Fates Worse Than Death: The Mysterious Mr. M

The police are baffled by a series of seeming murders: three bodies have been fished out of the harbor wearing medallions marked with the name “Mr. M.” Are they the victims of gangland killings? Is Mr. M a new leader of the criminal underworld? And what is the homicide division to make of the unknown chemical found in the bodies, a drug that appears to have paralyzed them before death? This is Detective Lieutenant Kirby Walsh’s beat, but when Dr. Kittridge, the secretive inventor, disappears, the Feds get involved: Kittridge had been working on a project that was vital for national security. The G-man assigned, Grant Farrell, has a personal interest, as his own brother Jim is also among the missing. Along with Walsh (played by Richard Martin) and Farrell (Dennis Moore), the third member of our heroic trio, insurance investigator Shirley Clinton (Pamela Blake), gets involved with the case after an explosion at one of Kittridge’s factories.

As it turns out, Mr. M has much higher ambitions than just organizing some criminal enterprise: Dr. Kittridge has invented a revolutionary new submarine engine, and Mr. M’s plan is to obtain it and then sell it to the highest bidder. (Politics, shmolitics: other than a few offhand references to war service, this could easily be one of those prewar serials in which a new technology is in danger of “falling into the wrong hands,” with few specifics offered as to who that might be.) The drug found in the previous bodies is a mind-controlling agent, “hypnotrene,” and those victims of “Mr. M” were just test subjects to find the correct dosage and throw the authorities off the scent. Now that the drug has been perfected, it can be used for its intended purpose: to make Dr. Kittridge turn over the plans for his invention. When Kittridge dies of hypnotrene-induced heart failure (I guess the formula isn’t that stable yet), it becomes a race between the criminals and the law to recover the various components of the submarine engine that the paranoid Kittridge had farmed out to various designers and manufacturers under assumed names.

Here’s where it starts to get complicated: the plot was started by one Anthony Waldron (Edmund MacDonald), a criminal believed by the police to be dead, but who had in fact been in hiding in Africa for several years. Now that he’s back in the States, he’s brought hypnotrene with him, living in a secret lab underneath his grandmother’s house and keeping her dosed on hypnotrene to make her pliable. His co-conspirators are Derek and Marina LaMont (Danny Morton and Cat People‘s Jane Randolph), a pair of siblings that society matron Cornelia Waldron (Viriginia Brissac) has always treated like family (and who also live with her).

There’s enough back story to this arrangement for a soap opera, but don’t worry: some version of this background is repeated in almost every chapter, along with a description of Kittridge’s revolutionary engine, “which will allow ocean-going submarines to be built as big as luxury liners!” Our heroes get involved because Cornelia had funded Dr. Kittridge’s research and is a co-beneficiary of the insurance policies Kittridge took out on his facilities in various names, and the scenes in the Waldron home are the most interesting part of this serial, with the secrets and double-crosses typical of contemporary thrillers.

Waldron created the “Mr. M” identity as a cover for his tests of hypnotrene, but now he has a problem: there is a real Mr. M, and he starts communicating with the conspirators by way of records dropped off at the house, using an eerie whisper reminiscent of radio chillers like Inner Sanctum. This Mr. M seems to know everything about Waldron and his partners, and he uses that knowledge to blackmail them: “Now you are working for me,” he says, as he issues directives to obtain the components of Kittridge’s engine. In many cases he is even one step ahead of the conspirators, possessing knowledge of events beyond Waldron’s.

The identity of this Mr. M is the main mystery, as in many serials in which the villain’s identity is kept secret until the last chapter, but the balance between the different factions is handled deftly and the degree to which the heroes and villains have separate stories is unusual. The heroes don’t know anything about this behind-the-scenes power struggle, and in fact when they come face to face with Anthony Waldron they naturally assume that he is the same Mr. M they’ve been dealing with all along. It actually isn’t that hard to guess who the unknown Mr. M is, but the context of the reveal is still pretty satisfying; as I said, the mystery elements in this serial are more engaging than the action scenes. (It’s also amusing that almost every character refers to “the mysterious Mr. M” in full, following the lead of the newspaper headlines, leading to dialogue like “We’re going to clear Jim’s name and get this mysterious Mr. M!” and “Imagine me sitting here talking to the mysterious Mr. M;” even the creepy recorded messages are signed off by “the mysterious . . . Mr. . . Emmmm.” The mysterious Mr. M has great brand awareness.)

Aside from the mysterious Mr. M’s spooky messages, the other weird element in this serial is the mind-controlling drug hypnotrene, which as you can imagine gets a workout. Anthony Waldron is the only one who knows how to manufacture the drug (even his lab assistant Archer doesn’t know the secret, apparently), which keeps Derek and Marina from eliminating him. Cornelia Waldron is kept dosed, but if the drug were allowed to wear off she would reveal all of the conspirators’ secrets. Much of the serial’s suspense comes from this uneasy truce.

But hypnotrene isn’t just a truth serum for extracting secrets: victims can also be conditioned to perform actions at set times, making them effective double agents or assassins (or “human robots,” in keeping with the era’s conception of a robot as a slave, mechanical or not). Several times over the course of the serial, allies of our heroes (including Kirby Walsh) are dosed and ordered to kill or mislead their colleagues, making it seem as if Mr. M has operatives in every walk of life. From the outside, the mysterious Mr. M would appear to be a mastermind with eyes and ears everywhere, even if in reality there are only a few people in on the conspiracy. (There are a couple of more-or-less disposable henchmen, Shrag and Donninger, at Derek’s command, and they function pretty much the same as henchmen in every serial, following the master’s orders without knowing the whole plan or their boss’s identity, so even when they get caught they’re only useful to the authorities as bait.)

Dennis Moore, who plays Grant Farrell, is a good representative of the transition from serials to television. From an uncredited role as a cowhand in the 1933 Buck Jones serial Gordon of Ghost City, Moore had gone on to hundreds of appearances in serials and B movies; most of these roles were in Westerns, but all kinds of genres were represented in his career. By the time Moore graduated to leading man, the serials were starting their decline: The Mysterious Mr. M would be the last serial Universal released. In 1956 Moore would also play one of the leading roles for Columbia in Blazing the Overland Trail, the very last theatrical serial ever released. By that time Moore was established in television, increasingly his home until his retirement in 1961; he died only a few years later in 1964 at the age of 56.

On that note, during the course of this series I have mostly been honest about how I’ve watched these films, all at once at home rather than over weeks in the theater, avoiding nostalgia for the Saturday matinee era since I don’t have personal experience of it to draw upon. It’s understandable that the first generation of serial authors like Alan Barbour and Donald F. Glut would emphasize their nostalgic qualities, but it’s also a bit rich to read passages lamenting how “kids today” won’t get to experience what they did as children, as if kids of every generation didn’t have favorite stories and games to make their youth magical. To the extent that Fates Worse Than Death is an exercise in looking back at my own childhood, it’s been about making connections with pulp fiction and comics and the pulp-derived film and TV of the 1970s and ’80s, which I did grow up with. Television inherited much of the rhythm, personnel, and production methods of the serials, and since I’ve been watching TV my whole life, it’s natural that I should watch serials the same way instead of pretending I’m sitting in a downtown scratch house, getting oil on my decoder ring as I dig into the popcorn between shifts delivering telegrams or whatever. (In a similar vein, I do enjoy the fedoras and roadsters of the serials, but I try not to mistake them for documentaries or, God forbid, memories of a “simpler time.”)

It’s obvious that the theatrical experience of the twenty-first century was quite different from that of the 1930s and ’40s, even before the closure of theaters in light of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. An afternoon at the theater during the serials’ heyday might have included a cartoon or musical short, a newsreel, and one or two features in addition to the latest chapter of a serial: animated films are still shown with accompanying shorts on a regular basis, but aside from one-off experiments like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse the studios are no longer invested in packages that keep audiences in seats all afternoon. (It’s more profitable for theaters and studios to have regular turnover, and television satisfies the desire to binge-watch, now more than ever.)

I do have affection for double features, collections of vintage trailers, and other such celebrations of the cinema experience, but in my experience those are the domain of individual promoters and film festivals (or niche chains like Alamo Drafthouse, which unfortunately I may never get to visit now). The boundary between cinema and home viewing was already increasingly porous, and the closure of theaters has pushed some studios to release their new films as video on demand, but at least so far the big would-be blockbusters have been pushed back in hopes that normalcy will return. It’s a bigger subject than is perhaps fair for me to tack on to the end of a review of a serial, but it is fair to note that the current crisis is yet another moment of transformation in the long, varied history of the cinema: hopefully the communal elements of watching together in a crowded theater, of gasping in suspense at a shocking turn of events or a cliffhanger, whether it be in The Mysterious Mr. M or Avengers: Infinity War, will return, even if some things have changed.

What I Watched: The Mysterious Mr. M (Universal, 1946)

Where I Watched It: The Mysterious Mr. M came to my attention earlier this spring when TCM ran it on successive Saturday mornings. However, I had recently changed cable packages so I didn’t get all the chapters recorded. With a little searching I found them uploaded to Dailymotion (there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time) and earlier this month someone uploaded the whole thing to YouTube. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray from VCI Entertainment, and I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I hadn’t been such a cheapskate and just bought it.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “When Clocks Chime Death” (Chapter One)

Chapter Titles That Sound Like Radiohead Tracks: “Heavier Than Water” (Chapter Six); “Strange Collision” (Chapter Seven); “High-Line Smash-Up” (Chapter Twelve)

Best Cliffhanger: The cliffhangers in this are mostly pretty familiar–a number of collapsing and exploding buildings and various vehicles crashing or plunging into water–and are presumably recycled from earlier serials: there’s not much reason for Grant Ferrell to hop into an old sedan that doesn’t belong to him, except to match up to the footage of the same old car plummeting down the central shaft of a parking garage (Chapter Two, “Danger Downward”). Similarly, the building that houses Dr. Kittridge’s waterfront laboratory in Chapter Eleven (“The Key to Murder”) has burned down so many times that I’m surprised it can still get insurance.

Having said that, there is at least one tight, suspenseful cliffhanger, and it occurs at the end of Chapter Nine, “Parachute Peril”: after tricking Mr. M into stealing a crate believed to contain a model of Kittridge’s submarine engine (but actually containing Grant Ferrell), Grant faces off with Anthony Waldron (whom he takes for Mr. M, of course) aboard an airplane. They struggle, and both of them end up falling out of the plane, continuing to fight even as Grant hangs on to Anthony, who is wearing the only parachute. Anthony kicks Grant loose so that he falls only a few yards to the ground–right on a railroad track in front of a speeding train! Economical use of cross-cutting ensures that the audience is aware of the oncoming danger, and of course the title card inviting us to continue next week appears before the actual moment of collision, leaving the worst to our imaginations.

Sample Dialogue: “I’m one of Mr. M’s men, controlled by his mysterious power. . . . You thought you were setting a trap for Mr. M. Instead you walked into one of his making!” –Thomas Elliott, an industrialist under the effects of hypnotrene in Chapter Four, “The Double Trap”

What’s Next: Step aside, Lois Lane! A new girl reporter is here with some “hot news!” Join me in a week, or two weeks, or whenever I get to it, as I review Brenda Starr, Reporter!

Dome on the Range

It’s been getting harder, I’ll admit: harder to get up in the morning; harder to accomplish tasks for work, such as they are; harder to start updates like this and then finish them. It’s been five or six weeks since I began sheltering at home; other than walking the dogs, the only time I leave the house is to pick up groceries or go to church, where I am involved in livestreaming services. During that time I’ve dealt with the stress of maintaining hygiene when I go out–washing hands, not getting coughed on, etc.–but last week I started getting stressed out just from being home all the time: I wanted to get out, to go somewhere, to do anything. So, I get the stir-craziness of people who want to get things back to normal by any means necessary (of course, the “protests” and such are almost entirely ginned-up by people who have direct financial interests in getting things going and won’t have to face the risks of being on the front lines at retail and service businesses; the same people who got crowds out yelling about “death panels” during the debate over the ACA have decided that a few thousand preventable deaths are now just the price of economic freedom).

But realistically, I just don’t see how it’s going to be possible without rigorous and reliable testing and a stronger social safety net in general. I miss live music and movies, too (contrary to what I said in my last quarantine update, the local drive-in didn’t open as it was deemed non-essential at the last minute), but they’re not worth taking my life in my hands. The government can and should have done much more in ensuring that people wouldn’t starve or be evicted while shelter-in-place orders are maintained. I’ve lost income, too, but I’m fortunate to be able to do at least some of my job from home. In any case, I have a lot more sympathy for someone who has to get out and go to work to keep essential services going than I do for someone who can’t play golf right now.

So, I haven’t made quite as much of the time on my hands as I might have; the schedule we keep our kids on isn’t very conducive to finishing my own work, but even when I have the free time to do my own thing I don’t always have the energy. I peruse Facebook and Twitter; sometimes I watch TV, but not as much as you’d think; I window-shop online, filling virtual shopping carts with sale items and then letting them expire, deciding that I don’t really need anything that badly. It has given me a new perspective on science fiction works about people living in bunkers and shelters, and the psychological effects of that isolation: in short, it’s harder than it looks. Although I didn’t feel like digging into it too deeply last week, I’m sure that my newfound interest in Logan’s Run–about a self-contained community of people living in isolation, looking for distractions, while the social forces around them convince them that old people are expendable, and really who is going to miss them?–is not entirely a coincidence (that’s another blog post that I should have been able to put together in a day or two that limped on for a week and a half before I finally finished it).

Comparisons between the current coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic and the influenza epidemic of 1918 have also caused me to rethink some things: a few years ago, I wrote about the phrase “purple death,” and how its appearances in pulp fiction and serials may have been a reference to the 1918 epidemic. To further the connection, I’ve been thinking about how teleconferencing software like Zoom, Skype, and Facetime has finally realized and mainstreamed the “video phone,” a mainstay of science fiction and pulp storytelling that never really caught on with the public in the twentieth century, no matter how much it was advertised or how many times we were promised that the technology was just around the corner. Video phones, a natural extension of both television and telephone, appear early on in science fiction (a number of early depictions of television portray it as a two-way device: Fredersen uses one in the 1927 film Metropolis, for example); how useful such a device would have been for those who were quarantined during the influenza epidemic (or similar quarantines for polio)! Even the telephone, already in widespread use in 1918, had limits: you couldn’t just call someone up and chat for hours. But for a pulp writer, stuck inside, a technology that allowed him to see friends and family face-to-face without any risk of spreading infection: well, in that situation it’s not hard to see the video phone as a practical solution to a real problem instead of just unbridled technophilia.

Finally, since I live in a neighborhood that is basically suburban in character even if not literally in the suburbs, I’ve given a lot of thought to the self-containment that has always been a part of the promise of the suburbs. With its fenced-off yard, each suburban home is essentially a module in itself, and it could just easily be on the lunar surface or anywhere else as on earth. This was part of its appeal from the beginning, and the connection to space colonization is not accidental: as detailed in Ken Hollings’ fascinating book Welcome to Mars: Fantasies of Science in the American Century 1947-1959, “An ever-expanding, subdivided tract of land, the suburbs constitute the location for a project that will connect humanity directly with outer space, with the future and with its own emergent inner self. . . . In its self-contained isolation, the suburban colony becomes a model for life not just on this planet but on all the others too.” The suburbs are a template for the domed space colonies of Asimov, Heinlein, and the Jetsons. More to the point, as Hollings continues, “At the same time, this self-contained isolation will eventually establish the suburbs as a complex psychiatric community where aberrations such as alcoholism, schizophrenia and sexual deviancy can be studied in clinical depth by an increasing number of sociologists, psychiatrists and cultural anthropologists. It will also supply the pharmaceutical companies with a growing number of customers for a new generation of drugs.” This is more like what you get when you read Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard.

Why is this on my mind? The Atomic Age has a double meaning: yes, the splitting of the atom, for warfare or for civilian power, is the obvious engine for the growth and change that drove images of the future back then. But atomization, disintegration into discrete particles, each cut off from its neighbors, is implicit as well, a metaphor for the breaking of bonds that hitherto held society together. I fear that is what we are experiencing now–not collapse, necessarily, but at least drift–without some form of connection, well, what are we left with? I should acknowledge that in the scheme of things, I’m pretty lucky. Suburban self-isolation is a privilege. Things could be worse. As we’ve been reminded, I’m doing my job by staying home and avoiding the spread of infection. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m looking forward to the day the bubble opens, I can take off my helmet, and step out into the sun again, breathing deeply.

The Big Q

Well, like a lot of people, I’m stuck at home for the time being, practicing “social distancing” due to the spread of coronavirus/COVID-19. As it probably has for most everyone, the rapidity with which my life has changed has come as a shock, and I’m still adjusting. So far, those around me are healthy and getting used to the new normal. But I won’t deny that it sucks, and it’s probably going to take a while to get better. For myself, much of what I do–writing, composing, maintaining this blog–is already “work from home,” so I’m used to setting my own hours and doing personal projects on my own. But I don’t think I had realized how much the other things I do that get me out of the house–teaching lessons, directing my church’s choir, and running errands with my kids–gave structure to the hours at home, keeping it from seeming like one unending day off.

With live music venues closing down, freelancing has dried up for me. Movie theaters are closed (although the drive-in is still open). I’m fortunate that I still have church activities to participate in, as we have shifted to livestreaming services on Sundays, but it’s just me singing the hymns with my wife, the pianist, as the choir has been instructed to stay home. I can also teach lessons (for now), but most of the students who are continuing are switching to distance learning via Skype or Facetime, so that too has changed. Oh, and did I mention that schools in Kansas have closed until at least the end of the school year? Hello, homeschooling!

The amount of connectivity and the ability to stay in contact via social media is a great blessing, of course, even if it comes with the double-sided urge to simply keep refreshing Facebook and Twitter to glean the latest scraps of news or conversation. I had actually cut my Facebook use way back at the beginning of the year, but I’m glad I didn’t delete it completely, since it’s become so critical for livestreaming and staying in touch.

Like many, I have been trying to put the extra hours at home to good use. The rhetoric around self-isolation has been interesting to see, at least among the creative class: at first there were reminders along the lines that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine from the plague; then there were acknowledgements that, hey, you don’t have to put that much pressure on yourself, and if binge-watching Netflix is what you need for self-care, then don’t feel guilty about it. For my own part, I don’t think I’m watching any more TV or movies than I was before. I’ve found it necessary to have some kind of schedule, however loose, and things to keep me active, including firing up the old Wii to acquaint myself with the fitness programs I never bothered to try before. I agree that there’s no need to pressure yourself to achieve something great, but I think it’s important to engage the mind and body so you don’t just melt into the couch. You might not end up with a masterpiece, but it’s the process, not the end product, that’s important right now. (And if you just need a little encouragement to start something you’ve been wanting to try, here it is: Go for it! What have you got to lose?)

So I have dedicated some time to things I’ve put off, including putting together a Shop page for this blog to replace my too-static homepage for Prime Material Press, the publishing outfit I started to market some of my ragtime piano pieces years back. I still have inventory of printed copies of those pieces, but I’m also planning to use the Shop page to make pdfs of some unpublished pieces available. I hope to update the Shop frequently, but for now it at least contains samples and ordering instructions. I have also included a link to Paraclete Press, which published my choral anthem “We Are Summoned” in January (you can order directly from them or through your local music retailer); hopefully choirs will soon be able to meet in person again to rehearse and perform it!

As for the immediate future, I have some plans in mind for future posts on Medleyana. As I promised at the beginning of the year, I had hoped to post more this year; February was a bit fallow, but hey! It’s not too late! Look for upcoming installments of Fates Worse Than Death and capsule reviews of movies and books in the coming weeks.

Before I go: drop a line in the comments and say hi! Are you in self-isolation? If not in the U.S., how are things in your country?What are conditions like? How are you dealing with social distancing if you are practicing it? Thanks for reading, and stay well!