John Hart, best remembered for his two TV series, “Hawkeye” (based on James Fenimore Cooper’s LAST OF THE MOHICANS), and as Clayton Moore’s replacement for a season as “The Lone Ranger”, also appeared in a number of serials.
John was born in Los Angeles, CA, December 13, 1917. One of his closest buddies at school was a kid named Bill Beedle, who later became famous as William Holden. “We had a good drama department so we took drama,” John explained. “My mother was a drama critic and was at Pasadena Playhouse a lot. So we went up there and I started doing little theatre all over. Finally, a friend of somebody who was at Myron Selznick’s Agency got me a job on DeMille’s ‘Buccaneer’ about 1937. Everybody liked me so I got a contract at Paramount and was there for a year and a half.” Thus began John’s film career in which he had the lead role in several serials and worked in supporting parts in a number of others.
He starred as The Phantom in Sam Katzman’s Columbia serial, but then it had to be refilmed as “Adventures of Captain Africa”. “Katzman made it without clearing the rights,” John explained. “He got it all made and in the can and didn’t own it, so I changed my wardrobe and did a whole bunch all over again with the stupid looking aviator’s helmet on and it was released as ‘Captain Africa’.”
In another serial, “Jack Armstrong”, a scene called for John to be tied to a tree and have a fellow throw knives at him. They put several screw eyes around John’s head, then attached piano wire to them. The knives also had a small screw eye threaded through them then hooked to the wire, which were then shot at John with a slingshot. The knives slid along the wire and stuck into the tree next to his head. “I was glad when that was over,” he confided.
John told us a funny story about working in a western serial with Terry Frost. “Terry loved to talk. This was a Sam Katzman serial and his son Leonard was the first assistant. They had this real intricate scene set up where the stagecoach had been held up by the outlaws, they’d thrown down the strongbox, and the leading lady is in the coach. So when they shoot open the strongbox, the horses are supposed to be spooked and run off with the coach, lady and all. It took them a long time to set this all up and Frost was the one that was to shoot the gun. Terry had been busy talking away to his co-workers and not paying attention, so when Leonard Katzman asked, ‘Are you ready?’ Terry thought that was his cue and fired the gun. The stagecoach goes and the cameras weren’t running,” John laughed.
John’s other serial credits include “Brick Bradford”, “Tex Granger”, “Batman and Robin”, “Pirates of the High Seas”, “Atom Man vs. Superman”, “Gunfighters of the Northwest”, “Great Adventures of Captain Kidd”, “Son of the Guardsman” and “Perils of the Wilderness’.
In his later years John worked as associate producer on the TV series “Quincy”, where he ran all the editing, mixing, music, and sound effects.
Before his death John attended various film festivals around the country where he met his fans with a genuine appreciation for those who remember his fine work in serials, movies and TV shows.
A few months ago on this website Boyd Magers covered the serial career of our favorite schlock producer, Sam Katzman. A recent trip to the (NYC) Library of Performing Arts in Lincoln Center uncovered a few more items (some of which might actually be true) that may be of interest to serial readers. Apparently Katzman’s reputation was set in stone: CUE MAGAZINE, reviewing “Kissin’ Cousins” in ‘64 mentions him as a producer “who specializes in low-budget, lower-intelligence cinema product.” An obit in VARIETY reminds us in 1929 Sam wrote and produced his first feature film, “His Private Secretary”, for $9,000, which featured 22 year old John Wayne (who was paid $150). TIME magazine (12/1/52) states, “Producer Katzman’s most successful serial is ‘Superman’, which grossed more than $1,000,000 and was so popular in South America that the whole 31 reel cliffhanger—five hours, ten minutes long—was run off as a single feature.”
A condescending-yet-flattering article in COLLIERS titled “The Happiest Man in Hollywood” (12/30/50) reports, “In one of his recent efforts, ‘Atom Man Vs. Superman’, Sam fears he may have gone off the deep end. ‘There’s never been anything like this on film,’ he modestly declares, and he might be righter than he thinks. The Supermanic feats accomplished in this film by Sam’s hero, played by Kirk Alyn, include steadying the Tacoma Bridge; crashing through a wall of rock; allowing bullets to bounce off his chest; catching a lovely lady in mid-air after she has fallen from a high building; hurling a huge boulder into the stratosphere thus creating a synthetic meteor; transmuting ordinary nails into Plutonium; stopping an onrushing train single-handed; using his super sight to decipher impressions on paper; catching a rocket in mid-air and riding it, and battling a spaceship in mid-air, forcing it to collide with an asteroid. Katzman discarded the original working title, ‘The Return of Superman’, as too flat and unimaginative. He felt ‘Atom Man vs. Superman’ was more to the point, although at one time, in an effort to keep pace with tomorrow’s headlines, he toyed with the idea of calling his masterpiece ‘H-Man vs. Superman’.”
Sam’s “an avid reader of the comics—from which he gets many of his ideas.” Sam uses his 13-year old son Jerry, and Jerry’s school chums, to critique a script. “’If the kids outguess the writer,’ he explains, ‘then we change the gimmick.’ For example, there was a sequence in the script of ‘Cody of the Pony Express’ where the hero had been knocked unconscious and left in a flaming tent to die. It was, of course, a must for him to escape the flames. The question, as usual, was how? Jerry figured the hero would probably come to, slowly crawl along the ground and finally cut his way out of the fiery tent. Actually, that’s how the writers had mapped out the escape, but after the boy’s deduction Sam ordered the writers to come up with a new twist. They did. Instead of the hero cutting his way out of the tent they had him stumble onto the opening of a secret underground passage.” [It needn’t be pointed out to readers that this was hardly “a new twist”.]
Another example: “Viewing an episode of a Katzman opus, ‘The Adventures of Sir Galahad’, at a local movie house not long ago, young Jerry returned home in plain disappointment. ‘You’ve got them fighting with their fists,’ he reproached his father. ‘That’s too modern. They didn’t fight like that in the time of King Arthur. What’s more, you can tell the armor they’re wearing is phony. They’re supposed to be wearing that heavy stuff and yet they get on and off their horses as if they didn’t have any armor on at all.’ Sam heard out this critique with some chagrin. ‘The kid’s right,’ he admitted.”
There’s mention of Sam’s sister Ruth, “an attractive blonde of 20, who has been appearing in small roles in Katzman’s pictures since she was a child, under the name of Ruth Kaye. In ‘Atom Man vs. Superman’ she plays a telephone operator.
For years now Sam’s annual income has never fallen below $100,000. In 1937 he made his first serial, ‘Blake of Scotland Yard’. Sam bought the story from Robert F. Hill, a director-writer, at a price under $3,000. In anybody’s book this was a bargain. The purchase price included Hill’s services as a writer and director and, moreover, he helped design the sets, although that wasn’t part of the deal.
Speed, not perfection, is the essence of serial production. What careful preparation there is goes into the readying of a Katzman script—the responsibility of George Plympton, a veteran of the film capital, who since 1920 has been associated with the writing of 85 cliffhangers. The script is written, rewritten and polished before the first scene is filmed. ‘It’s necessary,’ Katzman explains, ‘to know in advance exactly where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.’ Once filming begins, however, the pace is breakneck by feature-length movie standards. Cast and crew move swiftly from one scene to another. The director briefly explains the action, calls ‘camera’ and the action starts and ends quickly. There are no retakes. A scene, in order to be passable, does not have to be 100% right. The Katzman criterion is ‘will it get by with the serial audience?’ That it usually does is proved by the fact virtually no Katzman serial is without profit at the box office. Profits range from $10,000 all the way up to half a million.”
The legend of Sam the Man will no doubt add luster as the years go by.
Born in Minneapolis, MN, of Norwegian descent, Muriel Evans began acting as a child and by 16 was working in silent films in 1926.
She graduated easily to talkies with her first western being “The Roaring West” serial with Buck Jones (‘35 Universal). She made B-westerns in the ‘30s with Jones, Hopalong Cassidy, John Wayne and Tex Ritter. She married a stockbroker in the late ‘30s essentially ending her film career.
Evans, 90, died October 26, 2000, of colon cancer at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, CA.