Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy’s Return

Dick Tracy, still a plainclothes G-Man with the Western Division of the FBI, is lecturing a new class of incoming agents: “Remember,” he tells them, “there are no rules in the game of justice versus crime,” giving a bracing wake-up call to the new agents while reminding viewers that this serial will involve the nuts and bolts of serious police work. Tracy and his colleagues are trained and careful policemen, vulnerable to bullets, not costumed superheroes. Afterward, Tracy greets one of the new agents, Ron Merton (David Sharpe), a promising symbol of the Bureau’s bright future. (Gosh, I hope something bad doesn’t happen to him!)

Special Agent Merton’s first big assignment is to ride along with a bank shipment of half a million dollars in cash. At the same time, Tracy is concerned about a criminal recently released by a “soft-hearted parole board”: Pa Stark, who, along with his gang of five sons, is thought to be operating out West. Could it be that Tracy is about to cross paths with the Starks, and that the bank shipment Merton is guarding is their next target?

Dick Tracy Returns is the second serial based on Chester Gould’s long-running newspaper comic strip (begun in 1931), and it is, in the words of mystery writer (and sometime Dick Tracy writer) Max Allan Collins, “the serial most like the strip.” This is true not just in the emphasis on solid police work over fantastic special effects or melodrama–unlike the previous serial, there are no “flying wings” or “sound disintegrators,” no mad scientists, and even the main villain, Pa Stark, is known and unmasked from the beginning (catching him is another matter)–but in the assortment of colorful side characters, the devious ways the criminals attempt to worm their way out of the various jams they find themselves in, and even the tendency of characters (heroes and villains alike) to hide in unlikely places that turn out to be potential deathtraps.

The few high-tech wonders that are included in the story are much more modest–no synthetic radium here–and serve to move the story forward rather than thrilling in themselves: a super cutting torch is stolen from the Navy so that the Starks can use it to cut into a jewelry store’s vault; a “torpedo speedboat” is stolen to sell it to a foreign power; likewise a scheme to steal the motor of an experimental airplane. (One exception is a remote television viewer that allows Tracy to witness the hijacking of the torpedo boat out at sea while he is on the shore, but even then it’s presented matter-of-factly.) As Collins points out (in his introduction on the DVD copy I watched), “Of all the Dick Tracy serials, this is the Dick Traciest!”

Having said all that, Dick Tracy Returns clearly follows Dick Tracy (1937) in continuity, however loosely: Ralph Byrd returns in the starring role; Tracy is still a G-Man in the West rather than a Chicago police detective; and the supporting characters surrounding him are the same, although recast: Steve Lockwood (Michael Kent, replacing Fred Hamilton) is Tracy’s partner, Gwen Andrews (Lynn Roberts, replacing Kay Hughes) his assistant, Mike McGurk (Lee Ford, replacing Smiley Burnette) is the bumbling comic relief, and Junior (Jerry Tucker, replacing Lee van Atta) is still present, now officially Tracy’s ward and attending military school.

A subvillain from the first serial, foreign agent Baron Kroner (Harrison Greene), makes an appearance (or does he?), commissioning the Starks to steal a remote-control tank for his government. (Greene’s character was listed under a different name in the 1937 serial, but come on–in an era of interchangeable gangsters in fedoras and pinstripe suits, there are two monocle-wearing German spies, played by the same actor?) Tracy’s brother Gordon, turned evil and then killed in the previous serial, is never mentioned, of course: the demands of continuity only extend so far.

Despite the somewhat lower stakes in this serial (the Starks are extortionists and racketeers with their hands in many criminal enterprises, but they’re mostly in it for the money), the action and cliffhangers are just as exciting; in this case, the (relative) plausibility helps sell the danger and increase the stakes. The colorful staging areas for fight scenes and cliffhangers include a powerhouse, railroad yards, a fertilizer plant, a multilevel parking garage, and a mine tunnel under an observatory (just in case you thought Gotham City had a corner on abandoned facilities used as criminal hideouts!).

As the title character, Ralph Byrd is good-natured, sociable, but deadly serious when it comes down to it. And true to the comic strip, many of the clues the G-Men track down are of the mundane, forensic variety: dusting for fingerprints, tracing tire impressions, recovering serial numbers ground off of metal, and interviewing suspects. True, many of the leads Tracy and company follow up are arrived at by coincidence, and the serial doesn’t show the huge number of dead ends that usually crop up in investigation, and it’s awfully convenient that pretty much everything that happens in the serial is related to the Stark case, but by the standards of many other serials, it’s gritty realism.

Lee Ford, who replaces Smiley Burnette as Mike McGurk, doesn’t really hit the comic relief notes as effectively as Burnette did. As cliché as the “funny fat man” role could be, and as stupid as Burnette’s clowning often was, Burnette played the role (like most of his comic roles) as essentially a grown-up kid, a well-meaning but innocent blowhard: in Dick Tracy (’37) the character is introduced trying to impress a group of children with his (imagined) football prowess, and the pranks Junior pulls on him are in part justified by McGurk’s attempts to pull rank on Junior. The fact that Junior is more capable than him, and they are essentially equals, is part of the joke. In Dick Tracy Returns, Ford’s McGurk is more pathetic than funny, the pratfalls even more pandering.

Where Dick Tracy Returns really soars is in its focus on the villain: Pa Stark, the patriarch of the criminal family (partially based on Ma Barker), is played by Charles Middleton, Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials and frequent serial heavy. Free of the ornate costume of Mongo and the aristocratic pretensions of some of his other roles, what is most striking is Middleton’s craggy face, and the directness of his character, free of fussy high-toned verbiage, stripped down to the essence: Pa Stark is mean and ruthless, and he doesn’t accept excuses or pussyfoot around. It’s the kind of characterization we might get today from James Cromwell or Liam Neeson, and like them Middleton’s Stark has a particular set of skills and woe to any who underestimate him.

Of special interest is this spin on the typical criminal mastermind: like many serial villains, Pa Stark works through underlings, but since they are his sons, there is a poignant sting when they are caught or killed, and since he works alongside them, he faces off against the G-Men and is nearly caught himself several times (distinctly unusual for a serial, but true to the comic strip). As the noose tightens around Stark, and his sons fall one by one, his motivation becomes focused on revenge against Dick Tracy. Stark may die, but he’ll take Tracy with him if it’s the last thing he does.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy’s Return (Republic, 1938)

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

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Four Seconds to Live” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Nine, “The Clock of Doom,” is an unexceptional “economy chapter” (i.e. a recap using footage from earlier chapters), but the cliffhanger that ends it is so simple, and so satisfying, that it is easily my favorite. In the chapter, Dick Tracy meets with a group of civic leaders to allay their concerns that the Bureau isn’t doing everything it can to halt the Stark-led crime wave. Attracted by the publicity for the get-together, Pa Stark hires a killer whose face is unknown to Tracy or the Bureau, a smug prick dapper, meticulous fellow known only as “The Duke.” The Duke (Larry Steers) comes to the meeting as “Mr. Reeves” from the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, just one of several interested parties. While Tracy describes the case and its challenges (the perfect opportunity for copious flashbacks to chapters two and three), the Duke activates the timer on a bomb hidden in his briefcase.

Soon, at Gwen’s summons, Tracy excuses himself to hear what she has to say: there is no Mr. Reeves on the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce! Tracy returns to his office to find that “Mr. Reeves” has been called away suddenly and has “accidentally” left his briefcase there, and that Junior, unaware of the danger, has picked it up and is attempting to return to its owner, even chasing the hit-man’s car down the street yelling “HEY, MISTER! WAIT!”

The last shot of the chapter shows Dick Tracy on the sidewalk, recoiling in horror as an explosion is heard from offscreen. Well, of course it’s obvious what happens, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying: sure enough, as the next chapter begins, Junior flings the briefcase into the Duke’s car, seconds before it explodes, destroying the car and taking the Duke with him. It’s a well-deserved end to a somewhat less than foolproof plot, and the fact that Junior was just trying to help out that nice Mr. Reeves makes it all the more deliciously ironic.

Best Stark Son: Like any good gang, Pa Stark’s five adult sons come furnished with nicknames (Kid, Trigger, Dude, Slasher, and Champ) that telegraph their personalities (and to a lesser extent their criminal specialties). But which one steals the spotlight?

Although he is the first one eliminated, Kid Stark (Ned Glass) has the most clearly defined personality, combining swagger and snottiness (and a near-Bugs Bunny Brooklyn accent none of the other brothers share) like a serial-budget Jimmy Cagney. After the Starks plug Ron Merton during the armored car holdup, the Kid goes back to the scene of the crime to make sure the job is finished, holding an innocent cab driver at gunpoint. Chased by Dick Tracy, the cab crashes, and when Tracy pulls up to the accident scene, Kid has the balls to pretend that he was merely an onlooker. “Worst one I ever seen. . . . Poor fellas, they never had a chance,” he says, holding his arm in hopes that Tracy won’t notice how battered he is. But with a broken ankle the Kid is in no shape to run away, and he is promptly arrested. The Starks gamely make an attempt to secure the Kid’s release, but (in a montage of newspaper headlines) he’s tried and sentenced to die before the second chapter is even over. R.I.P. Kid Stark

Sample Dialogue: “Your real teachers are the criminals you’re going to run into from now on. They’ll chalk up a lesson every time you meet them. If you don’t pass . . . curtains.” –Dick Tracy to Ron Merton, Chapter One (“The Sky Wreckers”)

What Others Have Said:Dick Tracy Returns was a more polished serial than its predecessor, because it was made a crucial year after Dick Tracy, and primarily due to the directing team of William Witney and John English. It provided much action that could be later reused in the further serial adventures of Dick Tracy. Its main drawback was in the use of economy chapters.” (see above) –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury

What’s Next: I return to the city of Metropolis with the 1950 superhero epic Atom Man vs. Superman!

Fates Worse Than Death: Superman (1948)

Unlike many of the costumed heroes who made the leap to serials, not only does Superman not need an introduction, but the 1948 Columbia serial bearing his name is remarkably faithful to the comic books in which he regularly appeared. Any modern reader or viewer should recognize the character’s origin, set forth in the first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth”: on the faraway planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El attempts to convince the ruling council that the planet is doomed, a victim of gravitational forces that will soon lead to its complete destruction. Unable to convince them, Jor-El places his infant son Kal-El in a test rocket and launches him to Earth, just before the planet explodes. After landing in a rural part of America (not yet “Smallville”) on Earth, baby Kal-El is adopted and raised by the Kents, a childless couple who instill in their adopted son “Clark” a sense of justice and fair play, even as he develops superhuman strength and incredible abilities. Chapter One ends with Clark Kent on his way to Metropolis to use his powers for the good of mankind.

Also unlike some other serial heroes, Superman wasn’t the character’s first representation outside of comics. Since the first publication of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation in Action Comics no. 1 in 1938, Superman had been a best-selling comic book and newspaper strip character; headlined a radio show (since 1940); and appeared in animated shorts (seventeen cartoons from Fleischer and Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943). It would have been hard to find even a casual follower of popular fiction who didn’t know who Superman was, and that above all may have encouraged producer Sam Katzman to stick to the established mythology. That meant not only keeping Superman’s origin the same, but keeping him at the Daily Planet with Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen (who first appeared as a named character on the radio show in 1940), rather than creating a new cast of characters. It also meant including Kryptonite (introduced on the radio in 1943 and the comics only in 1947), the fragments of Superman’s exploded home planet, the radiation of which was the one force on Earth that could weaken him.

There were still some differences, however, most notably the serial’s choice of villain: the Spider Lady, a blonde woman in a black evening gown and domino mask, is very much within the serial tradition: she has no origin or backstory, no powers of her own, and her persona is “criminal mastermind, but slightly vampier.” (Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor would appear in the following serial, 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman.) More importantly, she holds off on direct confrontations with Superman, prolonging the story by working through her agents, fedora-wearing henchmen with names like Driller and Brock. They may be caught, but she continues her evil work until the last chapter and her inevitable comeuppance. Like her namesake, she sits at the center of a web (literally–the web is an important backdrop of her scenes, and it proves to be electrified, a fitting method of punishing underlings who fail her), plotting and scheming.

Also true to the serial style is the macguffin, a sort of death ray called the Relativity Reducer Ray, developed for the government by Professor Graham, guarded by Superman (so it doesn’t “fall into the wrong hands”), and coveted by the Spider Lady. Described as more powerful than the atomic bomb, the Reducer Ray deals death by remote control: in Chapter Three, which introduces both the Ray and the Spider Lady, a test demonstrates its ability to destroy buildings at a distance by feeding coordinates into its internal computing mechanism. The Ray provides plenty of plot possibilities, whether it’s the Spider Lady’s attempts to stop the test; her attempts to steal, and later copy, the Ray; her kidnapping and later mind-control of the Ray’s inventor, Professor Graham; and her use of it to threaten the Daily Planet itself once she has a functioning copy.

Lois Lane: Poet of the Apocalypse

Finally, the Spider Lady has her own scientist, Dr. Hackett (Charles Quigley), described as “brilliant” but “with a warped mind,” whom she breaks out of jail to aid her; what his previous crimes were is never stated, but he proves to be an ambitious, treacherous character, and his alliance with his patroness an uneasy one. All of these elements serve to provide exciting, varied episodes of action and suspense, many of them based on classic serial premises (e.g., there are mine cave-ins and car chases, and Lois and Jimmy get tied up more than once), but each connected to the central threat of the Spider Lady and enlivened by clever plotting and witty dialogue.

Superman is played by Kirk Alyn (although not according to the title credits: Columbia’s marketers claimed that no actor could be found to convincingly portray the Man of Steel, so they simply got the real thing), who would go on to headline several more serials. Alyn mostly strikes a note of hearty good cheer and optimism as the hero (even when banging two gangsters’ heads together to knock them out he jokes “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength!”), and his Clark Kent is amusingly sketchy. In Chapter Two, Clark essentially gets his position on the Planet (with no prior experience or references) by scooping Lois, and throughout the serial she snipes at him for what she perceives as underhanded maneuvering (she gets her own back a few times as well). She rightly suspects that Clark is simply playing dumb when conversation turns to Superman and his tendency to show up when he’s gone, but she never suspects the truth.

Although Clark’s coworkers chide him for his tendency to duck out when trouble is brewing, Alyn makes this foible seem like the product of bumbling rather than cowardice (and of course, we in the audience know what he’s really up to). Through a variety of special effects, including undercranking (to depict Superman’s super-speed), double exposure (for X-ray vision), and hand-drawn animation for flying sequences, just about all of Superman’s established powers come into play during the story. And of course, the serial format guarantees that he’ll appear in costume at least once in every chapter, whether it’s to laugh off a gangster’s bullets (depicted bouncing off Superman’s chest, again with animation), stop a fire by blowing it out with his super breath, or to catch a flying shell and boomerang it back toward the gun that fired it. Superman even uses his X-ray vision to see through a disguise while looking at a photograph–quite a feat, even for him. Alyn distinguishes Clark from Superman with his voice as well, using a light, wishy-washy tone for Clark and a deeper chest voice for Superman, a transformation made audible (in imitation of the radio serial) every time Clark Kent in voice over says, “This looks like a job for [sudden drop to chest voice] SUPERMAN!”

Noel Neill (who passed away just last year) imbues Lois Lane with the brassy, no-nonsense quality the character had absorbed during the war years, inspired by His Girl Friday and the like (and which would largely be domesticated in the coming 1950s). The frequently-depicted romantic triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman is absent in the serial, but is replaced by a professional rivalry; as mentioned, Lois takes potshots at Clark mercilessly (“What now, little man?” is a typical gibe), but it’s an understandable attitude when she is frequently consigned to writing “women’s stories” about recipes or fashion while Clark gets the headlines.

In addition to driving the plot, the tension between the pair is a natural source of comedy, with Perry White (Pierre Watkin)and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond, formerly Butch in the Our Gang shorts) also contributing to the quippy, fast-paced scenes. (As an aside, it’s nice to have a humorous tone carried by dialogue and situation, rather than a single “comic relief” character, as in the Republic formula.)

As the Spider Lady, Carol Forman is a haughty, imperious villainess in the classic style. She doesn’t do much, but preening and pontificating are enough for this type of character: other than her electrified web, it appears to be the power of her will and ruthless pursuit of her goals alone that keep her underlings in line. There is one scene, however, probably meant as a throwaway, that deepens the character’s mystery: in Chapter Nine (“Irresistible Force!”), the only time in the serial that the Spider Lady leaves her lair, she goes to the airport disguised as Lois Lane to trick Professor Graham, the Reducer Ray’s inventor, into accompanying her. Throughout the serial, the Spider Lady has been a blonde, but in preparing to disguise herself, she removes a blonde wig to reveal a head of dark hair.

At no other time is it even suggested that she is wearing a disguise, and she’s a blonde for the rest of the serial. Visually, the Spider Lady (whom Harmon and Glut in The Great Movie Serials describe as “faintly foreign” in appearance) changes from a Veronica Lake type to a more fitting Myrna Loy type, perhaps revealing her true colors. (Or perhaps it’s nothing more than an inside joke: Forman was naturally a brunette, and had played another spider-themed villainess for Superman director Spencer Bennet the year before in The Black Widow. Forman didn’t want to be typecast as a villain, but she played several in the serials.) Serials didn’t generally go in for the duality of hero and villain, but when you have a blank slate of a character like the Spider Lady, any suggestion of depth, however subtle, makes an impression. As Clark Kent would be the first to acknowledge, sometimes it’s the appearance you wear every day that is the real disguise.

What I Watched: Superman (Columbia, 1948)

Where I Watched It: Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection, a 4-DVD set from DC/Warner Home Video

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Superman to the Rescue” (Chapter Eight)

Best Cliffhanger: Superman features many good cliffhangers, including some classics, such as the car speeding off a cliff, and an unconscious victim placed on a conveyor belt, headed toward doom, among others. Wisely, once Superman’s invulnerability is established in the first few chapters, the filmmakers don’t try to convince us that the Man of Steel is going to be killed by something as pedestrian as a gunshot or an explosion, and the only cliffhangers that leave his fate in doubt involve Kryptonite. Rather, it’s Superman’s friends who face peril at the end of each chapter, the question being whether Superman will get there in time to rescue them (a few chapters end with Superman entangled in some other problem that will presumably leave him unavailable) or if they will find their own way out of the danger. (In the examples I mentioned above, it’s Lois Lane in the speeding car and Jimmy Olsen on the conveyor belt; at the end of another chapter, Perry White is thrown out the window of his office, hanging onto the ledge by his fingertips.)

At the end of Chapter Fourteen (“Superman at Bay”), the Spider Lady has finally gotten Professor Graham’s Reducer Ray working, and to test it she has the Professor aim its destructive force at the corner of the jail in which her henchman Anton and Dr. Hackett are being held (she will demonstrate the ray’s power and eliminate some “useless people” at one stroke). Unbeknownst to her (not that it would make any difference), Lois Lane is visiting the two inmates at the jail in hopes of persuading them to talk, and she is present when the power of the ray manifests in the form of an intense glow. An explosion ends the chapter. (At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, Superman, having overheard the Spider Lady’s instructions, flies to the jail to swoop in and carry Lois to safety, leaving Hackett and the other inmates to suck eggs, I guess. A newspaper headline following the incident notes “Many Prisoners Killed.” They don’t get top billing, though.)

The Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: The resolution to the cliffhanger I described above involves a bit of a cheat, but the winner is the cliffhanger that ends Chapter Eleven (“Superman’s Dilemma”) and its resolution. Chapter Eleven focuses on “mono-chromite,” a secret ingredient needed for the Reducer Ray, and the lengths to which the Spider Lady’s henchmen go to obtain it. Two of the Spider Lady’s operatives show up at a chemical engineer’s office demanding mono-chromite. Since it’s a restricted material, the engineer puts the men off and contacts Perry White. Lois gets the jump on Clark by telling him to take her car and then reporting it stolen, so that Clark is picked up by the police and taken to jail: there may not be a jail built that can hold Superman, but he can’t afford to jeopardize his secret identity by breaking out or overpowering a policeman! In the mean time, Lois and Jimmy get to the engineer’s office and conceive a plan: Jimmy hides in a packing crate marked “mono-chromite” so that when the Spider Lady’s men pick it up, he’ll be taken straight to her lair! Unfortunately, when the crate comes open during the drive back, the drivers get suspicious and stop to check on it. One of the thugs sees Jimmy’s fingers closing the crate, so he and the other henchman open fire and shoot the crate full of holes.

But wait! As the next chapter begins, we see Clark Kent in his jail cell change into Superman. He bundles up Clark Kent’s clothing under the blanket on his bunk to hide his disappearance and, bending the bars on the window easily, flies off to rescue Jimmy. Not only does he know exactly where to find his pal (Jimmy doesn’t yet have his famous signal watch in this serial, but Superman finds him anyway), he has time to take his place in the crate, so that when the driver begins shooting (and it’s only one henchman shooting in this chapter, not both as in the previous cliffhanger), the bullets bounce harmlessly off him. After knocking out the gangsters and tying them up at super-speed, Superman flies back to the jail and resumes Clark Kent’s identity, just in time for the jailer to let him out, having confirmed his identity from Perry White. Whew! It’s all in a day’s work for (sudden basso profundo) Superman!

NOT a dream! NOT an imaginary story! “Clark Kent: Super-JAILBIRD!”

Sample Dialogue:

Lois (regaining consciousness): How did we get here?
Clark: Superman got us out through a hole he made in the side of that hill.
Lois: He’s wonderful isn’t he, Clark?
Clark: I guess so.
Lois: You guess so? . . . Say, weren’t these handcuffs on our other hands before?

–Chapter Thirteen, “Hurled to Destruction”

What Others Have Said: “As Superman, Kirk Alyn looks the part. He was a former Broadway chorus boy who’d worked his way up to become a Columbia day player, and his athletic form required little in the way of muscle padding. (If he doesn’t quite live up to the illustration on the serial’s movie poster–Superman as a downright steroidal mountain of muscle–few men of the day could.)”
–Glen Weldon, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography

What’s Next: Join me as I explore the second Dick Tracy serial, 1938’s Dick Tracy Returns!

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy (1937)

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

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

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

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

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

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A panel from Dick Tracy’s first adventure in 1931

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

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

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

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What I Watched: Dick Tracy (Republic, 1937)

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

No. of Chapters: 15

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

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

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

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

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

Fates Worse Than Death: The Mysterious Airman

Baker Aircraft, Inc. is thriving, thanks to Baker’s exclusive use of the Joyce Aerometer, a guidance mechanism invented and kept a close secret by James Joyce (no, not that James Joyce!). It’s a good thing company president Frank Baker is engaged to the inventor’s beautiful daughter Shirley (a fine flyer herself!).

But all is not well: a band of renegade “air hawks,” led by the masked “Pilot X,” has been causing trouble, shooting down Baker’s planes and raiding the company’s shipments. Someone is out to get Baker! But who could it be? A likely possibility is William Craft, manager of the competing Globe Air Corporation, who is dying to get his hands on the Joyce Aerometer, so his sweetheart Fawn Nesbit, also a pilot, can make a record-setting flight around the world.

It could also be Perkins, Joyce’s butler, who always seems to be lurking in the background and listening in on conversations; he’s a suspicious one, all right. Or could it be Albert Orren, superintendent of Baker Aircraft; or Henry Knight, a Baker stockholder; or Barney Madden, the company’s seemingly loyal pilot? There are plenty of possibilities, and in reality Pilot X’s true identity isn’t hard to guess, but it still takes plenty of twists, turns, and hair-raising brushes with death before Frank and Shirley find out the truth in the 1928 silent serial The Mysterious Airman!

Made in the waning years of the silent film era, The Mysterious Airman, directed by Harry Revier and with a scenario by Arthur B. Reeve, falls squarely into the aviation craze that stretched from the 1920s into the next decade. Flyers in real life and in the movies were lionized as brave and resourceful men (and, increasingly, women) who took their lives into their own hands while taking to the air. Many of these stories were from the point of view of small-time pilots or airfield owners, giving modern viewers a look back at a less regulated, less consolidated time when learning to fly was as much an entrepreneurial enterprise as a death-defying adventure. While boring details are frequently skimmed over in favor of aerial chases and dogfights, one gets an idea of the day-to-day jobs and problems these small air companies faced.

Also familiar is the plot device of a masked villain bedeviling the heroes, working through agents, and getting away until the last chapter, when their true identity is finally revealed. The Fighting Marines and Ace Drummond, both from the 1930s, had similar plots, and that’s just listing aviation serials I’ve already covered in this column, barely scratching the surface. I gather that it wasn’t too original in 1928, either, but the difference between a good serial and a bad one generally isn’t the level of originality: it’s the skill with which the filmmakers breathe life into and work variations on well-worn formulas.

In that regard, The Mysterious Airman has some nice touches and many assets in the form of its photogenic and experienced cast. Walter Miller, as Frank Baker, is unquestionably the lead, but Eugenia Gilbert as Shirley Joyce gets nearly as much screen time and gets to participate in some of the cliffhangers without coming off as a token or damsel in distress, as so often occurred in later serials. Indeed, as an accomplished flyer and a character with her own motivations and initiative, Shirley is a worthy successor to Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1914) and the other serial heroines of the silent era.

She is joined by fellow aviatrix, slinky Fawn Nesbit (played by Dorothy Talcott); Nesbit and her beau William Craft (Robert Walker) form the second couple and make for an interesting counterpart to the wholesome Frank and Shirley. Craft is presented as the most obvious person to be Pilot X, with his rivalry with Baker and need for the Joyce Aerometer. His meetings with Fawn, in which they discuss their schemes to get Baker to sell them the rights to the aerometer, are frequently interrupted so that Craft can “take care of some business.” In addition to distracting Shirley, Fawn is assigned to work on Baker individually, a subplot we never actually see (although she later uses her wiles on one of Pilot X’s henchmen in an effort to turn him against his boss), but eventually she breaks with Craft and his underhanded plans and becomes a real friend to Shirley.

There are also some of the weird details that I live for when watching serials: in one chapter, Pilot X brings a trained chimp (or “henchmanzee,” as commentator Richard M. Roberts puts it) to the Joyce house to climb into a high window and steal a model of the “Joyce Flying Torpedo,” another invention that serves as a McGuffin. Later, the same chimp appears with an organ grinder and climbs into the window with a microphone to eavesdrop on Frank and Shirley. Then it disappears for the rest of the serial.

However, for a serial focused on the wonders of flight, the dogfight sequences are a mixed bag, at least to my modern eyes. Pilot’s-eye-views of the ground, taken in flight, lend a sense of realism, and the planes themselves are interesting, even if the aerial chases, filmed from a great distance, lack the immediacy of later films. There are some clever editing tricks, like the appearance of painted-on bullet holes to show the effects of machine gun fire, but the filmmakers, already working on a low budget, were understandably not going to crash any planes for real when the story called for it. So plane crashes are accomplished with cardboard cutouts, or with flames scratched directly onto the negative, or with quick cuts to a plane already on the ground. It’s interesting sleight-of-hand, but the “crash” itself usually feels a bit anticlimactic, even making allowances for the time this serial was made.

Another cliffhanger (Chapter Four, “The Flying Torpedo”) finds Frank Baker unconscious in an abandoned barn, which by incredible coincidence is the same barn Pilot X decides to blow up with the stolen Torpedo (to test it out, you see). At the last moment, unaware that he is even in danger, Baker climbs to the roof of the barn, where he is spotted by Shirley and Barney, who (again, by chance) just happen to be flying by. They drop a rope ladder down and pick him up, a split-second before an unconvincing double-exposure blast consumes the barn.

The cliffhangers are better when they stay closer to the ground. For example, at the end of Chapter Seven (“A Leap for Life”), Frank Baker, captured by Pilot X’s men, is tied up in the back seat of a car. He frees himself and fights the henchmen while the car is moving, struggling with the driver just as the speeding car is heading for a cliff! A real car is pushed over the cliff for this one, the vehicle being more expendable than the handful of planes seen throughout the serial. If anyone asks you why serials were known as cliffhangers, you can show them this scene as an example (or one of the many serials that used the exact same setup); tell ’em it’s not a cliché, it’s a classic.

What I Watched: The Mysterious Airman (Weiss Brothers-Artclass Pictures, 1928)

Where I Watched It: It isn’t often that I get to put the spotlight on a “new release” for this column: long thought lost, a nearly-intact tinted nitrate print of The Mysterious Airman was recently discovered, and Sprocket Vault has cleaned it up and made the film available on DVD. (Out of ten two-reel chapters, only one reel was too deteriorated to use: still pictures and captions make up for the missing scenes.) It’s a fine transfer: other than some scratches and signs of deterioration in a few places, the picture is surprisingly crisp, better than many second- (or third-) generation dupes I’ve seen of even newer and more widely-circulated films. What’s more, the DVD features an original piano soundtrack by composer/silent film accompanist Andrew Earle Simpson, a full-length (almost 190 minutes!) commentary track by historian Richard M. Roberts, and a bonus aviation-themed short film from the same year, “Flying Cadets.”

Roberts provides plenty of background detail on the Weiss Brothers, who produced the film (Artclass Pictures was one of the many organizations through which they channeled their business), and the members of the cast and crew. He also places the serials in context within the film business in the 1920s and beyond and relates a number of interesting anecdotes and opinions; he makes for an informative (if sometimes cranky) viewing companion. Ultimately, while I ended up being mostly lukewarm on this serial, I offer my highest praise to Sprocket Vault’s presentation; it’s a terrific package, and one hopes more serials will receive similar treatment. The DVD is currently available from Amazon.

No. of Chapters: 10

Best Chapter Title: “The Girl Who Flew Alone” (Chapter Two)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Six (“The Hawk’s Nest”), Frank Baker, following a clue in a coded telegram (intended for Pilot X but which Fawn Nesbit happened to intercept), travels to an abandoned house in hopes of surprising Pilot X and his gang while they meet. The setup is creepier than most of this serial’s other scenes, with atmospheric shadows and lighting suitable for a detective noir, and evocative use of tinting to darken the day-for-night exterior shots. (Plus, the hat Walter Miller is wearing makes him look like Dick Tracy.) Baker hears the renegades on the other side of a door and surprises them, when he himself is jumped from behind by one of Pilot X’s henchmen. The renegades swarm out of their meeting room and grab Baker. The chapter ends without a direct physical threat, but there’s no question that Baker is in a jam, and it’s more suspenseful and exciting than any of the flimsy plane-crash cliffhangers from other chapters.

Sample Dialogue: “We meet at last, Pilot X–and you seem well pleased–!” –Frank Baker, after being captured, Chapter Seven (“A Leap for Life”)

Sample Commentary: “No airplanes were harmed in the making of this picture.” –RMR

What’s Next: Check back at the beginning of summer for more serial reviews; in the mean time, please visit the Series page to catch up on previous installments of Fates Worse Than Death!

Fates Worse Than Death: Flying G-Men

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“The peace and security of the nation have been threatened by a campaign of espionage and sabotage, conducted by a powerful spy ring whose head is known as the Professor! The Bureau of Investigation has assigned three flying G-Men to the case. They created the Black Falcon, a mysterious masked pilot whose sudden raids spread terror and confusion among the ranks of the conspirators!”

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That burst of breathless narration (or a variation of it) introduces each chapter of the 1939 Columbia serial Flying G-Men, and honestly it summarizes the situation as well as I could, so let’s get to the meat of the discussion. Frankly, I often get hung up on plot, in the sense that when I’m reviewing something, or writing my own fiction, I spend way more time trying to untangle and summarize the action than I do when I’m just watching or reading something for pleasure. All along, I think I’ve been clear that I don’t really watch serials for their timeless stories or (God knows) their deep sense of characterization, but rather for their lurid, punchy aesthetic. An iconic pose; an atmosphere of potent menace; a trained dramatic actor making a meal of a pulp hack’s overheated prose; in short, the “cool factor” are greater contributors to my enjoyment than mere plot mechanics. I get the same kind of pleasure from an isolated image or moment that a really good cover illustration or dramatic turn of phrase conveys.

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Still, unlike a pulp magazine cover or the posters that advertised the serials, movies unfold in time and feature narratives that deliver those moments in a structured way, so as I write I feel that I have to deal with the flow from A to B to C. It’s easy to get caught up in summary that is neither interesting to write nor to read, but is necessary for context when explaining why it’s so cool that it wasn’t really the Black Falcon who got shot by the Professor’s henchmen at the end of Chapter Ten, but rather a captured spy that the G-Men dressed in the Falcon’s uniform to serve as a decoy (or whatever).

Flying G-Men provides many such moments, so I loved almost every minute of it. I think I’ve come to the realization that I enjoy police and gangster serials more than superhero or science fiction serials. In many cases, they are just as fanciful as their high-concept peers, featuring similar costumed characters and high-tech gadgets, but the supposedly more realistic setting forces them to explore that world in greater depth, as well as intersecting with crime pictures, film noir, and other kinds of drama in ways that are surprisingly artistic and expressive. Take a look at the frame below, for example: it’s as absolutely clear as a silent film what’s happening. That’s not to say that such artistic choices aren’t sometimes made in superhero or sci-fi serials, but I have noticed a tendency to lean on the dazzling design elements rather than creative staging in many of them.

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Of course, some exposition is inevitable. The titular G-Men, all in the employ of the FBI’s Air Division, were formerly known as the “Skyhawks,” a foursome who previously set a record flying around the world. (As in Pirate Treasure, an accomplishment that would ensure a lifetime of accolades in real life is here merely part of the heroes’ background; it’s as if Mark Watney’s experiences on the red planet in The Martian had served only to prepare him to stop a jewel heist on Earth.) The designer whose inventions made that flight possible, Ed McKay, has developed a remote-controlled robot bomber for military use, remarkably similar to a modern drone aircraft. Of course such a design is a target for espionage, and under the direction of the mysterious “Professor” a wide-ranging spy ring first kills McKay (leaving behind his sister and young son) and then makes efforts to steal the bomber plans for its own use.

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The spy ring is based on Flame Island, a fortified stronghold off the coast. The G-Men, unsatisfied with their legal remit to apprehend the spies, come up with a costumed identity, the “Black Falcon,” who can act with a free hand (as is frequently the case, this is really a pretext for dressing up in costume and using cool gadgets, because it’s not like the G-Men are held up by such red tape as arrest warrants, inquiries into their use of force, or even trials). The Falcon wears a stylish leather flight suit and face mask with goggles, very similar to the Tiger Shark from The Fighting Marines (and anticipating the twenty-first century tendency to replace spandex superhero costumes with more “realistic” paramilitary-style gear).

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In order to protect the Falcon’s identity, the G-Men do not reveal to anyone (including the audience, until the very end) which of them is wearing the hero’s costume (The opening credits show “? ? as the Black Falcon”). As a proto-superhero, the Black Falcon even has a gimmicky talisman, a dart that he leaves behind to mark his kills (if he remembers, so about half the time).

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Thus, while the identity of the “Professor” is left unsolved only for the first third of the serial, the real mystery is which of the G-Men is the Black Falcon. The fact that Bronson, one of the four G-Men, dies early on would suggest a rather obvious answer to that puzzle, but you won’t get it from me: you’ll just have to watch for yourself. On occasions when the other two G-Men are accompanying the Falcon, they also wear face-covering masks to keep up the air of mystery, but they needn’t have bothered: as three white guys with dark hair and similar builds, I could hardly tell the three G-Men apart even when unmasked unless they called each other by name. (Is it just me? Maybe I suffer from face blindness when it comes to the actors in old black-and-white movies.)

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Flying G-Men is a pleasure to watch even when spinning its wheels: the action, of which there is quite a bit, in the form of fist fights, shoot-outs, and car chases, is generally clear and exciting. Fights are often no-holds-barred brawls, free of the stagey, wooden quality that plagues some serials, and they flow organically from the situation rather than beginning from an arbitrary “time to fight now” beat. The surging, constantly active score (credited to musical director M. W. Stoloff, but the work of diverse hands including composer Mischa Bakaleinikoff) does a lot of the work as well, giving a sense of urgency even to scenes of dialogue. (The main title theme in particular sounds like the Superman march and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” had a baby.) Aerial scenes, oddly enough, are relatively weak, in some cases cut together from obvious stock footage and in most places unclear as to how the combatants are positioned in relation to each other (see my comments below on the end of Chapter Four for a particularly egregious example). Still, these scenes are exciting and unpredictable, and in any case the “Flying G-Men” and the Black Falcon spend as much time fighting the spies on land as they do in the air.

One nice touch is the degree to which events simply refuse to cooperate with the clichés of the genre: for example, disguises are a staple of spy adventures, but almost every time the G-Men attempt to pass themselves off as someone else, they are recognized. Going undercover as workers at an aircraft plant, G-Man Cummings (James Craig) is immediately recognized by Hamilton, the company’s president (and possibly the Professor himself); they had met in the FBI director’s office previously. Cummings offers the lame explanation “Other people have made the same mistake,” but the damage is already done. In another chapter, Andrews (Robert Paige) and Davis (Richard Fiske) invade a hidden lab belonging to the spy ring; after knocking out the lab workers, they don their protective masks and try to take their place when more spies arrive to check on them. “You’re not Walker!” one exclaims after hearing Andrews’ voice, and another fistfight erupts. So much for the art of deception.

Flying G-Men also benefits from a strong ensemble of back-up players. Sammy McKim (young Kit Carson in The Painted Stallion) plays Billy, the orphaned son of the designer killed in the first chapter. Although not involved in every chapter, Billy has just the right amount of presence in the serial: in some chapters he’s put in danger and must be rescued, and in others he contributes to the G-Men’s campaign by being places that only children can go without arousing suspicion. He also has a few scenes with other kids, lending the support of his network of child airplane modelers and HAM radio enthusiasts to the G-Men. (And boy are those kids quick: in one scene, Billy’s aunt Babs is abducted by the spy ring and through quick thinking she drops her brother’s medal out of the car in front of a pair of boys. “Somebody in that car was trying to get a message to the G-Men!” they immediately conclude.)

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Babs (another veteran of the serials, Lorna Gray, who later changed her screen name to Adrian Booth) similarly gets involved in a few of the chapters; aside from being kidnapped a couple of times, she also uses her head and helps the G-Men carry out their plans, mostly by pretending to have some more undisclosed plans for her brother’s designs, as a way of luring members of the spy ring out into the open.

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I haven’t even mentioned the completely superfluous but nonetheless fantastic pretense by which the Professor recruits down-and-outers through his “Historical Study Group”; or the fact that the president of the steel mill in which some of the action is set is named “Lewis Carroll” for some reason; or the garage with a hidden elevator behind a sliding wall that forms a headquarters for the Professor’s second-in-command. Despite Columbia’s reputation for silliness, Flying G-Men largely strikes a satisfying balance between intentional and unintentional comedy: it knows how far-fetched this all is, but doesn’t feel the need to undercut its story with excessive winking and comic relief. Most gratifying to me, it also moves swiftly from one idea to the next, without the stretches of tedium that frequently plague serials (especially those in fifteen chapters). It has, in short, the quality that I value most in serials: it is imaginative, exhilarating, and above all, fun.

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What I Watched: Flying G-Men (1939, Columbia)

Where I Watched It: Flying G-Men was in the batch of DVDs I got from eBay at the beginning of the summer. It can be viewed on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Frequently serial chapter titles will hint at the crisis featured in the episode or the cliffhanger that ends it, but most of the chapter titles in Flying G-Men are either vague enough that they could apply to any episode (Chapter One, “Challenge in the Sky”) or misleading, suggesting a doom that ends up being something else entirely (Chapter Nine, “Wings of Terror,” does include one of the serial’s many aerial dogfights, but ends with the Black Falcon falling off the roof of a building). Chapter Eleven’s title, “While A Nation Sleeps,” is an example of the former, conveying the shadowy, secretive activities of the spy ring, but has little to do with the events of the chapter: it doesn’t even take place at night.

Best Cliffhanger: In keeping with the disconnect between the chapter titles and the chapter endings, the cliffhangers are often somewhat perfunctory or not very well set up, indicating that they weren’t the filmmakers’ highest priority. Most of the chapters have plenty of action within the chapter that may or may not have anything to do with the cliffhanger. So while not the best cliffhanger, the one that has occupied my mind the most since watching it is at the end of Chapter Four, “The Falcon Strikes.” The spies, having publicized an experimental “stratosphere flight” that is actually intended to help them take aerial photographs of coastal defense installations, have ascended high into the sky in a spherical observation vessel suspended from a high-altitude balloon. The Black Falcon, finding out about the subterfuge and determined to stop the spies, attacks the balloon directly from his airplane, strafing the balloon with a machine gun. The editing of the sequence makes it look like the Falcon is diving toward the balloon, firing from above, but when the vessel falls, it lands directly on the Falcon’s plane, which is now somehow below the balloon. Both the vessel and the Falcon’s plane crash to the ground. It’s a real head-scratcher.

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The resolution to this is also a curiosity: previously it’s been established that the Black Falcon sometimes flies a special small plane that can detach from a larger bomber, similar to the robot bombers whose plans are the MacGuffin of the serial. In the resolution to Chapter Four’s cliffhanger, it is shown that the Falcon flew away in the small plane while the spies’ vessel dropped the bomber to the ground. But as a newspaper headline shows, the Falcon’s “piggyback” plane is actually a “pick-a-back” plane. I’d never come across that idiom, but a little digging informs me that “pick-a-back” is actually the original form of the word. Still, according to my sources “piggyback” was current before the end of the nineteenth century, so it seems strange to see the older usage in print.

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Sample Dialogue: “Who knows but that it’ll be the Black Falcon who’ll step in and capture this Professor? This mysterious flyer seems to be doing some excellent work. In fact, he’s what could be considered a first-rate flying G-Man . . . don’t you think so?” –FBI Director Frank Carlton (Edward Earle), Chapter Eleven, “While A Nation Sleeps”

What Others Have Said: “The Falcon has a black leather flying outfit that is handier to get to when needed than the Durango Kid’s horse, while his two remaining partners are stuck with your basic gray . . . and together they are close to being a precursor to “Blackhawk” and his band. . . . Keeping a straight face is not easy to do when facing a gang of henchmen directed by James W. Horne behind the over-wrought narration of Knox Manning.” –Les Adams, summarizing Flying G-Men on the International Movie Database

This concludes this year’s Fates Worse Than Death. Thanks for following along with me! Barring any serial-related articles I may write this fall or spring, serial coverage will resume next summer. In the mean time, I hope you’ll keep following Medleyana, as you never know what I’ll choose to write about next!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What I Watched: The Phantom (Columbia, 1943)

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

No. of Chapters: 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fates Worse Than Death: Tim Tyler’s Luck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. of Chapters: 12

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

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

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

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

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

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