First in Flight (The Serials of Universal)

First In Flight: Universal Pictures’ Sound Serials (1930-1946)

Part I: The Reign of MacRae (1930-1936)

The two biggest serial producers of the 1920s were definitely Universal Pictures and the Pathé Exchange. Although Pathé did not survive into the sound-serial era, Universal not only survived but in large part ensured the survival of the serial form as well; Universal’s The Indians Are Coming, the first all-talking chapterplay, was a financial success and demonstrated that it was economically safe to devote time and money to giving full-length serials a full-fledged soundtrack.

The director and producer of The Indians Are Coming was Henry MacRae, a Canadian-born veteran filmmaker whose Hollywood career (and association with Universal) stretched back to the early 1910s. MacRae had been overseeing Universal’s serials since the mid-1920s, and would continue to do so during most of the first six years of the 1930s, maintaining, for the most part, a consistent level of production quality and a very consistent style of storytelling. Most of the Universal serials from this period were directed by Ray Taylor (who’d helmed many silent serials for MacRae and Universal) while most of them were written by the trio of Basil Dickey, George Plympton, (both silent-serial veterans) and Ella O’Neill, with occasional notable assists from other scripters, like former two-reel-comedy director Vin Moore. MacRae himself would also periodically contribute to his serials’ screenplays.

Whatever name happened to be featured on the writing credits, practically of all MacRae 1930s Universal serials had certain attributes in common. Plots were very down-to-earth and straightforward, with relatively few fantastic or science-fictional gimmicks and with none of the mystery villains and confusing “surprise” plot twists favored by Mascot Pictures’ serials during the same era.  Pacing was deliberate, with plenty of time in between action sequences for humorous dialogue, dramatic moments, and character interaction. Casts were strong, being largely composed of a combination of sturdy stars already established during the silent era (Tom Tyler, Buck Jones, Walter Miller, William Desmond, Francis Ford) and talented young players who had already made or soon would make a name in the sound era (Onslow Stevens, Jacqueline Wells, Frank Albertson, Noah Beery Jr.). Between their scripts and their good casts, MacRae’s Universals as a rule featured much stronger and richer characterizations than most other sound serials, and created at their best a genuine emotional involvement with their characters.

The sound Universal serials from the MacRae era, like all chapterplays, cut budgetary corners (making particularly heavy use of silent-era stock footage), but always looked like the product of an established “major” studio–which, of course, they were; although Universal was not considered one of Hollywood’s “Big Five” studios during the early 1930s, it was nevertheless regarded as one of the majors, possessing as it did a yearly production slate that included many A-films as well as B-films and serials. The indoor and outdoor sets constructed for those A-films (such as the Universal Frankenstein castle or the rocky cliffs constructed for the jungle movie Nagana) often found their way into Universal’s serials, considerably strengthening exotic atmosphere as needed. This use of leftover sets would remain a strength of Universal serial-making throughout the studio’s entire stint as a chapterplay producer.

There were negatives to the MacRae era as well; though action scenes were always carefully staged and shot, they were never as dynamic or as exciting as in the contemporary serials of the lower-budgeted Mascot serials. Universal lacked Mascot’s secret weapon, master stuntman Yakima Canutt, and as a result the studio’s fights tended to focus more on frantic-looking, undercranked arm-flailing and shoving, and less on spectacularly energetic punching, leaping, and flipping. The Universal action scenes of this era also tended to be somewhat infrequent in comparison to their Mascot equivalents; the MacRae team’s emphasis on dialogue pushed most action scenes to the openings and closings of chapters, with the bulk of the episode sometimes feeling like a protracted buildup to these sequences. Chapter-ending cliffhangers tended to be either unspectacular (someone attacking the protagonists with guns or fists) or spectacular but unconvincingly resolved (stock-footage-derived crashes and explosions that the heroes were most unbelievably shown as living through).

Action scenes in MacRae’s chapterplays were further hampered by a noticeable policy of soft-pedaling violence; MacRae heroes in “modern-day” serials (such as the detective thriller The Lost Special or the globe-trotting adventure The Perils of Pauline) made a point of never firing guns directly at the villains if they could help it, and sometimes were adverse to even carrying guns at all. Even gun-toting cowboy heroes in MacRae’s Western serials almost never killed anyone directly (except when they dropped anonymous Indians during stock-footage battle scenes). The writers usually took care to make it clear that the hero’s bullets had only injured the bad guys, and typically endeavored to keep the hero’s hands clean by having the villains eventually kill each other off (sometimes this was done artfully, sometimes clumsily).

This rather prim attitude spilled over into other areas of MacRae’s serials as well; the villains were typically prevented from killing even minor good guys onscreen, usually made a point of bringing a hitherto unseen henchwoman along as a tacit chaperone whenever they were obliged to abduct the heroine, and didn’t even always try to directly destroy the hero; many Universal protagonists found themselves threatened by wild animals and natural disasters nearly as often as they were threatened by the villains. Reviewer and exhibitor criticisms of excessive movie-serial violence, which had hit a crescendo during the early 1920s, may have had much to do with MacRae’s prim cautiousness; Universal mogul Carl Laemmle’s generally conservative and hesitant attitude towards screen violence of any kind (he did not allow Dracula to be staked onscreen in Universal’s 1931 feature of that name) may also have had something to do with it.

Despite the flaws and limitations inhering in the MacRae approach, he turned out very few total losses and quite a few unqualified successes during his initial sound-era stint as Universal’s serial boss. Returning to The Indians Are Coming, this inaugural sound effort not surprisingly demonstrated that the Universal production team was struggling to adjust to the talkies; some of the dialogue would have sounded much less clunky if read from subtitles instead of spoken aloud, while some of the acting came off as highly stagy and melodramatic. Still, the serial was very handsomely produced, with well-staged mass Indian attacks; it was also sturdily plotted, with a simple but involving storyline (the hero protects his sweetheart and her father’s mine from a villain with designs on both of them). In action and plot, and in its strategic use of colorful supporting characters, Indians would serve as something of a template for most of Universal’s subsequent Western serials.

Indians‘ three immediate successors–1931’s Finger Prints, Heroes of the Flames, and Danger Island–are unfortunately all “lost” serials. The earliest surviving 1931 Universal effort is Battling with Buffalo Bill; characterization was sketchier and plotting less compelling in this serial than in Indians (or than in most of Universal’s other Western chapterplays), but its cast, action scenes, and production values were all solid. Unlike Indians and many other MacRae Westerns, it also allowed its hero to directly finish off several major heavies. It was succeeded by three more lost serials in 1931-32–Spell of the Circus, Detective Lloyd, The Airmail Mystery–and then, in 1932, by Heroes of the West, an entertaining saga of frontier railroad-builders with good action bolstered by some strong and individualized characters, but weakened by a rather anticlimactic conclusion.


Above: MacRae’s regular director, Ray Taylor (center platform, hand on ladder) sets up a shot for the lost serial Danger Island on Universal’s excellent jungle backlot. Beulah Hutton is standing next to MacRae, while Lucile Browne is on the upper platform. 

Heroes was followed by Jungle Mystery (also 1932), which still exists in the Universal vaults but has remained unseen by most collectors; the next serial on Universal’s production schedule was The Lost Special (1932), a modern-day detective saga very loosely based on a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Though its plot had little to do with Doyle (in characteristic MacRae fashion, the coldly murderous railroad heist that formed the basis of Doyle’s story was somewhat improbably turned into a completely bloodless hijacking), Special worked quite well, thanks in part to sharply characterized heroes and villains and to some genuinely funny dialogue. Special gave way to 1933’s Clancy of the Mounted, like its predecessor nominally based on a literary source (a Robert W. Service poem). Only half of this outing survives; it appears to have been a serviceable if somewhat repetitive Northwoods adventure with a compelling plot and good character moments, albeit somewhat defanged action scenes.

The Phantom of the Air, an aviation-themed chapterplay with mild science-fictional elements (a remote-controlled plane, poisonous gas, electrically-operated sliding panels), was Universal’s next 1933 serial; it relied so heavily on perpetually reused aerial footage for most of its thrills that it can be somewhat tiresome for an audience not as enamored of aviation as its original viewers presumably were. Its characters and plot were also not strong enough to compensate for its overly repetitious action. Gordon of Ghost City (1933) was an improvement on Phantom, despite a slow pace and MacRae’s customary avoidance of serious violence–thanks mostly to a terrifically funny and charismatic performance by its star, popular cowboy hero Buck Jones, and to its effectively eerie and mysterious ghost-town/lost-mine subplot.

The Perils of Pauline, which borrowed a title but nothing else from a famous silent serial, finished out Universal’s 1933 serial schedule. A globe-trotting adventure involving a quest for a disintegrating gas formula that would allow its possessor to rule the world, this chapterplay showed off Universal’s strong production values to best advantage; it was actually easy to believe that its heroes and villains were adventuring in the streets, temples, and jungles of China, Borneo, and other exotic locales. However, Pauline also pointed up the weaknesses of the MacRae approach; its deliberate pacing and generally down-to-earth atmosphere robbed the quest for the gas of the sense of urgency it really should have carried. The presence of villains who looked exceedingly sinister but who never actually were allowed to do anything truly menacing did not help to raise the serial’s urgency levels.

Pirate Treasure, Universal’s initial 1934 serial offering, was a treasure-hunt saga with a very simple and repetitive plot and thinner characterizations than usual at Universal–but nevertheless received an enormous boost from the presence of its stuntman-star Richard Talmadge, who filled the action scenes with gymnastics and acrobatics that made the serial feel much more fast-moving and dynamic than the Universal norm. Entertaining as Pirate Treasure was, its two successors were much better, ranking in fact among MacRae’s very best. The first of these was The Vanishing Shadow, a big-city crime tale enlivened by some colorful and well-used science-fiction gadgets (an invisibility device, a dangerous robot) and by some unusual and interesting supporting characters (a noble but vengeful and frightening scientist, a lead villain with a soft spot for his estranged daughter). Shadow was cowritten by George Morgan, who had worked at Mascot as well as at Universal; his presence might have had something to do with the serial’s higher-than-usual (for Universal) fantasy quotient. Shadow was also the first of several Universal serials directed by Lew Landers, a fledgling director who was somewhat more creative and ambitious than MacRae’s usual directorial workhorse Ray Taylor.

Universal’s next serial, The Red Rider, was also directed by Landers, and represented MacRae’s serial-making at its zenith. Based on a novel by W.C. Tuttle, this simple Western story (marshal resigns his job to save his friend from an unjust hanging, sets out to find the real killer) was handled with such flair by Landers, by its writers (Vin Moore plus the usual MacRae trio of Dickey, Plympton, and O’Neill), and by its strong cast (particularly the inimitable Buck Jones), that it proved enormously involving and highly entertaining even when stretched to a fifteen-chapter length. The key to its appeal was not in its action scenes (which were serviceable) but in its character interactions, which were movingly dramatic at some junctures, and absolutely hilarious at others.

The last 1934 Universal serial was Tailspin Tommy; Landers directed again, and both Vin Moore and a notable former Mascot writer (Norman S. Hall) contributed to the screenplay, but the most notable thing about the serial from a historical perspective was that it was the first to be based on a comic strip; the newspaper comics pages (and, later, the comic books) would soon become a major resource for all serial producers. Tommy itself was an enjoyable and somewhat offbeat effort, in that it placed most of its emphasis on the training of its hero in the aviation business; his fights with villains were only incidental to his pilot’s progress. Due to strong scripting and good acting, the serial was able to hold the audience’s interest despite the potentially fatal way in which the heavies were frequently sidelined.

Landers and MacRae opened 1935 with another high-quality outing, The Rustlers of Red Dog; this rough, rugged, and action-packed Western was much more violent and much more exciting than the typical MacRae serial; its wonderfully colorful characters seemed to be in more constant danger of sudden death than any MacRae protagonists seen since Battling with Buffalo Bill. It’s worth noting that Milton Gatzert received the most prominent producer credit on this one, with MacRae only functioning as “associate producer;” perhaps Gatzert was more interested in disrupting Universal’s somewhat sedate atmosphere than MacRae was (the serial’s final showdown, in which an obviously looped line is added to make the hero’s ultimate slaying of the villain seem more reluctant than it appears on screen, could possibly represent a disagreement and compromise between the two). Gatzert also took pride of place in the credits of Rustlers’ similarly rugged successor, The Call of the Savage (1935). Directed by Landers, this imitation Tarzan story contained a little too many unnecessary stock-footage animal scenes, but was a thoroughly energetic and entertaining effort in spite of this padding, containing some ferocious action (including fights with lions and tigers performed by expert animal trainer Melvin Koontz), some genuinely scary moments (a terrifying cannibal attack), and some memorably fantastic plot gimmicks (a hidden scientifically-advanced civilization in the heart of the jungle).

Gatzert and Landers were both absent (MacRae and Taylor took charge again) from Universal’s next 1935 serial, the Buck Jones vehicle The Roaring West–and their absence seems to have made quite a difference. The weakest serial from the entire 1930-1936 era, West played like a lackluster pastiche of Gordon of Ghost City and The Red Rider, minus the mystery element that had helped the former and the compelling screenplay that had distinguished the latter. Between its uninvolving plot (an interminable tug-of-war over a gold-rich claim), an oversized and underdeveloped cast of characters, and a most unsatisfying conclusion, it was a near-total loss, saved only from complete disaster by the charismatic presence of Jones.  Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery, Universal’s last 1935 effort, was a definite improvement on West, though less interesting than the first Tailspin Tommy chapterplay; it placed much less emphasis on character development than the original Tommy effort, but its protagonists were still appealing and the adventurous paces they were put through (chiefly aerial clashes with South American revolutionaries) were reasonably exhilarating.

The first MacRae era would come to an abrupt end in mid-1936, but the veteran producer would turn out three more 1936 chapterplays before being hit by a studio-wide shakeup (see below). The first of these was The Adventures of Frank Merriwell, an adaptation of a series of dime novels (and a radio show) about an all-star college athlete who battled villains when he wasn’t excelling in every possible type of sporting pursuit. Like Tailspin Tommy, Merriwell placed just as much emphasis on the hero’s personal pursuits as one his duels with the bad guys–but the superhuman paragon Merriwell wasn’t as interesting as the striving-to-improve Tommy, and the supporting characters in Merriwell weren’t nearly as well-developed as in Tommy. Still, Meriwell was an enjoyably varied if pedestrian adventure, helped along by strategic and convincing changes of scenery (from Frank’s college to the great northwoods to Mexico and back home again).

Flash Gordon, MacRae’s next 1936 serial, was not only his most famous production but probably the best-known sound serial ever made. This high-budgeted and phenomenally successful adaptation of Alex Raymond’s interplanetary comic-strip adventure was, in its fantastic subject matter and rough-and-tumble action, a rather spectacular departure from much of MacRae’s past practice. However, at the same time it benefited from the same qualities as previous MacRae serials. The standard MacRae emphasis on good production values helped to make the various alien realms on the planet Mongo look properly striking and strange, and the MacRae team’s customary deliberate pacing and focus on characterization also helped to ground the serial’s bizarre events and create genuine emotional involvement with the principal characters. Typically good MacRae casting also benefited the serial; its stars (Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Charles Middleton, Frank Shannon, Priscilla Lawson) were all perfect for their roles, and managed to be simultaneously archetypal and individualized.

The Phantom Rider (1936) was much more typical of Universal’s earlier talkie serials than Flash Gordon was. Though it suffered from overlength and a weak ending, this simply-plotted Western nevertheless managed to be thoroughly enjoyable, thanks in large part to consistently funny dialogue, good character interactions, and another excellent starring turn by Buck Jones. Rider would be the last Universal serial overseen exclusively by MacRae, and as such marked the end of an era at the studio.

Part II: From the Mascot Invasion to the Resurgence of MacRae (1936-1939)

The Great Depression and the ambitious but overextended plans of studio boss Carl Laemmle Jr. led Universal into rough economic waters as the 1930s continued–and led both Carl Jr. and his father right to a crash. In 1936, they lost their majority interest in the studio to a mortgagee, and Universal’s other shareholders subsequently removed them from their positions on Universal’s board of directors. The new controlling regime at Universal dropped most of the ambitious A-film plans of Carl Jr., and focused instead on turning out  “programmers” for low costs and assured returns. The new Universal management also decided to remove MacRae, a long-time associate of the Laemmles, from his position as Universal’s serial producer; he was replaced by former Mascot producer Barney Sarecky and another producer named Ben Koenig. The Universal bosses appear to have hoped that Sarecky, as a veteran of the low-budgeted but successful Mascot serial factory, could turn out satisfactory serials on a thinner budget than MacRae had enjoyed.

Sarecky brought with him former Mascot director Ford Beebe and former Mascot screenwriters Ray Trampe, Wyndham Gittens, and Norman S. Hall. This new team, not surprisingly, began turning out serials that seemed more like Mascot chapterplays with added production polish than they did like prior Universal serials; pacing became much faster, plots more colorful and outlandish, action scenes more plentiful, and cliffhangers more elaborate. The Universal serials of this new era also conveyed much more of a sense of danger and high stakes than most of their predecessors did, killing off both major and minor characters on a regular basis. The new regime continued to make excellent use of Universal’s feature-film props and sets, and continued the MacRae practice of casting excellent actors. Despite the cutback in dialogue necessitated by the accelerated pacing and additional action scenes, the new writers also continued to include character-driven humor and drama in their scripts; Hall in particular seemed fond of writing scenes in which the hero emotionally swore vengeance after the death of a friend.

The first outing for Koenig and Sarecky was the colorful and exciting Ace Drummond, which was adapted from a comic strip and which marked the first Universal use of a tried-and-true Mascot gimmick, the masked mystery villain. As it usually did at Mascot, this plotting gimmick made Drummond’s storyline more complicated than it needed to be, but the serial never became as illogical and confusing as many Mascot efforts had been. Drummond was followed in late 1936 and early 1937 by the simpler and more straightforward Jungle Jim, on which MacRae–who’d been dethroned, but not exiled–joined the new team to work as an associate producer (a position he would fill on most subsequent 1937 Universal serials). As for Jim itself, it was an excellent effort based on another Alex Raymond comic strip, and boasted well-written and well-acted characters, good sets and locations, a strong atmosphere of danger and adventure, and terrific animal-attack sequences courtesy of Melvin Koontz. An Alex Raymond-drawn comic also provided the source for the new team’s third serial, the G-man saga Secret Agent X-9 (1937)–which suffered from a few too many plot complications, but benefited from a fast pace and a tough, vivid 1930s cops-and-robbers ambiance seasoned with touches of Continental intrigue.

Wild West Days (1937) was the new regime’s first venture into MacRae’s oft-visited Western territory; replete with vigorous action, striking location work, and larger-than-life characters, it equaled MacRae’s earlier Rustlers of Red Dog in quality and surpassed most of his other early Western efforts in sheer excitement value. Koenig and Sarecky went back to the Mascot template and a comic-strip source for their next serial–Radio Patrol, a colorful and thoroughly involving if somewhat bizarre and occasionally illogical chapterplay that combined realistic Depression-era atmosphere, location shooting inside a steel mill, a backlot Egyptian street, down-to-earth policeman heroes, a hypnotized henchman living inside a mummy case, corporate espionage, a science-fictional steel formula, and a mystery killer.

MacRae and rookie producer Elmer Tambert were allowed to oversee Universal’s next serial, the comic-strip adaptation Tim Tyler’s Luck (1937), independently of Sarecky or Koenig–but Beebe, Gittens, Trampe, and Hall still handled the directorial and writing chores. The result was one of Universal’s all-time greatest serials, an utterly absorbing jungle-adventure chapterplay combining the unusual character depth of the best MacRae solo outings with the toughness, suspense, and fantasy trappings of the ex-Mascot group’s Universal efforts. The Tyler team, plus Sarecky, next oversaw Universal’s first 1938 serial release, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars; this top-notch sequel to MacRae’s biggest success brought back the appealing stars and characters of the original, and managed to fully equal the striking “extraterrestrial” settings of the original–even though it was produced for substantially less money than the first Gordon outing had been.

MacRae’s tenacity in remaining at Universal after his demotion, and his adjustment to the new Universal’s lowered serial budgets, now began to pay dividends for him; studio bosses, convinced that he could function successfully within the new system, gave him complete control of Universal’s next serial, Flaming Frontiers (1938). For this outing, MacRae brought back director Ray Taylor (recently fired from his job as serial director at the new studio Republic Pictures) and writers Basil Dickey, George Plympton, and Ella O’Neill–who worked with Wyndham Gittens to pen an entertaining if rather padded Western that harked back to MacRae’s pre-1936 productions in its basic and straightforward plot (which was especially reminiscent of The Indians Are Coming), but which featured brisker pacing and more plentiful action than most of those productions did.

There were now effectively two serial units functioning at Universal; while MacRae was working on Flaming Frontiers, Sarecky was putting together the next 1938 release, with Ford Beebe directing and the writing in the hands of Norman Hall and Ray Trampe; the only key staffer the two productions had in common was co-director Alan James. This serial was the involving but flawed detective chapterplay Red Barry, yet another comic strip adaptation–and the only one of the ex-Mascot team’s Universal serials to (fleetingly) reach the levels of plotting illogic attained by too many Mascot serials; although Barry was fast-paced, featured some extremely good characterizations, and contained one of Hall’s most moving “hero-swears-vengeance” moments, it was marred by a couple of oversized plotholes and by an ill-advised villainous casting swap at its midpoint.

MacRae held the production reins for Universal’s last 1938 serial, Scouts to the Rescue, with Taylor and James in the directors’ seats and Gittens, Plympton, Dickey, and moonlighting Republic screenwriter Joseph Poland handling the script. This simple and potentially pedestrian saga of Boy Scouts taking on counterfeiters was given a tremendous boost by plentiful action, a subplot involving a sinister lost tribe of Indians, and (especially) extensive location shooting in the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains. While MacRae worked on this outing, Sarecky, assisted by Beebe, Trampe, Hall, and Saul Goodkind (a longtime Universal editor now turned director) was preparing Universal’s first 1939 serial, Buck Rogers–which would also prove to be Sarecky’s last chapterplay production. Adapted from another science-fiction comic strip, Rogers was intended to capitalize on the success of the two Flash Gordon serials (as the casting of Buster Crabbe in the title role made clear); however, while Rogers was well-made, well-acted, well-written, and action-packed, neither its plot nor its characters were as compelling as those in the Gordon serials, and it suffered with matinee audiences, who inevitably compared it to those serials.

The underperformance of Buck Rogers and the return of MacRae to studio favor apparently combined to spell the end of Sarecky as a Universal producer; Koenig had already departed, and MacRae now reined once again as the undisputed chief of serial production at Universal.

Part III: MacRae at the Reins Again (1939-1944)

Screenwriters Trampe, Gittens, and Hall all left Universal around the same time that Sarecky did, and MacRae’s old screenwriting standbys Plympton and Dickey took their place as the regular writing team until 1941, periodically supported by other scripters like former Columbia serial writer Sherman Lowe or former Republic serial writer Barry Shipman. With Plympton, Dickey, and MacRae back in charge, the plots of Universal’s serials again became fairly simple and comparatively realistic (with a few notable exceptions), although the squeamishness about character deaths that had marked the first MacRae era did not return (perhaps it had indeed been Laemmle, and not MacRae, who was responsible for this quirk of the early Universals). MacRae’s later serials also featured more action and moved at a swifter pace than his earlier ones had–partly because Mascot alumnus Ford Beebe remained Universal’s chief serial director through 1942, sometimes co-directing with Saul Goodkind, sometimes with Ray Taylor, and sometimes with film-making veteran John Rawlins. Cliffhangers remained large-scaled, although lowered budgets necessitated more obvious and more clumsy use of stock footage, and cliffhanger resolutions continued to rely far too heavily on improbable survivals by the heroes.

1939’s second Universal serial, The Oregon Trail, was one of the revised MacRae team’s weaker efforts; though a pleasant Western with good locations and fine action, its plot was a little too thin and lacking in urgency, and its characters were not vivid enough to atone for these flaws. Its successor, The Phantom Creeps (1939) was even more flawed; a science-fictional serial pitting G-men, spies, and a wild-card mad scientist against each other, it was too obviously a hastily-conceived vehicle for Bela Lugosi (who played the mad scientist), with barely enough plot or characterization to sustain a feature, let alone a twelve-chapter serial. Its only real virtues were a strong performance by Lugosi, fast pacing, and some memorable sci-fi gimmickry (particularly Lugosi’s monstrous robot).

The Green Hornet, released in late 1939 and early 1940, was a huge improvement over Universal’s two previous efforts. To write this adaptation of a popular radio series about a masked crimefighter who battled realistic racketeers, Plympton and Dickey teamed with two of the series’ actual writers, and came up with a serial that managed to be consistently entertaining despite unusually firm grounding in the “real” world–thanks in large part to a very well-defined and well-played set of protagonists, and a cleverly structured story that compensated for its potentially repetitive structure by giving the hero a varied succession of villains to definitively defeat. The next Universal effort, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) was even better; its visuals were as grand, its story (by Dickey, Plympton, and the talented Shipman) as sweeping, and its characters as interesting (despite the recasting of some roles) as those of the first two Flash Gordon serials–and it served as a very satisfying conclusion to Universal’s Gordon saga.

Winners of the West (1940), a successful return to MacRae’s beloved Western well, compensated for a repetitious storyline and a few too many “outdoor” scenes filmed on soundstages by means of an excellent cast, very strong characters, and many excellent action scenes. Junior G-Men (1940), a rather offbeat venture, was less entertaining; this serial vehicle for the former “Dead End Kids” took the novel plotting approach of having its protagonists begin as unruly street hooligans and gradually reform as they tangled with the villains; however, the hooliganism of the “heroes” in the early chapters was far too obnoxious and off-putting, while the straight-arrow characters trying to reform them came off as far too smug and priggish; to make matters worse, the lead villain was badly miscast as well. However, Junior G-Men still benefited from a well-structured storyline and generous helpings of action; it was successful enough to lead to several follow-ups.

The Green Hornet Strikes Again, which ran in theaters from late 1940 through early 1941, was a good but less distinctive sequel  to the first Hornet outing, maintaining the strong characters of the original but succumbing more wholly to plotting repetition. The aviation serial Sky Raiders (also 1941) was an interesting callback to MacRae’s Tailspin Tommy–in that it focused primarily on the character arcs, romantic and professional, of the protagonists, with the villains only providing a periodic plotting catalyst instead of supplying the whole raison d’etre for the heroes’ actions. This unusual approach worked quite well, due to a high-quality cast and an entirely new lineup of scripters–magazine writers Clarence Upson Young, Eliot Gibbons, and Paul Huston. Huston would go on to become a key member of the studio’s serial-writing staff.

The more familiar writing group of Dickey (who would depart for Columbia and then Republic afterwards), Plympton, and Lowe were back for Universal’s next release–1941’s Riders of Death Valley. This self-styled “Million Dollar Serial” was routine in terms of plotting, but was still enormously entertaining thanks to constant action, imposing location work, and probably the most personality-packed cast ever assembled for a single serial–Dick Foran and Buck Jones headed up the heroes and Charles Bickford the villains, with Big Boy Williams, Lon Chaney Jr., and Leo Carrillo among the most notable supporting cast members. Director Ford Beebe encouraged this once-in-a-lifetime cast to ad-lib whenever possible and breathe more life into the script (which had not been written with such a stellar lineup in mind); Jones and Carrillo were particularly prompt in responding to this encouragement, to very good effect.

Huston and Young came back to write Sea Raiders, a followup to Dickey and Plympton’s Junior G-Men which improved notably on that serial. The Dead End Kids were characterized more subtly and likably, the other good guys were more individualized, and the villains were better cast–although the serial was still hampered a little by excessive stock footage and narrative padding in the later chapters. Huston then joined with two other newcomers, Griffin Jay and former Republic screenwriter Morgan Cox (soon to become the key figure in Universal’s serial department), to turn out Don Winslow of the Navy (1941-1942), Universal’s first comic-strip adaptation since the last Flash Gordon serial. Despite co-direction by Beebe, the action in this outing was below average, but the pacing, plotting, and characterizations were strong enough to compensate for this weakness–and made the serial successful enough to warrant a sequel.

Winslow’s immediate serial successor, however, was Gang Busters (1942)–the greatest of Universal’s 1940s serials. Very loosely based on a radio series, this gritty G-man story with unique horror-movie overtones benefited from a strong sense of atmosphere, sufficient action, a magnificent performance by chief villain Ralph Morgan, strong turns by the rest of the cast (which included former A-film players Kent Taylor, Irene Hervey, and Robert Armstrong), and a sharp, funny, and gripping script by Plympton, Victor McLeod, former Mascot screenwriter Al Martin, and the talented Cox. Ray Taylor teamed with former Warner Brothers B-film director Noel Smith to helm this outing, with Beebe moving from the director’s chair to the producer’s for this outing; MacRae was in his mid-sixties by this time, and Universal was obviously hoping to groom a successor for him.

MacRae, however, served as producer on Universal’s next release, Junior G-Men of the Air (1942), the last Dead End Kids serial and the first Universal with an explicit wartime theme (the other two Dead End Kids serials and Don Winslow of the Navy had used revolutionaries and foreign spies as heavies but had never expressly identified them as Axis agents). Many of the “Japanese” heavies in this effort were miscast and unconvincing, and the propaganda voiceovers at the beginning of each chapter were outrageously over the top–but the serial’s action and pacing were solid, chief villain Lionel Atwill gave the production a big lift, and writers Huston, Jay, Plympton, and Brenda Weisberg remembered the lessons of the two previous Dead End Kids serials and took care to keep their young protagonists likable throughout. Beebe was again absent from the director’s seat, directorial chores being instead handled by Taylor and by veteran B-film helmer Lewis Collins.

Overland Mail–co-directed by Beebe and John Rawlins, written by Huston, Plympton, Jay, and Weisberg, and produced by MacRae–was second only to Gang Busters among Universal’s 1940s chapterplays in terms of entertainment value and overall quality; a simply-plotted but action-packed Western with extremely well-characterized heroes and villains, it represented something of a grand finale to the long and generally successful run of MacRae Western serials. Its successor, The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack (which came out in late 1942 and early 1943), represented something else–the beginning of the post-MacRae era at Universal, even though MacRae would still produce four more chapterplays for the studio.

Jack, a globe-spanning World War 2 adventure based on a comic strip, was produced by Beebe, directed by Collins and Taylor, and written by Cox. Its plot, cast, and characters were all very strong, and its production values superb. However, its characters were too numerous for smooth storytelling, and it relied far too heavily on very well-written but often unnecessary dialogue to carry its narrative, at the expense of action; its villains also spent a little too much time on infighting, leading to a rather weak conclusion. It was still a strong serial overall, but definitely should not have become a template for future Universal serials (which it essentially did within two years’ time).

Jack also represented Beebe’s last Universal serial work; the studio bosses, evidently impressed by his producer turns on Jack and Gang Busters, moved him over to feature-film production. MacRae thus was back at the production helm for the 1943 chapterplay Don Winslow of the Coast Guard, , with Ray Taylor and Lewis Collins (as they would on almost all subsequent Universal serials) handling directorial chores. For this sequel, Paul Huston, George Plympton, Griffin Jay, and future A-list screenwriter Richard Brooks turned in a script that was action-filled and fast-moving without sacrificing the strong characterizations established in the first Don Winslow chapterplay, although the screenplay was a little overstuffed with propaganda.

Propaganda also loomed large in Universal’s next serial release, Adventures of the Flying Cadets (1943); originally conceived as a fourth Dead End Kids serial, it wound up featuring a different group of young actors in a combination of a World War 2 espionage saga and a jungle adventure. Plympton, Huston, and Cox did the screenwriting; the script suffered from Cox’s over-emphasis on villainous infighting (which, as in Smilin’ Jack, led to a rather disappointing ending), but the serial’s pacing and action were solid on balance and its plot involving. The Great Alaskan Mystery, Universal’s first 1944 serial, also centered on wartime intrigue; George Plympton and talented future Disney screenwriter Maurice Tombragel handled the writing chores this time time, and with the aid of a good cast and some unusual stock footage turned out a simple, deliberately paced, but interesting and pleasantly uncomplicated serial reminiscent of many of producer MacRae’s 1930s outings (even down to its rather flat conclusion).

Raiders of Ghost City, Universal’s next serial release, was produced by Cox, not MacRae, and is discussed more fully in the next section; it was followed by Mystery of the River Boat (1944), MacRae’s swan song at Universal. Tombragel and another newcomer, Ande Lamb, teamed up to write this satisfying conclusion to MacRae’s long career. River Boat was set in Lamb’s home state of Louisiana; in the best MacRae tradition, it featured interesting characters, a good cast, and a straightforward but involving storyline (Acadian landowners defending oil-rich family property against ruthless land-grabbers). Its action scenes were also good, and its finale, though slightly illocial, was more dramatic and exciting than that of most of its immediate predecessors. MacRae passed away in October of 1944, just before River Boat started showing in theaters. To replace their steady-handed old skipper, Universal would to Morgan Cox, whose independent supervision of Raiders of Ghost City indicates that he had already been chosen as MacRae’s designated successor.

Above: Henry MacRae (left) with Saul Goodkind and the robot used in The Phantom Creeps (Universal, 1939). 

Part IV: Conversations by Cox (1944-1946)

Morgan Cox’s serial screenplays, at both Republic and Universal, show him to have been a very talented writer, with much more flair for sharp, nuanced, and intelligent dialogue than the average serial scripter. Unfortunately, he also had a tendency to rely far too heavily on dialogue–perhaps because he realized he was so good at it; he was particularly fond of complicated plot setups, of infighting villains (one invariably female) who exchanged cuttingly sarcastic remarks, and of extensive dialogue that served to remind viewers of the plot and of each character’s relations to each other. Adventures of Smilin’ Jack, which Cox had written solo but not produced, displayed these tendencies, and they became even more marked when Cox assumed the producer’s mantle himself. In other respects, Cox did not depart from MacRae’s previous practice; he still made good use of Universal’s sets and props, and took pains to hire good actors (who, due to the increased emphasis on dialogue, now became more important than ever to Universal’s serials).

Cox was only credited as co-writer on two of his serial productions (Raiders of Ghost City and Jungle Queen) but he nevertheless exercised very close supervision over Joseph Poland, Joseph O’Donnell (both, like Cox, former Republic writers), George Plympton, Ande Lamb, Patricia Harper, Tom Gibson, and Harold Channing Wire–who, in various combinations, wrote Cox’s other serials; their work echoed his Smilin’ Jack template so closely that Cox’s control was obvious. In the Cox-produced serials, there was so much dialogue that there was usually little room left for action, save in the cliffhangers and resolutions that closed and opened each chapter. Still, the Cox formula produced some satisfactory chapterplays; in his better outings, strategic plotting shakeups served to move the storyline forward to an exciting conclusion, despite all the talk–while in his weaker outings, pointless villainous double-crossing was used to stir the plot but not advance it, and usually led to a lackluster finale in which the heavies offed each other.

Cox’s first serial production, 1944’s Raiders of Ghost City (co-written by Luci Ward, and directed by the same Ray Taylor-Lewis Collins team created during MacRae’s last years), was among his better ones. This Civil War-era Western made somewhat anachronistic use of Prussian villains (for obvious World War 2 propaganda purposes), and was filled with Cox’s characteristically excessive dialogue, but also moved along in sequential and absorbing (if slow) fashion), and led to a really rousing climax that made good use of stock-footage from a big-budgeted Universal feature film. Cox’s next serial production was his worst; Jungle Queen (1945) was not only burdened by too much talk but also featured the very poorly conceived gimmick of an apparently genuine goddess (Ruth Roman) who regularly used supernatural intervention to save the mortal heroes from the heavies (Nazi spies operating in Africa), robbing the serial of all suspense in the process.

Cox’s next 1945 serial, The Master Key, was much better; another wartime espionage chapterplay, it benefited from a continually-developing storyline, was not quite as overcrowded with characters as some of Cox’s other serials, and fortunately eschewed villainous infighting (that is, until a slightly disappointing conclusion). Secret Agent X-9 (also 1945) represented the Cox serials at their high point; it was also Universal’s last war-themed serial and last comic-strip adaptation (it bore no relation to Universal’s first serial of that name; the strip on which both serials were based had changed so drastically over the years that the second serial was effectively an adaptation of a different property). The 1945 X-9 was a suspenseful espionage saga taking place on a spy-riddled neutral island in the Pacific; Cox and his writers (O’Donnell, Harper, and Wire) managed to skilfully juggle an enormous cast of characters and use them to enhance the story rather than bog it down; there was still a surplus of talk, but the script nevertheless held enough interest to carry it through to a satisfactory climax.

The Royal Mounted Rides Again, Cox’s last 1945 Universal serial, represented a severe drop-off in quality from X-9; interesting plot threads (a hero at odds with his domineering father, a heroine who suspected that the hero’s father had killed her father, a quirky sidekick with a hidden agenda) only led to an endless series of interesting but repetitive conversation, while an enormous array of squabbling villains tried to create an illusion of plot progression by knocking each other over like dominoes. The Scarlet Horseman, Cox’s first offering for 1946, was even worse; a masked-rider Western with more squabbling villains and an outrageously over-complicated land-grabbing plot (involving a real provision in the Texas state constitution, the Comanche nation, and the abducted wives and daughters of Texas state senators). Horseman’s characters were embryonically interesting (like all characters in Cox serials), but both they and most of the serial’s potential action were smothered beneath all the dialogue required to recap the convoluted storyline in chapter after chapter.

Lost City of the Jungle (1946), a postwar espionage adventure centering around a powerful atomic element and set in an interestingly shady Asian principality, might have come close to Secret Agent X-9 in quality if its chief villain, Lionel Atwill, had not been forced by terminal illness to bow out of the serial before it was completed. Cox and his writers chose a needlessly elaborate plot device to work around this loss, complicating an already complicated plot and necessitating more repetitive explanatory dialogue. The serial still hung together surprisingly well, however, thanks to well-paced plotting shakeups that served to advance the story, the colorful setting, a strong cast, and a good climax.

Cox’s last serial was The Mysterious Mr. M (1946), a G-man saga with science-fictional overtones. Barry Shipman joined Huston and Poland to write this final outing, and Vernon Keays replaced Ray Taylor as Lewis Collins’ co-director–but the serial still followed the customary Cox template, once again featuring an outrageously over-complicated plot setup that required far too much explanation in chapter after chapter. Occasional stuntwork by Dave Sharpe, cliffhanger stock footage borrowed from Republic’s serials, some well-placed plotting twists, and a mostly satisfying conclusion (marred by an illogical resolution of the serial’s primary “mystery”) made Mr. M watchable if not terribly exciting

Mr. M was not only Cox’s last serial, but Universal’s as well. The studio had been the first to enter the sound-serial arena, and was now the first to leave it. This cessation of serial production was the result of the studio’s determination to recapture its old status as one of Hollywood’s “majors”–by ceasing production of B-westerns and chapterplays and focusing on standalone A-films and somewhat bigger-budgeted “series” features. The script for one more serial, which would have been called Yukon Sky Patrol, was left on the shelf, and Universal’s serial production team broke up. Cox went to work as a subordinate producer on Universal features, Taylor wound up directing B-westerns at PRC, and the writers scattered in all directions; some (Plympton, Lamb, Poland) joined Sam Katzman’s serial unit at Columbia, some (Harper, O’Donnell) followed Taylor to PRC, and some (Huston) appear to have left the movie business altogether. Universal itself did indeed become a major once again, and today ranks as one of Hollywood’s big players.

Epilogue

Over the course of its sixteen years of sound-serial production, Universal Pictures was always competing against studios that outpaced it in some departments–but which it outpaced in other departments. When competing against Mascot, it never managed to match that studio’s gripping and melodramatically intense plots, but did manage to be much more logical and coherent in its plotting than Mascot usually was; when competing against Republic, it never managed to match that studio’s slickly spectacular action scenes, but regularly outpaced Republic when it came to casting actors and writing characters. Thanks to this consistent emphasis on solid plotting, casting, and scripting, Universal was able to turn out many chapterplays that were second to none in quality (the Flash Gordon trilogy, Tim Tyler’s Luck, Gang Busters, The Red RiderOverland Mail)–and very rarely turned out a serial that was not at least worth watching. It was always the second-best serial studio, and was on occasions the very best.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Ed Hulse, for message-board postings that gave me a better idea of the nature of the interplay between the MacRae and Sarecky factions at Universal during the second half of the 1930s.

4 thoughts on “First in Flight (The Serials of Universal)

  1. Another great post Dan.I was lucky t o see many of these made after 1940 first run and the others via the web and tv.Your excellent post makes me want to sample more of them. Have a great New Year Dan!

  2. Excellent essays! Thank you for sharing these, and for making your keen observations available for so many people to enjoy.

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