Category Archives: Serial

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill)

Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is far from the ultimate trip. It’s not even a very good trip. It’s the kind of trip where you go somewhere, go somewhere else, then somewhere else, then go back to the second place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the third place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the second place, then go back to the….

You get the idea.

Mars starts right after the previous serial, before Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and company have even returned to Earth. Earth knows they’ve saved the planet and there’s a big ticker tape parade for the returning heroes–Crabbe, damsel in distress and ostensible love interest Jean Rogers, and scientist Frank Shannon. Of course, it’s all stock footage and the cast isn’t present, but the sentiment is there. Pretty soon, there’s another threat to the Earth and the United States government is freaking out and reporter Donald Kerr realizes the only person who can save the planet–again–is Crabbe.

So right after getting back to Earth from the first serial–Rogers apparently got a haircut on the return rocket trip (in the first serial, which will come up in flashback footage, she had long blonde hair, in Mars she’s a sensibly cut brunette)–the heroes head back out into space. With Kerr a stowaway.

They’re headed to Mongo, convinced villain Ming (Charles Middleton), who they thought was dead, is out to get them again. They’re right, only he’s on Mars, not Mongo, so the rocket ship has to change course.

On Mars, Middleton has teamed up with Martian queen Beatrice Roberts, who needs Middleton’s help to destroy the Clay people, who are political exiles Roberts has turned into clay. Even though Roberts has a whole fleet of airships, she goes along with Middleton’s plan to drain the Earth’s atmosphere of nitron. Earth needs its nitron; Middleton’s got Roberts convinced he can use the nitron to make more effective weapons, but it turns out he just wants to destroy the Earth. And he’s got designs on Roberts’s throne.

Crabbe and company get into it with Middleton and Roberts in the Martian city, then have to go to the Clay kingdom, where the Clay king (C. Montague Shaw) is alternately hostile and laudatory, and eventually end up in this forest fighting the hostile Forest people. Along the way, they reunite with Prince Barin of Mongo (Richard Alexander), who has come to Mars for some reason or another. Turns out the Forest people are actually Middleton’s lackeys. They cause a lot of trouble for Crabbe and friends, including brainwashing Rogers for a few chapters, and just generally being exceptionally annoying.

Mars doesn’t exactly start off promising–the use of stock footage for the heroes’ arrival on Earth, their immediate disappearance from the action, the stock disaster footage (which isn’t terrible or unexpected or anything, just not exciting)–but it certainly doesn’t start on any kind of shaky ground. Crabbe, Rogers, and Shannon are all extremely likable and introducing comic relief Kerr to the team seems like it’s going to work out rather well. Middleton was a bit much in the previous serial, but he’s all right here. And Roberts is rather effective as the evil queen.

And even the Clay people stuff is good at the start. There are these awesome shots of the Clay men coming out of the walls. It’s not until Shaw shows up things start getting questionable. The screenplay–with four credited writers–never addresses how long the Clay people have been around, since Roberts is turning people into clay if she doesn’t like them and then banishing them. She’s got a magic jewel letting her do all sorts of stuff. Is Roberts immortal? Have the Clay people been around forever? Or is it more like a recent thing? Doesn’t matter. The writers are real bad at explaining the history of Mars, including how Middleton got there immediately after the previous serial.

The first half of the serial usually involves Crabbe trying to bring Roberts to the Clay people so she can break the spell–including a really awesome sequence where he saves her in a disaster and she realizes he’s a sap who doesn’t kill and she can exploit that weakness. Then there’s something with another jewel the Forest people have. It can negate Roberts’s jewel’s power, so for a couple chapters it’s a thing. Only Middleton (even though the Forest people are his secret lackeys–it’s not at all clear why the arrangement is secret) wants the jewel too because, pretty early on, it’s clear Middleton wants to double-cross Roberts. While she wants to kill all the Clay people, she doesn’t necessarily want to destroy Earth.

It’s also never addressed why she turns disobedient soldiers into clay instead of just executing them.

And Mars ignores how there are no female Clay people or female Forest people, though Forest people at least seem to know women exist–when they brainwash Rogers, she becomes a priestess or something. They’ve got a word for it.

All the action either takes place in the Martian city, the forest, or the Clay kingdom. Some of the city and most of the forest look good. The Clay kingdom, above ground, is just rocky terrain. The underground stuff is okay, though it’s never explained why Roberts lets the Clay people have advanced technology–in some cases more advanced than her own (including a subway system). The serial just bounces between the locations, unless it’s something in the airships, which actually happens quite a bit. The Martians have these gravity defying capes, leading–occasionally–to some decent action sequences.

But by the end of Mars, every new action set piece is just a regurgitation of a previous one. It’s rather tired by the end. Especially since the serial never improves on the most annoying aspects of the action sequences–entirely inappropriate stock music. They rarely use action music and when they do, it rarely fits. It kills all tension and most excitement, which is a real disservice to the cast–particularly Crabbe and Alexander–who always give it their all.

Crabbe clear runs out of enthusiasm towards the end, however. Maybe the last four chapters, he looks miserable.

There are some good sequences throughout the fifteen chapters–particularly Rogers getting to save the day (while otherwise just being damsel in distress)–but by the second half of Mars, it’s obvious the trip isn’t going anywhere new, just places its already been. And then it’ll go somewhere else it’s already been and then somewhere else it’s already been.

The frequent flashbacks to the first serial backfire too, just revealing how much better the production values were on the original compared to this sequel.

Only Kerr and Alexander are able to maintain energy during the last few chapters–Rogers theoretically should have a big arc thanks to the brainwashing but she doesn’t and Shannon’s just around. Middleton gets nuttier and nuttier as it goes along. His performance getting worse. Roberts’s material (and, inexplicably, her direction) gets worse too, really ruining her performance. There’s no character development in Mars, even though some characters desperately need it.

And Shaw’s super annoying. Most when he prostrates to Crabbe, which seems to happen all the time. But he’s also kind of insincere about it, like at any moment he might double cross the Earth people. Sadly he never does, because such a twist is too much for Mars.

Wheeler Oakman is almost good as Middleton’s chief flunky. Anthony Warde is comically godawful as the king of the Forest people.

Crabbe, Rogers, Alexander, and Shannon (and Kerr to some degree) have enough charm to keep the Trip tolerable but there’s really nothing they can do with the concluding chapters, when it all starts collapsing. It was always flimsy, it just had momentum. Without momentum, without any good finale set pieces, without a decent plot, the Trip flops out. It could be much worse, sure, but it’s still majorly disappointing.

Almost anything would help Mars significantly. Real music. Another set. Better performances–heck, just keeping Crabbe engaged through the finale–almost anything. Sadly, there’s nothing.

It’s worse than disappointing; it’s a defeat.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Wheeler Oakman (Tarnak), Anthony Warde (King Turan), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


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Dick Tracy (1937, Ray Taylor and Alan James)

Dick Tracy starts reasonably strong, which one forgets as the serial plods through the near five hours of its fifteen chapters. The first chapter’s a decent enough pilot, with lead Ralph Byrd actually solving a crime, something he doesn’t really do later on. It doesn’t even open with him, instead there’s a creepy introduction to the master–mystery–villain, The Spider. Or the Lame One. Because he’s got a club foot. And is hideously ugly. Only the bad guys in the Spider Gang know to call him the Lame One though. The good guys all call him the Spider. Maybe screenwriters Barry Shipman and Winston Miller had some logic to that one. Maybe it’s just bad. By the end of Dick Tracy, the latter seems more likely.

Byrd’s a G-Man in San Francisco. But he spends most of his time in his home, where he’s got his crime lab. Because the FBI doesn’t have one. He’s got two FBI agent subordinates, capable Fred Hamilton and inept moron Smiley Burnette. They all work for Francis X. Bushman. Byrd employs Kay Hughes as a lab assistant and she seems to have some kind of possible romance with his brother, Richard Beach. In the first chapter, Byrd takes in young Lee Van Atta as his ward; Van Atta has witnessed a crime or something. It involves the Spider Gang. It doesn’t matter. Van Atta’s just around to give Burnette someone to be stupid around. At some point in the serial, Van Atta starts making fun of Burnette for being a bungling idiot too. Everyone does. It’s very hard to have any respect for the Western FBI when they’ve got Burnette in their employ.

And once their competency in that hiring decision is raised… well, then it becomes more and more clear, Byrd isn’t very good at his job. Even before the serial hits the repeat button in the last few chapters–after the recap chapter (because it takes Byrd until chapter twelve to actually try to figure out the Spider’s identity)–and Byrd ends up in the same gang clubhouse they’d raided four or five chapters before. One could chalk it up to Tracy being a serial and the filmmakers assuming the audience might have missed a chapter here or there and not remember. But the whole thing hinges on details from the first chapter, which get visual refreshers throughout, but not expository ones. It’s really badly written. Shipman and Miller are awful with neccesary exposition.

Instead they’ve got Burnette goofing things up. Including him going on the radio and making a fool of himself, which everyone thinks is hilarious. Except the poor guy in charge of the broadcast. That single performance–the mortified radio announcer–is the most honest thing in Dick Tracy after the first chapter. Because it’s not like the serial ever redeems itself once it goes off the rails. The last chapter, despite having a modicum of potential, is a fail. A cheap fail. Dick Tracy’s production values peak around the halfway point in the serial, then plummet for the last four chapters.

Since it’s an unknown evil mastermind, the main villain is Carleton Young. Young is playing Byrd’s brother, only after he’s been in a car accident and had brain surgery to make him evil. And plastic surgery to make him unrecognizable. Initially, it seems like the Spider and his mad scientist (an underutilized John Picorri) want Young to be some kind of foil for Byrd because he’s his brother, but then it turns out no. They just can’t get good criminal help without doing brain surgery to make people evil. Even though Young’s name is Gordon Tracy and his mission is to kill Dick Tracy, apparently he never wonders why they’ve got the same last name.

Again, Shipman and Miller’s script is dumb.

Young easily gives the serial’s best performance. He’s arguably the only good performance. Hamilton’s affable as all heck, but his material is so bad–second-fiddle either to Byrd or, worse, Burnette–it’s hard to say if he’s good or not. Picorri’s all right too, even if he’s literally saddled with an unfortunate hunchback. Dick Tracy doesn’t borrow much from the comic strip outside using physical disabilites as signs of evil. You’d think all the bad guys were left-handed.

They aren’t obviously, it’d be too much work for directors James and Taylor, who–outside some of the special effects sequences (the bad guys have, for a while, a giant aircraft and there’s some great miniature work)–are either mediocre or bad. And the stunt work. When Dick Tracy can afford stunt work, which is basically until chapter three, they do all right.

Anyway. Hughes is bad, but in an amateurish sense. If she was the best person they screentested for the part–the only female role in most of the serial–well, the casting director clearly did Dick no favors but Hughes mostly just embarrasses herself. She’s got scenes where Burnette talks down to her. It’s humiliating.

Ann Ainslee shows up for a chapter as a female pilot–who Burnette mocks as well, which is messed up–and she’s actually good. It’s a shock and a too brief one, since she’s then gone.

Van Atta is more appealing at the start, when he’s Byrd’s proto-sidekick and not Burnette’s babysitter. Who knew the FBI frequently put minors in perilous situations. Again, it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes towards the end when Bushman raves about the capable G-Men he commands. They’re idiots. Off track, sorry. Once Van Atta teams up with Burnette, he’s no longer appealing. He’s something else to try to endure.

In the lead, Ralph Byrd is ineffective. He’s better, like everything else, at the start, but the more Young is in the serial, the more obvious Byrd’s not measuring up. The part’s thin, sure, but Byrd’s got no presence.

Technically, Dick Tracy usually disappoints. Outside the first chapter, there’s rarely any good photography. The editing is either middling or bad. The production values suggest an unsteady budget–the same shot of three sailors going up to deck to fight the good guys is reused every couple chapters, usually not when they’re supposed to be on a ship, starting either in chapter one or two.

There’s a decent fight sequence at one point, but the rest of the fistfights are terrible. Byrd can’t just not investigate or solve crimes or remember he’s been to a gang clubhouse before, he can’t fight. He also can’t tie knots.

Oh. And the cliffhanger resolutions are all lousy. There are occasionally some good setups, but then their resolutions are always as inventive as… Byrd turns the wheel of the car or rolls out of the way. Nothing is dangerous.

Outside the occasional miniature effects, which are gone by chapter ten, and Young’s performance, which amounts to zip, Dick Tracy is an utterly misspent five hours.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ray Taylor and Alan James; screenplay by Barry Shipman and Winston Miller, based on a story by Morgan Cox and George Morgan and the comic strip by Chester Gould; directors of photography, Edgar Lyons and William Nobles; edited by Edward Todd, Helene Turner, and William Witney; produced by Nat Levine; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy), Kay Hughes (Gwen Andrews), Smiley Burnette (Mike McGurk), Lee Van Atta (Junior), John Picorri (Moloch), Carleton Young (Gordon), Fred Hamilton (Steve Lockwood), Francis X. Bushman (Chief Clive Anderson), Wedgwood Nowell (H.T. Clayton), Louis Morrell (Walter Potter), Edwin Stanley (Walter Odette), Ann Ainslee (Betty Clayton), and Milburn Morante (Death Valley Johnny).


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Atom Man vs. Superman (1950, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Lyle Talbot is the best thing about Atom Man vs. Superman. Overall, he might even give the best performance–he flubs some material, but it’s better material than his only serious competitor, Noel Neill, ever gets. There aren’t great performances in Atom Man vs. Superman. The serial wouldn’t know what to do with them.

Talbot is Atom Man. Or Lex Luthor. The serial tries to confuse the good guys by creating two villains, even though it’s pretty obvious from early on Talbot’s both of them. Though it’s actually unresolved; Atom Man might–technically–not be Talbot. Doesn’t matter. A lot of Atom Man vs. Superman doesn’t matter. Like most of the first half of the chapters–it runs fifteen–and the last two. Atom Man isn’t one of those serials where nothing in between the first chapter and the last chapter matter. The last chapter is nowhere near impressive enough to matter.

The serial has a few subplots, like Talbot making artifical kryptonite, Kirk Alyn getting trapped in another dimension (“the empty doom”) while his coworkers wonder what’s happened to Clark Kent, Neill going to work for Talbot. The artificial kryptonite plot line requires a lot of precious metal theft, which means good guys chasing goons and goons kidnapping good guys. Jimmy Olsen Tommy Bond–who starts off the serial in a repeat from the previous one picking on Neill for, you know, being a woman–ends up the most frequent damsel in distress. Neill gets grabbed a couple times, but she at least sticks up for herself. If only then to turn around and beam nonsensically at Alyn when he arrives to save her.

But Neill and Talbot are good adversaries. Neill and Alyn don’t have much chemistry, which seems more the fault of director Bennet and the three screenwriters than anything else. When she’s rescued, she beams at him. When Alyn’s in the Clark Kent spectacles, they bicker without chemistry. They’re both slightly petty towards each other without much cause. Usually because the pettiness just puts them in danger–Neill’s always in the soup because she ignores Alyn (as Superman) warning her about a danger–but the toxic professional environment is a problem. It comes from the top down, of course, with editor Pierre Watkin. He sits at his desk–the strangest thing about Watkin is I think he’s supposed to be gruffly likable and instead he’s just a boob–anyway, he sits at his desk, tells his reporters they’re lying to him, defends super-villain Talbot, has Bond turn on his radio for him. It never gets too bad because Watkin’s part is never so important he’s not dismissible; it’s just another of Atom Man’s easily fixable fails.

Again, director Bennet and the three screenwriters. They do no one any favors.

The serial’s at its best when Neill is working for Talbot. She’s doing on the street interviews for his TV network start-up. Of course, it’s all a front for his robbery ring. Talbot can make robots, flying saucers, earthquake rays, atomic missiles, a teleporter, a spaceship, fake kryptonite, and some other things, but when it comes to fueling his endeavors? Breaking and entering. And when he gets busted, his fallback plan is to literally destroy the planet. Again. Screenwriters not doing anyone any favors. Especially not Talbot.

The three or four chapters with Neill working for Talbot get her out of the Daily Planet newsroom and onto the backlot streets. There are chase scenes, there’s banter with the interviewees, the serial all of a sudden shows some personality. Because when Neill’s playing second-fiddle to Alyn, it has none. She stands, usually silent, staring at him with a beatific smile, and time drags. Usually because it’s just after Alyn–as Superman–has come up with some idiotic plan. The script has zero awareness for Alyn, both as Superman and Clark Kent; at least as Clark Kent, he’s not constantly going into danger and getting in trouble. Plus, Talbot’s teleporter gets the most use getting goons out of trouble so it’s not even like Alyn can catch them. He’s a dunce.

Sadly the script doesn’t give Talbot any material observing Alyn’s constant mistakes; instead, Superman’s supposed to be a worthy foe. Even if he walks into every one of Talbot’s traps with a big grin on his face.

The special effects are another issue. Or lack thereof. Superman flying is, just like in the previous serial, an animated figure over live action footage. At one point, Atom Man vs. Superman does a great sequence–with the little animated Superman–for the flood and it’s awesome. The serial hadn’t suggested it was going to be so ambitious as to use actual miniatures up to that point. It’s never anywhere near as ambitious again. The last two chapters, which kind of should be the big finish, have nothing. Superman versus atomic missile and spaceship and flying saucers ought to be a lot better.

A bigger budget, a better director, a better script, any of these things would help immensely. Because without them, the serial’s something of an incomplete effort. Especially with that lackluster finale. Take Alyn, for example. He does the job the serial asks of him. He has a few good moments throughout the fifteen chapters, but nothing sustained. When Neill is off working for Talbot, Alyn starts ridiculing Bond just because he can. It shouldn’t be a surprise; as Superman, Alyn’s not always concerned with people’s safety or, you know, even their lives. He’ll occasionally let someone die. Or torture out a confession.

Atom Man vs. Superman, despite running over four hours, never gives Alyn any character development. He does go to cover the flood, but it’s just a setup for some Superman. He doesn’t have anything independent of the main story. Even when it seems like he might get something–the kryptonite subplot–the serial just skips away from him. It usually skips away to go back to Talbot, which isn’t terrible, but the slightest semblance of character development might do wonders.

Neill gets the most sympathy in bad scenes. She’s got zip the last two chapters. Her big showdown with Talbot–in her final kidnapping of the serial–doesn’t pay-off.

In the supporting cast, which is practically bit part level of supporting, Don C. Harvey and George Robotham are good. Harvey’s a science goon, Robotham’s Neill’s cameraman. If Jack Ingram–as the chief on-the-street goon–were better, it might help. He’s not terrible, but he’s utterly flat.

Atom Man vs. Superman’s a disappointment to be sure, but more because it doesn’t deliver on the promise of its midsection than the opening. It starts an okay serial (minus Bond being such a dip), gets better (as Bond shuts up), then defaults back to okay (with Bond still keeping the dip to a minimum because he’s barely in it). Neill and Talbot keep it moving, with Alyn a sturdy enough “lead.”

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and David Matthews, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kirk Alyn (Superman / Clark Kent), Noel Neill (Lois Lane), Lyle Talbot (Luthor), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Pierre Watkin (Perry White), Jack Ingram (Foster), Don C. Harvey (Albor), Paul Stader (Lawson), George Robotham (Earl), and Fred Kelsey (Police Chief Forman).


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Judex (1916, Louis Feuillade)

The first chapter of Judex doesn’t get a chapter title; it’s just the prologue. While the action in the prologue leads directly into the action of the first chapter, throwing young, wealthy widow Yvette Andréyor into despair (financial and emotional), the first titled chapter ends up having less to do with where Judex is going to go than almost any other chapter. It’s like the serial has two prologues. The first focuses on dispicable banker Louis Leubas, the second on how his being dispicable affects his daughter, Andréyor.

And in the background is the mysterious “Judex,” who threatens Leubas to give up half his fortune to atone for his previous sins. The serial introduces one of those sins in the prologue–poor Gaston Michel. Michel was a miller who lost it all because of Leubas’s bad financial practices; he turned to crime and went to prison. His wife died while he was inside and his son disappeared. Just out of prison, he visits Leubas, asking for help in finding his son. Leubas sends him off. Then has his driver run him over.

Michel’s not dead, which isn’t clear until the second episode (maybe third). But Leubas is a bad guy. Always has been. His additional wealth and respectability haven’t changed him. In fact, one of Judex’s many, glorious subplots involves Leubas’s history.

Because the most compelling thing about Judex isn’t René Cresté’s ostensibly dark avenger, it’s the things going on in the story around it. Judex doesn’t actually need Judex to be compelling. It needs Cresté, sure, but Cresté’s time in the black cape and hat are somewhat limited. Very limited as the story progresses and he discovers he has to be present for Andréyor not just as a protector, but as a man. He’s in love. Desperately.

Oh, yeah, there’s the complication. Cresté can’t carry out his family’s revenge on Leubas because he’s fallen for Andréyor. There are a lot of other complications, like Musidora, who’s first after Leubas’s money, then after Andréyor’s. Musidora has a couple partners in the film, main guy Jean Devalde (who has a secret, but important, past) and then Andréyor’s former fiance, Georges Flateau. Flateau dumps Andréyor after she loses her fortune. But then once there’s a chance to recover some of it, he gradutes from mercenary marriage to kidnapping and attempted murder.

Musidora doesn’t have much in the way of redeemable traits (none, really), but she still manages to be a lot more likable than Flateau. Or Devalde. Because Musidora’s pretty smart, especially compared to Cresté, who seemingly has come up with his one plan, executed it, said he can do more, but really isn’t prepared. He’s got an awesome pack of dogs who can track kidnapping victims and knock down bad guys, but they’re only good for so much. When it comes to kidnapping victims in high places, for example, Cresté’s got to find a kid he can put in danger to help get the job done.

The kid is often René Poyen. He’s one of Judex’s truer heroes. He befriends Andréyor’s son, Olinda Mano, who she’s had to give up while she lives in poverty as a piano teacher. Andréyor’s plans don’t make a lot of sense, but seeing as how she can’t make it two chapters without people wanting to kidnap her, it also makes sense she can’t get them figured out.

For much of the serial, Andréyor is a damsel in distress. At least three major times. Sometimes Cresté rescues her, sometimes someone else rescues her. After her turn as the main target of Musidora and company, their attention goes to Mano, presumably because a kid is easier to grab. Musidora is able to track Andréyor and Mano because Cresté is terrible at planning.

Just as many times as Andréyor’s in danger–maybe more–Cresté and company (usually Édouard Mathé as his brother, though eventually Michel joins the team) screw something up. They operate on a strict forgive and forget policy. So even though goofy and adorable private investigator Marcel Lévesque at one point works with Musidora, helping set up on an attempt on Andréyor’s life no less, team Judex is okay with him once he comes around.

It bits them in the ass with one of the other characters, who isn’t as goofy, adorable, or honorable as Lévesque turns out to be. Lévesque also has a great subplot with Poyen.

Is Cresté more effective as the lovestruck suitor who just happens to be holding his desired’s father in captivity under strick orders from his mother to execute the man? Well, sure. It’s hard to imagine how Cresté was even able to set his plan in motion in the first place (offscreen in the prologue and before). He must have gotten a lot of pep talks from Mathé, whose role on Team Judex is split between logistics, babysitting, and pep talks. Whenever it’s time for action, Cresté perks up from his romantic melancholia, but otherwise Mathé’s doing most of the work.

And Cresté’s efforts as a hero are never quite as dynamic as some of the other heroisms on display. Poyen really comes through, a street urchin with a heart of gold, a solid work ethic, and the right temperment to protect pal Mano. There’s also the tragically uncreditted Lily Deligny, who shows up sort of as a deux es machina in the end chapters. She’s a swimmer. It’s important because Cresté and his family are guarding Andréyor on their estate on the Mediterreanan. There Cresté hopes to make Andréyor fall in love with him, even though he’s running two big deceptions on her, not to mention having her mentally incapacitated father on a nearby estate. Team Judex can’t figure out what to do with him since they aren’t going to kill him. Judex mare, Yvonne Dario, eventually comes up with a solution, which works because it’s a serial, but the film major cops out on the dramatic ramifications (and possibilites) of that solution.

While there’s a lot of danger in Judex, there’s not a lot of death. Neither Musidora or Devalde want to actually kill anyone. They keep trying to get someone else to do it–their plans for Andréyor are always extremely long game, like get her sick and then deny her medical treatment so she dies from exposure–they can never do it themselves. The serial, thanks to the performances and Feuillade, never feels like it isn’t dangerous. At least, not when Musidora is involved. Some of the other characters you know aren’t going to be too dangerous.

The chapters vary in length. Thirty-five minutes down to nine. The prologue’s long, the epilogue’s very, very short. They mostly move well. After the halfway point–the seventh chapter, when mama Judex Dario gets introduced–there’s not a lot of time for anything but action. Until that point, there’s a lot more with the emotionality of the characters. Cresté just mopes, but everyone else has visualized internal emotions. Those sequences are some of Feuillade’s flashier filmmaking. He also really likes the ruins where Cresté has the Judex cave.

Because it turns out, although Cresté wants Leubas to atone for his financial crimes in general, Leubas didn’t financially ruin Cresté’s family. They’re rich as all hell. He’s a self-funded adventurer, after all. The serial starts being very anti-capitalist, it ends being blah on capitalism (imagine being so poor you have to work, even if you’re a wealthy banker) and big on blue blood. It actually explains a lot about Cresté’s actions. He and Mathé are just playing.

But it doesn’t matter because Musidora’s dangerous and Cresté’s comprised. Even if they’re foppish heroes, they’re the heroes just the same.

The best performances are Lévesque and Poyen. Musidora’s quite good. Andréyor’s good, but better when she’s the damsel in distress than Cresté’s ward (whether she knows he’s her guardian or not). Her character development pretty much stops once she gets Dano back (and gets to be rich again).

Devalde’s good. His character arc throughout is a little disappointing. Feuillade and co-writer Arthur Bernède go out of their way to be sympathetic to just about everyone except Devalde. Dario’s good. Especially considering she’s in a bunch of old age makeup.

And Cresté’s all right. Once he gets to just be a fool in love–around Andréyor, not from afar (or in disguise)–he gets a lot better.

Musidora’s threats and plots serve for good inciting actions, but the character development because of those experiences is what makes Judex work. It’s the drama surrounding the characters, not the action. Because while Musidora’s good at the action, Cresté’s not. He’s just not on the ball. Once he uses up the dog trick, he’s got nothing. Well, nothing but money, as it turns out.

Feuillade’s direction is good. He has some rather jarring jump cuts the first few chapters, but they go away. He seems more comfortable shooting the South of France scenes. They’re not as visually dynamic as the stuff around the Judex Cave (it’s underneath ancient ruins), but the characters have enough room in luxury. And together. So much of Judex is just about making sure a reuniting sticks.

It’s a good serial. Very rarely boring, usually quite the opposite. You get to miss the characters by the end–when there are just too many for everyone’s subplot to get attention each chapter. Though Judex does sort of leave Mathé behind once Dario shows up. It doesn’t seem fair since he’s been keeping Cresté on task for the first half of the serial.

Judex works out though. Because–not in spite of–Cresté being a big softie under all his dashing, dark avenger trappings. The same thing is true of the serial itself. Feuillade’s embracing of sentimentality and emotional sincerity is what makes the serial so special.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Feuillade; written by Arthur Bernède and Feuillade; directors of photography, André Glatti and Léon Klausse; production designer, Robert-Jules Garnier; released by Gaumont.

Starring René Cresté (Judex), Yvette Andréyor (Jacqueline Aubry), Musidora (Diana Monti), Louis Leubas (Favraux), Marcel Lévesque (Cocantin), Jean Devalde (Robert Moralés), Édouard Mathé (Roger de Tremeuse), Olinda Mano (Jean), René Poyen (The Licorice Kid), Gaston Michel (Pierre Kerjean), Lily Deligny (Miss Daisy Torp), Juliette Clarens (Gisèle), Georges Flateau (Vicomte de la Rochefontaine), and Yvonne Dario (Comtesse de Tremeuse).


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