Fates Worse Than Death: Adventures of Captain Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No. of Chapters: 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!