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Tag Archives: Serials

King of the Rocket Men (12 chapters) June 7-Aug. 23, 1949

King of the Rocket Men
King of the Rocket Men (12 chapters) (1949)
Directed by Fred C. Brannon
Republic Pictures

When I was a kid, one of my favorite comic books was The Rocketeer, by Dave Stevens. The protagonist, Cliff Secord, was a stunt pilot who strapped on an experimental jet pack and fought criminals and Nazi saboteurs. As a child of the ’80s who was obsessed with old radio shows and the pop culture of the past, The Rocketeer was amazing. It was a loving homage to the pulp entertainments of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.

As a budding adolescent, the thing I loved best about the series was Cliff Secord’s girlfriend Betty, who was clearly modeled after pinup queen Bettie Page.

Betty

But pretty much everything about The Rocketeer was great. I especially liked how up-front Stevens was about his homages. Cliff Secord’s jet pack and streamlined metal helmet were taken straight from Republic’s “Rocket Man” serials — King of the Rocket Men (1949), Radar Men From the Moon (1952), and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), as well as Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1955), which was originally filmed as a TV series but ended up being released theatrically as a week-to-week serial.

King of the Rocket Men is the chapterplay that started it all. It was released by Republic Pictures and directed by Fred C. Brannon, who co-directed (with William Witney) one of my favorite serials of all time, The Crimson Ghost (1946).

King of the Rocket Men shares some similarities with The Crimson Ghost. Both are about a scientific consortium with one member who is secretly a criminal mastermind, and both feature the actor I. Stanford Jolley in similar roles. Instead of the Crimson Ghost, however, the evil genius in King of the Rocket Men is called “Dr. Vulcan,” and he’s the alter ego of one of the members of “Science Associates.”

King of the Rocket Men lobby card

In the first chapter of the serial, Dr. Vulcan — Traitor, noted “cyclotron expert” Prof. Drake, who was working on wild, unpublicized experiments on “flying suits” is killed after his car goes off a cliff (driven by remote control operated by some unseen evildoer, natch).

Our hero, Jeff King, springs into action with one of the flying suits, and blasts, zooms, and punches his way through 12 action-packed weeks of Saturday-afternoon entertainment.

King is played by Republic Pictures mainstay Tristram Coffin, who’s older and more distinguished looking than the average serial protagonist. He was only 39 or 40 when King of the Rocket Men was filmed, but his gray hair and stiffness give him a patrician air.

Rocket Man Title Cards

Every kid has dreamed of strapping on a jet pack and taking to the skies. Part of the appeal of King of the Rocket Men is that the controls of King’s flying suit are so simple even a child could operate them. There are only three controls — ON/OFF, UP/DOWN, and FAST/SLOW — and they all have numbered dials, even the ON/OFF switch, which really doesn’t make sense.

The serial also features Mae Clarke, who starred in much higher-profile films in the ’30s, like Frankenstein (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), in which she famously received a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney.

In King of the Rocket Men, Clarke plays an intrepid reporter named Glenda Thomas. While Jeff King never shoves anything in her face, his treatment of her is occasionally less than gallant. For instance, in Chapter 3: Dangerous Evidence, he tells her to jump out of a speeding car. Miraculously, she doesn’t die or receive any injuries. He jumps too, and flies away, then they reunite while dusting themselves off. She says, “Thanks, Rocket Man! You know, at first I thought you were an invader from some other planet, but it’s plain to see you’re human and you’ve made a great scientific discovery. I’d like to write an article about you for my magazine.” He responds, “I’m sorry, that’s impossible.” He wants to put an end to the mysterious activities of Dr. Vulcan, and he doesn’t want her to publicize his actions. And then, like a true gentleman, he tells her to wait for the bus and he flies away.

King of the Rocket Men Chapter 8

Weird little moments like that aside, King of the Rocket Men is well-made, fast-paced entertainment, and highly recommended for any cliffhanger fans who haven’t seen it yet. It has plenty of stock footage of car crashes and explosions taken from earlier Republic serials, but the Rocket Man himself is unique. The jet pack technology might be pure hokum, but it’s still thrilling for kids and the young-at-heart when he takes to the skies.

The reason for this is the brilliant special effects work of brothers Howard Lydecker and Theodore Lydecker, who ran Republic’s special effects and miniatures department. As they proved in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), simple techniques like a dummy on a wire and running the film in reverse are only as good as the technicians who employ them. The Lydecker brothers were magicians. Prior to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), I think the effects in Adventures of Captain Marvel and King of the Rocket Men were the best flying-human effects achieved on film.

Superman (15 chapters) (July 15-Oct. 21, 1948)

Superman Chapter 10
Superman (15 chapters) (1948)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr
Columbia Pictures

Here it is, folks — the very first live-action Superman film.

Superman, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes of the 20th century. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. His popularity grew quickly, leading to a second comic series, simply titled Superman, in 1939, a radio serial — The Adventures of Superman — in 1940, a series of Max Fleischer cartoons (1941-1943), and a third comic series, which debuted in 1941 as “World’s Best Comics,” but was changed after the first issue to World’s Finest, and featured stories about Superman and Batman & Robin, as well as other DC Comics superheroes.

Aspects of all of those source materials can be seen in the 15-chapter serial Superman, which was produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures and directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr. Katzman produced a ton of cheapjack serials for Columbia, and he was sometimes known as “Jungle Sam” on account of all the action-adventure pictures he made that were set in tropical locations.

I’ve reviewed a few of Katzman’s serials on this blog already — Jack Armstrong (1947), The Sea Hound (1947), and Brick Bradford (1948) — but I’ve barely scratched the surface of his voluminous output. To be honest, I really don’t want to dig any deeper. Katzman produced some fun low-budget sci-fi pictures in the 1950s, but all of his serials that I’ve seen so far have been tedious, cheaply made, and poorly acted, and Superman is no exception.

In 1948, the Max Fleischer animated shorts about Superman were still the most impressive cinematic versions of the character. They were gorgeously animated, full of vibrant color, packed with action, and even featured the talents of Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman on the radio. In short, they were comic books come to life.

In fact, they were so impressive that Katzman’s black and white serial Superman features an animated Superman in all of the flying sequences. It’s a very different approach to a flying superhero than the practical effects featured in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), which for my money is the greatest serial ever made.

Adventures of Captain Marvel featured a dummy that zipped along a wire, which sounds cheesier than it is. The effect actually works quite well, thanks to simple techniques like reversing the film so the dummy can fly upward, shooting in silhouette, and creative editing. The animated flying sequences in Superman, on the other hand, are well-done for what they are, but the technique of turning live action into animation and back again was always jarring for me.

If you’re a Superman fan, this serial is a must-see for its historical value, but it’s just not that great. The low-budget black and white filmmaking is less vibrant than the Max Fleischer cartoons, the storytelling is less inventive and involving than the radio show, and the physical appearance of Superman just isn’t as impressive as it was in the comic books.

At the beginning of every chapter, the Superman comic magazine flashes on screen, then Kirk Alyn bursts from its pages and stands there for awhile looking as if he’s not sure what he should do next.

Alyn was a 37-year-old actor who’d had bit parts in a bunch of B movies, but this was his first leading role. Alyn has the right face and the right hair to play Superman, but his body, mannerisms, and physical presence all feel wrong. (This is another area where Adventures of Captain Marvel excelled. Tom Tyler looked very much like the Captain Marvel of the comic books, and his physicality was impressive.)

Alyn fares a little better as Superman’s alter ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. I like the slightly alien edge he gives the character, but in some scenes his alien peculiarity just seems like bad acting.

My favorite actor in Superman is Noel Neill, who was so good as Lois Lane that she went on to play Lois in the Adventures of Superman TV series with George Reeves that premiered in 1951. The same honor was not accorded to either Tommy Bond (who plays cub reporter Jimmy Olsen) or Pierre Watkin (who plays Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White). I actually really liked Watkin as Perry White, but I thought Bond was obnoxious and irritating as Olsen, and not just because he’s the guy who played Butch in the Our Gang comedies.

Also, Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside don’t make for a very convincing Metropolis, but California locations are to be expected in any serial.

The antagonist of the serial is called The Spider Lady (Carol Forman), a master criminal who wears a slinky black cocktail dress and a black domino mask. The Spider Lady is after a MacGuffin called a “reducer ray,” and like every good serial villain, she has an army of disposable goons who carry out her cockamamie plans in chapter after chapter. She also has a henchman named Hackett who is introduced in Chapter 6, “Superman in Danger.” Hackett is a brilliant but deranged scientist who has broken out of prison. He’s played by Charles Quigley, who starred in The Crimson Ghost (1946), and other serials.

Superman Chapter 6

I love serials — even the bad ones — and I certainly enjoyed aspects of Superman. But every superhero movie is only as convincing as its lead actor, and Kirk Alyn just isn’t up to the task. I’m sure in 1948 it was thrilling for plenty of kids to see their hero come to life on the big screen. It was a time when Superman was such a mythic, larger-than-life figure that the actors who played him were never credited. When Bud Collyer made an announcement about something that wasn’t a part of the radio show’s serialized story, he was still introduced as “Superman.” Similarly, in the cast of characters list that flashes on the screen at the beginning of every chapter of Superman, Kirk Alyn is the only actor whose name isn’t listed. The first name in the credits is simply SUPERMAN.

Still, I wonder how many children in 1948 were somewhat disappointed by Kirk Alyn (perhaps in ways they couldn’t verbalize). After all, he doesn’t have the impressive voice of Bud Collyer, and he’s so much scrawnier than the strapping hero of the comics. Worst of all, he flits around like Peter Pan, and his cape frequently gets in the way during the action.

Brick Bradford (15 chapters) (Jan. 5-April 12, 1948)

Brick Bradford is the worst of the three Columbia serials produced by “Jungle” Sam Katzman that I’ve seen so far, and that’s saying something.

The previous couple of Katzman-produced serials I watched — Jack Armstrong and The Sea Hound (both made in 1947) — suffered from a similar lack of focus across their 15 weekly chapters, but Brick Bradford takes it to a new level by setting up a tantalizingly trashy science-fiction scenario and then abandoning it halfway through.

Brick Bradford was directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr and based on the daily newspaper strip created by writer William Ritt and artist Clarence Gray that began in 1933.

Brick Bradford was a square-jawed, spacefaring, time-traveling adventurer in the mold of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. He’s played by serial superstar Kane Richmond, who also starred in Spy Smasher (1942), one of my favorite serials, and as Lamont Cranston, a.k.a. The Shadow, in The Shadow Returns, Behind the Mask, and The Missing Lady (all 1946), as well as innumerable other B movies and chapterplays over the course of his career. When he appeared in Brick Bradford he was pushing 41, and he would only appear in one more film before retiring from acting — William Nigh’s Stage Struck (1948).

Richmond is definitely not the problem with Brick Bradford. He still looks great and can carry himself in a fistfight. The problem is that it leaves so many plot threads hanging at the end.

Chrome-domed, bespectacled scientist Dr. Gregor Tymak (John Merton) invents an “interceptor ray” that could be used to shoot down atomic weapons, but that could also be easily tinkered with and made into a terrifying weapon. Definitely not something that should fall into the wrong hands.

Tymak has also invented a “crystal door” that can be used to move through space and time, or through what Tymak calls “the fifth dimension.” He uses it to travel to the far side of the moon, which no one has ever seen before. Despite what you may have heard, the dark side of the moon is as bright as high noon in California, has a breathable atmosphere, and is the perfect place to mine “lunarium.” It also has plenty of moonhabitants, who are mostly overweight middle-aged men with capes and Centurion helmets.

Unsurprisingly, producer Katzman’s vision of life on the moon isn’t too far removed from his vision of life in the jungle, but I felt like there was some cheesy good fun to be had on the moon with the evil dictator Zuntar (Robert Barron) and his queen Khana (Carol Forman), and their war against the “exiles,” a group of scientists from the earth who were able to reach the moon and form a utopian civilization. For the first half of Brick Bradford, Brick and his sidekick Sandy (Rick Vallin) travel back and forth to the moon through the crystal door, battling the evil super spy Laydron (Charles Quigley, the hero of the 1946 Republic serial The Crimson Ghost) on terra firma and Zuntar and Khana in orbit.

In chapter 8 of the serial, however, Brick and Sandy use Tymak’s experimental “Time Top” to travel from 1948 America to 1748 Brazil and team up with pirates to find some secret plans Tymak hid in the past among some buried treasure. This diversion is mercifully brief, but when it’s over there is literally not one more mention of the moon or anything that happened on it.

There’s some fun stuff with Tymak’s “Z-ray machine,” which is worn around the neck like a tourist’s camera (Tymak explains that the Z-ray “creates the illusion of invisibility, just as the mirror reflects the illusion of form”), but aside from that the last five chapters of the serial are a boring collection of fistfights and cliffhangers in and around Tymak’s farmhouse in the California countryside. It’s standard serial stuff, and I probably wouldn’t have found it so frustrating if I hadn’t spent every minute wondering what was going on up on the moon. Imagine if a Flash Gordon serial introduced Ming the Merciless in the first several chapters and then completely forgot about him for the climax!

G-Men Never Forget (12 chapters) (Nov. 13, 1947-Jan. 29, 1948)

Republic serials were always solidly entertaining Saturday-afternoon time wasters for the kiddies, and G-Men Never Forget is no exception. It never soars to the heights reached by The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) or thrills with the same combination of intrigue and action as Spy Smasher (1942), but then again, neither has any other serial I’ve seen that was made after World War II.

G-Men Never Forget was co-directed by dependable chapterplay workhorse Fred C. Brannon and legendary stuntman and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt. It stars Clayton Moore (who would go on to play the Lone Ranger on TV starting in 1949) as FBI agent Ted O’Hara. (It’s never explicitly stated, but I’m pretty sure O’Hara has an excellent memory.)

O’Hara is paired with the beautiful Ramsay Ames, who plays police officer Detective Sergeant Frances Blake. O’Hara and Blake start out pretending to be husband and wife criminals so O’Hara can infiltrate a gang run by the beefy criminal mastermind Vic Murkland (Roy Barcroft).

Murkland himself goes undercover in the FBI after getting plastic surgery to look like FBI Commissioner Angus Cameron, and operates from that position for most of the serial. O’Hara, on the other hand, is found out in the first chapter of G-Men Never Forget, slugs it out with one of the baddies, and is back to committing feats of derring-do as an FBI agent in no time.

I couldn’t help thinking this serial would have been more interesting if Murkland had been undercover with the FBI while O’Hara was undercover with the crooks, but we’d have to wait until Infernal Affairs and The Departed for that kind of action.

I’ve had a crush on Ramsay Ames since seeing her in The Mummy’s Ghost. I liked her in G-Men Never Forget, but she’d lost a bit of weight by this point, which made her more “glamorous” and “angular,” but less appealing, at least in my opinion.

I wouldn’t recommend G-Men Never Forget to someone unfamiliar with serials, but if you’re a fan of serials and have already seen all of the best ones, it’s a strong second-tier offering. It features car chases, shootouts, explosive cliffhangers, and furniture-destroying fist fights. I was hoping for something a little more over-the-top considering Yakima Canutt was one of the directors, but I was never less than entertained by the proceedings.

The Sea Hound (15 chapters) (Sept. 11-Dec. 18, 1947)

The Sea Hound, subtitled the “Dare Devil Adventures of Captain Silver,” stars serial superstar Buster Crabbe as Capt. Silver, a broad-shouldered, fearless adventure-seeker who sails the waters of the South Pacific with his faithful crew of oddballs, goofballs, and racial stereotypes. It’s unclear how the crew of the Sea Hound came together, or what their mission is — aside from committing acts of random bravery and wild derring-do — but if you want to enjoy a chapterplay it’s best not to ask too many questions.

The Sea Hound was produced for Columbia Pictures by Sam Katzman. The credits say it was “based on the well known radio program and cartoon magazine.” The comic was published by Avon, but I haven’t been able to find much information about publication dates.

The radio show ran as a weekday serial from 1942 to 1944 on the Blue Network and from 1946 to 1947 on the Mutual Broadcasting System, then briefly on ABC in 1948 as a half-hour adventure show with a complete story each week. The radio plays were focused on Capt. Silver’s youthful crewman Jerry. Jerry’s a character in The Sea Hound serial (played by Ralph Hodges), but there’s no mistaking who the hero is — it’s Buster Motherf—ing Crabbe, that’s who.

Crabbe was pushing 40 when he made The Sea Hound, and he was no longer the trim, leonine figure he was when he starred in the Flash Gordon serials. But after seeing him with his shirt off in The Sea Hound (which happens with alarming regularity) I felt bad about ripping on him for looking out-of-shape in all those PRC westerns he made. Crabbe had packed on some bulk since the Flash Gordon serials, but most of us do when we’re no longer in our 20s, and while he might not look like Flash Gordon anymore, he’s still a square-jawed, muscular hero-type, and he still cuts through the water like only an Olympic Gold Medalist can.

Katzman would eventually be humorously known as “Jungle Sam,” and The Sea Hound uses its ridiculously cheap tropical locations to maximum effect, just as Katzman did with his serial Jack Armstrong (1947). (The Sea Hound actually hits a lot of the same notes as Jack Armstrong. Hugh Prosser even plays nearly exactly the same potentially treacherous ally character.)

The plot of The Sea Hound involves Capt. Silver coming to the aid of Ann Whitney (Pamela Blake), whose father has gone missing on a treasure-hunting expedition. Opposing Capt. Silver is the dastardly Admiral (Robert Barron), who commands the vessel Albatross and has a motley crew of men with names like “Manila Pete” (Rick Vallin) and “Black Mike” (Stanley Blystone).

The wild cards in the story are the deadly tribe of “Ryaks,” who — much like the “natives” in Katzman’s Jack Armstrong — are a bunch of middle-aged men with bare torsos, floral-print sarongs, and headbands.

The Sea Hound isn’t Oscar-caliber entertainment. It’s not even as good as the best of the Republic serials. But for a Columbia serial, I’ve seen a lot worse. It helps that Buster Crabbe is in fine form, and like I said, he’s the motherf—ing king of the serials.

The Black Widow (13 chapters) (July 28-Oct. 20, 1947)

Spencer Gordon Bennet and Fred C. Brannon’s The Black Widow is a typically thrilling chapterplay from Republic Pictures. With its shadowy, semi-mystical antagonists and plucky male-female pair of protagonists navigating their way through a slam-bang adventure with plenty of sci-fi elements, it hits a lot of the same notes as The Crimson Ghost (1946), which Brannon co-directed with William Witney.

The Black Widow of the title is the darkly beautiful fortune teller Sombra (Carol Forman), who uses her crystal-gazing business as a front for her espionage activity. Like Fu Manchu’s daughter, she’s the henchwoman for an evil foreign mastermind bent on world domination. Her father, Hitomu, is played by grim monologist Brother Theodore, a.k.a. Theodore Gottlieb.

Hitomu is a weird character, and Theodore’s performance is suitably bizarre. Hitomu looks like a stage hypnotist wearing a turban with a fez on top. His plan for world conquest involves stealing the atomic rocket that Prof. Henry Weston (Sam Flint) is working on. Most of the time Hitomu pulls the strings from the background, giving Sombra his orders, then disappearing the same way he appeared — in a puff of smoke.

To do her bidding, Sombra has a pair of loyal henchmen, Dr. Z.V. Jaffa (I. Stanford Jolley) and Nick Ward (Anthony Warde). She’s also a master of disguise. With just a floppy rubber mask and a camera dissolve, Sombra can assume the appearance of any woman she pleases. It should come as no surprise — if you’re familiar with the conventions of serials — that this talent comes in handy week after week.

Opposing the Black Widow Gang at every turn are plucky Daily Clarion reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lee, who’s listed in the credits as Virginia Lindley) and amateur criminologist and mystery writer Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards), the creator of the fictional detective “Rodman Crane.”

Joyce and Steve have a mildly antagonistic relationship that’s supposed to be flirty and playful, but it never quite works because Lee and Edwards are such stiff actors. Occasionally, however, it reaches such insane heights that it’s hard not to go along for the ride, like the scene in which Steve handcuffs Joyce to the steering wheel of their car so she won’t follow him, but she detaches the steering wheel and ends up saving Steve from a gunman by attacking the gunman with the steering wheel.

The Black Widow is full of nifty pseudoscientific malarkey like the “Sinetrone,” which uses sound vibrations to destroy atomic rockets, and a tube of rocket fuel that contains “phosphoro,” a deadly chemical that can only be neutralized by “ciprocyllium acid.”

There’s plenty of action, but none of it’s meant to be taken very seriously. And in case you thought it was, the final chapter of the serial ends with Joyce rushing off to investigate a hot tip that Hitler is hiding in the Florida Everglades and Steve calling after her, “Wait for me!”

Jesse James Rides Again (13 chapters) (June 2-Aug. 25, 1947)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Republic Pictures made the best serials in the business. While you could sometimes find better acting in the Saturday-afternoon chapterplays from Universal and Columbia, neither could top Republic when it came to pure slam-bang entertainment. They employed the best stuntmen in Hollywood, and their serials were action packed.

Jesse James Rides Again, which was directed by Fred C. Brannon and Thomas Carr, could have gone the Poverty-Row route and used its western setting as an excuse to deliver a cheap finished product. They had the Iverson Ranch and plenty of reusable costumes, after all. Throw in some chases on horseback, some fistfights, some gunfights, and you’re golden.

Instead, Brannon and Carr delivered a fast-moving serial with lots of pyrotechnics. Some chapters are more exciting than others, obviously, but I still wasn’t expecting so many blown-up barns, flaming logs pushed down hills, exploding riverboats, and burning oil derricks.

Every chapter opens with a shot of men on horseback. They’re all wearing black robes and black hoods. The exciting theme music by Mort Glickman incorporates elements of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna.” The black-robed riders look exactly like members of the Ku Klux Klan in photo-negative, and they’re called — not terribly creatively — the Black Raiders.

The Black Raiders are secretly working for a man named James Clark, who’s played by Tristram Coffin, a dependable Republic villain playing the most dependable villainous archetype in westerns, the greedy land baron. Clark knows that the farmers who live in Peaceful Valley, Tennessee, are sitting on a rich vein of oil, and it’s only a matter of time before they find out about it.

Clark’s plan is to have the Black Raiders drive all the farmers out of Peaceful Valley by using violence and intimidation; good, salt-of-the-earth people like Ann Bolton (Linda Stirling) and her crippled father Sam Bolton (Tom London).

So in classic western fashion, into the Boltons’ lives rides Jesse James (Clayton Moore). The ex-Confederate outlaw is on the lam for a crime he didn’t commit (the robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota) along with his buddy Steve Long (John Compton).

Jesse James is traveling under the name “J.C. Howard,” and he’s a modern-day paladin, ready to take up arms in defense of the helpless, like Mr. Bolton and his daughter.

If you know anything about the real-life Jesse James, you’ve probably already realized that Jesse James Rides Again plays fast and loose with the facts.

But who cares? It’s all just an excuse for action and feats of derring-do, and as such, it succeeds admirably. Most of the chapters follow a predictable arc — J.C. Howard ( Jesse James) gets out of whatever scrape the previous chapter left him in, then it’s off to the James Clark Land Office, where Clark and his beefy henchman Frank Lawton (Roy Barcroft) discuss their nefarious plans for the oil under Peaceful Valley, just in case any of the kids in the audience are seeing the serial for the first time. Then Jesse James, Steve Long, and Ann Bolton become embroiled in another of Clark and Lawton’s plans, and have to fight their way out. (Clark’s role as villain is unknown to the protagonists until the last chapter.) And finally, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, like Ann Bolton unconscious inside a cotton compress, or Jesse James knocked out and left behind in the boiler room of a riverboat that’s about to explode.

As the weeks go by, Jesse James and the farmers eventually discover the oil they’re sitting on, and it becomes a race to register their land, sink wells, and get the oil out of the valley. All the while, Lawton and his boys commit one act of sabotage after another.

The most explosive and exciting chapter is the penultimate one, “Chapter Twelve: Black Gold,” in which Steve Long leads a wagon train carrying barrels of oil through a prairie set afire by Lawton and his boys. There are crackups and explosions galore. It’s not quite The Road Warrior, but it’s still an impressive set piece.

Clayton Moore, who plays Jesse James, is probably best known for playing the Lone Ranger on TV from 1949 to 1957. His role in Jesse James Rides Again sometimes seems like a dry run for playing the Lone Ranger.

Moore isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he’s a solid choice to play a stalwart western hero. Also, I really like the outfit he wore in this serial. Unlike the leather vests and dungarees favored by plenty of B western heroes, Jesse James wears a black hat, a black top coat, a black long string tie, and a dark vest over a white shirt. It’s what every Southern gentleman with a price on his head should be wearing.

Republic would make two more serials featuring Jesse James as a character; The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948), which again starred Moore as Jesse and co-starred Steve Darrell as his brother Frank, and The James Brothers of Missouri (1949), which starred Robert Bice as Frank James and Keith Richards as Jesse James. (No, not the Keith Richards you’re thinking of.)

Jack Armstrong (15 chapters) (Feb. 6-May 15, 1947)

Jack Armstrong! Jack Armstrong! Jack Armstrong!

Jack Armstrong! The aaaaaaaaaaaaaaall-American boy!

If those words stir something deep within you, you’re probably either a child of the Depression or a freak like me who’s always liked to live in the past.

Beginning in 1933, the eponymous hero of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy traveled around the world with his uncle, Jim Fairfield, and his cousins, Betty and Billy Fairfield. The globetrotting quartet battled pirates, evil scientists, gangsters, and restive natives for 15 minutes on the radio every weekday. Sponsored by Wheaties, “the breakfast of champions,” Jack Armstrong gripped the nation’s youth with its blend of high adventure, glacial pacing, and repetitive storytelling until August 22, 1947, when it moved from a quarter-hour, five-day-a-week format to a 30-minute, twice-a-week broadcast.

Beginning in 1945, Jack, Betty, Billy, and Uncle Jim locked horns with the Silencer, a gangland leader who was at war with another crime lord, the Black Avenger. Eventually the Silencer was unmasked and revealed to be Victor Hardy, a brilliant scientist and inventor until a bout of amnesia led him to a life of evildoing (sort of like the Crime Doctor in reverse). After Hardy’s memory was restored, his lent his unique understanding of the criminal mind to Jack Armstrong and his crew. Uncle Jim was phased out of the program, and Vic Hardy became the adult overseer of the group, as well as head of the “Scientific Bureau of Investigation,” or SBI. In 1950, the Jack Armstrong program finally ended and Jack, Betty, and Billy were suddenly grown-ups, heard in a new 30-minute, twice-a-week series called Armstrong of the SBI. The all-American adult version of Jack didn’t last long, though, and Armstrong of the SBI went off the air June 28, 1951.

Wallace Fox’s Jack Armstrong is a 15-part serial from Columbia Pictures. All the major characters from the radio play are present (including both Uncle Jim and Vic Hardy), but after a promising first chapter, the serial devolves into repetitious tangles with “natives” on an island somewhere. I don’t know where the island is supposed to be, but I imagine it’s flying distance from California, since Jack Armstrong and the gang get there in a twin-engine plane. One of the bad guys refers to it as “point X,” and the third chapter of Jack Armstrong is called “Island of Deception,” but I think those are both descriptors, not proper names, so let’s just call it “Crazy Island,” shall we?

In this serial, Jack Armstrong is an all-American “boy” in name only, since the actor who plays him, John Hart, was 28 or 29 during filming, and looked about 30. Hart’s dark good looks and slicked-back hair make him look as if he’d be more comfortable romancing a movie producer’s wife on the dance floor of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub than building a nifty jet engine car with his little buddy Billy (Joe Brown), which is what he’s doing when we meet him in the first chapter of the serial, “Mystery of the Cosmic Ray.”

Billy Fairfield is the obligatory horse-faced, comic-relief sidekick. With his bug eyes and big teeth, Brown looks like Mickey Rooney standing in a wind tunnel. He’s obsessed with food, and most of the “humor” in Jack Armstrong comes from his “But when are we going to eat?” quips. Billy’s sister Betty is played by Miss America 1941, Rosemary La Planche, whom I’ve found delightful in every role I’ve seen her in prior to this. In Jack Armstrong, however, she has the same consternated look on her face in every scene, and is forced to wear an unflattering gray sweat suit that makes her look as if she’s suffering through Army PT.

Jack’s jet engine car has no carburetor, no cylinders, no distributor, and can go 50 miles per hour faster than any other car on the road. Jack never explains why it’s riveted, not welded, or how he can hang outside of it during a high-speed chase without getting his hair mussed, but the action in the first chapter is fast-paced enough that I didn’t really care. (And for my money, sped-up films of car chases never get old.)

I was hoping for lots more high-speed action, but after Uncle Jim (Pierre Watkin), the owner of the Fairfield Aviation Co., announces that they’ve picked up unknown cosmic rays, possibly from another country, he and Jack, Betty, and Billy are off to Crazy Island in the second chapter of the serial, “The Far World,” and things get pretty dull.

Most of Jack’s time on Crazy Island is spent squaring off against evil mastermind Jason Grood, who’s played by Charles Middleton, the man who played Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials of the ’30s. Remarkably, he’s just as odd-looking without any of his Ming makeup.

Grood kidnaps Vic Hardy (Hugh Prosser) and forces him to work with his henchman, Prof. Hobart Zorn (Wheeler Oakman), who’s discovered a power “several steps above atomic energy,” which they use to create a “cosmic beam annihilator.” Grood sends the cosmic beam into space as part of his “aeroglobe,” which he explains in the following, 100% scientific fashion: “Where the pull of gravity from the sun and outer solar planets equalizes the pull of earth gravity, there you have ‘zero gravity,’ creating a ‘space platform.’ On this, our aeroglobe rests.”

With the ability to train his cosmic beam annihilator at any spot on earth, Grood plans to hold all the nations of the world hostage. While attempting to foil Grood on Crazy Island, Jack, Uncle Jim, Billy, and Betty face the Pit of Everlasting Fire, escape from quicksand, tangle with angry natives, and are helped by friendly natives led by the sexy and beautiful Princess Alura (Claire James). I honestly couldn’t tell the unfriendly natives from the friendly natives. They all have black page-boy haircuts, wear Madras shirts and sarongs, and look about as “native” as Boris Karloff.

Jack Armstrong suffers from poorly staged action and several cliffhangers that are truly awful. In one, bad guy Gregory Pierce (John Merton) is zapped by an intruder alert field. Are we supposed to care about him? Another chapter ends with Jack and a bad guy rolling down a gentle incline while hitting each other. Not exactly “the jaws of death.”

Plausibility, scientific accuracy, and believable dialogue were never requirements for a good serial, but excitement and fun were, and Jack Armstrong suffers from a lack of both.

The Crimson Ghost (12 chapters) (Sept. 21-Dec. 7, 1946)

The Republic serial The Crimson Ghost, directed by William Witney and Fred C. Brannon, features one of the most iconic cliffhanger villains of all time. His grinning skull mask was appropriated by the band The Misfits, and may be how the character is best known today, since his face appears on nearly all of their T-shirts and album covers.

The Crimson Ghost’s mask is also the most memorable and sinister part of him in the serial itself. He gets involved with the action — gunplay, car chases, and fistfights — too often to be mysterious or ominous, and his hideouts are generally rustic or quaintly subterranean, but damn that mask is cool!

By 1946, most of Republic’s finest serials were behind them, but the studio still made the best cliffhangers in Hollywood, and The Crimson Ghost stands up as solid entertainment. It’s also one of the earliest examples of post-war, Atomic Age, pulp lunacy. Granted, the storytelling isn’t that different from pre-war Republic serials, but The Crimson Ghost does contain a number of science-fiction elements, and some of the fear and paranoia that came from living in a world with atomic weapons was beginning to creep in.

Charles Quigley plays scientific criminologist and “outstanding physicist” Duncan Richards and Linda Stirling plays his lovely and plucky assistant, Diana Farnsworth. In the first chapter of the serial, “Atomic Peril,” Prof. Chambers (played by Republic mainstay Kenne Duncan, his hair dyed gray and playing against type as a good guy) demonstrates his invention, the “cyclotrode.” The cyclotrode is roughly the size of a bread box, with a rotating cylindrical metal coil on top. It can “repel any atomic bomb attack” by shorting out electric systems, a stunning display of which is shown when Dr. Richards pilots a little model of a B-29 and Prof. Chambers locates it somehow with the cyclotrode and shoots it out of the sky. After the demonstration is over, one of the observing scientists says, “I haven’t felt so safe since before the bomb fell on Hiroshima.”

Prof. Chambers says that he plans to hand the cyclotrode over to the government and begin work on a larger model, but one of his fellow scientists is secretly masquerading as the Crimson Ghost (voiced by I. Stanford Jolley) and commanding a small army of henchmen in his spare time. One of the Ghost’s henchmen — disguised as a janitor — gets the drop on Prof. Chambers with the old “revolver in a feather duster” trick, but Prof. Chambers manages to destroy the prototype, and a small-scale, ridiculous little arms race is on.

Republic Pictures always had the best fight stuntmen in the business, and the brawls in The Crimson Ghost are all really well-done. The first one is a doozy, with Quigley’s stunt double leaping over a conference table, later sliding down its length, and of course breaking lots of furniture along the way. The second fight features the most memorable stunt in the serial, when Quigley’s stunt double leaps up and kicks off of a wall to take down two assailants.

Over the course of The Crimson Ghost, Dr. Richards and Diana constantly cross paths and mix it up with the black-robed baddie and his right-hand man, the suit and fedora-wearing Ash (played by Clayton Moore, who is best known to legions of baby boomers as the Lone Ranger). Like all serials, the plot is massaged, kneaded, and stretched out to fill 12 chapters. There are plenty of fistfights and car chases — the bread and butter of chapter plays — but there are also plenty of nutty pseudoscientific contraptions like the Crimson Ghost’s “slave collars,” which are outfitted with small diaphragm radio receivers that allow the Ghost to order the wearer around like his own personal zombie; the collars also explode when removed, killing the unlucky victim.

It quickly becomes clear that the Ghost is really one of the professors with whom Dr. Richards regularly meets, so why he keeps telling them his plans is beyond me, but it makes for plenty of action when Ash and his henchmen show up every time Dr. Richards and Diana attempt to secure an “X-7 transformer tube” (which Richards explains is “a special radium vapor tube we’ve been developing for a death ray machine”) or procure the heavy water necessary to supply the cyclotrode’s tubes.

There are plenty of cool gadgets, like a transcription disc sent to Dr. Richards that carries a message from the Crimson Ghost that ends with a release of poisonous gas, radioactive tracking devices, dissolving sprays, and a cigarette case that releases a tiny puff of knockout gas.

The Crimson Ghost was one of three serials I watched repeatedly in high school (The Adventures of Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher were the other two). I loved Linda Stirling as Diana, whom Dr. Richards treats like a secretary even though she can pilot a plane, mix it up with Ash, and even throw her little body out of a speeding car and remarkably not have any scratches or bruises on her face. Watching it again made me realize that she’s a really bad actress, even by the standards of Republic Pictures, but her ineptitude as a thespian didn’t change the way I feel about her, or about The Crimson Ghost, which is a top-notch serial with plenty of rewatchability.

Secret Agent X-9 (13 chapters) (July 24-Oct. 16, 1945)

Secret Agent X-9Republic Pictures is the unassailable king of the cliffhangers after the silent era. Most of the best chapterplays of the ’30s and ’40s were Republic productions. Dick Tracy (1937), The Lone Ranger (1938), Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939), Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), Perils of Nyoka (1942), The Masked Marvel (1943), and Captain America (1944) are just a few of the more than sixty serials produced by Republic Pictures, most of which are still incredibly entertaining. The best Republic serials combined wild action and elaborate stunts with nicely paced stories that could be strung out over 12 to 15 weekly installments with a few subplots here and there, but nothing too complicated or that viewers couldn’t pick up with in the middle. Each chapter ended with a cliffhanger (like Captain Marvel flying toward a woman falling off a dam, or a wall of fire rushing down a tunnel toward Spy Smasher). The next week’s chapter would begin with a minute or two of the previous week’s climax and the resolution, and the cycle would repeat until the final chapter.

Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures were the two other major producers of serials in the sound era. Universal ceased production of serials in 1946, leaving only Columbia and Republic to duke it out into the ’50s. One of the last serials made by Universal was Secret Agent X-9, released into theaters starting in July 1945. It was based on a daily newspaper strip created by writer Dashiell Hammett (the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) and artist Alex Raymond (who worked on Flash Gordon). Both creators left the project soon after its inception, and the King Features strip continued under various hands, vacillating between espionage and private eye stories.

X-9The first film serial featuring Secret Agent X-9 was made by Universal in 1937, and starred Scott Kolk as Agent X-9, a.k.a. “Dexter,” who sought to recover the crown jewels of Belgravia from a master thief called “Blackstone.” The second featured a boyish-looking 32-year-old Lloyd Bridges as Agent X-9, a.k.a. “Phil Corrigan.” Made toward the end of World War II, the 1945 iteration of the character focused on wartime intrigue and Corrigan’s cat-and-mouse games with Axis spies. Taking a cue from Casablanca (1942), the serial was set in a neutral country called “Shadow Island,” in which Americans, Japanese, Chinese, French, Germans, Australians, and the seafaring riffraff of the world freely intermingle. A fictional island nation off the coast of China, “Shadow Island” has a de facto leader named “Lucky Kamber” (Cy Kendall) who owns a bar called “House of Shadows” and has a finger in every pie, including gambling and espionage. Various German and Japanese military officers, secret agents, and thugs run amuck in this serial, but the one who most stands out is the unfortunately made-up and attired Victoria Horne as “Nabura.” In her role as a Japanese spymaster, Horne is outfitted with eyepieces that cover her upper eyelids, appearing to drag them down from sheer weight. She doesn’t look Asian, she just looks as if her eyes are closed.

While Nabura is played by a white actress in yellowface makeup, the main Chinese character is actually played by a Chinese actor, which was typical in World War II-era Hollywood. Keye Luke, surely one of the hardest working Chinese-American actors in Hollywood history, plays “Ah Fong,” Corrigan’s faithful sidekick. Corrigan is also aided by an Australian double agent named Lynn Moore, played by American actress Jan Wiley. Wiley does nothing to alter her accent, which was also typical for American actors who played Aussies in Hollywood productions during the war.

Secret Agent X-9 has good production values and special effects. The stock footage that shows up in nearly every serial is judiciously used, and integrated well into the newly filmed material. Where this Universal serial just doesn’t measure up to the best Republic offerings is in the pacing and action departments. Republic serials featured stuntwork that still impresses (e.g., Spy Smasher leaping through the air, landing on a mechanic’s creeper chest-first, rolling under a car, and grabbing a goon’s ankles before he can escape). Secret Agent X-9 features ho-hum shootouts, fistfights, and car chases.

Also, instead of a plot that evolves naturally over the course of the series, there is a simple story that seems as if it’s been stretched from a 90-minute feature into 13 chapters, most of which are longer than 20 minutes. Secret Agent X-9 also suffers from poor timing. When the first installment was released, V-E Day had already passed, but the United States was still at war with Japan. By the time the final installment was released, atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan had surrendered to the Allies, and a new phase in world history had begun. Secret Agent X-9 is set in 1943, so it’s never out of date, per se, but its MacGuffin, a substitute for aviation fuel called “722,” which everyone in the film is scrambling to secure for themselves, seems like small beer after the advent of the Atomic Age.

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