Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ella Neal & Mysterious Dr Satan

From my unpublished “Next Time at This Theater”:

Ella Neal earned quite a bit of publicity for being “the only actress born in the Canal Zone,” i.e. Panama. She had lost her father at the age of five and went to live with her grandparents in Jamaica before resettling with her mother in Los Angeles. Graduating from Fairfax High, Ella earned a scholarship with UCLA but chose instead to sign a contract with Paramount, a fortune teller having predicted she would become a star. Or so studio publicity claimed.

A “dark brunette,” she was one of 11 starlets under contract to Paramount in 1941. The others were: Martha O'Driscoll, and Veronica Lake (blondes), Catherine Craig, Susan Hayward, Margaret Hayes, and Jean Phillips (redheads), Lillian Cornell and Esther Fernandez (dark brunettes), and Frances Gifford and Eleanor Stewart (“brownettes”). Of this coterie of lovelies, Veronica Lake and Susan Hayward became major stars, Frances Gifford played the Jungle Girl for Republic, and Catherine Craig married Robert Preston.

It was actually hard work to be a Paramount starlet, as syndicated columnist Virginia Vale could report in May of 1941:

“Ella Neal established something of a record recently when she appeared in three pictures in threedays. On Wednesday she was Jon Hall's handmaiden in Aloma of the South Seas; Thursday morning, for "Buy Me That Town" [released as New York Town] she was a mother at her baby's christening; Friday, she played a Mexican bride in Hold Back the Dawn—for that one she had to say something in Spanish, which she doesn't understand; she's still wondering what it meant.

Like Gifford, Ella was lent to Republic Pictures for a serial, in her case the fine Mysterious Dr Satan, but she was foisted upon the production and unlike Frances Gifford, did not add much to the serial according to co-director William Witney in his fine memoirs “In a Door, into a Fight, Out a Door, into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door” (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2004).

Despite predictions, Ella Neal never did become a star. In fact, while her fellow starlets were sent out on dates with Hollywood's elite, Ella was seen at also-ran nightspot Chez Boheme with Ukrainian bit player Leon Belasco. Her contract having run its course, she did a Lone Rider western with George Houston, The Lone Rider in Cheyenne (1942), and left films for good.

Mysterious Dr Satan (Republic, 1940)

To enable him to conquer the world, criminal mastermind Dr. Satan (Eduardo Ciannelli) has crafted a mechanical man. But to finish his fiendish project, the good doctor needs a remote control device invented by Professor Scott (C. Montague Shaw). Opposing Dr. Satan is Bob Wayne (Robert Wilcox), who dons the disguise of the Copperhead, an identity once used by his father to battle evil forces in the Old West. Wayne/The Copperhead is aided – and sometimes hindered – by Professor Scott's reporter daughter Lois (Ella Neal) and fellow newshound Speed Martin (William Newell).

Although Republic in early 1940 proudly announced a serial version of Superman, to be titled "The Adventures of Superman," negotiations with Superman, Inc. broke down and the writers were given less than six weeks to retool the script into Mysterious Doctor Satan. The result, however, still bears a few Superman trademarks, including a leading lady named Lois who works as a cub reporter and a chapter containing the famous designation "Man of Steel." That the term now refers to Dr. Satan's robot (or "robbot," as Eduardo Ciannelli insists on pronouncing it) is another matter entirely. (The chapter title could also refer to the Robot's alter ego, ace stuntman Tom Steele, in that case very much an inside joke.) It is not clear if Robert Wilcox was originally pegged to play Clark Kent but he is Bob Wayne here and unlike Superman has no extraordinary powers other than the usual serial bravery. That young Wayne decides to wear a full-face metallic hood when combating Dr. Satan's evil plans for world dominance remains a typical serial contrivance to better hide the identity of the stunt double. There is really no other reason for the disguise and no one seems to give his true identity much thought.

Dr Satan is a good Republic serial falling just short of being great due to miscasting in the title role. Eduardo Ciannelli could be a very effective villain, as he demonstrated in the classic Gunga Din (1939), but his performance here is perhaps a bit too guarded and restrained for an action serial. Republic did what they could to make him more satanic, down to an ever present chin light and a general chiaroscuro mood befitting an early noir serial; but you miss the kind of gleeful over-the-top performance of, say, a Charles Middleton or Bela Lugosi, or even a J. Carrol Naish. The latter played a similar role in Columbia's Batman (1943) and visibly relished his on-screen wickedness, whereas Ciannelli seems to be holding back.

The same could easily be said for leading man Robert Wilcox as well, who, while undeniably handsome, appears almost too bland and laid back for such rigorous heroics. But apart from the casting of the lead roles, Dr Satan remains top-notch serial action, Republic style, short on logic – we are never told what exactly the good doctor is out to gain other than some generalities about world dominance – but strong on production values, stunt work, and general mayhem. The Lydecker brothers add their special wizardry as well, and although ingenues Ella Neal and Dorothy Herbert (pictured left) lack somewhat in the glamour department – the latter’s presence must have been downright puzzling to moviegoers – the supporting cast is above average even for Republic.

Who? Why? What the f...?

Republic studio president Herbert Yates, who went on to marry Czech figure skater Vera Hruba Ralston, apparently had a yen for athletic if rather homely blondes and he forced Kentucky-born equestrienne Dorothy Herbert on associate producer Hiram Brown. Turning a deaf ear to the suggestion that a Western serial might prove more accommodating to Miss Herbert’s undeniable riding skills, Yates blithely demanded additional rewrites to an already burdensome production. In the end, Herbert, whose Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey specialty was jumping blindfolded through flames, did not seriously harm Dr Satan, but the writers had obvious difficulties capitalizing on her special talents in a modern dress serial and she is absent from several chapters in a row, including the final.

… and their fellas: Robert Wilcox

Having been spotted in a summer stock production of The Petrified Forest, Robert Wilcox (1910-1955) went on to a modest B-Movie career that was ultimately derailed by latent alcoholism. Wilcox’s first wife was Florence Rice, the starlet daughter of sportscaster Grantland Rice, and his second Diana Barrymore, who survived him and whose autobiography, “Too Much, Too Soon,” would be dedicated to him.

Crazy Credits:
Eduardo Ciannelli demanded to be billed “Edward Ciannelli.”

How best to use a circus bareback rider in a non-Western serial:
Let her play the scientist's secretary and escape unexplained imprisonment on horseback with both hands tied behind her back and the reins in her mouth. (Chapter 1.)

1 comment:

  1. that was my favourite serial of all time... I watched it when I was 10 years old and feared that robot as I never feared anything before or after... Robert Wilcox became my role model for a long time...