Dr Hermes Reviews - CLIFFHANGERS
(Feb 16, 2005)
"He hunts the biggest of all game... public enemies even the G-Men can't reach... THE GREEN HORNET!" Oh yeah, loved it, really hit the spot. This 1940 Universal serial was amazingly faithful to the long-running radio series (a welcome thing as THE GREEN HORNET probably ties with LIGHTS OUT as my favorite Old Time Radio show). It really captures the motivation of the character and the theme of the show, just as well as I hoped it would.
The whole point of the Hornet is that he is not going after world-conquering madmen with crackling death rays or legions of obedient zombies. He is a dedicated public servant who is determined to clean up his city of racketeers, corrupt politicians and con artists of all types. As publisher of the crusading DAILY SENTINEL, Britt Reid keeps learning of new scandals and crime rings that (for one reason or other) the police can't handle. Rather than let the sorry situation slide, Reid puts on a simple green mask, loads up a non-lethal gas gun and climbs into a streamlined supercar named the Black Beauty. With his partner Kato, he "risks his life so that criminals and racketeers outside the law may feel its wrath by the sting of the Green Hornet."
This 1940 serial gets the tone and essence of the radio show just right. It's a bit unusual for a chapterplay in that the plot is constructed of a series of smaller rackets the Hornet and Kato bust up while trying to find the identity of the big boss behind it all. Rather than the usual tug of war where the heroes and villains take turns getting possession of the treasure map or new bomb sight or whatever, we actually get four or five separate battles. There's a rigged mayoral election that needs to be exposed, a faulty underwater tunnel built of substandard material, a hot car ring, a protection racket victimizing dry cleaners --- these are all crimes that really ruin the lives of innocent people, and if heroes like the Shadow or Doc Savage were not concerned with mundane affairs like these, the Hornet was ready to fight for the safety and rights of ordinary citizens.
Ah, well, there is one racket here that doesn't seem to be all that practical. Something about a flying school that sabotages its planes to collect on the insurance policies of its students. I can't imagine that school's hardluck reputation drawing in much business after two or three fatal crashes in short succession. But be that as it may....
At one point, our hero deftly manipulates two pairs of gangsters to shoot it out with each other with fatal results. That's the essence of the Green Hornet right there, he'd rather use cunning and psychological maneuvering than brute force any day. Despite the fact he's wanted for murders and other crimes he didn't commit, he's one of the more humane vigilantes in the game. Knock 'em out with the gas gun, trick 'em into incriminating themselves, get them to fight it out with each other.. that's his style.
The cast works fine for me. Gordon Jones is better known as a comic relief actor in a bunch of Westerns and as "Mike the Cop" in the Abbott & Costello 1950s TV show. I haven't seen him in any of those, though, so I can take him at face value and he's perfectly good as the hero. Britt Reid starts off as a disinterested slacker who answers everything with a grin and wisecrack, but he quickly gets caught up in the mission and buckles down. Keye Luke is (as always) appealing in a low-Keye way as Kato (he may not be Bruce Lee, but he does get in one nicely crisp judo chop to a crook's neck that lays the big goon out).
I have always liked Anne Nagel from her roles in Universal chillers like BLACK FRIDAY and MAN-MADE MONSTER; as Lenore Case, she adds some needed spark as she believes in the righteousness of the Green Hornet (as "the modern Robin Hood who is just what this city needs"), and I love the way she defiantly adds a Hornet sticker to the citation for public service which THE SENTINEL receives. The character of Mike Axford, big dumb Irish-stereotype bodyguard, goes to Wade Boteler. Axford always seemed a pretty obvious way to add some ethnic comic relief and to complicate things for Reid by getting in the way at crucial moments. Here, although he is obviously getting on in years and packing a paunch, ex-cop Axford seems genuinely tough and committed to doing his duty, which goes a long way toward justifying the character.
This serial even gives the Hornet a complete origin in the first chapter. Britt Reid is tired of his father thinking him a mere playboy (despite the fact he's successfully running a major newspaper), so he and his servant Kato have secretly built a sleek supercar in their secret garage. (Must have taken more than a few weekends.) In this serial version, Kato has mechanical inventiveness that is borderline genius. He has constructed the strongest car engine ever built to withstand the high-powered fuel "energizer" he's devised, so the Black Beauty can rip along the highway at 200 MPH. (Hopefully, he's also developed great brakes.) Kato has formulated a harmless but effective knockout gas that can be fired from an air pistol in little capsules that explode in front of the target's face, dropping them senseless. Noteworthy accomplishments for a working lab scientist, let alone a humble valet.
Actually, there's a reason why a man with Kato's high intelligence is content to serve as a butler and chauffeur - years earlier, Britt Reid saved his life from a murder attempt by a native in Singapore and Kato owes him lifelong gratitude ("He tried to kill me because I am a Korean," Kato says. Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Chinese... Kato's been described as everything but Swedish.) Although they are boss and servant, the two men are also obviously warm friends, and the way they have to keep rescuing each other while crimefighting only strengthens their bond. Britt Reid after all is a wealthy publisher, used to be in charge and snapping out orders to his staff, so it's surprising Kato is as nearly an equal partner as he is.
On the radio show, the code name was chosen because hornets that are green are the angriest and most likely to sting (hey, I thought that was yellowjackets...) but here, the title is chosen because the Black Beauty's horn gives an eerie buzzing noise that reminds Reid of "that giant green hornet we encountered in Africa."
There are a couple of odd things about this serial worth noting. As soon as Britt Reid puts on that full-face green mask with the hornet symbol, his voice mysteriously deepens to sound exactly the way it did on the radio show - the voice of Al Hodge (my favorite Hornet actor). It's a neat effect that tied the two incarnations together but it's never explained, it's just there. (Reid also does perfect impersonations of other characters during the story, so maybe voice impressions were a longtime hobby of his.) Another trick that seems a bit off is the constant use of a close-up of the Hornet against a neutral backdrop, spilling out useful exposition. I can see how this would help in the editing - you can throw in a brief clip to explain any loose ends in the scene - but it does get a bit distracting.
These are minor quibbles. The solutions to the chapter endings are also not particular clever or ingenious, but I don't mind. It's just such a treat to see my favorite radio hero brought to the screen so well.
Dir: Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor
(Jan 28, 2007)
THE HURRICANE EXPRESS is from Mascot and is so early a production that it often looks like a silent movie. Even if it wasn't an action-packed serial, it would be worth watching just to study all the shots of vintage cars, planes, railyards and locomotives. But in fact, there are plenty of thrills and stunts, and enough plot twists to keep your interest. (In fact, in spite of the helpful recaps, I got lost more than once trying to figure out who was being impersonating or why.)
This was the second of three serials that John Wayne made for Mascot (SHADOW OF THE EAGLE and THE THREE MUSKETEERS being the others). Come to think of it, I don't think I have ever sat through a complete Wayne feature. That may seem strange, but then I still haven't watched BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID or THE GODFATHER either; my love of the obscure and bizarre has led me astray. TITANIC no, SANTO VS THE VAMPIRE WOMEN, sure.
Wayne seems awfully young here, as indeed he was. The clips I've seen from some of his movies in the 1960s didn't give any idea of how much presence he had on screen, nor how just plain big he was. His shoulders are at forehead level to most of his co-stars and only good ol' Glenn Strange looks like he could give him a fair fight. Wayne's character slugs it out with three or four thugs at a time and he frequently picks up one of the punier crooks overhead and throws him at the others. It doesn't look like wirework, either, just muscle. Wayne is awkward at longer speeches but for short forceful sound bites, you can't beat him.
The story involves a mastermind known as the Wrecker (wow, has that code name been used dozens of times?), who is causing trouble for the L&R Railroad because he wants some of the gold they ship. His big mistake is causing the crash of the Hurricane Express. Seeing the imminent disaster from the air, pilot Larry Martin (Wayne) frantically lands and manages to divert the train. But a bit too late, and his engineer father has been killed in the crash. Larry swears vengeance and the Wrecker has made a bad enemy. After that, there's nothing for Larry but brutal fistfights, leaping onto speeding trains from hurtling convertibles, having his plane shot down, all kinds of shenanigans. There are plenty of suspects to err suspect, including the former head of the railroad, who has escaped from jail and claims he was framed for embezzlement. (He's the father of the damsel involved in the whole mess, which doesn't simplify things.)
Adding to the growing confusion is the fact that the Wrecker is a master of disguise. Evidently he has perfected a way of making rubber masks so lifelike they can fool people close-up in good light. With a skill like that, he could have become rich in Hollywood or by providing disguises for FBI agents to use but no, these fiends always take the hard road. It's genuinely creepy when someone steps back and we see his hands lower with a mask. Nearly everyone is impersonated at some point (including the hero), so you can never be quite sure when the Wrecker will suddenly reveal himself. Once, when Larry thinks he's finally outwitted the villain, he suddenly hears high-pitched diabolical laughter from his trusted friend right at his back.
The stunts are fine, maybe a bit primitive. There are too many punches that obviously miss completely but to which the goons react as if struck,and some fights are sped up just a wee bit too much. This serial would benefit from a good Foley artist. Many impacts of various sorts have no accompanying sound at all, which lessens their effect. Gunfire sounds like the real gunfire we hear too often on the news, a sort of muffled pop. It's weird but movies have gotten us so used to pistols blasting like thunder that a more authentic sound somehow doesn't seem right. I like the way Wayne obviously did most of his own stunts, without cuts to someone with a hat jammed down suddenly taking over.
All in all, a lot of fun. I have gotten sick unto death with CGI the past few years. It's often visually gorgeous but it still never seems authentic. The flesh and blood stuntmen of the cliffhangers, who seldom used more than a hidden springboard in their leaps and tackles, are much more exciting to watch than a cartoon figure which resembles the star.
(Dec 26, 2004)
Seriously, I am so hypnotized by Frances Gifford in her snug little leopardskin-trimmed outfit and mini-skirt that I frequently miss what's going on in some chapters and have to go watch it again. This is by no means a hardship, but it certainly takes forever to watch a fifteen chapter serial this way.
Aside from the lovely Miss Gifford as Nyoka, JUNGLE GIRL is a delight. It doesn't really have a complicated plot or surprising twists, just the usual game of two sides playing hot potato in reverse over some valuable object... in this case, a bundle of diamonds. Since it's set in the jungle, there aren't any of the cars going off cliffs that Republic relied so heavily on, and no lengthy horseback chases, either. Instead we get some chapter endings with a bit more novelty. In fact, most of the chapters seem to have a secondary cliffhanger within them, resolved before the real predicament turns up. Nyoka certainly seems to find herself tied up and wriggling a lot more than the usual serial character, or maybe it's just more enjoyable to watch and more so noticeable. She gets soaking wet at least five or six times too, which is also fine with me.
Ahem. [Shakes head.] About the serial. JUNGLE GIRL has the same title as an Edgar Rice Burroughs book but nothing else in common. The Burroughs name on the credits of a jungle adventure film carried a certain amount of weight in those days even if his stories had nothing to do with the finished product... just as you might notice the Roger Corman flick THE HAUNTED CASTLE proclaimed it was based on something or other by Poe, when it actually was an H.P. Lovecraft story. Such is marketing.
Nyoka Meredith (Gifford) is a healthy young gal living deep in Africa somewhere with her saintly physician father. (True, most of the natives don't look particularly African to me, but maybe they were refugees from one of the many lost cities full of various ethnic groups which Tarzan had disrupted.) Unknown to Nyoka, her dad had fled into the dark continent because he was ashamed of the vicious crime sprees of his twin brother Bradley. Dr John Meredith is doing good work, healing and teaching hygiene and so forth, so naturally he has made a bitter enemy in the envious witch doctor Shamba (Frank Lackteen), who is aching to do away with both of them. Shamba had a nice racket going with his voodoo until this newfangled white MD muscled in.
The doc has also been entrusted with a little silver sceptre which gives him authority over the Lion Men cult who hang out in the Caves of Nacros. These warriors gather around an impressive leonine idol (with flames in its gaping jaws) and guard their treasure of diamonds, waiting for their chance to use those wicked barbed spears.
For some reason, perhaps because she has a lot of free time what with no job and no boyfriends, Nyoka has become an astonishing acrobat. Every chance she gets, the Jungle Girl is hurling herself high above the ground from vine to vine, often doing a charming but unnecessary full somersault between vines. At one point, she even swings UP from the ground on a vine, a neat trick that physics teachers might have trouble explaining.
These vine-swinging scenes are absolutely terrific. I thought they were much more impressive, shown in closer detail than the ones in Weismuller's Tarzan movies. Doing the stunts were Helen Thurston (who also stood in for Kay Aldridge in PERILS OF NYOKA) and Dave Sharpe in drag (thanks, Dave, for putting up with some inevitable teasing to give us your share of those scenes). Nyoka can also summon and ride an elephant on occasion, and she does kill a crocodile underwater with a knife. You have to wonder just how eventful her life was before these outsiders turned up if croc stabbing doesn't seem to faze her.
Soon enough, big trouble arrives in in the Masamba territory. Looking for the diamonds is gangster Slick Latimer (played by Gerald Mohr, who has a wonderfully evil smirk) and his thugs.
Teaming up with Latimer is the crooked twin of Nyoka's father (wouldn't you know it? You can't get away from your undesirable relatives) and soon Latimer has murdered the Doctor Bwana and the evil twin is promptly impersonating him. (Guess that stuff about a psychic link between identical twins doesn't always work, Meredith seems unmoved by having his twin killed right at his feet.) Add this bunch of desperadoes to the scheming witch doctor and the usual assortment of aggressive gorillas and crocodiles and quicksand traps, and Nyoka certainly doesn't seem to have a bright future.
To balance things out, Latimer has brought along two pilots and guides who turn out to be decent guys who side with Nyoka. Jack Stanton is a really buff dude with genuine muscles, and his partner Curly (Eddie Acuff) is a goofball but still loyal and helpful in a fight. Now, even though Jack is the nominal hero and helps Nyoka at the risk of his own life (without even hinting maybe there's a way she could reward him, wink nudge), Tom Neal has a certain shady aura about him. I seriously kept expecting him to sell out to Latimer at some point or turn on everyone and run off with the diamonds himself. Sorry if I misjudged you, Tom.
Although Jack Stanton does carry more than his share of the fistfights and gun battles and death-trap escapes, Nyoka is by no means a helpless little debutante always waiting to be rescued. She saves the heroes by quick thinking as often as they save her by gunfire. In fact, she rescues Jack from drowning the moment she first meets him, diving off a cliff and pulling him out of the lake where he was going under with a bolo around his neck. Our girl gets captured a lot but she also pitches in and whales on the bad guys throughout.
She does seem to have a glass jaw, though. Nyoka can swing fifty feet on a vine and kick over two beefy thugs, but she's invariably dazed for a second whenever she suffers any sort of impact. The girl gets knocked out more in this serial than a pro boxer in an entire career, but she invariably shakes her head and gets back up in a few seconds. By the final chapter, I expected her to be saying, "Don't any of you hear that ringing noise?" (She can be rough, too. When a gangster is crawling for a dropped revolver, she stomps down on his hand with enthusiasm rather than just kicking the gun away. She's running out of patience by this time.)
Aside from her ability to cause testosterone surges in male viewers, Frances Gifford clearly has more than the rudimentary acting skills needed for an action serial. She in fact did go on to appear in some big mainstream films before the car accident that sadly sent her life to the dark side. Wishing an actress had not gone on to big-budget Paramount and MGM movies (like THE GLASS KEY and OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES -bleh) is kind of like wishing a pulp writer had stuck with WEIRD TALES when they wanted to move up to COLLIERS and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST - neither artist would appreciate the thought - but I really would have liked to see Frances Gifford do one or two more serials for Republic in her short career. Imagine her in ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP....
JUNGLE GIRL keeps moving briskly, with plenty of the leaping and tumbling stylized brawls Republic is famous for; they may not be realistic, but they provide great visuals. I am amazed at the way the stuntmen just dive across a room and out a window or up over a table with a skill that makes it all seem effortless. Today, it would be done with wirework and computer effects and not be half as convincing.
There are two cast members I didn't care for. Tommy Cook in an Afro wig as Kimbu gets on my nerves and frankly, I don't like Emil Van Horn's gorilla portrayals, neither the suit nor his half-hearted eforts at ape body language. (Give me Steve Calvert or Ray "Crash" Corrigan every time!) My biggest misgiving is that I would prefer Nyoka had been given the decisive role in the final confrontation where the villain gets his reward. It was her father who was killed after all, and it would have been more fitting if she had been the one to go running after that airplane just as it took off. So the finale is not as satisfying as I would have liked, but aside from those minor quibbles, JUNGLE GIRL is a real treat. My list of top ten favorite serials now stands at around eighteen.
About those less than authentic-looking "African natives".... Beats me. Maybe the studio had enough white extras on the payroll that giving them golliwog wigs and a little body make-up was cheaper than hiring new guys? The effect is bizarre, sometimes I feel like I'm watching a story taking place in the South Pacific or somewhere. My own explanation is that these serials took place near the various lost cities which Tarzan kept finding. They were populated by descendants of Crusaders, Phoenecians, Romans, Israelites and who-knows-who-else. Maybe the areas around Cathne and Nimmr and Opar had a lot of intermarriages and general mingling.
Dir: William Witney and John English
(Nov 6, 2001)
From 1949, this was one of the last really fine Republic serials but it's still one of my all-time favorites and a good introductory choice for a fan of pulp adventure who's curious about the cliffhangers.
KING OF THE ROCKETMEN introduced the leather-jacketed, bullet-helmeted flying suit that is just so excessively cool that it was used (with different heroes wearing it) in the follow-up serials RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON and ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE, as well as the TV show COMMANDO CODY. In fact, the rocket suit is so slick and so full of mysteries that it deserves its own article. (And if you saw THE ROCKETEER, you have an idea of what artist Dave Stevens enjoyed as a kid, other than cheesecake pictures of Bettie Page (not that there's anything WRONG with cheesecake pictures of Bettie, but frankly I have way too many obsessions already...)
Despite the misleading title, there is only one Rocket Man, an adventurous scientist named Jeff King. As a member of a research group called Science Associate, he's trying to find out which of their super-genius members has gone wrong. Now calling himself Dr Vulcan, he's planning on using the death ray machine called the Decimator to blackmail New York into paying up big time. Luckily, another of the associates, Professor Millard has just finished his atomic-powered rocket suit and the two-fisted physicist Jeff king is more than happy to slip it on and take off as the new superhero, Rocket Man.
As you can rightfully expect in a Republic serial, no more than two or three minutes go by without mayhem. There's enough action in this one serial that you can get black and blue just watching it. Not only can Rocket Man fly, but his outfit gives him a real advantage in the constant fistfights. His head is covered with a metal helmet, he can take broken chairs across the back because of those rocket tubes, and there's a large metal control panel on his chest. Not much left to try except hitting below the belt.
Tristram Coffin as Jeff King is a pleasant surprise, because the actor was usually cast as a villain (you probably saw him confront George Reeve's Superman, when you were a kid. Older and more authoritative than the usual All-American jock heroes, Coffin is convincing as a guy who would fight Dr Vulcan, even without the rocket suit. Mae Clarke as the heroine is also older than the usual college age leading ladies in these cliffhangers, but she seems uncomfortable and bewildered, as if she had signed up for a different project.
Okay, the decimator goes into action in the final chapter as Dr Vulcan from Fisherman's Island complete wrecks Manhattan. Earthquakes topple the building and a tidal waves floods the city, killing thousands. (This footage was swiped from an old RKO movie called DELUGE.) Even as the metropolis is destroyed and Army bombers are speeding toward the island, Rocket Man zooms down, crashes through a window of the villain's cottage and somersaults up to punch out the thugs and blow up the decimator (in one of the neatest action stunts I've seen). Seconds later, the Army planes drop a few blockbusters on Vulcan's summer home, as Rocket Man barely flies off in time.
This sequence is a lot of fun to watch, but on second thought, what good did our hero really accomplish? New York City WAS obliterated, the bombers would have destroyed the decimator and Dr Vulcan less than a minute later, anyway, so Rocket Man might as well have watched from a safe distance. This has always seemed like odd screenwriting, but it makes perfect sense when you're sitting in a dark theatre with popcorn in your lap.
Unlike the recent film version of Dave Stevens'
THE ROCKETEER, where the hero is clearly using an actual rocket device (you see the high-octane fuel leak, flames come from the exhaust with visible force, and he accelerates and lands consistently with a rocket system), the suit introduced in KING OF THE ROCKETMEN has some real puzzlers to it.
For one thing, there is no visible exhaust. When Rocket Man takes off, there is a building whine, a deep thumping noise, and usually some smoke. Once, very early in the serial, flames actually are seen as he lifts off, but that's an exeption. In flight, the rocket tubes are apparently inactive. Instead of the roar you might expect, there is a strange higher-pitched noise. And the control panel is very odd. A flat control plate on the chest has three graduated dials marked UP-DOWN, ON-OFF, and FAST-SLOW. What's the deal with that? A fuel-burning rocket system would not have UP and DOWN controls, as the amount of thrust would determine the user's rate of climb or descent. And the idea of ON-OFF having a number of settings is hard to figure.
The rocketsuit is not some form of anti-gravity, either. King never hovers or slowly descends; in fact, he usually has his power cut off at some distance above the ground and he makes a few landings that must have been rough on his arches. In one scene, Rocket Man is stunned in mid-air and starts to fall, but as he recover and adjusts the suit, his fall slows and he begins moving forward again (not up, as you might expect).
This is just speculation, but I suspect the answer lies with the suit's inventor, Professor Millard. This genius also crafted the Sonic Decimator, which later in the story wipes out most of Manhattan by creating an undersea earthquake at the Amsterdam Fault. Millard's special expertise in sonic force could imply that the rocketsuit is actually generating enormously powerful concentrated sound waves which give Rocket Man lift and thrust. (and if Lift plus Thrust is greater than Load plus Drag, anything will fly. Maybe not very well...)
Millard calls the get-up his "atomic powered" rocket suit. Between the two long cylindical tubes on the user's back is a smaller rounded part. I think this is not a simple fuel tank* but a smaller version of the sonic decimator, adapted for flight. Unfortunately, Millard (who was no teen-ager back in 1949) is no longer with us to explain. The fact that the rocket suit was never mass produced suggests that it could not be duplicated. Possibly Millard's notes and records were lost in all the explosions, fires and carnage of KING OF THE ROCKETMEN.
That raygun Jeff King totes WAS a puzzling little gadget, to be sure. The first time he puts on the suit in Chapter One, King abruptly has this weapon, which he tucks into his belt. (The fact that there's no holster for it suggests it wasn't invented by Millard a part of the package. Maybe King invented it himself? He was a member of Science Associates, after all. Although you'd think he would spend a few dollars on a gunbelt rather than risk losing a valuable invention.) It gets used twice that I notice, to blow up the missile in Chapter One and then to explode the Decimator in the last few minutes of the serial. Maybe the darn thing wasn't reliable, as Rocket Man certainly could have put it to service during the constant fights. He didn't pack a regular gun, so you have to wonder what he was thinking. Perhaps King intended to work on his raygun but couldn't get to it because of all the mayhem.
The raygun looks like a German Luger with a small metal cone on the end of the barrel; there's no visible beam when it's firing, just a flash and a little 'thump' noise, followed by the target exploding. Some more speculation might be that this was another application of the Sonic Decimator. Within the frame of the raygun was a tiny version of the Decimator, just powerful enough to cause a blast at close range. No one else mentions it ("you know, that rocket suit isn't trouble enough, the guy also has some kind of Buck Rogers gun to use on us"), not even Millard, so probably King himself was working on it and didn't bring the subject up.
*Getting in running gunfights while wearing a tank of high octane rocket fuel between your shoulder blades does not strike me as a particularly tempting proposition, you know?
(Dec 8, 2006)
Wow. Where do I even start with this one? THE LOST CITY is a completely outrageous serial that packs in more surrealistic situations and screwball characters than most comedies of that era. It's entertaining enough – I sometimes had the sensation of a bad acid flashback from the 1970s while watching it – but it sure is strange.
We start with the Earth being threatened by powerful electrical storms that are causing floods and earthquakes, with lightning bolts blowing up ships at sea and smashing apart buildings. Things look bad as stock footage rampages. But Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond, SPY SMASHER himself) is on the job. This studly young electrical engineer is slaving over devices of his own invention, pinpointing the source of the storms on a small globe he has sitting in front of him.
Somehow, the disasters are all being caused by some force in the center of Africa. It's unexplored territory where no expedition had dared venture, but Gordon scoffs at the danger. Backed by wealthy citizens and the military, our hero sets out to save the world, dragging along his unenthusiastic assistant Jerry (Eddie Fetherstone). Their goal is the legendary Magnetic Mountain, a huge mass of iron.
As it happens, the real spanner in the works is a genuine Mad Scientist. In an hidden (and almost deserted) city of advanced design lurks the last surviving member of the race of Ligurians. This is Zolok (William "Stage" Boyd), a ranting laughing madman in a rather snappy Flash Gordon-type outfit. (Lightning bolts are a popular feature on Ligurian fashion.) Zolok is causing the disasters as part of his experiments, and if there's great loss of life and property destruction, well that's too bad. He's planning on world conquest anyway, so everyone should get used to catastrophes.
In addition to his electrical projects, Zolok is also fooling around with making brain-dead giant zombies out of the local natives. Evidently, the studio rounded up the tallest Black guys they could find and matched them with rather short men for contrast. It actually works pretty well. The scene where we watch four Giants carry struggling screaming natives down stairs and throw them in a cell is unsettling. The Giants walk with a strange lurch, too, shoulders thrown back and arms tensed out to the sides. Add some enormous bushy explosions of hair, dubbed-in panther snarls, and you've got an impressive army of henchmen. (I notice even the serial's hero has no luck slugging it out with the Giants; several times he is seized and throttled, unable to do much against them.) Sam Baker as Hugo is a particularly imposing Giant African killer zombie with a leopard shriek.
There are more complications to the situation than this. Even though he's the sole survivor of a race of geniuses, Zolok is relying on the expertise of his captive Dr Manyus for his gadgets. The doc is only co-operating to prevent harm to his daughter, who is also being held. (She is the least helpful of any serial heroine I've seen, who are usually a feisty and resourceful bunch of gals. Mostly she flutters her hands and screams.) Adding to the group dynamics are Zolok's two lieutenants. There's Appolyn, who had obviously been spending an hour a day with the barbells and wants to show the results in his little silver shorts and harness. Then we have Gorzo (William Bletcher in a five-pound wig), a hunchbacked dwarf with a deep and impressive voice that could have gotten him a good job in radio.
Still not enough characters in the cast. Going along with Bruce Gordon and Jerry are two assistant engineers, Colton and Reynolds. Add a shady trader named Butterfield (George Hayes, later "Gabby") and a broken-down beachcomber without a beach, the eyepatched Andrews. Now you've got a good assortment to be captured and have to be rescued, to betray each other or to be unexpectedly killed to show just how dangerous the situation is. Wait, add two more villains.There's an Arab slave trader Ben Ali, who thinks being able to produce enormous hulking zombies would be great for business (he contributes a desultory swordfight with Gordon). And finally, there's merciless Queen Rama (who knows where she came from, maybe one of the isolated pockets of ancient white civilization that Tarzan used to stumbled upon). She's a lustful scheming sort of sovereign, and it's too bad the actress wasn't a bit prettier, as it kind of takes away from the character's impact.
Wait, wait. One more ingredient for the stew. Zolok has for some reason transmogrified a group of natives into white-skinned dwarves, the "Spider Men" who trap victims in nets and jab at them with spears. Creepy little guys, alright. I generally dislike the use of midgets or dwarves to represent aliens or mythical beings in films, although I can see how convenient it must be for the filmmakers. The idea that Zolok can switch peoples' skin color back and forth is novel, though. Talk about a perfect secret identity for a crime-fighter or criminal mastermind!
Well, now we can settle back and watch this large assortment of oddballs interact with each other for twelve chapters. There's certainly enough going on to keep any cliffhanger fan entertained. The one area where THE LOST CITY is lacking, though, is stunts. I didn't see any spectacular dives or tackles or slugfests. (Bruce Gordon does have a cute two-inch punch that Bruce Lee would have envied; he hardly draws back his arm at all.)
And for a serial set in Africa, the expected attacks by lions, hippos, giant snakes,
velociraptors and gorillas are mostly absent. But that's probably just as well as we've already seen all the available footage elsewhere.
The sets are terrific, plenty of sparking and crackling apparatus that looks like it should be doing something useful (donated by the inimitable Kenneth Strickfaden, who else?), futuristic hallways and rooms with numerous gadgets on the walls. a remote viewing television screen, a death ray that eats through metal and threatens the strapped-down Gordon almost exactly like Goldfinger's laser burning toward James Bond's crotch, that sort of thing.
I think I should mention the acting. It's way over the top. Most of the characters gesture and bluster and cower like they're in a silent film from ten years earlier, or on a stage playing to nearsighted audiences. Boyd as Zolok in particular really lays it on with a leaden hand. I've read in a few places he was known as a heavy drinker, and his performance does nothing to disprove that. In his final scene, as his world is crashing around him and he decides to blow the whole city up, Zolok seems genuinely befuddled and confused. It's oddly touching, though, as if he's in shock over how badly things have gone wrong.
Dir: Harry C. Revier