Republic, 14 Chapters, 1936. Starring Ray Mala, Mamo Clark, William Newell, George Chesebro, John Picorri, John Ward, John Dilson, Herbert Rawlinson, Selmer Jackson, Buck, and Rex, King of the Wild Horses.
The Pacific Dirigible Company of California has just opened an ocean-girdling air route from America to Australia; the San Francisco, the first airship to traverse this route, catches fire and crashes into the sea–while, simultaneously, the Company agents stationed on Clipper Island (one of the key Pacific fueling stations for the dirigible route) are attacked and massacred, seemingly by the natives of the nearby island of Komatoa. Company president E. G. Ellsworth (John Dilson) suspects that both events are part of an organized sabotage campaign, and asks the U.S. Secret Service for assistance; the Service in turn assigns their agent Mala (Ray Mala)–a Pacific native familiar with the islands and their inhabitants–to the case. Accompanied by his dog Buck and his beachcomber friend Hank McGlaurie (William Newell), Mala journeys to Clipper Island to reopen the abandoned Company radio-station–and soon finds out that an international spy ring has taken control of the island, using it as a base from which to tap into a nearby underwater telegraph cable. To protect their setup, the spy ring’s agents are determined to keep the Company–and everyone else–off of Clipper Island; Mala soon has his hands full battling not only the spies but the neighboring Komatoans, who were not involved in the massacre of the Company staffers but who are nevertheless stirred up against the Secret Service agent by the spies’ witch-doctor ally Porotu (John Picorri). However, the Komotoan princess Melani (Mamo Clark) proves friendly to Mala–as does a fiery stallion named Rex, who was purchased by Melani during a sojourn on the mainland but who quickly adopts Mala as his master. With help from Melani, Rex, Hank, Buck, and eccentric British novelist Anthony Tupper (John Ward), Mala withstands all the spy ring’s efforts to remove him, and gradually comes to realize that the ring’s mysterious leader, “H. K.,” must be either Jackson (Herbert Rawlinson) or Canfield (Selmer Jackson)–the two other members of the Dirigible Company’s board of directors.
Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island reuses the basic plot setup–a criminal gang trying to keep outsiders off their island base–of the Mascot outing The Fighting Marines; however, writers Maurice Geraghty (who also worked on Marines), Barry Shipman, and Morgan Cox fail to provide Crusoe with the frequent island-to-mainland-and-back journeys that kept the earlier serial’s storyline from seeming too repetitive. Instead, Crusoe’s story stays on Komatoa and Clipper Island for most of the serial’s running time; when Mala finally journeys to the mainland in Chapter Ten and starts the plot rolling towards the climactic unmasking of H. K., the trip and the resulting change in plotting direction come as a welcome but rather belated relief after the repetitious series of hero-villain clashes on the island. Most of these clashes arise from the villains’ efforts to kill Mala or from Mala’s repeated but inconclusive invasions of the villains’ cave headquarters; the spies are only actually shown spying in one chapter (the third, in which Mala interferes with their cable-tap), while their dirigible-sabotage activities are confined to the first episode and the last two; it would have been refreshing to see the villains actually try to carry out a few more plans unrelated to removing the hero–and to watch the hero decisively interfere with said plans, instead of just ducking in and out of the villains’ hideout and dodging their murder attempts. The subplot surrounding Porotu’s campaign to overthrow Princess Melani does help to vary the storyline a little, though it’s often handled rather carelessly; for instance, note how the royal Komatoan coronet is presented as the all-important key to the Porotu-Melani power struggle, but is completely forgotten once it’s provided an excuse for an action sequence.
The biggest problem with Crusoe’s script, however, arises from the fact that it was originally conceived as the screenplay of a twelve-chapter serial but was expanded by two extra chapters when producer Nat Levine realized that the serial had gone over budget and that he’d need some additional episode-rental fees to avoid losing money. Screenwriter Barry Shipman, assigned to concoct these added chapters at a minimum of expense, built one of them around the tried-and-true recap chapter so common in Levine’s Mascot serials; he managed to create the other by padding various episodes with dialogue and action scenes recycled from earlier episodes but presented as new events (the most glaringly noticeable example being the Chapter Four rescue sequence that’s featured a second time in Chapter Seven). Shipman would have been better off simply adding a second recap chapter–an expedient that might have been a little irksome, but wouldn’t have been as jarring and as damaging to story continuity as these periodic attacks of artificially-induced déjà vu are.
The money spent on making Crusoe may have driven Levine into a panic, but the expenditure often has good on-screen results–particularly when it comes to the serial’s visuals. Crusoe’s location work is excellent; some of its scenes were shot in the Bronson Canyon area, some in the forest at Lake Sherwood, and some along the coast of Santa Cruz Island (the biggest of California’s Channel Islands); this isle’s cliffs, caverns, coves, and sea-caves (infrequently-used by movie-makers) are particularly striking–and are very well-photographed by William Nobles and Edgar Lyons. Good cinematography is also in evidence in the shots of H. K.’s shadowy headquarters (carefully composed to avoid showing the unmasked villain’s face), in the scenes set in the natives’ smoke-filled sacred volcanic grotto, and in the outstanding first-chapter sequence during which the dirigible and the Company’s Clipper Island base are simultaneously destroyed by fire.
Above, top left: John Ward helps the diving-suited Mala ashore. Top right: A boatload of villains puts in by a cavern. Bottom left: Flame-cast shadows play over the empty radioman’s office at Clipper Island, while at bottom right dirigible officers try to contact the Island.
The last-named scene is boosted not only by ominous camera angles and sinister lighting, but by suitably dramatic accompanying music (a touch lacking in Levine’s Mascot serials) and by the panicked warnings of a wounded Clipper Island radio operator, who vainly urges the dirigible crew to turn back before being murdered by an unseen enemy; the whole sequence establishes such a strong atmosphere of mysterious dread that one feels definitely disappointed when the threat to the Dirigible Company turns out to be nothing more spooky than a bunch of privacy-seeking spies. Howard and Theodore Lydecker’s excellent miniature work also plays a key part in this sequence, as well as during the serial’s exciting volcano-eruption climax and in several good chapter endings–including the Chapter Twelve boat explosion, Chapter Fourteen’s impending dirigible wreck, and the very well-shot harbor plane crash that concludes Chapter Ten.
Above left: The dirigible San Francisco burns and falls to pieces, courtesy of the Lydecker brothers. Above right: A (miniature) plane containing the hero and a villain zooms downwards to doom at the end of Chapter Ten.
The Chapter Ten ending is unfortunately resolved by a really blatant bit of cheating at the beginning of the next episode. The resolutions to the nifty volcanic-pit cliffhanger of Chapter Two and the Chapter Three cliffhanger (which has the hero’s diving suit running out of air) are also atrocious cheats, while several other chapter endings (like the cliff fall at the end of Chapter Seven) are resolved by means of more subtle but still noticeable alterations in the ensuing chapters; for some reason, these annoying cliffhanging cheats seem to be particularly common in the late Mascots and early Republics. The excellent ship-fire cliffhanger of Chapter One is fairly (if predictably) resolved, however, as are the Chapter Six cave-in sequence and the Chapter Eight crocodile attack; other endings, like the Chapter Four cave explosion, the Chapter Five plane crash, and the Chapter Eleven car crash, are followed by honest but slightly unlikely “live-through-it” resolutions.
Above: Mala stands on a plank above the volcanic pit (left) and is then dropped in (right) at the end of Chapter Two. How does he get out of this one? Simple, he simply doesn’t drop in at all in the next chapter.
Crusoe’s in-chapter action scenes feature a lot of cliff-climbing, diving, swimming, and boating, along with several chases through island caverns; some of the best sequences of this kind include Mala’s escape from the villains’ headquarters in Chapter Five, the motorboat/canoe chase in Chapter Six, and Mala’s rescue of the Princess from the sacrificial grotto later in the same episode. All this running around on land and sea, however, comes off as a bit monotonous at times–largely because it’s not balanced with other varieties of action scene; the island setting precludes equestrian or vehicular chases, while gun battles are entirely absent (the closest the serial gets to such a sequence is the clash between spies and natives in Chapter Fourteen, during which only the spies use firearms). Fistfights are almost as scarce as gunfights, the only two protracted scenes of hand-to-hand combat being Mala’s wrestling match with a gigantic native champion and a fight aboard a burning ship (both in Chapter One). The former scene is set up in nicely dramatic style and features plenty of energetic flips, but winds up looking rather phony due to the two combatants’ extreme difference in size; the latter scene is lively enough, but is staged without much precision by directors Ray Taylor and Mack Wright.
The three-pronged rescue of sidekick Hank by Mala, Rex, and Buck in Chapter Three is fairly short but good, although diminished by its almost complete repetition in a later chapter (as aforementioned). The heroes’ Chapter Eight theft of the sacred crown from Porotu and his followers gives rise to a more extended–and very enjoyable–action sequence, one that involves vine-swinging, a wild horseback rush through the native village, a foot pursuit through the jungle, a hand-over-hand climb on a vine, and a tussle with a crocodile; this croc fight is enhanced by striking long shots that might be stock footage, but which succeed in boosting the excitement value of the scene, whatever their origins. The Chapter Five sequence in which Mala clings to the villains’ plane as its pilots try to shake him off is also a standout bit of action–since it doesn’t just rely on process-screen work, instead using sharp tilting of the plane mock-up and good miniature work to make the hero’s peril seem real and gripping. Also noteworthy is the Chapter One sequence in which Mala swings down on to the back of the misbehaving Rex and gentles him down, saving the life of one of the Princess’s servants; stuntman and wrangler Tracy Layne, who owned one of the portrayers of “Rex” (see below) probably doubled Mala here, but Loren Riebe performs a lot of the star’s other stuntwork–including the dive from the cliff that’s shown during the opening credits of each episode.
As for Ray Mala (billed simply as “Mala” here), his performance is not exactly a stellar one, even though Crusoe’s advertising campaign touted him one of the serial’s major attractions. He definitely was a well-known screen name in 1936; a half-Russian, half-Inuit native of Alaska, he’d won movie fame through his starring turn in MGM’s critically-acclaimed 1933 feature Eskimo, and had also top-lined MGM’s South Seas drama Last of the Pagans in 1935. However, neither of these big-budget films had required Mala to deliver extensive dialogue in English (which was not his first language)–while Crusoe, most disastrously, does. He actually turns in a good job of facial acting, looking alert, worried, or serious as required; particularly good are his grimly defiant expression when the natives are forcing him towards the volcanic fissure, and the boyishly exuberant grin he flashes after casually swimming out to a plane to confer with his Secret Service superior. Whenever he opens his mouth, however, his performance turns from good to dreadful; he fails to give any emotion, energy, or conviction to his lines, and can’t even enunciate them properly half of the time; his listless muttering is particularly painful when he’s trying to explain criminological deductions in quasi-Holmesian style, or when he’s delivering lines that are supposed to be moving or dramatic–like his appeals to the Princess to trust him, or his denunciation of a murderer in Chapter Ten.
Though billed second and third, Mala’s animal co-stars Rex and Buck don’t play as big a role in the story or in the action scenes as Rex and the senior and junior Rin Tin Tins did in Levine’s Mascot serials–although they do get to save the day in the serial’s first-rate climactic sequence. One suspects that Buck, a St. Bernard, wasn’t as easy (or as safe) to coax into feigned attacks as the German Shepherds at Mascot were; the dog had gained a “name” not through Rinty-style action films but through his appearance as the valiant sled dog in Twentieth-Century Fox’s Clark Gable vehicle Call of the Wild. As for the redoubtable Rex (who makes his final serial appearance here), the island milieu simply doesn’t provide as many opportunities for a horse to engage in heroics as a Western setting would have. The veteran equine star himself actually doesn’t appear in many scenes, being doubled for much of the serial by younger horses provided by Tracy Layne.
Mamo Clark, a genuine Hawaiian, delivers a low-key but respectable performance as Princess Melani–although, since she’s playing opposite Mala, it’d be hard for her not to come off well simply by comparison; though she’s a bit too subdued at times, she still manages to achieve a perfectly adequate combination of regal hauteur, friendliness, and vulnerability. Incidentally, the attractive actress gave the serial a second connection to Clark Gable; she had previously played Gable’s native bride in MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty–a prestigious A-feature credit that (like Mala’s and Buck’s feature-film outings) was duly noted in the serial’s advertising. As Melani’s tribal rival Porotu, John Picorri has one of his biggest serial roles and plays it to menacing perfection; the character is more rational than the deranged villains Picorri subsequently portrayed in Dick Tracy and Fighting Devil Dogs, but Picorri’s performance still makes him arrestingly sinister–whether he’s slyly endeavoring to bait Mala into a dangerous wrestling match, delivering the supposed edicts of the goddess Pele with dignified grimness, broodingly pondering ways and means of overthrowing the Princess, or restrainedly but feverishly exulting over apparent triumphs.
William Newell and John Ward, as beachcomber Hank and novelist Tupper, form a lowbrow/highbrow sidekick combo that could actually have been pretty amusing–if the stereotypically “English” dialogue of the Tupper character had been toned down a little, or if the part had been played by a genuine Britisher; instead, Ward’s assumed English accent is so weak and his character’s use of English upper-crust slang so relentless that he comes off as irritatingly affected, not amusingly eccentric. Newell, on the other hand, is quite good–and very likable–as the tough and dependable Hank, playing his character in such a blunt, gruff, and down-to-earth style that the occasional broad comedy bits he’s saddled with seem jarringly out of character; his taciturn, quietly annoyed responses to Ward’s blathering are particularly appealing, since Ward provokes much the same reaction from the viewer (it’s Ward’s character, by the way, who dubs Mala’s character a “Robinson Crusoe” and thus flimsily justifies the serial’s title).
The delightfully energetic George Chesebro shines as Draker, the leader of the Clipper Island spies; his sneering put-downs of his underlings, his veiled insolence towards the higher-ranking villain Lamar, and the loudly and swaggeringly confident style in which he outlines plans all make his performance highly enjoyable. His cynical craftiness during his plotting scene with John Picorri in Chapter Six is also very entertaining; he and Picorri, in fact, emerge as the serial’s two principal villains, due to their screen presence and extensive screen time. The master spy H. K. appears far less frequently and is a lot less interesting; he lacks a costume of any kind and merely sits in his hideout issuing brief commands until the concluding chapters. At least said hideout is atmospherically lit and photographed, as previously mentioned; the villain’s voice is also interesting, since it’s provided by none other than Ralph Byrd, not yet a serial star at this time. Byrd uses an extremely brusque-sounding version of his self-assured Dick Tracy voice for the uncredited acting assignment; while he doesn’t succeed in sounding particularly sinister, he does make the villain come off as decisively and aggressively authoritative.
Above: George Chesebro (standing, left-hand picture) reports via radio to H. K. (seated at corner of right-hand picture). Edmund Cobb is standing second from left in the right-hand picture, while Lloyd Whitlock is rising to his feet behind Cobb.
The members of the H. K. suspect pool are as inactive as the villain himself, being restricted to brief appearances at the Dirigible Company office for the bulk of the serial, and refraining from the mysterious shenanigans of Mascot’s suspect characters–a pattern that would be followed by most of the other red herrings in Republic’s ensuing serials. At least all of the suspect parts are played by expert character actors; distinguished Herbert Rawlinson does a very good job in the atypically unsympathetic role of Jackson, the Company’s selfish chief stockholder; he’s suavely cynical and harshly overbearing by turns. Selmer Jackson, as board-member Canfield, is characteristically brisk, businesslike, and affable, while John Dilson–as Company president and dark-horse suspect Ellsworth–conveys all the drive, worry, and enthusiasm appropriate to his character, an ambitious transportation pioneer who sees his long-standing dream of trans-Pacific dirigible travel endangered just as it becomes a reality.
Lloyd Whitlock is unexpectedly hilarious in his offbeat two-chapter turn as Lamar, the H. K. agent who comes to Clipper Island to light a fire under Draker and his men and expedite the destruction of Mala; the self-important bossiness with which he snaps orders to the island heavies, and those heavies’ obedient but clearly irritated reactions to his behavior, are very funny (but not so funny as to diminish the villains’ menace). First-rate character player George Cleveland makes the most of his periodic appearances as the villainous scientist Goebel, adopting a punctiliously polite and gravely preoccupied air. As crooked skipper Wilson, Bob Kortman has some good nasty and cunning moments in the first chapter, but is disappointingly reduced to the role of a mostly silent background henchman in the remaining episodes. Bud Osborne, Al Taylor, and Frank Ellis also serve as background henchmen, while a bulky actor named F. Herrick Herrick has a little more screen time as the pugnacious commander of the villains’ submarine.
Edward Cassidy appears briefly as Mala’s Secret Service boss, while smooth Allen Connor has a good turn as a traitorous Secret Service pilot; Harry Strang pops up as one of the spy ring’s flyers, stuntman Tracy Layne is a background code clerk in the villains’ large and cavernous decoding chamber, Anthony Pawlely is memorable in his bit as the injured Clipper Island radioman, Henry Sylvester and Don Brodie are two of the officers of the doomed dirigible San Francisco, Allan Cavan and Lester Dorr are officers on the dirigible California, and Edmund Cobb can be regularly seen (and occasionally heard) sitting at H. K.’s conference table in almost every chapter. Tiny Roebuck is the intimidating native wrestler, Val Duran makes many appearances as the villains’ native drummer, Frazer Acosta (who delivers his lines almost as ineptly as Mala does) plays John Picorri’s chief aide, and Herbert Weber is a nervously shifty informant in the first chapter.
Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island has so many flaws–somewhat repetitious action, definitely repetitious plotting, a bland mystery villain, an amateurish leading performance, an unfunny comic-relief actor, multiple cliffhanger-resolution cheats, and two ersatz additional chapters–that it’s often been dismissed by serial fans as an unmitigated disaster. However, it’s really more frustratingly uneven than unbearably awful; its locations, special effects, camerawork, and supporting cast are more than good enough to make it worth watching, even though it fails to satisfy as a whole.
Acknowledgements: I owe thanks for this review to serial expert Mike Newton (who’s posted here on occasion) for an informative Internet Movie Database comment that explained the reasons behind Crusoe’s extra chapters; to Chuck Anderson’s Old Corral page on Rex, King of the Wild Horses, which gave me Tracy Layne’s name and made it clear Rex did appear in the serial, contrary to some accounts; and to the late Raymond William Stedman’s The Movie Serial Companion: Book Two, which identified Loren Riebe and Santa Cruz Island for me.