Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The Strangest Serial Ever Made

Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The Strangest Serial Ever Made-attachment0

Those of you who attend — even irregularly — the Thursday Horror Picture Show screenings (which take place every Thursday for some reason) are probably aware that we have long tended to run a chapter of a movie serial prior to the main feature. It’s not exactly part of the event, since we start them 20-30 minutes (depending on chapter length) before the feature is scheduled. But hardcore habitues who know that seating can be pretty tight get there early enough to see them — these peculiar slices of an earlier era that hold up somewhat less well than the features with which they are contemporary.

There really is no very good artistic defense to be made for these movies, though they date back — in one form or another — to the very dawn of movies, only to be killed off in the 1950s by TV. It’s not that TV actually did anything to the serials (except often make them look better), but it changed the way movies were made in general owing to the studios’ notions of offering something that people didn’t get for free at home. When bigger screens, wider images, and the brief flurry of 3D weren’t quite beating the Devil in the Living Room, one of the responses was that longer movies would help separate the theater experience from the home. And with that the prospect of short films of any kind — and the very soon that would include cartoons — went the way of the dodo.

The fact is that the serial film, while not as disdained as it came to be in the talkies, was quickly relegated to lower status — a kind of gimmick to get audiences, and increasingly audiences of kids — to come back next week to find out just how whichever imperiled hero or heroine escaped some ghastly fate that was about to befall them this week. In that regard, the idea worked. It also had a remarkable tendency to rely on the faulty memories of the audience, since what you saw at the end chapter two was very rarely exactly what you saw in the recap at the beginning of chapter three. (It never occurred to the makers of these films that anyone would ever watch the chapters back to back. It almost certainly never occurred to them that anyone would ever see them after that first run.)

To date, the Thursday Horror Picture Show has made its way through Bela Lugosi in The Return Chandu (1934) and The Phantom Creeps (1939), Batman (1943), The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), and Drums of Fu Manchu (1940). The results have been variable. Chandu was perhaps most memorable for freezing in the last five minutes of the last episode, leaving me to assure the audience they’d missed a truly thrilling climax. (Yeah, I was lying. I think they suspected.) The Phantom Creeps was quite popular—probably for having the coolest robot ever and some truly unhinged Lugosi villainy.

Batman was pretty much a bust, but we let the audience vote on it and they chose it over Flash Gordon. I knew it was a bad idea, but they would do it. The two Flash Gordons went over OK, as did Captain Marvel. Drums of Fu Manchu — I don’t think anyone paid any attention to, which made it something of a bust. It would be a simple matter to try to re-energize things with the third and final Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) — of course, it’s the last; where do you go from there? But I like a bit of variety — and the chance to startle the audience — so I tracked down what has to be the damndest serial of all time, The Lost City (1935), an independent production by a gent named Sherman S. Krellberg starring Kane Richmond and William “Stage” Boyd.

Now, I’d seen The Lost City once before, so I knew just how seriously deranged it was, but it had been a while. So this past weekend I decided to check it out a little — mostly to be sure it played OK, which is often a dicey proposition on these public domain titles. That’s really all I planned on doing. Honest. And I know that these things tend to become wearisome if you watch too much of one in one sitting. (The rule should be two episodes max.) Imagine my surprise when I ended up watching all four hours worth of barely coherent and totally unhinged nonsense. Alright, all serials are lacking in a degree of coherence and don’t seem too well wrapped. This thing, however, scales the heights — or plumbs the depths, if you prefer — in both departments. That’s why I watched all of it, of course.

The basic idea is pretty much just Serial Filmmaking 101. The world is being plagued by all manner of disasters — conveyed, somewhat tastelessly, through stock footage from newsreels of genuine disasters. A decidedly economical-size group of scientists are gathered to figure out what’s causing this and how to save the Earth from certain destruction via stock shots and newsreel footage. (The tastefulness of using shots of actual tragedies for purposes of entertainment is an issue worth considering, but one that probably pales in comparison with other questions of taste in The Lost City.) Fortunately for the world, electrical engineer Bruce Gordon (the almost caricaturishly square-jawed Kane Richmond) has some Kenneth Strickfaden lab equipment left over from Frankenstein that’s somehow connected to what looks like a Rand-McNally globe. This allows him to pinpoint the source of the electrical disturbances that are causing all the trouble — in darkest Africa. Isn’t that always the case?

It turns out that this is the doing of a gent by the name of Zolok (with a handle like that he needs no first name), supposedly the last of a race of scientists — played with improbable American-ness (and apparent liquid courage) by William “Stage” Boyd. (The “Stage” was to differentiate him from William Boyd of Hopalong Cassidy fame — mostly to keep the latter from being associated with “Stage’s” legal problems with alcohol and drugs. Those problems were also why “Stage” was in this poverty-row serial.) I’ve never been sure why — if he’s so hot as a scientist — Zolok keeps a captive science whiz called Dr. Manyus (played by Josef Swickard, who often appears unaware of where he is and why) in his “Lost City.” (Said “lost city” mostly seems to consist of a lot of metal corrridors, a few rooms, and a power plant inside a mountain.)

The biggest thing old Doc Manyus seems to do is create giants for Zolok with his enlarging machine, which like just about everything else in the serial is made from spare parts from Frankenstein. Now, this is where the movie starts to get — well, peculiar. It’s also where it starts to get racist — and I mean racist in a way that’s jaw-dropping even for the era. Zolok sends his current crew of giants out to capture other hapless natives who are then put into “the brain destoyer” — one of the many Manyus gadgets that hardly seem to square with his claims of meaning to benefit mankind — which leaves them slaves to Zolok’s will. Only then are they subjected to the enlarging machine (a not unreasonable precaution, I suppose). And what a remarkable contrivance it is, too. Not only does it turn the victim into a giant, but it oils them up like a body builder and gives them — if they’re lucky — Jimi Hendrix hair. If they’re not so lucky, it’s more like Buckwheat.

There’s also a side-effect to the whole process. In what seems like some kind of precursor to climate change, all the electrical energy he’s been releasing into the atmosphere is responsible for the storms that are plaguing the rest of the world. This, in fact, is what our hero, Bruce, has come to Africa to put a stop to. Of course, this also entails rescuing Manyus and his daughter Natcha. Natcha is played by Claudia Dell, a woman with more dithery hand gestures than ZaSu Pitts, who somehow manages to have numerous costume changes throughout the course of the movie — despite no evidence of her owning a wardrobe.

The exact purpose of these giants is, to put it mildly, vague. All Zolok does with them — apart from sending them out to capture more subjects — is stick them in a cell with other giants, where they stand around and “converse” with each other in sounds that make it seem like bicarbonate of soda would do them all a world of good. Otherwise, they stalk around and grab people on command. When I say “they,” it’s mostly Hugo (Sam Baker), the lead giant. And he is pretty formidable (some stories — probably apocryphal — claim the serial was withdrawn for scaring children). He’d be a lot more so, though, if his eyes didn’t tend to cross when he makes his “fierce” face, making him look a bit like Harpo Marx in his enraged pose.

Whatever the giants are for, it quickly transpires that every duplicitous despot in Africa (which seems to have no other kind) seems to want giants of his or her own. This inevitably leads to trying to kidnap Dr. Manyus. In fact, kidnapping Manyus for this purpose eats up most of the serial’s running time one way or another. I won’t claim the idea is very inspired, but serials aren’t known for clever writing. What this lacks in cleverness, it makes up for in insanity.

Rather than try to detail the plot — a hopeless mess of bad guys double crossing each other and turning into good guys and sometimes back again — it’s better to merely note its more peculiar notions. In the minor categories, we have such things as Arab Sheik Ben Ali (Gino Corrado), who has wandered in from the desert in order to get himself — yep, you got it — some giants. Naturally, no one ever prounces him name the same way twice, and at one high point of inanity he shouts a lot of supposedly Arab dialogue and concludes by telling one, “You stay here,” presumably for our benefit. There’s also Rama, Queen of Wangas (Margot D’Use), who wears a variety of leopard skins — once with a rakish leopard skin Robin Hood hat complete with a feather — and, of course, lusts after both giants and Bruce Gordon.

In addition we have Zolok’s key henchman, Appolyn (Jerry Frank), who spends most of the film wandering around the woods that pass for a jungle with Hugo. (Seems like he and Sam Baker ended up as life-long best friends from all the time they spent together doing this.) Unlike Natcha, this poor guy gets no change of wardrobe and spends the whole movie wearing an indelicately snug pair of fish-scale pattern boxer briefs that appear to be held up with leather suspenders. And there’s also Gorzo, Zolok’s diminutive hunchback henchman. He’s played by William Bletcher (better known as Billy), who is most famous as the voice of the Big Bad Wolf in the Disney cartoons. (Personally, all I can think of when he talks is the voice of the bear in Road to Utopia, which isn’t surprising, since he did that, too.) Bletcher plays the role with — literally — hand-rubbing villainy. It’s hardly scary, but it’s amusing.

In the film’s most outrageous turn, it transpires that Gorzo is one of the tribe of Spider Men, a group of white pygmies. And how did they get that way. Well, it seems that one of Doc Manyus’ earlier experiments was to turn black men white (“With science nothing is impossible!”). I am not making this up and we get to witness it in action when some Spider Man he didn’t get around to wants the treatment. You can tell it’s another Manyus discovery, because it leaves its subjects with afros — blonde ones, in this case, like Dietrich singing “Hot Voodoo” in Blonde Venus. The only exception is Gorzo, who must have gotten ahold of some hair relaxer. If there is a more amazingly tasteless and wrong-headed idea in 1930s Hollywood, I don’t think I’d want to see it.

All of this rich insanity — and I can think of no other word for it — ends up with a crazed Zolok staggering around the Lost City before blowing himself — and it — to smithereens, which suits Manyus, who has come to realize that his inventions can be misused. (I am always leery of these humanitarian scientists who make death rays.) When I say that Zolok is staggering I am not speaking figuratively. It seems that good old William “Stage” Boyd — who would have drunk and doped himself into an early grave before the serial came out — was blind drunk during the shooting of his last scenes. It looks it. As a friend of mine pointed out, it probably wasn’t all that smart being drunk in the midst of those gizmos.

The strange thing about The Lost City is that — despite its brain-dead writing and often offensive plotting — it’s clearly an ambitious product. I can think of no other serial that’s quite so lavishly appointed as concerns its big sets, and very few that have as many sudden outbursts of really stylish visuals. That these things sit right next to dialogue like, “That sounds like a white woman’s scream,” is even more mystifying. Someone, somewhere was actually trying to do something worth watching with the film. Unfortunately, it all pretty much collapses under the weight of the insanity of the script, but it’s still there.

Whatever you make of it, one thing is clear — there’s really nothing like it. And if you feel like you want to experience at least some of it for yourself, the madness starts tonight with chapter one at 7:30 just prior to the Thursday Horror Picture Show. The following episodes will show before the screenings over the next 11 weeks. So if you feel up to the sheer strangeness of the experience, now’s your chance.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

9 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The Strangest Serial Ever Made

  1. DrSerizawa

    Yay! Screening Room’s back.

    I must invent teleportation so I can make it to your Thursday Night screenings. That “Lost City” looks wonderful.

  2. Ken Hanke

    You’d be most welcome, but I fear you insist on living at an unworkable remove. I could, however, fix you up with my spare copy, I imagine.

    We will see just how “back” the Screening Room is. My energy level is simply not what it was, I’m sorry to say. But I’m aiming for the more practical goal of easing into it once a month. Maybe I’ll pick up from there. We’ll see.

  3. Jim Donato

    I’ve never seen this, but I have seen “The Madhouse Of Doctor Fear;” not the grindhouse flick but a similarly-named a Firesign Theatre production that took this serial, and edited footage of it into new material featuring Philip Austin, David Ossman and Peter Bergman with Don Adams [?] taking over for Phil Proctor, who was absent. They overdubbed the serial footage with new dialogue and edited it with the new shots. It ran on HBO as a Halloween special in 1979. The effect is similar to Proctor & Bergman’s “J-Men Forever” only funny. I’ve been looking for a copy ever since because it is burned into my brain.

  4. Jim Donato

    If you are a Firesign Threatre fan, it’s worth the watching for their deft wordplay and clever parodies of serial tropes. These guys grew up on the tail end of that phase.

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