I’m very pleased to announce that my short story “The Metal Menace” is included in the latest issue of Pulp Adventures (#40), available now! This story is in a retro space opera style with a twist, told from the point of view of two guards, Vilu and Okmun, in the service of the interplanetary Emperor Ayazo: their latest conquest, Earth, has provided the technology for Ayazo to build a mechanical man, a development that has led the guards to question their ruler for the first time. In an unlikely alliance, the Emperor’s Earthling prisoners, Rex Hazard and scientist Doris Walden, may be the guards’ last hope to avoid obsolescence!
Like “Queen Aura’s Address to the People of Planet Mongo Upon Her Coronation,” “The Metal Menace” was inspired by my deep dive into classic science fiction serials a few years back. (Vilu and Okmun are named in honor of Wheeler Oakman, the serial-era character actor who specialized in playing henchmen and heavies.) As an affectionate pastiche, I couldn’t have found a better home for it than Pulp Adventures, which combines reprinted classic stories from the pulps and new stories in the same vein. I also love the interior illustration by Aleena Valentine-Lopez, seen below. The whole issue, edited by Audrey Parente, is beautifully put together, and I’m proud to be a part of it. I look forward to reading the other stories and articles.
Pulp Adventures #40 is available through your favorite bookseller, or you can order it directly from Bold Venture Press.
In the sky, high above the fairgrounds on which Col. Nathan Gregory’s traveling carnival is pitched, a stunt plane writes a message in the clouds: “MAY 23 1918 THE EAGLE.” What could it mean? To Gregory, it’s a reminder of the past: on the date in question, the ace pilot known as “the Eagle” was shot down by members of his own squadron, not recognizing one of their own returning from a mission in a captured enemy plane. For members of the Evans Aero Corporation’s board of directors, it’s a threat: many of them flew with the Eagle and still live with the guilt of that day’s events. Has the Eagle returned for vengeance, or does someone know a secret that they are leveraging for blackmail?
The skywriting pilot doesn’t know: Craig McCoy works for the carnival, and he wrote the message after someone dropped him an envelope with a hundred dollar bill in it. That doesn’t stop the board members from accusing him: it turns out that Gregory was “the Eagle,” long thought dead. In addition to the friendly fire that brought him down, Gregory claims the company’s success is built on an invention stolen from him. It’s only logical to think that he’s using McCoy to execute his long-planned revenge. Soon, however, another plane appears, and it begins writing the names of the board members and crossing them out, making the threat more explicit; not to mention the appearance of two thugs, Moore and Boyle, who claim to be working for the Eagle. It’s up to McCoy (John Wayne), along with Gregory’s daughter Jean (Dorothy Gulliver), to protect Gregory and his carnival from false accusations and the violent repercussions that follow, and ultimately solve the mystery. And it’s not long before they face danger themselves, as the first chapter of The Shadow of the Eagle ends with the unknown plane chasing the two of them across a field at ground level, threatening to run them down!
Despite Craig McCoy’s job as a pilot and the importance of skywriting and aircraft to the plot, The Shadow of the Eagle isn’t totally focused on aviation, and there’s only a little aerial danger in the form of dogfights or crashes. The youthful McCoy is more Tailspin Tommy than Ace Drummond. The carnival setting is much more important, providing a colorful backdrop and cast of supporting characters. In addition to McCoy and Jean, Col. Gregory is supported by little person Billy (billed as “the Midget”), a strongman (Ivan Linow), and a ventriloquist (James Bradbury Jr.), among a few others. As in Daredevils of the Red Circle, they form a team of varied abilities, so there are many fun scenes of Billy fooling the bad guys as a decoy (even disguised as a baby in a basket at one point), the ventriloquist imitating other peoples’ voices to get information or create distractions, and the strongman, well, being strong. The sense of family and camaraderie between them lends itself to banter and kidding (little Billy has a few catchphrases, including bossing the strongman around and calling him a “palooka”); and of course, all of them have the showbiz lifer’s loyalty to their patron and father figure, Gregory. (The dark side of that loyalty is that if you cross one of them, you cross them all: see the cliffhanger at the end of “The Code of the Carnival,” below.)
Dating from 1932, this is actually the earliest sound serial I’ve reviewed for this series so far, and it has many of the dated elements that I’ve seen in other serials from the time period: there is no non-diegetic music at all, other than the theme that opens each chapter, and there are often long stretches of silence without even sound effects. (I do like the voiceover that provides recaps, as the narrator’s creaky voice makes it sound like a storyteller relaying something nearly lost to the mists of time.) The plot has the sense of broad strokes seen in serials like Pirate Treasure, as if the filmmakers said to themselves, “What do kids want to see on screen? Airplanes! Carnivals! Chases! Fights!” and wrote it up accordingly. The and-then-there-were-none plotting of the board of directors being eliminated one by one, while one of them is secretly the Eagle, is not handled as slickly as it would be in later serials, but it’s clear enough. Finally, The Shadow of the Eagle has the casual relationship with cause and effect I’ve noticed in other Mascot serials. Let one example stand in for the whole: at the end of Chapter Nine, “When Thieves Fall Out,” McCoy and Henry drive off, only for the Eagle’s henchmen, Moore and Boyle, to appear on the side of their convertible, demanding they stop and provoking a fight within the moving car. Where did they come from? The implication is that they were on the car’s running board, hidden from sight until the car started moving, but it’s the kind of thing that would be set up much more clearly in later serials.
Having said all that, The Shadow of the Eagle has one virtue that goes far in overcoming those flaws: it moves like a demon, flowing swiftly from one scene to the next, and the lulls are few and far between. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, and it definitely challenges the kind of close watching I usually try to do with these films, but if you sit back and allow it to wash over you—arguably, the mindset in which it was meant to be seen—it’s a ton of fun, full of the styles, situations, and twists that are really more important to the serial experience than something as skimpy and inconsequential as plot. I’ve argued that the Mascot serials of the 1930s often feel like dreams, and like dreams, they often circle back to moments of crisis, repeated with variation as if fixated.
As is true of many serials, captivity is a recurring theme, with Gregory abducted multiple times, once even being dropped off at a sanitarium along with his daughter (by Moore and Boyle posing as family members concerned about Gregory’s “persecution complex”). Characters hide or are trapped in trunks, bins, and cabinets, including a magician’s vanishing cabinet. Costumes and disguises are likewise employed by both heroes and villains to misdirect their enemies (and the audience). Even these formulaic devices are deployed less consistently than they would be later on: sometimes the Eagle would appear disguised as Gregory, wearing the same slouch hat and coat to impersonate him; sometimes he would be a disembodied voice, proclaiming, “You are under the shadow of the Eagle!” before striking; other times he would be behind a console, controlling the robot plane by remote.
The slipperiness and seeming carelessness with which these plot twists unfold may appear as defects to those who prefer the consistency and craftsmanship of the Republic serials, but I loved the exuberance with which classic set pieces and plot elements were stuck together in ways that could still be fresh and surprising in those days. More than once I’d cackle as a character announced that he knew who the Eagle was and he would remain silent no more, knowing that as soon as he said, “the Eagle is—” the lights would go out and a knife would go in, or a shot would strike him from some offscreen hiding spot, and the Eagle’s secret would be safe for another chapter. Things like that were already clichés in the early 1930s, but the filmmakers are aware of their audience’s familiarity with them, so they look for new ways to ring changes on the old material. As with other serials from these early days, it helps that all of the stunts are original, without the reliance on the backlog of stock footage from which later serials suffer.
The Shadow of the Eagle is most notable for starring John Wayne as Craig McCoy. Before John Ford made Wayne the icon he would become, the young actor spent more than a decade in the trenches making B-movies and serials (The Shadow of the Eagle isn’t even the only serial Wayne headlined in 1932: the same year he would lead another Nat Levine-produced serial, The Hurricane Express), including a stint in the long-running “Three Mesquiteers” series. Many of these films were Westerns, but not all of them. It’s fascinating to see (and hear) a young but recognizable Wayne at about age twenty-five: he’s a capable serial man of action, but it would have been hard to predict how big he would become later as a laconic, weatherbeaten symbol of the West.
Other familiar faces from the serials include famed stuntman and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt as henchman Boyle and Ernie Adams as Kelly, “The Man Who Knew” (Chapter Ten). “Little Billy” Rhodes was often seen in comic and circus-related roles in the 1930s and would go on to appear in The Terror of Tiny Town and The Wizard of Oz. Finally, Walter Miller appears as Danby, one of the board of directors. Miller appeared in many serials; sometimes he played a good guy, but often he was a slick villain. Miller keeps the audience guessing in this one; familiarity with his other roles doesn’t guarantee that viewers today will guess the Eagle’s true identity. . . .
What I Watched:The Shadow of the Eagle (Mascot, 1932)
Where I Watched It: I found it by chance on the free ad-supported streaming platform Tubi. Tubi is increasingly home to all kinds of genre oddities and interesting programming, despite (or because of) its seemingly casual approach to curating its library; I probably spend us much time watching Tubi as I do Netflix nowadays.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “The Man of a Million Faces” (Chapter Four) This chapter introduces Henry the ventriloquist’s talent for imitating other people, so it should really be “The Man of a Million Voices,” but whatever.
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Six, “The Code of the Carnival,” Moore and Boyle have successfully framed McCoy, “catching” him after the remote-controlled plane wrote another of the Eagle’s warnings in the sky. Seemingly convinced that McCoy is guilty of betraying her father, Jean refuses to let the police take McCoy, insisting that the carnival has its own punishment for those who break its code. To everyone’s horror (and McCoy’s disbelief), she orders the roustabouts to “peg out” McCoy: a patch of tent canvas is pegged to the ground with McCoy trapped under it, still protesting his innocence. The last we see before a flap of the tent obscures the scene is one of the carnies about to drive a long stake right through the center of the bulge under the canvas.
Billy: “Ain’t he the greatest flyer you ever saw?”
Gregory (once known as the Eagle): “I’ve only known one as good, an Army flyer. They called him the Eagle. He was shot down May 23rd, 1918.”
What Others Have Said: “From the time he exited [Fox] until [director John] Ford called him, [John Wayne’s] career moved up and down. At one point it went so far downhill that Duke called the Westerns ‘Z’ films. But they were actually ‘B’ films. He scraped along, grinding out one after another, until Republic Pictures was born in 1935, and the decision was made to upgrade its star and its Westerns. During this period Wayne was gaining invaluable experience, and one ‘invaluable’ person rode into his life: rodeo rider-stuntman, Yakima Canutt. Wayne learned how to really ride from him, how to fall off of a horse; he copied his gait and his speech; together they worked at perfecting the barroom brawls. . . . Today every battle reflects their years of work.” –Gone But Not Forgotten, Patricia Fox-Sheinwold
What’s Next: As I mentioned, this was a chance discovery and I happened to be in the mood to watch it, so I can’t promise I’ll get to any more serials before this summer. But you never know, so subscribe to this blog to receive updates as they happen!
The Vanishing Shadow begins with Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens), heir to the Tribune newspaper and aspiring inventor, visiting the laboratory of Professor Carl Van Dorn to show him plans he has been working on, but which aren’t quite complete. Can the older inventor help him out by troubleshooting the design? Van Dorn is deeply sympathetic to young Stanfield, and tells him he was a supporter of Stanfield’s late father in his crusade against corrupt public figure Wade Barnett. (Although the exact cause is not specified, it is widely believed that the elder Stanfield’s struggles against Barnett led to his death.) Van Dorn accepts the unfinished invention, an invisibility ray, and Stanfield takes his leave. Amazingly, Van Dorn has been working on his own “vanishing ray,” and by examining Stanfield’s plans he is able to solve the problem that had plagued his own design.
Meanwhile, on his way to Barnett’s office, Stanfield saves a young woman, a reporter named Gloria Grant (Ada Ince), from being run over by a speeding fire engine. Gloria is secretly Wade Barnett’s estranged daughter, working at the Tribune under cover to escape her father’s malign influence. When Stanfield gets to Barnett’s office, Barnett (perennial heavy Walter Miller at his oiliest) offers—nay, demands—to buy out Stanfield’s shares of Tribune stock; with that, he would have controlling interest in the paper and be able to quash its coverage of his illegal activities. Stanfield of course refuses, and when Barnett pulls a gun to have his way by force, there’s a struggle in which Barnett’s bond broker, Cadwell, is wounded. Barnett summons help, making it look like a crazed Stanfield just committed murder, and the young man flees.
Back at Van Dorn’s lab, Stanfield pleads for the inventor to hide him. It just so happens that Van Dorn has finished the vanishing ray, and he has Stanfield wear it (it’s a harness-like contraption that goes over the wearer’s chest). It works! The only catch is that anyone using the vanishing ray still casts a shadow (hence the title). Barnett’s main henchman Dorgan (Richard Cramer) and some of his men force their way into Van Dorn’s lab just as Stanfield manages to hide. Of course, they find nothing, but one of them did see a suspicious shadow; it will be several chapters before anyone takes those glimpses as more than just a trick of the light. (The invisibility effects throughout the serial are quite artful, as well as unusually consistent. There are no visible weapons or objects floating around as if being carried by invisible hands; everything the user is wearing or holding becomes invisible with them, except for the telltale shadow they leave behind.)
After this first successful test of the vanishing ray, Stanfield and Van Dorn realize that they have a powerful weapon to use against Barnett, and the game is afoot. The typical serial plot contrivances stretch the story to twelve chapters: Stanfield and Van Dorn strike back at Barnett in a variety of locations; more inventions are produced, including a “destroying ray” and a robot; all three heroes get captured and escape at different times; the Tribune shares, as well as the vanishing and destroying rays, change hands as they are hidden, stolen, and recovered. In the best serial fashion, all of this action throws the character of the players into sharp relief, with heroism and self-sacrifice carrying the day.
One can see elements of the nascent superhero genre coming together: a crusading young man with a father to avenge; a gimmick that gives him an advantage against his enemies, as well as psyching them out; a secret lair in which to tinker on new and improved crimebusting inventions (Van Dorn’s fortified “beach house” turns out to be an even better HQ); and a young woman whose loyalties are divided (while she immediately allies herself with Stanfield’s idealism, Gloria hopes until the end to reform her father rather than destroy him; and Van Dorn suspects her of working against Stanfield on Barnett’s behalf, at least until she proves her good intentions).
Nevertheless, it would be an overstatement to call The Vanishing Shadow “the first cinematic superhero” or somesuch, as the story is firmly rooted in pulp and serial traditions. The uncomplicated wish-fulfillment of Stanfield’s and Van Dorn’s inventions and the melodrama of stock characters reminds me of Pirate Treasure (which immediately preceded The Vanishing Shadow in Universal’s release schedule); the mix of familial drama and science-heroism are also reminiscent of Judex. But Stanley Stanfield would be at home in most any pulp magazine of the era. The fact that he wears a suit rather than a superhero onesie isn’t a dealbreaker, but it does score another point for the “pulp” side. Most notably, the vanishing ray and Van Dorn’s other inventions aren’t set forth as tools for continuing adventures or a general campaign against crime. Defeating Barnett and gaining control of the Tribune aren’t just parts of an origin story: they are the story.
The Vanishing Shadow is “adventure science fiction,” to use Isaac Asimov’s term for that phase of sci-fi in which the gadgets purely serve the thrills and action. The gee-whiz element is turned up as well, appealing to readers of Popular Mechanics and similar DIY magazines: is there anything electrical science cannot do? It’s telling that an “electrical lock” on the Professor’s gates—essentially a remote control garage door opener—is given as much screen time as his robot or destroying ray (the first depiction of a “ray gun” on screen, essentially a spotlight that kills anything the light touches).
Actually, Professor Van Dorn (James Durkin in his final role; he also played Professor Hargrave in the 1933 Perils of Pauline) steals the film. We never learn why the old inventor hates Barnett so much, but if anything he is more bent on revenge than Stanfield. There is almost a good cop/bad cop dynamic between Stanfield and Van Dorn, with the younger man frequently calling off his bloodthirsty partner. In one chapter, Stanfield makes Van Dorn promise not to bring his destroying ray with him on an outing; in the next scene, Van Dorn gets in the car with an obvious rectangular bulge in the front of his jacket. Stanfield tries to moderate Van Dorn, saying things like “I know your way, but we don’t want to murder anybody,” while Van Dorn is given to pronouncements like “The law? You and I will be the law: judge, jury . . . and executioner.” Same planet, different worlds. Frankly, I never got tired of Van Dorn’s obvious relish for wet work; when, after being shown the Professor’s “iron man,” strong enough to break through a brick wall, Stanfield wonders what it would do to a human being, Van Dorn answers without hesitation, “Crush him into mincemeat!” Between the Professor’s propensity to secure his premises with deathtraps and his distrust of Gloria (“There is nothing I fear so much as women!”), it’s a good thing he’s on our side.
Irascible, even mad, scientists are a staple of adventure science fiction, but usually as villains or secondary characters, so the ambiguity of Van Dorn’s heroism is an interesting twist. I was strongly reminded of Bela Lugosi’s turn in The Phantom Creeps from a few years later, and although that serial doesn’t appear to use any leftovers from The Vanishing Shadow, the cranky professor who has both an invisibility device and a killer robot suggests that someone at Universal remembered the earlier production with fondness. Screenwriter Basil Dickey, a well-known name in serials, worked on both films, but that doesn’t mean the similarities were his idea.
The Vanishing Shadow was the first film directed by Louis Friedlander, who would go on to earn hundreds of credits directing serials, B-movies, and (later) television episodes, mostly using the screen name Lew Landers. Like many serials, it has its lulls, but it more than makes up for it in imagination and the quality of its production, and it especially springs to life when Durkin is on screen. The beautiful restoration from VCI makes this an easy one to recommend for fans of serials and retro science fiction alike.
What I Watched:The Vanishing Shadow (Universal, 1934)
Where I Watched It: A Blu-Ray from VCI Entertainment, remastered from long-hidden original 35mm film reels. (The Vanishing Shadow was long-thought lost, but I guess “neglected” might be a better word.) The restoration looks and sounds great, better than many releases of newer films (the screenshots I’ve used here are from YouTube, so they’re not as sharp, but you get the idea).
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Hurled from the Sky” (Chapter Five)
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Six (“Chain Lightning”), Gloria shows up at her father’s office, with Stanley using the vanishing ray to shadow her invisibly. Suspecting a trap, they head down the back stairs, avoiding Dorgan and his men at the front entrance of the building. Unaware of this and thinking that Stanley has been captured, Professor Van Dorn bursts into Barnett’s office and demands to see Stanley, or else he’ll use his destroying ray on him! Since Stanley had been invisible, Barnett doesn’t know what Van Dorn is talking about, and his fear of being at the mercy of a madman is palpable (and justified). At the same time, Gloria and Stanley have come back to Van Dorn’s lab; Gloria, not knowing that the Professor has set yet another trap, steps onto the pad in front of the safe and is immediately enveloped in bands of lightning. This is such a fun cliffhanger because not only does it cut between two equally suspenseful situations, but the chain of missed connections and misunderstandings that leads to the danger is laid out perfectly for the audience, and once things lock into place it races to the end.
Sample Dialogue: “If that’s the way you treat a friend, Heaven help your enemies!” –Stanfield, after Van Dorn tests out a paralyzing ray on him in Chapter Nine (“Blazing Bulkheads”)
What Others Have Said: “This ‘before-its-time’ gem was no accident. The previous year the studio had a ‘monster’ theatrical hit with director James Whale’s film adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man. And so it was imperative to develop more material to capitalize on the success of that film . . . the result was The Vanishing Shadow.” –Ralph Tribbey, DVD & Blu-Ray Release Report (included as liner notes with the VCI release)
What’s Next: Well, after an unexpected two-month hiatus from posting, this is coming out much later than I had planned. With everyone in the family home most of the time, my own personal schedule is completely out of whack. My apologies if new Medleyana posts were the only thing keeping you going (and God help you if that’s the case!). Summer is officially over, but you never know if Fates Worse Than Death will return out of season. It’s happened before!
We dedicate this picture to the United States Navy, its officers and men, in grateful acknowledgment of their invaluable co-operation and assistance.
As the above blurb, which appears at the beginning of Don Winslow of the Navy, indicates, the involvement of the U.S. military with Hollywood movie-making has been going on for a long time. Even without that acknowledgment, one could guess by the sheer volume of stock footage–of naval maneuvers, of ships and planes in action, and (in the penultimate chapter) of sailors storming a beach–that there was some connection. Of course, this was released during wartime, so it makes a dandy recruiting film for the Navy, but serials and B-movies generally weren’t going to be critical of the military (or law enforcement) anyway: aside from the demands of the Production Code, it would get in the way of the clear-cut good guys and bad guys narrative that is the spine of such films. Having said that, there are some interesting contrasts here to other pro-military and wartime serials.
The basic setup is a familiar one: Don Winslow, fresh from a stint with Naval Intelligence and recently put back in command of his own ship, U. S. Destroyer 620, is summoned to Pearl Harbor for his new assignment. Supply ships approaching the Pacific island of Tangita, where the Navy is building a new base, have sunk, and sabotage is suspected. Commander Winslow is to take the 620 to Tangita and get to the bottom of the mystery, assisted by his best friend, Lieutenant “Red” Pennington. After another attempt on an approaching ship, Winslow learns that infamous foreign spymaster the Scorpion is behind the attacks, and there must be a base of Scorpion agents somewhere on the island. If the Scorpion’s secret headquarters can be found and the saboteurs wiped out, the Navy base can be completed. So far, so good.
Beyond the unfinished base at Rondana Bay and its community of American workers, Tangita is a movie-land jungle island with all the amenities, including a native tribe with a temple and some crumbling ruins; a gold mine with a separate village for its laborers; and abandoned facilities such as the old smelter and old sea mill, ready to be destroyed in cliffhangers. The audience learns quickly that the Scorpion’s secret base (including an underwater submarine dock) is accessible through a shuttered tunnel in the gold mine, and that the gold mine’s operator, Merlin, is actually “M-22,” the Scorpion’s lead agent on the island. Throughout the serial, Merlin pretends to help Winslow while secretly luring him into traps or away from the real base, even going so far as to kill one of his own agents and plant papers on him to convince Winslow that he got the real M-22. As in many serials, the dirty work is carried out by lower-level Scorpion operatives so that Merlin’s duplicity isn’t discovered until the end. The Scorpion himself never sets foot on the island, instead issuing orders via television, and while Winslow triumphs at the end as expected, the story is open-ended: he moves onto his next assignment in hopes of bringing down the Scorpion for good.
Don Winslow of the Navy is also unusual in the degree to which its hero has it both ways, both commanding from the bridge and operating on the ground. I’ve quoted this passage from Raymond W. Stedman’s The Serials before, but it’s worth mentioning again: “No doubt about it, in jungle, prairie, or metropolis, the cliffhanging heroes and heroines did their part in the war effort–though one must overlook their apparent aversion to ordinary service in the armed forces. Scenes of battle action were no more than inserts in tales of spy fighting or fifth-column activity.” When action heroes are part of the military, they’re often commandos or intelligence agents, or are cut off from their units as a way of justifying their independence. Often, officers are remote characters in this kind of movie, issuing orders from behind a desk, far from the action. Not Winslow! At one point, asked why he always heads into danger alone instead of letting his underlings take the risk, he explains, “The Scorpion wants to get me alive–they’ll shoot the rest of you on sight.” But he also commands a full-sized destroyer, providing scenes of large-scale battle (at one point the 620 even rams a submarine, saving another Navy ship from danger) that are often out of the reach of serial heroes. The scope of the action, and the addition of all that footage from the Navy, makes it feel like a real war picture.
It also brought another genre to mind: this serial may be set on earth, but I think Don Winslow and Buck Rogers would have a lot to talk about. Gene Roddenberry may have pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars,” but one can see the naval influence in the quasi-military treatment of the ship and its crew, and more importantly the balance of ship-to-ship combat and planetside “away missions” that the captain takes part in. Substitute “islands” for “planets” and the roots of the genre are clear: “final frontier,” indeed.
While watching Don Winslow, I also often found myself thinking of The Fighting Marines: there are some similarities, including an unknown master spy and a base on a Pacific island, as well as heroes who are in uniform but given a free hand. But since The Fighting Marines was made in the 1930s, before the war, it’s typically coy about the nationality of the villain. Don Winslow was made in 1941, so it is also not very specific: the Scorpion (played by Kurt Katch) is apparently German, going by his accent, but like many of those villains of the interwar years, his actual goals and politics aren’t mentioned. He’s against America, so that’s all we need to know. The serial began distribution in October of 1941; the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor made it both timely and a little quaint: following the declaration of war, subsequent serials would be less circumspect in naming America’s enemies.
Winslow is played by Don Terry, who is really everything one could expect of an upright, square-jawed, red-blooded serial hero of the time period. Like many of his colleagues, Terry (born Donald Loker) had an athletic background; interestingly, after playing Don Winslow in two serials, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve for real and earned a Purple Heart serving in the Pacific, and he left the film industry shortly after that. Of course, a serial hero needs a supporting cast. In addition to Lt. Pennington (Walter Sande), there’s older Navy man Mike Splendor (Wade Boteler, playing the kind of blustering Irishman he played in The Green Hornet and Red Barry, among many, many Irish cop roles) and civilian construction head John Blake (Ben Taggart). Navy nurse Mercedes Colby (Claire Dodd) and secretary Misty Gaye (Anne Nagel, also seen in The Green Hornet) are established as the only survivors of the shipwreck that serves as the inciting incident, but they go way back with Winslow and Pennington (romance, or at least double dating, is implied, but as in most serials it’s kept in the background).
After a couple of sluggish Columbia serials, Don Winslow of the Navy (also based on a comic strip and radio show) was a breath of fresh air: not only was it a tight twelve chapters, it moved quickly, balancing character scenes with action. Other than the weird Mascot serials of the ’30s, I think Universal’s have been my next favorite; the production is generally (if not always!) good, but not so slick as to be unsurprising and formulaic. In this case, a stirring score helps smooth out the rough edges: the Navy march, “Anchors Aweigh,” forms the theme song, of course, but the incidental music includes a lot of Elgar-sounding stuff and dramatic strains in the vein of Victory at Sea.
What I Watched:Don Winslow of the Navy (Universal, 1942)
Where I Watched It: VHS set from VCI’s Classic Cliffhanger Collection
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Fighting Fathoms Deep” (Chapter Ten)
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Nine, “Wings of Destruction,” Winslow sets out to test a new plane, and Mercedes talks her way into going with him. Scorpion agent Barsac (John Holland) gets to the hangar first with the intention of sabotaging the plane, but when he is surprised by Winslow’s arrival, a hastily discarded torch sets a fire. Barsac is confident that the fire will put an end to Winslow’s meddling, but that turns out not to be the cliffhanger. Winslow and Mercedes are able to take off, saving both the plane and themselves from the fire. Meanwhile, Barsac radios one of the Scorpion’s subs, having it launch its onboard plane to bomb the 620, carrying out the other part of the Scorpion’s order. With both planes in the air and bombs falling on the Navy Destroyer, a dogfight ensues; Winslow is grazed by a bullet and falls unconscious, and the plane goes into a dive. By the kind of lucky coincidence serial heroes are blessed with, the plane collides with the Scorpion’s bomber, shearing the bomber’s wing off and causing it to crash. But how can our heroes pull out of the fatal dive with Winslow still unconscious? (Hint: remember that passenger who insisted on coming along for the ride?)
Not the Best Cliffhanger: In a very odd sequence, Winslow darkens his skin and puts on a sarong to disguise himself as a native and investigate an old ruin that Merlin has directed him to (it’s a trap, of course). Aside from the ways in which brownface is problematic (although common at the time), it’s odd because Winslow never makes an attempt to blend in with the natives; he is almost immediately joined by (white) members of his party. At the same time, Merlin has provided the native witch doctor, Koloka, with a loudspeaker and microphone to make it seem as if the temple’s idol is speaking (just like in Terry and the Pirates!), which will allow the corrupt Koloka, a Scorpion loyalist, to usurp the tribe’s rightful chief, Tombana. Meanwhile, Blake (overseeing construction of the Naval base) brings Mercedes to the village to help some sick children.
Once of all of our heroes are at the temple, Koloka stirs up the natives using the loudspeaker in the idol, blaming the white newcomers for the sickness in the village. Chased by a mob, Winslow and the others are cornered; their only hope of escape is for Winslow to dive into the water, distract the natives, and come back for his friends. (I had thought that perhaps this dive was the reason for his native costume, so the filmmakers could insert footage of a Pacific islander diving, but there really isn’t enough to the shot to make such trouble worth it, and it looks like star Don Terry performs the jump.) All would be well, if it weren’t for all the sharks in the water! All of this is in Chapter Six, “Menaced by Man-Eaters”; the other reason it seems out of place is that the natives are hardly relevant to the plot except in this chapter and the resolution in the next. The episode definitely feels like filler to pad out the serial, but I don’t mind digressions when they’re enjoyable.
Winslow: What do you know about the men who just escaped?
Miner: You mean Spike? Not much. Him and a couple other guys by the name of Prindle and Corley come over here sometimes.
Winslow: Do they work in the mine?
Miner: Sometimes, not regular. Why? They deserters in the Navy?
Winslow: Hardly. We don’t have their kind in the Navy.
–Chapter Eight, “The Chamber of Doom”
For Your Further Don Winslow Viewing Pleasure: This serial was followed up by Don Winslow of the Coast Guard in 1943, also starring Don Terry.
What Others Have Said: “Boys who enlisted in Don Winslow’s Squadron of Peace received along with a bronze ensign’s badge a copy of the creed Winslow himself was bound to uphold. Composed before World War II neared American shores, it is quaintly touching today:
“I consecrate my life to Peace and to the protection of all my Countrymen wherever they may be. My battle against Scorpia represents the battle between Good and Evil. Never will I enter into any jingoistic proposition, but will devote my entire life to protecting my Country. The whole purpose of my life is that of promoting Peace–not War. I will work in the interests of Peace and will promote the fulfillment of all things that are clean, wholesome and upright. Join me not alone in observing this creed, but likewise be patriotic. Love your country, its flag and all the things for which it stands. Follow the advice of your parents and superiors and help someone every day.“
–Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment
What’s Next: I’m going to take a break from fiddling with my VCR and look at a serial I have on disc: join me next time as I investigate The Vanishing Shadow, which promises to be something different!
Dr. Herbert Lee, an American archeologist, leads a scientific expedition into the wilds to uncover evidence of a lost race. The native queen, known as the Dragon Lady, is determined her kingdom shall not be invaded. Fang, a sinister, lawless half-caste, who controls half of the natives and holds the white settlers in fear, seeks the riches hidden beneath the Sacred Temple. After the expedition has gone into the jungle to face unknown perils, Terry, Dr. Lee’s son, and Pat Ryan, his friend, arrive in Wingpoo with important documents for Dr. Lee.
Those words, presented as text crawling up the screen, begin each chapter of the 1940 serial Terry and the Pirates; chapters after the first add another sentence or two to describe the specific situation our heroes were left in, but that’s it. There’s no other recap (beyond the repetition of the last scene that sets up the cliffhanger), but that’s all you need anyway. Terry Lee, like fellow comic strip-turned serial hero Tim Tyler, is living the dream of many a boy in his audience, seeing the world alongside older and more experienced adventurers. Milton Caniff’s comic strip (and the radio serial, which preceded this film) followed the adventures of Terry and his friends, mostly in the jungles and waterways of Asia, for years. Like many serials based on existing properties, the filmmakers could somewhat rely on audiences to be familiar with the characters already, and the beginning of this one drops us into the action with only that text prologue to prepare us.
In Chapter One (“Into the Great Unknown”), when Terry and Pat arrive at the colonial town of Wingpoo, they are surprised to find that Dr. Lee and the rest of his expedition have already headed into the jungle, despite the radiogram Pat had sent alerting them to his and Terry’s imminent arrival. As it turns out, Dr. Lee never received the radiogram because the town’s radio operator, Stanton, (as well as many other people in town) is under the control of Fang, the villainous warlord who resides somewhere in the jungle, terrorizing the peaceful settlers. Using his inside information, Fang has Dr. Lee captured and the rest of his party slaughtered, supposedly during an attack by natives. (Fang has his white “renegades” don animal furs and masks, posing as “tiger” or “leopard men” so they don’t reveal their treachery to the other whites; this allows Fang to present himself as Dr. Lee’s rescuer.)
At first, Fang offers friendship to Dr. Lee, inviting him to study Fang’s collection of native artifacts: he needs the archeologist to interpret the language of the ancients and thinks that Dr. Lee will lead him to the lost treasure upon promise of a share. Dr. Lee, a man of science above all, is horrified by Fang’s plans and rejects this offer; Fang then coldly orders Dr. Lee held prisoner–he will aid Fang’s search, one way or the other. Fang has also ordered the capture of Terry and Pat, thinking to use them as leverage on Dr. Lee, but at least in the first chapter his immediate plan is foiled. (As in many serials, the good guys in this spend a lot of time getting captured and then escaping, with various combinations of the heroes either free or imprisoned.) Dr. Lee (played by John Paul Jones), it should be noted, is a pretty tough customer himself, and not easily intimidated: his love for his son is the weak spot Fang exploits against him more than once.
Terry and his allies are versions of characters from the comic strip: Terry himself, described as “a wide-awake American boy,” is a teenager in the strip. William Tracy, who plays Terry, was already twenty-three when the serial was filmed, but rather than aging up the character to match (like Billy Batson in Adventures of Captain Marvel), or casting a younger actor, the film has Tracy affecting a high, cracking voice and saying stuff like “Gee willikers!”, and an awkward, bow-legged stance, throwing his arms around spastically in action scenes to look younger and shorter than co-star Granville Owen, who plays the older Pat Ryan. (Owen played the lead in Lil’ Abner the same year he made Terry; he later went by the screen name Jeff York.)
Pat is the typical serial man of action, almost always taking on the fight scenes and gunplay himself while protectively keeping Terry out of the fray and chiding him for wasting time taking photographs, but he doesn’t have a lot of character himself. (Terry eagerly gets into a few scrapes–“Don’t worry, Dad!” he says before leaping into a fight with some prison guards–but his enthusiasm often outpaces his competence, and sometimes he makes the situation worse by trying to help.)
Terry and Pat are aided by two Asian characters, Dr. Lee’s servant Connie (short for “Confucius”), played by Allen Jung, and a local native who towers over his fellows and goes by the nickname “Big Stoop” (Victor DeCamp). Big Stoop is first encountered as a street magician; he joins forces with the Lee party when Pat and Terry stick up for him in a fight, and his escape artistry and magic tricks (not to mention pockets full of firecrackers) come in handy throughout the adventure. He also carries some of the comic relief, and doesn’t always think things through. He’s nothing if not loyal, however: at one point, when Pat and Terry are locked up in the Wingpoo jail, Big Stoop and Connie follow them into the cell, even though as Pat points out, they’d be more useful on the outside. Later, Big Stoop catches hold of one of the renegades and chastises him, saying, “You hit Big Stoop very hard.” A single blow to the man’s head, and the rudeness is repaid.
Another notable character is Normandie Drake (Joyce Bryant), the daughter of a local rubber planter; Normandie is brave and capable, joining forces with Terry against Fang’s depredations (in the comics she and Terry have a long, doomed romance, but they don’t so much as hold hands in this), but she also screams a lot. Boy, can she scream. No female character in a serial is a damsel in distress all the time–they have to hold up their end of the story, after all–but Normandie knows how to get her Fay Wray on when the bad guys come calling with their human sacrifices and trained gorillas.
As for the bad guys, they are many of the usual suspects: Dick Curtis, who plays Fang, was a longtime heavy for Columbia and appeared in a number of serials and B-movies, particularly Westerns (of course); he’s been in some of the serials I’ve covered, although not in a leading role that I recall. Fang is an “Oriental potentate” caricature, half wheedling Fu Manchu mannerisms and half vulgar savagery. His dialogue is amusingly prickly, as when he tells right-hand man Stanton (Jack Ingram, another regular heavy), “You have some brains after all. I was beginning to doubt it.”
What are we to make of Fang’s status as “half-caste”? This isn’t the first time such a character has been the villain in one of these stories: the casual racism of white settlers assuming their superiority over the natives is a common feature of the era’s adventure stories, but the implication is that it’s worse to be caught between worlds, without a people to call your own, than to be one of those honest but easily duped natives. Or it could be that making a major character mixed-race makes it easier to cast a white actor to play them. There’s not much ambiguity here: unlike Fu Manchu, who hopes to unite Asia under his own rule against the white devils, Fang is just in it for the money, promising to leave the Dragon Lady alone in exchange for the treasure. He may leave the temple and the Dragon Lady’s people in shambles, but that’s not his problem; he’ll be gone. In that respect, he’s not so different from the planters extracting wealth from the land, he just has an accelerated timetable.
As for the Dragon Lady herself (Sheila Darcy), she’s an ambiguous character type we’ve encountered before, the haughty and indomitable matriarch whose primary concern is her people (I was reminded of Queen Teka in The Phantom Empire). The Dragon Lady of the comics is an ocean-going pirate (answering my lingering question about this serial: where are the pirates?), but in the movie she is a firmly landlocked leader of the natives. At first she assumes that the white explorers are, like Fang, only interested in the treasure hidden in her Temple of the Dawn, and she sees them as enemies, especially after Terry and Pat interrupt a human sacrifice conducted by her high priest; eventually, however, she comes to see Terry and his friends as allies who have her best interests at heart. (She claims that she had forbidden such sacrifices; it takes a little longer for the priest to be won over.) Once Fang steals the Temple’s statue of the god Mara and makes it speak with a hidden phonograph record (“Listen to your god! Fang is my choice as ruler! Obey him in all things!”), turning the natives against her, she has little choice but to throw her lot in with the Lee expedition.
In the past, I’ve been somewhat critical of the Columbia serials I’ve watched, and I know I’m not alone: the consensus is that Columbia tended to cut corners and came to rely on silly physical comedy and gimmicks, turning its serials into parodies of themselves. As Columbia serials go, however, Terry and the Pirates was largely a pleasant surprise. (There is some light-hearted humor, but constant mugging and jokiness was mostly a product of the later 1940s.) Like many serials, it takes a chapter or two for things to really get going, but the middle chapters have some good action and the characters have a nice chemistry together and a combination of motives that keep the plot humming. My interest started to wane in the last few chapters, but as I’ve said before, many serials don’t really have enough story to fill fifteen chapters. It’s not much like the comic strip, which took a hard-boiled approach to war and adventure, but if you can overlook the too-old Terry and the frankly awful gorilla costume, it is a serviceable adventure in the jungle-explorer/lost-world vein.
What I Watched:Terry and the Pirates (Columbia, 1940)
Where I Watched It: This serial has been playing on TCM on Saturday mornings, but I watched the VHS set from VCI Classics (featuring the dubbing of voices in Chapter Four, for which the original audio was lost). It can also be viewed on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 15
Best Chapter Title: “The Dragon Queen Threatens” (Chapter Four)
Best Cliffhanger:Terry and the Pirates is a goldmine for fans looking for classic serial-style cliffhangers. Many standard types are represented: buildings in which our heroes are (seemingly) trapped catch fire, cave in, or explode; Terry and Pat get caught in traps that slowly fill with water (Chapter Seven, “Angry Waters”) or in which the walls close in, pushing the boys toward a central pit filled with “barbarious” spikes (Chapter Eleven, “Walls of Doom”); Terry falls into a “sacrificial pit” filled with alligators (Chapter Eight, “The Tomb of Peril”); and Normandie is menaced by the gorilla and is nearly sacrificed by the high priest of Mara. Finally, almost the entire party is bound on a gigantic pyre of wood for sacrifice by burning (Chapter Fourteen, “Pyre of Death”). Almost all of these cliffhangers are well-prepared and executed to both make the situation clear and amp up the suspense.
My favorite is at the end of Chapter Nine, “Jungle Hurricane” (as is frequently the case, the chapter titles tend to foreshadow the nature of the peril that will form the chapter-ending cliffhanger): Normandie is hiding out in an abandoned hut with Connie and Big Stoop to ride out a storm, not realizing that Stanton and his men are making for the same hut as a way station on the route to Wingpoo, where Fang has sent them for more supplies. Terry and Pat have the same idea to stop at the hut on their way to Wingpoo, and when they arrive they find Stanton and the other renegades taking Normandie and the boys captive. Pat distracts the renegades, getting them to chase him into the jungle, so Terry can sneak into the hut and free the prisoners, sending Connie and Big Stoop to help Pat while Terry unties Normandie. All of this happens while howling wind blows branches and palm leaves all around, and the walls of the hut shake under the force of the gale. It’s all quite dramatic. Just as Normandie is freed, the entire hut is blown over the side of the cliff upon which it was built, collapsing at the bottom of the hillside. (I fully expected that in the next chapter we would find that Terry and Normandie had slipped out of the hut before its collapse, or they would be revealed to be hanging on the side of the cliff by a vine, but nope: Pat finds them buried under the thatched roof of the collapsed hut, and once freed they’re perfectly fine. The “walk-it-off” cliffhanger strikes again!)
Sample Dialogue (from Chapter Six, “The Scroll of Wealth”):
Fang: This is my trophy room. Not a bad collection, eh, Doctor?
Dr. Lee: You’re not fooling me, Fang. It looks more like a torture chamber to me.
Fang: You are right, Doctor Lee, and, ah, here is your iron maiden, waiting for you. (touches spikes) You see, Doctor Lee, the maiden has hidden charms, charms which you will be unable to resist.
What Others Have Said: “It’s a whole lot easier to do Steve Canyon, in that I am able to free-wheel–I can go anywhere, do anything–and Terry never got out of China. I never got tired of doing the Oriental background, because to this day it’s still the greatest place for anything-can-happen stuff, it’s just that he had never come home, and I felt that I should change the scene more frequently, and I wasn’t able to do it during the war years.” –cartoonist Milton Caniff, asked in a 1982 interview about the difference between Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, the strip Caniff turned to in later years
What’s Next: Keeping with the comic strip theme, I’ll take a look at Don Winslow of the Navy!
Daily Flash reporter Brenda Starr and her cameraman Chuck Allen race to cover a fire in a downtown neighborhood, hoping to beat police Lt. Larry Farrell and his assistant Tim Brown to the scene: a fire is big news, but this could be the break Brenda needs in the story of Joe Heller, the thief who stole a quarter-million-dollar payroll and was recently seen in the neighborhood. As it happens, Heller is in the burning building, but before he can escape he is cornered by Kruger, a gunman for the gang to whom Heller was supposed to hand off the loot. Kruger recovers the payroll bag and shoots Heller; when Brenda enters the room, Kruger thrusts her into a closet. After being rescued by Farrell, she bends down to check on Heller, and with his dying breath he slips her a piece of paper with a code on it.
Later, at the swanky Pelican Club, Kruger and his fellow gangster Mullin turn the bag over to their superior, club manager Frank Smith. The bag turns out to be full of blank paper! Even in death, Joe Heller has double-crossed them! Kruger saw Brenda take the note from Heller, so he suspects that she might know where the real loot is. Meanwhile, Farrell passes along a story that Heller is still alive but unconscious, a trap to lure his killers into the open. Communicating with his superior, the “Big Boss,” by radio, Smith is instructed to pass a tip to Brenda Starr through an underworld contact named Charlie, sending her to spring the trap the police have set. When she and Chuck get to the house (that both the police and the gang are watching), she finds it full of gas: only a lucky fall out of a window saves her when absent-minded Chuck lights a match, igniting the gas!
After surviving that little incident, Brenda finds that Joe Heller, played by serial regular Wheeler Oakman, is actually dead, and the cover story was all a ruse. “Woakman” fans (or “Wacorns,” as we call ourselves) will be happy to learn, however, that Joe Heller had an identical twin brother, Lew, also played by Oakman, who turns up a few chapters later to avenge his brother’s death and find the payroll himself. Joe, we barely knew ye, but Lew turns out to be just as slippery and self-interested, holding on to what little he knows in hopes of making a deal with the police (especially after he fractures a milkman’s skull making one of his getaways). The payroll is still out there somewhere, and while the police codebreakers try to make sense of the paper Brenda was given, Frank Smith and his gang try to flush out Lew and the payroll; if they can get rid of the troublesome reporter Brenda Starr at the same time, so much the better!
Brenda Starr, Reporter was, of course, an adaptation of the comic strip of the same name, begun by Dale Messick in 1940 (and continued after her death until 2011). Brenda stands apart from the other brassy dames reporting the news in her day by being glamorous as well as gutsy, and the comic strip is notable for Brenda’s fashionable outfits and the elements of romance that accompany the adventure. Naturally, the sex appeal is toned down in the serial, but star Joan Woodbury makes a convincingly beautiful serial-budget replacement for Rita Hayworth (the original model for comic-strip Brenda) and wears a few nice gowns when the occasion arises. She and Lt. Farrell (serial stalwart Kane Richmond) are clearly crazy about each other, and as in the raucous romantic comedies of the era their banter and disagreements are a cover for their mutual attraction. Here’s one serial where the last-scene kiss between male and female leads actually feels like it’s in character!
This is the second serial in a row I’ve watched in which the villains take orders from a disembodied voice, and I know I’ve seen at least a couple that have the same solution to the mystery of the “Big Boss’s” identity; mostly we get a number of scenes with smooth Frank Smith (George Meeker, according to IMDb: other than the leads, the actors go uncredited) and his underlings (regular heavies Anthony Warde and John Merton; Jack Ingram plays Kruger). Smith and his gang have some of the usual serial tricks at their disposal, such as the “special sedan” with the sealed-off backseat that takes men (and women) who have outlived their usefulness on their “last ride.”
A singer at the nightclub, Vera Harvey (Cay Forester), gets reluctantly involved when Brenda identifies her car as the one used in a crime; at least a few chapters’ worth of incident are spun out of poor Vera getting in over her head, first cooperating in a plot to trap Brenda and then asking for help when she realizes her own life is in danger.
Other than the usual henchmen, the sketchy stool pigeon Charlie (Ernie Adams) makes the biggest impression, playing both sides against each other. With a toothpick dangling from his mouth and his “wise guy” way of talking, Charlie is the picture of a movie gangster; frankly, it’s not clear why anyone ever trusts him when he’s so obviously looking out for Number One.
We also get a bit of Brenda’s home life: she lives with her cousin Abretha (Lottie Harrison), a one-note character from the comic strip. Abretha (full name: Abretha Breeze, which is almost a pun) is a full-figured gal, and like other “fat” characters such as Wonder Woman’s pal Etta Candy, almost every line of dialogue she has revolves around food, and spends her time cooking lavish meals for Brenda and her colleagues that she ends up eating herself. Hilarious! Abretha seems like a nice girl, and it’s useful to have a character who doesn’t share the main cast’s zest for adventure, but a little goes a long way. I haven’t read much of the original Brenda Starr comics, but reading up on the various punny characters like Abretha actually leaves me sympathetic to the usual serial habit of creating new characters as foils for the hero.
In fact, my first impression of this serial is that its strength lies in its sense of character, as the plot and its complications are nothing special. So far, Columbia’s serials have been my least favorite of any studio’s output, with even the better ones having lumpy pacing and a casual, slapdash air. That works, however, for the mostly comic scenes of rapid-fire banter in the newsroom: the Flash’s blustering editor, Walters (Frank Jaquet), has the air of an indulgent but frequently exasperated father, offering and rescinding bonus checks with every change of fortune. Then there’s Pesky (William Benedict), the copy boy who can be counted on to get everything backwards: this is an obvious source of comic relief, but it also informs and complicates the plot, as when he sends the cops to Brenda’s apartment instead of the Pelican Club at a crucial moment, or when Brenda, surprised by Lew at home, tells Chuck over the phone not to come over and to “be a good boy and obey orders like Pesky would”–i.e., by doing the opposite of what she told him.
Finally, there’s the friendly rivalry between the cops and the press: just as Brenda and Lt. Farrell are paired up as co-leads, so do their respective sidekicks have a bantering, semi-antagonistic relationship: Chuck (Syd Saylor) and Officer Brown (Joe Devlin) are betting men, wagering on who will arrive at the scene first and keeping a running tally. Chuck’s sad-sack demeanor is also an excellent comic foil to Brenda’s brash stop-at-nothing energy: “Maybe we don’t live right,” he complains at one point. “Everything bad happens to us.” Buddy, that’s the life of a serial hero.
What I Watched: Brenda Starr, Reporter (Columbia, 1945)
Where I Watched It: DVD from VCI Entertainment (It’s worth noting that the VCI disk is missing scenes from Chapters 3 and 4 due to deterioration of the source material; Serial Squadron has located these missing chapters and is in the process of restoring them for a future release. There is enough redundancy in the serial format that it’s not hard to pick up on what happens in the missing sections, however.)
No. of Chapters: “13 Spine Tingling Chapters!”
Best Chapter Title: “Hot News!” (Chapter One)
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eight (“Killer at Large”), Charlie comes up with a plan that will help Lew get his revenge on Kruger for killing his brother. Charlie convinces Frank Smith to hire a phony fortune teller named Zelda (Marion Burns) for the Pelican Club, and Lew comes along as her assistant, “Abdul,” in a turban and false beard. (The stuff with Zelda, in this and the following chapter, is a lot of fun, and probably the high point of the serial for me.) Brenda and Chuck are invited to watch, as are Lt. Farrell and Tim. As “Abdul,” Lew walks among the audience, calling out for Zelda (who is blindfolded) to say what the marks are thinking, or what is in their pockets. Approaching Kruger, Abdul asks Zelda for her impression and is told that she feels a great sense of evil; through leading questions, Zelda says that a murder has been committed in the past, and that if Abdul looks in Kruger’s pocket he will find the gun that killed Vera Harvey. The plan to trap Kruger in front of the police goes awry when the lights in the club go out and shots are fired. This is one of several cliffhangers in which uncertainty or a reversal of fortune takes the place of an immediate deadly peril, but the implication is that any of our heroes might be on the receiving end of those gunshots. (At the beginning of the next chapter, when the lights come back on, both Kruger and Lew are gone. )
Sample Dialogue: “Whether you believe me or not, I’m going to write a story that’ll crack this town wide open!” –Brenda Starr to Lt. Farrell, Chapter Five (“The Big Boss Speaks”)
More Brenda Starr: Brenda Starr returned to the screen a few more times during periods of revived interest in the comics: in 1976, former Bond girl Jill St. John played Brenda in a TV movie (I haven’t been able to watch this one yet, but if I have anything worthwhile to say about it I may post a capsule review), and a TV pilot was made in 1979 starring Sherry Jackson.
A feature film starring Brooke Shields was produced in 1986, released overseas in 1989, and finally landed in the U.S. (to dismal reviews and poor box office) in 1992. It features Timothy Dalton (no stranger to pulp) as Brenda’s love interest, the enigmatic Basil St. John. In this movie Brenda dodges international spies and a reporter from a rival newspaper while tracking down an ex-Nazi scientist’s miracle fuel additive. The film also goes meta in the vein of The Purple Rose of Cairo, with a cartoonist (not Dale Messick, but an assistant) entering Brenda’s 1940s comic strip world and falling in love with her (Brooke Shields was my very first celebrity crush, so I can’t say I blame him). It’s a hook, but it’s less magical to learn that Brenda doesn’t have a belly button and is unable to swear (because of newspaper censors, you see) than the filmmakers seem to think. Shields makes a great Brenda, even if the film around her is (to be charitable) uneven. There are a lot of clever touches, but it’s pretty damn goofy as well, and everything to do with the Russian spies led by Jeffrey Tambor would be too broad for a live-action Disney movie. But then the movie shows us something sublimely silly like Brenda waterskiing on a pair of alligators and it comes all the way back around to being good.
What Others Have Said: “What Columbia was trying to do in the mid-1940s was trade upon–some would say tarnish–the reputations of heroes of other media. Beginning in 1945, when ‘Produced by Sam Katzman’ was stamped upon every Columbia serial, the borrowings were regular and frequent. The funny papers’ Brenda Starr, Reporter began the procession. . . .” —The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment, Raymond W. Stedman
What’s Next: I dive back into my big box of VHS tapes with another adaptation of a classic comic strip, Terry and the Pirates!
The police are baffled by a series of seeming murders: three bodies have been fished out of the harbor wearing medallions marked with the name “Mr. M.” Are they the victims of gangland killings? Is Mr. M a new leader of the criminal underworld? And what is the homicide division to make of the unknown chemical found in the bodies, a drug that appears to have paralyzed them before death? This is Detective Lieutenant Kirby Walsh’s beat, but when Dr. Kittridge, the secretive inventor, disappears, the Feds get involved: Kittridge had been working on a project that was vital for national security. The G-man assigned, Grant Farrell, has a personal interest, as his own brother Jim is also among the missing. Along with Walsh (played by Richard Martin) and Farrell (Dennis Moore), the third member of our heroic trio, insurance investigator Shirley Clinton (Pamela Blake), gets involved with the case after an explosion at one of Kittridge’s factories.
As it turns out, Mr. M has much higher ambitions than just organizing some criminal enterprise: Dr. Kittridge has invented a revolutionary new submarine engine, and Mr. M’s plan is to obtain it and then sell it to the highest bidder. (Politics, shmolitics: other than a few offhand references to war service, this could easily be one of those prewar serials in which a new technology is in danger of “falling into the wrong hands,” with few specifics offered as to who that might be.) The drug found in the previous bodies is a mind-controlling agent, “hypnotrene,” and those victims of “Mr. M” were just test subjects to find the correct dosage and throw the authorities off the scent. Now that the drug has been perfected, it can be used for its intended purpose: to make Dr. Kittridge turn over the plans for his invention. When Kittridge dies of hypnotrene-induced heart failure (I guess the formula isn’t that stable yet), it becomes a race between the criminals and the law to recover the various components of the submarine engine that the paranoid Kittridge had farmed out to various designers and manufacturers under assumed names.
Here’s where it starts to get complicated: the plot was started by one Anthony Waldron (Edmund MacDonald), a criminal believed by the police to be dead, but who had in fact been in hiding in Africa for several years. Now that he’s back in the States, he’s brought hypnotrene with him, living in a secret lab underneath his grandmother’s house and keeping her dosed on hypnotrene to make her pliable. His co-conspirators are Derek and Marina LaMont (Danny Morton and Cat People‘s Jane Randolph), a pair of siblings that society matron Cornelia Waldron (Viriginia Brissac) has always treated like family (and who also live with her).
There’s enough back story to this arrangement for a soap opera, but don’t worry: some version of this background is repeated in almost every chapter, along with a description of Kittridge’s revolutionary engine, “which will allow ocean-going submarines to be built as big as luxury liners!” Our heroes get involved because Cornelia had funded Dr. Kittridge’s research and is a co-beneficiary of the insurance policies Kittridge took out on his facilities in various names, and the scenes in the Waldron home are the most interesting part of this serial, with the secrets and double-crosses typical of contemporary thrillers.
Waldron created the “Mr. M” identity as a cover for his tests of hypnotrene, but now he has a problem: there is a real Mr. M, and he starts communicating with the conspirators by way of records dropped off at the house, using an eerie whisper reminiscent of radio chillers like Inner Sanctum. This Mr. M seems to know everything about Waldron and his partners, and he uses that knowledge to blackmail them: “Now you are working for me,” he says, as he issues directives to obtain the components of Kittridge’s engine. In many cases he is even one step ahead of the conspirators, possessing knowledge of events beyond Waldron’s.
The identity of this Mr. M is the main mystery, as in many serials in which the villain’s identity is kept secret until the last chapter, but the balance between the different factions is handled deftly and the degree to which the heroes and villains have separate stories is unusual. The heroes don’t know anything about this behind-the-scenes power struggle, and in fact when they come face to face with Anthony Waldron they naturally assume that he is the same Mr. M they’ve been dealing with all along. It actually isn’t that hard to guess who the unknown Mr. M is, but the context of the reveal is still pretty satisfying; as I said, the mystery elements in this serial are more engaging than the action scenes. (It’s also amusing that almost every character refers to “the mysterious Mr. M” in full, following the lead of the newspaper headlines, leading to dialogue like “We’re going to clear Jim’s name and get this mysterious Mr. M!” and “Imagine me sitting here talking to the mysterious Mr. M;” even the creepy recorded messages are signed off by “the mysterious . . . Mr. . . Emmmm.” The mysterious Mr. M has great brand awareness.)
Aside from the mysterious Mr. M’s spooky messages, the other weird element in this serial is the mind-controlling drug hypnotrene, which as you can imagine gets a workout. Anthony Waldron is the only one who knows how to manufacture the drug (even his lab assistant Archer doesn’t know the secret, apparently), which keeps Derek and Marina from eliminating him. Cornelia Waldron is kept dosed, but if the drug were allowed to wear off she would reveal all of the conspirators’ secrets. Much of the serial’s suspense comes from this uneasy truce.
But hypnotrene isn’t just a truth serum for extracting secrets: victims can also be conditioned to perform actions at set times, making them effective double agents or assassins (or “human robots,” in keeping with the era’s conception of a robot as a slave, mechanical or not). Several times over the course of the serial, allies of our heroes (including Kirby Walsh) are dosed and ordered to kill or mislead their colleagues, making it seem as if Mr. M has operatives in every walk of life. From the outside, the mysterious Mr. M would appear to be a mastermind with eyes and ears everywhere, even if in reality there are only a few people in on the conspiracy. (There are a couple of more-or-less disposable henchmen, Shrag and Donninger, at Derek’s command, and they function pretty much the same as henchmen in every serial, following the master’s orders without knowing the whole plan or their boss’s identity, so even when they get caught they’re only useful to the authorities as bait.)
Dennis Moore, who plays Grant Farrell, is a good representative of the transition from serials to television. From an uncredited role as a cowhand in the 1933 Buck Jones serial Gordon of Ghost City, Moore had gone on to hundreds of appearances in serials and B movies; most of these roles were in Westerns, but all kinds of genres were represented in his career. By the time Moore graduated to leading man, the serials were starting their decline: The Mysterious Mr. M would be the last serial Universal released. In 1956 Moore would also play one of the leading roles for Columbia in Blazing the Overland Trail, the very last theatrical serial ever released. By that time Moore was established in television, increasingly his home until his retirement in 1961; he died only a few years later in 1964 at the age of 56.
On that note, during the course of this series I have mostly been honest about how I’ve watched these films, all at once at home rather than over weeks in the theater, avoiding nostalgia for the Saturday matinee era since I don’t have personal experience of it to draw upon. It’s understandable that the first generation of serial authors like Alan Barbour and Donald F. Glut would emphasize their nostalgic qualities, but it’s also a bit rich to read passages lamenting how “kids today” won’t get to experience what they did as children, as if kids of every generation didn’t have favorite stories and games to make their youth magical. To the extent that Fates Worse Than Death is an exercise in looking back at my own childhood, it’s been about making connections with pulp fiction and comics and the pulp-derived film and TV of the 1970s and ’80s, which I did grow up with. Television inherited much of the rhythm, personnel, and production methods of the serials, and since I’ve been watching TV my whole life, it’s natural that I should watch serials the same way instead of pretending I’m sitting in a downtown scratch house, getting oil on my decoder ring as I dig into the popcorn between shifts delivering telegrams or whatever. (In a similar vein, I do enjoy the fedoras and roadsters of the serials, but I try not to mistake them for documentaries or, God forbid, memories of a “simpler time.”)
It’s obvious that the theatrical experience of the twenty-first century was quite different from that of the 1930s and ’40s, even before the closure of theaters in light of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. An afternoon at the theater during the serials’ heyday might have included a cartoon or musical short, a newsreel, and one or two features in addition to the latest chapter of a serial: animated films are still shown with accompanying shorts on a regular basis, but aside from one-off experiments like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse the studios are no longer invested in packages that keep audiences in seats all afternoon. (It’s more profitable for theaters and studios to have regular turnover, and television satisfies the desire to binge-watch, now more than ever.)
I do have affection for double features, collections of vintage trailers, and other such celebrations of the cinema experience, but in my experience those are the domain of individual promoters and film festivals (or niche chains like Alamo Drafthouse, which unfortunately I may never get to visit now). The boundary between cinema and home viewing was already increasingly porous, and the closure of theaters has pushed some studios to release their new films as video on demand, but at least so far the big would-be blockbusters have been pushed back in hopes that normalcy will return. It’s a bigger subject than is perhaps fair for me to tack on to the end of a review of a serial, but it is fair to note that the current crisis is yet another moment of transformation in the long, varied history of the cinema: hopefully the communal elements of watching together in a crowded theater, of gasping in suspense at a shocking turn of events or a cliffhanger, whether it be in The Mysterious Mr. M or Avengers: Infinity War, will return, even if some things have changed.
What I Watched:The Mysterious Mr. M (Universal, 1946)
Where I Watched It:The Mysterious Mr. M came to my attention earlier this spring when TCM ran it on successive Saturday mornings. However, I had recently changed cable packages so I didn’t get all the chapters recorded. With a little searching I found them uploaded to Dailymotion (there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time) and earlier this month someone uploaded the whole thing to YouTube. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray from VCI Entertainment, and I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I hadn’t been such a cheapskate and just bought it.
No. of Chapters: 13
Best Chapter Title: “When Clocks Chime Death” (Chapter One)
Chapter Titles That Sound Like Radiohead Tracks: “Heavier Than Water” (Chapter Six); “Strange Collision” (Chapter Seven); “High-Line Smash-Up” (Chapter Twelve)
Best Cliffhanger: The cliffhangers in this are mostly pretty familiar–a number of collapsing and exploding buildings and various vehicles crashing or plunging into water–and are presumably recycled from earlier serials: there’s not much reason for Grant Ferrell to hop into an old sedan that doesn’t belong to him, except to match up to the footage of the same old car plummeting down the central shaft of a parking garage (Chapter Two, “Danger Downward”). Similarly, the building that houses Dr. Kittridge’s waterfront laboratory in Chapter Eleven (“The Key to Murder”) has burned down so many times that I’m surprised it can still get insurance.
Having said that, there is at least one tight, suspenseful cliffhanger, and it occurs at the end of Chapter Nine, “Parachute Peril”: after tricking Mr. M into stealing a crate believed to contain a model of Kittridge’s submarine engine (but actually containing Grant Ferrell), Grant faces off with Anthony Waldron (whom he takes for Mr. M, of course) aboard an airplane. They struggle, and both of them end up falling out of the plane, continuing to fight even as Grant hangs on to Anthony, who is wearing the only parachute. Anthony kicks Grant loose so that he falls only a few yards to the ground–right on a railroad track in front of a speeding train! Economical use of cross-cutting ensures that the audience is aware of the oncoming danger, and of course the title card inviting us to continue next week appears before the actual moment of collision, leaving the worst to our imaginations.
Sample Dialogue: “I’m one of Mr. M’s men, controlled by his mysterious power. . . . You thought you were setting a trap for Mr. M. Instead you walked into one of his making!” –Thomas Elliott, an industrialist under the effects of hypnotrene in Chapter Four, “The Double Trap”
What’s Next: Step aside, Lois Lane! A new girl reporter is here with some “hot news!” Join me in a week, or two weeks, or whenever I get to it, as I review Brenda Starr, Reporter!
I made a key decision when I began Medleyana (six years ago this week!): I gave myself permission to write about whatever I felt like rather than covering a single narrow topic (the blog’s motto, “In praise of the eclectic,” was thus aptly chosen). I could not have predicted, for example, that a good chunk of my time would be spent covering old movie serials. Related to that freedom, and as an antidote to a phobia of leaving any angle uncovered I had developed in grad school, I accepted, even embraced, that I would not always be comprehensive in my discussion of every topic. Building up over time, each article adding to the big picture, the writer I have become has been revealed (to myself, not just to readers) over the past six years. This is, of course, normal for reviewers, who write about one thing at a time, but it was a new way of thinking for me. In retrospect, it was silly of me to think that I could do it any other way.
This is also the sixth year of writing Fates Worse Than Death, mostly during the summers. I originally started the series as a way of motivating myself to watch a few serials I had on DVD (while, at the same time, providing fodder for my blog). I have since bought many more serials for the specific purpose of writing about them, as well as hunting them down online (not to mention the books I’ve bought and checked out of the library to bolster my writing). I feel that I’ve graduated to “aficionado” status, but I wouldn’t say I’ve yet earned the right to call myself an expert. More than 250 serials were produced during the sound era, and I’ve watched and reviewed about 20% of them at this point.
However, I have watched enough that many patterns and similarities have emerged. Originality (as opposed to novelty) was not the primary aesthetic goal of the serials, so evaluating them individually is often a matter of judging the skill and artistry of filmmakers who were ringing changes on familiar formulas rather than breaking new ground. The question I face is this: should I continue writing about the serials in individual summaries, as most of the articles in Fates Worse Than Death have been, or should I condense and consolidate my coverage, while continuing to watch and research the serials? As I have frequently pointed out, I wouldn’t continue to do this if I didn’t enjoy it, and while I sometimes have criticism to level at the serials, I hope that my affection and interest in the genre and the era comes through in equal measure. If I am critical, it is because I am a fan who was been moved to think about what I am watching.
I also feel that I have written enough installments of this series to identify the strengths and weaknesses of my approach. There is a great deal of material already available on the production of the serials: the careers of the actors, directors, and crew members; the box office results and later television revival of the serials; and the places and people that often go nameless in the original films but have been identified over the years by eagle-eyed fans. I do not feel that Fates Worse Than Death is primarily about those things, although I touch on them occasionally. Nor does my work quite fit the nostalgic approach taken by many of the first-generation fans who grew up attending Saturday matinee showings of these films; as I have written previously, my own nostalgia is for the films and TV shows made in reaction to this material such as the Indiana Jones movies and The Rocketeer (I couldn’t really see the serials uncut until I was an adult anyway). Researching the serials (as well as the comics, pulps, and radio shows of the Golden Age) helps me to understand the influences that went into those works, but the serials are ultimately part of someone else’s childhood. On the other hand, I hope that I have more to offer than just snark.
No, I have come to find that my primary interest is in the
form itself, in the way the demands of the cliffhanger and the weekly episode
shape the story, as well as the way low budgets encouraged economy, from the
use of recycled props and sets to the use of in-story flashbacks and that
reliable staple, stock footage. One strength of this approach is that I have
tried to watch as broad and representative a sample of serials as I could,
taking on the serial as its own genre, not just as early film vehicles for my
favorite comic-book superheroes or as an embarrassing cousin of the Western,
gangster, or science fiction genres.
I also believe that there is room to explore the influences
that flowed into and from the serials: the popular crime novels of Edgar
Wallace, the fantasies of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the
comic strips of Alex Raymond, for example. I’ve mentioned those names many
times, and they keep coming up because of the repetitions of formula I’ve
mentioned; again, I’m not the world’s foremost expert on popular culture, but
I’ve learned a great deal from writing this series, and I hope to continue
exploring those elements. (Because of the way I write installments of this
series, I generally like to go into each serial as a blank slate, only
afterward discovering what other materials I need to fill out my review; a more
comprehensive approach would necessarily make research a greater priority.)
Similarly, as the 1930s and ’40s recede further into the past every year, details from the serials that contemporary audiences took for granted become more obscure. A work that delves into those details, that separates fact from fiction and provides a clearer picture of everyday life in that era, the better to appreciate the flights of fancy, strikes me as overdue (Christopher Miller’s book American Cornball, which explains to modern audiences what used to be so funny about castor oil and other jokes that turn up in old cartoons and movies, is a model I have in mind here).
In short, I put it to you, dear reader, especially those of you who have stuck with Fates Worse Than Death this far: what would you like to see going forward? Would you read a longer work, partly an explainer about the serials and the world that produced them, partly a guidebook with selected reviews of individual serials? Or are the reviews themselves compelling enough that you would prefer to keep reading them? Are there specific serials or related subjects you’d like me to write about? I intend to keep watching them, but I don’t want the article format to become stale, for myself or for readers. If you’ve followed this blog or read Fates Worse Than Death (all available here), let me know what you think: comment here, or drop me a line through the Contact page or on Twitter. As always, thanks for reading!
Casablanca, 1943: North Africa is in turmoil! Nazi Germany,
through its spies and undercover operatives, hopes to solidify its hold on the
region and undo Allied gains. At the center of the plot is Sultan Abou ben Ali,
whose leadership of the regional Sheiks makes him an important player, and who
is staying at a hotel in the city while conferring with his council. After
learning that the Germans plan to assassinate the Sultan, journalist Janet
Blake goes to warn him, but unbeknownst to her the real Sultan is abducted and
replaced by an imposter, German Baron von Rommler. From the first chapter, the
“Sultan” is actually von Rommler, with the real Sultan held prisoner
in a basement lair accessible by a hidden staircase. Once secret agent Rex
Bennett, who had been in Germany posing as an officer, arrives, he, Janet, and
the French police captain Pierre LaSalle meet with the “Sultan” and
reveal their plans to him, never suspecting that he himself is the German agent
they are searching for!
The German plan involves the Dagger of Solomon, a genuine artifact venerated by the Arab population, and the key to an ancient tomb; the Germans have forged a scroll commanding the Arabs to give their loyalty to the “people of the Swastika,” to be planted in the tomb when it is opened. Rex knows this and even has the dagger and scroll in his possession for a time, but can he convince the Sheiks that they are being misled when their own Sultan cannot be trusted? It’s all in a day’s work for the Secret Service in Darkest Africa!
The “venerated artifact” plot device has seen use in some other serials: recall the scepter of Genghis Khan in Drums of Fu Manchu and the Sword of Tongu in Jungle Queen. The idea that colonized populations would be swayed to rebellion by a mystical or nationalistic totem was clearly one that exercised the imaginations of pulp writers in the early 20th century, or at least promised a useful hook for adventures. Combined with its Nazi villains, it’s not surprising that Secret Service in Darkest Africa would be promoted in the 1980s as an obvious inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark (“Nazi raiders steal a lost Arab treasure!” proclaims the cover of the VHS copy I watched). In this case, however, the plot to fool the Arabs fizzles out quickly–by the second chapter the Sheiks recognize the scroll as a forgery, having never made it to the sacred tomb where it was to be “discovered”–and there’s very little archaeology or mysticism in this serial. The North African setting is full of colorful locations–a grotto, an old castle, as well as the more modern city of Casablanca with its diverse inhabitants–but it’s neither a treasure hunt nor a ghost story.
But that’s okay. What we get instead is a series of von
Rommler’s (Lionel Royce) attempts to steal or sabotage Allied supplies, troop
carriers, and humanitarian aid, leading to his biggest score, a diplomatic
pouch containing all the details of the Allies’ military plans in North Africa.
Von Rommler maintains his cover as the Sultan, aided by his secretary Muller (Kurt
Kreuger–it’s surprising how long it takes Rex and Janet to become suspicious
of the Sultan’s obviously German aide) and right-hand man Wolfe (Frederic Brunn),
who does most of the dirty work. Meanwhile, the real Sultan (also played by
Royce) is held in chains in the secret basement headquarters, offering
withering commentary as von Rommler’s schemes are repeatedly thwarted by Rex
Bennett and his allies: “You are reckoning without Rex Bennett,” he
says in a typical exchange. “Death is the only real escape for his
The Sultan is right: Rex Bennett (Rod Cameron) is the kind of square-jawed one-man army who can foil saboteurs and spies (almost) single-handedly. (Cameron had already played Bennett once in another serial, G-Men vs. The Black Dragon, the same year.) Bennett is first seen in Berlin, undercover as a Nazi officer (in fact the officer credited for killing Rex Bennett!); just before taking off for Casablanca, he gives the airfield attendant a tip “as a reward for your efficiency”–a badge that says “God Bless America”! Once in North Africa, Rex solves many problems with his fists or a gun; there is a lot of Republic-style fisticuffs action, as well as a number of stunts and explosions. Buildings have a tendency to blow up or collapse around Rex and his pals, and there are a few chases, but the fights are the real draw. Director Spencer (Gordon) Bennet has shown in some of his other serials a fondness for close-up shots of approaching fists or thrown objects during fight scenes, but he really goes crazy here: there are enough of these proto-GoPro shots that one might think they were from a 3-D movie.
Rex Bennett is not only a man of action, however, as he also
puts together clues to decide where to go next. My favorite involves LaSalle,
captive, punching circular holes in a pair of playing cards, so that when Rex
and Janet find them they recognize the holes as Os and correctly guess that
LaSalle has been taken to the Oasis Café–“O aces,” get it?
Janet Blake is another of the era’s gutsy female reporters, stopping at nothing to get a story, and the role seems to have been a change of pace for Joan Marsh, who had spent the ’30s as a singing and dancing starlet (“In lighter fare her characters tended to have names like Beanie, Toots or Cuddles,” according to imdb.com). Like many of her breed, Janet is just as capable as the top-billed hero (she would have to be, just to keep up), flying a plane and picking up a gun when necessary.
Rounding out Rex Bennett’s allies, Captain LaSalle is played by Duncan Renaldo, best known for playing the Cisco Kid later in the ’40s and ’50s; even by 1943 he had a long list of credits, largely playing Latin roles in Westerns and adventure films, including a few other Republic serials (he played Zamorro in The Painted Stallion). LaSalle is a capable brother-in-arms, but he doesn’t have much personality beyond “French” (and in case we forget, the burst of “La Marseillaise” we get every time there is an exterior shot of the French Diplomatic Headquarters serves to remind us).
Secret Service in Darkest Africa doesn’t feature Nazi imagery quite as much as Jungle Queen, given the Nazis’ covert actions, but what is used is memorable. There is a fantastic transition in which the Swastika in von Rommler’s lair spins around like something from the Batman TV show, warping us to a similar office in Berlin, but nothing like that happens again. There are a couple of uniformed Nazis, especially Luger, the officer who mans von Rommler’s hidden basement hideout, but von Rommler spends most of his time disguised as the Sultan, and Wolfe likewise goes about in Arab burnous and keffiyeh, wrangling agents who are either genuine Arabs or Germans in disguise.
What I Watched:Secret Service in Darkest Africa (Republic, 1943)
Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Pictures Home Video (Both the packaging and the opening credits have it as Manhunt in the African Jungles, the title under which this serial was rereleased in 1954; neither title is quite accurate, as it doesn’t take place in the jungle and the North African setting isn’t really the sub-Saharan interior usually meant by the obsolete phrase “Darkest Africa.”)
No. of Chapters: 15
Best Chapter Title: “Funeral Arrangements Completed” (Chapter Eight) I’m usually critical of prosaic chapter titles, but the cut-and-dried character of this one makes it more ominous in my opinion, like a subtle threat. It reminds me of the grim but polite finality suggested by the title of the 1964 paranoid thriller No Survivors, Please. The “funeral arrangements” are actually for Wolfe, who has taken a Japanese neurotoxin to slow his heartbeat and thus feign death, but the implication is clear: for standing up to the Nazi war machine, Rex Bennett has signed his own death warrant.
Best Cliffhanger:Secret Service generally stays within the bounds of realism (up to a point), but what serial would be complete without a secret wonder-weapon? In Chapter Ten (“Racing Peril”), Wolfe and his cronies managed to steal an Allied “munitions disintegrator,” a ray-like device that detonates any explosive at which it is directed, from the cartridges in Rex Bennett’s rifle to the payload of a bomber in the air. The Allies plan to use this device to eliminate enemy ammunition caches, but von Rommler and Wolfe see the true potential of the disintegrator as a weapon, and in Chapter Eleven (“Lightning Terror”) they set it up in a fishing cabin to wipe out the fleet of planes scheduled to deliver Allied leaders for a conference.
While the disintegrator warms up and Wolfe waits for the planes to fly within range, Rex Bennett bursts into the cabin and the fight begins. During the melee, the disintegrator is knocked around and it swivels toward a stack of crated hand grenades, setting them on fire. As in many cliffhangers, the excitement is built up by cross-cutting between the fight inside the cabin, the burning grenades, the approaching planes, and the clock showing how little time is left before their destruction. At the very end of the chapter, Rex, having put Wolfe on the run, turns the disintegrator away from the planes, but the grenades blow up the house, seemingly before he can make his own escape.
Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat:Secret Service includes a couple of classic serial-style deathtraps, including a “Pit and the Pendulum”-inspired “execution wheel” to which Rex Bennett is bound, complete with drumroll, in Chapter Twelve (“Ceremonial Execution”). Bennett gets out of that one fairly, however, so the biggest cheat is found in Chapter Seven (“Torture Dungeon”): Janet Blake has been kidnapped by Wolfe and taken to a “Moorish castle,” the base of a Nazi intelligence officer (clearly the same set as the Berlin Gestapo office in Chapter One). Hitler is scheduled to give a speech proclaiming victory in North Africa, and Janet is to deliver a pre-written report confirming the Fuehrer’s words–compelled by force, if necessary.
The instrument of persuasion is a huge stone slab on a hinge, lowered to crush the noncompliant (a few splintered bones can be seen beneath it). Of course Janet refuses to be made party to propaganda, so she is knocked unconscious and thrown beneath the slab, just before Rex bursts in to rescue her (Rex does a lot of bursting in). During the fight, Wolfe accidentally hits the lever lowering the slab, and it closes on her still-prone body. Seems like the end for Janet, no? But wait! At the beginning of the next chapter, Janet wakes up and leaps out of the trap before the stone even begins moving. Cheat!
von Rommler: When you see Rex Bennett, tell him it was Baron
von Rommler who finally defeated him.
Rex Bennett (entering): Your trip to Berlin is cancelled,
–Chapter Fifteen, “Nazi Treachery Unmasked”
What Others Have Said: “Not blending very well with these colorful, but still legitimate, chapter-play elements is an oversupply of hokum, commencing with one of several contrived sword fights. Discovered in Gestapo headquarters, the hero gives the full Errol Flynn treatment to a duel with a German instructed to take him prisoner. With time at a premium and a plane waiting for him nearby, Bennett disarms the Nazi and then flips his weapon back to his enemy so that the duel can continue. After finally disposing of his opponent, hero Rex takes some more time to pick up a sword and hurl it into a portrait of Adolf Hitler.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment (I don’t know what to say to this other than that you’re either on board for this kind of thing in the serials or you’re not; for his part, William C. Cline in Serials-ly Speaking names Secret Service in Darkest Africa “one of the most exciting chapterplays ever filmed.” Different strokes, etc.)
That concludes Fates Worse Than Death for this summer; thanks for reading, and stay tuned! You never know what and when I might decide to post again–I certainly don’t!
Dr. Alex Zorka, one of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds–the most brilliant, according to him–is a proud man. The sacrifices he has made for his work, the depth of his genius, and above all his monumental ego will not allow him to countenance turning over his fabulous inventions to the government–not even on the eve of war, when the world is about to become much more dangerous. Zorka’s wife, Ann, has tried to convince him to turn back before his research takes him too far, even bringing his former partner, Dr. Mallory, to help plead the case. Zorka’s latest invention consists of a small disc that can be planted anywhere (or on anyone), and a mechanical spider that homes in on it; when the spider comes into contact with its target, a small burst of smoke paralyzes anyone within range with a unique form of suspended animation. Mallory urges Zorka to give the disc technology to the government, but Zorka already has a buyer lined up; what they choose to do with it is of no concern to him. Gloating later to his assistant, Monk (an ex-con Zorka freed and disguised, making him indebted to him and practically a slave), Zorka shows off his latest device, a “devisualizer” belt that renders its wearer invisible. “Now, as the Phantom, there is nothing that I cannot do.” Zorka’s pride is already tipping into megalomania, and he hasn’t even revealed his killer robot to the world!
After Dr. Zorka disappears (into a secret laboratory hidden in his house) and then fakes his own death, Captain Bob West of military intelligence gets involved, interviewing Ann Zorka and Dr. Mallory. A nosy reporter, Jean Drew, shows up, but West stonewalls her. When West and his partner Jim Daly load Ann into a plane to take her to identify her husband’s body, Jean stows away, hoping for a scoop. None of them realize that Dr. Zorka, invisible, has planted one of the magnetic discs on the plane with the idea of paralyzing his wife and then claiming her body (under a new identity) to keep her from talking to the authorities. The plan backfires, paralyzing Daly while he’s piloting the plane and causing a deadly crash. Ann dies, and in his grief and madness Zorka blames West and the government. “They shall pay!” he rants in one of his many diatribes. The stage is set for Dr. Zorka to wreak scientific vengeance while outmaneuvering both the G-men and the foreign agents who still hope to obtain his invention.
His final serial appearance, The Phantom Creeps stars the great Bela Lugosi in full scenery-chewing mode as Dr. Zorka. From the beginning, Zorka’s main emotional note is aggrievement: his scientific peers don’t appreciate his genius, he doesn’t owe anything to the government, they’ll see, he’ll show them all, blah blah blah. It’s a character type that was as much Lugosi’s bread and butter as the suave vampire that brought his initial fame. After Zorka’s wife dies and his various plots are foiled, his mania becomes more and more pronounced and his goals proceed from selling his invention for riches to conquering the world, or, failing that, destroying it. The only character he regularly interacts with is poor, put-upon Monk (Jack C. Smith), who follows him out of fear as much as any sense of loyalty. Constantly complaining that he’ll be caught and thrown back into Alcatraz (“It’s where you belong,” Zorka answers dismissively), Monk waits for the opportunity to sell out his boss, and he almost turns the tables more than once before Zorka gets the upper hand again. It is to Monk (and thereby indirectly the audience) that Zorka explains his various devices, revealing the highly volatile element that powers his inventions: the element is deadly unless kept in a shielded box, and even when opened a crack to siphon off its energies it emits deadly fumes. “They must never know about you, the source of all my power,” Zorka says to the box lovingly. But of course “they” do find out, and the box becomes the main MacGuffin of the plot, changing hands between the spies, the G-men, and back to Zorka as they all scheme to hold on to it.
It is perhaps not surprising that the best-known element of this serial is not the precious element in its box or the invisibility device that inspired its title, but the robot (or “iron man”) who serves as Zorka’s guardian and sometimes attack dog. Inside the robot costume is 7’4″ Ed Wolff, a former circus performer who specialized in giant roles. The robot’s appearance is, on one level, ridiculous, a large humanoid machine with a grotesque molded face on an oversized head, a design choice that goes against our usual idea of robots as being more streamlined than their human models (perusing illustrations of early attempts at building robots reveals that many designs made up in baroque style what they lacked in functionality). But however ugly, it is clearly the most visually distinct element in the film. To be charitable, it resembles a pagan idol, and its role in the story is akin to that of a temple guardian, never leaving its one room until the very end of the serial. If serials are part of the modern mythmaking machinery by which ancient fables are dressed anew in contemporary garb (and I think they are), it makes sense that the iron man would continue the lineage of such pre-Enlightenment automatons as the golem or Talos, the bronze warrior from Greek mythology. (Surprisingly, Zorka doesn’t end up dying at the hands of the iron man, an ironic comeuppance that would have been perfectly in line with this kind of storytelling; the robot remains under control to the end. Zorka’s fate is a little more, ahem, explosive.)
The dynamic of the square-jawed hero (Robert Kent as West) and the gutsy reporter who will take any risk for a story (Dorothy Arnold as Jean Drew) is one that has shown up in many serials and pulp narratives (including the other Lugosi serial I’ve covered, Shadow of Chinatown). Filmmakers in the ’30s and ’40s seem to have loved brassy “girl reporters,” partially as a career choice open to independent women that allowed for zany adventures and partially for the opportunity for more level-headed male characters to put them in their place. The Phantom Creeps patronizes Jean an average amount I’d say, with Bob West tweaking her resolve with comments like, “That isn’t like a hard-boiled newspaper girl to faint!”
At least West is motivated by official secrecy to keep her silent, urging Jean to keep details to herself even as her editor hounds her for something fit to print. West’s partner Daly (Regis Toomey) seems more irritated by having a girl nosing around and becomes especially suspicious when he observes Jean leaving a warehouse to which he had trailed the spies (caught unawares by them, she had posed as a fellow operative, hoping to find Zorka’s invention and sell it herself). “Save it for Captain West,” he says: “He likes fairy stories.” Finally, when Jean is rewarded for her cooperation with the story of her career, West compliments Jean’s restraint by saying, “The hardest job for a reporter is the suppression of timely news.” In other words: loose lips sink ships.
The spies, to whom Zorka had initially hoped to sell his
invention and who later try to steal it outright, have a few nice touches. The
only one of the field agents who has much personality, Rankin (Anthony Averill),
is sort of a spearhead villain, indistinguishable from a typical movie
gangster, but the head of the spy ring, Jarvis (Edward Van Sloan) is a bit more
of a character. The spies maintain an “International School of
Languages” as a cover, from which they broadcast cryptic coded messages by
radio. As is frequently the case, the spies’ foreign superiors go unnamed
except for vague mentions of a “leader” or occasionally “His
Highness.” I wonder which foreign governments they might have been
thinking of in 1939? I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out this incredible flying
costume Jarvis wears in Chapter Four (“Invisible Terror”) during a
brief moment when the spies are in possession of the box and try to fly it out
of the country.
The Phantom Creeps has many elements that I love in the serials: crazy gadgets, distinctive visuals, colorful characters, and a great villain. The tone, from the ominous theme music to the shadowed interiors of Zorka’s mad science lab (full of Kenneth Strickfaden’s whirling, sparking electrical contraptions) is closer to Universal’s famous monster series than the typical action serials of the day. There is also plenty of drama to be mined in the confrontations of the individual characters and their competing goals; even the small-time spies and beat cops get little character moments as they deal with the unknown menace of the “Phantom.” So I really wish I liked it more, and it saddens me to report that these promising parts rarely coalesce into a satisfying whole.
It’s hard to put my finger on why it fell short for me. Part of the problem is that there is just too much going on: too many characters, too many of whom change their behavior or loyalties depending on the scene in order to keep the story going. The way the action returns again and again to a few locations makes it feel like it’s spinning its wheels (considering that Zorka’s robot never leaves his house, where it is hidden behind a sliding panel, it’s surprising how much use it gets, since characters keep finding reasons to go back there). The ways in which the characters encounter each other are often dependent on coincidence: one might think there was only one road in California for the number of times characters pass and recognize each other, setting off yet another chase (“There go two of the spies in that car!” is a typical line of dialogue). I guess it comes down to too much filler, not enough killer.
There is also the general shabbiness that many serials display, amplified by the sense that The Phantom Creeps is made up of bits and pieces thrown together or borrowed from other productions. Other serials have featured invisible characters and made them spookily effective, but only a few scenes in this truly use the “Phantom” conceit in a thrilling or atmospheric way. (The invisibility effect is little more than a double-exposed smudge of light, or occasionally a shadow.)
The use of stock footage to ramp up the threats to our heroes also becomes excessive (and familiar–it surely doesn’t help that I’ve seen this boat crash, that building fire, and even that shot of the Hindenburg disaster in other serials) as it approaches its literally cataclysmic finale. Or perhaps it’s simply how generic everything seems; one of the best parts of The Phantom Creeps is a short flashback in which Dr. Zorka reveals the mysterious radioactive element that powers all of his inventions: it fell to earth in Africa as a meteorite centuries ago, where it lay buried in the ground until Dr. Zorka arrived to dig it up. The visual of Zorka in a protective hazmat suit, lowered into a crevice by native bearers and chipping the sparking, smoking stone from the rock is specific to the story in a way that too much of it simply lacks (wouldn’t you know it, that sequence turns out to be lifted from the 1936 Lugosi/Karloff feature The Invisible Ray).
What I Watched:The Phantom Creeps (Universal, 1939)
Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from VCI’s “Classic Cliffhanger Collection”
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “To Destroy the World” (Chapter Twelve)
Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven (“The Blast”), spies Jarvis and Rankin have taken off in their car with the meteorite (and, unbeknownst to them, Zorka in his invisible state); spotting them, West and Jean follow, with Jean driving. Jarvis pulls up at a barricade: the road is closed for blasting, but the workers let the car through. The workers continue preparation for blasting, and because of a faulty detonation plunger one of them lights a long fuse. Just then, West and Jean drive up and spot the barricade. “It may be a trick to stop us,” West says, instructing Jean to keep driving. Despite the protests of the workmen, they drive through the barricade; mere moments later–kaboom!
Breaking news: Like many serials, especially those featuring reporter characters, The Phantom Creeps has some great on-screen newspaper headlines for quick bursts of exposition.
SCIENTIST AND WIFE MEET DEATH SAME DAY IN DIFFERENT ACCIDENTS!
MAD GENIUS RUNNING WILD!
ZORKA SHAKES CONTINENT AS HE PLUNGES TO HIS DEATH
Don’t forget the funny pages:The Phantom Creeps was adapted (very freely) in an issue of Movie Comics; the publication retouched frames from the movies, turning them into comic panels. The eight-page story takes liberties from the very first page, putting Zorka’s laboratory in an old castle instead of a house, and in this version “Phantom” is the robot’s name. Some things never change. The entire story can be read at the blog Four-Color Shadows.
Monk (invisible, having stolen Zorka’s devisualizer belt): I’m
free, Dr. Zorka! I’m stronger than you now! Stronger than the police! You’ll
never make a slave out of me again. Ha ha ha!
[Zorka zaps Monk with a “Z-ray” and makes him
reappear, briefly incapacitating him]
Zorka: You traitor! You didn’t know that you too had been sprayed
with my invisible gas. Get up on your feet! . . . You belong to me! You can
never escape me! Go!
–Chapter Seven, “The Menacing Mist”
What Others Have Said: “The contribution of The Phantom Creeps to later serials was an auto chase in which a 1939 black Nash pursued an ancient touring car. The appearance of a vintage vehicle in a chase was a sure sign that sooner or later it would go over a cliff and burn. New cars didn’t match those in crashes in the stock-film library, and stock shots were meant to last many years.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment
What’s Next: For what will probably be the last installment of this series for the summer, let’s check out the proto-Raiders adventure, Secret Service in Darkest Africa aka Manhunt in the African Jungles!