Disenchantment, Season Two

“Everybody talks about ‘happily ever after.’ Y’ever try to read about the after? Ya can’t! The book just stops!”

So says King Zøg in the fourth episode of the newest season of Disenchantment, the animated series co-created by Matt Groening and Josh Weinstein, and which premiered Friday on Netflix. It’s a sentiment that many fantasy spoofs and “fractured fairy tales” have expressed in one way or the other, and it’s at the heart of the series’ interrogation and deconstruction of fantasy tropes. The context of Zøg’s lament is the fallout of the events that ended the first season: with Zøg’s first wife, Queen Dagmar, revealed to be a conniving sorceress who turned most of the population of Zøg’s kingdom to stone (they got better), and his second wife, the amphibious Oona, divorcing him and taking up a new career as a pirate, Zøg is disillusioned, depressed, and alone. Alone, that is, until an encounter with the mysterious, forest-dwelling Ursula, a forest selkie who can alternate between human and bear forms with the aid of her magical pelt. Zøg is smitten, and invites Ursula to live with him in the castle, where she struggles with the human business of wearing clothes and eating with knife and fork. Zøg knows her secret, and he senses that she wants to return to the forest: he knows that without her bearskin she will be a human, and belong to him, forever.

Zøg’s brush with temptation is, of course, the setup to a classic fairy tale, and probably the most direct borrowing in this second series of ten chapters. It’s also one of several episodes that focus on side characters, instead of the lead character, Zøg’s daughter Tiabeanie (nicknamed “Bean”). Like previous Groening-created series The Simpsons and Futurama, Disenchantment builds out a troupe of colorful supporting players, and one could even say (cliché alert!) that the series’ setting, Dreamland, is nearly a character itself. New developments in the second season include the continuing aftermath of Dagmar’s betrayal (Zøg spends the first couple of episodes alone, surrounded by the petrified remains of his subjects, and the desolate kingdom is looted by barbarians) and the influx of a population of elves, whose slumlike living conditions are a fertile source for new plots.

Still, Tiabeanie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) remains the show’s heart, and it is her trials that are the show’s main focus. At the end of the first season, Tiabeanie had been spirited away by her mother, Dagmar, on a ship after Dagmar’s magical attack. Taken to the desert kingdom of Maru, she is introduced to the two mysterious strangers who sent the demon Luci to corrupt Bean, and who were occasionally seen watching her through a magical fire, in the first season: they turn out to be Dagmar’s brother and sister, Croyd and Becky (err, Rebecca). In the first episode, we learn of a prophecy that Bean would be the greatest woman of her age, as well as a family curse: madness, striking members of every other generation. Bean distrusts the obviously unstable Croyd and Becky immediately, only gradually realizing that her own mother is the real threat. Dagmar intends for Bean to fulfill the prophecy, even if it means screwing a painful-looking crown directly onto her head. Even after escaping Maru and seemingly ridding herself of Dagmar and her schemes, Bean continues to dream of her mother and find signs of her lingering influence, including a very creepy music box. Bean’s gradual discovery and processing of the truth about her lineage is the main long-term arc in the second season, and like the first it ends on a cliffhanger. The pleasure is in the many digressions and side quests along the way.

Perhaps it is simply the difficulty of maintaining an air of mystery as characters and settings become familiar, but even as Disenchantment‘s second season shifts between settings as diverse as Maru, the afterlife, and a retro-futuristic city-state, there is less of the awe of visiting new and strange vistas than the later episodes of the first season evoked. In my review of that season, I compared those scenes to early episodes of Adventure Time, in which one of the primary appeals lay in the vast emptiness of the landscape, full of atmosphere and potential. As Adventure Time continued, it became more crowded with recurring characters and settings, and even its weirdest features became downright cozy with familiarity. That feeling of being alone at the edge of the world (or at the edge of a Legend of Zelda world map, which amounts to the same thing) became rarer. A similar process is at work in Disenchantment: even new, strange settings feel like home as long as the characters we’ve come to know are centered in them.

It is the nature of spoofs to puncture, to deflate: it’s probably a mistake for me to expect Disenchantment to maintain a sense of awe in a consistent way when its mode of comedy is snarky, down-to-earth–in short, Gen X. It’s right there in the title! That’s not to say that it doesn’t frequently dazzle, however. The blend of hand-drawn designs over computer-assisted 3-D models is much more seamless and less distracting in this season, for one thing, even as it becomes more ambitious: Hell, to which Bean and Luci travel in the second episode to reunite with their friend Elfo (who died at the end of the first season, and whom they must convince to leave Heaven in order to bring him back to life), is rendered as a cavernous space full of floating stone platforms, constantly in motion; the ninth episode’s Steamland scratches the itch for intricate mechanical and architectural complexities that Futurama regularly satisfied, but with a handsome nineteenth-century overlay, a city of the future as envisioned circa 1885.

Some of the more distracting story elements are also streamlined or absent. Elfo’s unrequited love for Bean, a plotline that never seemed likely to go anywhere interesting in the first season, is tempered in this one by Elfo learning the truth: that Bean chose her mother over him when using the single dose of elixir of life to revive her. Elfo (Nat Faxon) is far too good-natured to hold a grudge for long, of course, but jettisoning this particular subplot makes room for better gags and more compelling stories (including an unresolved tease about Elfo’s own parentage). As Elfo has become a little more world-weary, Bean’s other companion, the demon Luci (Eric André), has settled into his worldly existence, free of the mandate placed on him by Croyd and Becky and apparently abandoning his ambition to earn his wings (give or take a few twists in the “Stairway to Hell” episode). After winning the local pub in a bet (“and you barely cheated!”), Luci finds that slowly poisoning people is rewarding, too.

Ultimately, the theme that has remained constant throughout the series is the difficulty of being a woman in a quasi-medieval society (the “quasi” part allows for direct comparisons to the modern world, of course, and the ways in which things have or haven’t improved). At the beginning of the first season, Tiabeanie found herself unwillingly betrothed to a man she didn’t love (or even know) in order to serve her father’s political ambitions, and there are frequent reminders in the second season of her second-class status: unable to speak at court, left out of battles she is capable of fighting for herself, and even excluded from staging her own play in the theater.

Yet, the show is hardly about victimhood, as the resourceful Bean constantly finds ways to exert her will and insert herself into situations, and the male characters and their issues are frequently B-plots. Moreover, Disenchantment is full of powerful women: Dagmar and Oona, of course, but also the savage Ursula and a number of walk-ons. Bean’s trip to Steamland is illuminating not because of the city’s technological wonders but because women are free there to pursue careers closed to them in the relatively backward Dreamland. Disenchantment pokes fun at the tropes of “strong female characters” (Shelly, a circus performer, is physically strong but her real strength is in being the single mother of two kids) while centering a female perspective. On paper, Bean could easily be taken for a cliché–a hard-drinking tomboy princess–but the tight serialization of Disenchantment allows her something not all animated characters get: a sense of depth and growth over time.

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Fates Worse Than Death: Darkest Africa

While showing off his African base camp to a pair of circus promoters, animal trainer Clyde Beatty is called to action: a lion has escaped its confinement and ended up in the same cage as a tiger. Immediately, Beatty steps in to prevent the big cats from tearing each other apart. Just as he did in his circus act, he calms and separates the two animals with only a metal chair, a whip to get their attention, and a pistol (loaded with blanks). Afterwards, Beatty decides he might work that up as part of his act, but he can’t explain why a tiger, native to India, was loose in the African jungle. Later, making his way to a nearby village, he discovers that someone–white men, based on the prints of boots in the soil–has been disturbing his animal traps.

Little does Beatty know that he is being watched, not by whomever emptied his trap, but by a young boy and his seemingly tame companion, a large gorilla. At the village, the boy, clad only in a fur loincloth, reveals himself in order to rescue a baby threatened by a lion. Using just a stick, the boy holds off the lion as well as Beatty could have! Impressed by the boy’s skill and shocked at his appearance, Beatty approaches him and hears a seemingly impossible tale: Baru, the son of missionaries, was raised alone in the jungle by animals after his parents’ death. Bonga, his ape companion, befriended him after Baru’s escape from the lion pit in the city of Joba. Joba is known only as a legend, a city that lies beyond a taboo region the natives consider haunted, and one which outsiders are never permitted to leave alive. Worse yet, Baru’s sister Valerie is still being held at Joba, where the high priest Dagna has installed her as a goddess (thereby keeping a strong grip on power); it was in trying to help Valerie escape that Baru was captured in the first place.

Beatty immediately takes this story at face value–perhaps convinced by the boy’s amazing rapport with animals–and agrees to help rescue Valerie. This conversation, held in full view of the village, gets the attention of Craddock and Durkins, the crooked traders and ivory smugglers who have been messing with Beatty’s traps, among other crimes. They notice the unusual clasp on Baru’s loincloth, inlaid with rare green diamonds: the jewels too are from Joba, and the pair take an immediate interest in shadowing Beatty as he accompanies Baru back to Joba on his mission of rescue, becoming the secondary villains of the film. It’s quite a bit of plot to set up so quickly, an almost literal “call to adventure,” but there’s never any question that Beatty will lend his support to rescue the “beautiful blonde goddess” held against her will. Before you know it, Beatty has had his manager and aide-de-camp Hambone prepare bearers for an expedition into Darkest Africa!

Republic came out of the gate strong with Darkest Africa, its first serial, but of course the Republic formula was built on the previous success of Mascot, the studio that preceded Republic prior to a merger and reorganization, and the skills of the old hands producing their serials. Co-director (with Joseph Kane) B. Reeves Eason had a career that went back to Vaudeville and the silent era and had helmed several serials for Mascot (and would continue to direct for Republic). Clyde Beatty had also previously starred in The Lost Jungle for Mascot. Beatty was the leading lion tamer of his day (he’s billed as the “world’s greatest wild animal tamer” in this), joining his first circus at age 16 as a “cage boy” and working his way up until he had formed his own show in partnership with the Cole Brothers in 1934; the 1930s and ’40s were the highest points of his fame, and in addition to making films he wrote several popular books about his exploits. Beatty was primarily an animal tamer and performer as opposed to a collector like Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck, but his public persona was that of a big game hunter (he preferred training wild animals to those raised in captivity, as he felt captivity dulled their wits): as Rhina Kirk describes in Circus Heroes and Heroines, “For his performances and public appearances Beatty dressed like an African hunter of Hollywood movies–shiny boots, flaring white breeches and pith helmet.”

Naturally, when he appeared in those Hollywood movies, the setting is the jungle rather than the circus. Beatty is playing “himself,” as he did in The Lost Jungle, and as in other cases the story is written around those talents he was known for: obviously, each chapter gives him an opportunity to face off against one or more big cats, either in a cage or in the wild. His act usually included mixed lions and tigers, their natural animosity to each other making for dramatic situations and heightened stakes, so a contrivance is introduced to justify the appearance of tigers in the African jungle. Part of Beatty’s act included him “staring down” a lion or tiger, subduing it with his dominating will, so Beatty the character also does it a couple of times to escape from being mauled.

Despite its title and focus on jungle cats, Darkest Africa is mostly a “lost world” story, with similarities to The Phantom Empire and Undersea Kingdom (the next Republic serial, also directed by Eason). For creators of H. Rider Haggard’s and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ generations, those blank, “unexplored” sections of the map were tempting invitations to free-associating invention. The mysterious city of Joba lies in a “haunted” region in the “mountains of despair,” taboo to the natives, beyond a volcanic region and adjacent to the territory of the “tiger men” (the tribe venerate the tiger and are the source of the tigers found in the jungle). As a writer, once you’ve set up all those barriers, you can put absolutely anything you like in there, from survivals of ancient civilizations (some of the title cards suggest that Joba was founded by Solomon) to secret high technology (the city is protected by winged “bat-men”–I assume their uniform is a winged flying harness rather than the natural wings of Flash Gordon‘s hawk-men, but the effect is the same). Joba is also described as the “city of the Golden Bat,” with the old god having slept in the temple for three thousand years (this last fact is something of a throwaway: it only comes up once, when the high priest Dagna commands Hambone to use his magic to reawaken the Golden Bat, apparently a plan B to cope with the loss of Dagna’s chosen goddess Valerie, but it’s the kind of detail I dearly love in stories like this). Joba would make a kick-ass setting for a fantasy role-playing game.

Once the action centers on the city itself, it might as well be on the planet Mongo as anywhere else, as it is pure fantasy. Valerie (the beautiful Elaine Shepard) is indeed being held against her will by Dagna (Lucien Prival, who had appeared in Bride of Frankenstein, among many other films), forced to play the role of “Goddess of the Golden Bat” with the elderly Gorn (Edward McWade), keeper of the sacred books, her only companion and advocate. Valerie’s situation is an interesting twist on the “white goddess” character (a type I have some fondness for, even as I’ve acknowledged ways in which it can be problematic): she has the love of the people, and privileges, such as a sanctuary closed even to Dagna, but no freedom, so despite her exalted position she is another example of that standby of the serials, the damsel in distress (until, at least, the end of the serial, when she threatens to sacrifice herself to force Dagna’s hand).

The supporting heroes are also quite diverse (in character type, at least)–there’s no worry of getting characters mixed up in this one! Baru is played by Manuel King, billed as the “world’s youngest wild animal trainer”; he was thirteen years old when Darkest Africa was made, and it was apparently the only film he was ever in, but he lived to be 92 years old, only passing away in 2016!

Bonga, the “ape with almost human understanding,” is credited as playing himself, as if he were an animal star like Rex the Wonder Horse or Rin-Tin-Tin, but in reality Bonga was played by stuntman (and star of Undersea Kingdom) Ray “Crash” Corrigan, the all-around athlete, stunt double, and (later) owner of the extensive studio ranch dubbed “Corriganville.” Corrigan was a “gorilla man,” one of a subset of stunt performers who specialized in playing simians and most of whom owned their own costumes, and while it is clear that Bonga is a man in a suit, he is still a strong, vivid character, with both impressive physicality (Bonga swings from tree to tree on vines, for example) and expression (see below for more on this specialized art).

Then there’s Hambone (Ray Turner), Beatty’s comic-relief factotum; on the surface, Hambone is a walking stereotype, a pop-eyed fraidy-cat bumbler, a black American (as opposed to the mostly anonymous African natives) in the Stepin Fetchit mold. As the story continues, however, Hambone reveals depths of shrewdness and resourcefulness. When Beatty’s bearers return to the village without their boss, scared off by Joba’s patrolling bat-men (or “wind sentries,” a nicely evocative name), Hambone heads into the jungle alone to track down Beatty and rescue him if needed. Overburdened with duffel bags and an enormous elephant gun, Hambone’s separate adventure, shown intermittently, plays like a spoof of Beatty’s journey: Beatty runs afoul of the tiger men and is thrown into a tiger pit, which he gets out of through a combination of his skills and Bonga’s help; later, Hambone is cornered by the same tiger men and manages to avoid being thrown in the pit by the good fortune of his grenade belt landing in the fire and scaring the tribe away; and so forth. Once Hambone arrives at Joba (and wanders in the front door unseen, as opposed to the arduous secret entrance Beatty and Baru made, spied on at every turn by Dagna’s sentries), he rejoins the main plot, doing his part to help Clyde Beatty save Valerie . . . and the day.

What I Watched: Darkest Africa (Republic, 1936)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Home Video (continuing my summer of VHS, this included having to open the case and clean the heads on my VCR to get it playing correctly–thank goodness for YouTube tutorials!)

No. of Chapters: 15 (but most are only about 15 minutes long)

Best Chapter Title: “Trial by Thunder-Rods” (Chapter Ten) The two smugglers, Craddock (Edmund Cobb) and Durkin (old reliable Wheeler Oakman), have forged an uneasy alliance with Dagna, warning him of the approaching “outlanders” (Beatty and Baru) and offering the high priest a shipment of rifles in exchange for more of the green diamonds they covet. Once Hambone arrives with his elephant gun, Dagna has the idea of testing it against the smugglers’ “thunder-rods” to determine which is more powerful–by having Craddock and Hambone aim at each other and fire simultaneously! Amazingly, this is not the actual cliffhanger of this chapter.

Best Cliffhanger: Unsurprisingly, most of the cliffhangers involve lions or tigers, with Beatty’s skills put to the test to get him out of the jam in the following chapter. There are also a few actual cliffhangers, as in the first chapter (“Baru–Son of the Jungle”), when the ledge supporting Beatty and Baru collapses during an earthquake and they appear to be buried in an avalanche. There are also two cliffhangers in which Beatty hides behind something and is detected, leading to enemies attacking his hiding spot with spears or rifles. However, my favorite cliffhanger is in Chapter Nine (“When Birdmen Strike,” another great chapter title). Beatty has escaped through the mines beneath Joba into the jungle in order to find the ammunition cached by Craddock and Durkin. After finding the crate of ammo, he attempts to cross a clearing with it, drawing the Bat-men away from Baru. Shown zig-zagging across the clearing from overhead, Beatty is an easy target, and without actually showing the hit, the last shot reveals Beatty, prone, with a spear appearing to skewer him. (As the following chapter reveals, Beatty once again feigned death, the spear having passed under his arm and stuck into the ground. Repeat after me: “That was a close one!”)

Sample Dialogue: “You must not forget that Beatty enjoys the reputation of being the world’s greatest wild animal trainer.” –Durkin, warning Dagna not to underestimate Beatty (Chapter Seven, “Swing for Life”)

What Others Have Said: In light of “Crash” Corrigan’s performance as Bonga, let us check in with a “gorilla man” from a later generation, special effects artist and collector Bob Burns. Burns explains how he learned the ropes from ape performer Charles Gemora: “He shared with me some of his trade secrets for bringing life to a mask that was limited, mobility-wise, to simply opening and closing its mouth. For example, he explained that if you wanted to look ferocious you should rear back your head while opening the mouth, which shows the audience more teeth and creates an illusion of facial expression. He also stressed the importance of acting with your eyes, as they are the only exposed part of the wearer. Charlie was so skillful in projecting with his eyes that people who have watched his performances sometimes swear they saw the gorilla’s brow and other facial muscles move–even though everything is immobile.” –Bob Burns with John Michlig, It Came From Bob’s Basement!: Exploring the Science Fiction and Monster Movie Archive of Bob Burns

What’s Next: Join me next time as I tackle another Republic serial, 1944’s Haunted Harbor!

Review: Disenchantment Season 1

disenchantment-netflix

In the new Netflix animated series Disenchantment, Princess Tiabini of Dreamland, nicknamed “Bean,” chafes at the royal responsibilities of making appearances, conducting diplomacy, and above all marrying strategically. She’d rather sneak out of her tower bedroom and spend her nights drinking and carousing than play the dutiful daughter at court, and as a woman in a pseudo-medieval kingdom she has no more control over her own destiny than the poorest serf. She is, in short, a mess. Her father, the blustering King Zøg, doesn’t have the time or inclination to understand her, and in any case he has a new family to worry about, Bean’s stepmother Queen Oona and half-brother Prince Derek. What’s a girl to do?

Bean isn’t the only one who’s misunderstood and doesn’t feel that they fit in: Elfo lives and works in a secret woodland enclave of candy-making elves (a sort of combination of the Smurfs and the Keebler Elves), but he’s the only one who isn’t happy with a life of singing, dancing, and cooking. When he makes his inevitable break and leaves Elfwood, he finds his way to Dreamland and interrupts Princess Bean’s wedding to the moronic Prince Guysbert. The resulting fracas brings the pair together–elf’s blood is supposed to be the key to immortality, leading to Elfo being made a permanent “guest” of King Zøg and his court wizard Sorcerio–and sets the stage for their friendship. Both are, of course, trapped in the castle one way or another.

The third main character is equally supernatural: among the wedding gifts, Bean finds a box that looks a lot like one of the puzzle boxes from the Hellraiser movies; opening it, a demon appears and proclaims that she is now cursed and will never be rid of him. Luci, the demon, was sent to turn Bean to the dark side by a mysterious couple who monitor his progress through a magical fire, but since Bean was already troubled (and gifted at making trouble) Luci’s influence doesn’t make that much difference, and the two quickly become drinking buddies. Once the introductions are dispensed with and the stage is set, it becomes clear that Elfo and Luci are the angel and devil sitting on Bean’s shoulder (sometimes literally to make it clear), with the naïve, kind Elfo encouraging her to stay on the straight and narrow and Luci enabling her worst impulses.

However, Elfo’s inoffensive nature is mostly just “nice,” and as Stephen Sondheim famously pointed out, “nice” isn’t the same thing as “good.” Being a Matt Groening creation (with Josh Weinstein), the world of Disenchantment isn’t any more fair or forgiving than our own, and as Bean finds her place in it, Elfo learns to cut loose a little bit and begins to understand that standing up for himself sometimes means challenging what others perceive as “good.” For his part, Luci never seems all that bad (he’s “TV bad,” like Bender), and comes to feel loyalty toward Bean and even that annoying elf. In a world of shades of gray, the all-black Luci doesn’t stand out that much. (The business of Luci turning Bean toward the dark side is left unresolved in favor of other mysteries during this season.)

At first, Disenchantment looks familiar: it has a family resemblance to Matt Groening’s previous work, from Princess Bean’s buck teeth, reminiscent of Bongo, one of the rabbit stars of Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip, to the gleeful genre parody, the science fiction of Futurama replaced in Disenchantment by fantasy tropes. The cynical (or perhaps just clear-eyed) attitude of The Simpsons is as much part of Disenchantment‘s DNA as the characters’ ping-pong ball eyes. Similarly, anyone who has enjoyed “fractured fairy tale” spoofs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Shrek will find themselves in familiar territory: much of the humor is driven by the incongruity of essentially modern people with modern attitudes living in a medieval world alternately full of magic and high fantasy wonders on the one hand and wretched squalor on the other, the emphasis in any given moment entirely dependent on what is funnier. Ultimately, the show Disenchantment most reminds me of is Galavant (R.I.P.): while Disenchantment is (mostly) not a musical, the sense of self-aware rule-breaking and lampshading of well-worn genre clichés (and tweaking the contrast between fantasy as fun escapism and the miserable reality of the middle ages’ actual history) is the same.

Thankfully, Disenchantment takes off on its own fairly quickly, and after a somewhat stiff first couple of episodes, I was fully on board. It helps that the ten episodes of the first season are tightly plotted: The Simpsons in its classic years famously avoided almost any serialization, resetting at the beginning of each episode, and Futurama, while more serialized, struggled with episodes aired out of order and the uncertainty of renewal and being brought back from cancellation (by my count there were at least four “final” episodes, maybe five?). Being a Netflix production with all ten episodes available at once (the series premiered August 17), Disenchantment can afford to carry multiple story threads forward without losing the audience, and its initial premise of “misfits hanging out in a fantasy realm” turns out to hide an intriguing set of mysteries.

But so what? Everybody is doing that with their programs today, especially on Netflix, right? More impressively, Disenchantment is able to do this without the cop-out of essentially cutting a three-hour movie into sections: each episode (or “chapter”) has a self-contained story and can be enjoyed on its own, just like a classic sitcom. It is only as the season comes to a head that we can look back and realize how subtly ideas and plot devices were introduced that turned out to be crucial, each episode contributing a piece of the mystery and its eventual solution one step at a time. Call it the J. K. Rowling method: like Harry Potter, Disenchantment takes place in a world made up of spare parts, but the plotting and characterization breathe new life into it, and what at first seems like a generic fantasy trope often turns out to have been introduced for a very specific reason important to the plot (the tone and general aim could not be more different, of course, but I stand by my comparison).

To examine one example (and a particularly complex one) more closely, consider Dankmire, Dreamland’s neighbor and the home of Queen Oona. Given the most attention in Chapter Six (“Swamp and Circumstance”), it is revealed that King Zøg waged war on Dankmire in order to force the Dankmirians to build a canal through their wetland kingdom for the Dreamlanders’ benefit. Zøg’s marriage to Queen Oona (his previous Queen Dagmar, Bean’s mother, being out of the picture) was the gesture that sealed the two kingdoms’ treaty afterwards. Dankmire and its people make for an odd hodgepodge of “foreign” clichés, fantasy and otherwise. The Dankmirians are amphibious, with light blue skin and forked tongues; Oona’s creepy behavior is a running gag in the series. All of the Dankmirians speak with an exaggerated Slavic accent, with Oona herself (voiced by Tress MacNeille) sounding much like Natasha Fatale. The Dankmirians are not vampiric, so far as we know, but making them sound like Bela Lugosi makes the comparison to the American-accented Dreamlanders clear: Dankmire is spooky.

But in other aspects, they embody “Oriental” stereotypes, particularly the Dankmirian respect for protocol: a scene in which Luci outsmarts some pursuing Dankmirians, repeatedly bowing to them and forcing them to bow in return, thus slowing them down so the Dreamlanders can escape, reminds me of the apocryphal story (relayed by Huston Smith, who described it as an attempt to discredit Confucianism’s reverence for rules) of a high-class Chinese lady who supposedly died because she refused to leave a burning house without a chaperone. In the case of the Chancellor of Dankmire, the resemblance to a Japanese head of state is clearer both in his visual appearance and his accent (I was reminded of the crypto-Japanese Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace), and a scene in which an inebriated Bean vomits on him recalls a similar incident between President George H. W. Bush and the Prime Minister of Japan in 1992.

(A truly bizarre twist occurs later in the episode when the Dreamlanders fall into the hands of a pair of Dankmirian hillbillies, locals displaced by the canal King Zøg forced Dankmire to build: they are stereotypes as broad as Cletus on The Simpsons, but they continue to pronounce their “w”s as “v”s, making them a bunch of blue-skinned white trash Draculas. Like I said, weird, even for a fantasy program.)

None of this is to suggest that “Swamp and Circumstance” was written with racist intent, or even that such references were inserted deliberately, but that notions of the “other” from human history inevitably inform our fantasy worlds, perhaps all the moreso when modern references are freely overlaid. In addition to its general lack of reverence for the institutions of royalty, Disenchantment is more progressive than many classic works of fantasy (a gay relationship among the King’s staff is treated as neither a joke nor a scandal, and is hardly a plot point at all: it just is), but still begins from the starting point of the European middle ages as the default for the genre. I suspect that, as with George Lucas in the previously mentioned Phantom Menace, ethnic caricatures recur as character types because of their roots in earlier film and television as literal “color,” keeping stereotypes alive for their entertainment value even if no malice is intended. Making them into aliens or supernatural creatures may lend plausible deniability, but the implications can be troubling nonetheless. (On the other hand, Groening is from a generation of humorists who don’t see anything as off-limits; considering his reaction to the criticisms of Apu on The Simpsons, he would probably just conclude that I lack a sense of humor.)

Having said all that, “Swamp and Circumstance” is one of the best episodes of Disenchantment, and Dankmire is a richly-realized setting that I wouldn’t mind revisiting in a future episode. While I love picking apart the diverse influences that may have gone into it, Dankmire’s synthesis of those elements succeeds in fleshing out what starts as a simple foil to Dreamland’s “normalcy.” Dankmire also gave us one of the series’ funniest incidental characters, Chazz, a send-up of aggressively chummy waitstaff everywhere, appearing first as a (possibly deranged) spa attendant in Chapter Four (“Castle Party Massacre”) and showing up in “Swamp and Circumstance” as a passive-aggressive waiter. “I vill bring you vat you deserve,” he tells a temporarily teetotaling Bean.

Another interesting twist on a common formula is the show’s treatment of Bean’s relationship with Elfo. Predictably, Elfo develops a crush on Bean (“I like big girls,” the diminutive elf tells her at one point), and the show even points out the cliché with the royal scribe narrating their developing relationship with the words “will they or won’t they?” This is easily the most tedious subplot in the season, but it does lead to some sublime payoffs. Even as flawed as she is, Bean is pretty clearly out of Elfo’s league: there is an echo of Futurama‘s Fry and Leela, but I was reminded even more of Dipper’s crush on the older, cooler Wendy in Gravity Falls. However, since the story is largely from Bean’s point of view a relationship never really seems that plausible, and it’s clear from early on that Elfo is just the worst: beyond being a wimp, he is self-pitying and manipulative.

In Chapter Seven,”Love’s Tender Rampage” (another high point), Elfo’s face-saving claim to already have a girlfriend results in Bean sending the kingdom’s knights on a quest to rescue her. When they bring back the seemingly monstrous Tess (presumably short for “giantess”), Elfo just digs himself deeper and deeper by piling on the lies, a recipe for farce that delivers some of the series’ biggest laughs. Still, the season ends uncertainly, with the feeling that maybe there is something to Elfo deserving of Bean’s loyalty, if not her love. Characters change throughout the course of the season, and Elfo is no different, finding resources within himself and learning that growth is possible.

On the production side, the animation finds its groove quickly; the use of 3-D computer modeling with a hand-drawn “skin,” which worked so effectively for the sleek buildings and machines of Futurama, is a little disorienting when applied to the analog lines and textures of a stone castle, but the approach allows for some exciting tracking shots through the busy walled city that surrounds King Zøg’s castle, and later in the series there are some dazzling shots of exotic locations such as a city half-buried in the desert. There are some compositions that will stick with me long after the memory of the plot has faded as well: a shot of the mysterious couple who unleashed Luci, alone in their oversized lair, reminds me of the early episodes of Adventure Time and the weirdly enticing atmosphere that show spun out of emptiness and slabs of raw color.

Many of the voices are familiar from Futurama, including regulars MacNeille, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, and Billy West. King Zøg, voiced by DiMaggio, sounds like a mixture of Bluto with a little of Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, appropriate for a character who is basically a medieval Archie Bunker (it’s a credit to DiMaggio that for an actor with such a distinctive voice, I didn’t hear Zøg and immediately think, “Hey, that’s Bender!”). Abbi Jacobson plays Bean, and, appropriately enough for the show’s emotional center, she comes off as a normal person. Nat Faxon’s Elfo is appropriately a bit more “cartoony,” and Eric André’s Luci is chill to the point of being deadpan. Among numerous others, I should also single out Matt Berry, who is perfect as Guysbert’s younger brother Prince Merkimer, a swaggering, self-important dufus definitely in the Zapp Brannigan mold (he goes through some changes, too, but I won’t spoil that development–suffice it to say that his subplot is another example of the show’s serialization: no reset button between episodes!).

Finally, Mark Mothersbaugh provides a whirling brass band theme song that smartly captures the show’s irreverent approach to its predecessors. It’s true that many stories have deconstructed fantasy tropes before, to the point that it can be considered a genre unto itself, but the tight plotting and secret warmth that lies beneath Disenchantment’s crusty exterior prove that there are still new stories to be told within it.

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!

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.