…And the Rest: The Independent Producers’ Sound Serials (1930-1937)
Nearly all American sound serials were released by Mascot, its successor Republic, Universal, or Columbia. During the 1930s, however, there were a scattering of independent producers (and one major studio) that tried to get into the serial-making game as well. Few of these forays were very successful, since most of the independent outfits operated on an even lower budget than tiny Mascot did; many of them not only suffered from terribly shoddy production values, but were also harmed by the common independent-producer practice of paring down serials to features that could be released for additional profit; writers and directors were frequently required to fill independents with meaningless sequences and pointless plot developments in order to make them easily editable into seventy-minute feature format. Thus, it’s not surprising that a good deal of the independent outings tend to show up regularly on serial buffs’ Ten Worst lists–although some were not as disastrous as others, while a few were quite good. What follows is a brief chronological overview of each of these releases and the production companies that turned them out.
Above: The white-haired gentleman in the foreground is Robert Hill, writer and/or director on a good deal of the serials covered in this article (here he’s doing additional duty as an extra in Shadow of Chinatown, one of the independent serials he directed).
The earliest of the sound independent serials was The Voice from the Sky (1930), which is also the only one that became completely lost. This outing was the work of actor-director-producer Ben Wilson, who had overseen some serials for Universal in the silent era before setting up his own lower-budgeted production company. It was a sound-on-disk production, and enjoyed a very limited release, since many of the smaller theaters to which the independent Wilson was trying to sell were not equipped to play the disks. It appears to have been a science-fictional outing with at least a partial Western setting, starring Hal Taliaferro (who described it in later years as “pretty bad”).
Harry Webb, who had worked for Nat Levine at Mascot Pictures during the silent era, was the next independent to try his hand at sound serials. He produced a pair of chapterplays in 1931, under different production imprints (Syndicate and Metropolitan), but with the same production setup (which included writer Carl Krusada, writer-producer Flora Douglas, and future Mascot and Republic cameraman William Nobles). These two efforts, The Mystery Trooper (Syndicate) and The Sign of the Wolf (Metropolitan), were both modern-day Westerns with offbeat embellishments (a masked phantom living in a Canadian ghost town in Trooper, “radioactive” chains capable of transmuting sand into jewels in Wolf) and animal co-stars (a horse in Trooper, a dog in Wolf). Both titles were threadbare in terms of production values and very uneven when it came to acting, but lacked the plotting confusion that would plague too many other independent serials (and most Mascot serials as well); they also contained some frequently clumsy but sometimes exciting action scenes. Of the two, Trooper was the better, with a less silly and more involving plot and better outdoor location shooting.
The Last Frontier (1932) was the product of an independent outfit but had major studio backing and was released under a major studio’s imprint. The studio in question was one of Hollywood’s “Big Five,” RKO; it delegated production of this serial to independent producer Amedee “Andy” Van Beuren, who supplied them with animated and live-action shorts. Van Beuren in turn delegated production to his assistant Fred McConnell, who’d worked on chapterplays for Universal and the Pathé Exchange (the two major silent-serial producers) during the silent era; McConnell recruited Universal serial writers Robert Hill and George Plympton, Pathé serial directors Spencer Bennet and Thomas Storey, and Pathé serial cinematographer Edward Snyder to make Last Frontier. Frontier was frequently disjointed in its plotting, and its camerawork and effects were sometimes shaky, but it looked better than most of the true independents–and played better too; it had appealing leads (a very young Lon Chaney Jr. and the attractive 1920s starlet Dorothy Gulliver), featured some melodramatic but compelling subplots, and contained many excellent action scenes (courtesy of director Bennet, stuntman Yakima Canutt, and Chaney Jr.–who did much of his own stuntwork). However, generally enjoyable though Frontier was, it led to no follow-ups; RKO abandoned the idea of releasing any more movie serials.
Sol Lesser, who was an independent producer only in his lack of a backlot (he owned his own theater chain, and thus commanded good budgets and a fair share of industry clout) turned out the sound era’s two most slickly-produced independent serials, under the imprint of Principal Pictures. He even beat his studio rivals to the punch by being the first sound-serial producer to utilize music within chapters and not just under the credits; he also partly ameliorated the recurring independent padding problem by designing his serials to be edited into two features and not just one, making less of the footage utterly disposable. The first Principal serial was Tarzan the Fearless (1933), an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ popular stories intended to cash in on the then-popular MGM screen adaptations of Burroughs’ work; it only survives in fragmented format today. Camerawork and production values were quite good in this serial, while director Robert Hill contributed some fine action scenes; however, the script (by George Plympton and Basil Dickey) clumsily and ineptly tried to imitate the MGM characterization of Tarzan, and only wound up turning the hero into a frustratingly stupid and ultimately inactive figure who made the serial a disappointing misfire, despite its better qualities.
Lesser’s second Principal serial was much better, and indeed was the best of the independent chapterplays. This second effort was The Return of Chandu (1934), directly adapted (by Barry Barringer) from episodes of a very popular radio series about a Westerner trained in Eastern magic who battled evil black-magic cultists. Chandu was padded in places and a bit confusing in others, but was nevertheless rendered intriguing and entertaining by its unique subject matter, by properly eerie direction (by Universal serial mainstay Ray Taylor) and cinematography (by John Hickson), by highly impressive sets (most of them from the RKO backlot, where Lesser’s outfit was permitted to shoot), and by an arresting performance from Bela Lugosi in the lead role.
Young Eagles (1934), the product of the short-lived independent outfit “Romance Pictures” (put together by silent-era director Harry Hoyt and producer George Stout) was a strong contender for the title of worst serial ever made; this story of two Boy Scouts lost in the jungle had no pacing, no real script, no real plot, no real action, and hardly any real actors; its only points of interest were some interesting outdoor locations and unusual animal scenes–and they were not enough to make up for the tedium of the rest of the serial. Seasoned director Spencer Bennet’s name was used on some of the advertising and the first chapter, but it’s hard to believe he had anything to do with the mess; an unknown named Edward Laurier evidently did most if not all of the direction.
Queen of the Jungle (1935), the product of independent producer Herman Wohl’s outfit “Screen Attractions,” became Young Eagles’ most serious contender for the worst-serial title. This outing had a screenplay (by future Universal serial writer Griffin Jay) that might actually have worked with some fine-tuning and a bigger budget; its story of an explorer (well-played by silent star Reed Howes) bringing his childhood-sweetheart-turned-jungle-queen back to civilization, and encountering a variety of friends and foes along the way, had the potential to be unusual and involving. Unfortunately, the serial’s production values were so dreadful that they killed the story’s potential appeal; almost all of the footage actually shot by Wohl and his director Robert Hill was filmed on a single cramped soundstage, strategically re-dressed from time to time, while the serial relied for the rest of its footage on fascinating but very poorly-integrated insertions from the big-budgeted silent Selig serial The Jungle Goddess.
The Lost City (1935) is probably the best-known of the independents, thanks mainly to its science-fictional theme and to the presence of a leading man (Kane Richmond) who later became one of the serial genre’s most popular heroes. This chapterplay was released under the imprint of Super-Serial Productions, the creation of hustling New York theater-chain owner Sherman S. Krellberg–who designed the serial with marketing instead of overall quality in mind, frontloading the first three chapters (the ones shown to exhibitors as samples) with impressive production values (Kenneth Strickfadden’s electrical props, camerawork by former Cecil DeMille cinematographer Edward Linden), but skimping on props, sets, and locations in most of the ensuring chapters, with the action taking place on a jungle backlot. The serial’s writers were an eclectic collection that included silent-serial production manager George Merrick, silent-serial writer Robert Dillon, one-time famous novelist Perley Poole Sheehan, and exploitation-film writer Zelma Carroll; the latter also was the “dialogue director” of the serial, and, together with principal director Harry Revier, forced or encouraged almost the entire cast to constantly grimace, gesticulate, shout, snarl, and shriek in such obnoxiously strident fashion that they became painful to watch. This relentless overacting, the glaringly uneven production values, an aimless and severely over-padded plot, a general lack of action scenes, and some tackily sensationalistic moments made Lost City a train-wreck of a serial that has remained notorious–but not exactly popular–among serial buffs. Krellberg, in 1940, seems to have at least considered reentering the serial business; trade publications talked of a projected Krellberg serial called Sign of the Zombies, to star Buster Crabbe and boxing champion Joe Louis–but this project (probably fortunately) never came to pass.
The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935) was the product of Burroughs-Tarzan Productions, a company formed by independent producer (and actor) Ashton Dearholt, a friend of Edgar Rice Burroughs who’d been production manager on Young Eagles and also participated in other, less embarrassing movie ventures; Burroughs himself lent financial backing to the serial, hoping for a Tarzan film that would be more faithful to his novels than the popular MGM features were. Dearholt shot his chapterplay on location in Guatemala–where his production crew was beset by illness, weather-induced equipment damage, and other hardships, all of which necessitated many cuts and reshoots; its production values were thus understandably ragged, while its plot wound up being much more repetitive than it would have been had the original screenplay (by Universal serial writer Basil Dickey, Mascot serial writer Bennett Cohen, above-average B-western scripter Charles Royal, and later A-film writer Edwin Blum) been shot as written. However, the serial featured a splendid Tarzan in the person of Olympic athlete Herman Brix, contained some memorably fierce action scenes, and was particularly distinguished by some unique and truly breathtaking locations–Guatemalan forests, mountains, waterfalls, and ruined cities, all filmed to best advantage by director-cinematographer Edwin Kull. These qualities made it an interesting and entertaining chapterplay, despite its many rough spots; it wound up enjoying only limited exposure in theaters, due to threats by MGM against exhibitors who might otherwise have shown it.
Stage and Screen Productions, an independent outfit run by Adrian Weiss and his son Louis, was the most prolific of the independent outfits when it came to chapterplays, turning out three of them in 1936 (they had also made serials during the silent era). The three Stage and Screen chapterplays were all ambitious but clunky efforts, shot on threadbare budgets (although they took strategic advantage of a few big sets and good outdoor locations); their casts were filled with many notable silent-film actors and with as many characters and subplots as a Victorian three-volume novel–but the filming schedules were so rushed that the notable actors were not able to do much more with their parts than try to deliver dialogue without too many noticeable flubs, while most of the characters served only to make the serials’ storylines slow-paced and convoluted, and most of the subplots went nowhere. The serials’ dialogue scenes were also shot and staged in remarkably archaic fashion, making the Stage and Screen serials look more like very early talkies than like mid-1930s productions.
Of the Weiss serials, Custer’s Last Stand had the most interesting subplots and characters; its writers were future Republic serial scripter William Lively, Eddie Granneman (who co-wrote all the Stage and Screen serials and also had worked on Lost City for Krellberg), and George Arthur Durlam, a maker of historical shorts who failed to effectively interweave Custer’s historical plot threads with most of its fictional ones, but did at least achieve a surprising level of historical accuracy. Custer’s action scenes were rather scarce, but were good when they did occur, thanks to experienced silent-film director Elmer Clifton and stuntman Yakima Canutt. Canutt also executed fights and chases for the other two Stage and Screen serials, The Clutching Hand and The Black Coin (teaming with another top stuntman, Dave O’Brien, on the latter); both featured more action than Custer, but Hand’s “mystery” plot was horribly tangled and confusing, while Coin’s somewhat simpler storyline (an endless scuffle over the prized titular coins and some important papers) was frustratingly pointless and repetitious. Granneman wrote both serials in collaboration with Dallas Fitzgerald and George Merrick, with Leon D’Usseau (another Lost City writer) joining in on Hand, and Robert Lively and Al Herman assisting on Coin. Herman also directed both outings. Despite the generally poor quality of the three Stage and Screen efforts, the Weiss family and other members of the Stage and Screen crew (including Merrick, Fitzgerald, and Clifton) would get a chance to work on more serials (with better budgets), making three chapterplays for release by Columbia Pictures in 1937-38.
The last independent producer to compete in the serial arena without big-studio backing was Sam Katzman, whose low-budgeted outfit Victory Productions turned out the serials Shadow of Chinatown and Blake of Scotland Yard (the former in 1936 and the later in 1937. Both were directed by Robert Hill, and worked on by the same screenwriters–Basil Dickey and William Buchanan; Isadore Bernstein, once a major Universal serial writer and producer, also took part in the scripting of Chinatown, while Hill himself wrote portions of Blake. Both outings were contemporary crime stories with shoddy sets, sloppy camerawork, and slow pacing–although Chinatown was the more interesting of the two. Though it was very light on action scenes and featured some absurdly cheap and unbelievable cliffhangers (the worst being a goldfish-bowl deathtrap), it had a good cast and some genuinely interesting characters (a comically bickering hero and heroine, an embittered arch-villain, a partly reluctant villainess, and a love-struck henchman). Blake had a similarly good cast and a much higher percentage of action scenes, but its characters were much flatter, its plot more obviously repetitious, and its mystery villain truly silly-looking. Katzman, of course, would get back into the serial game eight years later, using a new production setup to turn out chapterplays for Columbia Pictures.
There were good reasons why most of the outfits cataloged above didn’t last long as serial producers; even when their productions weren’t disasters, they didn’t offer much that wasn’t being done better in studio serials of the same period. However, at least two of them (The Last Frontier and The New Adventures of Tarzan) succeeded as entertainment in spite of many rough edges, and one of them (Return of Chandu) stood alongside contemporary studio releases in quality. For the rest, while most of them were mediocre at best and disastrous at worst, even the weakest of them provide historical interest for serial buffs–although they provide little enough entertainment value for casual fans.
Acknowledgements: Ed Hulse, Rich Wannen, Raymond William Stedman’s book The Movie Serial Companion, and Those Enduring Matinee Idols were my principal sources for this article.