King of the Carnival (1955)
Film review #471
Director: Franklin Adreon
SYNOPSIS: A counterfeiting operation to flood the United States with fake money leads to treasury agents Art Kerr and Jim Haynes to investigate a circus in connection with the operation. Art asks acrobat Bert King to aid them in putting a stop to the counterfeiting, and to unmask the villain responsible…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: King of the Carnival is a 1955 film serial and the last serial made by Republic Pictures. As the other two serial producing companies (Universal and Columbia) has already stopped producing them, King of the Carnival stands as the final serial, and the end of the format as a whole. The serial is set in a circus, where Bert King performs as an acrobat (The title “King” of the carnival refers to Bert, and is something that Republic Pictures also did with the lead character in King of the Royal Mounted). When agents of the U.S. treasury Art Kerr and Jim Haynes arrive on the scene investigating a counterfeit operation they believe is connected to the circus, Art asks his old friend Bert to aid them in unravelling the sinister plot. The villain’s plot centres around the production of counterfeit money and flooding the U.S. with it, so that the currency is devalued and other countries lose confidence in it. If that sounds like a dull and boring set-up, that’s because it is. There’s nothing else to this story other than this bizarre plot that doesn’t really make sense: surely it would take a huge operation to destroy a currency like the U.S. dollar, and the serial just has one guy working in a sunken boat. Such an intangible plot never connects with the viewers, and will be sure to bore. The plot does have this similar theme of many post-war serials, in that foreign powers attempt to sabotage the U.S. in some way, marking the onset of the cold war. However, the serial format never returned to it’s peak popularity like it had during the war. The circus element of the story is a bit more unique, but a lot of the action scenes are footage taken from the earlier serial Daredevils of the Red Circle, which wasn’t too great itself.
The characters are a typical and uninteresting bunch. You have the male leads, a single female character who is also an acrobat at the circle (although you never see her doing any of the stunts because the footage taken from Daredevils of the Red Circle had no female performers). The villain “Zorn” has no real presence and just gives orders to his henchmen to do the dirty work. It is revealed that someone at the circus is actually the leader of the counterfeiting operation, setting up a mystery villain reveal at the end, but you probably won’t care as it makes no real difference to the plot.
When this serial was released in 1955, the world of cinema and media in general had moved on from the fifteen or twenty years before when the serial was so popular. However, King of the Carnival could easily have been made at the height of the format’s popularity, and still be pretty poor. It takes no advantages of any advances in technology and the evolution of cinema, and just ends up being another cut-and-paste job that many of the serials are. At this time too, obviously televisions were appearing in people’s homes, and the idea of going to the theatre every week to watch a new instalment was fast becoming outdated when you could just tune in to an ongoing series from your television at home. The serial format never really tried to change or adapt to the times; the companies that made them clearly just saw that their time was up, and focused on feature films. Not that I can really blame them, as the introduction of TV made the format redundant. Going back to King of the Carnival, it feels very much like a poor production that is well aware of it’s fate. The ‘circus’ is clearly just a set with cloths draped all over them to give the illusion if it being a big tent, and the cliffhangers lack any form of imagination or suspense, especially when viewers had been seeing these same ones for over twenty years. Overall, King of the Carnival is a poor swansong for the serial format, accentuating their worst elements such as low budget, repetition, and one-dimensional characters, while not providing any imaginative settings, devices etc. that some of the more popular serials did. The serial format had very much run its course, perhaps many years before King of the Carnival was released, and it is a stark reminder of all of it’s worst elements.
Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955)
Film review #467
Director: Franklin Adreon
SYNOPSIS: Jean Evans, a member of a wildlife foundation, is in Africa taking photos of local wildlife when she encounters a giant crayfish that nearly kills her. She teams up with Larry Sanders, a big game hunter, to stop the creature and discover it’s origins.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Panther Girl of the Kongo is a 1955 serial produced by Republic Pictures and comprised of twelve chapters. The serial centres around Jean Evans, who works for a wildlife foundation taking photographs of wildlife. She is known as “Panther girl” because…I don’t know, she rides an elephant sometimes and dives off cliffs; the only panther I recall seeing is at the end screen. Anyway, she encounters a giant crayfish that attacks her, but is saved by Larry Sanders, a big game hunter in the area. The two team up to try to stop the monster and unravel the mystery of it’s origins, while trying to stop two outlaws in the area. This is the cornerstone of the plot, alongside Dr. Morgan, a scientist also in the area, has created the giant monster to scare off people from a mine full of diamonds while he harvests them all. Obviously, this type of plot has been done to death, and is perhaps more famously associated with a vast chunk of episodes of Scooby-Doo, meaning it’s hardly an interesting watch nowadays when it’s been done and done again. There’s also not much of a plot besides this, and the heroes trying to stop the giant crayfish monster thing. Trouble is, it doesn’t show up for a good chunk of the serial, and so Jean and Larry are left to do the typical back-and-forth with Morgan’s henchman, as they make plans, set traps, and start fistfights with each other. As it is, the plot rarely has any direction, and the stakes are also pretty low, since again it’s not all for world domination or anything, just a man wanting to mine some diamonds in the middle of nowhere.
Quite rarely for a serial, the main character is a woman. Jean Evans is the “panther girl” due to her prowess in the jungle (even though there’s no panthers that we see), and she actually does something other than being kidnapped. The only other serial that does this to this degree is perhaps Jungle Girl (more on that later). However, when the script requires it, she does revert to the typical screaming damsel in distress, and the male lead swoops in to save her. He also does most of the shooting and punching, but still Jean’s character is central to the plot. Larry is just a typical male lead with no real character. The villains also are just typical henchman and a “mad” scientist who isn’t all that mad, just wants to get rich. The setting of non descript “Africa” and its stereotypical depiction of “tribes” is problematic and presenting the entire continent in this way is a depiction that prevailed for decades thanks to films such as these.
The serial is quite similar to the Jungle Girl serial released in 1941, particularly with regards to a jungle-savvy female lead. This is also not coincidental, as this serial uses a lot of the footage from the serial, particularly the on-location stuff and animals. In 1955, the serial format was really on it’s last legs, and it’s no surprise that the studios wanted to do as little new stuff as possible (although cost-cutting and re-using footage has been a staple of the serial format for years at this point). Since Jungle Girl was released fourteen years before, and theatre-goers probably wouldn’t have seen it or forgotten about it due to the lack of home media releases, and the only way to see older serials would be to watch re-releases at theatres, which I believe were somewhat rare, and even then they really don’t benefit from repeated viewings. The re-used footage is pretty heavy in the finale, when the action sequences are almost entirely made up from this footage, and the transition between the different footage is very awkward and disjointed. For example, you can clearly see “Jean’s” outfit change from scenes as she instantly switches from a miniskirt to swinging from the trees in leggings. The “giant” crayfish is obviously not a giant one, just a regular one filmed amongst miniatures. It’s not particularly convincing, especially when the “giant claw” attacks people with the rest of its body just offscreen. Overall, Panther Girl of the Kongo is a fairly weak serial, in which it’s most interesting aspects are just bits of re-used footage. The plot is non-directional and has fairly low stakes, alongside often feeling it’s just padding for the more interesting re-used footage. The emphasis on the female lead is a more unique aspect, but she is reverted to the typical “damsel in distress” when the plot wants to do a more typical set-up of the female being the victim. The serial is very low on imagination and spectacle, and is emblematic of the serial format in it’s twilight years as the format became unviable with the introduction of televisions in homes.