Serials on DVD
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Marauding gorillas! Runaway covered wagons! Stampeding cattle! Erupting volcanoes! Whip-wielding vigilantes! Lost jungle cities! This is the stuff of serials. Built around their cliffhanger endings, these action dramas dealt out weekly installments of thrills to anxious young popcorn-chomping moviegoers.

These were the days when masked villains strove for world domination with a vast array of diabolical devices, and courageous heroes valiantly struggled for justice, loyalty, and the American way, deactivating infernal contraptions with nary a second to spare. Terrifying falls were broken by overhanging branches. Secret passageways were discovered in centuries-old jungle temples. These ingredients were packaged together in 12 to 15 chapters (15 to 25 minutes each) with each chapter typically ending in a cliffhanger, when the hero or heroine was placed in life-threatening danger only to have the words "To be continued ..." appear on the screen.

In its purest form, the serial belongs to another era, to a time when kids flocked to neighborhood theaters (instead of shopping malls) to plunk down two bits as admission to the Saturday matinee. However, the video age has made it easy to once again enjoy these outrageous relics of another age. You must first understand, though, that serials were meant to be viewed with several days between each episode. The week between each episode allowed for memories to become dulled so that the certain death established in one cliffhanger could easily be avoided by a revision at the beginning of the next episode. The studios frequently cheated in the solutions, as at the end of Chapter 3 of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island where the star, Mala, is trapped underwater, deprived of air in a deep-sea diver suit, gasping for "Air!" But at the beginning of the next episode, Mala isn't only not gasping for air, he has so much air he can walk for several hundred feet underwater after he cuts his own air hose. Hmmm ... No, serials were not meant to be seen episode after episode in quick succession on a DVD player, where by simply pressing a button on a remote control we can review what happened at the end of the previous chapter.

George Lucas may have tinkered with his movies in the recent repackaging of his Star Wars films on DVD so that certain deficiencies would be masked (and so that Han Solo's reputation as a hero wouldn't be sullied with charges that he was a murderer), but the old-time serials, of course, don't get revised to fix their problems when they're released on DVD. All their warts are clearly on display. So how are serials surviving the conversion to DVD as the prime means of viewing? To answer that question we've decided to review eight serial releases, all now available on DVD and released over the past few months.

Serials have been well served over the past year. Hal Roach Studios in particular has released several Republic Studios releases on DVD (distribution by Image Entertainment), including Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936), Zorro Rides Again (1937), and Zorro's Black Whip (1944). Meanwhile, VCI Entertainment has released two much sought after Republic titles, Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) and King of the Royal Mounted (1940), and three titles from Universal, including Jungle Jim (1936) and two versions of Secret Agent X-9 (1937 and 1945).

We've ordered the following capsule reviews in order of each serial's original theatrical release.

 Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (Republic, 1936)
 Hal Roach Studios (distribution by Image Entertainment) · SRP: $29.99 · one disc · 14 chapters · black and white

In 1935, four small movie studios (including Mascot, which had produced many serials in the early '30s) merged to form Republic Pictures, arguably the most famous of all serial studios. Immediately, the company's president, Herbert Yates, authorized the production of several serials, including Darkest Africa, Undersea Kingdom, The Vigilantes Are Coming, and Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (all 1936), the last of which is now available on DVD from Hal Roach Studios.

Nat Levine, a serials producer from Mascot with credits such as Gene Autry's The Phantom Empire, planned Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island as a 12-chapter serial, but due to the exotic locales and the special effects, the serial went way over budget. To help recoup their expenses, Levine chopped a completed episode in two by adding a cliffhanger at the mid section and, more significantly, he developed a re-cap chapter, in which the events of the previous chapters are merely recounted in a new chapter. The re-cap chapter would soon become a staple of serial production. With these added chapters, Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island became 14 chapters long, which made it the only 14-chapter serial ever created. (A pretty much worthless piece of trivia.) Most serials were either 12 or 15 chapters, with a few 13 chapter serials (especially from Universal) and a few 10 chapter serials in the early '30s.

Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island is severely limited by the acting talents of Mala, who here takes the lead. He had already starred as an Eskimo in two feature films, Igloo (1932) and Eskimo (1933), before he was enlisted by Republic to star in this serial. And subsequently he would be cast in several roles that required an Eskimo or a Polynesian or an American Indian. The son of a Jewish-American trader and an Eskimo wife, and born as Ray Wise, Mala spent his early years as a hunter and fisherman before a film crew arrived in 1932 and convinced him to appear in the docudrama Igloo. His life was never the same.

Mala is acceptable as the stoic Eskimo in Igloo, but when asked to actually act, as in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, Mala was as wooden as any actor in history. Luckily, however, this serial features a wide variety of locations, easily moving from San Francisco to the South Pacific and involving dirigibles, airplanes, boats, a volcano, Polynesian natives, and American gangsters. This wide variety of locations and contents helps to minimize the deficits caused by Mala's limited acting ability.

Unfortunately, however, this serial also features some of the most flagrant cliffhanger cheats in history. For example, at the end of Chapter 2, Mala (playing a Federal Agent) has been captured by island natives who surround him with spears and force him into a lava pit. As the chapter concludes, we see Mala falling into the pit. He clearly falls. No doubt about it. But at the beginning of Chapter 3, this scene was been revised so that Mala is rescued by his cohorts with a well-placed smoke bomb and a rope. Hmmmm. It's the kind of revision that makes you want to chuck the DVD against the wall in frustration. And then Chapter 3 pulls an even more outrageous example of revision (as described in paragraph three of this review's introduction) when Mala is trapped underwater. These cheats are so outrageous that it wouldn't be surprising to learn that many viewers get their fill of being lied to and give up on the serial.

Hal Roach and Image Entertainment have packed the entire 230 minutes of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island onto a single disc. The print shows many signs of wear, including dust specks, streaks, and an occasional fiber at the edge of the frame; however, the print quality nonetheless contains good details. The transfer looks a little soft and a tad cloudy, but overall this serial looks better than most from the '30s. The DVD also includes selection of six trailers for additional Republic serials.

 Jungle Jim (Universal, 1936)
 VCI Entertainment · SRP: $29.99 · two discs · 12 chapters · black and white

Jungle Jim (Universal, 1936) is based on the popular newspaper comic strip by Alex Raymond, who also drew Flash Gordon. Jungle stories both real and fiction were popular box office attractions in the '30s. Documentary filmmakers such as Martin and Osa Johnson brought back film footage of their treks deep into the African interior, and MGM's Tarzan series was a major attraction. Serials turned to the jungle drama with a vengeance during this time period. Famous lion tamer Clyde Beatty starred in The Lost Jungle (Mascot, 1934) and Darkest Africa (Republic, 1936), Tom Tyler starred in Jungle Mystery (Universal, 1932), Noah Berry, Jr., starred in Call of the Savage (Universal, 1935), and Herman Brix (who later changed his name to Bruce Bennett) starred in the Edgar Rice Burroughs' endorsed The New Adventures of Tarzan (Burroughs-Tarzan, 1935).

Alex Raymond's comic strip Jungle Jim was widely distributed by King Features. Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim appeared side by side in a layout that took up an entire page in the Sunday funnies. So when Universal purchased the rights to Raymond's Flash Gordon, they immediately followed with Jungle Jim. However, while Flash Gordon benefited from the casting of muscular beefcake actor Buster Crabbe, Jungle Jim's lead actor was the more conventionally proportioned Grant Withers. By the time he appeared in Jungle Jim, Withers had appeared in over 50 films, but he lacked the charisma to be a leading actor. So most of his roles were in a supporting capacity, including several second-banana roles in serials such as Tailspin Tommy and The Red Rider (both Universal, 1934). Jungle Jim, however, gave him the opportunity to be the center of attention.

Raymond Hatton co-stars as Jungle Jim's sidekick Malay Mike. The story introduces Jungle Jim and Malay Mike to a jungle queen named Joan played by Betty Jane Rhodes. She has been living with lions since she was a child. Unbeknownst to her, Joan is the heiress to a considerable estate. However, her uncle would like to claim the fortune as his own, so he shows up to track down his niece, who disappeared many years ago after a shipwreck. He wants her dead. This story becomes complicated by the mysterious figure known as the Cobra (Henry Brandon, who would play Fu Manchu in Republic's Drums of Fu Manchu serial). He works out of an ancient stone temple along with his sister Shanghai Lil (Evelyn Brent, the silent screen star of Josef von Sternberg's Underworld, 1927), and he commands a large tribe of natives. These forces clash over twelve chapters as Jungle Jim tries to wrest Joan from the Cobra's influence and get her back to civilization while avoiding the traps laid by her uncle.

In execution, Jungle Jim is a clumsy serial. It uses large doses of library footage of jungle animals and the footage never matches the footage of the actors. Frequently, the actors must battle lions (Joan commands an entire pride), but the lions are always clearly stuffed and only move thanks to the furious rolls and thrusts of their attackers. Still, regardless of the risible elements, which are many, Jungle Jim is still good fun. In general, it contains lame cliffhangers, in which the heroes aren't exactly placed in deadly peril. For example, Jungle Jim might fall 30 feet into a lake. Ho-hum. We know he'll surface unharmed at the beginning of the next chapter. No big deal. But at least you don't get the rampant cheating of '40s serials, in which certain death was averted by revising the end of the previous chapter so that falls didn't occur and so that explosions weren't threatening. In general, Jungle Jim doesn't overwhelm you with it's cliffhangers, but a genial feeling of fair play predominates and that counts for something (although that's sort of like damning with faint praise). Many of the situations in this serial would be improved upon by Republic serials in the '40s such as Jungle Girl, Perils of Nyoka, and Tiger Woman.

Directed by Ford Beebe and Clifford Smith, Jungle Jim benefits from the elaborate Universal sets leftover from previous productions. For example, the long, curving stone stairway from Frankenstein appears on numerous occasions, and the soundtrack utilizes a Wagnerian-inspired musical motif lifted from Son of Frankenstein (also used extensively in Flash Gordon).

VCI Entertainment's video transfer of Jungle Jim has been culled from a print in fair condition. It's clearly an exhibition print with considerable wear. Dark areas are all black with little detail. The two-disc set includes actor bios and a large selection of bonus trailers.

 Secret Agent X-9 (Universal, 1937)
 VCI Entertainment · SRP: $29.99 · two discs · 12 chapters · black and white

Like Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon, Universal's Secret Agent X-9 (1937) is based on a comic strip by Alex Raymond. This comic strip was created in cooperation with novelist Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, The Glass Key, and others), who wrote the initial four storylines for the comic strip. However, none of Raymond or Hammett survives into Universal's serial, which looks very ordinary. While the Raymond/Hammett strip frequently utilized diabolical devices and brimmed with blistering fight scenes, Secret Agent X-9 looks like any other serial from the '30s. (Mysteriously, VCI Entertainment's DVD cover artwork says the serial is based on the comic strip of Charles Flanders, who didn't take over for Raymond and start drawing this strip until 1938.)

Part of the problem in Secret Agent X-9 is simply the casting. Scott Kolk makes a very bland lead. Kolk had appeared in a supporting role in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but roles were few for him in the following years, with just two roles in the next six years. In 1937, Kolk appeared in a resurgence of roles, 10 movies in two years. But by 1939, Kolk had left Hollywood, never to appear again in a movie. Kolk was a pleasant presence in Secret Agent X-9, but the serial didn't really require a pleasant presence. It required rippling muscles and a heroic presence. His stature is slighted even further by the presence of Henry Brandon as Blackstone, a criminal pursued by X-9, for Brandon was an intimidating 6'5" tall.

Jean Rogers, who looked great as Dale Arden opposite Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon, is totally misused here. The story buries her shapely form underneath a none-too-complimentary artist's smock and a heavy shawl. What could the filmmakers have been thinking? She's concealed under several layers of clothing as if she's trying to hide a pregnancy. (Could that possibly have been the case? She wasn't married.) Here she stars as the proprietor of an art supply shop, who is drawn into the storyline because her shop is used as a front for criminal activity.

Viewers anxious to see the fantastic plot developments of the comic serial will be largely disappointed. One exception comes at the end of Chapter 2 when X-9 pursues a car full of thugs, and one of the thugs (Lon Chaney, Jr.) pulls out a box-like device that he activates and places on the roof of his vehicle. The device sends out a devastating blast of light that temporarily blinds X-9 and sends his car careening into a tree. But otherwise, this serial contains few examples of such dastardly developments. Instead, we get dreadfully mundane cliffhangers. For example, one cliffhanger has X-9 knocked unconscious on a driveway as the estate's none-too-heavy gate starts to close toward X-9's head. Not exactly the sort of deadly ending we expect from serials.

Matters get much worse as the serial progresses and the cliffhanger endings enter a run of several consecutive blatant cheats. In Chapter 5, Agent X-9 pulls a book from a shelf and a trap fires a gun. Agent X-9 falls. In Chapter 6, however, the scene is revised so that X-9 doesn't fall, it's his sidekick Pidge instead. Why lie? At the end of Chapter 6, X-9 is knocked out a window. We see him fall several floors and strike the pavement. Yikes! That's gotta hurt. But no, Chapter 7 revises the scene so that it's one of his opponents who falls following a blow from X-9. What? And then Chapter 7 shows X-9, Pidge, and Rogers in a car headed for a wooden barrier. We see the car clearly break through the barrier and head for a cliff, but at the beginning of Chapter 8, we discover the car didn't go through the barrier at all. ARRRRGGGGGHHHHHHHHH! This kind of revisionism makes no sense unless the filmmakers had no respect whatsoever for their audience and didn't think twice about trying to pass off any lame developments.

VCI Entertainment's DVD presentation of Secret Agent X-9 looks just fair. The print has been well worn, with dark areas of the screen turning all black and losing detail. There is also a problem with chapter stops: if you try skipping backward, you'll occasionally end up at the wrong chapter.

 Zorro Rides Again (Republic, 1939)
 Hal Roach Studios (distribution by Image Entertainment) · SRP: $29.99 · one disc · 12 chapters · black and white

Zorro Rides Again (Republic, 1937) marks the first joint effort from the great directing duo of William Witney and John English. Together they directed 17 consecutive serials, honing an approach that allowed Republic serials to far outdistance the competition. They adopted a no-nonsense approach that treated the serial material with respect and rarely gave any clues that we shouldn't consider the stories seriously. Other directors would allow an element of goofiness to gradually seep into the serial. But few people would point to a Witney/English serial as an example of camp, unlike the Flash Gordon serials.

Witney and English turned out a wide variety of serials during their tenure at Republic, including westerns (The Adventures of Red Ryder), a tale of the Canadian mounties (King of the Royal Mounted), super hero adventures (The Adventures of Captain Marvel), jungle adventures (Jungle Girl), detective thrillers (with three Dick Tracy serials), and crime serials with sci-fi overtones (Mysterious Dr. Satan). And even after their partnership dissolved they continued making fine serials separately, with Witney directing two of the all-time best serials, Spy Smasher and The Perils of Nyoka. Zorro Rides Again is the first of several serials to capitalize on the Zorro name, all of which came from Republic. It utilizes an approach similar to the B-movies series of Gene Autry, which took place in the modern day but utilized many aspects of the old West, creating a strange mix of elements. In Zorro Rides Again, Zorro even ventures to New York City to wrap up the story and bring to justice the mastermind behind a land grab operation.

John Carroll plays James Vega, the last living survivor in the Zorro bloodline. Manuel Vega writes to James Vega, asking him to come to their rescue: land grabbers have been conducting a war of destruction and intimidating people to sell their land for a lark to a railroad being built all the way from California to the Yucatan. James Vega agrees to come and gives Manuel the date of his arrival, but he shows up a day early under the guise of Zorro and thus begins the retaliation effort against the land grabbers. This appearance of Zorro 24 hours in advance of James Vega's arrival is enough to throw everyone off the connection. Carroll doesn't follow the Don Diego tradition by playing his descendant as a fop. Reed Hadley would adopt this approach in Zorro's Fighting Legion. In Zorro Rides Again, James Vega pretends he is not experienced in ways of the West; he even gets thrown from his horse, but he definitely doesn't do anything effeminate. Unfortunately, however, the story forces upon Vega the voice of a barely inarticulate savage when he's in the guise of Zorro, supposedly so he can conceal his true identity, but the result is downright ridiculous. In addition, Carroll is asked to be a singing Zorro, and it's definitely jarring to hear a masked avenger break out into song.

In spite of the disadvantages, John Carroll makes for a good leading man. He is a charismatic presence. He would subsequently move on to feature films, appearing in supporting roles in Only Angels Have Wings (with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur) and Go West (with the Marx Brothers). But his biggest role was likely co-starring with John Wayne in Flying Tigers. Duncan Renaldo plays Vega's sidekick. Many television buffs will instantly recognize Renaldo as TV's Cisco Kid. He appeared in dozens of Republic movies, as did Richard Alexander, who here appears as the local heavy "Lobo" who pressures the landowners to give in to heavy-handed tactics. An imposing presence, Alexander appeared in well over 200 movies, usually as a thug, but his most famous role may have been as Prince Barin in Flash Gordon. The most prestigious presence in Zorro Rides Again is Noah Beery, who plays the J.A. Marsden, a businessman who gives orders to his henchmen by way of a shortwave radio. Beery was only available for two days, so all his scenes were shot in quick succession on a single set, usually with him sitting at the radio.

In Zorro Rides Again, we see excellent model work by Howard and Theodore Lydecker. Together they worked on several hundred productions, including several of the best Republic serials. Among their outstanding work in Zorro Rides Again, we see a warehouse explode, and it's completely believable. Scenes like this would be a staple of Republic serials, in which the hero is placed in such a deadly circumstance (he's trapped in the warehouse) that audience members could only stare at each other in stupefied silence, wondering how the hero could ever survive. The success of many cliffhanger episode endings in Zorro Rides Again is directly attributable to the work of the Lydeckers.

Hal Roach Studios' DVD presentation of Zorro Rides Again looks fairly decent. The print is somewhat worn, with plentiful dust specks, but the dark grays still have detail and haven't turned into mud. The DVD comes with a selection of six trailers (the same set as Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island).

 Drums of Fu Manchu (Republic, 1940)
 VCI Entertainment · SRP: $29.99 · two discs · 15 chapters · black and white

Directed by William Witney and John English, who would helm many of the greatest serials ever produced, Drums of Fu Manchu (Republic, 1940) is perhaps their finest serial. It's so good that occasionally it recalls Flash Gordon, especially in a sequence where Fu Manchu pulls a lever that releases a trap door and drops hero Allan Parker into an octopus tank. Unfortunately, however, Drums of Fu Manchu lacks a strong feminine presence, other than Fu Manchu's daughter, who figures in only a handful of chapters before dropping out of sight altogether. In addition, Drums of Fu Manchu is occasionally marred by its meager sense of technological innovations. For example, in an early chapter, we're supposed to be impressed when Fu Manchu claps his hands to turn on/off the lights in his palace. So he's got "the clapper"? In scenes like this one, the serial dips perilously toward camp. But other innovations are effective, such as the mini-cameras concealed in the wrist bands of Fu Manchu's fiendish henchmen. Fu Manchu can use the cameras to watch whatever is happening by turning on his video monitor. In addition, Fu Manchu makes imaginative use of a face mask, similar to those used in Mission: Impossible 2, that allows him to pose as the Scotland Yard agent hot on his trail.

Based upon characters created by Sax Rohmer, Drums of Fu Manchu is filled with remarkable, surprising sequences unlike those you'll find in virtually any other serial. It gets off to a thrilling start in Chapter One as Fu Manchu unleashes a battalion of his goons--called the Dacoit--to kidnap an archaeologist who possesses an important ancient relic. This relic is a clue to the location of the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. In this sequence, the Dacoit enter the museum by walking on telephone wires that lead to the building's roof. Inside the museum, an Egyptian sarcophagus contains Fu Manchu's daughter, who emerges at an opportune time to open the rooftop door and let in the goons. It's a startling sequence that occasionally strains credulity but it's always inspired. Fu Manchu's henchmen are hardly human. They're more like zombies. Each member of the Dacoit has a Y-shaped scar down the middle of his forehead, a reminder of the brain operation that put him under Fu Manchu's control. The lead henchman even has fangs like a vampire.

Sir Nayland Smith (William Royle) of Scotland Yard is the hero. He has been tracking Fu Manchu (Henry Brandon), who in turn is searching for Genghis Khan's scepter, which he believes will allow him to rule all of Asia. To find the scepter, Fu Manchu must first find the segments of an ancient scroll, which when pieced together reveal the whereabouts of the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. In his effort to thwart Fu Manchu, Smith uses the services of a much younger man, Allan Parker (Robert Kellard, who played second lead to Allan Lane in the same year's King of the Royal Mounted). While Parker takes the more dangerous missions and frequently gets into fist fights, Smith does most of the brain work (although he can throw a mean right cross when necessary). Smith is too old (pushing 60) to carry the hero role alone. So Parker plays an important function as he helps boost the serial's action quotient.

While many serials suffer from overuse of the same location in episode after episode, Drums of Fu Manchu moves through an astonishing variety of locales. It starts in San Francisco, where Nayland Smith has returned after an apparent run-in with Fu Manchu in Asia, and then it moves aboard a trans-Pacific flight. In India, Smith and Parker battle the emissaries of Fu Manchu before heading for the foothills of the Himalayas, where they search for the tomb of Genghis Khan. The final episodes take place inside an ancient temple.

From its very first scenes, Drums of Fu Manchu conveys a sense of terror. As in the classic French serial Les Vampires, we get a villainous force of unimaginable strength and treachery that will stop at nothing to get what it wants. We're left with a feeling of hopelessness. How can our heroes survive? How can the world survive?

During the final chapters, Drums of Fu Manchu falls prey to one of the greatest pitfalls faced by serials: the battle for Genghis Khan's scepter deteriorates into a game of I've-got-it-no-he's-got-it. At this point, even the cliffhanger endings become a bit mundane, as when Parker appears to fall into an inferno. But the following chapter says, no, he didn't fall at all. This kind of fuzzy thinking might've worked when serial episodes were shown in theaters a week or more apart, but on video--where the viewer has a handy rewind button--it becomes obvious that the filmmakers cheated. The biggest hurdles that modern viewers may face, however, are the arguably racist characterizations. Fu Manchu and his cohorts are represented by broad racial stereotypes that align the orient with treachery. If you can place these characterizations within the time period they were created--at the onset of American involvement in WWII--the negative stereotypes are somewhat excusable.

At its best, though, Drums of Fu Manchu attains heights that compare favorably with the best of any other serial. At the end of Chapter 5, for example, Fu Manchu takes possession of an ancient scroll, but there is no conventional cliffhanger. Instead, the chapter ends with the ominous possibilities posed by Fu Manchu moving closer to his goal. It's refreshing to see a serial break free, if ever so briefly, from the tyranny (and the limitations) of the cliffhanger ending and offer a more profound (if less immediately thrilling) chapter conclusion. Significantly, Fu Manchu survives the serial's final chapter--perhaps for a sequel that never materialized. So while Nayland Smith wins this encounter, the threat of Fu Manchu survives.

VCI's Entertainment's DVD release of Drums of Fu Manchu is an improvement over their previous VHS release of this same title. I suspect both the DVD and the VHS versions use the same source print, but as can be expected the DVD version looks much better. The print shows wear, with whites being typically burnt out and shadows becoming impenetrable blacks, but the imperfections can't overcome the magnificent developments in this wonderfully outlandish serial classic. VCI's presentation includes a video introduction by Scarlet Street editor Richard Valley in which he sets forth the history of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu character and delves into the production history of this serial. In addition, Eric Hoffman provides an insightful essay that comes in a 12-page booklet. The disc also includes actor bios and a photo gallery.

 King of the Royal Mounted (Republic, 1940)
 VCI Entertainment · SRP: $19.99 · one disc · 12 chapters · black and white

King of the Royal Mounted (Republic, 1940) is another in the long line of excellent serials directed by William Witney and John English. Based on a Zane Grey story about the Canadian Mounted Police, this serial takes to wide open spaces and becomes one of the most attractive outdoors adventures delivered by Republic.

The story involves German spies who are looking for ways to blast the English fleet out of the North Sea. They've discovered that Compound X, which is mined as a cure for infantile paralysis, is also an explosive, so they want to divert shipments of the compound marked for children's hospitals in favor of using the compound in magnetic mines. Sergeant Dave King (played by Allan Lane) is sent to look into the disappearing shipments of Compound X, and he's assisted by Corporal Tom Merrit, Jr. (Robert Kellard, who also co-starred in Drums of Fu Manchu), and a crusty trapper named Vinegar Smith (Budd Buster, who appeared in nearly 300 movies over a career that lasted 25 years, which means he averaged over 10 movies a year!).

Without the exotic locales of many Republic serials and with a rather limited group of settings, King of the Royal Mounted could have become repetitive and mundane, but instead thanks to the fresh mountain locations surrounded by tall pine trees, with clean lake water lapping against the nearby shore, this is a marvelous serial. It doesn't hit the peaks of Drums of Fu Manchu, but it maintains a generally high-level of suspense.

On the debit side, however, the story forces Sgt. King into several rather stupid situations. He frequently walks right into the villains' camp in the Valley of Hunted Men, thinking they'll simply give up and allow him to slap on the handcuffs. Of course, things aren't that easy, which means we get a wealth of fist fights. Frequently in the '40s, especially once Spencer Gordon Bennet took over in the director's chair, Republic serials relied way too often on fist fights. You can see this tendency start to surface in King of the Royal Mounted. But the story mixes in enough variety that the plethora of fist fights doesn't become too overwhelming. We gets fights in motor boats and fights in a mine. We get scenes in a submarine and scenes in a big-city office building. We get forest fires and plane crashes.

Chapter 3 ends with one of the serial's best cliffhangers. It places Sgt. King, unconscious, on a conveyor belt and headed toward a lumber saw. (You knew there had to be at least one scene like this in a Canadian Royal Mounted serial!) The typical solution would be to have King wake up at the beginning of the next chapter and roll out of harm's way. But nope, the solution here is more inventive than that. It involves Sgt. King's father, who is a highly-respected officer in the Royal Mounted. Seeing his son in danger of being sawed in half, he uses his pistol to short out the line feeding electricity to the saw. As a result, however, he's electrocuted and collapses dead. No, not stunned. Dead as a doornail! This is one of the most shocking moments to appear in any Republic serial.

Allan Lane continued with a long career at Republic, which included a starring stint as Red Ryder. He even starred in his own series of B Westerns, in which he was billed as Allan "Rocky" Lane. This series included three dozen titles and lasted from 1948 to 1953. Strangely, Robert Kellard's career sort of fizzled after King of the Royal Mounted. He garnered several bit parts over the next few years, but by 1950 he was done in Hollywood. But in this serial, he looks very much the hero.

VCI Entertainment's DVD presentation of King of the Royal Mounted looks great. The print exhibits a minimum of wear and still has good image contrast. The video transfer is sharp. This is one of VCI's best looking serial releases. The disc comes with a generous sampling of trailers, biographies of Lane, Witney, and English, and a photo gallery.

 Zorro's Black Whip (Republic, 1944)
 Hal Roach Studios (distribution by Image Entertainment) · SRP: $29.95 · one disc · 12 chapters · black and white

Zorro's Black Whip (Republic, 1944) holds only a tenuous connection to Republic's other Zorro serials. Yes, the Zorro name appears in the title, but that's it. Otherwise, the hero is called "The Black Whip," and no character in the entire serial ever speaks the names Zorro or Don Diego Vega.

Zorro's Black Whip's director, Spencer Gordon Bennet, had been working in Hollywood since the silent era. Throughout the '30s he plied the B Western genre, directing Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Tex Ritter, Ken Maynard, Buster Crabbe, and Bob Allen. In 1943, he came to Republic and directed G-Men vs. the Black Dragon(1943), one of Repubic's best war-era serials. His follow-ups included Secret Service in Darkest Africa (1943), The Masked Marvel (1943), Tiger Woman (1944), and Haunted Harbor (1944). In the lulls between serials, Republic assigned Bennet to direct B Westerns for Wild Bill Elliott, Don "Red" Barry, Robert Livingstone, and Sunset Carson. He directed as many as seven films/serials per year.

In Zorro's Black Whip, Linda Sterling assumes the role of "The Black Whip" after her brother, the real "Black Whip," is murdered by thugs who oppose the law and order that will come with statehood for Idaho. After she finds him dead in his basement lair, she dons his disguise and continues his efforts to protect the innocent. She gets assistance from George Lewis, who plays a government agent sent to investigate the situation in Idaho. Lewis normally played a villain or the villain's main henchman, so it's refreshing to see him as a hero.

Linda Sterling is one of the most famous of all serial heroines. She didn't play a passive woman; she was a fighter often the equal (or superior) of men in brawls. She was a model before he turned to acting and it shows. She carried herself with a refined air that frequently conflicted with her characters. But that didn't matter to her legion of fans. All that mattered were her stunning good looks and her dedication to her roles. Few other actresses could have captured the same sense of adventure with nary a condescending arch of the eyebrow as Linda did. She was never a particularly talented actress. Her characters never really fit in completely. They existed to be ogled, to be watched in awe as she swung through the trees in The Tiger Woman or cracked a whip in Zorro's Black Whip. In fact, the superficiality of her performances was largely responsible for endearing her to her audience. She was sort of like a Barbie doll who might get done up in various ethnic dresses (jungle girl, cow girl, etc.) but only to show that regardless of the exterior she's still primarily a gorgeous babe underneath it all.

Zorro's Black Whip was filmed on the standard locations used by Republic. If you're familiar with Republic product, you'll recognize them at once: rocky bluffs surrounded by brush. Once you see enough '40s Republic serials from this time period, the landscape becomes sort of stupefying in its sameness. In the '30s, Republic worked hard to vary the landscape in their serials, but in the '40s they pretty much gave up and simply cranked out the product. In this respect, Spencer Gordon Bennet was their man, for he could get the footage in the can faster than just about anyone else. But during this period, Republic serials began to descend into repetitive bouts of fisticuffs. Each serial would feature two, maybe three, brawls, all too often predicated by an incident as insignificant as a light bulb flickering.

Chapter 1 gets off to a so-so start with a cliffhanger that shows Lewis fighting one of the villain's henchmen in a wagon headed for a cliff. But here there is no suspense. We know he'll simply jump out of the wagon to safety at the beginning of Chapter 2. Ho-hum. Chapter 2 ends on a more promising note when Sterling is trapped in a vault along with a bomb. She seems certain to die, but at the beginning of Chapter 3, we discover there is an inner door, which she closes and hides behind. The blast therefore doesn't even daze her. A nice solution to a tricky problem that might have been resolved by cheating (e.g., by revising the previous chapter ending so that she escapes from the vault before the blast at the beginning of the following chapter). In general, however, the cliffhangers in Zorro's Black Whip lack much gusto. They're simple and uninventive.

Hal Roach Studios DVD presentation of Zorro's Black Whip looks good. The print is in good shape and the video transfer is reasonably sharp. The presentation is augmented by a special bonus feature: The Bold Caballero, starring Robert Livingston. This is the long-lost first talking version of the Zorro tale. The Bold Caballero was filmed in a primitive two-color process. No color copies have survived. Hal Roach's presentation comes from a mastering of the sole surviving red element. The DVD's packaging claims that the disc also contains six Republic serial trailers; however, I couldn't find them. I think someone at Hal Roach or Image Entertainment screwed up.

 Secret Agent X-9 (Universal, 1945)
 VCI Entertainment · SRP: $19.99 · one disc · 13 chapters · black and white

For their second go round with Secret Agent X-9, Universal altered their approach, using a different storyline and a different approach to the lead character, who here goes by the name of Phil Corrigan. In their 1937 attempt at the Alex Raymond/Dashiell Hammett comic strip, Universal cast the bland Scott Polk in the lead and hid the spectacular Jean Rogers under several layers of clothing. For their 1945 Secret Agent X-9, they cast Lloyd Bridges in the lead, and he's anything but bland. He doesn't appear until over 13 minutes into the drama, by which time considerable effort has been spent setting up a conflict that involves the Japanese, who are working on a new fuel for aviation gasoline. But this plot line moves like molasses.

When Bridges steps on screen he has a lazy manner and rough charm unlike anything else in the movie. He holds his head cocked to the side; his shirt is unbuttoned; he hooks his thumbs in his pants pockets; he delivers his lines almost as afterthoughts, which makes them all the more effective. "It's time for the United State to take over," he says as he steps forward with pistol in hand, getting the drop on two Gestapo stooges. It's a great moment of campy fun, just the sort of stuff we should've seen in the first Secret Agent X-9 serial.

Bridges had been toiling in bit parts for the better part of a decade, but after his appearance in Secret Agent X-9, offers for supporting roles in feature films started arriving. Later in 1945, he would appear in a plum role in Lewis Milestone's classic war drama A Walk in the Sun. Appearing opposite Bridges in Secret Agent X-9 is Jan Wiley, who as the serial opens seems to be playing a no-good woman running a bar that sympathizes with the Japanese. She also broadcasts a hectoring message toward American GIs that degrades the American cause in the Pacific. Unbeknownst to the Japanese Army, however, she is actually using the broadcast to communicate a hidden code to Australian intelligence. She spends most her time working at a shady bar. She's like a film noir dame, seductive and dangerous. In short, she's everything Jean Rogers should have been in the first Secret Agent X-9.

Bridges and Wiley are complimented by Keye Luke (a veteran of Charlie Chan movies) as an Australian intelligence agent and Samuel S. Hinds (most famous as Peter Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life) as an all-knowing, growling bar denizen. In addition, Edward M. Howard is a hoot as a super-cool, without-a-clue type character. He looks sort of like Peter O'Toole imitating Humphrey Bogart (i.e., Jean-Paul Belmondo). A cigarette lazily hangs from his lip as he saunters around the gambling joints, his hat cocked back.

Secret Agent X-9 sort of resembles Casablanca with its emphasis on an exotic tavern/gambling parlor and its disaffected inhabitants. But soon a certain sameness creeps into Secret Agent X-9 and the serial begins to drag. Instead of giving Bridges' unkempt brand of charm free reign, they stick him in a Gestapo uniform and make him go undercover. And all too much time is given to Victoria Horne as Nabura, a dragon lady, but Horne makes for an unconvincing villain and therefore the serial drifts listlessly.

VCI Entertainment's presentation of Secret Agent X-9 comes with audio commentary by mystery writer Max Allan Collins, who worked for several years as script writer for the Dick Tracy comic strip. He points out that the Secret Agent X-9 comic strip was a response to Dick Tracy. His commentary isn't scene specific. Rather his comments are directly tied to the comic strip connection. His commentary tracks ends during the serial's second chapter, for a total running time of about 31 minutes. The two-disc set also includes biographies and filmographies of the principal participants, a telephone interview with Beau Bridges, a photo gallery, and a selection of cliffhanger previews.

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Thanks to video we can now see many of the classic serials again, but we can never really experience them as they were intended--to spend a week of agony waiting to find out how the hero escaped the peril, to run past movie posters and lobby cards, to settle down in the fifth row, popcorn clutched in one hand and a soda in the other (with candy bars stuffed in coat pockets), and to then see the screen burst to life--those days are long gone.

Now we slide discs into our DVD players, which makes it all too easy to hit the reverse button and check out the ending of the previous chapter one more time--and discover how the cliffhanger resolutions sometimes resorted to blatant revisionism in order to extract the hero from precarious situations. That is, the serials frequently cheated. Flagrantly. However, the best serials, such as Drums of Fu Manchu, kept cheating to a minimum and introduced enough exciting plot developments to keep their audiences in a state of breathless anticipation. Of the serials in this roundup, those by William Witney and John English come to the closest to meeting this goal: Drums of Fu Manchu, Zorro Rides Again, and King of the Royal Mounted. Witney and English didn't look down on their audience, which frequently was the case in Universal serials. As a result their serials have aged better than many of their competitors and still work fairly effectively on DVD.