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Comic Book Cliffhanger Serials

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BATMAN serial
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Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson

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ADVENTURES OF SMILIN' JACK. 13 chapter Universal serial. Directed by Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins. Universal Studios output of cliffhanger serials was never on the level, quality-wise, of most of the ones from Republic and Columbia, but with Adventures of Smilin' Jack they finally hit one out of the ballpark. Although star Tom Brown is more like a big teddy bear than the slick, rakish hero of the comic strip, he isn't bad in the title role, and he's bolstered by a great cast that includes Sidney Toler, Keye Luke, Turhan Bey, Edgar Barrier, Jay Novello, Philip Ahn, and Cyril Delevanti – and that's just in the supporting roles. Heroine Marjorie Lord achieved fame many years later as Danny Thomas' wife in Make Room for Daddy. Rose Hobart scores as the sinister Fraulein Von Teufel, an emissary from the Division of Axis Espionage who is liaison with a secret organization of Japanese nobles called the Black Samurai. The Fraulein pretends to be an American newspaperwoman named Gertrude Miller, and thus is aware of her enemies plans almost at the same time as they are. She also is in constant conflict with Turhan Bay, who is the liaison from the Black Samauri and resents non-Japanese interference with their plans.

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The plot of the serial has to do with Smilin' Jack and his Chinese allies attempting to learn the secret of a hidden route from China to India for use by the allies as a secret supply line. The Japanese, of course, also want the secret and will exact it at any cost. Mah Ling (Delevanti) the governor of the Mandon territory in the Himalayas, possesses this secret, and becomes a mostly unwilling pawn in the battle between opposing forces. Morgan B. Cox's first-rate screenplay provides an excellent story packed with intriguing situations. At one point virtually the entire cast winds up on a Japanese sub tender as it heads for Pearl Harbor! There's a clever bit with the bad guys using special equipment to replace the words a person says on a record with their own words – in that same person's voice no less! Jay Novello offers another of his patented fine “invisible” characterizations as one of the Japanese agents. (Luke, Ahn, Toler and Delevanti are also in top form.) And there are a number of splendid cliffhangers: Jack's parachute fails to open; Jack falls through a trapdoor into a net that hovers over spikes that are rising toward his back as water pours in to the chamber below; a very well done sequence when a clipper crash- lands in the ocean. While this lacks the great fisticuffs of the Republic serials, it somehow doesn't need them, and even the fact that we're clued in to the identity of the villainess from the start doesn't detract from the enjoyment or suspense. Possibly the best serial ever released by Universal.

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THE SHADOW (1940). 15 chapter Columbia serial. Directed by James W. Horne. This is one of the great all-time serials despite its basically having the same plot as 1938's The Spider's Web [The Shadow and The Spider were similar pulp characters and, in a sense, rivals]. One of the serial's great assets is the casting of Victor Jory as The Shadow and Lamont Cranston (as well as the undercover “Lin Chang”). Jory is no mere pretty boy, but a solid, serious actor who is nevertheless able to play with just the right touch of mystery and heroism. His nemesis is The Black Tiger, who wants “supreme financial power” and will terrorize and take over all of the city's major businesses to do so. The Black Tiger uses a ray to make himself invisible to his henchmen, and is one of the members of an important committee to which Cranston periodically reports. Veda Ann Borg is snappy as Margot, if given little to do. Interesting cliffhangers include a room that shakes itself apart; The Shadow being knocked out and falling onto the tracks just as a speeding train approaches; and especially a super-hot ray that burns a wall as it slowly and inexorably turns toward a trapped Margot and others. A first-rate cliffhanger.

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THE SPIDER RETURNS (1941). 15 chapter Columbia serial. Director: James W. Horne. The Spider/Richard Wentworth takes after master saboteur The Gargoyle – who is actually one of a group of “patriotic industrialists”-- in this entertaining, well-done sequel to The Spider's Web. The Gargoyle wants these men to cancel their government contracts – or else! Warren Hull is good as The Spider and especially good when he masquerades as petty criminal “BlinkyMcQuaid; the Gargoyle, however, is a big boiled ham. Whenever he interacts with a certain scientist in his employ, the two come off like a comedy team. They use a ridiculous-looking octopus-like viewing machine to spy on people via special belts worn around the waist. In one amusing sequence, The Gargoyle receives plans for a baby carriage instead of the new plane motor he was hoping for! The fisticuffs are fast and furious, and there are some exciting scenes and good cliffhangers: a device in the road sets an armored car afire; a moving floor slides over a pit of flame; and there's a death-trap room with spikes on two sides and fire on the other two sides. Nita Van Sloane (Mary Ainslee) frequently thinks Wentworth's actions are ridiculous; Ainslee makes a spirited if somewhat oddball lady friend for The Spider. Anthony Warde scores as “Trigger,” the Gargoyle's head henchman. Another memorable Columbia chapter play.

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CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT. 15 chapter Columbia serial. Another top-notch Columbia cliffhanger serial that manages to be very entertaining and suspenseful even though we know the identity of the master villain, Ivan Shark, from the first. Captain Albright, AKA Captain Midnight, carries on a one-man war against Shark and his bitchy daughter Fury with the occasional aid of the crusty old Major Steel, and his buddies Icky [sort of an Ish Kabibble type] and boyish Chuck Ramsey. Everyone seems to know Midnight's dual identity, including [eventually] Shark and Joyce Edwards, the nominal heroine and daughter of a scientist who's invented a peculiar device that everyone keeps chasing after. Joyce's frequent shrill screams become a little tiresome and comical after awhile -- one minute she's brave and feisty, the next she faints dead away at the first sign of trouble. Joyce has a pretty good if brief cat fight with Fury Shark in one chapter. Cliffhangers include an iron box that fills with water, nearly drowning Capt. Midnight; electrical walls of snapping energy that close in on most of the supporting cast in the final chapter; and a buzz saw that nearly cleaves a log upon which our hero is sprawled. One of the best cliffhangers in this or any serial has Capt. Midnight thrown onto a giant revolving disk that keeps him off balance as he totters over flames below and a crushing block descends upon him from above! Terrific stuff! Another Columbia winner.

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THE MASKED MARVEL. Republic. Directed by Spencer Bennett. The serials did not only employ masked mystery men and super-heroes from the pulps and comics, occasionally they invented their own. Such was the case with The Masked Marvel. Taking a cue from The Lone Ranger, the serial posits the notion that one of four investigators who have the exact same build and wear the same clothing is the mysterious Masked Marvel. Out of this highly improbable, indeed silly, premise, Republic managed to fashion one of its very best chapter-plays. Alice Hamilton (Louise Currie) is unaware that her murdered father's upstanding associate, Martin Crane (William Forest), is secretly in league with Japanese saboteur Sakima, who is operating on American soil, with the Masked Marvel and the other investigators foiling one of his plans after the other. The Masked Marvel is actually played by stunt man par excellance, Tom Steele, who does not play any of the four investigator “suspects.” In fact, the only time Steele takes off his mask it is to perform as one of Sakima's heavies! Naturally, the fisticuffs in Masked Marvel, can only be described as blazing, and like Jungle Girl, there are cliffhangers within each chapter as well as at the end of each, such as MM being trapped in the back of a locked speeding van, or on a boat loaded with explosives that is veering dangerously toward a larger vessel. [Director Bennett perhaps inserts too many close ups of the word “explosives” on some cans in the boat during this otherwise exciting sequence.] There is a sweeping shot of a train racing toward the camera on the left track, obviously filmed from the back of a train that is ahead of it on the track on the right, that almost manages a panorama-like impressiveness. In this sequence, MM desperately tries to knock an explosive off the track before the train can reach it and go boom. As Sakima, Johnny Arthur is effective if not very threatening. An excellent, highly entertaining and exciting serial.

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SPY SMASHER. Republic. Directed by William Witney. This exciting serial was based on the exploits of a super-hero who was published by the same firm, Fawcett, that brought out Captain Marvel. Kane Richmond, whose acting skills had grown considerably since his appearance in Lost City, is excellent in a dual role as identical twins Allan and Jack, one of whom is the famous axis-fighting Spy Smasher – Richmond is particularly good playing against himself. The serial pulls us right into the action from the start, with SS standing before a firing squad. The action then shifts from Europe to the United States, where the two brothers continually outwit the machinations of saboteur The Mask (Hans Schumm) – whose mask seems pointless, actually, as he never really interacts with the good guys and his henchmen all know who he is – with the aid of Admiral Corby and his daughter Eve (Marguerite Chapman). Striking Tristram Coffin is also on hand as a broadcast journalist who happens to be a traitor. There are some splendid fight sequences in this serial, as well as some memorable cliffhangers. At the end of chapter one, SS tries to outrace a pursuing wall of flame, only to come up against a barred metal door ahead as well as grenades that will explode at any second at his feet! Water rapidly fills up the torpedo room of a sub, and at one point our hero is nearly thrown into a furnace. There is also a bizarre “bat plane” employed by the villains. Chapman is quietly appealing and has a nice moment at the very end; Schumm is competent if a little colorless as the Mask. A very good action-packed serial.

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THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN. Directed by Ford Beebe and John Rawlins. Warren Hull is handsome and stalwart as The Green Hornet (newspaper owner Britt Reid) in this second chapter-play based on the exploits of the radio crime fighter [who later had his own comic book adventures as well as a TV series]. As in the first serial, The Hornet and his partner Kato (Keye Luke) are busy quashing the anti-social activities of a ruthless syndicate, such as a phony lottery that exploits the poor. Other characters include the lovably gruff Irish reporter Michael Axford (Wade Botelier) and his teasing associate Lowry (Eddie Acuff), Reid's pretty and admiring secretary Lenore (Anne Nagel), and Grogan (Pierre Watkins), who is the low-key but slithery leader of the racketeers. At one point the gangsters hit upon the idea of forcing a wealthy woman to sign checks over to them while a female crony awaits a call from the bank. There's an interesting segment in which ownership of some oil wells depends upon the date of a contract which has been doctored. The Hornet still drives his souped-up sedan and uses his gas gun to put adversaries to sleep. One sequence shows a helpless worker in a plant with terrible safety conditions falling to his death in a smelter; Hull doesn't have much of an emotional reaction to this but one could say that the Hornet was inured to violent death, even of innocents. One of the best cliffhangers shows a car with the struggling Hornet inside rushing onto a bridge that is rapidly rising high up into the air. Using Flight of the Bumblebee as the theme music is one thing, but the serial is also full of snatches of semi-classical music that are inappropriate and only distract from the action. Foranti, the head of a crooked association, is essayed by Jay Michael, an actor who has a colorful and unusual style of playing. Not top-notch, perhaps, but all in all a credible and entertaining serial.

BATMAN AND ROBIN
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John Duncan and Robert Lowery

BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949). 15 chapter Columbia serial. Director: Spencer Bennet. The second Columbia serial based on Batman is another terrifically entertaining classic cliffhanger. This time the fellows are up against a masked, costumed villain who calls himself The Wizard. The Wizard, whose hypnotic eyes can mesmerize some people, has stolen a remote control device through which he can take over any kind of moving vehicle, be it train, plane or automobile; later he uses another device to become invisible and cause more mischief. Is the Wizard the grumpy scientist Prof. Hamill, the newscaster Barry Brown (Rick Valin) who tells what the Wizard is going to do before he does it, or the private detective Dunn who always appears under suspicious circumstances? Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot) uses a Bat signal to alert the boys that their help is needed, but – as in Batman, the first serial – there is no batmobile. Batman and Robin still drive around in the same car they use as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson!

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Jane Adams is appealing as Vicki Vale, a photographer-friend of Bruce Wayne. Her brother Jimmy is a member of the Wizard's gang, and he figures in one of the more startling cliffhangers of the serial. Some of the cliffhangers in this, including the notorious dock scene in which Batman and Vicki escape the supposedly deadly flaming-oil-on-the-water trap simply by climbing out of the water, are pretty lame, but there is a lot of good action and genuine suspense, especially in the final chapters. The whole thing requires much suspension of disbelief, however. A somewhat unusual feature of Batman and Robin is the way it goes behind the scenes to show the Wizard dealing with equipment problems and the like. One excellent scene has a character about to expose the identity of the Wizard while unaware that the villain is at that same moment in the room with him, invisible. Guess who never gets to make his announcement?

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The Wizard gives orders

Robert Lowery makes an effective if somewhat unexciting Batman. John Duncan as Robin seems to be at least in his early twenties, much older than the usual Robin [although Robin did go to college in the comic books before adopting the code name Nightwing], but he, too, is effective enough. The Batman is always referred to as “Batman”, with the article never being used. The musical score, particularly the opening theme, is rich and terrific. Batman and Robin is great fun.

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THE SPIDER'S WEB (1938). 15 chapter Columbia serial. Directed by Ray Taylor and James W. Horne. This top-notch serial was based on the pulp novels starring The Spider, aka Richard Wentworth, who wages war on crime even as he is wanted for multiple murder by the police. Unlike other crusaders, The Spider kills his foes without mercy, leaving the mark of a spider on their foreheads. His adversary in this serial is The Octopus, whose tentacles reach into transportation and other industries throughout the city. The Octopus' minions attack these industries as a way of demoralizing and taking over the town. Although in the pulps – the early stories at least – The Spider wore disguises but no costume, in this he is clothed in a dark hat and black cloak with white webs on it. Wentworth is angered by the fact that the cops seem to find his activities, which leave behind the corpses of assorted felons, more meretricious than those of the Octopus [perhaps because Wentworth makes them look bad]. The Spider is so ruthless that when a little old lady crook jumps on top of him, he shoots at her! But the Octopus is so fiendish a foe that Wentworth has to be pretty tough to stay on top of him. At one point the Octopus even kidnaps the police commissioner [who keeps trying to prove that Wentworth is The Spider]. The Octopus also has a giant ray gun with which he tries to shoot down planes. One of the best cliffhangers in the serial has to do with a room that fills up with water and nearly drowns a couple of members of the supporting cast. The atmospheric music has a wonderfully sinister edge to it, as does the whole serial itself. Another example of an excellent chapterplay from Columbia Studios.

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BATMAN. 15 chapter Columbia serial. Director: Lambert Hillyer. Many serial fans don't consider Columbia to be in the same league as Republic studios when it comes to cliffhangers, but you'd never know it by this A+ serial, which is hugely entertaining and generally quite well done. Perhaps the fight scenes aren't choreographed with as much panache as in the Republic serials, but they are still rather good. Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) take on the forces of the evil Japanese spy Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish), who is head of the League of the New Order of Hirohito. Daka's associates enter his HQ through the Tunnel of Horrors in a carnival, and he keeps hungry alligators in a pit awaiting victims. Daka turns people into zombie-fied mind slaves via a bizarre-looking “hair dryer” that is really a pip! The early episodes center on an invention of Daka's called a “radium gun,” which is powered by radium and functions as a disintegrator. Wilson is fine as Batman, playing Bruce Wayne with a playboy's casual charm and Batman with a bit more authority that never quite borders on the brutal. Douglas Croft is an excellent Robin, a young scamp with a bushy haircut and boyish energy who is never overly deferential or unreal. Nervous Nelly Alfred (William Austin) is a riot. Although the character is not quite the parental, even disapproving figure of some movies and stories – in fact, our heroes are borderline mean to him – he is very likable comic relief.

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Have Batman and Robin got the jump on Dr. Daka at last?

As for J. Carrol Naish as Dr. Daka? Well... On one hand, Naish is wonderful; he is a lot of fun and is clearly enjoying himself, cackling and giggling and asking his alligators if they “want something special,” muttering about The Batman and his ability to constantly outwit death; in fact he's convinced there must be more than one Batman. It's a rather good performance, in fact, but perhaps Naish is having a little too much fun. Naish was a fine, versatile actor but he wasn't always perfect for every role, and he probably isn't perfect for Dr. Daka, although he comes off as strangely Oriental in some ways [a few years later Naish played the title role in the TV series Adventures of Charlie Chan and looked even more Oriental]. Let's just say he's credible [in a kind of silly way] but no Charles Middleton. Naish's casting makes it clear that the makers of Batman don't take themselves too seriously. One character looks at Daka and, thinking he's part of the carnival, says “Your accent's a little off but your make up is perfect.” This is not to say that Batman is camp, although it has it moments. Rather it it is suspenseful and atmospheric with a good ratio of action and humor. Director Lambert Hillyer, who directed such Universal horror pics as The Invisible Ray, even manages to give it some Universal-type atmosphere at times, although it may be slower-paced than the Republic product. Lee Zahler's music is effective as well.

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A welcome addition to the supporting cast is none other than Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton playing a good guy for a change. With a beard and cowboy hat, he plays Ken Colton, the cousin of Bruce Wayne's girlfriend Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), who gets embroiled with Daka's thugs because of the mine he owns. Middleton once again shows his versatility by expertly portraying this somewhat more sombre Pa Kettle-type. Shirley Patterson is good as Linda, although her more “serious” thesping may seem a little heavy for this material, considering the light touch employed by Wilson and Croft and others in the cast. Patterson later changed her name to Shawn Smith and appeared in such films as The Land Unknown [as a blonde] and It, the Terror from Beyond Space [a brunette]. Wilson does a nice job when Batman dresses up as a mug named “Chuck White” whose identity he uses to infiltrate the bad guys; a large credible putty nose helps a lot.

By and large the legend of The Batman is treated well in this serial, with the character essentially played straight, if without any psychological nuances. He is almost always referred to as The Batman throughout the serial, and at least one shot – showing him on a rooftop with his arms spread – summons up the image of Batman as a Dark Avenger. Among the more memorable cliffhangers are: the sequences wherein Batman is nearly crushed beneath a descending elevator shaft; his falling on the tracks as a train rapidly approaches; and the spiked walls that close in on him as Miss Page, in trouble herself, is being brainwashed under the infernal hair dryer. There is also a well-played scene when one of Daka's rebellious gunsels confronts him and winds up dying for his trouble. The serial borrows from The Spider in that Batman leaves a bat tattoo on the forehead of each criminal he catches. He does not murder anyone a la The Spider, however. It may seem idiotic for Batman to place the exit from the Bat Cave in a grandfather clock in the middle of his living room, but the whole concept of the Bat Cave was conceived for this serial and then carried over into the comics. This is a truly splendid chapterplay for Batman fans and everyone else.

For more reviews of classic cliffhanger serials -- some with super-heroes, some without -- click here and go to the CLASSIC CLIFFHANGER page of Quirks Reviews Online.
 
AND look up cliffhanger serials at the GREAT OLD MOVIES blog.

Artwork is reproduced strictly for historical and scholarly purposes. All DC characters are copyrighted by DC Comics. All Marvel characters are copyrighted by Marvel Comics. All other characters are copyrighted by their respective copyright holders.

Copyrighted 2005 by Superhero Comic Review