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.
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.
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.
Secret Agent X-9 (1945)
Film review #426
Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: Shadow Island is an island in the Pacific ocean owned by American gangster Lucky Kamber. He has maintained his island’s neutrality during the war, but this has also meant it has become a hotbed for spies from all countries to visit and engage in shady activities. Secret Agent X-9 is sent by America to investigate a Japanese plot concerning something known only as element 722, teaming up with a Chinese agent and Australian spy to take on the Nazi and Japanese forces on the island.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Secret Agent X-9 is a 1945 serial comprised of thirteen chapters. The film takes place on Shadow Island in the Pacific Ocean, which has retained it’s neutrality on the ongoing World War II thanks to it’s owner Lucky Kamber striking a deal with the Japanese government. However, this neutrality brings in all spies from all warring nations, leading to a hotbed of subterfuge and sabotage. Japanese scientist Hakahima discovers an element known only as “722″ has the capability to replace airplane fuel when mixed with water, thus supplying an infinite fuel source. The head of the Japanese on the island, Nabura, devises a plan to send a criminal to the United States, whose face is altered by plastic surgery, to imitate the professor who discovered element 722 and get the formula from his office, which the professor himself believes to simply be a failed experiment. When Australian spy Lynn Moore learns of this, she informs her superiors, and the Americans send in secret agent X-9 to foil the plot, teaming him up with Chinese agent Au Fong. The setup to this serial is certainly one of the more interesting of the serials I have seen, with this island providing a unique setting for all the warring nations to scheme against each other. The back-and-forth plot of the protagonists sneaking around and attempting to foil the villains schemes is more typical of the serial format. However, there’s a good variety of settings and characters that keeps things interesting, alongside the tense relations between enemies that have to keep in line with the island’s neutrality. There is a lot of dialogue that simply repeats the plot points, but that’s not too uncommon for serials where viewers may not have watched all of the chapters.
The characters are a pretty interesting bunch, and offer a decent amount of variety. Many of the nations involved in the war are represented within these characters, with their own personalities that make them stand out. Secret Agent x-9 himself is played by a young Lloyd Bridges, and is definitely a strong lead, with his shiny blond hair, buff physique and charming personality. Au Fong, the Chinese agent, is played by Keye Luke, who played Kato in the Green Hornet serials, and is a good sidekick. Lynn Moore as the Australian double agent (who has an American accent) who pretends to work for Japanese forces with her radio broadcasts has a fair amount to do, particularly in comparison to other “token females” that are usually found in these serials. There’s also the Nazis that are fairly convincing in their full uniforms, as usually they are only referred to as a “foreign power” and never in the full uniforms. This goes a long way in giving the serial a convincing setting. The main protagonist is Nabura, a Japanese woman, who is played by a white American actress in makeup. This is not unusual at the time, but at least most of the other (male) Japanese characters are played by Asians. Her character comes across as sufficiently scheming and evil, but her portrayal by the actress constantly has her eyes half closed and looking at the floor as if she is reading her lines that are offscreen, which is distracting. Lucky Kamber, the owner of the island, in his portrayal in keeping the island neutral in the war, also has an interesting role as he tries to keep everyone else from tearing each other up. Other minor characters such as Solo, who sits at the same spot playing tiddlywinks for most of the film, and the French hotel owner Papa Pierre, also have their own personality and look which makes them fairly memorable and allow them to bring their own unique flavour to the scenes they are in. It is very rare to find a serial with such a varied cast and to make them interesting enough across the entire serial, but this serial definitely goes a lot further than others.
The setting of Shadow Island provides a decent variety of locations, from the casino, the Nazi ship and the hotel run by Pierre. They are all fairly distinct from one another, so the viewer can keep track of where they are. As mentioned, the characters all have a distinct appearance, from the Japanese soldiers to the Nazi uniforms, their is little doubt about who is who. Probably the weaker elements of the serial is the lack of action sequences, which revolve around the typical fistfights and car chases that you would expect to see. Most of the serial is focused on the intrigue and espionage played out through the characters, so it is important to follow the story. The cliffhangers aren’t too interesting, but there’s one or two novel traps the heroes have to escape from. Overall though, I think Secret Agent X-9 has an interesting and quite unique setup, alongside an array of distinct characters. The heroes are likeable, and the villains despicable, with a few morally grey characters as well to make things interesting. Some elements of the plot are a bit more typical, and the constant re-iteration of plot points can be a little tiresome. There’s less emphasis on action and more on espionage so perhaps some people (particularly younger viewers) may find it a little tiresome, but it distinguishes itself enough to make it a good and fairly unique example of the genre.
Junior G-Men of the Air (1942)
Film review #416
Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: “Ace” Holden and his friends hang out at his Father’s airstrip, hoping to enter the local air race while Ace’s younger brother Eddie is inventing a new plane engine. Ace and his friends witness a bank robbery, and when they refuse to cooperate with the local G-man, they try and find the robbers, not realising that they belong to the “Order of the Black Dragonfly” a foreign organisation that is attempting to sabotage American industry and pave the way for an invasion. Ace and his friends join up with the junior G-men in order to combat this threat to themselves and their country…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Junior G-men of the Air is a 1942 film serial composed of twelve chapters, and the third to feature the young group of actors The Dead End Kids and The Little Tough Guys, although none of the serials are connected or have the same characters. This time, the kids are help to salvage junk at the airfield owned by the Father of one of the boys, Ace. While out collecting junk in their truck, they witness a robbery on a bank by a gang who steal their truck to make their getaway. Ace manages to get a strange broach of one of the men, but when the local G-man, Don Ames asks for the kids cooperation, they refuse due to their distrust of law enforcement. It turns out the robbers belong to a group known as the “Order of the Black Dragonfly,” a fifth column gang of saboteurs looking to destabilise American society to pave the way for a foreign invasion. As the serial progresses and Ace’s younger brother Eddie is kidnapped, the kids join up with the junior G-men, led by Jerry Markham, to find the gang and put a stop to them. The film’s plot is quite similar to Junior G-men, the first serial featuring the group of young actors, but while that one had a setting on land, and Sea Raiders focused on the sea, this one is centred around the air and aeroplanes, although there’s not too much action in the air. At least each of them have something unique about them. Other than that there’s not too much special about the story, but as with its predecessors, having the leads be these young, unruly boys rather than the typical all-american hero offers something a little different to the vast majority of serials.
The characters of the young actors are quite similar to the ones they played in the previous serials, but I suppose they are hired to play those specific roles. The leader of the gang, Ace, is the usual agitator and instigator, although he appears a bit more tidy than the previous serials for reasons I’ll get into below. At least his name isn’t Billy this time as well. Huntz Hall as “Bolts” plays his usual idiots sidekick routine without any real surprises, and “Stick” and “Greaseball” play mostly supporting roles, but they do have more lines and action than in the previous serials. While the kids are still troublemakers and somewhat hostile to any person of the law, they are less abrasive and unlikable than they were in previous serials, which again I’ll get into below. Other characters including “Double Face” Gordon add some variety to the line-up, while Don Ames as the G-man provide the more typical straight-laced law enforcement hero. Once again there’s no real female characters aside from a minor secretarial role, as it’s clear the serial is aimed at young boys of a more rebellious nature. The villains are classed as saboteurs, destroying America from within, and are obviously meant to be representing Japan. As is usual for these serials, The Japanese characters are all played by white Americans in make-up to “look” Japanese, which is not a good look to say the least, and a practice which sadly persevered for years in the film industry. Other than that, there’s nothing too remarkable about them.
Let’s get into the main aim of this serial: it is a giant propaganda piece for young Americans to serve their country in any way possible. By the time of the serials release, the U.S. had officially entered the Second World war after the attack on Pearl Harbour, and Anti-Japanese sentiment as overwhelming. A lot of these serial have secret Japanese societies of saboteurs fuelling this sentiment, as well as convincing the public to suspicious of everything around them. That the rough antics of the lead kids and their hostility to law enforcement is toned down in this serial compared to the previous ones is probably due to delivering this message that everyone must help their country in any way they can, in fact there’s multiple scenes that explicitly deliver this line. The final chapter of the serial is one big battle where the army storms the farm where the villains have set up a base, making it look like a battlefield and displaying the glorious victory of American troops. At the end everyone remarks about how vigilant they must be against enemies from within who threaten to destroy the American way of life, when they get new that Pearl Harbour has been attacked and they must now get ready for war and remain more vigilant than before. A lot of wartime serials push this messaging, but this serial is definitely more blatant about it than others I’ve seen. Maybe because it’s aimed at the younger rebellious generation that might be more reluctant to get behind their country. nevertheless, this makes for a much more interesting finale than you get in most serials, with the large scale battle making for an interesting payoff, even if it feels like mostly stock-footage not involving most of the main cast.
Overall, Junior G-men of the Air is a decent enough serial with plenty of action to keep younger viewers entertained. The overwhelming sense of wartime propaganda that fills some of the scenes is a bit much (although there’s definitely worse), and the frankly racist depiction of Japanese people as sneaky and devious is badly outdated, which was sadly not uncommon in film for a significant period of time. It doesn’t offer much that the previous two serials featuring the young actors doesn’t, but like the other two, at least does something a little different to most serials.
The Spider’s Web (1938)
Film review #411
Directors: James W. Horne, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: A wave of crime across the city targeting key infrastructure and transportation networks is being conducted by a criminal mastermind known only as “The Octopus” with aims to take over all the key utilities and companies. Criminologist Richard Wentworth must don his secret identity of “The Spider” in order to thwart The Octopus’ plans outside of the police’s rules and regulations…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Spider’s Web is a 1938 serial based on the comic book character “The Spider” (not to be confused with spider-man). The serial starts out strongly as most of the format does in order to entice viewers back week after week. In the opening chapter contains plane crashes, car chases, fist fights and a heap of explosions, so there’s definitely plenty of bang for your buck. The explosions and destruction of key transport and city infrastructure is being carried out by a criminal mastermind known only as “The Octopus,” who seeks to put his own men in charge of all these utilities by killing off the current managers of them. Renowned criminologist Richard Wentworth is travelling home on his plane with his sweetheart Nita van Sloan when their plane is attacked and they have to parachute out. Wentworth learns of this new crime wave and decides to once again become the masked vigilante “The Spider,” who chases crime where the rules and regulations of the police cannot go, even though he promised Nita that he had retired from the costumed life. The story is a standard serial affair of the hero foiling the villain’s various schemes across the fifteen chapters, and while it does not do much unique in terms of story, it still executes the usual plot points in a fun and interesting way, and with a good level of competency.
The characters are a typical cast of serial characters. Wentworth is the usual lead character, Nita is the sole female character, and Jackson is the sidekick who gets in on some of the action. Ram Singh is Wentworth’s assistant who is clearly meant to be Indian, but is portrayed by a white American and refers to him as “Master” occasionally like he is a servant. and that is obviously a problematic stereotype of non-white people being subservient to them. Wentworth himself is very much like Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne: he is rich, clever, works alongside the police, but when he dons his mask to fight crime, he is wanted by them. He can also disguise himself as a known criminal “Blinky” McQuaid, which he uses to get close to the criminals and get the information on their plans. These different facets to the main character add some good variety to the serial, and make the lead a bit more stand-out from the sheer volume of serial leads which all look and act the same. The Octopus as a villain is shown to be cunning and ruthless, as he executes those who fail him. His being dressed in a white hood and cloak mirrors the Spider’s outfit, which is almost the same, but in black. The identity of The Octopus is, unusually for such a serial, never really explored or even revealed in the finale, and we are only told he is one of the most powerful men in the city.
At the time of it’s release, The Spider’s Web was a huge success, and it is easy to see why: it doesn’t deviate from the serial format, but does all its tropes pretty well. The character of The Spider as a masked vigilante probably helped kick-start the popularity of masked superheroes, and serial adaptations in the 1940s. The Green Hornet, one such serial, is practically identical in both story and characters, with the masked vigilante stopping crime and eluding the police, while being aided by a foreign sidekick.
The Green Hornet (1940)
Film review #394
Director: Ford Beebe, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: A racketeering gang is causing all sorts of crimes across the city. Meanwhile, the owner of The Sentinel newspaper Britt Reid, upon learning of these criminal activities, has decided to fight back in disguise as The Green Hornet, accompanied by his valet Kato and their super fast car, they attempt to shut down the criminal rackets all the while trying to avoid having their identities uncovered by their friends at The Sentinel…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Green Hornet is a 1940 movie serial based on the radio series of the same name. The story opens up showing a crime racket running amok in a city, with The Sentinel newspaper trying to chase down the stories behind their criminal activities. Britt Reid, the head of the newspaper, decides it is time for someone to deal with these criminals, and he dons the disguise of “The Green Hornet,” a masked vigilante who visits these criminals and tries to uncover who is leading the rackets. The plot unfolds over the thirteen serial chapters, with each chapter introducing a new racket that The Green Hornet must confront. With each chapter introducing something new, there’s enough variety to keep viewers returning and engaged with the story. There’s the usual high-speed chases and fist fights you would expect, and these are executed pretty well. Maybe nothing too memorable, but still entertaining enough to watch.
The character of Britt Reid and his alter-ego as the Green Hornet play a typical superhero role, with no-one knowing he is leading this double life. As such, this leads to many of his friends and colleagues at The Sentinel newspaper wondering whether The Green Hornet is a hero or villain, and in some cases working to apprehend him, which leads to some complications and interesting turns in the story. The only person who knows his identity is Britt’s valet Kato, who drives The Green Hornet’s car, which is a super speedy vehicle that makes a buzzing sound akin to a hornet. Kato stands out as a character as he is actually portrayed by an Asian actor, whereas a lot of the time Asian characters were portrayed by white actors in makeup to “look” Asian. Also of note is that when the serial was released in 1940, the U.S. had not entered world war two, although anti-Japanese sentiment was still growing, leading to Kato’s original origin being Japanese being changed to Korean for the serial (Keke Luke, the actor himself, was Chinese-American). Nevertheless, it is very rare to see a non-white person in a leading role at this time. Other characters include the one token female character, who works at The Sentinel and believes throughout that The Green Hornet is a force for good in spite of her colleagues believing otherwise. Also Britt’s bodyguard plays a bit of a comic relief character, and his being Irish leads to some stereotypical phrases that come out of his mouth. The villains don’t really have much of an impact as characters themselves, as they mostly change with each chapter and the new racket that the Green Hornet must thwart, but that’s not too much of a problem, as the protagonists are much more interesting.
Overall, The Green Hornet is a good example of the serial format. There’s plenty of action, the characters are interesting, and there’s enough variety to keep viewers entertained. It is also a good example of an early superhero-esque character who leads a double life and must balance the two roles.
Dick Tracy (1937)
Film review #381
Directors: Alan James, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: F.B.I. G-man Dick Tracy is on the trail of the criminal gang known as the Spider Ring. They have invented a flying fortress called The Wing and it is Tracy’s job to find a way to stop it and the gang’s evil schemes. Alongside this, he is also trying to find his brother Gordon, who has gone missing, and unbeknown to Dick, has been brainwashed by the Spider Ring to do their bidding…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Dick Tracy is a 1937 movie serial based on the comic book character of the same name. The serial stars, unsurprisingly, Dick Tracy, who is a “G-man” working for the F.B.I. investigating crimes, specifically trying to bring down the criminal gang known as the Spider Ring, who leave the mark of a spider on their victims before they kill them. Dick also has to find out what has happened to his brother, who has gone missing, and unbeknown to him has been captured by the Spider Ring and been brainwashed into becoming their servant. The serial’s story unfolds across a lengthy fifteen chapters, with the usual serial shenanigans taking place. Despite the length, the serial does a good job of keeping things interesting, and has a number of mini-arcs in the story to keep things varied. Dick Tracy’s character as a criminal investigator plays a strong role in the story, as he is actually investigating the crimes and following the evidence, rather than just showing up and getting into a fistfight like a lot of these serials.
The action scenes are also well varied, with their being chases across land, sea and air. The aerial scenes are probably the most interesting, as they are fast-paced and have plenty of stunts. The real sci-fi element of the serial comes in the form of The Wing: a large plane that resembles a flying fortress crossed with a stealth plane. It is the sort of thing that would not have been seen before when it was released, so it certainly gives the serial some originality. While The Wing plays a large role in the earlier chapters, it appears less frequently in the later ones, which is a shame since it probably had some more potential, but there’s plenty of other things going on so it doesn’t feel like the serial runs out of steam.
As mentioned, Dick Tracy’s role as a criminal investigator gives him plenty to do, and separates him from the similar white-male leads of these type of serials by giving him a unique character trait. The cast of supporting characters is quite large, but they all serve a purpose and you can tell them apart. The comedic relief in the form of the young Junior and his guardian McGurk aren’t overplayed, and provide just enough of a contribution to the story without being distracting. The villains, including the leader of the Spider Ring known as “The Lame One” are also well varied, including the rogue doctor Moloch who performs the operation to brainwash Gordon Tracy (who also has his face changed, which is rather pointless as none of the heroes see his face that would recognise him). The Lame One’s identity is kept a mystery until the end, but if you follow the serial closely, you can probably tell who it is, and it doesn’t act as too much of a revelation. Nevertheless, an overall interesting cast that are recognisable and add different dynamics to the serial.
The special effects of the film are pretty good for the time, and while a lot of the plane stunts are done with models, they are still convincing. A lot of the aerial stunts are pretty implausible and flying the face of physics, but given that cinema goers in 1937 would probably have not been in a plane (or maybe even seen one), it’s not going to break the immersion. Overall, Dick Tracy manages to take the typical aspects of the serial format and excel with them: the action is varied, the story is full of drama and suspense, the characters are well-defined, and there’s plenty of content to keep viewers coming back to the theatre every week.