Today, the concept of movie serials is completely dead, but back in the beginnings of cinema storytelling, it was one of many formats which the pioneers experimented with. Even though some of the all-time greatest were made as early as the 1910s, this story-telling format lasted into the 1950s.
With the coming of sound, the serials had to be made cheaper, which in turn resulted in faster production, less original scripts, and more reliance on stereotyped characters and situations. Ironically, this may have resulted in a far more profound impact on modern-day popular culture, because those stereotypes were repeatedly projected onto the viewer’s conscience, and came to directly influence many of today’s iconic media phenomena, such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Rocketeer.
The “Golden Age” of serials is generally considered to have started in 1936 with, among others, Ace Drummond. That serial is not one of my favourites, but it was probably inspired by one which came three years earlier, and which resembles it in many ways, The Mystery Squadron.
The Mystery Squadron, like most sound serials, has a simple plot. The building of a dam is harassed by a squadron of fliers headed by The Black Ace (we would call them terrorists today). The pilots Fred and “Jellybean” are hired to put an end to the trouble. But who is The Black Ace?
Even though it is just as cheap and stereotyped as any 1930s serial, The Mystery Squadron has many fine characteristics to its credit. It still has some of the freshness and playfulness of the silent serials; it is fun, and no-one, including the actors, seems to take it seriously. The mystery of who hides behind the mask of The Black Ace is also uncommonly well made (for a serial) and adds to the excitement. To top it off, the serial has one of those rare female supporting characters who is headstrong and resourceful, and herself a good pilot. On several occasions, she is the one who saves the day. Strong female characters like this were much more common in the silent days.
It certainly has its share of faults, too. The actors are rotten (even by serial standards), there are some very cheesy special effects to compensate for expensive live flying sequences, and many cliffhanger resolutions (another serial hallmark) are very corny. Also, image and sound quality of the Internet Archive copy are not very good. Fortunately, any deficiencies are easily compensated by the fact that you can play The Mystery Squadron Drinking Game.
The game is simple. Just look at all the twelve episodes in sequence. Drink whenever one of the following things occur:
- Someone uses a secret passage at the tavern.
- You hear the radio call “The Black Ace calling station A/B.”
- Someone is accused of being the Black Ace.
- A model plane (supposed to show a real plane) lands or takes off.
- Someone fires a flash grenade to blind the heroes (drink double).
Note! I have not tried The Mystery Squadron Drinking Game myself, and I take no responsibility for any adverse effects, either to your health or your bar cabinet.
This film is best enjoyed if you are well stocked with alcohol.
The Mystery Squadron
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Running time: 3 h 50 min
Directors: Colbert Clark, David Howard
Stars: Bob Steele, Guinn Williams
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4