The Secret Code (1943)
Film review #418
Film director: Spencer G. Bennet
SYNOPSIS: Dan Barton, a police officer, is assigned by his boss to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring operating in the country. To do this, Dan is framed for a murder and discharged from the police service, but before his Boss can tall anyone else what his mission is, he is murdered, which means that no one knows that he is undercover. Dan begins to try and gain the trust of the Nazi spies, while also donning the mask of the “Black Commando” to sabotage the saboteurs.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Secret Code is a 1943 movie serial comprised of fifteen chapters. The serial opens up with Dan Barton, a police officer, being assigned to go undercover to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring operating somewhere in the city. He is framed for a murder and discharged from the police to give himself a cover story, while only his boss knows the true story. However, when Dan’s boss is killed himself, there is no one else who knows about the undercover operation, and so he must bring down the spy ring without any help from the police, who are looking to arrest him. He does get some help. however, from his friend in the police Pat Flanagan, and a reporter whose curiosity gets her involved. Dan joins the Nazi spies on various operations, but also secretly dons an all-black mask and suit, calling himself the “Black Commando,” and sabotaging their operations with the knowledge he has of them. This serial does change up some of the typical setups of the format; most notably where usually the masked villain is usually one of the heroes allies, here the masked hero is one of the villain’s seeming allies. The rest of the story setups are pretty standard though. The main objective for Barton is to obtain the “secret” code that the Nazis are using to send messages to their spies. The Nazis get their messages through a large light-up screen, where squares with numbers flash up on the screen and they are able to decrypt them for orders. The theme of codes runs through a lot of the story, showing how spies might receive their instructions through various coded ways, which I’ll discuss later on.
What makes the serial unique from all of the other war-time serials I’ve seen is that they actually refer to the villains as Nazis, while usually they are referred to as simply “a foreign power” (the same holds true for when the villains are Japanese but that’s more obvious when the actors are adorned in make-up to “look” Japanese). On the screen where their orders are given, a swastika or picture of Hitler himself is shown before the message begins, as the spies salute him and proclaim “Heil, Hitler” in authentic Nazi style. One of the little things I noticed in one of these scenes where they are filmed from behind, one of the actors clearly has his fingers crossed behind his back. Obviously all the actors are American and wouldn’t really salute the Nazi leader, and I wonder whether the actor knew he was being shot from the back or front; either way, these serials were pumped out in about a month, so there was never any time for re-shoots to edit out these hiccups. It should be of no surprise that this serial is a big chunk of war-time propaganda, attempting to educate the American public on the tactics of spies and the codes they use. The use of referencing the actual Nazis also puts things into focus with regards to who the enemy is.
The characters themselves are pretty bland. Barton is a typical main lead, his friend Pat Flanagan is the most stereotypical Irish friend character imaginable. His go to line is that everything that happens to him is the “luck o’ the Irish” is just a replacement for any kind of actual character, and he only seems to have an Irish accent when he needs to reference the fact that he is Irish. The female reporter is the typical sole female token character who is always either a reporter or a secretary, since apparently those are the only two jobs a woman in the 40′s could do, or could be seen to do on film anyway. The Nazi villains are also fairly bland, and the consistency of their accents fluctuates wildly. The masked identity of the Black Commando is not noteworthy, as it’s just a completely black suit and mask, without any unique characteristics or abilities. The acting across the characters is unremarkable, although there’s a few moments where actors clearly miss their cue and say their lines a little too late. All in all, nothing stands out in terms of the characters.
Perhaps the most unique and bizarre aspect of this serial is at the end of the each chapter. There, we are treated to a scene in the office of U.S. “army intelligence officer” Henry Burton, who speaks to the viewer directly about the different types of code enemy spies use, and what the public might be on the look out for. First of all, he is clearly not an actual member of the U.S. army, but another actor. Even if you don’t know this from looking up the credits, you can tell he fumbles his lines often when he actually has to decrypt the code on the blackboard, even though he probably has the answers offscreen, he hesitates when he has to do some actual decoding, and sometimes even says the wrong thing while writing the right answer on the board. The segment shows a number of interesting ways of making and breaking codes, but some of them are a little far-fetched, such as the one about the contents of a spy’s pockets forming a code, but there was no way you could have deduced the order the items should have been in order to decrypt it. It’s a nice bit of trivia, but it’s application to reality (like most propaganda) is dubious.
Overall, The Secret Code offers a few different takes on serial tropes, but is let down by lacklustre characters. The context of a war-time serial means it is bloated with propaganda and messaging, but is able to be much more direct with it than other serials at least. It’s unique enough that it might be worth a watch for serial enthusiasts, but it’s definitely a product of its time.
The Masked Marvel (1943)
Film review #393
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet
SYNOPSIS: Warren Hamilton and Martin Crane hire The Masked Marvel to stop Mura Sakima, the head of a criminal organisation who is sabotaging projects for the war effort. When Hamilton is murdered by one of Sakima’s henchman, The Masked Marvel hires a group of investigators to help stop Sakima before he can destroy any more of America’s military technology…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Masked Marvel is a 1943 movie serial. The serial starts off with explosions. Lots of explosions. As various installations are blown up, the insurance company that insures them is having to pay up. Suspecting the Japanese spy Mura Sakima behind these attacks,, the chief executives Warren Hamilton and Martin Crane hire The Masked Marvel to find and stop Sakima. When Hamilton is murdered by one of Sakima’s henchman, The Masked Marvel hires four investigators to help with stopping Sakima, and along with Hamilton’s daughter Alice, they try to hunt Sakima down. The story is fairly standard, but executed quite well: there is a variety of action sequences with some well executed stunts. The serial takes place during World War II, and so the danger of the story having an impact on the war adds to the drama. Sakima as a Japanese spy also reflects this, as the Japanese were seen to be the U.S.’s main enemy. Unfortunately, this being 1943 means that Sakima is played by a white actor who is made to “look” Japanese with all the typical stereotypes you would expect (This is not without precedent, The Batman serial the same year also does this). This really does make the serial feel very dated.
One of the more novel twists on the format is that instead of the main villain being one of the ‘good guys’ in disguise with their identity concealed until the end, this time The Masked Marvel’s identity is the one that is hidden, the only clue being he is one of the four investigators that the Masked Marvel himself hired. This is a refreshing change on one of the staples of the format, although not entirely without precedent (the same idea was used in The Lone Ranger serial a few years earlier). The identity of the Masked marvel doesn’t really have much of an impact on the plot, but it’s a bit of extra fun trying to guess who he is. You may think that it would be easy to determine who the Marvel is, as he only wears half a face mask, but each of the four investigators wear the exact same suit, and the masked marvel puts on a different voice so there really is no way to determine who he is (his voice is dubbed over by a different person altogether). The body type also doesn’t help because whenever the Masked Marvel is on screen, he is played by stuntman Tom Steele. As the serial progresses, two of the investigators die so it slowly narrows down the suspects, which is again unusual for a serial to have such developments that impact on the story as a whole. Martin Crane takes a more typical role of being part of the protagonist’s team who is secretly working for Sakima without being discovered until the very end. Overall it’s a mixed bag of the usual tropes with a few twists to set itself apart.
One of the strongest points of the film is the stunts. As mentioned, the professional stuntman Tom Steele plays The Masked Marvel and gets into some pretty energetic fight scenes as he flies across sets and tackles various henchmen. It’s a shame his name doesn’t appear anywhere on the credits, as he does a great job. The cinematography also offers some interesting angles that add some dramatic flair to some scenes. There’s some bad as well, especially with the dummies that are used whenever someone ‘falls’ off a building or a cliff. In one of the cliffhangers, one of them falls from a building and you can clearly see its arm rip off as it hits the building on the way down, which is pretty funny. Given the quick turn-around for these serials (around three weeks from the start of filming to completion), any mistakes made were generally not re-shot because of the tight schedule. Overall, The Masked Marvel is a good serial that mixes things up slightly in terms of story, and also delivers high energy action. However, some dodgy effects and racial stereotyping hold the serial back and make it quite dated.
The Purple Monster Strikes (1945)
Film review #392
Directors: Spencer Benet, Fred Bannon
SYNOPSIS: A rocket ship from the planet Mars makes a landing on Earth, and the astronomer Professor Layton goes to investigate. he finds a man from Mars as the only passenger on the ship and takes him to his observatory, where he learns the man is actually the first part of an invasion force come to conquer the Earth. After killing Layton, he has the ability to possess his dead body and attempt to get his prototype rocket ship design finish so he can use it to return to Mars and lead the invasion. The only person that can stop him is Layton’s assistant Craig Foster, accompanied by Layton’s niece Sheila.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Purple Monster Strikes is a 1945 movie serial. The opening chapter sees a rocket ship crashing to Earth and Professor Layton going to the impact site. There he finds a man from Mars who it turns out to be the first of an invasion force sent to conquer the Earth. The Martian kills Layton and through the use of gas from the Martian atmosphere, is able to possess Layton’s dead body whenever he wants, which he does in order to get Layton’s rocket ship prototype finished, which is the final key to the invasion, as the Martian rocket ships are unable to return to Mars. Learning of the plans of the “Purple Monster”, Layton’s assistant Craig Foster and Layton’s niece Sheila must find a way to foil the Purple Monster’s plan to steal the rocket ship plans. The story unfolds in keeping with almost every other film in the serial format, with each chapter presenting a new scheme from the Purple Monster and Craig and Sheila attempting to foil it. The ability of the Purple Monster to possess Professor Layton’s dead body is a little dark, but it keeps it family-friendly by not dwelling on the details too much. The back-and-forth between the Purple Monster and Layton also adds an interesting dynamic between the characters. The cliffhangers at the end of each chapter are quite ambitious too, and full of high speed chases and explosions. You always know that they’ll result in someone escaping death at the last second, but it still puts some effort into pulling it off.
The characters themselves are a pretty dull bunch. The usual archetypes are all here: the main young white cowboy-esque hero, the token woman, the scientist, the mysterious villain and his henchman: there is nothing inspiring about any of them. We sometimes see the Martian emperor being contacted by the Purple Monster, and his assistant shows up near the end, but neither of them really offer anything exciting or interesting. The whole business with the Purple Monster being able to possess Layton really ties in with one of the main tropes of these serials of the enemy spy hiding in plain sight, and who could be anyone, which really ties into the paranoia around enemy spies in the U.S. during wartime. Other than that though, the cast is rather forgettable.
Overall, while The Purple Monster Strikes has some good special effects and fast-paced action scenes, its characters are dull and bland, and fail to stand out in the format. I think it sits comfortably in the middle of these serials: nothing special, but nothing catastrophically bad either. Being directed by two of the most prolific serial directors, Spencer Bennet and Fred Bannon, they certainly knew what they are doing, but they’re obviously doing it to create a stable source of income rather than trying to innovate at this point into the format’s history.
Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere (1951)
Film review #379
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace A. Grissel
SYNOPSIS: The heroic Captain Video and his Video Rangers from across the globe help maintain peace on the planet Earth, but when Earth becomes subject to meteor bombardments from the planet Atoma, Captain Video must find a way to thwart the evil schemes of it’s leader Vultura before it is too late…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere is a 1951 movie serial. The serial stars (as the title suggests) Captain Video, the leader of an organisation called the Video Rangers, who help protect the Earth. When the Earth becomes subject to meteor bombardments originating from the planet Atoma, Video must stop them before they can invade the Earth. The plot resembles the vast majority of sci-fi serials, which copy the highly successful Flash Gordon and caught the genre in a thinly-veiled repetition of its plot and characters for over twenty years. A lot of the story revolves around Captain Video trying to prove that the scientist Dr. Tobor (yes, that is ‘robot’ spelled backwards) is working with Atoma’s leader Vultura, as Video and Vultura try to outsmart and thwart the other’s plans. I think this format and plot structures were gotten away with for two reasons: one, there was no way to re-watch old serials once they had first aired at the theatre, so new ones could come out with the same story and similar characters; particularly since serials such as this would be aimed at kids, who would not have seen earlier serials. The second reason being that the second world war probably didn’t leave much room or money for the development of anything too original or ambitious, as resources would have been focused elsewhere. Nevertheless, by the time this serial was released in 1951, there probably should have been some effort to change the formula or offer something new.
Despite it’s lack of originality in the story department, there’s still a decent amount of variety going on. The early chapters see Video travelling to the planet Theros, where the peace-loving people are under attack by Vultura’s forces, and Video has to teach them to be guerrilla fighters and fight back. Again, this plot structure shows up in many previous serials. The next major chunk of the serial consists in the back-and-forth between Tobor and Video, as they try and outdo each other on Earth. Video and Vultura only meet in the final half of the last chapter, which feels like a waste. The serial however, does keep things interesting with a whole host of gadgets and inventions that would undoubtedly spark the imaginations of youngsters watching. The guns that the Rangers use that shoot out sparks are quite a nice effect of the time. However, the serial often falls into the trap of explaining what is going on and what all these inventions do rather than actually showing them, mostly due to budget constraints, but often the plot is explained before it happens, leaving little surprise or tension. The inventions too have bizarre technological names, and accompanied techno-babble that try to justify the implausible things they do.
Most of the characters are based off the ones on the TV series, with Captain Video being the typical white American male hero that is the star of all these serials. His younger sidekick is strangely only referred to as “the Ranger” and never given an actual name. This is in keeping with the TV series, but other rangers are shown to use their own names, so it’s odd that he doesn’t. Maybe it’s a way to get kids to imagine themselves in the role of the young teenage sidekick, as anyone could be “The Ranger”. There’s also Ranger Gallagher, who does all the technical stuff at Video headquarters, and Vultura clearly has some east Asian influences in his design, again echoing the “Ming the Merciless” type villain that originated in Flash Gordon. One final note about the characters is that while you will expect these serials to only feature a white cast, there is not a single woman anywhere featured in the serials fifteen chapters. Often there is usually a solitary token female character that sometimes serves as the protagonist’s love interest, but there is none at all here, not even in any of the backgrounds. I suppose the lack of a female character could be attributed to the fact this is geared towards a younger, male, audience, who would not be interested in a female character or a romance sub-plot, but having this cast of inter-changeable white men interact with each other really emphasises the monotony of the story at points.
The serial was directed by Spencer Bennet, a veteran of these kinds of serials, so he had plenty of experience in what to do. Some of the effects are fairly decent; as mentioned, the ray guns the Video Rangers use is pretty cool, and their super-fast car stands out with its unique look. There is also a ‘space platform’ which allows transportation between earth and Atoma, which apparently is millions of miles away. Captain Video also has a rocket ship he travels in, which again adds some variety. Some of the effects (such as the rocket ship in flight) are done through using hand-drawn animation, which allows a lot more freedom in terms of effects, although this is not the first time this was done, having been integrated into the Superman serial a few years earlier. Overall, I think I can place the Captain Video serial just above average in the miasma of similar sci-fi serials: it has a lot of the well-worn tropes and characters, but has some decent effects and various inventions that add a bit of extra spice. It’s obviously meant for a younger audience, but there’s enough content for those who haven’t seen such a serial before to enjoy.
Brick Bradford (1949)
Film review #373
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet
SYNOPSIS: Brick Bradford and his friends are assigned to visit the lodge of the scientist Doctor Tymak, who has developed “interceptor ray” that can intercept and destroy enemy rockets. It’s potential to be developed into a death ray as well has attracted the attention of the foreign spy Laydron, who wants to steal the ray. Brick and his friends must fight to keep the ray from falling into the wrong hands, and help Tymak finish his research as they travel across time and space to defeat the villainous Laydron and his goons…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Brick Bradford is a 1949 movie serial based on the comic strips of the same name. The opening introduces Brick Bradford and his friends Sandy Sanderson (yes that is apparently his real name), Professor Salisbury and his daughter Jane. They are visited by a U.N. official to assigns them to aid the work of Doctor Tymak, a scientist working on a secret project who may be the target of foreign spies. The spy Laydron manages to get to Tymak first, and while Tymak flees, Laydron pretends to be him when Brick and his friends get there in order to capture them. The plot of the serial follows the standard serial setups, with a constant back-and-forth between the heroes and villains, fist fights, getting captured, escaping and daring cliffhangers. I suppose what makes the serial unique is that it is a mix of all the usual elements of the format thrown together into one. For example, the opening third deals with Tymak fleeing to the moon after Laydron trying to capture him and Brick going to rescue him. While there, they get caught up in a civil war between a dictator and the rebels who want to restore democracy. This part of the story is very similar (practically identical) to a Flash Gordon serial, and while it will offer no surprises to viewers familiar to said serial, it offers an interesting setting and some fun traps. The next part of the film involves Brick and Sandy going back in time to find a note buried in a treasure chest that has the formula necessary to complete the interceptor ray. They get caught up in a battle between some sailors and a native tribe and the whole setting again offers something different. The third act revolves around the more standard serial plots of kidnapping, fist fights and chases as Laydron tries to get a hold of the interceptor ray. Add to all this the car chase scenes, invisibility devices and convoluted death traps and you’ve got a full-house in movie serial bingo.
The problem with the story is that while it does have plenty of variety, its different parts feel inconsistent with each other. The first part set on the moon is very similar (identical) to a Flash Gordon serial, and is probably the best written part, with a host of identifiable characters and plenty of danger and traps. The second part set in the 18th century is a bit more light-hearted and silly. With Sandy often making plenty of humourous quips. After these adventures throughout space and time, the final part resorts to the typical back-and-forth between the heroes and villains as they chase each other across the few sets the serial has. This is the weakest part of the serial, as it is difficult to top the first two parts. One reason for this disparity is that each part is written by a different writer, and clearly they all have their own ideas of what should be going on in the serial. The director, Spencer Gordon Bennet, did a number of these film serials, but his expertise doesn’t really fix the problems (he also directed the Batman and Robin, serial and after Brick Bradford the Superman serials, which were much better).
The movie serial format is a very outdated format. It’s multiple episodes re-used the same few sets as they were typically constrained to a low budget and would have to stretch what they had as far as possible (yet would keep viewers coming back to the theatre every week to watch the next instalment). Brick Bradford manages to have a good enough variety of settings thanks to the varied story, and is also aided by the fact that there are plenty of outdoor scenes. Obviously the moon having a breathable atmosphere and people living on it is a bit far-fetched today, but would have been somewhat believable back when the serial was released. The “time top” that Brick and Sandy use to travel back through time in is probably one of the first depictions of a time machine on film too, and I can imagine that it sparked people’s imaginations when they saw it for the first time. The characters themselves are all a bit dry and without merit, and Brick doesn’t really stand out alongside the Flash Gordon’s and Buck Rogers’ of the movie world. Overall, Brick Bradford can best be summed up as a “greatest hits” of the sci-fi movie serial: it has everything it needs from death rays, aliens, time travel, invisibility devices, mobs, car chases, convoluted death traps, all-american heroes, and a single female character. However, all of these elements feel very disjointed from one another, and the mix of writers with different perspectives gives the serial an uneven tone. There is a decent amount of variety throughout the fifteen chapters, but by the end the film has exhausted everything the format has to offer and it clearly shows. A valid attempt with familiar concepts, but nowhere near the best that the serial format has to offer.