Saturday, April 28, 2007

Along came a Spider

For the next few days, I’m going to be jotting down random thoughts about some of the cliffhanger gems in the oeuvre of James W. Horne, the veteran comedy director and prolific serial helmsman whose work has frequently created tendentious dissension among chapter-play fans.  Fortunately, Horne’s first assignment (which he co-directed with Ray Taylor…who presumably kept Jimmy’s excesses in check)—The Spider’s Web (1938), a serial based on the popular pulp magazine hero—is generally received with favor by those both pro- and anti-Horne…not only it is considered his best cliffhanger but it is also in contention for the best serial to come out of Columbia’s stables, a studio that tried like Avis but unfortunately churned out some embarrassing (and not only that, boring) stinkers.

Future Strike It Rich host Warren Hull (who also starred in serials as the Green Hornet and Mandrake the Magician) plays Richard Wentworth, a master criminologist/scientist who agrees to help a frustrated police force (presided over by Commissioner Kirk, played by Forbes Murray) capture the Octopus, a mysterious masked villain heck-bent on destroying the industrial infrastructure of an unnamed but big honkin’ metropolitan city in a desperately insane bid for raw, unchecked power.  (Sort of like Dick Cheney…but warmer.)  Assisting Wentworth are fiancée Nita Van Sloan (played by Columbia’s “Queen of Serials,” Iris Meredith), chauffeur Jackson (Richard Fiske, the poor sap driven to distraction by the Three Stooges in their 1940 two-reeler Boobs in Arms), a butler named Jenkins (Donald Douglas), and Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan), a turban-wearing “warrior” adept at knife-throwing but for most of the serial’s running time spouts cryptic proverbs and calls everyone “Sahib.”

Wentworth’s gang are in the serial (granted, they do on occasion pull his fat out of the fire in tight moments) primarily because they’re carryovers from the pulp stories but for the most part the criminologist does all right for himself with two secret identities.  The first is costumed hero The Spider, who not only strikes terror into the hearts of evildoers but is mistrusted by the forces of law and order, who are convinced that not only is he working against them but that he may, in fact, be the Octopus his own self.  Because “The Spider” is not particularly chummy with the criminal element, Wentworth must don a third disguise as two-bit lowlife Blinky McQuade, who nevertheless is a pal to any other losers he encounters.

The Spider’s Web is undeniably a rip-snortin’, slam-bang actioner, filled with impressive stunts (and the fight sequences aren’t too shabby, either) and a suspenseful plot that features great cliffhangers…that are, unfortunately, spoiled due to Columbia’s unfortunate habit of “telegraphing” future events with their ill-advised codas at the end of each chapter.  The performances are also good, particularly Hull and Meredith’s—it’s a shame that Meredith’s services couldn’t be retained for the 1941 sequel, The Spider Returns; actress Mary Ainslee takes on the Sloan role, and though I suppose you could argue that the fact that Nita has been waiting three years to march Richard down the aisle for the rice-and-old-shoes routine—with precious little success—it still doesn’t excuse Ainslee’s often irritating approach to the part (she’s a bit of a detriment, to tell the truth).  Hull and Duncan returned to reprise their roles (though Duncan’s Ram Singh really gets shunted to the background in Returns), with serial vet Joe Girard (the geriatric Major Steel in Captain Midnight) as Kirk and Pete Smith Specialties star Dave O’Brien (Captain Midnight himself) as Jackson the wheel-man.  (I like O’Brien’s approach to his role; it’s not entirely winking-at-the-audience but he doesn’t skimp on the tongue-in-cheek either.)  This time, the Spider takes on the Gargoyle (a better villain than the Octopus, in my opinion—though his identity is fairly obvious), a meanie who’s out to put a monkey wrench in the burgeoning defense industry (even though we’re technically not in the war yet, there’s still a ton of propaganda in this baby).  In all honesty, I thought Returns was every bit as good as Web, but there are scores of people who disagree with me.  There’s a scene in Chapter 6 (“The X-Ray Eye”) in which the Gargoyle spies on his henchmen…only to learn that they’re throwing a little office party, complete with drinks and floozies.  (One Serial Squadron member told me he and a friend fell on the floor laughing at this.)  Hey, when your head goon is played by Anthony Warde—the hardest working henchman in the serial business—shouldn’t he be entitled to a little R-and-R every now and then?  If you prefer your serials with a much smaller laugh quotient, then Returns will definitely not be your particular meat.

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