Fates Worse Than Death: Serials at Feature Length

NAT.feature.title1

The studios that produced serials were nothing if not parsimonious: considering the ways in which stock footage, costumes, and other production elements were reused, it is not surprising that the films themselves would be repackaged and rereleased as many times as were profitable. During the heyday of the serial format, a popular serial could be rereleased in its entirety after a few years (there were no options for viewers to see them in any other way, of course, and since most were aimed at youngsters, a new audience would arise over time).

Serials were also frequently edited down to feature length (anywhere from sixty to a hundred minutes), either released simultaneously with the serial or later rereleased as “B” pictures. The arrival of television introduced a new market for “featurized” serials, as well. (As an example, in 1966, Republic made a number of its films available to television, both complete serials and several cut down to one hundred minutes.) Sometimes, but not always, these shortened serials reappeared under new titles: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was released simultaneously with the feature-length Mars Attacks the World, its title chosen to exploit the notoriety of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast; Undersea Kingdom surfaced on television as Sharad of Atlantis; and so on.

(Note that the photos on the poster are drawn from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial.)

(Note that the photos on the poster are drawn from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial.)

Since I began exploring the serials last summer, I’ve been curious about these feature-length cuts: how do they differ from the serialized originals, and how effective are they at conveying the story and its thrills? There is no one answer: even a cursory survey reveals differing approaches to editing and marketing, and the context of production and the studio’s goals can have a big impact on the final product. In theory, one could cut the titles and credits and the redundant material from the cliffhangers and have a perfectly serviceable movie. In reality, the end product would still be too long for what was considered “feature length” in the mid-twentieth century and the pacing might prove unsatisfying for one sitting. From what I can tell, most cut-down serials come in somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half. (Editing down a serial into a more modern feature length would undoubtedly be an interesting project for a film student or anyone who wants to learn more about the pacing and construction of these films. Indeed, YouTube searches reveal a range of cleaned-up and “restored” versions; how far these restoration efforts extend into actual recutting is a question I haven’t explored in depth.)

For purposes of comparison I sought out a few “featurized” versions of serials I have already reviewed for this series. An approach that I would assume is typical is seen in the shortened cut of Shadow of Chinatown: at a brisk 69 minutes, the feature zips through the major events of the serial. Much of the “Oriental” color is done away with, as are scenes that have Martin Andrews’ manservant Willy Fu briefly kidnapped, and a car chase between Los Angeles and San Francisco. What is mostly eliminated is repetitive or slow-moving, however; everything that’s left is worthwhile, and more importantly the story makes sense. Willy gets in a few of his pseudo-Confusion aphorisms, and Bela Lugosi still has enough screen time to justify his top billing.

SC.Poten4

Interestingly, however, the reduction of the action to its most exciting elements makes reporter Joan Whiting a more obvious (and sympathetic) lead character than the mansplaining Andrews, at least for a while. Also, the ending cuts off one final twist in which Lugosi’s character comes back from an apparent death to strike at Andrews: this time, he gets his comeuppance the first time. There are a few other small changes, such as the addition of musical underscore to scenes that were without accompaniment in the serial, at least the version I watched; that seems to be pretty standard practice, a way of covering the seams and updating the production. Although I enjoyed the full serial of Shadow of Chinatown, I would consider the feature version an adequate substitute for an interested viewer.

SC.Martin.Joan

By contrast, the feature-length cut of The Phantom Empire feels rushed. Admittedly, its story is complex, with Gene Autry and his Radio Ranch friends pitted against both an unscrupulous radium-hunting scientist and denizens of Murania, the hidden realm located 25,000 feet beneath the surface. Much of what I appreciate in this serial is around the edges, however: those small atmospheric moments or character beats that make it unique. As a feature, The Phantom Empire is still very distinctive. Autry’s musical numbers, integral to the plot (he must broadcast every day or else lose his radio contract, and thus the ranch), are still there, as are Frankie and Betsy Baxter’s DIY electronics lab and their club, the Thunder Riders. Missing, however, are those scenes in which Murania’s Queen Tika spies on the surface world through her television, seething with disdain, as well as a similar scene in which she shows Autry the realities of poverty and war on the surface. Gone also are most of Autry’s fight scenes and a sequence in which, near death, he mumbles in the backwards “language of the dead” before being revived by the miracle of radium. The murder of Tom Baxter is glossed over even more than in the serial, without much time given for it to sink in.

PEAutry1

The biggest loss is the erasure of Queen Tika’s motivation for keeping Murania hidden and, ultimately, deciding to stay with her kingdom during its destruction instead of fleeing to the upper world with Autry. Speechifying is something sci-fi fans often tolerate rather than enjoy, and it’s usually the easiest thing to cut when editing for length, but in this case reducing Tika’s presence drains the serial of much of its personality, turning her into another cardboard villain. If most viewers between the 1950s and 1990s were only able to see the feature-length cut, it’s not surprising that The Phantom Empire is appreciated only by aficionados: without the atmosphere and dramatic build-up found in the full version, it comes off as a diverting novelty in the mold of Undersea Kingdom.

PETika2

The New Adventures of Tarzan was actually edited into two feature films. The first, also called The New Adventures of Tarzan, is a longer version of the first two chapters of the serial, in which Tarzan joins the Guatemalan expedition of Major Martling in order to find his friend, the downed pilot D’Arnot, who is trapped in the same “lost city” in which Martling hopes to find a legendary idol, the Green Goddess. Also hunting for the idol is Raglan, a rival explorer working for a foreign company that wants the explosive formula hidden inside the idol. Although two chapters doesn’t sound like very much, the first chapter of the serial is an unusual forty minutes long, so stretching the film to seventy minutes isn’t as odd as it sounds.

(Also worth noting: while the feature’s release date is given as 1935, a release simultaneous with the serial, the version I watched is obviously a later rerelease, as the leading man is listed as Bruce Bennett; Brix changed his name to Bennett in 1939, a change that coincided with a transition into more prestigious Hollywood fare such as Sahara, Dark Passage, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The music that accompanies these updated credits also sounds like something from the 1940s.)

NAT.Tarzan.Martling

As I mentioned in my review of the serial, I had trouble following the first chapter’s setup, as the sound was patchy and some of the dialogue was hard to understand. The feature version clarifies things a great deal by including extra scenes of dialogue and improving the sound. Some of the dialogue is obviously dubbed, and the voice coming from Tarzan’s mouth doesn’t sound like Herman Brix; I wonder if this version was the cause of John Taliafero’s complaints about Brix sounding like a “school master:” it’s both higher and fussier than Brix’s normal speaking voice, and it doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of the lord of the jungle. As for the rest of the dubbing, it at least helps the story make sense, and there are also added background music and sound effects that give the film a more complete, modern atmosphere.

NAT.feature.title2

NAT.feature.title3

Even so, the film begins with an apology for the sound quality, recorded under difficult conditions, and begs for the indulgence of the audience. It’s hard to imagine any modern film making such a plea, unless it were a documentary. Taliafero mentions that the Ashton Dearholt expedition that filmed The New Adventures in Central America ended up with enough footage for both a serial and a feature film, and sure enough there is a great deal of footage that doesn’t appear in the serial. Much of it is atmospheric footage of wild animals, natives, and the exotic country, and while it is impressive on its own, its inclusion in the finished film often smacks of padding, giving the film the air of a travelogue punctuated by a few scenes of action. (Particularly shameless is a flashback to D’Arnot’s plane crash that includes almost five minutes of aerial footage of animals before the actual crack-up.)

Some of the events from the serial are rearranged slightly (and obviously the cliffhangers from the serial are simply played out as action scenes without interruption), but the biggest change is at the end: in the serial, Raglan is able to steal the idol from the lost city and make away with it, with Martling and Tarzan on his trail. In the feature, Tarzan recovers the idol from Raglan almost immediately after he steals it and Martling is able to open it right there, finding the jewels inside. A happy ending for all!

GG.title

Of course, Raglan gets away, and his (as well as the lost city cultists’) attempts to take back the idol are the main thread of Tarzan and the Green Goddess, the 1938 feature that includes the rest of the serial. In this film, the raw material of The New Adventures undergoes a more interesting transformation. The last chapter of the serial takes place at Lord Greystoke’s British estate, where he is holding a Gypsy-themed costume party; some of his guests ask him to recount his recent adventure in Guatemala, and he does so in flashback, turning the last episode into a belated “economy chapter.” Green Goddess puts this frame device around the entire film, which takes up the action following the escape from the lost city. The movie barely reaches an hour in length, and without the padding found in the first feature the plot moves at a breakneck pace (although it still finds room for a scene in which Martling’s valet George chases a monkey who has stolen his yo-yo). Despite being edited together with more sophistication than the 1935 releases, I’m glad I had seen the whole serial before watching this, for the sake of clarity.

GG.GreystokeManor

Finally, there is the issue of availability. After long years of being hard to find, even for collectors (Harmon and Glut’s 1972 The Great Movie Serials, a book I have found an invaluable resource for this series, was partially based on memories of serials sometimes seen years before, and occasionally the distance shows in distorted or jumbled details), home video made it possible for many serials to be seen as they were originally released, and websites like YouTube and the Internet Archive have made it even easier for anyone with an internet connection to watch these films. In the case of feature-length cuts, the internet is frequently the only choice, as even high-quality restorations for home video don’t usually see fit to include them (I watched the feature versions of both Shadow of Chinatown and The Phantom Empire on YouTube).

Having said that, since many serials and their feature cuts are in the public domain or can be considered “orphan works,” I have found that they also turn up on cheap movie-compilation DVDs. Both of the Tarzan features I have discussed here are included on a Mill Creek collection entitled Wrath of the Sword: 20 Legendary Movies, which includes several Tarzan movies from the 1930s, a bunch of sword-and-sandal movies from the ’50s and ’60s, and (for some reason) one random Christopher Lambert movie from 2005. There’s nothing in the packaging of Wrath of the Sword that would indicate that the two Tarzan movies are related sequentially or derived from the same serial, but that’s part of the fun of this sort of quantity-over-quality package: you never really know what you’re going to get, and you have the opportunity to make discoveries and draw your own conclusions.

WrathoftheSword

Next week I’ll be back with regular serial coverage as I examine The Green Hornet.

Fates Worse Than Death: The New Adventures of Tarzan

Guatemala: jungle land of mystery! Homeland of the lost Maya! Cradle of secrets! It is to this land that Major Martling brings his expedition in search of the Green Goddess, a mysterious idol said to contain an unknown but highly potent explosive formula, as well as a fortune in jewels. Along with his daughter Alice and her fiancĂ© Gordon, Martling is accompanied by his friend Lord Greystoke, who has some experience in the wilderness himself. Greystoke has come to Guatemala to find his old friend Lieutenant D’Arnot, a pilot who crash-landed in the Central American jungle.

NAT.title

Of course there are complications: in addition to the typical jungle perils of wild animals and hostile natives, Martling is hounded by Raglan, a rival explorer in the employ of a munitions company that hopes to recover the explosive formula for its own use. In addition, both parties are being shadowed by a mysterious woman, Ula, who claims to be the widow of D’Arnot’s co-pilot, and who seems to have unfinished business with Raglan. She tries to foil Raglan’s plans, but is she on Martling’s side? What is her real aim?

NAT.idol

Deep in the jungle lies the Dead City, home to a tribe and a cult that is very much alive, worshiping the Goddess under the leadership of a tiger-striped high priestess. They threaten Martling’s party with sacrifice, even as Raglan steals the idol while the cultists are distracted. Were Martling and his party alone, this might be their end, but Lord Greystoke is not just the worldly traveler he appears to be: he is also Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle! Through an action-packed twelve chapters that includes fights with jungle cats, explosions, gunfights, espionage, and more, Tarzan and Martling race to recover the idol before Raglan can get it onto a ship bound to Europe, all while fending off the vengeful natives and the hooded warriors who will likewise stop at nothing to recover their Goddess, in The New Adventures of Tarzan!

NAT.priestess2

I’ll admit I had a hard time getting into The New Adventures of Tarzan at first, for a couple of reasons. In the copy I was watching, the sound started out kind of fuzzy, making it hard to hear the dialogue, and there is a lot of exposition to get out of the way, with numerous characters and their histories and motivations being introduced. Because The New Adventures was based on storylines from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels (although not directly on any one novel), it is less streamlined than many later serials, and the accumulation of multiple subplots and shifting settings feels surprisingly modern, like an overstuffed summer blockbuster.

NAT.Tarzan.Martling

The first chapter is also forty minutes long, and contains several set pieces that could easily have been cliffhangers between chapters (Tarzan wrestles with crocodiles in a river, and later saves Major Martling’s daughter from a snare that suspends her over a jaguar pit). I have grown so accustomed to the rhythms of the serial that when these crises were resolved without chapter breaks and the chapter crept toward twenty-five, thirty, and thirty-five minutes in length, I started to wonder if the DVD producers had edited out all the chapter breaks (a move that would compromise this project, to say the least). But no, the first chapter is just extra-long, and does eventually end on a cliffhanger, like the other, shorter chapters.

NAT.Nkima1

I’m glad I stuck it out, however, as once the slow engine of story got underway and the excess baggage of characters and subplots was shed, The New Adventures of Tarzan turned out to be an engaging serial with a variety of colorful settings and some exciting action sequences. The main conflict, in which a well-intentioned, patriotic explorer and an unscrupulous mercenary fight over an ancient, powerful artifact, recalls both the 1933 Perils of Pauline and, of course, the later Raiders of the Lost Ark. (There’s also Martling’s notebook which contains the code necessary to open the idol, and which changes hands several times.)

NAT.deadcity1

Much of the serial was filmed on location in Guatemala, including Chichicastenango and the ruins of Tikal, by producer Ashton Dearholt; the conditions turned out to be almost as difficult for the cast and crew as for the characters on screen, with illness and bad weather taking their toll. The role of Raglan, credited to Dan Castello, was actually played by Dearholt himself after Castello had to drop out early on. The expense and danger of the production mostly end up on the screen, however. The big cats Tarzan fights are real (at least up until the moment an obviously stuffed cat is thrown down; some of these fights are better edited than others); the giant waterfalls over which characters (or, again, their dummy stand-ins) plunge are suitably impressive, giving the film an epic scope.

NAT.Tarzan2

On the other hand, the film shows some of the limitations of independent production: other than the chapter titles, there is little to no background music; combined with the relatively meager dialogue during Tarzan’s many solo excursions and only ambient sound, long stretches of The New Adventures could pass for a silent movie. One strange touch occurs in the Dead City: a recurring gong, sometimes the only thing heard on the soundtrack, is distorted enough to sound like the disturbing, unexplained drones David Lynch frequently includes in his films, and is a surprisingly eerie match for the scenes of torture and imprisonment by hooded inquisitors. (No, I never expected to make a comparison between a serial and Lynch either, but here we are.)

NAT.torture2

Tarzan himself (Herman Brix, who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett) is not the monosyllabic wild man of popular culture; because this serial was produced by Tarzan’s creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, it reflects the character as he appears in the books, speaking perfect English and transitioning effortlessly between his identities as Lord Greystoke and Lord of the Jungle. This version of Tarzan never says anything like “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” not least because Jane isn’t in this story.

NAT.Greystoke2

Whereas other film representations of Tarzan emphasized the noble savage or fish-out-of-water elements in his story, The New Adventures treats him more like a superhero: as Greystoke he wears his wealth and title easily, an aristocratic Bruce Wayne, but when there’s trouble he strips down to a loincloth and takes to the jungle, swinging on vines and talking to animals. His identity is far from secret, however, and he’s treated like a celebrity: Martling’s valet George, in fact, is described as “the flunky who joined the expedition to be closer to his idol, Tarzan.” Burroughs’ Tarzan represents a colonialist ideal: the “best of both worlds,” with all the education and material advantages of Western civilization and all the vigor, toughness, and native wisdom of his adoptive culture.

NAT.Tarzan3

In addition to its ambitious location shooting, The New Adventures stands out from the serials I’ve watched in other ways. Burroughs’ stories could be quite bloody, emphasizing “nature red in tooth and claw” and featuring villains evil enough to justify just about anything the good guys might do to them. That’s often sanitized in film and TV retellings, which are more kid-oriented than the books they’re based on. Although not especially graphic, The New Adventures includes gunplay, stabbings, explosions, and more, with (mostly) realistic consequences. No bloodless fistfights here: Tarzan and co. don’t mess around. The most surprising sequence involves George (who is otherwise comic relief) spraying machine gun fire at attacking waves of tribesmen from the Dead City as if in flashback to the Great War. Even Indiana Jones would save that kind of move for Nazi soldiers.

NAT.machinegun1
NAT.machinegun2

As I mentioned, the rhythm of this serial is also somewhat odd, with a profusion of subplots (especially at the beginning) that gradually thin out as D’Arnot is recovered and leaves with Alice and Gordon, and Ula joins Martling’s party. Once the idol is stolen, the vengeful warriors from the Dead City don’t pick up Raglan’s and Martling’s trail until Chapter Seven, and the action is essentially resolved in Chapter Eleven. Many serials include an “economy chapter,” in which flashbacks to earlier events are included to catch up latecomers: The New Adventures treats the last chapter as a recap, an anticlimax that serves only to tie up a few loose ends and put a cap on the serial. Still, I’ve come to appreciate the looser, less formulaic serials of the early ’30s, if only because they have more capacity to surprise; however lumpy its storytelling, The New Adventures of Tarzan is full of invention. No one is phoning it in.

NAT.Ula3

What I watched: The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935, Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises)

Where I watched it: Pop Flix’s 2-DVD Classic Tarzan Collection, which also includes three features: Tarzan the Fearless, Tarzan’s Revenge, and Tarzan and the Trappers.

No. of chapters: 12

Best chapter title: “Devil’s Noose” (Chapter 3)

Best cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter 10 (“Secret Signals”), Tarzan confronts Raglan on the dock in Mantique as Raglan prepares to load the Goddess idol onto Simon Blade’s ship. There’s a scuffle with Raglan and his crew, during which the idol drops over the side of the dock, where it hangs from a rope. Raglan pulls a gun and commands Tarzan to step away from the idol, promising this will be “the last time you meddle in my business!” In a sequence straight out of a gangster film, after a close-up of Tarzan, the shot reverses to Raglan, the camera pointing straight down the barrel of his gun. Bang!

NAT.Tarzan6
NAT.Raglan2

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: In Chapter Nine (“Doom’s Brink”), one of the most action-packed chapters, the members of Martling’s party have been captured separately and taken to the Dead City by the Goddess’ worshipers. Each faces a different peril: Martling and George are taken to a torture chamber (!), Ula is imprisoned in a cell with an old woman who attempts to stab her, and Tarzan is tied up in the cell next to Ula’s with a chained lion. After overcoming the old woman, Ula uses her knife to dig through the wall separating herself from Tarzan. As Tarzan hurries to untie himself, the lion’s chain gives way; the last shot of the chapter is of the lion’s slavering jaws as it lunges at the camera.

NAT.Tarzan5

It looks like the game is up for Tarzan, no? As the beginning of Chapter Ten resets this peril, however, not only does Ula make a hole big enough to pass Tarzan the knife, he has time to untie himself and maneuver to the hole before the lion attacks, so he’s not even in the same place when the lion lunges off of its chain. (This is at least more satisfying than the chapter where Tarzan is caught in a spiked tiger trap, only to be grazed by the spikes instead of impaled: such “oh, I guess he’s okay” resolutions are even more anticlimactic than straight-up cheats, in my opinion.)

Funniest moment: Martling’s valet George (Lewis Sargent) has a lot of similarities to Professor Hargrave’s secretary Dodge from The Perils of Pauline, but despite his silly attachment to his yo-yo, his always-growling stomach, and his panicky reactions to mundane jungle plants and animals, George has a few serious moments. His machine gunning of natives from the Dead City (see above) is later paid back when George is the first to be tortured in Chapter Nine. Still, most of George’s scenes involve clowning of one kind or another, and I’ll admit to laughing when, in Chapter Seven (“Flaming Waters”), George is bitten and chased by a bunch of water turtles, an ordeal to which Tarzan responds with an epic eye-roll.

NAT.George2

Sample dialogue: “He reminds me of some of the jungle cats I’ve known: they’re most dangerous when they purr.” –Tarzan, referring to Captain Blade, Chapter 11 (“Death’s Fireworks”)

What others have said: “At one point, Burroughs had worried that so much local scenery had been eliminated from the episodes that the whole thing might just as well have been shot in Hollywood. But in the final edit, enough Mayan ruins, colonial cities, and Guatemalan Indians survive to create a richly exotic and authentic backdrop. And for once, Tarzan is able to swing through trees other than the sycamore and eucalyptus so predominant in earlier films shot in or near Los Angeles.” –John Taliaferro, Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan

What’s Next: The Miracle Rider