The Great Alaskan Mystery (1944)
Film review #464
Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: Dr. Miller, along with Dr. Hauss, has invented a new death ray called the paratron. However, Dr. Hauss is secretly a Nazi spy, who intends to steal the death ray to give to his home country. Jim Hudson, an adventurer of sorts, tells Miller that the material he needs to complete the paratron may be found in the Alaskan mines, and so they set off there, only to have their plane crash on the way…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Great Alaskan Mystery is a 1944 serial released by Universal pictures comprised of thirteen chapters. The serial centres around the invention of a death ray called the “paratron,” invented by Dr. Hauss and Dr. Miller. However, they are having trouble completing it. Jim Anderson, an adventurer who knows Dr. Miller’s daughter Ruth, visits and remarks that a rare mineral that can be found in mines in Alaska might be what they are looking for. They all set out on a boat to Alaska, but various machinations are at work, as Dr. Hauss is secretly a Nazi spy, and intends to steal the paratron for his own country, getting the Captain of the ship to aid him in his scheme. The ship sinks and the cast are forced to survive in the Alaskan wilderness until they are rescued. The first two or three episodes are quite varied and dump the cast straight into the Alaskan wilderness doing what you would expect them to di in Alaska: getting caught in the snow, visiting Inuit natives, and such. After chapter three, the serial settles down into a more typical format, with the heroes and villains engaging in a back and forth as they try to get a hold of the paratron and stop each other. In terms of story then, it’s a standard serial affair. The stakes aren’t particularly high as everything revolves around this death ray which while is indeed powerful, doesn’t seem as revolutionary as some other inventions used in these serials (maybe because the idea of the death ray has been done to death). Also this is a wartime serial, and the stakes here probably pale in comparison to the real war going on at the time. There’s also perhaps something to be said for the fact that the setting of Alaska makes the serial feel somewhat removed from any wider context. However, the serial does make good use of the Alaska setting, as we get a decent amount of shots of the wilderness and unique set-ups in the mountains and snow, even if they rely heavily on stock footage.
The cast for this serial is fairly large. However, none of them really stand out, and fall into very typical serial roles. The cast does however, consist of a number of popular and well-known actors of the time, which enhances the serial with some decent performances. You have the typical protagonist, the sole female character, and the elderly scientist, along with the villains and their henchman. There’s also plenty of characters pretending to be helping the heroes when they are the villains. it all adds up to quite a mystery, but never really flows into a coherent experience as all the characters are easy to get mixed up and don’t form their own unique performance.
As mentioned, the depictions of Alaska are perhaps the most unique part of the serial, with plenty of scenic shots, lumberjacking, and wilderness sets that make it look the part. The dialogue is what mainly drives the story though, as with most Universal serials. There’s not a lot of action scenes outside of some classic shoot-outs and chase scenes, and again that is typical of a Universal serial, which usually are less action-oriented than the ones from rival serial producer Republic. Overall, The Great Alaskan Mystery has many of the serials tropes that it needs to, but fails to bring it’s busy story and large cast together to create anything special. It’s got everything it needs, but is ultimately a bit forgettable, leaving it to be remembered as just another average serial amongst the many of the format.