The Spider’s Web

Spider's Web titles
Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1938. Starring Warren Hull, Iris Meredith, Richard Fiske, Kenneth Duncan, Forbes Murray, Marc Lawrence, Don Douglas, and ? as The Octopus.

A power-mad masked villain known only as the Octopus, bent on acquiring control of “the very nerve centers of the nation,” is targeting transportation companies, power plants, and banks in a vicious reign of terror. The police, unable to cope with the Octopus’s depredations, receive welcome aid from wealthy criminologist and ex-Army Major Richard Wenthworth (Warren Hull)–and also benefit from the less welcome aid of the Spider, a masked vigilante who combats the underworld with effectively deadly results, but whose disregard of due process makes him just as big a public enemy in the eyes of the law as the Octopus himself; only Wentworth’s closest friends–his fiancée Nita Van Sloan (Iris Meredith), his loyal wartime subaltern Jackson (Richard Fiske), his ferocious Sikh manservant Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan), and his butler Jenkins (Don Douglas)–know that the millionaire detective and the Spider are one and the same. Backed by this trusty team of aides, Wentworth/the Spider repeatedly engages the Octopus’s agents in battle and frustrates the villain’s counter-moves against him and his assistants, all the while dodging the suspicions of his friend Police Commissioner Kirk (Forbes Murray).

The Spider’s Web, based fairly faithfully on a popular series of pulp novels, is almost invariably ranked by serial buffs as Columbia Pictures’ greatest chapterplay–a judgment with which I would concur. Despite a fair share of minor flaws, its winning combination of strong production values, vivid atmosphere, excellent action sequences, and breakneck pacing–and its overall air of exuberant energy–cannot be matched by any of the studio’s other releases, even that handful produced–like Web–by Columbia’s in-house serial-maker Jack Fier.

Spider's Web--the Spider
Above: The Spider in action.

Robert E. Kent, Basil Dickey, George Plympton, and Martie Ramson’s script for Spider’s Web is composed of little more than a series of battles between the Octopus and the Spider, as one attempts to rob or blow up various targets and the other protects said targets–with the villain occasionally taking time out from his larger schemes to make direct assaults on the hero . The repetitiveness of this plotting never becomes a real detriment to the serial, however; the writers keep their characters so constantly on the move that audiences have little time to notice the circuitous nature of the storyline, while investigation into the Octopus’s secret identity in later chapters also helps to give the narrative a certain sense of progression.  Sometimes the pace is so fast that plot threads warranting further attention (like the Octopus’ ruthless removal of a gas-station man working as a Wentworth informant) are lost in the shuffle, but for the most part Spider’s Web features a much more cohesive storyline than its immediate Columbia predecessor, Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok.

However, the real strengths of the Spider’s Web lies not in its script but in its action scenes and its lead performances. Directors Ray Taylor and James W. Horne–the latter completely eschewing the tongue-in-cheek comedy he brought to his later solo chapterplays–fill the serial with an impressive array of action sequences, with the assistance of a stunt team that includes George DeNormand, Dave O’Brien, Bud Geary, and Tom Steele. The action scenes benefit from considerable variety, with gunfights (unusually lethal ones) predominating but plenty of fistfights, chases, and acrobatic stuntwork mixed in.

Spider's Web--terminal shootout 1 Spider's Web--terminal shootout 2
Above: Shots from the gun battle in the bus terminal in Chapter One.

Among the most memorable action setpieces are the first-chapter sequence that first introduces us to the heroes–with Octopus agents battling Jackson and Ram Singh as Wentworth tries to land his plane in the face of bomb attacks, eventually parachuting to safety and promptly dropping several villains with his trusty .45–and the bus terminal shootout later in the same chapter. Other highlights include Wentworth and Kirk’s escape from a besieged office-building in Chapter Two, the lengthy series of fistfights and gun battles at an Octopus headquarters that occupies parts of both Chapters Four and Five, Chapter Five’s theater shootout, the Spider’s rope-swing onto the top of an omnibus and the ensuing battle on the bus’s top in Chapter Eight, and the lengthier display of rope-swinging in the bus garage shootout in Chapter Thirteen, with the Spider moving from wall-ledge to bus as he trades shots with the thugs.

Spider's Web--omnibus 1 Spider's Web--omnibus 2 Spider's Web--omnibus 3 Spider's Web--omnibus 4
Above: The Spider drops in unexpectedly on Marc Lawrence, in one of the serial’s best stunt scenes.

The lengthy rooftop chase and the Spider’s attempted escape by utility wires in Chapter Twelve is also good, although this sequence–like several other scenes in the serial’s second half–is marred by some jarring editing that removes the reaction shots of thugs dropping beneath the Spider’s bullets; apparently the 1938 censors belatedly noticed the body count that the hero was running up–one decidedly high for any 1930s serial protagonist, let alone one operating without official sanction. Fortunately, the final chapter escaped any censorship, allowing the Spider’s climactic invasion of the Octopus’s headquarters to rescue Nita and Jackson–and to dispense summary justice to the villain and his lieutenants–to stand as another of the serial’s action highlights.

Spider's Web--fire engine
Above: The Spider climbs to the Octopus’s hideout in the final chapter, with help from the disguised Kenne Duncan (left) and Don Douglas.

The action scenes are further enhanced by the serial’s high percentage of nocturnal scenes, which casts a memorably ominous mood over the proceedings. The serial’s atmosphere is also enhanced by the well-appointed locations, which consist chiefly of Columbia’s city-streets backlots; these locales, with an unusual amount of extras on the sidewalks and vehicles on the roads, not only help the directors and photographers in giving a gritty detective-pulp feel to the action, but also aid in suggesting the bustling life of the city under threat–which makes the Spider’s crusade seem more urgent than that of many serial heroes, who tend to conduct their war with master criminals in a kind of vacuum free of bystanders.

Spider's Web--crowd shot
Above: Startled crowds react to an (off-screen) battle between the hero and the heavies.

The serial’s chapter-ending cliffhangers are quite well-staged, with the Chapter One bus explosion, the Chapter Two sequence with the out-of-control crane hoist, the excellent elevator plunge in Chapter Nine, and the Spider’s fall from a severed high-wire at the end of Chapter Twelve standing out. However, the resolutions to these and other scenes are slightly marred by the garrulous narrator common to all Columbia’s late 1930s serials, who breathlessly recaps the plot as the footage from the previous episode plays and ceases just as the cliffhanger is resolved, distracting the audience while they’re trying to see how the hero is going to make his escape. As in other Columbias of the period, the narrator and editors also make the mistake of showing and describing the cliffhanger for next week at the end of every episode, negating the current episode’s cliffhanger.

Spider's Web--drowning room Spider's Web--steam room
Above left: Kenne Duncan, Iris Meredith, and Richard Fiske face drowning while Warren Hull (above right) is apparently steamed to death in the double cliffhanger that ends Chapter Four.

As aforementioned, the serial’s leading performances are another big factor in its success. The charismatic Warren Hull gives his character a suavity, intelligence, and aristocratic self-assurance rare in serial heroes, and makes both the “millionaire socialite” and “brilliant detective” aspects of his character utterly credible. However, he never comes off as too slick or too arrogant, displaying convincing esteem and affection for his crimefighting aides–and for his misunderstanding friend the Commissioner as well–throughout the serial. He also gets some entertaining comic moments when Wentworth periodically masquerades as over-the-hill safecracker Blinky McQuade to gather information in the underworld, changing his appearance with minimal but effective makeup and adopting an amusingly croaking voice.

Spider's Web--Meredith and Hull Spider's Web--Hull as Blinky
Above left: Warren Hull with Iris Meredith. Above right: Warren Hull in his “Blinky” disguise, in the less pleasant company of a henchman.

Iris Meredith’s delicate beauty and quietly courageous bearing make her an equally appealing heroine; her wryly good-humored reaction to the postponement of her character’s marriage to Wentworth in the first chapter endears her to the audience from the start. Richard Fiske plays the part of Jackson with infectious energy and enthusiasm, making his character a cheerful daredevil ten times more interesting than most non-comic serial sidekicks. Kenne Duncan is also terrific as the knife-wielding Ram Singh, forbiddingly stern most of the time but always conveying a fierce love of battle beneath the stoicism, both through his air of repressed excitement and the gusto with which he delivers warlike maxims (“He who treads the path of evil shall meet with evil; I will ruin the pigs!”)

Spider's Web--Jackson and Fiske
Above: Richard Fiske and Kenne Duncan.

Don Douglas, as the fifth member of Wentworth’s team, has a much less active role than Meredith, Fiske, or Duncan, but still gives butler Jenkins a proper combination of intelligence and imperturbability. Forbes Murray is excellent as Commissioner Kirk, his tremendous affability and his briskly professional manner keeping him from ever seeming like a nuisance or a fool. Marc Lawrence–one of the screen’s great gangsters in films ranging from Key Largo to Hold that Ghost–is a welcome presence as the Octopus’ second-in-command; his slick, smug, and coolly menacing characterization is so good that it’s a definite disappointment when he’s killed off a little after the halfway mark.

The Octopus himself is one of the less interesting masked serial heavies; his simple white robe-hood is eerily inexpressive but not very visually distinctive, while his voice is a little too roughhewn and New-York-accented to entirely fit the megalomaniacal but highly articulate dialogue he’s given–although its harsh and aggressive tones are well-suited to the Octopus’s frequent angry rants. However, the Octopus’s dangerous “third arm” and his off-screen execution chamber are overall more memorable than the villain himself.

Spider's Web--the Octopus
Above: The Octopus.

The Octopus suspects are not as well-developed or well-established as they should be, appearing very intermittently throughout the serial. However, the directors do play fair by having the actor eventually unmasked as the Octopus also provide the villain’s voice; the writers also plant some actual clues to the villain’s identity before the final reveal, and turn the heroes’ suspicions in the guilty party’s direction well before the final chapter. The most noticeable suspects are played by Bentley Hewlett, Paul Whitney, grumbling Gordon Hart, and gruff Charles Wilson, with the tremblingly indignant Byron Fougler getting killed too early to qualify as a full-fledged red herring.

Nestor Paiva, Edward Earle, Lane Chandler, John Tyrell, Eddie Foster, Ernie Adams, Dick Curtis, Bud Geary, Tom Steele, Bob Kortman, Kit Guard, and Al Ferguson all pop up as Octopus agents, along with many other familiar faces (the high casualty rates in the serial’s shootouts entail an unusually large amount of henchmen).  Aside from Marc Lawrence, the only thug who recurs from chapter to chapter is shifty Lester Dorr as Martin, the henchman who continually but unwisely confides in Blinky McQuade. Beatrice Curtis plays a reluctant Octopus operative who mends her ways when her newsboy brother is threatened by the gang; Gene Anderson Jr. is her spunky sibling. Edmund Cobb appears throughout the serial as a police dispatcher, and Ann Doran pops up briefly as a secretary.

Columbia’s in-house serial productions definitely represent the cream of that studio’s product, and The Spider’s Web just as definitely ranks  as the very best of that too-small group of chapterplays. Had the Jack Fier unit been allowed to remain in charge of Columbia’s cliffhangers, it’s quite possible they would have turned out serials far more polished than The Spider’s Web, but they would have been hard-pressed to come up with an outing more fondly-remembered by buffs than Web has proved to be.

Spider's Web--closing shot
Above: Our crimefighters share a deservedly peaceful fadeout scene; Iris Meredith and Warren Hull are on the sofa, Don Douglas standing, and Richard Fiske and Kenne Duncan seated in the corners of the shot.

9 thoughts on “The Spider’s Web

  1. As stated, this is one of Columbias better chapterplays principally because of Warren Hull and a strong support cast led by Kenne Duncan.I felt Hull was better as Britt Reed in The Green Hornet Strikes Again,but this comes in a close second. Mandrake the Magician comes in a close third.My main objection to this and some other Columbias is the co direction of James Horne.Thats another story entirely.
    I rate this 3 stars out of 5.

  2. Like many other serial fans, I rate THE SPIDER’S WEB as one of the top 10 sound serials. It has many qualities that few other serials having such as both mood and frantic pacing, with some of the best performances in serials. But is also has more faults than any other great serial. The worst problem is the impossibly bad aim of the Octopus’s henchmen. Several thugs shoot at the Spider from a couple feet away, and can’t hit him. The worst example was the chase on the rooftops Jerry mentioned above.
    The other big problem was some very bad editing. In chapter one Wentworth and Nita are in a plane, and he ducks down to put on a disguise, and pops back up a second later made up to look like an oriental, complete with Coolie hat and mustache. At the end of chapter one, the Spider fires off shots to warn customers at a bus terminal that a bomb is set to go off. He shoots several thugs, but the scene cuts to other henchmen standing around, and it is then that react to what has been happening.
    The lion’s share of direction goes to Ray Taylor, but some scenes with someone overreacting are obviously the work of James Horne. With the serial’s great mood, James Horne’s directing sometimes has character’s over react, which is way out of place here.
    Jerry, how could you not mention the scene in chapter nine, where the Spider shoots an old lady in the back. The first time I saw this serial was at a convention, and everyone laughed and applauded this scene.

  3. Thanks for the comments and the additional points, guys; I try to make my reviews a sort of comprehensive overview, so there’s always some minor points that I wind up leaving out. The Chinese-disguise bit is kind of silly, but, although its quickness defied credibility, at least it seemed to have some point in the story–to wit, establishing Wentworth’s master-of-disguise powers that figure in the plot later on.

    As for the legendary “old lady” scene, unusual though it is, I refrained from commenting because I’m still not sure whether that was supposed to be an actual woman, or a thug disguised as a woman (that was no lady, that was my henchman!) The aggressive way in which the “lady” attacks the Spider, and the fact that the Internet Movie Database lists “her” as being played by Cap Severn, seems to support the thug-in-drag theory–although it’s certainly funnier to think of the character as a sort of villainous Granny Clampett (he/she dresses rather like Granny).

    I’ve never really been able to find many Horne touches in the serial–and this is coming from someone who’s frequently quite irritated by Horne’s directorial oddities. Setting aside Hull’s Blinky act, which is supposed to be semi-comic anyway, the one unmistakable Horne bit I can recall in Web is Kit Guard’s heavy fall after being slugged by the Spider and his rather cartoonish fluctuations between consciousness and unconsciousness during a fight scene.

  4. I read a review of this serial describing it as “wall to wall mayhem “. After seeing it, I would have nothing to add!

  5. Great site. You are the first reviewer I look to for reviews on these old serials.

    This is a great serial only marred by Kenne Duncan’s mediocre attempt at playing an East Indian. John Davidson would have been much better.

  6. I think it has been 74 years since I saw this one. Still loved it and felt the acting, while not Academy Award level, made this one of the better serials. Enjoyed seeing only 3 gangsters having the gun shot out of their hands (vs. normal serial gun play) and what – about 35 gangsters killed! That beats Captain Marvel’s count. Additionally the Octopus killed three of his own men. One “good guy” got it. Since one of the Octopus’ agents was number 81, my guess is he had such an army that he could afford all those loses. Great to see the hero hit someone over the head with a chair and shoot a women in the back. Has to be a first. Serials were made to watch, enjoy and only see once a week without rewinds.

  7. A first rate production, and a perfect example of why serials are so much fun. All the best elements are present – good storyline, exciting hero, interesting villain, great cast and an abundance of high energy action scenes. Horne’s influence and tendency toward farce are decidedly muted, much to the serial’s benefit, and most of the flaws previously mentioned are definitely minor and didn’t impact my overall enjoyment. The only really annoying feature is the asinine way Columbia handles the cliffhanger narrations. Their approach totally undercuts any surprise or suspense that had been previously generated.

    • You might enjoy the radio plays of “The Spider,” which are offered by “Radio Archives.” Just plug the name in on the internet. Well read stories. Downloads can be as inexpensive as $4.49. A nice company.

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