Ironically while some of the best and most fondly recalled adult science fiction films ever produced were released during the early ‘50s—“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, “The Thing (From Another World)”, “War of the Worlds”, “Them” and“Forbidden Planet” instantly come to mind—both television and motion picture serials of the same period continued to turn out highly juvenile forms of the genre. On the small screen the fare was strictly kid’s stuff with such shows as “Space Patrol”, “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” and “Captain Video” delivering bargain basement thrills to the nation’s first generation of youthful TV addicts. Meanwhile cliffhangers, on their way to the celluloid graveyard, jumped on the bandwagon as far as exploiting the science-fiction form with both Republic and Columbia producing several chapterplays with fantastic themes. None of these attempts was particularly memorable but at least the Republic science-fiction offerings did not completely insult audience intelligence—even the intelligence of 10 year olds—to the degree that the four science-fiction serials executed at Columbia—“Brick Bradford”, “Mysterious Island”, Captain Video” and “The Lost Planet”—managed to so successfully do.
“Brick Bradford”, the first of the Columbia quartet, was based on the long-running comic strip created by the team of writer William Ritt and artist Clarence Gray which ran from ‘33 to ‘57 and was carried by King Features Syndicate. In the comics Brick is a Kentucky-born, two-fisted soldier-of-fortune whose fantastic exploits take him everywhere from subatomic civilizations to other planets, the center of the Earth and even through time thanks to a marvelous invention called the Time Top. Brick’s outfit consisted of riding boots and breeches and a shirt with a circled “B” embossed on the front. Not exactly the most modest guy.
In ‘47 Columbia brought the character—sans the sartorial “B”—to the big screen with the studio’s usual flare for bottom-of-the barrel budgetary considerations, dismal production values, terrible special effects and props and a preposterous and outrageous—even by serial standards—script by George H. Plympton, Arthur Hoerl and Lewis Clay. Old hands Spencer Bennet and Tommy Carr shared directorial chores.
The storyline is actually a kind of multiple scenario with the writers coming up with a trilogy of settings and action for Brick to deal with. The first section is involved with Brick and his friend’s attempts to help protect the Interceptor Ray, an anti-guided missile system perfected by a Dr. Tymak (John Merton) which a crook named Laydron (Charles Quigley) is trying to get his mitts on. Tymak, certainly one of the most brilliant scientists of all time, also has to his credit an invention called a crystal door which allows anyone entering it to be transported to the moon. The inhabitants of the lunar world seem to be attired in odd headgear and wear T-shirts and sneakers. Brick and his pals have numerous adventures and altercations with these confrontational folk then return to Earth only long enough to be transported back in time—thanks to another of Tymak’s creations the Time Top (which looks like a giant inverted metallic ice cream cone), to the 18th century where they encounter both pirates and hostile natives. Returning to the present, Brick manages, with the help of an invisibility formula, to foil the bad guys and save the world.
Kane Richmond with his chiseled good looks, rugged physique, athleticism and competent acting skills was a natural for serials. He played in a wide variety of them going back to Mascot’s “The Adventures of Rex and Rinty” in ‘35. He also portrayed The Shadow in a series of features poorly executed by Monogram. He has the distinction of appearing as the lead in “Spy Smasher”, one of Republic’s greatest cliffhangers ever produced, and “Brick Bradford”, one of the very worst in my opinion. Richmond tries his best but is defeated at almost every turn by the sophomoric dialog and ridiculous situations.
The supporting cast is large and solid but is also up against the severe challenge of the painful material. Rick Vallin, who had a long career playing both second bananas and the occasional heavy, is Brick’s over eager but reliable pal Sandy Sanderson. Linda Leighton—in her only serial appearance and billed as Linda Johnson—is June Saunders, the damsel often in distress with Pierre Watkin as Professor Salisbury. Other familiar faces include Charles Quigley, who appeared on both sides of the law in cliffhangers, as Laydron, the arch villain of the piece with Jack Ingram, Fred Graham, Leonard Penn, Charles King and John Hart as other rapscallions out to do no good. The radiant Carol Forman is on hand as lunar royalty Queen Khana and filling out the cast are Wheeler Oakman, Helene Stanley, Robert Barron and a pre-Lois Lane Noel Neill as a native gal.
To me “Brick Bradford” is a stultifying bad serial. It doesn’t work on any level save as camp and even camp has its limits of endurance. You laugh at first and then begin to just sit in dazed disbelief at such absurd and mindless moviemaking.
It is, however, a testament to the professionalism of those involved in its production, in particular the poor beleaguered performers who were just trying to put food on their tables, that they all approached their assignments with remarkable seriousness and gravitas despite a project that defeated their efforts at every turn. (The opinion of this columnist does not necessarily reflect that of the editor of Serial Report on this website.)
The Sinister Serials of Bela Lugosi
Beginning with “Dracula” in 1931, the name Bela Lugosi startled and induced screen fear into movie-goers for over half a century. Lugosi had good roles in a few major films after “Dracula” (“50 Million Frenchmen”, “Black Camel”, “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “White Zombie”) but by 1933 his star status had started to falter and he began accepting roles in lesser films, including serials, for which, thankfully, he was ably suited.
For his initial serial in 1933 Mascot’s Nat Levine presented Lugosi with the role of Professor Strang, proprietor of the House of Mystery Wax Museum, who is actually a foreign agent who has brought stolen jewels to the U.S. as security for a loan. The jewels are hidden in the Empire Trucking warehouse and for 12 chapters are sought by “The Whispering Shadow”. Shot in 18 days and released in ‘33, Lugosi ws paid $10,000.
Based on a popular radio show, “Chandu the Magician”, Lugosi’s next serial cast him as Frank Chandler aka Chandu in “The Return of Chandu” for Sol Lesser’s Principal in 1934. Previously, Lugosi had played delusional madman Roxor opposite Edmund Lowe as Chandu in ‘32’s “Chandu the Magician” (20th Century Fox). Even though the “good guy” character, Lugosi enshrouded the sorcerer Chandu with the dark persona that embodied all his horror and suspense features. The 12 chapters concerned the Black Magic cult of Ubasti and their plot to kidnap and sacrifice Princess Nadji to the cult’s god as a prelude to their rise to power on the isle of Lemuria. As Chandu Lugosi is friend and protector of Nadji, summoning all his great powers to protect her. Exteriors used the sets from “King Kong” and “Son of Kong”. Because of the serial’s success, Lesser planned a follow-up but other work diverted Lugosi’s attentions. Instead, to milk a good thing, Lesser edited the 12 chapters into two different features, one used the title of the serial, the other became “Chandu on the Magic Isle”.
Before returning to the serial screen two years later, Lugosi starred in “Night of Terror”, “The Black Cat”, “Mysterious Mr. Wong”, “Mark of the Vampire”, “The Raven” and “The Invisible Ray”, among others.
Lugosi was brought on board by low budget king Sam Katzman for his first Victory serial “Shadow of Chinatown” in ‘36. Although starring Herman Brix (aka Bruce Bennett) and Joan Barclay, this cheaply made serial’s main asset is Lugosi as crazed Eurasian scientist Victor Poten who is hired by Luana Walters to force bankruptcy upon a competing importing business in San Francisco. Like Lesser, Katzman doubled his profits by editing a feature version of the serial the same year.
“S.O.S. Coastguard” at Republic was the only work Lugosi found in 1937 as unscrupulous international fiend Boroff who has developed a disintegrating gas which he intends to sell to a foreign power as a weapon for war. Costguardsman Ralph Byrd and newspaperwoman Maxine Doyle fight hard to thwart Boroff’s objective and the criminal is killed by his own lethal gas. A feature version of this serial was also released.
Lugosi was off the screen for all of ‘38 but returned in ‘39 as Ygor in “Son of Frankenstein”, a red herring role in “The Gorilla” with the Ritz Brothers, and good roles in “Ninotchka” and “The Human Monster” as well as Lugosi at his best starring in Universal’s “The Phantom Creeps” as Dr. Alex Zorka, a brilliant scientist who devises a devisualizor belt which renders his invisible, an eight foot tall robot and a chemical that can put a whole army into suspended animation. The accidental death of his wife deranges Zorka as he aspires to become world dictator. Lugosi makes the most of every scene he’s in.
Truly, serials in the ‘30s would not have been as horrific without Bela’s unique presence.
Fair-skinned Edwina Booth is best known for her role in the 1931 film classic “Trader Horn” which starred Harry Carey. Booth, whose real name was Constance Woodruff, was a native of Provo, Utah. She had brief stage experience before landing her first film role in 1928 for “Manhattan Cocktail”. Only one other bit role followed before she was cast by MGM as Nina Trent, the white goddess of “Trader Horn”.
Traveling to Africa for the ambitious adventure she contracted an infection and was basically bedridden for nearly six years. She sued MGM for more than $1 million. The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Regardless, somehow, Mascot prexy Nat Levine was able to sign both Booth and Harry Carey (both of whom were obviously expensive talent due to the success of “Trader Horn”) for two serials, “Last of the Mohicans” (‘32)—possibly Mascot’s best serial—and “Vanishing Legion” (‘31).
In “Last of the Mohicans” Carey, as Hawkeye, along with Hobart Bosworth as The Sagamore and Frank Coghlan Jr. as Uncas, protect Cora Munro (Booth) and Alice Munro (Lucile Browne) from their mortal enemy, the treacherous Indian Chief Magua (Bob Kortman).
Booth has a lesser role as leading lady Caroline Hall in “Vanishing Legion” as Harry Carey helps young Frankie Darro clear his father of a murder charge.
After a role in the low budget “Trapped in Tia Juana” (‘32 Mayfair) she never appeared before cameras again. She died at 86 May 18, 1991, in the Medallion Convalescent Hospital in Long Beach, CA.