Monday, April 30, 2007

I shot an Arrow into the air

I finished watching the fourth and final serial in what I could refer to as “the Horne of Plenty,” provided I was given to atrocious puns.  (As it turns out, I am—so there you go.)  It’s The Green Archer (1940), a rousing fifteen-chapter romp that might well be the yardstick on how to measure a cliffhangers fan’s tolerance for James W. (this one is frequently cited for heresy because in one chapter, some of the henchmen while away their idle hours playing tiddlywinks) Horne.  Major confession time: I enjoyed Archer more than the other three serials I’ve watched over the last several days, simply because it aims for something different (eschewing the typical “mad-genius-taking-over-the-world” plots of many cliffhangers) and because of its “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” approach (hidden rooms, passageways, secret identities, fistfights, gunplay, poison gas, plot twists, etc.).

Although The Green Archer is based on the famed mystery novel by Edgar Wallace (and was in fact filmed previously as a silent chapter-play in 1925) it bears only a passing similarity to the novelist’s work.  The 1940 serial tells the tale of egomaniacal villain Abel Bellamy (James Craven), a twisted genius who frames his brother Michael (Kenne Duncan) for a crime Mike did not commit, thereby gaining control of Garr Castle, the ancestral home of the Bellamy clan.  Abel has put the smackdown on the castle—previously a thriving tourist attraction—because he’s using the edifice as his headquarters for a major criminal empire (and I do mean major—he’s got enough henchman for three Republic serials), and when Michael’s wife Elaine (Dorothy Fay) comes a-snooping around looking for evidence to clear her spouse, Abel locks her in a secret room and holds her captive.  Two houses down, Elaine’s father Parker Howett (Forrest Taylor) and sister Valerie (Iris Meredith) set up light housekeeping, along with Michael’s bosom chum Spike Holland (Victor Jory), an insurance investigator convinced that Abel is not the paragon of virtue he seems to be.  Whenever Spike, Valerie or any of the other good guys find themselves in peril, they can count on the masked hero The Green Archer to bail them out of a tight spot; said Archer being the legendary but mysterious do-gooder who protects the Bellamy family in times of crisis.

Once again, actor Jory serves out his serial sentence with stoic dignity and grace; a lesser thespian might be tempted to gag it up in the role of the hero, but Vic takes on his assignment as if it were written by the Immortal Bard himself.  No, the honors for scenery chewing go to Columbia’s number-one serial baddie James Craven, who avails himself to several helpings of scenery du jour like a hungry fat man at Golden Corral.  Craven’s Bellamy is apoplectic with frustration over the idiocy of the men in his employ—though in all honesty, Team Black Tiger of The Shadow fame make Bellamy’s henchmen look like Rhodes scholars.  No one did villainous rage like Craven, who could be wonderfully over-the-top in vehicles like Captain Midnight (as Ivan Shark) but for some reason seemed a bit subdued outside the studio (he’s the alter ego of the Purple Monster in Republic’s The Purple Monster Strikes…and a bit of a nebbish in the part).  Another performance I enjoy in Archer is our old pal Jack Ingram, who plays a hood named “Brad” (Brad?) in Bellamy’s employ disguised as The Green Archer…only he keeps getting mistaken for the real Green Archer, and frequently takes a pummeling from the other goons working for boss Bellamy (a thug named “Dinky” in particular).

Archer also has some really eye-popping chapter endings.  Among the perils Jory’s character faces: a room rapidly filling with water, another room with a spike-covered ceiling, and my particular favorite, a room that loses its floorboards one at a time to reveal a raging inferno below.

There’s just something irresistibly goofy about Columbia serials: I love how the fistfights do away with all that choreographed nonsense prevalent in Republic’s output and end up just being unorganized donnybrooks with fists flying and the sound effects making smacking sounds regardless whether a stuntman has hit his mark or not.  The heroes of Columbia cliffhangers also seem to be able to take on six to eight guys in one of these melees, and are only knocked out when (this is always shown in close up) one of the goons hits the hero with a heavy object (sap, gun butt, potted plant, etc.)  If I have any nitpicks with Archer, it’s that once again it suffers from the elephantiasis that is a Columbia chapter-play and should have been trimmed to twelve chapters before rolling off the assembly line.  (Oh, that and the fact that I figured out who the Archer was in the first chapter.)  Though my serial mentor Laughing Gravy doesn’t care for Archer, I enjoyed every cotton-pickin’ insane minute of it—and if you’re capable of allowing a little levity creep into your choice of serials, I think you will, too.

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