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!

 

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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!

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!