Haunted Harbor opens in the tropical port of Amoa (in either the Pacific or the Indian Ocean), where schooner captain Jim Marsden (Kane Richmond) is facing bankruptcy. His schooner the Dolphin–and the cargo of gold she was shipping–has been lost at sea, while his other schooner, the Waihora, has been attached by his principal creditor, Frederick Voorhees (Edward Keane). Marsden goes to see Voorhees about an extension of his loan, but arrives at the financier’s office just after Voorhees has been fatally wounded by Carter (Roy Barcroft)–Voorhees’ partner in a crooked enterprise on the island of Pulamati. Marsden is arrested for Voorhees’ murder and sentenced to hang, but escapes from jail with the aid of his trusty mates Yank and Tommy (Clancy Cooper and Marshall Reed) and of his trader friend Galbraith (Oscar O’Shea). Marsden then sets sail to take up the management of Galbraith’s trading post on Pulamati, hoping not only to solve the mystery of the island’s “haunted harbor”–which has been hampering Galbraith’s copra trade–but also seeking to capture the real murderer of Voorhees, who managed to gasp “Carter–Haunted Harbor” to Marsden just before expiring. En route to Pulamati, Marsden rescues itinerant island physician Dr. Harding (Forrest Taylor) and his daughter Patricia (Kay Aldridge) from a shipwreck. Upon arrival at the haunted island, Jim, with the help of his crewmen and Patricia, starts trying to solve the mystery of the harbor and of Voorhees’ death. His investigations are hampered, however, by the henchmen of the seemingly friendly mine owner Kane–who is actually Carter, and who is using the terrors of “Haunted Harbor” to cover his removal of the gold from the supposedly sunk but actually scuttled Dolphin.
Based (loosely) on a novel by British author Dayle Douglas, Haunted Harbor is a very entertaining serial, albeit one that shares the weaknesses of other Republic outings from the World War 2 era. Like The Tiger Woman, it fails to create much atmosphere despite its exotic setting (the only nod to the tropics are the palm trees around Marsden’s Pulamati bungalow), and like almost every Republic from this period, it relies too heavily on set-smashing fights in its action sequences (the trading post in Harbor is destroyed so often by brawling heroes and heavies that one starts to wonder why anyone bothers to patch it up between fights).
However, Harbor’s basic plot is more involving than those of most of its contemporaries; Marsden’s struggle to clear himself is definitely more compelling than the battle over inheritances and oil lands in Tiger Woman or the businesslike spy-smashing in The Masked Marvel or Secret Service in Darkest Africa. That said, writers Royal Cole, Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy, Grant Nelson, and Joseph Poland do let our hero’s fugitive-from-justice status recede into the background after the first chapter (which does an excellent job of setting up Marsden’s plight), only briefly allowing him to become a real man on the run again when he returns to Amoa for supplies. Having Marsden dodge the police repeatedly could easily have become tiresome, but the serial could have used a few more narrow escapes from the law in Amoa to balance out Marsden’s repeated tangles with the crooks on Pulamati.
The writers also run into difficulties in their attempts to keep our hero from getting (literally) to the bottom of Haunted Harbor too early. For the first two-thirds of the serial, the writers manage to beliveably stretch their plot out with logical detours (the murder of Dr. Harding and its repercussions, the villains’ successful sabotage against Marsden’s diving equipment which in turn necessitates a trip to Amoa, and the unmasking of the treacherous Dranga), but the narrative wheel-spinning becomes obvious by Chapter Ten or so, when the writers are forced to introduce a subplot concerning the natives and follow it with yet another subplot revolving around an attempted gold theft in order to save the final exploration of Haunted Harbor for the last three chapters. Unlike the plot padding in most of Columbia’s serials, these sequences are interesting in themselves and furnish opportunities for good action scenes, but their superfluity is still noticeable; Haunted Harbor is one Republic outing that could have been improved by being reduced to a twelve-chapter cliffhanger.
The other big flaw in Haunted Harbor’s ointment is the sea monster who haunts the harbor, a full-size mechanical beast that would look very impressive at a theme park or a miniature golf course; one could picture it scaring the natives, but it’s far too obviously robotic to believably fool people from the outside world. Kane Richmond and Kay Aldridge’s face-to-face encounter with it on a lagoon in broad daylight comes off as unintentionally humorous, despite the conviction both performers put into their startled reactions. The scene might have worked had it been filmed in darkness or in fog, but I suspect such effects were beyond Republic’s budget, particularly after constructing such a monstrous prop. The action (fortunately) doesn’t rely too heavily on the monster, which only makes two appearances overall, but the fact that Jim Marsden doesn’t immediately realize that the thing is fake definitely strains the suspension of disbelief.
Even with all the above-mentioned flaws, Haunted Harbor is one of the most appealing of Republic’s wartime chapterplays, definitely my own favorite from that group. The (aforementioned) unusually involving plotline is a big part of its appeal; another strong point in its favor is its extensive outdoor location shooting–most of it at Lake Sherwood and Iverson’s Ranch. While the locations used look nothing like a tropical island, they give the chapterplay some very nice visuals and save it from becoming merely a series of indoor fistfights in stores, cabins, and caves.
Those fistfights, though definitely overused, are very exciting, and are brilliantly staged by Wallace Grissell and by that master of furniture destruction Spencer Bennet, making creative use of props (if indoors) or landscape (if outdoors). Dale Van Sickel doubles star Kane Richmond in all of these slugfests, while Tom Steele and Duke Green stand in for action heavies Bud Geary and Kenne Duncan. Each fight is an impressive set-piece, but among the most impressive are the battle between Van Sickel, Steele, and Green in the cabin in Chapter Four, the fight at the tobacco peddler’s cave in Chapter Seven (with Van Sickel and Ken Terrell taking on Carey Loftin and Bud Wolfe), the trading-post fight between Van Sickel and Green (this time doubling Clancy Cooper and George J. Lewis, respectively) in Chapter Eight, and the final fight between Van Sickel, Eddie Parker (doubling Roy Barcroft), and Fred Graham in Chapter Fifteen.
Above left: Duke Green and Dale Van Sickel in the Chapter Four cabin fight. Above right: Ken Terrell and Carey Loftin mix it up in the foreground, while Bud Wolfe and Dale Van Sickel topple a shelf in the background during the Chapter Seven cave fight.
The serial includes some memorable pieces of non-fistfight action as well, among them Van Sickel’s spectacular leap through an opaque window to knock out Graham in Chapter Six, the cross-country car chase in Chapter Four, the lengthy horseback chase in Chapter Nine, and the brief shootout in Chapter Fourteen that has a rifle-toting Geary trying to prevent Richmond and Cooper’s rowboat landing; the latter sequence makes particularly good use of the shores of Lake Sherwood.
The cliffhangers are vivid and varied, and feature plenty of good miniature work from Howard and Theodore Lydecker. Chapter One’s ending is one of the best, a convincingly wet and windy storm-at-sea sequence that has Kane Richmond attempting to rescue Forrest Taylor and Kay Aldridge from their wrecked sloop, as a cliff crumbles down on the crippled vessel. Chapter Eight’s plane-cabin collision features a great Lydecker explosion, as does the flaming truck cliffhanger at the end of Chapter Twelve and the destruction of the villains’ laboratory at the end of Chapter Fourteen. Other cliffhanger sequences are just as memorable if less spectacular, particularly the cleverly-resolved Chapter Three ending (with Richmond atop a ladder pushed from the side of a cliff) and the tense Chapter Nine ending (with Aldridge about to be impaled by a rigged spear-gun).
Top left: The cliff comes crashing down on the sloop at the end of Chapter One. Top right: Kane Richmond on the “ladder of death” at the end of Chapter Three. Bottom left: Kay Aldridge faces the spear-gun in Chapter Nine. Bottom right: The lab explodes in Chapter Fourteen.
The other principal attraction of Haunted Harbor is its cast, which contains some of the best and most likable serial performers of the 1940s. Kane Richmond, as always, makes an excellent hero; unlike grimly serious wartime leads such as Rod Cameron or Allan Lane, Richmond balances standard heroic determination with cheerfulness and easygoing affability. Despite his comic-book-hero looks, he makes Marsden actually seem like an ordinary (albeit unusually heroic) sea captain inadvertently caught up in adventure, not a professional crime-fighter with no interests outside of slugging villains.
Kay Aldridge is at her most stunningly beautiful in Haunted Harbor, and handles her part with much more assurance than in her debut serial Perils of Nyoka. She reacts with emphatic and convincingly wide-eyed alarm to various perils while still coming off as winningly plucky, and delivers her dialogue with equal conviction–particularly in the scene where she begs Richmond to allow her to stay on the island and help track down Carter after her father’s death.
Clancy Cooper and Marshall Reed, as Richmond’s sidekicks, are given high billing but comparatively little to do. Cooper, who has the larger role of the two, is eminently convincing as a good-natured but tough sailor; his punch-first, think-later attitude in dealing with the villains provides some low-key humor. Reed is less colorful but equally tough-looking; the unexpected death of his character late in the proceedings provides an opportunity for drama that is sadly squandered; the other characters’ reaction to his passing was left on the cutting-room floor by Harbor’s editors (as related in Jack Mathis’s history of Republic serials, The Valley of the Cliffhangers).
Roy Barcroft does a terrific job as the brains heavy, making his presence felt even though his character spends most of his time in his office. He’s jovial enough to believably deceive the heroes, suitably slick and sly in plotting scenes, and also gives an air of genuinely menacing brutality to his character’s occasional acts of physical villainy.
Kenne Duncan and Bud Geary make an ideal pair of action heavies. Duncan’s character comes off as crafty and aggressively vicious, but rather furtive and jumpy, while Geary’s is thicker-witted, but much more self-confident and swaggeringly tough. George J. Lewis, though killed halfway through, is also very good as the scheming and treacherous trading-post clerk Dranga, who poses as the heroes’ ally while secretly relaying information to the villains; he does a fine job of simultaneously conveying feigned friendliness and frustration at the heroes’ dangerous guesses.
Hal Taliaferro appears sporadically as Roy Barcroft’s cafe-owning accomplice in Amoa, and is memorably bullying and nasty in his few scenes. Elderly Oscar O’Shea is very likable as the benevolent but shrewd Galbraith, and Forrest Taylor is typically dignified as Dr. Harding in the early chapters. Edward Keane is properly pompous and unpleasant as Voorhees in the first chapter, Nick Thompson appears briefly as the island native chief, and Rico De Montez is his sub-chief. Jay Silverheels can be spotted in a non-speaking role as a native, while Bob Wilke–later a prominent film and television heavy–also has a non-speaking role as Taliaferro’s bartender.
The serial’s other incidental parts are handled by its stuntmen–most noticeably, Duke Green and Tom Steele, who play innumerable henchmen (and a few policemen, as well) throughout the serial. Dale Van Sickel, Fred Graham, Carey Loftin, Johnny Daheim, and Bud Wolfe also appear, though less frequently, as thugs, while Ken Terrell gets a more distinctive character role–a friendly old native tobacco peddler–and does quite well by it, although his character’s severe limp suddenly vanishes when it comes time for the peddler to join Jim Marsden in a spectacular brawl with the heavies.
Haunted Harbor would have been greatly improved by tighter writing and a better sea monster, but its other production aspects are strong, its actors appealing, and its basic plot a nice change of pace from the “prevent sabotage of the oil well/stagecoach line/Allied war effort” storylines utilized almost exclusively in its contemporaries. As a result, while Haunted Harbor may not be one of Republic’s most imaginative or well-plotted chapterplays, it emerges as one of their most enjoyable 1940s outings.