• Film reviews

    #443 – The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938)

    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/ANALYSISThe 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.

  • Film reviews

    #440 – Mandrake, the Magician (1939)

    Mandrake, the Magician (1939)

    Film review #440

    Directors: Norman Deming, Sam Nelson

    SYNOPSIS: The magician Mandrake and his assistant Lothar are performing magic shows on a cruise liner when they make the acquaintance of Professor Houston, who claims to have invented a “Radium energy machine.” When this miraculous invention is stolen by a criminal known only as “The Wasp,” Mandrake must use all of his cunning to recover the machine and defeat the villainous criminal mastermind.

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISMandrake, the Magician is a 1939 movie serial comprised of twelve chapters, and based off the comic strip of the same name. the serial starts out on a cruise ship with Mandrake performing a magic show with his assistant Lothar, when they make the acquaintance of Professor Houston, who has developed a radium energy machine for the good of mankind. When Mandrake visits Professor Houston and his family at his home, he finds that the radium gun has been stolen by a criminal mastermind known only as “The Wasp,” who wants to use it for nefarious purposes. This begins the usual serial plot of attempting to stop the mysterious criminal mastermind and his henchman by foiling their various plots, with car chases, fistfights and explosions along the way. It’s fairly standard stuff for the format, and content I have reviewed plenty of times for the other serials I have reviewed. There’s enough action and variety to be entertaining for the time, but not much to enthral viewers nowadays.

    The comic strip character Mandrake was very much a proto-superhero, using illusion, hypnosis and trickery in his masked disguise to thwart villains. This serial adaptation does what most similar adaptations of these characters do, and simply use a recognisable name and strip down anything unique or interesting (or anything too expensive to accomplish) to fit them into the serial format of the All-american hero who solves all his problems with his fists. Mandrake’s “magic is reduced to some cheap novelty tricks which only feature prominently in the first chapter (with the usual purpose of enticing viewers into theatres to watch it and returning for subsequent chapters, despite these subsequent ones lacking the excitement of the first). There’s a scene where the villains tie up Mandrake’s hands, but obviously being a magician, he can easily slip out of them; the villains should probably have thought about that a bit. The rest of the characters are unnoteworthy: Lothar as Mandrake’s assistant is the only non-white person and refers to Mandrake as “Master,” which is a typical portrayal of non-white characters as subservient to the main characters. Professor Houston’s family includes his daughter Betty (as the token female character) and Tommy Houston as the “kid” character the younger viewers can identify with. The Wasp is another serial villain who takes the identity of an animal, and is also secretly one of Mandrake’s allies; a plot point that is only revealed in the last ten minutes or so, and has no real impact on the plot anyway. His disguise is quite distinct, but other than that there’s nothing particularly memorable about him.

    As always with these serials, there’s a strict (no) budget to these serials, with nothing too fancy beyond explosions, car chases, and stock footage from anything more extravagant. The sets at least have some effort put into them as well as the radium machine itself looking like an interesting prop. The shots of models being destroyed are, while not convincing by today’s standards, are visually arresting. The cliffhangers employ a variety of situations that put the protagonists in danger, but as always are resolved rather unremarkably. I think Mandrake, the Magician could have been an interesting serial if it would have focused on the “magic” angle a bit more, and offered some different action and heroics to set it apart from other serials. As it is though, it follows the typical formula of using the name of a popular character and taking out all their unique features to fit the pre-established serial format to allow for quick production and release. There’s nothing overly bad about it, but it is unremarkable in the plethora of these stories in the serial format.

  • Film reviews

    #430 – Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940)

    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/ANALYSISMysterious 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.

  • Film reviews

    #422 – Captain Midnight (1942)

    Captain Midnight (1942)

    Film review #422

    Director: James W. Horne

    SYNOPSIS: Professor Edwards has invented a new type of radar that will surely help the U.S. government in the war effort. However, a foreign power has employed criminal mastermind Ivan Shark to steal the device for their own use. Ace pilot Captain Allbright uses his secret identity of Captain Midnight to try to stop Shark and his men before the device falls into their hands, and to stop Shark’s bombing of American cities using his own aircraft…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISCaptain Midnight is a 1942 movie serial based on the radio plays of the same name. The plot is fairly straightforward and very familiar if you’ve ever seen a movie serial from this era: Ace pilot Captain Allbright uses his masked alter-ego Captain Midnight to stop a criminal from stealing a new weapon and selling it to an enemy government. It’s the same plot used through many wartime serials that would have had contemporary relevance. Unfortunately, there isn’t much content to separate it from the rest of similar serials, as there are plenty that use masked alter-ego’s, and also lots that centre around the use of planes. While using the characters from the popular radio play would have brought in extra viewers, there isn’t much uniqueness that viewers will get from the serial. The villain’s plots of stealing a new invention and bombing American cities are a bit interchangeable, and the serial moves back and forth without any real continuation or progression of the plot, resulting in very little development over the course of the fifteen chapters. Like every other serial, each chapter ends in a cliffhanger in which Captain Midnight faces certain doom only for it to be quickly resolved at the beginning of the next chapter. While these resolutions are usually anti-climactic, the serials produced by Columbia Pictures often have the least creative solutions, with Captain Midnight mostly just escaping car crashes or explosions by just walking from them a little dazed. In one such cliffhanger, he just walks away from a plane crash and jumps into a fistfight, which is quite ludicrous even by the serial’s standards.

    Captain Allbright/Midnight is the typical serial hero: the square-jawed all-American hero who gets into plenty of fights and daredevil escapes. There doesn’t seem to be much point in his alter-ego: everyone seemingly knows who he is, and it wouldn’t matter if he was exposed or not. His “Secret Squadron” who aid him in his heroic deeds don’t really have a part to play, and what little we see of them shows they only fill very typical roles of sidekicks. Major Steele, Midnight’s government contact, is the authority figure who gives the orders and who Midnight plans with to catch the villains. The main villain himself, Ivan Shark, has a distinguishing trait in that he is a master of disguise, and subsequently disguises himself as a number of the serial’s characters over the course of the fifteen chapters; including Captain Midnight himself. His disguises also come with dubbed voice-overs of the characters he is playing, which is very obvious. It’s a trait that was used by the protagonist in The Spider serials, and definitely used to better effect there. Shark’s daughter Fury (that is her name apparently) has a role as second-in-command, but doesn’t really play much of a part. At the start of the serial, she seems reluctant to follow some of her Father’s schemes, leading me to believe she may be a character that swaps sides and questions her loyalties, but that is perhaps too complex for this serial, as this trait is soon forgotten and quickly becomes just another flat villain giving orders.

    The main problem with Captain Midnight is that it’s story goes nowhere. There’s no build-up, and the focus keeps shifting so it feels like nothing of consequence is happening, which means it is going to be difficult to keep viewer’s attention over the course of fifteen chapters (or four and a half hours). Some of the stunts are decent, but nothing too outstanding, and there’s not enough plane-based scenes that you might expect from the titular character. The villain’s motivations are confused and all over the place, which further confounds any attempt to advance the plot. Although it doesn’t stray from the typical serial formula, there’s definitely better examples of the format you can watch.

  • Film reviews

    #419 – Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)

    Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)

    Film review #419

    Director: Dean Parisot

    SYNOPSIS: Bill S. Preston esquire and Ted “Theodore” Logan were supposed to unite the world through their music. Nearly thirty years after they played a gig to the world, they are still yet to write the song that will they are destined to actually unite the world with. Now married with grown-up children, Bill and Ted are confronted with their failure by being told that reality will cease to exist unless they can write the song. Bill and Ted have the idea to travel into the future and take the song from themselves when they’ve written it, while their daughters Billie and Theo travel into the past to gather up some famous musicians to help them out. However, the Great Leader of the future has lost faith in the duo, and has sent a killer robot to track them down through time and kill them, believing that their deaths may be able to save reality…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISBill and Ted Face the Music is a 2020 sci-fi comedy film, and the third film in the series, after 1991′s Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. The film opens thirty years after the events of the previous film, with Bill and Ted playing the music for the wedding of Ted’s younger brother Deacon, and Missy who was Bill’s step-father in the first film, and Ted’s step-father in the second, which makes for a humourous scene that brings together a lot of the characters of the previous films, and shows what they have been up to in the twenty-five years since we saw them last. However, for Bill and Ted themselves, the last twenty-five years have not been so kind, as they have constantly failed to fulfil their destiny and write the song that will supposedly bring universal harmony and save reality. They are summoned to the future where they are asked to explain their actions, but their usual charm doesn’t seem to be working this time. They are forced to work on the song as the timer counts down to when they must perform it. They have the idea to instead travel to the future and take the song from themselves when they have written it, and so begins another ‘excellent adventure’ for the duo as they travel to various points in their future to find the song they supposedly have to write. After a thirty-year gap  between films, there is undoubtedly a lot of expectations for someone who grew up watching these films for this new one to live up to the nostalgia of the first two. Thankfully, and perhaps even surprisingly, this film manages to capture the feel of the previous films, while also taking them somewhere new through the future and possible realities. At the heart of it though, is still this unshakeable friendship between two rock-loving guys which forms the basis for bringing out the very best in the entire universe. The film acknowledges its predecessors through both returning many of the characters, and also small little references which will make you laugh if you recognise them. The Bill and Ted films were never perfect or perfectly-polished masterpieces; they were just a fun adventure about two ordinary guys who have extraordinary adventures, and this film fits in perfectly to that. It didn’t have to be made, but it was made for the fans that have such a fond memory of the films, and through the return of the original writers and many of the characters, it’s hard to see how they could have made a better movie to round off the trilogy. Like I say, the previous films aren’t perfect and neither is this one, but again that nevertheless binds them together.

    The main plot of the film is mostly split into two: firstly, you have Bill and Ted travelling to visit themselves in the future to find the song that they will supposedly write, and take it back to the present. In doing so, they come across many versions of themselves where they didn’t write the song, and their lives have fallen apart, including their wives leaving them. Bill and Ted, through this constant time-hopping, are brought into contact with the consequences of their actions, and try to avoid their bad futures by fixing the present. This again reflects the tireless wholesomeness of the duo as they recognise their mistakes and try to do everything they can to fix them. They are also being chased down by a robot from the future, sent by the Great Leader who believes that since Bill and Ted fled from the future and making the song, another interpretation of how to save reality would be to kill them, and so she sends the robot to do it. The series has never really needed villains: in the second film, the villain doesn’t really have much of a role to play himself, but rather just sets things in motion. The driving force of the films has always been about Bill and Ted learning something and improving themselves, rather than defeating an overarching villain, and again, this film does that too. The killer robot does have a small redemption arc as he is integrated into the cast, and it again shows how Bill and ted can win over just about anyone. The other main plot point concerns Bill and Ted’s daughters Billie and Thea, as they try and help their Dad’s out by travelling into the past and collecting famous musicians to help with performing the song. This element of the plot is a little weaker than the scenes focusing on Bill and Ted, and is quite similar to the first film. Nevertheless, there’s still plenty of laughs to be had, and Billie and Thea are genuinely likeable characters, in that they reflect their Father’s mannerisms and optimism, combined with being adults of the 21st century. More could have been done with their characters, but I think keeping focus on Bill and Ted themselves is the appropriate decision. Kelly, who is the daughter of Rufus, the duo’s mentor from the first two films, is also a fun character who doesn’t have the coolness of her father, but is still doing her best. Although she is not her Father (the actor who played him, George Carlin, passed away between the film), her belief in Bill and Ted reflects that constant returning theme of how a simple optimism, while not being afraid of confronting reality, can make a difference, even if you’re not as cool as Rufus.

    As I mentioned, i have very little criticisms regarding the film, but there are definitely some things which stand out as being issues. While the majority of the film is well balanced and structured, the last part feels a bit rushed, with everyone getting together and a lot of references being used which leaves little time to appreciate them, and the magnitude of, for example, returning from the dead. Perhaps the main hindrance is the lack of budget: it is obvious that a lot of the scenes from the future etc. are done on greenscreen, and makes some of them feel a bit static and lifeless compared with the energy and often weirdness we got in the previous films. None of the films are very high budget, and that’s part of the charm in that the ordinariness of the leads juxtaposes against the bizarre situations they find themselves. The ending of the film had a revelation that was quite easy to spot ahead of time, and it accomplishes what you expect and want it to: it goes big for the big finale which saves reality, but again I feel like it needed just a little more spectacle than the budget could afford. Nevertheless, It is definitely satisfying, and does the story justice. One cool little feature is that the countdown to the time that Bill and Ted have to perform their song is exactly in synchronicity with the runtime, adding that little extra investment. The song itself that they perform is pretty much perfect: it combines a host of instruments that encapsulate the diversity of reality while having that distinct classic rock/metal sound that Bill and Ted is known for. The fact that it has no lyrics also reflects how the power of music transcends language. It sounds like the song I’ve been waiting thirty years to hear. The more I think about it, the more I appreciate it, and I think this just reinforces just how this film nailed exactly what Bill and Ted is about and how it did exactly what it needed to thirty years later.

    Overall, Bill and Ted Face the Music is a worthy, and fully-formed addition to the beloved series: it doesn’t feel like a cash-in or a pointless add-on, but takes the characters people remember fondly and allows them to fulfil the potential they have been destined for for thirty years. It’s a love-letter to those people who grew up with the characters and have a nostalgia for them, and the film never feels like a disservice to that nostalgia, which in itself is a remarkable achievement if you look at other franchises which try to do the same thing. Even though the previous films explored all that could be explored through both the past and after-life, Face the Music still offers something new in the travels through the future and confronting their alternate selves, and the weight of their actions. Throughout it all, even when Bill and Ted are despondent in their lack of success in writing their world-changing song, their simple, but persevering optimism always sees them through the darkest of times. Alongside this, this optimism does not blind them to confronting the mistakes they have made, and are constantly trying to fix things (they continually “face the music” in more ways than one). Face the Music really captures the themes of the series, and brings them together in a satisfying way. It’s not a perfect film, but neither were it’s predecessors, which makes them fit together well. The film is visually hampered by it’s lack of budget and over-reliance on greenscreen, but those are really minor issues that don’t detract from the film’s story and message. For any fan of the previous films who remembers them fondly, Bill and Ted Face the Music is both a worthy tribute and a successful continuation of the story of two ordinary teenagers who have gone on to accomplish extraordinary things.

  • Film reviews

    #417 – Blake of Scotland Yard (1937)

    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/ANALYSISBlake 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.

  • Film reviews

    #413 – Sammy’s Super T-Shirt (1978)

    Sammy’s Super T-Shirt (1978)

    Film review #413

    Director: Jeffrey Summers

    SYNOPSIS: Young Sammy Smith is training hard to enter a local race. After he enters, a pair of bullies throw his lucky shirt up into the window of a factory. Sammy and his friend Marv sneak in to get it back, unsuspecting that the factory is a top secret laboratory, where Sammy’s shirt has been subjected to an experiment that has made it indestructible, and gives Sammy extraordinary strength when he wears it. The owner of the laboratory and his scientist find that Sammy has the shirt, and give chase before he can reveal the shirt’s secret…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISSammy’s Super T-Shirt is a 1978 British children’s film. At the start, we see twelve year old Sammy Smith exercising in his room trying to get stronger so he can compete in the local race. He goes to sign up for the race with his friend (and self-proclaimed manager) Marv, where the two are accosted by two bullies, who steal Sammy’s lucky T-shirt and throw it through an open window. It just so happens that the building the shirt lands in is a top secret laboratory where experiments on making an indestructible material are being carried out, and it also happens that Sammy’s shirt is used for the experiment that is successful. The lab’s owner, Mr. Becket and the scientist, Mr. Trotter, want to keep it a secret and exploit their discovery, but after Sammy and Marv sneak in to get the T-shirt back, they must find a way to get it back before the young boy ruins their discovery. The plot of the film is a very simple one, which mainly involves Sammy and Marv being chased by the two adults, and the various tricks they use. Not too much to say about it, but it’s easy enough to follow, and provides a few humourous moments through it’s slapstick comedy. Being only just under an hour long, everything is neatly wrapped up and there’s no real lull in activity, so it will keep it’s younger target audience entertained.

    There’s something very nostalgic about this film: all of the locations are straight from their time. There’s no fancy sets or designs, just real locations that are a snapshot of the time. I imagine this would have been great for a young kid of the time, as these locations would have been just like the working-class streets they were growing up and played in, meaning their imaginations could run wild with the idea of running through their neighbourhoods with super powers. The child actors are also fairly good, and it would be easy to identify with young Sammy. His friend Marv being black and having a prominent role is something less than ordinary, as you certainly didn’t see many young black actors in these types of films, much less as just as much of an ordinary kid as the white lead. They do remark once how unusual their being seen together is (”one black and one white”), but other than that it just feels like two kids being kids without stereotypes, which is pretty cool.

    While kids of the time of it’s release would have probably enjoyed the down-to-earth nature of the film, it is definitely dated today, and kids that may watch it now certainly wouldn’t get the same mileage out of it’s setting. Setups such as Sammy taking the clothing to the launderette to be washed just wouldn’t resonate, alongside the housing and manners of speech just wouldn’t reflect what we would recognise as “ordinary” today. Nevertheless, Sammy’s Super T-Shirt is a bit of short, harmless fun without too much merit. It feels like a time capsule of decades gone by, and if you grew up around this time, you would certainly get a wave of nostalgia through the locations and language used by the ordinary, working-class cast of the late seventies. Kids today won’t get anything out of it, but an interesting snapshot of times gone by.

  • Film reviews

    #412 – The Spider Returns (1941)

    The Spider Returns (1941)

    Film review #412

    Director: James W. Horne

    SYNOPSIS: A masked criminal, known only as The Gargoyle, and backed by malicious foreign powers, aims to sabotage national defence production by targeting the owners of key industries. Criminologist Richard Wentworth must once again don the secret disguise of “The Spider,” a masked vigilante, in order to move outside of the rules and regulations of law enforcement, and along with his friends stop The Gargoyle before he can do irreparable damage to the country…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISThe Spider Returns is a 1941 movie serial and the sequel to the 1938 serial The Spider’s Web, based on the magazine comics of “The Spider.” The serial follows a similar setup to the first one, with criminologist Richard Wentworth secretly disguises himself as the masked vigilante The Spider in order to stop another masked individual known only as The Gargoyle, whose criminal gang is working to sabotage industries related to national defence. Sabotage really is the key word for the plot of this serial: it was released in 1941 in the context of the second world war and a heavy focus on the U.S. gearing up for getting fully involved. The concept of sabotage runs through a lot of wartime serials, with suspicion being placed on “the enemy within,” who would attack not from outside, but from the inside through the acts of sabotage. There’s a fair amount of wartime messaging throughout the serial, explaining how “our great country” is under threat from “foreign powers,” who will target key industries. No specific country names are mentioned, but you can figure it out. With this theme, the serial has a bit more of a darker tone to the story, but never anything overly scary, as these serials are generally aimed at younger audiences and bringing in families. To seemingly offset the darker tone, there’s some more silly moments, usually between The Gargoyle and his inventor assistant, as The Gargoyle berates him for his inventions going wrong. They do however make The Gargoyle feel a bit less threatening, but again that may have been the purpose to make the serial a bit more family-friendly, and the villain less scary, while still getting the wartime message through. Overall though, it does present a bit of a mismatch that makes the comedy seem on the whole out of place.

    All of the protagonists from the first serial make a return here, although only two of the original actors reprise their roles: Warren Hull as Richard Wentworth AKA The Spider, and Kenne Duncan as Wentworth’s chauffeur Ram Singh. Dave O’Brien, who was Hull’s stunt double in the first serial, now takes over as Jackson, Wentworth’s assistant. The characters more or less have the same roles as they did before, but perhaps have less to do than they did in the first serial, which balanced out the use of the characters a lot more than most serials. Hull performs the triple role of Wentworth, The Spider, and Wentworth’s disguise Blinky McQuaid, a petty criminal who Wentworth disguises himself as in order to go undercover and get information from The Gargoyle’s henchman, and his multi-faceted role is very much the centrepiece of the story. The different roles give enough variety to the situations, and causes Wentworth to consider his actions in terms of how each character is perceived, such as police commissioner Kirk’s attempts to catch The Spider, and who always has suspicions that Wentworth is the masked vigilante. As mentioned, the villains are a bit less threatening in their hapless endeavours, as The Gargoyle gets into some comedic banter with his inventor assistant, and using his X-Ray eye machine, spies on his underlings to see they are having a party instead of doing his evil work.

    While The Spider’s Web was a wildly popular serial that probably (in part) sparked the trend of masked superhero serials, The Spider Returns isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but is still a decent example of the format, with enough variety through Hull’s triple performance, the sci-fi inventions used by the villain, and the focus on sabotage and its wartime message has some impact. The trend of masked superheroes faded away after the war was over, instead making the leads more military-like and ordinary to reflect the victorious soldiers of the war. However I think the escapades of The Spider shouldn’t be forgotten, as they were very influential in the production of the serial format in its time.

  • Film reviews

    #410 – Hop Harrigan (1946)

    Hop Harrigan (1946)

    Film review #410

    Director: Derwin Abrahams

    SYNOPSIS: Hop Harrigan, a pilot along with his buddy “Tank” Tinker, are hired to escort a scientist to his secret laboratory hidden in the mountains, where he is working on a powerful new source of energy. Meanwhile, a man known only as the “Chief Pilot” is after the invention for himself to use as a deadly weapon. Hop and his friends are caught up in the schemes of all of these players, and they must stop them before disaster befalls the world…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISHop Harrigan is a 1947 movie serial based on the Hop Harrigan character from the All-American Comics series, as well as the radio plays. Harrigan became quite popular during the course of the second World War, probably due to his heroic piloting antics which would have resonated with the population. However, his population waned after the war ended along with many of the similar characters, with people rather turning their attention to costumed superheroes and the villains being spies rather than soldiers. The serial starts off with Hop performing a mid-air rescue, then returning back to the airfield where he works. he is offered a job by a man named Arnold to fly a scientist named Dr. Tobor to his secret laboratory. Tobor has been working on an  invention that runs on a powerful new energy, and has to keep Hop and Tank blindfolded while in the air so they do not see where the lab is. Meanwhile, an unknown person calling himself “The Chief Pilot” is intent on getting a hold of Tobor’s invention for himself, and sends his goons to kidnap him. The plot of the serial as always follows the standard format of each chapter having a different scheme or plot to foil, with it ending on a cliffhanger for the next chapter. I imagine the serial format isn’t the best one to adapt Hop Harrigan in, as he is probably more used to dealing with soldiers and villains rather than engaging in thwarting espionage, but again that’s like a lot of the serials, which used the name of a comic book character and didn’t really adapt anything else about them. 

    On the heroes side, you have the standard All-American heroics of Hop Harrigan, his sidekick and comic relief “Tank”, who offers some decent interactions with his goofiness playing off against other characters. Gail is the token female character who runs the airfield (though she doesn’t really do much), and her younger brother Jackie, whose book-smarts often clash with Tank’s brute-force approach. Jackie provides a good example of a younger characters which the kids in the audience can relate too, and he has a decent amount to do, which helps in that regard. Other than that though, the heroes are pretty unremarkable. There are quite a few villains in this serial, ranging from the mysterious Chief Pilot, whose identity isn’t revealed until the end (a typical serial trope), and an array of henchman, some of whom are working with the Chief Pilot, and some who are working for Hop’s employer Arnold and secretly working against him. There’s also Dr. Tobor (’Robot’ spelled backwards in case you hadn’t noticed; I’m pretty sure I’ve watched another serial or film which uses the same name, but I can’t remember which), who essentially plays the eccentric scientist who becomes more and more erratic as the serial progresses. He is sought by both heroes and villains, and constantly tricks them and plays them for fools, which shakes up the dynamic. Tobor as the wildcard element helps to give a bit of an original edge to the story, and that is welcome.

    If you’re going to watch a Hop Harrigan serial, then no doubt you’ll be expecting plenty of scenes in the sky and plane fights. The serial more or less delivers what it promises with plenty of scenes taking place in the air, and shot reasonably well for the time, but most of the action does take place on the ground, and the plane scenes are just to travel from place to place, or to follow a car from the air. 

  • Film reviews

    #408 – Jack Armstrong (1947)

    Jack Armstrong (1947)

    Film review #408

    Director: Wallace Fox

    SYNOPSIS: When a valuable shipment and scientist Vic Hardy are kidnapped, young Jack Armstrong along with his friend Billie, his Sister Betty, and their Uncle Jim Fairfield, all attempt to find and rescue him. They eventually track him to an island in the Pacific, where an evil scientist has hidden Hardy away in a secret laboratory where he is building a weapon that could enslave the world. Jack and his friends must deal with the native islanders and the scientist’s henchman before the weapon is completed and the world is at their mercy…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSISJack Armstrong is a 1947 movie serial based on the radio play of the same name.The serial opens up with young Jack Armstrong and his friend Billie along with his sister Bettie working on a car at the Fairfield aviation company, which Billie and Bettie’s Uncle Jim owns. Almost as soon as the serial starts, a hit and run takes place outside the Fairfield office, so Jack and Billie jump in their car and give chase. This car of theirs is a huge beast that just looks like a big steel box put over a normal car. Nevertheless, it gives the opportunity for the serial to open on an action-based note, and to entice viewers to stay and come back for the rest of the serial’s chapters. After Jack and Billie catch the driver, their car is never seen or mentioned again, which is a bit naughty opening with it and thus giving the impression you will see more of it in the next chapters.

    One of Jim’s employees, Hardy, is monitoring some strange signals in the ionosphere. One of Jim’s customers named Pearce overhears this, who is working for the gang making those signals for some evil scheme, and has Hardy kidnapped so he can be forced to help with their plan. Jack and the gang track Hardy down to an island in the Pacific Ocean, which they travel to, but their plane is shot down on approach. The rest of the serial takes place on the island, where they meet the owner of a trading outpost named Grood, who is secretly the mastermind of the evil scheme to rule the world through building a weapon and deploying it in the atmosphere. The story involves Jack and the gang dealing with Grood’s henchman, as well as the native tribes that inhabit the island, and later on Pearce when he shows up on the island still pretending to be our heroes friends.