Wednesday, September 19, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical*

Here we have two serials that follow the normative pattern of their species: a hero, generally without special resources beyond sheer athleticism, finds himself pitted against a mastermind who commands a small group of thugs and at least one super-scientific device.

MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN achieves this paradigm at the cost of its original model, though.  The character spawned by the 1934 Lee Falk-Phil Davis comic strip is said by some fans to have possessed real magic powers at the strip's outset.  Whatever the truth of this, Mandrake's most popular incarnation has been an "uncanny" one, in which the hero's only magic consisted of advanced hypnotism, of being able to convince his victims that they had been transformed into ducks or umbrellas or whatever.

Perhaps Columbia-- a late competitor in the serial market-- thought that this hocus pocus would have been too sedate for serial fans.  Perhaps the company didn't want the FX-budget associated with massive hypnotic illusions.  For whatever reason, the Mandrake of the serial, played by Warren Hull, only resembles the comic-strip version in being a professional magician.  When his involvement in a government experiment puts him at odds with a masked villain, Mandrake wades into action with both fists flying.  Only a few times does he use his magician's talents to escape handcuffs or the like.

The Wasp, the masked villain in question, has got hold of a "radium-energy" projector with which he can send deadly beams against any enemy.  As usual in such serials, both heroes and villains are constantly after some needed power-element that keeps the plot boiling.

The action in MANDRAKE is lively but pedestrian.  As is often the case in such serials, there's a minor mystery about who the costumed villain is in reality, but as the Wasp's costume is the most interesting thing about him, the revelation is an anticlimax.

Another change: the comics-Mandrake was assisted in his crimefighting by a giant African manservant named Lothar,  who was certainly one of the few black characters in the period who got the chance to go around beating up white guys, albeit only those of a criminal nature.  The serial substitutes a "Lothar" manservant who gets into only a couple of scraps and who is played by Hawaiian actor Al Kikume.

SOS COAST GUARD, while nothing special in the scripting department, benefits greatly from the presence of a more pleasingly diabolical villain-- Bela Lugosi playing "Boroff," foreign spymaster-- and from the much livelier direction of Alan James and William Witney.  Given that James' directorial efforts without Witney are just adequate, I suspect Witney's eye for spectacle informed the better sequences of this serial.

SOS starts with a bravura sequence: Boroff, who has invented a "disintegration gas" which he plans to sell to hostile powers, infiltrates America to find the physical elements he needs to produce more of the gas.  When the Coast Guard tries to stop Boroff, he shoots down one of the men.  The victim's older brother Lt. Terry Kent (Ralph Byrd), also of the Coast Guard, dedicates himself to tracking down Boroff and his gang.  Like a lot of "federal men" types of the time, he's almost never seen reporting to a superior or justifying his actions.

Boroff is a simple, straightforward fiend of the type Lugosi did well.  In addition the script invokes a few touches at the actor's horror image, such as having him smuggled in on a ship called the "Carfax" (as in DRACULA's "Carfax Abbey."  Boroff also has a master-slave relationship with a huge muscular servant named Thorg (Richard Alexander), who at the climax turns on his master in approved monster-movie tradition.

Thanks to Witney's directorial skills and Lugosi's sinister presence, SOS is well worth catching, while MANDRAKE is really only for hardcore serial followers.

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