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Tag Archives: John Merton

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!

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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 Gay Cavalier (March 30, 1946)

With this film, handsome 40-year-old actor Gilbert Roland stepped into the role of the Cisco Kid, a Mexican bandit created by O. Henry in his 1907 short story “The Caballero’s Way.” Roland was the fifth man to play the role, after Warner Baxter (in four films, 1928-1939), Cesar Romero (in five films, 1939-1941), Duncan Renaldo (in three films made in 1945), and William R. Dunn, who was the first man to play the Cisco Kid, in the silent short The Caballero’s Way (1914). Roland would go on to play the Cisco Kid in a total of six films released by Monogram Pictures in 1946 and 1947.

In O. Henry’s short story, the Cisco Kid was a vicious and slippery bandit, but by the time Warner Baxter was playing the role, the character had metamorphosed into a noble caballero; a sort of Mexican Robin Hood.

Baby boomers will remember that on TV, the Cisco Kid had a sidekick named Pancho. The first iteration of this character appeared in the 1939 film Return of the Cisco Kid, and he was named “Gordito” (Spanish for “Fatty”). In The Gay Cavalier he’s called “Baby,” and is played by the Mexican actor Nacho Galindo.

Baby gets the first lines of the picture. While Cisco kneels beside a grave, Baby explains to one of his fellow outlaws (presumably one who has just joined the gang and, like the audience, has no idea what’s going on) that Cisco’s father was a notorious bandit. To make up for his father’s exploits, Cisco now robs from the rich and gives to the poor. It’s a clumsy bit of exposition, but no clumsier than most of the rest of the dialogue in the picture. When Baby decides that they’ve spent enough time at the gravesite and he wants to get going, Cisco tells him, “Time is a wonderful thing. It ages wine and mellows women.” Roland is the main reason to see the picture, especially for women who get all hot and bothered for the Latin Lover type. He can really sell lines like this, and not sound too ridiculous.

What Roland is mostly selling, of course, is S-E-X. But not so much that it might offend audiences, or disrupt traditional morality too much. In one scene, Cisco climbs up onto a lovely young señora’s balcony while Baby plays a little music down below. Eventually she reveals that she has a husband who is away on a fishing trip. Cisco responds, “Sometime, when I see your husband, I will tell him the fishing is much better here on land. Adios, beautiful.” He kisses her hand, leaps from the balcony onto his horse, and rides off with his crew and Baby, whose serenade is no longer required.

The Gay Cavalier takes place in California in 1850. The nice thing about old Hollywood westerns that take place in California is that the scenery is authentic, if nothing else. Martin Garralaga, the actor who played “Pancho” in the three 1945 Cisco Kid films with Duncan Renaldo, here plays Don Felipe Geralda, a man who has fallen on hard times. His youngest daughter, Angela (Helen Gerald), is engaged to marry a wealthy American named Lawton (Tristram Coffin), whose money will allow the Geralda hacienda to stay in the family.

Unbeknownst to the Geraldas, Lawton and his partner Lewis (John Merton) are up to no good. In the beginning of the picture, they ambush a wagon carrying a shipment of silver collected from poor people to build a mission in Monterey. They leave one man wounded but alive, and say loudly within earshot of the man, “All right, Cisco, we got what we want. Now we go.”

All of this plays out about as predictably as you’d expect. The enjoyment comes from the particulars. The sultry and beautiful actress Ramsay Ames plays Don Geralda’s eldest daughter, Pepita, and she sings a few numbers that Ames herself is credited with writing. Also, the action is well staged, especially the final showdown between Cisco and Lawton. As he demonstrated in a film I watched last year, Captain Kidd (1945), Roland is a hell of a sword fighter. He and Coffin go at it with no stunt doubles in evidence, although the film is sped up very slightly.

Also, unlike most of the actors who played the Cisco Kidd, Roland was actually Mexican. He was born “Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso” in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1905. He took his stage name from his two favorite actors, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland. He’s a very credible swashbuckler, and a lot of fun to watch, even though The Gay Cavalier is strictly a programmer.

One odd note, the DVD from VCI Entertainment I watched uses a print with a strange ADR issue. It didn’t take long before I noticed that every time someone said “Cisco Kid” it was looped in, and not well. I did some research, but couldn’t find exactly why this was the case. This was originally released as a Cisco Kid feature, and there would have been no restriction on using the name, so the prevailing theory seems to be that the film was dubbed for television release in the ’50s, and the character’s name was changed so as not to cause confusion with the Cisco Kid TV show, and one of those prints was the only one they could find, so they dubbed the original character’s name back in. Whatever the reason, it was weird and distracting.