Based on an adventure strip created in 1928 by Lyman Young, Tim Tyler’s Luck pits Tim Tyler (Frankie Thomas), a boy searching for his scientist father in the wilds of Africa, against “Spider” Webb, a jungle outlaw leader determined to force the secret of the ivory-rich Elephant’s Burial Ground from the elder Tyler. Webb is backed by his vicious gang of cutthroats, while Tim is aided by the fearless, Mountie-like “Ivory Patrol” and by Lora Graham (Frances Robinson), who hopes to clear her imprisoned brother by bringing Webb to justice–a goal that will only be achieved after Tim, Lora, and their friends have faced hostile natives, hungry big cats, killer gorillas, and crocodiles, as well as Webb’s own followers.
Well-written, well-acted, and expertly paced, Tim Tyler’s Luck ranks right alongside the Flash Gordon trilogy as one of Universal’s greatest chapterplays. Its storyline is simple enough, but it is fleshed out beautifully by writers Wyndham Gittens, Norman S. Hall, and Ray Trampe, who introduce new plot developments at strategic points and keep the story moving from one colorful locale to the next. Among these locales are the jungle riverside, the Ivory Patrol’s fort, Spider Webb’s quicksand-surrounded swamp hideout, the caves and hillsides of Gorilla Canyon, and the steam-filled volcanic crater that conceals the Elephants’ Burial Ground. Such a variety of locations not only ensures a lack of repetition in the storyline, but also makes Tyler the most vivid and atmospheric “jungle” serial produced by any studio.
The writing team not only keeps its leading characters on the move, but also develops them much more than usual in a serial; the relationship between Tim and his father, Lora’s intense devotion to clearing her brother, and the reformation of the outlaw Lazarre (Earle Douglas) all lend additional emotional depth to the proceedings. Spider Webb and his men are also more dimensional than most serial bad guys; while thoroughly rotten, they interact in a realistic and individualized fashion quite unlike the slightly robotic manner of most serial heavies.
Tim Tyler’s Luck, thanks to its good pacing and interesting characterizations, manages to be completely entertaining despite a near-total lack of that supposedly essential serial element, the fistfight. There are only one or two bouts of fisticuffs in the entire serial–but action scenes are far from neglected; some of the highlights include several running battles between the mounted Ivory Patrol and the villains’ tank-like “Jungle Cruiser,” Spider Webb’s daring elephant-assisted escape from the Ivory Patrol’s fort, and an unforgettable large-scale attack on a safari by rock-throwing gorillas. Another standout is the lion attack on Tim and Lora in Chapter Three–particularly effective since the big cat (played by trainer Melvin Koontz’s smart and docile Jackie, also seen in Jungle Jim) is visible in the same frame as the actors, following hot on their heels as they clear the crest of a hill. Other animal sequences are carried off with more use of stock footage, but here, even animal bits entirely composed of stock–like the advent of a geographically misplace giant anteater–are not mere padding, but serve some purpose in the narrative (unlike similar scenes in Universal’s earlier Call of the Savage).
Both the gorilla and the lion attacks serve as chapter-ending sequences; most of the serial’s other cliffhangers are similarly colorful–among them Tim’s fall from a riverboat deck into a crocodile-infested river at the end of Chapter Eight, Tim and Lazarre’s race to escape a barrage of hand grenades as they struggle through the quicksands around Spider’s hideout at the end of Chapter Five , and Tim’s apparent strangulation at the hands of a remarkably creepy-looking gorilla at the end of Chapter Seven.
Frankie Thomas as Tim Tyler is easily the most likable and natural “kid” protagonist in any serial; easy-going with an undercurrent of toughness, he handles both heroics and occasional pathos with complete sincerity. His character comes off as likably naive at times, but is never mopey or insipid, unlike many other juvenile leads; few other actors could have made the many unlikely friendships Tim forms (with Lazarre, the black panther Fang, and later on the elephant Bolo) seem so believable and genuine.
The beautiful Frances Robinson also handles her part with above-average skill, managing to register grim determination throughout the serial while remaining attractive and appealingly feminine, particularly in her older-sister-like interactions with Tim. Her cultured British accent (her character is supposed to be South African) is exceptionally convincing, as is the hard-boiled pose she puts on when temporarily pretending to be an ally of Spider’s.
Norman Willis’ Spider Webb is one of serialdom’s most menacing villains–courageous, intelligent, tough as nails, and completely ruthless, even willing to let a henchman drown in quicksand rather than endanger some stolen rifles. Willis, whose raspy voice is perfect for the role, plays his part with a sarcastic sneer and a confidently arrogant manner, making Webb fully as memorable as more flamboyant heavies like Ming the Merciless or the Lightning.
Willis is so memorably nasty that he even manages to somewhat overshadow the hard-bitten Anthony Warde as his chief henchman; however, although Warde is out-sneered by Willis, he delivers an energetic performance as well, scowlingly ordering around lesser henchmen and clashing with Spider on several occasions. He also gets a rare opportunity to play an outwardly-likable character, when his Garry Drake poses as an honest riverboat passenger in the first chapter.
Earle Douglas does a good job with the unusually complex role of Lazarre, who begins as one of Spider’s henchmen but switches over to the good guys’ side when Tim saves his life; together, he and Thomas make the scene in which a grateful Lazarre pledges his support to Tim very moving. Douglas also brings a nice touch of humor to the serial without every becoming buffoonish, extracting several laughs from Lazarre’s fractured English, dramatic Latin gestures, and good-natured braggadocio.
Al Shean–one-half of the famous vaudeville team of Gallagher and Shean, and the uncle and mentor of the Marx Brothers–is very lovable as Tim’s cheerful and slightly absent-minded scientist father, reminding me a lot of character actor Cecil Kellaway. Jack Mulhall is his usual good-natured, exuberant, and energetic self in as the Ivory Patrol’s Sergeant Gates, taking part in a fair amount of action with all the fast-talking enthusiasm he showed in his Mascot serials earlier in the 1930s. Billy Benedict has surprisingly little to do as Ivory Patrol Corporal Spud, which is rather odd, considering that his character was Tim’s primary sidekick in the comic strip version of Tyler. J. Pat O’Brien is another Patrolman, as is Tom Steele (who also handles some of the stuntwork). Stanley Blystone, of all people, is the Patrol’s captain, while Lane Chandler has a brief bit as a Patrolman murdered by Webb’s gang; Ethan Laidlaw has a somewhat larger role as a Patrolman with a “past” who is blackmailed by the redoubtable Spider.
Alan Gregg plays Norman Willis’ calm and intelligent-seeming secondary lieutenant, while Charles Sullivan, Ernie Adams, Charles Murphy, Eddie Parker, Chuck Morrison, and big Everett Brown fill out the ranks of the Webb gang. Frank Mayo brings an air of competence and capability to his turn as Conway, the ivory trader who agrees to head the heroine’s safari, while dignified Kenneth Harlan plays another ivory trader. Al Bridge has a gruff but non-villainous role for a change as Captain Trowbridge in the first chapter; Universal serial stalwart William Desmond also pops up in the opening episode, as a dock official.
The serial’s animal cast members are an appealing and colorful bunch as well–the aforementioned panther Fang (played by Dynamite, another of Melvin Koontz’s trained cats), Bolo the elephant, and the mischievous but helpful chimp Ju-Ju (portrayed by “Skippy.”) The unnamed great apes of Gorilla Canyon enliven things as well, but of course are played by men in suits, not actual simians. Another non-human player (inanimate this time) lends an added spark to the proceedings–the armored Jungle Cruiser, a nifty vehicle with a compact interior, sleek outer shell, and distinctive accompanying sound effect.
Throw in a rich score (which borrows heavily but effectively from Frank Waxman’s music for Bride of Frankenstein), and good direction by Wyndham Gittens and Ford Beebe, and you have a near-perfect serial, a wonderful adventure that not only captivated its original 1930s audience, but found a firm place in the memories of another generation of children when it played on television in the 1950s and 1960s; it has continued to win devotees in the videotape and DVD age, and–hopefully–will continue to hold a firm place in serial buffs’ esteem, as long as appreciation for the genre survives.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to my sister Mary, whose researches into the history of animals in Hollywood tipped me off to the fact that Melvin Koontz, the lion Jackie, and the panther Dynamite worked on this serial.