Tuesday 28 July 2020

On YouTube - John Baxter revels in a perfect specimen of its kind, UNDERSEA KINGDOM (A twelve part serial, B Reeves Eason and Joseph Kane, Republic, USA, 1936)

         In hopes of capturing in Raiders of the Lost Ark the first fine careless rapture of the old serials as they remembered them, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg screened the 1942 Don Winslow of the Navy.They quit at Chapter Six - Menaced by Man Eaters. “Boy,” said Lucas, “these things don’t hold up on re-viewing.”  

         Anyone who ever, as a kid, laid down a sticky sixpence for a seat at the Saturday matinee could have told him that. Like the cheap candy we crunched and the noxious sodas we drank, serials pandered to the uncritical tastes of pre-pubescent males, soon to be radically revised by the discovery of sex. (Watching lines forming around the block for the 1982 Zapped,a teen comedy notable only for some modest female nudity, a cinema manager observed contentedly “Look at ‘em. Sixteen, and never seen tits before.” How could you return to George Reeves in his baggy Supermanoutfit after seeing firm young flesh in no costume at all?Innocence, once lost, is gone forever.)

Republic’s 1936 Undersea Kingdom belongs to the wave of science fiction serials that followed the western action cycle of the late silent days and preceded wartime anti-Nazi/anti-Jap efforts such as the 1943 Batman, where the Caped Crusader foils efforts by J. Carroll Naish’s evil Asiatic to steal the US supply of radium. The films of each cycle generally shared a family resemblance, engendered by the ceaseless circulation and re-use of costumes, performers, ideas, even entire sequences. Some of the survivors from the lost continent of Mu lurking beneath Gene Autry’s Texas ranch in The Phantom Empire no doubt also played Atlanteans in Undersea Kingdom. Atlantis supposedly survived under a dome of a gold/copper alloy called, if I heard correctly, Auricop, on which I would be disinclined to risk even a footstep, let alone the weight of the Atlantic.

True to the ecumenical tradition, Undersea Kingdom’s Unga Khan, creating earthquakes as a prelude to invading the surface, is clearly a first cousin to Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, directing a ray from planet Mongo with something similar in mind. (Beating Universal’s Flash into cinemaswas apparently Republic’s motive for making Undersea Kingdom.) The gadgetry is equally familiar, or would become so. Its robots (below) turn up in The Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940) and again in Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), while an earthquake detector,  inspired by Ken Strickfaden’s arcing, spitting electrical gadgets for Frankenstein, had already appeared as a death ray machine in Blake of Scotland Yard (1937).

More puzzling is the presence among the Atlantean’s military resources of some four-horse chariots that sit oddly next to robots and tanks. A clue lies in the co-director of this and numerous other serials, B. Reeves Eason. “Breezy” Eason also directed second-unit on the 1925 Ben Hur, in particular its chariot race. Undersea Kingdom must have seemed the perfect opportunity to squeeze more mileage out of those old quadrigae gathering dust in the barn. 

Most familiar of all is the setting shared by all these productions. Atlantis, Arizona, Mu, Missouri, Mars or the furthest reaches of the universe; generations of film-makers have not gone, boldly or otherwise, any further than Vasquez Rocks (below). An easy drive from Hollywood, these three square kilometres of jagged weather-eroded stones, ranging from boulders and spires to crags and monoliths, split with defiles and crevasses, and backed by desert, with mountains in the distance, have been a gift for those seeking cheap locations.

“Cheap” also described acting in serials. The primary requirement in a performer was durability. Undersea Kingdom’s impressively athletic Ray “Crash” Corrigan (above) had been a personal trainer, Johnny Weissmuller and Larry “Buster” Crabbe champion swimmers. Crabbe for one would have liked to work on his performances. “I could have been a lot better,” he told me plaintively, “if they had let me.” But producers discouraged him. They knew their market. The closer to the standards of a nine-year-old, the better. 

But Undersea Kingdom’s  performances – or, more accurately, performers - deserve some attention.Unga Khan is played by Monte Blue, and William Farnum is his opponent Sharad, High Priest of Atlantis (social and governmental structures in serial empires have the same comic improbability as those in Star Wars) whose badge of office is a head-dress apparently recycled from a tea cosy. Easy to joke, but Blue’s career began with Birth of Nation and progressed through Huston’s Key Largo to episodes of Wagon Train and Rawhide. As for William Farnum, a distinguished stage and screen career was cut short by a 1925 accident, after which he subsisted on roles such as this. The pallbearers at his funeral in 1953 were Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky, Frank Lloyd, Clarence Brown, Charles Coburn and Leo Carillo. Pat O'Brien read the eulogy. Not bad for an old man in a funny hat.

Editor’s Note: UNDERSEA KINGDOM’s 12 parts are available on YouTube. click here to go to Chapter One. Earlier posts about serials and those who dwelt in them were contributed by Geoff Mayer author of The Encyclopaedia of American film serials

Monte Blue, William Farnum, Undersea Kingdom

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