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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Somebody Had To See Them First

It must have been around 1968 when an old friend of my parents sat with us on the screen porch and reminisced about his childhood at the movies. Douglas Fairbanks had been a particular idol for him. Fairbanks as in Senior. Just another boy in the twenties going to see Robin Hood, The Thief Of Bagdad, and The Black Pirate when they were filling silent houses and thrilling that generation of action-adventure fans. Here was someone who had experienced first-hand a figure I’d known only from tabloid pages of my Blackhawk Bulletins, where you could still order Fairbanks movies in 8 and 16mm. Our visitor seemed impossibly old to me, yet I realize he was then the same age I have long since passed now, his peer group having passed as well. For all the web addresses that celebrate Star Wars, monster movies, and Superman on TV, how many could post recollections of earlier days --- cowboys and serials at the Bijou, Fairbanks and Pearl White and Tom Mix? My age group was exposed to Gene Autry and Captain Marvel on television, but most of us missed the boat for these in theatres. Those who lived the Golden Era recorded their memories in fanzines and books like Days Of Thrills and Adventure and Those Enduring Matinee Idols, but even these publications date back generations now. The hardiest life-long fans used to turn up at Charlotte and Memphis conventions to recapture moments from decades before, even as each summer saw their numbers dwindling. Celebrity guests who once counted Charles Starrett, Bob Steele, and Yakima Canutt among their number were replaced by ersatz refugees from TV westerns themselves dating many years back. Attendance as result went down at these shows. Fans who observed an enfeebled Starrett and Yak headed toward the last round-up back in the eighties themselves confronted the same frailties. Soon they would go the way of the Fairbanks generation. I saw an interview where Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Bradbury talked about seeing Lon Chaney’s Phantom Of The Opera when it was new. Ackerman and Bradbury lasted past ninety, and so were among last witnesses to Chaney in first-run glory. For all our restorations and digital excavations, we can never truly know what these people experienced. There is just no substitute for being first in line at that ticket window.

Alan Barbour was thirty-seven when he wrote The Days Of Thrills and Adventure in 1970. Already steeped in nostalgia for a boyhood spent watching serials and westerns, Barbour’s generation wept for the loss of Buck Jones (who perished in the Coconut Grove fire of 1942) in much the same way his successors would mourn George Reeves in 1959. Barbour’s elder Ray Bradbury once described the trauma of Lon Chaney’s death in 1930. I can remember precisely where we were standing when a cousin informed me of Boris Karloff’s passing in 1969. There’s no need my mentioning that most of these names mean nothing to young people today. Is it my own sense of mortality that whispers of a day when all of us will go the way of those who first thrilled to The Manhunt Of Mystery Island? Watching this crackerjack Republic serial over the last three weeks made me long to have been among kids queued up in 1945 when it was brand new. In my small town, boys actually rode ponies to the Liberty to see it. Now I’d like to think I enjoyed a reasonably bucolic movie-going childhood, but I certainly don’t recall a hitching post outside the theatre when Hercules In The Haunted World played. Alan Barbour spoke of kids donning homemade Spy Smasher capes and re-staging events of each chapter as they waited for the next. Now how do you get those sensations watching a bootlegged DVD in a present day? I can never have anything but the faintest idea of what it was really like to spend those Saturday afternoons with Captain Mephisto. Serials were so proactive with their audiences as to be like live performances. I don’t think there’s any nostalgia so intense as that felt by kids who came up during the serial’s Golden Age. Among things I’ve enjoyed most about watching these old chapter-plays is the sense of continuity I get with each trip downstairs to start a show. The feature may disappoint, but that next chapter of Manhunt On Mystery Island will never let me down. It’s precisely that formula --- rigid, unyielding --- that relaxes and reassures, even amidst the bedlam of leaping stuntmen and smashed furniture. If rock concerts had 1945 equivalents, it must surely have been those raucous Saturdays when serials like this bowed before their initial audiences.

In brief, Manhunt Of Mystery Island tells of a reincarnated pirate who attempts to secure world domination by means of a power transmitter that will harness radium and distribute energy-like impulses to provide unlimited power for worldwide shipping and aviation. A simple concept we can all understand, right? Well, at least those of us who grew up to become astronauts or nuclear scientists could. I made "C’s" in ninth-grade Physical Science, and so remained hopelessly befuddled throughout all fifteen chapters, though I did at least comprehend Mephisto’s oft-stated intention to revolutionize the world’s industrial setup on my own terms and destroy those who oppose me. Considering what’s at stake, you would think think they’d send someone other than criminologist (are there such people?) Lance Reardon to quell the plot. Richard Bailey is Lance Reardon. He’s perhaps the most reviled of Republic serial heroes, though I found him refreshing and likeably wooden. These people really start to grow on you after five or so chapters. Bailey wears a resplendent plaid sport-jacket in every single scene he plays. Twice plunged into salt-water, he reemerges, like Roger Thornhill in North By Northwest, neatly sponged and pressed. In terms of ongoing heroism, the coat itself runs a close second to Reardon’s own exertions, and indeed should have been awarded a separate card in each chapter’s credits. The highlight of any Republic serial is, of course, the fistfights, but here Lance is restricted to a mere handful of opponents (Mystery Island being a largely uninhabited atoll) and so must engage and vanquish the same heavies over and over again. Mastermind Mephisto isn’t above entering the fray occasionally, though fisticuffs are left primarily to first lieutenant Keene Duncan, his exhausting bouts with Reardon repeated ad nauseum throughout the serial, neither man willing to submit or cry uncle. Mephisto is continually tactless and insensitive toward his minions. Even were he to achieve global dominion, it’s unlikely this man could maintain it for long. Ruling an immediate post-WWII community of nations, already beset with Cold War tensions and possible nuclear proliferation, would seem a nearly overwhelming task for any despot, let alone one predisposed to dress at all times in pirate garb.

My vocabulary was enhanced by virtue of these colorful chapter titles --- The Sable Shroud, Bridge To Eternity, The Cauldron Of Cremation. I was reminded of a reader request to the editors of that venerable early-60’s Warren publication, Screen Thrills Illustrated --- Could you please show a picture of a man being cremated? --- and sure enough, the one they used was Lance Reardon sprayed by a flame launcher in Manhunt Of Mystery Island. One can imagine threats issued by Republic serial fans during recess arguments --- If you don’t give me back my ball, I shall engulf you in a Cauldron of Cremation. The denouement in the final chapter reveals the hidden identity of Captain Mephisto. It seems that, with the help of a transformation machine he utilizes at least once in each installment, C.M. is able to assume the identity of one of four suspects. We close in on the secret by way of characters being killed off by increments, as is the wont of most serials featuring mystery villains. I wasn't able to distinguish these guys one from the other. Even watching a chapter a day, they all seemed alike. What’s more, the ending was so rushed, I never understood which one was actually Captain Mephisto. An added complication found Lance Reardon himself the object of a last minute transformation wherein he and Mephisto would exchange bodies. As far as I can tell, that may well have been Lance that Linda Sterling shot at the end of Chapter Fifteen, and Captain Mephisto, having assumed the physical countenance of Reardon, did indeed go on to assert his will on a worldwide basis, albeit in the more conventional guise of the now deceased criminologist. Could this be the only Republic serial where the villain does indeed prevail, and no one’s ever the wiser for it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article once again!

I only had the good fortune to see one serial on the big screen over a total of 13 weeks. Our local theatres had a 10-week series of kiddee matinees in 1963 or 1964 showing Jerry Lewis films, 3 Stooges comedies, Tarzan films, etc. Each week a chapter of "Jesse James Rides Again" was shown...However JJRA was a 13 chapter serial. I can remember going to the manager of the theatre at the last of the 10-week series and asking him if they were going to finish the serial over the next 3 weeks. He told me they would finish the serial off weekly and would show it at one of our two downtown theatres with the feature most compatible for the kids....just get with him each week and he would tell our group which theatre it would show at.

Chapter 11 was shown with "The Haunted Palace" with Vincent Price and Chapter 12 with an Audie Murphy picture, if I remember correctly.

When it came time for the final chapter, the Midland Theatre was showing "Tom Jones" and the Auditorium Theatre was showing Hershell Gordon Lewis' "Blood Feast" & a adult film,"Scum of the Earth"...and our serial was to be shown at the double feature because the manager didn't want to pair up the serial with the Best Picture Winner "Tom Jones".

My merry band of 6 showed up to see the manager that Saturday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. He escorted my group and about 7 others into the theatre & made us wait in the lobby until "Blood Feast" was over and let our entire group in to watch the 13 minute final chapter for free. What a guy!

As the serial ended, he herded us out quickly, thanked us all for being so dedicated and gave us all a free box of candy.

A great memory to go along with my only true serial experience on the big screen. To this day, "Jesse James Rides Again", is my favorite serial just because of seeing it the way it should be seen...with a large group of cheering and screaming kids. All except for Chapter 13 which was viewed by about 13 kids, the manager and a group of confused, older gentlemen waiting for "Scum of the Earth" to start.

6:25 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Brother, that is one FANTASTIC story! Wow, "The Haunted Palace" plus "Jesse James Rides Again". Incredible! Thanks for sharing, John.

6:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course there are always contrarians. I used to visit the dean of comic strip historians, Bill Blackbeard, back when he let visitors spend hours in his basement/museum leafing through thousands of installments of classic cartoons that had never been reprinted.

One afternoon we were talking about Alex Raymond and I mentioned that as a kid I had scheduled my weekends around the Saturday afternoon showings of the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials.

Bill, who had seen the same films when they first came out, immediately dismissed them.

"You have to understand," he said, "that we kids had been studying those incredible Sunday pages week after week, pouring our imaginations into those drawings for more time than you can imagine. Then, to see those little models putt-putting across the screen was so puny by comparison that I could never take the films seriously."

He was a huge fan of the Fleisher Popeye and Superman films, though.

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a similar experience with serials--in my pre-puberty years in the late 50s, I remember vividly the Saturday matinees at the neighborhood 1920s 2000 seat serial I never missed a chapter--the reissue of the 1943 Batman serial and I think I saw a few chapters of Captain America then....the cliffhangers really got to me as a child, and I also used to reinact the scenarios when I got home! Now in my home theatre I run the Batman serial once again!


8:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We've been having Friday night movie get-togethers for over 20 years now, and as the first generation of kids grew up and moves out, another has come along to take its place. By far the most popular portion of the show with the kids (who are currently aged 9 to 14) is the weekly serial chapter. Li'l Hairball Gravy (the youngest) insisted on going as The Mask from SPY SMASHER last Halloween(!). We hang posters and lobby cards up for each serial, and the kids (and yes, we grownups) will have a post-film discussion about how the hero is going to escape each week's peril. Great fun. And by the way, although serials and shorts had gone the way of the Model T by the time I was a kid going to movies (except for occasional midnight movie showings of BATMAN or Commando Cody), I always get a thrill out of hearing the "old timers" talk about their film-going experiences back in the day.

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Talk about a marvelous illustration of the bad math.

"It must have been around 1968 when an old friend of my parents sat with us on the screen porch and reminisced about his childhood at the movies … Our visitor seemed impossibly old to me, yet I realize he was then the same age I am now … "

If you want to see why it is the bad math try this. Remember when you were 18. Remember what you considered "old" or at least "classic" films of days of yore and determine how old those films were then. Subtract the resulting number from the year 2006 and see how shockingly recent is the resultant date. When I was in my freshman year of college an old movie such as the Universal Horror Classics were anywhere between 20 to 30 years previously. 25 years ago was my first screen credit. Teuer Gott I'm old.

The bad math should be avoided or only done after ingesting a handful of anti-depressants. Given the incidence of suicide this time of year you shouldn't try it at all.

I too love serials (some really bad bootlegs of THE GREEN HORNET and THE VANISHING SHADOW have brightened my days considerably) and I love little fun things such as your dissertation on the hero's outfit and the suggestion that Captain Mephisto actually won! Serials are full of risible stuff but there is a world of difference between having some fun with them and condescending mockery. I cannot explain why I love them so since I neither saw serials on TV as a child and the only serial I saw in a theater was the second Columbia BATMAN serial and all 15 chapters at once put me into a coma. Still I really love those silly things. For God’s sake I would buy a good copy (I have the old Goodtimes 2 VHS tape set) of THE AMAZING EXPLOITS OF THE CLUTCHING HAND. That is proof enough of mental illness and is undoubtedly what keeps me from being called up for jury duty.

Plus I love the poster and lobby card images which I download and save. Thanks! Why they're just my size and what I wanted for the holidays. And I only got you socks.

12:59 PM  

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