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!

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The Bangers n’ Mash Show Announces 2016 Phantom Awards

. . . and I got to come along for the ride! The Bangers n’ Mash Show, a podcast run by Zack Clopton and John Collis, gives out its Phantom Awards for achievements in science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, including the usual categories like Best Picture but also including a genre-specific Best Monster/Creature/Madman/etc. For their most recent awards, I (and some of my colleagues from the Dissolve diaspora) had the opportunity to record introductions for a few of the nominees. You can find the show on YouTube (where it’s like a podcast, but with a broad range of pictures you can look at while you listen–maybe they should call it a “broadcast,” eh?) or watch the embedded video:

If you read my overview of 2016 films, my comments may sound familiar, but I enjoyed hearing what my fellow Dissolvers had to say, and perhaps, like me, you’ll come away with some recommendations for films that weren’t on your radar. Thanks to Zack and John for the chance to participate, and thanks to all you readers for listening!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Adventures of Sir Galahad

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After a friendly joust between Camelot and Cornwall, an unknown knight rides forward and challenges the victors, Sir Bors and Sir Modred of Camelot. After defeating them, the stranger requests to be made one of King Arthur’s knights, and reveals that his name is Galahad. Impressed by the young knight’s skills and candor, Arthur agrees to put Galahad to the traditional test: he must stand guard over the sword Excalibur through the night. Through treachery and drugged wine, however, Galahad passes out, but not before seeing a suit of armor move! The mysterious armored knight takes the sword and escapes the castle through a secret passage. The next morning, Galahad is discovered asleep. No one believes his wild story, and Merlin himself accuses Galahad of perpetrating the theft. Even worse, the invading Saxons, led by King Ulric, are attacking! While Arthur defers punishment and Galahad is allowed to ride with the knights, he vows to find the sword and return it to Arthur to clear his name and earn his place at the Round Table.

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Thus begins the twisting plot of The Adventures of Sir Galahad, the 1949 serial from veteran director Spencer Bennet. Along with Sir Bors (also under suspicion because it was he who served the wine that incapacitated Galahad), Galahad infiltrates the Saxon camp, fights against outlaws, and must even overcome Merlin’s magic, all while trying to win over the suspicious knights of Camelot. Ultimately, the villain is the “Black Knight,” the traitor within Camelot who seeks to manipulate the Saxons and outlaws into defeating Arthur in order to claim the throne for himself. He who wields the invincible Excalibur can stand against any foe, so of course the Black Knight keeps it for himself, even while pretending to aid Ulric.

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The legends and romances that make up the Arthurian cycle are so rich and varied that film adaptations inevitably borrow what can be used and discard the rest. Often the forbidden romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere is featured, and the quest for the Holy Grail is another popular subject for film, tackled by both Monty Python and John Boorman. In some versions of the story, Galahad is Lancelot’s son, determined to prove himself before he reveals his identity to his father. The Adventures of Sir Galahad doesn’t deal with any of those plots, but it does an impressive job of creating an original story, combining the source material with the formal demands of a serial.

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In fact, The Adventures of Sir Galahad is unusual in its choice of setting: there are very few serials that deal with medieval or mythological settings (but see Jerry Blake’s comments below). Film studios were regularly releasing features about Arthur, Robin Hood, and other legendary figures, so sets and costumes would have been available for serials (Columbia’s The Green Archer features a castle and a Robin Hood-like character, but is set in modern times), but Galahad remained an outlier. It’s largely a successful hybrid, however: the struggle of the knight and his partner to solve the mystery and prove his innocence lends itself to the episodic rhythm of a serial; there are plenty of opportunities for fight scenes, both skirmishes and full-on battles, and the abundant swordplay makes a nice change from fistfights and shoot-outs; the disguised villain is very typical, comparable to such bad guys as the Scorpion or the Dragon (it ends up being exactly who you think it is, but still); and the frequent magical interference of Merlin (as well as Morgan le Fay, who has a few spells of her own) provide opportunities for unusual and inventive special effects and camera tricks.

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To cite just one example of the serial and fantasy worlds colliding, the cliffhanger of Chapter Eight (“Perilous Adventure”) features Galahad and an outlaw fighting in a wagon pulled by a runaway horse. The scene is identical in blocking and editing to similar fights atop trains or trucks in other serials, down to the use of rear projection, but the medieval setting puts it into a novel context.

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From a story perspective, writers George Plympton, Lewis Clay, and David Mathews also make some smart decisions: by setting Galahad against Merlin and the knights of Camelot at the beginning, the story upends expectations about good guys and bad guys: like Galahad, the audience is unsure who to trust. Merlin appears to be the villain at first; Morgan le Fay offers her own magical help, but what’s her agenda? Arthur (Nelson Leigh, seventh billed) is a distant figure, far from the center of the story. Galahad is left to his own resources, with only the dogged Sir Bors (Charles King) to provide both comic relief and the occasional voice of reason. If these versions of the characters ultimately conform to our expectations of them, it’s not without enough twists and turns to make them feel lived-in, the resolution to the story earned.

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The Adventures of Sir Galahad boasts a large cast for a serial, but the difference between serial and feature shows in the battle scenes, where one might expect hordes of extras: a dozen men on horseback is large enough to make a convincing posse or Indian war party in a Western, but when such a group is meant to represent the entire Saxon army, it’s a little puny. Galahad‘s fight scenes are more impressive when staged in close quarters (such as several fights that take place in an inn, or in mountainous terrain), hiding the small number of men involved and making the fight look more crowded. In many ways, The Adventures of Sir Galahad bears a close resemblance to the low-budget fantasy features that would become popular in the 1950s, such as Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword or the many films about Hercules or Sinbad.

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As Galahad, George Reeves (who would go on to play Superman on TV) makes a convincing hero, eager and brave, but at 35 he is more boyish (at one point a discouraged Bors calls him a puppy, “barking at nothing and chasing his own tail”) than boy (apparently a common pitfall in serial casting). Charles King plays Bors as an over-the-hill Falstaff, accustomed to big meals and the wenches who serve them, but he also becomes Galahad’s most loyal companion and, like all the knights of Camelot, will do what must be done to combat evil.

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The MVP of the cast is William Fawcett, who plays Merlin. Fawcett was the crotchety scientist Professor Hamill in Batman and Robin; he’s just as crotchety here, but with the robes and long white beard of a wizard. He’s clearly having a ball chewing the scenery, throwing flash grenades to mask his magical comings and goings, and waving his hands to cast spells. It’s no wonder Fawcett had such a long career: he’s the quintessential character actor, breathing life into a stock character and stealing every scene he’s in.

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If I could add one thing to this serial, it would be to have Galahad fight a dragon; the only monsters the knight faces are ultimately human ones. Other than that omission, there’s as much Dark Ages atmosphere as you could hope for in The Adventures of Sir Galahad, with secret passages and dungeons, sword fights, magic spells, and mighty feasts. There is even a giant crossbow! The Adventures of Sir Galahad is highly recommended to both serial and fantasy fans.

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What I Watched: The Adventures of Sir Galahad (Columbia, 1949)

Where I Watched It: I bought a batch of privately-burned DVDs of serials from a dealer on eBay, along with several others I’ll be writing about this summer. The transfer is pretty raw, but the price was right. The Adventures of Sir Galahad doesn’t appear to be available to view online.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Not since The Perils of Pauline has a serial emphasized the perils of its cliffhangers this much: in addition to “Passage of Peril” (Chapter Six) and “Perilous Adventure” (Chapter Eight), there’s my favorite, “Castle Perilous” (Chapter Twelve).

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Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter One (“The Stolen Sword”), Morgan le Fay has directed Galahad to find answers in the Enchanted Forest; this is Merlin’s domain, from which no man has returned. As Galahad and Bors enter, they are accosted by strange voices and sounds. Merlin appears and bewitches Galahad so that he can’t move; then Galahad is grabbed by a suddenly mobile tree, while flames dance around him. It’s a pretty intense and strange cliffhanger that lets us know we’re going into the deep end of fantasy here. Alas, my hope that all of the cliffhangers would be magical or fantastic wasn’t lived up to. Some are, and there are a few medieval-specific cliffhangers, like one in which Galahad is strapped down beneath a swinging spiked ball, à la The Pit and the Pendulum; but most are the typical falls or brushes with death common to all serials. But man, that first chapter: it’s a doozy.

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Sample Dialogue:
Bors: Have you never heard it said that rashness is the father of disaster?
Galahad: True, but too much caution is the blood-brother of cowardice.
–Chapter Five, “Galahad to the Recue”

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What Others Have Said:Adventures of Sir Galahad represents its producer Sam Katzman’s second and last attempt to combine the serial and medieval-swashbuckler genres; it’s a huge improvement over Katzman’s previous effort in the same line, the shoddy and tedious Son of the Guardsman–even though Galahad and Guardsman have many sets, costumes, and actors in common.” —The Files of Jerry Blake
(I haven’t seen Son of the Guardsman yet, so I can’t make a comparison.)

What’s Next: X marks the spot! Join me next time for the generically-titled Pirate Treasure.

Over the Garden Wall at The Solute

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Last week, Cartoon Network ran its first animated miniseries, Over the Garden Wall, described as a “five night mystery adventure.” Created by Patrick McHale, previously of CN series Flapjack and Adventure Time, Over the Garden Wall leans on the traditions of fairy tales, classic animated cartoons, and much more, and featured enough star power (including such names as Elijah Wood and Wichita’s own Samuel Ramey) that it fully lived up to its “event” status. Over the Garden Wall also draws on the archaic, mysterious body of song and folklore collected in the Anthology of American Folk Music, described by Greil Marcus as “The Old, Weird America.” I’ve written before about my love for the Anthology, so it will not surprise my regular readers to find that Over the Garden Wall‘s synthesis of influences was catnip to me.

I wrote more about it in my review at The Solute; although television rather than a film, I felt that under two hours total (leaving out commercials, of course), Over the Garden Wall could be considered a ten-part feature, and works well in that format.

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Two

Read Part One here.

As you can probably tell from the previous examples, my own preferences lean toward science fiction and fantasy.  Of my favorite authors, New England horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has had by the far the greatest influence on me, and his connections to other writers (by letters and acquaintance, or by the coincidences of publication) have been a constant thread in searching for stories.

Referring to Lovecraft as a “horror” writer can be a bit misleading: although he considered the cultivation of a frightening atmosphere his primary goal, he mostly eschewed “the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”  Rather, he was a practitioner of “weird fiction,” a catch-all label for nascent science fiction, fantasy, and horror before those genres had clearly defined markets.  Most of Lovecraft’s work cultivated a sense of ancient, alien forces intruding into the present day, and although he borrowed a great many elements from the gothic horror of the previous century—books full of suppressed secrets, crumbling old houses, ominous supernatural signs—he married them to a scientific outlook, in which the most frightening truths were not to be found in the evil actions of men but in the indifference of a hostile, uncaring universe.  As he wrote in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule.”

I didn’t know much about Lovecraft’s outlook when I started looking for his stories.  All I knew was that his reputed blend of science fiction concepts, ooky tentacled monsters and dreamlike air of mystery appealed strongly to me as a budding reader of fantastic fiction.  As hard as it may be to believe now, Lovecraft’s work wasn’t easy for me to track down when I was young, even though his name (and that of his creation, “Cthulhu”) was known to me.  He was almost mythical, and I think he would have enjoyed the aura surrounding his work, had he still been alive; I knew that his “Cthulhu Mythos” had been included in the first printing of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book Deities & Demigods, but was removed from later printings due to a copyright dispute—or is that what they wanted me to think?* Every detail fueled my interest, until I was finally able to read his work for myself; fortunately, he more than lived up to the hype, at least in my experience.  My being at the “golden age” of twelve or thirteen surely didn’t hurt.

My first tastes of his elaborate mythology came from anthologies, a single story by him (or one of his imitators**) included here or there.  For a long time, even after I had read all of Lovecraft’s fiction (down to the dire posthumous “collaborations” by his executor August Derleth), I would search tables of contents for his name, not in hopes of finding something new but as a sign that the editor recognized the good stuff and that the rest of the book might be in the same vein.  Similarly, anything connected to the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, in which Lovecraft published most of his work, was a must-have.

That’s how I acquired Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors, edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg.  This collection includes one story from each year the magazine was published (in its original incarnation; it has since been revived), from 1923 to 1954.  There are some terrific opportunities for juxtaposition: you can leap from the brooding, necrophilia-themed “The Loved Dead” of C. M. Eddy (1924’s entry) to the sophisticated modern ghost story “Legal Rites” by Isaac Asimov and a pseudonymous Frederik Pohl (1950, the pair’s only publication in Weird Tales), or from space opera (Nictzin Dyalhis’ “When the Green Star Waned,” 1925) to sword and sorcery (Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” 1929) to occult detective (Seabury Quinn’s long-running character Jules de Grandin in “Satan’s Stepson,” 1931).  There’s also plenty of the “mundanely gruesome,” to be sure: the pulps were known for their often lurid content, and Weird Tales, Lovecraft’s opinions aside, was no exception.

WeirdTales

In any case, Lovecraft is included, represented by his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, originally published posthumously over two issues in 1941.  Covering, as it does, such a wide range of time and variety of authors (including, in addition to those mentioned above, future luminaries such as Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch) gives it the character of history, sampler and tribute all in one, a sort of “This is Your Life” for a long-gone but fondly remembered magazine.

I’ve returned to many of the authors in this anthology over the years and read more of their work when I could find it.  Some of the stories I enjoyed, however, have effectively been dead ends until recently: for example, Arthur J. Burks’ 1936 story “The Room of Shadows,” a creepy story about a hotel room haunted by its previous occupant, a “Eurasian” vampire whose conquests are turned into vicious miniature “sleeve-dogs.”  It’s the kind of thing that sounds ridiculous when summarized, but that’s true of many fantasy and horror stories, and Burks excels at capturing the main character’s confusion and mounting fear, along with some PG sensuality in the form of a mysterious femme fatale.  The editors cite “The Room of Shadows” as “an example of how a talented author uses staple pulp characters and situations to rise above cliché,” and it left me wanting more.  Burks published a collection of stories, Black Medicine, in 1966, long out-of-print, expensive, and unavailable.  Now, however, a number of his stories are available in e-book editions.  I prefer hard copy, but when it comes to hard-to-find stuff like this, I’ll take it in any form I can find it.

A different animal altogether is H. P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horror; it’s edited by Stephen Jones and Dave Carson, but as the cover states, it’s really Lovecraft’s book, compiling Supernatural Horror in Literature along with a number of the stories Lovecraft cited as examples and influences on his own work.  Both the essay and the stories are in the public domain and are available in multiple formats, but it’s convenient to have them in one place, and the editors provide a smattering of commentary.  Still, it doesn’t hold the place in my heart that 32 Unearthed Terrors does.

Lovecraft

In both books, the diversity of styles and concepts is striking: there is room for all of the genres listed above and more; the very concept of the “weird tale” was nebulous enough to allow a variety of approaches, as long as there was something out of the ordinary.  Weird Tales was billed as “The Unique Magazine,” and as Robert Bloch writes in his introduction to 32 Unearthed Terrors, “There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Weird Tales writer, nor is there a ‘typical’ Weird Tales story.”  Yet, the stories are often conservative on the individual level, in the sense that there are generally not more than one or two supernatural elements at play, especially in those set in the modern world.  Even those set in the far future, the mythic past, or a “lost world” often feature a single driving narrative to which all the world-building and window-dressing are subordinate.  The stories are short, and economy of means is key: pulp writers were paid by the word, not the idea.

The great thing about this tendency is that, whether reading an issue of the magazine or a latter-day anthology, while the reader may be dazzled with the sheer variety of ideas on display, each story is allowed to be itself, undiluted, and allows the reader to observe many of the building blocks of modern fantasy when they were still emerging.  Just as Lovecraft and his fellow Weird Tales authors influenced modern writers, so did they draw from previous authors, synthesizing their influences into personal styles, a process that still continues today.

In Part Three, I’ll look at anthologies in a different medium: comics!

* My experience with role-playing games and my search for the “Cthulhu Mythos” printing of Deities & Demigods are subjects for another post.

** I believe the first true Mythos stories I was able to find were by “Conan the Barbarian” creator Robert E. Howard.  Lovecraftians will know that the “Cthulhu Mythos” took hold in large part because Lovecraft encouraged his writer friends to make use of his creations in their stories, and he borrowed freely from theirs, creating a “shared world” (at best a collection of themes and premises rather than a tightly-knit continuity) before such things became au courant.