Fates Worse Than Death: Jungle Queen

A plane flies over the African jungle in darkness: aboard are two American hunters, Bob Elliot and Chuck Kelly, and Pamela Courtney, niece of the world-famous British explorer Alan Courtney. Although neither quite trusts the other yet, Bob and Pamela are both heading to the village of Tambosa for the same reason: Alan Courtney, known and respected by the Tongghili tribesmen, is the only white man who knows the secret to the Sword of Tongu, the emblem of office held by the head man of all the regional tribes, and the key to controlling the territory. Back in Nairobi, where the plane took off, the mechanic who readied the plane predicts that it is about to develop engine trouble; no one will question the plane’s disappearance, and there will be no survivors. When addressed as “Johann,” the mechanic quickly corrects his interviewer: he may be “Johann” back in Berlin, but here he’s “Jack.” Yes, the Germans have an interest in the Sword of Tongu and control of the jungle as well, and they have many eyes and ears in America and Great Britain to keep track of their rivals. The year is 1939, and the Nazis are making plans to conquer first Europe, and then the world, with central Africa an important part of their strategy. Sure enough, miles from any safe landing spot, the plane begins to sputter and smoke; a last-ditch effort is made to land in a clearing, but can anyone survive the crash and resulting fireball? Have our American and British heroes met their fate before their true purpose is even known to each other? So ends “Invitation to Danger,” the first chapter of Jungle Queen!

Along with the image of the helpless damsel tied to a railroad track or a conveyor belt leading to a buzz saw (a premise nowhere near as common in actual serials as in the popular imagination), one of the most common latter-day representations of the serials involves a strong-jawed hero clobbering a hapless Nazi (in full uniform, of course) for the good ol’ U. S. of A. As I’ve pointed out before, however, the serials I’ve reviewed so far were for the most part much less explicit in their politics than we tend to remember: usually, when a rival nation is the enemy, it’s presented in vague terms, clear enough to read between the lines but easy to ignore for those who, back then just as today, prefer to think of their entertainment choices as apolitical. Even Captain America, a hero explicitly created to fight Nazis (and famously shown punching Hitler on the cover of his first issue), was made into a crusading district attorney and crimebuster when he made the leap to the serials.

There are exceptions, of course: the first Batman serial is explicitly anti-Japanese, to the point of actively endorsing the internment of Japanese-American citizens, making it hard to watch without wincing today. And there is Jungle Queen, produced in 1945 but set in 1939, before the invasion of Poland, and depicting Nazi machinations in central Africa for strategic control of approaches to Europe. While American movie studios in the 1930s didn’t want to alienate audiences who preferred to stay neutral or may even have been sympathetic to Germany (a dirty little secret of American politics that was conveniently forgotten once war was declared), by 1945 there was no risk in being explicitly anti-Nazi. (Making Bob and Chuck “volunteers” also makes a point: “See, America was involved, we just couldn’t make it official!”)

The word “Nazi” is frequently used in Jungle Queen, the nationalities of the characters are stated out loud, and if the visual cues of polished black boots and references to Mauser rifles weren’t clear enough, the frequent appearance of swastikas, death’s heads, and stock footage of Nazi troops on parade in Berlin make this by far the most politically explicit serial I’ve seen (and a clear forebear of the Nazi-punching Indiana Jones movies). Note that while Jungle Queen makes it clear that the Nazis are bad guys, it only takes issue with their lust for power in the abstract and their violent methods, making no mention of the racism and anti-Semitism at the root of their movement. It’s the same kind of portrayal of Nazis as cartoonish thugs, without reference to ideology, that Steven Spielberg later disavowed (but as I said, it’s at least more specific in comparison to other serials of the time).

The (slightly) more realistic politics in Jungle Queen lead to a greater emphasis on the characters’ international background and support systems than is usual as well: while American adventurers Bob Elliot and Chuck Kelly carry most of the serial’s action, we also see events orchestrated by the British spymaster “Mr. X” in London and Commissioner Chatterton in Tambosa, and on the other side by an unnamed German officer in Berlin supervising the Nazi spies. Each chapter begins with one or more of these figures receiving reports that bring the audience up to date on the situation in Africa, also serving to remind us of the area’s strategic importance. It’s one of the more complex depictions of international relations I’ve seen in the usually action-oriented serials, and the degree of intrigue, espionage, and counter-espionage is like something out of a Carol Reed film.

But back to the action: before too long, Bob and Pamela come to accept that neither one is a Nazi spy, and they can work together. Bob and Chuck were sent by American intelligence to secretly aid the Brits, just as Pamela was sent by Mr. X to find her uncle, in the belief that she is the only person Alan Courtney would trust. They’re just in time, too, as the jungle region is practically overrun with German spies and collaborators, and their plan is already in motion.  A Swedish scientist named Dr. Elise Bork(!) runs an experimental farm outside of Tambosa; she is actually the local Nazi ringleader, overseeing Lang, her safari boss, and Danka, the farm’s foreman. Hidden in the farmhouse is a direct line to a Nazi listening post in the jungle, through which they relay their communications with Berlin. (There are three important female characters in this: Pamela Courtney, Dr. Bork, and Lothel, the mysterious “jungle queen” of the title. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually pretty good for a serial.)

The German plan is straightforward enough: the village of Tong-Gara is home to a Judge who controls the diverse villages of the Tongghili tribe; the current Judge, Tongu, is friendly with the British, but the Germans hope to replace Tongu with a tribesman whom they can control. When Tongu is slain, his successor, Godac, prepares to name his own successor, Maati. Unbeknownst to Godac, Maati is a traitor, secretly working with Lang, and he plans to kill Godac once he is named successor, after which he will cooperate fully with Germany. Maati is possibly the least sympathetic character in the serial, not only a traitor but an obvious fool, concerned only with taking power locally and quite uninterested in the Nazis’ larger ambitions.

However, before Godac can name Maati, a gong sounds in the temple, announcing the arrival of Lothel, “mysterious queen of the jungle.” Lothel appears from within the flames that only the innocent can walk through and delivers a warning: there are enemies among them, and Godac must choose wisely! Godac opts to delay his decision until the situation is clearer to him. Lothel (played by Ruth Roman, in her only serial role) is a white woman (we are told that her name means “white butterfly”), a “white goddess” in the tradition of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. (One could even trace such characters back to the medieval legend of Prester John, the potentate imagined to rule a Christian empire somewhere in India or the Far East).

Lothel is obeyed and trusted implicitly by the black tribesmen, and why not? She alone can walk through the flames that burn eternally within the temple, and her comings and goings all over the jungle are sudden and unexplained enough–she appears out of nowhere to deliver her messages or protect those she favors–to be the product of magic. She seems to know things that others don’t, as well: she is aware of the foreign interlopers in the jungle and has definite ideas about who is good and who is evil, regardless of their outer appearances. (Lothel is also frequently framed by archways, her arms raised, as if she were singlehandedly holding up the temple or was perhaps prepared, Samson-like, to tear it down.)

As in many serials, the characters are mostly stock types; Bob Elliot (Edward Norris) is blandly heroic, the better for audience members to project themselves onto; ditto for Pamela Courtney (Lois Collier). Chuck Kelly, played by Eddie Quillan, however, is the comic relief, so he gets to have a personality, mostly catty. He may be two-dimensional, but that’s twice as many dimensions as most of the other characters get: he’s an astrology buff, and he’s from Brooklyn (“The U. S. is the other half of Brooklyn,” he says). He refers to Lothel as “Queenie,” and is full of opinions, but mostly he’s a foil for Bob’s stoic manliness and Pamela’s stiff upper lip, giving them someone to explain things to and saying things out loud no one else will: a Thelma Ritter of the jungle.

The other colorful characters tend to appear in only a few chapters, such as Tambosa Tim (Cy Kendall), the shady operator of the local watering hole, and Captain Drake (Oliver Blake), a flinty seaman who has a few secrets of his own. Dr. Bork (Tala Birell) plays deception well, appearing warm and friendly to Commissioner Chatterton (Lester Matthews) and haughty and cold when among her fellow Nazis. The “spearhead villain,” Lang, who does most of Dr. Bork’s dirty work, is played by Douglas Drumbille in the same vein as Wheeler Oakman’s many henchman roles (he’s got a mustache, so you know he’s evil).

Finally, Jungle Queen gets partial credit for differentiating its African tribesman characters (and they are all men); there are still plenty of scenes of exotic jungle drums and attempted human sacrifice, but the scenes of the Judge in council with the heads of the tribes are treated seriously, and the internal politics of the Tongghili are given equal weight with the external maneuvering of the great powers. Most important among the tribal characters is the elderly, dignified Godac (Clinton Rosemond); the treacherous Maati (Napoleon Simpson); and Kyba (Clarence Muse), the rightful leader whose loyalties are torn between following Lothel and doubting the wisdom of her counsel.

In discussing the political dimensions of Jungle Queen or any other serial, of course I don’t mean to suggest that children (the primary audience for the serials) demanded absolute realism or fidelity to outside events in their entertainment: it’s called “escapism” for a reason. Still, even fantasy benefits from some contact with the real world, the addition of depth and complexity that comes from the feeling that the writers know something of the world and are willing to confront it in their work. Compared to the cardboard characters and storybook settings of something like Captain Africa, Jungle Queen has the breath of life in it (although characterization isn’t really Jungle Queen‘s strong point, either). However, once the real world is let in, it isn’t easy to cordon off parts of the story from implications we’d rather ignore. Like many of the serials I’ve examined, Jungle Queen engages with its African characters from a colonialist point of view. Some are good and some are bad; it’s not the worst example I’ve seen, but it’s not the best, either. It goes without saying that Lothel is a literal “white savior,” the “white goddess” trope being rooted in white supremacy, no matter how benevolently it is depicted. Perhaps this is why the racial ideology of Nazism is never brought up: the beautiful Lothel, lording over the black tribesmen, is a little too close to Nazi fantasy for comfort, and saying it out loud would raise the question of why the Tongghili need to be lead by outsiders at all. The British influence is depicted as peaceful and mutually beneficial, but that’s colonialism in a nutshell, isn’t it: at least our brand of exploitation is better than theirs.

Spoilers for the last chapter of Jungle Queen: Jungle Queen teases the audience throughout with the explanation of Lothel’s presence. Before he dies, Alan Courtney (Boyd Irwin) says cryptically, “The secret of the sword is . . . Lothel.” When Maati is about to take power, Lothel appears again and reveals that there are actually two swords, and Godac has given Maati the decoy, which she is able to prove; how does she know such secrets?

It turns out that the explanation for Lothel’s power over the Tongghili is . . . that there is no explanation! Usually, a “white god/goddess” character is explained as being the child of an explorer or castaway, or some such Tarzan-like origin; or the possessor of some mystic secret, like Haggard’s Ayesha; or perhaps they are a secret agent, sent by one of the Western countries to be an ally or protector (or, like the Phantom, it could be a combination of all three). Any of those explanations could be true of Lothel, but the filmmakers are uncharacteristically willing to let the mystery go unexplained. Perhaps she even has genuine magical powers?

During the climax of the final chapter, Dr. Bork, her spy ring destroyed, the Nazi plan failed, almost gets away . . . almost. After wiring her jungle mountain hideout to explode, taking the evidence of her activities with it, she is stopped by the appearance of Lothel, the first time the two have faced each other directly. The jungle queen’s fury is finally unleashed: “German weapons kill Germans!” she says when Dr. Bork shoots at her, to no effect. “Nazis kill Nazis!” Then the mountaintop explodes, seen from below by Bob and Chuck. The heroes never see Lothel again, but the last shot reveals her still walking through he flames in the temple at Tong-Gara, unknowable to the last.

What I Watched: Jungle Queen (Universal, 1945)

Where I Watched It: DVD released by VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Invitation to Danger” (Chapter One)

Best Cliffhanger: Most of the cliffhangers in this serial are a little abrupt. Almost all of them cut quickly to the come-on for the next chapter once the danger to our heroes is established, but the amount of preparation and foreshadowing is what really determines how sudden the peril feels, whether it comes out of the blue or seems like the logical outcome of an unfolding process. This serial follows the general rule that the chapter title foreshadows the nature of the cliffhanger that ends the chapter, so “Wildcat Stampede” (Chapter Four) ends with Maati and his tribesmen releasing captive leopards and lions in Alan Courtney’s camp as a distraction, with one of them attacking Pamela, and so forth. A few cliffhangers take more time to generate actual suspense by establishing the threat: the more the audience knows about the approaching danger, the more tension it creates. A lion leaping directly at the camera is a shock, but directors Ray Taylor and Lewis Collins would have to linger on the moment and (for example) show Pamela attempting to fight it off in order to generate more than passing surprise.

In “Trip-Wire Murder” (Chapter Seven), Chuck and Pamela have been captured by Captain Drake and tied up aboard his schooner, the Silver Star. Just in case anyone should think to nose around his ship, Drake has rigged a trip-wire in the hall outside his cabin, set to fire a machine gun through a hidden hole in the door at anyone in the hall. Not only do we see Drake lay the trap, we see Dr. Bork almost set it off, but then avoid it, when she enters the cabin, and Bob’s later entry (the one that sets off the trap and forms the cliffhanger) is liberally cut with shots of the wire and the gun hidden behind the door. The suspense isn’t in wondering what will happen–that is made extremely clear–but when, and how Bob will survive it.

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Part of the reason so many of the cliffhangers seem abrupt is because of the way their resolution is put together. Several resolutions rely on an old trick that a purist like Annie Wilkes would probably consider a cockadoodie cheat. Late in the serial, at the end of Chapter Twelve (“Dragged Under”), Chuck is chased through the jungle by Maati’s tribesmen. Desperately, he plunges into a shallow river and swims across; Maati looks on in satisfaction, predicting that Chuck will be no match for the crocodiles that swarm the water. Sure enough, the chapter ends with a shot of thrashing crocodiles in a feeding frenzy.

However, as the next chapter begins, after Maati points out the crocs, a whole new sequence is inserted: Lothel appears on the riverbank holding a large hunk of meat. She throws it into the water to distract the crocs, and Chuck escapes while they devour the meat: the same footage shown in the previous chapter, but now with a totally different meaning. (Needless to say, Chuck is never actually onscreen at the same time as the crocodiles.) Throughout Jungle Queen, scenes are edited to show that the context of the cliffhanger wasn’t quite what it appeared, without outright contradicting a frame of what was shown before. (Because of this, it would probably be a challenge to preserve even the minimal suspense of these perils in a feature-length edit; the “trip-wire murder” described above is an exception.)

Sample Dialogue:

Bob: Look Chuck: if we can help the English, that’s okay. They don’t want it, we’ll just hunt lions.

Chuck: Well, here’s hoping the English can use some volunteer Americans, because I’d rather hunt Nazis!

(Chapter One, “Invitation to Danger”)

What Others Have Said: “The movie serial, of course, was involved symbolically in the struggle before it began. As World War II approached, those foreign powers bent on stealing the destructive ray gun or ultra-powered explosive began to look more and more like Axis nations. When hostilities began, it was necessary only to identify the spies or aliens of the ‘steal-the-secret’ serials as Germans or Japanese. . . . 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.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: As I mentioned last time, earlier this year I bought a big box of serials on VHS. Reaching into the box to pull one out at random, my next installment will cover . . . the Dead End Kids in Junior G-Men! See you then!

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Fates Worse Than Death: Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery

When last we saw “Tailspin” Tommy Tompkins, the youthful daredevil pilot from Littleville, he had a steady job at Three Points airfield and a steady girl in Betty Lou Barnes, and was even something of a celebrity, having acted in a movie. As the second Tailspin Tommy serial begins, Tommy and his partner “Skeeter” Milligan are still working out of Three Points, with Skeeter operating a camera as Tommy flies them over fleet maneuvers for the Navy. Once they finish up, they get their next job offer: Betty Lou’s uncle Ned Curtis hires the pair to make an aerial survey of a tropical island and blaze trails for the oil pipelines Curtis and his partner, Don Alvarado Casmetto, are laying. Tommy and Skeeter are to join Betty Lou, her uncle, and Don Casmetto’s niece Inez on a dirigible bound for the island of Nazil.

However, after a detour to Littleville, Tommy and Skeeter miss their flight; they decide to follow the dirigible’s path in their own plane with the intention of docking in mid-air. The captain refuses at first, but then a mysterious plane decorated like an eagle appears, and its pilot–also wearing an eagle-themed suit and helmet–sends a message instructing the dirigible to take the boys on board. The eagle plane lays down a smoke screen and vanishes as quickly as it had appeared. Soon the boys have docked and joined their party. But a storm blows up, and with the dirigible’s radio damaged, the only chance to send an S.O.S. is the radio in Tommy’s still-docked plane. He descends into the cockpit while the storm rages around him; suddenly the wind knocks the plane loose from its mooring with Tommy inside it; it plummets toward the ocean below while the dirigible collapses. Will Tommy’s adventure be over before it even begins? Audiences in 1935 would have to wait a whole week to find out in subsequent chapters of Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery!

During the 1930s, the promise of freedom and adventure in the skies fueled an entire subgenre of aviation-themed comic strips, books, and movies. Hal Forrest’s Tailspin Tommy, a footnote today, was one of the most popular, branching beyond the comics to radio, Big Little Books, and, of course, motion pictures. Like so many of the kids in his audience, Tommy Tompkins was a small-town boy obsessed with airplanes and flight, and his first serial relayed his journey from wannabe to hero pilot in compressed form, stringing together several episodes from his comic-strip adventures over an unusually long period of time.

Filmed just a year later, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery is a much more typical serial, focused on a single plot: when Tommy and Skeeter and the rest finally arrive at the island of Nazil, they find that it is disputed territory. Don Casmetto’s half-brother, Manuel (Herbert Heywood), has a base on the opposite end of the island, and with the encouragement and financial backing of an unscrupulous oil speculator named Raymore (Mathew Betz) he is making war with the goal of taking over Casmetto’s lucrative oil fields. Manuel has airplanes and pilots of his own at his disposal, so the situation provides plenty of opportunities for scenes of aerial reconnaissance, chases, dogfights, crashes, and daring rescues (not to mention the kinds of fist fights and cave-ins that provide the thrills in all serial genres). Nazil is Hollywood-exotic, combining elements of the island/jungle genre (namely, an active volcano and aggressive natives on a neighboring island) with the kind of Spanish colonial color–haciendas, mariachis, and the elegant lifestyle of the dons–seen in the Zorro series. The story’s self-containment in an exotic locale is somewhat similar in that regard to the near-contemporary Ace Drummond, with a south-of-the-border setting in place of that serial’s Mongolia.

One of the chief elements of suspense is the eagle-themed plane and its pilot, nicknamed “El Condor” by Manuel’s men: who is he, and how does he achieve such amazing aerial maneuvers and disappear so quickly once he is no longer needed? From the very first chapter, El Condor appears to be on Tommy’s side (and, by extension, Don Casmetto’s); he is an example of a standard character type in the serials, the masked hero who is not the main protagonist, but who comes to the aid of the main characters and whose identity is eventually revealed to them. (The solution to this mystery is one that is in plain sight, but one could be forgiven for missing the significance of a few lines of dialogue by a secondary character in the first chapter.) Although the mysterious plane isn’t treated as a macguffin like in some serials, there is a nod toward the trope of high-tech equipment that mustn’t fall into the “wrong hands”: once Tommy has learned El Condor’s true identity and flown with him, experiencing one of the plane’s miraculous getaways for himself, El Condor says with understandable pride, “A great weapon for war, Tommy,” to which Tommy immediately replies, “A great weapon for peace, you mean.”

However, El Condor is not the only masked flyer in the serial, nor the only character who has secrets. One of Don Casmetto’s friends, Enrico Garcia (Paul Ellis), is quickly shown to be a traitor, feeding damaging information to Manuel and Raymore, as well as taking to the air himself as “Double X,” retaining his anonymity with an aviator cap and goggles marked by twin Xs, a literal “double cross.” Garcia is able to play both sides for quite a while, and is even able to convince Don Casmetto for a time that he is the mysterious “El Condor.”

Another character, Bill McGuire (Jim Burtis), first appears as a cook and gopher for Manuel, but he is actually a reporter and a friend of Tommy’s, working undercover as he gathers information for a big story. In several chapters he helps Tommy and Skeeter by setting them free from Manuel’s dungeon or giving them key information; he also, it turns out, knows the real identity of El Condor, making him critical to the serial’s climactic chapters. At the same time, he occasionally serves as a surrogate character for the audience, watching events unfold from the ground and exchanging a “gee, whiz” or a whistle of amazement with his pet parrot. (He provides a bit of comic relief, but he’s not a bumbler in the Smiley Burnette mold; he only appears to be one when serving Manuel to avert suspicion.)

Despite the short time between the two serials’ production, Great Air Mystery recasts most of the main characters, with Clark Williams taking the title role in place of the first serial’s Maurice Murphy; Jean Rogers, the future Dale Arden, now plays Betty Lou, replacing Patricia Farr. (Such recasting occasionally happens today, but it was even more common in the studio era when film production was more akin to an assembly line.) Fittingly, Noah Beery, Jr. returns to play Skeeter, the most distinctive character among them, but even here his shtick is changed: as a comic relief sidekick, Skeeter usually has a running gag: in the first Tailspin Tommy serial, he had a tendency to make a proclamation or observation and proclaim it an “unwritten law.” In the 1939 feature Sky Patrol, Skeeter was given to malapropisms, mangling or misusing polysyllabic words. In Great Air Mystery, however, Skeeter’s comedy isn’t that broad, mostly limited to attempts at card tricks (in one sequence he attempts to use one to distract Manuel’s men after being captured) and his nervous reaction to Inez Casmetto’s obvious come-ons (not an unusual trait for a comic sidekick at the time).

Of course, Betty Lou isn’t content to sit back and let the boys have all the adventure: recall that in the first serial, it was she who first had her pilot’s license and was Tommy’s introduction to the world of flying. In Great Air Mystery, despite Tommy and Skeeter’s efforts to keep her away from danger, she several times either stows away (hiding in a truly tiny-looking compartment in Tommy’s plane!) or flies off on her own, alone or with Inez (Delphine Drew). (Needless to say, this sometimes does put her in danger, but that just puts her on the same footing as everybody else in this serial.) Betty Lou’s attitude is summed up in Chapter Seven (“The Crash in the Clouds”) when she arrives at Don Casmetto’s oilfield in her own plane with Inez after being told to stay away. Skeeter tells her, “Hey, don’t you know this is men’s work?”, to which she replies, “Where’s the sign?” When Skeeter asks what sign, she spells it out for him: “Men. At. Work.” (No, it’s not exactly Preston Sturges.)

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery isn’t bad: it features likable characters in a colorful environment and keeps the plot moving along. Of course, the main draw is the aerial action, which is for the most part exciting and not hard to follow, and there are several well-done action set pieces. (Apparently it was the practice to blaze trails by flying above the territory and dropping grenades on the jungle below, and you can bet all those explosives find other uses, blowing up warehouses, hangars, and airplanes on the ground alike!) On the other hand, Great Air Mystery doesn’t have the small-town charm of the first serial, so nothing about it stands out from the other aviation-themed serials that were being churned out in the mid-’30s. Needless to say, however, there is the possibility that I am simply becoming jaded and harder to surprise as I watch more of these films. As always, YMMV.

What I Watched: Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (Universal, 1935)

Where I Watched It: This serial ran on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday mornings last summer, and I recorded it on my DVR. I had originally promised to write this up last fall, but it didn’t quite work out that way (I remember why I usually write these articles in the summer!). As it happens, since TCM didn’t make it easy to record the whole thing as a series (a pet peeve of mine!), I missed recording about an episode and a half. The only place I found to watch the missing parts online was at Night Flight Plus behind a paywall (and knowing how these deals work, I assume that TCM and Night Flight licensed the same restoration, and this new financial investment is the reason the serial has been scrubbed from YouTube). It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Crossed and Double Crossed” (Chapter Nine) I like this one because, in addition to its nice use of repetition, it accurately describes the main action of the chapter, in which El Condor is captured and impersonated and then reclaims his identity. It also involves a pun, as this chapter is the climax of Garcia’s arc as the masked “Double X” flyer.

Best Cliffhanger: Unsurprisingly, there are several cliffhangers in this serial involving plane crashes, or planes exploding or colliding in mid-air. There are also no fewer than three cliffhangers in which a building is blown up while one or more of our heroes are inside (or are they?). I particularly like the ending of Chapter Two (“The Roaring Fire God”) in which, after another skirmish with one of Manuel’s planes and a timely rescue by El Condor, Tommy loses control of his plane, goes into a dive, and appears to fly straight into the smoking crater of a live volcano.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the peril at the end of Chapter Six (“Flying Death”): Tommy and Skeeter have stolen one of Manuel’s planes, a bomber specially brought in by Raymore to attack Casmetto’s oil fields, but little do they know that onboard the plane is a time bomb, set specifically to prevent such a theft. Such a cliffhanger, complete with a countdown to the deadly explosion, wouldn’t be too unusual, but for the large “TIME BOMB” label on the control panel that neither seems to notice. (The solution to this cliffhanger is singled out by Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials, a book I have frequently referred to in this series, as an example “typical of the hokum of the medium.”)

Sample Dialogue: “What a twist! Is that a story or is that a story!”

–Bill McGuire, after Raymore experiences a particularly ironic comeuppance (Chapter Twelve, “The Last Stand”)

What Others Have Said: “After Universal released Tailspin Tommy back in 1934 [notably the first serial based on a newspaper comic strip], they couldn’t wait to get its sequel into release. Exactly 12 months later, they released Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery, and then in succession at least one comic strip every six to ten months for the next seven years, up to Don Winslow of the Coast Guard in December 1942.” –William C. Cline, “Coming Back Like a Song” in Serials-ly Speaking

What’s Next: This is just a one-off entry for the spring, but I intend to return to my regular schedule of serial coverage this summer; I usually begin on Memorial Day and publish an entry every one or two weeks. Earlier this year I bought a big box of serials on VHS; I’m not nostalgic at all for videotape, but the price was right, and it will keep me in serials for months to come. I hope you’ll join me then!

Fates Worse Than Death: Judex (1916)

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On the surface, the banker Favraux appears to have a charmed life. He is about to celebrate the engagement of his daughter, the widowed single mother Jacqueline, to the Marquis de la Rochefontaine. A widower himself, he has the attention of his grandson’s charming new governess, Marie Verdier. And he can rely on the loyal service of his right hand man, Vallieres. However, not all is as it seems: “Marie Verdier” is actually the career criminal Diana Monti, and with her partner Morales she schemes to take possession of Favraux’s fortune. The Marquis, heavily in debt, also sees Jacqueline as a route to enriching himself with the Favraux fortune and nothing more. As for Favraux himself, his past is about to catch up with him!

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An old man, just released from a long imprisonment, appears at Favraux’s doorstep during a party celebrating Jacqueline’s engagement. Pierre Kerjean demands to speak to Favraux, for it was the banker’s bad advice and criminal involvement that led Kerjean to the manipulations for which he was jailed; his wife is dead and his son has turned to a life of crime under an assumed name. Favraux rejects Kerjean, saying, “If you have any claims to make, bring them before a judge.” Later, adding injury to insult, the banker runs over the old man with his car on his way to Paris. As of yet, nothing can touch Favraux’s complacency.

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All of that changes when Favraux receives a message: for the crimes upon which he built his fortune (including stock manipulation and promoting false prospects, the results of which claimed many direct and indirect victims), the banker is to donate half his wealth to the Public Assistance Bureau or face the consequences. The note is signed “Judex” (Latin for “judge”) and gives Favraux a deadline of 10 pm the following night. Favraux calls in his regular detective, but finds that the agency has been taken over by the deceased detective’s nephew, Cocantin, who is at best inexperienced and at worst a bumbler. Cocantin does his best, but he only manages to spy Favraux and the governess meeting in secret. At Jacqueline’s engagement dinner, as the clock strikes ten, Favraux drinks a toast and immediately falls dead.

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Who was responsible? Is Kerjean the mysterious “Judex,” or is it someone yet unseen? Should Cocantin reveal the anonymous threats to Jacqueline, who now stands to inherit the Favraux fortune? There are many twists and turns yet to unfold before the mystery is solved, and many parties with conflicting interests in the outcome, but the stage is set by the end of this Prologue to the 1916 silent serial Judex, written (with Arthur Benède) and directed by Louis Feuillade!

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Following her father’s death, Jacqueline learns the truth about her inheritance, tainted by Favraux’s many crimes. She donates the entire sum to the Public Assistance Bureau and moves out of Les Sablons, the family estate, taking up a humble position as a piano teacher under an assumed name while her son lives with his former nursemaid in the country. Her fiancé, Rochefontaine, breaks their engagement, as he was only interested in her fortune. Before she leaves Les Sablons for the last time, the telephone rings: she hears her father’s voice, asking for her forgiveness! Has she gone mad, or could it be that Favraux lives?

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Yes, as Diana Monti and her gang discover when they become suspicious and open his coffin, Favraux is not actually dead! Poisoned with an elixir that mimicked death, he was removed from his grave by the one and only Judex (and his brother . . . Roger) and is secretly held in a chamber beneath the Château-Rouge (the “red castle,” the outdoor shots of which are memorably tinted blood-red).

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Judex (played by René Cresté), when we see him, is a tall, lean-faced figure in a hat and cloak: unlike Fantômas, Judex has no need to cover his face, as he is a stranger to anyone he might encounter, or so it seems. Like many of the literary proto-superheroes he resembles, Judex shows mastery of a range of scientific skills and has seemingly supernatural ways of knowing his enemies’ movements and secrets, in addition to the bravery and strength we would expect of such a character. His high-tech lair (behind a secret entrance, of course) is the most fantastical conceit in this serial, and it is quite forward-thinking for 1916: Favraux’s cell is equipped with a mirror through which he can be surveilled, mounted on a fixture that moves so that there is nowhere in his cell that he cannot be seen (the mirror looks startlingly like a modern flat-screen television: recall the connection between television and fantasies of long-distance viewing even in later serials).

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The mirror can also display writing in “letters of fire” entered on a typewriter-like console so that Judex can send messages to his prisoner. (The Turner Classic Movies restoration I watched uses plain block lettering to recreate these messages in English, just as the letters and other documents shown in the film are rendered in English. Frankly, the lettering looks kind of bad, like something your local TV station would slap on a car commercial–I would rather see the original image, if it is still extant, with subtitles added, but other than this impressionistic poster I am unable to turn up a picture of what the “letters of fire” originally looked like.)

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Judex’s heroism is ambiguous (he is “a terribly calculating and cruel righter of wrongs,” in Georges Franju’s words): we first encounter him threatening and then kidnapping Favraux, but he also keeps a watchful eye on Jacqueline. Seeing her give up her fortune, Judex commutes Favraux’s sentence from death to life imprisonment. The loss of Favraux’s fortune spoils the plans of more than one character, and Jacqueline is newly vulnerable as a working parent of limited means. Once events (largely set in motion by Diana Monti) endanger Jacqueline, Judex appears on the scene, rescuing and protecting her. It is several chapters before we learn who Judex is–he is secretly someone quite close to Jacqueline, in disguise, and has fallen in love with her–and more before we learn his motivation, revealed in flashback: while he and his brother Roger were boys, their father, a wealthy count, was ruined financially by Favraux’s stock manipulation. He committed suicide, just minutes before a messenger arrived with news of a gold mine strike that would revive the family’s fortune (as with many superheroes, Judex’s real superpower is his wealth). Their mother set her sons on a mission of revenge against Favraux, a mission that would take until their adulthood to conclude. But Jacqueline remains ignorant of these developments, and we see Judex live a double life, unable to tell her the truth about the man whose name–Judex–she has come to hate, even as she recognizes her father’s corruption: classic alter-ego business.

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As the follow-up to the successful Les Vampires, Judex includes many Feuillade regulars in the cast, as well as themes and set pieces familiar from Les Vampires and the earlier Fantômas films. Masks and disguise continue to play a central role, even if the treatment is generally more down to earth than in the earlier films. Favraux is played by Louis Leubas, who played Satanas in Les Vampires; Roger, Judex’s brother, is played by Édouard Mathé, the hero of the earlier serial; Cocantin is played by Marcel Lévesque, Les Vampires’ Mazamette; and Diana Monti is played by Musidora, given an even larger role here than that of Irma Vep. Another member of the Feuillade repertory company, René Poyen, star of the popular “Bout de Zan” series, also appears as the “Licorice Kid,” a streetwise urchin who befriends Jacqueline’s son Jean (played by the painfully adorable Olinda Mano); unlike in Les Vampires, Poyen doesn’t just guest star–once he appears in Chapter Two, he’s in it for the long haul and has a complete arc.

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In fact, almost everyone in this serial has a complex role and subplots of their own, distinguishing Judex from both the earlier Feuillade serials and contemporary action serials: the chapters, while still episodic, and usually centered around a single incident (Jacqueline is abducted; little Jean runs away to Paris; etc.), serve to advance the plot through the characters’ development and their relationships with each other rather than by running them through a gauntlet of action-adventure set pieces (chases, perils, stunts, etc.). Judex still contains many of those features, and is very entertaining from that perspective, but it is not primarily driven by cliffhangers. Rather, most chapters end with an open-ended rhetorical question (Should Cocantin reveal the threats against Favraux? Who is Judex?) or a simple “To be continued,” and it complicates the simple good vs. evil narrative by integrating those questions into a story in which justice is ultimately tempered with mercy. (The last chapter is titled “Love’s Forgiveness,” not “Judex Gives the Bad Guys What-For.”) Diana Monti is the only purely wicked character (“Forever a Delilah!” the title card reads at one point, when she draws Morales back into their scheme after he has had second thoughts), but everyone else, including Judex, occupies a moral landscape with shades of gray.

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One could imagine a contemporary American serial like The Perils of Pauline focused on getting Jacqueline into and out of danger: first she loses her father to an unknown assailant, then is abducted by outlaws, and so forth; an action serial of the 1930s might have presented Cocantin, straight-faced, as the protagonist, solving the mystery of Favraux’s apparent death while tangling with Diana Monti and the mysterious Judex, perhaps learning that Judex is on his side only in the last chapter; finally, anytime after the 1940s, we might have had a film with Judex himself at the center, either in the manner of pulp heroes like the Shadow or as a costumed superhero. The serial Feuillade made is more complicated than any one of those, however: it contains strands of all of them, woven together such that no one strand could carry the tale’s full complexity. With its humanist emphasis on individual character and sensitive probing of the motives and morality of revenge, and its shifts of perspective between multiple characters’ viewpoints, Judex is ultimately novelistic, even epic, a tale of multi-generational reconciliation in the vein of Victor Hugo despite its pulpy trappings.

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Judex has been described as a return to the countryside for Feuillade after the intense urbanism of Les Vampires, and that is true: along with the leisurely pace, the nostalgic return to old, forgotten places such as Kerjean’s abandoned mill and the empty halls of Les Sablons after Favraux’s apparent death cement the impression of a Romantic novel brought to life, complete with digressions, back stories for many of the characters, and bits of character business worthy of Dickens (the secretary of the detective agency still mourning his late employer with his oversized handkerchief, for example). The few turns toward the city are presented in a rosy light: even a child can feel safe alone on the streets of Paris, and the Licorice Kid’s repertoire of street skills extends to cadging produce from stalls and hitching rides on the back of taxis, nothing more. Diana Monti and Morales meet in a cozy café rather than the frenetic dance hall environment of Irma Vep’s Howling Cat.

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Feuillade’s cinematic language is also more naturalistic in Judex, or perhaps it just seems so from this vantage because it is more modern; ironically, more frequent cutting within scenes allows for them to be extended and contributes to a relaxed rhythm, and the use of close-ups and medium shots allow the actors to play their roles with greater subtlety and project their emotions to each other rather than to the camera; there is very little of the mugging toward the audience that can be seen in the Fantômas films and in Les Vampires. Self-reflexive images of the cinema itself (a favorite device in the other Feuillade films I’ve seen) are absent, although many shots are framed through doorways or arches, creating a proscenium effect; the sparing use of special effects is limited to Judex’s lair, a sort of magical space where Feuillade still feels free to play around.

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Ultimately, at least based on first impressions, I preferred the arch, urban modernism of Les Vampires to the pastoral sentiment of Judex, but that is a matter of personal taste. And in the long run one could argue that Judex, with its tortured antihero, has had a greater influence, anticipating many later superhero stories. Of course, there’s the whole brooding loner thing, with the hero using his wealth to strike at the criminal element from his secret underground lair, avenging the death of a parent while adopting a fearsome public persona, because God forbid we get through one of these columns without mentioning Batman. But Batman shares many of the characteristics of Judex–making up in wealth, scientific ingenuity, and mastery of disguise what he lacks in actual superpowers–with other heroes of the pulp era, so it’s not necessary to draw a direct line. (It’s also worth noting that, with a few exceptions, Judex rarely resorts to direct violence in this serial: his force is that of applying pressure discreetly and making things happen.)

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The case for influence is clearer when looking at Sam Raimi’s Darkman and Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta. In both cases (leaving aside some obvious visual similarities), a wounded loner relies on disguise and secrecy to protect the woman he loves from a larger threat, in the case of V even keeping her in a kind of protective custody, as Judex does in a late chapter of this serial (V for Vendetta obviously complicates this formula quite a bit and calls its hero’s methods into question, but like much of Moore’s work it is fair to call it a deconstruction, and I suspect Judex is one of the many influences drawn from). A strong strain of the nineteenth-century novel tradition is the Gothic, and Judex, with its secret conspiracies, crumbling castle, characters haunted (even cursed) by the sins of the previous generation, and scenes of captivity and escape, provided one blueprint for adapting its themes to motion pictures, even if ultimately people were more influenced by the hat and cape.

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What I Watched: Judex (Gaumont, 1916)

Where I Watched It: Flicker Alley’s 2-DVD set from 2004. In addition to restoring the film, this version includes a new score for full orchestra by composer Robert Israel, drawing themes from compositions by Charles-Valentin Alkan and others, as well as original music. Israel’s theme for Diana Monti is particularly juicy, like something from Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera score.

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No. of Chapters: 12 chapters of varying length, plus a Prologue and Epilogue

Best Chapter Title: “The Fantastic Dog Pack” (Chapter Three), in addition to having the best chapter title, is also the most purely fun episode in the serial. Jacqueline had been abducted by Diana Monti and Morales in the previous chapter, a plight Judex only discovered by the happy accident of the release of a pair of homing pigeons he had given to Jacqueline in case of trouble. Arriving at her apartment and finding her missing, he quickly puts his dog on the scent and leads a pack of hounds to the villa where Jacqueline is being held.

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As soon as the unknowing concierge opens the gate, the dogs rush in and flush out the outlaws, who escape through a hidden tunnel. Judex doesn’t bother following them, focusing on Jacqueline’s safety, but Diana and Morales are soon met by a poodle on its hind legs, carrying a warning from Judex to leave Jacqueline alone or suffer her father’s fate: the world’s cutest death threat.

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Best Peril: While Judex is not constructed purely around stunts and spectacle, there are several sequences of action and danger, and most chapters finds either Jacqueline, her son, or Judex himself in a scrape from which they must be rescued or get themselves out of trouble. The most complex set piece is the struggle aboard the Eaglet in Chapter Eleven (“The Water Goddess”). Judex is taken by boat to Diana Monti’s ship to plead his case to Favraux: give up and return with Judex to his house, where Favraux’s daughter and grandson are safe. After an argument, Judex is taken by surprise and bound to a pole, a hood covering his face. Diana and Morales step outside the room and plot to kill Judex later. Little do they know, however, that Daisy Torp, Cocantin’s former fiancée (and a character who enters the film quite late), has swum out to the ship and has seen the whole thing through a porthole. Sneaking onto the ship, she unties Judex so that when Morales checks on him, he turns the table on him and ties him up in his place. When Diana has her gang throw the still tied and hooded victim overboard, she has no idea that she has just sentenced her partner in crime to death . . . until Judex appears to confront her!

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Sample Dialogue: “I am the former owner of this house and you will not tarnish it with crime, as sure as my name is Pierre Kerjean!” –Chapter Five, “The Tragic Mill”

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Judex Sallies Forth: Louis Feuillade made a sequel to Judex the following year, The New Mission of Judex. It is still extant, and I’ll write about it if I can track down a copy. A 1934 remake was directed by Maurice Champreux; I haven’t seen it, either.

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In 1963, director Georges Franju remade the serial as a highly personal feature film. Judex was rarely seen by then, so Franju’s film served as an homage to a past master and a reminder to the public of a hero who had once been fashionable to the point of mania. Franju’s version conveys most of the major plot points while condensing the story (Judex’s family back story is omitted), but it is really focused on atmosphere. It also nods to Les Vampires, having Diana Monti (played by Francine Bergé) wear Irma Vep’s black catsuit for several sequences, and introduces a few Felliniesque touches. I intend at some point to write about latter-day spoofs of and tributes to the serials, including Franju’s Judex, but my recent exploration of Feuillade has revealed to me just how much I still have to explore in that area, particularly the various modern Fantômas features.

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What Others Have Said: “Oedipal complications abound. The banker Favraux’s daughter learns of her father’s treachery; Judex’s mother is an overbearing figure, intent on keeping the son focused on his oath to the father; the son of Kerjean betrays his father; the detective Cocantin constructs his own adoptive family. Indeed, the few figures doomed to die in Judex either have no visible family or have betrayed their familial relations. On the other hand, a villain can be redeemed because he loves his family.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, “Judex: An Introduction,” included in the Flicker Alley DVD release

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What’s Next: Summer is over, but I still have one more serial to write about this year: Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery, which I will probably get to in November. As always, thanks for reading!

Fates Worse Than Death: Les Vampires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NOT Irma Vep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. of Chapters: 10

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

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

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

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

Fates Worse Than Death: Fantômas (1913-14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fates Worse Than Death: The Adventures of Rex and Rinty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No. of Chapters: 12

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

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

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Sample Dialogue:

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

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

–Chapter Four, “Homeward Bound”

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

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

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

 

Fates Worse Than Death: Adventures of Captain Africa

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On the docks of a seaport close to a Near Eastern jungle, Ted Arnold watches animal trapper Nat Coleman loading crates of live leopards and other animals onto a ship. Suddenly, a cable snaps, and a heavy load crashes to the dock! Suspecting foul play, Ted spies an Arab workman panic and run away from the scene, and follows him into the city. Tracking the suspicious dockhand to a house and confronted by a beautiful woman, Ted is surprised when Nat Coleman himself, the man’s employer, catches up to them and vouches for his workman. The Arab’s name is Omar, and he has been an employee of Coleman’s since stumbling out of the jungle, haunted by a fear he refuses to name. In this instance, he ran because he thought the men who sought his life had intended for the sabotaged crate to fall on him. Trusting Coleman’s word but eager to discover Omar’s secret, Ted gladly accepts Coleman’s invitation to be a guest at his jungle compound. This is but his first step into a tangled web of international intrigue that involves a dethroned Caliph, a subversive foreign plot to enslave the jungle tribes, and even an alliance with the secretive guardian of the jungle himself, Captain Africa!

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In the age of Black Panther (or really any time in the last fifty years or so), the idea of a white hero calling himself “Captain Africa” sounds comically tone-deaf, but we have already encountered African-set “white savior” heroes in the serials, and this one follows a long tradition. The heroism of Captain Africa, “a strange being whom the natives fear, yet worship” (Chapter One), is an example of the “white man’s burden,” living in the jungle, settling disputes, and (most importantly) protecting the innocent tribes of the area from outsiders who might exploit them, and nobly asking for nothing in return (except the tribes’ absolute deference, of course). As such he is instantly recognizable as a thinly-veiled gloss on the Phantom, the long-running comic strip hero created by Lee Falk, and who had starred in a Columbia serial twelve years earlier. Rather than pay to license the character from King Features again (as one of the very last theatrical serials ever produced, Captain Africa was made long after the era in which studios spent much money on them), Columbia instead created their own version of the jungle guardian, his gaudy honorific an alias for an alias. (Columbia wasn’t the only studio to play this game: Republic had “Don Daredevil” replace Zorro, for example.)

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It had been a while since I watched The Phantom, so I went back through my old notes to compare the two serials. Let’s see: the Phantom is attacked by a lion; Captain Africa is attacked by a lion. The Phantom is almost crushed by a portcullis, only to roll out of the way just in time; Captain Africa is almost crushed by a portcullis, only to roll out of the way just in time. The Phantom fights a gorilla; Captain Africa . . . hmm, I’m starting to see a pattern here. For the most part, Captain Africa’s costume is different enough from the Phantom’s to avoid confusion (or litigation) up close. It sort of looks like the Phantom costume you might throw together at the last minute for a Halloween party: instead of a skin-tight bodysuit, he wears a jersey and breeches. Captain Africa’s headgear resembles one of those old-time leather football helmets, and paired with goggles, well, the original Phantom could probably count on his lookalike to run errands in his place on dark nights. At the same time, when compared side by side, the shots from the two serials are clearly different: it is the plot points that are recycled, not the scenes of the Phantom in action. (See the comments below regarding the conflict over rights, which goes a long way toward explaining why whole scenes might have been filmed, only to be cut into the stingiest flashbacks.)

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The way the title characters are presented in their respective serials is also different: The Phantom is told from the hero’s point of view, beginning with the death of the old Phantom and covering his son’s assumption of the hero’s name and identity (one of the conceits of the Phantom being that it is a persona adopted by generations of fathers and sons, making it seem as if he were a single immortal being). The main protagonist of Captain Africa, however, is Ted Arnold (Rick Vallin), covert operative for a secret, unnamed organization; Captain Africa (John Hart) appears in every chapter, sometimes briefly and sometimes extensively, but he is at first an unknown quantity, a sort of guest star in his own movie, and once Ted wins the confidence of Omar and his displaced Caliph, he must convince Captain Africa to join in the project of restoring the Caliph to his throne. (We eventually learn Captain Africa’s backstory, and it is similar to Ted’s: after a heroic wartime career, under orders from his superiors he assumed the identity of Captain Africa and convinced the natives of his “magical” power in order to keep the peace in the region–there is no hint of a multi-generational tradition.)

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So, playing along, what does happen in Adventures of Captain Africa? Working with Nat Coleman (Bud Osborne), Ted follows Omar (Ben Welden) to a rendezvous with the exiled Caliph (Paul Marion), who relates the story of his overthrow by a usurper only referred to as “the tyrant.” The Caliph, Abdul al-Hamid, and his daughter, Princess Rhoda (June Howard)–exoticism only goes so far, I guess–escaped to live as nomads in the desert with a handful of loyal retainers, avoiding the bands of outlaws and slave traders that rule the desert, as well as patrols by the tyrant’s guards. There they await the opportunity to return to their homeland and return Hamid to his throne. (All of this is conveyed by voiceover accompanied by stock footage from desert swashbuckling epics.)

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Ted is convinced that Hamid, in addition to being the rightful Caliph, would be a force for peace in the region. With the help of Captain Africa (who, in a parallel story, works to prevent subversives from provoking a rebellion among the jungle tribes–the same subversives who are in league with the tyrant who dethroned Hamid), Ted convinces Omar to break his vow of silence since they already know all about Hamid’s position, and presents himself as an ally. From then on, Ted, Omar, and Captain Africa work together on the Caliph’s behalf (Nat Coleman retires from the action to continue running his business once the alliance is cemented), seeking loyalists in the tyrant’s capital city and fighting off the subversive elements who would seek to enslave both the jungle tribes and the Arabs of the desert.

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The resulting adventure is a mélange of Arabian Nights-style swashbuckling and jungle adventure: despite taking place in 1955, Adventures of Captain Africa feels much older. Of course the reliance on stock footage is a big part of that, but the typical avoidance of specific politics is another. My guess is that the unnamed political organization for which Ted Arnold works is meant to be the CIA, and the similarly unnamed subversives who promise freedom to the jungle natives but who, Ted warns, have enslaved every other population they have come in contact with, are meant to represent Soviet communism, and both the tribes and the Caliph’s people are a football tossed between them. But really, all you need to know is that there are good guys and bad guys. The various people of the desert wear traditional caftan and burnous, ride horses, and fight with wicked, curved scimitars; the jungle tribesmen are the kind of loincloth-clad, spear-throwing savages typically depicted in jungle movies. Only the white men use guns. In short, it takes place in serial never-neverland, and a more simplified version of it than most.

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The reliance on stock footage and voiceover has a distancing effect, as well. In the best serials, editing and camera work give the action a thrilling immediacy, a feeling that you are there, watching or participating in the scene. From the first chapter, however, when Nat Coleman describes his first meeting with Omar and several mysterious incidents of sabotage to Ted, the tone is one of rambling digressions and things that happened in the past or to other people, with frequently thin narrative reasons for including one scene or another, except, of course, for the fact that the footage is on hand. (It doesn’t help that Coleman isn’t the most dynamic narrator, and it’s a relief when, after a few chapters, he disappears from the story.) The serial that I was most reminded of was not The Phantom, but The New Adventures of Tarzan, from twenty years before.

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A few of these scenes are interesting from a technical perspective, including the use of rear projection to insert Coleman or other characters into the foreground of the old footage, as in Coleman’s flashback to a lion attack in his own bedroom. Even when the action shifts to the present, the early chapters are full of jungle business inserted so that Ted and Coleman have something to point out and talk about while they walk from one location to another: various animals, the daily routine of a rubber plantation, a police raid on a riverboat carrying contraband rubber. Coleman explains that there has been a campaign of rubber theft by well-organized gangs. “Do you suppose your unknown enemies are involved in it?” Ted asks, to which Coleman replies, “If they are, I wish they’d stay with it and leave me alone,” acknowledging that these scenes are nothing more than padding. As always, there is something magical in the way whole worlds can be stitched together out of unrelated footage, but Captain Africa shows that you can only stretch leftovers so far before they go stale.

What I Watched: Adventures of Captain Africa (Columbia, 1955)

Where I Watched It: Captain Africa was among the bootleg DVDs I bought and went through a few years ago, but for whatever reason I didn’t get around to watching this one until now. However, the transfer was quite poor indeed, full of missing frames and even whole scenes. Luckily for me, the whole serial was on YouTube in better (although still not pristine) quality.

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No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: What Captain Africa lacks in originality, it makes up in exclamation points: every chapter title ends with a bang (as does the serial’s subtitle, “Mighty Jungle Avenger!”)! So whether Ted and company face a “Midnight Attack!” (Chapter Three) or “Slave Traders!” (Chapter Six), writer George H. Plympton and director Spencer G. Bennet are sure to extract as much excitement out of the situation as possible. Several chapter titles refer to the “Mystery Man of the Jungle!” (Chapter One) himself, and of those my favorite is Chapter Nine’s, “Blasted by Captain Africa!” (emphasis in original).

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Best Cliffhanger: Many of the cliffhangers are not set up especially well, so they end their chapters abruptly, and they frequently suffer from the same murkiness that makes much of the serial’s action sequences so hard to follow. In addition, the feeling of going through the motions–hitting familiar perils such as animal attacks, fire, falls, and cave-ins–is readily apparent. However, there are a few sharp, well-executed, and interesting cliffhangers in the last few chapters (they must have saved the best for last). At the end of Chapter Twelve (“Fangs of the Beast!”), Captain Africa, exploring the caverns underneath the Caliph’s city, is trapped in a cell with an angry gorilla–a gorilla who, we later find out, carries a key for safe passage through the city around his neck (the “key” is a narrative repurposing of the last piece of the map to the lost city of Zoloz in the original Phantom serial). The subsequent battle is more of a choreographed fight than we have seen so far, and the chapter ends with the gorilla on top of Captain Africa, strangling the life out of him. (After turning the tables on the gorilla and escaping in the next chapter, Captain Africa modestly explains to Ted and Omar that despite appearances, captivity had made the gorilla fat and lazy: “Otherwise, I never could have beaten him.”)

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Sample Dialogue: In Chapter One, a fight has broken out in a dockside watering hole.
Ted Arnold: What’s it all about?
Nat Coleman: Who knows? Perhaps nothing. Then again, it might be over something that threatens the peace of the world.

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What Others Have Said: “It was over ten years before Columbia considered making a sequel to The Phantom. By this time, [producer] Sam Katzman was in charge of serials, and he was making them cheaper than anybody had ever produced union-made theatrical movies. One story has it that Katzman’s company had actually begun filming the serial before negotiations with King Features, owners of The Phantom comic strip, were completed. In any case, either before or during the production, the King Syndicate wanted too much money, and The Phantom could not be used again on the screen. At least, not exactly.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

(Interestingly, while Harmon and Glut claim that Captain Africa included numerous reused shots of Tom Tyler’s Phantom, they also note that at the time of writing their book, 1972, the 1943 Phantom serial had not been available to view for many years. With the distance in time, it was surely easy to believe that the shots were identical.)

What’s Next: In two weeks I’ll return with a look at one of several serials with animal heroes: The Adventures of Rex and Rinty!