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

Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

This week, the new Tarzan film The Legend of Tarzan is scheduled for its worldwide premiere. While a new Tarzan film used to be a common occurrence (in the 1930s and 1940s there was usually a new one every year), they have not exactly been as common lately. In fact, the latest live action Tarzan film was Tarzan and the Lost City, a pretty bad flick from 1998.

The Internet Archive has a little over half a dozen Tarzan films and serials, but truth be told, most are not good. One of the better is the serial Tarzan the Tiger (episodes 1–7 and 8–15).

Frank Merrill in Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

Tarzan the Tiger was made just as the silent era was swiftly marching towards its own grave. This serial is an example of a blend that was relatively common around this time. It is essentially silent, but it has a synchronized soundtrack, including some (pretty annoying) sound effects and also the first-ever recorded version of the Tarzan yell. It was, however, a far cry (pun intended) from the later Weissmuller version.

This was the last silent Tarzan, and it marked the end of the first period of Tarzan films also in another way. Starting with the first Tarzan film, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), Tarzan films had always been based, more or less faithfully, on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books. But with the first true Tarzan sound film, The Ape Man (1932), the stories were original ones, created directly for the movies. Also, the characters and their surroundings changed from the novels, introducing for example the ape Cheeta (who is not still alive, by the way; that is just a myth) and the famous tree house.

But Tarzan the Tiger was still very much rooted in the original Tarzan novels. It has been too long since I read the novel Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, upon which the serial is based, but my recollection is that the serial follows the original plot fairly well. The traitorous Arnold Werper is there, as is the slave trader Achmet Zek. And most importantly, the jewels of Opar, which everyone wants, and on which the amnesiac Tarzan is positively hung up. If nothing else, the serial is definitely made in the book’s spirit.

With that novel, Burroughs started experimenting with a new plot format, one which involves switching from one character’s point-of-view to another’s and with frequent cliff-hangers. I call this type of novel “the jungle romp”, since it has a number of characters running circles in a jungle, alone or in small groups. They are often completely lost, but in the end they miraculously find one another (and the treasure) in just the nick of time. It is plain that this is a formula which would easily lend itself to the serial style of story telling.

The Jewels of Opar was also Burroughs’ first novel where he used the amnesia cliché. Many critics have said that Burroughs overused amnesia in his plots: it was used several times in the Tarzan series of novels, for example. But in this first, Burroughs was still experimenting, and it actually helps to lift the story and make it more interesting.

Frank Merrill, like so many other screen Tarzans, had a background as an elite athlete. He had been a nationally top-ranking gymnast, and it shows. In terms of physical appearance and ability, he made a splendid ape man. His acting talent was somewhat less splendid, but his over-acting is actually unintentionally funny and helps to raise my level of enjoyment another notch.

The version found at the Internet Archive is, unfortunately, very dark and generally of poor quality. I am not sure if restored versions are available on dvd, but all the versions I have seen on the Internet are like this one, or worse.

This serial is best enjoyed for an abundance of action and sudden plot twists, just like any good serial. On the other hand, one should not expect too much of the acting or scenography.

Frank Merrill and Natalie Kingston as Tarzan and Jane in Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

Tarzan the Tiger
Download links: 1–7 | 8–15
Year: 1929
Running time: 4 h 28 min
Director: Henry MacRae
Stars: Frank Merrill
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX

Radar Men from the Moon (1952)

Star Wars has reclaimed the position as the hottest franchise in the movie business, and fans will endlessly debate who is the best character or the pros and cons of various plotlines. Somewhat in the shadow of all the hype, you will sometimes find some discussion about George Lucas’ sources of inspiration.

A handful of Lucas’ sources can be found at the Internet Archive; I have previously written about the serials The Phantom Empire (1935) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). A third serial which inspired him was Radar Men from the Moon (chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12), as can be seen in the character Commander Cody (Star Wars Episode III), from the serial’s hero Commando Cody.

George Wallace as Commando Cody (aka the Rocketman) in Radar Men from the Moon (1952)

Cody in the serial, who was also one of the inspirations for the 1980s movie and comic hero The Rocketeer, constructed his own backpack rocket and helmet, which help him fly, so that he can better fight the bad guys. In this particular serial (Cody was to appear in one more), he learns that moon men plan to invade earth, so he goes there to fight them. Most of the serial, however, is set on earth where Cody and his associates do battle against the infiltrators from the moon.

Radar Men from the Moon was produced one or two decades after the other serials I have reviewed here, and in some ways it shows. In the 1950s, the serials had passed their peak, both in terms of popularity and quality. There is still plenty of action, excitement and adventure, but beyond the first episode, which has some interesting points, the story feels a bit tired.

Like most serials after the early 1930s, Radar Men from the Moon is stuck in some rather stale gender roles. Take the matter of women on board spaceships, for instance. “You will be very glad to have someone on board who can cook your meals,” is just too typical a comment. This delivered by the woman in question, incidentally.

This serial is best enjoyed by Star Wars fans who want to explore George Lucas’ sources of inspiration. For serial fans, or those who want an introduction to serials, there are several better options, such as the eleven years older Adventures of Captain Marvel.

George Wallace as Commando Cody (aka the Rocketman) fighting a moon man in Radar Men from the Moon (1952)

Radar Men from the Moon
Downlad links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12
Year: 1952
Running time: 2 h 47 min
Director: Fred C. Brannon
Stars: George Wallace
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2

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

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

In a world where everything and everyone has to have its own special day, there is no reason why there should not be a dedicated Star Wars Day. And even though that day happens to be chosen because of a bad word pun, one day will do as good as any. So let us celebrate Star Wars by looking at one of George Lucas’ influences.

In the DVD Special Edition commentary to Star Wars Episode II, during the fight between Obi Wan Kenobi and Jango Fett, George Lucas said: “It turns into a kind of fun sequence with […] the cliffhanger part of it which, again, is in that old Saturday matinee serial aspect of this whole thing.”

Frank Shannon (Dr Zarkov), Carol Hughes (Dale Arden) and Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon) in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

The serials to which Lucas refers were actually made for the most part before Lucas was even born. But in the 1950s, they were rerun on television. One of the more important of these serials is Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, or as it was known on TV, Flash Gordon – Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe.

Like many other serials of the time, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is not something you watch for the intricate and coherent plot. Nor are the actors at any time aiming for an Academy Award. I have a soft spot for Buster Crabbe, and he does a good job considering the circumstances, but Carol Hughes as Dale Arden is comically theatrical at times.

Below is a list of all the chapters, with links to the Internet Archive:

  1. The Purple Death
  2. Freezing Torture
  3. Walking Bombs
  4. The Destroying Ray
  5. The Palace of Horror
  6. Flaming Death
  7. The Land of the Dead
  8. The Fiery Abyss
  9. The Pool of Peril
  10. The Death Mist
  11. Stark Treachery
  12. Doom of the Dictator

If you prefer to not watch the entire thing, you can also find at the Archive a normal-length feature film edited from parts of the serial, titled The Purple Death from Outer Space.

This film is best enjoyed if you know your Star Wars. You will find lots of characters, situations and plot elements here that obviously inspired and influenced George Lucas in various ways. Emperor Ming the Merciless, for instance, has more than just a little bit of Darth Vader in him. Or the other way around.

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe
Download link (first chapter)
Year: 1941
Running time: 3 h 21 min
Directors: Ford Beebe, Ray Taylor
Stars: Buster Crabbe, Carol Hughes
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