American scientist Dr. Miller (Ralph Morgan), who’s trying to develop a matter-transmitting device called the Peratron, journeys to Alaska to supervise the mining of a special kind of quartz that may provide the power source that the Peratron currently lacks. He’s accompanied by his daughter Ruth (Marjorie Weaver), his assistant Dr. Hauss (Martin Kosleck), and invalided Marine Jim Hudson (Milburn Stone), the son of Alaskan mine-owner Bill Hudson (Joseph Crehan). After surviving several perils en route, Hudson and the Millers arrive in Alaska, where they and the elder Hudson launch their quartz-mining project despite continual attacks by a gang of outlaws led by Brandon (Anthony Warde). However, neither the Millers nor the Hudsons realize that Brandon takes his orders from Hauss–who is actually a Nazi agent–or that both Brandon and Hauss are working for kindly local businessman and secret fifth columnist Herman Brock (Samuel S. Hinds). When the Peratron turns out to have unsuspected lethal powers, it becomes even more imperative for Jim, Ruth, their respective fathers, and Jim’s sailor pal “Bosun” (Edgar Kennedy) to keep the device out of the hands of their Axis opponents.
Great Alaskan Mystery, like most late Universal serials, is deliberately paced and features only a minimum of action–but, again like most late Universal serials, is helped immeasurably by well-drawn characters and an excellent cast. Unlike most of its contemporaries, however, it features a refreshingly simple storyline that harks back to Universal’s 1930s outings–a storyline that makes it a good deal more enjoyable than convoluted and talky outings like The Royal Mounted Rides Again or Jungle Queen.
The serial’s climactic chapter is disappointingly flat, but in other regards the screenplay dodges most of the scripting pitfalls that its contemporaries fell into. Writers George Plympton and Maurice Tombragel (Jack Foley is also credited for “story”) limit their cast of characters to a manageable number, avoid the use of multiple factions of heavies, and omit the often tedious recap-dialogue scenes (common to other late Universals) in favor of old-fashioned recap cards. They also manage to make the villains’ continual pursuit of the Peratron (and their repeated attempts to kill the obstructive Jim Hudson) interesting despite the plot’s repetitious structure; the periodic addition of new wrinkles to the scenario (the discovery that the Peratron is really a death ray, the successful theft of the machine, the villains’ subsequent focus on acquiring the quartz mine, Hauss’s pretended rejoining of the good guys) helps to keep the narrative fresh.
The first-chapter shipwreck which maroons the heroes on an iceberg (their fight to survive occupies all of Chapter Two and part of the following episode) lends some additional interest to the screenplay, although the sequence is only tangentially related to the main plot. These earlier chapters have often been criticized for their heavy use of stock footage, most of it from the 1933 film S.O.S. Iceberg, filmed in Greenland and Switzerland by Universal’s German branch and released in both English and German-language versions. However, the stock (the impressive shipwreck itself, long shots of the protagonists struggling across the ice, a polar-bear attack) is for the most part blended effectively with the new footage; the whole iceberg-survival subplot is ultimately quite gripping, thanks to the impressively stark look of the Greenland ice-fields in the old footage and to the convincingly grim seriousness with which the serial’s actors react to their supposed plight in the inserted scenes.
Other scenes, like the logging sequence in Chapter Seven and the timber-truck crash that ends the chapter, utilize stock footage as well but integrate it with much more slickness than the Universal norm. These stock scenes, along with all-new location shooting in the more rugged portions of Iverson’s Ranch and Universal’s typically convincing interior sets (like the mine tunnels or the hunting-lodge that serves as the good guys’ headquarters) help to create a strong and convincing north-woods atmosphere in the serial’s post-iceberg scenes; the quartz mine, the hilly roads surrounding it, and the villains’ cabin hideout all come off as part of a connected physical landscape, not merely an imaginary world constructed from disparate stock shots.
The serial’s action scenes are limited in number but are uniformly well-handled by directors Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins; the lengthy horseback pursuit of the heroes’ truck in Chapter Four is excellent, as is the shootout that follows it at the beginning of the next chapter. The fistfight in Chapter Three is brief but good, while Milburn Stone’s longer outdoor fight with a pair of heavies in Chapter Nine is also energetic (Eddie Parker doubles Milburn Stone here and elsewhere, with Ken Terrell and George Magrill filling in for various villains). Stone and Joseph Crehan’s mine-tunnel shootout with the heavies in Chapter Twelve is perhaps the serial’s action highlight, however; the well-staged and well-shot sequence has the villains flinging torches to light up the cavern and Stone and Crehan trading jocose remarks as they fight against mounting odds.
The serial’s cliffhangers are good for the most part, although too many are resolved by having the characters simply survive their perils–this type of resolution is preferable, though, to the blatant cheat that resolves the Chapter Ten ending. The aforesaid Chapter Ten ending, is one of the serial’s more suspensefully built-up ones, however, with the heroes continually and unwittingly missing a booby-trapped step before finally triggering an explosion. The lumber-truck crash and the bridge-collapse cliffhanger (seen in The Green Hornet as well) are also memorable, and the plummeting-elevator ending of Chapter Six is excellent (and resolved in a creative, if perhaps a scientifically dubious, fashion).
The script individualizes all the leading characters–heroic and villainous–to some extent, and most of the leading players take full advantage of this fact. Milburn Stone is perfect as the straightforward, rather soldierly hero; he’s doggedly determined throughout and frequently gruff, but also energetically cheerful and rather excitable (witness his reaction after being outsmarted by a henchman in Chapter Eleven). Marjorie Weaver, an attractive and endearingly flighty former 20th-Century Fox starlet with limited acting talent, handles the flippant side of her impudent and adventure-loving heroine well–but is a little less convincing when seriously flying a plane or administering First Aid.
The great comic character actor Edgar Kennedy, in his one and only serial, turns in an excellent and genuinely funny performance as Stone’s sidekick. He’s sufficiently natural and down-to-earth to be believably helpful in action scenes, while also using his jovial, ponderously thoughtful, and occasionally flustered manner to good humorous effect in dialogue scenes (without ever seeming like a moronic bungler). His switch from a hearty laugh to a nervous expression when exploring a possibly haunted cabin and his cheerfully oblivious attempts to assist a furtive and increasingly cranky Martin Kosleck are especially amusing.
Ralph Morgan is very good as Professor Miller, delivering a well-shaded portrayal of an idealistic but absent-minded and even rather moody scientist; moments like Miller’s heartbroken reaction when he realizes his Peratron is a deadly weapon or his frustrated rant about his inability to work in the midst of “violence” give the character more depth than most serial savants–and Morgan plays these moments for all they’re worth. Joseph Crehan, as Milburn Stone’s tough mine-owner father, is a good contrast to the brooding Morgan, his cheerily pugnacious manner enlivening many scenes.
Martin Kosleck, an expert portrayer of screen Nazis or horror-movie weirdoes, is perfect as the treacherous Dr. Hauss, who smoothly lies his way out of suspicious situations and orders henchmen around with irritable dismissiveness. The actor’s Peter-Lorre-like combination of suavity and tenseness gives his villainous doctor a strongly sinister air; Hauss always seems to be barely concealing a near-hysterical rage under a slick exterior. Samuel S. Hinds’ laid-back Brock is the polar opposite of Kosleck’s Hauss; while his kindly-grandpa appearance and his bluffly unpretentious manner make his deception of the good guys extremely convincing, they also prevent him from conveying much menace (Hinds’ easygoing personality is well-fitted to his character in some regards, however; Brock is depicted as more of an ambitious opportunist than a committed Nazi).
Anthony Warde is in fine form as the serial’s sarcastic action heavy, playing a part a little less one-dimensional than many of his similar henchman turns at Republic. Here, instead of simply gloating thuggishly over his villainous assignments or taking a perplexed attitude towards his bosses’ schemes, he plays a shrewd and resourceful co-villain who intelligently participates in plotting and is treated almost as an equal by Kosleck’s character. Warde still gets to indulge in the vicious displays of temper that made him so memorably menacing in his Republic releases, however–particularly in his violent assault on incompetent henchman Ed Gargan.
The hulking and perpetually scowling Harry Cording is very good as the brutal Captain Greeder in the early episodes, although his character disappointingly drops out of sight after Chapter Three. The above-mentioned Ed Gargan is quite funny as the dull-witted thug who owns the heavies’ cabin hideout, while George Chesebro and Stanley Price have small parts as henchmen; Jack Ingram also appears as a plane hijacker in Chapter Three, masked but still recognizable by his voice. Raphael Bennett and Richard Powers (formerly B-western star Tom Keene) play henchmen too, while Jack Rockwell is the villains’ inside man at the mine.
Fuzzy Knight, a buffoonish sidekick in almost all of Universal’s B-westerns, plays a straight character part for a change as the grumbling, outspoken, but loyal mine foreman Grit–and does a good job of it. Jack Clifford and William Ruhl appear as a pair of trappers in the early episodes, with Ruhl getting a good “crack-up” moment and a memorable death scene during the iceberg sequence. Edmund Cobb plays a miner, Kernan Cripps and Ben Taggart are lawmen, Reed Howes pops up as a ship’s mate, and Jay Novello is an amusingly enterprising Eskimo chief (whose tagline is “cost you plenty.”) A blonde actress named Jean Trent is noticeably pretty as Samuel S. Hinds’ secretary, and old Mascot regular Ed Peil appears as the watchman at the Hudson mine.
The Great Alaskan Mystery’s fairly violent action scenes and its tone of wartime urgency distinguish it from gentler and more leisurely 1930s Universal chapterplays like Perils of Pauline and Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery–but it’s markedly similar to those period’s outings in other regards. Like them, it’s an interesting journey to far-off climes undertaken in the company of some very likable characters, and, like them, it’s comparatively realistic throughout despite the use of a fantastic MacGuffin to drive the plot. Once again like them, it’s an entertaining if unspectacular serial–and feels like a pleasant breath of fresh air amid the stiflingly over-plotted chapterplays that predominated during Universal’s last years of serial production.