Tom Rogers (Harry Lauter), skipper of a small schooner and proprietor of a trading post on the China Seas island of “Burmatra,” investigates the murder of his friend and fellow-skipper Jim Dean–and learns that the dead man was working as an undercover agent for United Nations emissary Major Conroy (Robert Shayne). Conroy is trying to stop (Soviet) agents who are masterminding a revolt against Burmatra’s UN-backed Khan (ruler of the island’s inland territory)–but, since the Major lacks official standing in Burmatra’s coastal region (which is controlled by a separate government, and doesn’t belong to the UN), he’s forced to rely on men like Dean to help him spot the arms shipments that are being landed on the coast and smuggled to the rebels. Rogers promptly volunteers to take Dean’s place, to avenge his friend’s death at the smugglers’ hands–and with the aid of another of Conroy’s unofficial operatives, Vivian Wells (Aline Towne), manages to quash the arms-smuggling and put a stop to the revolt.
Trader Tom of the China Seas is easily the most entertaining of the serials from Republic’s “last gasp” period (1953-1955)—an era in which the ever-shrinking budgets of the studio’s cliffhanger-producing unit had become positively infinitesimal. Like other outings from this period, Trader Tom draws heavily on stock footage from many earlier serials—but, unlike those other outings, derives said footage from an unusually eclectic assortment of chapterplays. In order to link this diverse footage, Trader Tom’s production team is forced to come up with some welcome plot detours and changes of locale, making the serial more interesting than most of its contemporaries.
Writer Ronald Davidson does an admirably ingenious job with Trader Tom’s screenplay, concocting a narrative that neatly links up reused sequences from a multitude of serials and makes sense in its own right; he also keeps his usual tendency towards repetitive plotting in check. After introducing his characters and setting up his plot in the first chapter, Davidson devotes the next four episodes to the heroes and villains’ battle over a submerged shipment of poison gas—rehashing several scenes from SOS Coast Guard in the process. Before this duel can become too tiresome, Davidson removes the scene of action to the war-torn Burmatran interior in Chapter Six (in order to utilize stock footage derived from the Republic feature Storm Over Bengal, by way of Drums of Fu Manchu). Tom and Vivian’s inland adventures (centering around their attempts to deliver a vital communication to the rebel-besieged Khan) easily carry the serial all the way to the beginning of Chapter Ten—after which Davidson varies the scenario once again, returning briefly to salvage and smuggling action in the climactic episodes.
Davidson also steers clear of the impossibly grandiose plots that marked some of his other serials; here, he comes up with a large-scale central storyline (the rebellion against the Khan) that can be believably impacted by small-scale actions (the villains’ smuggling activities, Tom’s message-carrying mission). That said, Trader Tom’s screenplay (in typical late-Republic fashion) still asks us to believe in a villain (spy boss Barent) who repeatedly entrusts important assignments to a mere pair of henchmen (sailor Daley and native Gursan)—although periodic appearances by additional heavies (like the crooked skipper Bill Gaines or the rebel chief and his followers) make Barent’s operation seem rather less penny-ante than the undermanned villainous endeavors in Jungle Drums of Africa or Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders. Davidson also populates his mythical island nation with an unusually large amount of non-villainous incidental characters—among them the waterfront bum Ole, Tom’s clerk Wang, the British officer in charge of the island’s peacekeeping force, and the beleaguered khan; these personages and others help to create the illusion that Burmatra is something more than an empty stage provided for the hero and the action heavies to battle on.
Trader Tom’s principal sources of stock footage are the aforementioned SOS Coast Guard, Storm Over Bengal, and Drums of Fu Manchu; Haunted Harbor, Hawk of the Wilderness, and Manhunt of Mystery Island are also represented. Sequences like the elaborate shipwreck rescue scene from Harbor, the large-scale battle scene from Bengal, and the speedboat/launch chase from Coast Guard are all integrated smoothly into Trader Tom–although the borrowed sequences do give rise to some minor incongruities, such as the unlikely existence of a mounted squad of British soldiers in the 1950s or a henchman wearing a dark suit and tie in a semi-tropical climate. The attack on the train (borrowed from Drums of Fu Manchu) is more seriously jarring, and ranks as one of Republic’s few real stock-matching blunders; we’re supposed to believe that the train-wrecking Dacoit from the original serial (Budd Buster) is the Gursan character played by Tom Steele, but the retention of several close-range shots of Buster makes the stock use embarrassingly obvious. On the other hand, the use of several of Richard Alexander’s scenes as “Thorg” from SOS Coast Guard works surprisingly well, with editor Cliff Bell skillfully incorporating old shots of Alexander’s evildoing into the new footage (writer Davidson knowingly gives the name of “Gorth” to this wraith of Thorg).
Trader Tom’s new action sequences are capably directed by Franklin Adreon; the fight scenes, as in Republic’s other last-gasp serials, move at a slower tempo than the slugfests of the 1940s or even of the early 1950s (due to the fact that most of the principals are doubling themselves, and are thus taking more care to avoid potentially production-crippling injuries). Though they lack the energy of Republic’s earlier fights, these brawls do come off as more realistically rough than their predecessors, with the participants looking increasingly winded (sometimes even a little battered) as the fights progress. As the serial’s two action heavies, actors/stuntmen Fred Graham and Tom Steele naturally handle all their characters’ fight scenes; leading man Harry Lauter can be seen doing some of his own stunts as well, although Dale Van Sickel steps in for him on many occasions, adding a few flourishes to the action (like his vault over the rigging during the brief shipboard fight in Chapter Five).
Above left: Fred Graham slugs Dale Van Sickel as Victor Sen Yung goes for a rifle beneath the counter; that’s a semi-conscious Tom Steele on the floor. Above right: A native henchman leaps onto Van Sickel from a rock.
The trading-post fights in Chapters One (pictured above) and Eleven are particularly good, as are the well-shot cave fight in Chapter Five, the hillside fight in Chapter Six, and the fight in the rocks in Chapter Eight (also pictured above). The Chapter Twelve shootout on the beach is also first-rate, thanks to its effective use of the scenery (the hero takes cover behind an overturned boat in the rolling surf). The beautiful stretches of coastal scenery seen in this and other sequences are portions of the Leo Carrillo State Beach, also seen in SOS Coast Guard, Secret of Treasure Island, and many other serials. The Carrillo Beach is not the only appealing outdoor location in Trader Tom; the narrative’s relocation to the Burmatra interior at the halfway point also allows for plenty of scenes shot at Iverson’s Ranch—of which the Chapter Nine shootout amid the rocks is the most memorable. Republic’s backlot lagoon and the appurtenant tropical buildings–originally built for the studio’s big-budget feature Fair Wind to Java in 1953–serves as the area around the hero’s trading post, adding a nicely exotic touch to the visuals.
Cliffhanger sequences in Trader Tom are almost entirely derived from earlier serials—the ship-sinking from SOS Coast Guard, the fall into the toppled signal-fire from Drums of Fu Manchu, the ship explosion from Hawk of the Wilderness, et cetera. Most of these borrowed perils are given buildups almost identical to those utilized in their original appearances—but the exploding motorboat from Manhunt of Mystery Island is given a new mounting, exploding here when the heavies blast it with a small cannon. The too-abrupt explosion that climaxes Chapter Nine—one of the serial’s few new cliffhangers—is disappointing; the gassing sequence that ends Chapter Ten and the horse-trampling that concludes Chapter Eight are much better (the latter sequence is largely “sold” by the aggressive viciousness with which Fred Graham shouts for Tom Steele to bring his horse down on the unconscious hero).
Although Harry Lauter is somewhat physically miscast as a hero–his stockiness and his crafty-looking face being better-suited to heavy roles—he successfully manages to play against type, conveying a likable geniality and an understated toughness that seem equally appropriate to his straightforward and two-fisted sailor character. As the heroine, Aline Towne receives far more screen time than in any of her other serials, accompanying Lauter’s character in almost all of his exploits; she handles the unusually large role with her customary air of intelligence and calm good-humor.
Fred Graham uses his sarcastic sneer, imposing size, and swaggering manner to turn in an excellent action-heavy performance that’s very much in the Roy Barcroft vein. Lyle Talbot is similarly ideal as brains heavy Barent; his smugly self-assured demeanor and his ringing but well-modulated voice give his repeated speeches about turning Burmatra into a “satellite of my country” the proper note of villainous confidence. He also manages to sound quite convincing when rattling off long-winded expository dialogue (as in the Chapter Eleven scene that follows Graham’s loss of an important chart).
Tom Steele does an excellent, scene-stealing job as Graham and Talbot’s native accomplice, the mute and half-witted Gursan. The mindlessly ferocious manner in which Steele attacks the hero makes him seem like a credible threat, but the stuntman emphasizes subtle comedy over menace in his performance–shuffling awkwardly and sleepily in Graham’s wake, panting silently but noticeably in the background after lugging supplies around for the other villains, or reacting with befuddled slowness to sudden turns of events (his gradual realization that a fight is going on in Chapter One is priceless, as is his startled and clueless reaction when Graham tosses him a gun and tells him to take care of Harry Lauter during a chase in Chapter Six).
Trader Tom’s supporting cast is filled with interesting faces—most of them better-known for television work than for their serial credits. Robert Shayne (Inspector Henderson of Adventures of Superman fame) is statesmanlike without seeming self-important as Major Conroy, while Victor Sen Yung (best known as Hop Sing on Bonanza) provides a few light moments (and capably takes part in one action scene) as the hero’s cheerful trading-post clerk Wang. Hulking, deep-voiced Richard Reeves (a frequent heavy on Superman and on many Western shows) is delightful in his scenes as the roguish and wryly cynical rebel chief, while Jan Arvan (a regular in the earlier episodes of Disney’s Zorro) is serene and dignified as the threatened Khan.
British actor Ramsey Hill is likable as a genteel British officer, John Crawford is coolly shifty as sinister skipper Bill Gaines, and scowling Robert Bice has a small role as a henchman. Stuntman Ken Terrell (who naturally gets into a fight) and veteran screen thug Charles Sullivan are Crawford’s crewmen, while Rush Williams and Duane Grey are the crew of the hero’s schooner. Sol Gorss, Dale Van Sickel, and Steve Conte pop up as natives, while George Selk is lively in his small but colorful turn as “old waterfront character” Ole. William Hudson delivers a good death scene as the ill-fated Jim Dean.
Trader Tom of the China Seas can’t hold a candle to the many classic serials that it borrows footage from—but the variegated narrative tapestry it weaves from that footage is colorful enough to make the serial genuinely entertaining, with some help from pleasant locations and a strong cast.