Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1940. Starring William Tracy, Granville Owen, Dick Curtis, Joyce Bryant, J. Paul Jones, Sheila Darcy, Victor DeCamp, Jack Ingram, Allen Jung, Forrest Taylor.
Terry and the Pirates, based on Milt Caniff’s great comic strip, begins as young Terry Lee (William Tracy), his friend Pat Ryan (Granville Owen), and their servant “Connie” (Allen Jung) arrive in the remote Asian town of Wingpoo, gateway to a wild and unexplored jungle. They have come to join Professor Lee (J. Paul Jones), Terry’s father and Pat’s colleague, who is currently on an archeological expedition in the interior, in search of the relics of a lost civilization. Unfortunately, local warlord Fang (Dick Curtis) is determined to use the Professor’s knowledge to discover the fabled lost treasure of Mara, and Pat and Terry soon find themselves involved in a running battle with Fang’s followers as they try to rescue Terry’s father. They’re aided by local planter Drake (Forrest Taylor), his daughter Normandie (Joyce Bryant), and street magician “Big Stoop” (Victor DeCamp). The Dragon Lady (Sheila Darcy), a native ruler, is initially hostile to Pat and Terry but joins their side after Fang ousts her from power as part of his continuing pursuit of the treasure of Mara. After multiple alarms and excursions, our heroes eventually triumph over Fang and his renegades, breaking their power over the Wingpoo region.
Terry and the Pirates is perhaps the most infamous of all the Columbia chapterplays directed by James W. Horne. In this reviewer’s opinion, the serial is no better or worse than Captain Midnight and The Green Archer, which ex-comedy-director Horne also turned into hybrids of cliffhanger and farce. However, Terry does waste more potential than either of the aforementioned serials; based on one of the all-time best newspaper adventure comics and apparently made on a higher-than-usual budget, it could have been a classic. The serial’s exotic atmosphere is much stronger than that of many other jungle serials, and there are some excellent action scenes and memorable cliffhanger sequences scattered throughout the serial–but all these elements are continually undercut by slapstick shenanigans and outrageous overacting. In the end, Terry emerges as an interesting but frustrating oddity; some of its failure can be credited to miscasting of key roles, but most of the blame has to go to Horne, whose comedic insertions– hilarious as they are–throw everything off-balance. Usually I begin a review by noting flaws and move on to the better elements, but Terry’s irregularities so outweigh its better parts that I’ll deal with the latter first. The serial’s sets are varied and handsome, ranging from the tropical town of Wingpoo to the Dragon Lady’s tunnel-filled temple. As in The Phantom and many other cliffhangers, however, sets, wildlife, and costume pose some question as to the serial’s geographical location. The Dragon Lady’s crown looks Burmese or Siamese, while her temple is decidedly Central American in appearance and her temple guards dress like medieval Saracens. The robes worn by Fang’s men suggest North Africa, some of the natives are apparently Chinese while others seem to be Hindu, and the local fauna includes African creatures like hippos and gorillas. However, no experienced serial fan will quibble at this sort of oddity.
Although many of the serial’s action scenes are fouled by the slapstick antics of William Tracy (more on that below), there are some genuinely exciting fights and chases in the serial, particularly the attack of Fang’s henchmen on the Drake plantation and the protagonists’ subsequent attempt to escape by riverboat, and a fistfight between the heroes and Fang’s men at the Dragon Lady’s hideaway. The cliffhanger scenes are above-average, including one in which Pat and Terry are trapped in a flooding cell, another in which a hut containing Terry and Normandie is blown off a cliff in a windstorm, and a third in which Terry falls into an alligator pit (Pat’s subsequent fight with one of the gators is incidentally one of the best human-vs-reptile battles in any serial).
The cast of Terry and the Pirates is actually quite strong, including top-billed William Tracy. However, Tracy, though a fine comic actor in features, is terribly miscast as “Terry Lee, a wide-awake American boy” (to borrow a phrase from the comic strip’s inaugural panel). Too old and goofy-looking for the part to begin with (the comics’ Terry was around 12 when his adventures began), Tracy augments his visual unsuitability with a remarkably caricatured performance. Possibly director Horne realized that Tracy was wrong for the part to begin with, and decided to amplify the silliness of the casting rather than downplay it. Tracy spends most of the serial talking in a squeaky, exaggeratedly youthful voice–breaking into a Stan-Laurel-like scream when alarmed and a Woody-Woodpecker-like laugh when amused. He also manages to kick some hapless villain in the shins in most of the serial’s fight scenes, and eye-pokes one heavy in purest Moe Howard style. Considering that Tracy is supposed to be the juvenile hero of the piece, his performance is inappropriate to say the least, but it’s so outrageously comic that it’s hard not to enjoy it at times, jarring as it is.
Granville Owen, who later changed his name to Jeff York and turned in some memorable performances as colorful frontier rascals in Disney films like Old Yeller and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, is almost unrecognizable as the clean-cut Pat Ryan; though he looks eminently heroic, he is mostly reduced to playing straight man to Tracy’s comical Terry. Owen’s occasionally allowed to aggressively bark out lines in the typical style of Horne’s leading men, but in light of the director’s penchant for overstated acting and the actor’s own larger-than-life performances in his Disney films, Owen’s characterization is unexpectedly subdued. Heroine Joyce Bryant is so poised, attractive and adorably spunky that one wishes she had appeared in a non-Horne serial; in Terry she spends most of her screen time in the background, except when she’s facing danger and uttering eardrum-piercing screams (another trademark element of a Horne serial). Like Owen, she largely plays her role straight; the two would have made an excellent hero-heroine team in a more traditional serial.
Dick Curtis’ mesmerizingly weird performance as Fang has to be seen to be believed; he delivers his lines in a high-pitched sing-song with a slight Chinese inflection, and affects a sleek, almost effete manner totally different from his usual swaggering toughness. Curtis’ Mongol-like features serve him well in the part, and he avoids the excessive ranting that characterizes many other Horne heavies, but his accent, vocal pitch, and mannerisms are so peculiar that the characterization, arresting as it is, is more funny than threatening. Jack Ingram, so often a harried, nervous henchman in Horne’s serials, is surprisingly allowed to play straight in his role of Fang’s chief henchman Stanton; his characterization is cagey, gruff, and tough. However, the other henchmen more than compensate for Ingram’s seriousness, particularly Horne’s serial regulars Constantine Romanoff (whose cartoonish facial expressions are priceless) and Charles King. Chuck Hamilton and Kit Guard, two more Horne favorites, also play bumbling henchmen, while Eddie Featherston hams it up quite a bit as a weaselly trading-post proprietor. William Irving, a silent comedy veteran, is hilarious as the slovenly, drunken provincial governor, a nervous puppet of Fang’s. Harry Harvey has a surprisingly brief bit as one of Fang’s henchmen, and Louis Vincenot is Gori, the grinning keeper of a trained gorilla that Fang utilizes against the good guys. I’ve been unable to ascertain the actor under the ape costume, but the player in question has a grand time as the destructive and unpredictable simian, who attacks everyone in sight, including Fang himself, and can just barely be controlled by Gori.
J. Paul Jones is likable as the courageous Professor Lee, although his furious defiances of Fang are decidedly “over-the-top.” Curiously, his character puts up a better fight than Pat or Terry in most of the action scenes; this reversal is probably one of Horne’s characteristic subversions of serial conventions. Forrest Taylor plays Joyce Bryant’s upright father, and while his part offers little scope for hamming compared to his role in Horne’s Iron Claw, he plays his character’s perpetual indignation at the corrupt local authorities for all it’s worth. Jack Perrin has a small but noticeable part as a dignified local trader who aids Taylor and the other good guys, and is so low-key that he seems to belong in another serial. Sheila Darcy, who was very subdued as the heroine in Zorro’s Fighting Legion, overacts to an embarrassing degree as the Dragon Lady, delivering her lines either in stentorian tones or a “hushed” voice of alarm that’s nearly as overblown. John Ince, as her High Priest, is even hammier, booming out his lines in a rolling baritone better suited to a touring Shakespearian actor than a superstitious jungle denizen. Darcy and Ince’s characters are both prime examples of one of the serial genre’s sillier cliches, that of the native chieftains who repeatedly try to murder the heroes only to become loyal allies once some minor misunderstanding is cleared up. The two performers play the friendly and hostile aspects of their characters with such frenzied energy that the Dragon Lady and the High Priest achieve a level of unbelievable schizophrenia remarkable even in serial natives. Allen Jung makes a very bland Connie (his oddball moniker is not explained in the serial, but in the comics it was short for George Webster Confucius). Though Connie was a peppy source of humor in the strip, Jung plays him in an almost soporific fashion. Victor DeCamp, as Big Stoop (a mute in the strip, but capable of conversation here) is somewhat more memorable, bringing some deadpan humor to his character. Both Jung and DeCamp, however, spend most of their screen time on the sidelines, watching the ostensibly serious performers deprive them of their function by engaging in comedic antics–and providing an unintentional commentary on Horne’s topsy-turvy serial universe.
Ultimately, that topsy-turvy universe, replete as it is with amusing aspects, is a frustrating place for a serial fan to visit. Writers Mark Layton, George Morgan, and Joseph Levening are credited with the screenplay of Terry and the Pirates, but the prevailing sensibility is that of its director, who can best be regarded as the talented misfit of the cliffhanger genre.