Blackhawk (Kirk Alyn) is the commander of an elite airborne counter-espionage squadron dedicated to fighting tyranny; he and his band of assistant Blackhawks are called on to battle the sabotage and espionage schemes of a Communist spy ring led by Laska (Carol Forman) and secretly bossed by a mysterious “Leader.”
Based on a popular comic-book series turned out by Quality Publications, Blackhawk makes several noticeable departures from its source–some understandable, one inexplicable. Setting aside such adaptation issues for a moment, (we’ll return to them shortly), the serial’s basic plot is a serviceable but ordinary spy-fighting story that’s divided into three distinct segments by writers George Plympton, Sherman Lowe, and Royal Cole. The serial’s first three episodes have the Blackhawks battling an unconnected series of sabotage attempts while dealing with Laska’s scheme to introduce a spy into their ranks; beginning in Chapter Four, the serial refocuses on the heroes’ efforts to protect a scientist and his ray machine from Laska’s gang, until a new storyline is introduced in the middle of Chapter Seven–a battle over a new synthetic fuel called Element X, which occupies the rest of the serial.
These three separate storylines (particularly the death-ray one) give rise to a fair amount of repetitiveness and contain some bits of customary Columbia padding (like the scene in which the heroes slowly figure out an electric-eye mechanism), but the periodic plotting changeovers help to keep the narrative from seeming as sluggish or redundant as those of many other fifteen-chapter serials. The long Element X storyline is also materially enlivened by a lengthy sequence in which the villains try to escape the country with the purloined substance, fleeing to Mexico with the Blackhawks on their trail; this international trackdown comes as a pleasant change from the stateside tug-of-war conflicts that have preceded it, and prevents the serial’s narrative from sagging in the later episodes. The very last chapter is still somewhat mishandled, though: not only do the writers allow too many of the villains to kill each other off, but they also make use of a variation of the Batman and Robin last-chapter cheat in unmasking the mysterious Leader.
Of course, given an inexplicable alteration of the serial’s source material, the writers had little choice but to let the villains do each other in. Someone in the production department made the bizarre decision to deprive the heroes of weaponry; the opening narration ostentatiously proclaims that the Blackhawks don’t use guns–even though their comic-book counterparts could often be seen blazing away with pistols and machine-guns. As other reviewers have commented before me, having the Blackhawks wear their trademark uniforms without any sidearms attached makes them look more chauffeurs than the soldiers that they’re supposed to be; the peculiar disarmament of the heroes also frequently makes them come off as ill-prepared amateurs when they’re forced to confront gun-toting heavies.
Other alterations are more explicable; one can easily understand the writers’ decision to move the Blackhawks from a secret island base to a more accessible mainland HQ. It’s also easy to follow the reasoning behind the slightly disappointing decision to drop the foreign accents that helped to individualize the members of Blackhawk’s international team in the comics; this homogenization of the supporting characters was (according to actor Larry Stewart) producer Sam Katzman’s idea, he being fearful that accents would make the dialogue too difficult to follow for juvenile audiences. The other principle deviation from the source material was probably due to Katzman’s usual cost-consciousness: the serial Blackhawks spend much less time in the air than the comic-book ones, and engage in none of the ferocious–and potentially expensive to film–dogfights that characterized their exploits on the printed page, instead using their planes (cargo ships, not fighters) primarily for occasional reconnaissance.
Still, despite Katzman’s cheapness and the absurd no-guns policy, there are some remarkably good action sequences in Blackhawk; unlike most 1950s serials, it features a large number of chases and fights filmed outdoors at genuine industrial sites–which at times makes it look more like one of Republic’s golden-age classics than a standard Katzman serial. Dave Sharpe–who seldom worked on Columbia serials–serves as one of Blackhawk’s principal stuntmen, doubling multiple heavies and supporting heroes. To my unpracticed eye, Tom Steele (who also rarely worked at Columbia) appears to be standing in for star Kirk Alyn; Charlie Horvath and Wally West also contribute to the action scenes. One wonders if Sharpe, the stunting “ramrod” on most of those Republic classics, might have influenced directors Spencer Bennet and Fred Sears’ unexpected use of the aforementioned locations.
Whatever the reason for the unusual locations, Bennet, Sears, and their stuntmen and actors use them to give a definite boost to more than one action scene; instead of staying within a limited area and slugging it out, heroes and villains race and chase each other up ladders, across catwalks, and through maze-like rows of tanks or machinery–and, needless to say, punctuate these pursuit scenes with some fine fistfights. The Chapter One plant chase, the Chapter Seven oil-field battle (which features a dizzying climb to a derrick platform and a pair of simultaneous fights), the Chapter Nine chase and fight at the freezer plant, and–especially–the terrific and lengthy chase/fight sequence at another plant in Chapter Ten are all excellent action setpieces, far above the Columbia (or later Republic) norm.
The serial’s less elaborate fight scenes are very well-done too, with Sharpe’s gymnastic leaps lending them extra vigor–particularly the Chapter Two warehouse fight, the short Chapter Four roadside fight, and the fight in the supply yard that begins at the end of Chapter Twelve and concludes at the beginning of Chapter Thirteen; the offbeat cross-country car/horse-cart chase in Chapter Eleven is another highlight, as is the car chase in Chapter Fourteen. As mentioned, there’s almost no aerial action, despite the Blackhawks’ regular deployment of airplanes; characters occasionally (and improbably) fire guns at each other from cargo-plane cockpits, but that’s about it; one potentially exciting airplane sequence (Blackhawk dropping from a plane into the villains’ speeding car) is wrecked by budget deficiences; instead of using process-screen work or a stuntman to depict the transfer, the directors are forced to simply show a quick stock shot (from Bruce Gentry) of a plane hovering over a car, and then cut to Alyn already landed in the villains’ vehicle.
Above left: Dave Sharpe backflips after being slugged during the Chapter Two warehouse fight. Above right: A horse-cart driver tries to out-dodge a pursuing car on the rustic roads of Iverson’s Ranch.
There’s also cheapness evident in the filming of an ordinary car-to-car transfer in another episode, and in the scenes in which Blackhawk escapes from a threatened oil-derrick and survives a fall from a plant platform; his wire-slide in the former case and his fall into a padded truck in the latter are merely implied through cutaways, not depicted through stuntwork as they would have been in a Republic effort. The Chapter Seven cliffhanger sequence that precedes the non-existent wire-slide is excellent, however–an oil-field fire scene in which the camera pans down a row of exploding derricks as Blackhawk fights a heavy atop one of the endangered structures. The miniature work in this sequence looks far too elaborate to be original to the serial, but wherever the utilized stock footage is derived from, it’s incorporated very smoothly into the serial.
Few of the serial’s other cliffhangers are as spectacular, but several of them are quite good–particularly the Chapter One runway explosion, the Chapter Three ending that has Rick Vallin imperiled by an airplane propeller, the Chapter Eleven blazing-cart crash, and the Chapter Twelve barrel-toppling scene. The Chapter Four cliffhanger, on the other hand, is unbelievably dumb: the heroes halt at a rail-crossing while in hot pursuit of the villains, even though the crossing is unblocked and the train is still far away–allowing another carload of villains behind them to capitalize on their stupidity and bump them across the track, where they inexplicably get stuck and apparently obliterated by the train (the resolution to this cliffhanger is pretty ridiculous, as well). The cartoon saucer from Bruce Gentry reappears for another of the serial’s weaker chapter endings; the sequence that has the unconscious heroes imperiled by fumes from broken freezer pipes is not particularly impressive either.
The oil-field and the several industrial plants aren’t the only interesting locations in Blackhawk; the directors also make good use of an archaic-looking group of narrow and stony city streets–obviously constructed for some bigger-budgeted Columbia film–during the characters’ Mexican sojourn; these streets are shown to particularly good effect in the sequence in which John Crawford tails a villain through town–a sequence enhanced by some interesting camera angles; the cinematography (by William Whitley) in many other scenes is striking too, with an unusual amount of dramatic up-angled and down-angled shots. The exterior of Columbia’s Spanish hacienda also figures in the Mexican sequence, while other outdoor scenes are staged against the hilly expanses of French Ranch and Iverson’s.
Perhaps to defray the cost of renting the excellent “Mexican” exteriors from Columbia, Katzman chintzes on his interior sets to a rather comical extent: the Blackhawks’ airplane hangar is good-sized, but their tiny, incongruously cozy office looks more like a suburban living-room than the command center of a military squadron (even Katzman’s own Captain Video had a far more impressive HQ). The villains, for their part, are forced to do their plotting in a pair of claustrophobically small rooms that are supposed to represent the interiors of several different hideouts–a cabin, a second-story office, et cetera. However, the writers show admirable audacity by openly acknowledging this set duplication within the script; they frequently have the good guys wonder about the hidden reason for the standardized furnishings and spatial dimensions in every villainous lair (they speculate that it’s intended to confuse the villains’ prisoners, as good an explanation as any).
Kirk Alyn portrays Blackhawk with the same energy and cheerful self-assurance he brought to his various G-man turns at Republic, handling the role with a light touch but never playing it tongue-in-cheek; he might have been even better in the part had he used his deeper Superman voice to give a stronger ring of military authoritativeness to his character’s lines, but his performance is still commanding, in a likably good-natured way. Usual villain John Crawford is also genial as Alyn’s second-in-command Chuck, providing quiet and straightforward backup most of the time but occasionally getting to toss off a quip in coolly easygoing style.
The subordinate members of the Blackhawks are not only deprived of their comic-book foreign accents, but also relieved of the stereotypical but colorful personalities they possessed in the comics: Andre the Frenchman is no longer a suave skirt-chaser, Olaf the Swede is not a slow-thinking strongman, and so forth. Rick Vallin as Stanislaus the Pole has the most screen time after Alyn and Crawford, due to the villainous-lookalike subplot surrounding him in the early chapters. He does a good job of acting grimly determined when he refuses to defect to the Red cause, despite the vehement urgings of his countrywoman Laska; his sardonically humorous attitude when subsequently cornered by her men is good too, as is his surly and sinister performance as Stan’s evil twin brother Boris. He fades into the background once the twin subplot is resolved, however, and has few opportunities to do anything else to make his character stand out.
Larry Stewart and Don Harvey play the aforementioned Andre and Olaf, and–like Vallin in the later chapters–function as colorless background players in virtually all of their scenes. Stewart, who was lackluster as the main sidekick in Captain Video, probably couldn’t have done much better even with a better-developed role–although Stewart did at least want to give the character an accent, something Katzman nixed (see the “acknowledgment” below). Whatever Stewart might or might not have made of the Andre part, it’s definitely a shame that the surprisingly versatile Harvey–who was quite a scene-stealer in his role in Video–wasn’t given more to work with in the Olaf role. Weaver Levy is allowed to be a little more quirky as the chipper, competent, and enthusiastic Chop Chop, the Blackhawks’ Chinese cook and their de facto communication-center operator; portly, drawling Frank Ellis rounds out the team as the supposedly Germanic Hendrickson, and has less to do than any of his colleagues–never appearing in a Blackhawk uniform and spending all his screen time in mechanic’s overalls, working on the team’s planes. Overall, it’s rather disappointing that such a potentially interesting team of assistant heroes became so blandly interchangeable on screen.
As the ruthless Laska, Carol Forman is allowed to be more actively villainous than in most of her other serials, regularly accompanying her henchmen on sabotage missions and raids; she’s marginalized for a time when a new villain enters the serial halfway through, but re-emerges strongly in the later chapters–particularly when she grimly crashes a roadblock and angrily turns on the Leader. Though she sticks to her usual fine smirking and sneering in most of her scenes, she’s also given a few brief opportunities to vary her performance a little–passionately appealing to Stan (with apparent sincerity) to join the cause of “freedom,” displaying what appears to be romantic attachment to Boris, and posing as a friendly and guileless stranded motorist to deceive a plant guard.
Marshall Reed heads up Forman’s henchman squad, and does his usual fine job of acting smug, steely, and tough; he also tosses one amusing and memorably bizarre line at Forman in Chapter Fourteen that sounds as if it might have been ad-libbed. As Mr. Case, a treasonous member of the “Defense Council,” the smoothly sinister Michael Fox steals most of his scenes, affecting a mild-mannered demeanor when acting respectable but dropping it for an sly and suave one once exposed; he also gets to impersonate a genteel Mexican rancher in a later episode–in a very flimsy disguise that implausibly deceives the heroes for a time (and makes me irresistibly think of Boris Badenov’s various guises on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show). As for the Leader, his voice–though it’s suitably commanding and menacing–makes his “secret” identity immediately obvious to anyone familiar with the actor voicing him.
Above left: Marshall Reed keeps the Blackhawks’ off-camera plane in view as his henchmen prepare a device for bringing it down. Above right: Terry Frost stands at attention while the concealed Leader takes a phone call.
Zon Murray and Pierce Lyden are prominent among the supporting henchmen, the former characteristically loutish, the latter typically grim and crafty, and both quite effective. Rory Mallinson has a smaller but memorable turn as a quietly but gleefully vicious henchman in the serial’s later episodes; Nick Stuart is properly tough and mean, but slightly ridiculous-looking, as another recurring heavy (the ridiculousness arises from the incongruous vaudevillian’s bowtie that he sports throughout the serial). Terry Frost plays the Leader’s obsequious secretary, Marshall Bradford is a crooked chemist, and Eddie Foster is a Mexican guitarist who sends signals to the villains in musical code. Wally West, Charles Horvath, and Dave Sharpe all pop up as henchmen as well; Sharpe also plays a Mexican police officer.
William Fawcett is briskly professorial and gravely preoccupied, but still quite likable, as Dr. Rolph, the beleaguered death-ray inventor; Frank Gerstle has a much smaller role as one of the inventors of Element X. George Douglas is a Mexican police commandant, Alex Montoya a Mexican policeman, and Frank Yaconelli an undercover Mexican police agent who meets an untimely end. Jim Diehl appears briefly as a security guard, and Frank O’Connor and Hugh Prosser play (respectively) a government official and an Army officer who witness the Element X testing; another government official in this sequence is played by none other than the great Jack Mulhall, who–advanced in age, but still very lively–makes the most of his miniscule role.
Blackhawk’s superior action scenes and fine cast combine to keep the serial afloat, effectively preventing it from being sunk by Katzman’s production shortcuts, the typically overlong Columbia running time, and scripting absurdities like the no-guns rule and the revelation of the Leader’s identity. The serial would have been a lot better had it been a little more faithful to its livelier and more colorful source material, but it still ranks as the most satisfactory of the non-Western chapterplays turned out by Katzman after 1950.
Acknowledgement: The reminiscences by Larry Stewart, referred to above, appeared in an interview with Stewart that was conducted by Gregory Jackson and published in the Winter, 1979 issue (#17) of Serial World magazine.