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Tag Archives: Ray Mercer

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.

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White Pongo (Oct. 10, 1945)

WhitePongo

White Pongo (1945)
Directed by Sam Newfield
Sigmund Neufeld Productions / Producers Releasing Corporation (P.R.C.)

If you needed a giant primate in Hollywood in the ’40s, Ray “Crash” Corrigan was your go-to guy. Corrigan would put on any ape costume for a paycheck. And if you didn’t have a particular vision of what your giant primate should look like, Corrigan was happy to wear his own fitted ape suit that was covered with “fur” made of human hair. He even did children’s parties and reportedly terrified some kids.

Nicknamed “Crash” for the way he tackled other football players and for his fighting skills, Corrigan got his start in Hollywood as a physical trainer to the stars, as well as performing stuntwork and acting in bit parts, such as his appearances in an ape costume in Tarzan and His Mate (1934) and as an “Orangopoid” in the Flash Gordon serial (1936). He got his big break playing a human when he was picked to star in the Republic serial Undersea Kingdom in 1936, after which he was signed as a term player for Republic Pictures. He eventually left over a pay dispute and went to Monogram Pictures.

He appeared in more than 50 movies in the late ’30s and early ’40s (including 24 outings as “Tucson Smith” in Republic’s “Three Mesquiteers” series and 20 appearances as “Crash Corrigan” in Monogram’s “Range Busters” series), but even during this fertile period of his career playing humans, he frequently found himself in monkey suits. And no, that’s not a euphemism for tuxedos.

He appeared as a gorilla or ape in Round-Up Time in Texas (1937), the Three Stooges short “Three Missing Links” (1938), the Boris Karloff horror film The Ape (1940), Law of the Jungle (1942), The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942), Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942), Captive Wild Woman (1943), She’s for Me (1943), Nabonga (1944), The Monster Maker (1944), and The Monster and the Ape (1945). He even did double duty in some films. In the Three Mesquiteers film Three Texas Steers (1939), he appeared not only as his recurring character Tucson Smith, but also as “Willie the Gorilla.” And in The White Gorilla (1945), he played not only the hero, but also “Konga,” the white gorilla whom the hero fights.

He also appeared as the eponymous White Pongo in this P.R.C. cheapie directed by Sam Newfield. It premiered in Los Angeles on Wednesday, October 10, 1945, and was released nationwide a month later, on Friday, November 2nd. The film is one of the poorer examples of a jungle adventure I’ve seen. After the credits finish rolling over an image of Africa, a pointer stick appears, insouciantly circling an enormous section of the southwestern coast of the continent as the narrator says, “Stretching north and south of the equator in west Africa are vast areas of dense forests and swamplands as yet unexplored by white men. A virgin territory penetrated only by the great Congo river and its tributaries. Here in this wild, steaming portion of the Dark Continent is the home of the ‘ponga,’ native name for the gorilla. It was here on the fringe of gorilla territory, in a nameless native village inhabited by a tribe of fierce Negritos, an incident occurred which was destined to startle the civilized world.”

There’s so much to work with already I don’t know where to start. The combination of the verb “penetrate” with the noun “virgin territory,” the fact that “Negritos” are ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, the idea that any village inhabited by humans would be “nameless.” The only thing the film sort of gets right is the general location where gorillas live. Once the wielder of the pointer calms down and focuses on the area where the Atlantic Ocean feeds into the Congo, that is.

The plot of the film, such as it is, involves a crew of scientists and hunters who are hot to find the white ponga because if he turns out not to be a hoax, he could be the “missing link that will prove Darwin’s theory.” Why they believe this despite having no direct contact with the creature is not explained. Because he has white fur? The mind reels. The leader of the expedition, Sir Harry Bragdon (Gordon Richards), of course brings along his beautiful blond daughter, Pamela (Maris Wrixon). The most watchable scenes in White Pongo are the ones she shares with the great white hunter of the expedition, Geoffrey Bishop (Richard Fraser), who’s believable in his role as a tall, lean, Rhodesian rifleman (even though he’s a Scot with an accent that sounds British). Unfortunately, there’s also an unnecessary triangle involving a twit named Clive Carswell (Michael Dyne) who fancies himself in love with Pamela, even though she has no interest in him.

At just under 72 minutes, the film still drags. There seems to be more stock footage, travelling scenes, and establishing shots than there are scenes that advance the story. Things don’t really pick up until the last 15 minutes, which are fairly brisk, though still not what I would call “action-packed.” For a guy who made wearing an ape costume a vocation, Corrigan doesn’t really move or act like a primate, making his large role in the climax more laughable than anything else. And the frequently interspersed stock footage of actual monkeys doesn’t help. Unless you have a fetish for humans in gorilla suits, you can pass this one up with a clear conscience.