Last week, I taunted you with visions of ancient superhero movies – serials, as they were called back then. Today we’d call them really low-budget webcasts. Here’s a few more worthy of your consideration, and this time we’re delving into a trio of iconic heroes from the pulps and newspaper strips – and now, of course, comic books.
The Shadow is the best-known of all the classic pulp heroes, and for a very good reason: many of the more than 300 stories published were quite good. Walter B. Gibson created something magical – a series with a lead character who had plenty of secrets but no secret identity, aided and abetted by a slew of agents who had no idea who their master was. The character’s popularity was enhanced massively by a highly successful radio series, one that gave The Shadow an alter-ego and a female companion and took away most of his agents.
Sadly, The Shadow didn’t fare as well on the silver screen. I don’t think the sundry producers could ever reconcile the differences between the pulp stories and the radio show, and they certainly were restricted in the deployment of violent action. But there is one major exception, the 15-chapter Columbia serial from 1940. Whereas they did a decent job of using three agents (including Margo Lane), the real beauty of this production was the man who played the lead, Victor Jory. A talented and accomplished actor (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Miracle Worker), Jory had the additional benefit of actually looking like The Shadow and his adopted form of Lamont Cranston, as portrayed in the pulps. Serials generally lacked verisimilitude; The Shadow had it in spades. And it’s a damn fine actioner, by serial standards.
If you found The Shadow pulps to be lacking in action, The Spider made up for it and then some. Every plot revolved around a madman’s quest to destroy humanity. New York City got trashed more often than a Thing vs. Hulk fightfest. The death count in your average Spider story was at least in triple digits. The books should have been published in red ink.
Obviously, they couldn’t duplicate that degree of violence in the movie serials. But they got the flavor and the spirit right, giving the Spider a real costume (he didn’t have one in the pulps), keeping his cast of associates intact, and using Warren Hull, who played the lead, in the various disguises typical to the pulp hero. There were two Spider serials: The Spider’s Web and The Spider Returns, and both are quite worthy.
The Flash Gordon serials, Space Soldiers, Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars, and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, are blessed with a cast that, by and large, looks as though they were designed by Flash Gordon creator Alex Raymond. All three follow the spirit and direction of the classic newspaper strip, and the first serial is as close to a literal transition from comics to film as I’ve ever seen. Whereas Buster Crabbe is impeccable as Flash and his relative inexperience as an actor inures to the benefit of this part, it is Charles Middleton as Ming who steals the show, as well as the popcorn off your lap.
In my jaded worldview, Middleton’s Ming is the best villain on film, period. He’s evil, he’s imperial, he’s a warrior, he’s a master scientist. He is everything Fu Manchu wanted to be. Middleton pulls it off with style and aplomb without overacting – which, in serials, is unique. The only actor who comes close was Roger Delgado as the original Master in Doctor Who. Even when Ming is being cooperative with our heroes, he doesn’t have a shred of sympathy to draw upon. Ming’s nobility works hand-in-glove with his position as Emperor of all he sees.
These serials are generally available from the usual sources – you might have to Google around for The Spider, but the Flash Gordon trio is easily available. Much of it all is on Hulu, YouTube, and sundry other streaming services.
These are the characters that provided the budding comic book medium with its backbone. It set the standard for all future heroic fantasy films. Check a few out.