FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*
I posted this enthusiastic encomium for the 1935 LOST CITY on the Classic Horror Film Board:
I'm with those who regard this as a favorite serial. By comparison even some of the best serials slow down to furnish lots of boring exposition. Something's always happening in LOST CITY. That's not to say everything's interesting, but some of the scenes are so weird. Queen Rana feeding Bruce Gordon a drug that makes him go blind! Bruce being crushed by one of the black giants, only to be freed when Nadia shoots the giant! Manyus about to be crushed by a giant spiky thing! That's what serials are all about.
Strangely, Manyus, the "Dr. Zarko" of this FLASH GORDON-wannabe, gets more time on-screen than "Ming" does.
I mentioned 1936's FLASH GORDON because I tend to think that the scipters for this independent serial knew something of Universal's plans for a GORDON serial, which came out the next year. True, a more proximate influence was probably Mascot Pictures' THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, which depicted an ancient civilization popping up in the modern-day American West, just as CITY depicts ancient Lemurians showing their faces in modern-day Africa. That said, the idea of archaic survivals in Africa first appeared in Rider Haggard's 1887 novel ALLEN QUATERMAIN, and became a repetitive trope in Edgar Rice Burroughs' TARZAN novels. TARZAN in turn became a successful comic strip in 1929, and almost certainly influenced the early development of the Alex Raymond FLASH GORDON comic strip five years later. Although all of Gordon's encounters with weird races and beasts take place on another planet, it's arguable that "Mongo" was just an extraterrestrial version of Burroughs' polymorphic Africa.
Another point of comparison is that the GORDON strip stared out with massive catastrophes taking place on Earth because the planet Mongo is entering Earth's solar system. The 1936 serial adaptation would also use this starting-point. 1935's THE LOST CITY got there first with what seems like a virtual knockoff of the comic-strip tumult. However. in CITY the worldwide havoc is being caused by mad Lemurian ruler Zolok, using his hyper-advanced machines to attack modern cities. This opening, at least, has nothing in common with the initial episode of Mascot's PHANTOM EMPIRE.
EMPIRE comes off as somewhat dull these days-- partly because, like a lot of 1930s serials, it lacks both good action choreography and a bracing musical score. CITY doesn't have either of these assets, either, but as my snippet above suggests, it's a much more "wild-and-woolly" pulp adventure. CITY has its own "Gordon" who's out to locate the source of the disasters: two-fisted scientist Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond). To be sure, Bruce isn't nearly as mythic a character as his flashy forbear, and I tend to view this as a "villain-oriented" serial. That said, Zolok isn't in that many scenes, though his function is taken over by a bunch of secondary villains, including a nasty white hunter (who reforms at the end), a road-company white queen, and an Arab slaver. Whereas a lot of serials may use multiple villains who covet some radical new device, CITY may be the first time that the "new tech" consisted of mutated humans. The aforementioned "Doctor Manyus," a scientist forced to serve Zolok in order to preserve the life of his daughter, comes up with a process by which ordinary men can be changed into obedient, near-mindless nine-foot-tall giants. It's not clear how Manyus-- who's supposed to be a basically decent sort-- comes up with such an abominable weapon, except that one episode-- the source of the serial's greatest notoriety-- suggests that maybe he came across it as a way to transform poor benighted Black Africans into White People.
Naturally, the serial's script takes this somewhat demented fantasy at face value. However, in earlier forum-remarks, I decided that there was probably no conscious intent of making any statement about racial matters:
It's also interesting that the "black-people-turn-white" schtick is not a big part of the overall story. It seems to have been a bit of lunacy the scripters tossed in for a passing effect. The main emphasis always seems to be on the villains' wanting Manyus' process in order to make gargantuan black slaves-- though I think Zolok says something about subjecting Bruce Gordon to the treatment, so it was also *feasible* to have giant white slaves.
Politically inappropriate content aside, it does make the struggle a little more tense when it's less about possessing some arcane weapon, and more about turning real people into slaves. The casting department found one or two incredibly tall actors to represent the mutated slaves of Zolok, and early in the serial there's a fascinating scene in which the two colossi are seen carrying regular-sized Africans around like rag-dolls.
Most of the acting is ridiculously over-the-top, but it rather fits a serial of such bizarre extravagance. Though CITY isn't exactly popular among serial enthusiasts, I think it's a far better twist on the "lost civilization in Africa" theme than better-known works like DARKEST AFRICA and UNDERSEA KINGDOM.