Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1940. Starring Victor Jory, James Craven, Iris Meredith, Kit Guard, Robert Fiske, Fred Kelsey, Forrest Taylor, Dorothy Fay, Jack Ingram, and ? as The Green Archer.
The Green Archer takes the names of several locations and characters and a few plot elements from Edgar Wallace’s classic mystery thriller of the same name, but is otherwise an original story. Outwardly respectable jewel thief Abel Bellamy (James Craven) frames his brother Michael (Kenne Duncan) for an unspecified crime and takes control of their family estate–a transplanted-to-America medieval fortress called Garr Castle. Abel uses the castle as headquarters for his gang of jewel thieves, but soon runs into trouble when Spike Holland (Victor Jory), ace insurance detective, starts investigating his robberies. Abel is also forced to imprison his brother’s wife Elaine (Dorothy Fay) in the dungeons of Garr when she discovers his plans, leading Elaine’s sister Valerie Howett (Iris Meredith) and her father (Forrest Taylor) to join forces with Holland. Spike and the Howetts do their best to get the goods on Abel, rescue Elaine, and clear Michael’s name–while Bellamy does his best to kill the lot of them. However, the villain’s schemes are repeatedly hampered by his utterly incompetent henchmen and by his own outrageous temper, not to mention the activities of the mysterious Green Archer.
The Green Archer is a weakly-plotted, overlong, and repetitious serial–but is made not only watchable but very enjoyable by its director and co-screenwriter, James W. Horne. However, although Horne injects plenty of wild humor into the serial, he’s unable to transform it into an out-and-out comedy, thanks to the remnants of seriousness (particularly some violent deaths of non-villainous characters) in the screenplay. As a result, Archer doesn’t work as a parody or a straight serial, and is left stuck in the limbo occupied by most of Horne’s other cliffhanger outings; entertaining as it is, it’s also a highly disjointed piece of film-making.
Unlike Terry and the Pirates, Perils of the Royal Mounted, and other Horne serials that would have worked well as non-humorous chapterplays, Green Archer would have been mediocre at best if not for Horne’s contributions. Writers Morgan Cox, Jesse Duffy, and John Cutting severely undercut the mystery and novelty of the Green Archer character by having a phony Green Archer work hand in glove with the bad guys throughout the entire serial (most other serial masked heroes encounter similarly villainous doppelgängers during their adventures, but these doubles rarely last more than a chapter). Additionally, the villains’ schemes are ill-defined; Abel Bellamy is supposed to be a master jewel thief, yet his gang only attempt three robberies (one of a scientific formula, not gems) in the course of the serial. The rest of poor Bellamy’s time is spent in repetitive, fruitless attempts to frame, kill, or kidnap the good guys. I’m sure Horne, whose contributions to the screenplay probably came during actual production, realized the circular aspects of the plot, since he milks the villains’ repeated failures to destroy the heroes to great comic effect, with Abel growing more hysterical after each plan ends in catastrophe. Horne also turns the double Green Archer problem to comedic advantage, creating a hilarious running gag in which dull-witted henchman Dinky mistakes the bad Green Archer for the good one, and vice versa.
Above: The good Green Archer is about to surprise the bad one.
It’s pointless to criticize the action scenes in Horne’s serials, since most are deliberately made to look as silly as possible; the fights generally consist of one hero taking on six villains in a wild, arm-swinging brawl and either hammering his opponents of getting thoroughly hammered himself. That said, there are actually some pretty good one-on-one fights scattered throughout the serial, particularly a tussle between villains Robert Fiske and Kit Guard, and a scrap between James Craven and the mysterious Green Archer in the final chapter. The cliffhangers in Archer are relatively respectable (such as hero Victor Jory being trapped under a descending ceiling of spikes or in a chamber filling with water); there are few of the cartoonishly impossible “live-through-it” resolutions seen in other Horne outings (especially The Shadow).
Above: James Craven drops Victor Jory through a trapdoor (left) then sends killer dogs down after him (right) in another good cliffhanger sequence.
The relative sanity of the chapter endings is more than balanced by the insanity of the serial’s dialogue and performances. To begin with, Knox Manning’s end-of-chapter narration contains some of the most tongue-in-cheek lines he ever delivered during his long tenure in Columbia serials. A few examples: “Jiminy Crickets! What are these crooks up to now?” “Elaine and her guard are gone! The Green Archer should have made a definite appointment!” “Between assignments, the crooks keep in shape by playing tiddlywinks!” This type of narration sounds uncannily like the voiceovers used in the 1960s Batman TV show. Horne also takes the bantering, complaining, and ranting of the various villains to levels unequaled in most of his other serials, even Captain Midnight. The Bellamy gang repeatedly argue, insult each other, grumble, try to double-cross each other (or their boss), as James Craven shouts reprimands at them all the while; the serial really centers around Craven’s Bellamy and his clownish followers far more than it does around its ostensible protagonists.
This is not to say that those protagonists aren’t appealing; Victor Jory plays a rare (for him) heroic role with energy and conviction, obviously putting his all into the part. He maintains dignity throughout the serial, and it’s a pity he wasn’t given a chance to star in a non-comedic cliffhanger. Iris Meredith also plays her part entirely straight, brightening each of her scenes with her graceful beauty and quiet charm. Both Jory and Meredith are much more likable and much less abrasive than the typical Horne hero and heroine, but their realistic performances cause them to be frequently overshadowed by the wildly over-the-top supporting cast.
Above: Iris Meredith and Victor Jory.
James Craven as Abel Bellamy is easily the most over-the-top member of said cast, ranting and raving at his henchmen (“You fools! You idiots!”) and going into a pop-eyed frenzy whenever things go wrong. At one point, he even presses his hand over his face to stifle his rage in best Edgar Kennedy style. Robert Fiske’s character was clearly intended in the original screenplay to be a nervous “weasel” henchman and a contrast to the smooth head villain, but compared to Craven he’s cool and collected, if somewhat glum and worry-prone. When Fiske in Chapter Fourteen finally decides to squeal on Craven, however, he really cuts loose with some outrageous whining and hand-wringing.
Kit Guard, a Danish-born actor who enjoyed a long run as a comedian in silent one-reelers and who was stuck in colorless bit roles after his comedy series ended in the late 1920s, is given a chance to trot out his comic talent for the first and only time in the sound era. His character, Dinky, practically steals the serial, with his clumsy enthusiasm, his attempts to lord it over lower-ranking henchmen, his devotion to his blundering leader, his continual attacks on hapless Jack Ingram when he mistakes the latter for the “good” Green Archer, and his amusing malaprops (speaking of the gang’s foreign-born jeweler, he complains, “The sucker carried his passport on him so everyone’d know he was an atheist!” To which an exasperated James Craven responds, “Alien, Dinky! Alien!”). As much as all this comedy disrupts the serial, one has to applaud Horne for giving an unjustly forgotten comic like Guard one more chance to win laughs.
Above: The seated Kit Guard reacts to James Craven’s correction of one of his malaprops, while Robert Fiske (far right) seems to be wincing in embarrassment.
Jack Ingram–after Craven, Fiske, and Guard–forms the fourth major member of the villainous comedy team that carries much of the serial’s humor; his constant grumbling as the put-upon, trouble-prone Green Archer impersonator Brad plays hilariously off of Craven’s tyrannical irritability, Fiske’s pessimism, and Guard’s dimwitted enthusiasm. The blustering Fred Kelsey is also hilarious as the gruff Police Captain Thomson, scowling and growling suspiciously at everyone, repeatedly shooting his cuffs in efforts to maintain dignity, and reacting with growing frustration every time a police call interrupts his carefully planned dinner.
Above: Forrest Taylor (center) and Herbert Evans (far right) watch as Fred Kelsey rants and raves.
Herbert Evans provides yet more comic relief as the upright, ineffectual, very-proper Howett butler, Henderson. Dorothy Fay doesn’t get to do much but sob or scream as the imprisoned Elaine Bellamy, while Forrest Taylor as her father isn’t allowed the scope for hamming it up that he was given in other Horne serials like Deadwood Dick and The Iron Claw. Horne henchman regulars like Charles King, Constantine Romanoff, Al Ferguson, Charles Hamilton, Bud Osborne, and Eddie Featherston are on hand as Bellamy gang members, as goofy and clumsy as in their other Horne outings. Anthony Warde plays his brief first-chapter part (as a thug, naturally) entirely straight; Harry Tenbrook takes the same approach to his larger henchman role (perhaps not coincidentally, his character is killed off before the serial’s end). The dignified but slightly doddering Joseph Girard is the sententious police inspector Ross, and Tom London and Edmund Cobb make brief appearances (as a police detective and a gang pilot, respectively). Mary McLaren is Craven’s nasty housekeeper, and Kenne Duncan has a small but pivotal role as Michael Bellamy.
Green Archer, like almost all of Horne’s serials, can be easily faulted for its lack of tonal coherence and the pointlessness of its plot–but can just as easily be enjoyed for its offbeat comedy elements. Whatever else one may say about The Green Archer, it has the antics of James Craven, Kit Guard, Robert Fiske, Jack Ingram, Fred Kelsey, and company to keep audiences smiling through fifteen chapters of happenings that would otherwise be fairly uninteresting.
Above: James Craven and Kit Guard, flanked by a portrait of the Green Archer.
All I can say is that if I want I comedy, I would go to the many comics of the era. at best ** out of *****
I’m enjoying it. Saw episode four last night.
I just watched on You Tube and was surprise that I actually enjoyed this serial. Not a great serial but better than I had been lead to believe.
Charles King shows up….I think he is in every Serial made….Wonder why he doesn’t get any credit in the Listings …also noticed the wild fights Victor Jory is beating up 4,5 & 6 Guys until he gets hit on the head…Worthwhile viewing …
Fifteen seemingly endless chapters, and to what end? The revelation of the Green Archer’s identity, which we all knew from the very beginning! Other than some individually interesting performances by Victor Jory, James Craven and a few others in the supporting cast, it’s pretty much a waste of time, a serial that can’t decide what it wants to be, comedy or thriller, and one that succeeds at neither.
I almost forgot to mention Charles Hamilton. If you ever have the time to do another henchman biography, he’d be a worthy choice. His career lasted from the late 1920’s to the middle of the 1960’s, and even though the roles were mostly uncredited, he was always someone I looked forward to seeing.