Super-Serial Productions, 12 Chapters, 1935. Starring Kane Richmond, Claudia Dell, George Hayes, Josef Swickard, William “Stage” Boyd, Billy Bletcher, Eddie Fetherston, Jerry Frank, Sam Baker, Margot D’Use.
A mad tyrant named Zolok (William “Stage” Boyd), the last of the Ligurians (“a race of master scientists”) has imprisoned the brilliant Dr. Manyus (Josef Swickard) and his daughter Natcha (Claudia Dell) in The Lost City, an underground realm hidden beneath Magnetic Mountain in darkest Africa. There, Zolok forces Manyus to help him create strange scientific devices, including an “Enlarging Machine” that can transform ordinary men into fearsome giants. Zolok also uses powerful electro-magnetic devices to meddle with the world’s weather, causing disastrous storms across the globe; these activities bring an expedition headed by electrical engineer Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond) to Magnetic Mountain in search of the source of the climatic disturbances. Zolok manages to trap the expedition, but Bruce and his friend Jerry Delaney (Eddie Fetherston) subsequently escape, and help Manyus and his daughter to do likewise; these four refugees from the Lost City then embark on a dangerous series of wanderings in the jungle, continually fighting off the ruthless slave trader Butterfield (George Hayes), his equally ruthless rival slavers, and two treacherous colleagues of Bruce’s–all of whom are determined to capture Manyus and learn the secret of his valuable giant-making process. Zolok’s agents–the hunchbacked Gorzo (Billy Bletcher), the muscular Apollyon (Jerry Frank), and the monstrous giant Hugo (Sam Baker)–take a hand in the struggle over Manyus as well, while Zolok monitors said struggle over his television screen.
The Lost City was turned out by Sherman S. Krellberg, an entrepreneur who owned a New York movie-theater chain, produced several Broadway plays, and headed up innumerable theatrical and television distribution companies over the course of his career. He also dabbled in independent film-making on more than one occasion–using his knowledge of the exhibition side of the picture business to make his films marketable, but never paying much attention to actual production quality. Krellberg assigned the direction of Lost City to Harry Revier, another former exhibitor and producer, who’d helmed many silent serials, and was also responsible for several highly sensationalistic melodramas (in the silent days) and some outright exploitation films (during the sound era); the chapterplay’s camerawork was entrusted to the distinguished Edward Linden–who’d been the cinematographer on King Kong–and to the less distinguished Roland Price, who, like Revier, worked on several exploitation films (in fact, he collaborated with the director more than once). Zelma Carroll, who receives both a “story” and “dialogue directing” credit on City, had written many of Revier’s silent films; she, Revier, and Krellberg seem be the principal parties responsible for taking a potentially colorful and enjoyable serial and turning it into a disaster, albeit one that has considerable curiosity value.
Lost City’s other scripters were Robert Dillon, George Merrick, Eddie Granemann, Leon D’Usseau, and once-popular novelist Perley Poore Sheehan (author of The Whispering Chorus and The Way of All Flesh). However, the peculiar structure of City’s plot was undoubtedly dictated by Krellberg’s marketing strategies, not by the imagination of any member of the writing team. Instead of taking several episodes to trek to the Lost City, the characters quickly reach Magnetic Mountain by the end of Chapter One (after the viewer has already been thoroughly introduced to Zolok’s realm) and enter the Lost City at the beginning of Chapter Two. Then, instead of spending the next four or five chapters in the city, the main characters flee it by the end of Chapter Three, and spend most of the remaining episodes encountering a series of jungle perils that have very little connection to the supposed main plot (the fight to stop Zolok), until they finally return to the city at the end of Chapter Eleven. By allowing the heroes to reach their chief destination so soon and then leave it so early, the screenplay simultaneously robs itself of the entertainment value that could have been derived from a dangerous jungle journey towards an important goal, and of the thrills that might have arisen from an extended sojourn in a fantastic science-fictional realm.
However, this narrative structure, damaging as it is to the serial’s story, allowed Krellberg to pack a lot of production value into the first three chapters–the episodes that would have been shown as samples to prospective exhibitors; the early sequences set in the Lost City are, visually speaking, very impressive–with Kenneth Strickfadden’s laboratory props (many of them also seen in the Flash Gordon serials), spacious futuristic sets, and excellent camera angles making the city look truly strange and striking. Once the plot has transitioned to the jungle (and into chapters that wouldn’t have been previewed by theater-owners) the visual flourishes noticeably diminish, while the locations (furnished by the Mack Sennett Studios’ backlot) become more ordinary–thicketed stretches of forest, Arab tents, native huts, and Butterfield’s stockade headquarters. The fact that the “main” plot (the struggle with Zolok) is almost completely suspended during the characters’ jungle misadventures also allowed Krellberg to easily excise those chapters, and earn further box-office dividends by releasing the footage from City’s opening and closing episodes as an ersatz feature film.
Above, top left: A master shot of Zolok’s terrific laboratory. Top right: A striking upside-down/reflected shot of William “Stage” Boyd and Jerry Frank applying the “Brain Destroyer” to an unfortunate native. Bottom left: Ralph Lewis (left) and William Millman ponder inside one of the native huts so frequently seen during the serial’s midsection. Bottom right: The fugitive good guys staggers through the jungle undergrowth.
City’s “detachable” chapters (Four through Ten) devolve into a highly repetitious and ultimately pointless series of captures and escapes, although the numerous interactions between the protagonists, Zolok’s henchmen, and a wide assortment of secondary villains–Butterfield, scheming expedition-members Reynolds and Colton, slaver Ben Ali, tyrannical Queen Rama–do put a decent veneer of variety on this repetitive action; Butterfield’s shifting loyalties and Queen Rama’s dangerous infatuation with Bruce particularly help to give an unpredictable feel to the story. Other plot threads are underdeveloped and confusing; for example, Apollyon’s love for Natcha is pointedly announced in the first chapter, but never mentioned again; instead, Gorzo dramatically announces his desire to marry her as well, halfway through the serial–only to forget about his infatuation soon afterwards. With equal suddenness, Gorzo decides to abandon Zolok’s service and help the good guys in the serial’s concluding chapters–but the reasons behind his turnabout are never satisfactorily elaborated.
Above left: William Millman as the scheming Colton tries to strike a bargain with Gino Corrado as the cagy Ben Ali. Above right: Jerry Frank’s Apollyon pesters Claudia Dell’s Natcha with a marriage proposal.
The antecedents of Dr. Manyus, Natcha, and Apollyon are never explained, either; their bizarre names and equally bizarre costumes would seem to indicate that they’re Ligurians like Zolok–but the doctor and his daughter seem familiar with the outside world, and Zolok emphatically describes himself as the “last” of the Ligurians. Annoyingly, while the backgrounds of these major characters are left murky, the writers go to elaborate and embarrassing lengths to explain the antecedents of a set of minor characters–a tribe of spider-worshiping white “pigmies” near the Lost City; it seems that they persuaded Manyus to develop a serum that changed them from black to white, a serum that he subsequently administers to an eager new black patient in a memorably stupid throwaway sequence. This scene, and the ghastly lingering close-up of the deceased Queen Rama in a later chapter, would seem to be examples of director Revier’s and writer Carroll’s tastelessly sensationalistic tendencies.
Though (as mentioned above), its cinematography is striking at times, Lost City’s editing is sluggish and its direction clumsy, making the serial move at the draggy pace common to most independent serials; lengthy and static takes abound, while bits of business that should consume five seconds at best (like the hero and heroine’s pondering over where to hide a ray-gun, or Gorzo’s donning of an Arab guard’s robe) are absurdly and tediously stretched out. Action scenes–of which City has few–are similarly static; the Chapter Six fistfight at the Arab camp (the only protracted brawl in the serial) is filmed at such a distance and executed in such slow-moving style that it falls flat. The Chapter Seven swordfight between Bruce and Ben Ali is a little more entertaining, due to its novelty value, but is still too slow and too cramped (taking place inside a small tent) to actually be called exciting. The same episode also features a clumsily chaotic battle between Ben Ali’s men and Butterfield’s native followers; aside from the shorter clash between the Wanga tribesmen and the Spider Men in Chapter Nine, most of the serial’s other action consists of brief hand-to-hand grapples that usually end in the hero either being overpowered by a mass of natives or by one or more of the “giants.”
The lack of extended action scenes and the comparative passivity of the protagonists–they spend most of the serial being victimized by one villain or another, instead of battling them on equal terms–seem to indicate that Krellberg and Revier were trying to give City the ambience of a horror film and not an adventure film; however, most of their attempts at evoking terror misfire. The Chapter One sequence that has Zolok’s mindless native giants toting Butterfield’s tribesmen into the Lost City’s dungeon, and then dragging one prisoner up a flight of stairs and down a hall to have his brain destroyed and body enlarged, could have been memorably horrific indeed–if it wasn’t for the incessant screaming that accompanies it; Krellberg would have been better-advised to pay for some stock-music cues to lend an ominous mood to the scene, instead of trying to create a fearful atmosphere through this overdone shrieking–which is so mechanically unvaried and persistent that it comes off as silly instead of startling. Excess also wrecks the scene–obviously intended as a moment of grim drama–in which Queen Rama gives Bruce a blinding drug and he realizes what she’s done; his angry but unseeing lunges are so vehement, and lead to such spectacular tumbles, that they look more comic than anything else–especially when Rama starts laughing uncontrollably at him.
Several of City’s chapter endings, however, manage to summon up a respectable amount of suspense and tension, although most of them are resolved by slight but noticeable cheats; the Chapter Six cliffhanger, which has Bruce being throttled by the giant Hugo, is effectively handled, with some genuinely frightening closeups of the human behemoth. Bruce’s imperilment by a death-ray at the end of Chapter Eleven and Manyus’ apparent crushing beneath a spiked rock in Chapter Three are satisfactorily staged as well. Other cliffhangers are more routine, like the one that has Butterfield about to shoot Bruce and the one that has Bruce and Jerry apparently speared by pigmies–while Chapter Seven’s attack by a wobbly, obviously fake giant spider is absolutely terrible. The cliffhanger that has Natcha getting chased into the river by a tiger is more interesting, but its unnaturally undercranked look betrays its origins as a silent-serial sequence; it was lifted from Warner Brothers’ The Lost City of the African Jungle, as was much of the footage in the excellent Chapter Ten cliffhanger, in which Natcha is trapped on a receding platform above a lion pit–although the old shots are more efficiently blended with the new in the latter sequence. Other incidental shots of lions and tigers hail from the same source; Krellberg apparently couldn’t afford to hire any trained animals after renting the Strickfadden lab equipment.
The overplaying mentioned above doesn’t merely damage the serial’s supposedly horrifying moments; it drags down practically every dialogue scene in the serial–and, more than any other flaw in City, makes the chapterplay feel off-puttingly strange. Most of the serial’s major players don’t even try to make the decidedly clunky script sound natural, and instead overact to a gratingly outrageous degree–and I’m not talking about the kind of self-conscious stiffness or knowing staginess seen in many early-talkie serials, but about feverishly hammy ravings that call to mind the broadest sound-era parodies of silent-movie acting. In virtually every scene, the actors grimace ferociously, affectedly over-enunciate or loudly shout out their lines, and gesticulate so frenziedly that they often seem to be in danger of hitting each other in the eye. Since City’s cast members comported themselves in identifiably human fashion in films made both before and after the serial, the blame for this overdose of over-theatricality would seem to rest squarely on director Revier and his dialogue-directing accomplice Carroll.
Kane Richmond makes a most inauspicious serial debut as Bruce Gordon–continually clenching his fists and waving his hands, shrilly and breathlessly issuing warnings and defiances, and hardly ever showing a trace of the quiet self-assurance and relaxed good-humor that made him so appealing in other serials; only in a few fleeting sequences (like the Chapter Five bit where he outwits Butterfield’s henchman Andrews) does his more characteristic air of calm dash come to the surface. Leading lady Claudia Dell delivers an even more atrocious performance than Richmond does; her repeated hand-wringing, finger-twiddling, and gaspingly melodramatic line delivery make it hard not to laugh whenever she’s holding center stage (her inexplicable pirate-like head-scarf doesn’t help her to look any less risible).
Unlike Richmond and Dell, who frantically rush through their performances, Josef Swickard as Dr. Manyus takes a more lingering–but no less hammy–approach to his role; unlike his rather glum-looking young co-stars, he appears to enjoy following the instructions of Revier and Carroll. Smiling sententiously, he mercilessly prolongs scene after scene with his horribly mannered delivery, silently pausing between lines and frequently using a pointing finger to further emphasize his words. The great character actor George Hayes (who had yet to earn his “Gabby” cognomen, or his status as the preeminent B-western sidekick) delivers one of the serial’s few good performances; apparently, he was both old enough and restrained enough of a thespian to hold to a steady acting keel despite directorial instructions. His sly and tough Butterfield comes off as a formidable villain, but retains enough of a likable-rogue quality to keep the character’s eventual reformation from seeming completely unbelievable; Hayes does a fine job of making his big repentance scene not only plausible, but rather moving as well.
As Zolok, former Broadway actor William “Stage” Boyd (so dubbed to distinguish him from silent movie star William Boyd, who later became famous as Hopalong Cassidy) receives top billing, but the structure of the plot relegates his character to a background role for most of the serial. However, he yields to none in the hamminess department whenever he’s on-screen; when he’s not hoarsely growling threats out of the side of his mouth (in a fashion that makes him seem more like a deranged gangster than a mad scientist), he’s ranting loudly, pounding desks, or gesturing furiously. The chuckling giddiness with which he performs his “mad scene” in the final chapter is even more over-the-top, so much so that it’s given rise to the persistent rumor that he was drunk during the filming of the serial. Boyd was a notorious imbiber in real life (a fact that led to underserved bad publicity for the other William Boyd)–but, given the prevalent acting style of the serial, it’s just as likely that he was stone-cold sober when portraying Zolok.
Billy Bletcher, as Gorzo, turns in a performance that shows the difference between controlled and uncontrolled hamminess; though he’s definitely broad and stagy when his dwarfish hunchback is rhapsodizing over the prospect of someday being made “big! strong!” through the use of Zolok and Manyus’ gadgetry, he never seems as desperate or as self-indulgent as most of his co-stars; instead, he gives his offbeat character just the amount of larger-than-life oddness required, using his wonderful speaking voice to sound menacing, wistful, and dignified as necessary. Amateur weightlifter Jerry Frank, as Zolok’s other chief aide Apollyon, is either wooden or exaggeratedly sneery, and seems clearly (and understandably) embarrassed by his costume–an exceedingly skimpy bathing suit with metallic-looking suspenders and a lightning-bolt chest emblem. Sam Baker, who plays the principal giant Hugo, has no dialogue beyond grunts and screams; his insane-looking glares and grins are actually fairly frightening–due principally to his tremendous size, which makes his weird expressions seem more scary than goofy.
Eddie Fetherston–later a frequent minor player in many Columbia chapterplays–plays the nominal comic sidekick Jerry, but comes off as one of the most sane and intelligent people in the serial. The nature of his role saves him from having to dramatically emote, and he’s only occasionally called on to register overdone comic terror (mostly in the first two episodes). In the majority of his scenes, he maintains a breezy but low-key and almost deadpan manner that’s a welcome contrast to the hyperventilating of Richmond, Dell, and Swickard; his normalcy earns him so much good will from the viewer that his occasional wisecracks (like his reference to Ben Ali as “Bon Ami”) seem funnier than they actually are.
Margot D’Use, as the nasty, sketchily-clad Queen Rama of the Wanga tribe, has an indeterminately exotic face that makes her physically credible as the Arab she’s supposed to be, but her acting is ridiculously strident; her evil monarch comes off as viciously petulant instead of imperious. She indulges in the same frenzied gesticulations as most of the other players, while her thick, vaguely Latin accent (real or assumed? who knows) makes her exaggerated line delivery sound even sillier than theirs; her jungle-chic costumes augment this aura of silliness. Italian-born character actor Gino Corrado portrays the cunning but irritable slaver Ben Ali, blustering and chortling in a bombastic style that recalls frequent Laurel and Hardy foil Billy Gilbert more than anything else.
Ralph Lewis and William Millman sneer, scowl, and cringe with abandon as the obsessively venal scientists Reynolds and Colton, who seethe with furious and apparently unmotivated hatred for the hero even before they decide to kidnap Manyus. As Butterfield’s tipsy henchman Andrews, Milburn Morante grimaces unbelievably in his first scene (when he’s reporting a giant-sighting), and spends most of his remaining scenes credibly imitating a stumbling, incoherent drunk. Hulking Everett Brown, later a henchman in Tim Tyler’s Luck, can be spotted as one of Zolok’s monstrous giants; he and the aforementioned Sam Baker are backed by other, similarly humongous black actors–most of whom only appear in the first chapter; the black background players portraying Queen Rama’s frequently warriors and Butterfield’s screeching followers have more screen time, while an unidentified and refreshingly subdued black actress plays a small but important role as the Queen’s put-upon and sympathetic maid Kala. A group of diminutive but not actually dwarfish white bit players play the “pigmies,” Curley Dresden is one of Ben Ali’s henchmen, and Henry Hall is one of the bigwigs overseeing Bruce Gordon’s weather-pattern investigations in the first chapter.
Lost City can’t be called a good serial by any stretch of the imagination, but its outlandish scientific gimmickry, shoddy and frequently bizarre screenplay, and dreadful performances make it so arrestingly awful that it’s capable of providing a lot of entertainment for those who relish a “so-bad-it’s-good” viewing experience. However, viewers who go into The Lost City expecting anything other than unintentional humor are likely to soon find themselves echoing the words of Eddie Fetherston’s Jerry Delaney: “It’s a nut house; I’m gonna get outa here!”