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 Spider's Web"; Columbia, 1938

When someone comes up with a successful formula, others will try to copy it. Take the Shadow, after his pulp debut in the early thirties he was quickly followed by The Spider, The Phantom Detective, and the Bat. All were masked vigilantes who dealt justice out of a gun. Out of them The Spider was the most interesting, and went through the most changes as his publishers kept pushing author Norvell Page, writing under the house name Grant Stockbridge, to make him more like the Shadow.

He started out without a costume and was just a mystery man no one ever saw who killed the criminal and left an ink spider imprint on their forehead. Then he became a gun toting thug in a turtleneck sweater with his two .45's strapped on in plain sight. This was quickly thrown out and he began wearing a fake hump under a black cloak, and a wig of long stringy hair while talking in an Italian accent. Finally The Spider started wearing a black coat and hat, with a domino mask made of steel. About the only thing that didn't change was the fast pace and high body counts in the novels. While Columbia made their own changes to the character, most notably and to the good in my opinion was the spider web design cape and mask, they retained the high speed pacing and over the top violence that made the pulps so memorable.

A white cloaked villain known only as The Octopus is waging a secret war to take over an unnamed city's transportation companies. When meeting with his black cloaked men in their secret headquarters He limps on a crutch and his right arm is dead. He gives his orders through a microphone that distorts his voice. He has Roberts (Byron Foulger) brought to his office and demands he turn over his bus company to the criminal. Roberts refuses and attacks The Octopus, who whips out his real right hand from under his cloak which is holding a gun and shoots the man dead. Next he turns his sights to famed amateur criminologist Richard Wentworth (Warren Hull) and orders his main henchman Steve (Marc Lawrence) to do away with him before he can interfere with their plans.

Wentworth along with his fiancée Nita Van Sloan (Iris Meredith) are arriving by plane to the city. Wentworth has finally decided to give up his life of vigilante justice as The Spider, marry Nita, and settle down, but such is not to be the case. Steve and his men arrive at the airport and knockout Jackson (Richard Fiske) an old war buddy of Wentworth who works as his driver. Steve has a cable stretched across the runway to crash Wentworth's plane. Wentworth sees the danger in time pulls up, but the cable clips his landing gear, trashing it and jamming the rudder. Wentworth and Nita bail out after making sure the plane is going to crash in a deserted area.

Wentworth's old army buddy and now bodyguard Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan) arrives, sees the trouble and nails one of the henchmen holding Jackson with one of his innumerable throwing knives. Jackson gets away and both men duck behind a turned over workbench while Jackson starts tossing lead at the attackers. Wentworth lands, dumps the chute, then whips out a .45 and proves to be a dead shot by laying out three gun men in as many seconds. Steve and the rest run off.

Like every law abiding citizen should, Wentworth reports his gunplay to his good friend and sometime nemesis, Commissioner Kirk (Forbes Murray), who immediately asks Wentworth to step in and help him stop this new wave of terror descending on the city. Wentworth has Jackson take Nita to her apartment while he and Ram Singh go to see Kirk. After filling Wentworth in on Roberts' body being found dumped on the street, they go to see one of the men that didn't die in the shoot out at the airport (must have been Jackson as Wentworth never leaves an opponent alive). They find he is dead in his hospital room. A quick search of the room leads Wentworth to the discovery that a firecracker was thrown through a window, when it explodes it releases a deadly gas that choked the man to death.

Wentworth leaves the hospital where he and Ram Singh are immediately captured, blindfolded and taken to an abandoned apartment house. Wentworth quickly turns the table on his abductors, getting him and Ram Singh away. After lading the men on a chase through the building, Wentworth then makes them think he has escaped out a window. Finding an empty room, Wentworth quickly makes himself up as underworld safecracker Blinky McQuade, a lumpy jawed, one eyed man who wears glasses over his eye patch and speaks in a gravelly voice.

Blinky is on a first name basis with half the men in the building and quickly learns that they are going to be loading one of Robert's buses with explosives then driving it into the terminal where it will blow up the terminal and kill dozens of people. Blinky tries to get in on the job but they can't use him so he leaves. Meeting up with Ram Singh, who has gotten Wentworth's car from the hood who was watching it, they rush to the terminal while Wentworth dons the cloak, mask and hat of The Spider.

Arriving at the terminal, The Spider sees the bus has already arrived. Jumping out into plain sight he starts firing his .45's in the air causing a panic as all of the passengers and personnel head for the exits. He spots a couple of henchmen and pops them just as a matter of course, then hops into the rigged bus and drives it out of the terminal onto an abandoned street. Jumping out, he reenters the terminal and closes the automatic door just before the explosion.

Police arrive on the scene and The Spider makes a hasty exit through a back window before the cops can grab him. He then makes a phone call to Kirk tipping him off to the hideout at the hotel and hangs up before the call can be traced. Kirk arrives at the hotel and finds Wentworth there. Wentworth tells how he was a prisoner and escaped. They go to search the now empty building.

The Octopus knows that this is just what they would do and rigged a trap as soon as he learned Wentworth escaped, he also dispatched the man who let Wentworth escape to the next plain of existence as a lesson to his men. When Wentworth and Kirk enter the rigged room a man throws a firecracker through the window, then steel shutters slam down over all the windows and the door. The firecracker goes off, filling the room with poison gas. Realizing the shutters are held electronically, Wentworth shorts out the building electricity through the room's light switch. Pushing open one of the shutters the town men make it out to the fire escape, where Wentworth shoots their assassin as he tries to shoot them from the roof.

Wentworth goes to meet the heads of the transportation companies. He learns that the man now running Roberts' bus company is someone they have never heard of before named Adams (Edward Earle). Wentworth goes to building that houses the corporate offices of the bus company and fiddles with their phone line. Intercepting their call to the phone company, he then arrives at the office disguised as a repairman. This allows him to plant a shortwave camera in Adam's office.

That night Wentworth uses his receiver to spy on Adam's and learns he has grabbed Nita. The Spider, along with Ram Singh and Jackson rushes to the building. Spotting a crane next to the building, The Spider uses it to get to the top floor unseen by the men inside. Creeping along the hallway, he gets attacked by a henchman and they fight. The man is knocked against Adams' door and gets electrocuted by the charged doorknob.

Hoisting the body up in front of him, The Spider kicks the door open and lets his attackers fire uselessly at him while he nonchalantly picks a few off at his leisure. The Spider forces Adams and what few men he has left into the walk in safe and locks them in. He and Nita go to the crane and Jackson and Ram Singh start to carefully lower them to the ground. Some downstairs henchmen spot the two men and attack them. The crane is left unattended and runs wild, plummeting The Spider and Nita to certain doom.

Luckily Ram is able to get to one of his knives and takes care of the attackers so that Jackson can get to the crane and keep the Spider and Nita from splattering all over the sidewalk. Once on the ground, The Spider sends Nita home with Jackson and Ram Singh, then returns to Adams' office, where he takes Adams out of the safe so that he can talk to him in private. Steve arrives to check on things and sees the Spider drive off with Adams. He follows and runs their car off a cliff once they get out of town. The Spider jumps to safety but Adams is killed in the crash. When Steve goes to check on the crash, The Spider steals his car and gets away.

Wentworth now has a clue to lead him to The Octopus, he recognized one of the men in Adams' office, a low level hood named Martin (Lester Dorr). If he can locate him he might discover the leader of the gang. But there is a complication. Jackson has spotted men watching the house. Wentworth is fully prepared for just such a contingency. He orders a special delivery of flowers to the house. After they are delivered, Wentworth leaves his house dressed as the delivery man and drives off in the delivery van. After dropping it off at his garage for the delivery man to pick up later, Wentworth changes to Blinky and starts searching the Bowery for Martin.

He runs into Martin at a bar and asks if there is anything he can get in on. Martin has a personal job for that night and if Blinky proves himself on it, he can get in on a bigger job later that night. Blinky is to be a getaway driver for a warehouse robbery. A patrol car spots them as they enter the building and go to make the arrest. In the confusion Blinky gets a wounded Martin away and back to the man's apartment.

Blinky goes to a drugstore for some stuff to take care of Martin's bullet wound, and to make a phone call to Jackson. While fixing up Martin's arm, Blinky is told of the big job The Octopus has planned for that night, an attack on the Westland Powerhouse. Jackson shows up at the apartment dressed as a policeman. Blinky gets Martin out a window and allows himself to be "arrested".

Rushing to his car, Blinky changes to The Spider as they race for the powerhouse. Sneaking inside The Spider sees Steve is in the process of sabotaging the place. The Spider is spotted and a shootout erupts. A man sneaks up behind The Spider and they start duking it out. Steve uses this opportunity to smash a chair into the masked vigilante, knocking him back against a control panel. Sparks fly from the panel and The Spider drops to the floor, apparently electrocuted. The police arrive, thanks to a timely phone call from Jackson. As the gang runs for it, The Spider, who was only knocked unconscious, comes to and makes another escape from the police.

The next day Wentworth is called by an old friend he has helped build a new radio with, he's been picking up some kind of coded messages on the unused Hudson Band. When the friend is later killed, Wentworth realizes The Octopus must be the one who is using the Hudson Band to contact his men. Jackson and Nita are kidnapped from her apartment and Wentworth is sent a message that they will be safe as long as he does nothing till the next day.

Wentworth and Ram Singh uses radio equipment to triangulate the broadcasting headquarters of The Octopus when he broadcasts a warning to the city that he will cut off all power to the city at eight o'clock that night. Wentworth and Ram Singh triangulate the signal and head to a house outside of town. Changing to The Spider, he and Ram Singh manage to get pass an electric fence surrounding the place then split up, Ram Singh to find the captives and The Spider to take out the broadcasting unit.

Ram Singh accomplishes his part of the mission by unfortunately getting caught. He is taken to a room where Nita and Jackson are chained to the wall. Ram Singh is similarly shackled. The Octopus taunts them from a speaker, then the room starts filling with water. The Spider gets into the house but is spotted and is pinned down by gunfire. A firecracker is tossed into the room he is in and the door is then locked. As The Spider tires to get to a window to avoid the poison gas from the exploding firecracker, boiling steam is pumped into the room.

The Spider manages to jump out through a window and reenter the house from a second floor window. He discovers the radio room and shoots up all of the equipment, then beats the crap out of two henchmen before finally coming to the room that holds his friends. Opening the door releases a flood of water that knocks the henchmen after The Spider off their feet, carrying a few out of the house. The Spider makes good his escape. The Octopus, unable to contact his men and give them their orders, can't fulfill his threat and looks like a fool. He has all other business put on hold and makes getting The Spider his number one priority.

The Spider's Web (1938) holds an interesting place in serial history, not only is it the best serial Columbia ever produced, it's one of the best serials ever made, proving that Columbia could make a product that rivaled anything put out by Republic or Universal. At first, with Mandrake the Magician (1939) and Flying G-Men (1939), the studio seemed to be fulfilling the promise set up with The Spider's Web, then Horne began turning Columbia's serials into over the top farces. After Horne's untimely demise, the studio seemed to be making a comeback with serious serials like The Secret Code (1942) and Batman (1943), then came the Katzman era where for every decent serial like Jack Armstrong (1947) you would get several silly mishmashes like Brick Bradford (1948). As enjoyable as some of these productions were, they pale dramatically when compared to how well made and thought out this production is.

Not only is this the most action packed and fast moving serial that Columbia made, with zillions of car chases, fist fights and shootouts that are all well choreographed, it is also the most violent serial ever put on film. It certainly rivals Captain America (1943) for the most bad guys killed, but I think this one takes the cake on inventive ways to off people. Henchmen as shot, stabbed (sometimes in the back by the hero), hit with throwing knives, electrocuted, tossed from building roofs, and smashed up in cars. This is one hero who doesn't mess around. A perfect example of the hero's ruthlessness is in Chapter Two where he uses a dead body as a shield to enter a room and absorb all the bullets meant for him. The thing is the guy might not have been dead, he could have only been stunned by the electrified door knob he touched. This cold bloodedness is in perfect harmony with the character in the pulps.

Another great thing about this serial are the set pieces. A real standout is the death room in Chapter Four where several of the heroes are being drowned. In the resolution, The Spider opens the door and a huge wall of water pours out and floods the set with several actors getting knocked around by the torrent. That means they built two connecting rooms, one to hold water and the other to get flooded, pretty extravagant for a low budget serial. Sure serials like Captain Midnight (1942) may have had more extravagant death traps (the one where he is hanging onto a spinning pedestal to keep from being thrown into a fire pit while also having to contend with a descending weight about to crush him comes immediately to mind) but the perils were so exaggerated as to kill your suspension of disbelief. This serial made them just exotic enough to be fun without becoming completely preposterous.

Which is a good thing when you consider how flamboyant his costume must have looked to movie audiences. No black cloak and slouch hat like The Shadow. The Spider wears a cape covered in an intricate spider web design and mask to match. On top of this is a black fedora that seems glued to his head as it never comes off. The cape is most effective when it billows out behind him when he swings across from a building on a rope. Costumed heroes like this hadn't become the norm in pop culture, Superman had just barely debuted when this serial came out. I can only imagined how kids' eyes must have popped out when the Spider finally appeared in the final minutes of Chapter One, suit and tie clad heroes of the day would have come across as drab and uninteresting. Here was someone who looked as cool as Flash Gordon, if not cooler.

Some other interesting touches in the serial include that when ever the villain is giving orders to his men the camera is slightly titled at an angle to give him a nice stylistic sense of menace. I also like the fact that the man supplying the voice for him is the man who is later revealed to be the villain. The voice is distorted but if you listen you'll eventually recognize him. Here's a clue, out of the list of suspects made up of the transportation company owners, he is the most prominent person among the group.

The serial also set up a precedent for the masked heroes that followed, in that while fighting the villain, he was also at odds with the police who were out to get him for taking the law into his own hands. Columbia really liked this aspect as they used it in The Shadow (1940), The Secret Code (1942), Captain Midnight (1942), Batman (1943) and of course in The Spider Returns (1941).

The acting is all top notch. Star Warren Hull is one of the best to ever play a serial hero. He effectively manages to give his three interlinked characters a different personality while maintaining that they are the same person. His Richard Wentworth is dynamic and engaging, with an easy going charisma. His Spider is as cold and hard as any of the gangsters he faces off with. But it is Blinky McQuade that takes the cake as he develops a quirky and amusing street ruffian who is so the opposite of Wentworth that he even appears to be shorter than he actually is. I love the eye patch and glasses schtick too, giving him a unique look not found anywhere else. Blinky also paved the way for both the Shadow and Batman to have an underworld personae in their serials, but neither was as good as old Blinky.

Iris Meredith is unfortunately given little to do in the early chapters but be kidnapped. After Chapter Six she starts to get in on the action more and not only manages her own escapes from a few later kidnappings but engages in some fine demonstrations of her own excellent marksmanship. Meredith effectively makes her tough and strong without sacrificing a certain feminine allure. She was the kind of woman ever kid in the audience could root for and not be bothered by the occasional mushy stuff.

Richard Fiske and Kenne Duncan make an effective team. Fiske has a certain boyish gung ho attitude who can't wait to jump into action, while Duncan is slightly more serious but just as ready to engage in violence as the need arises. He also has the distinction of using only knives which sets him apart from other sidekicks, and he is just as much a dead aim with them as The Spider is with guns. What is most interesting is that though they are technically Wentworth's employees, they are treated as friends and equals by Wentworth. (Trivia Fun Fact: Kenne Duncan predates Gunga Din (1939) by a year in portraying a heroic Hindustani on film.)

On the villain's side the only treat is Marc Lawrence, so many henchmen get killed that he is the only one to make any impression, and he even gets whacked by Chapter Eight, setting up another precedent in Columbia serials where main henchmen get replaced around the halfway mark, both Batman serials did this as well as The Vigilante (1947). Lawrence brings a little more talent to the table than average. He plays his part not like the usual serial villain but as if he was working on a Warner's gangster picture. He may be taking orders from a masked man and fighting with another masked man but he is a nasty no nonsense street hood at the core and it helps ground the comic book look of the film with a sense of reality.

I will leave you with the one unsolved mystery of The Spider's Web that has stumped countless fans over the decades. For the first thirteen chapters of the serial the hero uses two .45's. Then suddenly he switches to the same .38 revolver that everybody else has been using. What happened to the .45's? Did he have to pawn them for gas money?

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