Movie Reviews - 1940s postsFriday June 17, 2016
Movie Review: The Red Menace (1949)
“The Red Menace,” a 1949 B-picture from Republic Studios, was one of the first anti-communist movies to be released during the post-WWII Red Scare, but from a distance it’s kinda quaint. Sure, there’s a Soviet cell operating in the U.S., but it’s the furthest thing from effective. A better title for the movie might be: “Red ... Menace?”
A tall, broad-shouldered lunkhead, Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell), is pissed that he’s been ripped off in some GI real estate scam and the government won’t do anything about it. Overhearing, a party member invites him to a nearby bar “for discriminating people,” where two broads make a play for him. While the brunette, Yvonne (Betty Lou Gerson), looks on disgruntled, the blonde, Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller), takes him back to her place and mixes drinks while he peruses the shelves and ... Hey, what are these books? Marx? Lenin? You’re a commie! Yeah, but a looker. C’mere. Pucker up, baby.
Irish Italian Jewish Negro
The Soviet cell that Bill Jones is slowly indoctrinated into is like one of those WWII movie platoons: someone from every race:
- Henry (Shepard Menken), a nice Jewish poet, cuckolded by Mollie on a weekly basis.
- Mollie, Irish Catholic, whose mother hangs around like a gray cloud, mourning the loss of her daughter’s respectability.
- Sam, the affable Negro front-office worker at The Toilers, the commie newspaper.
- Reachi, the Italian, who wonders if communism is a democracy as they say, why is it called “a dictatorship of the proletariat”?
- Nina, the foreign beauty, who will become The Love Interest.
Things first go south when Reachi is killed in a back alleyway for asking questions. Then Henry gets curious, too, and is kicked out of the party. He quickly turns into a patriot:
At least that [American] flag has three colors in it, not one. Not one bloody one!
But he can’t take the ostracism and throws himself out a window. He leaves a note for Mollie, telling her to return to her mother, which she does; in a church. Sam leaves with his respectable father, while Yvonne, always ratting out others, is picked up by the cops, who, it turns out, know everything. (Because our law enforcement is on the case.) Then she goes mad. (Because that’s what happens to commies.)
That’s it. The filmmakers, I’m sure, wanted to make sure communism didn’t seem attractive, but they were so successful they made it seem hardly a threat at all. Which makes the way the movie is bookended even odder.
‘We can’t suspect everybody’
It opens steeped in paranoia. Nina and Bill flee California, sure that communists are right behind. At an Arizona gas station, the attendant makes small talk—Where are you from? Where are you going?—and Nina freezes:
Nina (whispering): Why’d he say that?
Bill: Just to make conversation probably.
Nina: I don’t believe it. There must be some reason why he’s so curious.
Bill: Take it easy, Nina. We can’t suspect everybody.
After we get the rest of the story in flashback, we see them driving into Talbot, Texas, where Bill suddenly becomes sensible: “I’ve been thinking, Nina. What are we running away from? This is the United States not a police state. Let’s go see that sheriff.” Which they do. And they tell him their tale. (This really should’ve been the spot for the flashback, but the movie screwed up that, too.)
The sheriff’s response to their tale?
You folks have been running away from yourselves, and the fear in your own minds.
The entire movie is an argument against the paranoia of groups like HUAC, presented as an argument in favor of such groups.
Nobody on either side of the political fence saw this. The Daily Worker denounced the movie, while California’s own HUAC, the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, honored it, commending “Republic Studios and those persons who have so courageously assisted in this production.”
And then, like most anti-communist movies, it died at the box office. No one went to see it because that stuff's a drag: preachy, heavy-handed. It's called the free market.
Movie Review: Intruder in the Dust (1949)
“Intruder in the Dust” was one of several movies produced in the short progressive period between the horror of the Holocaust (when tolerance suddenly seemed like a good idea) and the paranoia of the Red Menace (when fuck it). They were called “message movies” or “problem pictures” and included such films as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crossfire” (anti-Semitism), “Pinky” and “Home of the Brave” (racism).
“Intruder,” also about racism, only got made because of one man, Clarence Brown, who learned at the feet of Maurice Tourneur, Jacques’ daddy, during the silent era, then became one of the main dudes at MGM during its lush glory days. He was also a member of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance, and a Southerner, making him an odd choice to push for such a racially progressive picture.
Why did he do it? In Patrick McGilligan’s book, “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends,“ he talks about being in Atlanta during the 1906 race riots when 16 black men were lynched. Three decades later, William Faulkner published his novel about a near lynching, and as Brown recounts:
I didn’t walk, I ran up to the front office at MGM. “I’ve got to make this picture,” I said. “You’re nuts,” said [Louis B.] Mayer, because the hero was a black man. “If you owe me anything, you owe me a chance to make this picture,” I said.
There were battles throughout production—both on location in Oxford, Mississippi (Faulkner’s hometown), and at MGM. Mayer felt the protagonist, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), was “uppity,” and that the picture would lose money. He was right about the latter—did it even play in the South?—but the picture earned critical raves. The National Board of Review included it on its top 10 list, and it finished second to “All the King’s Men” in the New York Film Critics Circle’s best picture category. It received multiple nominations from the WGA, Golden Globes, and British Academy, and won BAFTA’s short-lived “UN Award” (for the film “embodying one or more of the principles of the United Nations Charter”). In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote, “By all our standards of pre-eminence, this is—or will prove—a great film.”
He’s right. At the least, I was startled by how good “Intruder” is. The cinematography is often reminiscent of Dorthea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs, while Beauchamp (pronounced “Beach-em”) is a type of rich, powerful African-American character that Hollywood, always worried about the Southern market, rarely allowed to be seen on screen.
It also bears a passing resemblance to a later, much-beloved film. Maybe more than a passing resemblance.
Before Atticus, before Superman
Seriously, when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, didn't anyone bring up “Intruder in the Dust”? Let's count it off:
- A black man is jailed for a horrific crime.
- He’s represented by a white lawyer.
- A kid, related to the lawyer, is central to the story—the main character, more or less.
- There’s a standoff on the courthouse steps between an unarmed white person and a white mob, who want to lynch the black man.
- The real criminal is a white relative of the victim.
Yes, there are differences. It’s murder rather than rape. The black man here, Beauchamp, is proud, almost haughty, as opposed to the humble, bland Tom Robinson. Our lawyer, John Gavin Stevens (David Brian), is no Atticus, and starts the case assuming his own client guilty. Rather than the lawyer’s children, Scout and Jem, it’s the lawyer’s teenaged nephew, Chick (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who acts as our eyes and ears. Oh, and Stevens proves Beauchamp innocent even without a trial. Apparently, in 1949 Mississippi, the criminal justice system worked.
The courthouse-steps confrontation not only prefigures “To Kill a Mockingbird” but—indulge me—“Superman vs. The Mole Men,” an hour-long intro to the 1950s TV series, in which the Man of Steel stops a Texas mob from lynching an alien. Of course, being Superman, he’s hardly unarmed, but otherwise the dynamic is the same as in the other two: the stalwart one (without a gun) against the angry many (Southern racists) to protect the defenseless one (black/alien). (Note to readers: If you know of other such scenes in novels/movies, write me.)
Here, the stalwart one is old Southern white lady, Miss Eunice Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), sitting in a rocking chair and doing her mending. Why her? Calculation on the part of Stevens. The mob, he says:
...would pass even [deputized] Will Legate sooner or later when there's enough of them. But there's one thing that would stop them. Long enough anyhow. And that's somebody without a gun. [Pause] A lady. [Pause] A white lady.
I have to admit, I always found the “Mockingbird” scenario absurd. Atticus thinks one unarmed man can turn back a mob in the middle of the night? Him and his lamp and his book? Really, he’s only saved because Scout and Jem show up, and Scout (a white lady) asks questions of different people in the mob. She humanizes them.
Faulkner’s way is smarter, and Patterson, supposedly handpicked by Faulkner, is a story in herself. Born in Tennessee in 1875, 10 years after the Civil War, she died in 1966, a year after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She began her career on stage, and became a frequent character actress on Broadway before doing the same in movies. The subhed to her New York Times obituary reads: “Was Said to Have ‘Played Mother of About Every Star in Hollywood.’” Here, she mothers this role into being. She was Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman.
Her nemesis in the scene is the perfectly named Nub Gowrie (Charles Kemper), the brother of the deceased, and the man who actually did the killing. He’s a Southern stereotype—fat, ineffectual, unethical—but you also get a sense of a man trapped in his role. As in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Nub is propelled along by the expectations of the mob.
There’s already a sleepy, carnival atmosphere in town, as folks gather to watch the lynching, and Gowrie, sitting in his truck, is confronted in by-the-way fashion. A woman with a baby begins it. (Think about that for a moment.) She says, “Well, Mr. Gowrie, when you reckon you gonna get started?” Jokes are made, Nub gets fed up, and after he gets a metal canister overflowing with gasoline, he walks across the street, sloshing things as he goes, to confront Miss Eunice through the screen door. She refuses to budge. So he dumps gas on the floor, and, with a bully’s grin, lights a match.
Miss Eunice: “Could you step out of the light so I can thread my needle?”
And that defuses it. Literally. Nub waves the fire out, puts the match in his shirt pocket (nice touch), and we get the following exchange:
Nub: Miss Habersham, I ain’t gonna touch you now. You’re an old lady but you’re in the wrong. You’re fightin’ the whole county but you gonna get tired. And when you do get tired, we gonna go in.
Miss Habersham: I’m goin’ for 80 and I’m not tired yet.
Then she stands up, goes to the porch, and talks to the crowd. “Go home! Everyone one of you, go on home. You oughta be ashamed!” Trying to shame the crowd. So she was Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too.
To be honest, I think the scene should’ve ended with “I’m not tired yet.” But the movie keeps doing this. It keeps pulling back to make grander, progressive points that deflate the power of its smaller scenes. It doesn’t trust its micro and insists upon the macro. It wants pontification.
The worst example is in the movie’s penultimate scene.
Micro > Macro
“Intruder” opens beautifully with the arrival of Beauchamp in the custody of the benevolent sheriff (Will Geer), and his walk through a gauntlet of tense, Southern faces. Beauchamp, unbowed even in handcuffs is almost contemptuous here; and on the courthouse steps, he turns and orders Chick to get his uncle to represent him. Interestingly, though he asks for him, he never confides in the uncle; he confides in Chick, with whom he has a history. Halfway through the movie, Stevens wonders over this. Why didn’t Beauchamp trust him? It’s Miss Habersham who answers: “You’re a white man,” she says. “Worse than that, you’re a grown white man.” Worse than that. From a 1949 movie? Amazing.
Most of the movie’s casting (Miss Eunice, Beauchamp) is perfect, but Brian, I have to say, is all wrong for Stevens. Born and bred in New York, he doesn’t attempt a Southern accent; he just has that bland, post-World War II voice. There’s something unpleasant about him in look and manner, too; something pinched in the eyes. In his obit, from 1993, the Times wrote, “Mr. Brian repeatedly portrayed characters who were ruthless or powerful or both, including some villains in Westerns,” and I can see it. But maybe that’s what makes him right for this? Stevens isn’t an Atticus, after all. He’s supposed to be the hero but he actually gets in the way of justice. Everyone else does the hard work—digging up graves, jumping into quicksand—while he stands around pontificating and sucking on his pipe.
He’s doing the same in the movie’s penultimate scene.
By this point, Nub has been arrested for the murder of his brother, the crowd dispersed, Beauchamp freed. We get some awful dialogue between Chick and Stevens as they watch the crowd disperse (“It’s alright, Chick”/“Is it?”), when silence would’ve spoken volumes. Then a few days later, Beauchamp shows up at Stevens’ office to settle his debts, but Stevens, all paternal benevolence, refuses payment since he didn’t do anything. (He’s right.) Beauchamp insists; Stevens mentions that he did break his pipe, and it cost two dollars to fix. Beauchamp says he’ll pay for that, then pays him with: a bill, two quarters and 50 pennies. “I was aimin’ to take ’em to the bank, but you can save me the trouble,” he says, with a glint in his eye. Then he insists, as in any transaction, that the pennies be counted. Stevens, still with the upper hand, tells him to do it. Which he does. And as he does, we get this exchange:
Stevens: That night in the jail—why didn’t you tell me the truth?
Beauchamp: Would you have believed me?
It seems straightforward enough, this back-and-forth, but there are chasms beneath it. Stevens is acting the great white father here, even though he knows what he knows; and instead of playing along, Beauchamp calls him on it. Beneath the bland words, he’s calling Stevens a racist. And that’s too much for Stevens, our ostensible hero, whose face suddenly darkens and becomes pinched; and he puts up a barrier—a book—between himself and Beauchamp. He expects Beauchamp to leave. But Beauchamp doesn’t leave. He keeps standing there until Stevens testily admonishes him.
Stevens: Now what. What are you waiting for now?
Beauchamp: (Standing taller) My receipt.
Holy crap, that’s good. The movie really should’ve ended there (the novel, in fact, does), or with Beauchamp walking outside, and through the town, and past the people that wanted to lynch him just a few days earlier. But instead we pan back to Stevens and Chick on the balcony, watching Beauchamp. And we get more pontificating:
Chick: They don’t see ‘em—as though it never happened. ... They don’t even know he’s there.
Stevens: But they do—same as I do. They always will as long as he lives. Proud, stubborn, insufferable. But there he goes, the keeper of my conscience.
Chick: Our conscience, Uncle John.
(Music wells up: THE END)
MGM saves the white man in the end by letting him sound profound; by pretending he’s the hero. The story knows different.
INTRO: Lucas Beauchamp (an amazing Juano Hernandez) arrives at the police station, unbowed, despite being charged with the murder of a white man.
The crowd isn't exactly friendly.
It is, however, reminiscent of Dorthea Lange's photography.
John Gavin Stevens: the lawyer Beauchamp asks for but never trusts. Not exactly Atticus Finch.
The movie's villain, the perfectly named Nub, walks with a cannister of gasoline to confront another of the movie's heroes.
Miss Habersham is Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman.
The threat is ignited.
And defused. “Could you step out of the light so I can thread ma needle?”
Shaming the crowd that has no shame. She's Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too.
The movie ends on this false note, with this false hero.
Faulkner's novel ends on this true note with this true hero: ”My receipt." *FIN*
Movie Review: Mission to Moscow (1943)
If I’d been a member of HUAC back in 1947, this is the movie I would’ve focused on. Screw the others. Seriously, someone saying “Share and share alike” in a Ginger Rogers movie? Gregory Peck and Paul Muni portraying allied soldiers as heroes? Russian peasants smiling? You look small just bringing it up. You look like bullies. Which you were.
But “Mission to Moscow”? Good god, is there a movie more wrong in the history of Hollywood?
At the same time, I don’t think Hollywood is to blame for it.
Stalin: for all mankind
Some background: In 1941, Simon & Schuster published a book, “Mission to Moscow,” by Joseph E. Davies, about his experience as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. Once the U.S. entered World War II, according to Jack Warner, Pres. Roosevelt urged him to make a movie out of it, which Warner Bros. studios did, with Walter Huston, Abe Lincoln himself, as Davies. The real Davies not only introduces the movie (in ponderous fashion), he had creative control over the script. And when he didn’t like the original draft, Jack Warner tapped Howard Koch to do the rewrite. Four years later, as a friendly witness before HUAC, Jack Warner denounced Koch as a communist sympathizer for that work, and he was later blacklisted.
Politically, Koch was definitely on the left, stumping for Henry Wallace in 1948, for example, but that’s only a crime to the Breitbarts of the world. One of the original “Hollywood 19” called before HUAC, he was also the first to break ranks with their ultimately unsuccessful legal strategy. In an open letter in The Hollywood Reporter in November 1947, he went his own way. Meanwhile, scapegoated and fired by Warner, he freelanced for a few years (“Letter from an Unknown Woman” for Max Ophuls) before work mysteriously dried up; so in 1950 he moved to England, where he continued to write under a pseudonym. He eventually returned to the U.S. and settled in Woodstock, NY, wrote several forgettable screenplays in the 1960s, published his memoir, “As Time Goes By,” in 1979, hocked his Oscar to pay for his granddaughter’s law school in 1994, and died in 1995 at the age of 93. (Heather Heckman, a Ph.D. student at Madison, goes deep into Koch’s story here.)
That Oscar, by the way, was for writing “Casablanca.” He also wrote “Sergeant York.” That’s your communist sympathizer. Sergeant York. Only in America.
The director of “Mission,” meanwhile, was Michael Curtiz, whose previous films had been “Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and who went on to make “This is the Army,” starring Ronald Reagan, among others. Another obvious com-symp.
So how did we get this apology for Stalinism? The problem, I assume, is Davies. The dude was just wrong about everything.
In some respects, “Mission” is a typical, corny, Hollywood movie. As it opens, Davies, a lawyer, is about to go on a long-delayed lake vacation with his wife and daughter (Ann Harding and Eleanor Parker), when he’s pursued in a boat by his chauffeur Freddie (George Tobias, Abner Kravitz of “Bewitched”), with news of a phone call. “I don’t care if it’s the president of the United States!” Davies cries. Setting up the obvious punchline and titular mission. FDR wants him to suss out both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in terms of the looming war.
When he arrives in Germany? Awful! Davies looks with disgust as Hitler Youth march near the Hamburg train station. When he arrives in Russia? Great! Davies looks with delight as Soviet troops train near the Moscow train station.
How good are things in the Soviet Union? Very good! Caviar is plentiful, gender discrimination nonexistent, workers happy. The Soviet leaders, meanwhile, are down-to-earth and open-minded. “I believe in individualism as it’s practiced in America,” Davies declares upon arriving. “All we want is that you see all that you can before you arrive at your conclusion,” Soviet leaders respond sagely.
He visits a factory and is amazed by its output. His wife visits a department store (run by Mrs. Molotov) and is amazed by its luxury items. He’s told that the harder the people work, the more money they make. “The greatest good for the greatest number of people,” he’s told. “Not a bad principle,” he responds. “We believe in it, too!”
Ah, but there’s trouble in paradise. Sabotage! Betrayal! And in whose name? Nazi Germany! Thus we get a truncated, laughably incorrect version of the show trials, the Stalinist purges, that led to the death of millions of innocent people. But here, no one’s innocent. Here, they all confess without pressure. “The only pressure came from my own conscience,” says one saboteur stoically. “Based on twenty years of trial practice,” Davies pontificates from the cheap seats, “I’d be inclined to believe these confessions.”
Seriously, you couldn’t create a better dolt if you’d tried. At one point, others in the U.S. embassy are suspicious of the Soviets. Not Davies:
U.S. official: The Kremlin may be recording every word we say.
Davies: Well, perhaps they have a reason. Moscow is a hotbed for foreign agents.
Official: But eavesdropping, sir! Why that is an open affront of international rights!
Davies: I never say anything outside the Kremlin about Russia that I wouldn’t say to Stalin’s face, do you?
Official: Well, that’s putting it rather stiffly sir.
Davies: Then stop gossiping and stop listening to it. We’re here in a sense as guests of the Soviet government. And I’m going to believe they trust the United States as a friend until they prove otherwise.
The kicker is when he meets Stalin himself, and tells him, “I believe, sir, history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.” Then it’s off to Britain for a meeting with an up-and-comer, Winston Churchill, to tell him how the world really works.
At home, as war approaches, Davies makes excuses for everything Stalin does. The Nazi-Soviet Pact? Stalin had to do that to give himself more time to prepare for war. Attacking Finland? Finland asked Russia to attack it—to protect herself against German aggression.
You can barely watch “Mission to Moscow” for the number of times you facepalm.
Occasionally, we get something good. I like the conversation Davies and his family have on a train bound for Berlin:
German: You Americans have a very good tobacco. Ours is terrible—at the moment. We tend to improve it. Very shortly.
Mrs. Davies: Really? What do you intend to buy?
German: I’m not so sure we’ll have to buy from anyone. Our Fuehrer is a very clever man. He has many ideas. ... We Germans don’t mind a few discomforts now because we know what’s in store for us in the great future life.
Davies’ daughter: You mean on earth or somewhere else?
German: Shall we say, somewhere else on Earth.
That’s nice wordplay, and the scene isn’t overdone. Throughout, Curtiz plays with shadows well, as he always did. He’s a pro, Koch is a pro, it’s a Golden Age Hollywood movie.
And it’s still atrocious.
Even so, I would argue “Mission to Moscow” is less communist propaganda than war-time propaganda. If it stands out, it’s because the rest of our war-time propaganda (portraying Japan and Nazi Germany as cruel regimes), was, if anything, underplayed against the awful reality. There’s no conspiracy here, just stupidity. “Mission” is a tale told by an idiot, but the idiot didn’t come from Hollywood.
Captain America (1944): The Slideshow Review
The first issue of Captain America was published in March 1941, nine months before the U.S. entered World War II. It was a time when Hollywood was still timid about making anti-Nazi movies, but Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were bolder: they drew Cap decking Hitler on the first cover. So what did Hollywood do when they got ahold of Cap three years later?
They turned him into this. Where are his wings? Where is his shield? Where's Bucky?
He isn't even Pvt. Steve Rogers. He's Grant Gardner, district attorney. Worse, he doesn't fight the Nazis.
He fights this guy.
With a gun.
He does have this hot number as an assistant. She seems to know Grant is Cap. She also sends the final clue that will make the D.A. (or C.A.) realize who the villain is.
But for most of the serial, she's reduced to this.
Or she's being hypnotized into doing whatever the Scarab wants. No, he doesn't want that.
There's some cool stuff in the 15 chapters: Cap riding a motorcyle ...
... a few shots that impress.
And it's kinda cool when he changes into Cap ...
Some of the time.
But it is what it is: a 15-chapter movie serial with cliffhangers. The title cards, which are supposed to get us up-to-date at the beginning of each episode, actually demonstrate Cap's complete incompetence.
He tries ...
... and tries ...
But he keeps failing.
It's almost like a bad dream. Full review here. *FIN*
Movie Review: Captain America (1944)
Captain America was born fighting the Nazis. Literally.
On the cover of Captain America #1, artist Jack Kirby, not yet “Jolly Jack,” and truthfully never really “Jolly Jack,” drew Cap infiltrating Nazi headquarters. On the wall there’s a “television” showing a man blowing up a U.S. Munitions Works. On a nearby table, we see a map of the U.S.A. along with “sabotage plans” for same. And front and center, there’s Cap, in all of his red-white-and-blue glory, and with bullets zinging off his then-badge-shaped shield, decking Adolf Hitler. It was March 1941. Pearl Harbor was nine months away. Captain America was fighting the Nazis almost a year before America was fighting the Nazis.
The Republic Pictures serial “Captain America” was filmed and released in the midst of World War II (1943 and Feb. 1944, respectively), so you’d think you’d see him decking a few Nazis, if not Hitler himself, but neither is seen in this thing. Captain America isn’t in Europe, he isn’t a soldier, he isn’t even Steve Rogers. He’s Grant Gardner, district attorney (Dick Purcell), fighting the Scarab (Lionel Atwill), a typical movie serial villain. There’s no Bucky, no shield, and no origin, either. The movie begins with Captain America a known figure, but there’s nothing particularly super about him. He’s not stronger than 10 men. He sometimes loses fights with one. He relies on a gun. Basically he’s a dumpy, middle-aged D.A., who, in the midst of a bumbling investigation into multiple murders, takes off his suit to reveal a red-white-and-blue outfit, with which he goes forth to engage in prolonged fistfights with two (always two) henchmen in a barn or a factory or a garage or a cave. If we didn’t know the tropes of superhero movie serials, we would think him insane.
Of fistfights and vibrators
Why watch the 1944 movie serial “Captain America”? For the history of it, I suppose. We get to see how far we’ve come. We get to see what fascinated kids—or what movie executives think fascinated kids—70 years ago.
So what fascinated kids 70 years ago?
A masked superhero? Check. Although feel free to put quote marks around “super.”
Mystical, exotic locations? Check. A group of scientists have recently returned from excavating an ancient Mayan ruins, from which they’ve discovered the usual: plant extracts that allow you to hypnotize people and make them do whatever you want, etc. Plus a lost city.
The magic gizmos of science? Check. Has anyone tabulated these, by the way? The inventions that scientists created in movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s? I think it would be worth a study. (Someone else’s study.) In this 15-chapter serial alone we get the following:
- A thermodynamic vibration engine: it can destroy buildings.
- A portable electronic firebolt: it cuts through safes.
- A robot-controlled truck.
- A radio dictograph: a bug, basically.
- A perpetual life machine: it can bring people back from the dead.
I’ll talk more about the last one, introduced in chapter 11, later. It’s the first one, though, introduced in the first chapter, that had me snickering like Beavis and/or Butthead. Because it led to lines like this:
- “I want to know more about the vibrator!”
- “We’re not the only ones who know the secret of Lyman’s dynamic vibrator!”
- “Mr. Merritt and Mr. Norton are here to witness your demonstration of the vibrator! ... I know the secret of this machine and it’s a heavy responsibility.”
The Scarab is really Dr. Cyrus Maldor, who was a participant in the recent scientific expedition to the ancient Mayan ruins. Now, behind the bland facade of the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences, with its suspicious-looking shoeshine boy out front, he’s killing off all the other members of the expedition. Why? We don’t find out until Chapter 13. It has to do with two halves of a map to the fabled Lost City of Zada, where riches beyond anyone’s imagination can be found.
So ... money. Always money.
The problem with the radio dictograph
Look, I know the deal. I know these serials were made quickly, with little budget, a long time ago, and designed to keep viewers coming back next week. I guess I just want them to sense within their own framework.
Maldor? The Scarab? He can hypnotize people. So if the end game is the other part of the map, why not hypnotize people into revealing who has it? Why not hypnotize them into finding out where it is. They can do your work for you. Instead, he has them commit suicide. Then he goes after Prof. Lyman’s vibrator. Why? I’m not sure. The next chapter it’s the firebolt. So he can crack safes. What does that have to do with the Lost City of Zada? And why doesn’t he just hypnotize guards or bank managers to get into the safes? Seriously, the man needs to focus. But focus has never been big in movie serials.
My favorite nonsense bit is from Chapter 14 when the Scarab finally captures G.F. Hillman (John Hamilton, Perry White from the “Adventures of Superman” TV series), the man who has the other half of the map. Hillman is taken to a secluded farm, where Maldor reveals himself to be the Scarab. Then he says the movie-villain line: “You are very headstrong. But there are ways of making you talk.”
Ah, back to the hypnosis, I suppose.
Nope. “Tie him to that chandelier!” he says. Then he whips him.
Did he forget he could hypnotize people into telling the truth? Is he a sadist? Did he just need the exercise?
Neither of our principals is exactly Einstein. By Chapter Six, Maldor suspects Gardner is Captain America. That’s why they bug his place. But when Gardner returns home, his assistant, Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), reaches him on the phone and mentions in passing that his line has been busy. This clues Gardner in. Someone has been in his apartment! And he finds the radio dictograph. Now he has the upper hand! He knows, but they don’t know he knows. So what does he do?
At this point, the Scarab is blackmailing an oilman, J.C. Henley (Tom Chatterton), for a million dollars. So Gardner tells Henley, within range of the bug, that they’re including a “radioactive cell” in the briefcase full of money. “By means of triangulation,” he says, “we can locate the case wherever it is taken.” But it’s a lie. They’re not bugging it at all. The oilman is confused. So are we. How does this help? They’re letting the bad guys know they can locate them when they really can’t. Gotcha! Or ... would .... if we knew where you were. Really, the whole thing is just an excuse to leave the briefcase in the hills atop Los Angeles, so there can be a fight in a nearby cave, during which Captain America will fall down a mineshaft and ...
And we start over again.
The radio dictograph? Forgotten in the next episode. The briefcase full of money? Taken. But Gardner does plant a story in the press about how the bills were all marked, so they’re useless to the Scarab. Ha ha. Except all this does is refocus the Scarab’s anger on Henley. “I was a fool to take your advice” Henley says to our hero. Totally. Plus you’re out a million bucks. That money ain’t coming back.
At least Henley lives. More than you can say for others under Gardner’s protection. Prof. Lyman (Frank Reicher), he of the dynamic vibrator, dies in Chapter 1. The inventor of the electronic firebolt, Prof. Dodge (Hugh Sothern), lasts a few chapters before getting it in Chapter 5. Then Lyman’s brother, Dr. Clinton Lyman (Robert Frazer), comes onto the scene with the greatest invention of all: He can reanimate the dead! Wow. This may be the greatest invention of all time. And what does he get for his trouble? Dead. Somehow this ineptitude is spun into heroic deeds for Gardner and Captain America. At one point, the Scarab, still intent on revenge on Henley, sends two men to blow up his Gas Works plant. Captain America battles them but can’t turn off the pressure gauges. Kablooey! The report on the radio the next morning? Only one of the buildings blew up “... thanks to the timely arrival of Captain America!” Some press agent he’s got.
The greatest insult may be how often Captain America gets a bead on the two henchmen in the remote location but for nothing. It works this way. They’re planning something nefarious. He shows up with gun drawn. One of them throws something at him and knocks the gun loose. Then there’s a fistfight. Then he is imperiled and ...
See you next week.
The final death
Interestingly, for all its faults, the serial has been praised by fans of the genre. They say it’s Lionel Atwill’s best work—and he’s not bad in it. They say the fight scenes are among the best—and they’re athletic and well-choreographed. But it’s still a dance whose outcome we know. It’s still painful to watch.
This doesn’t help: Did the strain of making the serial contribute to actor Dick Purcell’s death by heart attack at the age of 36, just a few months after filming? He’s often called the first actor to play Captain America; but he’s also the first actor who died suddenly after playing a superhero. We call it the Superman curse but maybe it should be the superhero curse.
Captain America was only the fourth comic-book-based, live-action superhero to show up on our movie screens—after Captain Marvel (1941), Batman (1943), and The Phantom (1943)—but he wouldn’t return for another 35 years, and even then it was on the small screen in an abysmal 1979 TV movie starring Reb Brown. Eleven years later they tried again, with Matt Salinger, and with worse results. (Jack Kirby fought to get his name on the movie; after its premiere, he wanted to get his name off the movie.) Meanwhile, Superman and Batman movies are being made again and again. Then X-Men movies and Spider-Man movies and the Fantastic Four and even freakin’ Ghost Rider starring Nic Cage. But Cap? Bupkis.
It wasn’t until 2011, 67 years after this one, that Cap finally became the subject of a theatrical movie that got released in the U.S., “Captain America: The First Avenger,” starring Chris Evans. They got it right, too. They had him fighting Nazis.
Captain America was born fighting the Nazis. The first issue came out in March 1941, nine months before the U.S. entered the war, a time when Hollywood was still timid about making anti-Nazi movies. But Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, in a nascent industry with fewer rules, had no problem at all drawing Cap decking Hitler on their first cover.
Yet this is Cap when he finally turns up in the movies. Where are his wings? His shield? Bucky? None of them made the transfer to the silver screen.
He isn't even Steve Rogers. He's Grant Gardner, district attorney. And he doesn't even fight the Nazis.
He fights this guy.
With a gun.
He does have this hot number as an assistant. She seems to know Grant is Cap. She also sends the final clue that will make the D.A. (or C.A.) realize who the villain is. She saves the day.
But for most of the serial, she's reduced to this.
Or she's being hypnotized into doing whatever the Scarab wants. (Pity every boy in America watching this in 1944, with better imaginations.)
Then back to this.
There is some cool stuff in the 15 chapters: Cap riding a motorcyle ...
... a few shots that impress.
And it's kinda cool when he changes into Cap ...
Some of the time.
But it is what it is. The title cards, which are supposed to get us up-to-date at the beginning of each episode, also demonstrate Cap's complete incompetence throughout the serial.
Captain America tries ...
... and he tries ...
But he keeps failing.
It's like it's all a bad dream.