Drums of Fu Manchu (1940)
Film review #468
Directors: William Witney, John English
SYNOPSIS: Villain Fu Manchu intends to locate the sceptre of Genghis Khan, and use its ancient powers to conquer all of Asia. When his Father is killed by Fu Manchu in pursuit of the sceptre, Allan Parker teams up with Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and his assistant Dr. Flinders Petrie, who have fought Fu Manchu in the past. Teaming up with the British army stationed in Asia, they hurry to find the sceptre and Genghis Khan’s tomb before Fu Manchu can do the same…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Drums of Fu Manchu is a 1940 serial by Republic Pictures comprised of fifteen chapters, and based on the series of novels by Sax Rohmer (Drums of Fu Manchu is the ninth novel in the series, but the serial borrows plot points from the whole series). The serial starts out with Fu Manchu outlining his evil plans to conquer Asia, using the power of the sceptre of Genghis Khan. In order to track it down, he leaves a trail of death and destruction in his wake as he tracks down the clues to his location. Allan Parker is caught up in Fu Manchu’s schemes as his Father is killed by Manchu’s henchman, and looking to get revenge, Allan teams up with Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, Fu Manchu’s old adversary. The plot of the fifteen chapters unfolds in typical serial fashion, as each chapter inches the plot forward as the heroes and villains engage in a back-and-forth of schemes and counter-schemes to try and outdo each other. Where the serial stands out is its varied settings and action sequences, which are fairly well thought out and keep things interesting. The serial borrowing the best bits from the series of novels probably helped in generating ideas for the fifteen chapters. There is, however, a fair amount of repetition in the serial, particularly in the fact that a lot of the plot is driven forward by one side overhearing the other’s plans, and a counter-scheme being devised. It’s a bit predictable, but that’s very much a staple of the format. The serial does fortunately have a very definite sense of direction, and each chapter edges the plot forward a little towards a goal that is defined from the outset, and simple enough to follow.
The characters are all fairly standard for a serial, with Allan Parker being the typical action-based male lead who does all the stunts and fistfights. Nayland Smith is the protagonist of the novels, but takes a supporting role here, as these serials always require a more action-based lead. The usual lack of female characters are also featured in the serial, with Mary Randolph being the sole female lead who appears very infrequently and provides no contribution to anything other than being the daughter of another more important character. There’s also Fu Manchu’s daughter who plays a role as a minor villain. Obviously the most interesting character is Fu Manchu himself, a villain that has become somewhat cultural icon…for better or worse. His iconic image is fairly recognisable, and he has been the focus of quite a few movies across the decades, meaning his image has become this recognisable figure. As you might expect however, this image is mired in controversy, and has cemented a specific image of “orientalism” in the west for many years (obviously Fu Manchu wasn’t the first character to do this, but his is one of the most enduring). He is played, as most southeastern Asian characters are, by a white man in make-up to “look” Chinese. His attitudes and actions also accentuate a “foreignness” that portrays a difference and opposition to western values. He is definitely one of the more interesting villains seen in a serial, but it relies on some very problematic depictions.
Drums of Fu Manchu is regarded as one of the best serials that was produced, and it easy to see why: the action sequences are varied and intense, and there’s a lot of effort put into the serial in all of its aspects. A lot of consideration is put into depicting Fu Manchu as evil, particularly in the harsh lighting shots that create shadows across his face and give him a very malicious look. A rather unique aspect of this film is the ending, in which Fu Manchu actually survives and escapes the plunge to his doom, promising revenge. It was actually against the film regulator’s guidelines to have film villains survive at the end, presumably as it was morally important to show villains getting justice for their crimes (even if that justice is being hurled off a cliff…). Apparently, an exception was made because the novels had Fu Manchu escaping at the end, and also that the series very much had the potential for a sequel in which Fu Manchu could ultimately meet his end. I think there definitely would have been a sequel, but apparently the U.S. state department put a stop to it because the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. had formally complained about the depiction of Chinese people, and China was also an ally in World War II against the Japanese. This is also probably why the villains in wartime serials were typically Japanese from that time forward. Overall, Drums of Fu Manchu is a good example of the serial format, but comes with a big caveat in its problematic depictions of Chinese people and Asian cultures. The plot has direction, the action sequences are varied and well executed, and there’s generally a good amount of consideration and effort in most of the film’s production. It is easy to see why it is one of the strongest examples of the serial format, although as with the rest of them, it suffers from a fair amount of repetition.
The Fighting Devi Dogs (1938)
Film review #443
Directors: William Witney, John English
SYNOPSIS: An American army unit stationed in Singapore is attacked by a lightning-based weapon that all but wipes them out. The two survivors, lieutenants Tom Grayson and Frank Corby learn that a masked villain known only as “The Lightning” is behind the attack, and is using a range of lightning-based weaponry to terrorise the world. Vowing revenge, Grayson and Corby seek out The Lightning and to put a stop to his villainous schemes once and for all…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Fighting Devil Dogs is a 1938 Republic Pictures serial comprised of twelve chapters. The serial opens up with an American army unit on patrol in Singapore, where they stumble upon an outpost within which another unit has been wiped out. When their own unit is attacked by a strange lightning-based weapon, the only two survivors, lieutenants Tom Grayson and Frank Corby swear revenge by going after the perpetrator, a criminal who calls himself “The Lightning,” who is terrorising the world with his lightning-based weaponry. The serial revolves around Grayson and Corby, along with their friends, attempting to stop The Lightning’s various schemes, alongside trying to track him down, and exposing his identity as they believe him to be one of his inner circle. Nothing very new here. The story does move at an even pace, and is decently structured, with different settings and action sequences to keep things interesting. As always, there’s not too much to comment on in terms of serial plots, as they always revolve around the same two or three tropes. One notable aspect of the serial is that there is a lot of footage re-used from other serials. For example, the Lightning’s “Flying Wing” aircraft that resembles a modern stealth bomber is the exact same one that is seen in the 1937 Dick Tracy serial. There are no new shots of it, and viewers would undoubtedly remember it if they had seen the popular Dick Tracy serial. In a time where you could only watch these serials at the theatre, maybe people would have been less likely to remember what they had seen in previous serials, or maybe they wanted to capitalise on the popularity of the Dick Tracy serial. The real reason for the stock footage re-use is obviously to save money, but there’s certainly worse footage they could have re-used from worse serials.
The cast of characters is all very familiar and predictable to serial watchers: Grayson and Corby are the young male heroes who do the action sequences and get into plenty of fistfights. The supporting case consists of the usual sole female character, and a cast of minor characters of whom are all suspects for the real identity of “The Lightning.” On the villain himself, he is quite a cool character, with his black outfit, slick helmet, and a lightning gun to shoot people with. The one thing that undoes his image is his nasally, cartoon-ish voice that makes him sound like Skeletor from He-man. A common observation is that “The Lightning” may have very well been an inspiration for the character of Darth Vader. George Lucas is well known to have been a fan of serial movies in his youth, and there’s plenty of aspects of his films that are directly taken from the format, such as the scrolling text openings of Star Wars (and their episodic format), and the general style of Indiana Jones, including his outfit which is almost identical to a character in the Jack Armstrong serial. With this in mind, I think it’s more than a coincidence that “The Lightning” inspired a villain dressed in a black suit, cloak and helmet, who fires lightning from his hands. Also now that I think about it, the “Star Destroyer” ships in Star Wars have the same triangular ship as the “Flying Wing” in this serial…
William Witney, one of the directors of this serial, has stated that this is one of the worst serials that he ever worked on. From the director’s standpoint, I can completely understand why: the sheer amount of stock footage means that the director wouldn’t have to do much, in particular, direct the more exciting scenes which are taken from previous serials. There’s also the fact that there are two flashback chapters which just re-run footage of previous chapters, meaning even less need for a director. It’s no surprise that the serial was only one of three that Republic Pictures made that came in under budget. Another thing holding the serial back is that some of the acting is pretty bad, especially from the two male leads, who often sound like they’ve just barely memorised their lines. Other than the director’s misgivings, I would not classify The Fight Devil Dogs as one of the worst serials. It has some problems in it’s constant re-using of footage, and it’s poor acting, but the plot is fairly even and easy enough to follow, and the villain has a pretty cool design, making it watchable and mildly entertaining.
Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939)
Film review #442
Directors: William Witney, John English
SYNOPSIS: Three daredevils are performing their regular circus act when sabotage leads to a huge fire breaking out, and the death of the young brother of one of the performers leads to them wanting to seek revenge. They learn that a former prisoner is responsible, and is attempting to destroy the properties of Granville, the man which put him away. The daredevils team up with Granville, but little do they know that the Granville they are working with is actually prisoner “39013″, who has assumed Granville’s identity and kept the real one locked up in his basement as a means to exact his revenge. The daredevils must work together to stop 39013 and unravel the mystery, aided by a mysterious ally known as the “Red circle,” who communicates with them only through notes in order to alert them of 39013′s plans and to keep their identity a secret…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Daredevils of the Red Circle is a 1939 serial film comprised of twelve chapters. The serial opens up with the daredevils Gene, Tiny and Burt performing their show at a circus owned by millionaire philanthropist Horace Granville. Meanwhile, ex-prisoner and former business partner of Granville Harry Crowel, who now goes by his prisoner number “39013″ (pronounced thirty-nine oh thirteen), plans to get revenge on Granville, who put him in prison. 39013 sabotages the next show of the daredevils, causing the circus to go up in flames and killing Gene’s kid brother. They decide to get revenge by teaming up with Granville to stop 39013, but little do they know the Granville they are working with is actually 39013 himself, disguising himself as Granville, who is actually locked in the basement, and ruining his life from within. The rest of the serial comprises of the Daredevil’s attempts to foil 39013′s various schemes, while being aided by notes left for them by the mysterious “Red Circle.” The story and format are all very familiar to serial goers, with the opening chapter actually showing off the unique aspects of the characters doing their daredevil tricks and stunts, and then in subsequent chapters hardly ever being seen again, with the aim of the expensively produced first chapter being used to draw viewers in and convince them to come back to the theatre week after week to watch subsequent ones. The death of Gene’s young brother Sammy is an unusually dark premise to open on, as the kid character is a staple of many serials that younger viewers may relate to, rather than them being killed off in the first ten minutes. The rest of the serial is a very familiar story though, with each chapter introducing a new plot to destroy another of Granville’s industries or properties, and the daredevil’s attempting to stop the. There’s some decent variety and action sequences, but nothing too memorable amongst the huge amount of times they have been done across the format.
The characters are the usual suspects in this serial, with the three daredevils being the usual young, athletic, ideal Americans who can pull off all the necessary stunts and fistfights that the story demands. They are all defined as having a speciality in particular aspects of daredevilry, but we never see those particular talents define their character beyond the first chapter, and they all feel very similar to one another. Blanche as the granddaughter of Granville plays the typical token female character and as usual has very little to do for the majority of the serial. 39013 is a fairly typical villain, but at least he has a clear motive and purpose. He is played by Charles Middleton, who most famously was the villain Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials, and later the villain in the Jack Armstrong serial. The man certainly knows how to play a villain. The rest of the characters don’t leave much of an impression, apart from the dog Tuffie, who is obviously well trained. The one seriously problematic character is that of “Snowflake,” a black man who serves as a “servant” in the Granville household. Like nearly every black person in cinema at this time, they are portrayed as simple-minded and clumsy, alongside being the butt of every joke. Obviously this is an extremely racist and problematic representation that films created and perpetuated during this time, and badly dates the serial.
The serial makes use of some decent settings and set-ups for it’s end-of-chapter cliffhangers, such as chapter two’s flooding tunnel in which one of the daredevils has to escape on a motorbike. The effects aren’t convincing by today’s standards, but are decent for the time. The plot ramps up at the end of the tenth chapter, where 39013 is unmasked and flees while the real Granville is rescued, and this makes a change to everything usually being resolved in the last five minutes in other serials. However, it throws away that excitement by using chapter eleven as a “recap” chapter consisting mostly of clips from the previous chapters, which really stops the excitement in its tracks. Overall, Daredevils of the Red Circle has some decent moments and a fair amount of excitement, but a number of problems make it feel very dated and not really worth returning to.
Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940)
Film review #430
Directors: William Witney, John English
SYNOPSIS: A man calling himself Doctor Satan has kidnapped Professor Scott in order to get his hands on a remote control cell that will allow him to build a deadly robot army. Bob Wayne, whose guardian Governor Bronson is killed by Doctor Satan, vows to take revenge against him by disguising himself as the Copperhead, the masked identity that his Father used. Aided by Scott’s daughter Lois, secretary Alice Brent, and journalist friend Speed Martin, Wayne seeks to rescue Professor Scott before Doctor Satan can build his deadly robot army…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Mysterious Doctor Satan is a 1940 movie serial by Republic Pictures. The serial starts out introducing Bob Wayne, whose guardian Governor Bronson reveals to him that his Father was the masked vigilante known as Copperhead (so named because he wore a mask made of copper, surprisingly). Bronson gives him the Copperhead mask, and shortly after Wayne leaves, is killed by Doctor Satan, a scientist who wants to build an army of killer robots. Vowing revenge, Wayne becomes the Copperhead himself to track down Doctor Satan and thwart his evil schemes. The plot is fairly unremarkable as far as serials go: it’s a back-and-forth between the heroes and villains as Doctor Satan’s various plans are foiled across the fifteen chapters. Despite the story being mostly forgettable, it is fairly well-structured, and there’s some suspense and thrill in the action sequences and cliffhangers.
Apparently, this was planned to be the first Superman serial, but their was some trouble acquiring the rights. There’s not much left in the final product to suggest that though, apart from maybe Lois Scott, the daughter of Professor Scott who has been kidnapped by Doctor Satan, might have been Lois Lane, but that’s about it. These serials had a really quick turn-around, so it would have been easy to re-write the story without slowing down production. The masked vigilante of Copperhead is fairly standard for the masked vigilante’s that star in many of the serials of the era. he is a bit boring though, as it’s just a loose copper mask that barely hides his face, yet no one can figure out his identity. There are multiple instances where Copperhead is captured, but noone bothers to just pull the mask off before flinging him into a deadly trap. The rest of the characters are pretty forgettable; the serial has two female characters instead of the usual one, but they mostly play the same roles that women usually do in the serials of this era (i.e being captured or performing secretarial roles). Doctor Satan is also unremarkable in appearance or unique attributes (and his name is probably a bit obvious), and just fits into the role of evil scientist without any quirks. His robot is something a bit more unique, but it looks similar to other robots of the era, mainly being a clunky block of metal that is quite laughable looking back at it.
The production values of the serial are again fairly standard, with enough chases, stunts and explosions to get the job done. The camerawork is pretty good, and offers some more unconventional and dynamic angles to help charge scenes with a bit more energy. Overall though, Mysterious Doctor Satan is simply forgettable, and while not necessarily a badly put together serial, it’s dull story will fail to spark any imagination in its viewers.
Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941)
Film review #386
Directors: William Witney, John English
SYNOPSIS: Dick Tracy is assigned to deal with a criminal known only as “The Ghost”, who is able to turn himself invisible thanks to a special invention. The Ghost is after the members of a city crime council, who helped convict his brother Rackets Regan and sentenced him to death. It is a race against time for Tracy to stop The Ghost before he succeeds in killing all the remaining members of the council…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. is a 1941 movie serial and the fourth Dick Tracy serial to be released in as many years. This time, Dick Tracy is on the trail of a master criminal who calls himself “The Ghost,” who also has the power to turn himself invisible thanks to a special machine. The Ghost is seeking to take revenge on the city crime council, who helped convict his brother Rackets Regan to death, and in the opening chapter, we see him take out one of the council members, and his daughter June Chandler, teams up with Tracy in order to stop The Ghost. The story combines two typical tropes of the movie serial format: one, an invisibility device which many serials have done, and two, the identity of the main villain is hidden behind a mask until they are exposed in the final chapter. As always, there’s nothing too unique about the way the serial uses these plot points, but again this Dick Tracy serial manages to use them better than its contemporaries, and create a well balanced serial with plenty of action and intrigue. The added sci-fi element makes it feel a little different from the previous Tracy serials too, which is what is needed in this fourth instalment. There is a fair amount of re-using stock footage from the previous serials for the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, but honestly it doesn’t feel like that much of a problem, as you know they will always end up with Dick Tracy escaping just in time.
As the serial progresses, there is a range of villainous schemes that Tracy and his friends have to foil, as well as the mystery of The Ghost’s identity with adds an element of mystery to everything. There’s always plenty going on, and the dialogue never gets too dragged down in exposition. For this serial, Dick Tracy is the only returning character, although Billy Carr and June Chandler play the roles of Steve Lockwood, a fellow agent, and Gwen Andrews, Tracy’s secretary in an almost identical capacity. Ralph Byrd as Dick Tracy has always been the star of the serials, and as long as he returns, the rest of the cast are pretty inconsequential. The identity of The Ghost is kept secret throughout the serial, with suspicion falling upon various members of the council at different points, then shifted away as they are killed. Everything is tightly-knit together, and even though it does cut down the cast and re-use some footage, I think it may be the best serial out of them all: it perfects what it is trying to do, and even though it uses plot devices that have been seen in the serial format before, it does them a lot better. If you were going to only see one Dick Tracy serial, I would probably say to choose this one, as it exemplifies not only the best of Dick Tracy, but some of the best examples of the serial format.
Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939)
Film review #384
Directors: William Witney, John English
SYNOPSIS: F.B.I. agent Dick Tracy has successfully captured the international spy Zarnoff, who has been sentenced to death. However, he manages to escape, and picks up where he left off attempting to steal or sabotage military equipment to sell to the ‘three powers’, as Dick Tracy once again tries to stop him.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Dick Tracy’s G-Men is a 1939 film serial and the third Dick Tracy serial. In the opening, we see a film showing how F.B.I. agent Dick Tracy successfully captured foreign spy Zarnoff, who has now been sentenced to death by gas chamber. While in jail awaiting his sentence however, Zarnoff is sent a newspaper which is laced with a substance which when ingested, causes him to appear dead and stop breathing before he is taken to the gas chamber. While his body is being transferred, members of Zarnoff’s gang hijack the ambulance and steal his body, subsequently reviving him since the substance caused him to stop breathing before he went into the gas chamber, therefore did not breathe in any of the lethal gas (yes, it sounds a bit farfetched). When Dick Tracy learns of Zarnoff’s escape, he again attempts to catch up with him, as Zarnoff has sworn revenge against Tracy. The story, split into fifteen chapters, revolves around (as you would expect) Tracy attempting to foil the numerous schemes of Zarnoff, which, as is a staple of the Dick Tracy serials, outperforms others in the genre by having plenty of variety and imagination, splitting the time between investigation and action scenes. It still sticks rigidly to the serial format, and is essentially more of the same, but its predecessors were popular, so there isn’t really much need to drastically change them. The story around the spy Zarnoff attempting to sell American secrets to the “three powers” would have been more relevant to the time it was released, as World War II had essentially begun, so the theme of spies and espionage would have been particularly poignant, with the “three powers” clearly being a reference to the axis powers.
One more significant change in Dick Tracy’s G-Men was the thinning out of the cast. A number of the characters do not return, including Mike McGurk and Junior, who mostly provided the comic relief, and so the film does feel a bit more serious, again with the back drop of a world war looming. In fact, Ralph Byrd, who plays Dick Tracy, is the only returning actor. Even though the characters Steve Lockwood, a fellow F.B.I. agent, and Gwen Andrews, Tracy’s assistant still show up, they are played by different actors. The character Zarnoff is of particular interest, as he looks like a cross between Stalin and some east-Asian influences, which makes sense given the time of release, and America’s animosity to that area of the world (there were many serials produced around the second World war that utilised a villain that was made to look Chinese or east-Asian).
The pacing of the film is fairly standard, with a new scheme showing up every two or three chapters to keep things interesting, and the standard cliffhanger at the end of each chapter to entice viewers to return to the theatre next week to the next chapter. The ending sees Zarnoff and Tracy crash a plane in the desert, with the two handcuffed together, they are desperate to find water when eventually finding some, Zarnoff knocks Tracy out and uncuffs itself. When Lockwood shows up and finds Tracy, they see that the water contains Arsenic, and shortly find Zarnoff’s body (offscreen) as he has died from ingesting the water. Not exactly a thrilling conclusion, but they never are after investing so much time into these serials they never end on much of a high note. Nevertheless, Dick Tracy’s G-Men is more of the same, but it still maintains a position well above most of the format in terms of action, pacing and characters.
Dick Tracy Returns (1938)
Film review #384
Directors: William Witney, John English
SYNOPSIS: F.B.I. G-man Dick Tracy is on the trail of the Stark family: A criminal gang consisting of “Pa Stark” and his five sons. When new G-man recruit Ron Merton is murdered by the Starks when they hijack a convoy, Tracy swears revenge and attempts to track them down while thwarting their many villainous schemes.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Dick Tracy Returns is a 1938 film serial and the sequel to the Dick Tracy serial released a year earlier. The story this time revolves around Dick Tracy trying to thwart the criminal enterprises of the Stark family criminal gang, led by Papa Stark and his five sons Champ, Trigger, Dude, Kid and Slasher (great names). The Starks have a range of schemes and crimes they try to carry out, and this gives the serial enough variety to see it through, as Tracy and his team have to stop them across land, sea and air, resulting in an array of chases, as well as some good old-fashioned detective work. The original Dick Tracy serial was a strong mix of serial elements that kept its momentum across its fifteen chapters. Dick Tracy Returns emulates that success and continues it. There’s not much new here, but since the original was a success, there isn’t any need to fix what is not broken. And of course, in an era without repeats on television or home media, it was easier to repeat things on screen as the only way to watch these serials was to go to the theatre every week for the next instalment.
Most of the protagonists from the first serial return with the same actors, which provides a good sense of continuity. The only real change is that a different actor plays Junior, but that’s not much of a distraction. There’s not much character development, but every character has a role to play, from the heroic Dick Tracy and Steve Lockwood, the humour from Mike McGurk, and Tracy’s assistant Gwen, there’s a decent amount of variety in the characters. The villains are also fairly interesting, and showing Tracy stop the individual sons of papa Stark makes the story flow a little easier. Like the first serial, Dick Tracy Returns is a good example of the movie serial format, and has plenty of action, distinguishable characters and thrilling cliffhangers to keep viewers coming back. It’s mostly par for the course for the serial format, but a good example of it.