Friday, April 29, 2016


It's serial time again, kids! This one starts with hunky scientist Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond) trying to find the source of a slew of natural disasters (electrical storms, floods, etc.) around the world. He finds strange magnetic disorders coming from the middle of Africa and he and his pal Jerry (Eddie Fetherston) go off to investigate. In Africa, the natives who live in the village where the slave traders Butterfield and Andrews operate are attacked by giants and hauled off to the Magnetic Mountain where, in something called the Lost City (not a city so much as a small compound), they becomes subjects in the experiments of Dr. Manyus whose Expanding Ray turns the slaves into brain-addled giants. Manyus and his daughter Natcha (Claudia Dell) are being held by the evil Zolok (William 'Stage' Boyd) who wants to collect an army of giants and take over the world—I assume, as we never really get an explanation of how he plans to benefit from the ray. Zolok also plans to wrest control of Mayus's Freezing Ray and a formula that turns the black natives into white people (!!). The cast of characters includes another slave trader named Ben Ali; Queen Rama, ruler of the Spider Men (that is, men who sacrifice other men to their Spider God); Hugo (Sam Baker), the main giant; and the skimpily-clad muscle lad Appollyn (Jerry Frank) who spends the whole movie roaming the jungle at the bidding of Zolok but not really having much to do with the plot—though because Zolok can see Appollyn on a TV screen, a title card at the beginning of a chapter says, "While Zolok televisions frantically…"

This was apparently one of the more financially successful serials, and much of it is indeed fun. But there is a deadly imbalance in the narrative—the first four chapters have quite a lot going on, much of it in the fairly cool Lost City, but the middle chapters, set mostly in the jungle, bog down in routine and repetitious action as good guys keep getting captured by bad guys, escape, and get captured again. Richmond makes for a fairly solid hero; many viewers think Boyd makes a good, over-the-top villain, but I find him generally a little too low-energy until the final chapter—he spends most of the middle chapters sitting at his desk "televisioning" with Appollyn. And speaking of Appollyn, I looked forward to his appearances, not just because of his solid build and fabulous costume, but because as an actor, Jerry Frank seemed to be enjoying himself. Fetherston is also reliably good, though Dell seems out of her depth (I did get pleasure out of a scene in the last chapter in which she draws the word “cruel” out to five syllables).

Some highlights: the Tunnel of Flame; the Lion Pit;  the art deco city sets; George "Gabby" Hayes as Butterfield, who goes from bad to good to bad, etc.; the Enlarging Ray effect is effective; the best thing in the movie, and it happens almost once per chapter, is Sam Baker as the giant Hugo who puffs himself up, gets a horrible grimace on his face, lets out a dreadful scream, and grabs some victim by the neck—he really is pretty scary; and, of course, the delightful Appollyn. Some minuses: as noted above, most of the acting is only so-so; the fistfights are lackadaisical, as the men basically throw their arms at each other, clearly not making contact, like little kids play-fighting; chapter 6 is almost entirely recap material; Queen Rama is a character they introduced but then couldn’t think of much to do with. Of course, the casual racist attitudes about the natives will rankle viewers, but that is part and parcel of films of the era. Overall, despite the many weaknesses, one of the better serials. The black & white photo is of Richmond, Dell and Featherston; the tinted still features Frank (in his Tarzan-like togs) to the left of Boyd.  [DVD]

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