Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy (1937)

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Late at night, a band of disparate, seemingly unrelated men board a train and gather together in a private compartment, summoned by the one man they all fear–all but one! Korvitch swears that he bows to no man, and doubts that their master is even onboard the train. But then they hear it: shuffling, uneven footsteps, the steps of the criminal mastermind known only as the Lame One, whose mark is the Spider. The Lame One appears at the compartment’s door in shadows; Korvitch fires his gun, but the Lame One only laughs. Later, Korvitch wanders the empty streets, a haunted man, as behind him those uneven, shuffling footsteps pursue him relentlessly. When Korvitch’s body is found the next morning, a look of terror is frozen on his face, and branded on his skin is the mark of the Spider. Only one man can unravel this mystery and stand in the way of the Spider ring’s other crimes, and that man is Dick Tracy!

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We quickly join Tracy and his team at the Federal Office Building with Tracy answering phone calls and giving terse answers. “I think you’d better take that up with Anderson’s office. Yes, he has my report on it. . . . Well, I know all about that.” Et cetera. “You’re about the busiest man I ever saw,” Tracy’s visiting brother Gordon observes. The “Spider mark” cases are occupying the bureau’s attention, and Tracy remarks on the curious fact that each victim found with the mark has turned out to be a well-known criminal. On this day, Tracy’s birthday, Gordon and Tracy’s assistant Gwen try to drag Tracy to the estate of Ellery Brewster, who has set up a carnival, complete with circus performers, to entertain the children from the orphanage. Brewster was one of the men summoned to report to the Lame One on the train before, and when he too is murdered and left with the Spider’s mark, a day of pleasure turns into business for Dick Tracy. The murder is solved, but it was committed by an expendable underling, of course: the Spider ring remains as mysterious as ever.

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Gordon recalls receiving a sealed envelope from Brewster before his murder, which may have information about the Spider ring, but when he drives to his office to retrieve it, he is run off the road by more of the Spider’s men. Injured and taken to Moloch, the Lame One’s hunchbacked scientist, Gordon is operated on, with dramatic results: by “a simple altering of certain glands,” Moloch changes Gordon’s personality so that he does not know right from wrong and enlists him as a criminal associate. (In fact, it changes him so much that Gordon before and after the operation is played by two different actors!)

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All of this, and more, takes place in just the first (extra-long) chapter of the 1937 Republic serial Dick Tracy. With a drastically changed appearance and a dead-eyed stare, Gordon effectively becomes the “spearhead villain” of the serial, conceiving and executing plots in each chapter on behalf of the Lame One (whose identity of course remains secret until the end). The other men seen in the train compartment at the beginning each take a turn, and the range of crimes is broad, whether it’s destroying a bridge, hijacking a gold shipment, or stealing an experimental aircraft for a foreign power. This “case of the week” format with a long-term arc that connects them all is not unusual for a serial, and it makes the middle chapters feel particularly episodic: with this format, the serial could be ten chapters or a hundred, and it’s not hard to see how later television series picked up this formula and ran with it.

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Written and drawn by cartoonist Chester Gould, Dick Tracy had been a smash success since its first appearance in newspapers in 1931, and began a radio series in 1934. It was only a matter of time before the famous detective made an appearance on film. 1937’s Dick Tracy was the first of four Republic serials, all starring Ralph Byrd in the title role, and there would later be four RKO feature films starring Morgan Conway and Byrd again, not to mention the 1990 film starring and directed by Warren Beatty. Although later famous for its grotesque villains and gimmicky gadgets, the newspaper strip was at first notable for its realism, both in the level of violence portrayed and in Tracy’s reliance on cutting-edge police techniques. While strongly influenced by the “hard-boiled” writers of the 1920s, Dick Tracy was one of the first police “procedurals,” influencing not only comics but television and prose detective fiction to come.

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A panel from Dick Tracy’s first adventure in 1931

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In fact, Max Allan Collins (Dick Tracy‘s writer after Gould retired, and a commentator on the disc I watched) makes the point that much of the grotesquerie and spy-fi for which Dick Tracy was later known is strongly present in the serials of the ’30s, and may have influenced Gould. While the famous two-way wrist radio wouldn’t appear in the comics until 1946, the 1937 film is full of the scientific wonders that serial viewers had come to expect, such as a disintegrator that used high-frequency sound vibrations to destroy buildings; a stratospheric “flying wing” airplane and a different high-speed plane; and even a special radio-equipped belt that allowed Tracy to communicate with his team while undercover. Contemporary technology, while now appearing quaint, also plays a part: a few chapters hinge on recordings made with phonographs, for example. There is also a strong element of the grotesque: while the Lame One’s infirmity and hideous appearance is a disguise, Moloch’s hunch back is the real thing. And once he has been turned to evil, Gordon Tracy (Carleton Young) makes for a striking, creepy villain: scarred, dead-eyed, and skunk-striped.

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Of course, some changes came with the adaptation to the serial format, as was almost always the case, but readers of Dick Tracy at least found a hero in the serial that they would have been able to recognize. Rather than a plainclothes detective, Republic’s Dick Tracy was a G-man, working for the FBI’s Western Division, and instead of Chicago he operated out of San Francisco. Gone was Tracy’s perennial love interest Tess Trueheart (there is, in fact, no romantic angle at all; the only woman in the serial is Tracy’s lab assistant Gwen, a purely professional relation). Tracy’s supporting cast is made up of typical serial character types: Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton) is a reliable tough guy and pilot; Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) is the comic relief; Junior (Lee Van Atta, seen in Republic’s Undersea Kingdom the previous year), as in the comics, is an orphan allowed to tag along and help Tracy (and occasionally get himself into trouble).

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Ralph Byrd is more baby-faced than the hawk-nosed Tracy of the comics, but that’s typical of leading men in general in the 1930s, who often seem a little soft in comparison to today’s standard; most lean or craggy character actors got typed as villains in the serials. Byrd fits the role in most other respects, though: he’s energetic, projecting a can-do magnetism but with enough warmth that it’s easy to see why his friends remain so devoted to him. And the serial itself gives him plenty of opportunities for heroism and detection, with most chapters combining furious action with slower-paced scenes of discovering and analyzing clues. Dick Tracy adheres to a common formula, but it executes it with such energy and flair that it could be taken as a model for producer Nat Levine’s ambitions for Republic; along with its able cast and well-paced story, it boasts impressive effects, exciting music, and a smattering of comic relief (in addition to Burnette, stuttering hillbilly comics Oscar and Elmer show up for a couple of scenes). The result is a very enjoyable serial and it is easy to see why it generated so many sequels.

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What I Watched: Dick Tracy (Republic, 1937)

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

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Rides the Sky” (Chapter Four)

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Best Cliffhanger: Dick Tracy includes several classic cliffhangers, including plane crashes (and the crash of a burning zeppelin!) and boat crashes (the ending of Chapter Three, “The Fur Pirates,” finds Tracy trapped between two giant steamers, threatening to crush his boat as they move closer; another chapter finds Tracy pulled into the water by a rope attached to a departing submarine). However, my favorite cliffhanger comes at the end of Chapter Twelve, “The Trail of the Spider,” an otherwise unremarkable recap episode. Tracy and his team have brought together witnesses to some of the events from earlier in the serial, prompting flashbacks to those scenes. (The only remarkable development in this chapter is that Tracy finally learns of Moloch’s operation on his brother Gordon.) After the flashbacks, the Lame One himself enters their headquarters and, after removing a fuse to black out the lights, shines the “spider signal” on Tracy and shoots him! At least, he appears to; viewers in 1937 had to wait a whole week to find out if Tracy got out alive.

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Sample Dialogue:
Moloch (stroking black cat): “Brother against brother. One good, one evil. Ah, I wonder which will win?”
The Lame One: “We shall eliminate the G-Man!”

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What Others Have Said: “Chester Gould produced a contemporary knight in shining armor who was ready, willing, and able to fight the criminal with, if necessary, the criminal’s own weapons, to fight the toughs with equal or even greater toughness. Chester Gould created Dick Tracy to meet the desperate need of the times. Dick Tracy’s job was to regain the almost vanished respect for the law and to be the instrument of his enforcement. As Gould once said in an interview, ‘I decided that if the police couldn’t catch the gangsters, I’d create a fellow who would.'” –Ellery Queen, “The Importance of Being Earnest; or, The Survival of the Finest”

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What’s Next: There are three more Dick Tracy serials, but I intend to space them out rather than plow straight through the series. So my next update will be on the 1948 Superman serial, starring Kirk Alyn!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom (1943)

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At Sai Pana, a trading post in an unspecified part of Africa, an expedition led by Professor Davidson is preparing to enter the jungle in search of the lost city of Zoloz, with the help of a map made of six pieces of ivory that fit together like a puzzle. Only the central seventh piece, which shows the exact location of Zoloz, is missing. Among those traveling with the Professor are his niece Diana Palmer and Geoffrey Prescott, a colleague from Melville University.

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Sai Pana’s resident physician, Dr. Bremmer, shows interest in Davidson’s search, but for his own reasons: Bremmer is actually the head of a ring of saboteurs who are building a secret air base in Zoloz, and he will use any connivance to throw Davidson off the scent so he can keep his activities hidden. At the same time, Singapore Smith, owner of the Trade Winds hotel in Sai Pana, schemes to get his hands on the Professor’s ivory keys (and the treasure it leads to) himself.

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Meanwhile, deep in the jungle at Tonga village, the mysterious figure known as the Phantom has summoned the chiefs of the area tribes for a gathering. The Phantom, through his appearance of immortality and supernatural powers, has kept the peace between the tribes for centuries, but a thug named Long, disguised as a native, strikes the Phantom with a poison dart (an attack instigated by Bremmer, because he needs to be able to control the natives to get his airfield built). The Phantom’s assistant, Suba, ends the ceremony with a puff of smoke, but the damage is already done: the Phantom will die. The only hope for peace between the tribes is to find his son to take his place, as the Phantom identity has been passed down from father to son for generations. In this way, the Phantom is “the man who never dies.”

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The Phantom’s son? Geoffrey Prescott, currently in Sai Pana with Professor Davidson’s expedition! After tracking him down with the aid of trapper Rusty Fenton, Suba brings Prescott to his father, who lives just long enough to pass on the mantle of the Phantom. Now it’s up to the new Phantom to protect Davidson, unravel the mystery of the saboteurs, and keep the peace in the jungle, in the 1943 Columbia serial The Phantom!

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Although never as high profile as Batman or Tarzan, the Phantom has elements in common with both characters and has a long history as the star of a comic strip created by Lee Falk in 1936 (and still running in newspapers with the creative team of Tony DePaul, Mike Manley, and Terry Beatty). According to the strip’s mythology, the first Phantom was shipwrecked by pirates on the African coast in the 16th century. He was adopted by a peaceful tribe who both set him on his mission of fighting evil and taught him the many combat disciplines and sleight-of-hand tricks he uses to further that goal. The 1943 serial doesn’t go into that in any detail beyond the handing down of the Phantom’s identity; serials in general were much less concerned with origin stories than superhero movies in recent decades (the 1996 feature film starring Billy Zane makes for an instructive contrast), but unlike many serials The Phantom is reasonably faithful to the comics (and it’s a damn sight better than the Batman serial that immediately preceded it!).

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The first chapter is entitled “The Sign of the Skull,” and indeed the skull is an important part of the Phantom’s iconography, particularly the carved ring he wears which leaves the imprint of a skull on those on whom he metes justice. Instead of the remote and forbidding Skull Cave, however, the Phantom of the serial keeps his throne in public, in the center of Tonga village, where he ceremoniously makes appearances to speak to the natives and pass judgment on lawbreakers. There’s quite a bit of flair to these proceedings, as Suba uses flash powder to create bursts of flame and smoke, making it look as if the Phantom appears and disappears by magic. (Interestingly, Bremmer manages to use that same sense of theatricality against the Phantom, first setting up a fraudulent “Fire Princess” whose supposed control of flame makes her a challenger to the Phantom’s authority in the jungle, and later putting a Phantom costume on one of his henchmen after thinking he had eliminated the real one, in order to control the natives.)

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The Phantom plays on the superstitions of the natives one-on-one, as well: confronting the rebellious chief Chota, the Phantom “summons the spirit of fire” to burn Chota’s village unless he tells the truth. In another episode, he smokes out a murderer by pretending to put poison into glasses of wine, saying it will only harm the guilty; of course, the killer is betrayed by his own fear rather than by the wine, which is harmless. Like many pulp heroes, the Phantom wins by his wits and his powers of psychology and detection as much as by his fists and weapons. (And like those heroes, there’s a certain unapologetic ruthlessness to his methods.)

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There are certainly enough villains to choose from: right off the bat, Professor Davidson is victimized by both Dr. Bremmer and his saboteurs and the competing forces of Singapore Smith (the “outlaws”). There’s quite a bit of jockeying by both groups as they each try to steal the ivory keys from Davidson, and at times they work together against their common enemy. Given that both groups are white men with stubble wearing khakis and pith helmets, it’s easy to get them mixed up. However, Singapore Smith is so obviously shady that he doesn’t make it to the end of the serial; even in death he causes trouble for the Phantom, who pays him a visit (in disguise as “Mr. Walker”) and is then blamed for Smith’s murder. Meanwhile, Dr. Bremmer, like most classic serial villains, works his evil through proxies (including traitors within the expedition), avoiding suspicion until the final chapter.

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In a late part of the story, the Phantom and Davidson’s expedition run afoul of the Tartar, the strict ruler of a kingdom that resembles Mongolia. The incongruity of a Mongol fortress in the middle of an African jungle, combined with the kingdom’s extreme isolationism (normally, all outsiders are put to death if they enter the Tartar’s kingdom, but naturally the Phantom wins him over), mark this episode as an example of the “lost world” genre embedded in the larger story. However, not even the Professor comments on its strangeness, and there is no explanation offered as to its presence and survival. (Also, it practically goes without saying that all the major characters speak English; there are a few scenes in which natives speak their own language and somebody has to translate, but not so many that it slows down the action.)

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As the Phantom, Tom Tyler is nicely physical and has a commanding presence, and Jeanne Bates is adequate as the headstrong Diana Palmer, but the only antagonist to have much character is oily Singapore Smith (Joe Devlin). As Dr. Bremmer, Kenneth MacDonald has some good moments and is smooth enough to convincingly play both sides, but didn’t leave a strong impression on me. Frank Shannon (Flash Gordon‘s Dr. Zarkov) plays Professor Davidson, but the decline in energy obvious in the later Flash Gordon serials is in evidence here as well. The Phantom’s animal companion Devil, a wolf in the comics, is played in the serial by a German Shepherd, Ace the Wonder Dog.

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Beyond that, the casting of the many African tribesmen seems to have been mixed up with casting for a Western. Serials are not documentaries, of course, but the best of them make some effort to draw inspiration from the real world. In The Phantom, the natives resemble Hollywood Indians, (mostly) white actors with stilted accents and war paint. The Internet Movie Database lists among the uncredited actors playing natives Jay Silverheels (later TV’s Tonto) and Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian immigrant who adopted an Indian identity and made a specialty of playing Indian characters. This knot of tangled ethnic representation is not terribly unusual for the time, but compared to the actual black actors I just saw in Tim Tyler’s Luck, it’s especially phony.

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What I Watched: The Phantom (Columbia, 1943)

Where I Watched It: The whole thing can be watched on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

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Best Chapter Title: “The Road to Zoloz” (Chapter Thirteen) is nicely specific, and also suggests an entirely different film starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. It’s worth pointing out that both of the Phantom’s catch phrases, “The Man Who Never Dies” and “The Ghost Who Walks” are used as chapter titles (Chapters Two and Five, respectively).

Best Cliffhanger: Despite my criticisms of the acting in The Phantom, at least the action is pretty good, and there are not only several good cliffhangers but some exciting action sequences within the chapters. A very well-done cliffhanger ends Chapter Five (“The Ghost Who Walks”), in which the Phantom fights with the saboteurs on a rope bridge overhanging a deep gorge. Earlier, the Phantom, stalking the saboteurs as they drove an oxcart full of contraband ammunition to the secret airfield, had cut partially through the bridge’s ropes to weaken them. When he ends up fighting the saboteurs directly, of course the fight spills onto the damaged bridge, and the ropes give way, (seemingly) dropping them into the river far below.

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Sample Dialogue: In the first chapter, Long (Wade Crosby) returns to witness a gathering at the Tonga village after killing the Phantom, along with fellow saboteur Andy (Sol Gorss) and upstart chief Chota (Stanley Price). To his chagrin, the new Phantom is accepted without question by the natives.

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Long: Why, that can’t be the real Phantom. I know I killed him! This is just a trick to fool the natives.
Chota: No, him Phantom. Him Phantom! Man who never dies.
Andy: Looks like him to me.
Long: Why, it can’t be! He’s a much younger and taller guy than the real Phantom. I’m telling you that guy’s a fake.
Andy: Looks like you missed, Long.
Long: Let’s tell the natives that guy’s a phony.
Andy: Yeah? And when they ask us how we know, we tell ’em you killed the real Phantom. Why, you’d have your head drying over a fire in no time.

What Others Have Said: “Occasionally there was a shock when a player you had always associated as a good guy turned up in a serial as a crook. . . . You just couldn’t believe that lovable old rascal was really one of the baddies. . . . But, the real test of credibility came when Ernie Adams, who portrayed not only bad guys, but sneaky, yellow, cowardly bad guys, was cast in the role of Rusty Fenton in The Phantom in 1943, and you had to believe that the hero would have in him a good, trusted ally.” –William C. Cline, “When the Leopard Changed Its Spots” in Serials-ly Speaking

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(Serials I’ve reviewed in which Adams appeared include The Miracle Rider, in which he played the shady store operator’s clerk, and Tim Tyler’s Luck: Adams played Becker, the henchman whose death by gorilla meant so little to Spider Webb.)

What’s Next: For my final installment of Summer 2016’s Fates Worse Than Death, I will return to the air with Flying G-Men. See you in two weeks!

Fates Worse Than Death: Tim Tyler’s Luck

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A young man attempts to stow away on a boat going upriver, into the dense African jungle. When asked why, Tim Tyler explains that he is looking for his father, Professor Tyler, an expert on gorillas who hasn’t been heard from in some time. Big game hunter Lora Lacey offers to pay Tim’s way, but the captain refuses; no matter, Tim finds his way onboard anyway. Also making the river trek is explorer Garry Drake. However, not all is as it seems: Lora Lacey is actually Lora Graham, looking for the master criminal Spider Webb, who committed a diamond theft for which Lora’s brother is serving the sentence. Her real plan is to search for Spider in the jungle and “bring him back alive” to prove her brother’s innocence, and she recognizes Drake as one of Spider’s men.

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Sure enough, as soon as night falls Drake and his allies kill the captain, taking over the boat and steering it to the shore, where the rest of Spider’s gang will take possession of the weapons and ammunition intended for the Ivory Patrol, the colonial police force. With Tim’s help, Lora escapes the boat and the pair make their way to the Ivory Patrol’s base. With their help, Lora hopes to bring Spider to justice and Tim hopes to find his missing father. But it turns out their goals are related, as Tim learns when he sees that Spider’s men are driving the “jungle cruiser” (an armored tank) Professor Tyler had built for his work. The Professor has a secret, too: he’s located the legendary “elephant’s burial ground,” and men like Spider would kill to find it. It’s man vs. gorilla, horse vs. tank, and good vs. evil, with tons of ivory at stake, in the twelve-part serial Tim Tyler’s Luck!

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Like several of the serials I’ve covered this summer, Tim Tyler’s Luck, about “the All-American boy in Africa,” is based on a comic strip, albeit one I won’t even pretend to be familiar with (but holy cow, it ran until 1996!?). Played by Frankie Thomas (aka Frank Thomas, Jr.), Tim is a happy medium between the unrealistically-competent kid character who can handle any situation like an old pro and the helpless tagalong who’s in constant need of rescue. (Thomas’ career included stints in Broadway, radio, film, and television; after playing Tim Tyler, he appeared as Ted Nickerson in four Nancy Drew films; later, he played Tom Corbett, Space Cadet on TV.) Tim is self-sufficient and can handle himself in the wilderness, and he gets himself and his friends out of a number of jams, but he’s not a superhero; when things get hot, particularly when Spider Webb (Norman Willis) and his gang start shooting, Tim falls back on the support of the Ivory Patrol. (And, as I note below, Tim has a knack for making friends, an invaluable survival skill.)

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Typically, Tim Tyler’s Luck has several connections to other serials: right from the start, the theme music and much of the underscore was familiar to me from the later Buck Rogers serial (which I wrote about this spring for The Solute); Garry Drake, Webb’s right-hand man, is played by Anthony Warde, Buck Rogers‘ Killer Kane; Sergeant Gates of the Ivory Patrol is played by Jack Mulhall, Captain Rankin in Buck Rogers; and the “jungle cruiser,” so prominently featured, had served as the “juggernaut” in Undersea Kingdom the year before (instead of the electric whine the juggernaut produced, the jungle cruiser simply makes engine noises like a truck).

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Frances Robinson plays Lora Lacey/Graham (and yes, she’s the only woman in the cast, but she has much more to do than scream for rescue); she is another resourceful character, but one who can’t do everything herself. Robinson is lovely, with expressive features that serve her in a variety of moods and emotions. A high point is a sequence in Chapter Six (“The Jaws of the Jungle”) in which she pretends to be a criminal herself and demands a cut of Webb’s payday, with her access to Tim as leverage. She adopts a clipped, hard-edged voice for these scenes, playing off Willis’ low-rent Bogart impression with a little Katherine Hepburn of her own.

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Earlier this summer, I described Pirate Treasure as the serial that was “maybe the most elemental in its appeal” for the way it deployed adventure tropes in bold, simplified form. Similarly, Tim Tyler’s Luck may be the most direct expression of the “jungle” genre in anything without Tarzan in its name. Among the touchstones of the genre encountered here are big game hunters, ivory traders, a colonial army, a missing scientist, wild animals, volcanos, quicksand, “talking” drums, and natives both helpful and hostile; there is the theme of man and his technology vs. nature; the man of civilization who has cast off his old identity in the wilderness; and the connection between man and animal. The central conceit of Tarzan and She, the white god or goddess lording it over the black natives, is the only major element of the genre that goes unused (although there are references to a hostile tribe ruled by a white man who has gone native and now directs the tribe to war on other whites; perhaps this character played a greater role in the comic strip, but in the serial he never appears on screen).

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Of course, the “elephant’s graveyard” is a myth, based on the observation that remains of dead elephants were never found in the jungle, but in Tim Tyler’s Luck it turns out to be real, a desolate volcanic region to which elephants instinctively return before dying. Conway (Frank Mayo), one of the heroes’ allies, is an ivory hunter (it wasn’t until the very end of the serial that I realized the title card isn’t meant to resemble Chinese writing: the words are made of piled-up elephant tusks); ivory is just one more natural resource to be plundered, not the moral and environmental outrage it is seen as today. In other words, this story is a product of its time.

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As is almost always the case during this time period, the plot and characters are products of the colonialist imagination. The main characters are white Americans or Europeans adventuring in Africa, with the native tribesmen largely serving as extras in the background; the most notable exception, Mogu (Everette Brown), is one of Spider Webb’s henchmen, and a few others get lines here or there. I haven’t returned to the discussion of representation lately, mainly because there isn’t much new to say: racism and colonialism were so prevalent in the 1930s that it’s less repetitive to point out positive developments such as color-blind casting (such as Philson Ahn’s Prince Tallen in Buck Rogers) or well-developed non-white characters when they do occur. If you’ve followed me this long in this series, the portrayal of Africans in Tim Tyler’s Luck will not surprise you.

On the other hand, in comparison to some serials, there is clearly more of an effort to present a multi-faceted Africa: some tribes are friendly, some are hostile, and they are given their own beliefs and motivations. And there are more black faces on screen than in many films of the time: many are bearers and servants, and many are half-dressed tribesmen with spears and shields, but there are also black troops in the Ivory Patrol, and there’s Mogu. The African characters are no more uniformly good or evil than the white characters. That’s not to say that Tim Tyler’s Luck is “realistic,” exactly–this is a film in which the hero befriends a black panther, and his scientist father has learned to speak gorilla–but the world feels full, complex, and lived in. Africa is more than just an empty playground for whites: there are other stories going on all around them.

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For that matter, and for want of a better term, Tim Tyler’s Luck feels like a movie, not just a serial: throughout this series I’ve been fascinated by the mechanics of serial storytelling: how rhythms are built up, the use of foreshadowing and red herrings to keep the wheels turning, and above all the formal necessity of setting up and resolving cliffhangers. Tim Tyler’s Luck has those things, but it also slows down enough to establish mood and character; the cliffhangers aren’t the most important part of the chapters, and there is enough action that most chapters have at least one or two good set pieces that aren’t tied to the chapter-ending cliffhanger. The scene in which reformed criminal Lazarre (Earl Douglas) tries to silently point out the Professor’s diary to Lora, held prisoner by Garry Drake, succeeds in creating something that is theoretically central to the serial format, but which isn’t always delivered: suspense.

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Obviously, the Indiana Jones films draw from the globetrotting adventure genre liberally: I previously compared The Perils of Pauline to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Tim Tyler’s Luck, with its missing scientist (complete with a diary containing a map to the treasure), shifting loyalties, and running tank battles, feels like a strong influence on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (And tell me that Tim Tyler doesn’t look like River Pheonix as young Indy in his scout uniform from that film’s prologue!)

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And what of the title character’s “luck”? Again, since I’m not familiar with the comic strip this was based on, perhaps it’s a bigger deal in the ongoing story, but there doesn’t seem to be anything notable or supernatural favoring Tim Tyler. One may count his tendency to always be in the right place at the right time, but that’s a trait shared by many serial heroes. (Without the lubricating oil of coincidence, how many pulp-era plots would sputter and grind to a halt before they could even get off the ground?) No, if anything, Tim Tyler’s luck is his knack for winning others to his side by his goodness: he tames the black panther Fang by bandaging him up and treating him well; he wins over Spider Webb’s henchman Lazarre by saving his life, even when it would be to his benefit to let him die; and he offers water and comfort to the dying elephant handler who almost killed him, winning the elephant’s trust and loyalty. It simply doesn’t occur to Tim to act any other way, and his good acts return to him in the form of supportive allies.

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Compare that to Spider Webb, who seems to neither regret nor relish his evil: he simply looks out for number one, and everyone else be damned. Other people are so little to him he can’t even pretend to care what happens to them (watching one of his henchmen sink into the quicksand that surrounds his base, Webb says only, “well, let’s get going”); the Professor, Tim, and Lora are left alive at key moments only because Webb needs them alive for leverage or information. Unlike many serial villains who rant theatrically, Webb is coldly sociopathic, and because of this comes across as more modern than his contemporaries; and just as importantly, he remains cool even as things unravel and he meets his inevitable comeuppance. Webb berates and bullies his underlings, and because of it he dies alone, unloved, and unrepentant; in comparison to many serials about heroes who save the day single-handedly, Tim Tyler’s Luck makes a solid case for the value of friendship and teamwork.

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What I Watched: Tim Tyler’s Luck (Universal, 1937)

Where I Watched It: A non-commercial DVD from the batch I got on eBay earlier this summer. It doesn’t appear to be available to view online.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Jungle Pirates” (Chapter One). As I said, this serial has something of a primal appeal, and the first chapter sets the tone by asking what could possibly make a jungle adventure more exciting: how about jungle pirates?

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Best Cliffhanger: The gorillas of Gorilla Canyon are essentially a force of nature in Tim Tyler’s Luck, a natural obstacle to anyone who ventures into their territory. In other chapters, they throw boulders at intruders, resulting in the destruction of Conway’s ivory safari, and they’re an unpredictable danger to anyone who ventures into the caves that riddle the canyon. Only Professor Tyler, who was lived among them for months, has their trust, and even he has succeeded in taming only one of the beasts. In Chapter Seven (“The King of the Gorillas”), the Professor and Lora are forced by Spider Webb to return to Gorilla Canyon to retrieve the Professor’s map to the elephant’s burial ground. While there, the Professor releases the caged gorilla he had trained in hopes of freeing himself and Lora from Spider’s grasp, but the tame gorilla gets in a fight with an aggressive male, still wild. Meanwhile, Tim and Sergeant Gates of the Ivory Patrol have tracked the cruiser to the canyon and make their way into the caves. Professor Tyler is shot by Becker, one of Spider’s men, just before being killed himself by a gorilla (Spider, ever the practical one, only says “Becker’s done for. Never knew what hit him.”). The Ivory Patrol attacks, driving Spider’s men away, but just as Tim finds the cave with Lora and his father, the bull gorilla attacks and carries him away.

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Honorable mention: Several of the cliffhangers involve animals, wild or otherwise. There is actually a second cliffhanger that involves Tim being carried, unconscious, this time by an elephant (in Chapter Nine, “The Gates of Doom”). Spider’s inside man in the Ivory Patrol, Rocky, has bribed the elephant’s handler to help Spider escape the Patrol’s fort, but once cornered by, he has the elephant grab Tim. The elephant will crush Tim unless the Patrol lets him escape. The fort’s guards close the heavy doors, but the elephant smashes through them with Tim in its trunk!

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Sample Dialogue: “Get this, Tyler: if you don’t tell me where the elephant’s burial ground is, there will be a death in the Tyler family.” –Spider Webb, Chapter Six (“The Jaws of the Jungle”)

What Others Have Said: “Working with the heavies. You ask any actor: the heavies are the nicest people in the world. That’s just the way it works.” –Frankie Thomas, asked in an interview, “What was the high point of working on Tim Tyler?”

What’s Next: Keeping with the jungle theme, let’s check out The Phantom, starring Tom Tyler. That’s not confusing at all!

Fates Worse Than Death: Ace Drummond

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International Airways is under attack! The fledgling enterprise, assembled by a multinational group of businessmen with the intent of uniting the world through travel and trade, is suffering mysterious air wrecks in its Mongolian territory. Construction on the airfield is threatened, and if the wrecks persist it will mean the end of the entire operation. The disasters are the work of the elusive “Dragon,” a faceless criminal mastermind who speaks through special radio receivers hidden in prayer wheels, fans, and even airplane propellers. In response to the attacks, Ace Drummond, “G-Man of the Air,” arrives from his base in Washington to investigate.

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Although he finds many allies–among them young Billy Meredith, son of one of the Airway board members; Jerry, an enthusiastic mechanic and pilot at the airfield; and Peggy Trainor, who has come to Mongolia in search of her missing archeologist father–this foreign territory is filled with potential enemies, any one of whom may be the Dragon or one of his subordinates. Is it Dr. Bauer, the explorer who holds Professor Trainor hostage in hopes of wresting the secret location of a mountain of jade from him? Or is it the monk Kai-Chek, who rails against the intrusion of foreigners and their “devil birds” in Mongolia? Or perhaps it is Henry Kee, the Mongolian member of the committee, or Johnny Wong, the furtive Chinese radio operator. Or it could also be Winston, a member of the committee eager to shut down operations in the face of the Dragon’s terrorism. Or it could be one of the other dozen characters who come under Drummond’s suspicion: the G-Man of the Air has his work cut out for him in the thirteen-chapter serial, Ace Drummond!

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Like Tailspin Tommy, Ace Drummond was a comic strip that rode the wave of the public’s fascination with aviation in the 1930s before being adapted into a movie serial, but Ace Drummond relied on exotic locations and a global scale much more than the down-to-earth Tailspin Tommy. The comic strip was created by World War I hero Eddie Rickenbacker, who lent his name and expertise and contributed scripts to the strip. Every chapter of the serial opens with a portrait of Rickenbacker, “America’s Beloved Ace of Aces,” and recaps the previous chapter with a clip of a newspaper comics page being unfolded and a zoom-in on panels that relate previous events. Rickenbacker also took an active hand in promoting the Ace Drummond serial, forming a “Junior Pilots Club” to generate fan excitement.

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Ace Drummond is also a musical, sort of. Recall that in The Phantom Empire, Gene Autry had to perform a song every day in order to keep his radio contract. One might think that Ace Drummond had a similar contract, as he tends to burst into song whenever a chapter has some time it needs to fill. Leading man John King had been a popular singer before making the jump to acting, and after Ace Drummond he would go on to play a number of singing cowboy roles (most notably “Dusty” in Monogram’s Range Busters series), so it makes sense to feature his talents. Here’s the thing, though: it’s always the same song, “Give Me a Ship and a Song” by Kay Kellogg. Drummond first sings it on the clipper ship into Mongolia to calm down the passengers (understandably nervous, since apparently half a dozen planes have crashed, but this is the first passenger plane to make the trip): a passenger turning the dial on his radio tells a flight attendant, “I’d give a million dollars to hear a great jazz band.” The attendant suggests a station, and the music switches to something that isn’t jazz at all: the intro to “Give Me a Ship and a Song,” which Drummond sings in full to the appreciative passengers. Later, Drummond sings the same song to entertain Peggy Trainor; to entertain the mechanics at the airfield; to test a radio receiver; and he even plays a phonogram record of himself singing in order to fool one of the Dragon’s henchmen sneaking around the airfield. Obviously, the repetition would be less obnoxious if I were watching the serial week to week instead of all at once, but as a transparent attempt to generate a hit, it flopped.

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The action in Ace Drummond fares better: Ace saves the plane from an attack–the Dragon is able to zap the pilots with electric shocks through the radio, as well as having a ground-based “death ray” that can down smaller planes–and, spotting a biplane circling just before the attack, he bails out and tracks the plane to the camp of Dr. Bauer (Fredrik Vogeding) and his associate Wyckoff (Al Bridge). The two explorers claim to be searching for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, but they have Professor Trainor (Montague Shaw) held prisoner in a dungeon. Trainor’s daughter Peggy (Jean Rogers) has just shown up on her father’s trail, and Bauer and Wyckoff hope to hold her as well in order to force her father to give up the jade mountain’s location, but Ace rescues her just in time and takes off in Bauer’s plane. Struck by the Dragon’s death ray, the plane crashes into the wall of the village monastery, bringing in another group of characters.

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The monk Kai-Chek (Chester Gan) calls for the foreigners to be punished for violating the sacred temple, but the Lama (Guy Bates Post) cautions against reacting with anger to what was obviously an accident. Throughout the remainder of the serial, the Lama and his fellow monks are an important resource for Drummond and his allies, translating and providing wisdom as well as communicating with the natives (who are never given much more characterization than a mob of undifferentiated foreigners). More importantly, the monastery is a colorful set full of secret passages and traps, including a room with a mechanized wall designed to close in and crush anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped within. The Lama pleads ignorance of the deadly trap; it’s left unclear until the very end whether the Dragon actually has a connection with the monastery or is simply taking advantage of its secrets.

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Ultimately, that points to the weakness of Ace Drummond: the excessive number of suspects and subplots grows wearisome in later chapters, and when some characters who were under suspicion are later revealed to be innocent, their earlier actions don’t make a lot of sense. It’s one thing for the audience to get confused–that’s part of the sleight-of-hand involved in mystery storytelling–but it’s less satisfying when one senses that the writers themselves don’t quite have a handle on the plot. There are simply too many red herrings, and it’s almost comical to hear the repeated exclamation, “So you’re the Dragon!” aimed at one character after another in the last few chapters, until at last the real Dragon is unmasked.

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Still, that complaint aside, the serial has many good qualities: although there is less time spent flying than in Tailspin Tommy, there is enough aerial action to demonstrate Drummond’s prowess and Rickenbacker’s expertise, and of course the entire plot is motivated by the defense of a commercial airline venture, a business Rickenbacker had also been intimately involved with as the manager (and later owner) of Eastern Air Lines. The Mongolian setting, while open to charges of exoticism (indeed, the lure of adventure in strange foreign places is the entire hook for this genre), is unusual and provides for some original locations and opportunities for action.

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In addition to the actors already mentioned, the cast includes a number of familiar faces: Lon Chaney, Jr. appears as Ivan, the lead henchman; Noah Beery, Jr. plays Jerry, who could be twins with Skeeter, the character he played in Tailspin Tommy; as Billy, Jackie Morrow provides the requisite spunk, without being too annoying; and veteran Montague Shaw is reliably paternal in the kindly old scientist role.

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Finally, the Dragon himself, unrevealed until the last chapter, makes for a dramatic presence, speaking in a booming voice through his spinning receivers, always closing his missives with an authoritative “THE DRAGON COMMANDS!” or “THE DRAGON HAS SPOKEN!” It makes a big enough impression that each chapter ends with the typical title card instructing audiences to see the continuation next week in the same theater, accompanied by a fire-breathing dragon and that same voice over: “THE DRAGON COMMANDS!” It’s not a request.

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What I Watched: Ace Drummond (Universal, 1936)

Where I Watched It: TCM ran several chapters of this serial earlier this summer, but for this article I watched it on (and collected screen shots from) YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “The Dragon Commands” (Chapter Eleven)

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Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Five, “Bullets of Sand,” Peggy and Billy investigate Dr. Bauer’s operation, hoping to find proof that the German explorer is secretly the Dragon. Bauer and Wyckoff are holed up in “the Hall of Dead Kings,” a tomb complex carved into a mountainside and full of treasures. Their camp employs a dozen natives, digging and cleaning up artifacts, including sand blasting jade urns. While snooping in Bauer’s office, a separate building, Peggy and Billy are locked in. Billy climbs up the chimney and escapes, but before he can let Peggy out from the outside, he must hide from the approaching workmen to escape detection. He hides in one of the urns, just before the workmen begin cleaning out the inside of it with the sand blaster! A shot straight up the barrel of the sand blaster ends the chapter, leaving us in suspense.

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Sample Dialogue (from Chapter Thirteen, “The World’s Akin”):
Dragon: “We have a saying in Mongolia: he who smiles at the grave’s edge takes happiness into the world beyond.”
Jerry: “We got a saying in America, too, though: don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched!”

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What Others Have Said: “For a time it was thought that the airplane film might supplant the Western in the affection of the young, but, air age and all, it didn’t happen. Situations involving airplanes were woven into many serials and adventure features; yet the number of serials centering upon aviation never matched that of films set in the West. Nonetheless, in the New Deal era at least one air adventure could be expected to appear each year among the ranks of serial dramas. . . . As a matter of fact, the aviation cycle would soon be lost in space–and in war clouds. Not many old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants flying flims would be made after Flash Gordon took off for Mongo and World War II revolutionized aeronautics.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: Join me next time as I examine Tim Tyler’s Luck.

Purple Prose, Purple Death

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In watching the 1944 Captain America serial (for which I’ll have a full write-up next week), I was struck by the title of the first chapter, “The Purple Death,” a title shared by the first chapter of the 1940 serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In Captain America, the Purple Death refers to the extract of a rare orchid that makes its victims susceptible to hypnotic control (the “death” part comes when the victims are ordered to kill themselves, helpless to resist); in Flash Gordon, it’s a mysterious, fatal disease spread from Mongo to Earth that leaves its victims marked by a purple spot.

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The pulps (as well as comic strips and serials) were known for lurid, vividly-drawn stories with larger-than-life heroes and impossibly wicked villains to match. Purple is an attention-getting color, to the point that we speak of “purple prose.” I was also reminded of the Purple Empire, one of the enemy nations that Operator #5 fought against in the 1930s. (I thought there might be some significance to that, but the Operator series included a rainbow of enemy nations, possibly influenced by the color-coded War Plans developed by the U. S. military during the 1920s and ’30s.)

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In reading and watching stories from the 1930s and ’40s, I’ve encountered the phrase “purple death,” or uses of purple as a dangerous and dramatic color, enough times that I wondered if there was an underlying connection. So, in the spirit of Philip J. Reed’s Pop Questions, I’m asking: what’s the significance of the color purple in the pulps, and why particularly is death purple? Does it refer to the livid color of a bruise or the marks left by strangulation? Is it the association with royalty, by extension gaudy and powerful? I have a few leads that seem likely, but if anyone reading this has a specific answer, I’d love to hear it.

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Purple is associated with death and mourning in many cultures, including the Victorians of the nineteenth century, for whom purple was the color of “demi-mourning,” to be worn after a period of wearing black. It was also the color of royalty, originally due to the rarity and high cost of purple dyes in the ancient world. It would certainly match both the dramatic style and frequent (if shallow) references to history and classic literature in the pulps if that were the reason. I don’t have statistics at hand, but my hunch is that as comic books became the dominant medium for pulp storytelling, more villains than heroes had purple uniforms or color schemes.

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However, the most likely answer goes back to the 1918 influenza epidemic: the disease killed quickly, and often left its victims purple in color as their lungs filled with blood and starved the body of oxygen. One book on the subject is even titled Purple Death. According to some estimates, as many as 50 million people worldwide died during from the disease. Just as pulp heroes were often veterans of the Great War, so the memory of the epidemic would have resonated with writers and readers in the decades that followed. In Flash Gordon, the Purple Death was also a disease, and the scenes of public panic and the scramble to find a cure hearken directly to the 1918 epidemic; by comparison, the use of the phrase in Captain America is almost poetic, but would likely have still induce a twinge of fear for those who remembered it. Even today, with no direct memory of the influenza epidemic, it sounds ominous.

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So perhaps that’s the answer. If any readers have more details to offer, or facts to contradict my speculations, I’d love to hear them. Any other examples of purple as a color marking death or danger are, of course, welcome.

Fates Worse Than Death: Tailspin Tommy

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Stuck in rural Littleville, young mechanic Tommy Tompkins dreams of nothing more than becoming a flyer: he’s even rigged up an old jalopy with a throttle and flaps so he can practice the controls until he gets a chance at a real plane! Tommy’s opportunity arrives when Milt Howe, a pilot for the Three Points Air Line, makes an emergency stop in Littleville. As a reward for repairing his plane, Howe offers to take Tommy back with him to Three Points. When the injured Howe passes out before they can land, Tommy takes the controls and brings the plane in safely himself. Three Points owner Paul Smith is so impressed with the young man that he offers him a job with the ground crew and the chance to earn his pilot’s license.

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Little do either of them know, however, that a rival air line, owned by Wade “Tiger” Taggart, is trying to muscle Three Points out of the way so that a lucrative gold shipment will be theirs. Worse yet, one of Three Points’ best pilots, Bruce Hoyt, is secretly in league with Taggart! Sabotage, misinformation, financial fraud, and even outright banditry are the weapons that Taggart will use to destroy Three Points and their bright young pilot, “Tailspin” Tommy. Will Tommy catch on to the plot against his employer? Will the traitorous Bruce Hoyt be found out? Will the suddenly successful Tommy remember his roots in Littleville? These and other questions are answered in the twelve-part 1934 serial, Tailspin Tommy!

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Hal Forrest’s Tailspin Tommy was a very popular comic strip (the first to be adapted into a serial in fact), with spin-offs that included a radio show, books, and toys. The serial’s plot covers a diverse range of settings and episodes, I suspect reflecting the variety of adventures that comic strip heroes undertook regardless of their ostensible genre (according to Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, the serial follows episodes from the radio show closely). Obviously, Tailspin Tommy explores the rich, then-contemporary setting of small regional airports and the short-hop pilots who flew by the seat of their pants, romanticized as daring aerial warriors in World War I and now connecting the scattered communities of the United States through faster travel and mail delivery. As the film makes clear, even civilian flying took nerve in the open-cockpit biplanes of the time, and mechanical failure, bad weather, or just plain bad luck could prove as dangerous as enemy fighters. Tailspin Tommy captured the spirit of a young nation enamored of hero-aviators like Howard Hughes and Charles Lindbergh. The character was popular enough to be the subject of a second serial (with an almost entirely different cast) in 1935, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery, and two features in 1939, Mystery Plane and Sky Patrol.

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Although Tailspin Tommy isn’t as well remembered today as many of its comic strip contemporaries, the youthful equation of flight with freedom has continued to inspire creators. One of Dave Stevens’ brilliant strokes in conceiving The Rocketeer was that, while borrowing liberally from such 1950s serials as King of the Rocket Men and Radar Men From the Moon, he transposed the action to this 1930s milieu, a setting in which pulp conventions, references to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the prewar intrigues of Nazi spies and saboteurs could mingle freely. Flight-obsessed George Lucas is another heir in spirit: the portrait of young Anakin Skywalker as an eager, inventive wanna-be pilot in The Phantom Menace could have been drawn directly from Tailspin Tommy‘s first chapter.

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However, in addition to scenes of flight and its attendant perils, the episodic story includes car chases, gunfights, and fist fights–the usual sources of generic serial “action”–as well as more exotic elements like a mad scientist’s lab (in Chapter Four, “The Copper Room”), an earthquake (Chapter Nine, “The Earth Gods Roar”), and the production of a Hollywood movie (in the last three chapters) that gives the filmmakers the chance to indulge in some war movie action even in peacetime. (The mad scientist has a scheme for turning copper into gold, a subplot that is dropped once Tommy and Betty Lou escape from the scientist’s house; at least it isn’t that old standby of the serials, radium.)

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There is a connecting thread in all this: Taggart (John Davidson of The Perils of Pauline) and his attempts to undermine his competition. Most, but not all of the dangers Tommy (Maurice Murphy) and his allies face are set up by Taggart directly or by his mole, Bruce Hoyt (Walter Miller). As good as Davidson is–he’s got a great sinister deep voice–Taggart is a one-note villain. It’s one of the strengths of the film that, in contrast with many serials, Taggart isn’t as interesting or compelling as the conflicted Hoyt or the good guy Tommy and his friends.

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Those friends include “Skeeter” Milligan (Noah Beery, Jr.), Tommy’s partner in Littleville who stows away in Milt Howe’s plane to follow his friend and also ends up working for Three Points. Skeeter, given to pratfalls and one-liners, including a running gag about “unwritten law,” provides most of the comic relief, although he also backs up Tommy when things get rough and in one sequence he’s the object of rescue: after being blinded by a blast of hot oil while working on an engine, Skeeter must be flown to a hospital in Denver to be operated on or else lose his sight permanently; it wouldn’t be a serial if that emergency flight over the Rockies didn’t coincide with the biggest storm of the year, but Tommy makes it.

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Then there’s Tommy’s love interest, Betty Lou Barnes (Patricia Farr), who is a well-rounded and active character in her own right: when Tommy first meets Betty Lou, she’s suffered a flat tire in Littleville, and tells him about Three Points, where she is learning to fly. She works behind the counter at the airfield’s Aileron Café (the kind of diner in which a grease monkey can order coffee and donuts by saying, “Gimme a sleep killer and a coupla spare wheels”). Betty Lou is gutsy, whether literally walking out of a flying lesson with Bruce Hoyt by jumping out of the plane with a parachute, or pulling a gun on some of Taggart’s men when they try to kidnap her and Tommy. In other sequences, she does her own detective work: she is the first to have any concrete proof of Hoyt’s treachery, and she gets lured into a trap herself as a result.

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Betty Lou’s relationship with Tommy highlights another unusual quality of this serial: the amount of time it covers. Unlike the breakneck pace of many serials, Tailspin Tommy takes for granted the passage of time between exciting events (although not between chapters, as cliffhangers are still the rule), as well as giving a sense of Tommy’s development as both a flyer and a hero. At one point, six weeks are mentioned to have passed before Tommy has his pilot’s license; at another, the time it takes for Skeeter to recover from his surgery is similarly glossed over. Reference is made to the awards and publicity that Tommy has received for his achievements. The twelve chapters allow for the natural transformation of Tommy from an unknown who had never even been in a plane in Chapter One to a nationally-recognized hero whose involvement in a movie is assumed to be a draw in the last few chapters.

That sense of growth over time is unusual for a serial, and Tommy’s relationship with Betty Lou undergoes similar development. Unlike many serials, in which the pairing of the male and female leads is held off until the very last minute (or left to the audience’s imagination), Tailspin Tommy has Tommy and Betty Lou as an item midway through its run time, and far from threatening their relationship with complications or misunderstandings, the plot even reinforces it: in Chapter Ten, Tommy has begun filming the war movie Midnight Patrol, but he has no chemistry with the actress who plays his lover and can’t even remember his lines. Seeing how much of a connection he has with Betty Lou when she visits the set, however, the director fires the actress and replaces her with Betty Lou! Their performance of the same scene is like night and day, reminiscent of Naomi Watts’ intense reading of the corny soap opera dialogue in Mulholland Drive.

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Interestingly, while Taggart’s villainy is the connecting thread through much of this serial, he gets his comeuppance early in the last chapter, so that the big question at the end is whether Tommy will appear at the Hollywood premiere of his new film or return to Littleville for a homecoming celebration among the people who love him. Considering we see Tommy make his travel plans and carry them out, it’s a little anticlimactic (the chapter is called “Littleville’s Big Day,” for crying out loud!). I’ve watched enough serials by now to observe that filmmakers of the time didn’t always put a lot of emphasis on suspense or use narrative twists as much as we might assume in retrospect. The template was often that of old-style mysteries in which the audience knows whodunit from the beginning and the real question was when and how the hero would find out. In the serials, sometimes that applied to little mysteries, too.

What I Watched: Tailspin Tommy (Universal, 1934)

Where I Watched It: A DVD from VCI Entertainment. This serial doesn’t seem to be online, although the follow-up is on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Earth Gods Roar” (Chapter Nine)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eight (“The Thrill of Death”), Tommy is leading Three Point Air Line’s team in the Los Angeles Air Meet, an air show in which crews compete in airplane races and timed contests. For the refueling contest, Tommy rides with Bruce Hoyt and climbs out of the ship to attach a mid-air refueling hose from another airplane. Hoyt, sensing an opportunity to serve Taggart and rid himself of a rival, suddenly dives (blaming a snapped rudder cable which he has himself cut), leaving Tommy hanging onto the dangling hose without a parachute.

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Sample Dialogue: “Someday, I’m gonna be a real flyer–a great flyer, too.”

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What Others Have Said: “If you find such a conclusion corny and anti-climactic, you should steer clear of Tailspin Tommy; the ending is of a piece with the rest of the serial, which is chiefly about a small-town boy making good in the adventurous new world of aviation, and only incidentally about his battles with villains. However, those who are interested in old-time aerial excitement, genuine 1930s period flavor, and interesting and well-acted characters, are strongly advised to take a spin with Tailspin Tommy.” —The Files of Jerry Blake

What’s Next: Last summer’s weekly schedule was a bit too much for me to attempt again, so I’ll plan on making biweekly updates to Fates Worse Than Death this year; any extra material I get posted will be a bonus. Join me in two weeks as I examine 1944’s Captain America!

Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon (1936)

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A strange planet is moving through the Solar system on a collision course with Earth, Velikovsky-style, bringing meteor showers and global panic with it.  Professor Gordon, stationed at an observatory, receives word that his son, Flash, has postponed his polo game so that he can take a transcontinental flight to return home before (presumably) the end of the world.  While on that flight, Flash (Buster Crabbe) and a female stranger (Jean Rogers) bail out at the same time, just before meteors cause the plane to crash.  They’ve landed near the rocket ship of Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), a scientist (and former colleague of old Professor Gordon) whose plan is to fly to the invading planet and redirect it away from earth.  Needing an assistant, Zarkov coerces Gordon and the young woman, Dale Arden, into the ship.  The three blast off and soon arrive on the mysterious planet.

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The planet Mongo, as it turns out to be, is ruled by Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton), to whom the three are taken as prisoners.  Upon seeing the beautiful Dale, Ming desires to take her for his bride; upon learning that Zarkov built the rocket ship that brought them there, Ming puts him to work in his own laboratory, in order to conquer the Earth instead of destroying it.  As for Flash, his attempts to free his friends awaken Ming’s ire; he has him thrown into the arena to battle three beast men.  Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), however, has other ideas, and schemes to keep Flash alive for herself.

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Thus begins the epic, thirteen-episode Flash Gordon, which puts Flash and company into cliffhanging perils that include a flooding underwater palace, fights with fearsome beasts, torture, and even a machine that makes Flash disappear completely.  And did I mention the rays?  In addition to ray guns, there are gravity rays, melting rays, rays that restore health, and an invisibility ray (the explanation for Flash’s previous disappearance, of course).  Throughout the serial, our heroes encounter Shark Men, Lion Men, and Hawk Men, all with their own leaders and complex political relationships with Ming.  (Whatever its crimes against realism may be, you can’t accuse Mongo of being a monocultural “Planet of Hats” in the Star Trek vein.)  Beyond the physical threats, there are shifting alliances and treachery, and all the while Princess Aura plays both sides, helping Flash escape but working to keep him separate from Dale.

Alex Raymond’s comic strip had only been running for two years when Universal Pictures released its serial adaptation in 1936, scripted by Frederick Stephani, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Ella O’Neill, and directed by Stephani.  The producer was Henry MacRae, who had been a director of serials since the silent era and knew how to get the most bang for the buck. Although serials were known for their low budgets, Flash Gordon was lavish by comparison (the claim that it cost a million dollars has been disputed, but it is still easy to believe that it was more expensive than the average chapter play); it was the first serial to play in a Broadway movie theater and set the tone for much of the cinematic science fiction that followed.

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It would be damning with faint praise to say Flash Gordon looks good “for its time;” many of the shortcuts taken in its production—the use of stock footage, recycled sets and costumes, and a score cobbled together from previous Universal horror and adventure films—would have been more obvious to viewers at the time than they are now.  Three years after Willis O’Brien wowed audiences with the stop-motion in King Kong, the many monsters that Flash battles are either familiar animals with some outer space bling attached, or small animals filmed against miniature sets to make them appear gigantic—or both, like the dragon-sized finned iguanas that prowl the valley where Flash and his compatriots first land.  The exception is the bipedal papier-mâché dragon with lobster claws that inhabits the “Tunnel of Terror” in Chapter Two; with the addition of horns and a wall of flame, it doubles as the “Sacred Fire Dragon” in Chapter Nine.

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None of that matters, however, as the story unfolds with a swiftness that encourages suspension of disbelief, and a game cast that takes the material only as seriously as it needs to be, but no more.  First among them is Buster Crabbe as the title character, and I think it’s fair to say that Crabbe is ideal for the part.  Like Tarzan (whom Crabbe had also played), Flash Gordon isn’t a role to be acted: it’s a role to be embodied, and Crabbe has the physique (he had been a champion Olympic swimmer, winning a Gold Medal in 1932) and movie-star looks (with hair bleached to match Gordon’s comic-strip appearance) to pull it off.  That’s not to impugn Crabbe’s acting: while he isn’t called on to chew the scenery like Middleton as Ming or John Lipson as the Hawk Men’s King Vultan, he has a natural, unaffected screen presence, perfect for the kind of all-American hero who finds himself at the center of all this craziness.  Crabbe is engaged with the material and never sounds like he’s reciting lines from a cue card (more than can be said of James Pierce as Prince Thun of the Lion Men).

Torture

Flash’s adversary, Ming the Merciless, is played by Charles Middleton, who long specialized in “heavies,” and brings a prickly grandiloquence to the role.  He’s the kind of seasoned actor who can deliver lines like, “Why did not the sacred gong sound the final note which completes the marriage ceremony?” and make it sound perfectly natural.  Ming is one of the great pulp villains, of course, and with his arched eyebrows, pointed beard and mustache, bald head, and long fingernails, he shares a great deal of DNA with that poster child of Yellow Peril racism, Fu Manchu. Like Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind, Ming is an invasive force, the perfect stand-in for overseas threats from Europe or Asia (before Pearl Harbor, the pulps and comics often replaced Japan and Germany with their own invented enemies, such as the “Purple Empire” that Operator #5 battled; sometimes such threats were even described as “Eurasian,” covering all the bases).  Hailing from outer space instead of a foreign country, however, Ming has a veneer of plausible deniability that has made it easier to keep him around in later decades. Opposing him, Flash Gordon is the ideal American of the 1930s who doesn’t start fights but isn’t afraid to finish them.

Ming2

Beyond his name and visual appearance, Ming embodies the stereotype of the “Oriental potentate,” cruel, decadent, and treacherous.  In the Universal production, Ming entertains himself watching combat in the arena and gaudy choreographic displays (courtesy of Universal’s library of stock footage); the costume of his empire is a mix of spage-age tunics, medieval robes, and Roman centurion armor for the men, and harem outfits for the women. The costumes (and most of the set dressing) are straight from Universal’s warehouses, but the mixture of styles isn’t that far off from Raymond’s comic strip design, which also borrowed freely from distant times and places from Earth’s history.  The question of how people on other planets might dress hadn’t really been settled: when Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan) sent John Carter to the planet Mars, he described the inhabitants as nude, or nearly so.  Artists illustrating his books preserved Earth standards of modesty by draping Dejah Thoris in Roman togas and other stylized garb.  While the comic strip Buck Rogers, which premiered in 1929, gave a more fantastical, futuristic appearance to its space travelers, Flash Gordon was mostly content to be Prince Valiant in space; despite the rocket ships and ray guns, Gordon was often shown fighting with a sword like John Carter.  It’s not for nothing that this genre became known as “space opera.”

Flash_Gordon_Excerpt

No character in the 1936 production illustrates this better than King Vultan of the Hawk Men.  All the Hawk Men (there are no Hawk Women, near as I can tell) have enormous, feathery wings sprouting from their backs, and wear Viking horned helmets and armor.  With his boisterous laugh and enormous appetites, Vultan is clearly modeled after Henry VIII (he’s even shown feasting on the drumsticks of what I assume is some kind of space chicken, and mention is made of his numerous wives).  However, with his truly over-the-top headdress and the exaggerated pectorals of his breastplate, he looks like Luciano Pavarotti as Brünnhilde in a drag production of Die Walküre.

Vultan2

I like Vultan, though: unlike the humorless Ming and colorless Kala (King of the Shark Men, who can’t breathe water—I mean, where to even start?), Vultan is the only one who seems to really enjoy his villainy.  He is, however, a strong argument against those who feel that the 1980 feature version of Flash Gordon was too campy compared to the original.  Upon capturing Dale and (inevitably) deciding to wed her himself, he courts her by first terrifying her with his pet “Urso” (a bear painted with badger stripes) and then tries to entertain her by making shadow puppets on the wall.  This guy is all over the place; naturally, he becomes Flash’s ally by the end of the serial.

shadows

And who is Dale Arden but a classic “damsel in distress?”  She mostly screams and faints and exists to be rescued (interestingly, only one cliffhanger actually puts her in danger); she is subjected to mind games by Princess Aura, who convinces her that she must make Vultan believe she loves him, or else he will kill Flash.  The role isn’t the fault of Jean Rogers, who does as much as she can with it and looks great in the part.  In fact, between Rogers as Dale and Lawson as Aura fighting over Flash, it’s not hard to imagine a Depression-era boy at a Saturday matinee developing a sudden, unexpected interest in polo.

An amnesiac Flash Gordon tries to decide between Dale Arden and Princess Aura, the Betty and Veronica of outer space.

An amnesiac Flash Gordon tries to decide between Dale Arden and Princess Aura, the Betty and Veronica of outer space.

And it’s not only for the boys (and their dads): I mentioned Buster Crabbe’s physique, but I didn’t get to how often he appears without his shirt, slick with sweat or bound and tortured.  The sensuality and overt (but still PG) eroticism of the 1980 version weren’t invented from whole cloth.

FlashBarin

When the plot isn’t being moved forward by Ming or one of the other rulers of Mongo, it’s often one of Princess Aura’s schemes that does the trick.  To my mind, she’s the real hero of the story, resourceful, determined, and intense.  No wonder she ends up on the throne at the end, paired up not with Flash but the loyal Prince Barin, who is so exciting and interesting that I didn’t even think to bring him up until now.

What I Watched: Flash Gordon (1936, Universal)

Where I Saw It: It’s on YouTube.  The first chapter is here.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “The Unseen Peril” (Chapter Ten)

Best Cliffhanger: “Shattering Doom” (Chapter Seven): Flash, enslaved in King Vultan’s atomic furnace room, has an electric wire attached to his wrist, to kill him instantly if he rebels.  Doctor Zarkov surreptitiously attaches the wire to the handle of Flash’s shovel and instructs him to throw the shovel into the furnace when the time for escape is right.  Flash orders the other slaves to duck behind the safety wall and makes his move, triggering a massive explosion.  Will he get to safety in time?

Sample Dialogue: “Is there no way a man can conquer the sacred orangopoid?” –Princess Aura, Chapter Nine

With a Dry, Cool Wit Like That: “Scared, huh?” –Flash, as he grabs Dale and pushes her out of the airplane in Chapter One

Cheapest Special Effect: As much as I’d like to, I can’t count King Vultan’s shadow puppets, which are certainly odd but aren’t meant to be taken for anything else. Instead, I choose this fellow, the terrifying giant lizard of Mongo:

Lizard

Most Embarrassing Costume: I’ve already addressed the costumes in some detail, and while King Vultan’s appearance is certainly memorable, I think I’m going to award this honor to the Hawk Man servant who briefly makes an appearance in a full chef’s uniform in Chapter Six:

Chef

Biggest Cop-Out: Does anyone believe Ming is dead at the end of Flash Gordon?  Even without the knowledge that there would be two sequels, did anyone believe it in 1936?

What Others Have Said: “They were flying over and they were forced down where there was a rocket ready to take off—I mean, if you accept that, you have no problem with anything. If it bothers you that they happened to be flying over a rocket made by Dr. Zarkov, why then, this movie isn’t for you.” –Lorenzo Semple, Jr., screenwriter of the 1980 Flash Gordon feature film

What’s next: In two weeks, join me again for a look at Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.