Fates Worse Than Death: Superman (1948)

Unlike many of the costumed heroes who made the leap to serials, not only does Superman not need an introduction, but the 1948 Columbia serial bearing his name is remarkably faithful to the comic books in which he regularly appeared. Any modern reader or viewer should recognize the character’s origin, set forth in the first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth”: on the faraway planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El attempts to convince the ruling council that the planet is doomed, a victim of gravitational forces that will soon lead to its complete destruction. Unable to convince them, Jor-El places his infant son Kal-El in a test rocket and launches him to Earth, just before the planet explodes. After landing in a rural part of America (not yet “Smallville”) on Earth, baby Kal-El is adopted and raised by the Kents, a childless couple who instill in their adopted son “Clark” a sense of justice and fair play, even as he develops superhuman strength and incredible abilities. Chapter One ends with Clark Kent on his way to Metropolis to use his powers for the good of mankind.

Also unlike some other serial heroes, Superman wasn’t the character’s first representation outside of comics. Since the first publication of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation in Action Comics no. 1 in 1938, Superman had been a best-selling comic book and newspaper strip character; headlined a radio show (since 1940); and appeared in animated shorts (seventeen cartoons from Fleischer and Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943). It would have been hard to find even a casual follower of popular fiction who didn’t know who Superman was, and that above all may have encouraged producer Sam Katzman to stick to the established mythology. That meant not only keeping Superman’s origin the same, but keeping him at the Daily Planet with Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen (who first appeared as a named character on the radio show in 1940), rather than creating a new cast of characters. It also meant including Kryptonite (introduced on the radio in 1943 and the comics only in 1947), the fragments of Superman’s exploded home planet, the radiation of which was the one force on Earth that could weaken him.

There were still some differences, however, most notably the serial’s choice of villain: the Spider Lady, a blonde woman in a black evening gown and domino mask, is very much within the serial tradition: she has no origin or backstory, no powers of her own, and her persona is “criminal mastermind, but slightly vampier.” (Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor would appear in the following serial, 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman.) More importantly, she holds off on direct confrontations with Superman, prolonging the story by working through her agents, fedora-wearing henchmen with names like Driller and Brock. They may be caught, but she continues her evil work until the last chapter and her inevitable comeuppance. Like her namesake, she sits at the center of a web (literally–the web is an important backdrop of her scenes, and it proves to be electrified, a fitting method of punishing underlings who fail her), plotting and scheming.

Also true to the serial style is the macguffin, a sort of death ray called the Relativity Reducer Ray, developed for the government by Professor Graham, guarded by Superman (so it doesn’t “fall into the wrong hands”), and coveted by the Spider Lady. Described as more powerful than the atomic bomb, the Reducer Ray deals death by remote control: in Chapter Three, which introduces both the Ray and the Spider Lady, a test demonstrates its ability to destroy buildings at a distance by feeding coordinates into its internal computing mechanism. The Ray provides plenty of plot possibilities, whether it’s the Spider Lady’s attempts to stop the test; her attempts to steal, and later copy, the Ray; her kidnapping and later mind-control of the Ray’s inventor, Professor Graham; and her use of it to threaten the Daily Planet itself once she has a functioning copy.

Lois Lane: Poet of the Apocalypse

Finally, the Spider Lady has her own scientist, Dr. Hackett (Charles Quigley), described as “brilliant” but “with a warped mind,” whom she breaks out of jail to aid her; what his previous crimes were is never stated, but he proves to be an ambitious, treacherous character, and his alliance with his patroness an uneasy one. All of these elements serve to provide exciting, varied episodes of action and suspense, many of them based on classic serial premises (e.g., there are mine cave-ins and car chases, and Lois and Jimmy get tied up more than once), but each connected to the central threat of the Spider Lady and enlivened by clever plotting and witty dialogue.

Superman is played by Kirk Alyn (although not according to the title credits: Columbia’s marketers claimed that no actor could be found to convincingly portray the Man of Steel, so they simply got the real thing), who would go on to headline several more serials. Alyn mostly strikes a note of hearty good cheer and optimism as the hero (even when banging two gangsters’ heads together to knock them out he jokes “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength!”), and his Clark Kent is amusingly sketchy. In Chapter Two, Clark essentially gets his position on the Planet (with no prior experience or references) by scooping Lois, and throughout the serial she snipes at him for what she perceives as underhanded maneuvering (she gets her own back a few times as well). She rightly suspects that Clark is simply playing dumb when conversation turns to Superman and his tendency to show up when he’s gone, but she never suspects the truth.

Although Clark’s coworkers chide him for his tendency to duck out when trouble is brewing, Alyn makes this foible seem like the product of bumbling rather than cowardice (and of course, we in the audience know what he’s really up to). Through a variety of special effects, including undercranking (to depict Superman’s super-speed), double exposure (for X-ray vision), and hand-drawn animation for flying sequences, just about all of Superman’s established powers come into play during the story. And of course, the serial format guarantees that he’ll appear in costume at least once in every chapter, whether it’s to laugh off a gangster’s bullets (depicted bouncing off Superman’s chest, again with animation), stop a fire by blowing it out with his super breath, or to catch a flying shell and boomerang it back toward the gun that fired it. Superman even uses his X-ray vision to see through a disguise while looking at a photograph–quite a feat, even for him. Alyn distinguishes Clark from Superman with his voice as well, using a light, wishy-washy tone for Clark and a deeper chest voice for Superman, a transformation made audible (in imitation of the radio serial) every time Clark Kent in voice over says, “This looks like a job for [sudden drop to chest voice] SUPERMAN!”

Noel Neill (who passed away just last year) imbues Lois Lane with the brassy, no-nonsense quality the character had absorbed during the war years, inspired by His Girl Friday and the like (and which would largely be domesticated in the coming 1950s). The frequently-depicted romantic triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman is absent in the serial, but is replaced by a professional rivalry; as mentioned, Lois takes potshots at Clark mercilessly (“What now, little man?” is a typical gibe), but it’s an understandable attitude when she is frequently consigned to writing “women’s stories” about recipes or fashion while Clark gets the headlines.

In addition to driving the plot, the tension between the pair is a natural source of comedy, with Perry White (Pierre Watkin)and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond, formerly Butch in the Our Gang shorts) also contributing to the quippy, fast-paced scenes. (As an aside, it’s nice to have a humorous tone carried by dialogue and situation, rather than a single “comic relief” character, as in the Republic formula.)

As the Spider Lady, Carol Forman is a haughty, imperious villainess in the classic style. She doesn’t do much, but preening and pontificating are enough for this type of character: other than her electrified web, it appears to be the power of her will and ruthless pursuit of her goals alone that keep her underlings in line. There is one scene, however, probably meant as a throwaway, that deepens the character’s mystery: in Chapter Nine (“Irresistible Force!”), the only time in the serial that the Spider Lady leaves her lair, she goes to the airport disguised as Lois Lane to trick Professor Graham, the Reducer Ray’s inventor, into accompanying her. Throughout the serial, the Spider Lady has been a blonde, but in preparing to disguise herself, she removes a blonde wig to reveal a head of dark hair.

At no other time is it even suggested that she is wearing a disguise, and she’s a blonde for the rest of the serial. Visually, the Spider Lady (whom Harmon and Glut in The Great Movie Serials describe as “faintly foreign” in appearance) changes from a Veronica Lake type to a more fitting Myrna Loy type, perhaps revealing her true colors. (Or perhaps it’s nothing more than an inside joke: Forman was naturally a brunette, and had played another spider-themed villainess for Superman director Spencer Bennet the year before in The Black Widow. Forman didn’t want to be typecast as a villain, but she played several in the serials.) Serials didn’t generally go in for the duality of hero and villain, but when you have a blank slate of a character like the Spider Lady, any suggestion of depth, however subtle, makes an impression. As Clark Kent would be the first to acknowledge, sometimes it’s the appearance you wear every day that is the real disguise.

What I Watched: Superman (Columbia, 1948)

Where I Watched It: Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection, a 4-DVD set from DC/Warner Home Video

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Superman to the Rescue” (Chapter Eight)

Best Cliffhanger: Superman features many good cliffhangers, including some classics, such as the car speeding off a cliff, and an unconscious victim placed on a conveyor belt, headed toward doom, among others. Wisely, once Superman’s invulnerability is established in the first few chapters, the filmmakers don’t try to convince us that the Man of Steel is going to be killed by something as pedestrian as a gunshot or an explosion, and the only cliffhangers that leave his fate in doubt involve Kryptonite. Rather, it’s Superman’s friends who face peril at the end of each chapter, the question being whether Superman will get there in time to rescue them (a few chapters end with Superman entangled in some other problem that will presumably leave him unavailable) or if they will find their own way out of the danger. (In the examples I mentioned above, it’s Lois Lane in the speeding car and Jimmy Olsen on the conveyor belt; at the end of another chapter, Perry White is thrown out the window of his office, hanging onto the ledge by his fingertips.)

At the end of Chapter Fourteen (“Superman at Bay”), the Spider Lady has finally gotten Professor Graham’s Reducer Ray working, and to test it she has the Professor aim its destructive force at the corner of the jail in which her henchman Anton and Dr. Hackett are being held (she will demonstrate the ray’s power and eliminate some “useless people” at one stroke). Unbeknownst to her (not that it would make any difference), Lois Lane is visiting the two inmates at the jail in hopes of persuading them to talk, and she is present when the power of the ray manifests in the form of an intense glow. An explosion ends the chapter. (At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, Superman, having overheard the Spider Lady’s instructions, flies to the jail to swoop in and carry Lois to safety, leaving Hackett and the other inmates to suck eggs, I guess. A newspaper headline following the incident notes “Many Prisoners Killed.” They don’t get top billing, though.)

The Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: The resolution to the cliffhanger I described above involves a bit of a cheat, but the winner is the cliffhanger that ends Chapter Eleven (“Superman’s Dilemma”) and its resolution. Chapter Eleven focuses on “mono-chromite,” a secret ingredient needed for the Reducer Ray, and the lengths to which the Spider Lady’s henchmen go to obtain it. Two of the Spider Lady’s operatives show up at a chemical engineer’s office demanding mono-chromite. Since it’s a restricted material, the engineer puts the men off and contacts Perry White. Lois gets the jump on Clark by telling him to take her car and then reporting it stolen, so that Clark is picked up by the police and taken to jail: there may not be a jail built that can hold Superman, but he can’t afford to jeopardize his secret identity by breaking out or overpowering a policeman! In the mean time, Lois and Jimmy get to the engineer’s office and conceive a plan: Jimmy hides in a packing crate marked “mono-chromite” so that when the Spider Lady’s men pick it up, he’ll be taken straight to her lair! Unfortunately, when the crate comes open during the drive back, the drivers get suspicious and stop to check on it. One of the thugs sees Jimmy’s fingers closing the crate, so he and the other henchman open fire and shoot the crate full of holes.

But wait! As the next chapter begins, we see Clark Kent in his jail cell change into Superman. He bundles up Clark Kent’s clothing under the blanket on his bunk to hide his disappearance and, bending the bars on the window easily, flies off to rescue Jimmy. Not only does he know exactly where to find his pal (Jimmy doesn’t yet have his famous signal watch in this serial, but Superman finds him anyway), he has time to take his place in the crate, so that when the driver begins shooting (and it’s only one henchman shooting in this chapter, not both as in the previous cliffhanger), the bullets bounce harmlessly off him. After knocking out the gangsters and tying them up at super-speed, Superman flies back to the jail and resumes Clark Kent’s identity, just in time for the jailer to let him out, having confirmed his identity from Perry White. Whew! It’s all in a day’s work for (sudden basso profundo) Superman!

NOT a dream! NOT an imaginary story! “Clark Kent: Super-JAILBIRD!”

Sample Dialogue:

Lois (regaining consciousness): How did we get here?
Clark: Superman got us out through a hole he made in the side of that hill.
Lois: He’s wonderful isn’t he, Clark?
Clark: I guess so.
Lois: You guess so? . . . Say, weren’t these handcuffs on our other hands before?

–Chapter Thirteen, “Hurled to Destruction”

What Others Have Said: “As Superman, Kirk Alyn looks the part. He was a former Broadway chorus boy who’d worked his way up to become a Columbia day player, and his athletic form required little in the way of muscle padding. (If he doesn’t quite live up to the illustration on the serial’s movie poster–Superman as a downright steroidal mountain of muscle–few men of the day could.)”
–Glen Weldon, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography

What’s Next: Join me as I explore the second Dick Tracy serial, 1938’s Dick Tracy Returns!

My 2016 in Television

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It’s funny that I don’t consider myself that much of a TV watcher anymore, at least compared to the amount of time I spend watching movies, but when I look back over the past year, I did watch enough to at least write about. (Sorry for the lack of pictures; I’m traveling this week and short on time. As much as I’d like to believe my deathless prose and penetrating insights are the reason people visit Medleyana, it’s an incontestable truth that pictures drive traffic. Don’t worry, my roundup of 2016’s films, set to run later this week, has plenty of pics.)

At the beginning of the year, I caught ABC’s two mid-season short series, Galavant and Marvel’s Agent Carter, both in their second (and, alas, final) seasons. Agent Carter was the 1940s-set spinoff of Hayley Atwell’s popular character from Captain America: The First Avenger, and continued the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s pattern of filling in details of its world. In this case, that meant spending more time with Howard Stark, father of future Iron Man Tony, and his man Jarvis (and filling in more of his backstory). However, it put off the foundation of SHIELD as once more Agent Carter found herself working on the outside (a situation that allows for both more drama and more overt commentary on the difficulty women found finding a place in postwar society once the boys came back from fighting).

The second series found Carter traveling to Los Angeles and getting mixed up in a case involving “zero matter,” a mysterious power source with links to another dimension, and one that, if uncontrolled, threatened to destroy the world. Zero matter was also part of the origin of the season’s antagonist, actress/scientific genius Whitney Frost (a barely fictionalized Hedy Lamarr). Frost’s frustration at being held back by men’s low expectations, revealed in flashback, and the way she eventually obtained power through manipulating men (as a movie star, as the power behind a rising politician, and as the lover of a mob boss) made for an interesting counterpoint with Carter’s own struggles living in a “man’s world.” The first Captain America film and the Agent Carter series have been some of my favorite parts of the MCU, so it’s unfortunate that Agent Carter won’t be returning for a third season (and with Carter’s death from old age in the current movies, we probably won’t be seeing much more of Atwell in the MCU unless there’s a special or a flashback, as in Ant-Man).

Galavant also ended after only two seasons: the musical comedy spoof was a favorite of mine in its first season, as the charming and dashing title character (played by Joshua Sasse) sought to rescue the love of his life, Madalena (Mallory Jansen), from the dastardly King Richard (Timothy Omundson) while teaming up with another princess (Karen David) displaced by Richard’s conquest. That traditional-sounding fairy tale setup was consistently undermined at every turn: Galavant, despite his rakish charisma, was a washed up has-been, supported in his return to form by his plucky squire (Luke Youngblood, memorable from Community for his turn as Magnum); Madalena turned out to not be waiting for her prince to rescue her, but was a more practical-minded gold-digger who considered being the King’s wife an upgrade: or at least she would if King Richard weren’t so ineffectual and childish. The second season explored the fallout of these character dynamics, with Madalena becoming a full-fledged power-hungry villainess and Richard, unseated from his own throne, befriending Galavant and discovering his latent capacity for heroism. Both seasons came to life with knowing references to clichés from both fantasy and musicals, with songs by Alan Mencken and an experienced theater cast to bring them to life (as well as a number of guest stars, ranging from John Hamm to “Weird Al” Yankovic) and finding time for moments for side characters such as the put-upon chef (Darren Evans) and his romance with fellow servant Gwynne (Sophie McShera), hilariously plagued by the life-shortening hazards of medieval life.

In the same vein, I caught up this year with the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the star vehicle of actress-singer-songwriter Rachel Bloom. I’m not sure if I was even aware of Bloom before this year, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was one of the most talked-about shows in my circle of friends, and after getting started with Anthony Pizzo’s excellent articles on Bloom’s earlier songs and videos, I jumped on board. Like Galavant, the show is made by and for musical theater fans, with each hour-long episode including two or three songs in a variety of styles, reflecting the inner state of mind of Bloom’s alter ego, musical-obsessed Rebecca Bunch. As laid out in the show’s theme song (ironically, the weakest song in the show), Rebecca was a high-powered but deeply unhappy lawyer in New York City until a chance encounter with Josh Chan, the boy with whom she had a brief summer romance at theater camp years ago. Impulsively, she moves to Josh’s hometown of West Covina, California, and begins a new life, stalking Josh and talking herself into ever-more complicated situations, all while denying to herself that that’s why she moved there.

One could call it a deconstruction of I Love Lucy-style screwball antics, and as her earlier work suggested, Bloom is uniquely qualified to balance the comedy and pathos of a fundamentally damaged character. Given my adoration of Community, which similarly made comedy out of a sometimes-bleak perspective, it should be no surprise that I fell hard for this show (even though it took me half a year to finish the whole season, and I haven’t even started on season two).

I’ve also been enjoying the renaissance of DC superhero television, particularly Supergirl (which was somewhat uneven in its first season, but has delivered tighter action sequences and vastly improved character work this fall). Star Melissa Benoist is perfectly cast as the title character and is well served by an ensemble that has grown stronger (even with the unfortunate departure of Calista Flockhart as mentor Cat Grant). Aside from the show’s winningly optimistic spirit, Supergirl is also a treat for eagle-eyed fans, (for example) working in a reference to the “evil” Superman from Superman III or casting former TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as the President.

Another DC program, Legends of Tomorrow, was frequently awkward in its first season, but with the defeat of lame villain Vandal Savage and the exit of the equally lame Hawk people, the show has greatly improved in its second season, with a less heavy tone and more connection to the greater DC universe (both leaning into its time travel gimmick to feature characters like Western antihero Jonah Hex or the World War II-era Justice Society of America), even crossing over with the other DC shows in a faithful approximation of the comic books’ “multiverse” of parallel worlds.

Although not connected to the “Arrowverse” DC shows, and generally a show that I drop in and out of rather than watch faithfully, Gotham (a sort of prequel series about future Batman Bruce Wayne as a young boy) has had its moments. The best of all was a mini-arc in which Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor, channeling Crispin Glover’s alien charisma) was reunited with his father (guest star Paul Reubens, who had a cameo as the Penguin’s father in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns). While warmly received by his wealthy father, Penguin was not welcomed by his father’s family, to whom Penguin was simply a freak and an unwelcome intrusion into their plans to inherit the Cobblepot fortune. Over a handful of episodes, this sequence spun from heartfelt reunion to black comedy, and showed the reformed Penguin re-embracing his capacity for violence. It was the show’s high point as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, my summer was dominated by two science fiction programs: BrainDead, which I’ve already written about, and Stranger Things, the breakout Netflix series. Stranger Things got a lot of attention for its slavish recreation of an early 1980s aesthetic (primarily drawing from the work of John Carpenter, Stephen King, and Steven Spielberg, but with nods to John Hughes and Freaks and Geeks), but I don’t think it would have worked or been the sensation it was without its central ensemble of youthful actors. Its moody, Carpenteresque synth soundtrack also set just the right tone.

Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom (1943)

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At Sai Pana, a trading post in an unspecified part of Africa, an expedition led by Professor Davidson is preparing to enter the jungle in search of the lost city of Zoloz, with the help of a map made of six pieces of ivory that fit together like a puzzle. Only the central seventh piece, which shows the exact location of Zoloz, is missing. Among those traveling with the Professor are his niece Diana Palmer and Geoffrey Prescott, a colleague from Melville University.

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Sai Pana’s resident physician, Dr. Bremmer, shows interest in Davidson’s search, but for his own reasons: Bremmer is actually the head of a ring of saboteurs who are building a secret air base in Zoloz, and he will use any connivance to throw Davidson off the scent so he can keep his activities hidden. At the same time, Singapore Smith, owner of the Trade Winds hotel in Sai Pana, schemes to get his hands on the Professor’s ivory keys (and the treasure it leads to) himself.

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Meanwhile, deep in the jungle at Tonga village, the mysterious figure known as the Phantom has summoned the chiefs of the area tribes for a gathering. The Phantom, through his appearance of immortality and supernatural powers, has kept the peace between the tribes for centuries, but a thug named Long, disguised as a native, strikes the Phantom with a poison dart (an attack instigated by Bremmer, because he needs to be able to control the natives to get his airfield built). The Phantom’s assistant, Suba, ends the ceremony with a puff of smoke, but the damage is already done: the Phantom will die. The only hope for peace between the tribes is to find his son to take his place, as the Phantom identity has been passed down from father to son for generations. In this way, the Phantom is “the man who never dies.”

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The Phantom’s son? Geoffrey Prescott, currently in Sai Pana with Professor Davidson’s expedition! After tracking him down with the aid of trapper Rusty Fenton, Suba brings Prescott to his father, who lives just long enough to pass on the mantle of the Phantom. Now it’s up to the new Phantom to protect Davidson, unravel the mystery of the saboteurs, and keep the peace in the jungle, in the 1943 Columbia serial The Phantom!

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Although never as high profile as Batman or Tarzan, the Phantom has elements in common with both characters and has a long history as the star of a comic strip created by Lee Falk in 1936 (and still running in newspapers with the creative team of Tony DePaul, Mike Manley, and Terry Beatty). According to the strip’s mythology, the first Phantom was shipwrecked by pirates on the African coast in the 16th century. He was adopted by a peaceful tribe who both set him on his mission of fighting evil and taught him the many combat disciplines and sleight-of-hand tricks he uses to further that goal. The 1943 serial doesn’t go into that in any detail beyond the handing down of the Phantom’s identity; serials in general were much less concerned with origin stories than superhero movies in recent decades (the 1996 feature film starring Billy Zane makes for an instructive contrast), but unlike many serials The Phantom is reasonably faithful to the comics (and it’s a damn sight better than the Batman serial that immediately preceded it!).

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The first chapter is entitled “The Sign of the Skull,” and indeed the skull is an important part of the Phantom’s iconography, particularly the carved ring he wears which leaves the imprint of a skull on those on whom he metes justice. Instead of the remote and forbidding Skull Cave, however, the Phantom of the serial keeps his throne in public, in the center of Tonga village, where he ceremoniously makes appearances to speak to the natives and pass judgment on lawbreakers. There’s quite a bit of flair to these proceedings, as Suba uses flash powder to create bursts of flame and smoke, making it look as if the Phantom appears and disappears by magic. (Interestingly, Bremmer manages to use that same sense of theatricality against the Phantom, first setting up a fraudulent “Fire Princess” whose supposed control of flame makes her a challenger to the Phantom’s authority in the jungle, and later putting a Phantom costume on one of his henchmen after thinking he had eliminated the real one, in order to control the natives.)

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The Phantom plays on the superstitions of the natives one-on-one, as well: confronting the rebellious chief Chota, the Phantom “summons the spirit of fire” to burn Chota’s village unless he tells the truth. In another episode, he smokes out a murderer by pretending to put poison into glasses of wine, saying it will only harm the guilty; of course, the killer is betrayed by his own fear rather than by the wine, which is harmless. Like many pulp heroes, the Phantom wins by his wits and his powers of psychology and detection as much as by his fists and weapons. (And like those heroes, there’s a certain unapologetic ruthlessness to his methods.)

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There are certainly enough villains to choose from: right off the bat, Professor Davidson is victimized by both Dr. Bremmer and his saboteurs and the competing forces of Singapore Smith (the “outlaws”). There’s quite a bit of jockeying by both groups as they each try to steal the ivory keys from Davidson, and at times they work together against their common enemy. Given that both groups are white men with stubble wearing khakis and pith helmets, it’s easy to get them mixed up. However, Singapore Smith is so obviously shady that he doesn’t make it to the end of the serial; even in death he causes trouble for the Phantom, who pays him a visit (in disguise as “Mr. Walker”) and is then blamed for Smith’s murder. Meanwhile, Dr. Bremmer, like most classic serial villains, works his evil through proxies (including traitors within the expedition), avoiding suspicion until the final chapter.

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In a late part of the story, the Phantom and Davidson’s expedition run afoul of the Tartar, the strict ruler of a kingdom that resembles Mongolia. The incongruity of a Mongol fortress in the middle of an African jungle, combined with the kingdom’s extreme isolationism (normally, all outsiders are put to death if they enter the Tartar’s kingdom, but naturally the Phantom wins him over), mark this episode as an example of the “lost world” genre embedded in the larger story. However, not even the Professor comments on its strangeness, and there is no explanation offered as to its presence and survival. (Also, it practically goes without saying that all the major characters speak English; there are a few scenes in which natives speak their own language and somebody has to translate, but not so many that it slows down the action.)

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As the Phantom, Tom Tyler is nicely physical and has a commanding presence, and Jeanne Bates is adequate as the headstrong Diana Palmer, but the only antagonist to have much character is oily Singapore Smith (Joe Devlin). As Dr. Bremmer, Kenneth MacDonald has some good moments and is smooth enough to convincingly play both sides, but didn’t leave a strong impression on me. Frank Shannon (Flash Gordon‘s Dr. Zarkov) plays Professor Davidson, but the decline in energy obvious in the later Flash Gordon serials is in evidence here as well. The Phantom’s animal companion Devil, a wolf in the comics, is played in the serial by a German Shepherd, Ace the Wonder Dog.

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Beyond that, the casting of the many African tribesmen seems to have been mixed up with casting for a Western. Serials are not documentaries, of course, but the best of them make some effort to draw inspiration from the real world. In The Phantom, the natives resemble Hollywood Indians, (mostly) white actors with stilted accents and war paint. The Internet Movie Database lists among the uncredited actors playing natives Jay Silverheels (later TV’s Tonto) and Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian immigrant who adopted an Indian identity and made a specialty of playing Indian characters. This knot of tangled ethnic representation is not terribly unusual for the time, but compared to the actual black actors I just saw in Tim Tyler’s Luck, it’s especially phony.

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What I Watched: The Phantom (Columbia, 1943)

Where I Watched It: The whole thing can be watched on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

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Best Chapter Title: “The Road to Zoloz” (Chapter Thirteen) is nicely specific, and also suggests an entirely different film starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. It’s worth pointing out that both of the Phantom’s catch phrases, “The Man Who Never Dies” and “The Ghost Who Walks” are used as chapter titles (Chapters Two and Five, respectively).

Best Cliffhanger: Despite my criticisms of the acting in The Phantom, at least the action is pretty good, and there are not only several good cliffhangers but some exciting action sequences within the chapters. A very well-done cliffhanger ends Chapter Five (“The Ghost Who Walks”), in which the Phantom fights with the saboteurs on a rope bridge overhanging a deep gorge. Earlier, the Phantom, stalking the saboteurs as they drove an oxcart full of contraband ammunition to the secret airfield, had cut partially through the bridge’s ropes to weaken them. When he ends up fighting the saboteurs directly, of course the fight spills onto the damaged bridge, and the ropes give way, (seemingly) dropping them into the river far below.

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Sample Dialogue: In the first chapter, Long (Wade Crosby) returns to witness a gathering at the Tonga village after killing the Phantom, along with fellow saboteur Andy (Sol Gorss) and upstart chief Chota (Stanley Price). To his chagrin, the new Phantom is accepted without question by the natives.

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Long: Why, that can’t be the real Phantom. I know I killed him! This is just a trick to fool the natives.
Chota: No, him Phantom. Him Phantom! Man who never dies.
Andy: Looks like him to me.
Long: Why, it can’t be! He’s a much younger and taller guy than the real Phantom. I’m telling you that guy’s a fake.
Andy: Looks like you missed, Long.
Long: Let’s tell the natives that guy’s a phony.
Andy: Yeah? And when they ask us how we know, we tell ’em you killed the real Phantom. Why, you’d have your head drying over a fire in no time.

What Others Have Said: “Occasionally there was a shock when a player you had always associated as a good guy turned up in a serial as a crook. . . . You just couldn’t believe that lovable old rascal was really one of the baddies. . . . But, the real test of credibility came when Ernie Adams, who portrayed not only bad guys, but sneaky, yellow, cowardly bad guys, was cast in the role of Rusty Fenton in The Phantom in 1943, and you had to believe that the hero would have in him a good, trusted ally.” –William C. Cline, “When the Leopard Changed Its Spots” in Serials-ly Speaking

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(Serials I’ve reviewed in which Adams appeared include The Miracle Rider, in which he played the shady store operator’s clerk, and Tim Tyler’s Luck: Adams played Becker, the henchman whose death by gorilla meant so little to Spider Webb.)

What’s Next: For my final installment of Summer 2016’s Fates Worse Than Death, I will return to the air with Flying G-Men. See you in two weeks!

Fates Worse Than Death: Captain America (1944)

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A bizarre series of deaths, some accidental and some obvious suicides, strikes at wealthy and influential men. The only connection between them is their involvement in an expedition to Central America in search of Mayan ruins, and the jeweled scarabs found in the victims’ possession. The mastermind behind the deaths, revealed to the audience in the first chapter, is Dr. Maldor, a member of the expedition who feels cheated of the glory and wealth that others have claimed. As the Scarab, Maldor is determined to take down his rivals, one by one, all the while posing as the friendly and helpful director of the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences.

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Maldor’s plan might very well succeed, but for the industrious District Attorney, Grant Gardner, and his assistant Gail Richards, who stand in Maldor’s way and get far too close to the truth in their investigations. Even worse, Maldor’s henchmen keep running afoul of the costumed crime fighter known only as Captain America. Could Gardner and Captain America be one and the same? The audience knows, but will the Scarab learn the truth, and what will he do with it?

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These days, when one reads about the 1944 Captain America serial, the focus is on its lack of fidelity to the comic books created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 and published by Timely (now Marvel) Comics. Instead of being Steve Rogers, a runty Army volunteer turned into a titan by the Super Soldier serum, the serial Captain America is Grant Gardner (played by Dick Purcell), a crusading district attorney who dons the costume to bring criminals to justice; no reference is made to his origin. Instead of wielding the iconic shield, Grant Gardner carries a gun, and he gets a lot of use out of it (in fact, considering how many bad guys Gardner kills in his civilian identity without anyone batting an eye, it’s not exactly clear why he needs to step outside of the law and put on a costume at all).

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This Captain America doesn’t even fight Nazis, all the more surprising considering the character’s explicitly patriotic concept and the serial’s wartime production. As in the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, Captain America’s foe follows the serial formula of a far-reaching (but apolitical) criminal mastermind: no Red Skull here, folks. Timely publisher Martin Goodman gave Republic the right to use the character for free (according to Marvel executive Tom Brevoort, speaking in the promotional documentary Captain America: 75 Heroic Years), likely expecting the film to boost sales of his comic books. Whether it had the desired effect, I don’t know, but one wonders what Simon and Kirby, not to mention their loyal readers, thought when they saw “Grant Gardner” going through the paces of a typical Republic adventure.

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I was aware of all that before I watched the serial, but I tried to keep an open mind: although this is an extreme example, it wasn’t unusual for serial producers to change details of their source material to fit into their standard formula, and perhaps the serial would be a success on its own terms, even as it missed the mark as an adaptation. Unfortunately, I ultimately found it tedious and repetitive, even though it had some good performances and some individual chapters that worked well. Like many fifteen-chapter serials, Captain America can’t quite sustain its length, and might have been more effective cut down.

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As both Gardner and Captain America, Dick Purcell has some personality and makes for an engaging central character, and there’s quite a bit of action (much of it supplied by longtime stunt man Dale van Sickel, who actually wore the costume for many of these sequences). He’s not really anything like what I think of as Captain America, being closer to a “cop who bends the rules” type rather than a boy scout, but free of other associations he held my attention. The sheer number of the Scarab’s henchmen that he blows away or throws out high windows, in either identity, would satisfy Charles Bronson.

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Even better is the supporting cast: played by Lorna Gray, Gail Richards is Grant Gardner’s capable assistant, and the only person who knows he’s Captain America. Although she sometimes ends up as the damsel in distress (the memorable cliffhanger in Chapter Five, “Blade of Wrath,” has her tied up and threatened with beheading by the guillotine-like blade of a paper-cutting machine), she also takes the initiative, and clearly takes after her boss. In one chapter, she catches someone tampering with Gardner’s car; when the man pulls a gun in an attempt to abduct her, she whips out her own heater and shoots him dead!

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As Dr. Maldor/The Scarab, Lionel Atwill is the very model of a plummy, cultured villain, complete with monocle. Using the “Purple Death,” he can make men do his bidding or drive them to suicide. Like most serial masterminds, he works through his disposable henchmen, keeping himself at a distance from the violence until the very end. His right-hand man (and also the most active in the field) is Matson (George Lewis), but John Davidson (whom we just saw in Tailspin Tommy) also lends his deep voice to the cause of evil as the henchman Gruber.

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Maldor possesses a cutting wit, often directed at his bungling helpers. In one scene he sarcastically congratulates his henchmen: “You should be proud of yourself. Captain America has made a fool of you in every job you’ve attempted.” In a late chapter, when Maldor starts getting his hands dirty himself, he honest-to-God says “There are ways of making you talk” to the only man who knows how to decipher a Mayan treasure map, before flogging him with a cat-o-nine-tails.

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Later in the same episode, when Maldor learns that Gardner is on his way to the Scarab’s farmhouse hideout, he uses an airplane to personally drop bombs on the house in the hopes of destroying evidence of his presence and (even better) killing his nemesis at the same time (it is in fact the fifth building destroyed directly or indirectly by the Scarab in this serial, a showcase of special effects masters Theodore and Howard Lydecker’s genius). It would be nit-picky to question the efficiency or timeliness of this method. Rather, it points to the ways in which Maldor exemplifies the criminal mastermind: the true master criminal works through others, keeping the dirty work at a distance, as long as necessary; he always has multiple escape routes and alibis; and most importantly, he has the resources and the will to do whatever it takes to remove any obstacle that keeps him from his goal. If that means getting in a plane and blowing up his own hideout, so be it.

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The thread of Maldor’s vengeance against the members of the Mayan expedition is really the only thing that ties together the various episodes, giving the serial a somewhat choppy rhythm: in several chapters, Gardner/Captain America is charged with protecting or rescuing a scientist or executive whom the Scarab threatens. In some cases, that involves recovering or destroying a new invention that the Scarab wants for himself (a “vibrating engine” shakes apart a building in the first chapter; an “electronic fire bolt” allows the Scarab’s gang to cut open bank vaults to finance his operations in the next, and so on). Unfortunately, too much time is spent explaining and talking, or with anonymous henchmen setting up traps without much happening. When Purcell, Atwill, or Gray aren’t on screen, the film lags.

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What I Watched: Captain America (Republic, 1944)

Where I Watched It: The serial is on YouTube in its entirety.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: All the bases are covered by Captain America‘s chapter titles: from the poetic (“Blade of Wrath”; “The Toll of Doom”) to the bluntly literal (“Skyscraper Plunge”), the alliterative (“Triple Tragedy”; “Horror on the Highway”) and the lurid (“The Dead Man Returns”). But before Captain America was “The First Avenger,” there was “The Avenging Corpse” (Chapter Ten), my pick for Best Chapter Title.

Best Cliffhanger: Sometimes simple misdirection makes for the most effective cliffhanger. At the end of Chapter Eleven (“The Dead Man Returns”), Captain America has tracked the Scarab to an electrical laboratory, where Dr. Lyman’s Life Restoring Machine is to be used to revive Matson. As he fights with one of the Scarab’s henchmen, the two of them end up inside of the generator room, which generates the million volts necessary to charge up the machine. Another of the Scarab’s men, Dirk, throws the switch to turn it on: we see a shower of sparks and then the camera cuts to Dirk’s horrified face and we hear a chilling scream. (Of course at the beginning of the next chapter we see our hero leap out of the generator room just in time: the scream belongs to the other guy.)

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Sample Dialogue: “Mister Gardner is a brave man; I’d feel much happier if Captain America were with him.” –Professor Dodge, Chapter Three, “Scarlet Shroud”

What Others Have Said: “Sadly, Purcell died of a heart attack shortly after completing this serial at the age of 35. It was a tragic end for the man who originated the role of a nearly immortal hero (in the comics, Captain America’s died and come back to life at least three different times). Purcell’s Cap isn’t the strongest or most physically fit, but there’s something to be said for the human dimension he brought to the role.” –Matt Singer, The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as we get medieval with The Adventures of Sir Galahad!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Green Hornet Strikes Again

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Sentinel publisher Britt Reid, taking a much-needed vacation in Hawaii, has left his newspaper in the hands of an editor named Harper. While Reid is gone, his secretary Leonore Case and reporters Axford and Lowery begin to suspect that Harper is connected with the criminal Syndicate running rampant in the city: Harper has killed stories about big crimes and even refuses to expose the racketeers when given information straight from the District Attorney. Harper is a member of the Syndicate, secretly run by a man named Crogan, and while Axford and Case send telegrams urging Reid to return from Hawaii, the Syndicate’s men on the island try to prevent him from doing so. First they try to discourage him indirectly, and when it’s clear that he’s heading back to the mainland they kidnap him and his valet Kato, tying them up in a fishing shack with the intention of feeding them to the sharks in the morning.

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The Syndicate’s island force is headed by a man named Bordine, who already has a grudge against Reid for uncovering the truth about a past crime Bordine had pinned on an innocent man. When Reid and Kato escape the fishing shack (with a little help from Reid’s alter ego the Green Hornet) and make it to the departing ship, Bordine follows them in hopes of finishing them off. An unrelated fire that begins in the boiler room derails his scheme, however, and endangers everyone on board. And this is just in the first chapter of The Green Hornet Strikes Again!

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As should be clear from the summary of Chapter One, The Green Hornet Strikes Again has no shortage of twists and turns. In fact, it has one of the most convoluted plots of any serial I’ve watched yet: while in broad outline it follows a similar plot to The Green Hornet (from earlier in the same year), with its overarching Syndicate being broken apart by the Hornet one racket at a time until he can finally confront the big boss, it has more chapters, more characters, more settings, and, like most sequels, is generally overstuffed. (Of course, it was meant to be watched on a weekly basis rather than all at once, but I’m not sure how it would have been any easier to keep track of with a week elapsing between each chapter.) Having said that, there are many enjoyable scenes and chapters in this, and plenty of action in the serial tradition.

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The Green Hornet Strikes Again features a different actor in the title role (Warren Hull, who unlike his predecessor Gordon Jones also provides the Hornet’s voice while in costume), but otherwise brings back the main cast of the earlier serial. Keye Luke plays Kato, Anne Nagel plays Leonore Case, and Wade Boteler plays Irish policeman-turned-reporter Michael Axford. Instead of Jenks, the ambitious young reporter is Lowery (Eddie Acuff), whose antagonistic partnership with Axford is the main source of comic relief. A few references are made to events from The Green Hornet, but the Syndicate in Strikes Again isn’t the same one that was defeated in the first serial.

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The Syndicate’s plots are also more ambitious than those of its predecessor: in addition to the attempt to take over the Sentinel, there’s a plot to replace the heiress to an aluminum fortune with an actress, allowing the Syndicate to control the aluminum company’s board of directors; an attempt to sabotage the source of the aluminum plant’s electricity when that scheme fails; a plot to develop a “magnetic bomb” in a secret laboratory in a steel plant; and even some that don’t involve metal or factories. This provides ample room for stock footage, often integrated smoothly through the use of rear projection: it really looks like Reid and Lowery are on the floor of the steel plant, and through quick editing they appear to be in real danger of having molten metal “accidentally” spilled on them. In other scenes, the Green Hornet is called on to commandeer speeding cars, trucks, or airplanes, and survives all kinds of crashes, explosions, and building collapses (including one caused by a bolt of lightning!). In almost all the crimes perpetrated by the Syndicate, there’s a theme of urgently-needed wartime materiel being diverted to foreign buyers, and again there’s no need to specify who they are, or why they are bad news.

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Kato, who is both Reid’s manservant and the Green Hornet’s faithful ally, doesn’t have as much to do in this serial, unfortunately: in The Green Hornet he got to karate chop a few bad guys, but in Strikes Again he mostly drives the car and pulls the Green Hornet out of the rubble after the aforementioned disasters. I wanted to mention him, however, because there’s a good case to be made for Kato as the most interesting character in the Green Hornet saga. According to the exposition at the beginning of The Green Hornet, Kato is loyal to Britt Reid for saving his life in his native Shanghai; although Kato’s subservience fits the “Oriental houseboy” trope, he has always been portrayed as intelligent and capable. In addition to his martial arts skill, he designed and built the Green Hornet’s gas gun and equipped their customized automobile, the Black Beauty.

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Kato has been well-represented in the movies as well: Keye Luke, who originated the role on film, first became prominent playing Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son,” Lee, and had a distinguished career as a character and voice actor in film and television, including a recurring role on Kung Fu. In the 1966 television series, Kato was played by up-and-coming martial arts icon Bruce Lee, who was so popular in his native Hong Kong that the series aired as The Kato Show there. In 1974, three episodes of the program were edited together into a theatrical Green Hornet film to take advantage of Lee’s growing fame.

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Finally, the comedic, Seth Rogen-starring 2011 Green Hornet feature leans heavily into the realization that Kato (played by Jay Chou) is the skilled one while Rogen’s Britt Reid is a clueless party animal who at first gets into the hero business for kicks and only gradually realizes his responsibility. Like Big Trouble in Little China and the 2013 Lone Ranger film, the 2011 Hornet delights in reversing the expected relationship between hero and sidekick, and the pair can only work together effectively when Reid is able to see Kato for what he has always been: a partner.

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What I Watched: The Green Hornet Strikes Again (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A Pacific Entertainment DVD, which, since it was sourced from videotape, manages to look worse than The Green Hornet did when I watched it on YouTube.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Racketeering Vultures” (Chapter Fourteen)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Twelve (“Crashing Barriers”), Michael Axford and Leonore Case have been taken hostage by the Syndicate and taken to a warehouse to be disposed of. Following in another car, the Green Hornet drives straight through the warehouse’s freight door–and right into a huge pile of explosives stacked inside, which detonate immediately!

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: All but one of the cliffhangers in this serial feature Britt Reid in his role as the Green Hornet, but the end of Chapter One (“Flaming Havoc”) allows him to take heroic action as himself. When a fire breaks out on the ship heading back to the mainland, Reid rescues Gloria (a character whom I thought would continue to be important, but who turned out to be another member of the rotating cast, never to be seen again), carrying her through a blazing hallway to the open deck. The serial appears to be over before it’s even begun when a flaming rafter falls directly on top of them and the screen fills with the ever-growing fire. In my notes for the beginning of Chapter Two (“The Plunge of Peril”), I have simply jotted, “they make it,” indicative of how little danger these mishaps actually pose for our heroes. The boat still sinks, however.

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Favorite Character (Aside from Kato): Every once in a while a secondary character shows up and steals the movie for a chapter or two. Frenchy Ludoc in Gang Busters was one such character; Vultan in Flash Gordon was another. In Chapter Fourteen of The Green Hornet Strikes Again, it’s Foranti (Jay Michael), a racketeer illicitly placed in charge of the Builders’ Association by the Syndicate. While skimming off Association funds for his own use, Foranti is funneling money toward the construction of an expensive house, ultimately to belong to Crogan. When the Sentinel prints the truth about him, he shows up to intimidate Britt Reid in person.

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Although soft-spoken, every line he speaks sounds like it was written for Edward G. Robinson, see? He just figures Reid needs to be leaned on a little, see? And the squealer who fed the Sentinel the information about Foranti is dead now, see? You get the picture. Foranti isn’t exactly comic relief (that’s what we have Axford and Lowery for), but as a parody of the popular gangster, he veers farther into camp than the rest of the film; he’d be more at home in Columbia’s Batman serials. This chapter also makes good use of the conceit that the Green Hornet poses as a criminal to get information, and here he gets Foranti to turn on his associate Breedon by playing to his paranoid fear that Breedon is betraying him. On top of all that, Foranti has the distinction of being gassed twice in the same chapter by the Hornet, the only villain so treated.

Sample Dialogue: Crogan (Pierre Watkins), to his men (sarcastically): “Yes, that’s right, the Green Hornet: a lone wolf who plays your own game and makes monkeys out of all of you!” (Chapter Twelve, “Crashing Barriers”)

What’s Next: Join me next week for The Fighting Marines!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Green Hornet (1940)

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Britt Reid (played by Gordon Jones) is the owner and editor of esteemed newspaper the Sentinel, having inherited the position from his father; every day, surrounded by his staff, he attempts to shine a light on the criminal activities that vex the citizens of his city. Although he officially believes the newspaper should only cover the news and that solving crimes should be left up to the police, he has a secret: at night he becomes the masked hero the Green Hornet, taking down racketeers in a more direct manner. His valet and driver Kato (the prolific Keye Luke) also backs up his heroics with his martial arts skill and mechanical aptitude (it was Kato who constructed the Hornet’s gas gun and customized the duo’s souped-up automobile, the “black beauty”).

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Like Batman, the Green Hornet must affect nonchalance in his civilian identity, and as editor of the Sentinel he even goes along with the fiction that the Green Hornet is just another criminal, only targeting the city’s racketeers because he wants to take their place. The staffers on the paper reflect a range of opinions about the crusader, little realizing that he is in their very midst. Secretary Leonore Case (Anne Nagel) openly admires the Hornet and believes that he is a force for good; Michael Axford (Wade Boteler), a former policeman and now Reid’s bodyguard, accepts the view that the Hornet is a criminal, and he’s gunning for the reward for the Hornet’s capture; reporter Jasper Jenks (Phillip Trent) just wants to get a good story out of the affair.

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Almost every chapter of the serial follows the same formula: word comes to the Sentinel (either by one of the reporters chasing down a story or by someone calling Reid, asking him to cover it) about a racket. The rackets are the kinds of injustices that organized crime might inflict on ordinary people: bridges and tunnels built with substandard materials; a rash of car thefts at a particular parking lot; various protection and insurance rackets that are jacking up prices for dry cleaning or shipping; et cetera. There are no death rays or automatons, nor are the crimes particularly outsized (the biggest is an attempt to elect a mobbed-up mayor through repeat voting and literal ballot box-stuffing), but each one is being helmed by a member of the same criminal Syndicate, taking orders by radio from an unknown Leader.

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Reid goes to check it out in person with Jenks or Axford, but only gets far enough to verify that something crooked is going on. So he returns as the Green Hornet, Kato by his side, to step in; sometimes he is able to prevent the damage the Syndicate is doing, but in all cases he gets the drop on the gangster in charge of the particular scheme and brings them in, dead (always accidentally, of course) or alive. Posing as a fellow criminal aiming to cut himself into the Syndicate’s deal, he tricks them into revealing facts about their operation as he works his way closer to the boss. Frequently, Axford shows up with similar ideas about confronting the Syndicate, complicating things for the Hornet. After the cliffhanger, the Hornet gets away, setting the stage for the next racket to be taken down.

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Obviously, the repetition in the chapters would be less of an issue when viewed on a weekly basis. The Green Hornet had originated on the radio in 1936, and the film serial hews closely to the radio version, even using similar plotlines; the episodic rhythm would have had a comforting familiarity to viewers, much like the majority of series television shows until the last couple of decades. (Indeed, The Green Hornet became a popular TV series in 1966 after Batman became a hit, even crossing over with the Caped Crusader.) Watched back to back, however, it becomes predictable, even for a serial.

From a production standpoint, The Green Hornet is pretty slick, benefiting from Universal’s library of stock footage (some of the bigger set pieces include a burning office building also seen in The Perils of Pauline, a train derailment, and an elaborate carnival). The theme music, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” (the same as in the radio show), is supplemented by other tracks familiar from Universal films, and the titles, newspaper headlines, and other design elements are even better than usual (just look at that title card at the top!). While it is hardly the most sophisticated example of serial storytelling, it does what it sets out to do with style and flair.

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What I Watched: The Green Hornet (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: Funny story: last week I said I would be covering The Green Hornet, knowing I had it on DVD. I guess I hadn’t looked at the case very closely, because the DVD I had bought was The Green Hornet Strikes Again, the sequel from later the same year (!). So I had to go back to YouTube, yet again.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Panic in the Zoo” (Chapter Twelve; it’s just what it sounds like)

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Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eleven (“Disaster Rides the Rails”), the Syndicate plans to ruin John Roberts by wrecking a train carrying shipments for his trucking business, as payback for refusing to smuggle munitions under his bill of lading. The Green Hornet, catching wind of this plot, hops the train and struggles with one of the gang members while the others uncouple the train cars from the engine. The uncoupled cars begin to roll backwards, down a steep mountain–but there’s another train coming up from behind! A collision seems inevitable, unless the railroad attendant can get the tracks switched in time. The cliffhanger cuts rapidly between three perils: the Hornet’s fight on the back of the caboose, the oncoming train, and the attendant’s attempt to manually pry the stuck switch open, diverting the runaway cars.

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: As in many of these serials, some of the least satisfying resolutions involve the Green Hornet (or other characters) simply picking themselves up and brushing themselves off after being in car crashes or trapped in burning buildings. However, the cliffhanger at the end of Chapter Three (“Flying Coffins”) and its resolution in Chapter Four (“Pillar of Flame”) are more typical of what are usually called “cheats:” after forcing the head of a crooked flying school to take off in a plane he knows to be sabotaged, the Green Hornet and the crook struggle while the plane goes down, crashing with a fiery explosion. At the beginning of Chapter Four, however, a shot of the Green Hornet bailing out with a parachute is inserted before the plane crashes (carrying the flying school boss: it’s notable that in all these cliffhangers, the hero never knowingly leaves a Syndicate member to suffer the fate he had in store for the Hornet: he’s a good guy, after all).

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Sample Dialogue: “Open that car door while I get this fruit destroyer ready.” –Syndicate member Sligby, in another sabotage attempt on John Roberts’ shipping company, Chapter Seven (“Bridge of Disaster”). No, we never get to see what a “fruit destroyer” looks like.

What Others Have Said: “Who was to play Britt Reid/Green Hornet [on the radio]? Al Hodge auditioned and got the part! For Britt Reid he used a cultured mid-western voice similar to his own, while for the Hornet he used a deeper, rougher, tougher growl. His Hornet voice was so distinctive that for the first Green Hornet movie serial, in which Britt Reid was played by Gordon Jones, Hodge went to Hollywood and dubbed all the Hornet’s lines.” –“Al Hodge, Before and After Captain Video

What’s Next: I’ll cover The Green Hornet Strikes Again eventually. But next week, we’ll go back to the Old West with The Painted Stallion!

Fates Worse Than Death: Daredevils of the Red Circle

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Thirty-Nine-O-Thirteen! The number strikes terror into the hearts of an innocent citizenry as Harry Crowel, escaped from the prison to which he was sentenced for unnamed crimes, orchestrates a campaign of bombings and sabotage, revenge against those who convicted him. First among his targets are business interests of his former partner, Horace Granville. When 39013 (the name taken from Crowel’s prisoner number) strikes the Granville Amusement Center by sabotaging the diving tank of the three-man Daredevils act, leading to the death of one Daredevil’s brother, the three men are motivated to lend their talents to the search for the criminal mastermind.

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Leading the Daredevils is Gene, an acrobat and older brother of the victim; the other two members are Bert, an escape artist, and Tiny, a strongman. With their combined abilities, they make an able team of detectives, and their attention is divided between saving Granville’s holdings from destruction and protecting Granville’s granddaughter, Blanche. But what of old man Granville, so frail since his recent stroke that he must stay enclosed behind glass windows in a sealed room, communicating with police forces and the Daredevils by telephone? And who is the mysterious “Red Circle” who sends the Daredevils helpful tips by placing anonymous notes for them to find? Through twelve chapters of action, suspense, and varied locations, these mysteries and more are solved in Daredevils of the Red Circle!

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First things first: it’s revealed right away in the first chapter that Crowel, alias 39013 (Charles Middleton, Flash Gordon‘s Ming and The Miracle Rider‘s Zaroff, among many other villainous roles), is impersonating Granville. The real Granville is being held captive in the basement of his house, the better for 39013 to torment him with the destruction of everything Granville worked his whole life to build. It’s easy to imagine a modern film making the reveal of 39013’s imposture a big third-act twist, but in Daredevils of the Red Circle it’s played for mounting tension–the audience knows “Granville” is a fraud, seeking to trap the Daredevils–and gives Middleton copious opportunities to gloat, to “monologue” to his prisoner. When in disguise, 39013 is played by the same actor as Granville (Miles Mander; he even says that he will only speak in Granville’s voice while in disguise, getting around any need for Middleton to dub lines), so these sessions are the meat of the role for Middleton. When the disguised ex-con confronts his old partner, the effect is achieved with a well-done split screen.

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I was initially under the impression that Daredevils of the Red Circle was set at the circus, but that’s not quite true: the Granville Amusement Center is more like New York’s Coney Island or the amusement parks that were built along southern California’s piers, and that setting is left behind after the first chapter. The performing background of the Daredevils is important, though, and provides a connection to the superheroes who were just becoming popular in comic books (and would soon appear in their own movie serials). The skin-tight costumes most superheroes still wear derive from the leotards and bodysuits of circus performers, and in the Golden Age of comic book heroes, when the circus was a more prominent cultural influence, a number of heroes were said to have gotten their athleticism and unique skills from circus training (Batman’s sidekick Robin is the best-known example). The Daredevils even have a logo: the red circle on their costumes, later appropriated by the mysterious helper who draws it on notes to get the Daredevils’ attention.

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In addition to their circus costumes (traded in for suits and fedoras after the first chapter), the Daredevils’ skills translate well to detective work, at least the kind of physical confrontations typical for serials. Gene (Charles Quigley) is the acrobat of the group, and although he performs a few stunts and displays some wicked judo-like moves during fight scenes, that mostly translates into him being faster than the others. Bert (David Sharpe) is an escape artist, bringing with him a set of skills and equipment (lock picks, files, etc.) that have proven handy for a diverse range of heroes that includes Batman, Sam Spade, and Houdini himself. (The great escapist is mentioned by name, and it’s worth noting that Houdini had been the star of several films and stories–including one ghost-written by H. P. Lovecraft–that positioned him as a real-life pulp hero.) And every team of heroes needs some muscle: Tiny (Herman Brix, who had played the lead in The New Adventures of Tarzan, and who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett) performs feats like lifting a car by its back end before it can drive away, battering down doors, and even punching through a wall to get to 39013, in addition to the numerous fights he gets into.

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There are a few surprising twists that it would be better not to reveal, but Daredevils of the Red Circle deserves credit for giving depth to characters so obviously rooted in formula. As in many serials, Blanche (Carole Landis) is the only prominent female character, but there is more to her than is obvious at first. Also, I fully expected Gene’s kid brother Sammy (Robert Winkler) to tag along with the adult characters like Billy Norton in Undersea Kingdom, so I was genuinely shocked when he died in the first chapter (trapped in the burning Amusement Center, a scene more harrowing when it is repeated in a later flashback). In retrospect, I should have recognized his scenes of character development as the equivalent of the buck private who gets shot first, or the cop only one day from retirement. Sammy’s death gives Gene and the other Daredevils a classic motivation for joining law enforcement: revenge justice.

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There are two characters in Daredevils of the Red Circle who share names with the characters they play. The first is Tuffie, the Daredevils’ dog, who accompanies them on their adventures and does movie-animal things like sniffing out evildoers and calling attention to clues. The other is Snowflake, the African-American servant who prepares and serves meals in the Granville house, played by Fred “Snowflake” Toones, a character actor who made a specialty of servile comic relief characters. To modern eyes, Snowflake is a regrettable stereotype, a clumsy, cowardly fool who speaks in “sho’ nuff” dialect: he whines and rolls his eyes, thinking a ghost has taken his newspaper when Tiny simply slipped it away when he wasn’t looking; he gets his head stuck when a sliding wall panel closes on it; he drops trays of dishes whenever Tuffie or one of the Daredevils rushes past him.

Fred "Snowflake" Toones in a typical role

Fred “Snowflake” Toones in a typical role

On the one hand, Snowflake is playing a comic relief character in the mold of Smiley Burnette: Smiley was known for playing a likeable dope who often got in the way or loused up whatever he was doing, and, like Snowflake, he often played characters who shared his name. For a character actor, having an established persona was a boon: type-casting wasn’t necessarily a bad thing if it led to steady work. I’m sure Snowflake made a good living playing such characters (although director William Witney stated in his autobiography that Snowflake ran the shoeshine stand at Republic in addition to his film roles). On the other hand, Smiley Burnette was one of many white men in the films he made, and didn’t have to bear the burden of representation; at least in Daredevils, Snowflake is the only black character, and his role–not only a servant but also a clown–is all too typical of the roles black actors had to take (and often still have to take), when they were shown on screen at all. (At least the Republic serials and Westerns Snowflake appeared in were set contemporaneously or in the past: it’s cringe-inducing to see the same stereotypes appear in ostensibly futuristic fare like E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series.)

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Still, it’s not hard to see why Daredevils of the Red Circle has such a high reputation among serial fans: it hums along, rarely growing slack, and for the most part balances action, suspense, and humor expertly. Directors John English and William Witney (responsible for many classic Republic serials) had a knack for staging scenes of dialogue and exposition in engaging ways, so that audiences aren’t simply waiting for the next big fight or car chase. There are spectacular scenes aplenty, including some set in interesting and hazardous locations such as a gas plant full of ladders and catwalks, a flooding underground tunnel, and a burning oil field.

Many of these locations were recreated with miniatures made by the uncredited Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and integrated almost seamlessly; along with the use of rear projection and split screen, Daredevils of the Red Circle is an excellent example of the era’s practical effects and stunt work (famed stuntman Yakima Canutt appears as an uncredited G-man, indicating his likely presence as a stunt coordinator). The score, credited to William Lava but with contributions from Cy Feuer and others, is exciting and imaginative (within the formulaic constraints of the style, which owes much to the operatic scores of Rossini and Weber). It’s worth a watch.

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What I Watched: Daredevils of the Red Circle (Republic, 1939)

Where I Watched It: A VHS set from Republic Home Video, vintage 1985 (this very edition, in fact):

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Screen caps are from YouTube, however.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Red Circle Speaks” (Chapter Eleven)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Five (“The Ray of Death”), 39013’s men surreptitiously change the wiring in a “gamma ray” at the Black Electro Therapeutic Clinic (another Granville holding) so that it will kill District Attorney Graves when he arrives for his treatment. The Red Circle tips off the Daredevils, who have intercepted the new wiring diagram and take the place of the messenger delivering it to the clinic. After being discovered and imprisoned in a basement vault, Gene escapes and pushes the District Attorney’s gurney out of the ray’s path just in time to save him. But as deadly sparks shower from the ray machine, can he save himself?

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: At the end of Chapter Four (“Sabotage”), the Daredevils are tied up by members of 39013’s gang at the Tri-City Gas Plant, with the boilers rigged to explode. The Daredevils break out of their trap and rush to the boiler’s release valve–but too late! The boilers erupt into a fiery inferno!

At least, that’s how it appears at the end of Chapter Four. However, somewhere between chapters the production slipped through a wormhole and was transported to a parallel dimension. Over in Earth 2, as shown at the beginning of Chapter Five, Gene gets to the release valve in time and diverts the boilers’ pressure. Thank goodness for quantum relativity!

Sample dialogue: “Well, Thirty-Nine-O-Thirteen has added up to zero.” –Gene, Chapter Twelve (“Flight of Doom”)

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What Others Have Said: “The times dictated that serial heroes be white, so talented black performers like Snowflake, whose real name was Fred Toones, were relegated to minor roles, providing corny laughs in otherwise excellent serials like Hawk of the Wilderness and Daredevils of the Red Circle.” –Alan G. Barbour, Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial

What’s Next: Bela Lugosi stars in Shadow of Chinatown!