Tuesday, March 27, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Both of these serials were produced near the end of the sound serial's classic period, and both show an erratic quality in the writing that suggests-- to me, at least-- that the writers knew that television was cutting in on their meal ticket, and that the serial's days were numbered.

SIR GALAHAD, for all its flaws, does try to match the event-packed gusto of the classic serials. Sir Galahad (George Reeves, still a few years away from Superman) comes to Camelot, seeking to become one of Arthur's knights. Galahad distinguishes himself in tourney-combat, so Arthur assigns him the same task by which previous knights have distinguished themselves: to remain on solitary guard-duty over the king's magical sword Excalibur. Unfortunately for the aspiring hero, a mysterious villain, the Black Knight, steals the sword, and Galahad cannot become a knight until he recovers the weapon. The hero receives some aid from comic relief Sir Bors, but he's opposed by the henchmen of the Black Knight, by Saxons who defy Arthur's reign, and, most surprisingly, by Arthur's court magician Merlin (William Fawcett).

Merlin's interference with Galahad's mission is never explained, but it's initially intriguing, just because the famed magician is usually, if not the hero of a given Arthurian tale, an ally to other heroes. One of the best cliffhangers in the serial involves Merlin trapping Galahad in a forest, where he's captured by a tree with arms (visibly a man in a tree suit)  and surrounded by "flames of darkness." Galahad is only freed by the intrusion of another sorceress, the Lady of the Lake, but her presence in the story, as well as that of Arthur's scheming half-sister Morgan Le Fay, ebbs and flows with no consistency. And to my disappointment, the script does some last-minute finagling to redeem Merlin, though the explanation of his actions really makes no sense at all.

However, even though GALAHAD lacks a strong villain, Reeves' forthright charm is on evidence throughout most of the serial, and the script is reasonably inventive in coming up with good cliffhangers, like having Galahad almost trampled by horses, or imperiling him with a moving wall of swords. The battle-scenes are well-handled, and had GALAHAD possesses a coherent script, it might now be regarded as one of the last good sound serials.

In contrast, ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN AFRICA is a patchwork mess. Apparently Columbia had the very belated idea of making a sequel to their 1943 PHANTOM serial. However, the studio no longer had the rights to use the Phantom character, so they merely concocted an unreasonable facsimile. This was Captain Africa, given an outfit with a strong resemblance to the Phantom's getup, so that Columbia could save dough by interpolating old shots from the 1943 serial whenever possible. Thus the Captain, in place of the Phantom's cowl, wears an aviator's helmet, and in place of a bodysuit, a shirt and trousers reminiscent of a football player's. Africa (played by short-lived "Lone Ranger" John Hart) has no origin, but he follows some of the Phantom's patterns, in that he interacts with a local African tribe by appearing to them in a puff of smoke, as if he's posing as some sort of spiritual being. For most of the serial, though, the Captain is involved more in North rather than Central Africa, for Columbia also wished to interpolate a lot of footage from a 1944 serial about contending Arab tribes, THE DESERT HAWK. Thus the bulk of CAPTAIN AFRICA shows the aviator-masked hero fighting bad Arabs to protect a good Arab princess.

With so much re-used footage-- some of which is used twice in AFRICA, when an episode does a "recap" sequence-- it should be unsurprising that there's no strong villain with whom Africa can contend. Hart handles the original fight-sequences well enough, but his unimposing costume does him no favors, and he gets precious little help from his support-cast.

The only really amusing thing about CAPTAIN AFRICA is, ironically, one of those footage-burning recap episodes. Most of the time, the recaps are handled by having one person tell other people about things that have already happened, interspersed with old footage. But at one point, Captain Africa decides to give his listeners a direct view of past events, by showing what happened-- in a crystal ball! (Naturally, what the crystal shows is more old footage.) Since neither the Captain nor anyone else in the serial displays any supernatural abilities, I choose to believe-- purely for categorization purposes-- that what he did was merely an illusionist's trick. The real reason behind the crystal-gazing is that an earlier Columbia serial, KING OF THE CONGO, had already made use of this schtick, though it was at least a little more justifiable in CONGO. The earlier serial had as one of its contributors writer George Plympton, and Plympton is the sole credited writer on AFRICA-- so we can fairly sure his only concern was in trying to put together a halfway credible story that served Columbia's cost-cutting purposes.

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