Category Archives: Serial

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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The Phantom Creeps (1939, Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind)

For the first few chapters, Bela Lugosi can carry The Phantom Creeps. He’s hamming it up as a mad scientist surrounded by actors who can’t even ham. Creeps has some truly terrible performances, particularly from its other leads, Robert Kent and Dorothy Arnold. He’s the military intelligence officer out to discover what’s happened to Lugosi’s missing research–Lugosi fakes his death because he wants to sell his secrets to foreign agents. Arnold’s the reporter who’s after the story. Kent’s got a negative amount of charm. Arnold’s charm level is extraordinarily low, but it’s not negative. But when the two of them have a scene and banter… the chemistry is toxic.

And then Lugosi’s got this palooka ex-con sidekick, Jack C. Smith. Smith is awful too. Edwin Stanley and Regis Toomey–as other good guys–they’re terrible. Edward Van Sloan–who could be reuniting with Lugosi post-Dracula here–is the leader of the spy ring. He’s terrible. Anthony Averill, as the lead henchman who does all the action scenes, goes from bad to okay. Mostly because by the end of the serial, Lugosi’s nowhere to be seen–literally–and Averill’s just not as patently unlikable as everyone else.

Lugosi’s missing from the second half because he’s mostly being The Phantom, which is what he calls himself when he’s using his invisibility belt. Lugosi has four inventions. He has the invisibility belt, he has an iron robot (remote controlled), he has these discs and mechanical spiders–when the spider crawls to the disc, it explodes and puts anyone nearby in suspended animation–and then he has another suspended animation device, a ray-gun. If there is anything else, he doesn’t use it often. I may have blocked too much of Creeps from my memory already–for example, I can’t remember if it’s a flub when the bad guys know Lugosi’s alias because no one sees him in the half chapter he uses that alias or if someone does see him. It’s not worth remembering.

The serial starts with Lugosi faking his death. But the spies want what he was going to sell them so they go to his house to try to get it. But the federal agents also want what Lugosi was going to sell because his old friend, Stanley, ratted him out for, you know, wanting to commit treason. Stanley’s a square from the start.

Anyway, the first half of the serial–so, you know, six twenty-minute chapters–is the good guys and bad guys goofing off around the house while Lugosi and Smith try to escape. They have to keep coming back to the house because their secret base is underneath it. In the second half of the serial, Lugosi’s secret element–from a meteor, I think–gets traded back and forth between good guys, bad guys, and Lugosi for five chapters. Sure, there are different locations, but rarely any original big action footage. Lots of stock footage instead. Lots of not matching at all stock footage.

And some things about Creeps are just relentlessly bad. Kent’s investigatory reasoning is nil. The way the good guys and bad guys meet is when one of them sees the other driving on the highway, so they then follow them. It happens over and over and over and over again. Even when it’s a different shooting location, it’s just how the screenwriters make these things happen.

There are no gems in the script. There’s no funny bit part. There are no diamonds in the rough, acting-wise. There is some charm to the special effects, but only in the first half really. By the second half it’s all invisiblity stuff (sometimes reusing the same footage) and it’s not particularly creative. It seems creative the first time Lugosi vanishes, not the rest. Mostly because he doesn’t interact with anyone. Occasionally an inanimate object, but it’s not like he’s pantsing the good guys while invisible.

The music is a bunch material of thirties Universal horror scores. It’s kind of cool to hear the music. Not really alongside anything going on onscreen, of course.

The direction’s not good. It’s not atrocious, unless somehow Beebe and Goodkind could’ve gotten better performances out of the cast. It doesn’t seem possible. Technically, nothing stands out.

The cliffhangers in The Phantom Creeps are particularly bad. Usually people just survive disasters. There’s something like one death in the thing; no one’s in much danger, if any. Though at least Arnold never gets used as damsel. She does get used as Toomey’s doormat, which is a particularly tiring affair. She’s going to steal boss Kent away with her feminine wiles or something. Or maybe there’s no reason for it. There’s no reason for anything in Creeps. It just goes on and on and on.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Mildred Barish, based on a story by Wyllis Cooper; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner; edited by Irving Birnbaum, Joseph Gluck, and Alvin Todd; music by Charles Previn; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Alex Zorka), Robert Kent (Capt. Bob West), Dorothy Arnold (Jean Drew), Jack C. Smith (Monk), Regis Toomey (Jim Daly), Edwin Stanley (Dr. Fred Mallory), Anthony Averill (Rankin), Dora Clement (Ann Zorka), Hugh Huntley (Perkins), and Edward Van Sloan (Jarvis).


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Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Batman and Robin is fifteen chapters; all together, it’s just under four and a half hours. It is not a rewarding four and a half hours. Not at all.

Of the fourteen credited actors, one gives a good performance. Don C. Harvey. He gets to be chief henchman for a while. But not even half of the serial. After Harvey, uncredited Lee Roberts becomes chief henchman; Roberts is terrible. Though he’s less awful once he becomes lab assistant to the mysterious, masked serial villain, The Wizard. The Wizard is stealing technology to remote control moving objects and, eventually, turn himself invisible. The invisible thing is a lot more amusing. Shame it’s only in the last few chapters.

Besides Harvey, the best performances are from George Offerman Jr. and Eric Wilton, both uncredited. They both have rather significant parts–Offerman is leading lady (and literally only lady in Batman and Robin) Jane Adams’s good-for-nothing crook brother while Wilton is faithful butler Alfred. Wilton gets some decent comic relief, Offerman actually has subtext in his performance; they’re all-stars in Batman and Robin.

Because besides those three, the acting in the serial is quite bad. Leads Lowery and Duncan are terrible. The perverse thrill of watching Lowery try to steal scenes while he’s in costume–chirping the thin, exposition-heavy dialogue–runs out somewhere around the halfway point. It’s a very, very, very long fifteen chapters. Most of the chapters’ “plots” relate to the Wizard and his gang wanting to steal something and Lowery and Duncan trying to stop them or something involving discovering the Wizard’s identity. Lowery and Duncan always screw something up–or just get beat up–and then Lowery bosses everyone around like he shouldn’t have egg on his face.

When Lowery’s not in costume, he’s much worse. For a while, Lowery–as Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy and fop–is advising police commissioner Lyle Tablot (who’s usually tolerable) on important matters. Most of these scenes happen in the first half of the serial, when Adams is still in it more regularly; she spends most of her scenes complaining about Lowery being such a lazy good-for-nothing. Who apparently is a police consultant, which she never notices. Because her character is terribly written. As her brother, Offerman gets more to do–unbilled and in a handful of chapters–than Adams ever does. It’s not like there’s any chemistry between Adams and Lowery. He seems stuck up and she seems to loathe him.

Duncan probably ought to loathe Lowery too since Duncan basically just spends his days in the Batcave trying to science things but being too stupid and having to wait for Lowery. But Lowery’s too busy teasing Adams about something. Batman and Robin’s first chapter does most of the Batman setup–the Batcave, stately Wayne Manor (or just a suburban house), the Batmobile (Lowery and Duncan just drive around Bruce Wayne’s car, telling people they have permission). It starts dumb. It starts a train wreck. Then it just keeps going and going and going and going.

When Harvey’s still lead thug, there’s a certain fun to the serial. The bad guys all walk around in sync; it’s visually amusing. Of course, they’re usually walking around the same handful of locations–Batman and Robin has at least two lengthy chase sequences in the same office building hallway sets, maybe three. But Harvey makes it seem fun.

Since it’s a serial with a masked, mysterious villain, there are a bunch of suspects. There’s radio newscaster Rick Vallin. He broadcasts out of his living room, presumably in a house down the street from Batman’s. Michael Whalen is a private investigator who never really figures in but the script talks about all the time for a few chapters. William Fawcett’s mad scientist, who’s wheelchair-bound but zaps himself in a special chair to walk. Fawcett’s the prime suspect. For most of the serial, whenever he has a scene secretly zapping himself, it cuts to the Wizard entering his cave lair. His cave lair, incidentally, is much cooler than Lowery and Duncan’s. Probably because it’s a converted suburban basement.

The serial doesn’t do much with the suspects. They’re just suspicious as needed, particularly Vallin. While Fawcett’s certainly acting suspiciously, no one ever finds out about the walking zapping, so he’s only a suspect for the audience. In fact, Fawcett’s walking is such a nonstarter the serial eventually just drops the wheelchair. Instead, Fawcett walks around with no one acknowledging a difference. It’s not even a fun stupid, it’s just stupid.

Technically, the serial doesn’t impress much. It does a little–Ira H. Morgan, so long as there’s not much action, shoots day-for-night rather well. It gives some character to the otherwise boring backlot-shot city scenes. It’s not like director Bennet brings anything to them. He’s thoroughly competent but never interested in anything. It might be contempt. Contempt for Batman and Robin is, frankly, a perfectly good excuse for not doing your job on it. Why bother.

There are some okay special effects; they usually come off better when Mischa Bakaleinikoff’s picked some good music for them. There’s no original music for Batman and Robin, but musical director Bakaleinikoff utilizes some more than adequate stock music themes. Certainly more adequate selections than the serial deserves (or needs).

The costumes are bad. Batman and Robin’s anyway. The Wizard’s costume ends up looking all right in the exterior action scenes. Not so much Batman or Robin. Sometimes Duncan has an obvious stunt double for Robin. Lowery at least has the mask, which doesn’t fit right so he’s always peering down his nose, head tilted back. Combined with the way Lowery folds his forearms (does he think bats hold things like squirrels or something), it leads to some silly visuals. Especially when Lowery tries to be authoritative. He’s not, the dialogue’s not just bad but factually ludicrous, and he looks like a jackass. He’s a bore.

But neither Lowery or Duncan are ever good. They’re terrible. Duncan’s a bad actor. Lowery’s a bad actor. Lowery’s a little more unlikable because he teases Adams whenever he gets the chance, costumed or not. It’s obnoxious. Even if Adams isn’t any good.

I’m sure Batman and Robin could be worse–I’m sure someone involved actually improved what the cast and crew were doing (I mean, probably they did)–but I can’t imagine how it could be any more boring. Somehow the chapters manage to move well–the plots are stupid but the pacing is competent–while still being exasperatingly insipid and dull.

It doesn’t help the opening titles for each chapter have Lowery and Duncan, in costume, running around in front of black backdrop and getting confused. Of course they’re confused, they’re jackasses. Each chapter starts with a threat of their inevitable stupidity.

Actually, wait, I did think of a way to improve Batman and Robin. A laugh track.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Robert Lowery (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Johnny Duncan (Robin / Dick Grayson), Jane Adams (Vicki Vale), Lyle Talbot (Commissioner Jim Gordon), Don C. Harvey (Henchman Nolan), Lee Roberts (Henchman Neal), William Fawcett (Prof. Hammil), Leonard Penn (Carter), Rick Vallin (Barry Brown), Michael Whalen (Private Investigator Dunne), George Offerman Jr. (Henchman Jimmy), and Eric Wilton (Alfred Beagle).


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Superman (1948, Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr)

Superman is a long fifteen chapters. The first two chapters are the “pilot.” They set up Kirk Alyn as Superman. He comes to Earth as a baby–with the Krypton sequences in the first chapter the most impressive thing in the entire serial–and grows up through montage to become Alyn. The first chapter has him heading off to Metropolis, intent on becoming a reporter so he can keep his ear to the ground for trouble. Except there’s trouble–a runaway train; wouldn’t you know it, Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) are on that very same train.

For a while, Superman keeps up the pretense its a special effects spectacular. Sure, Superman flying is just a cartoon, but there’s a lot of super-action. And then there’s less. And then there’s less. And the script doesn’t make up for it. Screenwriters Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal K. Cole take away from Alyn and, eventually, Neill and Bond to focus on the villains. Because only the bad guys get any developments. They’ve got the schemes, they have all the new characters, they have all the action. Alyn, Neill, and Bond are mostly just cliffhanger bait.

The first two chapters of Superman set up the ground situation. They also introduce Perry White (Pierre Watkin), the Daily Planet, whatever else. Third chapter brings in villain Carol Forman. She’s playing the Spider Lady. Most of the cast is her gang of interchangeable thugs. Except George Meeker and Charles Quigley. Quigley because he’s a mad scientist, Meeker because he never gets to do anything except bicker with Forman. Wait; he does torture the good scientist (Herbert Rawlinson), but it’s offscreen. Chapter three also introduces the “Reducer Ray.” Superman has a mission from the government to protect it. But Forman wants to steal it.

At one point, she tries to steal it using a ray more powerful than the reducer ray. Superman’s short on sense.

Alyn foils most of Forman’s early schemes. Then she discovers Kryptonite. For a while, Alyn versus Kryptonite is a big part of Superman. He can’t rescue Bond because of Kryptonite, he can’t rescue Neill, whatever. Bond or Neill. One of them is always in trouble, usually for doing the exact same stupid thing they did to get in trouble before. By the end of the serial, Bond ought to have more rapport with the bad guys; he spends most of his screentime their captive.

After the Kryptonite plotline, Superman just becomes about Forman trying to get Quigley to try to get Rawlinson to do something with the reducer ray. Steal it, duplicate it, destroy it, something. And Watkin wants Neill, Bond, and Alyn to get to Quigley before the cops–even though everyone’s aware of Forman’s Spider Lady, she’s not the target of the investigation. There aren’t really any cops in Superman. The occasional flatfoot or jail guard, but otherwise, it’s all either Neill, Bond, and Alyn or Forman and her goons. Even when Alyn–as Superman–captures a goon, he’ll deliver them to the Daily Planet for interrogation instead of the cops. It’s a very, very strange system of criminal justice they’ve got in Metropolis. It’s also incredibly ineffective because, while Watkin can fight, Bond can’t. Neill can’t. Alyn can’t. Alyn’s never Superman when he needs to be. He’s always Clark Kent at the worst times. Sometimes intentionally. Alyn goes on the reducer ray transport mission–the one Superman’s supposed to be doing–as Clark Kent to cover the story.

Four screenwriters and they couldn’t come up with anything better. Directors Bennet and Carr wouldn’t have been able to handle much better though. Not with action. Their problems shooting action–specifically rising action and tension–are clear from the second chapter. They never improve. They may even get worse once the serial gets into the treading water portion of its chapters. Chapters nine through fifteen are pretty much indistinguishable from one another; the set pieces are never significant (except for Watkin’s fight scene). Superman frontloads its superhero action. Alyn gets a little bit more to do at the end–in chapter fifteen, not fourteen, they really wait for the end in fifteen–but it’s not spectacular. In fact, his great scheme to put a stop to Forman once and for all is something he could’ve done in chapter five. And spared us the rest of the serial.

Bennet and Carr end up showing a lot of aptitude for comedy. The bickering between Neill and Alyn is narratively problematic–even though there’s an indeterminate but at least a few months flashforward in chapter three, Neill and Alyn never act like they know each other any better than after they first meet. Four screenwriters and none of them can figure out how to write a scene for the two top-billed actors. Not even when Alyn’s Superman. Neill is passed out for nearly all of her rescues and only really gets to chitchat once. Before Alyn tells her to scoot off to her office. Because with the good guys, Alyn’s Superman is authoritative. With the bad guys he’s either vicious (which is at least interesting) or a complete goof. Alyn’s showdown with Forman is utterly anti-climatic. He’s grinning like a moron, she’s barely paying attention to him; not a great showdown.

And Forman’s been a lousy villain. Her grand plan isn’t even clear. She wants to extort money or maybe she doesn’t. In the first few chapters, Meeker and then Quigley tell her how wrong she is about everything and question all her orders. The scenes aren’t good but at least they have some energy. After Forman consolidates her power, things just get even more boring. Because then it’s just about waiting for things like raw materials for the reducer ray or just waiting for the ray’s battery to charge. And her underground lair, complete with an electrified spider web for unwanted visitors, is a boring set. Superman’s got a lot of boring sets, but Forman’s spider-cave is the worst. It might just be because the serial wastes so much time there.

Most of the acting is okay, without any of it being standout. Alyn, for instance, gets into a good groove as Clark Kent while Superman is getting less to do, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Same goes for Neill. She’s better than anyone else–except maybe Watkin, who’s awesome–but she’s still not able to get any momentum out of the role. The script doesn’t do character development. The best it does for the actors is one-off scenes; there’s one scene of screwball for Neill and Alyn and it’s great. There’s one scene of dread for Neill, as a reporter, and it’s great. The actors make the scenes happen–though the directors get both those examples too–but they’re just filler.

Bond is all right for a while but gets tiring. Towards the end he gets to be the crusading reporter–including threatening poor Mexican immigrants (Metropolis in this Superman, incidentially, is L.A.) and flying the Daily Planet airplane. He bosses Neill around, dives headfirst into dangerous situations, gets his ass kicked time and again. He was a lot more likable as Neill’s sidekick.

Forman’s not good, but she’s a lot worse at the start than by the end. Same goes for Quigley. Meeker’s pretty steady. So’s Rawlinson. Frank Lackteen is pretty good as Neill’s stoolie who dumps her to be Alyn’s stoolie. It’s more poorly written than weird, kind of like they wanted to have two characters but didn’t.

Technically, Superman’s fairly unimpressive. The cartoon flying Superman is never embraced. The set pieces rarely involve any superpowers. Sometimes super-strength. But the superpowers are usually only for when Alyn’s in the tights, meaning Clark Kent is played as a regular boring guy. Including when Alyn gets beat up by the goons while trying to save Neill. Why didn’t he change into his tights? Why didn’t he just beat up the bad guys while in his suit? Just another of Superman’s many logic mysteries.

Earl Turner’s editing is awful. Ira H. Morgan’s photography is fine. It’s either the same interiors (Superman reuses office sets a lot) or the same exteriors around the Columbia lot.

There’s clearly a lack of budget. There’s not much inventiveness to work within the constraints either.

Even with the always disappointing cliffhangers (and cliffhanger resolutions), the overemphasis on Forman and her goons, the utter lack of non-expository moments much less scenes, Superman almost gets through. For a while, the occasional Kirk Alyn Superman scenes payoff. For a while, it seems like there might be something for Neill to do.

Then, after the drag of the final six chapters, Superman rushes to a disappointing finish. The serial doesn’t just not make up for its losses, it goes out on bigger ones. Futzing the showdown with Forman should be the last straw, but somehow the screenwriters manage to make it even worse with a peculiar, “comedic” end tag. Directors Bennet and Carr, regardless of previous comedy prowess, do nothing to save it. Because it’s lost. But it’s also finally over.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr; screenplay by Arthur Hoerl, Lewis Clay, and Royal K. Cole, based on an adaptation by George H. Plympton and Joseph F. Poland and 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), Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen), Carol Forman (Spider Lady), George Meeker (Driller), Pierre Watkin (Perry White), Charles Quigley (Dr. Hackett), Herbert Rawlinson (Dr. Graham), Jack Ingram (Anton), Frank Lackteen (Hawkins), Forrest Taylor (Professor Arnold Leeds), Nelson Leigh (Jor-El), Luana Walters (Lara), Edward Cassidy (Eben Kent), and Virginia Carroll (Martha Kent).


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