Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

There are quite a few old serials at the Internet Archive. The serial was a common cinematic genre from the 1910s through the 1950s. There were many different subgenres (western being, perhaps, the most common), but nearly all were focused on light entertainment with action and adventure a-plenty. Manhunt of Mystery Island (chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15) was no exception in this regard, although it was in some respects of higher quality than most.

Richard Bailey and Linda Stirling in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

The plot, in typical serial style, is basically simple, yet in some ways a bit silly. The scientist William Forrest has been captured by the evil Captain Mephisto, who wants to use Forrest’s invention for world domination. Captain Mephisto, a long-dead pirate, is in reality one of the heirs of Mystery Island, who by molecular transformation can change between his two roles. Fortunately, Forrest manages to get word to the mainland. His daughter, Claire, along with the crime-fighter Lance Reardon, travel to Mystey Island to find Forrest and thwart Mephisto. But Mephisto turns out to have both cunning and resources to set up his defences. And who is he really?

Modern Hollywood action aesthetics may owe a lot to the heritage from the serials, but in one respect at least, modern films are very different. The fight sequences are governed by a completely different set of standards. Today, we often see a lot of close-ups, fast cuts and techniques inspired by tae-kwon-do or karate. The serials apparently took their inspiration from boxing, street brawling and jujitsu, and additionally used long, carefully choreographed shots. Well, at least the more lavish serials, such as this one, had well-made choreography. In some serials, the fights mostly look sloppy, but here they are fascinating and well worth watching, even though they may become a bit corny at times.

Another interesting aspect of this particular serial is the female sidekick, Claire Forrest (Linda Stirling). Far from the weak females of some earlier (e.g. Adventures of Captain Marvel) or later (e.g. Radar Men from the Moon) serials, Miss Forrest is a strong and self reliant character, who can fly a plane and fire a revolver, and even wrestle or kick a bit when the need arises. In fact, she saves the day on a number of occasions. Sure she faints or gets kidnapped every once in a while, but our male hero tends to pass out about as often as she does. She reminds me of the female “Zorro” in Zorro’s Black Whip from a year earlier. This is hardly coincidental, seeing as it is the same actress and the same co-director (Spencer Gordon Bennet). But it may also be a sign of the times that strong female characters rose up briefly. Women had taken a stronger position in society due to the war, which required many men to go overseas with the armed forces. However, there are many contrary examples of weak female leads from about the same time, and in any event the trend did not last very long. As far as I know, you have to go back to the early 1930s to find similar strong female characters in serials, and the serial as an artistic form was long since dead when the female hero made a real comeback in Hollywood.

One of the few really annoying things about the serials from the 1940s and 1950s is that there is basically no plot development. The first episode (usually about ten or fifteen minutes longer than the others) sets the stage and intruduces the characters, but thereafter things mostly follow the same pattern. Either the hero or the villain will make a move toward achieving his ends. Then the opponent will find a way to thwart him. The ensuing fight or chase will end with the mandatory cliffhanger, and when we have found out in the next episode how the hero rescued himself, everything is back to normal. I have sometimes compared it with a chess game, but in reality it is more like a tennis match without points, and especially with a 15-parter the whole thing becomes more like a transportation toward the inevitable final showdown in the last episode.

This serial is best enjoyed as one of the best of Hollywood’s soundie serials. The tempo is high, the chases and fights are entertaining, even the actors are pretty decent. But if you happen to skip an episode or two, you do not risk to miss very much of essence.

Linda Stirling, Richard Bailey and Kenne Duncan in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

Manhunt of Mystery Island
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
Year: 1945
Running time: 3 h 39 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Yakima Canutt, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Richard Bailey, Linda Stirling
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good

The Iron Mask (1929)

Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers has become one of the most popular stories to adapt onto the silver screen. By 1920, there had already been a number of adaptations. Douglas Fairbanks took film swashbuckling to new heights with The Mark of Zorro, and he was to follow it up in 1921 with The Three Musketeers, which became the first classic film of the tale.

The version of The Three Musketeers available at the Internet Archive, unfortunately, has fairly poor image quality and has no soundtrack. But before the 1920s was over, Fairbanks had made a sequel, The Iron Mask, which is just as good.

Douglas Fairbanks as d'Artagnan and Marguerite De La Motte as Constance Bonacieux in The Iron Mask (1929)

In The Mark of Zorro, Fairbanks had introduced the world to the swashbuckling adventure romance genre of film. It was still pretty rough by modern standards, but with The Three Musketeers he really broke new ground. This type of film, with a historical setting, lavish costumes and majestic sets, was something he would continue to do until the end of the silent era, after which he more or less gave up on film making. Some of his great movies include Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

The Iron Mask was to become his last silent film, and one of the last major silent productions of any kind. Though it was made mainly as a silent, there were originally a couple of talking sequences and a score with synchronized sound effects. However, the original score has never been completely restored, and the version at the Internet Archive, along with several similar ones, is effectively silent, with a soundtrack of classical music. (A version with partly restored soundtrack was released on DVD some years ago.) Yet another version was released in 1952; it was somewhat cut, but with an added introduction and a narrative track by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. That version is also available from the Internet Archive, but I personally do not like the narration, so I prefer the original, even without the sound.

The Iron Mask, along with Fairbanks’ other adventure films from the 1920s, still hold up well. Not only are they impressive in scope and well produced, but Fairbanks was also a good actor, and his athletic stunts continue to amaze almost 100 years later.

A curious and little-known fact is that The Iron Mask was in fact the third time that Douglas Fairbanks played d’Artagnan. In addition to The Three Musketeers, he also played the French adventurer in a brief prelude to the 1917 comedy A Modern Musketeer.

This film is best enjoyed after having first seen The Three Musketeers. Fans are divided regarding which is the better film. I personally prefer The Iron Mask.

One for all and all for one: Tiny Sandford as Porthos, Douglas Fairbanks as d'Artagnan, Leon Bary as Athos and Gino Corrado as Aramis in The Iron Mask (1929)

The Iron Mask
Download link
Year: 1929
Running time: 1 h 41 min
Director: Allan Dwan
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The hero who pretends to be a rich, useless fop by day, transforming himself into a vigilante fighting for justice by night is an important character template in modern popular storytelling. Batman and Zorro are perhaps the best known examples, but years before they were conceived, The Scarlet Pimpernel was perhaps the first popular hero to hide behind a secret identity.

Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is the alter ego of the English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney in a play and novel from the early 20th century. Blakeney is secretly critical of the events in France, where many of his friends are being executed without proper trials and for no other reason than being nobles. As The Scarlet Pimpernel, he therefore leads a band of resistance fighters who try to rescue the victims of the cruel tyrant Robespierre.

The Scarlet Pimpernel was popular almost from the start, and many film adaptations have been made. One of the most popular (and the first with sound) was the 1934 British The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Leslie Howard in the title role.

I have seen none of the other film versions of this character, but I am guessing that most are considerably more focused on the action. In the 1934 version, the drama is set first, and much is made of Howard’s excellent ability to switch between his character’s real self and the dandy he plays in order to avoid suspicion. The character’s wit and intelligence are also prominent.

This film is best enjoyed for Leslie Howard’s performance. Though it is a well-made costume piece, the historical aspects are by themselves not enough to raise the film above average. Howard’s acting, along with the exciting and amusing story, elevates this into a classic masterpiece.

The guillotine in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Scarlet Pimpernel
Download link
Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Harold Young
Stars: Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (863 M)

Zorro’s Black Whip (1944)

The movie serials of the 1930s through 1950s are very interesting. The plots tend to be formulaic, the acting is usually terrible, and the characters and situations reek of cliché. Yet they can be very entertaining, as long as you do not expect a terrible lot of originality. They are also interesting because of their role in shaping modern popular culture.

Among the clichés are heavily cemented gender roles. The earlier serials of the silent era, as well as some from the early 1930s, often contain strong female characters. Sometimes, the entire plot centered around a female heroine, such as in The Hazards of Helen, several episodes of which are available at the Internet Archive. (I may come back to that serial in the future.)

Linda Stirling in Zorro's Black Whip (1944)

But by 1944, Zorro’s Black Whip, starring Linda Stirling as a female “Zorro” (though that name is never used in dialogue; she is known by the alias The Black Whip), was something truly unique. By that time, female roles in serials had been trivialized to love interests and kidnapping victims. Just what caused the degradation of women is unkown to me, though I understand that with the coming of sound film and a more commercialized movie business, all of Hollywood became more of a men’s playground. Perhaps World War II paved the way for at least this one return to a strong leading woman, but the world was not yet ready for more.

Of course, The Black Whip could not be made too strong and independent. To begin with, she could not create the secret identity herself. She inherited it from her dead brother, and throughout the serial has to pretend to be a man in order to continue her brother’s fight for freedom in 19th century Idaho. And while she turns out to be an expert with the whip and revolver, she naturally cannot fight with her fists, so she needs a strong and able sidekick, government agent Vic Gordon, to act as her proxy in this respect. Oh, and of course he is also her love interest. There can be no 1940s serial without romance. (Vic Gordon was played by George J. Lewis, who was to play Zorro’s father in the Disney TV series over a decade later.)

This serial is best enjoyed for its unusual gender roles. It is a nice and somewhat original take on the Zorro theme, though I would personally hold that the previous serial Zorro Rides Again is better. Especially the ending, which is the weakest part of Zorro’s Black Whip. All things considered, though, this is good watching, and if you like serials it is highly recommended.

Linda Stirling and George J. Lewis in Zorro's Black Whip (1944)

Zorro’s Black Whip
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1944
Running time: 3 h 2 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Linda Stirling, George J. Lewis
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (636×476)
Sound quality: Acceptable

Zorro Rides Again (1937)

There is a strong link between the characters of Zorro and Batman, a link that I have a feeling has not yet been thoroughly explored. I will come back to that link later on.

Zorro Rides Again was the first (and best) of three serials based on the Zorro character. All three are available from the Internet Archive, and I may quite possibly return to the other two in the future.

Duncan Renaldo and John Carroll in Zorro Rides Again (1937)

This version does not try to be very creative with the Zorro character. It is not a reboot per se, yet largely builds its own background and characters; still everything pretty much remains from earlier versions. The main character is the original Zorro’s great grandson James Vega, and when he arrives to help protect a railroad construction plagued by a villainous terrorist called El Lobo, great hopes are placed on him. But like his forefather, he pretends to be a foppish dillettante by day, only to change into Zorro’s costume by night. All the old attributes are here. The only thing missing is the black cape.

Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman’s creators, drew inspiration from many sources and characters when creating Batman. One of them, The Bat, has already been covered in this blog. Other sources have been reported to include Sherlock Holmes and The Phantom. Kane has reportedly said that one of his sources was the film The Mark of Zorro (1920). There is no reason to doubt the truth of the statement, of course. Douglas Fairbanks’ Zorro film has been tremendously influential on a number of levels, not least for the Zorro character himself.

Yet I think we should not dismiss Zorro Rides Again. Admittedly, it may not be as elegant or ground-breaking as The Mark of Zorro, but there are two reasons to believe that it may have left an impact on Batman. To begin with, it was released only two years prior to the first published Batman story, so the timing is much better than for the considerably older Fairbanks film. But even more to the point, Zorro Rides Again may have been the first use of Zorro’s underground cavern hideout, and thus not only provided inspiration for many Zorro incarnations to come, but potentially served as a model for the Batcave.

So my bottom line is that while The Mark of Zorro may have been the main inspiration going from Zorro to Batman, Zorro Rides Again may well have stimulated Kane’s interest in the Zorro character, and it probably also contributed some small pieces of inspiration itself.

This serial is best enjoyed if you enjoy serials in general or if you want an introduction to the genre. It is a good representative with a lot of nice action and fancy stuntwork. The plot may be stupid at times, but it is never dull. The actors … well, you never watch serials for the actors, anyhow.

John Carroll in Zorro Rides Again (1937)

Zorro Rides Again
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1937
Running time: 3 h 34 min
Directors: John English, William Witney
Stars: John Carroll
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable

The Phantom (1943)

The Phantom is a classic newspaper comic strip in the adventure genre. It was created in 1936 by writer Lee Falk, and soon became very popular. Even after its creator’s death in 1999, it continues running with new creative teams. While past its peak, it remains very popular, not least as a comic book in Scandinavia and Australia. The character is partly a synthesis of Zorro and Tarzan, but with some very unique and original elements thrown into the mix.

As a hero in the movies, The Phantom’s career has been considerably less stellar than in the newspapers. There have been several attempts, mostly very awkward, to recreate The Phantom either for TV or for the big screen. In fact, the best screen Phantom is still the very first, The Phantom from 1943. The adventure serials were at that time at their peak regarding budgets and production values, and The Phantom is not lacking in terms of entertaining adventure.

Tom Tyler with Devil by the skull throne in The Phantom (1943)

The plot is standard serial fare. Professor Davidson needs help to find a lost city. The Phantom comes to his aid, but a number of bad guys try to thwart them. Since this was made in 1943, one of them is a Nazi agent. And then there is the professor’s beautiful daughter, Diana. Why, of course. There has to be a romantic interest for the hero. After the early 1930s, female characters in serials became increasingly more passive and objectified, mostly acting as baits for the crooks to go after and the heroes to rescue. These gender roles became so cemented that they can still to some extent be seen in popular media, and I believe that the serials had a large part in that development. In early serials from the 1920s, the women were much more active, sometimes actually acting as the heroes themselves.

In spite of his appearance, The Phantom is not really a superhero, neither in terms of powers nor in terms of the themes covered in the comics (special thematic rules apply in the serials). Like many superheroes, however, The Phantom is dressed in a tight suit and a mask. Just like Superman, his costume was inspired by the strongmen of the early 20th century, which explains why he has his underpants outside his trousers. This would be fair enough, except according to the background detailed in the strip, the costume was invented by the first person to hide behind The Phantom’s mask in the 16th century.

Yes, there are many corny things about The Phantom, but that is part of the character’s charm. You cannot watch this serial, or read the comic, unless you accept it for what it is, and allow yourself to be immersed in a different world, one where the good guys always win and the bad ones get punched on the nose.

This film is best enjoyed if you are disappointed with some of the other The Phantom films and want to enjoy what is probably closest to the real thing in motion. As an added bonus, Kenneth MacDonald makes a very memorable interpretation as the evil genius.

Tom Tyler fighting a ferocious lion in The Phantom (1943)

The Phantom
Download link
Year: 1943
Running time: 4 h 20 min
Directors: B. Reeves Eason
Stars: Tom Tyler
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack

Superman (1941)

The story goes something like this: Superman, who had debuted a few years earlier published by National Allied Publications (later DC Comics), had become a major success, and the publisher was now eager to create an animated series with the character. They approached the Fleischer brothers, who headed one of the most successful animation studios at the time. The Fleischers, however, were not interested in doing action animation (they had mostly done comedy, such as Betty Boop and Popeye). But instead of declining the offer, they gave a ridiculous bid to make the series for $100,000 per episode. Even though this was negotiated down to half, they could not decline such a lavish offer, and so the Superman animated series was born.

Superman in the Fleischer cartoon series (1941)

A pilot and eight subsequent episodes were produced by Fleischer Studios. Then Fleischer was reorganised as Famous Studios, who went on to produce eight more, for a total of seventeen. The Fleischer episodes are generally better and focuses more on science fiction, whereas those from famous contain much more war propaganda. All are worth seeing, though.

The series is the origin of many of the iconic characteristics of Superman. For example, it features the first ever costume change in a phone booth (along with many other inventive changes of costume); also, this is where Superman learned to fly (before, he could only jump very high); and even though it had been used before, I am guessing that this series is the reason why the “It’s a bird … (etc)” cry became famous.

It is not entirely coincidental that this series started the same year as the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial. Even though the Superman series is not a serial, it is clearly inspired by the same serial tradition, and the two superheroes were fierce competitors in the comic stands at the time.

One Internet Archive user has combined all the episodes into one feature film version. I have not seen that version myself, so cannot say if the image quality and resolution are good enough.

If you prefer to watch the episodes one at a time, I have collected links for the best version available for each:

  1. Superman
  2. The Mechanical Monsters
  3. Billion Dollar Limited
  4. The Arctic Giant
  5. The Bulleteers
  6. The Magnetic Telescope
  7. Electric Earthquake
  8. Volcano
  9. Terror on the Midway
  10. Japoteurs
  11. Showdown
  12. Eleventh Hour
  13. Destruction, Inc.
  14. The Mummy Strikes
  15. Jungle Drums
  16. The Underground World
  17. Secret Agent

This series is best enjoyed for its playfulness and its splendid, mood-setting images. It is true that, even in spite of the enormous budget, the animation is sometimes short of perfection and the stories are far from logical. Yet, every episode of Superman is packed with fun and action.

Superman and Lois Lane in the Fleischer cartoon series (1941)

Superman
Download link (complete series)
Year: 1941 – 1943
Running time: 2 h 0 min (complete series)
Directors: Dave Fleischer, Izzy Sparber, Seymour Kneitel
Stars: Bud Collyer, Joan Alexander
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium
Sound quality: Acceptable to good