Fates Worse Than Death: Feature-Length Serials Revisited

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This past summer when I wrote about the practice of cutting serials to feature length, I wrote, “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.” A few weeks after that post, Wayne Keyser of goodmagic.com contacted me and offered to send me a DVD he had produced with his own cut-down version of two serials, Radar Men From the Moon and Undersea Kingdom. Of course I was interested, and after taking some time off from serials after my busy summer, I gave it a spin.

The disc, Serial Remix, promises “ALL the rayguns, spaceships, robots, action . . . LITTLE of the talk, ‘recaps,’ talk, car chases, and talk!” In his correspondence with me, Mr. Keyser elaborated, “I think it may be worthy of mention that every feature-length serial condensation I’ve ever seen is very short on what makes the serial interesting. When you’ve got rocket ships and robots, who needs bank robberies and car chases?” In that spirit, both films are cut to the bone, with a minimum of scene-setting and all the repetitive wandering around that pads out many serials eliminated. Readers of my reviews of these two serials will recall that they didn’t excite me that much, so I’m not offended by efforts to streamline them. (Unfortunately, Serial Remix is not commercially available, so my thoughts are offered in the spirit of a case study rather than a review.)

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The versions presented are truly “remixed”: in addition to being edited for time, they have been reformatted for 16×9 widescreen instead of the original 4×3 fullscreen; some effects have been digitally sweetened (ray and lightning effects are added, sparks added to explosions, and so forth); and some shots have been moved around for pacing or to show off the models and other effects. One could easily refer to these as “Special Edition” serials, but few of Keyser’s adjustments are as obtrusive as George Lucas’s additions to the original Star Wars trilogy.

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(It should also be noted that as ridiculous as both films are, the remixes are admirably straight-faced: there are no wacky sound effects or pop-ups added, and no Mystery Science Theater-styled riffs. The closest Keyser comes to making a joke of the material is a “Meet Our Characters” sequence preceding Undersea Kingdom that notes everyone’s propensity for funny hats. I can live with that.)

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For the most part, these changes don’t considerably alter the story, but they do move it along and gloss over some of the fine details (not unlike the feature-length cuts made by the studios). In fact, watching Keyser’s remixes made clear how much is left to the viewer’s imagination in modern editing: serials were frequently quite literal in explaining the plot and showing every step of an action, whether it be the villain setting a trap for the hero, the hero’s miraculous escape, or the villain getting in a car and driving away. To some extent that was a function of the serial’s need to fill time, and when poorly handled it would indeed smack of padding.

It was also, I think, natural to the procedural storytelling mode that serials often engaged in: whether obvious or subtle, the situation must be established if there is to be any suspense. We don’t realize that the hero is walking into a trap unless we see it set up, or at least have an establishing shot that clearly shows the threat. And while the audience might assume that a rickety bridge is going to pose a danger in an upcoming scene, serial writers were rarely above tipping off even the slowest viewers by having a character say something like, “Be careful on that bridge; it’s liable to collapse if there’s too much weight on it.”

I might go even further and speculate that it is the seeming solidity of cause and effect in classic serial editing that makes cliffhangers so susceptible to “cheats.” The danger to the hero is so firmly established in dialogue, in premonitory close-ups (on the lit fuse, on the stuck gas pedal, on the clock whose midnight stroke spells doom), and often in the scene as filmed, that his death seems inarguable. We saw him plunge from the cliffside or fall beneath a hail of bullets, and the only way he can be saved is to undo the peril, to rewind so that in the continuation fate takes a different path. The audience may cry “cheat!” if they are observant enough to notice the switch, but such reversals are, I’m starting to think, a necessary part of serial grammar and the ability to literally cheat death a superpower peculiar to the heroes of the form. (Or perhaps not so peculiar: when Superman reverses the Earth’s rotation in Richard Donner’s 1978 film, undoing the disaster that has killed Lois Lane, he is simply performing a large-scale version of what serial heroes had been doing on a small scale for decades.)

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Keyser (and other editors turning serials into features) swerves around that paradox by eliminating the cliffhangers, of course; each peril is now simply a beat in an action sequence. But the elimination of excess verbiage and travel is closer to the grammar of a modern action film, in which the audience is swept up in the heedless forward motion, and goes along with it because there is little time to take a breath and question it. I didn’t watch these films with a stopwatch, but my general impression is that the average shot length was shorter than in the original, again making the films feel more contemporary in their rhythm. (Consider how little down time there is in the Indiana Jones movies, particularly Temple of Doom, in comparison to the serials they draw from; at least Star Wars alternates its action sequences with moments of repose.)

To get down to specifics, Radar Men From the Moon, as you may recall, features George Wallace as Commando Cody, whose signature costume is his rocket-powered flight suit. The same concept (and effects) had appeared in Republic’s earlier serial King of the Rocket Men, and would later inspire Dave Stevens’ character the Rocketeer. In Radar Men, Cody and his team are dispatched to the Moon (on a rocket ship also designed and built by Cody) by government agents who suspect that recent disasters on Earth are linked to atomic activity detected on the lunar surface. After a trip as comfortable and uneventful as a coast-to-coast passenger flight, they discover a dying lunar civilization that is indeed softening up Earth for invasion; the lunarians are already on Earth, advance scouts coordinating explosions and acts of sabotage with the assistance of Earth criminals!

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In Serial Mix, Radar Men is cut to a brisk 64 minutes, with an emphasis on Cody’s flying suit and other gadgets and the adventure on the lunar surface. Excised almost entirely are several middle chapters focused on the lunarians’ Earth helpers, Daly and Graber, as they steal supplies or attack Cody’s laboratory. Those sequences are entirely mundane, and aren’t missed. Daly and Graber still appear, essential to the story as they are, but they get much less screen time.

Undersea Kingdom, at 77 minutes, is (to my mind) more successful in its adaptation. With a few exceptions, the story of Crash Corrigan’s journey to Atlantis is adapted closely but with transitions and redundant material elided (often with the use of wipes imitating those in the original). The scene in which Corrigan is forced to take part in gladiatorial combat and wins the loyalty of fellow prisoner Moloch is skipped, as is the scene in which Corrigan saves the life of Atlantean high priest Sharad, earning him an invitation to lead the Atlantean army. The comic relief subplot with Smiley Burnette is omitted entirely (and since his scenes were shot and included after the fact, and his character doesn’t interact with Corrigan or the others at all, it’s an easy decision to make and takes nothing away from the main story).

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As one of a few special features on the disc, Keyser narrates “Remixing the Classics,” in which he describes his love of the serials and their effects and describes the process of editing them to shorter length. He points out some of the enhancements he made to the special effects, with before and after shots, and discusses the challenge of finding appropriate places to cut while preserving necessary plot information. This feature was of great interest to me and further illuminated Keyser’s approach.

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Before and after: Keyser replaced a view of the lunar surface with a shot of the lunar city

Before and after: Keyser replaced a view of the lunar surface with a shot of the lunar city

Keyser also proves to be an engaging and knowledgeable host and storyteller; it’s clear that Serial Remix is a labor of love, and in addition to looking at the choices involved in editing, he takes a broader look at the conditions under which serials were made. Often rushed (he points out that Undersea Kingdom was made in 25 days) and made for low budgets, the serials naturally fell back on recycling props (such as the electrical devices built by Kenneth Strickfaden and used for set dressing in hundreds of films), costumes, story lines, and locations (such as Bronson Canyon near Hollywood). Keyser has no illusions as to the great artistic merit of the serials (I’ll accept his judgment that The Phantom Empire is “goofy,” but “bad”? No way!) but his enthusiasm is nonetheless one I share. Seen as one fan’s tribute to the boy’s-adventure spirit of the serials, Serial Remix is a very enjoyable and polished package.

Kenneth Strickfaden shown adjusting one of his electrical props

Kenneth Strickfaden shown adjusting one of his electrical props

Fates Worse Than Death: Undersea Kingdom

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A troubling rise in earthquake frequency and intensity has led Professor Norton to build an earthquake prediction machine, with which he also hopes to prevent future quakes. Guessing that the earthquakes are somehow being caused by radio signals from deep beneath the sea, Norton plans an aquatic expedition to find its source. “I hope you’re not going to spring that yarn of the lost continent of Atlantis,” chides reporter Diana Compton, but oh, yes! The Professor has his suspicions, and the discovery of oricalcum–the legendary metal that Plato described as unique to the sunken realm–gives the Professor all the evidence he needs to proceed.

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Naval Lt. Ray “Crash” Corrigan, all-around athletic champion and straight arrow, is Professor Norton’s only choice to accompany him in his experimental submarine (an excellent miniature, one of many created by Howard and Theodore Lydecker). The submarine’s crew grows when Diana invites herself along for a story too good to resist, and again when it’s discovered that Professor Norton’s young son Billy has stowed away. The sub’s pilot cracks under the pressure when he realizes how deep the Professor intends to take it, and in his madness sends the sub into a steep dive.

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Little do the submariners know that Atlantis survives under a great dome of oricalcum, like a bubble at the bottom of the sea, and even now is riven by conflict: Unga Khan, usurper to the throne, is laying siege to the city of Atlantis, where high priest Sharad, described as the last of the true Atlanteans, is the only force remaining to stand up to Unga Khan. From his metal tower, Unga Khan commands a legion of black-robed horsemen and soldiers; robotic “Volkites;” airships; and the juggernaut, a fast-moving electric tank. It’s only a matter of time before Sharad’s defenses give way.

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Unga Khan, detecting Norton’s submarine, latches onto it with a magnetic beam and brings it safely into Atlantis’ inland sea, hoping to turn it to his own advantage. Upon discovering Professor Norton’s scientific abilities, Unga Khan brainwashes him with a “transformation chamber” and puts him to work building engines to turn his tower into a rocketship, so that he may ascend to the surface world and either conquer or destroy it! Only Crash Corrigan and his allies can prevent Unga Khan’s mad plans from wreaking havoc on both Atlantis and the surface world in the 1936 Republic serial, Undersea Kingdom!

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Undersea Kingdom has similarities to both Flash Gordon (released the same year) and The Phantom Empire, which had come out the previous year. Like The Phantom Empire‘s underground kingdom of Murania, Undersea Kingdom‘s Atlantis is a classic “lost world,” a remote corner of the world untouched by modernity but paradoxically full of superscience. Other than its underwater location and the mention of oricalcum (dropped after the first chapter), there’s not much to connect the film’s Atlantis to Plato’s account, but it is part of a long tradition of using the name as a code word for a hidden place where anything becomes possible. And like Murania and Flash Gordon‘s Mongo, in Atlantis ancient swords and chariots are used side-by-side with atomic rays and futuristic war machines: boundaries between science fiction and fantasy were not so rigidly defined before World War II.

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Just as singing cowboy Gene Autry starred in The Phantom Empire as singing cowboy Gene Autry, Undersea Kingdom stars “Crash” Corrigan as a fictionalized version of himself and gives him plenty of room to show off his talents. As an actor, he does OK with dialogue, which is largely functional (“At least those mechanical men can’t follow us through those flames!”), but it’s displays of athleticism that are the real draw. Corrigan was a trainer and bodybuilder who started out in film as a stuntman, often portraying gorillas (he played the “sacred orangopoid” in Flash Gordon), and as a leading man his onscreen persona emphasized his mastery of physical culture and sports. Just as The Phantom Empire gave ample opportunities for Autry to sing within the story, every chapter of Undersea Kingdom finds Corrigan wrestling, climbing, pole-vaulting, swimming, or even walking a tightrope, and that’s aside from the usual running, riding, and fighting that are typical for serial heroes.

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The other characters fit into clearly established types: Professor Norton (C. Montague Shaw) is the inventor whose submarine makes the adventure possible but then spends almost the entirety of the serial enslaved by the villain (and unlike Flash Gordon‘s Dr. Zarkov, Norton is so completely brainwashed that he actively resists rescue and demands to be taken back to his “Master” until he is restored in the transformation chamber). Speaking of the villain, Unga Khan (Monte Blue) is cast from the same mold as Ming: imperious, given to grandiose monologues (“With Crash Corrigan out of the way, nothing can interfere with my plans to conquer the upper world!”), and ruthless in carrying out his scheme. The fact that his plans are so over-the-top crazy is one of the pleasures of this kind of pulp.

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As mentioned, Unga Khan has quite a bit of futuristic hardware at his disposal, including a “disintegrator ray” that strangely takes the form of a missile (recycled from The Phantom Empire). Also as in The Phantom Empire, television is an object of fascination, with Unga Khan observing the surface world, the Atlantean countryside, and even Sharad’s inner sanctum through his “reflecto plate,” all without any indication of having cameras in those places. Some of Unga Khan’s doomsday weapons are even more vague than is usual for serials, but they sure look cool. The standout is his army of Volkites, mechanical men armed with “atom guns,” old-school cylindrical “water heater” robots that look intimidating but move slowly and are clumsy enough that Corrigan is able to hang one from a suspended hook at one point without much trouble.

They break into old people's houses and steal their medicine to use as fuel.

They break into old people’s houses and steal their medicine to use as fuel.

Diana Compton (Lois Wilde) is a gutsy, brassy reporter, and while she talks her way onto the submarine, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything she actually does other than offer commentary and occasionally fall into some peril from which she must be rescued. As formulaic as that role is, however, it’s worth mentioning that she is literally the only woman in the entire serial: the above-ground scenes with which it begins take place at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and the Atlantean scenes are divided between Unga Khan’s tower and Sharad’s city, both militarized settings filled with soldiers (the latter resembles a Spanish mission or French Foreign Legion outpost dressed up with a few exotic props). And while Diana and Crash end up together, there’s little romantic spark between them: this is boy’s adventure, through and through.

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There is a literal boy, as well, and Billy Norton (Lee Van Atta) divides his time between dialogue even more functional than Corrigan’s (“Boy, I’d sure like to explore that city,” and cheering on the hero with “Let ‘im have it, Crash!”), engaging in junior acts of derring-do, and being rescued himself. He’s more a sidekick than an audience-identification character (he doesn’t have anything like the screen time or personality of Frankie and Betsy Baxter in The Phantom Empire), but there is some pathos when his own father, brainwashed by Unga Khan, doesn’t recognize him.

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Smiley Burnette is also along to provide (mercifully brief) comic relief: he and Frankie Marvin play submarine crew members who, along with their mischievous parrot Sinbad, take off to explore Atlantis on their own, getting in and out of trouble with prankish incaution. Burnette performs some of his usual shtick, such as playing the harmonica and causing slapstick trouble with explosives (including a stunt that I’m sure would have left at least one black-robe guard dead), but unlike in The Phantom Empire his and Marvin’s antics don’t have any bearing on the story, and could in fact be cut entirely without affecting the plot. (According to Jerry Blake these scenes were added after the fact to pad out the serial’s run time, and it shows.)

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Finally, Crash Corrigan himself–the fictional version, that is–is every bit the strong-jawed hero of this era’s serials, pulp magazines, and comics. In a development that will be very familiar to readers of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard, Corrigan inserts himself into the Atlantean conflict, first inadvertently and then by appointment. Captured by Sharad’s forces (who suspect him and the other surface-dwellers of being spies in the service of Unga Khan), Corrigan is forced to fight a group of prisoners to the death. After demonstrating his superiority by wrestling them into submission, he refuses to deal a killing blow, assuring the loyalty of Moloch (John Merton), the opponent whose life he spares.

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Moloch becomes a trusted friend and ally during Corrigan’s time in Atlantis (a character as useful to the writers as to Corrigan, allowing for fight scenes that don’t rely entirely on Corrigan to carry them), a native brother-in-arms like Tars Tarkas or Umslopogaas. Then, after saving the high priest Sharad’s life, Corrigan is offered command of the Atlantean White Robe Army (“Commander of the army? Oh boy, oh boy!” says Billy) and the magnificent uniform that comes with it. The loyalty of the White Robes to Corrigan is unquestioned, and like John Carter, Flash Gordon, and others, Corrigan proves that what the Atlanteans need for victory is a strong American leader at the front.

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What I watched: Undersea Kingdom (1936, Republic)

Where I watched it: A DVD from TV Serial Classics. I don’t usually comment on my sources unless they’re especially high- or low-quality, but I do want to point out one of the ugliest menu screens I’ve run across (especially in comparison to Republic’s typically excellent titles):

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No. of chapters: 12

Best chapter title: “Revenge of the Volkites,” Chapter Four. I’m not really sure where the “revenge” angle comes in, as the robotic Volkites are neither paying back the surface dwellers for an earlier defeat nor turning on their master, Unga Khan. It’s surely the kind of title George Lucas had in mind when naming his Star Wars episodes, however, and with about as much connection to the actual story.

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Best cliffhanger: This one is easy. At the end of Chapter Eight (“Into the Metal Tower”), Crash Corrigan, captured by Unga Khan’s Black Robes, is lashed to the front of the juggernaut and driven to the gate of Sharad’s city. If the gates are not opened to the invading army and Sharad given up, the juggernaut will ram the gates, crushing Corrigan. In the face of such barbarism, Corrigan defiantly tells the juggernaut’s driver, “Go ahead and ram!”

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The image of Corrigan strapped to the front of the juggernaut like a human hood ornament looked teasingly familiar, almost as if I had seen it somewhere recently . . . but where?

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Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: Republic seems to be the worst offender in this (and in fact Harmon and Glut in The Great Movie Serials cite the juggernaut cliffhanger as a textbook example of a cheat), so as always there are several candidates. At the end of Chapter Eleven (“Flaming Death”–honestly, all of the chapter titles are pretty good), Moloch, Corrigan, and Professor Norton are trapped beneath the rocket engines that will lift Unga Khan’s towers to the surface when they begin firing. There’s no way they’re getting out of there without being burned to a crisp, right? Right?

Well, I don’t think it will spoil the movie to say that Corrigan gets away at the beginning of Chapter Twelve, and the hole in the floor that he conveniently falls through at the very moment of the rocket’s ignition definitely wasn’t there at the end of Chapter Eleven.

A word on costuming: The 1930s were the heyday of art deco in film, and that extended beyond titles and set design to the costumes themselves. Like other space operas and lost worlds of this time period, Atlantis is a jumble of medieval, Romanesque, and completely fanciful motifs. Uncredited but attributed to Robert Ramsey, Undersea Kingdom‘s costumes are partially unified by the importance of finned headgear: like the intricate tail feathers of male birds, the number and complexity of fins indicate the strength and importance of the wearer. Most of Unga Khan’s Black Robes have only a single dorsal fin on their headgear (right), while leaders like Captain Hakur (left) and Unga Khan’s major domo Ditmar have a trifold fin (and check the zig-zag lightning motif that also appears on Unga Khan’s throne).

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Those pale, however, before the righteous plume that decorates Corrigan’s helmet once he takes command of the White Robe Army (a force whose uniform is otherwise completely unfinned: the entire budget for military bling went into this one outfit): look upon it, and mourn for the days such a costume could be worn without any self-consciousness.

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Sample dialogue: Too much to choose from!

“Little do the people of the upper world realize what is in store for them. . . . Start the disintegrator. . . . Start the earthquake!” –Unga Khan, Chapter Eight

“Is my plan of empire to be wrecked by this handful of strangers from the upper world!?” —ibid.

“They’ll never expect to find any Volkites in the submarine!” –Captain Hakur (Lon Chaney, Jr.), Chapter Eleven

“Prepare the disintegator [sic]!” –Unga Khan, Chapter Twelve

What Others Have Said: “The serial features few of the fistfights common to Republic’s later serials, but compensates by including some truly unique action sequences, chief among them the large-scale attacks on Sharad’s Sacred City by the Black Robes; these battle scenes are beautifully staged by directors Joseph Kane and B. Reeves Eason (Eason directed many similar sequences in silent and sound “spectacles” like 1925’s Ben-Hur and 1936’s Charge of the Light Brigade).” –Jerry Blake, whose blog Files of Jerry Blake includes extensive reviews and commentary on movie serials and “other cliffhanging material.”

What’s Next: The New Adventures of Tarzan