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Monday, April 01, 2019

Smashing Spies On Home Fronts

Thanks to Mike (Then Playing) Cline For Sending Me This Wonderful Image

Were Serials The Salvation Of 40's Youth?

Now here is why movies once knew a Golden Era. It thrived in part for displays in the street powerful as performance inside. This was no new dodge, barkers outside carny tents since a past century giving preview to lure crowds for the cootch show within. Above could well have been Opening Day for Spy Smasher, as in Chapter One on the Civic Theatre’s screen (Farmington, Michigan), and what was any Chapter One but first taste of opiate you’d be back eleven more times to get high on? Maybe serials like Spy Smasher kept youth off hard stuff that wracked a later counterculture. How many would dig Kane Richmond at heroic pursuit, then go looking for hallucinogens? Seems to me anti-climactic, but movies being always my drug-of-choice must be factored, plus fact there were no more serials by the 60’s. Again to the Civic's display, note the more than life-size standee. I’ll bet not a one is left today. To save it, you'd have to run gauntlet of scrap drives, find storage space at home, preserve/protect the fragile and awkward thing for a next seventy-five years, a test of any fan's dedication. Surely there were weightier matters to cope with in 1942.

The Rains Came In 1967 and Washed Away One of These at the Liberty
Hope it didn’t rain that day and ruin such a striking display, similar concern I had when the Liberty brought back Panther Girl Of The Kongo for a 1967 effort at making us serial-conscious again. It ran incongruous with Saturday serves of Frankenstein Created WomanIsland Of Terror, others of '67 release, all preceded by Phyllis Coates aboard an elephant, and in black and white. Serials were welcome and prolific on N.C. TV, but having one turn up theatrically was like dead rising from tombs. Point is, the Liberty had a Panther Girl one-sheet pinned to a free-standing frame out front and left there for the run of 12 chapters, weather be hanged. Republic posters tended toward dynamic even where films did not, and I coveted this one, but time, heat, and rain took pitiless toll. Within a few weeks, the thing was ruined. Sic Gloria transit mundi, as so went Panther Girl to peel off and disposal, though later, a Spy Smasher lobby card (above) came my way from Liberty storage, minor distress put back to beauty by experts at Lumiere Poster Restoration. An 11X14 card is far more likely to survive, of course, than sky-reaching ballyhoo Farmington's Civic crowd saw.

Of course, I had to see some of Spy Smasher, having more serials put back than years left to watch them (“Do you suppose he ever looked at this stuff?,” they'll say as someday it is all hauled to the dump). I keep DVD's for easy reference, you see, so no hoarding here, says I to doubtful listeners. Couple of weeks ago was an auction of pressbooks for comic-based serials, things like the Superman and Batmans for 40’s Columbia, and Flash Gordon from the 30’s. Prices realized? In the thousands. These are beyond heroes now, iconic past a point of once-dime purchase. I drove past a theatre last week and there was a new Captain Marvel on the marquee, and didn't we get more Captain Americas a few years back? You cannot compete among fan following of these and expect to win, my interest way too casual to deserve placement among them. When a comic book sells for three million dollars, it's time to throw in your dice and go home. I let those pressbooks pass then, having seen futility of bidding. They are holy relics and I am not worthy of them. Perhaps a best quality collectors can have is knowing when to pull back so hungrier lions can feed. 

But what of Spy Smasher? Last night I watched some chapters, a fancy DVD rendition from Accomics (multiple tinting throughout --- inauthentic, but no fuss). This serial isn’t just good --- it is exhilarating. Nazis capture Spy Smasher (Kane Richmond) in the first scene, after a floor-up-a-staircase fistic exchange, bullwhip him in a dungeon, put him before a firing squad, he escapes, meets his twin brother he long thought was dead on a train, they sock-fest more Huns, this in a first six or so minutes. I wonder that children’s heads didn’t explode in 1942, or make them age-lie their way into uniform. Kane Richmond was a swell serial hero. Remember him supporting Bogart and company in Action In The North Atlantic, an unaccustomed “A” stopover? Spy Smasher came where Republic rolled at peak efficiency, each chapter-play a wow. Might viewers be induced to "binge-watch" old serials like with latter-day TV series? Spy Smasher and (better) others of Republic origin put pep in my step, even if I can but imagine impact they once had. Smasher derived from “Whiz” comics, Smasher’s frank credo a memorable one: Death To Spies In America! World War Two made it OK for children to be bloodthirsty, but was it as easy to turn off that impulse once peace was back? 


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Coincidentally, just one day last week I watched four chapters of one of my favorite chapterplays, THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES.

Craig Foster saves the Earth from a deadly Martian invasion.

Only in the final scene of chapter 15 does a cop finally appear. "Good job, Foster," the police captain rewards.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

One of my absolute favorite memories is when I first showed THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL at Rochdale College in 1968. Some other guys had run THE BATMAN serial to hoots of laughter. When Billy Batson said, "Shazam" and turned into Captain Marvel the laughter came there too.

But when he walked the edge of the cliff, leapt off and soared that derisive laughter changed to pure awe as several hundred people said as one, "Far fucking out!"

They were sold. That was the magic of Republic. They knew how to do it.

Now you've sold me on SPY SMASHER. Thanks.

8:21 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Babbling from a post-serial fan:

Born in 55, I knew about serials early on but had a long wait before seeing more than a couple. The airwaves were packed with old movies and old cartoons. But here in the Bay Area, serials were represented mainly by clips (a "Twentieth Century" episode on technology tossed in a prescient bit of Flash Gordon) and enticing stills in books. "Pow", a hip local talk show, would run a serial episode each week for ironic comedy.

Beyond "Adventure Theater" and its movie cuts of various Republics (come and gone in a single summer), that was pretty much it until an all-night showing of "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" in college (nerd enough that I stayed to the bitter end, long after the girls I was trying to chat up left).

It wasn't until 1980 that I got a VCR; after a lifetime of silent 8mm reels I could see and even own whole movies with sound. First came a cheap PD "The Phantom Empire"; then a handful of legit Republic releases. I even procured a bootleg of Columbia's "The Shadow" some years before the legit release.

But it was DVD that escalated my collecting on all fronts, thanks to size and price point. Yes, not all serials are gems -- some just blur into guys in fedoras hitting each other until a big car drives off a cliff. But some are still fun. And thanks to my good old five-disc player, I can load up a whole matinee: Cartoon, serial, short, feature. A childhood fantasy.

I was too late for serials on the big screen. In fact, I was too late for most of the pop culture that I hoard ... that I selectively archive now. It's not nostalgia, just as Sherlockians are not reliving their own gaslit childhoods. It's a separate deal; sightseeing in a world close to my own but just different enough that I can treat it like Disneyland.

Also, in recent years it's become comparatively cheap and easy to have what was once a mogul's film vault. Who'd have thought you could own dozens of complete serials for the price commanded by a press book? I remember when paper was simply the cheap placebo when you couldn't get the film.

In one corner of my living room I have some double-sized shredded wheat boxes. I wait patiently for somebody to ask what's in the cereal boxes, and I reveal they're full of serials (It plays better than it reads). Those who know me have learned not to ask such questions, but I can wait.

4:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

"Sightseeing in a world close to my own but just different enough that I can treat it like Disneyland"

Donald, there is a deathless quote that sums up the appeal of it all. Thanks for a terrific insight.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

That display with the banner "Two outstanding features" illustrates 100% why the motion picture business died.

I looked up ticket prices for a movie in 1942. I got 27 cents a seat.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION premiered in 1915 at $2.00 a seat. Both the industry and the media said the public would not pay top theater prices to see a movie. THE BIRTH proved them wrong HUGE. In first release it was seen by over four times the population of America in America alone. No other film artist has taken D. W. Griffith's risk nor duplicated his success. Sure films have surpassed the box office of THE BIRTH but not with that risk.

The industry by selling the movies as cheap entertainment devalued their product.

Once that happens it's over.

Yes, "Sightseeing in a world close to my own but just different enough that I can treat it like Disneyland" sums it up wonderfully but Disneyland is an ideal enchantment that lacks dog trails. Disneyland is a place where a dog let loose would feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Never wanted to go there.

11:47 AM  
Blogger b piper said...

I saw an episode of SPY SMASHER at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC. With me was a friend who had no use for serials, monster movies, or any of the things I thrived on growing up. Her attitude towards such fare was condescending at best, but when the episode ended she turned to me and said "That was FANTASTIC!" A more sincere compliment no Republic serial ever got!

2:26 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Reg, your comments are always educational and enjoyable. THE BIRTH OF A NATION was a fluke, or maybe the exception that proved the rule. Certainly the film's primary backer, Harry Aitken (then-President of the Mutual Film Corp) endorsed your theory, which is why he immediately formed Triangle around the movies' three most consistently successful creators: Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett. He earnestly believed that every Triangle release slate would approach THE BIRTH's box office, and assumed other companies would either do the same or be trampled.

What Aitken failed to realize is that prestige is ephemeral. As they say, no one can hit a home run, much less a grand slam, with every turn at bat. Even Griffith's next independent production, INTOLERANCE, a more mature yet less compelling film than THE BIRTH, didn't come anywhere near it in returns. And by placing faith in (and overpaying) renowned performers of the stage who failed to win favor, Triangle floundered until the vertically integrated Paramount/Famous Players-Lasky effectively snuffed it out by signing Griffith, Sennett and Triangle's only homegrown star, Doug Fairbanks.

Meanwhile, the post-Aitken Mutual did just fine signing Chaplin to a two-reel comedy contract and simply peddling the films to any theater willing to pay the rental fee. Very few of those theaters tried to raise prices, yet they all made money. 'Twas ever thus: popular stars and compelling concepts will always draw big audiences, but they couldn't be mass produced. Without them, it took bargains to fill the seats.


5:19 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Yes, movie tix were usually cheap (although 27¢ was much bigger money in 1942). But that very cheapness hooked audiences for a weekly escapism fix. Good, bad, or indifferent, new product unreeled at the local Bijou every week. Showmen had to sell it hot (subliminal book plug), but at that they probably slept easier than advance men for theatrical troupes and the like -- until radio and then television took root.

There came a point when movies transitioned from a regular thing to an Event; they had to promise and deliver the moon to get us out of the house. It's crazy that the old low-budget serial has been reborn as the Big Feature Franchise. We're even getting cliffhangers at the end of movies to draw us back a year later.

3:15 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I paid 15 cents as a kid at the second-best theater in our town. It was a quarter at the Plaza, the best theater (popcorn was 10 cents). I was small for my age and when I went to see the first Harryhausen SINBAD movie, the manager pressed me about how old I really was. Since my birthday was in two weeks and I'd be thirteen, I said I would turn twelve--the age for adult prices. The joke was on me: the adult ticket price then went from a quarter to fifty-five cents!

10:03 AM  
Blogger Jim Harwood said...

Paramount did 4K scans of the nitrate elements that survive on SPY SMASHER last year. While the original negatives don't exist anymore for most of the chapters, nitrate fine grain masters do. Hopefully Kino or Olive will put the serial out on Blu-ray.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

(“Do you suppose he ever looked at this stuff?,” they'll say as someday it is all hauled to the dump).

They may say that about an awful lot of us. Ditto the books. "Do ya suppose he actually read all those?"

I have seen people's treasures tossed by the road as I bike by apartment buildings. Usually means someone has died.

It used to be books were valuable. Today they are junk.

This is an end time.

2:17 PM  

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