Lovefest: The Creeping Terror

This article was written for Lovefest, a group project of the Dissolve Facebook community, in which individual writers step up to defend or promote films that flopped, were critically maligned, or are generally forgotten. My previous Lovefest entries can be read here and here; a list of all of the movies covered in past Lovefests can be found here.

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For me, it started with Gilda Radner: in one sketch in It Came From Hollywood, the 1982 homage/clip show celebrating old genre flicks (and an early inspiration for my love of monster movies), Radner plays a little girl excitedly describing and reacting to the latest monster shows she had seen, throwing stuffed animals around the room while pretending they’re the Fly, the Horror of Party Beach, and so on. “I call this one the carpet monster,” she says over a clip of a creature that does indeed look much like an ambulatory pile of carpet samples, or perhaps an oversized bedspread, invading a dance party. “He eats up ladies . . . except for their shoes,” she continues as a pair of shapely nylon-clad legs is slurped into the monster’s gaping mouth. After rediscovering It Came From Hollywood a few years ago, I set out to watch the complete “carpet monster” movie, whatever it was: ICFH ends with a list of the movies excerpted in the film, but doesn’t credit them in individual scenes. With the help of Google and IMDB I was able to narrow it down and found that I already owned a copy of The Creeping Terror (A. J. Nelson, 1963) that I hadn’t watched yet on a public-domain monster movie collection. (Only afterwards did I find out that The Creeping Terror had been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000; I could have saved myself a lot of trouble but I had stopped watching the show by the time that episode aired.)

It would be a stretch to say that I “love” The Creeping Terror, and even more of one to defend it on the basis of its quality, which veers from workmanlike to surreally inept. Like Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Creeping Terror was included in Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards; we’re long past believing that Plan 9 is actually the worst movie ever made, but The Creeping Terror . . . well, let’s just say it’s still awaiting its critical reevaluation. Made on a shoestring in 1963, the film features hopelessly crude special effects, amateurish acting, and a plot that’s beyond formulaic: it’s schematic. Yet I would argue that it is an interesting film in its own right, with some effective moments that are overshadowed by its reputation (and yes, there are some jaw-droppers as well).

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As the story goes in its 76-minute run time, Deputy Martin Gordon (Vic Savage), returned from his honeymoon with his new bride (Shannon O’Neil), sees a UFO land (an effect accomplished with some blurry moving lights and footage of a rocket liftoff shown in reverse). Joining his uncle, the Sheriff, to investigate the landing site, they find a spaceship with a monstrous creature locked inside; the Sheriff is the first to be eaten while exploring the ship’s interior. After that, the investigation is taken over by the military; a top space scientist, Dr. Bradford (William Thourlby), arrives to study the ship and, if possible, communicate with its passenger. Unbeknownst to them, a second creature had already escaped into the nearby woods, and it cuts a swath through the area population, (slowly) eating necking picnickers, a young mother, a boy and his grandpa, the participants at a “hootenanny,” and finally an entire community center’s worth of dancers. Once the monster hits the nearby lover’s lane, the authorities catch up to it and confront the creature; it gets shot up by a platoon of soldiers, and then eats them. The Colonel finally blows it up with a grenade.

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“Anyone who experienced that catastrophe and lived would never go there again.”

After finding electrical components in the creature’s carcass, Dr. Bradford returns to the ship and is nearly killed by an explosion that releases the second creature. Deputy Gordon rams his police car in to the monster and kills it. Bradford tells Gordon that he has solved the mystery: he believes that the monsters were sent by a distant civilization as test animals, “living laboratories” engineered to eat and evaluate whatever life forms they found. He guesses that, now that the creatures are dead (and humanity’s weaknesses known), the ship’s computer will transmit their findings back to their home planet. Gordon tries to smash the ship’s computer but fails. Before he dies, Dr. Bradford says there may yet be reason to hope: perhaps by the time the creatures’ alien masters can act on the information they collected, mankind will be more advanced and ready for the challenge. “Only God knows for sure.” The End.

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The first thing one notices is the intermittent sound: sometimes the characters’ voices are dubbed so they are speaking lines normally, but most of the time an omniscient voiceover narrates the film, paraphrasing the conversation the characters are having onscreen, their mouths still moving out of sync. There are reasons for this, having to do with the film’s fly-by-night production (see below), but the result is alienating; it would be death for a romantic comedy, but for a horror film it sort of works, and it lends a documentary gravity to the otherwise absurd plot: its very flatness is ironically a mark of verisimilitude. In one scene in which Martin’s friend, fellow officer Barney, deals with the emotional fallout of his buddy getting married and not wanting to hang out as much, the narration takes on the fatherly tone of a contemporary mental hygiene film, as if this were merely a case study for class discussion: “Life has its way of making boys grow up, and with marriage Martin’s time had come,” the announcer intones while Barney stews on the couch, Mr. and Mrs. Gordon making out in the kitchen. In other scenes, the effect is downright surreal as the sound engineers add layers of ambient sound and music after the fact to cover up the characters’ uncomfortable silence.

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The film’s isolated settings (filmed at the shabby Spahn Movie Ranch, a comedown from the intended Lake Tahoe setting) also contribute to its sense of menace: most of the victims are outdoors or near the woods, making them seem small and easy to pick off. One might think that almost anyone could outrun the slow-moving monster, but in one of the film’s more laughable conceits, the creature is so terrifying that most of its victims stay rooted on the spot, screaming in fear until it can catch up to them. The film’s money shot (repeated often) consists of a woman’s legs or feet dangling from the creature’s maw as it swallows them slowly enough that the actors could be crawling inside (which, of course, is how it was actually filmed).

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Other kills are more cinematically effective, either shown from the monster’s POV with the cowering victim in the center of the frame (the death of the young mother hanging laundry while her baby fusses inside is probably the most effective in the film; in addition to the weird effect of the creature wriggling into the otherwise mundane shot, at the moment of the woman’s death her scream cuts to the sound of her baby crying) or simply left for the audience’s inference (Bobby, the young boy fishing with his grandpa, leaves behind only a bit of torn cloth from his shirt). Scenes in which the monster kills with brute force are less successful: when sucking a pair of teenagers out of their convertible at lover’s lane, it appears to be humping the car; later, it eats all of the soldiers at once by dropping on top of them. Even at the dance, it’s impossible to imagine the creature killing everyone without them obligingly lining up to get in its belly.

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The film’s most elaborate set piece, the creature’s attack on the dance hall, shows The Creeping Terror at its best and worst. An uncharacteristically long buildup shows the dance in progress, the crowd made up of a range of ages; while the band plays a repetitive twist tune, dancers fill the floor while others sit at tables and the bar. It’s all very normal; the only element that might raise an eyebrow is the amount of time spent on close-ups of the legs and feet of several dancers in tight pants. On the sidelines, a few human dramas play out: a woman leaves in a huff, and a drunk swipes the drink she left behind; a fight breaks out. It’s possible that these characters were more fully fleshed out in the original script, but with only a few audible lines here and there all we get are snippets. It’s like going to a party where you don’t know anyone, observing people at random and only seeing disconnected glimpses of their behavior.

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Abruptly, we see a shot of the approaching monster outside, the music twisting away at a lower volume, as if heard from a distance, so we know it’s nearby. The narrator has already informed us that the community dance hall would be the next target, but the sequence, cutting between the oblivious dancers and the creature outside, getting closer, is almost suspenseful. A shot of a dancer’s jiggling bottom cuts to the writhing tendrils that crown the monster’s “head.” Subtle, it is not.

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Suddenly, without any transition or shot of the monster coming through a doorway, it is there, in the corner of the room! It is in this moment that the film’s weak grasp on continuity comes to resemble the anti-logic of the nightmare, and the scrambled soundtrack reinforces the confusion. A woman shouts, “My God, what is it!?”, her voice dubbed, but another woman screams without any sound added, her terror expressed only by the musical soundtrack, the relentless twist finally giving way to more typical horror music.

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The partygoers gather in one corner of the room while the monster, shot from overhead, awkwardly pushes past tables and chairs; they would obviously have time to reach the exits, but this is the kind of nightmare where your feet won’t budge, and they have no choice but to await their fate (in one overhead shot of the monster, a couple clearly approach the monster and the man even gives the woman a little push forward as if to say, “you first”). Insanely, the fistfight that broke out earlier still continues in the other corner of the room. We get plenty of close-up shots of pretty legs sticking out of the creature’s slit-like mouth, and if we haven’t figured out by now what the director’s main interest in the material is, then I don’t think we can say he’s the one who doesn’t get it.

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After years of contradictory information about the making of this low-budget oddity (so obscure at first that there’s no evidence it was even screened until it was sold as part of a TV package in the 1970s, leading to late-night broadcasts and sparking its notoriety among horror hounds), several facts came to light thanks to the research of fan Pete Schuermann (the story as I now relay it comes from Schuermann’s docudrama The Creep Behind the Camera and an article in Screem magazine no. 30 by Brian Albright). For one thing, leading man “Vic Savage” and director “A. J. Nelson” were one and the same person, a petty criminal and con artist named Arthur White. White had always wanted to be a star, and this obsession seems to have sprung from the same sociopathic narcissism that led him to abuse and exploit everyone around him, including his long-suffering wife Lois.

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It is unclear whether he intended The Creeping Terror to be a real movie or if it was a hustle all along, but in addition to making the movie as cheaply as possible, he funneled much of the funding he got from backers (including Thourlby, a former Marlboro Man) into his personal drug habit, and he spun the opportunity to make his film further by selling shares in it to cast and crew, effectively turning it into a pay-for-play scheme. (He had previously absconded with the profits from his first film, Street-Fighter.) According to some members of the film crew at the time, he would film the same scenes with different people multiple times because he had made so many promises, often without actually putting film in the camera. In any case, White disappeared before the movie was completed, possibly fleeing law enforcement (in addition to drugs, White had connections to a prostitution ring and Schuermann’s film implies he may have been involved in child pornography) and leaving Thourlby to piece together the existing footage and replace the missing (or possibly never-recorded) audio. By this time, writer Allan Silliphant had cut ties with White in disgust, so there was probably no longer a script to refer to and the actors had all gone their separate ways: thus, the voiceover was written to patch the scenes together.

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From these behind-the-scenes details, it is clear that The Creeping Terror works largely by accident and thanks to the hard work of professionals trying to salvage something out of disaster. It’s hard enough to make a movie on purpose: the fact that The Creeping Terror is as watchable as it is, flaws and all, is nearly miraculous. (Even as a patch-up, it compares favorably to the similar work of White’s contemporary, Jerry Warren, for example.) But what are we to make of Arthur White and his contribution? Aren’t there enough actual good movies in the world that we don’t have to feel obligated to give time to work made by scumbags? For what it’s worth, I had seen The Creeping Terror and found it interesting before I heard about its origins; I don’t think White’s scamming and abuse make his movie “cool” or “edgy,” and there were plenty of earnest, would-be professional filmmakers involved with the production. They were White’s victims, too, and they could have cut their losses, but they didn’t. (If it makes you feel any better about watching, White never made any more money from it after dropping out of the production, leaving it in a legal limbo; he died in 1975 and the film is now in the public domain.)

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But knowing the context does explain some of the more bizarre choices the film makes, and especially shines a spotlight on the sexual imagery that lies so close to the surface, on the obsession with legs and feet, with the blunt symbolism of a monster that combines both phallic and vaginal imagery, and especially with the film’s odd detours into the domestic sphere. Shannon O’Neil (her real name Shannon Boltres), the lead actress, was White’s girlfriend at the time, even while he was still married to Lois, who had returned to him with the promise of better behavior after one of their splits; were the scenes of newlywed bliss meant to rub his infidelity in Lois’ face, or was he imagining the married life–he upstanding and virile, she nubile and obedient–that he would have preferred? Or was it simply the writer’s take on a well-worn formula? Perhaps because she has an actual character to play, neither one of the screaming victims nor a stoic hero, O’Neil/Boltres comes off as the best actor in the film, with a few small moments that suggest she knew exactly what kind of movie she was in. She doesn’t have any later screen credits, so it’s hard to say what she might have done in a better film.

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Screenwriter Allan Silliphant later claimed that his script was intended to be a spoof, with a brain-dead plot and comically obvious symbolism, and that does line up with a certain kind of gleefully acidic L.A. satire; but the end product doesn’t scan as being funny (aside from the unintentional laughs) or even ironic. It’s too out there, more like the cut-up methods William Burroughs was exploring; the contemporary equivalent to its scrambled production method might be one of those scripts generated by an A.I. after feeding it x number of sample scripts, the results inspiring the nervous laughter of seeing ourselves reflected back at us by something completely alien. As Brian Albright describes it, The Creeping Terror is “almost an un-film.” But honestly, most genre movies involve some mental sorting of this kind, separating what works from what can be enjoyed in a humorous way and what can only be discarded. This may be an extreme example, but it’s short, rarely boring, and includes several memorable sequences.

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In the lover’s lane scene, there’s a guy sitting in his car by himself, smoking a pipe, apparently spying on the young couples parking and necking, or maybe just checking up on them. When the monster shows up and starts attacking teenagers, the pipe smoker just sits and watches in disbelief before driving off. He’s the only completely passive observer in the movie. I guess he’s a little like the audience for this film: he came to see one thing, possibly with a prurient interest, but he got a lot more than he bargained for.

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Fates Worse Than Death: Les Vampires

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Philippe Guérande, investigative reporter for the Globe, arrives at his office one morning to begin another day of battling with his pen against the dangerous criminal organization known only as the Vampires. Discovering the documents of his investigation missing from his locked drawer, Guérande quickly zeroes in on a hapless coworker named Mazamette: Mazamette still has the papers on him and throws himself on Guérande’s mercy. The expense of raising his children as a single parent has driven him to seek money by illicit means. Guérande, moved by Mazamette’s plea, forgives him and decides not to call the police, to which Mazamette responds that he owes Guérande his life. (Remember that.)

Summoned by the editor in chief, Guérande is dispatched to cover his next big story: the body of Inspector Durtal, in charge of the Vampire case, has been found decapitated in a countryside marsh, his head nowhere to be found. Before he leaves Paris, Guérande’s mother tells him of an old family friend, Doctor Nox, who lives near the crime scene; Guérande pays Nox a call at the same time that a wealthy American woman, Margaret Simpson, has come to stay at Nox’s house in Chesnaye with an interest in buying his château.

While visiting with her, Guérande admires Mrs. Simpson’s fine jeweled cigarette case. Later that night, sleepless in his bed, Guérande finds a note in his pajama pocket: “Give up the search or something bad will befall you!” Curious as to where the note could have come from, Guérande searches his room and finds a sliding panel hidden in the painting over his bed, opening into a secret crawlspace. During the same night, a hooded figure enters Mrs. Simpson’s room and steals her jewelry while she is fast asleep. The next morning, Doctor Nox asks Guérande for a cigarette and expresses surprise when Guérande finds Mrs. Simpson’s cigarette case in his pocket. Almost immediately, Mrs. Simpson reports that her jewels and money have been stolen! “By fleeing the scene,” Nox says, “the thief has betrayed himself.”

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But Guérande, sensing a frame-up, has not fled: he heads straight to the district’s examining magistrate to relay his experiences and his suspicions. The magistrate has Guérande conceal himself when Doctor Nox and Mrs. Simpson arrive to report Guérande’s crime and asks them to wait in a room which he locks and places under guard so he can investigate the scene himself. When Guérande shows the magistrate the secret crawlspace behind the painting in his room, they find a small chest hidden there. However, it contains not the incriminating jewelry stolen from Mrs. Simpson, but the missing head of Inspector Durtal! Convinced of Guérande’s innocence, the magistrate returns to his office to confront Doctor Nox: but even guarded by policemen on all side, somehow Nox has disappeared, and left behind Mrs. Simpson–dead!

The only evidence left of Nox is a cast-off suit of clothes and a note: “The real Doctor Nox, whose identity I have stolen, is dead, assassinated by me. You’ll never find me. I am the Grand Vampire!” While Guérande and the magistrate marvel at the criminal’s audacity, a hooded, black-clad figure is seen clambering across the roof of the police station, having climbed up the chimney. Guérande escaped with his life and his reputation intact this time, but he will face much greater dangers as he seeks the truth in Louis Feuillade’s follow-up to his successful Fantômas series, the ten-chapter serial Les Vampires!

In this first chapter, “The Severed Head,” the influence of Fantômas is still quite clear, both in the story of an intrepid reporter battling a nefarious underworld gang and in the character of the Grand Vampire himself: a master of disguise, ruthlessly eliminating his enemies and liabilities and disappearing without a trace (not to mention that hooded costume he wears). However, there are signs of the greater freedom Feuillade would take with this story, free of the constraints of adapting a pre-existing property: in contrast to the single-minded struggle between Juve and Fantômas, Les Vampires gives Guérande (played by Édouard Mathé) a family and friends, and there are many elements of the humor and domestic drama that Feuillade incorporated into his many popular film series in other genres. Furthermore, rather than the connected features of the Fantômas saga, Les Vampires is a true serial in ten chapters, each leading to the next, and with a definite ending. Each chapter is between thirty and forty-five minutes, making the total film six and a half hours in length, by far the longest serial I have reviewed for this series.

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As Les Vampires proceeds in the second chapter, the gang strikes at a dancer, Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska), “believed to be Guérande’s fiancée,” killing her with a poisoned ring presented to her by the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) in one of his many disguises. Was she killed to strike at Guérande, or was it because she dared to portray a vampire in her ballet, symbolically invading the Vampire gang’s turf? In this chapter, Guérande himself is abducted by the Vampires and left to face the torments of the Vampire Grand Inquisitor, but he is rescued at the last minute by an unlikely savior: Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who in the first chapter swore his loyalty to Guérande and is now moonlighting as a Vampire henchman. Again, Mazamette swears that only the expense of providing for his numerous children would drive him to such employment, and he frees Guérande, allowing him to turn the tables on the Grand Inquisitor and steal a Vampire codebook before his escape.

It is in the third chapter, “The Red Cryptogram,” that Les Vampires really comes into its own with a playful combination of suspense, humor, and eroticism. First, Guérande begs off coming into the office, fatigued as he is by his experience as a captive of the Vampires. Doted upon by his mother, with whom he lives, he stays tucked in bed; but the moment she closes his bedroom door, like all kids playing hooky, he jumps up and reveals himself to be in the pink of health, even lifting some dumbbells to show how fit he is. Then he sets to work deciphering the codebook he recovered in the previous episode.

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It is also in the third chapter that Feuillade introduces his most famous creation, the muse and mistress of the Grand Vampire and the star of the floor show at the underworld nightclub The Howling Cat: Irma Vep, whose name is an anagram for–guess what?

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Played by Jeanne Roques, known by her stage name Musidora, Irma Vep essentially takes over the serial as a co-lead, appearing in every chapter after the third and even outliving the Grand Vampire, to whom she is at first a right-hand woman but whose importance increases as she moves to the center of the action. She has true star power, leaning on the double meaning of the word “vamp,” both dangerous and enticing. Interestingly, she only wears the black catsuit that is her most iconic look in one chapter (in retrospect, Marfa Koutiloff and her Vampire act seems like a dry run for Irma): the rest of the time she wears a variety of dresses, pajamas, and men’s suits depending on the role she is playing. Unlike the Grand Vampire, Irma rarely disappears into the different disguises she wears, instead playing the role of a diva showing off her various costume changes.

Most of all, Irma Vep looks modern in a way few of the other characters do and reminds the contemporary viewer that Paris was at the vanguard of both the arts and new forms of self-expression. Like all of the actors in this style of silent cinema, in which close-ups are rare, Musidora makes asides to the camera to show reactions, but unlike the others she frequently appears to be looking through the camera, directly to the audience. With her frizzy hair, dark lined eyes, and mannish clothes, Musidora presents a chic androgyny that transcends the period trappings of the story. Leaving aside such direct sartorial descendants as Catwoman or homages by later filmmakers like Georges Franju, Irma Vep lives on in the personae of such stars as Siouxsie Sioux and Helena Bonham Carter, and is the true distaff version of the iconic Fantômas.

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The fourth chapter, “The Spectre,” introduces the last new major character, a businessman named Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann). Moréno rents a flat from the Grand Vampire in another of his identities, this time a real estate agent named Treps, and specifies that he requires a safe. While “Treps” shows him a suitable apartment, Irma Vep listens from the other side of the wall. After Moréno puts a bag in the safe and leaves, Irma and the Grand Vampire open the safe from the other side of the wall by removing the back, a ploy that has obviously yielded results in the past. Does the bag contain cash, or jewels, or perhaps sensitive documents? As the pair examine the black clothing, mask, and lock-picking tools in the bag, Irma wryly concludes, “Seems to be a colleague!”

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Yes, the Vampires have some competition: Moréno, aka the Spectre, is both a fellow burglar and head of his own rival gang, and his intrusion into Vampire territory marks both an escalation of the Vampires’ reign of terror and yet another complication in Guérande’s campaign against the gang. Later, Moréno captures Guérande, and the journalist is saved only by inside knowledge of the Vampires’ next big heist, allowing Moréno to steal their loot from under the Grand Vampire’s nose. After being freed, Guérande receives a note reading “We are done . . . for now.”

Like its American contemporaries such as The Perils of Pauline, the chapters of Les Vampires are self-contained episodes, without cliffhangers. Although there are storylines that run through the entire serial, each chapter presents and resolves a situation. Largely this takes the form of a new plot or scheme on the part of the Vampires or the Spectre and Guérande’s reaction to it. The question each chapter asks is less “How is the hero going to get out of this one?” than “What will the villains do next?” Film historian David Kalat states in his commentary on the Fantômas series that Feuillade tended to improvise on the set, filming sequences based on a loose outline rather than a rigid script. (Having made hundreds of films in his career, and working quickly, he certainly would have had an idea of what would work in the moment.) If this continued to hold true during the making of Les Vampires, it comes through in the flow from one chapter to another, with a new plot or setting coming up in each one; in the gradual additions to the cast of characters; and in the escalating mayhem as Feuillade strives to top himself with increasingly apocalyptic disasters. (The sense of improvisation also comes through in one sequence where Feuillade reuses some unused footage of a Spanish bullfight, an economy that many later serials would display!)

However, the plotting within each chapter is quite clear and obviously shows some forethought, with each threat the Vampires pose having a solution that is set up within the episode. For example, when Mazamette presents Guérande with a fountain pen containing poison ink, a gadget “borrowed” from the Vampires, Guérande gives it to his mother to defend herself; when she is kidnapped and forced to write her own ransom note, the literal “poison pen” helps her escape her captors.

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From these examples, it is clear that the tone of Les Vampires is much more whimsical than that of the Fantômas features, with witty plots and comic relief characters, especially Mazamette. In one chapter, Mazamette’s son Eustache comes to stay with him and ends up helping to solve a case: the mischievous boy is played by René Poyen, alias “Bout de Zan,” star of one of Feuillade’s long-running series. It probably goes too far to say that Les Vampires is a spoof of the Fantômas films, but the injection of humor and self-awareness is a welcome change from the more claustrophobic Fantômas series. Moréno, Irma Vep, and the other Vampires are convincingly motivated by greed, pride, lust, and other recognizably human motivations, as opposed to being dedicated to crime in the abstract. Some of the nightmarish qualities of Fantômas–of characters being trapped, of secrets spilling out in torrents of Freudian symbolism–are still present, but are grounded in details of everyday life rather than suspended in a surrealistic void. The almost supernatural all-knowingness of Fantômas is replaced by a more realistic dependence on cleverness and the occasional lucky break. Instead of the sensation of being trapped within a struggle against unknown forces, there is a sense of the main characters, heroes and villains alike, playing a game–a game with life or death stakes, to be sure, but one they willingly signed up for. If the morbid terrors of Fantômas suggest Kafka at times, Les Vampires is more like Antionio Prohías’ Spy vs. Spy cartoons, playful and ironic. It is in this sense, and with its delight in inventions such as the poisoned pen or the Grand Vampire’s portable cannon, that it foreshadows the superheroics of many of the later sound serials, as well as the often fanciful exploits of James Bond and other super spies.

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What I Watched: Les Vampires (Gaumont, 1915-1916)

Where I Watched It: Kino Classic’s two-disc Blu-Ray set containing the 1996 restoration

No. of Chapters: 10

Best Chapter Title: In “The Eyes That Mesmerize” or “Hypnotic Eyes” (Chapter Six), Moréno traps Irma Vep and, using the power of his hypnotic gaze, bends her to his will, making her his lover and setting her up to kill the Grand Vampire (the serial ultimately goes through three “Grand Vampires”). This incident, and a later one in which she escapes the sinking of the ship that was to take her to an Algerian prison colony, goes a long way toward making Irma Vep more sympathetic. Ultimately, however, her experiences cause her to reaffirm her loyalty to the Vampires and she goes down fighting. The straight and narrow is not for her.

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Best Peril: As noted, the dangers into which Philippe Guérande and his friends are placed are not quite the centerpieces that they would be in later cliffhanger serials, but there are still many dangerous incidents, and a great deal of suspense is wrung out of timed explosives and poisoned wine that Guérande barely avoids. An incident that would be echoed in many later serials is typical: in Chapter Eight (“The Lord of Thunder”), Satanas (the second Grand Vampire, played by Louis Leubas) visits Guérande at his home, a time bomb hidden in his hat. Upon shaking hands with the visiting stranger, Guérande is paralyzed by a poison on a pin hidden in Satanas’ glove. While Guérande cannot move a muscle, Satanas reveals his identity to him and leaves him, the hidden explosive left behind. In a cliffhanger serial, we would have to wait for the next chapter to see the resolution, but in this case it all works out within a single episode: Mazamette arrives just in time to learn the truth and throw the hat out the window, where it explodes harmlessly.

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Sample Dialogue: “Although vice is seldom punished, virtue is always rewarded.” –Mazamette, newly wealthy after collecting the reward for the arrest of an American criminal, presenting his philosophy to a group of rapt journalists (Chapter Six)

What’s Next: This brings us to the end of the summer, but I have a few more serials I intend to get to, so stay tuned for some fall updates. I still plan on covering Feuillade’s Judex; also, Turner Classic Movies has been running Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery on Saturdays, and I’ll have a review of that once it’s finished. In the mean time, thanks for spending another summer with me!

Fates Worse Than Death: Fantômas (1913-14)

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Paris, 1913: The Princess Sonia Danidoff checks into the Royal Palace Hotel late at night. After she picks up an envelope containing 120,000 Francs in cash from the front desk, the elevator operator takes her to her room on the fourth floor (we see the elevator ascend all the way to make its importance clear). She puts the envelope and a string of pearls in a drawer and leaves the room to change into a nightgown.

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While she has stepped out, a mysterious bearded man appears from behind a curtain in the room and heads straight for the drawer. But he is interrupted by her return, and once the maid is gone he reveals himself to the Princess. Since this is a silent film, we don’t know his exact words, but when the Princess expresses her shock and demands to know his identity, he hands her a calling card: blank! He warns her not to make any noise as he takes the cash and jewelry, and then makes one last threat before gallantly kissing her hand and making his escape. The front desk is called, and the manager sends the elevator operator up to assist. The stranger lies in wait on the fourth floor, and when the operator opens the door, he pounces! The elevator begins its descent, showing each floor again on the way down. At the ground floor, the elevator operator emerges and says, “I’ll go for the police!” He leaves–but his face looks familiar. Alone, waiting for help, the Princess examines the blank card the stranger gave her, and to her astonishment, a name appears: FANTÔMAS!

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Of course, when the police arrive and the elevator is opened, the operator is discovered, unconscious, his uniform gone. A fake beard and mustache, worn by the thief, are discovered. This is a job for Inspector Juve of the Department of Security! Juve has his work cut out for him, as Fantômas always seems to be one step ahead: through his network of informants and contacts in all levels of society he always knows where the ripest pickings are to be had; he has no scruples against, murder, kidnapping, blackmail, or any other crime; and because of his penchant for disguises, no one even knows what he looks like! Why, anybody could be Fantômas–even you! Thus begins the first chapter of the 1913 film Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, the first of five Fantômas features directed by Louis Feuillade.

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Feuillade’s crime serials neither begin with Fantômas nor end with Judex (the first was preceded by a series of shorts in which Fantômas star René Navarre played a detective, and Judex was followed by a sequel, The New Mission of Judex), but the trilogy of Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex are widely available today in restored editions, and taken together they convey the sense of his influence (I had intended to cover Les Vampires in this entry, but instead I will get to it and Judex at a later time). Fantômas is not strictly a serial in the same format as the other “chapter plays” I have explored in Fates Worse Than Death (it is made up of five films, all but one around an hour in length and released in theaters at intervals of two or three months, although they are divided into chapters), but it is highly serialized nevertheless and is so influential in its imagery and plotting, particularly its characterization of the master criminal, that it feels like splitting hairs to exclude it from discussion.

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The Fantômas series was based on a popular series of pulp novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, which followed the endless (almost literally) struggle between the villainous Fantômas and the team of Inspector Juve and his friend, journalist Jerôme Fandor. Earlier this summer I said that Fu Manchu was “perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind.” Well, I am willing to admit when I am wrong, and Fantômas has Sax Rohmer’s “devil doctor” beaten by at least a year, first appearing in print in 1911 and solidifying an archetype, the modern criminal genius, that had been coming together in a nebulous way in the previous century.

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To digress: when I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories, I found it a little anticlimactic that Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, appeared in only one story, introduced and eliminated as part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempt to rid himself of his most famous creation. Aside from later writers’ use of Moriarty as a recurring nemesis in their own Holmes pastiches, many of the long-running villains of the early twentieth century like Fantômas, Fu Manchu, and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse struck me as attempts to justify and expand upon Doyle’s description of Moriarty as “the Napoleon of Crime.” However, learning that there were in the nineteenth century several criminals who engineered clever international schemes, committed infamous crimes that captured the public imagination, and who inspired grudging admiration even among those professionals who failed to catch them, and one of whom was literally described as a “Napoleon of Crime,” did serve to put Moriarty in context. Doyle’s audience didn’t need a long history of enmity to be established in the pages of Holmes’ adventures, for they already knew the type of figure Holmes described when speaking of Moriarty, and the detective’s movement from solving smaller crimes to tackling the kind of worldbeater they read about in newspapers and magazines next to the Holmes stories probably seemed like a natural progression. As in Chester Gould’s creation of Dick Tracy to battle forces of criminality that the real police couldn’t get a handle on, Doyle directed his pen toward the real crime bosses of his day, at least within the pages of his fiction.

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Such was Fantômas, but in Souvestre’s and Allain’s books, and in Feuillade’s films, the crimes he committed became surreal and grotesque, and his powers seemingly unlimited. A dead man’s fingerprints are stolen to divert blame for Fantômas’ crimes; a “silent executioner,” sent to destroy Fantômas’ enemies, turns out to be a deadly snake. As his “ghostly” name implies, Fantômas can appear or disappear almost at will, and as a master of disguise he maintains multiple identities, both respectable and criminal: posing as a landlord, he hides a corpse in a freshly-plastered wall, only to take credit for “discovering” the body in one of his other roles, an American detective. Through such strategems he is even able to convince the public and the authorities that Juve, the man hunting him, is actually Fantômas!

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Fantômas and his pursuers are closer to archetypes than fully realized characters, at least in the films (I’ll admit I haven’t read the books): there’s not much evidence that Juve or Fandor have any existence aside from their jobs, and as for Fantômas, there’s even less to him, a hollow man of a thousand faces, an embodiment of pure sociopathy. While I’ve seen the Fantômas series classified as “espionage” (a label that makes sense for its embrace of secret, international conspiracies, multiple disguises, double-crosses, and singularly heroic agents acting alone), there is little to no reference to politics in the external sense–If there is a war being waged, it is between the secret underworld of crime and an orderly society that reacts to it: in short, a “return of the repressed.” The series’ sense of morbid fantasy puts it closer to The Man Who Was Thursday than The Secret Agent.

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However, perhaps we should not be surprised that Fantômas, like Fu Manchu, or the icons of later horror films, gradually came to be treated as the hero of the series, with audiences rooting for him to get away so he can return some other time to continue entertaining us and titillating us with displays of power. As we have seen with Brazil’s Coffin Joe, conservative societies frequently find outlets for antisocial instincts in conscienceless, charismatic antiheroes. Fantômas is, as far as we know, purely in it for profit and personal power, and in a repressive society, such a figure is the ultimate individualist, and thus a potent symbol. The Surrealists who embraced Fantômas as an icon or mascot surely responded to his embrace of freedom at all costs (and generally at the expense of others) just as much as they loved the weird imagery and non sequitur plotting Souvestre and Allain cooked up in their rapid, free-associating writing partnership.

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In his commentary on the Kino Inernational DVD, film historian David Kalat comments on the series’ implicit belief in the possibility of “total disguise,” observing that when Fantômas impersonates a physician, he takes on a practice and even sees patients; when he poses as a real person, copying his appearance and mannerisms, he fools even close friends of the original. I am reminded of the later sound serials’ frequent habit of casting two different actors to play characters in disguise, so that their transformation appears to be truly complete, and their revelation is suitably surprising to the audience. Here, star René Navarre does it all himself with body language and various wigs and mustaches: in fact, most of Feuillade’s Fantômas films begin with close-ups of Navarre showing off the various disguises Fantômas will be wearing in the upcoming episode (in some, Edmund Bréon, who plays Juve, shows off his own disguises in a similar manner). Thus, even though a character is introduced as “Gurn” or “Nanteuil” or “Father Moche,” we the audience already know that it is Fantômas. Sometimes Juve or Fandor recognize their quarry right away, but other times the disguise is completely foolproof. In such cases, the suspense comes from the audience’s knowledge of what is going on, and wondering how long it will take the film’s heroes to catch on and unravel the scheme.

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In other cases, however, the audience is as mystified as Juve and Fandor, and what we get are only fragments of a plot seen from the outside, with the pleasure of seeing the pieces fall into place only at the climax, a conception of the suspense film that has come to be the norm: it feels more “traditional” to save revelations for the most dramatic moment, but it is actually the opposite, a modern approach that withholds information until the tension is at its breaking point.

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Aside from the fluidity of his identity, the other constant is Fantômas’ slipperiness: several times he is cornered, even taken into custody by the police, but each time he wriggles free by some last-minute escape hatch (one of the hallmarks of the mastermind type as seen in later serials and pulp fiction). When apprehended by Juve and Fandor outside a nightclub, Fantômas slips out of his coat, leaving the two men holding a pair of false arms; held at gunpoint in his office, he leaps backward through a false panel behind him and escapes yet again. In fact, one major difference between the Fantômas saga and most of the other serials I have covered is its open-endedness: at the end of each feature, including the last one, Fantômas manages to get away and “Once again, Fantômas, the uncanny, the master of crime, was free.” (The original novels by Souvestre and Allain ran to 32 installments, with 11 more by Allain alone; Feuillade had no more reason to close off his series permanently than the producers of the James Bond movies would.)

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While episodic, there are a few cliffhangers in the modern sense: at the end of the second feature, Juve vs. Fantômas, Fantômas blows up the house in which Juve, Fandor, and the police are searching for him, exulting at his victory. “Were Juve and Fandor killed by the explosion at Lady Beltham’s villa?” the title card asks. Answers would not be forthcoming until deep into the next feature, The Murderous Corpse, which begins with Jerôme Fandor (Georges Melchior), recovered from his injuries and investigating in the footsteps of his presumed-dead friend. (Again, the audience knows from the beginning that Juve, alive, has infiltrated the Fantômas gang in disguise, but it takes a while for Fandor to learn the truth.)Fantomas.triumphant

I would be remiss if I failed to mention one of Fantômas’ most iconic disguises: in a few episodes, when Fantômas himself deigns to get his hands dirty, he dons an all-black costume complete with a long hood like that of an inquisitor or executioner. I have frequently commented on the ubiquity of hooded villains in the later serials, and this seems to be one of the primal founts for that particular costume.

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Fantômas was an international hit: in addition to European success, the films were imported to the Americas and proved very popular (at the time, at least). William Fox handled the series in the United States and produced his own Americanized Fantomas serial (now lost) in 1920. Prior to the explosion of costumed superheroes in the 1940s, the serials and pulp magazines were full of villains (and sometimes heroes) who looked like they all shopped out of the same catalog for members of secret tribunals: it was a standard-issue costume.

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(Interestingly, Fantômas is seen only once in the film series in his other iconic costume, the eveningwear and domino mask seen on the cover of the first book and made famous as a popular poster, and that is as a daydream in which he appears to Inspector Juve, taunting him and daring him to arrest him.)

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The worldview cultivated by the Fantômas features is ultimately a paranoid one: just as the queasy ethnic stereotyping of the Fu Manchu series means that any Asian character is a target of suspicion, for they could be one of Fu Manchu’s agents, so in these films anyone you meet could turn out to be Fantômas or someone in his pocket! Lady Beltham (Renée Carl), one of the few recurring characters aside from the trio of Fantômas, Juve, and Fandor, is compromised, having been the mistress of one of Fantômas’ alter egos and subject to blackmail ever after: even the convent is no escape for her.

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The sense of persecution extends to the inexorable workings of justice, in case you were tempted to take comfort in Inspector Juve’s opposition to Fantômas. In Fantômas in the Shadow of the Guillotine, an actor who specializes in making himself up as the master criminal finds himself in prison and scheduled to be executed in Fantômas’ place! (In the film, Juve discovers the imposture just in time, but apparently in the book the miscarriage of justice is permanent; again, I haven’t read it.)

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As mentioned previously, in Fantômas vs. Fantômas (the fourth feature), the public turns against Juve, believing him to be the criminal himself (with more than a little help from Fantômas in his various identities), and he is arrested and imprisoned; incredibly, Fantômas goes so far as to bribe a guard to drug Juve and cut him so that he will have an injury matching one Fantômas had recently incurred in public, so that it will seem as if Juve had escaped to commit the crime. Yes, it is a little convoluted: no scheme is too baroque for Fantômas, and few ordinary people would have the resources and stamina of Juve and Fandor to stand up to them. In the fifth and final feature, The False Magistrate, Juve willingly takes Fantômas’ place in a Belgian prison in order to lure Fantômas back to France, where he can be subject to the death penalty, as clear an example of the policeman adopting the criminal’s way of thinking as you’ll find.

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In the Fantômas series, the ubiquity of masks, assumed identities, and deadly secrets is thrilling to watch, but becomes oppressive after a while. The setting also contributes to this feeling: beneath the modern Paris of neat row houses and elegant society are the catacombs and secret passages through cellars and abandoned warehouses, and above are the moonlit rooftops over which black-clad cat burglars and assassins nimbly make their way. The secret world of cutpurses, fences, and killers is separated from ordinary life by only the thinnest of membranes, and the naïve forget it at their peril. Although largely filmed on location in and around the city, the persistence of shadows and crumbling, empty places anticipates the stark, agonistic productions of German expressionism that would arise in the next decade. Paris á la Fantômas is a place full of wonders, but dangerous in which to linger.

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What I Watched: The Fantômas series (Gaumont, 1913-14)
Where I Watched It: A 3-DVD set from Kino International (This is a restored version undertaken in 1998; it also includes the commentary by film historian David Kalat I have alluded to above.)
No. of Chapters: As mentioned, this isn’t quite in the format of a serial as it would be understood later, but the five features that make up the Fantômas saga are themselves divided into chapters, so taken altogether there are 22 including prologues.
Best Chapter Title: I like the title of the second chapter of Fantômas vs. Fantômas, “The Bleeding Wall,” which is not a metaphor.

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Best Peril: As noted, there are only a few genuine cliffhangers (I don’t really count Fantômas’ inevitable escapes, which are more like hooks for future adventures), but chapters within each feature are (unsurprisingly) more like chapters in a book than the sequence of perilous episodes found in a serial proper, each chapter developing one of several mysteries which, when taken all together, explain Fantômas’ overall scheme. Although not a peril faced by Juve or Fandor, it’s hard to top the sequence in The False Magistrate in which Fantômas sends one of his underlings to fetch some jewelry hidden inside a church bell and then leaves him stranded in the bell tower; the next time the bell is rung, a shower of hidden jewels and blood from his mutilated body falls on the funeralgoers below. No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it demonstrates the degree to which the world of Fantômas is one of free-associating dreams and nightmares. In a series full of Grand Guignol horrors, this is one of the grandest.

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Sample Dialogue: “If you are Fantômas, we want our cut, tout de suite. If you are Juve, then it’s bad news for you.” –a member of Fantômas’ gang, still under the impression that Inspector Juve is secretly their leader, in Fantômas vs. Fantômas Chapter Four, “Settling Accounts”

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What’s Next: Next week, I’ll continue the Feuillade theme with his follow-up serial, Les Vampires (and this time I really mean it!).

Fates Worse Than Death: The Adventures of Rex and Rinty

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On the small island of Sujan, whose people venerate the Horse “as sincerely as did the Assyrians the Bull; the Egyptians the Cat; or the Mayans the feathered Serpent,” a group of Americans haggle with the high priest Tanaga, wanting to buy one of the fine animals, but the horses are not for sale for any price. In order to prove his point, Tanaga shows the incredulous Americans the “god-horse,” a black Arabian who is the living incarnation of their god; the god-horse lives in a sort of preserve, protected by the mounted Royal Guards, except when he is paraded through the village to the temple for important ceremonies. Of course, this is the horse the Americans most want, and they hatch a scheme to steal him. They successfully kidnap the god-horse, leaving Wheeler, one of their own, behind to die. The horse is taken to America, where their buyer Crawford (Harry Woods), an “unscrupulous polo player,” is determined to break him to the saddle. When that inevitably fails and the horse escapes into the countryside, Crawford is determined to stop at nothing to get it back.

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Enter Rinty, a stray dog “with near human intelligence.” Rinty is first shown scrounging for scraps in alleys and outsmarting a jewel thief who pretends to be blind to escape a police manhunt. Meanwhile, at the Bruce Riding Academy, we meet our (human) heroes, star polo player Frank Bradley (Kane Richmond) and Dorothy Bruce (Norma Taylor), daughter of the Academy’s owner and a rider in her own right. Crawford makes an appearance, just long enough to establish that he’s a “bad feller” who threatens to shoot Rinty if he gets in his way again.

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Out in the country, Rinty gets stuck in a hunter’s trap, and when the god-horse finds him and helps him free his leg, the two animals become fast friends and inseparable companions. When the god-horse takes refuge from the men hunting him in an abandoned mine and gets tangled up in rope, Rinty runs to the Academy and gets Dorothy’s attention: “What’s the matter, boy? He’s trying to tell us something!” Crawford’s men attempt to smoke out the horse, not knowing that he’s tied up; Rinty attacks them; and Dorothy rides to the rescue before falling off her horse for no apparent reason at all other than increasing the suspense. Then the mine caves in. Thus ends Chapter One (“The God Horse of Sujan”) of The Adventures of Rex and Rinty!

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Once the god-horse is (of course) recovered safely, Dorothy and Frank take him to the Academy, where Frank recognizes his quality and promises to restore him to his rightful owner, should such appear–but not before (gently) breaking him to a saddle and maybe taking him out for a round or two in the next big polo match! Crawford recognizes the black Arabian when they play together, and begins scheming to get it back, legally or otherwise. The pattern is established: the horse is stolen, or escapes, and goes back and forth between Frank and Crawford, with a few episodes where the horse is out on his own with Rinty. Crawford, at first merely a bad sport, goes full gangster, bellowing threats and sending his underlings out to do his dirty work–and it does get dirty, up to and including murder. There are lots of guns drawn and shots fired along the way, but anytime things get too dangerous for our heroes, one of the bad guys says something like, “Put that thing away! You could hit the horse!” It’s no good to Crawford dead or injured.

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And since Rex (“King of the Wild Horses”) and Rinty (Rin-Tin-Tin Jr.) are the title characters, they get lots of opportunities to show what they can do, and their characters at least do display more intelligence than the people around them most of the time. (It’s worth noting that at some point Frank and Dorothy start calling them “Rex” and “Rinty,” but there’s never a scene where they come up with names or say “I will now call you . . .” There’s some of the same fluidity of names I’ve noticed in other Mascot serials, such as the conflation of the “Thunder Riders” with Queen Tika’s royal guard in The Phantom Empire from around the same time.)

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Mitchell (Al Bridge) writes a dying message on Frank’s bridle after being double-crossed by Crawford

There is also a subplot involving the Sujan islanders’ attempt to get their god back: Wheeler (Wheeler Oakman, a frequent presence in this series), left behind by his countrymen, is forced to bring Pasha (Pedro Regas), one of Tanaga’s men, with him to America to recover the horse. He reconnects with Crawford, only to double-cross him. Pasha uses his (non-lethal) blowgun to knock out Frank and others who stand in his way; he also psychically communicates with Tanaga (Mischa Auer) to update him and receive instructions, but only in the presence of the god-horse. Ultimately, Wheeler makes the mistake of putting his own life before the god-horse’s and Pasha realizes how untrustworthy he is. Recognizing that Frank Bradley sincerely wants to return Rex to his rightful owner, Pasha switches sides and communicates to Tanaga that Frank is an ally. This is crucially important once the action moves back to Sujan in the last couple of chapters.

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There is in general a certain malleable treatment of time and place which makes the Mascot serials feel particularly dreamlike: although the characters travel back and forth (mostly between the Riding Academy and Crawford’s ranch), the amount of time it takes depends entirely on the amount of business that needs to take place between arrivals. Jensen, the comic-relief stable hand played by Smiley Burnette, is especially apt to turn up wherever he is most convenient to the plot: in one scene he is present when Rex is stolen from the Riding Academy’s barn; then, in practically no time at all, he is found lounging on a riverbank with a fishing pole (and not, say, looking for that goddam stolen horse). Most films play this sleight-of-hand game for the sake of pacing or using interesting locations, of course, but it is particularly noticeable here. Being one of the last serials Mascot made before reorganizing and becoming Republic, there are many elements here that would become part of producer Nat Levine’s winning formula–near-continuous music; a mixture of action, characterization, and comic relief; and even such touches as the art-deco title cards used in the recaps at the beginning of each chapter–but that looseness is one quality that I miss in the more “professional” Republic serials.

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The fistfights, gunplay, and chases typical of serials blend surprisingly well with the more sentimental tone struck by extended scenes of the two animal stars exploring or interacting. I have already alluded to the frequently-used device of Rinty getting help from one of the humans and taking them to the scene where they are needed, so similar to the scrapes Lassie or Benji would be getting into decades later. The bulk of Chapter Five, “Babes in the Woods,” is taken up by an episode in which a little boy, lost in the country, is imprisoned by a hermit (a prospector? a moonshiner? the Unabomber?) in his shack. The boy is freed by Rinty and then rides away on Rex before the hermit even realizes he’s losing his prize. The lad turns out to be wealthy heir Junior Hammond, and the publicity surrounding the boy’s rescue leads Frank and Dorothy to head straight for Hammond’s home to claim Rex before Crawford can do the same. (Amusingly, while Frank demands ironclad proof of ownership before relinquishing Rex, Hammond Sr. accepts Frank’s word without question before disappearing from the story.) This is the kind of plot that could either be expanded to fill an entire serial or could be one of many episodes as Rex and Rinty wander the countryside helping people, but here it’s sort of an undeveloped side quest.

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Several serials of the 1930s featured animal heroes. The original Rin-Tin-Tin, a German shepherd rescued from a World War I battlefield, was the star of numerous films until his death in 1932, including two earlier Mascot serials; Rex and Rinty was the third to star Rin-Tin-Tin, Jr. Rex had a career of a decade and a half, earning his nickname “King of the Wild Horses” by starring in a film by that name in 1924; Rex and Rinty was near the end of his career and his last serial appearance. (Although billed as Rex, the “King of the Wild Horses” who later appeared in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, which I reviewed way back in the first “season” of Fates Worse Than Death, was apparently a different horse.)

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Finally, the other element that appears unusual to a modern viewer is the focus on polo. There is even a brief training montage, a device I haven’t seen used much in the serials, in which Frank trains Rex to wear a saddle and play the game. Now stereotyped as a pastime of wealthy elites, polo was evidently widespread enough in the 1930s to be part of popular culture without making a specific comment on class (recall that Flash Gordon was originally a polo player, not a football star). Surely the widespread use of horses in comparison to today was part of this, although even in the mid-’30s the writing was on the wall. In general I haven’t seen very many serials focused on sports of any kind (give or take an automobile or aeroplane race, which is cinematically close enough to a chase to satisfy the need for action), although I know some were made. In Rex and Rinty, scenes from polo matches are part of the action in a few chapters, and the atmosphere and variety of people–wealthy owners, competitive athletes, the unsavory hangers-on and spectators of all classes–are very similar to the way horse racing is portrayed on screen today (in fact, Chapter Two, which prominently features a match, is titled “Sport of Kings”). As a setting, the Bruce Riding Academy and its field are not as ritzy as a country club, and the atmosphere is similar to the small, private airfields that similarly populate the serials of the time period: a hub of activity where different kinds of people and their stories intersect.

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I haven’t seen any other serial that’s quite like this one. The combination of animal heroism, sport, horseback intrigue similar to the modern Western, and Eastern mysticism (however fanciful) more typical of the adventure-exploration genre, makes for an unusual blend of story elements.

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What I Watched: The Adventures of Rex and Rinty (Mascot, 1935)

Where I Watched It: It’s on YouTube. I had to hunt around a bit to see all the chapters in order, but they’re all there.

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No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “New Gods for Old” (Chapter Eleven)

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Best Cliffhanger: Taking place largely on horseback, several cliffhangers involve people falling off their mounts, whether it be while chasing someone, playing polo, or simply crossing an open field. Being a Mascot serial, there are also a few examples of people appearing to be shot and dropping to the ground, only for the resolution to change the context so that they fell down for some other reason or were just faking it. There are a couple of car crashes, too, and I think my favorite is the end of Chapter Seven (“End of the Road”), in which Dorothy and Jensen drive through a road construction barrier to get away from Crawford’s men, only to abruptly drive over an unfinished bridge. This one isn’t technically a cheat, since it cuts off quickly once the precipice comes into view; at the beginning of the next chapter, their car is stuck hanging, the front wheels having gone over the edge before the car stopped.

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Sample Dialogue:

Wheeler, drawing his gun: Want me to take care of that dog?

Pasha: No! He is a friend of the god-horse.

–Chapter Four, “Homeward Bound”

What Others Have Said: “These horses are all furnished, like most movie horses, by a livestock supplier, to the order of the production people. . . . Most of these aren’t trick or fancy animals, just run-of-the-mill stock. But they are experienced actors. They can walk over snaky electric cables, have lights flashed in their eyes, walk right up to a whirring camera, or have a gun fired off in their ear, all without it bothering them. . . . Some animals possess special talents. How many times, in various movies, have you seen a big black stallion rear high on his hind legs and strike with his front feet? That was probably all the same horse, the star of the old ‘Fury’ series. He was so good at his job that he was used in dozens of pictures, where a rearing stallion was needed. In some cases, even the script was changed to make the black horse fit. Remember Will James’ book, Smoky? Smoky was a blue dun in the book, but a black on the screen!”

–Don Coldsmith, “Animal Actors” in Horsin’ Around (Note that Coldsmith’s examples are from a good deal later than Rex and Rinty–I don’t wish to imply that he’s writing specifically about Rex!)

What’s Next: I’m taking a detour to France with a look at Louis Feuillade’s silent serial, Les Vampires (actually, it ended up being Fantomas)!

 

Fates Worse Than Death: Drums of Fu Manchu

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A man steps into a taxi; at every step of his journey, he is being followed as he makes his way to his destination. Just as the traveler reaches safety, one of the lurking pursuers attacks, throwing a knife that the would-be victim only barely dodges! The man? Sir Denis Nayland Smith of the British Foreign Office. His attacker? A Dacoit in the service of Smith’s deadly archenemy, Dr. Fu Manchu!

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Just as the first of the popular series of novels by Sax Rohmer (real name: Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward) begins, so begins Drums of Fu Manchu, the 1940 Republic serial loosely adapted from them. As in Rohmer’s books, the only thing standing between the fiendishly brilliant “devil doctor” and “nothing less than the conquest of Asia” is Smith (played by William Royle), a hero who stands midway between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (temporally as well as in style); and his assistant, Dr. Petrie (it was Dr. Petrie’s doorstep on which Smith was attacked in the first scene). There is usually also a younger man of action who encounters the diabolical conspiracies surrounding Fu Manchu and his secret organization, the Si Fan, as a newcomer, drawn in by some personal connection and allying himself with Smith and Petrie once the stakes are clear to him. In Drums, that young man is Allan Parker (Robert Kellard), son of James Parker, an explorer in possession of knowledge desired by Fu Manchu.

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Fu Manchu’s goal is to recover the sacred scepter of Genghis Khan, an artifact which will allow him to unite all of the peoples of Asia in rebellion against the white occupiers. According to prophecy, a leader will arise to take up the scepter during the “Holy Year”–Sir Nayland has spent months undercover in Burma observing Fu Manchu’s surrogates riling up the local tribes “from the Nihali Mountains through Branapuhr,” in expectation of the leader’s–Fu Manchu’s–arrival. From the point of view of the British authorities, the High Lama is a much better candidate to receive the scepter, as he promises peace (and continuing cooperation with the British, naturally). Both Fu Manchu and Sir Nayland Smith must work through the various clues left behind–scrolls, a plaque, a stone from an altar, and so on–to locate the missing tomb of Genghis Khan, each trying to recover the scepter first. Even once the action moves back to Asia and the scepter is found, the serial isn’t over.

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In order to accomplish his goals, Fu Manchu has (and will again) resorted to murder: the explorer Lionel Barton, whose transcriptions of certain scrolls revealed the existence of the scepter, is already out of the way. Dr. Parker will be next, and things aren’t looking too good for Professor Randolph, an expert on Mongolian languages who accompanied Barton on his expedition. Another victim is Wally Winchester, the radio columnist who is felled by a “gelatinous dart” hidden in his microphone, right before he attempts to reveal on-air the hideout in which Fu Manchu has Parker held captive! Elaborate murders, death-traps, and methods of torture are Fu Manchu’s stock in trade, and they complement the Republic serial style quite smoothly: many of the serial’s cliffhangers consist of traps or torture devices, the question of the hero’s survival left for the following week, and in other cases they are incidents along the way or the basis for action set pieces.

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Most of these killings are accompanied by the drums of the title: a sinister drumbeat that builds ominously, indicating the presence of the villain. It’s not always clear what or where the drums are: sometimes they are part of the diegetic sound of the film, and the characters call attention to them, knowing that they are threatened. At other times they are a spooky, atmospheric effect, ladled onto the soundtrack like gravy. In any case, they are never directly explained, but they are an effective dramatic device, and a symbol of the atmosphere of dread that hangs over the whole serial like opium smoke.

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At the center of this malign web is Fu Manchu himself, played by Henry Brandon. Fu Manchu is one of the great pop culture villains, perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind, and has been portrayed on screen by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, among others (even Warner Oland, who would later give the best-known portrayal of Charlie Chan, took a turn as the devil doctor early in his career). Here’s what Sir Nayland has to say to Dr. Petrie in their first adventure together:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.

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The unironic use of the phrase “yellow peril” suggests, of course, that the character has little to do with the actual culture or politics of Asia and everything to do with the West’s anxieties and fears of same. (It should also be clear that, in addition to his vicious, criminal acts, Fu Manchu’s dream of throwing off British imperialism is enough by itself to make him villainous in Sir Nayland Smith’s eyes.) Fu Manchu embodies a host of troublesome, contradictory stereotypes: he is bound by a strong sense of honor, yet is underhanded, secretive, and treacherous; he is described in terms that seem physically inhuman and is completely exotic in his costume, yet his knowledge of white ways and mastery of disguise allow him to blend in undetected in Europe or America; he is coded as effete, even effeminate, but represents a sexual danger to white women (this doesn’t come through as strongly in the Hays Code-approved serial, but it often does in other representations of the character); in short, he can be anywhere and can be anything that inspires fear or disgust in his (presumably white) audience. (His command of all Asians also has the unpleasant side effect of making non-white characters appear suspicious, beyond even their usual portrayal as others: in this serial, just about anybody in a turban or robe could be a member of the Si Fan.)

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This is, of course, why none of the actors famous for playing the character were themselves of Asian descent, and a big reason why the character has made few official appearances in recent decades, even as he remains recognizable as an icon. Fu Manchu is now more likely to be spoofed (his last official appearance was in 1980, played by Peter Sellers) or subverted (consider the twist in Iron Man 3) than taken seriously: even among those who still traffic in “yellow peril” anxiety, the Asian villains have been updated to take advantage of current political and economic tensions. (But who knows? Even as I write this a trade war with China is in the offing, and the white nationalism currently embroiling the country has much in common with the panic over immigration that made Fu Manchu and other yellow peril characters so popular a hundred years ago; as much as I would like to consider these stereotypes as a purely academic matter, they are still very much with us.)

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Brandon’s portrayal hits these notes often and hard: he speaks in a high, querulous voice, drawing out words with exacting precision, and delivers his lines with haughty condescension. He is a “villain you love to hate.” (Although Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies is largely a riff on James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, there’s more than a little of Fu Manchu in him as well, particularly the scenes of gathering his varied henchmen around a conference table, so like the Si Fan council meetings.*) Unlike many other serials, Drums of Fu Manchu keeps its villain front and center, confronting the heroes face to face often rather than keeping distance between them. And why not? Fu Manchu is the star, not Sir Nayland Smith (a point made brilliantly in Gahan Wilson’s short story “The Power of the Mandarin,” which I recommend but won’t spoil).

*On the other hand, Dr. Evil is also said to be modeled on Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, and I’ve never seen Michaels and Fu Manchu in the same room together, have you?

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In Fu Manchu’s service are his Dacoits, mostly interchangeable goons sent on missions of burglary, kidnapping, and assassination, sometimes under the direct leadership of Fu Manchu’s daughter, Fah Lo Suee (Gloria Franklin). The Dacoits’ primary weapon is the throwing knife, but strangling nooses and blowguns–both “exotic weapons”–come into play as well. The word dacoit refers to a Burmese bandit or robber, but in Sax Rohmer’s books they are one of several cult-like organizations, along with the Thuggee, who serve Fu Manchu with undying loyalty. In the serial, the Dacoits have had their brains operated on to make them loyal, and they are recognizable by the grotesque scars left by the surgery. Only a few have names (chief among them Loki, Fu Manchu’s muscle and leader of the other Dacoits), and they are narratively equivalent to the zombies of Haitian voodoo (in fact, in one chapter Nayland Smith is himself threatened with being turned into a Dacoit, a true fate worse than death!).

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It should be evident from this partial description that there are quite a few characters in Drums of Fu Manchu, and that’s not even getting into the one-chapter characters like Ezra Howard, the eccentric collector from whom one of the clues must be finessed. I also haven’t mentioned Mary Randolph (Luana Walters), Professor Randolph’s daughter, first seen bringing the “Dalai Plaque” by train and joining the heroes’ forces after an attempted theft and the sabotage of the train. Mary is naturally paired up with Allan Parker as a romantic lead, and she also counters Fah Lo Suee, the other important female character. Allan Parker and Sir Nayland Smith essentially take turns as leads, one frequently falling into peril (when it isn’t Mary in distress) and the other arriving to save the day. Interestingly, Dr. Petrie (Olaf Hytten), Smith’s nominal sidekick, frequently fades into the background in the serial while other characters take more active roles.

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Drums of Fu Manchu is ultimately more like the popular image of serials than many of the serials I’ve seen: because Fu Manchu makes a personal appearance in every chapter, we are treated to many scenes of him delivering deliciously arch monologues to his intended victims, bound and awaiting death by some slow, gruesome mechanism: “I have a number of Oriental devices for extracting information from stubborn witnesses, but I’m honoring you by the use of an arrangement invented by one of your own countrymen,” he tells Allan Parker in a typical example. “You’re undoubtedly familiar with the admirable writings of Edgar Allan Poe? So you will have no difficulty in recognizing this device, described in his short story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.'” The rest of the scene, as they say, writes itself.

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Furthermore, whereas even many serials based on series characters are self-contained, Drums of Fu Manchu never lets us forget that it is but one episode in a never-ending struggle. “From the pages of fiction steps the most sinister figure of all time–FU MANCHU!” reads the opening crawl. “Schooled in the ancient mysteries of the Orient he is as modern as Tomorrow!” Even though this is Republic’s only Fu Manchu serial (a sequel was proposed, but was dropped because of the wartime alliance with China), his familiarity to audiences (in addition to the novels, Fu Manchu was a multimedia sensation, with previous film appearances, radio programs, and comics) provided a sense of continuity. The introduction of the characters in the first chapter implies earlier adventures, and–very unusually–the serial ends with a single scene of Fu Manchu, alone, still alive, and vowing to continue his war upon the West: “But there will dawn another day, a day of reckoning, when the forces of Fu Manchu will sweep on to victory! This I pledge.” To the end, he is far too dignified to shake his fist and cry, “I’ll get you next time, Nayland Smith!”, but the meaning is the same.

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What I Watched: Drums of Fu Manchu (Republic, 1940)

Where I Watched It: a 2-disc DVD set from VCI Entertainment

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No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Dials a Number” (Chapter Six) In this chapter, Allan Parker is left tied up next to a telephone whose ringer has been attached to the fuse of an explosive; as soon as either Fu Manchu or Sir Nayland Smith attempt to call, it’s curtains for Allan!

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Best Cliffhanger: As often happens, the title of Chapter Nine, “The Crystal of Death,” foreshadows the cliffhanging peril that will end the chapter. In this chapter, Fu Manchu, having abducted Mary, brings her to the temple of the sun goddess Kardac. Sir Nayland Smith is already there, trying to gain the information from the temple priest that both he and Fu Manchu are seeking (both are in possession of a fragment of the temple’s altar, one the original and the other a replica). Fu Manchu reminds the priest that prophecy says the goddess will speak when the true fragment of the altar is replaced, and speak she does, demanding a sacrifice to atone for the desecration of the temple by outsiders (strange, though, that the goddess’s voice sounds so much like Fah Lo Suee’s!). Mary, placed in a trance by the “incense of obedience,” is laid out on the altar, and sunlight from outside is projected (via a series of mirrors) through the temple’s sacred crystal, which focuses it into a powerfully destructive ray. As the ray moves slowly toward Mary, the small idols on the altar burst into flame, showing just how intensely hot it is. Somewhere, the drums of Fu Manchu begin their relentless tattoo, the pulsing drumbeat that spells doom. . . .

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Sample Dialogue: “May I remind you that among my people, honor is a sacred thing, and those who defile it can expect no mercy!” –Fu Manchu to Mary Randolph, Chapter Three (“Ransom in the Sky”)

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Bonus Sample Dialogue: “Illustrious father, the switch is open; both trains are on the same track; and when they meet, the Sunrise Limited will be but a thing of twisted metal.” –Fah Lo Suee to Fu Manchu on the telephone, Chapter One (“Fu Manchu Strikes”)

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Death by Octopus? Of course.

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Death by Cave-In? You know it.

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Villain Disguises Himself as Hero? Without a doubt.

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Where in the World is Fu Manchu? Note the address on the packing crate: this must be on the same map as Gotham City and Yoknapatawpha County.

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What Others Have Said: “William Witney and John English, mentioned throughout this book as the most professional directors of movie serials, directed Drums of Fu Manchu. Working with photographer William Nobels, the directing team stressed the mystery elements inherent in the Fu Manchu novels, unlike most of their action-oriented photoplays. [There is still quite a bit of action, however. –GV] Most of their serial was photographed in shadows with the eeriest lighting possible falling upon Fu. Before he made his appearance the almost supernatural drums of Fu Manchu began to sound from nowhere. There was no denying the fact that the Witney-English Fu Manchu was more than human and possessed weird powers not even hinted at in the novels.” Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s Next: I’ll be back in two weeks with a look at Adventures of Captain Africa, the sequel/rehash of The Phantom. I hope you’ll join me.

Fates Worse Than Death: Adventures of Captain Marvel

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Deep in the rugged mountains between Siam and Burma, the Malcolm Archaeological Expedition has reached its destination, the Valley of the Tombs, in the shadow of Mount Scorpio. Despite warnings from local tribesmen that the Valley is taboo, John Malcolm is determined to open the sealed inner tomb, unlocking the “lost secret of the Scorpion Dynasty.” The expedition’s translator, native Tal Chotali, reads an inscription: “Let what reposes behind this stone remain hidden from the eyes of mankind for all time.” A terrible curse is about to be unleashed! The youngest member of the expedition, Billy Batson, wants no part of tomb raiding, so he leaves the room. The expedition members open the tomb without him, uncovering a fabulous scorpion-shaped idol holding a series of lenses in its claws. As soon as they move the lenses to line up with a beam of sunlight, it releases a burst of energy that shakes the earth and traps the men inside the chamber.

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Meanwhile, Billy wanders into another chamber of the tomb; to his shock, a previously sealed tomb opens, and an impossibly old man steps out! Because he did not desecrate the tomb, Billy Batson is to be given the mantle of Captain Marvel to protect the innocent from the power the scorpion idol is about to unleash. Captain Marvel combines the virtues of six mythological figures: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. The initials of these six names combine into the magic word “Shazam” (also the name of the wizard), with which Billy transforms into Captain Marvel and back again. He is put to the test immediately, becoming Captain Marvel to rescue the explorers who have been trapped in the cave-in.

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Once everyone is outside and reunited (and Billy is himself again), the members of the expedition learn just how powerful the scorpion idol is: sunlight focused through its lenses in the right order can turn ordinary rocks into gold, or generate an incredibly powerful ray (later it is referred to specifically as a “solar atom smasher”). Recognizing that the idol is too powerful for one man to control, and that it would be a target for theft, the members of the expedition divide the lenses between themselves, each man to guard and keep one safe; the power of the idol will never be used unless it is by the assent of the entire group.

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That night, the expedition’s stockade is attacked by native tribesmen on horseback, led by a hooded mastermind who calls himself “the Scorpion.” The Scorpion claims to speak for the tribe’s god, and his goal is to reunite the idol with its lenses and use its power for conquest. During the assault, one of the expedition members is killed and the idol stolen. Billy Batson goes into action as Captain Marvel once again, routing the attackers, but unbeknownst to him the tribesmen have also planted dynamite beneath the bridge leading from the encampment: will the expedition’s retreat be thwarted by the explosives, or will Captain Marvel save the day? All of this occurs in the first (double length) chapter of the classic 1941 Republic serial, Adventures of Captain Marvel!

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Captain Marvel, co-created by Fawcett writer Bill Parker and artist C. C. Beck, was one of many superheroes who appeared in the wake of Superman’s success, and among the most popular, even outselling Superman himself during his heyday. Much has been written elsewhere about the lawsuit National (later DC) filed against Fawcett alleging copyright infringement, and the long legal battle that followed (I have touched on it here). Ultimately, Fawcett ceased publishing Captain Marvel comics in 1953, exhausted by the legal battle and faced with declining sales, and the hero was licensed by DC in the 1970s as “Shazam” (the name “Captain Marvel” having been claimed by Marvel Comics in the interim) and bought outright in 1980; a live-action Shazam movie is scheduled to be released in 2019 as part of DC’s ongoing film universe.

 

As of 1941, however, Captain Marvel was riding high, and became the first comic book superhero to make the leap to the big screen (ironically enough, Republic tried to make a deal to adapt Superman first, but it ultimately fell through and Superman first appeared in theaters in a series of animated cartoons; the hero would be a latecomer to the film serials, not appearing in live action until 1948). In reading about Adventures of Captain Marvel (no “the”), I was struck by the way it follows typical serial procedure in adapting its source material, tying the hero’s origin to its villain and putting the scorpion idol and its lenses at the center of the story. I assumed that it was another case of Republic adapting the source material “in name only” as they would later do with Captain America, so it was a pleasant surprise to see how faithful to the comics the serial was in many other respects.

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The biggest difference is the serial’s connection of Shazam to the Scorpion tomb, but otherwise Captain Marvel’s origin in the comics was similar: in Whiz Comics no. 2, Billy Batson, an orphaned newsboy (an actual boy, unlike the boyish young adult Billy played by Frank Coghlan, Jr. in the serial) was led to the wizard Shazam in an abandoned subway tunnel, and he was given the assignment to protect humanity as an ongoing mission rather than a specific task. But the magic word, the mythological connections, and Captain Marvel’s powers are all there. What’s more, the serial Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) looks a great deal more like his comic book counterpart than the serial versions of Batman or Captain America do, wearing a good-looking uniform and even appearing to fly through the air.

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All of the effects in this serial, by Republic’s stalwart team of Howard and Theodore Lydecker, are top-notch, including those convincing flight sequences and many of the miniatures (sorry, “scale models”) for which the Lydeckers are famous. The illusion of flight was achieved by a variety of techniques, including a papier-maché dummy strung on a wire for the long shots, cut together with shots of Tom Tyler (or his double, legendary stuntman Dave Sharpe) leaping into the air from a hidden trampoline or coming in for a landing in slow motion. (Sharpe was also responsible for Captain Marvel’s athletic moves during fight scenes, including an amazing, back-flipping kick in the first chapter.) The wires are visible in some of the shots of Tyler suspended in mid-air, clouds whizzing by, but they are easy to overlook if you are as fascinated by practical effects as I am, or if, like the young and young-at-heart audiences to which the serial is directed, you’re so swept up in the story that you don’t even notice them. The flight effects look good “for their time,” but even now one has to appreciate the ambition it took to attempt them in live action (recall that the same effects in the later Superman serials were achieved with animation). And like the best cinematic fantasy, the story, in its surging forward motion, demands belief as the price of admission where scenes viewed in isolation might provoke skepticism.

Another contrast with the comics is its tone. Captain Marvel’s adventures in the comics (mostly written by pulpsmith Otto Binder) were fantastic exercises in whimsy, often to the point of silliness, held together with fairy-tale logic or wordplay. Captain Marvel traveled to exotic foreign countries and even other planets; he fought mad scientists and magicians (his most famous recurring nemesis, Dr. Sivana, was the former); he added the growing “Marvel family” to his supporting cast, including Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel, Jr., and even “Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny”; he even made friends with a talking tiger who became his roommate! And all of this is balanced with the fantasy of being a boy but living independently (after being a newsboy, Billy Batson held down a job as an announcer for radio station WHIZ). Binder’s fanciful stories were a perfect match for Beck’s clean, simple drawing style, and the nuttiness of the plots is comparable to the mischief William Marston’s Wonder Woman would get up to over at National, but without the marked gender play (in fact, Captain Marvel is a notably prepubescent fantasy, as the hero would become nervous and shy around women, resisting the overtures of Dr. Sivana’s daughter Beautia). As Matt Singer notes (in his essay accompanying the Kino Lorber Blu-ray), the brilliance of the Billy/Captain Marvel divide was that it “fused hero and sidekick into a single figure.”

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By contrast, the serial’s tone is serious, if not downright grim. Gone are Dr. Sivana’s whimsical schemes (in fact, gone is Dr. Sivana), gone are the talking animals and such fanciful locations as the “Rock of Eternity” (the heaven in which the late wizard Shazam now dwells in spirit form). Instead of being matched against other superpowered beings, Captain Marvel wastes an army of generic fedora-wearing henchmen (and I do mean wastes: writer Tom Weaver points out that Captain Marvel kills more people than the villain in this serial, throwing them off buildings or turning their own guns against them). Animation historian Jerry Beck rightly compares Captain Marvel in his scenes to a Universal monster, breaking down doors and pressing forward in the face of gunfire that bounces off of him harmlessly (at least the thugs don’t try the last-ditch effort of throwing their empty guns at him, as seen so often in the Superman TV series), his smile “more like an animal bearing its teeth.” Once the Scorpion’s men know what they’re up against, their reaction is one of sheer terror.

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Other ingredients that contribute to the serious tone are standard serial fare: the archaeological expedition, as well as the curse that followed the opening of the tomb (inspired by the supposed curse of King Tut’s tomb), were common features of serials in the 1930s (and a prime inspiration for the Indiana Jones series, of course); the serial begins and ends in the Valley of the Tombs (propped up with footage from earlier movies), even though the rest of the action takes place in America. Of course the Scorpion himself, the hooded figure of evil derived from the Grand Guignol theater and the mystery novels of Edgar Wallace, is a key element of the serial vocabulary, as is the Scorpion’s methodical elimination of the expedition members, collecting their lenses one by one, even as he himself is secretly one of their number. Only in the last chapter is the Scorpion’s true identity revealed; in fact, his lines are spoken throughout by uncredited actor Gerald Mohr, just to make sure we don’t guess prematurely. (The need to avoid spoiling the surprise leads to some amusing decisions: in one chapter, the members of the expedition abandon a sinking ship and make their way to land by rope; Betty, the story’s lone female character, goes to her cabin to retrieve something, only to be knocked unconscious by the Scorpion–in costume–and left to sink with the ship. It should be obvious that the Scorpion has no reason to hide his identity from one he believes will soon be dead, and that sneaking around in costume increases the risk of being caught, but the costume is for the benefit of the audience, not the Scorpion’s victims.) Even at the end, when there are only two suspects left, and one shoots the other, revealing his true identity, the scene is filmed in shadow, the voices disguised, so as to preserve the delicious moment when Captain Marvel can pull off the captive Scorpion’s mask himself for all to see.

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Still, the mood is not too heavy, leavened by swiftly-moving action and dialogue and a rapid-fire change of scenes. Coghlan’s Billy, as well as his youthful friends Whitey (William Benedict) and Betty (Louise Currie), are a big part of that, striking a “gee whiz” attitude midway between the kid-oriented comics and the deadly serious business of the Scorpion. Adventures of Captain Marvel is frequently held up as one of the best serials of all time, and it is easy to see why: all of the technical resources of Republic are working at their peak, from the Lydecker brothers’ fantastic effects to the direction of serial superteam William Witney and John English and the stirring music by Cy Feuer. A solid script provides plenty of opportunities for the cast (including, in addition to the leads, such frequently-seen character actors as John Davidson, who plays the enigmatic Tal Chotali) to develop their characters (within a framework primarily defined by action and intrigue, of course).

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Furthermore, while I have sometimes expressed boredom at the formulaic nature of Republic’s later serials in comparison to the wild and weird serials of the 1930s, at the sense that they run too smoothly, Captain Marvel strikes a very satisfying balance between technical precision and characters who still act human, who are capable of surprising. (It probably helps that Republic was not yet at the point of recycling entire cliffhangers, so the situations flow organically from the story.) Betty is a good example of this: when taken captive by the Scorpion’s men, several times she sees opportunities to attempt escape and takes them rather than waiting around for Captain Marvel, even desperately grabbing the Scorpion’s own gun and attempting to shoot him. (This leads to a sequence in which Billy believes the Scorpion has an injured hand and tries to flush him out by gathering the expedition members together.) In addition to lending an unpredictable realism to the proceedings, Betty’s actions (and similar unexpected actions by other characters) drive the story forward: neither the Scorpion nor Captain Marvel have everything their way all the time.

Finally, I have occasionally noticed a generational divide in how the fanciful comic books of the Golden Age and its related media are received, and the commentary on the Blu-ray provides an illuminating example: Tom Weaver, a self-described Baby Boomer, mentions going back to read some of the original Captain Marvel comics (for the first time, as an adult) and his disgust at their silliness is palpable. “The comic book is so juvenile,” he reports, “that I can’t imagine who read it and thought ‘This might be good for a Republic serial.'” He complains that Otto Binder’s Captain cracks corny jokes while fighting, as if that weren’t something common to almost every superhero before the 1980s. For him, and for many viewers like him, the seriousness of the serial is a step up, a necessary refinement of material that is otherwise not worthy of consideration. By contrast, younger viewers and readers, especially those who may have already encountered Captain Marvel in reprints or through one of his post-1970s television iterations at a young age (and that may be the real key, the “Golden Age” being twelve years old and all that), readily accept the childlike fantasy inherent in the character. (On the Blu-ray it is the hosts of the podcast Comic Geek Speak, children of the 1970s and ’80s by the sound of it, who represent this point of view, but I have encountered it among comics fans younger than myself as well.)

Perhaps the balance of light and darkness is the reason Adventures of Captain Marvel continues to be held in such esteem: it convincingly brings to life the power fantasy of the comic book superhero, without treating it as a joke or cutting corners, and satisfies those who like their heroes “grim and gritty,” at least in contrast to the source material; at the same time the line between good and evil is boldly drawn, the characters larger than life, and it is still full of the wonder and excitement of the serial medium and marvelously entertaining in its own right.

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What I Watched: Adventures of Captain Marvel (Republic, 1941)

Where I Watched It: Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release from 2017. As mentioned above, this edition has an informative commentary track including ten speakers (thankfully not all at once: each individual or group gets a chapter or two to themselves) and Matt Singer’s essay. It is, as I have mentioned in the past, exactly the kind of package the serials have long deserved and is highly recommended. However, as I don’t have a Blu-ray drive on my computer, I have once again taken pictures of the screen for screenshots (rest assured that the Blu-ray picture quality is much higher than these pictures show).

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No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Death Takes the Wheel” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: Several of the commentators on the Kino Lorber release take issue with the idea that anyone would be fooled by a cliffhanger that appears to put the invincible Captain Marvel in jeopardy: wouldn’t an audience of kids in 1941 know that something as trivial as gunfire, electric shock, or even molten lava wouldn’t hurt “the world’s mightiest mortal”? Well, yes, and like the later Superman serials, Adventures of Captain Marvel solves this problem by putting supporting cast members in peril instead for most of the cliffhangers. Still, almost any serial cliffhanger assumes that the audience will play along, even if experienced viewers are well aware that the hero is going to get out of whatever jam they’ve been put in: suspension of disbelief applies here just as it does elsewhere.

More importantly, from a narrative perspective, the limits of Captain Marvel’s powers and invulnerability aren’t entirely clear at first, and the serial’s early cliffhangers serve to demonstrate just how strong he is. My favorite cliffhanger is one of these: in Chapter Two (“The Guillotine”), the Scorpion has his henchmen abduct Dr. Carlyle, one of the expedition members, and threaten him with an automated guillotine in order to extract the location of Carlyle’s lens. Captain Marvel trails the thugs to their hideout and breaks up the interrogation. However, during the fight that follows, he trips into the electric eye that triggers a subduing electric charge and starts the conveyor belt that will carry him, unconscious, to the waiting guillotine, a high-tech variation of a classic peril. The resolution illustrates the difference between typical serial protagonists and this new kind of cinematic “super” hero: instead of having Captain Marvel wake up or the conveyor turned off just in time, the next chapter begins with the blade falling onto the hero’s neck, only to break harmlessly against Captain Marvel’s invulnerable skin. I’ve complained in the past about “walk it off” resolutions to cliffhangers in which the hero is simply unhurt, but here the shot of Captain Marvel waking up beneath the shattered blade speaks for itself. Like the scenes of henchmen futilely shooting at Captain Marvel, the bullets bouncing harmlessly off, it announces that this hero plays by an entirely different set of rules.

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Stanley Price Sighting: Stanley Price is included in the full cast billing that begins each chapter, but he really only has one standout scene, as one of the group of henchmen who abduct Betty after she trails them to one of their hideouts on the top floor of a parking garage. It is here that Captain Marvel engages them in the rooftop battle in which he throws an engine block at one thug and throws another off the roof. Knowing that he’s outgunned, Price flees in the elevator, only to have Captain Marvel pull the descending car back up by the cables, a feat borrowed from his comic book appearances. Price’s anxious expressions while standing alone in the elevator are, well . . . priceless (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

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Sample Dialogue: “The Scorpion has triumphed and all the white infidels will be sacrificed to celebrate the victory, even the mighty Captain Marvel. . . . We need fear him no longer, for he is only Billy Batson. . . . Perhaps it’s a powerful drug or some other device which Batson uses to transform himself into Captain Marvel. . . . I must learn the secret of his transformation.” –the Scorpion, Chapter Twelve (“Captain Marvel’s Secret”)

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What Others Have Said: “The saving grace is the near absence of what many serial devotees most like about Republic serials–the stuntwork fist fights. Captain Marvel was too superpowerful to take more than one punch to subdue an ordinary mortal. The screen time had to be filled with something other than punches. This serial had time for plot and characterization, as well as action. The result was what may be the world’s mightiest movie serial.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I return to the subject of “Yellow Peril” with Drums of Fu Manchu!

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!