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15 January 2010 @ 11:17 pm

Amazingly enough, out of the forty-odd chapterplays I've watched for these reviews, only two or three didn't reward the viewing. (PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO was a stiff, BLACKHAWK boring and FLYING DISC MAN FROM MARS just warmed-up leftovers.) Most of these serials have been enjoyable and a lot of fun to sit through. (At some point, I'm bound to hit a dismal streak of dreadful clunkers but luckily not yet.)

THE SPIDER'S WEB is another chapterplay that provided five hours of cheerful excitement. I've been working my way through the pulp series for the last few years, and it's astonishing how faithful this serial was to the original stories. Say what you will about Columbia's production values, they stayed a lot closer to the source material than Republic did (compare Columbia's THE PHANTOM with Republic's CAPTAIN AMERICA, for example).

True to the spirit of the pulp, Wentworth racks up the highest body count of any pulp hero I've ever seen. Usually, there is a lot of harmless blazing away between good guys and bad guys with no harm done until the final chapters. Not with the Spider. Nine times out of ten, he fires once and the henchman crumples dead to the ground. At one point, three thugs are questioning Jackson; Wentworth (not dressed as the Spider) enters behind them with a gun in each hand. He quietly asks, "Were you gentlemen looking for me?" and as they whirl, he plugs them both almost simultaneously. (Ram Singh nails the third.) Wentworth then calls the Commissioner and calmly says, "Three of the Octopus' men just attacked me. No, I'm all right but send the coroner up here, will you?"

Not only does the Spider send dozens of crooks to the great beyond in this serial, not only does Richard Wentworth in his civilian guise seem equally as ready to execute any thugs that get in his way, Ram Singh is just as bloodthirsty as in the pulps. He throws his knife with neat accuracy every chance he gets (this knife-throwing is kind of unusual in a serial good guy). And in another touch of fidelity to the pulps, after the Spider makes a kill, he plants the hideous red spider seal on the cadaver's forehead. (It doesn't look much like the illustrations from the magazine, but still, it is just such a neat touch that I'm glad they included it).

The mandatory fistfights don't have the smooth choreography of the Republic serials of the following decade, but maybe that's a good thing. In SPY SMASHER or PERILS OF NYOKA, the fights are so acrobatic and skillful that (while they're amazing to watch) they seem slightly unreal. In these early Columbia serials, the punching seems more like what you would see in a real brawl, wild swings and grappling that seems unrehearsed. Making up for this, the Spider does a good deal of swinging on his "spider's webline" (still another touch from the pulps). At one point, he launches himself from a third-floor landing onto a moving double-decker bus -- no special effects, just a stuntman with skill and nerve. Wentworth is also quick-thinking. Caught on a landing with cops both above and below him, he promptly shoots the fire extinguisher on the wall, blinding and distracting the boys in blue enough to get away (this isn't even a chapter ending, just an example.)

The cast is just about perfect. Warren Hull has the strong jawline and resonant aristocratic voice required; not only does he do a fine job as Richard Wentworth, he is obviously having a blast as his shady undercover identity, Blinky McQuade. If I watch this serial a few more time and see THE SPIDER RETURNS (now on order), I will probably end up picturing Hull as Wentworth when reading the pulp novels (the same way I always visualize Sean Connery in the Ian Fleming novels or Russ Manning's Tarzan). Everyone else fits their role comfortably. Iris Meredith as Nita Van Sloan doesn't quite get into the action as much as her literary counterpart but the actress is so lovely and has such a sparkle to her that it's forgivable. (And Nita does manage to escape captivity, grab a pistol and take a few shots at the gang.)

The only misfire is Kenneth Duncan as Ram Singh. He's just not intimidating enough. I picture a huge hulking brute with a beard that could scare you by itself, and Duncan is just too mild and restrained. But then, I can see how the role would be a hard one to fill from Columbia's contract players. (I do like the way Wentworth addresses him as "Warrior".)

One problem is the Spider's get-up. Okay, a fedora and cape are regulation and a full-face hood with just eye and mouth openings is understandable... but the darn regalia is covered with a white spider-web design. Hmm. Well, I can live with it, what the heck. The Spider in the pulps used a gruesome vampire-like make-up, complete with fangs, hunchback, stringy black hair and a big honking nose. If this wasn't convenient, he would sometimes just settle for a black mask with a veil over the lower part of the face. (On the covers, he usually was shown with a simple domino mask.) So this more flamboyant costume was goofier than usual, but not completely out of the question.

The main area where the serial doesn't live up to the pulps is (inevitably) that the villain doesn't cause as much carnage. In the typical Spider novel, the mastermind causes the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent citizens and has the nation in utter panic. Poisoned cigarettes, flocks of venomous vampire bats, incendiary death rays, thugs in giant suits of powered armor... that's the usual stuff Wentworth faces. In this seral, he's up against a supervillain who has set his sights a bit lower and is content with trying to gain control of the nation's transportation systems. (On the plus side, he does control a bulky raygun which can stall motors, bad news for pilots.)

The Octopus appears before his council of underlings in an all-white outfit,speaking through a gadget that disguises his voice. In typical cliffhanger style, he turns out to be one of a group of suspects; but, to be honest, I have never found it worthwhile trying to following the vague clues about the mastermind's identity. By the fifteenth chapter, I've mostly forgotten the hints anyway in the barrage of action and just accept whoever turns out to be behind the mask. The Octopus has one cute gimmick that he reveals right in the first chapter. As he sits holding the microphone in his left hand, his right hand apparently is resting on the desk in front of him. Uh-uh, don't believe it. It's a fake and his real right hand is under his robe holding a gun, ready to plug anyone who seems like a threat. Is it giving the writers credit for too much that they named this guy the Octopus since he seems to have more than the normal number of limbs?

One thing about Columbia serials seems counter-productive to me. We have just seen our hero about to be crushed by a falling boulder or burned alive in a flaming car crash, or whatever. The whole idea was to get us anxious to find out what happened next and come back next week. (Okay, logically we knew the hero wouldn't be killed in the fourth chapter but the suspense was always there nevertheless.) Yet at the end of each chapter, clips from the next episode showed the good guys alive and well, and worried about a new threat.... it just doesn't seem like a good idea.

Dir: Ray Taylor and James W. Horne