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.
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/ANALYSIS: Mandrake, 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.
Flying G-Men (1939)
Film review #438
Directors: Ray Taylor, James W. Horne
SYNOPSIS: Three government ‘G-men’ are tasked with taking down a spy ring that are targeting military defences. To do so, one of them also takes on the masked identity of “The Black Falcon” to operate beyond their operative limits to bring the spies to justice. Learning that a man known only as “The Professor” is leading the spies, they suspect the owner of the local airport to be involved somehow, and work to unravel the mystery and prevent the spies from getting their hands on a new experimental aircraft…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Flying G-men is a 1939 film serial comprised of fifteen chapters. The seral starts out with four government G-men being assigned to protect a new military aircraft. When one of them is killed by a group of spies attempting to steal the aircraft, the three remaining G-men attempt to hunt down the spy ring before they can sabotage any military defences. To do so, one of them disguises themselves as “The Black Falcon,” who operates individually from them beyond the confines of their job to stop the spy ring. The story is composed of many familiar serial tropes; with the villain secretly being a close associate of the protagonists, plenty of fistfights and chases in cars and planes, and a masked identity for the heroes so they can operate beyond the bounds of the law (this trope saw a decline in the wartime serials, probably because seeing heroes operating beyond the law was a bit too rebellious and similar to spy activities). The identity of “The Black Falcon” as being one of the three heroes and kept secret is a lesser used trope, but has been done before, and their actual identity doesn’t really have any impact on the story. The serial does have a very high-action feel, with it maintaining its energy throughout the chapters, and quickly moving from one action sequence to another. There’s a little bit of standing around and explaining the plot, but it’s nowhere near as bad as some other serials. If you were to go to the theatre each week to watch every new chapter, you would at least get to see plenty of action and be reasonably entertained for fifteen minutes.
The three main characters are the usual heroic leads, in that they are the young, athletic men who can throw the punches in fistfights and jump out of cars without any danger to themselves. being three of them, there’s no need for the usual sidekick character that accompanies the hero to help in the action scenes. There’s nothing to really distinguish the three, apart from one of them being The Black Falcon, the identity of which is revealed in the last minute and has no impact on the plot. However, the three do work together well, and co-ordinate together so you get the sense that they do know each other well. Supporting characters include the sole female character and her young brother, who provides the role that younger viewers can relate with. Their characters are nothing special but do have certain chapters that focus on their actions, so that helps give the serial some variety. The villains are altogether rather uninteresting, with “The Professor” being the mastermind of the spy ring, but his motivations are never explored, making him a rather flat character. His identity as one of the G-men’s friends is not fleshed out, and a very typical plot device of the format.
The car chases and airplane fights, while obviously cheaply produced, work decently enough, and there’s enough explosions and shootouts to keep viewers entertained. There’s also a fair amount of locations used in the serial, as the heroes fight their way though multiple enemy bases. There’s enough variety and action that would have kept the viewers going to the theatre to see Flying G-men to be fairly satisfied, even if it doesn’t do anything too special to set itself apart.
The Invisible Monster (1950)
Film review #437
Director: Fred C. Brannon
SYNOPSIS: A criminal known only as the “phantom Ruler” has devised a way to turn invisible by covering his clothing in a special chemical and remaining under a specific light source. He coaxes some men who have illegally entered the country to be his underlings, setting them up in various jobs to sabotage security and such in order to commit crimes. Insurance agent Lane Carson is tasked with investigating the incidents, alongside his new assistant Carol Richards, and stopping the Phantom Ruler from getting the necessary materials for creating an invisible army…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Invisible Monster is a 1950 serial by Republic Pictures comprised of twelve chapters. The story is a familiar one to serial-watchers, as insurance investigator Chase Lane is assigned to stop a series of crimes committed by “The Phantom Ruler” before he can build an invisible army. The structure is pretty similar to every other serial of the time, but the specifics of the plot are fairly ridiculous and without logic. The trope of invisibility has been overused in serials (particularly by 1950 when this serial was released), but this serial invents such an incomprehensible and overly complicated logic for the trope that it renders the whole setup unconvincing: The Phantom Ruler has discovered a chemical that can turn whatever is covered in it invisible, but only when a specific type of light is shined upon it. This means that in order to turn invisible, The Phantom Ruler has to cover his robe in it, and have a spotlight shined on him whenever he wants to be invisible. This leads to some ridiculous scenes where he goes out to do things while invisible, but one of his underlings is hanging out the back of a van with a huge spotlight shining on him to keep him invisible. Luckily there’s no one about when he does these things, otherwise the presence of a man moving a spotlight around in the middle of the day might be a little suspicious. We see the spotlight move across the scenes to signify where the Phantom Ruler is, so if anyone can see the spotlight, they will surely be suspicious about anything happening within it. I’m also not sure if the visible spotlight is for the viewers benefit, or if the characters themselves can actually see it. Either way, the overly-complicated mechanisms are pretty ridiculous, and really stifle any possibilities that could arise from the use of invisibility. Aside from this, there’s the usual car chases, fist fights and shoot-outs you would expect, although they are rather predictable.
The cast is fairly small, and rather unremarkable. Chase Lane is the typical serial lead (despite the untypical name) and Carol Richards pays the token female, although as an “assistant” she does actually have things to do, and gets involved in the car chases, and shootouts etc. which would typically be done by another young male “sidekick” character. The villain gets a surprising amount of screentime too, as his invisibility trick is the only stand-out part of this serial, so we get a fair amount of focus on seeing him carry out his crimes…or not carry them out, since he’s invisible and all. We’re never given his name or any information about him other than he wants to make an invisible army to take over the city/country…which also seems a bit of an issue; where is he going to find a spotlight big enough to conceal an entire army? Nothing about this scheme makes sense. Anyway, seeing the villain do most of the criminal work is a bit different than the usual types who stay hidden and get their henchmen to do their dirty work. The Phantom Ruler’s henchmen are given a bit of motive, in that they are immigrants who have illegally entered the country, and The Phantom blackmails them to do his bidding lest he turn the over to the authorities. A small detail, but one more than is usually given in these serials.
Serials such as this usually have a very quick turn-around, with the whole thing being filmed in less than a month. The Invisible Monster feels like it was hastily put together even by serial standards. It is only twelve chapters long (which is the standard minimum number), but the chapters each run at just over thirteen minutes, and when you take out the title sequence and the re-used footage from the previous chapter to resolve the cliffhanger, that goes down to about eleven minutes, which if you had to go to the theatre every week to see each new chapter just for eleven minutes, it wouldn’t really be worth the effort. Also chapter ten is a “recap” chapter which just recaps the story using mostly previous footage, cutting down even further the material produced. The cliffhangers themselves are nothing special, and are very predictable, and the use of model cars going over cliffs is blatantly obvious. The acting is alright, but the scripting and dialogue is bad in the sense that there’s a lot of people explaining what the current situation is instead of showing it (this was typically used for the benefit of viewers who had not watched previous chapters), and also the traps and schemes the characters fall into are so blatant it makes everyone seem naïve and without any thought processes whatsoever, rendering them as mindless cut-outs explaining what they are doing instead of actually doing it. Overall, The Invisible Monster is a dull serial released past the peak of the format, and offering little to viewers. It’s hasty production skips out on making anything interesting, and the whole invisibility plot device is completely non-sensical and fails to stand up to any sort of logic. Even if you’re a serial fan, it’s not worth your time.
Don Winslow of the Navy (1942)
Film review #436
Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: Commander Don Winslow of the U.S. Navy is assigned to stop a foreign spy ring that is intent on sabotaging the construction of a new naval base on an island in the Pacific Ocean. Winslow and his friends battle against the head of the spy ring, known only as “The Scorpion” and seek to foil his evil schemes across land, sea and air…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Don Winslow of the Navy is a 1942 film serial comprised of twelve chapters, and is based on the U.S. navy approved comic strip character of the same name. The story concerns Commander Winslow being assigned to stop a spy ring from sabotaging the construction of a new naval base in the Pacific Ocean. There’s not really anything special to say about the plot; it is a fairly standard setup that is found in nearly every wartime serial. While it is to be expected that these serials served as propaganda at the time for the war effort, Don Winslow was a character that was sanctioned and approved by the U.S. navy, so while this means that the uniforms and representation of the navy are fairly accurate, it probably means that there was a lot of oversight regarding what he should and shouldn’t do. I think this is probably the reason why he rarely gets into fistfights or other messy situations (although he does more so than in the sequel, where he never gets rough with anyone). Whereas the pre-wartime serials had plenty of lead characters that would don masks to conduct vigilante missions against the enemy, pre and post-war serials typically reserved such costumes and roles for the villains, while making leads that were victorious American soldiers.
The characters are about what you’d expect from a serial, with Winslow being the face of the navy in the serial, and being expectedly heroic and patriotic. His fellow navy officer “Red” serves as his friend and backup in the action scenes, and Mercedes Colby fills the single female role. The villains are also pretty standard, with a bunch of henchmen being led by a man who is only known as “The Scorpion,” who as usual is a white man in make-up to “look” Japanese. We only ever see him, however, on a screen in the spy’s secret base, and there is no final showdown with him (he is however, confronted in the sequel). One very distracting thing about The Scorpion is that with the close-ups of his face on the screen, you can clearly tell the actor is reading his lines as his eyes move left to right, which is quite distracting.
There’s plenty of stock footage used of navy vessels and submarines that makes the action a bit more exciting, which again is probably owed to the fact that the serial had the involvement of the U.S. navy (although I’m led to believe that the submarine that shows up in the stock footage is a British submarine). The models used for the airplanes and such, are far less convincing. The cliffhangers usually end up with Winslow getting caught in an explosion or a collapsing building, and usually walking away with nothing more than a limp. Again, fairly standard resolution to the chapter cliffhangers, and obviously they’re not going to show a navy officer getting seriously hurt if they’re being portrayed as strong invincible heroes of the war. Overall, Don Winslow of the Navy is what you would expect from a wartime serial. It’s not particularly interesting and neither does it offer anything new or original. The use of stock footage of ships and navy vessels gives it a larger sense of scale, but it’s a product of wartime propaganda that serves almost exclusively that purpose, and not worth seeking out.
Don Winslow of the Coast Guard (1943)
Film review #435
Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: Following his success at Pearl Harbour, navy officer Don Winslow is assigned to the U.S. coast guard to stop Japanese saboteurs led by the mysterious “Scorpion.” Winslow’s new mission is to stop the saboteurs from disrupting the Coast Guard’s operations and to find their secret island base from where they are conducting their nefarious schemes.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Don Winslow of the Coast Guard is a 1943 Universal Pictures serial comprised of thirteen chapters. It is based on the comic strip Don Winslow of the Navy, approved by the U.S. Navy. The story of the serial opens with Commander Don Winslow, along with his buddy “Red,” being assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard to defend against foreign spies and saboteurs, in particular, a Japanese spy ring led by a man known only as “The Scorpion” (in ties of war the Coast Guard becomes under the direct command of the navy, which explains why Winslow is so easily transferred and keeps his rank and uniform etc.). Each chapter brings a new scheme for Winslow to foil as the spies try and sabotage facilities to prepare for a ground invasion. It’s all the sort of thing you would expect from a wartime serial such as this. Being a character that was approved by the U.S. navy, it should also be no surprise that this is a big propaganda film for the service, and as such the serial is full of ships and submarines engaged in warfare through the use of stock footage. Furthermore, the anti-Japanese rhetoric is pretty severe, again, probably to reinforce the idea of them as enemies of the U.S. at a time of war. Overall, the story isn’t anything special, as a lot of the wartime serials urge viewers to remain vigilant of spies to help their country.
The characters are all a pretty standard bunch. Don Winslow is obviously the heroic and ideal Navy officer who will defeat the enemy and claim victory for his country, as well as inspire people to support and join the navy as well. His friend “Red” serves as his sidekick to join in on the action scenes, and not much else. Mercedes Colby plays the typical token female role, and takes on a similar typical role as a nurse (although this is a little different than the job of journalist or secretary that female characters usually get in these serials). The villains are also nothing special, comprising of American actors in make-up to “look” Japanese, and The Scorpion himself having little presence. On the other hand, there are a fair amount of actual Asian actors to play some background Japanese soldiers, and actually speak some Japanese (even though the pronunciation is a little off from what I can tell).
The production values are fairly decent for the format, which perhaps reflects the use as wartime propaganda. I am left wondering just how much involvement the Navy had with the serial’s production, as there is a lot of stock footage of Navy battles and cannon fire, particularly in the first chapter, where this footage is used so overwhelmingly it is nearly impossible to follow the plot. Another curious thing to note is that there are practically no fistfights anywhere in the serial, which is basically unheard of in the format. Perhaps getting involved in such brawls would have looked unsightly for a Navy officer? Either way, that doesn’t stop Winslow shooting or pistol-whipping his enemies. Overall, Don Winslow of the Coast Guard follows many wartime serials, but is rather less than subtle about its use as military propaganda. The over reliance on stock footage makes the plot difficult to follow at times, although it makes a change to see action scenes that don’t revolve around poorly-choreographed fistfights. The inherently racist and nasty anti-Japanese rhetoric in particular means that the serial has not aged well, but you can see why it invests so much in it, given that the attack on Pearl Harbour would still have been raw in America’s consciousness, and the serial knows to play on that. I would not recommend this serial, as overall it is a bit too much of a story-related mess and a product of its time.
Sky Raiders (1941)
Film review #432
Directors: Ford Beebe, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: World War One pilot Bob Dayton operates the aircraft manufacturer Sky Raiders inc. along with his friend Lieutenant Ed Carey. When Dayton invents a new type of high-speed aircraft, a foreign spy named Felix Lynx, aided by Countess Irene, attempt to steal the aircraft in order to sell it to a foreign government.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Sky Raiders is a 1941 Universal film serial comprised of twelve chapters. As the title suggests, airplanes form the basis of the serial’s action. The story centres around former World War (one) pilot Bob Dayton, who owns the aircraft manufacturer “Sky Raiders Incorporated,” who has developed a new aircraft bombsight and a high-speed aircraft that he intends to sell to the American government, but spy Felix Lynx is hired by Countess Irene to steal the plane so she can sell it to a foreign government. The plot should be extremely familiar to serial goers, as it follows the usual tropes and plot elements they all have, from vehicle chases, fistfights, cliffhangers, and various plans to foil. The theme of aviation is one that is used in a fair few serials, and there’s definitely enough dogfights and planes to justify the theme. Other than that, there’s not much remarkable in terms of the story, as the characters just seem to wander into dangers and unremarkably find themselves out of them, while the villains haphazardly try to get what they want. There’s some development with the characters and their personalities do play into the story a little, but not too much.
Bob Dayton as the lead protagonist is a little different from the usual serial leads: he’s not the young, square-jawed and charming type that you usually see, but rather a World War (one) veteran, middle-aged, and prone to quirky behaviour and occasionally a bad temper. he certainly seems a lot more human than the usual heroic types. He is described as being very lucky at getting out of dangerous situations, and that certainly plays out across the chapters as he survives storms, plane crashes and the like. It is perhaps a cheap way of resolving conflict by simply hand-waving it away as simple good luck, but it’s more than other serials do when their protagonists survive similar certain-death experiences. Mary Blake as the token female character plays the typical role of secretary (the only jobs women have in these serials is secretary or reporter). Her romantic interest in Dayton provides a bit of character development as she tries to get his interest. Billy Halop plays Timothy Bryant, a young airplane enthusiast who gets hired by Dayton to work at Sky Raiders. His character obviously plays the part of a younger character who the viewers of a similar age can relate to. He usually plays a street-tough kid who rebels against any form of authority as part of the “Dead End Kids” group of young actors (in serials such as Sea Raiders), but here his character is certainly more ‘normal’ and cooperative. Ed Carey as Dayton’s sidekick and occasional comic relief is unremarkable, and Hinchfield plays the role of the Sky Raiders finance officer, who is secretly working for the villains, and plays a very typical role. The villains aren’t nearly as fleshed out, as Felix Lynx operates as a a typical henchman, and the Countess Irene, who has hired Lynx, makes few appearances and does even less. They often have very little to do, as Dayton’s good luck manages to get him out of most situations.
The plane sequences are decently executed, and there’s plenty of real planes that are shown on film. The aerial sequences are less impressive, as they are clearly models being shaken around in front of an aerial photograph. One thing that always bugs me is when planes are flying in the air and when the pilots open the cockpits there is never any wind. It’s not too important in the long run, but it’s one of those nitpicks I always have. The rest of effects are fairly standard and not worth writing about. Overall, Sky Raiders does some good work on it’s character development and usage of planes, but falls behind with its lack of villain motivation and an overall plot. The two more or less balance out, making a fairly average serial.
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.
The Mysterious Mr. M (1946)
Film review #429
Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Vernon Keays
SYNOPSIS: Anthony Waldren has assumed the identity of Mr M in order to steal the invention of a revolutionary submarine engine, undertaking a series of murders to do so, and using a new drug he has invented that can hypnotise people into doing his bidding. However, a person claiming to be the real Mr M contacts Waldren and starts giving him orders under the threat of exposing his crimes. Federal agent Grant Farrell, whose brother is one of Waldren’s victims, takes up the case of stopping Mr M, aided by fellow agent Kirby Walsh and insurance investigator Shirley Clinton.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Mysterious Mr. M is a 1946 serial comprised of thirteen chapters. It is the 137th, and final serial that Universal Pictures ever produced. The other two big serial producers (Republic and Columbia Pictures) would produce serials for a few more years. The story of Universal’s swansong serial centres around Anthony Waldren, who attempts to steal Dr. Kittridge’s invention: A submarine engine that is far faster than anything currently in operation, Following a series of murders, someone claiming to be the real Mr M begins sending Waldren phonograph records outlining instructions for getting a hold of the blueprints for himself, forcing Waldren to work for him lest he expose his scheme. Federal agent Grant Farrell is assigned to stop Mr M and prevent the submarine engine from falling into the wrong hands. The premise sounds simple enough, and similar to a lot of other serials, but the main problem with the story is just how convoluted it becomes. Waldren, who faked his own death years before, uses the “Mr M” identity to undertake his crimes, until the “real” Mr M starts to blackmail him to follow his orders. His Sister also secretly works with him to cash in on their grandmother’s insurance policies, who works with insurance investigator Shirley Clinton, who also teams up with Grant Farrell, the federal agent and protagonist who is out to stop Mr M. All of these connections make the plot incomprehensible to follow at points, and simply doesn’t make very interesting viewing. The best serials are simple to follow, with heroes vs villains battling it out, but with enough space for imagination to make them more interesting. In The Mysterious Mr M, there is a severe lack of the latter, as most scenes consist of men in suits engaging in dialogue that explains the plot, and even then, it’s still difficult to follow. The plot involving a submarine engine seems entirely without consequence, as we don’t even see a submarine until the very last minute.
As mentioned, the web of character relations is convoluted and difficult to follow, without adding anything of value to the story. The identity of Mr M is kept secret until the last chapter as usual, and doesn’t really offer anything of consequence. The rest of the cast are rather dull and forgettable, with no real unique qualities, and it’s really not worth going through them. In adding all of these character relations, the serial simply forgets to make any of them interesting. The cliffhangers are also fairly standard, while using model buildings and vehicles to create huge explosions or crashes. They are always resolved, however, by having the heroes walk away with nothing more than a sore head or dizziness. The setups are very repetitive for each chapter, as plot and counter-plot between the heroes and villains gets tiring quickly. The only one which is mildly interesting is the heroes following a hidden tracking device on a map which resembles modern day GPS, which would have been more interesting and novel at the time.
Given that this is Universal Pictures final serial, it can safely be said that they ended on a whimper rather than a bang. The studio that gave us Flash Gordon had clearly run out of steam at this point. With the advent of television, perhaps Universal foresaw that viewers would not want to go to the cinema every week for twenty minutes when the format could be accomplished without such effort in their living rooms. After the second world war, the serial format of heroes fighting spies and villains working for foreign powers undoubtedly became dramatically less relevant, and people probably wanted to see something different. Columbia and Republic Pictures continued producing serials that featured military heroes that celebrated the military victories in the war, and also returning to some more sci-fi settings that popular serials had before the war, but The Mysterious Mr. M offers none of that; it offers very little of anything in fact. It’s a sad end for Universal’s serial producing machine that, while guilty of rehashing the same stories and characters for over ten years and over a hundred serials, undoubtedly entertained viewers and sparked the imaginations of young moviegoers. The Mysterious Mr M seems unsure what to do in the post-war era without big foreign enemies or looming war to provide the backdrop for it’s story. Regardless, there’s no excuse for the severe lack of imagination in the settings or characters, and the boring dialogue that re-explains the plot constantly, and even then fails to make it make sense. A momentous occasion in the history of the serial format, but one ultimately that is best forgotten.