Sunday, August 11, 2013


This is not the legendary silent serial from 1914 which most famously featured its put-upon title heroine tied to railroad tracks; it's not even a remake (even though it has a speeding train behind its title card), it just uses the title of the original attached to a completely different character and plot. Still, this is a top-notch 12-chapter serial. Prof. Hargrave, his daughter Pauline, and his scaredy-cat secretary Dodge are in the Orient searching for the other half of a broken ceramic disc with contains the formula to a poison gas which has been responsible for the destruction of entire ancient civilizations. Hargrave wants to find it, test it to see if it works, and give the formula to the government for safe keeping, but the evil Dr. Bashan and his henchman Fang are hot on his trail, wanting the gas for their own nefarious purposes. Handsome American architect Robert Warde, out of a job because a local civil war, saves Pauline from being kidnapped and ends up tagging along on their quest. After finding the disc half in a Chinese temple, they discover that the disc only has instructions for finding the actual formula on another disc. Hargrave's group, always trailed by Bashan's, goes to Egypt, Singapore, and New York City in search of the disc. Each 20-minute chapter ends with a cliffhanger in which someone, usually Pauline, is in danger from Bashan and his men; the next chapter shows them getting saved, usually by Warde, and moving on to the next temple or jungle or museum where more trouble awaits.

Unlike many of the later serials, this was made by a big studio, Universal, and the first few chapters are much better made than the average B-studio serial. Well-integrated stock footage makes the tumult of the war-torn village effective, and the Tsai Tsin Temple scenes are exciting. From there, things slow down a bit as the formula kicks in: Hargrave's gang finds something; Bashan just misses getting it and plots to steal it from them later. There's a typhoon at sea, a rafting expedition down a jungle river with a dangerous leopard up in the trees, and marauding natives and animals, all run-of-the-mill scenarios for serials. In the last few chapters, a spooky museum and a raging fire in a Manhattan building allow the pace to pick up again, leading to a tidy ending, not just for Hargrave but for Pauline and Warde as well.

At the beginning, Pauline appears to be a girl who can take care of herself, shooting and killing at least one attacker, but eventually she mostly gets in trouble, screams really loud (almost as though she'd heard Pee-Wee Herman’s word of the day), and gets saved by Warde. Evalyn Knapp is adequate but no more as Pauline, though Craig Reynolds (acting under the name Robert Allen, pictured abpve left with Knapp) is fine as Warde. John Davidson, who spent much of the rest of his career as a serial villain, looks evil enough as Bashan (above right), but never gets the chance to bust loose with any over-the-top evil attitude. A British comic actor named Sonny Ray (at left) has the thankless role of Dodge, the cowardly comic relief. He's OK, just used too often—at least once a chapter, he has to shriek or flail or generally mince around with his ass stuck out. His best moment, in Chapter 9, is in the museum where he falls into a plaster trough and comes out looking (and walking) like a mummy. Hargrave (James Durkin) is occasionally referred to as Hargraves and even Hargreaves, sometimes within the same scene. Also with Pat O'Malley as a helpful pilot and Frank Lackteen as the scary-looking Fang. If you've never seen a serial, this might be a good one to start with.  [TCM]

1 comment:

Greenhornet said...

I love this serial! At times, Pauline seems more competent than the male lead. I also like the impression that Pauline seems more interested in adventure than in romance with "Ward"; when he makes a subtle advance on her in a later chapter, our heroine brushes him off with a nonsensical riddle. Then there's the end when Pauline offers to go back to China with him, they don't fall into a kiss as would happen in many other movies. The suggestion is that Pauline is hanging onto her freedom, or that "her man" hasn't PROOVED himself worthy yet.
But that's just my opinion.