“The Mysterious Dr. Satan”
Whenever someone mentions the fact that serial helmsman extraordinaire William Witney apparently considered the 1940 Republic serial “The Mysterious Dr. Satan” to be a “stinker” and one of his lesser directorial efforts, I remind myself George Orwell wrote “1984” in a hurry, solely for the purpose of making a quick buck and apparently also didn’t think much of the finished product. Undoubtedly, lots of folks would take a dim view of my comparing a classic novel with a low budget serial, but in this case I am not referring to the end result as much as the creator’s intimate relation to it. Whatever Witney’s reasons for taking such a dim and critical view of “Satan”, there are a lot of serial aficionados, myself included, who view “Mysterious Dr. Satan” as one of Republic’s finest chapterplays. As a matter of fact, it still remains my favorite serial of all time; a preference I’ll readily concede has much to do with my initial adolescent introduction to it, an introduction marinated in intense juvenile romanticism. Yet a recent viewing has only further cemented my deep affection and admiration for its many sterling qualities.
As is now common knowledge, “The Mysterious Dr. Satan” was initially intended to feature Superman, then a neophyte to the big screen. Thus far the Man of Steel’s only film appearance had been as an animated character in a series of stellar Max Fleischer cartoons produced by Paramount. Republic, noting the growing popularity of the character, wanted in fast. Somehow, negotiations broke down—money problems apparently being the key factor—and the deal soured. There are lots of stories regarding this history. One often cited is that the original character of Dr. Satan, later emerging as a pin-striped, continental criminal mastermind, was originally conceived with actual costumed devil horns and was to be played by Henry Brandon who did such a good job as Fu Manchu for the studio. This was not to be however, and while suggestions of the Superman saga can certainly be spotted (a girl reporter named Lois, as an example), writers Franklyn Adreon, Ronald Davidson, Norman Hill, Joseph Poland and Sol Shor set out to create a new storyline and set of characters. What they came up with was a new version of Dr. Satan, sans Superman, a malevolent sophisticate with old-world charm and a desire to take over the globe with an army of robots.
For 15 action-packed chapters two things stand in Dr. Satan’s way, perfecting a long-distance device capable of controlling his metallic army (of one), and a masked hero called The Copperhead. One wonders if originally the serial’s creators thought of making The Copperhead some sort of super hero like Krypton’s favorite son, but in the end opted against it (why, as an example, does he decide to scale the outside of a downtown high-rise rather than using the elevator or even stairs—had the original script utilized a flying hero at this point?) No, The Copperhead is all flesh and blood, a tough character, but human all the way.
He is, in fact, Bob Wayne, a young man who learns in the first chapter from his soon to be murdered guardian, the governor of the state, that his real father was a controversial figure from the old west, a misunderstood night rider known as The Copperhead who righted wrongs wearing a distinct mask to conceal his identity. No sooner has he digested this rather startling news than Dr. Satan’s minions kill the governor. Bob, wishing to both redeem his real father’s reputation and revenge the murder, sets out to find and punish the crazed scientist, adopting the identity of The Copperhead when necessary. Interestingly enough, the censors originally had a bit of a problem with revenge being the only motivating factor in Bob’s pursuit of Satan which is why in the revised script he is deputized by the authorities to take part in the official government manhunt.
Casting has for a long time now been the big bugaboo when fans of serials have debated the merits of this cliffhanger. For many years the critics, who otherwise heaped heavy praise on much of it, were nearly unanimous in disliking Robert Wilcox as Bob Wayne. They invariably used the words “dull” and “bland” to describe him although bestowing great praise on the athletic achievements of his alter ego The Copperhead (stuntman Dave Sharpe was never more impressive than in this serial with his astounding leaps, a favorite being when he hurls himself through a window into a subterranean basement, only his curly hair, as opposed to Wilcox’s straight locks, giving him away at times). However, things have shifted in the last couple of years with Wilcox’s less theatrical, more realistically grim and sober style becoming more popular with fans. Moreover, the first scene where he learns of the identity of his biological father is, thanks to the actor’s sincere line delivery and earnest reaction, genuinely moving, something rare in a serial.
Equally impressive, if not more so, is Eduardo Ciannelli in the title role. Like Bob Wayne, Dr. Satan practices a subdued and contained style of communication and expression. With his continental accent—some of his lines delivered almost in the hissing style of a serpent—and charming manners he is the epitome of the cultured but deadly villain.
Others in the cast include Ella Neal as Lois (a dead ringer for Lois Lane in her early comic book incarnations); the always solid C. Montague Shaw as scientist Scott; William Newell as Speed Martin, Bob’s photographer buddy; Charles Trowbridge as the slain governor; plus the likable Jack Mulhall and Dorothy Herbert, the latter a champion horsewoman of the period (who as Lois’ pal Alice, does some remarkable things astride her steed in the early chapters, then practically and inexplicably disappears from the action). Ciannelli’s men include top henchman Walter McGrail as Stoner, who gleefully follows his boss’s orders, Bud Geary, Ken Terrell and Al Taylor. Rumor has it stuntman Tom Steele was the robot.
A key ingredient that makes “The Mysterious Dr. Satan” so effective and memorable cannot, however, be found in a masked hero, a killer robot or even a wonderfully mad scientist, but rather in the overall mood and evocative style and design of the serial. Regardless of what directors William Witney and John English might have come away thinking of this cliffhanger, it remains one of the most atmospherically charged of chapterplays. In music (Mort Glickman producing one of his most memorable serial scores), lighting, camera work and low-key performances it delivers an atmosphere wonderfully charged with the threat of danger and intrigue. I can think of no other serial quite so nourish in style and execution. Yet for all of this it is also a rambunctious, kinetic and spry adventure filled with great moments of athleticism, terrific cliffhangers and derring do. For me it is everything I love about serials rolled into one glorious 15 chapter ensemble: a terrific villain, a mysterious hero, damsels to save, non-stop action, great stunts, cliffhangers and an outrageous plot. Oh yeah, a classic if a bit feeble robot too. What more could a serial fan ask for except perhaps a good popcorn fix?
The older of the two acting Eldredge brothers, George Eldredge’s 26 years in Hollywood and his over 150 films and nearly as many TV shows were not limited to serials and westerns but, like his brother John, embodied a perfect sort of general purposeness, usually urbane and presumably well-educated. Too indefinite to be termed a stereotype, George could be poured into several different kinds of stereotypes—urbane dress heavy, judge, business executive, attorney, police official or town doctor.
Born in San Francisco, CA, September 10, 1898, it is assumed he first worked in New York repertory theatre, as did younger brother John. Even though older, for whatever reason
He was noticeable as the ultimately treacherous Allen Kendall in Republic’s action-packed serial “Hawk of the Wilderness” in ‘38. The next few years saw him in nine more serials—“Gangbusters (‘42 Universal), “Adventures of Smilin’ Jack” (‘43 Universal), “Raiders of Ghost City” (‘44 Universal) as the gang’s saloon manager, “Jungle Queen” (‘45 Universal) as a Nazi, “Secret Agent X-9” (‘45 Universal), and one of his best as gold raider Grail in “The Royal Mounted Rides Again” (‘45 Universal). Eldredge had the boss heavy role of the Baron in “Roar of the Iron Horse” (‘51 Columbia), mysterious scientist Dr. Tobor in “Captain Video” (‘51 Columbia) and finally a bit in “Man With the Steel Whip” (‘54 Republic).
A tall, handsome man with a calm demeanor, George was talented enough to never confine himself to just serials and westerns but was seen in character roles in a variety
Eldredge retired in ‘63 after a bit in “Johnny Cool” and died on March 12, 1977, in Los Angeles after suffering a stroke.
Helen Bennett was a beauty queen, a model and a character actress. Born in Springfield, MO, August 14, 1911, in 1937 she was Miss Missouri in the Miss America contest. After some time at the University of Missouri and the Goodman acting school in Chicago, she set her sights on New York where she found work as a model and in Broadway shows like “Dream Girl” (‘45).
Coming to Hollywood, she was briefly under contract to Universal where she appeared in “Lost City of the Jungle” (‘46) as Indra, “Royal Mounted Rides Again” (‘45) as Madame Mysterioso and “Scarlet Horseman” (‘46) as Mrs. Halliday.
She continued to work sporadically in films—as well as on radio—until the early ‘60s.
Bennett died at 89 February 25, 2001, in Santa Monica, CA.