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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"G-Men vs. The Black Dragon"; Republic, 1943

While watching G-Men vs. the Black Dragon (1943) for this review I found that I owe a big apology to director Fred C. Brannon. Back some Halloweens ago I had reviewed The Crimson Ghost (1946) and had laid the blame for being able to clearly see the stunt man doubling for the actor in fight scenes on Brannon. I felt it could not possibly be William Witney's fault, he was just too good a director. Yet here in this serial that he directed solo, Tom Steele is clearly visible in the fight scenes. So I humbly apologize to Mr. Brannon. He was a fine craftsman who made good solid action serials in a time when that was hard to do because of lowering budgets causing the necessity to over use stock footage. As for the stunt man spotting, it just demonstrates that you really need to keep your hat on during fight scenes.

The serial starts in New York City where British Secret Service agent Vivian Marsh (Constance Worth) is racing to catch a plane for Los Angeles with some important information for American Special Investigator Rex Bennett (Rod Cameron). Ranga (Noel Cravat) Japanese spy for the Black Dragon Society follows her and runs her car off the road. Vivian jumps out of her car before it goes over a cliff and explodes.

Ranga stops to check the wreckage and believes Vivian to be dead. Vivian climbs onto the back of his car and lets Ranga take her to the airport. Ranga arrives at the airport where he meets his confederate Lugo (George J. Lewis). Ranga starts to tell Lugo that Vivian is dead when they see Vivian get on her plane. Lugo charters a private plane and the two foreign spies arrive in LA before her.

Rex Bennett goes to the airport to meet Vivian and sees her being abducted. He goes to help Vivian when her abductor pulls out a gun. The enemy agent is killed from a bullet fired by Chang (Roland Got), a Chinese Secret Service Agent who had been assigned to help Rex and had spotted the abduction on his arrival. After the excitement has died down, Vivian tells Rex that she has evidence that Black Dragon leader Oyama Haruchi (Nino Pipitone) is being smuggled into America by boat to take over sabotage efforts on the West Coast. The three allies jump into Rex's car and race for the docks.

Ranga is at the docks where he is picking up Haruchi, who is disguised as a mummy in a sarcophagus. When a hold is put on all cargo leaving the warehouse, Ranga kills the guard and injects Haruchi with a drug to revive him. Rex and his team arrive at the warehouse and start a fight with Ranga and his confederate. During the scuffle Haruchi revives and grabs Vivian. Holding her at gunpoint, Haruchi uses her to get him and Ranga to his car.

Once at his secret headquarters, Haruchi starts his first attack on the US Armed Forces. He uses a traitorous American as a front to buy a paint factory that supplies paint for US battleships. Once the man's job is done, Haruchi drops him through a trap door in front of his desk and has his pet raven kill the man by pecking him with a beak that has poison on it. Haruchi has a chemical added to the paint that will cause it to burst into flames after prolonged exposure to salt water.

Many ships are lost at sea. Rex is put on the case. He examines the wreckage of the latest ship explosion. Noticing that every exposed section of steel has had all of the paint burned off evenly, he deduces something must have been added to the paint to cause the ship disasters. Only three companies supply paint to military shipping yards in the area. Rex and his team split up to investigate the plants.

Vivian finds the right paint factory when she spots Ranga. He grabs her and locks her in a cabinet. He then sprays the cabinet with a new paint for airplanes that will ignite after it dries. His batch has been altered to speed up the process for testing purposes.

Rex and Chang both strike out and meet to pick up Vivian. Spotting her purse laying on the floor of the factory's office, Rex knows something is up. Pulling out their guns the two agents burst into the store room, getting the drop on Ranga, Lugo and a confederate. Lugo knocks Rex's gun out of his hand with a thrown paint can. A fight breaks out.

During the confusion the cabinet Vivian is locked in bursts into flame. With no one paying attention the fire quickly spreads until most of the room is engulfed. Rex manages to free Vivian and everyone gets out of the factory before it explodes.

Chang decides to go on the offensive. He talks Rex into letting him break Fugi (Allen Jung), a known Black Dragon agent out of jail so that he can be led to Haruchi's headquarters. The jail break goes without a hitch. Fugi takes Chang to an Oriental antique shop that is a front for the Black Dragon. Chang is put into a room but he over hears Fugi radio Haruchi. Haruchi says to kill the man who helped him escape as he is not needed anymore. Lugo will pick up Fugi and bring him to a meeting place with Haruchi.

Fugi goes to kill Chang, but the Allied agent is ready for him and the two engage in a pseudo-judo/karate battle that decimates the room. Fugi is knocked out. Hearing Lugo's car pull up, Chang grabs Fugi's glasses and goes out to meet Lugo. Lugo is fooled (technically he never met Fugi) and drives off with Chang. Vivian had been watching the shop. She radios Rex that Fugi is leaving with Lugo and follows them. Rex heads for the shop to check on Chang.

The shop owner discovers Fugi and radios Haruchi, who was just about to leave to meet Fugi. Haruchi radios the meeting place to take care of the imposter. Lugo arrives at the meeting place, a lumber yard. Chang's identity is revealed and he is tied up. Vivian arrives at the lumber yard and is quickly captured by Ranga.

Rex shows up at the antique shop. The Owner tries to bluff Rex about no one being there but our hero is not fooled. Pulling out a gun he forces the owner into the back where he discovers that it was Chang not Fugi who left with Lugo. Rex forces the owner to tell him where the meeting place is just as Fugi wakes up. Fugi tries to shoot Rex, but Rex ducks, letting the owner take his bullet for him, and shoots Fugi in return.

Rex heads for the lumber yard where he discovers Vivian has been tied to a conveyor belt heading for a band saw in an effort to get either her or Chang to reveal names of the Allied agents working overseas. Rex gets the drop on the Axis agents but a thrown wrench disarms him and he finds himself battling three men at once while Vivian heads for certain doom.

Chang manages to free one of his hands. He grabs Rex's gun from the floor and shoots the control for the conveyor belt, saving Vivian in the (what else) nick of time. Ranga and Lugo head for the hills and Rex lets them go, having captured at least one agent, and frees his friends.

Knowing that Rex will return to the shop and search it, Ranga and Lugo head there first. They find the dead bodies. Ranga sets a time bomb while Lugo empties the safe of all their important files. They start to take their submarine locator but hear Rex's car pull up. Feeling the locator will be destroyed with the building, they leave out the back door and return to headquarters.

Rex, Vivian and Chang enter the shop and start searching it. Rex hears a strange ticking noise and discovers the bomb. He tosses it like a football through a window seconds before detonation. A search shows that the shop had been emptied of anything important, except the detector, which was slightly damaged in the explosion. Rex takes the device to Professor Nicholson (C. Montague Shaw).

After examining it, Nicholson says it is a device used for detecting long range sounds under water. The only damage was one tube that got broken, which he replaced. Rex uses the detector to find a submarine that has been supplying the saboteurs. He detects it stationed at a dock, then moving back out to sea. Rex has Chang pursue the sub. Rex drops several depth charges and sinks the sub. That accomplished they head for the dock the sub had stopped at.

Investigating the pier, they discover Ranga and Chang in a warehouse. A fight breaks out and a can of fuel is knocked over and spilled. Ranga and Lugo get away, locking Rex and Chang inside the ware house. Having noticed the spilled fuel, Lugo had grabbed a bag of gunpowder. Using the gunpowder as a fuse, Lugo ignites the fuel inside the warehouse. He and Ranga grab Rex's boat, thereby retrieving their sub detector.

Inside the warehouse Rex and Chang are in a bad spot. The building is chock full of explosives and fuel. Rex spots a cargo door in the floor. The two men use it to drop to safety into the water below right before the warehouse blows to smithereens.

Haruchi is pleased to have the detector back. Examining the device he discovers the tube Nicholson had replaced and knows that the scientist could build a duplicate. They have to get a hold of Nicholson. Knowing Rex will have the scientist guarded, Haruchi comes up with a devious plan.

Using Tony (Harry Burns), an agent who works as a fortune teller/organ grinder. He has Haruchi's raven, which uses it's poisoned beak to kill the guard at Nicholson's estate. Tony gets the keys off the guard's body and opens the gate. Ranga, Lugo and two henchmen enter the grounds. Getting the drop on Rex a huge fight breaks out. Rex defeats the two henchmen, but Ranga and Lugo get away with Nicholson.

Taking Nicholson to a upper story warehouse, he is locked in a room without a phone. Thinking quickly, Nicholson writes a note on his handkerchief using a shoe string tip and the polish on his shoe. Before he can throw it out the window, Haruchi arrives.

Haruchi wants Nicholson's notes and diagrams he would have made when he examined the detector. Nicholson refuses and is tortured off camera. He finally breaks and admits they are in his safe at home. Haruchi orders Ranga and Lugo to take him there to retrieve them. Nicholson asks for a cigarette on the ride over. When Lugo is not looking, Nicholson drops it into Lugo's coat pocket. The smoldering coat causes enough of a diversion for Nicholson to make a break for it. Ranga shoots him and inadvertently kills the scientist.

Nicholson's body is found and the note on his handkerchief is turned over to Rex. He and Chang go up to the warehouse while Vivian waits in the car as back up. Rex and Chang find Ranga, Lugo and another "Red Shirt" henchman in the upper storied warehouse. A fight breaks out. During the scuffle Rex is knocked out a window along with the henchman by a thrown chair.

Rex manages to save himself by grabbing a fire house and hanging on for his life. Vivian learns of the trouble when the henchman splats by her car, off camera of course. Grabbing a tommy gun out of the trunk, she heads for the warehouse and empties most of the gun into various walls trying to take out Ranga who gets away. Vivian captures Lugo while Chang pulls Rex to safety.

This is one of the slam bangingest serials Republic ever put out. Every episode has at least two fist fights that all but demolish whole sets, paving the way for Spencer Bennet's mega set destroying fights and streamlined storytelling he would direct at Republic during the war. The fights, and the plots to get to the fights, demonstrate how films today have forgotten how to make truly great action films.

Take any films at random, like say The Transporter movies (Okay not so random, I'm still ticked off at the God awful rip off they did in the first film, swiping the truck sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), trying to out do it and bungling the whole sequence horrendously). The movies have tons of fist fights and chases but the narrative thread is so thin, the characters so uninteresting, and such weak villains that you can't really get involved in the action. Meaningless fights piled one on top of the other don't make for a fun film experience. Put it another way, there's a reason why the original Star Wars films are classics and the prequels are just good.

Of course the stand out fight is between Roland Got and Allen Jung in Chapter Two. Though they don't use any recognizable martial arts like we are familiar with today thanks to great fighters like Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan and David Carradine, the sequence uses an interesting mixture of fisticuffs, wrestling holds, and combatants being flipped over their opponent's shoulder to seem like a what someone from the forties would have envisioned a martial arts battle looks like after having one described to him.

Side bar on the Raiders rip off, this is not to say that serials themselves don't borrow from each other. G-Men has a sequence in Chapter Six where they use the same "laundry code" from Columbia's The Secret Code (1942). And in Chapter Eight a cliffhanger involving two statues completing a circuit that fires a spear gun at the heroine tied to a chair is later seen in a slightly different manner in Universal's Lost City of the Jungle (1946). But unlike trying to show how better they did it than those other guys, it is either a throwaway bit, as in the laundry code, or it is rearranged for the sake of little variety, a revolver instead of a spear gun . After all how many times can you be trapped in a burning building or have your car go off a cliff before it gets boring?

The acting is pretty decent. Rod Cameron has always been a little stiff but he carries himself well here in his first major starring role. He exhibits those trade mark attributes he would demonstrate in many western and action films for the next twenty years, a silent but steady sureness in himself that he is always doing the right thing at the right time. The only thing he can't pull off are the jingoistic speeches he has to give every few chapters. Chapter Five has him detailing the judicial system to his foreign colleagues after Haruchi hires a lawyer for the arrested Lugo. He can't quite pull off those kind of speeches. Much better is when he is threatened with torture after being captured and his only response is a clipped "Tell it to the Marines!" Who wouldn't have stood up and cheered at that?

Luckily Roland Got and Constance Worth don't have to give any flowery speeches. They both just add a little commentary to the proceedings in between the action. As became standard, though they are supposed to represent equal partners in the war effort, it is Cameron who does all of the real detective work and gives the orders. A continuing theme throughout the serial will always have Worth left behind to contact authorities while Cameron, sometimes with Got and sometimes alone, heading out to do the real work. I know I shouldn't read too much into this as it was a serial from the forties, but it does reveal a little bit about how we as a nation viewed our Allies at the time, helpful but subservient. Looking at the state of the world today, can we honestly say that our attitudes have changed?

The villains are well handled. George J. Lewis and Noel Cravat make excellent henchmen, tough and smart. They are constantly shown thinking on their feet. In Chapter Fourteen when Cameron takes off in pursuit of Cravat, Lewis jumps on the back of his car, stuffs paper in his gas tank and then sets it on fire. As Steven Colbert would say "He has muchos cojones." Not to be out done Cravat has many standout scenes. He is the sadistic one, shoving Worth into a cabinet about to burst into flames and saying "It will make a good test." in Chapter One, or his not seeming to care whether or not he even gets any information from his captives when he puts Worth on the conveyor belt/band saw cliffhanger in Chapter Two. He is one stone cold killer.

Nino Pipitone is an odd one. I can't quite put my finger on what it is about him, but he just makes me feel uneasy in this serial. Everything just seems a little off about his character. He is a rail thin diminutive individual, much smaller than the rest of the cast. Yet all of his men seem scared to death of him and not just because of the killer raven. He has this distinctive way of talking that isn't an accent, but is. It's kind of hard to describe. You can't say why exactly, but you remember him long after the serial is over and the rest of it has been all but forgotten.

Now I'm an avid bit player spotter. I love watching films and spotting actors in small parts, The Big Sleep (1946) has a plethora of serial regulars in small roles, but that's something to discuss on a message board (and I have bored many a poster on it at length). This serial has got a great list of bit players. Now I'm not talking about villain bit players that you see all the time like Stanely Price or George Lynn, who pop up in one episode and are killed by the hero during a fight scene. No I'm talking about great character actors who pop in for only a scene or two and then disappear from the story.

This serial is a gold mine. Among the great actors seen in bit parts is John Hamilton TV's first Perry White, Hooper Atchley, former serial hero Kenneth Harlon, Forbes Murray and Edward Keene. But the biggest one is former serial heroine Maxine Doyle, wife of director William Witney. They met on the set of SOS Coastguard (1937) and she gave up acting to become a housewife. Her brief appearance in Chapter Eight came about because she was returning to acting while her husband was going to be overseas.

Which leads us to another interesting tidbit about this serial. Technically William Witney didn't direct the entire thing. He was shipping out a few days before filming wrapped. Not enough was left to do to bring in another director just to get a few sequences shot, so the serial's producer W. J. O'Sullivan handled the chore. Witney says in his autobiography that he intentionally left a fire stunt for him to do, as it is the hardest type of sequence to direct in a serial, so that O'Sullivan would understand what a director has to go through. He claims that when he returned from the war, O'Sullivan was a much nicer producer than when he left.

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