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Chapter Twenty-Five

Cliffhanger Commentary by Bruce Dettman

"Blackhawk" (‘52)

MILITARY COMICS #1 featuring Blackhawk.“Blackhawk” debuted in 1941 in MILITARY COMICS #1 (right), the combined creation of Will Eisner, Chuck Cuidera and Bob Powell. Blackhawk was the name taken by Janos Prohaska, an American pilot who joined the Polish Air Force in ‘39 to fight the Germans who, under the orders of arch enemy Captain Von Tepp, had killed his brother and sister.

His response was to create his own small army of dedicated men, all representing different international backgrounds, to wage war against the enemies of democracy. In this capacity—and now known as Blackhawk—he adopted an all blue uniform with a yellow and black insignia with the other members of his team decked out in the same attire sans the decal.

There was also a short-lived “Blackhawk” radio series which ran in 1950. When two years later Columbia decided to film a cliffhanger based on the comics they had one of their screenwriters, George Plympton (the others were Royal Cole and Sherman Lowe), look at the comic books and listen to one of the broadcasts to get an idea of the flavor of the characters and stories. The result of him listening to the radio series was constant confusion as the airwaves were filled with a myriad of different accents from the actors, making the storyline almost incomprehensible.

Title card for "Blackhawk" serial starring Kirk Alyn.

For this reason the serial version of “Blackhawk” featured no such accents and all the members of Blackhawk’s team speak perfect English. Because of this change the concept lost nearly all of its international flavor but at least the kids in the audience were able to understand what was going on.

The plot of “Blackhawk” is not particularly inventive, revolving as it does around a group of saboteurs led by the evil Laska out to destroy various American targets. For the bulk of the serial the Blackhawks do everything in their power to thwart these enemies of America. Incidentally, for whatever reason, the Blackhawks do not carry firearms. As explained by the serial’s narrator at the beginning of each episode they have “no weapons but their strong fists and alert minds,” not always sufficient weaponry when facing dangerous agents armed with handguns. Quite often the Blackhawks find it necessary to turn and run in the midst of a confrontation, a rather disconcerting sight in a movie serial.

Kirk Alyn as Blackhawk surrounded by Don Harvey as Olaf, John Crawford as Chuck and Rick Vallin as Stanislaus.

For the lead role of Blackhawk (the “Fearless Champion of Freedom”) Columbia opted for Kirk Alyn, fresh from his role as the screen’s first Superman. As the Man of Steel, Alyn—and probably the director—had gone for a bigger-than-life approach. Alyn’s Superman wasn’t exactly a braggart or boastful but he was a bit on the cocky and bullyboy side. He took great pride, perhaps even glee, in his powers and what he was able to do with them. Alyn toned things down for “Blackhawk”. No swagger here, just a dedicated resolve to go after the enemies of America. Blackhawk's comic book past— the revenge angle and all—is not dealt with. Alyn is fine in the part, seeming to believe in what he is doing, probably the biggest hurdle for any actor in a serial.

The other members of the Blackhawk team are fairly forgettable. Robbed of their international identities they’re pretty much just a bunch of faceless and interchangeable guys running around in identical uniforms with little if anything to give them individual traits or personalities. For the record they are Chuck, the American (John Crawford), Olaf, the Teuton (Don Harvey), Stanislaus, the Swede (Rick Vallin), Andre, the Frenchman (Larry  Stewart) and Hendrickson, the Pole (Frank Ellis). The only member of the group who stands out is Chop Chop (Weaver Levy) who, fortunately, is spared his comic book counterpart’s stereotypical Chinese garb and his trademark pigtail.

The villains of the piece, obviously working for a certain unnamed foreign government, are your standard Columbia henchmen—Zon Murray, Marshall Reed, Nick Stuart and Pierce Lyden. The head of the gang, his identity kept secret for several chapters, is Mr. Case, portrayed by Michael Fox. Even though it’s Case who pulls all the major strings, it’s Laska, played by the sultry Carol Forman, who is (thankfully) the most visible on-screen opponent of Blackhawk. Forman was the serial’s last great female villain and appeared in numerous cliffhangers produced by both Republic and Columbia. Aside from her appearance in “Superman” where, as the so-called “Spider Lady” she sported a silly blonde wig and just didn’t seem much of a legitimate match for the Man of Steel, she was always terrific in her bad girl roles not to mention being extremely easy on the eyes and often dwarfing the charms of the so-called heroine. This was not an issue in “Blackhawk”, however, because this was one of the few serials ever produced, perhaps the only one, where there is no heroine for the hero to save. There is only Laska, the beautiful but evil enemy of America to contend with. And she’s a handful with a self-serving mind of her own which ultimately gets her in trouble with Case. “You are thinking of yourself rather than the party,” he tells her in the last chapter. Of course, she doesn’t listen.

Chuck (John Crawford) secures the sultry villainess Laska (Carol Forman) as Blackhawk (Kirk Alyn) puts an armhold on Pierce Lyden.

Unlike many other serials of this later period which had become extremely studio bound as location shooting was minimized for budgetary reasons, “Blackhawk” is just the opposite. Interiors, even studio street scenes, are rare—although a few scenes can be found in foundries and industrial plants—but the majority of the action takes place in country locations, all of it looking pretty similar. There are fights in fields, on rural roads, in orchards and on farmlands. Not having to build special sets obviously cut down on costs for skinflint producer Sam Katzman who in addition employs a very cheap animation process—as was the case in his Superman serials—to depict a kind of flying disc that the Blackhawks have to contend with (actually footage recycled from “Bruce Gentry” ‘49).

“Blackhawk”could have been a much better serial had the writing been stronger and the characters of the unit been presented in a more interesting and individualized manner. As it stands, each episode seems to be little more than the bad guys being interrupted at work on their various sabotage plans—most of which involve the attempted use of a special ray gun (supposedly firing its charge at three times the speed of light!)—by the group and engaging in some pretty clumsy fisticuffs. The fights aren’t very well choreographed either (lots of obviously missed punches) and, as in many Columbia serials, escapes from the cliffhangers are rarely ever explained. Typical is an episode where the Blackhawks are pushed onto train tracks by the bad guys’ car with a speeding locomotive headed their way. The train hits them, their car lurches across the tracks and they simply get out unscathed.

Lobby card from Ch. 10 of "Blackhawk".

There are some pretty embarrassing scenes as well, one particular one coming when Blackhawk snags his parachute line just as he jumps out of a plane, seeming to freefall to his death until he lands practically in the arms of Chuck whose chute had successfully opened earlier. The sight of these two guys hugging each other in space is pretty tough to take.

With a better budget and a more inventive script “Blackhawk” could have been a lot more interesting. But it was 1952 and the motion picture serial was pretty much on its last wobbly legs. Just as with the unrepentant Laska, there was no real way of saving it.

Serial Heavies by Boyd Magers.

Walter Miller Walter Miller had been one of the top paid leading men in silent serials before changing lanes to become a dastardly villain in talkies during the ‘30s. He and heroine Allene Ray were the most famous team in ten silent serials for Pathé between 1925-1929, including “Hawk of the Hills”, “Man Without a Face” and “Black Book”. In addition he co-starred at Pathé with boxer Gene Tunney in “Fighting Marine” (‘26) and “Queen of the Northwoods” (‘29) with Ethlyne Clair. During the same period he made “Mysterious Airman” (‘28) and “Police Reporter” (‘28) with Eugenia Gilbert for Artclass. Always on the right side of the law.

A dazed Walter Miller is helped by the police in "The Black Book" ('29 Pathe).Born Walter Corwin Miller March 9, 1892, in Dayton, OH, he apparently spent a portion of his youth in Atlanta, GA, before being educated in Brooklyn, NY, where he began a stage career at 17 playing juvenile leads with stock companies. In 1910, after closing a season with a stock company, he was offered a leading man role in films by small independent Reliance. He remained with them only a year before returning to stage work with the Hall Stock Company.

 

By 1912 he was back in Holly-
Ethlyne Clair and Mountie Walter Miller in a tense moment from "Queen of the North Woods" ('29 Pathe). wood, briefly with D. W. Griffith before moving to some class features at Fox and Metro as well as work at a handful of independents. Never really becoming a major star, it was Miller’s 10 serials with Allene Ray that endeared him to a legion of fans in the ‘20s. He was earning $1,000 a week, top pay for a serial star at the time.

When sound came in he was quickly signed in ‘29 by Nat Levine at Mascot for the lead in “King of the Kongo” which was released in both sound and silent versions. In all, Miller made 6 for Mascot, “King of the Wild” (‘30); “Lone Defender” (‘30); “Last of the Mohicans” (‘32); “Shadow of the Eagle” (‘32) and “Galloping Ghost” (‘31) and in all he was still on the right side of the law except for “Galloping Ghost” in which he challenged gridiron star Red Grange.

Nora Lane seems to warn Walter Miller of danger afoot in Mascot's "King of the Wild" ('30).

That switch seemed to set the tone and harken the future as a heavy for Miller as he moved to Universal for “Danger Island” (‘31); “Gordon of Ghost City” (‘33); “Tailspin Tommy” (‘34); “Vanishing Shadow” (‘34); “Pirate Treasure” (‘34); “Red Rider” (‘34); “Call of the Savage” (‘35); “Roaring West” (‘35) and “Wild West Days” (‘37). In only one at Universal, “Rustlers of Red Dog” (‘35), was he a good guy once again—as Deacon, Johnny Mack Brown’s pal. These were followed by a great role in “Secret of Treasure Island” (‘38) at Columbia (SR Ch. 40, pg. 9). “Dick Tracy’s G-Men” (‘39) and “Dick Tracy Vs. Crime Inc.” (‘41) at Republic finished out Miller’s serial appearances. As a matter of fact, the latter was released after his death March 30, 1940, at only 48.

John Wayne is "on the spot" in Ch. 8 of Mascot's "Shadow of the Eagle" ('32). (L-R) Edmund Burns, Walter Miller, Kenneth Harlan, ?, Wayne, Richard Tucker, Dorothy Gulliver bending over Edward Hearn.

Miller appeared in many B-westerns and action dramas from ‘30-‘40 and had just finished a strenuous fight scene in Gene Autry’s “Gaucho Serenade” when two days later he suffered a massive heart attack. It was an all too early end for Miller, as during his heyday he’d stayed fit working out at Sullivan’s Gym where he was friendly with Joe Bonomo, Cliff Lyons, Richard Talmadge and others. His second wife, Eileen Schofield, a one time headliner vaudville dancer, took Miller’s body to Chicago for burial.

Title card from Buck Jones' "Red Rider" ('34 Universal) with (inset) Walter Miller, William Desmond, Marion Shilling.

Don Terry battles it out with Walter Miller--the evil Shark--in Columbia's excellent "Secret of Treasure Island" ('38).

Cheat Endings

Near the end of Ch. 5 of “King of the Wild”, Tom Santschi has been tied up in a tent by Boris Karloff’s Arabs. At the start of Ch. 6, he’s magically free with no explanation of how he freed himself from his bonds.

A View from the Cliff by Michael Fitzgerald

Victoria Horne

Victoria Horne, Vickie as her friends called her, was also known as Mrs. Jack Oakie, wife (widow) of the famous comedic actor.

Lloyd Bridges and Keye Luke put a blindfold on Japan's top female spy, Nabura (Victoria Horne) in Ch. 9 of Universal's wartime serial "Secret Agent X-9" ('45).

For serial buffs, Vickie has many amusing anecdotes to relate. “In ‘Secret Agent X-9’ (‘45) with Lloyd Bridges, I played a Jap spy (Nabura). Jack (Oakie) would come over to the Universal backlot where they made the serials. Those things were filmed fast. (Laughs) There were 13 chapters! Each day we’d redo the ending of the last chapter, explaining what had happened the week before. One day when Jack was visiting the set, I was to get in a big touring car in one scene. But they started the car with my foot hanging on the running board. (Laughs) Jack screamed, ‘Cut! You’re not giving anyone time to put their foot in the car! You can’t shoot that with her foot hanging out!’ They promptly told Mr. Oakie, ‘We can’t afford to cut—we don’t reshoot anything. It has to stay!’ (Laughs)”

Asked if she enjoyed making chapterplays, Victoria is quick to respond, “Yes! I loved doing serials! Morgan Cox was the producer. He later went to USC and was involved with the Writers’ Guild. He was a brilliant man, and a good friend of ours. In one scene, he wanted me to smoke. I told him, ‘I can’t do it. When I smoke, I don’t feel alert.’ Morgan said, ‘If Vicky’s going to be more alert, the rest of us are going to be in trouble.’ (Laughs)”

Virginia Christine (L) was Carla Marquette, alias the mysterious Matosca, trying to gain control of Texas in "The Scarlet Horseman" ('46 Universal). She and her Comanche renegade leader Loma (Victoria Horne) (R) have stopped to question heroine Janet Shaw.In 1946, Victoria co-starred as Virginia Christine’s faithful Indian companion Loma in “Scarlet Horseman”. “Paul Guilfoyle (the Scarlet Horseman) was an old friend of ours by this time—he worked with Jack quite often at RKO-Radio in the ‘30s. Paul came with me to our house (named Oakridge) in Northridge one night—it was all hills back then—now there are houses and buildings all through the valley. We had just left the ‘Scarlet Horseman’ set and I was wearing my red Indian makeup. Jack saw us and exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, the redskins are coming to Oakridge.’ (Laughs)”

“We’d often go to Chasen’s Restaurant, where there was a Jack Oakie table—up front. I not only didn’t smoke but I also didn’t drink! Jack did drink and I always wanted them to move us to the back of the room—but the manager said, ‘I want you up front, so others can see you’re eating here.’ Once, I didn’t have much on my plate, but Jack did. Louis Calhern came by and noticed, and blurted out, ‘What’s the matter? She can’t eat?’”

Talking about her illustrious life, Victoria Horne (born 1911) makes a profound statement. “Never get old! It is not pleasant. You’ll have aches in places you never knew existed! I am over 90 years old; I’m an old lady!” Alas, Vickie even at 90 looked decades younger. She was quite a lady, whose book, LIFE WITH JACK OAKIE, makes an excellent addition to any reader’s library detailing many anecdotes about her life with the famed comedian.

On October 10, 2003, at 91, Vickie died in a Beverly Hills retirement home.

D'ja know?

Anti-Communist literature circulated in ‘54 took several films to task as being Red-oriented. Included among them was “Daredevils of the Red Circle”!?! (Thanx to Jack Bennett.)

 

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