Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"The Secret Service in Darkest Africa"; Republic, 1943.

Having seen another Veteran’s Day come and go my thoughts have turned to all of the valiant men and women who sacrificed their lives so that we can live in relative comfort. When looking at serials you can see how during the early forties World War II was very much on the minds of serial producers, not just in having Axis agents as the villains, but in the advocating of self sacrifice and bonding with other cultures to defeat an evil enemy. This was most evident in the Rod Cameron serials from 1943. They both featured a multicultural team working together for the greater good. The second serial, “Secret Service in Darkest Africa” (1943), has some startling relevance today in it’s portrayal of both sympathetic and traitorous Arabs.

Arriving in Casablanca is the Sultan Abou Ben Ali (Lionel Royce), leader of all the tribes in the Middle East. He is on a mission to work with the tribal leaders on whether or not to support the Allied war effort. International newspaper reporter Janet Blake (Joan Marsh) is going to see the Sultan for an interview when she receives a phone call from Pierre LaSalle (Duncan Renaldo), head of the French Police in Casablanca. He tells her that he has just received word from American super spy Rex Bennett (Rod Cameron) that there is to be an assassination attempt on the sultan’s life. Joan warns the Sultan, who assures her that he and his personal secretary Ernst Muller (Kurt Krueger) will take adequate precautions.

Once Joan has left, Muller reveals his true self by clubbing the Sultan down from behind. Pushing a button on the fireplace, the couch, and the rug it is on, slides into the fireplace revealing a hidden room under the Sultan’s office/living quarters. Baron Siegfried Von Rommler (Lionel Royce), who bears a startling resemblance to the Sultan, climbs out of the hiding place. After taking the Sultan’s ornamental garb and jewelry, he has the unconscious man taking below and chained to a wall. Von Rommler plans to impersonate the Sultan and turn all of the Arab tribes against the Allies until Germany can take over the entire Middle East (Bwa-hah-hah).

Meanwhile in Berlin, Rex Bennett is pulling off an impersonation of his own, passing himself off as a German soldier, who reportedly killed the American agent in Lisbon. His new assignment is to take a parcel to Nazi agents in Casablanca. The package contains the Dagger of Solomon, a sacred Arab relic that was believed lost centuries ago but recently found by German archeologists. Inside the handle is a map to the location of a revered Moslem leader’s tomb and his final prophetic message. The plan is to find the location and substitute a forged scroll telling the tribal leaders to follow the sign of the swastika.

Rex is about to leave with the items when his ruse is discovered. After a hela-cool battle that involves massive furniture destruction and a sword duel complete with the chivalrous Errol Flynn inspired flipping of a dropped sword back to Rex’s opponent. Rex kills the other man and stabs a portrait of Hitler before heading to the Berlin Airport, where he grabs a plane and leaves behind a pin stating “God Bless America”.

Arriving in Casablanca, Rex changes into a spiffy looking khaki uniform, gives the Dagger and Scroll to Janet to guard while he and Pierre go to see the Sultan who is in conference with the tribal leaders. The disguised Von Rommler asks to see the evidence Rex claims to have. He calls Janet to have her bring the parcel to him only to discover that a burnoose wearing Nazi agent named Wolfe (Frederic Brunn) has stolen the items. Von Rommler accuses Rex of lying about this “supposed” Nazi treachery.

Knowing that the Sultan will never believe him without the Scroll and Dagger, he and Pierre begin a massive search for Wolfe. Pierre discovers him at the Tropical Fruit Company. He radios this to Rex but is then captured by Wolfe. Rex shows up and discovers that Wolfe has been torturing Pierre to get information about Casablanca’s security protocols. Rex gets the drop on Wolfe and his men but stands too close to one of them, who knocks Rex’s gun out of his hand. A fight breaks out with Rex killing the two henchmen while Wolfe gets away. Pierre tells Rex that the Dagger and Scroll are on a riverboat smuggling munitions out of Casablanca.

Rex races to head off the boat, sneaking aboard when it comes close to the shore at a bend in the river. Rex sneaks down to the engine room where he discovers the Dagger, Scroll, and the munitions. Rex is discovered and he becomes embroiled in another fight that ends with a keg of dynamite aimed at him but being thrown into the ship’s furnace by mistake. Quickly defeating his last opponent and grabbing the stolen artifact, Rex manages to jump overboard just as the riverboat explodes into a million pieces of scrap metal and burning wood.

Taking the items back to the conference, an Arab scholar examines them and proclaims that the Dagger is authentic, but the scroll is an obvious fake, forcing Von Rommler to praise Rex for bringing this misdeed to their attention. After the conference has been adjourned for the day, Von Rommler decides that Rex must be gotten rid of immediately.

Rex receives a phone call from “the Sultan”, who tells the American agent that an attempt was made on his life near a shack on the Coast Road. Rex goes to investigate and is captured by Wolfe, who demands to know the location of the American spies in Berlin or he will torture Rex with a blow torch. Rex gives in and names a Berlin street address. After Wolfe leaves to radio Nazi headquarters, Rex kills his captors and radios Pierre to monitor all shortwave broadcasts for the address he gave.

When Rex returns to French headquarters Pierre has gotten the wavelength and they proceed to trace it to its source, which turns out to be a cave hidden by an “Arab” encampment. Knocking out the guard and leaving Janet to watch him, Rex and Pierre proceed inside where they overhear Wolfe getting a message that the Berlin address he got from Rex doesn’t exist. The good guys get the drop on the Nazi agents only to lose their guns and start a ferocious brawl.

Rex is knocked out in the generator room and is about to get speared but is saved by Pierre, who manages to retrieve his gun and shoot the Nazi, who falls into the generator and causes it to overload. Rex and Pierre get locked in the room by Wolfe who then exits the cave only to get involved in a shoot out with Janet Wolfe finally manages to grab a horse and skedaddle. Janet lets Wolfe get away, preferring to venture into the cave to see if Rex and Pierre are all right. She frees them from the generator room and the three heroes head back to town loaded down with a car load of Nazi dispatches.

Returning to Von Rommler, Wolfe is berated by his superior for letting a woman defeat him and allowing the Americans to get their hands on Nazi records. Wolfe counters that since the records are in code they are useless to the Allies. Von Rommler reminds Wolfe that Pierre LaSalle is a master code cracker. He orders Wolfe to go to their hidden sub base and have Captain Beschert (William Vaughn) take the sub out to sea while Wolfe destroys the base.

While Wolfe flies to the hidden base, Pierre decodes a record of the base’s location. He and Rex drive out to the area, where their car is blown over a cliff by a land mine. Miraculously surviving the crash, Rex and Pierre kill two mounted guards. Finding the radio in the car still operating, they radio Janet to fly out and land in a nearby field they had spotted on the way out, coincidentally being the very field Wolfe had landed a plane in before they arrived.

Making their way toward the river, the two heroes find a warehouse and enter, interrupting Wolfe’s departure with a satchel of dispatches. Another set destroying fight takes place. Seeing that he and his men are no match for Rex and Pierre (there are only four of them after all), Wolfe throws the dispatch case into the river and escapes on Pierre’s horse. The other three men defeated, Pierre dives into the river to retrieve the dispatches while Rex chases after Wolfe.

Wolfe makes it to the makeshift landing field in time to see Janet landing her plane. Pulling out a machine gun from the saddle gear, Wolfe proceeds to pepper the coasting plane with bullets. Janet pops open her cockpit lid and immediately returns fire. Though she stops Wolfe from shooting at her, he distracted her enough so that her plane is heading right for his. With no time to turn or stop, Janet slides out of the cockpit and rolls to the ground from the plane’s wing right before the collision which destroys both vehicles.

Rex arrives in time to fire a few shots at Wolfe dissuading him from trying to finish Janet off now that she has no cover. Wolfe rides off into the hills. Rex and Janet ride back to the warehouse on Rex’s horse to pick up Pierre, who is drying off on shore with the surprisingly water proof satchel.

After another night of hard work decoding Nazi papers, Pierre discovers an order for the Nazi submarine Wolf Pack to attack a convoy delivering food supplies to Casablanca’s needy citizens. Rex quickly contacts the American Navy who sends out a fleet of destroyers that protect the convoy and destroy a large portion of the Wolf Pack with depth charges. Captain Beschert is one of the few subs that manages to survive and he returns to the coastal waters outside of Casablanca.

The food is delivered safely and stored in several warehouses. Rex is worried about attempts to destroy the supplies and has Pierre assign men at all of the city’s entrances equipped with a newly invented explosive detector. Two men carrying in blacksmith equipment set off the detector. They are allowed to enter and secretly followed. The men go to a blacksmith shop. Rex is notified and heads for the shop, where he finds the ever present Wolfe talking about the munitions they have hidden in a fake graveyard outside of town.

Rex leaps into action, destroying the ware house with the Nazi’s own munitions and chasing Wolfe back to the graveyard. Rex gets into another fight while Wolfe saves his own skin. One of the combatants knocks over a cross on a “grave”. The “graves” are all booby trapped so that if anyone tampers with them all of the explosives will go off in sequence from the outside to the center of the cemetery. The bombs start going off, circling around the graveyard as Rex and his opponents struggle. Rex finally defeats the two henchmen and manages to dive into the empty grave that had contained the munitions destroyed in the blacksmith shop. After the last bomb has gone off, Rex digs his way out of the wreckage and returns to Casablanca.

“Secret Service in Darkest Africa” was a transitional serial for Republic. Their perennial serial director, William Witney, had just left to go overseas as a marine and veteran director Spencer Bennet was taking over as the studio’s main serial director. Bennet, a talented and prolific director, had started directing serials in the silent days, and had spent most of the sound era up till this time periodically directing some of the early serials for Columbia as well as RKO’s only serial, “The Last Frontier” (1932). He was the logical man to replace Witney, but his tenure at Republic would change the look and feel of Republic’s serials for the rest of it’s existence.

Bennet was a master at directing action sequences, like Whitney, but unlike the younger director, Bennet apparently had a liking for campy humor. Now I know that serials are always a bit campy, but where Witney, and his usual partner John English, tried to keep things more or less serious and somewhat believable, Bennet let the more whimsical aspects of serial plots have free rein.

This is very evident in the first chapter with star Cameron’s initial fist fight that involves at one point both men falling into an overturned closet and instead of having the two combatants getting out before continuing the fight as would normally have happened under Witney’s tenure, the two men just keep swinging at each other until Cameron eventually kicks the other man through the other side of the closet’s only remaining wall. While exciting and well done, it is also a little too silly to be taken seriously. Especially when it is immediately followed by the aforementioned portrait spearing and handing a flight attendant the patriotic pin right before he takes off in a commandeered plane.

Another campy aspect of the serial is the way the entire cast is extremely gun happy. Not a scene can go by without everybody whipping out a gun and firing away. Goofiest is in the cliffhanger of Chapter Three with Joan Marsh getting involved in a shootout while sitting in a taxiing plane. It resembles the opening of the short lived “Police Squad” TV show, where every cast member introduced shoots at an off screen attacker.

There is also the ridiculous idea that the real Sultan is kept chained to a wall for the entire fifteen chapters. Not an episode goes by where the villains have learned of another defeat at the hands of Rex Bennett, prompting the Sultan to decree that they will all soon suffer horribly for their crimes against his people. This usually ends with him getting repeatedly slapped by any number of henchmen who all seem to have nothing better to do than hang out in the hidden base beneath the Sultan’s office.

Ironically, the campiest aspect of the plot, the impersonation of an Arab leader by a Nazi look-a-like, is actually handled intelligently. Von Rommler is not an exact double. He is a man who closely resembles the Sultan, but his right cheek has a slight defect (either a prominent vein or shallow scar, I’m not sure which) that the Sultan does not possess. He is also shown periodically touching up his disguise through out the serial, giving the impression that he is using makeup to better resemble the man he is pretending to be.

This serial also set a precedent that plagued the genre for the next twelve years at Republic. While most serials would have a hero lose his gun occasionally so that he can get involved in a fight, it was with this serial that started the cliché of the hero always standing too close to the bad guys so that one of them will be able to knock the gun out of his hand and he will be forced to fight no less than two and sometimes three opponents single handedly. Usually one will get temporarily stunned so that the hero will only have to fight one man at a time until whatever explosive that is in the building can be accidentally set off and the hero clubbed down allowing the bad guys to get away before the building is destroyed. Since Cameron gets into at least two fights per chapter you would think he would catch on by Chapter Three or Four to start standing back a little from the men he’s captured.

But for all that, the serial is well made and contains a lot of fast paced action full of the kind of stunt work and special effects fans have come to expect from Republic. All of the fights are well choreographed with several well done sword fights sprinkled throughout (I am a big fan of sword fights and the ones in Chapters One and Fifteen are both excellent). It was with his debut Republic serial that Bennet started his most recognized contribution to the studio’s product, the set destroying fight sequence. Most previous serials contain some set destruction in their fights but good ol’ Spence took the concept to unheard of heights during his four years at Republic. Why destroy a couple of chairs or a table when you can demolish every piece of furniture not nailed down? Coupled with his patented punch thrown at the camera then cut to shot of person hit flying away from the camera sequence that Bennet used here more than any other serial he directed supplies “Secret Service in Darkest Africa” with some of the greatest fights ever done for the genre, bar none.

Of all the special effects for the serial, the one that stands out to me is in Chapter Nine. The cliffhanger involves Cameron racing in a speed boat to warn an American ship about a new type of torpedo to be used against it. Where most chapters would end with the boat simply getting blown apart, which had already happened at least twice before in earlier episodes, here they did something different. The new torpedo contains a dynamo that sends an electric charge through its shell. When it strikes the metal hull of a ship everyone aboard will get electrocuted. To show this the shot of the torpedo rising to the surface is done with animation, showing a metal cylinder surrounded by jagged lightning and sparks. A real canister is used when it bobs to the surface, also surrounded by animated lightning that extends to Cameron’s boat. Though you can tell the electric arc isn’t real it does look impressive, and given the budget situation you can buy it. At least Cameron avoids being electrocuted by diving into the water, that, that is tough to swallow.

The acting is all uniformly good. Duncan Renaldo proves he can play any nationality. After getting used to him playing Hispanic characters with an authentic Spanish accent you come to believe he is actually of Spanish decent. But here he is delivering a dead on French accent that sounds real, instead of an overdone exaggeration where you pronounce “this” like “zis”. Joan Marsh comes off well as the aggressive, independent, and intelligent newspaper reporter.

Lionel Royce steals the serial of course. An excellent actor, he came to prominence during WWII playing all sorts of Nazi miscreants. He ably handles the triple role here, clearly distinguishing between the ruthless Nazi, the benevolent Arab leader, and the ruthless Nazi pretending to be a benevolent Arab leader. He is most enjoyable when seeing the heroes out of his office and as soon as the door shuts his expression changes from kindly concern to deadly killer as if a magician had passed his hand in front of the man’s face. It’s also chilling to see him nonchalantly ordering someone’s death while he touches up his disguise with a comb and hand held mirror, never even glancing at the man he is talking to. Now that’s cold blooded.

The only one who doesn’t come off well is the star, Rod Cameron. Though he looks great in the action sequences, the tall and lanky actor appears stiff and wooden during dialogue scenes. Part of the problem is the dialogue Cameron is given. During Chapter Thirteen after being cleared of a false murder charge, Cameron immediately insists on Paul Marian signing a treaty while standing next to the dead body of the man’s father. Wow! Talk about insensitive. Perhaps the dialogue was supposed to convey a sense of urgency and need for fast action to help defeat the treacherous Nazis, but Cameron’s one note delivery just makes him seem callous.

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