Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"My father, Hitumo, go quickly!" The Black Widow (Republic, 1947)

This is the first posting in a series based on a book about action serials that I never got around to actually publish. Hope you enjoy!

The glamorous Carol Forman posed in front of a spider web design for The Black Widow remains one of the most iconic images of classic action serials. No, it is not the Spider Woman from Superman (that character, also played by Forman, wore an incongruous blonde wig and is decidedly less memorable), but Sombra, the fortune telling daughter of – well, who indeed is her father? His name is Hitomu, which suggests something vaguely Asian – Hitomu is depicted in an early screenplay draft as “Tibetan”-- and he wears turban and flowing robe when teleported into Sombra's lair. But the accent is distinctly mittel-European and with a strong hint of Yiddishe Papa. Whatever he is, this gnomish man from another place seeks earthly world dominance and his arrival in a puff of smoke is announced by the appropriate bells and whistles, not to mention Sombra's stern warning to her henchmen, Ward and Jaffa, to "go quickly!" Why the henchmen are obliged to leave is never quite explained, and in the final chapter the two stooges at long last demand to face their bizarre cosmic employer. It is all exquisitely wacky and if neither Carol Forman nor Theodore Gottlieb (later Brother Theodore of “David Letterman” fame) quite live up to their flamboyantly written roles – she is really too lightweight to be a true femme fatale and he is simply too strange – this serial remains a favorite of many genre fans, the present writer included. And that despite the usual 1947 reliance on stock footage, bland leads and unnecessary length. There just is something about Sombra, the most glamorous serial villainess this side of Perils of Nyoka's Vultura, which overcomes even Forman's finishing school approach. (Sombra is typically played stronger by Ramsay Ames and Virginia Carroll when for plot purposes they briefly assume the character in chapters 1 and 6 respectively.) Perhaps it is the
way she orders her two loyal henchmen about – Anthony Warde and I. Stanford Jolley remain obsequious until that final chapter – or maybe it’s because she is so darn likeable in spite of it all, sort of a junior league Gale Sondergaard. The writers, veterans all, actually attempted to breathe life into the nominal leads as well, and Bruce Edwards and Virginia Lindley (left) engage in some mildly clever repartee; but we have seen their characters – tough detective, scatterbrained girl reporter – so many times before that they have become even more of a cliché than The Black Widow's recycled cliffhangers.

About the production

A former owner of a Los Angeles car dealership, Bruce Edwards (1911-2003) also appeared in supporting roles in Federal Agents Vs. Underworld, Inc. (Republic 1949) and Bruce Gentry (Columbia 1949). He later became a local reporter and columnist for a Balboa, California newspaper. The Black Widow was to become the final of 10 Republic serials for LeRoy Mason (born Nebraska 1903) who on October 13, 1947 would suffer chest pains on the set of the Monte Hale Western California Firebrand. Rushed to the hospital, the veteran supporting player died later that afternoon. Contracted by Republic July 12, 1943, and usually typecast as “slick” types, Mason had also appeared in such non-Republic serials as Lightning Hutch (Arrow 1926), Jungle Menace (Columbia 1937) and Overland with Kit Carson (Columbia 1939). Former RKO contract player Carol Forman (1918-1997) could never escape the “bad girl” image she had earned playing a bit role in From This Day Forward (1946). Known solely for her five serials – Black Widow, Brick Bradford (Columbia 1947), Superman (Columbia 1948), Federal Agents Vs. Underworld, Inc. (Republic 1949), and Blackhawk (Columbia 1952), all made as a freelance artist – Forman retired to marry an associate director with Russell Hayden Productions. “I liked being the heavy,” she said back in 1984. “Not everyone can be as convincing as I am.”

What’s in a name?

The screenwriters enjoyed a bit of fun compiling the list of 12 clairvoyants to be researched by Steve and Joyce when they included a “Madame Lydecker” and one “Francis Mickwitch,” the former alluding to Republic’s ace special effects team of Howard & Theodore Lydecker, the latter a pun on the name of the serial’s associate producer, Mike Frankovich. (Chapter 7.)

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