Friday, December 2, 2011
An Introduction to Sound Serials Part III:
Is has often been claimed that chapter plays caught performers on their way up or down. The latter is most certainly true and nearly every silent era performer still working seems to have traipsed through a serial or two in the 1930s, some, like Jack Mulhall, Robert Frazer, and Reed Howes, even in starring roles. But when discussing serial performers who actually graduated to major mainstream stardom, most historians and/or buffs can only come up with John Wayne, George Brent, and Jennifer Jones, who, credited as Phyllis Isley (her real name), earned $75 a week to play Ralph Byrd’s leading lady in Dick Tracy’s G-Men in 1939. But most young serial performers became pigeonholed from the experience. “I truly enjoyed working in serials, but I couldn’t help wonder if they were a sort of dead end,” Clayton Moore wrote in his fine autobiography “I Was
That Masked Man” (Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company, 1996).
Like a close relative, the 2-reel comedy short, serials were a world apart from feature films and often deemed unworthy even by Hollywood hopefuls with supposedly nothing to lose. In a typical move, when signing with Republic in 1941 Bill Elliott, whose initial fame had been made in the genre (see the previous post, A Bill Elliott serial double bill), stipulated that he should no longer be forced to appear in chapter plays. Robert Livingston, star of Republic's first Western cliffhanger, The Vigilantes Are Coming (1936), similarly earned the contractual right to henceforth refuse serials. The studio, of course, turned right around and cast him in The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939). Livingston later told his biographer, Merrill McCord:
"I fought that thing when they came and told me that I was going to do it. I said, 'Oh, no. It's in my contract. I don't have to do any serials.'"
But studio head Herbert J. Yates convinced him to play the legendary masked avenger by guaranteeing a series of feature films about the character plus plenty of publicity. In the end Republic reneged on everything (in fact, an agreement between the studio and “Lone Ranger” copyright holder George W. Trendle prohibited Livingston from appearing publicly as the character) and like so many of his peers, Livingston long regretted having accepted serial work.
Republic players Dorothy Patrick and Robert Rockwell had apparently anticipated trouble and their contracts prevented their casting in either Westerns or serials. Songstress Ruth Terry’s contract only precluded serials. Featured actors were warned against chapter plays as well, and even The Black Widow herself, Carol Forman, who is remembered solely for those she did accept, claimed to have turned down three serials in a single week, her agent warning her that they would hurt her career. "Serials were the 'street urchins' of the business," Forman admitted to film historian Buck Rainey. Another newcomer, Penny Edwards, opted out altogether. As the former Republic starlet told an audience at the 1994 Knoxville Western Film Festival:
"I loved the studio, but when they wanted to put me in [Zombies of the Stratosphere] I asked for a release. I didn't want to do it, so I went to 20th Century- Fox." (She was replaced in Zombies by the much more pliable Aline Towne. See an earlier post.)
Nan Grey, who had starred opposite Deanna Durbin in Three Smart Girls (1936) and appeared in several quasi horror films, flatly refused to do Universal's "Million Dollar Super Serial," Riders of Death Valley (1941), and was promptly suspended. Her screen career never recovered. (Jeanne Kelly, later known as Jean Brooks, replaced her.) In contrast, Peggy Stewart agreed to star in two Republic serials, The Phantom Rider (1946) and Son of Zorro (1947), before demanding a release from her contract. Ironically, the first thing she did after leaving Republic was Columbia's Tex Granger (1948), another chapter play.
For celebrated British stage and screen actor Lionel Atwill, cliffhangers became in essence a last resort after a highly publicized perjury conviction in a case that included possession of pornography and other salacious charges. Republic and Universal recognized Atwill's still very potent marquee value and assigned him top villainous roles in Captain America (1944), Raiders of Ghost City (1944) and Lost City of the Jungle (1945), in one case actually paying him a higher salary than the serial’s hero. Atwill died while filming Lost City and had to be replaced by body and voice doubles. Serials didn't kill him (bronchial cancer did), but the lack of prestige could not have helped. Hoping to resurrect a waning career, B-western star Jack Randall was fatally injured filming so-called running inserts on the location for Universal's The Royal Mounted Rides Again (1945), Randall having accepted the serial against the advice of his brother, former chapter play star Robert Livingston.
A virtual cinematic Siberia, in other words, cliffhangers tended to either create their own stars – Ralph Byrd, Larry "Buster" Crabbe, Kane Richmond, competent enough performers but perhaps just missing that extra spark that could turn them into major box-office champions – or rely on older genre perennials like Bela Lugosi, Tom Mix, or Ken Maynard, once celebrated in their various fields but somewhat limited either by thespian talent or their own publicity. Significantly, many actors preferred not to list their serial work in the annual casting directories.
only stab at acting. Also generally pleased with their serial work were several of the better character actors specializing in the action field. Roy Barcroft, Republic's ace B-western villain of the mid to late-1940s, told the writer Ken Jones that he enjoyed playing serial Heavies, the viler the better, adding that he even relished wearing elaborate costumes "such as The Purple Monster Strikes and my own favorite Manhunt of Mystery Island [both 1945]."
But to many performers, serials were akin to cruel and unusual punishment. For one thing, wages were comparatively small (Kane Richmond, one of the highest paid performers, was awarded $450 weekly to play Republic’s Spy Smasher and Clayton Moore recalled getting paid $200 a week to co-star in Perils of Nyoka) and actual filming was tough and often dirty work for both cast and crew. George J. Lewis, star of Mascot's The Wolf Dog and Republic's Zorro's Black Whip, admitted to the writer Alan G. Barbour that "I never worked harder in my life," and the most famous serial hero of them all, Buster Crabbe, concurred. "They started shooting Flash Gordon in October of 1935," the former champion swimmer told author Roy Kinnard,
"and to bring it in on the six-week schedule we had to average 85 set-ups a day. That means moving and rearranging the heavy equipment we had, the arc lights and everything, 85 times a day… It wasn't fun, it was a lot of work."
"The station wagon was supposed to go completely into the water and I could just visualize myself drowning until they finally rescued me. So I became a little stubborn at that moment and told [associate producer] Hiram Brown that I wouldn't do it. Finally, we agreed."
Linda Stirling, perhaps the best remembered sound-era serial actress of them all, vividly recalled the rigors of filming exteriors. "We shot most of the outdoor stuff at Iverson's Ranch, and I can still remember every physical aspect of it – the rocks, the trails, the bushes, everything," she told Buck Rainey in “Those Fabulous Serial Heroines.” "I had no skill whatsoever with horses," Stirling added, "and more than once the crew would find me sprawled in the dust or crumpled in the bushes after my horse had run away with me." In contrast, Peggy Stewart, a contemporary of Linda's at Republic, mostly found serial-making tedious. "Serials got so boring," the former starlet complained to biographers Bob Carman and Dan Scapperotti.
"You're jumping around from chapter ten to chapter one or whatever, because you're trying to film all the scenes that take place on a set at the same time … You were three or four weeks' time on those serials and you got the same darn hairdo or the same dress or costume all the time."
Although an icon of the genre, Kay Aldridge admitted to her biographer Merrill McCord that she had never seen a single chapter of any of her serials until 1978. “I didn’t understand the concept,” she said. “I didn’t know what a serial was when I made [them].” Due, she went on to explain, to the way chapter plays were filmed: out of sequence and on a fast schedule with no rehearsals and no retakes … “unless the horses went to the bathroom on camera.” Lorna Gray (AKA Adrian Booth) told an audience at the 2006 SerialFest that she was required to learn not only the lines of the next day's filming but, in case of inclement weather prohibiting location shooting, dialogue from several interiors scenes as well. "The girls in serials and their hairdressers reported to the studio as early as four o'clock in the morning in order to get ready," Gray remembered, adding that a full day could easily run into early evening. To have a life, some of Republic's serial queens stayed at a motel across from the studio on Ventura Boulevard.
To be continued …
“As hard as we worked on The Perils of Nyoka [Republic 1942], I don’t remember feeling as though we were under unbearable pressure. I was a hard job, but an enjoyable one,” Clayton Moore later wrote about his serial starring debut. The busiest supporting player of them all, Tom London, explained to serial historian William C. Cline why he never minded being typecast as a reprobate in chapter plays and B-Westerns. “It kept the groceries on the table for a long time,” London said. “I worked steady for fifty-nine years.”
Chapter plays were especially taxing for the stunt performers. Unlike most cast and crew-members, stuntmen, and sometimes women, were paid handsomely for their efforts, often more than the lead actors who at times were picked solely for their physical resemblance to potential doubles. “I always took my leading roles with a grain of salt,” said Clayton Moore. “It seemed to me that the only requirements for getting a lead in a Republic serial were that you read dialogue, be in strong physical condition, and closely resemble at least one of the stuntmen.” Typically, David Sharpe, who doubled all the leads in Perils of Nyoka, earned the highest salary of any performer in that classic serial, $350 a week, followed closely, at $300, by Emil Van Horn, the stuntman wearing the chapter play's menacing gorilla suit. The only stuntman ever to be awarded an actual term-contract with action oriented Republic, Tom Steele earned $150 weekly for feature film work but as a testament to the strenuous nature of serials $350 a week for chapter plays. In contrast, Linda Stirling’s stunt double, Nellie Walker, would typically take home $60 a week, around the same amount awarded the average supporting player. (Roy Barcroft claimed to have earned $66 a week for his first Republic serial, S O S Coast Guard, but his was a bit role and probably never lasted a full week). The list of Republic stunt people reads like a roll call of founding fathers (and mothers) of the Stuntmen's Association: Yakima Canutt, Richard Talmadge, Earl Bunn (who had a wooden leg), Fred Graham (Roy Barcroft’s regular double), Tom Steele, Dale Van Sickel, Jimmy Fawcett, Dave Sharpe, Helen Thurston, Thelma "Babe" DeFreest, Nellie Walker, brothers Joe and Bill Yrigoyen, Post Parks (stage-driving specialist) and on and on. As a performer in serials, you had to get along with these sturdy men and women; sissies, prima donnas, and general hams needed not apply. And if they did, like Zorro Rides Again's vainglorious John Carroll, they rarely earned a second call.
"[The stuntmen] taught me a lot about timing. They made me look good in those fights even when I wasn't being doubled," said character actor and busy serial performer George J. Lewis, who even starred in one, Republic's Zorro's Black Whip (1944).
Chapter plays were not very rewarding for the serious thespian. As noted above, salaries were generally far from generous and dialogue, the actor’s chief tool, was usually purely utilitarian in nature with the sole purpose of explaining what was going on and setting up the next situation. “We’ll use our disintegrating guns,” as a couple of 25th century space cadets helpfully say in Buck Rogers (Universal 1939), a statement that in real life would be redundant. Serial characters also did not discuss important issues of the day and seemed incapable of harboring any feelings other than goodhearted camaraderie or diabolical hatred, or, at the other extreme, slavish obedience. One who felt trapped was perennial henchman Anthony Warde, who was never completely at ease playing villains. "I always felt a little self-conscious," he told Gregory Jackson. Similarly, George J. Lewis found the stilted dialogue difficult to make believable. Clayton Moore knew he was in trouble when perusing the script for the first day of filming Republic’s Jungle Drums of Africa. Breaking out a bottle of bubbly, Moore toasted his leading lady, Phyllis Coates, with: “Welcome to the bottom of the barrel.”
Wayne, of course, was one of the fortunate few who would eventually escape both the stilted dialogue and the furious pace of serial-making that would reach an incredible 114 setups on one very long day on the set of Shadow of the Eagle (1932). At the time, though, he was just glad to be working at all. The same could be said for George Brent, a handsome Broadway actor who despite a fine, theatrically trained voice had failed to interest any of the major studios. The enterprising Brent then presented himself to Mascot’s Nat Levine and was hired to play the male lead opposite Rin Tin Tin in The Lightning Warrior (1931). The newcomer was typically stiff in the role but Warner Bros. saw something in him and placed him under contract. The rest, as they say, is history. Rinty, incidentally, received $5000 for his performance in The Lightning Warrior, his final film, George Brent considerably less than his canine co-star. (Seventeen years later Mascot’s successor, Republic, would pay Brent a whopping $100,000 for starring in Angel on the Amazon.)
Frank Coghlan, Jr., who played Billy Batson in Republic's Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), always assumed that he landed the role solely because of age and availability. But casting even in serials could occasionally be with motives other than purely economic or simple availability. Running into director William Witney many years later, Coghlan finally learned exactly why he had been picked. "You were hired for the part because you were a damn good actor and we knew you could play the part the way we wanted it played” Witney told him. Another youngster, well, another actor playing a youngster, Batman and Robin’s Johnny Duncan stepped into the role when no one else seemed suitable. “Bob Kane was with Sam Katzman at Columbia Studio there,” Duncan told San Jose radio host Peter Canavese.
“They wanted a boy sixteen years old, and Sam knew me and thought of me for the part when Kane first came up … about the project. But Kane wanted a kid sixteen years old, and at that time I was twenty-six years old. So he said, 'Oh, no, I don’t want a guy twenty-six years old, you know, that’s as old as Batman.' So, anyway, why they looked at, gosh, kids and kids and kids and kids, and finally they couldn’t find anybody – Kane didn’t like ‘em, so Sam called me and he says, “hey, John, wear some jeans or somethin’ and a sweater and look as young as you can, for God sakes, don’t comb your hair or nothin’, you know, just come on over.” So I did. And so when I walked in the door, before I was even introduced, Kane says, 'Hey, that’s Robin.' So that’s how I got the part.
Everybody’s favorite 1930s serial queen, Flash Gordon's Jean Rogers, credited chapter plays for boosting her career. "In retrospect, it was a training ground that paved the way for my growth as an actress and enabled me to play feature roles in major films while under long-term contracts to Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer and Twentieth Century-Fox," she told Buck Rainey. Kay Aldridge, who starred in three serials for Republic, found the experience “a comedown in one way for a [former] featured player at Fox, but a come up in another way because I was the lead.” “I tried my best,” she added, “but it was very hard to learn to be an actress in [serials].”
Some actors were literally left to fend for themselves. As the star of Flying Disc Man from Mars, Walter Reed, recalled for B-Movie historian Tom Weaver: “The director would say, ‘Okay, now drive down the street in this car …’ I’d drive away, drive quite a ways away, then turn around and come back – and they’d be gone! That’s how fast they were shooting.” For a lucky few, however, serial-filming was easy, like playing a game. According to Bill Witney, Adventures of Red Ryder's Little Beaver, child actor Tommy Cook, quickly learned to ride and would always be ready to "chase down the bandits." Another boy rider, Sammy McKim, was so natural in The Painted Stallion (1937) and The Lone Ranger (1939) that Republic considered starring him in a Western series of his own; sadly, contract negotiations ran into conflict over finances, and the proposed series never materialized. And then there was House Peters, Jr. who, at age 19, bluffed his way into The Adventures of Frank Merriwell (Universal 1935), an aviation serial cast mainly with sons of silent stars: Jean Hersholt, Jr., Wallace Reid, Jr., Bryant Washburn, Jr. According to serial historian Bill Cline, House climbed the fence to Universal and when asked if he was one of the “juniors,” the son of the late matinee idol House Peters could truthfully reply, “Sure I am!”
To be continued ...