Movie Review: The Spider's Web (1938)
In its current listing, Wikipedia credits “The Spider’s Web” as the first superhero movie serial ever. It was released in 1938, two years before “The Green Hornet” and “The Shadow,” and three years before “Captain Marvel” truly ushered in the superhero age.
So what makes a superhero serial? A better question: What makes a superhero? Off the top of my head, I’d say:
- superpowers (but not necessarily: Batman)
- mask (but not necessarily: Superman)
- fights crime (but not necessarily: X-Men)
- urban (but not necessarily: Black Panther)
I might also add this:
- Born in comic books (rather than radio, pulps, comic strips)
None of those guys before Captain Marvel were born in comic books. The Shadow began as a radio narrator who was so popular they created his own radio show around him; then he took over the pulps. The Green Hornet began on radio as a modern update of The Lone Ranger, who, in Wikipedia’s classification, is a western hero rather than a super hero. The Spider began in the pulps in 1933 to compete with The Shadow—and wound up beating him to the movies by two years.
Overall, at least in their serial incarnations, these three are basically the same guy: a rich dude with no superpowers and an ethnic sidekick, who puts on a mask, fedora and trenchcoat to fight a criminal mastermind bent on taking over the city. In this, The Spider should suffer in comparison. The Shadow has the best calling card (his laugh and catchphrase), the Green Hornet has the best sidekick (Kato), and both have better masks. To modern eyes, the Spider’s mask, with holes for eyes and mouth, looks suspiciously like bondage gear.
And yet “The Spider’s Web” is slightly better than the first offerings from Shadow and Hornet. Its lead, Warren Hull, has energy and verve throughout—even before he puts on the mask and cape. He’s not overshadowed by his sidekick (see: Hornet) nor is his main power given to the villain (see: Shadow). Plus Iris Meredith’s Nita Van Sloan has it all over her female counterparts.
But the serial, like all serials, gets bogged down in the sameness of it all: the hidden villain in his lair sending out his men to implement his orders; the hero and his team working to counteract them; the police stymied and useless and suspicious of the hero; the cliffhanger, the escape, and the regroup. Repeat.
I’m curious: Has anyone with talent ever taken one of these serials—which can run 300 minutes—and edited it down to about 90-100 minutes? So it has a modern pace? So there’s less pause and bad fill and it flows? What would that look like? Could it be good?
Friendly neighborhood Spider
I first heard of The Spider in 1974, while reading Stan Lee’s “Origins of Marvel Comics.“ I was 11. Stan takes us back to the glory years. By 1962, he had created the Fantastic Four and the Hulk and was looking around for other characters to invent and promote:
In the long-dead, practically Paleolithic era when I had been on the verge of approaching teenagehood, one of my favorite pulp magazine heroes was a stalwart named The Spider. He wore a slouch hat and a finger ring with the image of an arachnid—a ring which, when he punched a foe fearlessly in the face, would leave its mark, an impression of a spider. It was The Spider’s calling card, and it sent goose pimples up and down my ten-year-old spine. More than that, I can still remember how the magazine’s subtitle grabbed me. It was called The Spider— but after his name were the never-to-be-forgotten words: Master of Men. Just play with that for a moment—roll it around on your tongue, savor the fateful, fascinating flavor—The Spider, Master of Men. My mind was made up, the stage was set, the cards had been dealt. I was no more than a puppet in the shadow show of destiny.
Yes, Spider-Man. The similarities between the two characters end with the name.
Except watching this, you do see other similarities. The Spider has webbing on his mask and cape. He’s fairly athletic, can climb easily and swings from ropes a lot. Then there’s the villain: The Octopus. He’s not a scientist, doesn’t have mechanical arms, but in the 1938 battle between The Spider and The Octopus, it’s easy to see the trace outline of the epic Spidey/Doc Ock battles to come.
The serial begins well—with villainy and the chaos it causes. We see trains colliding followed by numerous headlines about sabotage, the bombing of freight trucks, a fire destroying the airport. It’s all the work of the Octopus. Who is? Just a guy in a white mask wearing a white cloak who hobbles on a crutch to the big mahogany desk in his lair, and then, to his men—who are all cloaked in black and sitting politely in chairs in front of him—announces plans and issues threats via a raspy voice into a microphone.
Roberts from the Bankers Association shows up and we get this exchange:
Roberts: Where do I fit in?
Octopus: You don’t. You will be eliminated as an obstacle. Tomorrow morning you will no longer be chairman of Roberts Co. Inc. My man will take your place.
Roberts: You’re crazy!
Octopus: I’m quite serious. ... Very soon I will have control of every key industry in this country. I will have the very nerve centers of the nation in the palm of my hand.
That last line almost calls for a “Mwa-ha-ha!” but instead the Octopus calmly shoots Roberts, then announces the next target: our hero, Richard Wentworth (Hull). Why Wentworth? Who knows? But it’s a classic example of picking on the wrong guy.
At this point, and despite the headlines, our hero is oblivious to the Octopus’ doings. He just wants to go on a trip and settle down with his new wife, Nita Van Sloan, who knows he’s The Spider. They’re in a plane that he’s flying. Are they coming back from some place? Just flying around for the day? They’re about to land when the Octopus’ men sabotage the runway, forcing them to take off again and bail out.
For a ’30s serial, it’s nonstop action for a while. The bailout leads to fistfights on the ground and Wentworth even kills a few dudes; then he says to his assistant Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan in beard and turban), “Nita just landed in the meadow. You get her into the city as fast as you can—I think the Jefferson Highway will have the least traffic.” That last bit of micro-managing cracked me up ... until I realized it was part of the plot, since Wentworth discovers the Octopus’ men plan to blow up the Jefferson Highway bridge. So off he goes in pursuit.
It may be a new series but there’s a nice in medias res aspect to it. On the plane, Wentworth tells Nita he’s putting The Spider behind him. Obviously the attempt on their lives changes things, but we don’t see him as The Spider until the last few minutes of the half-hour opener. The Octopus plans to blow up the bus terminal with a bomb on a bus. The Spider and Ram Singh clear the terminal by firing off guns. After a gun battle with the bad guys, The Spider is driving the bomb-ticking bus away, when ... boom! Except of course, in the next episode, we see The Spider leave the bus and pull down the garage door before the boom.
Here’s how all those cliffhangers work out:
|1||Bomb goes off in bus Spider is driving||He'd already gotten out|
|2||Spider and Nita on fast-falling dumbwaiter thing||Ram Singh slows descent|
|3||Spider seems electrified after being punched into bank of switches||He isn‘t. He gets up groggily|
|4||Spider is gassed||He gets up, opens window, leaves|
|5||Bank of lights is pushed on Spider, who cowers||He flattens against the wall|
|6||Car, with Spider on runner, crashes into electrical transformer||He jumps off at last minute|
|7||Door with jagged edges threatens to close on KO’ed Spider||He wakes up and rolls away|
|8||Fights O's men in car that goes into drink||He and Ram Singh jump off beforehand|
|9||Spider and Ram Singh plunge in elevator whose cables are shot out||They initiate the ”Automatic Brake Control“|
|10||He plummets in plane that's aflame||Uses high speed to put out the flames|
|11||Rockslide||Spider jumps from car in time|
|12||One side of wire Spider dangles from is cut loose||He swings into a brick wall, then drops to the ground|
|13||A motor on a chain swings toward the Spider||He jumps out of the way|
|14||Falls through trap door and dangles by rope upside down||Slips out of rope|
You pity the screenwriters. You imagine them in the writers room, exhausted, drunk, or both, saying, “OK, what the fuck can happen to him now?”
I admit being excited at the end of Chapter 12, “The Spider Falls,” when, pursued, he shimmies across a wire high above a courtyard and the bad guys—who seem unable to shoot him from like 10 feet away—cut one side of the wire. I’m thinking, “Hey, he’s going to swing to safety! It’ll be like Spider-Man!” We’d already seen him swinging several times—at the Bureau of Power & Light in Chapter 3; and onto a double-decker bus in Chapter 8—so we know he can do it. And he does—but into a brick wall. It’s more George of the Jungle than Spider-Man. But for this period it’ll do.
Arguing against the hero
There are missed opportunities throughout—scenes that indicate a better serial. My favorite is from Chapter 13. By now Wentworth has figured out that The Octopus, who keeps killing members of the Bankers Association, is a member of the Bankers Association, and, in his living room, he holds forth before the other members of his team with the following written on a chalkboard:
“Now that Chase has been eliminated,” Wentworth says (he was kidnapped in the last chapter), “we find that our search is down to three men: Gray, the banker; Gordon, head of the power company; and Frank, head of the broadcast company.”
Imagine if we’d learned about all of these men earlier—and if they’d had distinguishing personalities or features rather than being vague background figures. Might’ve made a pretty good whodunnit. We could’ve been trying to figure out the identity of The Octopus with Wentworth. But of course that would’ve taken planning, time and talent.
Ironically, the above scene also includes an example of why vigilantes like The Spider are dangerous. After a brief discussion, Wentworth says the following: “Gray is a very powerful man in this city. Nevertheless, we must go on the assumption that he is the Octopus and let him prove that he isn’t.” Wait. Guilty until proven innocent? In such scenes, Hull’s dynamism actually works against him. He comes off as dangerous.
He was certainly a danger to Charlie Dennis in Chapter 4. Once upon a time, Wentworth helped youthful gas station owner Charlie build a radio, and more recently Charlie was able to get on the Hertzenband(?) wavelength, where he heard men talking in a kind of code; so he alerts his mentor. Wentworth listens, too, and hands Charlie money. “Buy some candy for the kids,” he says. As Wentworth is figuring out the code (the letters and number correspond to pages and words in Webster’s dictionary), and realizes it's the work of the Octopus, does he get back with Charlie? No. Who does? The Octopus' men. They figure out someone is on their wavelength, show up at the gas station and shoot Charlie dead. Then they blow up the gas station. By the time Wentworth finally arrives, he's distraught. He cries over Charlie’s corpse.
I'm kidding about this last part. It's actually worse: Wentworth never finds out what happened to Charlie. How awful is that? The kid has served his purpose in the story and can be eliminated—by both the bad guys and the writers. I get the former but why did the latter eliminate him in this sudden, brutal manner? And why blow up the gas station? Yes, it reveals the menace of the bad guys but it also reveals the obtuseness of our hero. Were scenes cut?
There's a lot of suspect actions on Wentworth's part. He kidnaps a switchboard operator who is being blackmailed by the Octopus, and questions her until she faints. Then he involves her newsboy brother, Johnny, and almost gets him killed. He often uses Nita as bait. As for The Octopus’ true identity? It turns out to be Chase—the very guy Wentworth eliminated from contention.
It's as if the serial is an argument against its hero.
One more time with feeling
Even so, “The Spider’s Web” became a big hit for Columbia. (Does anyone know how they measure serial popularity?) So much so they turned the “Shadow” into a virtual remake: businesses targeted by masked /invisible villain who turns out to be one of the businessmen; incompetent cops suspecting hero; sideplots including raygun that causes airplanes to plummet; early references to television.
Each hero, too, has a third identity with underworld ties. For The Shadow it’s Lin Chang; for The Spider, Blinky McQuade, an eyepatch-wearing con who sounds a like Popeye. He extracts relevant info from time to time. He’s so good at it, one wonders why Wentworth ever bothers with The Spider.
THE SPIDER SLIDESHOW
The Spider began in the pulps in 1933 to compete with The Shadow—and wound up beating him to the movies by two years. In fact, ”The Shadow“ serial, also created by Columbia Pictures, pretty much followed the blueprint of ”The Spider's Web.“
You have a rich guy who plays a masked superhero at night (The Shadow's mask was cooler, less fetish-y)...
...who also adopts a third identity: a man with underworld ties who extracts info from the bad guys.
Buck Rainey's ”Serial Film Stars“ references Meredith's ”ethereal charm, and attractive, restrained acting style." She certainly made this more watchable.
We never see The Octopus outside of this room. The movie may be Spider vs. Octopus but we‘ve got a long way to go to reach Spidey vs. Doc Ock.
But at least we get an early version of web-swinging.
Here, too. Did anything look cooler to kids in 1938?
Of course, the police suspect Wentworth of being The Spider, whom they suspect of being a criminal. They’re right on both counts.
Caught. Not in flagrante delicto, despite appearances.
Nita, wondering when the honeymoon can begin. *FIN*