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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Happy Halloween out there action lovers! For this spooky holiday I have chosen to high light one of the better late era Republics, The Black Widow (1947), which has a nice creepy atmosphere and some genuine scary moments as opposed to an all out horror/ action serial like Purple Monster Strikes (1945).

Madame Sombra (Carol Forman) runs a fortune telling business down a little side street, but is in fact a foreign spy working to learn the secrets of Dr. Weston's (Sam Flint) new atomic rocket. She invites Weston guard Burns (Keith Richards) to her lair. While pretending to give a reading she really offers him a substantial bribe. When the patriotic Burns refuses he is bitten by an oversize spider that pops out of the back of his chair.

Burns' body makes the papers and is the fourth victim of what the police have dubbed the Black Widow Murders due to the black widow venom found in all of the victims. Daily Clarion editor Walker (Gene Stutenroth) has a brainstorm. He contacts famed mystery writer Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards), creator of the popular Rodman Crane novels, and hires him to investigate the murders. He assigns his top reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lindley) to cover his investigation for the paper. The publicity alone will double circulation.

While working out the details of what can be printed and what can't during the investigation, a fifth victim is found. Steve and Joyce decide to concentrate on Burns first and track down the last known man to see him alive. It turns out to be a cab driver who takes them to the spot he had dropped Burns off. A cryptic comment Burns made to the cabbie about soon knowing the future, leads Steve to Sombra's.

Steve shows Sombra the photo of Burns but she denies having seen him, saying she gets so many customers that they all tend to run together. Out on the street again Steve questions Blinky (Ernie Adams), a deaf street photographer who takes random pictures of people on the street and then gives them a card where they can buy the picture for a quarter. Unbeknownst to Steve and Joyce, Blinky isn't really deaf and his hearing aid is really a two way radio. Sombra listens in on the conversation. When Steve says he is going to talk with Blinky's film developer, Sombra dispatches her main thug Ward (Anthony Ward) to get Blinky's negatives from the Carter Developing Company.

Steve and Joyce get there first and Carter (George Chesebro) hands over the roll of negatives to the amateur sleuth. Ward bursts in with gun drawn and demands the negatives. Joyce knocks the gun out of his hand with a thrown purse and then Steve beats the daylights out of the surprised hoodlum, who thought the "storybook writer" would be a wimpy push over. Ward barely gets away with his skin.

Sombra hasn't time to worry about this minor setback, the film probably doesn't show anything anyway. Her father Hitomu (Theodore Gottlieb) radios that he is coming to speak to Sombra personally. He teleports to her hideout in a puff of smoke. Sombra updates him on their progress, or lack there of she has made so far. Hitomu orders a direct strike at Weston, then pops back to his own country.

Sombra lures Weston's assistant Ruth Dayton (Ramsey Ames) out of the lab with the old telegram from a relative ruse and has Ward snatch her. Taken to Sombra's lair, her scientist henchman Jaffa (I Stanford Jolley) makes a mask replica of Ruth. Armed now with a perfect disguise, she and a "red shirt" henchman (Tom Steele) head for Weston's lab.

Meanwhile Steve has had the negatives developed and is going over them in Walker's office. Joyce spots Burns in a photo shaking hands with the fifth victim. A quick background check shows that all of the victims have some minor connection to Weston. Steve decides he will see Weston alone and leaves without Joyce, but the plucky reporter follows him anyway.

Sombra and her lackey arrive at the lab where she tricks Weston into opening his safe. The henchman comes in with a drawn gun and demands the new fuel formula Weston has developed for his new engine. Sombra grabs it and is about to leave when Steve enters the lab. A gun fight erupts and the henchman gets plugged. Sombra beats feet to her car, where Ward is waiting. They peel off down the street.

Steve races to his car and is quickly in hot pursuit. Spotting him, Sombra radios another henchman they had planted on their escape route for just such an emergency. Once Sombra's car has passed, the henchman pulls out in a truck and tries to smash Steve's car. The quick reflexes of the gun toting mystery writer save him from being smashed to a pulp as he swerves out the way. Unfortunately he can't straighten the car quickly enough and plows into a gas station, shearing off the pumps and causing the entire place to explode in a tremendous gout of flame...

The Black Widow is one of Republic's better late era serials. The company was still firing on all cylinders at this point and the serial is a well made and exciting action film with, except for the lead, a strong cast, well executed stunts, and some interesting reworking of previously used plot elements with a Fu Manchu flavor of the Oriental looking villain aided by his devoted daughter.

Since this is the selection for Halloween, lets take a look at the creepy stuff first. The serial gets a boffo start right out of the gate with the shadowy first scene set in a darkened room with two people sitting across from each other in front of a crystal ball. This little bit of staging is misleading as the fake clairvoyant aspect is played down and the real threat comes from the giant black widow spider hidden in the man's chair that builds up a bit of suspense when it is slowly advancing toward the unsuspecting victim while they are talking. Sadly this great bit of spooky menace doesn't make a second appearance until the final chapter when the villainess tries to use it on the hero. I wouldn't have minded seeing it a few more times menacing innocents and troublesome henchmen.

Other great moments of scariness include the real mastermind, dressed in a turban and robes, "teleporting" through a machine that has him arrive in a puff of smoke looking like a demented wizard. Sombra's ability to mask herself as other people is a staple of serials but here we get the nice touch of her openly trying to kill the hero disguised as his best friend, always a guaranteed shocker. One of the best highlights is in Chapter 10 when Sombra has been captured and mysteriously "dies" in prison, only to be resurrected later. I know that these things have been done in earlier Republic serials but the inventive combining of them makes for an enjoyable thrill packed ride.

One of the most interesting aspects of the serial for me is the set up for the hero. He is a famed mystery writer called in to investigate a series of murders so that a newspaper can write about it. When he is first mentioned you think Republic is going to be aping Ellery Queen by having a mystery writer solve unsolvable cases that baffle the police. But upon entering the office he starts talking tough and acts more like a private eye than an amateur sleuth. At first I thought they were having a little fun with Mickey Spillane, who had published his first Mike Hammer novel that year, by having a tough guy writer doing the things his fictional character does.

But a little research showed that although Spillane did publish I the Jury that year, his Stephen King like publishing success didn't come until the book was reissued in paperback later that year, where it flew off the shelves and inspired other publishers to put out straight to paper back tough guy mysteries like Richard Prather's Shell Scott and Stephen Marlowe's Chet Drum. So if it wasn't Spillane, who was the probable inspiration for Steve Colt?

Well, I think it was Brett Halliday, pseudonym for writer Dave Dresser, who had created one of the most popular and critically overlooked PI heroes of the forties through the seventies, Michael Shayne. Immensely popular with the reading public, 20th Century Fox had already made a short lived, seven film series of the character soon after he appeared in print and staring the likeable, though undersized Lloyd Nolan. Add to this the fact that PRC had started a new series of Shayne mysteries the year before this serial, with the odd casting of future Leave It to Beaver dad, genial Hugh Beaumont as the two fisted detective.

Add that to the fact that although Edwards was probably cast mostly for his tall slender build so that he could more easily be doubled by stunt man Tom Steele, he also physically resembles Halliday's tall and rangy Irishman from the book. That's my theory anyway.

The writers have a certain amount of fun with the concept. When the bad guys first hear of Steve Colt's involvement in the case, Anthony Warde has a good laugh about a "storybook writer" thinking he can actually compete against real hoodlums. Then comes the surprise of their first fight and the hero proves he is more than a match for the "real" tough guy. This was echoed two years later with Don Haggerty saying a similar thing about "egghead" scientist Tristram Coffin, with a similar outcome in King of the Rocketmen (1949). Chapter Three also has a great little moment when henchman Duke Greene kayos a security guard using a ruse he got from a Rodman Crane book, prompting Warde to say, "I think I'm going to read a couple of those myself," while they share a quick laugh over the irony of the situation.

The acting is all top notch with the unfortunate exception of star Bruce Edwards. To say he is stiff would be an understatement, Bela Lugosi's robot in The Phantom Creeps (1939) expresses himself more articulately. A good looking actor with limited ability, he seems to be unable to demonstrate a strong emotion. When angry he looks mildly irritated, when happy he looks mildly amused. He isn't helped by being saddled with dialogue that even John Barrymore couldn't make palatable. A good example is Chapter Five when he finds Virginia Lindley locked in a packing case he shouts with teeth rattling volume, "What in the name of all that is idiotic are you doing in there!?!" It's almost as if the writers felt the audience wouldn't believe he was a real writer if he talked like normal person.

Virginia Lindley fairs much better as she exhibits a keen intelligence mixed with a real go get 'em attitude. Most enjoyable is her byplay with the awkward Edwards. While he does get a certain condescending attitude toward her just right when explaining his "deductions" she constantly pops his ballooning ego with well placed wisecracks that usually center around references to Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan. At one point she gets the better of him and utters my personal favorite line, "Elementary my Dear Sherlock".

You have a good strong cast of villains. I Stanford Jolley is excellent playing a disgraced scientist. He comes across like a college professor who's been forced to go slumming due to a campus layoff. His all but open condescension to everyone but Sombra is so subtle the others don't quite catch it. Theodore Gottlieb is descent as the foreign ruler, though he is given little to do other then appear, scowl menacingly, then smile benignly at his daughter before disappearing again.

Anthony Warde tops both of them with his patented slow on the uptake bad guy. He can be truly menacing when dealing with the good guys and almost endearingly stupid with his own group. He also gets some great one liners. There is the aforementioned one about reading the hero's books, but the one that pops up the most is his reference to Hitomu as "The future Number One Guy of the world", never boss, not even sir or chief, just different ways of saying that one phrase. The fervent way he says it to Virginia Lindley makes her, and us, look at him like he's crazy, which he probably is.

But then none of them can hold a candle to the evil, exotically slinky Carol Forman as Sombra. This is her best serial role and her best performance. Never has she been so sexily menacing, appearing both smart and dangerous. Her open disdain for her own men is only matched by her grudging admiration for her enemy, not that she isn't going to kill him, just that she admires him. She is the epitome of what James Elmore described as the noir femme fatale, a woman who will completely destroy your life, and make you love her for it. Her being poured into tight gowns with the slit up to the thigh certainly doesn't hurt either.

Besides Edwards lackluster performance the only other real complaint I have is something that was becoming standard for Republic serials at this time. In the first chapter clues lead them right to the villain, but the heroes don't make the connection. Then throughout the serial they keep getting lead back to the same place. Edwards visits Forman at her place of business three times, Warde's special blend of cigarettes are made at the tobacco shop next door, running down an old friend of Jolley's who turns out to be part of the gang runs a bookstore on the same block. And yet the great deductive mind of the hero can't quite put the clues together, even though he was able to deduce what all of the Black Widow victims had in common. I know you have to keep things moving over thirteen chapters, but that borders on self parody.

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