Blake of Scotland Yard (1937)
Film review #417
Director: Robert F. Hill
SYNOPSIS: Sir James Blake is unveiling a new invention to the League of Nations which will ensure world peace, however, the presentation is interrupted by a criminal mastermind known only as “The Scorpion,” who wishes to steal the invention for his own nefarious uses. Jerry Sheehan, an American who has helped create the invention along with Blake’s niece Hope, works with Blake, Hope and their friends to find the invention and uncover The Scorpion’s true identity.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Blake of Scotland Yard is a 1937 movie serial composed of fifteen chapters released by Victory Pictures. Interestingly enough, a serial of the same name was released ten years prior by Universal Pictures, directed by the same director as this one. It is unfortunately a lost serial and no footage seemingly exists, but from what I can tell, it was quite different from this one, and none of the characters are the same, meaning that this serial is just capitalising on the name of it’s predecessor and it’s sequel, which is quite an odd move considering that ten years is a large gap in a time when there would have been no way to re-watch these serials unless they were re-run in theatres. maybe they bet on adults recognising the name and taking their kids to go see it. Anyway, the serial starts off with Sir James Blake, a retired inspector at Scotland Yard, unveiling an invention he has made along with his niece Hope and their friend Jerry. They are presenting it to the representatives of the league of Nations as a device that can target and destroy battleships from over one hundred miles away. They plan to donate it to the League of Nations to ensure world peace; which is an interesting way of creating peace by giving countries the unlimited capacity to blow each other up. What do they call this miraculous device? a “death ray.” Yes, the architect of peace named the death ray, will surely stop all wars. Nevertheless, the demonstration is interrupted as a criminal mastermind known as “The Scorpion” shows up with his goons and steals the device, hoping to sell it to a foreign power. This sets up the typical serial premise of the heroes foiling the criminal’s various schemes while attempting to unmask him, and for the most part it really falls into the standard serial format without exception.
I suppose what makes the serial unique is that it is set in England, which is different from the usual serials set in unnamed U.S. cities. The trouble is that it is obviously made in the U.S. with American actors, and none of them really make an effort to use an English accent. It sometimes sound likes they’re trying to put on an accent, but it definitely doesn’t sound English. The only character who has an excuse is Ralph Byrd’s character Jerry, who is meant to be American, and who also seems to try and sound a little English. This is Byrd’s first serial appearance, from which he would go on to star in S.O.S. Coast Guard and Dick Tracy in the same year, eventually setting him up to play Tracy in various serials, feature films and TV shows until his death in 1954. One of the running jokes (if you can call it a joke) is that Hope’s kid brother Bobby occasionally uses American slang and phrases, which he or Jerry have to explain to the rest. In one scene, Jerry jokingly chastises Bobby about needing to speak “proper English,” which is completely bizarre considering Jerry is the American, and everybody else also doesn’t seem to speak “proper” English. Bobby is also probably the only character who makes a more significant effort to speak an English accent. Despite the title, there’s not really much in the way of police or detective work, and we only see Scotland Yard itself in one scene. As mentioned, it seems the serial is relying on the name for recognition only. The Scorpion as the villain always walks around with a hunched back, and always covers his face with a claw on his hand (he also wears a mask as well, but we never really see it because of the aforementioned claw). Why the claw? To fit with the “Scorpion” name I guess? Why is he always covering his face with
The action is split between a number of locations which adds a small amount of variety. Most of the action is set in Blake’s stately home, which has a number of secret passageways, underground tunnels and spy-holes for all sorts of tricks to play out. There is also the gang’s hideout in London, where we see stock footage of the London skyline and a street scene which I guess looks London-esque. They could have definitely utilised it more though to give the serial a unique setting. There’s also a good chunk of the serial that takes place in Paris, specifically a café and a hotel. These scenes often feel completely pointless, consisting of some odd dancing by a couple who hate each other, who are also spies…or something like that? it’s really difficult to follow, and frankly very boring. There’s no real sense of it being in Paris either, apart from one guy wears a stripy shirt and another woman a beret in typical style.I think they’re also trying to put on French accents, which is about as successful as the attempts to do English ones. There’s a lot about this serial which just pads out the time, and offers very little to the story (of which there is little anyway). A seventy-minute feature film version was released along with the five-hour serial, which I assume was able to cut out almost all of these pointless scenes, and shows just how much of the serial was inconsequential.
Despite the variety of locations, the sets feel very empty and dull, with no real character to them. There’s not really much action as in other serials, as most of the chapters revolve around following henchmen, or devising a trap to capture a henchman. While most serials throw in a fistfight and vehicle chase almost every chapter, this one doesn’t, and unfortunately doesn’t offer anything interesting to replace it. The identity of The Scorpion when it is revealed is a surprise, but doesn’t really have any ramifications. One of the most distracting things about the serial is the lack of background music. It makes whole scenes completely lifeless, especially the fight scenes, which lack any sort of energy. Overall, as you can probably guess, Blake of Scotland Yard is not a very good serial. Considering we were getting serials like Flash Gordon at around the same time, there’s no way a barebones serial like this could offer anything exciting. The plot is very typical of the serial format, but manages to make it needlessly complicated and difficult to follow across all the locations and the spying, doppelgangers and betrayals that obfuscate the flow of the story. The setting in an English stately home is novel, but undone by sparse sets and lack of appropriate accents. Byrd as the lead gives a charismatic and charming performance, but the rest of the cast are dull and without merit, and Byrd shines much more in his role as Dick Tracy. Give this one a miss, you are not missing much.