A retired shipping magnate named Carter Collins (Walter Miller) has become a criminal monomaniac obsessed with finding the lost treasure of the Black Pirate, which is hidden somewhere on a small volcanic island off the Mexican coast. He shanghais unwilling digging crews to help his search, enlists an army of modern-day buccaneers to carry out his orders, safeguards the isle with deadly scientific devices, and imprisons any outsider who dares to set foot on “Treasure Island.” California newspaper reporter Thorndyke (William Royle) becomes one of the imprisoned outsiders, and his disappearance sends fellow-reporter Larry Kent (Don Terry) to Treasure Island to look for his colleague; en route, Kent encounters Toni Morrell (Gwen Gaze), who owns half of a treasure map that reveals the location of the Black Pirate’s treasure and is searching for her long-lost father–who supposedly owns the other half of the map. After rescuing the girl from Collins’ vicious henchman Gridley (Grant Withers) aboard ship, Kent journeys to the island with her, only to find that the second half of the map has come into Collins’ position. The crazed treasure-seeker quickly sets his sights on Toni’s half, forcing Larry to protect the girl in constant clashes with Collins’ henchmen. Our hero and heroine receive aid throughout from two Treasure Island oddballs–Collins’ reluctant scientific accomplice, the Professor (Patrick J. Kelly), and the salty Captain Cuttle (George Rosener).
The Secret of Treasure Island was overseen by Columbia executive Jack Fier (soon to become the studio’s in-house serial producer) but was actually produced by Louis Weiss and his son Adrian, who had already turned out Columbia’s first two chapterplays as well as several independently-produced serials of their own. For Secret, as for most of their other chapterplays, the Weisses utilized a production crew largely made up of veterans of the silent era; as a result, Secret often seems rather archaic–both in its involved plotting and its sometimes static editing–when compared to most of its late-1930s serial contemporaries. Despite its frequent creakiness, however, Secret is a first-rate serial, thanks to its colorful characters, wildly energetic performances, interesting (and frequently bizarre) sets and locations, and excellent action scenes.
George Merrick, George Rosener, and Elmer Clifton–all three of whom launched their movie careers in the 1910s–provide Secret’s screenplay, basing it on a pulp-magazine story written by L. Ron Hubbard (yes, that L. Ron Hubbard). The serial’s narrative is little more than a protracted but entertaining of cat-and-mouse on Treasure Island, with Larry and Toni trying to uncover the island’s secrets and Collins trying to get his hands on Toni’s map; this ongoing duel between hero and villain is greatly enlivened by the wild-card behavior of the double-dealing Gridley, his allies Dr. X and Zanya, a police detective named Jameson, the Professor, Captain Cuttle, the rebellious treasure diggers known as the “Mole Men,” and the apparent ghost of the Black Pirate. When the island escapades start to wear thin at the two-thirds mark, the writers wisely shift the serial’s scene, allowing for some change-of-pace action on shipboard and on the mainland before returning the leading characters to Treasure Island at the end of Chapter Fourteen.
Despite its basic simplicity, Secret‘s storyline contains so many embellishments that it continually threatens to topple into the gulf of confusion that claimed the plots of so many early-talkie Mascot serials; it never actually takes this plunge, however. While there are several minor loose ends and improbabilities scattered throughout the serial, the writers overall maintain respectable continuity from episode to episode, keeping track of the treasure map as it repeatedly changes hands and managing to keep the behavior of the large cast of supporting characters pretty consistent. The weakest part of Secret’s plotting is the mystery surrounding Toni Morrell’s father; the character eventually revealed as the missing parent is obviously selected solely because he’s the “least likely” candidate and therefore the most “surprising,” despite the availability of more logical “suspects.”
Elmer Clifton not only co-writes but directs the serial; while the action scenes are first-rate (more on that below), some of Clifton’s non-action sequences could have used tighter editing. Scenes like the hero and heroine’s investigation of a tunnel in Chapter Four or the heroine’s climb to an abandoned hut in Chapter Eight go on far too long, with spooky music playing on the soundtrack and the camera continually cutting from the threatened protagonists to lurking menaces until something happens to break the “suspenseful” mood. In these scenes, Clifton definitely seems to have been over-relying on antiquated “tension-building” techniques learned during his days in silents; while such sequences might have worked when accompanied by old-fashioned under-cranking and some inserted dialogue cards, they look painfully primitive in a sound picture.
The action scenes, on the other hand, look anything but antiquated; in fact, they rank as some of the best 1930s sequences of their kind. Clifton undoubtedly deserves some of the credit for these scenes, but the lion’s share of the plaudits should go to Yakima Canutt and Dave O’Brien, who stage and perform most of Secret’s stuntwork. The serial’s numerous fights have an impact lacking in many other chapterplay brawls of the period, in which the stuntmen tended to stay on their feet and aim half-hearted blows at their opponents’ shoulders and chests; here, Canutt, O’Brien, and their fellow-stuntmen land effective-looking punches squarely on their opponents’ jaws, continually knock each other to the ground, and flip each other through the air with violent energy.
Above left: Don Terry lands a superb haymaker on Grant Withers. Above right: Dave O’Brien, taking over for Terry, flips Yakima Canutt (doubling Withers) through the air as part of the same fight sequence.
O’Brien doubles for hero Don Terry in most of the fistfights, with Canutt doubling Grant Withers and other heavies and occasionally standing in for Terry himself in the more elaborate stunt scenes. Action highlights include stateroom brawl in Chapter One (pictured above), the beach fight later in the same episode (which spills over into Chapter Two), the fight in the hall in Chapter Five, the brawl on the stairs and the later outdoor fight in Chapter Eight, and the fire-escape/rooftop fight that bridges Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen. Jerry Frank, George DeNormand, and Carl Mathews also contribute heavily to these and many other scenes–as do Terry, Withers, and the serial’s actors, who throw and take punches very convincingly in numerous close-up shots.
The stunt team’s activities aren’t confined to fistfights; sequences like the fall from the suspension bridge in Chapter Five, the leap from the hotel porch’s roof in Chapter Ten, and the ensuing escape from a dynamite wagon on a team of horses (performed, naturally, by Canutt) are all handled with the same flair and skill. The three-car chase in Chapter Ten, with the speeding vehicles perilously zipping past a locomotive, is also outstanding, ranking as one of the best automotive pursuit sequences in any serial. Fencing master Ralph Faulkner does fine work here as well: the hero’s dynamic and well-staged sword duel with the pirate “ghost” in Chapters Three and Four constitutes yet another action highlight.
The above-mentioned duel takes place on the gigantic staircase in the main hall of Collins’ ramshackle mansion–one of the many imposing sets that add to the serial’s visual appeal. The massive “room of doors” (which looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland) is also hard to forget, as is Captain Cuttle’s wrecked-ship house. These sets are furnished with plenty of smaller props that enhance the serial’s slightly bizarre atmosphere, from the Chinese suit of armor to the picture that masks a passage to the talking toad statues that serve as Collins’ intercoms; further atmosphere is provided by the dark, bat-filled tunnels beneath the main house. The serial’s outdoor locations are strong too; a rocky stretch of Santa Barbara’s beach furnishes the isle’s coastline, while Iverson’s Ranch provides the hills surrounding the island’s volcano (the volcano itself is a convincing miniature).
Several of Secret’s chapter-ending sequences are “dramatic” situational ones; some of these scenes work well–like the hero and heroine’s encounter with the ghost at the end of Chapter Two–while others (like the knockout of the hero that concludes Chapter Five) fall rather flat. Among the best of the serial’s more “traditional” cliffhanger sequences are the tunnel explosion at the end of Chapter Four (which features some good process work as the hero and heroine flee falling rubble), the hero’s apparent drowning in a dungeon in Chapter Six, and the heroine’s plank-walking at the end of Chapter Nine. While director Clifton’s tendency to draw scenes out for purposes of “suspense” makes the buildup to some of these cliffhangers seem a little too extended, his approach is still greatly preferable to the abruptness and lack of foreshadowing that plagued so many chapter endings in Columbia’s later serials.
Don Terry and Gwen Gaze head up Secret’s cast; despite being occasionally overshadowed by the colorful supporting characters, they make a strong and very likable pair of leads. Though Terry is suitably rugged in the action scenes, his unfailingly jovial manner and upper-crust New England accent make him seem more like the breezy post-collegiate heroes featured in the chapterplays of the 1920s than the businesslike detectives who dominated the other crime serials of the late 1930s. The Australian-born Gaze reacts with convincing terror to her character’s many perils and delivers some excellent screams–but manages to be very poised and graceful in less threatening situations; her dignified good looks and refined, British-accented voice keep her from seeming like a hysterical bundle of nerves.
Walter Miller has the best heavy role of his serial career as the intelligent but demented Carter Collins. As in most of his other villainous parts, he goes about his evildoing in intensely aggressive fashion, curtly barking orders at everyone and outlining schemes with scowling determination. However, Miller raises his typical intensity several degrees higher here, giving Collins a menacing air of restrained insanity throughout and finally erupting into raving, cackling, and genuinely frightening lunacy in the climactic chapters.
Grant Withers is also extremely intimidating as the hard-bitten Gridley, a glowering, gruff-voiced, and very violent heavy who repeatedly attacks hero and heroine with all the physical menace and implacable rage of a rabid bull; he’s particularly menacing during his vicious attempt to choke the secret of the map out of the heroine in the first chapter and his assault on the injured hero in an ambulance in Chapter Thirteen.
The white-haired, venerable-looking Hobart Bosworth, as Collins’ doctor and Gridley’s partner in double-dealing, provides an interesting contrast to Miller and Withers; his shrewd but extremely dignified schemer seems almost benevolent in comparison to their maniacal characters. The stiff and heavily-accented Sandra Karina, as Bosworth’s nurse and accomplice, delivers the serial’s only weak performance, but fortunately has little to do. Patrick J. Kelly is excellent as the Professor, his absent-minded but rather wistful demeanor and his jerky, bird-like mannerisms making him seem both amusing and slightly deranged.
Secret’s co-writer George Rosener is delightfully boisterous as the cunning, hook-handed old salt Captain Cuttle and comes close to stealing the serial (one wonders if he wrote the role with himself in mind). Cuttle, though ostensibly Collins’ employee, marches to his own eccentric tune throughout the chapterplay–playing with his pet raven, bellowing out bombastic threats, offhandedly deflecting the queries of both heroes and villains with sarcasm (“If I was the ghost of the Black Pirate, I’d have ye all walkin’ the plank”) or peculiar remarks (“I’ll bake ye a chocolate cake smothered in tomato sauce”), and croaking out macabrely funny sea chanties (most of which end with the refrain, “We found him with his throat cut in the moooooooooorning.”)
Joe Caits, as the dull-witted but well-meaning sailor Saltwater Jerry, manages to be quite funny without becoming irritating; Colin Campbell is also good as Collins’ pathetic, harried, but oddly loyal butler Hawkins, the self-proclaimed “Pilot Fish” to Collins’ “Shark.” William Farnum has a key part as Terry’s fatherly editor, and enacts it in his typically grandiloquent manner. The serial’s two leading stuntmen play small but distinctive acting roles: O’Brien is authoritative and very confident as the police detective Jameson, while Canutt is properly embittered as the leader of the shanghaied “Mole Men.”
Warner Richmond, usually a sneering villain, is excellent as the stalwart and sympathetic Captain Tom Faxton in the first chapter. Milburn Morante, Rogers Williams, and Eddie Foster are among Walter Miller’s island henchmen, while Blackie Whiteford and Ted Adams are two of his mainland cohorts. Jerry Frank plays a dissatisfied Mole Man, William Royle appears briefly as the unfortunate reporter Thorndyke, Edward Cassidy is a liner captain, and Joseph Girard a newsman. Harry Harvey and Reed Howes have noticeable parts as thuggish allies of Gridley’s, and Frank Lackteen plays a rare non-villainous role as a helpful Mexican bartender.
The serial’s score is one of Columbia’s more memorable, composed largely of the studio’s library music but skillfully matched to the action by Abe Meyer; the rushing, ominous pieces that accompany action and suspense scenes are quite strong (the action music sounds Beethoven-derived to my admittedly inexpert ear). The quirky “clicking” cues that accompany various characters’ forays through the island’s passages are also very distinctive.
Full of vivid characterizations and equally vivid action scenes, and crammed to bursting with winningly fantastic elements (pirates, a ghost, erupting volcanoes, an old dark house, secret passages, and a lost treasure), Secret of Treasure Island is highly entertaining from its start to its memorable finish; if its director and writers had smoothed out the script’s rough edges and tightened up the pacing, it would probably have been Columbia’s greatest serial. However, even in its somewhat unpolished form, it ranks as one of the studio’s strongest and most enjoyable outings.