Fates Worse Than Death: Radar Men from the Moon

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A string of mysterious explosions and attacks is crippling America’s defense network. Scientific analysis indicates that atomic weapons caused the destruction, but what power on earth could focus atomic energy into the kind of ray being used? Only one man is equipped to investigate: Commando Cody, inventor and explorer, whose jetpack allows him to soar through the air (and who is also a crack shot with a pistol).

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Liberating the atomic ray from the two gangsters wielding it, Cody takes the futuristic weapon back to his lab to analyze it. The two gangsters, Daly and Graber, report to their superior, Krog, who (as Cody will discover) is the leader of an invading force from the moon! Krog orders them to recover the ray and sends his human minions on several criminal assignments to raise funds for his terroristic activities.

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Eventually, Cody and his team determine the source of the trouble and launch Cody’s latest invention, an interplanetary rocket ship, to the moon itself. The lunar civilization is dying, as its leader Retik explains, the air too thin and dry to grow food; already the lunarians must wear helmets outside of their pressurized cities in order to breathe. (Needless to say, no more attention is paid to real scientific knowledge of the moon than in the space fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs from decades before.) After softening up earth’s defenses, the lunarians plan to invade earth in Radar Men from the Moon.

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In 1949, Republic Pictures, weary of licensing superheroes from the comics and radio, introduced an original character, Rocket Man, in King of the Rocket Men. Three years later, Radar Men from the Moon featured Commando Cody, a repackaging of the Rocket Man concept (essentially a superhero with a jetpack). By all accounts, Radar Men relies heavily on footage of Rocket Man from the earlier serial, as well as reusing props, costumes, and special effects from Republic’s extensive library. (Two sequels followed: Zombies of the Stratosphere and a television series, Sky Marshall of the Universe; Rocket Man/Commando Cody’s influence is also readily seen in Dave Stevens’ comic book hero the Rocketeer, adapted into a 1991 film directed by Joe Johnston.)

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Radar Men from the Moon is very much what you would expect from a science fiction adventure from the early 1950s, as much Captain Video as Flash Gordon. With the fishbowl-style space helmets, finned rocket ships, and sweet moon tanks (not to mention Cody’s bullet-headed flying costume), it is, to use a modern term, “toyetic” (although the kind of mass merchandising we’ve come to expect since Star Wars wasn’t in place then, so there don’t seem to be a large number of actual toys based on these designs). On the other hand, the Greco-Roman architecture of the lunar city and the futuristic laboratory of Retik show that styles hadn’t changed that much since the space operas of the ‘30s (and a lot of the running time is spent on earth with perfectly mundane cops-and-robbers business).

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Normally, I’ve tried to look at examples of a given concept or character in chronological order (covering Flash Gordon instead of one of its sequels, for example), but I had a copy of Radar Men on hand, and since Commando Cody is technically a new character, free of any earlier continuity, I don’t feel too much conflict about covering it before getting to the original Rocket Men. Besides, reused footage and props were a cost-saving feature of the serials almost since the beginning, so Radar Men is exceptional only for its late position in the format’s history and the slickness of its incorporation of previous material.

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For what it’s worth, it wasn’t obvious to this viewer when it cut to older footage, and establishing shots weren’t drawn out as excessively as I’ve observed in the Universal serials I’ve watched. From a technical standpoint, the production of serials was clearly at a high point, and everything moves quickly and looks sharp. However, the same professional application of an established formula that makes everything look polished also drains any spontaneity out of this production: the characters are thinly drawn and their dialogue functions almost exclusively to move the plot forward. There is little room for the weird digressions or surprises that mark the serials of the 1930s.

Star George Wallace leads a cast that includes “heavy” Roy Barcroft as Retik and future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore as the gangster Graber; the performances are fine, but the real stars are special effects wizards Howard “Babe” Lydecker and Theodore Lydecker, brothers whose detailed miniatures of earthly and lunar structures and vehicles are extensively featured. There are also plenty of well-executed fight scenes, courtesy of Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel, longtime stuntmen and fight coordinators.

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So why isn’t Radar Men from the Moon more exciting? There’s a business-as-usual quality to the proceedings: no one seems that surprised that America is under attack by atomic weapons, or that the culprits might be from the moon. What’s that, we need to take our rocket ship to the moon? Sure thing. Oh, we need to go back? No problem. I’ll remember to take my jetpack in case I need to hijack a space tank. The material calls for hyperbole à la Stan Lee, but the execution is more like Dragnet.

That’s not to say that I’d be happier if Radar Men from the Moon stopped in its tracks to marvel at the insanity of its own plot: in general, pulp narratives don’t spend a lot of time questioning their believability. The characters accept that what is happening is real—they don’t have a choice—and the audience follows suit. There is usually, however, a moment or two that acknowledges the overturning of established science (I think of this as the “more in heaven and earth” speech, often delivered by a scientist who admits that there are still mysteries in the universe) or asks the audience to consider what it would really mean for humanity to encounter, say, an invading army of moon men. (Robert E. Howard, to cite one example, often salted his tales of brawny barbarian warriors with thematically-appropriate musings on destiny and masculinity.)

No such philosophical problems trouble Commando Cody or his team. If I had seen Radar Men from the Moon when I was twelve, I expect I would have loved it, but as an adult the prospect of an adventure that is all plot and very little character is less appealing. Rather than revisit it, I’ll probably just rewatch The Rocketeer.

What I Watched: Radar Men from the Moon (Republic, 1952)
Where I Watched It: A Hal Roach Studios DVD; it’s also available to watch on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Molten Terror” (Chapter Two)
Best Cliffhanger: At the end of “Molten Terror,” Cody and Ted are trapped in a mountainside cave on the moon. Lunar soldiers aim the atomic ray at the mountain, softening the rock (using the same melting effect seen at the end of The Phantom Empire) and filling the cave with molten lava.
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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Several times Cody is in a vehicle that crashes: planes at the end of Chapter Four (“Flight to Destruction”) and Chapter Seven (“Camouflaged Destruction”), a car in Chapter Five (“Murder Car”). In the next week’s episode, intercut footage reveals Cody and his passenger bailing out at the last minute, exactly the kind of cheat Annie Wilkes was complaining about.
Sample Dialogue: “For some time our astronomers have noticed an unusual amount of atomic activity on the moon. Atomic activity on the moon, atomic blasts on the earth: the two known facts fit together.” –Henderson (Don Walters), Cody’s government contact
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What Others Have Said: “It was my own personal homage to Commando Cody and all the other serial heroes of that era. I’d always been a huge fan of the serials. I loved all those edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanging chapter plays. . . . I’d always loved the idea of a guy flying like a bird, with just a combustible contraption strapped to his back. The image really appealed to me. But I didn’t want to be stuck doing an exact replication of the serials, with Martians, death-rays, etc. That wasn’t quite the approach I wanted to take. I wanted to do a real period aviation strip, but with one small element of science-fiction added: The rocket-pack!” –Dave Stevens, creator of the Rocketeer, interview with Jon B. Cooke in The Comic Book Artist
What’s Next: I’ll take a look at Zorro’s Black Whip, starring Linda Stirling. Join me in two weeks!

Fates Worse Than Death: Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island

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The year is 1936.  The leaders of Pacific Dirigible Airlines are monitoring the maiden voyage of the airship San Francisco between California and Australia.  Just before the dirigible reaches the mid-point refueling station at Clipper Island, disaster strikes!  The radio operator on Clipper Island, half dead, reports that something has destroyed the fuel tanks.  The island is taboo to the native Komatoans; have they risen in revolt, or was it the vengeance of their volcano god, Pele?  The three directors, Ellsworth, Canfield, and Jackson, don’t have time to worry about that: if the San Francisco is forced to turn back, the fledgling company will be ruined.  Suddenly, the airship itself is on fire and doomed to crash before it ever reaches the island.  Oh, the humanity!

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Ellsworth and his board suspect sabotage, and a government agent, Mala, is called in to investigate.  Posing as the new radio operator, Mala travels to Clipper Island, where he gets mixed up with Melani, the Komatoan princess, and the high priest Porotu, who schemes to take her throne.  Working with Mala are Scottish Hank McGlaurie and English novelist Anthony Tupper, as well as the second-billed stars Rex and Buck, a horse and a dog respectively. (Both Rex the “Wonder Horse,” aka “King of the Wild Horses,” and Buck were already animal stars, and they assist by attacking and harrying the bad guys, protecting the princess, and even going for help when Mala is in trouble, as in “I think he’s trying to tell us something!”)

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Unbeknownst to both Mala and Melani, Porotu is secretly in league with a spy ring called the “Black Chamber,” led by a mysterious person known only as “H. K.”  (Whenever H. K. is shown on screen, his face is blocked by a lamp, and his voice is dubbed.)  The spies have a base in an old stone fort atop the volcano on Clipper Island, a location convenient for them to tap into the Trans-Pacific Cable to intercept secret messages (the main part of the villains’ lair that we see is an elaborate code-breaking operation led by Draker, the head of the Clipper Island branch).  Porotu and the Black Chamber are working together to keep unwelcome guests off the island.

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Will Mala gain the trust of Princess Melani and her people?  Will he discover the true identity of “H. K.” and smash the spy ring?  Will the successful establishment of a dirigible route across the Pacific ensure that airship travel is the wave of the future?  These questions and more are posed over the fourteen episodes of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.

Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island was only the fourth serial produced by Republic Pictures, but it already included many elements of the Republic formula: a capable (if bland) hero backed up by comic relief sidekicks, lots of fistfights and daring stunts (including vehicular mayhem and the destruction of a mountainside fort, accomplished with miniatures), and a nefarious criminal organization led by a shadowy figure whose identity would only be revealed in the last chapter.  (Some of the fights feature noticeable “undercranking”: it was a common practice to roll the camera slightly more slowly than normal, so that when the film was projected at regular speed all the action would appear sped up, increasing the excitement.)

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Despite its trailer’s claim to be “based on a novel all youth loves,” Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island bears almost no resemblance to Defoe’s classic.  In fact, despite the island setting, at no time is the hero ever truly a castaway—he doesn’t have to forage for sustenance or improvise his own shelter—and he hardly ever lacks for company.  (The title comes from the nickname bestowed on Mala by Tupper, who notes the irony of a Native Crusoe assisted by a white Man Friday in the person of McGlaurie.)

The hero is played by Mala (aka Ray Mala, née Ray Wise), a half-Native Alaskan who had already come to fame as the star of Eskimo (aka Mala the Magnificent) and the Tahiti-set Last of the Pagans, and who would lend his lean, athletic presence to several more features (and two more serials) as both an actor and as a cameraman and cinematographer.  Mala is celebrated as the first Native American movie star, and is a notable exception to the almost exclusively white serial heroes.  The character he portrays is also named Mala, but as an apparently Polynesian g-man, it would be a stretch to say he appears as “himself,” even by the loose standards of Hollywood.

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I previously mentioned the deliberately apolitical invaders and menaces in the serials, pulps and comics of the 1930s.  Robinson Crusoe is more down to earth than Flash Gordon but no less circumspect: H. K. and the Black Chamber are not identified with any nation or cause.  The Pacific setting implies a Japanese connection, but the Black Chamber is shown to have branches all over the world.  Depending on one’s perspective, the spy ring could represent fascism, international communism, or even gangsters intercepting government secrets for their own financial gain.  The filmmakers may have had their own politics, but vagueness was undoubtedly better for business.

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Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island transposes many conventions of jungle adventure—primitive tribes, wild animals, and exotic locales—to its island setting.  Like the “modern Western” and “Canadian mountie” genres that were also popular, it combines the picturesque setting and colorful native peoples of the frontier with such contemporary touches as automobiles, airplanes, and radio. Over the course of the serial, a fleet of vehicles are featured traveling by land, sea, and air: dirigibles, a submarine, seaplane and biplane, and more.

Also like some other serials, it features white evildoers manipulating presumably superstitious natives through modern technology: Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island includes a volcano that can be made to erupt at will, allowing the spies to pose as the Komatoans’ god and strengthening Porotu’s position. The high priest claims that “Pele is quick to destroy those who arouse the wrath of the gods!”, even threatening to sacrifice first Mala and later Melani in a pit of molten lava, but the technology that stokes the volcano predictably gets out of control and destroys both the spies’ fort and Porotu by the end.

The Komatoans themselves are a Hollywood version of Pacific Islanders, living in thatched huts among a mélange of tiki idols and masks (not to mention an Easter Island head inside the sacred Cave of the Winds).  Both the Black Chamber and Pacific Dirigible Airlines require the cooperation of the Komatoans (to whom Clipper Island is taboo) to carry out their activities, so Mala’s interest in protecting and (later) restoring Melani spring from more than altruism.  The fact that Melani (Mutiny on the Bounty‘s Mamo Clark) is beautiful and smart surely doesn’t hurt, either.  (Robinson Crusoe doesn’t get bogged down in mushy stuff, however: even with a nudge from Rex, Mala only says “You have rewarded me with your friendship,” and the concluding chapter fades out before they can do so much as embrace.  The love triangle of Flash Gordon is positively steamy by comparison.)

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What I Watched: Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936, Republic)

Where I Saw It: I watched a Hal Roach Studios DVD, but it is on YouTube starting here.

No. of Chapters: 14 (According to the DVD liner notes, this unusual number was a result of the production going over budget, requiring the addition of an inexpensive “economy chapter,” recapping earlier events and increasing the serial’s revenue by an additional week.)

Best Chapter Title: “Jaws of the Beast” (Chapter Eight)

Best Cliffhanger: “Trail’s End” (Chapter Seven): After rescuing Melani from Porotu’s attempt to sacrifice her to Pele, Mala tries to leap with her across a boulder-strewn gorge.  The boulder they land on isn’t steady enough, and the two fall helplessly into the abyss.  How are they going to get out of this?

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Weeeell, as it happens “Trail’s End” doesn’t play quite fair.  At the beginning of Chapter Eight, Mala and Melani grab a vine and pull themselves to safety in noticeably different footage.  I wrote CHEAT!!! in my notes.  “Trail’s End” is only the runner-up for this award, however, as Chapter Ten (“Wings of Fury”) features an even more blatant cheat.  Mala, back in San Francisco, is chasing down a member of H. K.’s organization, a pilot.  The pilot jumps in a biplane and takes off, with Mala clinging to the side of the cockpit.  The pilot tries to shake him off, but when Mala gets him in a headlock the pilot loses control of the plane, and it crashes into the water of San Francisco Bay . . . until the beginning of Chapter Eleven, that is, when the biplane pulls up and avoids the water at the last minute.  The cockadoodie plane crashed, I tell you!  I saw it! CHEEEEEAAT!!!!!!

Sample dialogue: “As you leap into the fire pit, Princess Melani, remember the vengeance of the priest of Pele!” –Porotu, Chapter Six (“God of the Volcano”)

What Others Have Said: “While I have mentioned the better performances, there were a number of rather awful serial performances that do deserve some mention: the four leads [in The Masked Marvel] probably rate our booby prize for bad acting, while following close behind are Mala in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island and Bill Kennedy in The Royal Mounted Rides Again.” –Alan G. Barbour, Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial

What’s Next: In 1943, a costumed crime-fighter made the leap from the comics to the big screen, not for the last time.  Join me in two weeks for a look at Batman.

Fates Worse Than Death: Exploring the Motion Picture Serials

Several years ago I was sitting in Century II Concert Hall before a Wichita Symphony pops concert; the day’s program was to include film music excerpts (some accompanying silent film clips), including selections from John Williams’ Star Wars score.  I don’t remember quite how the conversation started, but an older lady sitting next to me was blunt in her assessment: “People don’t realize it now,” she told me, “but Star Wars was a comedy.  The first time I saw it, I just laughed, because I had seen it all before.  Luke Skywalker swinging across the chasm on a rope? That’s Douglas Fairbanks.”

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I already knew that in a general way before this conversation, of course: not only had George Lucas acknowledged the inspiration he had taken from the adventure and science fiction movies of his youth, Star Wars’ debt to the weekly serials was a big point of discussion among fans and critics of the Star Wars saga.  Between 1913 and 1956, serials, or “chapter plays,” were a unique genre of motion picture: episodic, with a week-to-week continuity and boldly drawn, easy to follow stories that kept audiences coming back for more.  The serials developed in parallel with pulp magazines and comic books and shared many of the same story-telling conventions (and specific characters).  They were best known for the “cliffhangers” that ended each chapter with a character in peril, waiting until the beginning of the next chapter to show their escape.

Although the serials of the silent era were produced with an adult audience in mind, from the mid-‘30s onward, sound serials were increasingly geared to children.  Almost all were livened up with spectacular stunts: fist- and gunfights, chases, natural and man-made disasters.  Whether the story took place in the Old West, outer space, or the jungle, whether it was an adaptation of a classic novel or a story of (purportedly) true crime, the storytelling mode was the same, emphasizing action, adventure, and suspense.

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Serials of the sound era generally included between ten and fifteen chapters (by contrast, one silent serial, The Hazards of Helen, boasted over one hundred; it appears to have been an open-ended “continuing adventure” rather than a single narrative, however).  The first episode introduced the characters and set up future conflict (ending on a good cliffhanger to get the audience hooked!); episodes were around twenty minutes in length (with exceptions: sometimes the first episode would be a little longer, like the pilot of a television show).  Serial chapters were shown in conjunction with full-length features (along with newsreels, cartoons and other “shorts”), part of a weekly moviegoing experience that had little to do with the specific film being shown.

Although I tend to see Star Wars as more homage than parody, there’s no denying that it draws heavily on the language of the serials that were popular from the 1930s to the 1950s, before their thunder was stolen by television. Indeed, watching the 1977 original today with an awareness of serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, it’s easy to see just how much the characters and situations were based on very specific models: how, in Terry Gilliam’s words, Darth Vader is just “the cowboy with the black hat”—the “spearhead villain” in the terminology of the serials.

I had seen clips from the original serials, sometimes in conjunction with material from Star Wars (or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s other homage to the format).  As I mentioned in a previous essay, the pop culture of my childhood was marked by a major resurgence of the characters and formats popular in the 1930s and ‘40s: not just the movies, but also the comics, pulp magazines, and radio shows of the Depression and war years.  During the 1970s and 1980s, there were new movies, comics, and television shows based on characters such as Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage, the Lone Ranger, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and many others.  Some were revived in response to the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones; others had been brought back as part of the “adult fantasy” wave that had also swept J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons to cultural prominence in the early 1970s, and of which Star Wars was partially a product.  And some had never really gone away.

Still, it was rare for serials to be shown in their entirety on television when I was a kid: there had been a serial revival in the mid-1960s, coinciding with the popularity of the Batman TV series, but that was before I was born.  Many of the serials had been “featurized”—edited down to hundred-minute movies—for television broadcast, so I might have seen some without even realizing it, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to get the full, multi-chapter experience.  As much as I love the pulpy aesthetic of old movie posters and the juicy, crackling dialogue of the old-time villains, the serials themselves were something of a blind spot for me.

The goal of this series is to explore some of the classic serials, not necessarily as they were originally seen, but at least uncut and at full length.  Of the hundreds of serials that were made, not all have survived, but many are available on DVD and a large number can be seen on YouTube.  Without trying to be comprehensive, I will have plenty of material to examine.

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In reading about the history of the serials, many names pop up frequently: the serials had their own stars, such as leading men Buster Crabbe, Tom Tyler, and Kirk Alyn; and leading ladies Pearl White (“Pauline” of The Perils of Pauline, the archetypal silent serial) and Linda Stirling.  (Stars such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff also made appearances in serials, as did future star John Wayne and television’s Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore.)  Behind-the-scenes personnel made long careers out of the serials, such as stuntmen Tom Steele and Yakima Canutt, and directors Spencer G. Bennet and the team of William Witney and John English.  One also sees the name Sam Katzman frequently: the corner-cutting producer who, despite the tight budgets with which serials were typically made, was said to have never lost money on a production.

Finally, the name of Republic Pictures is nearly synonymous with the serial.  While other studios made serials as part of their output, Republic specialized in them, and one can hardly discuss the subject without acknowledging them.  After forming through the merger of Mascot (an established producer of serials) with Consolidated Film Laboratories and Monogram in 1933, Republic made sixty-six serials over the next two decades, almost to the end of the serial era.  Republic, along with Columbia, Universal, and a number of smaller studios, brought superheroes like Captain Marvel and the Phantom to the screen for the first time, and eventually created some of their own, such as Rocket Man.  In examining the serials, I intend to examine both the source material from which these characters were drawn and the serials’ lasting influence on the TV shows and movies that followed.

So much for the preliminaries.  I’ve decided to start with one of the most successful serials of all time: in two weeks, I’ll examine Universal’s 1936 production of Flash GordonI hope you’ll join me.

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