Sunday, April 22, 2007

“We’ve been tricked by cleverness!”

Laughing Gravy, who tears the tickets in half at the must-read classic films website In the Balcony, has alerted his loyal readers to a pair of cliffhangers available on DVD and currently being offered sporadically on eBay by a company calling itself Restored Serials.  Both of these serials are widely available from other dealers, but the Restored Serials versions feature slightly superior prints of two fan favorites: The Spider Returns (1941) and The Adventures of Sir Galahad (1949).

Returns is a sequel to The Spider’s Web, a 1938 chapter-play considered by many serial fans to be the best that Columbia Studios offered.  It was directed by James W. Horne, a man whose name is anathema to about fifty percent of serial aficionados…and a godsend to the other half.  Horne’s experience as a veteran comedy director (among his resume you’ll find Laurel & Hardy’s The Bohemian Girl and Way Out West) had a tendency to drift into his cliffhanger productions, often devising bits of intentional comedy that die-hard serial fans have denounced as the work of the Devil.  (In my opinion—and I stress that this is my opinion only—comedy can only help a serial.  Horne directed Captain Midnight, one of my favorite entries among Columbia’s prolific serial output.)  One member of the Serial Squadron, who vehemently disagrees with my comedy cliffhanger thesis, nevertheless told me in a chat session last night that if I continue to cling to my theory I will positively adore The Spider Returns.  Despite our disagreement, I value his judgment and am looking forward to seeing it.

Galahad is pretty much what the title implies; a romp with the famed Knight of the Round Table (played by future Superman George Reeves) and his quest to recover the sword known as Excalibur.  It has its detractors and defenders and while I haven’t viewed it yet, any serial that attempts to do something different always gets a vote of confidence from me (though Who’s Guilty almost put the kibosh on that).  Hopefully I’ll get a chance to slip it into the DVD player soon, but this evening I turned my attention to another serial purchased from Restored Serials, Republic’s The Crimson Ghost (1946).

Republic Studios’ reputation as the go-to guy for cliffhangers is, of course, legendary among serial fans—though I’ll risk blasphemy here and state that while some truly fine chapter-plays were cranked out from the “Thrill Factory,” some of them were so bad they made Columbia and Universal’s product look like masterpieces.  Many of the post-war Republics are like this; you can find a nugget among the dross but you have to look mighty hard.  Well, look no further than Ghost—an engaging little vehicle that moves at breakneck speed with energetic stunts and unique chapter endings to compliment its first-rate cast and script.

Professor Chambers (Kenne Duncan) is a scientific genius who’s developed a device known as the Cyclotrode, designed to detect and repel atomic-bomb attacks which he intends to use for niceness instead of evil.  Unfortunately, a costumed villain known as The Crimson Ghost has other designs on Chambers’ toy, and he kidnaps the good professor, placing him under his power by placing a “control collar” around his neck that will make the scientist bend to his will.  (It also repels fleas and ticks for up to three months…but as far as heartworms go, he’s on his own.)  Chambers’ protégé, scientist and criminologist Duncan Richards (Charles Quigley), has his hands full over twelve chapters trying to stop the Ghost’s diabolical scheme, his identity unknown but is suspected to be one of four professors at a nearby university to whom Richard reports in each chapter.  Dunky is also assisted by his lovely assistant, Diana Farnsworth—played by none other than Linda Stirling, a.k.a. “Queen of the Serials.”

The mystery element of Ghost—who is the person behind this costumed creep?—is one of the things that makes the serial so entertaining; Republic cleverly concealed the villain’s identity by having the Ghost played by a stuntman (Bud Geary) and voiced by several actors—one of which is I. Stanford Jolley, who receives fourth billing even though he has a tiny role as a man posing as a government-appointed psychiatrist.  The plot is also top-notch, Quigley is a likable (if slightly stiff) hero, and Stirling is always lovely to look at…though I prefer to watch her in cliffhangers in which she has more to do, like Zorro’s Black Whip (1944) and The Tiger Woman (1944).  I like how the serial’s plot contains a few interesting twists: one of the major characters snuffs it in the third chapter, and there’s a nail-biting sequence where Quigley attempts an operation on Stirling to remove a “control collar” bestowed upon her by the villainous Ghost.  (Previous attempts to remove these collars ultimately result in the deaths of the unfortunates.)  There are also some first-rate cliffhangers (my favorite is in Chapter 10, “The Trap That Failed,” in which a truck containing Stirling and one of the professors crashes through a wall of a warehouse and off the pier to the water below—I saw the warehouse and just assumed that the Brothers Lydecker would end up blowing it to smithereens) and slam-bang action sequences (Quigley’s stunt double steps off a wall in order to leap upon his opponent in the first chapter), and the ‘rents (who ended up watching it with me) enjoyed it as much as I did; Mom in particular, who was enchanted by the fact that her childhood hero, Clayton Moore, played the Ghost’s chief henchman.  (Hey—any serial that lets Moore appear not only in a gas mask but a surgeon’s mask, allowing the serial’s viewers to shout out “Who IS that masked man?” is aces in my book.)  Mom and I were also reduced to hysterics by the time of the twelfth chapter, in which the villains are subdued with the help of a ferocious dog named…wait for it…”Timmy.”  (“Get ‘im, Timmy!”)

During the viewing of Ghost, Mom started complaining that the only serials she ever sees Clayton Moore in are the ones in which he’s the bad guy.  (I guess she forgot about Jesse James Rides Again, which we watched back in January.)  If I can figure out what I’ve done with Perils of Nyoka (1942), I’m going to try and put that one on for her later this week—but if I’m unable to locate its whereabouts, we’ll have to settle for the too-boring-for-words Jungle Drums of Africa (1953).

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