The old dark house style of mystery/horror film had gone out of syle by the late thirties when it was given a big shot in the arm thanks to, of all people, Bob Hope. His film debut in a spoofy remake of The Cat and Canary (1939) was a seamless combination of knowing tongue in cheek humor and genuine scares that would prove inspirational to comedy teams from Abbott and Costello to The Bowery Boys (though some could legitimately claim that the trend actually started with director James Whale's aptly titled The Old Dark House (1932) a horror/comedy yet to be equaled, but since most films in the forties and fifties followed Hope's lead I'll stick with him being the one who created the trend's popularity). So of course when James W. Horne set out to do a remake of Edgar Wallace's The Green Archer (1940) he would naturally take it more toward burlesque than chiller.
Michael Bellamy (Kenne Duncan) inherits Garr Castle, which enjoys a thriving tourist business, but is soon convicted of a crime that he claims he didn't do (what the crime was is never stated). His brother Abel (James Craven) takes over control of the estate and promptly closes the castle down, saying he can long bear to look at it and revive old memories. Actually Abel framed his brother so that he could move his criminal activities into the castle as the perfect hideout.
The night Michael is being taken to prison via train, Abel has his men sabotage the train. The train derails and crashes. No survivors are reported. Michael's wife Elaine (Dorothy Faye) goes to see Abel. He tries to scare her from the castle by having Brad (Jack Ingram) dress up as The Green Archer, a family legend that is supposed to come to the aid of any Bellamy in trouble. Elaine isn't fooled and accuses Abel of framing her husband. Abel doesn't waste time in denying the truth and simply has her imprisoned in one of the secret rooms that are hidden around the castle.
Abel's gang pulls off a spectacular jewelery heist and head back to the castle through a secret entrance that lowers their car into a hidden underground garage. The most valuable piece of jewelery is missing and Abel accuses Brent (Anthony Warde) of holding out. He denies it and quits the gang. Surprisingly Abel lets him leave. As Brent is driving along the mountain road near the Castle, Brad shoots him with an arrow and the car goes off a cliff.
Switch to Michael's best friend, ace Tri-State Insurance investigator Spike Holland (Victory Jory). He gets a report of Brent's body turning up near Garr Castle with part of the jewel robbery swag on him. This, combined with Elaine's mysterious disappearance, leads Spike to suspect Abel Bellamy of being responsible for both.
Spike rents a cottage near Garr Castle where he is joined by Elaine's sister Vallerie Howett (Iris Meredith) and their father (Forrest Taylor), along with Henderson (Herbert Evans), a butler Spike hired. When Abel learns of this he sends Brad out on a special mission. While Spike and Valerie are relaxing in the living room of their cottage, Brad shoots an arrow in through the window. It has a key to Garr Castle attached. Brad gets attacked by the Green Archer and is knocked out.
Spike spots the Archer and tries to follow him but loses him in the trees. Suddenly Mr. Howett steps out from behind some bushes wondering what's going on. Spike is suspicious but says nothing. When the two men return to the cottage, they find that Valerie has gone to the castle. Henderson overhears Spike tell Mr. Howett he is going after Valerie, and slips away himself.
Spikes rushes over to the castle and comes upon Valerie being caught by several henchmen. He attacks them and gets Valerie free. Valerie runs away while Spike leads the hoods into the castle. Abel finds out Spike is in the castle and activates one of the various trap doors that pepper the castle, dropping Spike into a pit. Then in a degree of cruelty that only happens in a Columbia serial, Abel has his vicious attack dogs leap into the pit after Spike.
Luckily for Spike The Green Archer opens a secret door in the pit and gets him out before the dogs can rip him to shreds. The Archer leads Spike through a tunnel to a secret door to the outside. Spike finds Valerie a prisoner again and fights with the men, getting one their guns in the process before getting away with Valerie.
When Abel learns that they got away, he beats Spike to the punch by calling the police and accusing Spike and Vallerie of trespassing on his property. After a conversation with the rather bombastic and thick headed local policeman Captain Thompson (Fred Kelsey) Abel is now guaranteed police protection. Abel's right hand man Savini (Robert Fiske) then informs Abel that Spike got away with one of their guns and he could trace it back to Blinky's Pawn Shop. Abel says not to worry, he has a plan.
The next morning Spike sees Mr. Howett on a makeshift archery range demonstrating that he is a dead shot. Spike goes to the city and meets with his old friend Inspector Ross (Joseph Girard) who helps him trace the gun to Blinky's Pawn Shop. Spike goes to the pawn shop where he foils an attempt to have him shot when he is invited into the back office by cold bloodedly shoving a henchman through the door first to take all of the bullets meant for him.
A fight breaks out and Spike defeats the two men he is fighting. They run for it and Spike follows. After meeting up with some confederates they see Spike is still after them. Using one their cars, they ram Spike's and both cars go over an embankment, where they crash and burst into flame. Luckily Spike was thrown clear of the crash. He manages to get a license plate off the gang's car and head back to town on foot.
Inspector Ross traces the car back to Lanton's Garage. He and Spike go to question Lanton (Bud Osborne) but learn little from him. When he over hears Lanton getting a call from Abel Belamy, Spike gets suspicious and convinces Ross to have Lanton watched.
When Abel learns that Spike was at Lanton's Garage he is furious. He sends the two men who botched the job at the pawnshop to kill Spike in the evening. After they leave he gives Brad some orders for after they kill Spike. While this is going on, someone eavesdrops on the meeting from behind the Green Archer portrait on the wall behind Abel's desk.
The Green Archer shoots an arrow into the cottage living room with a warning of Spike's murder. That night Spike sets up a cardboard silhouette of himself in the living room. The two hoods shoot it and start to make their getaway. Brad shoots them with arrows and leaves a note on one of the bodies.
Spike comes upon the bodies and finds the note saying that Valerie is to be taken to Clark's Warehouse. Just then he hears Valerie scream as she is being forced into a car. Spike has Mr. Howett call the police while he heads for the warehouse.
Spike sneaks up to a window where he sees Valerie tied to a post. She spots him and yells that it's a trap. Spike sees men grab her to shut her up. He rushes to the door but stops himself from pushing it open. Grabbing a small crate he throws it at the door setting off the shotgun that was rigged to the door.
Leaping through the opening, Spike engages in a fight with five men. An oil lamp is knocked over, setting the warehouse on fire. The henchmen leave, locking the door behind them. Spike unties Valerie and then tries to break through the door, but the henchmen shoot at the door. Spike opens a trap door in the warehouse's floor and finds the basement is full of dynamite. Luckily there is a delivery truck nearby and Spike uses it to ram a hole in the wall of the warehouse and get out before it explodes.
The henchmen grab Spike and Valerie but release them and run away when Captain Thompson shows up with sirens blaring. He takes Spike and Valerie back to the cottage where Spike tells him everything. Henderson hovers nearby in the hall, listening. Thompson refuses to believe Spike's accusations against a fine upstanding citizen like Abel Bellamy.
After Thompson leaves and Valerie and her father have gone to bed, Spike sits in the living room to think. Brad tries to shoot him through a window, just missing Spike who drops to the floor and knocks the lamp of the coffee table to douse the room in darkness. When the coast is clear, Spike heads after Brad.
Over at Garr Castle The Green Archer is searching for Elaine when he is met by Savini who thinks he is Brad. The jig is soon up when Brad walks in from one of the secret passages and a fight breaks out with several henchmen joining in. The Archer gets away, just as Spike blunders in on the scene and another fight breaks out. Spike is knocked out and henchman Butch (Al Ferguson) plans to shoot him, but is stopped by Abel, who says not to waste a bullet, he has a better plan (yes this is where that cliché came from).
Abel has Spike thrown into a special room and taunts him before throwing a switch that starts a spiked ceiling descending toward Spike. Things look bad for Spike until The Green Archer pops up and shoots the control panel with an arrow, shorting it out and saving Spike.
Abel and Savini chase The Archer but lose him. When they come upon Brad they attack him and knock him out. Abel is furious when they mask is pulled off and they realize they captured one of their own men. This turns to eye popping, mouth frothing hysteria when they go to Abel's study and discover that the Archer has stolen the jewels from the heist in Chapter One.
Spike is released from his inescapable death trap by the Archer who leads him to another secret tunnel to the outside. Spike returns to the cottage where an arrow is shot though a window. The arrow has a bag tied to it with a note telling Spike that this is the jewelery from the robbery. Just then Mr. Howett walks in the front door. When asked where he was, Howett says he had been searching for Spike.
There is always a problem to be found with Horne's serials, his melding of slapstick comedy with cliffhanger thrills can be off putting, especially in his later serials (they had to of been one the major influences on the camp craze of the late sixties). If you look at the serials he has done you find in the early ones the humor was subtle, of course he was usually directing with another director who generally kept things fairly serious, but if you look at his first ones by himself like Deadwood Dick (1940) and The Shadow (1940) where they were fairly grounded in serious action with some comedy thrown in along the way and compare them with ones he did later, like White Eagle (1941) or Captain Midnight (1942), which played like all out farces, you can see how he progressed along this path.
The Green Archer (1940) fits nicely in the middle. The action is still fairly serious while the comedy is pretty broad. Horne evenly mixes both into an enjoyable whole. This is probably his best serial. Thanks in no small part to his starting out playing things fairly straight in the early chapters and slowly building the comedy as the serial progresses until the final chapters are almost completely comedy, except for one part which I will get to when I discuss James Craven.
Some of the things Horne does right include not having the hero fight five men and win like he would do in later serials, and having Jory and Meredith play there parts with total seriousness. Everyone else may start becoming unhinged by the time Chapter Fifteen rolls around, both those two are rock solid from start to finish. Plus Jory exhibits a pretty callous method of operation, forcing thugs into their own friendly fire and slugging a few cops when he needs to get away after being framed for a few crimes, not something you ever saw Robert Lowery or Charles Quigley ever do.
The only time he approaches the kind of over the top reaction that became typical in Horne's product is in Chapter Nine when he signs a false confession to save Meredith only to find out she is still in danger. His “You lied!” is as overdone as any of the “Holy...!” epitaphs Burt Ward ever uttered.
The comedy breaks into two camps. The first brand is the kind that would become over used in later serials. The over acting of the bad guys exceeds the point of absurdity, such as the sudden appearance of Jory in the gang's hideout in Chapter Ten causing all six men to jump up and run away screaming in terror. Then there is the little oddball things going on in the background during dialog in the hideout. Chapter Eight shows several henchmen sitting around play tiddley winks while a plan is being gone over in the foreground. Luckily these parts are kept to a few appearances.
The other type of comedy is character based and falls on two actors. First up is Fred Kelsey. Kelsey is probably best known as the dim witted cop from the short The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case (1930), a character he would continue to play in Columbia's Lone Wolf film series. So popular was he in this role that Tex Avery immortalized his features as the bulldog detective in the cartoon Who Killed Who? (1944). Needless to say this is the same role he plays here and he is hilarious, constantly jumping to the wrong conclusions, getting outwitted by both sides and always realizing it at the last minute with a drawn out “Saaaayyy....”. The man was comedy gold.
The other great comedy actor was Herbert Evans as the butler. When not skulking around to listen in on conversations or disappearing at odd moments because he could be The Green Archer, Evans is a riot as the overly stuffy butler who sniffs with disdain over evey little “inconvenience” caused by bullying police or threatening hoods. One of the funniest bits happens in Chapter Thirteen when Evans gets knock down twice, first from Jory trying to sneak into the cottage and then again as Jory is trying to get back out with Kelsey in hot pursuit. His effeminate response of “Oh dear!” after the second time just puts a capper on the whole scene.
The best performance is done by James Craven. This was his first serial for Horne and he gives a multi layered performance. This film laid the ground work for his other Columbia serials where he played villains who became more and more frantic as the serial progressed. Here he starts out so confident he laughs at the slightest inference of doubt from Robert Fiske, saying “Go ahead, worry, it amuses me.”
Of course he starts to become unhinged by the end of Chapter Three with the constant bumbling of his men, as his villains always do. This is countered by the reveal that his character was in love with Elaine and she rejected him for his brother. It adds a nice little subtext to his cruel taunting of her in her prison and his reactions to her insults. The subtle hardening of his features and slight mouth twitch are better than all the eye bugging and mouth frothing he exhibits in front of his henchmen.
But that is nothing to what happens in Chapter Fifteen. After countless defeats at the hands of the heroes, he turns to a henchman and starts voicing self doubt that he made the right decisions in dealing with the problems that came up. As if that wasn't amazing enough, the henchman (an amusing Kit Guard playing an enthusiastically Cockney accented dimwit named Dinky) actually comfort Craven, telling him it will be alright. It sounds as if the scene would play as absurd as the tiddley winks episode, but Craven plays it straight and makes the scene work. You almost feel sorry for him.
But that is nothing to what happens at the very end. With the heroes saved from the final death trap and the police raiding the castle, Craven pulls out a gun, but instead of planning to shoot it out with the cops he is plainly shown to be contemplating suicide. It is a scene that is so shocking given what has come before that it makes the serial stand out from all of Horne's others.