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!

 

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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!

Remake, Revisited

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A couple of years ago, writing about the 2004 sci-fi adventure film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I commented on the use of repurposed footage of Sir Laurence Olivier, long dead, to represent the film’s villain, Doctor Totenkopf:

At least since 1997, when scenes of the late Fred Astaire from Easter Parade and Royal Wedding were digitally modified to show him dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner for a series of commercials, it’s been possible to change the context of an actor’s appearance using the same technology that can put Jude Law in an airplane when he’s actually on a sound stage. The Dirt Devil ads, although licensed by Astaire’s widow, were controversial, and raised questions that have still not been settled: who owns an actor’s image, and are there limits to the uses to which it can be put? More importantly, does legal ownership give someone the right to tinker with a classic film? The battle lines are not always clearly drawn, as colorizing enthusiast Ted Turner became the patron of a classic movie channel that is widely respected for its thoughtful presentation of all kinds of film, and George Lucas, who spoke out against colorization in the 1980s, has defended his right to modify his own Star Wars movies because they’re “his” films.

I’m less offended by the use of Olivier’s image in Sky Captain than by Astaire in the Dirt Devil ads–or by the use of Audrey Hepburn’s image in Dove chocolate commercials just this year–of course: however pulpy it may be, Sky Captain is a work of art, not a commercial. But it is worth noting how far we have come, that such things are not only possible but routine. Connie Willis, in her 1995 novel Remake, depicted a future Hollywood dominated by digital effects, in which hardly any new movies were made, but instead older ones were remade by computer with digital copies of past stars (Back to the Future remade with River Phoenix, for example). We’re not quite to that point, but it hardly seems like science fiction, does it?

Some things have changed since I wrote those words: George Lucas, whom I referenced as the bad guy in ongoing debates about the legacy of his Star Wars films, sold Lucasfilm and his right to tinker with the franchise in 2012, and since then new owner Disney has begun a slate of new Star Wars films. The march of technological progress has also continued, and at the end of last year we saw a full-fledged digital recreation of actor Peter Cushing (dead since 1994) in the Star Wars prequel Rogue One, reprising Cushing’s role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original 1977 film. Although the filmmakers had their reasons to undertake this effort and appear to have not taken it lightly, I found it garish and disturbing; even a completely undetectable CGI job would raise questions.

Repurposed footage, as in Sky Captain, is one thing: in addition to the CGI Cushing, Rogue One also inserted unused footage of pilots in X-Wing cockpits from Star Wars‘ Death Star battle for its own climactic dogfight (again, Rogue One takes place immediately before A New Hope, so this was just one of many threads meant to connect the two stories). Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, but that didn’t bother me at all, and in fact I found it a clever touch (longtime readers will recall my love of stock footage and my general wonder at the magic of editing, though).

I should clarify that I’m not against computers, either: I love music created on synthesizers, and I enjoy computer-generated animation. I also respect that CGI has made practical filmmaking easier in many cases where the casual viewer wouldn’t even suspect that stray wires or other intrusions have been seamlessly erased.

But I think part of what I love about the art of film is its rearrangement of a tangible reality: I’ve written before about my love of animation for its ability to create a wholly new world through the illusion of movement, but even filmed live action involves quite a bit of assemblage–of cuts, of effects, of performances–in all but the most extreme cases of fly-on-the-wall documentary and avant-garde cinema. The end result is not exactly a mirror held up to the real world but a mosaic in which many facets of it are reflected, an arrangement of fragments that make up a whole picture.

In theory, the current digital toolbox is just an extension of all the image-making that has come before, but in reality it has its limits, and its frequent use as a cost-cutting measure is dispiriting. It’s all so literal: particularly in the case of Rogue One, there’s no real need to include Grand Moff Tarkin except for the desire to position this story right before Star Wars. In addition, it’s somewhat insulting in its implication that viewers wouldn’t accept a different actor in the role. I enjoyed Rogue One, I really did, but my enthusiasm flagged at the very end when it became clear just how closely it was meant to dovetail with the original Star Wars. I felt the same way at the end of Episode III, when George Lucas felt compelled to leave nothing unsaid, dumping information that was already (or would be, depending on the order in which one viewed the saga) revealed elegantly in the original trilogy. Both cases are typical, though, of a tendency to fill in any and all gaps in pop culture mythology, bowing to perceived demands from fans to reveal every detail, even when leaving something to viewers’ imaginations could have a greater impact.

The issue became more than academic in December with the sudden, tragic death of Carrie Fisher, who of course played Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy and who had returned to her iconic role in the new trilogy that began with 2015’s Episode VII. (As it happens, computer imagery had also been used for a brief appearance of “young Leia” at the end of Rogue One.) Reportedly, Fisher had already filmed her scenes for Episode VIII, but her death puts her role in the last film of the trilogy in doubt. Disney issued a statement to calm speculation last week, assuring fans that they had no plans to create a digital Leia for Episode IX. Is the difference simply that Cushing has been dead long enough that no one is likely to be outraged by his digital doppelganger? Is it “too soon” to do the same with Fisher? In fact, isn’t the cyber-Cushing atypical precisely because he’s been gone for so long? In recent years, digital imagery of this sort has largely been used to make up for the loss of a star during filming (most notably Paul Walker in Furious 7). It’s likely that Fisher, aware of the direction technology is headed, had explicit directions in her will regarding the use of her image, but it’s also true that Leia is a more significant character than Tarkin, and she was expected to carry both more scenes and more dramatic moments. There are still practical limitations on how seamlessly an actor can be recreated digitally.

The Star Wars films have always been showcases for the latest in special effects. If Cushing’s appearance in Rogue One was meant to be a test case for a new technology, it wasn’t reassuring, for either this audience member or (I imagine) living actors who now not only have to compete against each other, but against their predecessors.

R.I.P. Peter Cushing, 1913-1994

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016

My 2016 in Film, Part Two: New Discoveries

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As I mentioned yesterday, I was more diligent this year in keeping track of my film viewing than I’ve been in recent years, allowing me to provide a more detailed retrospective of older films I watched. The non-2016 films listed below are listed in chronological order without ranking; they’re movies that thrilled me, sparked my imagination, or filled in gaps in my historical awareness. All are recommended, for curiosity value if nothing else.

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Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)
This movie came to my attention as the source of several futuristic cityscapes inserted as background shots in the 1939 Buck Rogers serial. It’s a fascinating production in its own right, and a time capsule of 1930’s ideas about both science fiction and pre-Code musical comedy. New York in the far-off year 1980(!) is a gleaming mass of skyscrapers bound together by orderly lanes of sky traffic, but scientific progress has commanded a high price in individuality and freedom: people have numbers rather than names, and marriages are chosen by the state for optimal matches (the plot centers on the unapproved romance between J-21 and LN-18, a young Maureen O’Sullivan); married couples have children by selecting them from a sort of vending machine; food and drink are taken in pill form; and the planet Mars is full of beautiful, savage women given to elaborate dance routines. The comedy of 1930 is mostly personified by the “Svedish” accent shtick of El Brendel, who plays a man of 1930 revived by science. It’s all corny as hell, but endearingly so, and with its visual flair and brisk, busy plot, it’s worth seeing for fans of retro-futurism and Hollywood musicals alike.

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Bedelia (Lance Comfort, 1946)
Margaret Lockwood plays the title character, a recently remarried widow; during her honeymoon in Monte Carlo, her bland new husband strikes up a chance encounter with a painter who appears to know too much about her. When they return to England, the painter follows. As the mystery of Bedelia’s past (and the death of her first husband) emerges, her web of secrets threatens to come unraveled. The resulting film is a mixture of noirish suspense and doomed romance.

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The Alligator People (Roy Del Ruth, 1959)
If Tennessee Williams wrote a monster movie, it might come out something like The Alligator People, a Southern Gothic tragedy of secrets and mad science. Lon Chaney Jr. as a crazy, gator-obsessed swamp rat is the icing on the cake.

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The Telephone Book (Nelson Lyon, 1971)
The strange odyssey of a young woman determined to track down the man who transported her with an obscene phone call, The Telephone Book is a surprisingly sweet portrayal of a time and place–the sexual revolution in New York City in the early 1970s–that are usually depicted in sleazier terms. Alice (Sarah Kennedy) is both naïve and alluring to the colorful characters she meets along the way, but once she finds the right “John Smith” (Norman Rose), he takes over the story with his commanding monologues, seducing the audience the same way he seduces the women (“I have over thirty regular clients,” he says) he calls. In writer-director Nelson Lyon’s vision, obscene phone calls aren’t just about sexual release, they are an implicit critique of a repressed society, but the film is too wrapped in layers of irony to present such a pat solution without complication. Intercut with “confessions” from reformed obscene callers and the doctors and police who deal with them, The Telephone Book is thrillingly visual for a film about talking, showing off a pop art sensibility that gripped me from the beginning. With its deadpan humor and emphasis on the power of words, I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was one of Steve Martin’s favorite films.

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Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
Sam Neill has the honor of appearing on both yesterday’s and today’s lists. Is Possession a movie about mental illness? Divorce? Nuclear war? All of the above? What the hell can you even say about this movie? It must be seen.

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Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
Unlike many of the movies listed here, I was aware of this movie and even remember when it was released, but for one reason or another (its reputation as a flop, or that it was too dark for its intended audience) I didn’t get around to it until this year. All the reasons not to watch it back then make it all the more interesting now, and in addition to its mixture of whimsy and dread (in many ways more faithful to L. Frank Baum’s creations than the 1939 classic), I was pleased to discover a forgotten trove of lavish production and practical effects at their pre-CGI 1980s peak.

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Split (Chris Shaw, 1989)
At first, Starker (Timothy Dwight) appears to be just another homeless crackpot wandering the streets of Los Angeles, but it soon becomes clear that he’s a man of many disguises, secreting extra clothes in dumpsters around the city and taking on new personalities as he hides out in a diner and crashes an art gallery opening. His elaborate routines prevent an omnipresent surveillance network from tracking him: paranoid fantasy, or chilling glimpse of a future that was right around the corner in 1989? Featuring then-cutting edge computer graphics and a “handmade” (i.e., low budget) production style, Split is a quintessential cult film, proto-cyberpunk closer to A Scanner Darkly than Blade Runner.

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Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
I was able to see several Studio Ghibli films for the first time this year thanks to a film series at Wichita’s Palace Theatre (other first-time views included My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Princess Mononoke). Perhaps I’m choosing to highlight Howl’s Moving Castle above the rest simply because it doesn’t seem to be quite as well-loved as those others (all of which were great, of course). As lumpy as it is, its mixture of European fairy-tale fantasy (it’s based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones) and Japanese anime style makes it unique.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)
A spiritual descendant of Orson Welles’ meta-documentary F for Fake, Exit Through the Gift Shop begins with compulsive filmmaker Thierry Guetta’s quest to document and participate in the exploding street art scene in Paris and other cities. The first half of the film introduces a cast of daring cat burglar-like graffitists who go to great lengths to place their artwork on the sides of buildings, on streets and sidewalks, and on billboards, usually under cover of night, and the more inaccessible the better. Once Guetta is introduced to the elusive Banksy, the film takes a strange turn as Banksy takes over editing the project and Guetta assumes the name “Mr. Brainwash,” setting up his own ridiculously large art show. Whether the whole thing was a scheme for Guetta to cash in on the hot street art trend from the beginning, or (as some have claimed) a put-on designed to expose the hollowness of the art world, the film itself is as daring and exciting as the wall-climbing provocateurs who inspired it.

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Lazer Us: The Legend of Jimi Lazer (Mann Munoz, 2013)
An odd mash-up of contemporary Christian film and rock-and-roll mythologizing, Lazer Us tells the story of Jimi Lazer, a would-be star who made a deal with the devil to become famous but walked away from it all and essentially disappeared. Now, twenty-seven years later, he has returned to set things right, reuniting the scattered members of his band and rescuing a mysterious young woman (named Zmoothie, in keeping with the film’s square idea of rock culture) from the same fate. The film is essentially a parable building on the “crossroads” legend like The Soldier’s Tale or “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but throws in references to The Red Shoes, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Johnny Cash, and the “27 club,” not to mention the Biblical figure whose name is suggested by the awkward title. Edgy and “in your face” but ultimately safe, I have no idea whether this movie will lead young rockers to Jesus, but it’s worth seeing on its own quirky merits.

My 2016 in Film, Part One: Top Ten

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Earlier this month, critic David Ehrlich released his annual video list of his top 25 films of the year. To my chagrin, not only had I only seen one film on his list (Kubo and the Two Strings), I hadn’t even seen 25 films released in 2016 total. Of course, I’m not a professional critic, and I don’t have the opportunity to see films unless they’re in wide release or hit streaming/home video by the end of the year (with a few exceptions), but as someone who enjoys film and tries to come up with his own year-end wrap-ups, I try to see as many films as I can in a timely manner. I’ve managed to do some catching up (and I did end up seeing more than 25 movies from this year), but as usual the following observations are based on my rather selective and scattershot viewing. (One thing I did this year for the first time was keep a list of every film I saw, new or old, which has made it easier to remember what I saw way back in January; tomorrow I’ll review some of my favorite non-2016 discoveries.)

Since a large portion of the new films I saw this year were wide release blockbusters and family movies, it’s worth noting just how many of this year’s films were part of series or franchises: the Marvel films Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange; the Harry Potter spinoff/prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; and additions to the Star Wars, Godzilla, and Phantasm canons, among others. That’s not unusual: sequels and franchises have been common for years, although it seemed even more pronounced this year. Many of the sequels that came out this year (not all of which I saw) bombed, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with series. I enjoy catching up with familiar characters and settings as much as the next audience member, and new installments of ongoing series were among my favorites this year. (As always, I’m basing my list on US release dates.)

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10. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale plays the scheming widow with a mixture of calculation and blasé wit for which Stillman’s brand of dry humor is perfect. Tom Bennett (as the empty-headed Sir James) is very funny in this and well deserves the accolades that have greeted his performance.

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9. Hail, Caesar! (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)
On the surface, the Coens’ homage to Golden Age Hollywood is a trifle, a light-hearted spoof and celebration of the studio system that had previously crushed Barton Fink’s spirit. The plot (in the loosest sense of the word) consists of several vignettes tied together by their connection to studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he attempts to put out one fire after another in a typical day. The most worrisome is the kidnapping of leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of the Biblical epic that gives the film its name. While I found Hail, Caesar! entertaining enough while I was watching it (and the film is lots of fun, packing an all-star cast into witty recreations of musicals, Westerns, Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming, and “women’s pictures”), it also felt a little slight. But Mannix’s defense of show business (against the materialism of both Communist rhetoric and a Lockheed executive attempting to lure Mannix to a position in the “real world”) has stuck with me, and is typical of the Coens’ habit of packaging serious messages in comedies that go down easily.

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8. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” The Witch is a spooky distillation of Puritan fears of devilry and witchcraft, with a single family isolated in the woods illustrating the growth of a panic in microcosm. Are the glimpses of Satanic forces, exemplified by the unmanageable goat Black Phillip, signs of genuine witchery, or are they merely the fervid imaginings of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy in a haunting performance)? Like the best horror, the answer is less important than what it reveals about the character of the family members as they retreat into religious faith, run off into the woods, or turn against each other.

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7. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (John Lee)
As I wrote in my review back in March, “Like many modern reboots and revivals of old properties, this ‘comeback’ is packed with nostalgic callbacks and Easter eggs, remixing an older story by sprinkling in familiar themes, character types, and imagery to summon up the old magic. . . . I’m probably too close to tell you whether this is a fans-only proposition, but as a fan, I liked it.” While the callbacks to the original were the weakest part of this year’s Ghostbusters reboot, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday proved that it is possible for the formula to work, at least as long as you’ve got super-cool Joe Manganiello providing a foil for Paul Reubens’ antic, childlike character. (Come to think of it, Chris Hemsworth was the funniest part of Ghostbusters: maybe 2016 was secretly the year of hunky, bromantic scene-stealers?) One statement I made in my review, that “Unlike Paul Reubens, Pee-wee himself hasn’t aged a day,” deserves to be explored: I didn’t realize when I wrote that just how much technological assistance was involved in rewinding a couple of decades of aging, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the ubiquity of CGI these days. In any case, Pee-wee’s digital facelift was less distracting and disturbing than the CGI resurrection of long-dead Peter Cushing in Rogue One (a movie I liked, but yeesh).

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6. The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
An aspiring model (Elle Fanning) arrives in L.A. and discovers just how cutthroat the business can be in this stylish thriller. I just saw this one, so I’m still digesting it, but on a first pass I loved the visuals and Cliff Martinez’s electronic score; I wish I’d had the opportunity to see The Neon Demon on the big screen, but even at home it was electrifying. However, it took a while to win me over, as it was hard to shake the impression that I was seeing ideas and stylistic flourishes that had been done before by David Lynch, Ridley Scott, and Dario Argento. A grisly turn in the last twenty minutes took me by surprise and elevated the whole affair by recontextualizing much of what came before, so I have a feeling this is a film that will play very differently for me on a rewatch.

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5. Zootopia (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush)
Immersive, three-dimensional computer animation has its drawbacks: not every setting can stand up to the scrutiny invited by nearly photorealistic animation, nor live up to the standards of internal logic set by Pixar. This year’s Zootopia is a positive example, however, of the tendency to build worlds in a comprehensive way, a dazzling and thought-provoking allegory of modern race-relations and identity politics laid over a clever extrapolation of the “funny animals” that are one of the most venerable pieces of Disney’s heritage. After idealistic rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) joins the police force, having fought against (cuddly, nonthreatening) stereotypes her whole life, she is forced into a begrudging partnership with the hustling Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a (sly, predatory) fox, and learns to confront some of her own internal prejudices. The parallels to real-world issues are unmistakable, but Zootopia’s heavier moments are supported by a well-oiled action comedy with riffs on Chinatown, 48 Hrs., and The Godfather (and even a nod to Breaking Bad). Most fun of all is the multilayered title city, with its ethnic enclaves for different types (and sizes) of animals, somehow finding ways to live in harmony.

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4. The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
The first time I saw the trailer for The Love Witch, I was unsure if it was a new movie or the latest rerelease of an obscure exploitation film. Even after seeing it, I’m impressed at the attention to detail writer-director-designer Anna Biller brought to her feminist-themed parody/homage of early 1970s softcore. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) uses spells and charms to win the hearts of a series of men, but they can’t fill the hole in her heart, even as she drives them to their deaths. (Robinson’s matter-of-fact voice-overs, revealing the gap between Elaine’s perceptions and external reality, brought to mind Election, another bone-dry comedy about feminine striving.) Wryly ironic and reveling in its artificiality (channeling Joe Sarno and Russ Meyer as well as the Gothic chic and hip Satanism of Hammer horror), The Love Witch could have perhaps better emulated the brevity of its inspirations, but like The Neon Demon it’s eye-poppingly colorful and turns its genre’s assumptions upside-down (and this one I did get to see in the theater thanks to a limited release in Wichita).

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3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was my favorite film of last year, and while Hunt for the Wilderpeople is more down to earth, it is no less warm and funny. Wannabe gangster Ricky (Julian Dennison) and his reluctant foster father Hec (Sam Neill) find themselves on the run together in the “majestical” New Zealand bush after a series of misunderstandings. That these two lost souls will come to understand and support each other through their adventure is a given, but the movie never feels formulaic, a credit to both Waititi’s knack for making unusual choices in staging and music, as well as the humanity Dennison and Neill bring to their characters. (Props also to Rachel House, who is hilarious in a potentially one-note role as an overeager Child Welfare officer.)

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2. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi)
In October, I wrote that Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla movie since 2004, “is a worthy successor to the legacy of the King of the Monsters, balancing its weighty political themes with incredible spectacle and an exciting scientific race against time.” I stand by my original review, but reading other viewers’ responses to the movie, it became clear to me that I underestimated how much humor is in the movie (as the heroic bureaucrat Yaguchi ascends ranks, the onscreen captions listing his titles become longer and longer, until the bulk of the screen is filled with text, for one example), caught up as I was in that spectacle. I have so far only seen Shin Godzilla once, but like most of the films I’m highlighting this year, it’s one I hope to return to in order to pick up more of its nuances.

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1. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
As I wrote in October, I only caught up with 2008’s Cloverfield this year, but it was one of the best movies I saw that month. This year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t exactly a sequel, but is rather a free-standing story with a completely different set of characters, only loosely connected (if at all) to the first film. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) loses consciousness in a late-night car wreck, only to awaken in the underground shelter of Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that an attack on the United States has left the surface uninhabitable. Whether she likes it or not, she’s stuck in the bunker with the paranoid Howard and his good-ol’-boy handyman, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Michelle is understandably skeptical of Howard and his motives, but this tightly-plotted thriller kept me guessing with twists and turns (and powerful lead performances by Goodman and Winstead) up until the very end.

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Worst movie: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)
Complaining about this one almost feels like piling on at this point, but I can’t help it: leaving aside the humorless, sociopathic interpretation of its “heroes,” Dawn of Justice is a cluttered, kludged-together mess of a movie that would make even less sense to anyone who had never heard of Batman or Superman. I won’t deny that Snyder attempted to make some serious points about hero-worship and the burden of power, but every time I’m tempted to give credit for its ambition, or for good points like its introduction of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, the best part of the movie), I remember the nonsensical nightmare sequence (Sucker Punch starring Batman, i.e. the movie I suspect Snyder really wanted to make) or the plot-stopping interlude that serves only to introduce the members of the future Justice League. The result is a sprawling contraption designed primarily as a launchpad for future DC comic book movies. And I like comic book movies!
(P.S. I didn’t see Suicide Squad.)

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Dumbest movie that I will almost assuredly watch again: Yoga Hosers (Kevin Smith)
I actually had some hope for this one, against all reason to be optimistic: I liked Tusk, imperfect as it was, and this follow-up put the two Colleens (Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, seen briefly in the first movie) front and center, facing off against living Nazi bratwursts in a convenience store. Perhaps it’s my affection for movies that take goofy premises and play them out to their logical ends, or perhaps I was hoping for something like The Gate or Freaked!: kid-friendly horror comedies that knew just how ludicrous they were and leaned into it. Or maybe it had just been a while since I’d treated myself to something so shameless. (A rip-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gremlins? With Nazis? Sign me up!) I’d have a hard time recommending the result, a comedy of cod-Canadianness so dopey it makes Bob and Doug McKenzie look subtle, but I would have loved it when I was 13, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t watch it again. The two Colleens have a fun, snarky chemistry that reminds me of why Smith’s Clerks was so refreshing way back when; Justin Long as a seedy storefront guru makes me laugh; and I can even put up with the return of Johnny Depp’s Clouseau-like Guy LaPointe, who has a few choice lines about his attempts to cash in after solving the case of the “Winnipeg Walrus” in Tusk. You know what this means, right? I’m obligated to see the final installment of the trilogy, Moose Jaws (like Jaws, but with a moose), when it comes out.

Movies I didn’t get to but which probably would have been in the running: Green Room, Swiss Army Man, Arrival, Moana, La La Land, The Handmaiden, too many to name, really