Swift as the Eagle: Republic Pictures’ Sound Serials (1936-1955)
Part I: The Latter Days of Nat Levine (1936-1937)
Republic Pictures was the product of a 1935 merger between six small studios and the company that handled their lab work, Consolidated Film Industries. The most significant of these studios was Mascot Pictures, which brought popular “singing cowboy” Gene Autry and a successful and efficient serial-producing unit to the new studio. Nat Levine, Mascot’s boss, remained in charge of Republic’s serials for its first year of serial production (1936) and for part of its second year (1937), using many members of his Mascot production team, but taking advantage of bigger budgets than he’d enjoyed at Mascot.
Two qualities common to these early Republic serials would stay constant throughout Republic’s entire run as a serial producer–streamlined, easily-understandable storylines and full musical scores. However, while these qualities represented an improvement over the overly-complicated plots and music-free soundtracks of Mascot’s serials, in other respects the first few Republic releases were actually inferior to the immediately preceding Mascot releases. Darkest Africa (1936), the first Republic serial, was a case in point. Originally planned as a 12-chapter Mascot outing, but enlarged to 15 chapters in order to give Republic a more “special” inaugural outing, this serial boasted some good wild-animal action scenes (courtesy of the serial’s star, real-life lion-tamer Clyde Beatty) and excellent production values–most notably, impressive lost-city sets and miniatures and a truly stunning flying-man effect devised by Mascot’s special-effects wizard Howard Lydecker and his brother Theodore. However, it was shorter on action, characterization, and melodramatics than most Mascot chapterplays had been, despite being handled by seasoned Mascot staffers–directors B. Reeves Eason and Joseph Kane, and writers John Rathmell, Maurice Geraghty, and Barney Sarecky (assisted by newcomers Ted Parsons and Tracy Knight). It also suffered from a weak villain (the ailing and under-energized Lucien Prival) and from an unfunny comic-relief character named “Hambone” (such unnecessary buffoons would be a hallmark of too many early Republic efforts).
Undersea Kingdom (1936), Republic’s second serial, was set in the quasi-futuristic, quasi-primitive underwater realm of Atlantis–and was much stronger in the action department than Darkest Africa; director Eason, who had overseen many battle scenes in big-budget features, did an outstanding job of staging large-scale combats between good and bad Atlantean armies. Howard and Theodore Lydecker contributed some strong props and effects work, including robot suits and a futuristic airship that would resurface in other forms in later Republic outings. However, the storyline (by Rathmell, Geraghty, Knight, and prolific B-western writer Oliver Drake) was still extremely repetitive and the characters extremely thin, while like Darkest Africa it suffered from casting missteps; neither hero Ray Corrigan nor villain Monte Blue were very well-suited to their roles.
The Vigilantes Are Coming (1936), written by Geraghty, Rathmell, Leslie Swabacker, and Winston Miller (later a first-class television writer) was an enormous improvement over its two predecessors when it came to plotting, characterizations, and casting. Like the best Mascot serials, it gave its hero a strong emotional stake in the action (avenging his murdered father and brother and saving his homeland from a tyrant), and unlike most Mascots boasted a logical and sequential storyline. It also benefited from a charismatic hero, an imposing villain, and comic sidekicks who were actually funny and likable. Unfortunately, with B. Reeves Eason absent (moved over to Warner Brothers for a time), Vigilantes fell down in the action department; while Levine’s ace stuntman Yakima Canutt contributed many strong individual action bits, the serial’s numerous larger-scale gun battles were staged in disappointingly pedestrian fashion by regular Universal serial director Ray Taylor (who had recently lost his Universal job to former Mascot staffer Ford Beebe) and Mack V. Wright. Vigilantes was also marred by some outrageous cliffhanger cheat resolutions, of the kind that had been too common in Levine’s last few Mascot serials (the most infamous of these involved a cliffhanger in which the hero was actually shown groaning under the teeth of an ore-crusher; in the resolution he was pulled to safety before the crusher fell).
The last 1936 Republic serial was Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island; Taylor and Wright directed again, while its screenplay was the work of Geraghty and of two very talented newcomers who would become key contributors to many later serials, Barry Shipman and Morgan Cox. Despite the presence of this dynamic duo, Crusoe’s repetitive storyline (government agent fights spy ring on remote Pacific island) was not particularly memorable, and was also damaged by a clumsy last-minute expansion from twelve chapters to fourteen (the serial ran over budget and Levine needed extra chapters to justify charging the higher rental fees necessary to avoid a loss). The serial’s biggest flaw, however, was its big-name star Ray Mala, who had been the lead in some well-received MGM dramas about Polynesian and Inuit life, but who was woefully incompetent at delivering English-language dialogue. Cheating cliffhangers, another unfunny comic-relief character, and a mystery villain far less active or interesting than most Mascot heavies of that stripe were other black marks against Crusoe–although the serial did receive a big lift from extensive location shooting on Santa Cruz island, strong scenic and atmospheric cinematography by former Mascot cameramen Edgar Lyons and William Nobles, and Lydecker special effects.
Levine’s first 1937 serial, Dick Tracy, was his all-round strongest Republic chapterplay–and would also, ironically, be his final serial production; Republic’s boss Herbert Yates bought him out the same year. Adapted from the famous comic strip (which Republic secured the rights to only after a fierce competition with Universal and Columbia), this effort contained all the strengths of Levine’s Mascot serials–brisk pacing, striking cinematography (Nobles and Lyons again), lengthy and energetic action scenes filmed in and around varied off-lot locations (factories, shipyards, etc.), colorful villains, and a melodramatically compelling story foundation (the hero’s hunt for his brother, who’d undergone mind-altering surgery and become the villains’ chief henchman). These strengths were in turn augmented by Republic’s additional strengths: greater production polish, a musical score, and an uncomplicated plotline. Ralph Byrd was perfectly cast as the driven G-man hero, and his team of sidekicks were likable (although boisterous B-western comic Smiley Burnette was decidedly out of place as one of his aides). Skillful rookies Shipman, Cox, and Miller (aided by former Mascot writer George Morgan) did a solid job with the screenplay, George DeNormand turned in stellar stuntwork, veteran B-western helmer Alan James directed in tandem with Ray Taylor, and the Lydeckers contributed some memorable miniature work. Republic had truly found its sea legs after a shaky first year, and was poised on the cusp of its Golden Age.
Part II: Witney, English, and the Golden Age Gang (1937-1942)
Republic’s first post-Levine serial, The Painted Stallion (1937), was overseen by J. Laurence Wickland, who’d served under Levine in a production capacity on several earlier Mascot and Republic chapterplays. The winning writing team of Cox, Shipman, and Miller returned, augmented by a fourth member–Ronald Davidson, who would become one of Republic’s most prolific serial screenwriters. The most significant personnel addition, however, involved the directorial team: Ray Taylor was fired during the filming of Stallion and replaced with young William Witney, who’d begun as a script boy at Mascot and had gradually risen in the ranks, serving as an editor and second-unit director at Mascot and Republic. He finished Stallion in tandem with Alan James, and would direct all of Republic’s subsequent serials until 1943. Stallion itself was a handsomely-produced Western pioneering saga–well-cast, filmed on impressive Utah locations, and filled with strong action; its only major flaw was a series of brief recurring “comic” bits performed by the horribly unfunny duo of “Oscar and Elmer.”
Stallion was also notable for the scope of its plot, which centered on a frontier trade treaty between Mexico and America and a villain with dictatorial powers over a large chunk of New Mexico. This was a departure from most earlier sound serial’s previous practice; all of Mascot’s chapterplays (due to budgetary constraints) and most of Universal’s pre-1936 serials (apparently due to producer tastes) had centered around threats to individual characters, businesses, or (at most) entire towns, but Republic would frequently put a territory, a state, the nation, or the whole world at risk in its serials–a practice that proved embarrassing when the studio’s budgets eventually began shrinking, but which effectively raised stakes and suspense in Republic’s best outings.
Sol Siegel, who’d been an associate producer on Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island and was currently producing their Three Mesquiteers B-western series, took over the chief producer’s seat for Republic’s next serial, SOS Coast Guard, with Robert Beche as his associate. Witney and James co-directed again, and Shipman, Cox, and Davidson did the writing–along with another new arrival who would enjoy a long association with Republic: former Marine Corps officer Franklin Adreon, who’d begun his serial career as a technical adviser and supporting actor in Mascot’s last serial (The Fighting Marines). Like Painted Stallion before it, Coast Guard was only really marred by irritating “comic” relief; its action, cast, and effects were strong, its plot sturdy, and its shadowy and frequently ominous cinematography (by Nobles) well-suited to the serial’s several horror-themed plot elements (a lethal dissolving gas, a murderous mute giant of a henchman).
Good as Stallion and Coast Guard both were, the real dawn of Republic’s Golden Age came with their last 1937 serial, Zorro Rides Again–for which producers Siegel and Beche teamed Witney with another former film editor, British-born John English. This was a directorial match made in chapterplay heaven (virtually every serial buff has said the same thing, but it’s a true statement no matter how unoriginal). The two fledgling directors didn’t merely shoot and stage action scenes; they sought to make their serials strong in every aspect of production, and thus took a part in overseeing scripting and casting as well as stuntwork and visuals. Though working in a highly formulaic medium, they were rarely content to placidly adhere to formula; they continually tried to make their pacing swifter and their action scenes slicker, and were always using new fight moves, new camera angles, or new locations to differentiate their action setpieces from one another.
Witney and English were not the only contributors to Republic’s Golden Age, of course. To begin with, producers Siegel (who would return to B-westerns and other features after Zorro Rides Again and its follow-up The Lone Ranger), Beche (who served as the sole producer of Republic’s serials through most of 1938 and 1939), and Hiram S. Brown Jr. (who took over as Republic’s serial producer from late 1939 to late 1941) played a part in the studio’s success as well. Brown in particular was a key figure; he shared Witney and English’s creativity and their systemic, hands-on approach to serial-making (particularly when it came to scripting), and was always ready to run interference for them with Republic’s front office when they needed additional shooting time or wanted to hire a high-quality actor whose pay grade made the studio bean-counters wince.
Four of the most important members of the Golden Age writing team have already been introduced in the preceding paragraphs–Morgan Cox, Barry Shipman, Ronald Davidson, and Franklin Adreon. Among this group, Shipman appears to have been the most thoughtful and creative plotter; Adreon was also a sturdy plotter, while Cox was the best at dialogue, and Davidson the best at fitting available stock footage into a narrative. This group was joined in 1938 by Norman S. Hall, a veteran of Mascot and Universal serials with a noticeable fondness for intensely dramatic moments; the other recurring Golden Age writers were Sol Shor, Rex Taylor, Joseph Poland, Joseph O’Donnell, William Lively, and the aforementioned Barney Sarecky (who had left Republic in 1936 to produce serials at Universal, but returned to Republic as a writer in 1939 after losing his Universal job). These writers repeatedly managed to keep their Golden Age screenplays moving at a well-paced and unflagging rate to a rousing conclusion, seasoning them with occasional dramatic character moments that gave the audience some emotional interest in all the fast-moving action.
Master stuntman Yakima Canutt, whose energetic method of executing fight scenes had been one of the secrets of Mascot’s serial success, had remained the serial stunt “ramrod” after the creation of Republic. However, he served in a similar capacity on Republic’s B-westerns, and thus wasn’t always available to handle fights in the studio’s serials; in his absence, many fistfights in 1930s Republic efforts, even during the earlier years of the Golden Age, lacked his characteristic hard punches and convincing falls, and instead devolved into mere arm-swinging melees. Witney and English, however, worked assiduously to hone their fight scenes and tried to utilize the Canutt style even when Canutt himself was unavailable. In 1940 they settled on a full-time regular ramrod who added his own brand of dynamism to the already dynamic Canutt style: former gymnast Dave Sharpe, who could not only punch and fall with the best of them, but who could also execute flips and leaps which made his fight scenes both visually spectacular and exhilarating.
The Lydecker brothers, whose explosions and other miniature effects put those of most major studios to shame, have already been mentioned, as has cinematographer William Nobles. Another key Golden Age serial cinematographer was Reggie Lanning, who first joined the Witney-English team in 1939 and replaced Nobles in 1941 (beginning with Jungle Girl); he would eventually become the director of photography on Alfred Hitchcock’s television series. Film composers Alberto Colombo, William Lava (who later did many scores for Warner Brothers and Disney), and Cy Feur (who went on to become a major Broadway producer), and Mort Glickman were also important figures on the Golden Age team (most later Republic serial scores would be based largely on reused cues from these composers’ earlier work).
Returning to Zorro Rides Again, this first Witney-English collaboration was a modern-day Western, featuring excellent Canutt stuntwork, a strong lead in John Carroll (who was quickly moved into Republic’s features), and extensive location shooting–not just at Iverson’s Ranch (which would serve as Republic’s default outdoor shooting site for the studio’s entire existence), but also (in continuance of the excellent Levine practice of using “real” off-lot locations) at Pacoima Dam. The serial’s occasional musical interludes (in which Zorro belted out an operatic-sounding theme song) were unnecessary, and the writers never managed to explain just why the hero (a 20th-century descendant of the “real” Zorro) bothered to adopt a dual identity, but overall this initial Golden Age entry was only inferior to its successors in terms of production slickness.
Zorro Rides Again was also distinguished by gun battles and other violent moments more tough and fierce than any seen before on the serial screen; Mascot’s action had always possessed more of an edge than comparable scenes in Universal serials, but Witney and English’s crew sharpened this edge even more–as was very apparent in their second serial collaboration, The Lone Ranger (1938). Republic’s biggest chapterplay production since Dick Tracy, this adaptation of a popular but slightly insipid radio show toughened up its source material considerably–making the title hero the sole survivor of an ambush (this mythic origin was then adopted by the radio series), allowing him to gun down bad guys (instead of simply disarming them, as on radio), placing him into a desperate struggle for the freedom of Texas against a tyrannical official, and featuring multiple co-heroes who were heroically killed in action as the serial progressed. Lone Ranger’s action was not only tough; it was expertly shot, staged, and scored as well, while its storyline was well-structured and compelling; it earned back the substantial sum Republic had invested in it, and turned a profit besides.
Republic put so much money into its two 1938 fifteen-chapter “specials” (Lone Ranger and a Dick Tracy sequel) that Witney, English, and Beche were required to cut corners on the studio’s two ordinary twelve-chapter 1938 outings; the first of these was the second serial of 1938, The Fighting Devil Dogs–which made substantial use of stock footage from Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island and Dick Tracy, and featured two chapters composed mostly of “flashback” footage from earlier episodes. Despite these cost-saving moves, however, Devil Dogs emerged as one of Republic’s best–thanks to a sequential, suspenseful, well-paced, and involving plot, strong heroes, wonderfully sinister cinematography and a visually striking mystery villain (the “Lightning”) with one of the most frighteningly effective death-dealing devices in the entire serial genre.
Dick Tracy Returns (1938), the above-mentioned Dick Tracy sequel, was less eerily atmospheric than the first Tracy outing and had a blander cast of supporting good guys–but was swifter and slicker, retained the excellent Ralph Byrd as Tracy, had another strong villain (Charles Middleton as “Pa Stark”), and made equally extensive use of variegated location shooting in its action scenes. Also, as in the first Tracy effort, the writers gave added emotional weight to an essentially repetitive series of unrelated hero-villain clashes by having Tracy seeking to avenge the brutal murder of his young G-man protege by Stark. Like the first Tracy, it contained some unnecessary “comic” relief, but this element was very muted, and would soon be completely phased out of Republic’s serials.
Hawk of the Wilderness, the last 1938 Republic serial and the second of the year’s lower-budgeted twelve-chapter efforts, didn’t make its cost-cutting obvious, as Fighting Devil Dogs had at times; set on a hidden island in the Arctic Circle, its story required few indoor sets–and the use of the beautiful, impressively spacious, and wild-looking Mammoth Lakes region as the “island” gave the serial more than enough production value. Based on a book that was essentially a reworking of the Tarzan saga (former Olympic athlete Herman Brix was well-cast as the Tarzan-like hero “Kioga”), this excellent chapterplay featured, in addition to its attractive visuals and many inventive action scenes, an unusually individualized cast of characters and some truly moving dramatic moments (many undoubtedly due to Norman S. Hall, who received his first Republic serial co-writer credit on Hawk). Hawk also marked the last gasp of unneeded comic relief at Republic; alleged comedy contributions by two minor characters was kept to a merciful minimum.
The Lone Ranger Rides Again, Republic’s first serial of 1939, was the only Republic Golden Age chapterplay that could be honestly called a disappointment. It was very well-made, with excellent locations, a good cast, and top-notch action and cliffhanger scenes, and could have easily been considered a winner at another studio or in another era of Republic serial-making. However, it lacked the intensity and urgency of its Golden Age contemporaries; its comparatively low-stakes plot (a range conflict between a likable but stubborn cattle baron and a group of largely indistinguishable settlers) was not terribly compelling, its chief villain (the cattle baron’s weaselly nephew) was weak, and its hero–unlike almost every other Golden Age protagonists–had no emotional stake whatsoever in his fight with the bad guys. As Witney later remarked, he and the rest of his team were “lazy” on this outing, not taking many pains with the plot because they were counting on the strength of the Lone Ranger brand and the success of the previous Ranger serial to make this sequel an automatic hit. This was the first and last time that the Witney-English crew would be guilty of such laziness.
Witney, English, and their team were back at full strength for their next serial, Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939); this crime-fighting saga, like the Dick Tracy serials, made extensive and creative use of a plethora of factories and other industrial sites as a staging ground for action scenes, and boasted the added appeal of plucky “amateur” heroes–a trio of young circus acrobats–beating professional detectives at their own game as they sought to bring down a mad criminal mastermind responsible for the death of the brother of one of the acrobats. Even when measured against other Golden Age releases, Daredevils is routinely and accurately ranked as one of Republic’s very best.
Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), Robert Beche’s last Republic serial production, was a second follow-up to Dick Tracy, which managed to improve on both that serial and Dick Tracy Returns, good though they both were. Its pacing was faster and its fight scenes more polished, it made even more varied and extensive use of interesting locations, and its first chapter did such a good job of establishing a grimly personal duel between two extremely well-matched opponents (Tracy and the cunning master spy Zarnoff) that the ensuing action became engrossing and involving without the writers even having to kill off or endanger a friend or relation of the hero’s. Ralph Byrd was once again compellingly earnest and intense as Tracy, and Irving Pichel–a top-notch stage and feature-film actor–was terrific as Zarnoff.
Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939), the first of Hiram Brown Jr.’s serial productions, successfully ventured into the novel Spanish-Mexican-Californian realm inhabited by the original Zorro character; Witney and English skilfully and successfully adjusted standard serial tropes to this setting, and Brown allowed them to cast their leading man (Reed Hadley) unusually early, so that he could receive enough fencing training to look good in the swordfights required of a screen Zorro. Most of the supporting heavies, however, didn’t have time to receive the same training, meaning that the chapterplay’s many swordfights were rather variable in quality. This unevenness was a negligible flaw in view of the serial’s overall strength, however; Canutt contributed some amazing stuntwork, William Lava turned in one of his best serial scores, Hadley was a commanding lead, the plot was a high-stakes one (a struggle for control of Mexico) which gave the hero a dramatically uphill battle (operating in defiance of a corrupt body of officials), and the serial’s mystery villain (the “living” pre-Columbian idol Don Del Oro) was another memorable addition to Republic’s serial rogues’ gallery.
That rogues’ gallery was joined in Republic’s next chapterplay by one of the best-known villains in popular culture. Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), one of Witney’s favorite serials and one of the very best Golden Age offerings, brought Sax Rohmer’s famous Chinese master criminal to vivid life; cameraman William Nobles outdid himself with shadows, eerie lighting and well-composed shots (thanks in part to Brown, who successfully fought to extend the serial’s shooting schedule by two extra weeks in order to give the cinematographer more time to polish his visuals). Dave Sharpe served as stunt ramrod for the first time, and Henry Brandon made an impressively sinister Fu Manchu.
Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), a comic-strip adaptation, was Republic’s single best Western serial–a gripping and rather grim land-grabbing saga filled with dramatic and violent death scenes for both good and bad guys, and sparked by a fiercely tough lead performance by Don Barry. Sharpe delivered a lot of outstanding stuntwork, and Cy Feuer used a special arrangement of “Oh! Susanna” as the basis for a rousing musical score. The studio’s next serial, King of the Royal Mounted, was equally excellent, and was likewise notable for a strong Feuer score, consistently dynamic Sharpe stuntwork, a good lead (Allan Lane), and a well-paced script which had the hero sequentially investigating the heavies’ activities and gradually taking out their key men as he worked his way closer to the big boss. The script also contained some intensely dramatic moments; the finale, in which one of the leading characters sacrificed himself to take down the bad guys, was particularly strong stuff. Mounted also benefited from extensive shooting in the wild and wooded expanses of the Big Bear Lake area, within the San Bernardino National Forest–a location Republic would return to on many subsequent occasions.
Mysterious Doctor Satan, the studio’s last 1940 serial, began its screenplay life as a Superman serial, but was hastily revised (Superman being replaced by a masked hero called the Copperhead) when a tentative deal between Republic and Superman’s owners at National Periodical Publications fell apart. Despite this pre-production turmoil, the serial was yet another winner–filled with spectacular Sharpe stunts and memorably threatening Nobles photography, making typically good use of urban California locations, and distinguished by a silky-voiced but truly threatening villainous performance by A-list character actor Eduardo Ciannelli in the title role; Brown was instrumental in persuading Republic to pay the extra cash needed to bring this high-quality heavy on board.
The Lydeckers had begun to refine their old Darkest Africa flying-man effect when production on the unrealized Superman serial began; after the Superman project fell through, Republic determined to get a return on this preliminary work by making a serial about another flying superhero, and quickly settled on Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, Superman’s most successful newsstand competitor. The Adventures of Captain Marvel was Republic’s first serial release of 1941, and remains probably their single best-remembered serial; it certainly featured one of the most convincingly-realized superheroes in screen history. Between Sharpe’s landing and takeoff leaps, the Lydeckers’ life-sized papier-mâché dummy (which glided smoothly through the skies on unseen wires), and muscular star Tom Tyler’s feats of strength, it was very easy to believe in the super-powered Captain’s existence. The rest of the serial was also up to the usual Golden Age high standards, featuring likable leads, interesting supporting players, and a well-balanced screenplay that combined exotic exploration with stateside crimefighting and melded a mystery-villain storyline with a treasure hunt.
In their next 1941 serial, Republic simultaneously capitalized on the ongoing screen popularity of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and revived the silent-era tradition of “Serial Queens” like Pearl White and Ruth Roland–by “adapting” (i.e., using the title and nothing else) a Burroughs novel called Jungle Girl and casting the charming starlet Frances Gifford (borrowed from Paramount) in the title role. This serial’s plot (a struggle over the diamond treasure of a lost tribe) was a small-scaled and potentially over-repetitive one, but the writers still made it involving and paced it well. Jungle Girl was also marked by a very strong cast, an exciting and imaginative collection of action scenes and cliffhangers, and strategic use of sets, trained animals, and outdoor locations to effectively create the impression that the serial was really taking place in a hidden jungle realm; it proved yet another success for Republic and encouraged the studio to keep the Serial Queen concept alive.
King of the Texas Rangers (1941), Brown’s last serial production, was a veritable action extravaganza: its plot (modern-day Texas Ranger battling foreign saboteurs in the Texas oil fields) allowed Witney and English to vary action sequences more widely than in any other chapterplay. The serial not only contained Western-style gunfights and horseback chases, but also car and motorboat chases, fights and chases at enormous dams or atop oil derricks, and a climactic dogfight with a dirigible. It also benefited from a nicely-paced and sequential “investigation” storyline similar to that of Fighting Devil Dogs and King of the Royal Mounted. In an echo of the long-departed Nat Levine’s habit of hiring non-actor celebrities, football star “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh was cast in the lead–but possessed the Texas accent and the riding skills needed to do a sturdy job in his part, despite his lack of acting experience; he was backed by an excellent cast that included former star Neil Hamilton as the chief villain.
Brown joined the Army (the Signal Corps) after Texas Rangers, which led to the appointment of William J. O’Sullivan as Republic’s new serial producer. O’Sullivan had none of Brown’s imagination or willingness to go the extra mile, but he didn’t interfere with the smooth-running Witney and English machine; his first chapterplay production, Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941) was fully as strong as the other Golden Age serials that had gone before it; it borrowed a couple of setpieces wholesale from the earlier Tracy efforts, but didn’t use them as a crutch; it was crammed with varied new action scenes of its own, shot on many interesting locations. It also contained a truly unique climactic fight, another strong performance by Ralph Byrd (his final turn as Tracy), and a memorably ruthless and maniacal mystery villain with the power of invisibility.
In 1942, English was reassigned to direct Republic’s Three Mesquiteers B-western series, and Witney was left alone to lead the Golden Age serial team for its last two efforts. The first of these was Spy Smasher (1942), the studio’s first post-Pearl Harbor release and thus the first Republic chapterplay to actually designate the villains as Axis agents (King of the Royal Mounted and King of the Texas Rangers had both used obvious but unnamed Nazis as their villains). However, Spy Smasher was almost entirely completed before the outbreak of war, which meant that Witney was still able to shoot many of his action scenes in real outdoor industrial locations; wartime security restrictions and wartime gas rationing would soon put an end to this practice, making Spy Smasher the last in an illustrious line of location-shot crime serials stretching all the way back to Mascot. The serial was strengthened not only by its on-location action but by numerous indoor fistfights spectacularly executed by Dave Sharpe and his fellow-stuntmen, by some moving moments of heroic self-sacrifice, and by the presence of Kane Richmond–one of the genre’s most charismatic stars–in a dual role as the hero and his twin brother. Like Captain Marvel, Spy Smasher was an adaptation of a Fawcett comic book character–and again like that serial, it has been one of Republic’s most popular efforts ever since its original release.
The last true Golden Age serial was Perils of Nyoka, a follow-up to Jungle Girl set in the North African hills (i.e., the hills of Iverson’s Ranch) and originally intended to star Frances Gifford; when she proved unavailable, Republic crowned a new Serial Queen in the person of former magazine model Kay Aldridge. Though gorgeous, Aldridge wasn’t as good an actress as Gifford had been–but her serial vehicle was just as good as Jungle Girl; its use of a classic treasure-hunt plot (with the added emotional hook of a quest to find the heroine’s lost father), a strong male lead (Clayton Moore), Sharpe’s dazzling stuntwork, unobtrusive and genuinely funny comic relief (mostly from Billy Benedict as Moore’s sidekick), and intimidating villains (Lorna Gray and Charles Middleton) made it a resounding success and a worthy finale to the Golden Age of Republic.
Republic would produce many excellent serials in the years to come, but would never again equal the consistent levels of quality it achieved during its 1937-1942 period. With the single exception of The Lone Ranger Rides Again, every serial made during that era has at least an argument for a place on any genre buff’s Top Ten Serials list, while the majority of them also have a claim to be in any contest for the greatest serial ever made. No other studio and no other production team ever put together a run like that enjoyed by Witney, English, and company.
Part III: The Gang Breaks Up; Bennet Joins the Battle (1942-1944)
Witney stayed at the helm for Republic’s first two post-Golden Age serials, now without the support of much of his Golden Age team. After Perils of Nyoka, top screenwriter Norman S. Hall was reassigned to script Republic’s B-westerns, while many of the other key writers had already departed: Franklin Adreon had rejoined the Marines, Sol Shor had also signed up with the military for the duration, and Morgan Cox, Barney Sarecky, Barry Shipman, and Rex Taylor had all moved to other studios. Of the Golden Age writing staff, only Ronald Davidson, Joseph Poland, Joseph O’Donnell, and William Lively remained. Notable losses had been sustained in other departments as well; cinematographer Reggie Lanning was moved over to Republic’s Roy Rogers B-westerns after Nyoka, to be replaced by the highly competent but more workmanlike Bud Thackery. Most significantly of all, stunt ramrod David Sharpe had gone into the Army.
As aforementioned, the war deprived Republic of something besides personnel. With access to so many Golden Age filming locations cut off by wartime restrictions, the studio’s serial action underwent a noticeable change in focus. In serials like Jungle Girl, King of the Texas Rangers and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc., multiple episodes often passed without a single fistfight; outdoor chases or gun battles balanced out hand-to-hand brawling scenes and made the latter all the more memorable when they came. Once the war era set in, fistfights–which could be filmed entirely on studio soundstages–became the action centerpieces of nearly every Republic serial episode, with the stuntmen energetically throwing and punching each other around prop-crowded sets until each prop had been dynamically demolished. These scenes were exhilarating, entertaining, and beautifully executed, but their prevalence made Republic’s wartime serials much more mechanical and predictable than their Golden Age predecessors had been. The absence of Sharpe also made these wartime fights a little less exciting than their best Golden Age equivalents; Tom Steele took his place as stunt ramrod and regular double for Republic’s serial heroes; though a phenomenal stunting talent in his own right, the tall and lanky Steele could never duplicate the sheer kinetic energy that the shorter and more acrobatic Sharpe had brought to his “starring” stuntwork.
The Lydeckers’ explosive miniatures, which–like the fight scenes–could be created entirely within the studio, also began appearing on a more predictable and mechanical basis than they had during the Golden Age, being used to spectacularly close out nearly every episode of most of the wartime serials. Storylines became much more predictable as well; producer O’Sullivan, impressed with the great success of Spy Smasher, encouraged his wartime directors and writers to imitate the plot structure of that serial–a hero fighting saboteur henchmen in a series of loosely connected encounters–as much as possible. However, these Spy Smasher imitators lacked the occasional character touches and dramatic moments that had enhanced that serial and the similarly-plotted Dick Tracy chapterplays; Norman Hall, Barney Sarecky, and Morgan Cox, the Golden Age’s most character-focused writers, were all gone now, and in any event the relentless focus on elaborate and lengthy fistfights left little room for more than functional dialogue in between setpieces.
The wartime serials also were almost completely lacking in the unpredictable and emotionally compelling character deaths that marked many of their predecessors; during the Golden Age, you could never be sure if an assistant hero was going to survive to the end of the serial, and could never be sure how long any of the supporting villains would live. In the wartime years, the hero’s helpers were practically always safe from real harm (if they did die, their passing was noted by a single line at best–and sometimes the line itself was left on the cutting-room floor, as in Haunted Harbor); the villain’s chief henchman or henchmen were likewise assured to survive till the concluding episodes; extra heavies (invariably played by stuntmen), however, were killed at an almost comically regular rate, usually at the end of a fight scene (the same stuntmen would then reappear with different outfits or false mustaches a few chapters later, to be killed again).
With some partial exceptions, the overall plot formula for Republic’s wartime serials could be summed up by the following paragraph: The hero (usually accompanied by the heroine or a sidekick) follows some clues, catches two to three thugs trying to make off with or destroy someone or something. He then punches it out with the thugs and kills all the disposable ones; the recurring henchman or henchmen then escape, and something explodes (killing any disposable heavies still alive after the fight). The hero then finds new clues and follows them to the next villainous plot, and the next punch-fest and explosion; the cycle repeats indefinitely until he finds a clue in the last chapter that leads him to the hidden master villain.
All that said, Witney was too creative to let his post-Golden Age serials become completely mechanistic; for his first full-fledged wartime serial, the highly entertaining King of the Royal Mounted sequel King of the Mounties (1942), he staged the required fight scenes in a fairly wide variety of indoor sets (cabins, a riverboat, a trading post, a warehouse), and balanced the fistfights with some chases and shootouts in the Big Bear area (although some of these scenes were partially or completely composed of stock footage from Royal Mounted). He also “cast” Duke Green as the double for the chief henchman, and used Ken Terrell in most of the fight scenes as well; having these gymnastic leapers take on more grounded fighters like Tom Steele and Duke Taylor (who took turns doubling star Allan Lane) gave the fistfights some welcome visual variety and unpredictability. The frequent use of the Axis villains’ hovering “Falcon” plane (a great Lydecker miniature) gave further interest to the action.
Witney himself went into the Marines in 1942, but directed most of one more serial before he departed; O’Sullivan himself wrapped up the directing and it went into release in 1943 as G-Men vs. the Black Dragon. Republic’s third Axis-espionage serial in a row, this well-done outing was very heavy on elaborate fistfights, but was also distinguished by a higher-than-usual quotient of nighttime action and by the Japanese villain’s Fu-Manchu-like array of scary tricks, tortures, and death-dealing devices–including a suspended-animation drug, an ornate spear-firing machine, and a raven with a poisoned beak. These gimmicks and the nocturnal visuals gave an effective atmosphere of omnipresent danger to the proceedings, creating an intense and urgent mood despite the essentially circular plot. The serial was also boosted by a scattering of welcome outdoor scenes and by a strong starring turn by former stuntman Rod Cameron, who would become a notable B-western, A-western, and television star in later years.
O’Sullivan brought John English back over from the B-western division to direct Republic’s next serial, Daredevils of the West (1943); former Universal serial writer Basil Dickey, whose credits stretched back to the silent era, also joined Poland, O’Donnell, Davidson, and Lively on the writing team. This Western, a respite from wartime stories, nevertheless followed the basic wartime “sabotage” plot template, with the villains’ goal here the sabotage of a projected stage-line rather than the American war effort. However, in this outing there was at least a single overarching objective for both the heroes (finish the stage-line project before the expiration of a government franchise deadline) and the villains (prevent the project from meeting its deadline), and the various subplots related to this central goal often spanned multiple episodes instead of being wrapped up in a single chapter. The cast was good, although given little dialogue to work with; the focus was firmly on action–which English and his stuntmen delivered in incredibly polished, energetic, and entertaining fashion, not only handling the ubiquitous fistfights with verve but turning in some of the best gun battles and horseback chases ever seen on the serial screen. Many of these battles, were filmed among the rocks and canyons of the awe-inspiring Lone Pine region (used in many features, but rarely in serials). The careful balancing of indoor fights with this outdoor action helped to compensate for Daredevils’ formulaic aspects; English, like Witney, was too creative to simply paint by the numbers.
For Republic’s next serial, however, O’Sullivan brought aboard a new director with a much more mechanistic approach to serial-making: Spencer Gordon Bennet, a former stuntman who started as a serial director for the Pathé Exchange in the silent era, directed a handful of talking serials, and helmed innumerable 1930s B-westerns. Bennet was a superb craftsman when it came to staging explosive and destructive fight scenes–but had almost no interest in other aspects of film-making; he left actors almost entirely to their own direction, rarely bothered to set an ominous or dramatic mood, and unlike Witney and English was quite content to shoot the same type of action scene–set-destroying indoor fights–over and over again, in chapter after chapter, only varying the sets and props destroyed. The teaming of Bennet with the formula-reliant O’Sullivan ensured that Republic’s serials would rarely rise to the level of overall originality and quality seen in the Golden Age, although the quality of each individual action setpiece remained very high.
Bennet’s first Republic chapterplay was Secret Service in Darkest Africa, a sequel to G-Men vs. the Black Dragon with Rod Cameron’s “Rex Bennett” taking on Nazi operatives in Casablanca. This serial’s fights were dazzingly well-staged and well-executed (primarily by Steele and Green), but so numerous and similar that they tended to cancel each other out. The serial also took little advantage of its “exotic” milieu, briefly promising but then abandoning a lost-artifact quest in the first chapter, and was decidedly uneven in the acting department; the inexperienced Cameron was much stiffer than he had been under Witney’s direction in Black Dragon, while chief henchman Frederic Brunn delivered a subpar performance that made it clear he had been cast only because of his German accent and his physical similarity to Duke Green. This practice of casting actors not based on acting ability but on their resemblance to the studio’s key stuntmen would become standard at Republic under Bennet and O’Sullivan; Witney, English, and Brown had always tried to make sure that their stars could be convincingly doubled, but they also had tried to ensure that they could deliver good performances as well.
Republic’s next serial, The Masked Marvel (1943) provided one of the most glaring examples of the ill effects of O’Sullivan and Bennet’s stunt-focused approach to casting. The last of Republic’s string of war-themed serials, this chapterplay introduced three new regular writers–Royal Cole, Grant Nelson, and Jesse Duffy–to the Republic serial-writing team. These three, together with Dickey, Davidson, Poland, and (in his only Republic effort) Dickey’s long-time Universal collaborator George Plympton, came up with a screenplay pitting a Japanese saboteur against a masked spy-fighter who was supported by four investigators–one of whom was actually the masked man himself. This was a variation of a plot gimmick used in The Lone Ranger, but with a difference–that serial’s set of co-heroes had all been charismatic actors; Marvel’s co-heroes were nonentities without any personality or acting talent to speak of, whose only virtue was that they could be easily doubled by Tom Steele. Steele also played the “Masked Marvel” when the hero was behind his mask, with his voice dubbed (by radio actor Gayne Whitman); both with and without the mask, he executed one elaborate and striking fight scene after another, with Green again serving as his chief foil. Reggie Lanning made a temporary return to handle the cinematography, giving the serial some nice nocturnal visuals, and both the leading lady and the villains were excellent–but the gaping hole left by the abysmal quartet of co-heroes was hard to overlook; not even the deaths of two of them left any impression (partly because of the actors themselves, partly because of a lightning pace that gave the characters no time to slow down and mourn their losses).
While Bennet was working on The Masked Marvel, English was putting together his last chapterplay, Captain America, in collaboration with the same writing team (minus Plympton and plus veteran poverty-row filmmaker Harry Fraser) and with silent-era director Elmer Clifton. Based in name only on a comic-book series, this serial abandoned wartime concerns for a story about a District Attorney with a secret superhero identity trying to prevent an embittered mad scientist from knocking off other scientists; the serial was crammed with colorful and sinister gimmickry, but was also very thinly-plotted and disjointed. The fight scenes, however, were a few notches above even the high wartime norm–thanks in part to beefy but nimble stuntman Dale Van Sickel, who doubled the hero for the first time at Republic; matched against gymnast Ken Terrell, he brought added dynamism to the fight scenes. English, Clifton, and new cinematographer John MacBurnie (a temporary import from the B-western department) also used unusually varied and stylish camera angles to enliven the fights and the dialogue scenes as well. The serial’s cast was one of the strongest from Republic’s wartime years, headed by charismatic feature-film actors Dick Purcell and Lionel Atwill (although the chunky, aging Purcell was physically miscast as a tights-wearing superhero).
O’Sullivan’s final Republic serial production, before moving over to the studio’s features, was The Tiger Woman (1944), which introduced a third new Serial Queen–former model Linda Stirling–in another attempt to recapture Jungle Girl’s success. This effort, which centered around a battle for oil-drilling rights and a long-lost heiress raised as a jungle goddess, failed to capture much of the exotic-adventure atmosphere of Jungle Girl or of its first follow-up, Perils of Nyoka; the need to have prop-filled sets, explosive materials, and armies of disposable henchmen on hand to satisfy the requirements of Republic’s wartime formula ruled out any possibility of truly isolating the characters in a remote and primitive “unexplored” realm, as had been done in Jungle Girl and Nyoka. However, the “jungle” setting did at least allow for some action scenes shot against outdoor locations–which didn’t look all that junglelike, but which did serve as a welcome visual counterweight to the indoor sets used for the serial’s many slam-bang fistfights. Steele and Terrell were the “star” stuntmen,” and Bennet had a co-director for the first time at Republic–Wallace Grissell, an editor on many previous 1940s Republic efforts. The acting in this outing was quite sound, with Stirling delivering a more assured debut performance than Kay Aldridge had done in Perils of Nyoka, serial veteran Allan Lane making a strong hero, and the supporting cast filled with seasoned heavies.
The now-regular group of Davidson, Poland, Cole, Duffy, Dickey, and Nelson had scripted Tiger Woman; this group was reduced by one for Republic’s next serial, Haunted Harbor–on which Davidson left the writing team to take over as producer. Co-directed by the Bennet-Grissell duo and loosely adapted from a magazine novel, this chapterplay began with an intriguing setup that harked back to the days of Mascot’s serials: a hero (in this case, a beleaguered skipper of an Indian Ocean trading ship) trying to clear himself of a murder charge by seeking the real killer. However, after a first-chapter jailbreak and flight to an island beyond the law’s reach, the hero’s fugitive status was almost entirely forgotten, and the rest of the serial played out more or less according to formula, with the villains repeatedly trying to sabotage the hero’s efforts to investigate the titular harbor, which held the key to his exoneration. As in Tiger Woman, there was outdoor shooting to vary the inevitable indoor fistfights (many of them taking place in the same trading-post set in chapter after chapter). The fistfights themselves, though repetitive, were excellent (Van Sickel doubling the hero and Green and Steele the two recurring henchmen), as were the many exploding Lydecker miniatures, while the cast was uniformly solid and the “personal” nature of the basic plot (submerged though it was beneath formula) was a refreshing change of pace.
Davidson’s second serial production, Zorro’s Black Whip (1944) had the same directors and writing staff (minus Cole) as Haunted Harbor–and, like it, had an unusual plot setup but otherwise followed the typically repetitive wartime formula. The plot (which had nothing to do with Zorro, aside from the title) had a masked rider battling outlaws who were out to sabotage the Idaho Territory’s attempt to enter the Union; the rider, the “Black Whip,” was leading lady Linda Stirling, who assumed the identity after her brother, the original Black Whip, was killed in the opening chapter (in typical Republic wartime fashion, the characters and dialogue were so sketchy that this death was utterly lacking in any emotional impact). The use of a female protagonist unable to fight hand to hand with the heavies ensured that the serial’s action wasn’t exclusively focused on fistfights; there were plenty of those (involving male lead George J. Lewis), but they were somewhat balanced by riding stunts, shootouts, and some clever bits of bullwhip action (supervised by whip expert Yakima Canutt, who served as second-unit director on this outing).
Though Black Whip was entertaining overall, it did mark the return of two rather unwelcome ghosts of Republic’s past: unfunny comic relief (from the heroine’s newspaper printer) and a flashback chapter (this budget-saving trick had been banished during Hiram Brown’s producing tenure); the comedy relief would not recur in later serials, but the flashback chapter would become a standard part of all remaining Republic serials. Other changes, both positive and negative, were soon to come at Republic, as a series of new and old directors, producers, and writers tried their hand at the studio’s postwar serials.
Part IV: New Faces, Old Faces, and Variations on the Formula (1945-1949)
Ronald Davidson’s third Republic serial production, Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945), was released before the end of the war, but differed enough from its wartime predecessors to be considered the beginning of a new era. It was the first Republic effort to settle on a uniform, streamlined length for its episode runtimes (its last six chapters were a trim 13 minutes each), and it made some other noticeable departures from the wartime formula.
Mystery Island’s action, directed by a triumvirate (Bennet, Grissel, and Yakima Canutt himself) still relied heavily on indoor fistfights (expertly executed by Steele, Van Sickel, and Green) and explosive miniatures, but it also made creative use of some unique outdoor locations entirely new to Republic’s serials–most notably some rugged and scenic stretches of California coastline. These fresh locations helped to make the serial’s supposed locale–a privately-owned Pacific island–seem much more like a real place than the “jungle” in Tiger Woman or the island in Haunted Harbor. Mystery Island also departed from wartime formula by reintroducing a Republic trope unseen since the Golden Age–the mystery villain with plans for world domination. The heroes’ hunt for the villain and the villain’s quest to complete the remote-control machine that would allow him to dominate said world provided a very welcome change from the wartime era’s more disjointed series of thwarted sabotage plots; the villain himself was one of Republic’s most memorable, a “reincarnated” pirate captain (actually one of the pirate’s descendants, who used a “molecular transformation” chair to change into his evil ancestor). Another quality that had been almost entirely missing from Republic’s wartime serials–genuinely humorous dialogue–made a comeback in Mystery Island; the villain was given some memorably sharp and sarcastic lines, while the protagonists and the supporting characters also got to exchange some amusing remarks–courtesy of new writer Albert DeMond, who had penned some of Republic’s wittier and quirkier B-westerns and who joined usual writers Dickey, Duffy, Poland, and Nelson (and one-time Republic director Alan James) for Mystery Island. Republic contract player Roy Barcroft delivered a memorable performance as the piratical heavy and Linda Stirling was an appealing heroine; all in all, the serial would have ranked as Republic’s single best post-Golden-Age outing had it not been for a major weak spot: horribly stiff and charisma-challenged leading man Richard Bailey, obviously cast only for his strong resemblance to Tom Steele.
The trio of Bennet, Grissel, and Canutt oversaw Republic’s second 1945 chapterplay as well, Federal Operator 99. More mundane in setting and plot than Manhunt of Mystery Island, this G-man saga benefited from uniformly shortened chapter runtimes that left less time for fistfight overdoses and from the writing of DeMond–who, working with Dickey, Poland, and Duffy, individualized the serial’s master criminal Jim Belmont (a sardonically humorous, piano-playing sophisticate) and made his various heist schemes both clever and variegated; between sharp dialogue, good plotting, inventive cliffhangers, good action, and a hero (solemn British actor Marten Lamont) whose doggedly determined air made his relentless pursuit of Belmont seem more urgent, the serial came off well–playing somewhat like a smaller-budgeted but worthy latter-day imitator of the Golden Age Dick Tracy serials.
The Purple Monster Strikes, Republic’s last fifteen-chapter serial, fell into the same category as later wartime efforts like Tiger Woman and Haunted Harbor; it was a good serial, but failed to reach its full potential. Its title character, an invader from Mars, was a very intimidating heavy–mercilessly killing those who stood in his way with Martian gas and using another gas to eerily assume one victim’s dead body as a disguise. This horrific gimmick and some good nighttime photography by Bud Thackery helped to set a scary tone in the first chapter which was subsequently dissipated by the usual series of repetitive daylight fights and explosions–although the chapterplay’s plot (centering as it did around the villain’s efforts to assemble all the parts of a valuable spaceship) retained a good sense of forward momentum. DeMond, Dickey, Poland, Royal Cole, newcomer Lynn Perkins, and returning Golden Age writer Barney Sarecky handled the scripting, with DeMond’s sense of humor occasionally evident in the wisecracking of the Purple Monster’s gangster associate (Bud Geary).
Bennet and a new co-director, Fred C. Brannon (who had been assistant property master on Republic’s serials for the past five or six years) oversaw Purple Monster’s action; Canutt had gone back to Republic’s B-westerns and Grissel had gone to work for Columbia’s new serial producer Sam Katzman. Purple Monster was also the first 1940s Republic not to utilize a gymnast as one of its stunting principals; Dale Van Sickel, Tom Steele, and the similarly burly and grounded Fred Graham doubled the main characters, which meant that the fights, though filled with energetic slugging, lost something in acrobatic unpredictability. Van Sickel and Steele would function as the default hero/action-heavy doubles for almost all of Republic’s remaining serials.
Republic’s next serial was The Phantom Rider, an unspectacular but well-executed Western released in late 1945 and early 1946. Essentially another “sabotage” plot (villains trying to stop the creation of an Indian Reservation police force), it was enlivened by a masked-hero gimmick and further helped by the fact that the hero’s mask made fight scenes more difficult to execute; Bennet and Brannon were forced to cut back on fistfights in favor of more outdoor chases and gunfights, allowing the periodic set-smashing brawls that did occur to stand out more than usual under Bennet. The screenplay, by DeMond, Dickey, Duffy, Perkins, and Sarecky (in his final serial assignment), also contained a good deal of DeMond’s witty dialogue and a genuinely funny comic sidekick (an illiterate but canny and philosophical prospector) who recalled similar characters created by Sarecky in bygone Mascot serials.
King of the Forest Rangers (1946) was the next Republic serial release, and the weakest of the studio’s early postwar efforts, despite a lot of extensive set-smashing fights and some good outdoor action at Big Bear Lake. DeMond again contributed some funny lines, but he and his co-writers (Dickey, Duffy, and Perkins) failed to do much with a potentially intriguing hidden-treasure plot, and in any event could not have compensated for the double whammy of a weak hero (Larry Thompson, another nonentity fortunate enough to resemble Tom Steele) and the studio’s single weakest villain (country singer Stuart Hamblen, who did respectable acting turns elsewhere but who was both miscast and underenergized here).
Daughter of Don Q (1946), on the other hand, was very strong in both the scripting and acting departments, while the cliffhangers and fights (directed by Bennet and Brannon, staged by Steele and Van Sickel) were well up to the usual standard. A small-scaled story centering around a villain’s plot to eliminate the heirs to a valuable old Spanish land grant, it received an enormous shot in the arm from several novel plotting gimmicks (among them a heroine adept at archery, a hidden clue in an old painting, and an attack by a henchman in a suit of armor) and from a good supply of funny bantering dialogue, delivered by both the heroic and villainous members of a small but lively cast. DeMond, of course, was one of the screenwriters, the others being Dickey, Duffy, and Perkins.
The Crimson Ghost (1946) was even better, ranking as Republic’s single best post-war serial. This was largely due to the brief return of William Witney, who temporarily replaced Bennet to co-direct this outing with Brannon. Its very simple plot (a struggle over a powerful atomic weapon) was turned into something special by camerawork more eerily atmospheric and fights more imaginatively dynamic than in any of Bennet’s serials (Witney obviously encouraged Brannon, cinematographer Bud Thackery, and stuntmen Van Sickel and Steele to go the extra mile). Its hero and heroine (Charles Quigley and Linda Stirling) were appealing, and its heavy, the ghoulish-looking title character, was the last of the great Republic mystery villains. Another Golden Age vet rejoined the Republic serial team on this outing; writer Sol Shor returned from the armed forces to pen Crimson Ghost’s screenplay in collaboration with DeMond, Dickey, and Duffy.
Witney moved on to Republic’s Roy Rogers B-westerns after completing Ghost, and DeMond was moved over to other studio features. Shor stayed on, however, and was joined on Republic’s next serial by yet another Golden Age regular–fellow writer Franklin Adreon, now out of the Marines. The presence of these two helped to make that next serial, Son of Zorro, a solid effort; together with Dickey and Duffy, they turned in a screenplay which switched out its subplots gradually enough to avoid the hurried repetition of the wartime serials’ plots, and which gave its hero (a Civil-War-era lawyer descended from the original Zorro) a solid and compelling motivation for assuming a dual identity (to fight against the corrupt officials ruling his frontier town). Their script also contained some nice touches of humor, a trio of individualized villains, and some unusually clever pieces of legal trickery executed by the hero. Thanks to this script, a good cast, some imaginative cliffhangers, and Bennet and Brannon’s alternation of outdoor shootouts with indoor slugfests, Son of Zorro proved a very good serial. It was also a good finale for Ronald Davidson’s serial-producing career; after this outing, he left Republic to write B-westerns at Monogram for a time.
Davidson’s place as Republic’s serial producer was taken by Mitchell J. “Mike” Frankovich, who had played an acting bit in Son of Zorro. A former UCLA football star, a popular sports announcer, and the adoptive son of comedian Joe E. Brown, Frankovich would go on to become a prominent feature-film and television producer; not surprisingly (given his future success), he showed definite production acumen during his brief stint at Republic. Serial budgets were reduced during his tenure, requiring directors and stuntmen to scale back the destructiveness of their fight scenes and eventually necessitating the regular use of recycled action scenes and cliffhanger endings from earlier serials. However, Frankovich and his team compensated for this budget-cutting in other areas of production, making each of his serials quite strong.
The first of Frankovich’s serial productions was the top-notch Jesse James Rides Again (1947), directed by Fred Brannon and the imaginative Thomas Carr–who had helmed many superior 1940s Republic B-westerns. Carr’s handling of the serial’s action scenes was more fluid and creative than Bennet’s or Brannon’s usual work, and the serial’s visuals were further boosted by the strong cinematography of John MacBurnie–who had shot one wartime Republic serial, Captain America, and who now returned to the studio’s serial department following military service (he would remain Republic’s regular chapterplay cameraman through 1949). The serial was set further above the norm by its unusual script (by Adreon, Shor, Dickey, and Duffy), which featured as its hero a reformed but still wanted outlaw with a dark past and a lethal aim. The grimly intense Clayton Moore was well-cast as the good but deadly Jesse, and supported by a good cast, making Jesse James another of Republic’s post-war successes (one which would lead to two sequels).
The Black Widow (1947) was as unique as Jesse James Rides Again, but in a different way; another story of villains attempting to assemble a world-conquest gadget, it was enlivened by many colorful science-fictional gimmicks and by the participation of of the ever-leaping Duke Green in many of its fight scenes (directed by Bennet and Brannon). Its most outstanding quality, however, was the screenplay by Adreon, Shor, Dickey, and Duffy; it was marked by a sharp sense of humor even more pervasive here than in the serials co-written by Albert DeMond. The hero (a mystery-novel writer) and the heroine (a newspaper reporter) exchanged good-humored insults with each other on a practically non-stop basis, while a disparate and distinctive trio of heavies (an icily bad-tempered master villainess, a bombastic thug, and a smugly condescending scientist) engaged in less good-humored but equally amusing verbal sniping, without diminishing their menace. Leading man Bruce Edwards, another product of the stuntman-centered school of casting, was excessively low-key (but not disastrously bad), and the villainess’s would-be world-conqueror father was given a somewhat ridiculous-looking costume, but aside from these minor flaws the serial was an offbeat triumph.
Frankovich’s third Republic serial, released in late 1947 and early 1948, was the first of the studio’s serials to pull nearly all of its cliffhanger sequences from earlier serials (a practice that would continue till the end of Republic’s run), but G-Men Never Forget still managed to be just as good and just as distinctive as its two predecessors. Spencer Bennet had now departed for Columbia Pictures’ serial unit, with his place taken by Yakima Canutt–who, aided by Brannon, staged many strong fistfights but didn’t draw all of them out as long as Bennet would have, leaving room for some good shootouts and memorable suspense scene as well–such as an unusually grim sequence in which a businessman was stalked and murdered by gangsters. John MacBurnie outdid himself here with well-composed, shadowy, and frequently threatening camerawork, successfully underscoring the unusual grittiness of Adreon, Shor, Dickey, and Duffy’s script–which pitted tough and seasoned professional law-enforcers against brutal and comparatively realistic racketeers. By thus bringing the serial’s plot down to earth but keeping it entirely interesting, Frankovich and his crew (including a very good cast) made G-Men Never Forget seem entirely fresh despite its frequent stock-footage borrowings.
Frankovich’s last Republic serial production, Dangers of the Canadian Mounted (1948), wasn’t as unique as his three other outings, but like G-Men Never Forget successfully melded a small-scaled plot and generous helpings of stock footage into an entertaining new package. Adreon, Dickey, and Shor relegated what could have been a standard sabotage plot (villains trying to stop construction of an Alaska-Canada highway) to the background, using it only at intervals and placing most of their focus on a much more intriguing hunt for an ancient Chinese treasure cache. Big Bear Lake provided a good backdrop for outdoor action, Canutt and Brannon again directed, and MacBurnie contributed some strong camerawork in scenes set in a deadly treasure-cave and during a galvanizing Canutt-directed fight that ranked among Republic’s best postwar action scenes.
Frankovich left Republic for Columbia Pictures’ British division in 1948, and Adreon took his place in the producer’s seat for Republic’s next serial, The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948); he would hold that seat for the remainder of Republic’s serial-making run. Adreon also did writing duties on this title, assisted by Dickey and Shor, while the Canutt-Brannon team directed. Though it featured some excellent Canutt action scenes, its repetitious plot used stock footage as a crutch in ways that the Frankovich serials had avoided, lifting not just cliffhanger scenes but entire story situations from Adventures of Red Ryder. It also tried to whitewash its title characters much more thoroughly than the first Jesse James serial had, over-stressing the heroes’ undeservedly bad reputations to a rather comically heavy-handed extent. Clayton Moore did a second strong turn as Jesse, and the rest of the cast was good, but the serial was still the weakest Republic outing since King of the Forest Rangers.
Canutt moved back to feature-film work after Frank and Jesse James, leaving Fred Brannon as the studio’s only serial director (Carr had followed Bennet to Columbia). Brannon was better at handling actors than Bennet had been, but lacked Bennet’s instinctive flair for fight scenes; the stunt team members helped him adjust to his new solo role, but neither their efforts nor his could compensate for the studio’s continually shrinking budgets, which precluded any further indulgence in the tremendously destructive Bennet fights of yore. The invariable reliance upon the physically similar Steele and Van Sickel, which had begun in 1945, also kept these later fights from seeming as dynamic as they had been when those two were fighting wildly different stuntmen like Duke Green and Ken Terrell. Thus, although serial fights under Brannon remained lively, slick, and well-staged (and always included some prop-smashing), they tended to feel like milder and somehow abridged versions of the spectacular wartime brawls.
Still, Brannon’s first solo effort, Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc. (released in late 1948 and early 1949) was very good; its action was unspectacular but respectable, its cast was solid, and its plot–the work of Dickey, Shor, Shor’s former Golden Age colleague William Lively, and returning wartime regular Royal Cole–was unusually well-structured, continually unveiling new plot twists whenever the action seemed to be getting into a rut, and eventually taking the heroes from the stateside setting of all Republic’s G-man serials to the exotic-adventure terrain of Perils of Nyoka. Federal Agents was succeeded by Ghost of Zorro (1949), which featured some of Brannon’s best action scenes but which was conspicuously inferior to its predecessor in the plotting department; Cole, Lively, and Shor did a somewhat clumsy job of shoehorning their Zorro (another descendant of the original Zorro) into a Western saga that borrowed both its basic plot (complete the project before the franchise deadline) and much of its stock footage from Daredevils of the West. The writing trio never did come up with a credible reason for its hero’s (Clayton Moore) assumption of a dual identity, and failed to have him maintain a consistently clownish alter ego that would have justified the heroine’s excessively contemptuous attitude for him. The serial’s other notable flaw was beyond anyone’s control, however; an abnormally cold winter forced Adreon, Brannon and their crew to film many scenes on soundstages, resulting in more process-screen work and less outdoor shooting than in any other Republic western serial.
King of the Rocket Men (1949) was the best of Brannon’s solo directorial efforts and the most ambitious of Adreon’s serial productions; it centered around the flying “Rocket Man,” a scientist who used a prototype flying suit to keep a mystery villain named Dr. Vulcan from getting his hands on dangerous atomic weaponry. To bring this hero to life, the Lydecker brothers returned to their old Captain Marvel flying-man effect and crafted a new and impressive dummy, this one with a rocket-pack, a leather aviator’s jacket, and a sleek face-concealing helmet that allowed this hero (unlike the barefaced Marvel dummy) to fly right into the camera without looking fake. Dave Sharpe, who was now working chiefly in features but who still found time to participate in a few serial fights, handled the takeoffs and landings for the Rocket Man, just as he had for Captain Marvel; he and the Lydeckers between them succeeded in creating the last truly iconic Republic character. The serial surrounding this character was well-acted and well-plotted, with Shor, Cole, and Lively using a tried-and-true mystery-villain storyline and a few unusual plot twists to keep their storyline interesting, while the aerial action scenes centering around the flying hero were outstanding, and their grounded equivalents were solid if much less striking.
King of the Rocket Men’s immediate successor, while not as memorable, ranked alongside that serial and Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc. as one of the Adreon/Brannon team’s best. James Brothers of Missouri (1949), the second sequel to Jesse James Rides Again, was a notable improvement over the first sequel, Adventures of Frank and Jesse James; its script (by Shor, Cole, and Lively) was much less obsessed with downplaying its heroes’ pasts, and its screenplay was paced much less episodically and repetitiously, with subplots spun out to last over multiple chapters. Its action was also above-average, with Brannon and new cinematographer Ellis Carter shooting and staging several gun battles and one striking cliffhanger with a strong eye for good visual composition; fistfights were uniformly good, while one was excellent–a sequence that actually had Dave Sharpe doubling the hero and Duke Green participating as well, echoing the Golden Age for one fleeting scene. Usual heavy Keith Richards, who took over the role of Jesse here, lacked Clayton Moore’s charisma but gave his character a properly dangerous presence, and was supported by a good cast.
Radar Patrol vs. Spy King, released in late 1949 and early 1950, ended Republic’s variegated 1940s postwar period on a comparatively weak note; it featured a good deal of outdoor location shooting, capable if predictable action scenes, an inventive finale, and an engaging cast, but was somewhat undermined by its screenplay–in which Lively, Cole, and Shor gave their master villain a unimpressive master plan (building a radar-blocking device from stolen technology and selling it to a foreign power) that made him seem more like a cut-rate weapons broker than the super-spy he was supposed to be, and which eliminated much of the suspense or urgency that the serial might have had. Adreon and his crew seemed to be depending on the topicality of radar–vital wartime technology only recently declassified–to hold audience interest by itself.
Radar Patrol vs. Spy King was not only the last 1940s Republic serial; it was also the last chapterplay to credit multiple writers. Republic’s front office cut Adreon and Brannon’s writing staff to one man beginning in 1950; Lively, Cole, and Shor moved on to other pastures (Cole to a few Columbia serials, all three to B-features and television), and Ronald Davidson returned from Monogram to take on solo writing duties.
Part V: A Steady Ride to the End of the Trail (1950-1955)
The writing-department cutback, and continuing reductions in Republic’s annual number of serials (from four to three and then to two), clearly signaled that the studio now considered serials a low priority and not worth a substantial investment; early television shows like The Lone Ranger and Captain Video were encroaching on the theatrical chapterplay’s territory and rendering it less and less marketable. Adreon, Brannon, and Davidson, old studio soldiers all, got the message; they were not to waste too much time, money, or imagination on Republic’s remaining serials. At the same time, however, they maintained a certain level of quality and professionalism in those serials; camerawork, musical scoring, and action (most of it contributed by Steele and Van Sickel) would remain slick, if increasingly routine and forgettable, right to the end of the line. Adreon also became much more careful in casting than Republic producers had been during the palmier days of the 1940s; heroes were still selected with doubling in mind, but greater care was now taken to ensure that these heroes could act as well–wisely, since the already-weakened 1950s chapterplays would have been weakened further by subpar acting of the Richard Bailey/Larry Thompson school. All of Adreon’s leading men would be either established serial stars or solid feature-film and television players.
Plotting was rather more uneven in Republic’s last serials; Davidson showed great ingenuity in tailoring his screenplays to take advantage of old stock footage (which was inserted seamlessly by the editors), but fell back on the old circular and repetitive screenplay formula of the wartime years. More seriously, he developed a bad habit of concocting science-fictional plots far too grandiose for the serial’s reduced budgets. His heavies were too often reduced to committing mundane crimes in order to raise money for never-realized and impractical world-conquest plans. The Invisible Monster, Republic’s first 1950 serial, provided a particularly strong example of this tendency; although it had some good action, a likable hero-heroine team, and an ingeniously plausible invisibility device, it was rendered ridiculous by the script’s insistence that the villain planned to use the proceeds of his small-scale crimes to build an invisible army to conquer the nation with–a goal which, given the useful but very limited nature of his invisibility ray, would have been a pipe dream even if he had raised the money to hire the army.
Desperadoes of the West (1950), a straightforward and likable Western concerning a battle over an oil well, was filled with good outdoor action (some borrowed from earlier Republic B-westerns and serials, some original), and due to its setting avoided the absurdities of Davidson’s science-fiction serials. Its successor, Flying Disc Man from Mars (which aired in 1950 and 1951), ventured back into sci-fi territory, but was easier to take seriously than Davidson’s other ventures in that line; its Martian villain was given a genuinely impressive gadget (the Falcon plane from King of the Mounties) to use in his plot to conquer the Earth, making him seem like an actual threat. A good cast, effective use of additional Mounties stock footage, and respectable new action made this effort smoothly enjoyable overall.
Don Daredevil Rides Again (1951) was also enjoyable, a masked-rider Western which drew on Zorro’s Black Whip for some of its action footage but which worked on its own terms; its plot was not too big for its budget–and, like Flying Disc Man, it featured fine new action and a good cast (its characters–mainly the crusty old sidekick and the hot-headed young sidekick–were also a little more individualized than usual). Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion (1951) likewise managed to be modestly entertaining; its small-scaled storyline (centering around a gang of truck hijackers purloining atomic materials) was capable of believable execution on a small budget, and its action (old and new) was brisk. It also contained Republic’s last traditional mystery villain, but Davidson didn’t leave himself room to develop this plot thread to any great extent.
Radar Men from the Moon was the first of two 1950s Republic serials on which Adreon was actually encouraged to spend a little additional money; the front office, obviously hoping to cash in on the popularity of sci-fi TV shows like Space Patrol and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, had him and Davidson ostentatiously “introduce” a new character, scientist and “sky marshal” Commando Cody, in Radar Men from the Moon (1952). Cody was simply the Rocket Man with a new name and backstory, and nearly all of the footage of his aerial flights was culled from King of the Rocket Men. However, the serial also contained all-new footage of Cody’s space ship (a good Lydecker miniature), which he used to journey to the Moon; this interplanetary journeying, the unfailingly interesting rocket suit, and some unique action (such as a tank chase) set on the lunar surface (Vasquez Rocks) made Radar Men fun despite the embarrassment created by Davidson’s depiction of Moon Men who needed to rob banks to finance their conquest of the Earth.
Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) was written as a direct sequel to Radar Men, but had its character names (and nothing else) altered at the last minute when Republic decided to feature a rebooted version of Commando Cody on a TV series instead; this imaginative but fatally pedestrian show only wound up numbering twelve episodes and ultimately aired in theaters as well as on the tube. As for Zombies, it gave its Martian villains a more threatening and more practical (within the confines of the serial world, anyway) plan that Radar Men’s lunar heavies; they were not seeking to finance a conquest of the world on the cheap, but rather trying to put the finishing touches on a super-bomb capable of blasting Earth out of its orbit, allowing Mars to take its place. A cleverly-woven tapestry of stock footage, a particularly swift pace, more rocketship miniatures, and a genuinely exciting conclusion made this serial work despite its potential for ridiculousness and the blandest of Republic’s 1950s leads (the wooden Judd Holdren, also the star of the Cody TV show and two Columbia sci-fi serials).
Jungle Drums of Africa (1953) was the first in a series of Cold-War-themed Republic serials, pitting American mining engineers against a Soviet agent (who was never actually designated as such) in a struggle for control of an African uranium mine. This serial was padded with too much irrelevant wild-animal stock footage, but its down-to-earth plot was credible; it also featured an unusually large amount of original cliffhanger endings, along with a typically good 1950s cast (headed by Clayton Moore). This would be Fred Brannon’s last serial; he died of a heart attack in 1953 while preparing to leave on a Hawaiian vacation.
Adreon took over the director’s chair for Brannon, doing double duty as director and producer on Republic’s last five serials. These titles were marked by yet further cost-cutting: sidekicks, ubiquitous in the preceding 1950s serials, were dropped, leaving the heroes with no one but the heroines to assist them. Disposable one-chapter henchmen (usually played by stuntmen) were almost entirely eliminated (leading to a great many inconclusive shootouts in which the hero couldn’t score a hit, since no heavy could die till the final chapter); stuntmen (Dale Van Sickel, Tom Steele, Fred Graham, Johnny Daheim) were instead promoted to play leading henchmen, allowing them to double themselves; heroes were still doubled for dangerous or strenuous work, but were also called on to do their own punches and falls in many fight scenes. This diminished doubling forced Adreon to slow the tempo of his fights for fear of injuring his principals–but he managed to partially compensate by making the brawls look more realistically tough and grueling than traditional chapterplay combats.
Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders (1953), Adreon’s first directorial effort, featured one of Davidson’s silliest plots: a thinly-veiled Soviet agent plotting to conquer the United States by installing secret missile bases in Canada with the aid of a measly pair of henchmen. The Mounties managed to thwart this scheme before the pathetically undermanned villains could even complete one of their missile-launching platforms. Adreon and Davidson made extensive and effective use of Alaska-filmed footage from a 1938 Republic feature called Call of the Yukon, and of scenes from King of the Royal Mounted and King of the Mounties, but nothing could effectively counterbalance the utterly unsuspenseful and ridiculous storyline.
Trader Tom of the China Seas (1954) was the best of Adreon’s final five; the villains were coyly unidentified Soviet spies again, but Davidson gave them a more feasible scheme this time out (gun-smuggling to rebels in a mythical island nation), and deftly created a colorful storyline that allowed him to weave together footage from SOS Coast Guard, Drums of Fu Manchu, and Haunted Harbor. Davidson’s other 1954 serial screenplay, Man with the Steel Whip, drew chiefly on Daredevils of the West and Zorro’s Black Whip, and was much less interesting than Trader Tom; it focused on the hero’s attempt to prevent and the villains’ efforts to instigate an Indian war that never seemed even remotely imminent–at least at first; the heavies were so consistently thwarted in repeated skirmishes that they were embarrassingly forced to continually downsize their objectives.
Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955) capitalized on the giant-bug movie trend kicked off by the feature film Them, pitting heroine Phyllis Coates (in Frances Gifford’s old Jungle Girl costume) against a diamond-thieving scientist using chemically-enlarged crawdads as a cover for his activities. The monster crustaceans were depicted convincingly by means of miniature Lydecker sets and a giant-sized claw prop, but the budget didn’t allow them to do much but lumber around menacingly and occasionally snatch someone from behind a boulder; they were not enough to make the serial more than mildly interesting.
King of the Carnival marked the sad end of the trail for Republic’s serials; Davidson came up with one more laughably over-ambitious plot (a tiny Soviet counterfeiting ring–consisting of one printer, two moonlighting carnival thugs, and a shadowy boss–which somehow hoped to turn out enough funny money to destroy the value of American currency in Europe), which gave rise to a endlessly repetitive series of skirmishes between the trapeze-artist hero (an undercover T-man) and the roustabout henchmen. Except for a good (partially stock-footage) sequence involving a trapeze act and a lion cage in the first chapter, the budget was too low to allow Adreon and Davidson to do anything with the potentially intriguing carnival setting. It was clearly time to close up the serial shop, and Republic did so after Carnival (leaving one announced but unused title, Phantom of the Racetrack, in eternal limbo).
Adreon went on to become a prolific television writer after exiting the serial game, while Davidson only did a few additional writing jobs–mostly for Republic’s short-lived TV division. Republic itself would not long survive its chapterplays; the television-induced demise of the serials and B-Westerns that had been the studio’s bread and butter, and studio boss Herbert Yates’ ill-advised refusal to fully commit Republic to extensive television production (a field that his highly efficient little studio could have flourished in) spelled its doom by 1958.
Republic Pictures was to movie serials what Hal Roach’s studio was to comedy shorts or Walt Disney’s to animated cartoons: it made one particular field of film-making so thoroughly its own that it could compete with bigger studios in the same field on more than even terms, and its output remains the first thing that comes to most film buffs’ minds when thinking of the best examples of that field. Its Golden Age chapterplays represent the single greatest body of work in sound-serial history, and the majority of its non-Golden Age efforts range from competent to excellent; even its weakest efforts retained some glimmers of the production quality that made Republic, at its peak, the king of the serial-makers.
Acknowledgements: My sources for this article included this biographical blog entry on Hiram Brown Jr. by Ed Hulse, additional message-board postings by Ed, Jack Mathis’s Valley of the Cliffhangers, and various interviews with (among others) William Witney, Dave Sharpe, Tom Steele, and Fred Graham, printed in the magazines Cliffhanger, Those Enduring Matinee Idols, and Serial World.