Serial Review: Undersea Kingdom (1936)

Release Date: May 30th, 1936 (first chapter)
Directed by: B. Reeves Eason, Joseph Kane
Written by: Tracy Knight, John Rathmell, Maurice Geraghty, Oliver Drake
Music by: Harry Grey
Cast: Ray “Crash” Corrigan, Lois Wilde, Monte Blue, William Farnum

Republic Pictures, 226 Minutes total (12 episodes), 100 Minutes (TV)

Review:

Undersea Kingdom, on its surface, should be pretty cool. However, it is an underwhelming dud. It was featured sparingly on Mystery Science Theater 3000 when they needed some shorts. But that program never played the serial in its entirety.

This was made in response to Universal’s hit serial Flash Gordon, but it pales in comparison and certainly isn’t as remembered. Honestly, other than popping up a few times on MST3K, this serial is forgettable.

In this epic, there is a suspicious earthquake. A professor leads an expedition in a super submarine to what is believed to be the location of Atlantis. The heroes arrive at the mystical continent and find themselves in a civil war between Sharad, who leads the White Robes, and Unga Khan, who leads the Black Robes. It is obvious who the bad guys are because this was the 1930s and shit was simpler back then. Unga Khan has a superweapon, the Disintegrator, which he plans to use to destroy the world with earthquakes unless he is made the ruler of Earth.

“Crash” was added to Ray Corrigan’s name in an effort to sound close to “Flash”. Frankly, this attempt at a ripoff was pretty damn blatant about it. He would continue to use this name in other serials he filmed after this one.

The only cool thing about this serial is Unga Khan’s Volkites. They were metallic warriors that looked like very primitive versions of the classic Cybermen from Doctor Who. Granted, they look more like Cybermen trying to wear Dalek armor over their heads and torsos.

Undersea Kingdom is kind of fun but that fun runs out quickly, as the serial is bogged down with retreading familiar territory and for utilizing tropes that were probably already played out in 1936.

I like stories about Atlantis and I love classic serials like this. Unfortunately, the two weren’t a perfect marriage or even a good one.

So does this deserve to be run through the trusty Cinespiria Shitometer? It certainly does! The results read, “Type 2 Stool: Sausage-shaped but lumpy.”

Serial Review: Les Vampires (1915)

Release Date: November 13th, 1915 (first chapter)
Directed by: Louis Feuillade
Written by: Louis Feuillade
Cast: Édouard Mathé, Musidora, Marcel Lévesque

Gaumont, 417 Minutes total (10 episodes)

Review:

Les Vampires took me a long time to get through. I had to watch it in increments, checking out each chapter over time. Each of which averages out to just over 40 minutes a piece.

While it was probably exciting and great in 1915, most of it is very slow and pretty uneventful. It could actually be easily edited down to a normal feature film length and be a more effective presentation.

Despite the title, the serial is not about vampires of a supernatural type. It is actually a long drawn out crime saga about a criminal gang in Paris that is called the Vampires. The story follows a journalist and his friend who try to uncover the secrets of this criminal group.

There are some weird characters and occurrences throughout this beefy tale and you can see that the style was very theatrical and kind of similar to what would come out of Germany a few years later with their expressionist style.

Being three minutes shy of a seven hour run time, in its entirety, Les Vampires is considered to be one of the longest films ever made. Most of the time the film uses isn’t vital, however.

In 1915, film was still an experiment and hadn’t really evolved into a standard format. In reality, this ten episode format plays more like a season of a modern television show.

Les Vampires spends a lot of its time experimenting with visual flair and is more of a theatrical art piece than a motion picture or a proper serial. The narrative is disjointed and honestly, it is pretty hard to follow even with its simplicity. The reason being is that so much time passes and you become so numbed by the experience that early details escape you. It’s a pretty surreal experience overall.

The serial is still cool to look at, as it shows where filmmaking was around 1915. While some critics consider it to be a masterpiece, I don’t. It’s barely enjoyable other than some cool visual flourishes and I found it difficult to get through. My spacing out the chapters may also account for some loss of plot detail, however.

Serial Review: Zorro Rides Again (1937)

Release Date: November 20th, 1937 (first chapter)
Directed by: William Witney, John English
Written by: Franklin Adreon, Morgan Cox, Ronald Davidson, John Rathmell, Barry Shipman
Based on: Zorro by Johnston McCulley
Music by: Alberto Colombo, Walter Hirsch, Eddie Maxwell, Lou Handman
Cast: John Carroll, Helen Christian, Reed Howes, Duncan Renaldo, Noah Beery Sr., Richard Alexander

Republic Pictures, 212 Minutes total (12 episodes), 68 Minutes (film), 26 Minutes (6 TV episodes)

Review:

Zorro Rides Again has a few notable things worth mentioning. It was the first film collaboration for directors William Whitney and John English. Also, it was the eighth of Republic Pictures’ 66 serials. It was also just the third western themed serial that Republic did. Additionally, this was the first of five Zorro serials produced by Republic Pictures.

This Zorro serial was influenced by the singing cowboy trend of the time, so there are some musical numbers. I’ve never been a fan of that particular genre so what could have been a great serial adventure for a great and iconic hero suffered from its musical hokiness.

The casting was mediocre and no one really stands out or has a strong presence. Zorro, as a character, always stands out but he just seemed stripped of his coolness. He just didn’t feel like the Old West Mexican Batman that he normally is.

This serial doesn’t have much to boast about, unfortunately. Being a Zorro fan, I wanted to love Zorro Rides Again but I was mostly bored throughout it. Visually, it is average. The direction is fine for a serial but Witney and English hadn’t yet found their rhythm.

In any event, it did spawn four sequels and I’m hoping that they improve upon this weak initial outing.

Serial Review: The Phantom (1943)

Release Date: December 24th, 1943 (first chapter)
Directed by: B. Reeves Eason
Written by: Morgan Cox, Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Sherman L. Lowe
Based on: The Phantom created by Lee Falk, Ray Moore
Cast: Tom Tyler, Jeanne Bates, Kenneth MacDonald, Ace the Wonder Dog

Columbia Pictures, 299 Minutes total (15 episodes)

Review:

People from my generation may remember the character of the Phantom because of the self-titled film that came out in 1996 with Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and James Remar. While that one didn’t pan out well for the old school comic strip hero, his first foray into live-action, this 1943 serial, is a different story.

In fact, despite that 1996 film being mostly awful and, for a long time, my only live-action experience of the Phantom, I have always thought the character was pretty damn cool.

While I did like the original Batman serial, many critics did not. Being that this followed that one and it was also from Columbia Pictures, many of those critics thought that this was a saving grace for the studio, as it surpassed The Batman in every way possible. Granted, looking back now, I enjoyed The Batman for its tone and visual style. The Phantom is a continuation of that and it is also a step above.

Tom Tyler was a great casting decision when it came to the role of the Phantom and he really made the character his. Jeanne Bates was also a good addition to the cast. Ace the Wonder Dog is cool but it would have been even cooler to have a wolf, like the comics, as opposed to a German Shepherd. But they probably didn’t want a wolf mauling baddies on the set.

The plot introduces us to a professor who plans an expedition to find the mystical Lost City of Zoloz. A villain also wants to find Zoloz and use it for an airbase. The villain kills the original Phantom, only for his son to inherit the identity. The rest of the story focuses on locating all of the seven ivory pieces that tell where to find the Lost City. Also, the Phantom wrestles a friggin’ gorilla!

Critics loved Tyler as the Phantom even if some considered his performance to be wooden. It has since become as beloved as his performance as Captain Marvel a few years earlier.

In 1955, Columbia filmed a sequel with John Hart as the Phantom, as Tom Tyler died in 1954. Due to legal issues with the rights to the character, The Return of the Phantom had to be re-branded as The Adventures of Captain Africa before its release.

Ultimately, the Phantom is the epitome of cool, especially for his time. It’s kind of sad that we’ve never gotten a decent followup or reboot in the decades since its release.

Serial Review: Spy Smasher (1942)

Release Date: April 4th, 1942 (first chapter)
Directed by: William Witney
Written by: Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, William Lively, Joseph O’Donnell, Joseph F. Poland
Based on: character by C.C. Beck, Bill Parker
Music by: Mort Glickman
Cast: Kane Richmond, Marguerite Chapman, Sam Flint, Hans Schumm, Tris Coffin

Republic Pictures, 214 Minutes total (12 episodes), 100 Minutes (film)

Review:

Spy Smasher might not be a well-known and beloved character in modern times, but he was the focal point of what is considered by many to be the greatest serial of all-time.

The character of Spy Smasher was a comic book hero published by Fawcett Comics, similar to their other hero Captain Marvel. And also like Captain Marvel, he is now owned by DC Comics and appears in their titles now and again.

What makes his serial Spy Smasher so well regarded is the fact that it had superb writing for its genre. Also, it had some unique cliffhangers. It also bucked trends when one of the cliffhangers saw a character die. The serial formula, at the time, always showed the person escape danger in some miraculous way.

Spy Smasher also has some of the best cinematography and writing a serial has ever had. The bulk of the acting duties were on the shoulders of Kane Richmond and his leading lady Marguerite Chapman.

The serial is twelve chapters but each one is well paced and executed. It also resonated well with audiences as our hero was pitted against Nazis during the World War II era.

As far as serials go, Spy Smasher was damn good and one of the most historically significant to come out.

Serial Review: Flash Gordon (1936)

Release Date: April 6th, 1936 (first chapter)
Directed by: Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor (uncredited)
Written by: Basil Dickey, Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Frederick Stephani
Based on: Flash Gordon comic strip by Alex Raymond
Music by: Clifford Vaughan
Cast: Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Charles B. Middleton, Priscilla Lawson, Frank Shannon

Universal Pictures, 245 Minutes total (13 chapters)

Review:

Flash Gordon is a character that has lived on in American culture for decades. This 1936 serial by Universal Pictures is the first time that the famous comic strip hero was presented in a live-action format. Needless to say, it was a hugely popular serial for Universal and spawned a franchise that still has life all these years later.

The serial stars Buster Crabbe, who is the only actor to play the top three syndicated comic strip heroes of the 1930s: Tarzan (Tarzan the Fearless), Buck Rogers (Buck Rogers) and Flash Gordon (Flash GordonFlash Gordon’s Trip to Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe).

Having dark hair, Crabbe had to bleach his hair blonde to play Flash Gordon, which he was very self-conscious about. He’d actually wear a hat whenever he wasn’t filming.

Co-star Jean Rogers, who played Dale Arden, also went blonde even though her character was a brunette. This was supposedly done to capitalize on the popularity of “platinum blonde” Jean Harlow, another actress.

Charles B. Middleton played the infamous villain Ming the Merciless. This was also where Ming got the look of a Fu Manchu type character.

There was a claim that Flash Gordon had a budget of over a million dollars, which was absurd for the time. Supposedly, the real budget was $350,000 and Universal Pictures recycled a lot of their elements and props from other films. Most notably the use of the watchtower sets from 1931’s Frankenstein, a statue from 1932’s The Mummy, lab equipment from 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein and other sci-fi and horror classics. The serial also recycles musical scores from The Bride of FrankensteinThe Invisible Man and other productions.

From a style standpoint, it should be obvious that this had a similar vibe to the classic Universal Monsters franchise of films.

Overall, Flash Gordon is fairly exciting with decent cliffhangers and twists. It has better acting than most serials and the action is top notch for this style of production.

The serial ended up being Universal’s second highest grossing release of 1936, behind the film Three Smart Girls. Some people were critical of the “revealing” costumes of the woman characters and future Flash Gordon serials had to dress women more modestly.

This is one of my favorite serials and my favorite of the Flash Gordon series. Crabbe would play Gordon two more times.

Serial Review: The Phantom Empire (1935)

Release Date: February 23rd, 1935 (first chapter)
Directed by: Otto Brower, B. Reeves Eason
Written by: Wallace MacDonald, Gerald Geraghty, Hy Freedman, Maurice Geraghty
Music by: Hugo Riesenfeld
Cast: Gene Autry, Frankie Darro, Betsy King Ross, Dorothy Christy, Wheeler Oakman

Mascot Pictures, 245 Minutes total (12 episodes)

Review:

Marketed as “The most astounding serial ever made!”, The Phantom Empire is quite a bizarre piece of work even for serials. It combines the western, science fiction and musical genres, which was pretty risky, at the time. It also was the first starring role for Gene Autry, who was the quintessential singing cowboy.

Regardless of it being a strange mixture of genres and singing, The Phantom Empire was a successful serial for Mascot Pictures and Gene Autry, who would go on to be a pretty big star.

The story sees Gene Autry playing himself as a singing cowboy who runs a dude ranch where he also does radio broadcasts. The place is called Radio Ranch. Autry’s sidekicks, Frankie and Betsy lead the Junior Thunder Riders, a club featuring kids who dress like knights and ride around on horses. Gene, Frankie and Betsy are kidnapped by the real Thunder Riders, who come from a highly advanced subterranean empire called Murania. Above the surface, a group of criminals plans to rob Murania of its radium, while under the surface a group of revolutionaries plots to overthrow Murania’s evil queen Tika.

The genre mixing alone isn’t the weirdest thing about this picture. As the plot unfolds it gets stranger and stranger.

While this isn’t the best looking serial, it was fairly well shot for its time. It isn’t as exciting as the odd premise would make you hope but it is still a pretty entertaining experience.

Gene Autry was a love him or hate him kind of guy. I was never really a fan of the singing cowboy thing but this serial provides so much else outside of that popular gimmick that it isn’t bogged down by it.

The Phantom Empire is unique and it is a noteworthy body of work in film history due to giving Gene Autry a stage to prosper and for taking some risks that paid off and paved the way for creativity in future serials.