Fates Worse Than Death: The Mysterious Airman

Baker Aircraft, Inc. is thriving, thanks to Baker’s exclusive use of the Joyce Aerometer, a guidance mechanism invented and kept a close secret by James Joyce (no, not that James Joyce!). It’s a good thing company president Frank Baker is engaged to the inventor’s beautiful daughter Shirley (a fine flyer herself!).

But all is not well: a band of renegade “air hawks,” led by the masked “Pilot X,” has been causing trouble, shooting down Baker’s planes and raiding the company’s shipments. Someone is out to get Baker! But who could it be? A likely possibility is William Craft, manager of the competing Globe Air Corporation, who is dying to get his hands on the Joyce Aerometer, so his sweetheart Fawn Nesbit, also a pilot, can make a record-setting flight around the world.

It could also be Perkins, Joyce’s butler, who always seems to be lurking in the background and listening in on conversations; he’s a suspicious one, all right. Or could it be Albert Orren, superintendent of Baker Aircraft; or Henry Knight, a Baker stockholder; or Barney Madden, the company’s seemingly loyal pilot? There are plenty of possibilities, and in reality Pilot X’s true identity isn’t hard to guess, but it still takes plenty of twists, turns, and hair-raising brushes with death before Frank and Shirley find out the truth in the 1928 silent serial The Mysterious Airman!

Made in the waning years of the silent film era, The Mysterious Airman, directed by Harry Revier and with a scenario by Arthur B. Reeve, falls squarely into the aviation craze that stretched from the 1920s into the next decade. Flyers in real life and in the movies were lionized as brave and resourceful men (and, increasingly, women) who took their lives into their own hands while taking to the air. Many of these stories were from the point of view of small-time pilots or airfield owners, giving modern viewers a look back at a less regulated, less consolidated time when learning to fly was as much an entrepreneurial enterprise as a death-defying adventure. While boring details are frequently skimmed over in favor of aerial chases and dogfights, one gets an idea of the day-to-day jobs and problems these small air companies faced.

Also familiar is the plot device of a masked villain bedeviling the heroes, working through agents, and getting away until the last chapter, when their true identity is finally revealed. The Fighting Marines and Ace Drummond, both from the 1930s, had similar plots, and that’s just listing aviation serials I’ve already covered in this column, barely scratching the surface. I gather that it wasn’t too original in 1928, either, but the difference between a good serial and a bad one generally isn’t the level of originality: it’s the skill with which the filmmakers breathe life into and work variations on well-worn formulas.

In that regard, The Mysterious Airman has some nice touches and many assets in the form of its photogenic and experienced cast. Walter Miller, as Frank Baker, is unquestionably the lead, but Eugenia Gilbert as Shirley Joyce gets nearly as much screen time and gets to participate in some of the cliffhangers without coming off as a token or damsel in distress, as so often occurred in later serials. Indeed, as an accomplished flyer and a character with her own motivations and initiative, Shirley is a worthy successor to Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1914) and the other serial heroines of the silent era.

She is joined by fellow aviatrix, slinky Fawn Nesbit (played by Dorothy Talcott); Nesbit and her beau William Craft (Robert Walker) form the second couple and make for an interesting counterpart to the wholesome Frank and Shirley. Craft is presented as the most obvious person to be Pilot X, with his rivalry with Baker and need for the Joyce Aerometer. His meetings with Fawn, in which they discuss their schemes to get Baker to sell them the rights to the aerometer, are frequently interrupted so that Craft can “take care of some business.” In addition to distracting Shirley, Fawn is assigned to work on Baker individually, a subplot we never actually see (although she later uses her wiles on one of Pilot X’s henchmen in an effort to turn him against his boss), but eventually she breaks with Craft and his underhanded plans and becomes a real friend to Shirley.

There are also some of the weird details that I live for when watching serials: in one chapter, Pilot X brings a trained chimp (or “henchmanzee,” as commentator Richard M. Roberts puts it) to the Joyce house to climb into a high window and steal a model of the “Joyce Flying Torpedo,” another invention that serves as a McGuffin. Later, the same chimp appears with an organ grinder and climbs into the window with a microphone to eavesdrop on Frank and Shirley. Then it disappears for the rest of the serial.

However, for a serial focused on the wonders of flight, the dogfight sequences are a mixed bag, at least to my modern eyes. Pilot’s-eye-views of the ground, taken in flight, lend a sense of realism, and the planes themselves are interesting, even if the aerial chases, filmed from a great distance, lack the immediacy of later films. There are some clever editing tricks, like the appearance of painted-on bullet holes to show the effects of machine gun fire, but the filmmakers, already working on a low budget, were understandably not going to crash any planes for real when the story called for it. So plane crashes are accomplished with cardboard cutouts, or with flames scratched directly onto the negative, or with quick cuts to a plane already on the ground. It’s interesting sleight-of-hand, but the “crash” itself usually feels a bit anticlimactic, even making allowances for the time this serial was made.

Another cliffhanger (Chapter Four, “The Flying Torpedo”) finds Frank Baker unconscious in an abandoned barn, which by incredible coincidence is the same barn Pilot X decides to blow up with the stolen Torpedo (to test it out, you see). At the last moment, unaware that he is even in danger, Baker climbs to the roof of the barn, where he is spotted by Shirley and Barney, who (again, by chance) just happen to be flying by. They drop a rope ladder down and pick him up, a split-second before an unconvincing double-exposure blast consumes the barn.

The cliffhangers are better when they stay closer to the ground. For example, at the end of Chapter Seven (“A Leap for Life”), Frank Baker, captured by Pilot X’s men, is tied up in the back seat of a car. He frees himself and fights the henchmen while the car is moving, struggling with the driver just as the speeding car is heading for a cliff! A real car is pushed over the cliff for this one, the vehicle being more expendable than the handful of planes seen throughout the serial. If anyone asks you why serials were known as cliffhangers, you can show them this scene as an example (or one of the many serials that used the exact same setup); tell ’em it’s not a cliché, it’s a classic.

What I Watched: The Mysterious Airman (Weiss Brothers-Artclass Pictures, 1928)

Where I Watched It: It isn’t often that I get to put the spotlight on a “new release” for this column: long thought lost, a nearly-intact tinted nitrate print of The Mysterious Airman was recently discovered, and Sprocket Vault has cleaned it up and made the film available on DVD. (Out of ten two-reel chapters, only one reel was too deteriorated to use: still pictures and captions make up for the missing scenes.) It’s a fine transfer: other than some scratches and signs of deterioration in a few places, the picture is surprisingly crisp, better than many second- (or third-) generation dupes I’ve seen of even newer and more widely-circulated films. What’s more, the DVD features an original piano soundtrack by composer/silent film accompanist Andrew Earle Simpson, a full-length (almost 190 minutes!) commentary track by historian Richard M. Roberts, and a bonus aviation-themed short film from the same year, “Flying Cadets.”

Roberts provides plenty of background detail on the Weiss Brothers, who produced the film (Artclass Pictures was one of the many organizations through which they channeled their business), and the members of the cast and crew. He also places the serials in context within the film business in the 1920s and beyond and relates a number of interesting anecdotes and opinions; he makes for an informative (if sometimes cranky) viewing companion. Ultimately, while I ended up being mostly lukewarm on this serial, I offer my highest praise to Sprocket Vault’s presentation; it’s a terrific package, and one hopes more serials will receive similar treatment. The DVD is currently available from Amazon.

No. of Chapters: 10

Best Chapter Title: “The Girl Who Flew Alone” (Chapter Two)

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Six (“The Hawk’s Nest”), Frank Baker, following a clue in a coded telegram (intended for Pilot X but which Fawn Nesbit happened to intercept), travels to an abandoned house in hopes of surprising Pilot X and his gang while they meet. The setup is creepier than most of this serial’s other scenes, with atmospheric shadows and lighting suitable for a detective noir, and evocative use of tinting to darken the day-for-night exterior shots. (Plus, the hat Walter Miller is wearing makes him look like Dick Tracy.) Baker hears the renegades on the other side of a door and surprises them, when he himself is jumped from behind by one of Pilot X’s henchmen. The renegades swarm out of their meeting room and grab Baker. The chapter ends without a direct physical threat, but there’s no question that Baker is in a jam, and it’s more suspenseful and exciting than any of the flimsy plane-crash cliffhangers from other chapters.

Sample Dialogue: “We meet at last, Pilot X–and you seem well pleased–!” –Frank Baker, after being captured, Chapter Seven (“A Leap for Life”)

Sample Commentary: “No airplanes were harmed in the making of this picture.” –RMR

What’s Next: Check back at the beginning of summer for more serial reviews; in the mean time, please visit the Series page to catch up on previous installments of Fates Worse Than Death!

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