Officer 444 (1926)
Film review #406
Director: Francis Ford
SYNOPSIS: When a new miracle chemical called “Haverlyite” is discovered by Professor Haverly, he intends it for the good of humanity. When he is killed by the criminal known only as “The Frog,” who wants the chemical for his own evil ends, Officer 444 of the flying squadron must stop The Frog and find Haverly’s son: the only other person who knows the secret formula for Haverlyite…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Officer 444 is a 1925 silent movie serial comprised of ten chapters. In the opening chapter, we see a building on fire, as the police and firefighters rush to get the situation under control. Officer 444, a member of the flying squadron revered by the community, heads into the burning building to rescue people trapped inside, and also to apprehend some dangerous criminals within. As is typical with these serials, the first chapter opens up with an ambitious scene involving lots of people and action in order to entice people in to coming back to the theatre for succeeding chapters, and doesn’t particularly tie in to the rest of the story. The plot itself centres around the discovery of a miracle chemical called Haverlyite, named after its discoverer Professor Haverly. The criminal known only as “The Frog” wants the formula for his own purposes, but when Haverly is killed, the secret formula dies with him…until that is, Haverly’s son appears on the scene. However he has lost his memory of the formula following his attempted abduction and his Father’s death, and so Officer 444 and The Frog do battle over young Haverly as Officer 44 tries to chase him down through the various chapters. The plot is easy enough to follow, and while nothing too special, is kept entertaining with a balance of action and investigation. The miracle formula of Haverlyite is left rather vague as to its applications: it has the power to heal people, but also to be a weapon of some form that The Frog wants to use to take over the world. The vagueness is, I think, part of the message of the film that any scientific discovery may be used for either good or evil, as evidenced by the foreword at the beginning of each chapter.
The cast of characters is fairly large, and adds some variety to proceedings: Officer 444 is the typical lead, and nurse Gloria Grey provides the typical female role, although I suppose it is a bit more involved than the glorified secretarial role most female roles have in these serials, as her nursing profession gives her purpose in scenes such as where she is working to restore young Haverly’s memories. Patrick Casey is Officer 444′s sidekick in the police force, and helps out with the more physical scenes. As you might be able to tell from the name, he fits the stereotypical Irish policeman role, but it will be a long time before cinema moved away from stereotypes. The Frog is presented as a clever criminal who disguises himself as a disfigured man. He sends a woman known only as “The Vulture” to stop 444 and interrupt his plans. While it is rare to find a second woman in a serial such as this, she does fit the role of an ambitious or clever woman that is always on the side of the villains, a role also seen in The Power God released a year earlier with the main villain’s wife. One of the more noteworthy characters is the chief of police played by August Vollmer, who was an actual police chief and one of the most influential in defining policing in the U.S. for better or worse. Dr. Blakely is a mysterious doctor whose purpose and identity provide an ongoing mystery that is only resolved in the final scenes, again providing incentive to get viewers coming back each week.
The serial does a good job of balancing the action and investigation scenes. There’s plenty of car chases filmed ambitiously, and some daring stunts such as a train switching tracks at the last second to avoid Officer 444. The fist fights aren’t as well executed, but it wasn’t until a few years later that fight choreography seemed to be more considered on film. Of particular note on the investigative side is the use of a polygraph or lie detector machine (called a “lieing machine” in the serial). This would have been a fairly recent invention and is probably the first time the device was featured on film. I wonder if Vollmer’s involvement allowed them to get their hands on one, since he would have been using them in his own police force at the time I suppose…
Overall, Officer 444 is a fairly standard serial, but at the time it garnered quite a lot of popularity from what I can tell. It’s story is easy enough to follow, but has a decent sized and varied cast who play a clear role in events. The action scenes showcase car chases and fights that are imaginatively and dramatically shot to emphasise the heroics of the heroes, and there’s enough mystery surrounding certain characters to keep viewers coming back. It’s not too noteworthy from a historical perspective, but it gives a somewhat interesting look at policing in the 1920′s if that interests you.
The Power God (1925)
Film review #404
Directors: Francis Ford, Ben F. Wilson
SYNOPSIS: Professor Sturgess, with his assistant Jim Thorpe, has invented a machine that can draw infinite power from the air, which will be sure to revolutionise the way energy is produced. However, this invention has drawn the attention of the coal and oil companies, who have agreed that the invention is a threat to their monopolies, and must be destroyed. They hire career criminal Weston Dore to deal with Sturgess, but Dore has other plans to steal the invention for himself and become the new “power God”…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Power God is a 1925 movie serial comprised of fifteen chapters, and one of the few serials that has sadly survived from that time. The story opens up with Professor Sturgess and his assistant Jim Thorpe finishing development on a machine described as “the marvel of the radio-electric age,” which can draw power directly from the air, providing a nearly infinite source of energy. This machine has drawn unwanted attention from the traditional energy businesses, who fear the collapse of their industry, hire criminal Weston Dore to get a hold of the machine by any means necessary. When Dore tries to buy the machine from Sturgess with the aim of suppressing it, Sturgess refuses. Dore then has to change plan and has Sturgess killed. With enemies closing in, Thorpe and Strugess’ daughter Aileen have to hide the machine and protect the invention from falling into Dore’s hands, who decides to try and keep the invention for himself to become the new “power God” of the modern world. The story has a familiar setup as with most serials, but this is one of the serials that defined the format for twenty years, and provided a ready-made template for companies like Republic and Universal to pump out similar serials in around a month or so.
At the time it was released, The Power God would have been something many people had not seen before, particularly in the science-fiction genre. Compared to those other serials, The Power God is a strong example of the potential of the format’s storytelling potential. Following Jim asking Professor Sturgess’ approval to marry Aileen and being refused, the two decide to elope and marry in secret. However, a car accident involving her and Dore in another car leads to her losing her memory, and when their rescuers believe Dore to be Aileen’s wife due to the wedding ring they found (which was for Jim), Dore capitalises on this for his schemes and tries to convince Aileen she is his wife while her memory is gone. This is quite a complex situation, and takes up the first few episodes as Jim tries to rescue Aileen and stop her from signing over her Father’s estate to Dore, as well as trying to get her to recover her memory. There’s definitely plenty going on in this story, and each chapter feels a bit different and pushes the story forward, instead of other serials where each chapter is just the foiling of another scheme, a fist fight, and a cliffhanger. The Power God goes through a number of plans and schemes, fleshing them out in depth, and advancing the story in a structured way, as well as introducing new characters that add something new along the way.
The characters themselves are the typical cast of serials: you have the broad-shouldered white male for the lead who does most of the action, a female secondary character who gets captured a lot, a scientist, a criminal villain…they’re all here in some capacity. However, the characters are given plenty of development to make them feel unique. Dore is intent on getting the machine for himself, and his interactions with his calculating wife Carrie give him a bit more of a human dimension. We are also introduced to Carrie’s brother later on, who again changes up the dynamic and keeps things interesting. A mysterious man who aids Thorpe and Aileen from time to time without explaining his motives adds an element of intrigue as to what his role is. He is often just called “the Hindu,” which I’m sure would have been appropriate for the time. He at least is not played by a white actor in ‘blackface,’ but his actor, a native American, does seem to have a bit of makeup on to darken his skin. There are also two black men who are characterised as ‘simple minded,’ which is sadly how every black person on film was depicted in this time. These are certainly problematic, and a product of their time.
The serial is well produced and shot, with plenty of consideration into camera angles and scene-setting. Some of the action scenes, such as on the train near the end, would no doubt taken some effort to pull off. The fight scenes are less well done, and they mostly feel like a chaotic scrap. I don’t think choreography for fight scenes had really been established or developed at the time. The most peculiar aspect of the film for me is the ending: after Dore is stopped and the machine recovered, Aileen and Thorpe realise this machine that will revolutionise how energy is produced will have the consequence of putting thousands of people out of work. In realisation of this, they simply decide to destroy the machine to preserve the status quo. This is a bit of an anti-climax since the viewer will have watched this serial for five hours to see them recover the device, only for it to be willingly destroyed. Also it seems to have the message that invention, science and progress should only be allowed as long as they don’t upset the status quo, or put people in poor working conditions out of a job. The messaging that progress and change is bad does not feel natural, it feels forced and tacked onto the end. It is highly reminiscent of early Soviet cinema where such an ending would be stuck on the end to fit certain propaganda and messaging: the hero would realise his foolishness at independent thought, and would heroically take his place in the system. The example that comes to mind is the Russian film Gold in particular. I wonder if this ending was intentionally made to not upset big business, or they could not figure out any other ending. Either way, it’s not a satisfying payoff, and is rather suspect. Overall though, The Power God is a good serial that has plenty of content, as well as twists and turns that keep things fresh and interesting. The characters are well defined and undergo enough development throughout. There’s some problems around its racial characterisations and the questionable ending, but it certainly provides a template for the format as it was used in the years after it until its demise.