Handing Off the Torch (The Serials of Columbia)

Handing Off the Torch: Columbia Pictures’ Sound Serials (1937-1956)

Part I: Warmup with Weiss (1937-1938)

Columbia Pictures, a smaller studio that established a respectable industry reputation during the 1930s (largely on the strength of director Frank Capra’s features), made no serials during the silent era; it did not get seriously interested in the sound-serial business until 1937, when it jockeyed with both Republic and Universal for the movie-serial rights to the popular Chicago Tribune strip Dick Tracy. Columbia lost this contest to Republic, and simultaneously failed in an attempt to hire away Republic personnel to staff its projected serial department. Columbia then temporarily abandoned the idea of an in-house serial crew, and instead hired independent producer Louis Weiss to turn out four chapterplays for Columbia in 1937-1938; Weiss redubbed his outfit “Adventure Serials Inc.” for the occasion.

Columbia’s inaugural chapterplay release was the Adventure Serials production Jungle Menace (1937), a story about rubber piracy in Southeast Asia; this serial was co-directed by George Melford (a once-prominent feature-film director in the twilight of his career) and Harry Fraser (a veteran Poverty Row filmmaker), while the writing was handled by Melford, Sherman Lowe, Harry Hoyt, Arthur Hoerl (all of whom had worked on serials or features for other studios), actor/writer George Rosener, Dallas Fitzgerald, George Merrick, and Gordon Griffith. The last three had all worked in various capacities on the three serials that Weiss and his father Adrian (who served as Adventure Serials’ production manager) had previously turned out under the banner of “Stage and Screen Productions;” those efforts had been ambitious but clumsy affairs with monstrously oversized casts of characters, maddeningly vague and tangled plots, slow pacing, ragged production values, and creaky filming techniques that made them look more like very early talkies than like mid-1930s productions. Jungle Menace had much better production values and was somewhat more slickly filmed than the Stage and Screen serials, but otherwise fell into most of the same pitfalls that had plagued those titles–being slow-moving, very short on action, overloaded with characters, and filled with subplots that went nowhere. It also had no hero; its nominal star, real-life animal-catcher Frank Buck, was given almost nothing to do, and one of the villains (LeRoy Mason) was instead the principal catalyst for what action there was. Mason’s swaggering performance was one of the serial’s few redeeming qualities, however–along with occasionally impressive visuals (probably contributed by Melford), a few good animal-attack scenes, and a couple of colorful supporting performances–one of them by literate and eccentric co-writer Rosener, who wrote his own scenes as a quirky, classics-quoting criminal-for-hire.

The second Weiss-Columbia serial, The Mysterious Pilot (1937) was too slow-moving to be a complete successful, but was nevertheless a huge improvement over the dreary Jungle Menace; its screenplay, adapted by writers Merrick and Rosener from a novel, was much more simple and straightforward, its filming locations (the Big Bear Lake region in the San Bernardino National Forest) were lovely, and it contained many excellent fight sequences–performed by top-flight stuntmen Dave O’Brien and Yakima Canutt, and directed by action specialist Spencer Bennet, who had helmed many silent serials. The script, which centered on a pilot in the Canadian wilds who helped a girl clear herself of a false murder charge and fell in love with her in the process, had a lot of good character moments in it too, although director Bennet (who rarely spent much time or thought on non-action scenes) and low-key star Frank Hawks (a professional flyer with no acting experience) between them threw away many scenes that could have been much more dramatically strong.

In its marketing for its first two serial releases, Columbia had tried to recapture the adult audiences that had once followed silent serials but drifted away in the sound era. This approach was abandoned, along with the relatively realistic plotting of those first two releases, in the third Weiss-Columbia serial, The Secret of Treasure Island (1938). This fantastical modern-day mystery/treasure-hunt story suffered at times from confusing plotting and from some pace-slowing and creakily misjudged attempts at building “suspense” by former silent-era director Elmer Clifton–but these flaws were immaterial in view of the serial’s impressive and frequently bizarre sets and locations, a terrific collection of action scenes executed by Canutt, O’Brien, and fencing master Ralph Faulkner, a strong hero and villain, and colorful supporting characterizations–including another memorably off-the-wall turn by George Rosener, who again co-wrote the screenplay (an adaptation of a magazine story) with George Merrick. Secret was the best of the Weiss-Columbia batch and one of Columbia’s best offerings period; it would also be the last of the Weiss-Columbia serial releases.

Part II: A Short Stay at Home (1938-1939)

It would seem that Columbia never actually abandoned its initial plan of creating its own serial department, and that it regarded the Weiss deal as a stopgap measure; in May of 1938, while the later chapters of Secret of Treasure Island were airing in theaters, Columbia announced via trade publication that it would be producing its next four serials in-house. The timing of this move definitely had something to do with developments over at Republic; serial producer Nat Levine had been bought out there after overseeing the Dick Tracy serial, and Republic executive Jack Fier, formerly one of Levine’s cohorts at Republic’s serial-making predecessor Mascot Pictures, was now willing to move on himself. Columbia didn’t miss this opportunity to acquire an important Republic staffer, and hired Fier in 1938. For unknown reasons, they then decided to take what would have been the fourth and last Weiss serial, The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, away from Weiss and give it to Fier to produce in-house. This decision might have been the result of a need to induce Fier to sign by promising him immediate work, or it may have been prompted by the fear that Weiss, knowing that his contract wouldn’t be renewed, might skimp on production values, hurting the studio’s serial brand, in order to save money and guarantee himself a nice severance bonus (like most independent producers, he worked on a cost-plus basis–meaning that he was given a set sum to produce a serial, and allowed to keep whatever was left over).

Weiss’s outfit started work on Hickok’s screenplay before it was taken out of their hands–as shown by the fact that George Rosener, Dallas Fitzgerald, and George Arthur Durlam (who, like Fitzgerald, had worked at Stage and Screen) all received writing credits. The chapterplay’s other scripters, presumably brought in by Fier to finish the Weiss crew’s work, were B-western writers Tom Gibson and Charles Arthur Powell. Fier almost certainly was responsible for hiring other key Hickok crew members with Mascot/Republic ties: associate producer Harry Webb (who had worked for Levine at Mascot in the silent days), former Mascot cinematographer Benjamin Kline, and former Republic B-western and serial director Mack V. Wright, who co-directed Hickok with Columbia staffer Sam Nelson. As for Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok itself, its storyline, perhaps as a result of the production switch, was noticeably disjointed (clumsily welding together a cattle-drive plot and a town-taming plot), but it was very strong in all other departments. Filmed on striking Utah locations, with unusually enormous amounts of extras, it featured some of the best large-scale frontier action scenes in serial history, while its often intensely dramatic script gave rise to some of the serial genre’s most memorable one-on-one gunfights. It was also full of energetic characterizations, and topped by a terrific star-making performance by Gordon Elliott in the title role.

Hickok was Columbia’s best Western serial; the studio’s next release (and first fully in-house production) was likewise Columbia’s best contemporary crime serial–and has justly been regarded by most buffs as their single best chapterplay. The Spider’s Web (1938) was the first of many Columbia chapterplays adapted from other media–in this case, a pulp-magazine series about a masked and costumed vigilante called the Spider; this hero was brought to vivid life by suave but steely actor Warren Hull, while his team of trusty assistants was portrayed by an interesting and likable group of players (Iris Meredith, Richard Fiske, Kenne Duncan). Web’s plot, concocted by veteran Universal serial writers George Plympton and Basil Dickey and by newcomers Robert E. Kent (later a producer) and Mart Ransom, was a simple and repetitive one, (the Spider fighting to protect city transportation systems from a megalomaniacal mystery villain called the Octopus, while trying to avoid capture by misunderstanding police), but the characterizations of the protagonists were so strong, the pacing so fast, and the action scenes (many taking place in convincingly crowded “city” sets and backlot streets) so consistently exciting that the serial was thoroughly gripping. Said action was executed by Dave O’Brien and George DeNormand, and directed by Ray Taylor–who had helmed most of Universal’s 1930s serials before directing several for Levine at Republic–and James W. Horne–who had helmed many silent Westerns and serials before becoming well-known as a comedy director for Hal Roach’s studio.

The action in Spider’s Web was particularly dependent on large-scale and lethal gunfights, in which the Spider coolly mowed down whole squads of henchmen; this vigilante violence brought the wrath of the censors down on Columbia, leading to some awkward snips in Web’s later chapters and creating repercussions for the studio’s next chapterplay, Flying G-Men (1939). This serial, written by Kent, Dickey, and Sherman Lowe and directed by the Taylor-Horne duo, had a nifty masked mystery hero (an aviator known as the Black Falcon), a charismatic trio of co-stars as hero “suspects,” and non-stop fast-paced action–but it was prevented from being as exciting as Hickok or Web because of its comically clumsy avoidance of actual killing during its many gunfight scenes–in which the characters blazed away repeatedly at each other, often at point-blank range, but failed to hit anything due to Fier’s fear of precipitating another clash with the censors.

Fier’s next Columbia production, Mandrake the Magician (1939), was not very faithful to its comic-strip source, but was otherwise an excellent serial–with another strong performance by Warren Hull (as the titular crimefighting stage magician), plentiful stuntwork by George DeNormand, an interesting variety of locations, and a fast pace (which was further quickened by the fact that Mandrake, unlike virtually all other Columbia serials, was only twelve chapters, instead of fifteen). Fier and his directors (Sam Nelson and another Columbia B-western director, Norman Deming) avoided the problem of unconvincingly bloodless gunfights in Mandrake by simply omitting gunfights from the serial, instead focusing the action on fistfights and chases. Writers Basil Dickey, Joseph Poland (formerly a scripter on Republic’s B-westerns), and Ned Dandy also gave Mandrake one of the serial genre’s best mystery-villain riddles–creating a set of suspects who were each distinctive characters (unlike the interchangeable suspects in Republic’s serials) but who behaved in logical fashion (unlike the distinctive but insanely over-duplicitous suspects in Mascot’s serials).

Fier’s last Columbia serial production was Overland with Kit Carson (1939), written by Dandy, Poland, and usual Republic staffer Morgan Cox. This followup to Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok featured the same lead (Gordon Elliott, now popular Columbia B-western star “Wild Bill” Elliott), the same abundance of extras, and even more striking Utah locations (filmed to maximum advantage by cinematographer Benjamin Kline). Unfortunately, it did not measure up to Hickok in the action department; although it was filled with impressively-staged large-scale gun battles, the hovering shadow of the censor ensured that the ratio of shots fired to hits scored in these mass gunfights would be approximately 50 to 1. However, these frustratingly inconclusive gunfights couldn’t entirely dampen the appeal of Elliott, the serial’s strong production values, and an easy-to-detect but unforgettable mystery villain.

Fier would remain an in-house Columbia producer after Overland with Kit Carson–but on the studio’s B-western features, not its serials. Columbia’s front office evidently decided that, despite the high quality of Fier’s serials, the revenue they brought in was not worth the retention of a full-fledged serial unit. It found a new independent producer to farm its chapterplays out to, and never brought them back into the studio fold again.

Part III: The Weird World of James W. Horne (1940-1942)

Above: Director James W. Horne peruses the script of the 1940 serial Deadwood Dick in an advertising photo (hawking the pens in his hand and pocket). 

Columbia’s new serial sub-contractor was Larry Darmour, whose independent film-making outfit (“Larry Darmour Productions”) had previously turned out many B-westerns for Columbia and was currently making B-mysteries for the studio. The sums allotted to Darmour (like Weiss, he worked on a cost-plus basis) to produce these serials were nowhere as generous as the budgets Fier had enjoyed, but were enough to allow Darmour to make his chapterplays look like ordinary studio B-film product. Fifteen-chapter lengths became mandatory for Columbia serials at this time; making every serial a “special”in this fashion allowed Columbia to market each release as a “super-serial” and charge higher fees to exhibitors. The studio took care to make sure that exhibitors would be willing to pay these fees by making a regular practice of securing the rights to many sought-after characters from radio and the comics; theater managers who wanted to cash in on these characters’ popularity were happy to purchase Columbia’s slate of serials even at extra cost.

Darmour’s first serial, The Shadow (1940), was originally slated to be directed by Norman Deming and D. Ross Lederman, but at some point they were replaced by James W. Horne. This switch was a fateful one; Horne would oversee Columbia’s next ten serials, and would put a very strong and very offbeat personal stamp on them. His serial-making days during the silent era had given him a talent for shooting action scenes swiftly and economically–which was much in evidence in his two co-directed outings for Fier, and which is doubtlessly what recommended him to Darmour. However, his years at Hal Roach’s studio (where he oversaw many great Laurel and Hardy shorts and features) had also given him both a talent and a taste for directing calculatedly absurd comedy.

Horne’s comic propensities had been kept largely under wraps in his Fier serials, only emerging occasionally through the exaggeratedly broad dialogue delivery of minor heavies. Given a much looser rein by Darmour (who was not overly concerned with what his serials were like, so long as they came in under budget), Horne indulged his taste for comedy to outrageous extents; he interpolated innumerable slapstick bits of business and self-parodying dialogue into his serials’ scripts, staged most of his fight scenes and his cliffhanger endings and escapes in cartoonishly over-the-top fashion, and encouraged his actors to shout, scream, gesture, grimace, and otherwise overact. His regular writing staff was mostly composed of genre veterans who penned plenty of excellent serials elsewhere (save for John Cutting, who only worked on Horne’s chapterplays and might have been his accomplice when it came to comedic insertions), but their personalities rarely asserted themselves in his chapterplays. The Horne outings were usually entertaining (for sheer weirdness if nothing else) and frequently funny–but, with a few exceptions, most of them were too comic to be taken seriously as chapterplays and too serious in their basic plot situations to be regarded entirely as comedies, and thus failed to work as coherent wholes.

That said, The Shadow, Horne’s first serial for Darmour, worked as a whole–albeit a somewhat mediocre whole, with flaws unrelated to Horne’s fairly few comic insertions. This chapterplay (scripted by Joseph O’Donnell and by two holdovers from the Fier era, Joseph Poland and Ned Dandy) was an adaptation of the Shadow pulp magazines and the radio series they gave rise to–and was essentially an imitation of The Spider’s Web, with a masked hero and mystery villain clashing in a series of loosely-connected duels. However, it was largely lacking in the sense of high-stakes urgency that had pervaded that serial, since it was deprived of both Web’s busy city sets (due to lowered budgets) and fierce gunfights (due to censorship fears). Additionally, the innumerable fistfights (most of them respectably staged by Horne) that replaced Web’s shootouts prevented the serial’s cloaked hero from retaining the aura of power and mystery he had possessed in the source material. Saturnine and commanding A-film actor Victor Jory was perfectly cast as the Shadow, however, and played it straight for the most part (as did nearly all of the other cast members); Horne’s penchant for comedy was chiefly evidenced by Jory’s occasional exaggerated disguise as a Chinese underworld character, by a few overcranked fights, by the ridiculously bombastic vocal histrionics of the mystery villain, and by a series of cliffhangers in which Jory was buried beneath falling rubble that should have killed him, only to crawl out unscathed next episode (these scenes played like deliberate parodies of the “lived-through-it” resolutions too common in Universal’s contemporary serials).

Horne fully unleashed the comedy in Columbia’s next serial, Terry and the Pirates (1940), adapted from a phenomenally popular Chicago Tribune comic strip by Milt Caniff. Columbia had scored a big coup in acquiring the screen rights to this strip, and gave Darmour enough money to put a good deal of production value (outdoor locations, impressive temple sets) into the chapterplay–but no serial production team could have done full justice to the three-dimensional characters and engrossing plotlines of Caniff’s strip, and writers Mark Layton, Joseph Levering, and George Morgan (the only serial vet of the three) didn’t even try. Instead, they took only the names of Caniff’s characters and plugged them into a standard jungle-expedition adventure which could still have been exciting in its own right–if Horne hadn’t taken it in his own direction. He had William Tracy, who was too old to convincingly play the teen-aged title hero, comically accentuate his miscasting by screaming childishly, laughing obnoxiously, and “fighting” like a playground brat; he also had Dick Curtis, as the serial’s Oriental-warlord villain, adopt an eccentric and effeminate voice and manner that completely destroyed him as a menace. He humorously subverted serial conventions in many other ways as well–among them making Curtis’s eerily-masked henchmen into bumbling clowns, and making the hero’s supposedly-endangered scientist father the toughest and most dynamic character in the chapterplay.

Deadwood Dick (1940), a colorful pulp-flavored Western, was the best of Horne’s serials, thanks in part to a strong trio of writers (Morgan Cox, George Plympton, and former Mascot and Universal serial mainstay Wyndham Gittens, aided by John Cutting), who made imaginative use of a real-life Western event (the murder of Wild Bill Hickok) to motivate its hero and drive the serial’s action, and thanks in part to Horne himself, who kept his comedy touches within reasonable bounds (confining it mostly to sarcastic remarks by the mystery villain and the antics of the hero’s sidekick) and staged many first-class outdoor action scenes, with the invaluable assistance of stuntman Yakima Canutt.

Cox and Cutting stayed on for Horne’s next serial, The Green Archer (released in late 1940 and early 1941), joined by future Republic serial writer Jesse Duffy; Horne himself also received a screenplay credit. Ostensibly a remake of one of the most popular silent serials ever made (itself an adaptation of an Edgar Wallace novel), Archer was a thinly-plotted and extremely repetitive serial that was made entertaining–though not cohesive–by Horne’s decision to focus most of his attention on its villain (James Craven), turning him into a frustrated figure gradually reduced to comic apoplexy by the repeated failure of his cohorts; the Horne-created verbal and physical clashes among Craven and his chief lieutenants were often very funny, even though they totally destroyed occasional attempts by the other actors (and the script) to take things seriously. Horne brought Craven back to play another perennially thwarted and comically irritable villain in his next serial, the Western White Eagle (1941). Another ostensible remake (of a successful 1931 Columbia feature), Eagle was also another ill-assorted blend of attempts to be serious (by writers Cox, Lawrence Taylor, and Arch Heath, and by star Buck Jones) and the comedy contributions of Horne, who was abetted most ably by Craven and by relentlessly mugging and blustering sidekick Raymond Hatton.

The Spider Returns (1941), a terribly disappointing sequel to the excellent Spider’s Web, was even more comedic in tone–featuring as it did a hero (a sadly wasted Warren Hull) who spent more time posing as a comic underworld character than he did fighting crime in his Spider getup, a heroine who either annoyingly nagged the hero or shrieked like a steam whistle at danger (Mary Ainslee), a bombastic but timid chief henchman (Anthony Warde), a perpetually hysterical master villain (voiced by Forrest Taylor), some absurdly overdone cliffhangers (one involving a death-trap designed to impale and incinerate the hero at the same time), and cartoon-like fistfights in which the hero either thrashed four or five opponents at once or was beaten to a pulp himself. The screenplay was credited to Cutting, Cox, Duffy, Taylor, George Plympton, and Harry Fraser, but Horne’s sensibilities were obviously the dominant ones.

The Iron Claw (1941), an almost plotless mystery-villain chapterplay credited to Duffy, Plympton, Basil Dickey, Charles Condon, and Jack Stanley, was the closest Horne came to a purely comedic serial. The storyline was so perfunctory that there were basically no serious moments to interfere with the antics of the Claw, his flippant reporter antagonist, the outrageously greedy and shady mystery-villain suspects, a bumbling group of gangsters, and equally bumbling policemen. The comedy here was also more balanced than the unrelievedly strident humor in Spider’s Return, combining frantic yelling with doses of more deadpan humor, and making Claw rather enjoyable if entirely off-the-wall.

Holt of the Secret Service (1941) marked the return of writer Wyndham Gittens to Horne’s serials; working with Dickey and Plympton, he turned in a storyline (about a T-man infiltrating a counterfeiting gang) that, like that of his earlier Horne effort Deadwood Dick, was stronger than that of the average Horne outing, with some genuinely formidable and interestingly individualized villains. Horne’s trademark five-against-one fight scenes were still present, but the serial’s cliffhangers were surprisingly good, many of the comic bits were funny without seriously undermining the plot, and the performance of leading man Jack Holt (a major star at Columbia in the early 1930s) was very likable, though swaggeringly over-the-top. Ultimately, Holt was prevented from ranking alongside Deadwood Dick as Horne’s best serial by not by its indulgences in humor but by Columbia’s practice of stretching every serial out to fifteen chapters; to fill out its last five episodes, the writers were forced to introduce a new subplot and entirely new set of characters, derailing most of what had gone before and leading to an unsatisfying finish.

Horne returned to purely absurd mode for Captain Midnight (1942), which was adapted from a popular radio show about a spy-fighting aviator. Stuntman Dave O’Brien played the lead here, adopting a ridiculously aggressive and overconfident bearing, and squared off against Horne favorite James Craven, who turned in another of his hysterically irritable villainous performances. Horne filled the thinly-plotted serial with more ludicrous fight scenes and bizarre cliffhangers, and not even the presence of Gittens (who co-wrote along with Plympton, Dickey, and Stanley) was able to make Midnight anything more than an amusing but uneven self-parody.

Horne’s final serial was Perils of the Royal Mounted (1942), a Mountie saga set during frontier days. This outing’s plot (villains trying to stir up an Indian war by means of a faked talking totem pole) could easily have worked in a serious serial, but the efforts of writers Dickey, Jesse Duffy, Scott Littleton, and Louis Heifetz were repeatedly undermined by Horne–who had leading man Robert Kellard act like a snarling, overbearing jerk while the henchmen acted like jittery, lovable goofs, effectively reversing what should have been the audience’s normal sympathies; Horne also filled the serial with silly-looking fights and even sillier cliffhanger resolutions, once again destroying any possibility of taking things seriously without managing to turn the serial into a consistent farce.

Horne died a month after the release of Perils’ first chapter, leaving behind him the most idiosyncratic body of work of any sound-serial director and the most controversial set of sound serials ever made; to this day, the merits (or lack of same) of his work is a good argument-starter among genre buffs. Very few of his efforts could be called successes, but they were undeniably unique.

Part IV: A Lucid Interval (1942-1945)

Larry Darmour, like Horne, died in 1942, but Larry Darmour Productions continued as a going concern, and kept turning out serials for Columbia over the next four years. The titles released during this period had their weaknesses, but most of them were far more consistent in tone and quality than the chapterplays of the Horne era had been, and several were among the best of Columbia’s farmed-out serial productions.

The first Darmour Productions serial from the post-Horne period was The Secret Code (1942) overseen by Ralph Cohn, one of Darmour’s associate producers (and the nephew of Columbia boss Harry Cohn). This wartime espionage outing, written by Leighton Brill, Basil Dickey, and former Republic serial producer Robert Beche, boasted a top-flight cast (Paul Kelly, Anne Nagel, Trevor Bardette, Clancy Cooper), some strong characterizations, innumerable well-done action scenes directed by Spencer Bennet (returning to the serial game after a five-year absence in the B-western field), and a potentially intriguing plot (a police officer arranges an undeserved dishonorable discharge in order to infiltrate a gang of Nazi spies, while also fighting them as a costumed hero known as the Black Commando). However, Code stopped short of ranking with Columbia’s best, due to the combined flaws of a repetitive plot and an over-indulgence in wisecracking wartime propaganda; the hero not only defeated the villains’ plans from within so many times that they really should have caught on to his double masquerade, but also mocked and belittled his alleged Axis allies so pettily and incessantly that it would have made more sense for them to terminate him even without knowing he was the Black Commando.

Darmour Productions’ next serial, The Valley of Vanishing Men (1942) was also overseen by Ralph Cohn, and also marred by incongruous wartime propaganda; the 1860s French/Austrian occupation of Mexico was clumsily and vaguely grafted on to an already thin and repetitive plot about a stolen gold-mine in order to have a villainous Austrian (and obvious Nazi surrogate) on the villains’ team. However, the serial’s many well-staged action scenes (Spencer Bennet again directed), plenty of good outdoor location work, a starring turn by Wild Bill Elliott, and a stellar lineup of top Western heavies made Vanishing Men highly entertaining despite its plotting issues. Harry Fraser, newcomer Lewis Clay (later to become a regular Columbia serial writer under a different production regime), and old-timer George Arthur Gray (a veteran of Pathé’s 1920s serials) did the scripting.

Ralph Cohn went into the military in 1943, and German-born Rudolph Flothow–a long-time Darmour associate producer–took over the job of making Darmour Productions serials for Columbia; his first chapterplay, released in 1943, was also the first screen adaptation of a popular comic-book character–National Publications’ Batman. Batman, the serial, was penned by Harry Fraser, Leslie Swabacker (a former Universal and Republic serial screenwriter) and Victor McLeod (who had written innumerable B-westerns and one outstanding serial, Gang Busters, for Universal); these three crafted a series of clashes between Batman and a Japanese sabotage ring, enlivened by colorful gimmicks like the villain’s zombie followers and Batman’s eerie “Bat’s Cave” headquarters (which was subsequently incorporated into the comics). Venerable B-western director Lambert Hillyer contributed some good fights that were marked by dramatic heroic entrances (although too often weakly concluded, with Batman repeatedly getting knocked out in order to lead up to a cliffhanger), and stage actor Lewis Wilson made a suave and authoritative Batman in spite of an indifferent costume; some of the serial’s wartime propaganda (mostly delivered in voiceover) was over-the-top, and J. Carroll Naish’s giggling, capricious characterization of the Japanese arch-villain would have made more sense for Batman’s comics antagonist the Joker than for a master spy, but the serial worked as a whole.

Columbia optioned another popular costumed hero, Lee Falk’s comic-strip jungle avenger the Phantom, for Flothow’s next serial production. The Phantom (1943) was one of the most faithful serial adaptations of a character from other media; the eclectically exotic realm of the comics (which contained both Asian-style warlords and African-style tribesmen) was brought to life by creative use of the Columbia backlot (including some impressive standing sets), the character’s unique backstory (as the latest in a long hereditary line of heroes) was duly referenced, and the muscular and hawk-faced Western and serial star Tom Tyler was a dead-ringer for the pen-and-ink Phantom. The serial was not only faithful to its source, but very entertaining as well; Swabacker and McLeod were joined on the screenplay by Mascot veteran Sherman Lowe and the talented Morgan Cox, and between them they devised a sequential and colorful treasure-hunt storyline that kept the story from lapsing into the repetition common to the last three Columbia releases. The Phantom also benefited greatly from direction by old pro B. Reeves Eason (another Mascot alumnus); overall, it was Columbia’s best chapterplay release since the Fier days.

The Desert Hawk (1944) was also directed by Eason, who used his experience in directing “historical” action in silent films like Ben-Hur and The Sea Hawk to help make this unique Arabian Nights adventure a success; Swabacker, Lowe, Leighton Brill, and Jack Stanley did the writing. Thanks to effective backlot sets, good off-lot “desert” locations, a compelling storyline (a deposed king seeks to recover his throne from his tyrannical usurper brother), an excellent dual performance by A-list actor Gilbert Roland (who played both hero and villain), and Eason’s skillfully-staged swordfights, chases, and battle scenes, Hawk equaled if not surpassed The Phantom and ranked as one of Columbia’s best serials.

Black Arrow, Flothow’s last 1944 serial for Columbia, was penned by Stanley, Brill, Lowe, and Republic serial regular Royal Cole, who used a treasure-rich hidden city (Cibola itself) and a tried-and-true plot device harking back to Lowe’s Mascot days (harshly stacking the deck against the hero) to make this Western saga colorful and compelling, despite some narrative padding occasioned by Columbia’s inevitable fifteen-chapter requirement. The beleaguered protagonist was a Navajo who was banished by his tribe and accused of murder by the local settlers, through the machinations of a villain seeking the hidden city’s treasure. Lew Landers, who’d done some of Universal’s best mid-1930s serials, directed a lot of strong action scenes (particularly in the climactic chapter), and Kenneth MacDonald was a delight to watch as the serial’s sly, plausible, and perpetually conniving master villain.

In 1945, Columbia took its serials from the Darmour company and handed them over to a new independent producer; Flothow was later moved into the Columbia fold as a full-time salaried producer.  Flothow’s replacement (discussed more fully below) produced the first Columbia serial release of 1945, but Flothow’s final chapterplay was the second Columbia serial of the year. Perhaps because he knew that the torch had already been passed on, Flothow invested a minimum of effort in this last serial, making it by far the weakest of the seven post-Horne outings from Darmour Productions. This chapterplay, The Monster and the Ape, had some strong fight scenes (staged by prolific B-western director Howard Bretherton and stuntmen George DeNormand and Eddie Parker) and a very good cast, but also was cursed with a sluggish pace and a plot that was at once thin, uninvolving, and silly (it centered on a perpetual but rather disinterested duel over a robot prototype, and featured villains who unaccountably used an unruly gorilla to do dirty work they could have accomplished themselves with far less effort). Royal Cole and Sherman Lowe were the writers; both headed over to Republic (Cole to serials, Lowe to features) after the cessation of Flothow’s serial productions, although they would return to Columbia serials later on.

Part V: The Long Dominion of Sam Katzman (1945-1956)

Columbia’s new serial producer was Sam Katzman, one of the best-known and most stereotypical low-budget producers from Hollywood’s golden age. Notoriously tight-fisted, blithely unconcerned about film-making quality, and certain that his audiences consisted of undiscriminating kids and adult “morons,” he cared only about making cheap product that could be ballyhooed effectively enough to turn a profit, and thus took exceptionally heavy advantage of Columbia’s habit of licensing pre-sold characters from other media. He had turned out two threadbare independent serials of his own back in 1937, while doing business as “Victory Pictures,” and had spent much of the early 1940s producing (under the “Banner Productions” imprint) low-quality horror films and “East Side Kids” comedy-dramas for release by Monogram Pictures.

Katzman brought many members of his Banner crew with him to his new Columbia-backed setup (which he would later dub Esskay Productions), chief among them director Wallace Fox and cinematographer Ira Morgan. He also recruited Universal serial writers George Plympton and Ande Lamb, who were assigned to script his first serial for Columbia, Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945). Though it was the second and last Columbia release to depart from the studio’s standard fifteen-chapter length (being only thirteen episodes), this adaptation of a Chicago Tribune comic strip would have been overlong even at six or seven chapters; its mundane plot, a search for a satchel full of stolen payroll money, might possibly have been able to fill out an hour-long Monogram B-mystery, but could not sustain a serial. To pad out the narrative, Plympton and Lamb were forced to fill chapter after chapter with unfunny bickering between the reporter heroine and nominal policeman hero, more bickering between the leads’ respective sidekicks, “comic” blustering by the heroine’s editor, reams of empty and repetitive expository dialogue (characters were frequently forced to say the same thing over and over within a single scene), and repeated but feeble and pointless attempts by the villains to kill the heroine. Fox’s total unfamiliarity with serial action didn’t help matters; the chapterplay was almost completely lacking in fights, shootouts, or chases, and its few bits of action (as well as its many weak cliffhangers) were staged and edited in remarkably dull style. Even with a strong cast, Brenda was a complete misfire.

Katzman’s second chapterplay for Columbia, Jungle Raiders (1945), was his only 1945-46 outing that was merely mediocre instead of terrible–thanks mainly to a much better director: Lesley Selander, who’d helmed many of the best Hopalong Cassidy films for Harry Sherman and Paramount in the 1930s. Selander shot most of Raiders amid the awe-inspiring rocks and canyons of the Lone Pine area, where he had filmed his Cassidy features; these locations didn’t look at all like Africa (which they were supposed to be), but did give Raiders much stronger visuals than Brenda Starr (which had never left the backlot, and rarely even ventured outdoors). Selander also staged several good action scenes, although he couldn’t do much to speed up the serial’s slow pacing, necessitated by the long running time; many chapters were dragged out by interminable shots of the actors plodding slowly through Lone Pine (such walking scenes would remain a favorite cost-saving device of Katzman’s). Plympton and Lamb scripted again, and used a device that had often benefited them at Universal–filling the serial with variegated villains working at cross-purposes, and having them periodically double-cross the heroes or each other; these continually shifting alliances helped to somewhat enliven a padded and repetitive storyline.

Katzman’s next serial, Who’s Guilty? (1945), managed to be just as bad as Brenda Starr, although it contained more action scenes (economically and efficiently staged by wartime Republic serial director Wallace Grissell, who co-directed with Howard Bretherton) and a scattering of outdoor location shooting. However, its cast was very uneven and its “comic relief” (provided by Tim Ryan) was almost unbearably obnoxious, while Plympton and Lamb provided a hackneyed, circular, and slow-moving whodunit plot that was far too thin and transparent to hold interest over fifteen episodes. Aside from the action bits, the serial’s only real points of appeal were knowing performances by veteran character players Charles Middleton, Minerva Urecal, and Sam Flint as three of the suspects.

Hop Harrigan (1946), adapted by Plympton and Lamb from a radio show and comic strip about a pilot-hero, was another Katzman disaster, listlessly directed by Derwin Abrahams (like Selander, a former Hopalong Cassidy director, but unlike Selander totally at sea without a decent budget), and so cheaply produced that it made dubious history as the only aviation-themed serial without a single on-screen plane crash. There was little action, and what there was was unimpressive, while the fussy-mannered and pompous-looking William Bakewell was horribly miscast as the hero, and his sidekick (Sumner Getchell) was equally unappealing; not even interesting outdoor desert locations, some reliable supporting cast members, and a boisterous performance by old serial trouper John Merton as a mad scientist could make Hop very entertaining.

Chick Carter, Detective (1946), very loosely adapted by Plympton and Harry Fraser from a dime-novel series, kept Katzman’s losing streak going. Like Brenda Starr and Who’s Guilty, it padded out a very simple B-mystery plot (a hunt for a stolen diamond) to lethally dull and confusing lengths; it had a better cast than Guilty, but was almost completely lacking in action (Derwin Abrahams directed), and was also filled with tacky and terrible musical numbers, which took place within the nightclub that served as the setting for much of the “action.”

Son of the Guardsman (1946) ventured into an entirely different milieu than Katzman’s preceding serials (but with no greater success); for this serial, Plympton, Fraser, and Lewis Clay plagiarized the early chapters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s historical novel The Black Arrow and used them as the uncredited basis of a medieval adventure built around the use of props and sets from the Columbia A-feature Bandit of Sherwood Forest. Abrahams directed again, and proved totally incapable of staging swordfights and battles; the action scenes were flat and lifeless, and thus could not compensate for ragged production values, a plot that started spinning in circles as soon as it went beyond the Stevenson source material, and an uneven cast with many members who seemed decidedly out-of-place in a medieval setting.

Jack Armstrong, a radio-show adaptation, was Katzman’s first serial of 1947. New writers Royal Cole, Leslie Swabacker, and Arthur Hoerl helped Plympton and Clay to come up with a plot built around more traditional serial subject matter (a battle against a would-be world-conquering mad scientist on a remote jungle island), but this promising setup was not developed very effectively, and the serial devolved into another dud–being filled with inconclusive and unexciting skirmishing, slow walks across the “island” landscape (Corriganville Movie Ranch), and tiresome and ridiculous infighting between villains while the heroes stood on the sidelines. Wallace Fox took the directorial reins again, and turned in some more poorly-done cliffhangers–although the serial’s rare extended action scenes were a noticeable improvement over Fox’s work in Brenda Starr, thanks largely to the presence of stuntmen George DeNormand and Eddie Parker.

The Vigilante (1947), an adaptation of a backup character from Action Comics, was Katzman’s next serial–and was actually reasonably entertaining. Fox, DeNormand, and Parker combined to stage some a steady series of consistently good fights and chases, while Clay, Plympton, and Hoerl turned in a mystery plot (the villains’ efforts to steal a group of “Arabanian” white horse presented as gifts to various characters) that, while illogical in spots and definitely over-padded, was unusual enough to hold interest. The serial benefited further from some similarly unusual locations (a large stableyard, a rodeo stadium, and a working carnival, in addition to the Corriganville ranch), some genuinely funny dialogue, and (especially) a charismatic lead performance by experienced serial hero Ralph Byrd as the titular protagonist (a B-western movie star with a secret crimefighting identity).

The Vigilante was followed by The Sea Hound (1947), another serial that was a cut above most of its Katzman predecessors. Mack V. Wright, who’d directed both Republic and Columbia serials back in the 1930s, returned to supervise this effort in collaboration with former Monogram staffer Walter Eason, while the now regular team of Clay, Plympton and Hoerl did the screenplay (based on another radio series). This story of a treasure hunt in the Indian Ocean benefited from some colorful characters and good action scenes, but received its biggest boost from the presence of top-notch serial hero Buster Crabbe in the leading role–and from extensive location shooting in and around Catalina Island; these fresh land and sea locations established a believably exotic atmosphere and brightened up the serial; however, they could not make amends for a storyline that began to drag badly two-thirds of the way through the serial and limped to a cheap and disappointing conclusion.

Katzman retained another popular serial hero, Kane Richmond (who’d also toplined Jungle Raiders‘ cast and played the male lead in Brenda Starr) for his next serial, Brick Bradford, which was released in late 1947 and early 1948. Adapted (by Katzman’s usual trio) from a wonderfully imaginative comic strip, Bradford failed most signally to capture the fantastical flavor of its source material; the characters’ trip to the Moon and their time-travel excursion back into the Eighteenth Century were both depicted very cheaply, with Moon Men stalking around in T-shirts, capes, and Bermuda shorts, and the denizens of the Eighteenth Century represented merely by sarong-clad natives and a few scruffy seamen who could have been encountered just as easily in the Twentieth. The action taking place on the modern Earth was also pretty lackluster, much of it consisting of a repeated tug-of-war over a supposedly powerful ray machine that spent most of its time disassembled in the back of a station wagon. However, Brick wasn’t as complete a disaster as the 1945-46 Katzman efforts; its outdoor locations (Lone Pine, Bronson Canyon, Corriganville) were attractive even though the characters spent too much time walking slowly through them, and Richmond and co-star Rick Vallin enlivened things by engaging in some off-the-wall and at least partially ad-libbed wisecracking (particularly during the time-travel sequence). Bradford’s periodic fights and chase scenes were also the best yet seen in Katzman’s Columbia efforts–being directed by Spencer Bennet and Thomas Carr, two new arrivals from Republic Pictures who could probably have staged effective action scenes in their sleep.

Tex Granger (1948), Katzman’s next outing, was a tedious misfire of a Western, directed by the hapless Derwin Abrahams; Royal Cole and Harry Fraser joined the Plympton-Hoerl-Clay group to write this adaptation of yet another comic-book series, but could only come up with an unsatisfying script that placed most of its focus on a conflict between two villains (the town boss and the uncontrollable gunslinger he’d unwisely appointed as sheriff) and pushed its nominal hero (a newspaper editor with a secret identity as a masked rider) to the background. Lengthy horseback-riding sequences were used to pad the action instead of the usual walking sequences, while fistfights were scarce and the serial’s gunfights were bloodless, dully filmed, and unexciting.

Uninterested though he was in everything but the bottom line, Katzman seems to have realized that he needed to bring a modicum of consistency to his Columbia serials; in 1948, he made Brick Bradford co-director Spencer Bennet his regular chapterplay director. Given Katzman’s cost-consciousness, Bennet was an excellent choice; though not terribly creative when it came to building mood or atmosphere, he was a consummate professional who took pride in staying within budget and “cutting in the camera” (i.e., shooting only as much footage as he needed and leaving little work for the editor); a former stuntman, he also knew how to stage dynamic-looking fight scenes even when he lacked the budget for breakable props he had enjoyed over at Republic, while he also did his best to set up cliffhanger endings in reasonably exciting style.

Above: Sam Katzman (left) and Spencer Bennet. 

Bennet was so devoted to overseeing action scenes that he almost never spent any time directing the actors–but this omission didn’t hurt his Katzman serials, since he was usually able to rely on a stock company of sturdy supporting players who didn’t need much direction (chief among them Leonard Penn, Jack Ingram, William Fawcett, Nelson Leigh, Lyle Talbot, Terry Frost, Marshall Reed, Hugh Prosser, Don Harvey, and Rusty Wescoatt). Bennet could do nothing about the frequently anemic and padded scripts of Katzman’s serials, however, and was often required to insert padding himself, by means of the needless walking scenes used by Katzman’s prior directors. Still, with Bennet in charge, the batting average of Columbia’s serials went up by several points.

Bennet’s Brick Bradford co-director Thomas Carr, who was more creative than Bennet and also much better at directing actors, remained his collaborator on the next few Columbia releases. Their second joint venture for Katzman was the producer’s most high-profile serial–the first live-action screen adventure of the popular comic-book character Superman. Although Katzman used very cheap-looking animation to show his Superman flying through the air and performing many of his feats of strength, Superman (1948) still emerged as one of Katzman’s best efforts. Bennet and Carr kept it moving briskly, and the writers (the Plympton-Hoerl-Clay team, strengthened by the addition of Royal Cole and Joseph Poland) concocted a well-structured screenplay that encompassed both  Superman’s origin story and a well-paced duel with the villainous Spider Lady; the directors, writers, and a delightful cast also managed (using the Superman radio series as a template) to bring Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White to vivid and amusing life; the lead characters’ sharp and funny interplay was perhaps the biggest reason for Superman’s success.

Congo Bill (1948), based on one of Superman’s comic-book backup features, was a lot weaker than Superman. The screenplay (by the usual Katzman three) had some amusingly quirky supporting characters, but was badly padded, and completely failed to create any kind of exotic atmosphere (the “lost” valley that figured prominently in the script seemed almost as accessible as a national park); the awkward mixture of outdoor locations with fake-looking soundstages didn’t help to conjure up the aura of the jungle. However, it was not a total loss; the cast was good for the most part, and Bennet and Carr kept things from becoming utterly lethargic by means of some short-lived but energetic action scenes.

Bruce Gentry (1949), a comic-strip adaptation penned by Clay, Plympton, and Joseph Poland, had the expected number of slow spots and used rather laughable animated flying saucers as the main menace faced by its hero–but it also had some of the most impressive action scenes of any Katzman serial; Bennet and Carr retained stuntmen Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel–Bennet’s top stunting ramrods during his Republic days–and had them perform fights and chases that fleetingly harked back to those Republic days. Gentry was followed by Batman and Robin (1949), which was written by Plympton, Poland, and Royal Cole and which brought back the comic-book characters first introduced to the screen by Columbia during the Darmour Productions days. Bennet directed this outing on his own, contributing many short but well-done bursts of action, but failing to overcome the handicap of a badly overstretched and sometimes illogical storyline; one of Bennet’s own weaknesses–namely, his indifference to establishing atmosphere–also hurt the serial; he allowed Batman and Robin to run around in broad daylight much more often than Lambert Hillyer had in the earlier Batman serial, accentuating the shoddy appearance of their low-rent costumes and making even some of the better action scenes look more silly than exciting.

Bennet did true yeoman’s work on his next serial (also a solo effort) for Katzman, Adventures of Sir Galahad (1949). This potentially disastrous foray into Arthurian territory held together surprisingly well, despite a script (by Plympton, Clay, and David Mathews) with a few large plot holes. A well-selected cast (headed by George Reeves) capable of carrying off Ye Olde costumes and dialogue with reasonable conviction helped the serial immeasurably, but its biggest asset was the action; Bennet and his stuntmen (chief among them George DeNormand) handled their medieval swordfights and horseback clashes energetically and skilfully, with Bennet using varying camera angles to make supposedly large-scale fights look suitably “big” despite his low budget.

Cody of the Pony Express, Columbia’s first serial of 1950, boasted five writers (Plympton, Poland, Mathews, Clay, and Charles Condon) but had a remarkably misjudged screenplay. The writers needlessly divided heroic chores between two different characters, teen-aged Pony Express rider Bill Cody (under-energized former child star Dickie Moore) and an undercover army officer (a wasted Jock Mahoney); the screenplay also featured one of the serial genre’s most amorphous and uninteresting group of villains (a nameless “Eastern syndicate” out to take over the Pony Express), and introduced a plotting twist in the later chapters (the replacement of the Pony Express by the telegraph) that negated the preceding struggle. Bennet, directing solo again, contributed some good action scenes, but was forced to slow others (primarily large-scale shootouts) to an aggravating crawl in order to make sure the fifteen-chapter quota was reached.

The lackluster Cody was followed by the excellent Atom Man vs. Superman (1950); this Superman sequel brought back the same cast and characters, who played off each other as effectively as before, and also introduced arch-villain Luthor (superbly played by Lyle Talbot) to the screen, along with a memorably eerie device which Luthor used to send his enemies to the limbo-like “Empty Doom.” However, though writers Poland, Plympton, and Mathews contributed lots of sharp character writing and imaginative gimmickry, they failed to come up with a very strong overarching plot thread on which to hang them, and as a result the second Superman serial was a good deal more disjointed than the first, although still head and shoulders above the Katzman average. Bennet once again was the sole credited director.

Carr, who had been directing B-westerns over at Lippert Productions, returned to the Katzman outfit in 1950 to join Bennet in directing Pirates of the High Seas, one of the only Katzman serials not adapted from some other property. Perhaps because they were aware that this chapterplay was not a pre-sold title, Poland, Mathews, Plympton, and Condon took unusual pains with its screenplay, crafting an interesting treasure-hunt mystery that always managed to unveil new twists (without making things too convoluted) when the story started to get repetitive. Buster Crabbe and Catalina Island, two of the star attractions in the earlier Sea Hound, both returned for this outing; Crabbe made a very likable hero, and engaged in a lot of funny byplay with sidekick Tommy Farrell, while Carr and Bennet used the island, the surrounding ocean, and a couple of functional boats much more thoroughly and effectively than Hound’s directors had, taking full advantage of these unique backdrops in their many action scenes. Pirates overall ranked with the Superman outings and with its immediate successor on Columbia’s release schedule as one of Katzman’s few unqualified serial success.

That successor was Roar of the Iron Horse (1951), a Western railroad-building saga which, like Pirates, was not based on a comic or radio series, and had to stand on its own merits; the production crew made sure that the serial had plenty of merits to stand on. Plympton, Royal Cole, and Sherman Lowe contributed a screenplay with a touch of mystery, some good dialogue (particularly from the crusty sidekick and the urbane villain), and two rival factions of bad guys whose presence was used to make things tougher for the hero and more interesting for the audience, instead of to merely consume screen time with infighting (as in Tex Granger). Bennet and Carr, for their part, made extensive and creative use of unfamiliar Nevada locations and of a small but working railroad in their action sequences, while star Jock Mahoney, a former stuntman, used his considerable abilities to add extra zip to the fight scenes.

After three quality offerings in a row, Columbia’s serial output took a sharp nosedive with Katzman’s next production, Mysterious Island. Based on a Jules Verne novel, with incongruous and bizarrely-costumed invaders from Mercury and even more bizarrely-costumed natives called “Volcano People” added to the story, this plotless waste of time consisted of an endless series of skirmishes (resembling a backyard children’s game more than anything else) between the heroes and their multiple sets of antagonists at the Corriganville ranch, with some good action bits submerged by many perfunctory ones and by the mind-numbing repetitiveness and pointlessness of the storyline. Bennet was the sole director again (Carr had moved on to feature films and television), and Cole, Clay, and Plympton provided (such as it was) the script.

Captain Video (1951), an adaptation of a popular early television sci-fi show, was only a small improvement over Mysterious Island. It had a serviceable plot (space ranger takes on interplanetary dictator), but Cole, Lowe, Poland, and Plympton, in keeping with its source material, drowned the screenplay in a sea of implausible gadgetry; the heroes repeatedly extricated themselves from danger by fiddling with various props (some believable, some laughable) while hurriedly explaining each prop’s alleged technical capabilities in comically unconvincing pseudo-scientific jargon. Wallace Grissell, who’d co-directed Who’s Guilty for Katzman six years ago, returned to collaborate with Bennet on this outing; the two kept the pace reasonably fast and periodically inserted some good traditional action scenes amid the torrent of gadget action.

King of the Congo (1952), Katzman’s first comic-book-based serial since Atom Man vs. Superman, was a jungle serial which cast Buster Crabbe as an Intelligence officer and Tarzan-like jungle hero trying to prevent Communist agents from taking over Central Africa by arming a tribe of cavemen. This crazy-quilt plot (by Cole, Hoerl, and Plympton) and some heavy padding (provided both by pointless dialogue scenes and pointless walking scenes) undercut a good turn by Crabbe and the good but generally short-lived action scenes contributed by Bennet and Grissell; the result was mediocre at best.

Blackhawk (1952), another comics-based serial with a Cold War theme, was marred by Plympton, Cole, and Lowe’s absurd alterations to its heroes (a supposed paramilitary flying squad who, unlike their comics counterparts, never engaged in aerial dogfights and stupidly refused to carry guns; some kind of censorship concern must have been behind the gun decision). Katzman’s refusal to allow any of the actors playing the supposedly international Blackhawk squad to waste time on attempting a foreign accent harmed the serial further. However, the serial was enormously improved–though not completely redeemed–by action scenes superior to those in any other 1950s serial. Dave Sharpe, Republic’s Golden Age serial stunt ramrod, served in the same capacity here (for the first and only time at Columbia)–and he, Bennet, and new co-director Fred Sears unexpectedly but happily chose to mimic the action scenes of Sharpe’s Republic outings, staging a varied, exciting, and inventive collection of fights and chases in real plants, factories, and oil fields.

Son of Geronimo (1952), Columbia’s next serial release, was also the best since Roar of the Iron Horse, and the last Katzman serial to actually work as a whole. This story of an Army officer fighting both a haughty Indian leader and a profiteering lawyer in order to bring peace to the frontier suffered from a thin and sometimes repetitive plot, from Katzman’s budget-saving decision to avoid all interior shooting, and from a rather inconsistent characterization of the Indian chief (who was warily fair-minded at some times and unreasonably hostile at others). However, Bennet worked around the no-interiors rule adeptly, took full advantage of some impressive quasi-desert locations, and staged many good action scenes, while Plympton, Hoerl, and Cole carefully meted out plotting twists and turns which kept their storyline from ever going truly stale; the serial was also held together by three strong leading performances from Clayton Moore (as the hero), Rodd Redwing (as the Indian chief), and (especially) Marshall Reed (as the tough, conniving lawyer).

Katzman’s first serial of 1953, the sci-fi saga The Lost Planet, reused many props from Captain Video and was even more filled with technobabble dialogue and even more focused on silly-looking and implausible gadgets than that chapterplay had been; it also was unique among Bennet-directed serials in that it had no full-fledged fistfights at all. However, it was still frequently entertaining in its own way; Bennet, along with writers Hoerl and Plympton, apparently decided that nothing could make Lost Planet work as a serious serial, and instead played much of it for laughs, aided and abetted by several cast members–particularly Michael Fox as the petulant, pompous, and overreaching mad-scientist villain and Forrest Taylor as Fox’s sly scientist prisoner, who always managed to outsmart his alleged captor.

The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd (1953) was the only post-1948 Katzman serial not directed by Bennet; Charles Gould (an assistant director on Son of Geronimo and King of the Congo) and Derwin Abrahams did the honors instead, turning in a mix of good and mediocre swordfights, and generally good non-swordfight action scenes. John Crawford turned in a commanding performance as the title character, and there were some colorful piratical supporting characterizations by George Wallace, Marshall Reed, and Paul Newlan. However, Kidd was mainly memorable for its screenplay–one of the most unusual ever penned for a movie serial. Writers Hoerl and Plympton, instead of using the legend of the villainous and piratical Kidd, based their screenplay very closely on actual history and presented the real Kidd–an honest privateer who was unjustly sent to the gallows by politicians with their own agendas. However, this unexpected approach meant that the serial’s heroes (two British officers who were ordered to prove Kidd guilty of piracy but who became convinced of his innocence and tried to clear him) had to fail in both of their old and their new endeavor, effectively negating all the preceding action and making the serial more interesting than satisfying.

Gunfighters of the Northwest, released in late 1953 and early 1954, was the last full-fledged Katzman serial production. This ultimately disappointing Mountie saga, co-directed by Gould and Bennet, started off strongly, with some fierce action scenes and the potentially interesting plot setup of a band of outlaws planning a revolution in turn-of-the-century Canada, but writers Cole, Hoerl, and Plympton allowed it to deteriorate into a protracted and ultimately pointless hunt (by both heroes and villains) for a renegade henchman, sidelining hero Jock Mahoney and making the villains look embarrassingly inept. Location shooting in the picturesque San Bernardino National Forest at least kept things visually interesting, although Bennet and Gould were again (as in Son of Geronimo) barred from using any interiors, and were sometimes forced to stage dialogue scenes rather strangely (for instance, having a Mountie commander handle all his office work on a porch) in order to follow this dictate.

Television had dealt movie serials a mortal wound by 1954; Republic Pictures had already cut back its yearly chapterplay output from three to two, and would stop making serials altogether after 1955. Katzman and Columbia also cut back their yearly output, but kept producing and releasing serials until 1956, trying to squeeze a little more money out of the dying format while spending as little money as possible. Only four Columbia chapterplays were released during this moribund final phase; all of them were built almost around stock footage from earlier serials–to a more thorough, but much less seamless, extent than Republic’s similarly stock-dependent late serials. Lengthy sequences from earlier chapterplays were inserted wholesale and felt oddly disconnected from the main action, with few or no insert shots of the “new” serial’s characters; many of the plundered chapterplays were also Horne outings, and Horne’s characteristic undercranking of fight scenes never meshed well with the normal speed of the new footage. Worst of all, the footage often came from multiple serials set in entirely different eras, forcing Plympton (the sole writer on the final four Columbia releases) to resort to ludicrous, audience-insulting dialogue to explain away the incongruities. Bennet was the only director on these final entries, and had little to do besides shoot brief bridging scenes and stage a few bits and pieces of new action.

The first of these four patchwork productions was Riding With Buffalo Bill, (1954) which synthesized portions of Deadwood Dick and The Valley of Vanishing Men into a new narrative; this outing had a little more original footage than its three successors did, and its stock at least did not clash with the historical setting or filming locations (all three serials were shot at Iverson’s ranch) of the new footage. However, its storyline was so rendered so awkward and contrived by the continually shoehorned-in stock footage (it featured two completely interchangeable heroes for most of its running time, the better to pack in more stock) that it was pretty dull going overall.

Adventures of Captain Africa (1955) was the worst of Katzman’s final four and a strong contender for the title of worst Columbia serial; this outing originally began as a sequel to The Phantom, only to be rewritten when Katzman found that Columbia’s rights to the Phantom comic strip had lapsed. In place of the Phantom, Plympton was forced to create an absurdly-costumed Phantom knockoff called “Captain Africa,” who was then inserted into a Cold War storyline that relied on stock footage from The Phantom, Jungle Menace, and–bizarrely–The Desert Hawk; the latter serial’s archaic Arabian Nights costumes and weaponry made absolutely no sense in a supposed modern setting, and Plympton’s one-line attempt to explain them away only made things worse. The serial also lacked any central villain, with the script repeatedly referring to an off-camera heavy who never actually appeared, except to be stabbed (with his back to the camera) in the final episode.

Perils of the Wilderness (1956) was only superior to Captain Africa by virtue of its normally-costumed hero and the presence of an actual villain. Otherwise, it was just as infuriatingly stupid, combining Indian-attack footage from Perils of the Royal Mounted with aviation footage from The Mysterious Pilot, and forcing Plympton to ask the audience to believe (1) that Indians in the 1930s would think a plane to be a supernatural entity, (2) that said Indians could pose a major threat to Canada if the supernatural entity ordered them on the warpath, and (3) that everyone in 1930s Canada wore 1890s clothing and traveled in stagecoaches and covered wagons.

Blazing the Overland Trail (1956) was Katzman’s last serial and the last American movie serial ever made; built around Overland with Kit Carson and White Eagle, its plot at least made sense and did not impose any anachronistic absurdities on its viewers, while it featured a lively leading performance by perennial Katzman henchman actor Lee Roberts–who seemed delighted with the chance to be a hero for once, even though he spent most of the serial playing second fiddle to stock footage. Blazing was hardly a worthy finale to the sound-serial era, but at least it wasn’t a disgraceful one.

Katzman continued to successfully ride the tides of low-budget movie-making for the remainder of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, while Plympton did a couple more screenplays for Katzman features and then retired, and Bennet went into quasi-retirement, occasionally getting back into harness during the late 1950s and mid-1960s to supervise Westerns and sci-fi films for nostalgic producer Alex Gordon. Columbia itself, of course, survives as a major studio (albeit a subsidiary of Sony) to this day.


Except during the sadly short-lived Jack Fier era, Columbia never really embraced the movie serial the way that Universal and (especially) Republic did. Its practice of farming out almost all of its chapterplays made its releases more wildly uneven in quality than those of any other major sound-serial purveyor, and have given its serials a not undeserved bad reputation among serial buffs. It would be inaccurate to dismiss all Columbia serials as disasters; its entries from the Fier run and from most of the post-Horne Darmour Productions run ranged from good to excellent, Horne’s serials could be quite entertaining in their own dissonant way, and even the Katzman setup managed to turn out some superior efforts. However, it can’t be denied that Columbia’s solid hits were quite few in comparison to their many partial or total misses.

Acknowledgements: I am indebted to Ed Hulse, to the member of the In the Balcony forums calling himself “John Doe” (for uploading Motion Picture Daily clippings with valuable information on Weiss and Columbia), to Jack Mathis’ Valley of the Cliffhangers (which told of Columbia’s early grab for Dick Tracy and for Republic staffers), to a United Press newspaper blurb with some Katzman quotes (reproduced on this thread on the Classic Horror Film Board by member “haraldg”) to Serial World, and to Those Enduring Matinee Idols, for the information contained in this article.

4 thoughts on “Handing Off the Torch (The Serials of Columbia)

  1. Great read! Thanks for posting. My father Gene Rizzi (The Outlaw, To Be Or Not To Be, etc.) did radio parts for The Shadow before going into films in 1939. Some of his first work was in serials such as Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940).

  2. Interesting write up here about the Columbia’s, although I disagree with much of the negativity because Columbia serials are my favorites. I find Columbia serials overall to be more entertaining than Republic’s or Universal’s. Of Columbia’s 57 serials, I like 48 of them, there are only 9 that I dislike.

    I don’t like Columbia’s first four serials, as far as I’m concerned Columbia serials start with The Spider’s Web. The other five Columbia’s that I don’t like are Mandrake The Magician, Overland With Kit Carson, Perils Of The Royal Mounted, Son Of The Guardsman, and Adventures Of Captain Africa. I think Captain Africa is probably Columbia’s worst serial, Columbia should have just scrapped the project and not film it.

    The James Horne serials have too much of that awkward comedy, but I still enjoy most of those serials from the Horne era.

    Brenda Starr Reporter borrows a lot from Monogram’s East Side Kids movie Bowery Champs. For one thing, Billy Benedict and Frank Jaquet are in both movies. And the Brenda Starr serial uses much of the same background music that’s heard in Bowery Champs. When VCI released the Brenda Starr serial on DVD, it’s too bad there are problems with chapters 3 and 4, but I guess the film had deteriorated and there wasn’t much they could do about it.

    A few Columbia serials have an annoying flaw of unintentionally revealing who the villian/villians are right off the bat in the first chapter. The reveal is subtle, but is noticeable. The Vigilante and Roar Of The Iron Horse are two examples, but otherwise they are enjoyable serials.

    I like it that Columbia pretty much stuck with the 15 chapter format, I actually would prefer that Columbia serials have 16 chapters instead of 15 because 16 is a better number. LOL.

  3. Mentioning a few more Columbia’s, Monster And The Ape and Jungle Raiders are good serials, I enjoy both. Who’s Guilty and Chick Carter are interesting mystery serials, both are short on action but the stories are good. The Lost Planet is a goofy sci-fi serial, seems like this one was played mostly for laughs. Michael Fox’s over the top portrayal of crazed scientist Dr. Grood is the high point of the serial, he is a hoot to watch. I prefer Captain Video over The Lost Planet but both serials are fun.

    To me, Columbia serials overall are the most fun to watch. Better than Republic’s which tend to beat their formula into the ground, and better than Universal’s which tend to be dull.

  4. I finally got around to reading this article, and enjoyed it very much. Given the changes in leadership and their scattershot and somewhat half-hearted approach to serial making, it’s no wonder that the productions vary in quality to such a great degree. It would have been interesting to see what the legacy of Columbia might have been without the influence of Horne and Katzman. In spite of it all, the studio did manage to produce a number of entertaining and interesting serials, so I suppose we should be grateful for those, and not dwell too much on the negative side.

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