In the England of the late 1600s, nobleman Lord Bellmore (Lou Merrill) recruits naval officer Richard Dale (Richard Crane) to obtain proof that privateer Captain William Kidd (John Crawford), commissioned to hunt pirates, has betrayed his trust and turned pirate himself. Accompanied by his friend Alan Duncan (David Bruce), Dale goes in search of Kidd in the seas of the Americas; after escaping several perils, the two undercover agents eventually manage to infiltrate the notorious captain’s crew–only to discover that Kidd has remained faithful to his commission and has committed none of the acts of piracy he’s charged with. They readily join him in his battles with various buccaneers, and also help him deal with the mutinous schemes of his first mate Buller (George Wallace)–who’s hoping to take over Kidd’s ship and use it for piratical purposes. However, Dale and Duncan will eventually have to reckon with an enemy just as dangerous as pirates and mutineers–Bellmore and his associates, who have self-serving political reasons for wanting Kidd convicted of piracy at all costs, and don’t want anyone to produce evidence that will interfere with this goal.
Great Adventures of Captain Kidd is distinguished from other “historical” chapterplays both by its unique pirate-era setting, and by the unusual fidelity with which writers Arthur Hoerl and George Plympton stick to the basic facts of the Captain Kidd story; they incorporate so many real characters and actual incidents into their screenplay that it’s clear they researched the career of their unfortunate central figure with remarkable thoroughness. However, this fidelity to history eventually strikes a fatal blow to the serial’s narrative; after establishing Kidd as a misjudged figure and having heroes Dale and Duncan rightly abandon their original mission of incriminating him, Hoerl and Plympton are still forced to let the Captain meet his unjust historical fate–and thus have to make sure that the heroes fail in their new mission of clearing Kidd, effectively negating the entire serial. Unlike every other chapterplay hero, Dale and Duncan have accomplished virtually nothing by the fifteenth episode, aside from managing to survive a series of life-threatening perils; they’re unable to visit any kind of a comeuppance on the treacherous Bellmore, and aren’t even allowed to directly finish off Buller. It’s as if the writers of Adventures of Frank and Jesse James had ended that serial by having Jesse get murdered by Bob Ford, and then had Frank regretfully retire from the scene after watching Ford get shot by someone else.
The Stage and Screen serial Custer’s Last Stand, for all its faults, managed to do a much more entertaining job of building a serial around a tragic real-life event than Kidd does–by following the classic historical-novel template, and creating a variety of dramatic character-driven fictional storylines that paid off more satisfyingly than the historical strand of the plot–the hero’s determined search for his father’s killer, the disgraced officer’s oscillations between good and evil, the romance between hero and heroine. There are no similar subplots to be found in Kidd: even when making their final noble attempt to rescue Kidd, Dale and Duncan remain the blandly businesslike heroes common to almost all 1950s serials, while the villains (though colorful) have no redeeming or complex qualities whatsoever; as for potential romantic subplots, they’re ruled out from the start by the script’s refusal to introduce a heroine. The only character in the serial to be given any degree of depth is the one whose story ends badly–Kidd himself, who’s first depicted via untrustworthy flashbacks as a vicious brigand, but is then gradually revealed as a noble and courageous hero, albeit an occasionally gruff and quick-tempered one.
It’s a pity that Kidd’s narrative leads to such a poor finish, since the serial’s middle stretch is quite entertaining. The first three chapters are rather dull, with Dale and Duncan alternately listening to flashback-illustrated stories of Kidd’s depredations and stumbling into a series of repetitive predicaments (press-ganging by the Navy, capture by pirates, arrest by the Navy for desertion, shanghaiing by pirates). In addition to being repetitious, some of these predicaments are also contrived; it simply makes no sense for Dale to let himself get press-ganged without even trying to surreptitiously show the pressing officer his Navy commission papers. However, the serial improves greatly in Chapter Four–once Kidd, Buller, and their crew enter the picture; the ensuing episodes serve up a nicely varied series of episodic adventures–fights with natives, clashes with French ships and pirate vessels, the invasion of an island buccaneering stronghold–and balance them neatly against the ongoing storyline of Buller’s mutiny scheme. These good times cease, however, once Kidd separates from Dale and Duncan early in Chapter Thirteen; the remaining episodes follow the duo’s fruitless efforts to clear Kidd while enduring attacks by Lord Bellmore’s agents.
Kidd is the only post-1948 Sam Katzman/Columbia serial not directed or co-directed by Spencer Bennet; Derwin Abrahams and Charles Gould assume directorial duties instead. As a result, the action scenes aren’t as strong as they could have been; several of the serial’s many swordfight scenes (like those in Abrahams’ earlier Katzman effort Son of the Guardsman) are staged rather statically, with the combatants moving at too slow a tempo and often failing to really lunge at each other or leap around; the Chapter Seven battle on the Moorish ship especially suffers from this problem. However, there are also some very good swordfights to be found in Kidd; perhaps Gould (who’d been assistant director on Universal’s swashbuckler feature Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) was better at executing such scenes than Abrahams was. The Chapter Nine sequence, with John Crawford leading his crew in battling a combined force of pirates and mutineers, is particularly good.
The sword duel between Crawford and George Wallace earlier in Chapter Nine and the one between Richard Crane and Zon Murray in Chapter Four are also well-done, as is the Chapter Eleven powder-room swordfight that pits Crawford, Crane, and David Bruce against multiple pirates. Swordplay-free action is handled capably, particularly the brief rigging-climbing scene in Chapter Two, the clashes with hostile natives in Chapters Four and Six (involving spears, pistols, and hand-to-hand fighting), the brawl between Bruce and Crane later in Chapter Six (part of a plan to allow Bruce to pose as a mutineer), and the tough-looking fight in the ship’s hold in Chapter Nine. As in many other 1950s serials (both from Republic and Columbia), the actors seem to be handling some of their own stunts, although George DeNormand, Sandy Sanders, and Wally West do their share of doubling.
Long-range cannon duels between sailing ships (like the ones in Chapters One and Three) are depicted believably enough through strategic use of decolorized stock footage from seagoing feature films; the broadsides fired by the stock-footage ships are intercut with new footage of damaged ship-deck sets–although Katzman’s cost-conscious desire to keep these sets (presumably rented from Columbia) intact prevents these naval battles from ever looking too punishing or intense. The same shipboard sets, though well-appointed, tend to give the serial a visually monotonous feel at times, since so much of the action takes place within their confines; however, the deck-bound sequences are alternated with a good assortment scenes of filmed on Columbia’s backlot “old-European” street and innyard and at the Corriganville movie ranch.
Above, top left and right: New (medium shot) and old (long shot) footage combined to create a naval battle. Bottom left: The heroes stride into a pirate inn-yard, unaware that the bell in the foreground is about to alert their enemies to their presence. Bottom right: Lord Bellmore’s men lurk in a thicket on Gardiner’s Island (Corriganville).
The chapter endings in Kidd are respectable enough–though frequently mundane, with the heroes getting apparently shot (twice), stabbed, and tossed overboard in different cliffhanger scenes. Some of the more elaborately-conceived perils–like the Chapter Three cliffhanger that has the heroes about to be blasted point-blank by cannons–suffer from Columbia’s typical lack of editing buildup; the aforementioned cannon sequence would have been greatly improved by some tension-building closeups of the big guns’ muzzles pointed right at the camera. The Chapter Eight cannon cliffhanger (in which Kidd and his longboat crew are apparently blown out of the water by a treacherous gunner) is still a bit abrupt, but is handled much more effectively. The exploding-longboat cliffhanger of Chapter Five and the burning-at-the-stake cliffhanger of Chapter Thirteen are capably set up, although the former sequence is marred by a live-through-it resolution; the resolutions to Chapter Ten’s hay-cart-off-the-cliff ending and Chapter Eleven’s powder-room explosion similarly stretch credibility (particularly the latter).
Top-billed Richard Crane, Kidd’s official star, handles his dialogue with energy and assurance, but his relentless scowl and almost invariably somber-sounding voice make him seem decidedly uncharismatic and even rather tiresome at times. He does show himself capable of displaying emotions besides indignant grimness on occasion–as when he cheerfully but concernedly warns his comrade David Bruce to take care of himself, before the latter goes undercover among the mutineers; one wishes he’d lightened his performance with a few more such touches of personality. Bruce, once a solid supporting player and occasional leading man in features for Universal and Warner Brothers, is mostly relegated to serving as Crane’s dialogue sounding-board, but does well whenever he’s given something to do–and plays his part in more balanced style than his co-star, registering anger and grave determination whenever it’s required of him, but also conveying a likable low-key affability.
John Crawford, however, has the best of Kidd’s three leading sympathetic parts, and takes full advantage of it–turning in his strongest serial performance and easily stealing the show. Abandoning his characteristic laid-back smoothness, he shouts orders to his men with sharp authoritativeness, confronts mutineers with fiery vigor, and smiles–even laughs–with cool self-confidence in the heat of battle. Crawford manages to make his character seem like a gentleman as well as a swashbuckler–graciously apologizing to a captain plundered by Buller’s mutineers, and thanking Crane and Bruce for their assistance with gracious dignity. He even adds a touch of restrained pathos to the role, when he’s pondering his future (and talking of his wife and child) with a convincing combination of resignation and regret.
George Wallace made a fine hero in Radar Men from the Moon, but the role of the overbearingly nasty Buller is the type of part he was best-suited for (and which he played for most of his acting career); he’s bullyingly arrogant and smugly self-possessed, coming off as supremely confident in his ability to steamroller any opposition through verbal or physical aggression. Lee Roberts, as Buller’s chief cohort Devry, looks a bit too much like Wallace to make them an ideal villainous tandem (their costumes and makeups are almost identical as well)–but Roberts’ surly and irritably thuggish demeanor still effectually serve to distinguish his character from Wallace’s more assertive and intelligent villain.
Kidd boasts a large and good supporting cast, and gives many of its minor players memorably colorful parts. The gigantic and hirsute Paul Newlan (later a familiar television character actor) is enjoyably boisterous as real-life pirate Long Ben Avery, chortling with equal glee over card games and impromptu executions. Marshall Reed makes a strong showing as the ruthless and steely Captain Culliford, another historical buccaneer; his politely threatening manner during the Chapter Nine standoff sequence is particularly good. Terry Frost plays yet another historical personage, Kidd’s mutinous gunner William Moore, and is given a nice opportunity to snarl rebelliously at Crawford’s Kidd. John Hart does well in the less showy part of Kidd’s stalwart aide Jenkins (also a real-life figure), conveying toughness, responsibility, and quiet loyalty.
Lou Merrill, a versatile actor who chiefly appeared on radio (he also had a memorable character bit in the second Flash Gordon serial) is excellent as the selfish and double-dealing Lord Bellmore, a slightly renamed version of Kidd’s actual patron and betrayer, Lord Bellomont; he affects a snobbishly decadent Charles-Laughton-like voice, with mannerisms (including habitual snuff-taking) to match. The resonant-voiced Nelson Leigh–usually a pillar of rectitude–plays Merrill’s equally corrupt aide Robert Langdon, maintaining his typical impressive bearing when pretending to friendship with the heroes, but lapsing into weaselly nervousness when conferring with Merrill. Joe Mell is properly slick and taciturn as Leigh’s confidential servant.
Nick Stuart is Kidd’s sneaky and untrustworthy ship’s surgeon, while Pierce Lyden and Charles King (in his final serial appearance) are given several scenes as other treacherous crewmen. Tommy Farrell, Al Ferguson, and Eddie Foster have much smaller bits as sailors, and Frank Ellis appears frequently in the background as Kidd’s helmsman. Keith Richards is a British captain whose vessel is taken over by mutineers from Kidd’s ship, William Fawcett a friendly innkeeper, Stanley Price a Moorish ship captain, Stanley Blystone an outspoken townsman, stuntman Sandy Sanders a nasty press-gang officer, George Eldredge a captain, Marshall Bradford an admiral, and Wade Crosby a maritime attorney. Lyle Talbot is characteristically dignified as a colonial prison governor, while George Lynn–usually a grimly hostile henchman–is very good in his atypical one-scene role as a cynical but honest and sympathetic London official.
Zon Murray is suitably mean and brutish as Captain Tew, another real-life pirate, but his thick Missouri accent makes him seem a little incongruous in the role. Edmund Cobb and Stanley Andrews make brief appearances as a pair of helpful colonial frontiersmen, Bud Osborne is a lot of fun as a quirky and crusty ferryman, and Ray Corrigan does a villainous turn as one of Bellmore’s men–getting a brief chance, in an interchange with Osborne, to display the old humorous exasperation that he used so frequently in his Three Mesquiteers and Range Busters films. Steven Ritch, Michael Fox (practically unrecognizable under a black beard and eyepatch), Gene Roth, and prolific television villain George Keymas, as various ex-crewmen of Kidd’s, all get to narrate flashback sequences telling of Kidd’s supposed evil deeds; Ritch also reappears in the final episode and does a good job of acting bitterly contrite about his previous prevarication. Several of Katzman’s troupe of Samoan extras appears as Caribbean islanders and as background members of Kidd’s crew; dancer and choreographer Willetta Smith is given the only speaking female role in the serial, a glorified walk-on as a kidnapped North Indian princess.
Original, well-researched, and well-acted as Great Adventures of Captain Kidd is, it ultimately leaves the viewer feeling empty and unsatisfied. The historical Kidd saga could have provided excellent fodder for a downbeat, dramatic, and interesting feature film, but it’s simply too dispiriting a tale to be adequately or satisfactorily chronicled by a chapterplay; the historical tragedy and the adventure serial are basically incompatible forms, and the attempt to combine them in Kidd keeps the production from working as either. There’s much to enjoy in the serial, but as a whole it disappoints; it’s truly regrettable that the sole sound-serial foray into the piratical-swashbuckling genre took such an ill-advised plotting approach.