Sunday, November 20, 2011

Aline Towne: The serial queen who gets no respect.

Aline Towne co-starred in five serials but is not remembered for any of them. Or at least not as remembered as, say, Frances Gifford, who did only one; or Carol Forman who “only” played the villainess. Towne is even less memorable than Phyllis Coates, who starred in Republic's penultimate chapter play, Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955). But Phyllis was television's first Lois Lane and that trumps everything. Yet, if you take a second look, at least in her serial debut, The Invisible Monster, Aline actually is a much more hands-on heroine than most of her contemporaries, including Coates, playing a sob-sister who refuses to take a back seat to her leading man, the forgettable Richard Webb. Okay, she reverted to form in her other chapter plays, notably allowed onboard the very first manned space flight in Radar Men from the Moon solely, it appears, for the purpose of serving the male crew coffee. Oh, well, serial equality has a limit, I suppose.

Nee Fern Aline Eggen and from St. Paul, MN, Aline Towne (1919-1996) had won a Chicago Daily News personality contest and several beauty pageants in the Mid-West prior to signing with MGM in 1948. She performed the usual starlet duties there and later with 20th Century-Fox but earned leading roles only in B-Movies, serials and television shows. She appeared in quite a bit on the small tube, and like Phyllis Coates enjoyed a career that lasted much longer than you would have suspected, finally packing it in after an appearance on Airwolf in 1985. She was widowed in that year, but according to one of her two daughters, traveled extensively in retirement. Aline Towne died from a heart attack.

The Invisible Monster (Republic, 1950)

The Phantom Ruler has invented a formula that when sprayed on an object exposed to a powerful ray can render said object, including the Phantom Ruler himself, invisible. Aided by a group of American-speaking illegal aliens he has abducted and is now blackmailing to do his bidding, this particular crime boss is not out to gain control of the entire world but merely to rob a bank or two. Enter our heroes, a couple of insurance agents (Richard Webb and Aline Towne) who wear sensible shoes and hats. And you have a serial. Or do you?

Now here is the thing: If you could render yourself invisible would you use that fact to walk from one point to another unobserved? Or would you have some fun with your environment and scare everybody witless by appearing without a head? Like they did in the old Universal horrors? By the end of chapter one of The Invisible Monster you really is left beyond caring, the proceedings are that dull. The Phantom Ruler's invisibility trick is rather cumbersome when all is said and done and takes a couple of henchmen to set up, so why bother when you just wish to pick up a package left in a garbage can unobserved (chapter 3). Why not just have one of your boys whistle a happy tune, pick up the package and quickly skedaddle? No, Mr. Phantom Ruler has to have his huge truck back up to the garbage can, empower the powerful ray, and have a henchman pretend to weld something on a lamp post in order to explain the bright light. If anyone was actually looking, which the entirely empty neighborhood doesn't exactly suggest. To add insult to injury, after all this subterfuge, the Ruler is then is promptly revealed to be Stanley Price by our hero, Richard Ebb, who naturally has smelled a rat and clambered aboard the truck.

By 1950, only one writer, Ronald Davidson, was credited with writing an entire Republic chapter play and the seems were showing everywhere. I guess little children could still marvel at the invisibility effects but who by then hadn't seen plenty of inanimate objects suddenly move in thin air as if on wires? Oops, did we just give away the Lydecker brothers' secret. Well, you won't be fooled for a minute.

The result is that you have to rely on the acting prowess of the relatively (for serials) small cast and although I like Stanley Price as a henchman, or even as a law abiding member of society, he makes a drab master villain. Happily, Richard Webb is an engaging enough hero and Aline Towne visibly enjoys the goings-on which always helps. So The Invisible Monster is not a total loss as entertainment.

... and their fellas: Richard Webb

There really hasn't been all that many blond Hollywood leading men. Think about it. Who can you name from the classic era? Well, one actor stands out: Paramount contract player Alan Ladd, who made light hair appear not only butch but downright dangerous. (Dan Dureya is another blonde from that era, but he rarely played the hero and was really the forerunner of the even more sadistic Richard Widmark). Interestingly, Paramount also groomed another blond contract player, especially after the war, but Richard Webb (1915-1993) never really caught on and his only true star-billed role was in The Invisible Monster. He got very popular with the small fry as television's Captain Midnight but angered the creators by refusing to publicly endorse the show's sponsor, the icky chocolate drink Ovaltine. Webb ended his long screen and television career in 1977 appearing on the daytime drama Days of Our Lives. Although he published several books on the occult, this writer know for a fact that Webb actively sought a publisher for his memoirs. Failing to find a buyer, and suffering from terminal cancer, he committed suicide shortly thereafter.

Radar Men from the Moon (Republic, 1952)

Commando Cody and his colleagues investigate a serious of explosions that lead them to the moon where Retik and his army of lunar men plan to invade the planet Earth.

Republic's second "Rocketman" serial is eminently positioned to become a camp classic. Not that it lacks in technical facility – the Lydecker brothers, Howard & Theodore, were top-of-the-line sfx supervisors for the period and stock footage takes care of the rest – but there is something hilariously ludicrous about Roy Barcroft as an American-accented Man in the Moon dressed in a modified version of his arch villain outfit from The Purple Monster Strikes (1945) and commanding only a couple of standard henchmen to do his bidding. Then there is the space craft itself, surely America's first, which lifts off vertically and is launched without any ado whatsoever. Yes, sure, the launch is supposed to be very hush-hush, but the lack of interest from the scientific world at large is curious to say the least! Republic's chosen location for this inter-planetary take-off also seems ill-advised considering that the rocks of the Iverson Movie Ranch look suspiciously similar to the landscape found on the Moon once our heroes get there. A trip that took them about a couple of hours, give and take, according to the dialogue. No one on board seems the least bit awed by what they are about to accomplish – land on the moon in a spacecraft built (in his garage?) by Commando Cody himself – and Commando even has time and energy to discuss whether to bring along girl scientist Joan Gilbert to cook his inflight meals when a refreshing cup of tea should have sufficed on this bargain-basement space flight. And so it goes: fistfight after fistfight and shootout after shootout between Commando (George Wallace) and sidekick Ted Richards (William Bakewell) and their Earthly enemies, gangster-types Daly and Graber. The latter is played by Clayton Moore during his mysterious season-long absence from television's Lone Ranger program and must have been something of a comedown from a starring role.

With that said, Radar Men is entertaining enough on its own level, but it has all been seen before, including Commando stiffly flying through the air in his rocket suit from King of the Rocket Men (1949). George Wallace himself makes a standard Republic hero, appropriately tight-lipped and able to take it on the chin. Literally, it seems, and he reportedly never even missed a day of filming after Clayton Moore accidentally broke his nose in the brawl seen in chapter 6. But there is little evidence of the considerable acting talent known at the time only to Broadway audiences. In contrast, silent screen juvenile William Bakewell and Aline Towne are completely wasted in the thankless roles of sidekick/helper-girl scientist, respectively, while third-billed Roy Barcroft seems to have phoned in a performance that evidently only took one day to complete. Radar Men from the Moon, it is obvious, was made by a serial unit running on empty.

... and their fellas (II): George Wallace

Leading man George Wallace(1917-2005), an actor who broke into the business with help from the G.I. Bill, actually auditioned for Retik, the role eventually played by Roy Barcroft. Wallace later told of also having tested to play Graber but noticing a resemblance to stuntman Dale Van Sickel, the studio decided to cast him in the lead role instead. He later appeared on Broadway and in numerous television shows (and well into the new millennium), his only other serial work a supporting role in The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd (Columbia 1953).

About the production

Republic Pictures must have been satisfied with Radar Men, which inspired a series of short subjects sold to both theaters and television under the umbrella title of Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe. Captain Video's Judd Holdren played the title role but Aline Towne was retained as Joan Gilbert. 12 episodes were produced by Radar Men's Franklyn Adreon, and Holdren and Towne also starred in Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), the final entry in Republic's "Rocketmen" serial trilogy.

Most conspicuous bit of stock footage:

Establishing shots reveal the Moon to be the home to a city resembling Antique Athens, or, truth be told, the Grecian-inspired Atlantis in Republic's 1936 serial Undersea Kingdom.

The Wit and Wisdom of the World's First Space Travelers:

Cody, arriving at the desert location for the launch of the very first manned flight to the moon: "I still think this is no trip for a woman." Joan: "Now don't start that again. You'll be very glad to have someone along who can cook your meals." Ted: "I'll say we will. [To Cody] Don't give her any more arguments!" Cody: "Okay. I like to eat, too.”

Radar Men from the Moon is in public domain and may be downloaded for free from the Internet.

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