“The Spider’s Web”
In the early ‘50s when both TV and I were in our infancy and I would perch in front of our flickering Packard Bell to stare at anything, even test patterns, I used to regularly confuse Monte Hall and Warren Hull with each other. They were both dark-haired pitchmen and quiz show hosts and had what must have sounded to me like similar names. This rather mystifies me some 50 years later, particularly when I try to conjure up the idea of Hall, later gaining the most fame as the likable and slightly chunky host of TV’s “Let’s Make a Deal”, playing Mandrake the Magician, the Green Hornet or the Spider, all roles Hull portrayed at the beginning of his film career, but like I said, I was just a kid spending lots of time doing and thinking strange things (I once confused champagne and shampoo and drank a cup of the latter, much to my mother’s acute distress and my brother’s unbridled merriment).
Warren Hull started out in musical comedy, much of it on the stage, later graduating to Hollywood where he made a string of thrillers, dramas and formula B’s. In addition, he had a successful career on radio, in particular hosting “Strike it Rich” which was later taken to TV where he found work hosting other game shows.
In ‘38 he appeared in Columbia’s “The Spider’s Web”, his first cliffhanger. The character of the Spider, created in ‘33 by Popular Publications, was designed to provide competition to Street and Smith’s immensely popular Shadow which debuted several years earlier. While the Shadow would be first to appear in magazines, it was the Spider who was initially seen up on the big screen.
As originally created by R. T. M. Scott and later embellished by Norvel Page (writing as Grant Stockbridge), the Spider is a multifaceted character, a totally obsessed (as opposed to just dedicated) crime fighter constantly at odds with himself over the conflicts in his private life created by his dual identity. Moreover, the Spider of the magazines appeared as a misshapen figure who had assumed the guise of a hunchbacked street corner musician. To add a grotesque note to his look he even included a set of large vampire fangs!
Although the character’s complex psychological profile was all but excised and other ingredients either toned down or altered by the studio (the Spider’s re-styled duds—a webbed cape and mask—for instance), Columbia remained surprisingly loyal to the original concept of the character, certainly more so than when other figures such as the Shadow, Captain America and the Lone Ranger were brought to the screen. Hull is highly acceptable in the lead, solid and dependable as criminologist Richard Wentworth, properly tough and no-nonsense as the mysterious Spider and convincing (not to mention virtually unrecognizable) as the low-life criminal Blinky McQuade, Wentworth’s other alter ego. I find it odd, however, that while Hull disguised his voice as Blinky, he does nothing to alter it when, as the Spider, he makes phone calls to his pal Commissioner Kirk who miraculously never spots the similarity.
Aiding Wentworth are plucky and resilient Iris Meredith as his fiancée Nita Van Horne (this is one of the few instances in cliffhangers where the male/female leads have an actual on-going relationship and their relaxed banter and genuine concern for each other is a nice change from the usual sterile hero-heroine rapport found in serials), Kenne Duncan, pretty unrecognizable himself as the turban-coifed Ram Sing (who comes out with priceless exclamations such as “The Dogs! The Fiends!”) and Richard Fiske as Jackson, a Jack of All Trades for Wentworth.
Again—because I know I have mentioned this in earlier columns—the fact this is a Columbia serial, the studio that was home for so long to The Three Stooges, sometimes interferes with my taking the action seriously. Fiske, for instance, was the much put upon slob in one of my favorite Stooges’ shorts “Boobs In Arms”, and as a consequence whenever I look at him, no matter how serious the predicament facing the actor, I hear him wailing through tears of frustration brought on by Moe, Larry and Curley, “Everything happens to me!”
Also in the cast are familiar faces Bryon Foulger, a young Marc Lawrence, who later chalked up impressive credits in numerous A-productions, Edmund Cobb, Dick Curtis and Forbes Murray. Unbilled is a youthful looking Nestor Paiva who eventually became a familiar character actor in many films and TV shows.
The formula plot has the Spider pitted against the masked (and apparently crippled) Octopus, criminal mastermind intent upon sabotaging the nation’s transportation, utilities and communication systems (for some reason the Octopus always meets with his henchmen in a kind of executive board room where the entire group also shows up with Klan-like hoods). Moreover, the Octopus, like so many Columbia mad geniuses, is a cranky, unforgiving sort who has absolutely no patience with his underlings, several of whom learn this the hard way when not completing his missions. As for the requisite action, this is, to use an old and mostly forgotten term, a real corker. If the Lone Ranger needed a silver deposit for his supply of bullets, the Spider surely required a dozen lead mines for his. While fistfights are kept at a minimum, the amount of gunfire is simply staggering with literally dozens of flunkies and henchmen biting the dust in nearly every episode.
The Spider, much like Tom Tyler’s Captain Marvel, has no qualms about making short work of his adversaries whether facing them head-on or while they’re in retreat. He’s fond of explaining his actions with lines like “The law is handicapped by too many rules and regulations” and often uses his opponents as human shields when bullets are coming his way. At one point he even attempts to plug a woman—who, admittedly, had just tried to attack him—in the back.
Still, despite the breakneck action, screenwriters George Plympton, Robert E. Kent, Basil Dickey and Martie Ramson can be faulted for the similarity of chapter endings. Too many episodes, as an example, conclude with the Spider being endangered by some variation of electricity. Even more annoying is Columbia’s voiceover previews of the next installment, which removes much of the fun and anticipation inherent in the cliffhanger experience. It’s not that you question if the hero is going to live, but it’s how he survives. Most of the enjoyment of this serial boils down to its frenetic pacing, blazing gunfire and unpunctuated action. Dialog scenes as created by directors Ray Taylor and James Horne can be a bit leaden and drag things down but never enough to seriously mar the fun of what just might be Columbia’s best serial.
Emigrating to the U.S. from Russia in 1919, Gregory Gay’s thick accent made him a natural to appear in serials, and features, as a villain. Born Gregory Grigoriovitc Gay October 10, 1900, in Hariarsk, Russia, he apparently arrived here with at least part of his family as a teenager, although his sister Tya Andy Lady (born circa 1903) did not come to the U.S. until October 1936. Gay attended college for two years before entering films in ‘28.
His versatility and talent for accents landed him dozens of roles in major films such as “Dodsworth”, “Charlie Chan at the Opera”, “British Agent’, “Three Musketeers’, “Ninotchka” and “Casablanca”—some 46 pictures—before entering the Army in September ‘42, eventually becoming a warrant officer.
Prior to WWII he appeared in his first serial, “The Secret Code” (‘42 Columbia), as Nazi agent Felden. His film credits pick up again in late ‘44 in such titles as “The Purple Heart” and “I Love a Mystery”.
Gay continued to work steadily, eventually making the serial for which he is best remembered, Republic’s “Flying Disc Man from Mars” (‘50). Garbed in dark tights and a hood, Gay, as Martian invader Mota, explained to his Earth contact (James Craven) that Earth is starting to experiment with atomic weaponry so Mars has elected to help Earth’s progress with the new technology by conquering the planet and bringing it under the benevolent control of Mars. How thoughtful! In “Flying Disc Man” Gay portrays a pompous Mars-is-better-than Earth attitude, employing yet another of his accents vague enough to not be attributable to any specific nationality.
In ‘53 Republic promoted Gay to the Ruler of Mars in their 12 episode theatrical/TV serial/series, “Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe”. Again, Gay employed the same pomposity of “Disc Man”. Republic’s final serial, “King of the Carnival” (‘55), found Gay in a submerged submarine as expert printer Zorn working as counterfeiter for one of those anonymous foreign powers. Gay bestowed on Zorn an interesting mix of European superiority and whining cowardice constantly lording it over his two henchmen until his plans go awry, then starts complaining how it isn’t fair that he’s confined to the submarine.
About this time, more of his roles tended to be in B-pictures and on TV although a few lesser (often uncredited) roles in A-films turned up. Fittingly, his final role in a 50 year career was in ‘79’s “Meteor” as the Russian Premier.
The ‘Flying Disc Man’ died August 23, 1993, in Studio City, CA. (Thanx in part to research by Evy Patrick.)
Born Bertie May Linda Johnson in Oklahoma City, Linda first went to New York as a Powers model. Shortly after, living in Ft. Worth, TX, she entered the “Gateway to Hollywood” contest and came west but lost out to Gale Storm. Nevertheless, she entered the movies in 1940.
Linda became Linda Leighton when she married Joe Leighton of CBS’ publishing department in 1941. In her first westerns she changed it to Melinda Leighton but later changed back to Linda Johnson and even later to Linda Leighton.
She made westerns with Gene Autry, Don Barry, Robert Livingston, Johnny Mack Brown and Allan “Rocky” Lane. Linda co-starred in Columbia’s “Brick Bradford” (‘47) serial with Kane Richmond and later worked on TV in “Cisco Kid”, “Lone Ranger”, “Cimarron City”, “Tales of Wells Fargo”, “Alfred Hitchcock”, “Switch” and “Perry Mason” among others.
Linda died at 88 on December 26, 2005, of congestive heart failure at her Monarch Beach, CA, home.