I am known for extolling the virtues of original, imaginative cliffhanger endings. Subsequently, it was quite a shock to my sensibilities to view the Republic serial “Government Agents Vs. Phantom Legion”, a 12 chapter ‘51 release. As I watched each succeeding episode’s climax, I found myself mentally identifying the name of the serial from which this footage was being reused. Don’t get me wrong, these same scenes were quite exciting the first time I saw them, so it was fun seeing some of the better ones over again. I even understood why I was viewing this repeat footage. It was a simple matter of economics. With each passing year the entertainment upstart called television was making increasingly rapid inroads on the revenue acquired by the rental of motion pictures to theatres.
One of the biggest clues to Republic’s efforts to save money was to be found in each episode’s opening credits. This was the identity of the script writer. Since the year of ’50, starting with “Invisible Monster”, all subsequent new serial releases had been written by a single individual: Ronald Davidson. During the golden age of Republic serials, ‘37 through ‘45, cliffhangers like “Masked Marvel” (‘43) and “Captain America” (‘44) had as many as seven writers assigned to scripts. This may well explain why Davidson’s supply of fresh ideas had begun to diminish! He was probably relieved when the producer suggested he work in as many cliffhangers as possible from previous serials. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising several of the stock footage endings were taken from serials on which Davidson was one of the contributing writers, specifically “Mysterious Dr. Satan”, “Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc.”, “Spy Smasher” and “Captain America”.
To add to my annoyance, the traditionally long-plot-developing first chapter now had a standard screening time of 20 minutes. This studio policy began with Ch. 1 of “Phantom Rider” (‘46). However, the practice of the 13 minute 20 second interior episode running time began three serials earlier with “Manhunt of Mystery Island”. In this cliffhanger Ch. 2-8 each ran a total of 14 minutes and either 26 or 27 seconds. Then, all of a sudden in Ch. 9 (“The Fatal Flood”), the length is reduced to the 13:20 length. It remained that way for the next decade until Republic’s last serial release in ‘55. As a point of information, almost all of the first 21 Republic serial releases had a screen time of approximately half an hour for their chapter ones. Commencing with “Jungle Girl” (‘41), the running time dipped below 30 minutes never to return.
Now let’s examine “Government Agents Vs. Phantom Legion” for stock footage comparisons.
Ch. 1, “River of Fire”: The Hero, actor Walter Reed, is pursuing the bad guys in an underground tunnel on a handcar. The heavies are trying to outdistance him on their own handcar and dump punctured gasoline tins on the tracks behind them, igniting the flammable liquid and causing a wall of flames to engulf Reed’s handcar and detonate the cases of hand grenades on it. (Stock footage from “Spy Smasher” [‘42] Ch. 1 “America Beware”.)
Ch. 2, “The Stolen Corpse”: Reed, speeding in pursuit of a morgue wagon with a stolen body, swerves to avoid a stretcher thrown in the path of his car and plunges into a rapidly flowing river. (Footage from “Black Widow” [‘47] Ch. 10 entitled [surprise] “The Stolen Corpse”.)
Ch. 3, “The Death Drop”: In an effort to warn the engineer of a rapidly moving train of a plot to dynamite the tracks, Reed overtakes it in a plane. Unable to make the engineer understand the impending peril, Reed parachutes out further down the line hoping to stop the train while on the ground. But a wind change carries him directly into the path of the iron juggernaut. (Footage from “Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc. [‘41] Ch. 8 “Train of Doom”.)
Chapters 4 and 5 will be discussed later in this article.
Ch. 6, “Mechanical Homicide”: This serial’s lead villain is a man of mystery known only as The Voice. When one of the members of a small group of businessmen Reed is working for defies him, The Voice decides to make an example. He has his men load explosives on a remote controlled truck. Reed tries to intervene but is knocked unconscious and placed in the cab of the deadly vehicle. As the truck speeds toward the home of the potential victim, Reed awakens as it nears the house. Unable to turn the wheel, he desperately smashes the electronic receiver. He swerves the truck from hitting the house but crashes into the garage amid a terrific explosion. (Footage from “Captain America” [‘44] Ch. 4 “Preview of Murder”).
Ch. 7, “”Flaming Highway”: The Voice’s men murder a witness who could have identified their mysterious leader. Escaping in a fuel truck with Reed in close pursuit, Reed’s car begins to gain on them they open the flush valve on the tanker sending gasoline pouring out onto the highway in front of Reed’s car. The gasoline trail is ignited with Reed’s automobile engulfed in flames, which then explodes. (Footage taken from “Mysterious Dr. Satan” [‘40] Ch. 4 “The Human Bomb”).
Ch. 8, “Sea Saboteurs”: While attempting to thwart The Voice’s latest scheme, Reed is captured and taken aboard a launch by TheVoice’s men. Trying to escape, he is knocked out. The Coast Guard Patrol boat challenges the fleeing vessel to stop. When it does not, the pursuing ship opens fire. The Voice’s men leap overboard leaving the unconscious Reed behind. The large Coast Guard cutter rams into the smaller boat demolishing it. (Footage taken from “Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc.” [‘41] Ch. 7 “Sea Racketeers”).
Ch. 9, “Peril Underground”: Reed is captured by Regan and Cady, two of The Voice’s men. However, he is able to turn the tables on his captors and they flee to an old mine with Reed following. Knowing they are being pursued by Reed, they set a trap in the mine tunnel. They overturn a dump car under an ore chute which will slow Reed down as he attempts to get past it. As Reed reaches the barrier, Regan pulls the trip-cord releasing a thunderous avalanche of rocks. (Footage taken from “King Of the Forest Rangers” [‘46] Ch. 4 “Deluge of Destruction”.)
Chapters 4 and 5 substituted a variation of previous cliffhangers rather than actual stock footage. In Ch. 4, “Doorway to Doom”, Reed sets a trap for Cady and Regan at the association office where Reed works. Regan and Cady are rifling the safe as Reed approaches with his shadow appearing on the frosted glass office door. Guns drawn, the Voice’s henchmen blast away, shattering the glass pane. In Ch. 5, “Deadline For Disaster”, the heroine (played by Mary Ellen Kay) is captured and taken to a barn. Reed follows and in a hand to hand fight with Regan and Cady is pushed in the cliffhanger ending against a protruding pickax blade. This idea was taken from “Adventures of Frank and Jesse James” (‘48) Ch. 10, “The Stolen Body”. The cliffhangers for episodes 10 and 11 were familiar and unimpressive. Ch. 10 ends with Reed’s car being forced off a mountain road. With so many such serial climaxes of this type I couldn’t tell from what serial stock footage was implemented.
Ch. 11’s closing moments have Reed being pushed out of a building’s 5th floor open window. This appeared to be new footage. Although much of the action I had seen before, it was a joy once again to watch the special effects of the Lydecker brothers.
Square-jawed Lane Bradford learned his dirty deeds from one of the best serial and B-western badmen—his father, John Merton. Born Myrtland LaVarre Jr. August 29, 1922, in New York City, his father was Myrtland V. LaVarre who changed his screen name to John Merton (1901-1959). As John was a stage actor, the family came west in 1932. Lane started to do extra and stuntman work circa 1939. He worked extensively in B-westerns at PRC, Columbia and Republic with his career picking up considerably in the mid ‘40s, at which time he can be spotted in “Son of the Guardsman” (‘46) for Sam Katzman at Columbia.
“My brother, Lane (Bradford), had a lot of good qualities and I believe he was a far better, harder working and more thoughtful actor than my father (John Merton) was,” Bob LaVarre told Tom and Jim Goldrup for their FEATURE PLAYERS Vol. 1. When Lane first came on the set of a new show, those who didn’t know him were often “scared to death of him because he had that countenance, he had that mug on him, his broken nose and hawk-jaw, but he was just a teddy bear and loved everyone and wouldn’t hurt anyone or anything.”
LaVarre, Lane’s younger brother and a sometime actor (“Sky King”, “Hawaii 5-0”) who became a cameraman on films (“Against A Crooked Sky”) and TV (“Dukes of Hazzard” etc.), told the Goldrups Lane was “all over everywhere” during his younger days in California and soon found a love for Hawaii and Hawaiian music, learning to play the guitar and ukulele for his own amusement. Lane brought a love of Hawaii to the whole family.
Beginning in 1948, Lane became one of Republic’s regular stable of western heavies as well as making one serial a year at the studio for the next six years (except ‘53) starting with “Adventures of Frank and Jesse James” (‘48). Lane was at his best in “James Brothers of Missouri” (‘49), “Invisible Monster” (‘50), “Don Daredevil Rides Again” (‘51), “Zombies of the Stratosphere” (‘52) and “Man With the Steel Whip” (‘54).
Veteran heavy, Pierce Lyden, recalls Lane as “One of the best. A great fight man, a cowboy. I think he’d do anything—if the price was right. We were on a ‘Rin Tin Tin’ at Traintown in Hollywood and were supposed to catch onto the train, climb on top, run along to the mail car and hold it up. I was ‘rigging’ some hand holds to climb down between the cars when Lane comes back and says, ‘Forget it, they won’t pay us!’ and he was mad. I said, ‘But I thought it was settled.’ Lane says, ‘But now they only want to pay us half of what we asked.’ We didn’t do it, but it took a half hour to change the shooting to us running through the cars instead of on top and a lot more money. But such is the thinking of Hollywood at times. In his last years, he accomplished what he always wanted to do—have a boat and be on the water. I heard he finally had a charter service out of Malibu and lived on his boat.”
Bradford first built an 18 ft. outrigger canoe and sailed it from his home in Malibu. Next he bought a 26 ft. ocean going Folk Boat and later a P-28 which he took to his beloved Hawaii where he lived his last few years until he suffered a massive heart attack June 2, 1973, while on his boat at Ala Wai Yacht Harbor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Four days later, June 6, while a patient at Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Honolulu, Lane Bradford died. Cause of death was a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
“King of the Royal Mounted” (‘40)
Serials cautiously wormed their way into World War II. Even after the European conflict was going hot and heavy the producers of cliffhangers were reticent about being too specific as to the identity of the bad guys, namely the Nazis and Japanese. This reflected in many ways an industry standard. Even majors like MGM and Warner Bros., fearing a loss of revenue from European markets, waited until it was impossible to keep a safe distance from the political events across the seas before labeling the enemy. Pearl Harbor, of course, made this a moot point, but by the time of the sneak attack on December 7, 1941, most films reflecting world events had already come to terms with directly identifying the villain’s country of origin.
“King of the Royal Mounted”, produced in ‘40 and directed by William Witney and John English, was probably one of the last serials to not specifically tag the villains. The nefarious agents out to utilize a newly discovered element known as Compound X—a key ingredient of which can only be found in Canada—for the purpose of blowing up Allied ships are never referenced other than the henchmen occasionally saluting something called “the cause.” Nonetheless, it’s pretty obvious who these guys are.
All the action of this cliffhanger takes place in Canada although in reality it was filmed at California’s Big Bear Lake area. The hero of the story is Sergeant Dave King, a Mountie with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Although the creation of the character of King is credited to western writer Zane Grey (the actual title of the film that appears above the credits is “Zane Grey’s King of the Royal Mounted”), King was in truth the brainchild of Stephen Slessinger who in 1936 built a long-running comic strip around the intrepid Canadian.
If it’s breakneck action in a serial you’re hankering for, “King of the Royal Mounted” really delivers the goods. At the beginning of Chapter 2, for instance, after Sergeant King has nearly been roasted alive in a forest fire set by one of the main bad guys, he hardly has time to rise to his feet before taking a near fatal fall off a cliff into a lake where he immediately encounters another villain intent on brawling with him. Witney and English were masters at the lively pacing of their cliffhangers and even though this was one of their early directorial efforts they were really beginning to hit their stride and solidly develop the directorial finesse that would characterize their best work. In addition, effects experts Howard and Theodore Lydecker also helped to create a number of terrific exploding and burning models which figure in many of the exciting cliffhangers.
Unfortunately, the making of this particular serial was not such a great experience for the Witney/English team due to their selection of a leading man for the Sergeant King role. Allan Lane, who would get the nod, is remembered today for several things: for being the star of a series of B-western films where he was usually known as “Rocky” Lane, for at the end of his career being the voice of TV’s “Mr. Ed” and for being one of the most difficult and arrogant people in Hollywood with which to deal. In his autobiography Witney’s displeasure and intense dislike of Lane is anything but veiled and it must have been a real chore for the serial team to work with the actor. This aside, Lane, contrary to the team’s assertion the actor had only one facial expression, is good in the part, handsome and rugged looking and when not doubled by Dave Sharpe, handles the action demands of the role very well. He’s somewhat wooden but in truth the majority of leading men in serials, given the emotional and psychological limits of characters in cliffhangers, tend to be fairly drab. It seems to go with the territory of having your life put at risk every 15 or 20 minutes. Little time left over to reflect on life’s more complex considerations when a keg of dynamite is just around the next corner.
Co-starring are Lita Conway, pert and tomboyish as Linda; Robert Strange, appropriately menacing and furtive as the head foreign agent; Robert Kellard—who had just finished playing the hero in Republic’s “Drums of Fu Manchu” serial—as the self-sacrificing fellow Mountie Tom Merritt; Herbert Rawlinson appearing as King’s father, and Harry Cording showing up for head henchman duties. Fleshing out the cast are familiar faces Stanley Andrews, John Davidson, Bryant Washburn and Norman Willis. Also look for both a juvenile Richard Simmons as a young Mountie in Chapter Two—the actor would go on to play a more famous Canadian lawman, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, in the ‘50s television series—and future “B” leading man Richard Travis, uncredited in his first movie part, also as one of Canada’s finest.
“King of the Royal Mounted” is an excellent serial in all departments and should be ranked extremely high on the list of top cliffhangers.
Lane returned to play Sgt. King one more time in the similarly titled “King of the Mounties” in ‘42.