Peace and to the protection of all my Countrymen wherever they may be. My battle against Scorpia represents the battle between Good and Evil. Never will I enter into any jingoistic proposition, but will devote my entire life to protecting my Country. The whole purpose of my life is that of promoting Peace–not War. I will work in the interests of Peace and will promote the fulfillment of all things that are clean, wholesome and upright. Join me not alone in observing this creed, but likewise be patriotic. Love your country, its flag and all the things for which it stands. Follow the advice of your parents and superiors and help someone every day.

–Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

Commander Winslow was a close personal friend of Captain Marvel, but only on the covers of their shared comic books, sadly.

What’s Next: I’m going to take a break from fiddling with my VCR and look at a serial I have on disc: join me next time as I investigate The Vanishing Shadow, which promises to be something different!

Fates Worse Than Death: Terry and the Pirates

Dr. Herbert Lee, an American archeologist, leads a scientific expedition into the wilds to uncover evidence of a lost race. The native queen, known as the Dragon Lady, is determined her kingdom shall not be invaded. Fang, a sinister, lawless half-caste, who controls half of the natives and holds the white settlers in fear, seeks the riches hidden beneath the Sacred Temple. After the expedition has gone into the jungle to face unknown perils, Terry, Dr. Lee’s son, and Pat Ryan, his friend, arrive in Wingpoo with important documents for Dr. Lee.

Those words, presented as text crawling up the screen, begin each chapter of the 1940 serial Terry and the Pirates; chapters after the first add another sentence or two to describe the specific situation our heroes were left in, but that’s it. There’s no other recap (beyond the repetition of the last scene that sets up the cliffhanger), but that’s all you need anyway. Terry Lee, like fellow comic strip-turned serial hero Tim Tyler, is living the dream of many a boy in his audience, seeing the world alongside older and more experienced adventurers. Milton Caniff’s comic strip (and the radio serial, which preceded this film) followed the adventures of Terry and his friends, mostly in the jungles and waterways of Asia, for years. Like many serials based on existing properties, the filmmakers could somewhat rely on audiences to be familiar with the characters already, and the beginning of this one drops us into the action with only that text prologue to prepare us.

In Chapter One (“Into the Great Unknown”), when Terry and Pat arrive at the colonial town of Wingpoo, they are surprised to find that Dr. Lee and the rest of his expedition have already headed into the jungle, despite the radiogram Pat had sent alerting them to his and Terry’s imminent arrival. As it turns out, Dr. Lee never received the radiogram because the town’s radio operator, Stanton, (as well as many other people in town) is under the control of Fang, the villainous warlord who resides somewhere in the jungle, terrorizing the peaceful settlers. Using his inside information, Fang has Dr. Lee captured and the rest of his party slaughtered, supposedly during an attack by natives. (Fang has his white “renegades” don animal furs and masks, posing as “tiger” or “leopard men” so they don’t reveal their treachery to the other whites; this allows Fang to present himself as Dr. Lee’s rescuer.)

At first, Fang offers friendship to Dr. Lee, inviting him to study Fang’s collection of native artifacts: he needs the archeologist to interpret the language of the ancients and thinks that Dr. Lee will lead him to the lost treasure upon promise of a share. Dr. Lee, a man of science above all, is horrified by Fang’s plans and rejects this offer; Fang then coldly orders Dr. Lee held prisoner–he will aid Fang’s search, one way or the other. Fang has also ordered the capture of Terry and Pat, thinking to use them as leverage on Dr. Lee, but at least in the first chapter his immediate plan is foiled. (As in many serials, the good guys in this spend a lot of time getting captured and then escaping, with various combinations of the heroes either free or imprisoned.) Dr. Lee (played by John Paul Jones), it should be noted, is a pretty tough customer himself, and not easily intimidated: his love for his son is the weak spot Fang exploits against him more than once.

Terry and his allies are versions of characters from the comic strip: Terry himself, described as “a wide-awake American boy,” is a teenager in the strip. William Tracy, who plays Terry, was already twenty-three when the serial was filmed, but rather than aging up the character to match (like Billy Batson in Adventures of Captain Marvel), or casting a younger actor, the film has Tracy affecting a high, cracking voice and saying stuff like “Gee willikers!”, and an awkward, bow-legged stance, throwing his arms around spastically in action scenes to look younger and shorter than co-star Granville Owen, who plays the older Pat Ryan. (Owen played the lead in Lil’ Abner the same year he made Terry; he later went by the screen name Jeff York.)

Pat is the typical serial man of action, almost always taking on the fight scenes and gunplay himself while protectively keeping Terry out of the fray and chiding him for wasting time taking photographs, but he doesn’t have a lot of character himself. (Terry eagerly gets into a few scrapes–“Don’t worry, Dad!” he says before leaping into a fight with some prison guards–but his enthusiasm often outpaces his competence, and sometimes he makes the situation worse by trying to help.)

Terry and Pat are aided by two Asian characters, Dr. Lee’s servant Connie (short for “Confucius”), played by Allen Jung, and a local native who towers over his fellows and goes by the nickname “Big Stoop” (Victor DeCamp). Big Stoop is first encountered as a street magician; he joins forces with the Lee party when Pat and Terry stick up for him in a fight, and his escape artistry and magic tricks (not to mention pockets full of firecrackers) come in handy throughout the adventure. He also carries some of the comic relief, and doesn’t always think things through. He’s nothing if not loyal, however: at one point, when Pat and Terry are locked up in the Wingpoo jail, Big Stoop and Connie follow them into the cell, even though as Pat points out, they’d be more useful on the outside. Later, Big Stoop catches hold of one of the renegades and chastises him, saying, “You hit Big Stoop very hard.” A single blow to the man’s head, and the rudeness is repaid.

Another notable character is Normandie Drake (Joyce Bryant), the daughter of a local rubber planter; Normandie is brave and capable, joining forces with Terry against Fang’s depredations (in the comics she and Terry have a long, doomed romance, but they don’t so much as hold hands in this), but she also screams a lot. Boy, can she scream. No female character in a serial is a damsel in distress all the time–they have to hold up their end of the story, after all–but Normandie knows how to get her Fay Wray on when the bad guys come calling with their human sacrifices and trained gorillas.

As for the bad guys, they are many of the usual suspects: Dick Curtis, who plays Fang, was a longtime heavy for Columbia and appeared in a number of serials and B-movies, particularly Westerns (of course); he’s been in some of the serials I’ve covered, although not in a leading role that I recall. Fang is an “Oriental potentate” caricature, half wheedling Fu Manchu mannerisms and half vulgar savagery. His dialogue is amusingly prickly, as when he tells right-hand man Stanton (Jack Ingram, another regular heavy), “You have some brains after all. I was beginning to doubt it.”

What are we to make of Fang’s status as “half-caste”? This isn’t the first time such a character has been the villain in one of these stories: the casual racism of white settlers assuming their superiority over the natives is a common feature of the era’s adventure stories, but the implication is that it’s worse to be caught between worlds, without a people to call your own, than to be one of those honest but easily duped natives. Or it could be that making a major character mixed-race makes it easier to cast a white actor to play them. There’s not much ambiguity here: unlike Fu Manchu, who hopes to unite Asia under his own rule against the white devils, Fang is just in it for the money, promising to leave the Dragon Lady alone in exchange for the treasure. He may leave the temple and the Dragon Lady’s people in shambles, but that’s not his problem; he’ll be gone. In that respect, he’s not so different from the planters extracting wealth from the land, he just has an accelerated timetable.

As for the Dragon Lady herself (Sheila Darcy), she’s an ambiguous character type we’ve encountered before, the haughty and indomitable matriarch whose primary concern is her people (I was reminded of Queen Teka in The Phantom Empire). The Dragon Lady of the comics is an ocean-going pirate (answering my lingering question about this serial: where are the pirates?), but in the movie she is a firmly landlocked leader of the natives. At first she assumes that the white explorers are, like Fang, only interested in the treasure hidden in her Temple of the Dawn, and she sees them as enemies, especially after Terry and Pat interrupt a human sacrifice conducted by her high priest; eventually, however, she comes to see Terry and his friends as allies who have her best interests at heart. (She claims that she had forbidden such sacrifices; it takes a little longer for the priest to be won over.) Once Fang steals the Temple’s statue of the god Mara and makes it speak with a hidden phonograph record (“Listen to your god! Fang is my choice as ruler! Obey him in all things!”), turning the natives against her, she has little choice but to throw her lot in with the Lee expedition.

In the past, I’ve been somewhat critical of the Columbia serials I’ve watched, and I know I’m not alone: the consensus is that Columbia tended to cut corners and came to rely on silly physical comedy and gimmicks, turning its serials into parodies of themselves. As Columbia serials go, however, Terry and the Pirates was largely a pleasant surprise. (There is some light-hearted humor, but constant mugging and jokiness was mostly a product of the later 1940s.) Like many serials, it takes a chapter or two for things to really get going, but the middle chapters have some good action and the characters have a nice chemistry together and a combination of motives that keep the plot humming. My interest started to wane in the last few chapters, but as I’ve said before, many serials don’t really have enough story to fill fifteen chapters. It’s not much like the comic strip, which took a hard-boiled approach to war and adventure, but if you can overlook the too-old Terry and the frankly awful gorilla costume, it is a serviceable adventure in the jungle-explorer/lost-world vein.

What I Watched: Terry and the Pirates (Columbia, 1940)

Where I Watched It: This serial has been playing on TCM on Saturday mornings, but I watched the VHS set from VCI Classics (featuring the dubbing of voices in Chapter Four, for which the original audio was lost). It can also be viewed on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “The Dragon Queen Threatens” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: Terry and the Pirates is a goldmine for fans looking for classic serial-style cliffhangers. Many standard types are represented: buildings in which our heroes are (seemingly) trapped catch fire, cave in, or explode; Terry and Pat get caught in traps that slowly fill with water (Chapter Seven, “Angry Waters”) or in which the walls close in, pushing the boys toward a central pit filled with “barbarious” spikes (Chapter Eleven, “Walls of Doom”); Terry falls into a “sacrificial pit” filled with alligators (Chapter Eight, “The Tomb of Peril”); and Normandie is menaced by the gorilla and is nearly sacrificed by the high priest of Mara. Finally, almost the entire party is bound on a gigantic pyre of wood for sacrifice by burning (Chapter Fourteen, “Pyre of Death”). Almost all of these cliffhangers are well-prepared and executed to both make the situation clear and amp up the suspense.

My favorite is at the end of Chapter Nine, “Jungle Hurricane” (as is frequently the case, the chapter titles tend to foreshadow the nature of the peril that will form the chapter-ending cliffhanger): Normandie is hiding out in an abandoned hut with Connie and Big Stoop to ride out a storm, not realizing that Stanton and his men are making for the same hut as a way station on the route to Wingpoo, where Fang has sent them for more supplies. Terry and Pat have the same idea to stop at the hut on their way to Wingpoo, and when they arrive they find Stanton and the other renegades taking Normandie and the boys captive. Pat distracts the renegades, getting them to chase him into the jungle, so Terry can sneak into the hut and free the prisoners, sending Connie and Big Stoop to help Pat while Terry unties Normandie. All of this happens while howling wind blows branches and palm leaves all around, and the walls of the hut shake under the force of the gale. It’s all quite dramatic. Just as Normandie is freed, the entire hut is blown over the side of the cliff upon which it was built, collapsing at the bottom of the hillside. (I fully expected that in the next chapter we would find that Terry and Normandie had slipped out of the hut before its collapse, or they would be revealed to be hanging on the side of the cliff by a vine, but nope: Pat finds them buried under the thatched roof of the collapsed hut, and once freed they’re perfectly fine. The walk-it-off” cliffhanger strikes again!)

Sample Dialogue (from Chapter Six, “The Scroll of Wealth”):

Fang: This is my trophy room. Not a bad collection, eh, Doctor?

Dr. Lee: You’re not fooling me, Fang. It looks more like a torture chamber to me.

Fang: You are right, Doctor Lee, and, ah, here is your iron maiden, waiting for you. (touches spikes) You see, Doctor Lee, the maiden has hidden charms, charms which you will be unable to resist.

What Others Have Said: “It’s a whole lot easier to do Steve Canyon, in that I am able to free-wheel–I can go anywhere, do anything–and Terry never got out of China. I never got tired of doing the Oriental background, because to this day it’s still the greatest place for anything-can-happen stuff, it’s just that he had never come home, and I felt that I should change the scene more frequently, and I wasn’t able to do it during the war years.” –cartoonist Milton Caniff, asked in a 1982 interview about the difference between Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, the strip Caniff turned to in later years

What’s Next: Keeping with the comic strip theme, I’ll take a look at Don Winslow of the Navy!

Brenda Starr (1976)

In my review of the 1945 serial Brenda Starr, Reporter, I noted that there was a TV movie based on the same character (directed by Mel Stuart, it aired May 8, 1976 on ABC); I was able to track down a copy, so consider this an addendum to my survey of Brenda on film. As mentioned in my previous article, Brenda Starr, Reporter was a popular newspaper comic strip created by Dale Messick in 1940 (born Dalia Messick, she chose the androgynous byline “Dale” to get past editors who wouldn’t look at work by a woman cartoonist). During the 1970s there were numerous television adaptations of comic strip and comic book properties, as well as a general renewal of interest in the pulps and comics of the 1930s and ’40s. Unlike many of the pulp revival works of the ’80s and ’90s, however, most of the adaptations of the ’70s are thoroughly contemporary, placing their superheroes, gumshoes, and explorers in the modern world. The Brenda Starr newspaper strip was still going strong and keeping up with the times, so this version of the character is a jet-setter and spends time fending off the advances of a rival television newsman as well as tracking down leads the old-fashioned way.

The film isn’t on YouTube in its entirety, but the opening credits are, so you can hear the blend of action and romance in Lalo Schifrin’s stylish theme song (the soaring tune is heard in various guises throughout the film, transformed into a sultry “love theme,” and even presented as a bossa nova when Brenda travels to Rio):

Like the 1989 feature film starring Brooke Shields, the 1976 Brenda Starr begins with the reporter (played by Jill St. John) defusing a hostage situation, in this case a desperate first-timer whose plan of robbing a bank has led to him being cornered by police sharp-shooters. Only Brenda Starr can help him, first as a potential hostage, and then as an advocate who promises to do what she can for him. This little scene establishes Brenda as brave and clear-headed, but also compassionate. Back at the office of her newspaper (unnamed in this version), she gets a tip from a contact at the airport: billionaire Lance O’Toole has just arrived on a private plane and was whisked away by a waiting ambulance. (O’Toole is played by Victor Buono, the longtime character actor who often served as a TV-budget Orson Welles, playing characters who were alternately pompous, jovial, or threatening; he played delusional villain King Tut on the Batman TV series.)

Just as Brenda is convincing her editor, A. J. Livwright (Sorrell Booke, who would play Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard), to run a story based on this tip, Brenda’s rival, TV reporter Roger Randall, goes live with his own scoop. (This is one of those movies where people turn on the TV at the exact moment necessary to get the report necessary to the plot, but in this case Randall himself called Livwright to alert him.) Brenda sneaks into O’Toole’s hospital room disguised as a nun and, overhearing O’Toole discuss his case with a German specialist, Dr. Weimar, she learns that O’Toole believes himself to be the victim of a voodoo curse–or, more accurately, macumba, the similar animist religion from Brazil (although in this film the two terms are used almost interchangeably).

Then the bodies start piling up. Medical science cannot save O’Toole (whose death is again scooped by Roger Randall). Brenda discovers supermodel Kentucky Smith dead in her own home after investigating her connection to the sculptor Dax Leander, whom O’Toole blamed for the statue that made him vulnerable. Indeed, it turns out that the case is deeply intertwined with the Brazilian macumba: not just O’Toole, but several other tycoons, including the owner of Brenda’s paper, are being blackmailed after being approached by Leander to make statues of them–statues that happened to include real hair and fingernail clippings from their subjects! Eager to unravel the truth–and to avenge her friend Kentucky, who was romantically involved with Leander and appears to have been killed for revealing what she knew–Brenda offers to take the money to Brazil on behalf of the blackmailed macumba victims.

Aside from the story, Brenda has another reason to visit Brazil: the mysterious eyepatch-wearing Basil St. John hails from Brazil, and while it has been months since Brenda saw him, she can’t get him out of her mind. Although St. John never makes an appearance on screen, reminders of his presence are everywhere: Brenda’s hotel room is graced by a bouquet of black orchids, St. John’s signature flower (although the film doesn’t go into detail, in the comics, St. John’s family is subject to a madness that can only be kept in check with an extract of the black orchid; St. John is such a romantic character, no wonder only Timothy Dalton could play him in the 1989 movie); Brenda is led into a roundabout trap by a man with an eyepatch, whom she at first mistakes for St. John; and ultimately the villain of the piece threatens St. John with a voodoo statue in his likeness to keep Brenda in line.

The second half of the movie leans into both the exoticism of the South American jungle and the scary otherness of mind control and ecstatic macumba rituals. Like many pulp adventures made after it became increasingly uncool to demonize other cultures and their religions, but not so uncool that they wouldn’t be used as exotic window dressing, this movie has it both ways: Carlos Vargas (Joel Fabiani), one of Brenda’s contacts in Rio, explains that macumba is an understandable reaction to the enslavement and exploitation that produced it, and that its magic isn’t meant to be used for evil (spoiler alert: the magic totally ends up being used for evil). Alas, it turns out that he, too, is under the spell of the macumba, thanks to the magic of the macumba priestess, Luisa (Barbara Luna). But Luisa isn’t the villain either; she is ultimately a sympathetic character, and she helps Brenda turn the tables and uses her magic for good after a sisterly heart-to-heart talk.

Who is the villain? Well, I normally avoid spelling out the whole plot, but since this movie isn’t that easy to find, I’ll place a spoiler section below. Although made for television and definitely a product of its time, Brenda Starr isn’t a bad movie: shallow, perhaps, but diverting. The mixture of magic and very-special-guest TV actors is strongly reminiscent of Fantasy Island and other shows I watched regularly as a kid, and you don’t have to know anything about the source material to follow the plot. This was the era of Charlie’s Angels (although this movie filmed in 1975, Charlie’s Angels beat it to air by premiering in March of ’76), and while Brenda isn’t violent herself, she has a knack for getting into situations where people around her die and get hurt.

Sex symbol Jill St. John plays Brenda as a thoroughly self-sufficient career woman who pursues romance on her own terms. Her heart may belong to Basil St. John, but in the mean time she has her choice of men for companionship, and like comic-strip Brenda, she has an extensive wardrobe (and a couple of scenes where she models a bikini or lingerie, for reasons critical to the plot, you can be sure). She even tries to use her feminine wiles on the handsome and egomaniacal Roger Randall (Jed Allan, best-known for a long stint on Days of Our Lives), but in the end these scenes of seduction, titillation, and (in the third act) sexual menace are neutralized by the very fact that it’s a made-for-television production, safe enough for the whole family to watch together.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

In case you’re curious to solve the mystery but aren’t interested in tracking this one down for yourself, suffice it to say that Lance O’Toole not only faked his death, he set up the entire macumba scheme himself as part of a bigger master plan. Once out of the public eye, he planned to start his own private kingdom deep in the Brazilian jungle, with his absolute rule enforced by macumba mind control. First the jungle, then the world! Carlos, Luisa, and sculptor Dax Leander are under his control, and he had Kentucky Smith killed because she knew too much. Not only that, but he intends to make Brenda Starr his bride, the queen of his new reign. As for the mysterious Dr. Weimar, that was Roger Randall in disguise: that’s how he was able to scoop Brenda, and it also gets him involved with the drama in the jungle.

Ultimately, O’Toole’s magic is used against him when Brenda convinces Luisa to release Leander from the trance he is in and he makes a statue in O’Toole’s likeness. Just another episode in the career of Brenda Starr, reporter!

Fates Worse Than Death: Brenda Starr, Reporter

Daily Flash reporter Brenda Starr and her cameraman Chuck Allen race to cover a fire in a downtown neighborhood, hoping to beat police Lt. Larry Farrell and his assistant Tim Brown to the scene: a fire is big news, but this could be the break Brenda needs in the story of Joe Heller, the thief who stole a quarter-million-dollar payroll and was recently seen in the neighborhood. As it happens, Heller is in the burning building, but before he can escape he is cornered by Kruger, a gunman for the gang to whom Heller was supposed to hand off the loot. Kruger recovers the payroll bag and shoots Heller; when Brenda enters the room, Kruger thrusts her into a closet. After being rescued by Farrell, she bends down to check on Heller, and with his dying breath he slips her a piece of paper with a code on it.

Later, at the swanky Pelican Club, Kruger and his fellow gangster Mullin turn the bag over to their superior, club manager Frank Smith. The bag turns out to be full of blank paper! Even in death, Joe Heller has double-crossed them! Kruger saw Brenda take the note from Heller, so he suspects that she might know where the real loot is. Meanwhile, Farrell passes along a story that Heller is still alive but unconscious, a trap to lure his killers into the open. Communicating with his superior, the “Big Boss,” by radio, Smith is instructed to pass a tip to Brenda Starr through an underworld contact named Charlie, sending her to spring the trap the police have set. When she and Chuck get to the house (that both the police and the gang are watching), she finds it full of gas: only a lucky fall out of a window saves her when absent-minded Chuck lights a match, igniting the gas!

After surviving that little incident, Brenda finds that Joe Heller, played by serial regular Wheeler Oakman, is actually dead, and the cover story was all a ruse. “Woakman” fans (or “Wacorns,” as we call ourselves) will be happy to learn, however, that Joe Heller had an identical twin brother, Lew, also played by Oakman, who turns up a few chapters later to avenge his brother’s death and find the payroll himself. Joe, we barely knew ye, but Lew turns out to be just as slippery and self-interested, holding on to what little he knows in hopes of making a deal with the police (especially after he fractures a milkman’s skull making one of his getaways). The payroll is still out there somewhere, and while the police codebreakers try to make sense of the paper Brenda was given, Frank Smith and his gang try to flush out Lew and the payroll; if they can get rid of the troublesome reporter Brenda Starr at the same time, so much the better!

Brenda Starr, Reporter was, of course, an adaptation of the comic strip of the same name, begun by Dale Messick in 1940 (and continued after her death until 2011). Brenda stands apart from the other brassy dames reporting the news in her day by being glamorous as well as gutsy, and the comic strip is notable for Brenda’s fashionable outfits and the elements of romance that accompany the adventure. Naturally, the sex appeal is toned down in the serial, but star Joan Woodbury makes a convincingly beautiful serial-budget replacement for Rita Hayworth (the original model for comic-strip Brenda) and wears a few nice gowns when the occasion arises. She and Lt. Farrell (serial stalwart Kane Richmond) are clearly crazy about each other, and as in the raucous romantic comedies of the era their banter and disagreements are a cover for their mutual attraction. Here’s one serial where the last-scene kiss between male and female leads actually feels like it’s in character!

This is the second serial in a row I’ve watched in which the villains take orders from a disembodied voice, and I know I’ve seen at least a couple that have the same solution to the mystery of the “Big Boss’s” identity; mostly we get a number of scenes with smooth Frank Smith (George Meeker, according to IMDb: other than the leads, the actors go uncredited) and his underlings (regular heavies Anthony Warde and John Merton; Jack Ingram plays Kruger). Smith and his gang have some of the usual serial tricks at their disposal, such as the “special sedan” with the sealed-off backseat that takes men (and women) who have outlived their usefulness on their “last ride.”

A singer at the nightclub, Vera Harvey (Cay Forester), gets reluctantly involved when Brenda identifies her car as the one used in a crime; at least a few chapters’ worth of incident are spun out of poor Vera getting in over her head, first cooperating in a plot to trap Brenda and then asking for help when she realizes her own life is in danger.

Other than the usual henchmen, the sketchy stool pigeon Charlie (Ernie Adams) makes the biggest impression, playing both sides against each other. With a toothpick dangling from his mouth and his “wise guy” way of talking, Charlie is the picture of a movie gangster; frankly, it’s not clear why anyone ever trusts him when he’s so obviously looking out for Number One.

We also get a bit of Brenda’s home life: she lives with her cousin Abretha (Lottie Harrison), a one-note character from the comic strip. Abretha (full name: Abretha Breeze, which is almost a pun) is a full-figured gal, and like other “fat” characters such as Wonder Woman’s pal Etta Candy, almost every line of dialogue she has revolves around food, and spends her time cooking lavish meals for Brenda and her colleagues that she ends up eating herself. Hilarious! Abretha seems like a nice girl, and it’s useful to have a character who doesn’t share the main cast’s zest for adventure, but a little goes a long way. I haven’t read much of the original Brenda Starr comics, but reading up on the various punny characters like Abretha actually leaves me sympathetic to the usual serial habit of creating new characters as foils for the hero.

In fact, my first impression of this serial is that its strength lies in its sense of character, as the plot and its complications are nothing special. So far, Columbia’s serials have been my least favorite of any studio’s output, with even the better ones having lumpy pacing and a casual, slapdash air. That works, however, for the mostly comic scenes of rapid-fire banter in the newsroom: the Flash’s blustering editor, Walters (Frank Jaquet), has the air of an indulgent but frequently exasperated father, offering and rescinding bonus checks with every change of fortune. Then there’s Pesky (William Benedict), the copy boy who can be counted on to get everything backwards: this is an obvious source of comic relief, but it also informs and complicates the plot, as when he sends the cops to Brenda’s apartment instead of the Pelican Club at a crucial moment, or when Brenda, surprised by Lew at home, tells Chuck over the phone not to come over and to “be a good boy and obey orders like Pesky would”–i.e., by doing the opposite of what she told him.

Finally, there’s the friendly rivalry between the cops and the press: just as Brenda and Lt. Farrell are paired up as co-leads, so do their respective sidekicks have a bantering, semi-antagonistic relationship: Chuck (Syd Saylor) and Officer Brown (Joe Devlin) are betting men, wagering on who will arrive at the scene first and keeping a running tally. Chuck’s sad-sack demeanor is also an excellent comic foil to Brenda’s brash stop-at-nothing energy: “Maybe we don’t live right,” he complains at one point. “Everything bad happens to us.” Buddy, that’s the life of a serial hero.

What I Watched: Brenda Starr, Reporter (Columbia, 1945)

Where I Watched It: DVD from VCI Entertainment (It’s worth noting that the VCI disk is missing scenes from Chapters 3 and 4 due to deterioration of the source material; Serial Squadron has located these missing chapters and is in the process of restoring them for a future release. There is enough redundancy in the serial format that it’s not hard to pick up on what happens in the missing sections, however.)

No. of Chapters: “13 Spine Tingling Chapters!”

Best Chapter Title: “Hot News!” (Chapter One)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eight (“Killer at Large”), Charlie comes up with a plan that will help Lew get his revenge on Kruger for killing his brother. Charlie convinces Frank Smith to hire a phony fortune teller named Zelda (Marion Burns) for the Pelican Club, and Lew comes along as her assistant, “Abdul,” in a turban and false beard. (The stuff with Zelda, in this and the following chapter, is a lot of fun, and probably the high point of the serial for me.) Brenda and Chuck are invited to watch, as are Lt. Farrell and Tim. As “Abdul,” Lew walks among the audience, calling out for Zelda (who is blindfolded) to say what the marks are thinking, or what is in their pockets. Approaching Kruger, Abdul asks Zelda for her impression and is told that she feels a great sense of evil; through leading questions, Zelda says that a murder has been committed in the past, and that if Abdul looks in Kruger’s pocket he will find the gun that killed Vera Harvey. The plan to trap Kruger in front of the police goes awry when the lights in the club go out and shots are fired. This is one of several cliffhangers in which uncertainty or a reversal of fortune takes the place of an immediate deadly peril, but the implication is that any of our heroes might be on the receiving end of those gunshots. (At the beginning of the next chapter, when the lights come back on, both Kruger and Lew are gone. )

Sample Dialogue: “Whether you believe me or not, I’m going to write a story that’ll crack this town wide open!” –Brenda Starr to Lt. Farrell, Chapter Five (“The Big Boss Speaks”)

More Brenda Starr: Brenda Starr returned to the screen a few more times during periods of revived interest in the comics: in 1976, former Bond girl Jill St. John played Brenda in a TV movie (I haven’t been able to watch this one yet, but if I have anything worthwhile to say about it I may post a capsule review), and a TV pilot was made in 1979 starring Sherry Jackson.

A feature film starring Brooke Shields was produced in 1986, released overseas in 1989, and finally landed in the U.S. (to dismal reviews and poor box office) in 1992. It features Timothy Dalton (no stranger to pulp) as Brenda’s love interest, the enigmatic Basil St. John. In this movie Brenda dodges international spies and a reporter from a rival newspaper while tracking down an ex-Nazi scientist’s miracle fuel additive. The film also goes meta in the vein of The Purple Rose of Cairo, with a cartoonist (not Dale Messick, but an assistant) entering Brenda’s 1940s comic strip world and falling in love with her (Brooke Shields was my very first celebrity crush, so I can’t say I blame him). It’s a hook, but it’s less magical to learn that Brenda doesn’t have a belly button and is unable to swear (because of newspaper censors, you see) than the filmmakers seem to think. Shields makes a great Brenda, even if the film around her is (to be charitable) uneven. There are a lot of clever touches, but it’s pretty damn goofy as well, and everything to do with the Russian spies led by Jeffrey Tambor would be too broad for a live-action Disney movie. But then the movie shows us something sublimely silly like Brenda waterskiing on a pair of alligators and it comes all the way back around to being good.

What Others Have Said: “What Columbia was trying to do in the mid-1940s was trade upon–some would say tarnish–the reputations of heroes of other media. Beginning in 1945, when ‘Produced by Sam Katzman’ was stamped upon every Columbia serial, the borrowings were regular and frequent. The funny papers’ Brenda Starr, Reporter began the procession. . . .” —The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment, Raymond W. Stedman

What’s Next: I dive back into my big box of VHS tapes with another adaptation of a classic comic strip, Terry and the Pirates!

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: Red Barry

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China is at war! In the headquarters of General Fang, the elderly Wing Fu, known in the United States as a humble importer of Chinese goods, prepares to undertake a covert mission: he carries with him two million dollars in bonds, with which he is to secretly buy airplanes for the Chinese war effort (illegal under American neutrality laws). He takes with him the dedicated young Captain Moy, but it is clear that the mission will be dangerous: the Chinatown crimelord Quong Lee has already murdered three of Wing Fu’s associates, and all that stands between Quong Lee’s gang and the bonds is police detective Red Barry, “possibly the cleverest detective on the force,” already on the case of the Pell Street murders.

Meanwhile, Detective Barry has his own problems: although his immediate superior, Inspector Scott, considers Barry a great detective, the covert nature of many of his assignments make others suspicious: the police commissioner wants to take Barry off the Chinatown case and replace him with Valentine Vane, a foppish, glory-hungry “scientific detective” on loan from Scotland Yard. Barry tries to follow orders and stay away, but he keeps getting pulled back into the action, which first takes him to a theater in which a Chinese secret service man (disguised as an acrobat) is murdered, leading Barry to the ship on which Wing Fu and his bonds are to arrive in America. Also at the theater is someone else after the bonds: Natacha, a Russian dancer, swears that the bonds once belonged to her father and were stolen from him. She and her Russian cohort are determined to get back what is rightfully hers. Before the ship even pulls into port, the bonds are stolen from Wing Fu, leading to a fight on the docks with Quong Lee’s henchmen! That’s a lot of set-up, but it’s an indicator of just how much plot is stuffed into the thirteen chapters of Universal’s 1938 serial Red Barry!

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I’ll confess I wasn’t familiar with Red Barry before I started watching and researching this serial: like many of the serials, it was first a comic strip, which were a frequent source of film adaptations, just as comic books have proven to be in the last few decades. The comic strip Red Barry first appeared in March 1934, the first of many imitators to follow the success of Dick Tracy. (The artist/writer Will Gould is no relation to Tracy‘s creator Chester Gould. He is also not William Gould, who plays the Commissioner in this serial. While we’re at it, Western actor Don “Red” Barry has nothing to do with the comic strip or serial: he took his nickname through association with popular character Red Ryder, whom he had played on screen.)

The comic strip was popular enough to receive the Big Little Book treatment in addition to a serial adaptation; had it not ended in 1939 after only five years, it is likely it would be better remembered. Apparently, it wasn’t a decline in popularity or the strip’s high level of violence that led to its end: disputes with the syndicate and the heavy workload caused Gould to leave cartooning and begin a new–and easier–career in Hollywood. For many years it was considered a difficult strip to collect (the aforementioned violence meant it didn’t run in some newspapers), but a recent edition from IDW has reproduced the complete run in two volumes, and it is that which I have consulted.

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Like Dick Tracy, Red Barry was a gritty police procedural that didn’t shy away from the rougher aspects of law enforcement; Barry faces off against criminals with his fists and his gun, frequently outmaneuvering them through a combination of quick thinking and dumb luck. During the Depression, when lawlessness seemed to be everywhere, this new mode of “hard-boiled” crime fiction was very popular in both the comics and the pulps. The twist was that Barry was an “undercover man,” infiltrating criminal gangs and bringing them down from the inside, with only Inspector Scott knowing his real loyalty. Gould leavened the frequent fisticuffs and bloodshed with wry humor and colorful characters (as well as some unfortunate ethnic caricatures) drawn from his extensive experience as a newspaperman.

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Modern viewers of the serial will instantly recognize the formula that has been used in so many police stories: Barry is hounded by a clueless Commissioner and defended by his boss (Wade Boteler) because “he gets results;” Barry maintains contacts in the underworld and throughout the city, including would-be Chinatown detective “Hong Kong Cholly” (Philip Ahn, brother of Buck Rogers‘s Philson Ahn, and who is the only major player of Asian descent in this serial).

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His other source of support is Mississippi (Frances Robinson), the Southern-accented girl reporter for the Daily Press, who spends so much time in the offices of the police station (and even behind the wheel of a police car!) that she might as well be an honorary deputy. Although the serial doesn’t have Barry (played by serial icon Buster Crabbe, who had already played Tarzan and Flash Gordon, and would go on to play Buck Rogers) going undercover, it’s still reasonably faithful to the setup of the strip. Many of the supporting characters–Scott, Mississippi, Cholly, and Vane–are drawn from the comics.

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Mostly set in and around Chinatown, it would be easy for Red Barry to fall prey to the clichés of exoticism and Chinoiserie I discussed in the context of Shadow of Chinatown. Indeed, Asian actors and settings are used as a colorful backdrop for much of the story, but there is very little of the “Yellow Peril” in it. With its theme of Chinese self-defense opposed to official American neutrality, Red Barry is also more explicitly political than most serials (this has limits, however; presumably the war referred to is the struggle between Chinese Nationalists and Communists, but it is primarily a spark to get the story in America going). It is still a work of its time, however: Wing Fu and Quong Lee, the major Chinese characters, are played by white men, Syril Delevanti and Frank Lackteen respectively (see the Spoilers for more on this, however).

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As Hong Kong Cholly, Ahn plays the most stereotyped role, thickly-accented and obsequious to Red Barry (this is true to the original comics). As soon as the white people are gone, however, it is revealed that “Cholly” speaks perfect English: he is, in fact, Wing Fu’s son! (The shift in his dialogue may represent that the two are speaking Chinese in private, but it’s not entirely clear: either way, the clownish simpleton he appears to be around Red Barry is revealed to be an act.) As such, like Wing Fu he plays a dangerous game, respecting and relying on Red Barry and even helping him when it is in his own interest, but knowing that the mission to buy airplanes breaks American law.

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Natacha (Edna Sedgwick) is a similarly nuanced character, taking the initiative to correct the injustice done to her family. While she practically lives at the theater where she performs her act (a ballet number set to Tchaikovsky, of course), she maintains connections with some Russian toughs who hang out at Mama Sonia’s, a Russian restaurant. The lead Russian is Petrov, played by intense character actor Stanley Price, and he and the other Russians play the typical henchman roles, tailing people, breaking into their offices, and threatening them in their search for the missing bonds.

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Quong Lee also has his headquarters, behind the “Eurasian Café” in Chinatown, and his own gang of thugs, headed up by serial stalwart Wheeler Oakman as Weaver. In typical serial fashion, all three of the people trying to get the bonds delegate to people working for them or helping them, partly to keep the mystery drawn out–we can’t have Red Barry copping to the truth too quickly–and to keep the danger at arm’s length until the last few chapters, when they all have to get their hands dirty.

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The Chinatown and theater settings provide colorful backdrops for action and intrigue; many of the locations are returned to again and again, and almost all are riddled with secret entrances and exits, allowing Barry’s quarry to stay one step ahead and leading to some surprise confrontations. The fights, traps, and cliffhangers are generally well-executed and the pacing keeps things exciting and varied.

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The real strong point of this serial, however, is in the characterization: the antagonists have clear, contrasting motives that drive the plot forward and allow the characters to bounce off one another in various combinations. The mystery, while not deep, is tangled enough to justify the length it takes Barry to unravel it, and there are some twists (discussed below) that take the plot in new directions just when it seems that things may resolve according to formula. My one complaint is the sameness of the henchmen that I have in the past referred to as the “white guys in fedoras” problem: without context, it is not always clear whether the Russians or Quong Lee’s men are on screen, and when more than two sides of the conflict collide, the result is often as confusing for the audience as for the men involved. (At least Wing Fu’s men are Chinese, but even this is not always clear in wide shots.) This is not a huge problem, however, as dialogue usually clarifies the situation sooner or later, and when they get the spotlight it is always a pleasure to watch Stanley Price and Wheeler Oakman in action.

Finally, there is Red Barry himself. Once again, Buster Crabbe (here billed as “Larry,” as he often was in his earlier roles) proves why he was so effective anchoring the serials, whether fantastic or more down-to-earth. Crabbe’s Barry is not as rough-edged as the character in the comics, but he is cool-headed, competent, and diplomatic, even when assailed by doubts or in over his head. Putting him at the center makes it easy to see why his friends are so loyal to him. Red Barry is recommended viewing.

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Spoilers: As mentioned, Wing Fu and Quong Lee are both played by white men; in the case of Quong Lee, however, it turns out that he isn’t really Chinese within the story either! In Chapter Eight (“The Devil’s Disguise”), the audience learns that the Chinatown crimelord “Quong Lee” and Mannix, the mild-mannered theater manager, are one in the same! His real identity is Frederick Lee, a renegade white man run out of China. He is a master of disguise, using his theatrical skills to lead a double life and occasionally slip under the police’s noses when things get too hot. It turns out Red Barry isn’t the only “undercover man!” (William Ruhl plays the undisguised Mannix; it wasn’t that unusual for two different actors to play the same character in disguise in serials, either to throw the audience off or to make the “disguise” conceit more convincing.)

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In fact, there is another character who isn’t what he seems: in the Red Barry strip, Valentine Vane was a self-taught amateur detective who attempted to upstage the professionals, spoofing popular series character Philo Vance. In the serial, Vane (played by Hugh Huntley) is an annoying but apparently legitimate source of competition, a Scotland Yard detective brought in by the Commissioner because he lacks faith in Red Barry. In addition to his “scientific” airs, Vane is wealthy, and his mansion, complete with butler, archery range, and collection of automobiles, is a scene to which we return several times. At one point, when Red Barry, in possession of the bonds, is knocked unconscious, Vane takes them, supposedly so he can take credit for their recovery. This makes him underhanded, but not criminal. However, in Chapter Twelve (“The Enemy Within”), Vane makes his move, knocking Natacha unconscious and pulling a gun on the seemingly triumphant Mannix, demanding to split the proceeds from the bonds. “Valentine Vane” has been playing a long con all along, and beneath his “jolly good” cover he is actually an American grifter named Harry Dicer. He’s strung the Commissioner along until he was in a position to make a big score, and now he has his opportunity! Mannix and Vane team up for a while, at least until they inevitably betray each other and receive the punishment that is the just reward for all serial villains.

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Finally, while Wing Fu’s covert mission to buy airplanes for China runs afoul of American laws, changing circumstances mean that the bonds will be directed towards food and medicine for refugees. This humanitarian purpose is not against American law, and so Wing Fu and Red Barry are able to work together from Chapter Ten on. Ultimately, Natacha relinquishes her claim to the bonds when she learns they will be used for refugee aid, as she had been a refugee herself. Thus is the conflict resolved. 

What I Watched: Red Barry (Universal, 1938)

Where I Watched It: TCM aired this serial, one chapter a week, on Saturday mornings for the last three months. I mostly watched it week to week but recorded the chapters to my DVR so I could review them. Unfortunately, I can’t take direct screenshots from my television like I can from my computer, hence the lower quality. Red Barry is also available on DVD.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Between Two Fires” (Chapter Nine)

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Ten (“The False Trail”) ends with a car chase, the villain having lain in wait in a taxi and taken Red prisoner, and Mississippi following in a police car. When the shooting starts, Red (in the back seat) takes the opportunity to fight against his captor: the two struggle until the door opens, spilling Red out onto the roadway, where he appears to be run over by Mississipi’s close-following car (the key word being “appears,” of course).

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Sample Dialogue: “You can always find people you’re not looking for.” –a policeman on the lookout for Quong Lee, watching Mannix go by (Chapter Eight, “The Devil’s Disguise)

What Others Have Said: “I have long admired and raved about Red Barry as the one successful detective comic strip and the only one worthy of consideration, from my scholarly viewpoint. Vigorously in the Hammett tradition, with first-rate characters and clean-cut plots.” –letter from author Anthony Boucher to Forrest J. Ackerman, quoted in Red Barry: Undercover Man, Volume 1, IDW Publishing

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What’s Next: In two weeks I’ll return with a look at Adventures of Captain Marvel!

 

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!

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc.

Criminologist Stephen Chandler is a haunted man: after the deaths of his colleagues Allison and Thornton, he is now in the sights of the mysterious killer known only as “the Ghost.” Even the nearness of his adult daughter, June, and the watchful police officers that surround his estate cannot reassure him. Even Dick Tracy himself, on his way from his headquarters in Washington, D.C., cannot guarantee Chandler’s safety, for who could possibly be on guard against an invisible man?

Yes, at his secret headquarters, with the assistance of mad inventor Lucifer, the Ghost plots to strike. The mask the Ghost wears hides his identity should he be spotted, but it is with the “contact disc” he wears around his neck that he truly lives up to his namesake. With the twist of a few dials on Lucifer’s console, the Ghost fades from view, with only an eerie whistling sound to indicate his presence. And it is in this form that the Ghost sneaks past Chandler’s guard and into his study, shooting him dead. By the time Tracy arrives, it’s too late.

It should be clear from this opening chapter (a chapter that also includes a plot to destroy New York City by dropping depth charges on a hidden faultline) that Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc., the fourth and final Republic Dick Tracy serial, has left Chester Gould’s comic strip behind and is content to dwell full-time in serial land. It is most similar to the first Tracy serial from 1937, but even that serial, with its flying wing and personality-altering surgery, didn’t commit to anything as fantastic as invisibility, and it occasionally slowed down for mundane police work, which Crime, Inc. has little time for.

It is the humble finger print, however, that provides a hint to the nature of the Ghost and his vendetta: the only prints left behind after Chandler’s murder belong to “Rackets” Regan, a criminal executed at Sing Sing a few years before. Chandler and the first two victims had been a member of the secret Council of Eight, a group of influential citizens united to stop the scourge of organized crime. It was the Council of Eight who, along with Tracy, brought down Regan, and since the Ghost is Regan’s surviving brother (as he reveals to Lucifer in one of those “as you know” monologues that once lubricated all kinds of genre narratives), the motive for his killing spree is clear: revenge first, and resuming Regan’s criminal regime, nicknamed “Crime, Inc.”, later.

Of course, Tracy and his colleagues don’t know all that at first. In fact, they don’t even realize they’re dealing with an invisible man until nearly the last chapter (for a while, everyone who realizes the Ghost’s secret winds up dead before they can tell anyone else). But the seeming return of “Rackets” Regan leads to a reconvening of the surviving members of the Council; Tracy’s regular meetings with the group and the Ghost’s gradual reduction of their numbers, And Then There Were None-style, forms the spine of the plot. And not surprisingly (if you’ve seen more than a few of these serials), it is soon apparent that the Ghost is secretly a member of the Council himself! Once Tracy realizes that, he goes on the offensive, feeding the Council information with which he hopes to trap the Ghost and discover his identity.

Since Tracy, having been promoted at the end of Dick Tracy’s G-Men, is now based in Washington, he has an all-new supporting cast. Billy Carr (Michael Owen) fills the role of Tracy’s partner/sidekick, replacing Steve Lockwood. June Chandler (Jan Wiley), daughter of the man murdered in Chapter One, sticks around to assist Tracy, help run Council meetings, and later turns out to have her own scientific skills as a “sound expert,” helping Tracy analyze the whistling sound that accompanies the Ghost’s crimes (before they understand that he is invisible). June is more involved and gets more screen time than Gwen Andrews did in the earlier serials, but it would still be a stretch to refer to her as a “love interest” as Max Allan Collins does in his commentary. In my opinion she fits the category of “strictly Platonic, but the only major female character in the film,” but without his comic strip paramour Tess Trueheart around, Tracy is married to the law alone. (Of course Ralph Byrd is still in the title role, making him the only cast member to appear in all four serials.)

On the villains’ side, the Ghost gets his own credit, keeping his identity secret from the audience until the end. His main associate Lucifer is played by John Davidson, the cadaverous character actor with the sepulchral voice, whom we have encountered several times before in this series, and who almost always appears as a heavy. Other henchmen include Anthony Warde (who played the main bad guy in Buck Rogers) and Stanley Price, who makes an uncredited appearance in only one chapter, but whose intensity (imagine a teleporter accident fusing Peter Lorre and James Cagney) is always welcome.

Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. is a mixed bag: the emphasis on unrelenting action makes for some ambitious and boisterous fight scenes, with actors and stuntmen really throwing themselves into it. A knockdown-drag-out between Tracy and a henchman impersonating a butler in Chapter Two is typical, and one gets the sense that each chapter’s fight is meant to top the last, with more men fighting and each location more dangerous. On the other hand, there are quite a few shoot-outs with men blasting at each other from behind walls, and lots of car chases, which I just don’t find that exciting, no matter how much the black sedans squeal their tires or fishtail around tight corners. Several perils are lifted from previous Tracy serials; in some chapters that means there are actually two big action set pieces, which would have been more impressive if I hadn’t seen them before.

However, the Ghost’s invisibility is a gimmick that lends itself to atmospheric effects, bringing back elements of suspense and horror not seen since the 1937 serial. Simple devices like doors and windows that open by themselves, characters disturbed by a bump or stray gust of wind from an unknown source, or the disembodied voice of the Ghost himself (“I’m in the room even though you can’t see me. . . . Now you know why I’m called the Ghost. . . .”) are quite creepy, and (lest we forget) are always accompanied by the spooky electronic whistling of the invisibility mechanism. When the Ghost strikes, his weapon, be it a gun or knife, floats in mid-air; the Ghost’s clothes or other accessories aren’t visible, but the terrifying sight of a gun, seemingly pointing by itself, is enough of a spectacle that the filmmakers weren’t going to let logic stop them from using it.

Finally, the Ghost’s invisibility inspires an equally audacious countermeasure, matching pseudoscience for pseudoscience. In the final trap Tracy lays for the Ghost, he uses a special “infra-red X-ray” light that not only renders invisible things visible, but inverts the spectrum, making everything look like a photo negative. It’s a satisfying and memorably strange ending to one of the G-man’s weirdest adventures.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (Republic, 1941)

Where I Watched It: Dick Tracy Complete Serial Collection, VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Doom Patrol” (Chapter Three). Nothing to do with the wild DC comic of the same name, of course, but an exciting, evocative title for a chapter that ends up recycling footage from earlier Dick Tracy serials. (At least there is no economy chapter, so nothing is repeated from earlier chapters.)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Thirteen (“The Challenge”), Dick Tracy has spotted the Ghost, momentarily visible but still masked, in the halls of the Ambassador Hotel. After a chase, both end up on the roof, where a fight ensues. While grappling, the Ghost pushes Tracy out over the ledge; Tracy grabs at the Ambassador’s sign, pulling the A off accidentally so we get a good sense of how far down it is to the sidewalk below. Eventually, Tracy is clinging to the sign, which pulls away from the wall under his weight. The sign plummets to the ground, surely taking Tracy with it. . . .

Sample Dialogue: “That explains a lot of things.” –Dick Tracy, after discovering that the Ghost can make himself invisible in Chapter Fourteen (“Invisible Terror”)

The Dick Tracy serials ranked, best to worst:
1. Dick Tracy Returns (1938)
2. Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939)
3. Dick Tracy (1937)
4. Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941)

Points of connection: Crime, Inc. was the last Dick Tracy serial and the last Tracy outing from Republic. Between 1945 and 1947, RKO would produce four Dick Tracy feature films, leaning into the darker elements of the character’s setting and spotlighting grotesque villains like Splitface and Gruesome. Morgan Conway played the title role in the first two films, but then Ralph Byrd came back to portray the character with which he was most identified. After several live-action and animated television series, the next big screen outing was the 1990 feature film starring and directed by Warren Beatty, who realized a long-held dream by putting his stamp on the character. As of this writing, Beatty still holds the movie rights to the comic strip and insists he will one day make another Tracy film.

What Others Have Said: “The times are changing–note the swing music coming out of jukeboxes–and the next time Byrd plays Tracy, the innocent serial world of Republic will be traded in for the film noir universe of RKO, but in 1941, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. is sheer, serialized fun.” –Max Allan Collins, in his introduction to the VCI DVD

What’s Next: That wraps up “Fates Worse Than Death” for the summer, but I have a few serials on DVD I didn’t get to this year, so I may or may not wait until next summer to cover them. Keep watching this space, and thanks for reading!

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy’s G-Men

Dick Tracy’s G-Men begins where most serials end: with the capture and execution of a supervillain. A newsreel begins the first chapter by introducing Nicolas Zarnoff (Irving Pichel), a “master spy” with a hand in disrupting and overthrowing governments all over the world. The newsreel shows footage of Dick Tracy and the men of the FBI’s Western Division capturing Zarnoff in a daring raid, and concludes with Zarnoff’s sentence of death in the gas chamber. After viewing the newsreel and approving it, Tracy is summoned to Zarnoff’s cell for a few last words, and we learn through dialogue just how wily and dangerous he is: he attempts to direct Tracy to a previously undisclosed hideout, but Tracy cuts him off. The G-men have already been there and defused the bomb Zarnoff had hidden in a safe to finish them off. This sets the tone for the serial: trap and counter-trap.

Tracy departs after Zarnoff vows his revenge. Then Zarnoff receives his last request: copies of all the major daily newspapers. Finding a hidden message from his associates in one of them, he tears up strips of the paper and moistens it in a cup. Drinking the water, he goes quietly to the gas chamber, only for his body to be stolen by his underlings and revived later. After investigating, Tracy learns that a drug known only to the Kali* priests of India was mixed into the ink at the newspaper printing press; by ingesting it, Zarnoff was able to stop his heart and breathing and insulate himself from the lethal gas for a time until he could be revived. Once free, he takes up his criminal enterprises where he left off, with an extra dose of vengeance for the only man to ever capture him: Dick Tracy!

* Pronounced “Kay-lie.” Pronunciation in these films is something I haven’t mentioned before, but there are a few that sound eccentric to modern ears, and not only foreign terms that are now more familiar. Columbia’s announcer habitually pronounces “ally” with the emphasis on the second syllable, as “al-LIE,” and in this serial a henchmen speaks of “DEE-tonating” a bomb. Whether these are relics of older accents or pronunciations from a time when such things were less standardized in broadcasting than they are now, or simply slips of the tongue that were left in due to the hurried “one take” method of filming serials, I’m not sure.

Where 1937’s Dick Tracy has much in common with other serials in its masked mastermind and brainwashed brother, and Dick Tracy Returns is tonally similar to Chester Gould’s comic strip, Dick Tracy’s G-Men seems to draw a great deal of inspiration from the pulp magazines that were contemporary to it. For one thing, there is a great deal of well-executed action, including excellent fight choreography and stuntwork. More importantly, the exoticism of a secret drug mixed into newsprint is just one of many examples of bizarre gimmicks that could be torn from a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! strip, or from the adventures of the Shadow or one of the many knock-offs of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu (or, looking ahead a few decades, the kind of thing Ian Fleming’s James Bond might run into). In another chapter, Zarnoff traps Tracy and his partner Steve Lockwood in a barred room, electrified by a sparking dynamo, and the settings in this serial are even more wide-ranging and colorful than usual, from a lighthouse to a deserted Old West ghost town. Like many serial villains, Zarnoff has hideouts and connections in all manner of places: an abandoned cannery, a fur store, a diving bell hidden beneath a dam, and several houses, cabins, and hotel rooms. Even the conclusion, with Tracy and Zarnoff stranded alone together in the desert, is different in character from the typical serial confrontation, like something out of a men’s adventure magazine and featuring a moralistic O. Henry twist (although it is similar to the ending of Dick Tracy Returns in that it gets the hero and villain alone together by means of an attempted airplane escape).

Allowing for the generally vague politics of serials, Dick Tracy’s G-Men is also more political than its predecessors: as mentioned, Zarnoff is a “master spy” credited with destabilizing democratic governments. A few years earlier, such a villain would have probably been described as a “revolutionary” (code for an anarchist or communist, matching Zarnoff’s beard and Russian name), but Zarnoff is more of a mercenary terrorist, selling his services to the “Three Powers,” a consortium of foreign governments (unnamed, but guess which “three powers” were causing anxiety in the U.S. in 1939?). Zarnoff’s plots include trying to kill the visiting President of a Latin American country, the sabotage of major installations like dams and canals, and the theft of secret plans for weapons and military operations. Whatever his motives, the fact that he is haughty, cynical and almost unnaturally cool-headed (one might say cold-blooded) makes it easy to root against him.

Ralph Byrd returns in the lead role, even more jolly than usual, but the supporting cast has once again been shuffled: Junior and Mike McGurk are nowhere to be found in this serial. Steve Lockwood (Ted Pearson) and Gwen Andrews (Phyllis Isely, who would soon change her stage name to Jennifer Jones) remain in Tracy’s office, played by different actors, and additional support comes from interchangeable agents Scott (Robert Carson) and Foster (Julian Madison).

Zarnoff’s main henchman, Robal, is played by Walter Miller, and to me he looks an awful lot like Ralph Byrd. The fact that he generally wears dark suits and Dick Tracy wears light ones makes it easier to tell them apart, so I guess the cliché about white hats and black hats holds true. It’s a pity that nothing is ever made of their resemblance, like Robal trying to infiltrate the FBI or something like that; maybe Miller should have played Gordon Tracy in the 1937 serial. (And as for that name: “Robal” sounds like something from a Steve Ditko comic, but Chester Gould did have a penchant for using backwards spellings for character names–Professor Emirc, anyone? So was Robal a hidden commentary connecting Labor and un-American activity, or is it simply that Robal is Zarnoff’s “workhorse”? Who knows?)

An uncredited appearance is made by Sammy McKim, who played young Kit Carson in The Painted Stallion, as a boy who helps Tracy get out of an explosive-filled mineshaft in the ghost town chapter. As a child actor, McKim specialized in Western types, so it’s fitting that he makes an appearance for the Old West themed episode.

Interestingly, Harrison Greene, this time credited, returns for one scene as “the Baron,” a representative of the Three Powers interested in obtaining military secrets. Whether he is the same Baron seen in the previous two serials is anyone’s guess, but Greene is apparently the only actor besides Ralph Byrd to appear consistently in the Dick Tracy serials.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy’s G-Men (Republic, 1939)

Where I Watched It: Dick Tracy Complete Serial Collection, VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Chapter titles include both “Sunken Peril” (Chapter Six) and “Caverns of Peril” (Chapter Eleven), but my favorite is Chapter Ten, “Crackling Fury” (an apt description of the sparking dynamo that Tracy and Steve are locked in with).

Best Cliffhanger: One thing that can be said of Republic’s cliffhangers is that they are almost always well-integrated into the plot. The chapter title frequently gives a hint as to the peril that the hero will face at the end, and enough foreshadowing is given–a bit of dialogue or a close-up on some innocuous prop that will become the instrument of doom–that the danger can be seen coming–or could have been seen if only the hero had been more careful. In Dick Tracy’s G-Men, the typical car, airplane, autogyro (!), and dirigible (!!) mishaps are alternated with some truly fiendish and inventive death traps. This is the real stuff, serial fans.

Yes, Dick Tracy’s G-Men uses stock footage of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster as part of a cliffhanger.

In Chapter Two (“Captured”), Dick Tracy is bound and gagged and placed behind a locked door with a pistol rigged to shoot at whomever tries to open it; Zarnoff figures that the stray shot will force the trigger-happy G-men to spray the door with machine gun fire, executing their helpless boss. (And it almost works, too!) In Chapter Eight (“Chamber of Doom”), Tracy is nearly asphyxiated in a furrier’s fumigation room (surely a source of ironic satisfaction for Zarnoff, who faced his own gas chamber in Chapter One!); in Chapter Thirteen (“The Fatal Ride”), Tracy, Lockwood, and FBI Director Anderson are nearly gassed again in the sealed back seat of a taxi cab driven by one of Zarnoff’s men. Only a convenient air tube gets them through that one.

Upon reflection, however, my favorite cliffhanger is the one closing Chapter Four (“The Enemy Strikes”). This chapter takes place in and around a barge filled with explosives. Zarnoff knows that Tracy has tracked him to a dockside salvage outfitter, so he lays a trap, putting a time bomb in the hold of the barge. While Tracy and the G-men shoot it out with the bad guys on the multi-level barge, the timer ticks away; the cliffhanger, however, is not the explosion of the bomb. Dick Tracy discovers the time bomb and throws it overboard, where it explodes harmlessly. Rather, it is set in motion when Robal throws a barrel at Tracy. Tracy dodges the barrel, but instead of continuing to focus on their fight, the camera follows the barrel as it rolls from one ledge to another, Donkey Kong-style, until it lands in the water. There it bobs between the barge and another barge next to it, until the current brings them together: at first, the barrel bulges as it is squeezed, but it eventually splinters beneath the pressure. The danger is clear. Sure enough, Tracy is knocked out and falls into the water, between the two barges, where it is only a matter of time before he suffers the same fate as the poor barrel. Here comes the tugboat to push the barges together. . . .

Sample Dialogue: “I have cheated the law, outwitted the deadly science of the lethal chamber, but at a price no mortal man was ever expected to pay. That ancient drug was brewed by the alchemists of Satan. Tracy forced me to it. Tracy must die.” –Zarnoff in Chapter One, “The Master Spy” (Zarnoff was supposedly modeled after Boris Karloff, but only Chapter One, with its echoes of Frankenstein, really leans into the horror elements; at first after his resurrection, Zarnoff is shaken, and his appearance frightens his henchmen, but in later chapters he appears to have recovered his equilibrium.)

What Others Have Said: “These serials were a definite departure from the comic strip, omitting key characters such as Tess, Pat Patton and Chief Brandon, and emphasized Tracy as the ultimate dedicated lawman, asking no quarter and giving none in his battle against crime. Even as kids we knew that liberties had been taken in transferring Dick Tracy to the screen, but as action fans we didn’t care.” –William C. Cline, “Remakes and Side Effects” in Serials-ly Speaking: Essays on Cliffhangers

What’s Next: My schedule permitting, I should have just enough time to watch and write up the fourth and final Dick Tracy serial, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. before the end of summer!

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy Returns

Dick Tracy, still a plainclothes G-Man with the Western Division of the FBI, is lecturing a new class of incoming agents: “Remember,” he tells them, “there are no rules in the game of justice versus crime,” giving a bracing wake-up call to the new agents while reminding viewers that this serial will involve the nuts and bolts of serious police work. Tracy and his colleagues are trained and careful policemen, vulnerable to bullets, not costumed superheroes. Afterward, Tracy greets one of the new agents, Ron Merton (David Sharpe), a promising symbol of the Bureau’s bright future. (Gosh, I hope something bad doesn’t happen to him!)

Special Agent Merton’s first big assignment is to ride along with a bank shipment of half a million dollars in cash. At the same time, Tracy is concerned about a criminal recently released by a “soft-hearted parole board”: Pa Stark, who, along with his gang of five sons, is thought to be operating out West. Could it be that Tracy is about to cross paths with the Starks, and that the bank shipment Merton is guarding is their next target?

Dick Tracy Returns is the second serial based on Chester Gould’s long-running newspaper comic strip (begun in 1931), and it is, in the words of mystery writer (and sometime Dick Tracy writer) Max Allan Collins, “the serial most like the strip.” This is true not just in the emphasis on solid police work over fantastic special effects or melodrama–unlike the previous serial, there are no “flying wings” or “sound disintegrators,” no mad scientists, and even the main villain, Pa Stark, is known and unmasked from the beginning (catching him is another matter)–but in the assortment of colorful side characters, the devious ways the criminals attempt to worm their way out of the various jams they find themselves in, and even the tendency of characters (heroes and villains alike) to hide in unlikely places that turn out to be potential deathtraps.

The few high-tech wonders that are included in the story are much more modest–no synthetic radium here–and serve to move the story forward rather than thrilling in themselves: a super cutting torch is stolen from the Navy so that the Starks can use it to cut into a jewelry store’s vault; a “torpedo speedboat” is stolen to sell it to a foreign power; likewise a scheme to steal the motor of an experimental airplane. (One exception is a remote television viewer that allows Tracy to witness the hijacking of the torpedo boat out at sea while he is on the shore, but even then it’s presented matter-of-factly.) As Collins points out (in his introduction on the DVD copy I watched), “Of all the Dick Tracy serials, this is the Dick Traciest!”

Having said all that, Dick Tracy Returns clearly follows Dick Tracy (1937) in continuity, however loosely: Ralph Byrd returns in the starring role; Tracy is still a G-Man in the West rather than a Chicago police detective; and the supporting characters surrounding him are the same, although recast: Steve Lockwood (Michael Kent, replacing Fred Hamilton) is Tracy’s partner, Gwen Andrews (Lynn Roberts, replacing Kay Hughes) his assistant, Mike McGurk (Lee Ford, replacing Smiley Burnette) is the bumbling comic relief, and Junior (Jerry Tucker, replacing Lee van Atta) is still present, now officially Tracy’s ward and attending military school.

A subvillain from the first serial, foreign agent Baron Kroner (Harrison Greene), makes an appearance (or does he?), commissioning the Starks to steal a remote-control tank for his government. (Greene’s character was listed under a different name in the 1937 serial, but come on–in an era of interchangeable gangsters in fedoras and pinstripe suits, there are two monocle-wearing German spies, played by the same actor?) Tracy’s brother Gordon, turned evil and then killed in the previous serial, is never mentioned, of course: the demands of continuity only extend so far.

Despite the somewhat lower stakes in this serial (the Starks are extortionists and racketeers with their hands in many criminal enterprises, but they’re mostly in it for the money), the action and cliffhangers are just as exciting; in this case, the (relative) plausibility helps sell the danger and increase the stakes. The colorful staging areas for fight scenes and cliffhangers include a powerhouse, railroad yards, a fertilizer plant, a multilevel parking garage, and a mine tunnel under an observatory (just in case you thought Gotham City had a corner on abandoned facilities used as criminal hideouts!).

As the title character, Ralph Byrd is good-natured, sociable, but deadly serious when it comes down to it. And true to the comic strip, many of the clues the G-Men track down are of the mundane, forensic variety: dusting for fingerprints, tracing tire impressions, recovering serial numbers ground off of metal, and interviewing suspects. True, many of the leads Tracy and company follow up are arrived at by coincidence, and the serial doesn’t show the huge number of dead ends that usually crop up in investigation, and it’s awfully convenient that pretty much everything that happens in the serial is related to the Stark case, but by the standards of many other serials, it’s gritty realism.

Lee Ford, who replaces Smiley Burnette as Mike McGurk, doesn’t really hit the comic relief notes as effectively as Burnette did. As cliché as the “funny fat man” role could be, and as stupid as Burnette’s clowning often was, Burnette played the role (like most of his comic roles) as essentially a grown-up kid, a well-meaning but innocent blowhard: in Dick Tracy (’37) the character is introduced trying to impress a group of children with his (imagined) football prowess, and the pranks Junior pulls on him are in part justified by McGurk’s attempts to pull rank on Junior. The fact that Junior is more capable than him, and they are essentially equals, is part of the joke. In Dick Tracy Returns, Ford’s McGurk is more pathetic than funny, the pratfalls even more pandering.

Where Dick Tracy Returns really soars is in its focus on the villain: Pa Stark, the patriarch of the criminal family (partially based on Ma Barker), is played by Charles Middleton, Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials and frequent serial heavy. Free of the ornate costume of Mongo and the aristocratic pretensions of some of his other roles, what is most striking is Middleton’s craggy face, and the directness of his character, free of fussy high-toned verbiage, stripped down to the essence: Pa Stark is mean and ruthless, and he doesn’t accept excuses or pussyfoot around. It’s the kind of characterization we might get today from James Cromwell or Liam Neeson, and like them Middleton’s Stark has a particular set of skills and woe to any who underestimate him.

Of special interest is this spin on the typical criminal mastermind: like many serial villains, Pa Stark works through underlings, but since they are his sons, there is a poignant sting when they are caught or killed, and since he works alongside them, he faces off against the G-Men and is nearly caught himself several times (distinctly unusual for a serial, but true to the comic strip). As the noose tightens around Stark, and his sons fall one by one, his motivation becomes focused on revenge against Dick Tracy. Stark may die, but he’ll take Tracy with him if it’s the last thing he does.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy’s Return (Republic, 1938)

Where I Watched It: Dick Tracy Complete Serial Collection from VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Four Seconds to Live” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Nine, “The Clock of Doom,” is an unexceptional “economy chapter” (i.e. a recap using footage from earlier chapters), but the cliffhanger that ends it is so simple, and so satisfying, that it is easily my favorite. In the chapter, Dick Tracy meets with a group of civic leaders to allay their concerns that the Bureau isn’t doing everything it can to halt the Stark-led crime wave. Attracted by the publicity for the get-together, Pa Stark hires a killer whose face is unknown to Tracy or the Bureau, a smug prick dapper, meticulous fellow known only as “The Duke.” The Duke (Larry Steers) comes to the meeting as “Mr. Reeves” from the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, just one of several interested parties. While Tracy describes the case and its challenges (the perfect opportunity for copious flashbacks to chapters two and three), the Duke activates the timer on a bomb hidden in his briefcase.

Soon, at Gwen’s summons, Tracy excuses himself to hear what she has to say: there is no Mr. Reeves on the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce! Tracy returns to his office to find that “Mr. Reeves” has been called away suddenly and has “accidentally” left his briefcase there, and that Junior, unaware of the danger, has picked it up and is attempting to return to its owner, even chasing the hit-man’s car down the street yelling “HEY, MISTER! WAIT!”

The last shot of the chapter shows Dick Tracy on the sidewalk, recoiling in horror as an explosion is heard from offscreen. Well, of course it’s obvious what happens, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying: sure enough, as the next chapter begins, Junior flings the briefcase into the Duke’s car, seconds before it explodes, destroying the car and taking the Duke with him. It’s a well-deserved end to a somewhat less than foolproof plot, and the fact that Junior was just trying to help out that nice Mr. Reeves makes it all the more deliciously ironic.

Best Stark Son: Like any good gang, Pa Stark’s five adult sons come furnished with nicknames (Kid, Trigger, Dude, Slasher, and Champ) that telegraph their personalities (and to a lesser extent their criminal specialties). But which one steals the spotlight?

Although he is the first one eliminated, Kid Stark (Ned Glass) has the most clearly defined personality, combining swagger and snottiness (and a near-Bugs Bunny Brooklyn accent none of the other brothers share) like a serial-budget Jimmy Cagney. After the Starks plug Ron Merton during the armored car holdup, the Kid goes back to the scene of the crime to make sure the job is finished, holding an innocent cab driver at gunpoint. Chased by Dick Tracy, the cab crashes, and when Tracy pulls up to the accident scene, Kid has the balls to pretend that he was merely an onlooker. “Worst one I ever seen. . . . Poor fellas, they never had a chance,” he says, holding his arm in hopes that Tracy won’t notice how battered he is. But with a broken ankle the Kid is in no shape to run away, and he is promptly arrested. The Starks gamely make an attempt to secure the Kid’s release, but (in a montage of newspaper headlines) he’s tried and sentenced to die before the second chapter is even over. R.I.P. Kid Stark

Sample Dialogue: “Your real teachers are the criminals you’re going to run into from now on. They’ll chalk up a lesson every time you meet them. If you don’t pass . . . curtains.” –Dick Tracy to Ron Merton, Chapter One (“The Sky Wreckers”)

What Others Have Said:Dick Tracy Returns was a more polished serial than its predecessor, because it was made a crucial year after Dick Tracy, and primarily due to the directing team of William Witney and John English. It provided much action that could be later reused in the further serial adventures of Dick Tracy. Its main drawback was in the use of economy chapters.” (see above) –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury

What’s Next: I return to the city of Metropolis with the 1950 superhero epic Atom Man vs. Superman!