RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Serials

Atom Man vs. Superman (15 chapters) (June 19-Sept. 25, 1950)

Atom Man vs Superman
Atom Man vs. Superman (15 chapters) (1950)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet
Columbia Pictures

Atom Man vs. Superman was the second of two Columbia serials that starred Kirk Alyn. The film serials were soon overshadowed by the very popular Adventures of Superman series starring George Reeves that ran on TV from 1952 to 1958.

It’s safe to say that if you’re digging into the Kirk Alyn serials, you’re a serious enough Superman completist to want to watch both of them.

However, if you’re only a mildly die-hard Superman fan and just want to watch one of the Kirk Alyn serials, I’d recommend this one. I know some comic-book fans love origin stories, but personally I find origin stories tiresome, and once they’re out of the way the real fun can begin. (See, for example, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

Atom Man vs. Superman treads a lot of the same ground as Superman (1948) — it’s still a low-budget affair helmed by producer Sam Katzman and director Spencer Gordon Bennet — but unlike the first serial, this one features Superman’s greatest nemesis, Lex Luthor. Also, Kirk Alyn physically looks better in the role of Superman than he did in the first serial. His physique is still nowhere close to what you’ll see in comic-book movies today, but he does look like he hit the gym and packed on some muscle after his first appearance as the character.

Character actor Lyle Talbot was the first actor to portray Lex Luthor onscreen, and despite wearing a bald cap instead of having a shaved head, he looks like the character we know from the comics and delivers a pretty good performance. And, just like the first serial, Noel Neill is fantastic as Lois Lane. With all due respect to Margot Kidder, Neill’s interpretation of the character is my favorite of all time. In fact, Neill was the only actor from the Columbia serials who went on to play the same character in the 1950s TV series.

Superman and Atom Man

Atom Man vs. Superman is not without its problems. The titular “Atom Man,” who wears a black robe and a glittering bucket over his head, never quite works as a villain. And this is still a Sam Katzman production, which means it’s a low-budget affair that plods along without ever hitting the delirious heights of the best serials, like Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941).

Still, it’s got plenty of goofy fun, not to mention that every chapter opens with the cheeriest montage of atomic bomb explosions you will ever see.

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!”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 481 other followers