(3/10) In a nutshell: Inspired by Flash Gordon and The Phantom Empire, the young Republic Studios launched their own sci-fi serial in 1936, and the result was an action-packed, but rather brainless concoction relying heavily on horse chases and pointless crowd battles. Occasional good design and an energetic Crash Corrigan, nice action scenes, or even some merited actors can’t save this awfully scripted and blandly acted Atlantis-themed hotchpotch.
Undersea Kingdom. 1936, USA. Serial. Directed by B. Reeves Eason & Joseph Kane. Written by John Rathmell, Maurice Geraghty, Oliver Drake, Tracy Knight. Starring: Ray ”Crash” Corrigan, Lois Wilde, Lee van Atta, C. Montague Shaw, Monte Blue, William Farnum, Smiley Burnette, Frankie Farnum, Lon Chaney Jr, Sinbad the parrot. Produced by Nat Levine for Republic. IMDb score: 4.7
I’ve stated numerous times that I normally don’t review serials. But I can’t seem to keep away, can I? Well, just to put my review of Flash Gordon (1936) in perspective, I’ve decided to write a few lines on Undersea Kingdom, released barely two months after Flash. The cheap ripoff showcases almost everything that Flash Gordon got right, by getting it all wrong. Nonetheless, for some peculiar reason, the serial seems to hold a very special place in the hearts of the friends of the Republic serials. Admittedly, it is not without its technical merits, and one does learn to enjoy the horrible acting the way one enjoys Plan 9 from Outer Space.
In the early years of the thirties serials were slowly recovering from the increased financial burden that sound cinema brought forth, with Universal and Mascot being the main players – the only studios that overcame the transition. Western serials were available in abundance, as they were cheap to make, but following the two Tarzan serials of 1933 and 1935, jungle fantasy adventures were on the rise, offering savage natives and wild animals to fight. Fantasy serials like The Lost Jungle (1934), The Lost City and The Phantom Empire (1935, review) promoted the idea of lost worlds. Early science fiction serials like The Voice from the Sky (1930) and The Vanishing Shadow (1934, review) were basically crime/mystery serials updated with a sci-fi gizmo MacGuffin, a trope that would be used extensively. The Fighting Devils Dogs of 1938 would complete the formula by introducing the first masked villain to the American serials (Louis Feuillade did it years and years before with Fantomas in France).
The unusually expensive and hugely successful (and highly influential) Universal sci-fi serial Flash Gordon brought on the second golden age of the serials in 1936. Beridden by financial troubles, Mascot, along with five other smaller studios merged into Republic that same year, and fast became known as the producer of the most successful series in latter years. But the evidence on the screen showed that in 1936, Republic was still finding its ground. Mascot had reasonable success with The Phantom Empire in 1935, a crazy mix of musical comedy, western and science fiction. The serial depicted a hero and his sidekick kid fighting Flash Gordon-esque villains in a lost underground city called Murania (derived from a modern myth similar to Atlantis). When Universal made known their production of Flash Gordon, Mascot’s descendant Republic could probably sniff success, and subsequently initiated work on their own sci-fi/fantasy serial called Undersea Kingdom, borrowing heavily from The Phantom Empire, Lost City, westerns and to some extent Flash Gordon.
As director for Republic’s two first serials, Darkest Africa (a sequel to Lost Jungle) and Undersea Kingdom, Republic brought in the Mascot duo of B. Reeves Eason and Joseph Kane. Kane had directed a bunch of westerns starring Gene Autry (star of Phantom Empire) between 1934 and 1936, and Eason was a seasoned B-movie director with a knack for action and crowd scenes, who had made his directorial debut in 1915. Eason was best known, though, as an assistant director, and was famous for using 42 cameras for filming the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1925). He was equally infamous for his filming of the climactic charge scene in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), where his breezy attitude concerning safety resulted in many horses dying or having to be put down because of serious injuries.
The serial’s plot is simple enough: marine academy superstar Crash Corrigan (Ray ”Crash” Corrigan) accompanies the old scientist Professor Norton (C. Montague Shaw) on a mission in his ”rocket powered super-submarine” to find the lost city of Atlantis whose messages Norton has been picking up on his earthquake-detecting machine. Along tags the ”energetic reporter” Diana Compton (Lois Wilde), and the professor’s son Billy Norton (Lee van Atta), who has stowed away on the sub. Unfortunately they are also accompanied by the comic relief duo of Smiley Burnette, Frankie Marvin and their pet parrot Sinbad.
Once in Atlantis they get caught in the middle of a war between Unga Khan (Monte Blue), tyrant leader of the Black Robes, and Sharad (William Farnum), benevolent high priest and leader of the White Robes. With his mind altering machine Unga Khan alters Professor Norton’s mind, so that he will build rockets to propel the tyrant’s tower to the surface, where he intends to launch an attack on the ”surface world” and ”become its ruler or destroy it”. Meanwhile Diana Compton gets kidnapped a few times, screams, although she doesn’t faint very much. Crash Corrigan picks up the fight against Unga Khan alongside Sharad and is quickly made commander of the White Robes, despite the fact that he has little experience of the sort of medieval warfare that this highly technologically evolved people engage in. But he gets to wear speedos, a cape and a silly helmet. And for good measure, he brings young Billy along any chance he has to get killed, instead of the muscled warrior Moloch (John Merton) who would perhaps be a more suitable companion.
The film is certainly fast-paced, and the action scenes are well directed. But unfortunately there’s not much of the script left when they are removed. A typical episode runs like this: Crash Corrigan survives last episode’s cliffhanger. Either Sharad or Unga Khan talks exposition in his throne room. People ride horses in silly headgear and robes. Crash and Billy escape robots with ray guns. Billy or Diana get into trouble. Either Sharad or Unga Khan talks exposition in his throne room. People ride horses in silly headgear and robes. The Black Robes and White Robes engage in sabre fights on horses. Crash wrestles two baddies and wins them with a double headlock. Crash is knocked down and is in danger of getting killed. End of episode. Spliced in between are some bits of Norton working on the rockets for Unga Khan’s tower and Diana and Billy outwitting the Dark Robe guards, as well as as scenes of Crash escaping a super-fast white tank. About one third of the serial is simply made up of people riding around from one direction to the other. It is sometimes impressively filmed by Eason, and the horseback battles are not bad at all – but these sequences are mostly more or less pointless.
The logic of the film is completely nutty. First of all we have the idea of the rocket-powered submarine. Why on earth would anyone want to have a rocket-powered submarine, unless they just wanted to very quickly deplete all their fuel? The fact that the toy-like submarine seems to move slower than regular propeller-powered submarines further enhances the question mark. The Atlantians have developed robots, tanks, hovering bomb planes, ray guns and floating surveillance cameras – and they have managed to build a dome over their underwater city and still somehow are able to produce both sunlight and oxygen. But they still fight on horseback with sabres, and use Roman-style chariots, and wear robes and swimming caps in battle. And for some reason this superior race of men needs the help of a surface dwelling professor to create pretty basic liquid-fuelled rockets. This is after they have used their ”magnetic beam” to completely incapacitate his submarine. Unga Khan has a mind-altering machine. Why doesn’t he simply put all captured adversaries in it and make them fight for him? Unga Khan is able to watch everything that goes on up on the surface, and has planned his invasion of the whole world for years. But when he finally gets to it, he is completely overwhelmed and utterly destroyed by a few marine ships. Wasn’t he expecting a little resistance? And so on. Logic is not necessarily a requirement for a good serial, but at least some form of inner logic should be upheld.
Perhaps the biggest problem of Undersea Kingdom is that it looks like a western piffed up with sci-fi trappings. This is where Flash Gordon triumphed. No matter how silly the subject matter was, Flash was able to absorb the viewer into the crazy world of Mongo, thanks partly to borrowed sets from previous Universal films, but also superb location scouting and a cohesive and all-encompassing set, prop and costume design. In Undersea Kingdom the design – where it is used – is not bad at all. Unga Khan’s tower is stunning, and both the rocket ships and the hovering Vol Planes stand up fairly well, and the different futuristic gadgets are all viable thirties sci-fi stuff. But too often the serial looks like it was simply filmed on a studio backlot or somewhere in the rocks outside Los Angeles. Atlantis just looks a little too much like California. The robots in the serial are quite charming, although they do look like they are made from water-heaters and air ducts. This was the debut of the so-called Republic Robots, who would turn up again in Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940) and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952).
Another problem is the acting, scripting and editing. One of the great joys of Flash Gordon were the larger than life characters, from Flash himself to the fainting Dale, the pompous Dr. Zarkov, the evil, superior Emperor Ming, lion-maned Prince Thun, seductive, big-busted Princess Aura, the off-the-wall nutty, gigantic Prince Vultan, and so on. All major characters were clearly defined, and all had their respective stories to tell, and respective motivations for their actions. All interacted on a moral and human plane with each other, and many had believable character arcs. In Undersea Kingdom everyone pretty much looks and acts the same, and there are no character arcs to speak of. With one small exceptions the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad – perhaps excluding the mind-altered Professor Norton (and Shaw is probably the best actor of the lot). Monte Blue simply doesn’t have the chops for a scenery-chewing villain, and his sort of slightly Ming-inspired bad guy is just bland. William Farnum, a seasoned character actor, is capably natural and sympathetic as Sharad, wearing a giant tea cosy on his head, but ultimately the character is too thin to engage. Lois Wilde doesn’t have very much to do other than scream and look scared, and Lee van Atta is your typical annoying kid sidekick. Smiley Burnette and Frankie Marvin as the comic sidekicks were obviously inserted in post-production, as they never interact with the other main characters, and are never mentioned by anyone else. Their few comic appearances are decidedly un-comic and they are out-acted by Sinbad the parrot. A pre-Wolfman Lon Chaney Jr. gives it his best effort as a snarling Black Robe officer, but ultimately there isn’t enough material for him to make anything out of.
Crash Corrigan is in his element in the action sequences, but even there he hasn’t got the heroic flair that the charismatic Buster Crabbe brought to Flash Gordon. He doesn’t have many dramatic scenes, and any time he delivers lines, the directors choose to shoot him in full figure, so it’s hard to assess his capabilities as an actor. In keeping with the kiddie audiences, the romance between Crash and Diana is never really played out.
The dialogue consists mainly of exposition and exclamations, which means there isn’t much there to draw the viewer in. We never really care about the power struggle of Atlantis, since there really isn’t anything at stake for our main characters in it, and we don’t have any emotional attachments to any of the Atlantians.
This was Crash Corrigan’s first leading role, as he had mostly been confined to stunts, bit parts and work in his gorilla suit up til’ now. In Flash Gordon, released just months earlier, he played an Orangopoid, a modified gorilla suit, fighting Flash in one sequence. Corrigan also played the lead or semi-lead in a number of other cheap western serials, as well as in a few films. He is reported to have been quite engaging in his upcoming western serials. He never gave up his ape man job though, and as an owner of a gorilla suit, and with much experience, he was a cheap and talented addition to many films. He starred alongside both Boris Karloff (The Ape, 1940) and Bela Lugosi (Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, 1952) in ape films, of which he made about a dozen, some of them verging on sci-fi. Science fictions fans, though, will always remember him for his last role, as the alien in the 1958 film It! The Terror from Beyond Space. The film has gained a reputation that far succeeds its quality because its makers sued the makers of Alien (1979) for having ripped off their script. In fact both productions borrowed from the short story The Adventures of the Space Beagle.
To be fair to the filmmakers, one should point out that this was the lowest budgeted and third lowest in actual production costs of all Republic serials, with a final cost of only 99 000 dollars. A standard serial usually cost around 150 000-175 000 dollars, and Flash Gordon cost a whopping 350 000 dollars. From that point of view one can regard it as a moderately entertaining, fast-paced adventure with impressive crowd- and action scenes, and some imaginative and well done designs where they are present. But the above stated inadequacies ultimately drag the serial down, and it is, in all honesty, not a very engaging show.
On the premise of this role, it is hard to believe that William Farnum was one of Hollywood’s best paid actors in the early years, and had a five years stretch on stage as Ben-Hur. Farnum is perhaps best known for his iconic fight scene with Tom Santschi in the 1914 film The Spoilers, one of the first examples of a kinetic and brutal brawl played realistically on the screen – ending with Tom Santschi standing, shirt torn to shreds, brooding: ”I broke him – with my hands!”
Monte Blue was another fine character actor who was completely wasted in the role as Unga Khan. Blue started out as a stunt man and bit-part player in some of D.W. Griffith’s and Cecil B. DeMille’s most noted films, and gradually worked his way up the career ladder until he became one of the biggest romantic leading men in Hollywood in the twenties, acting opposite greats like Clara Bow (see Black Oxen review) and Gloria Swanson. After the introduction of the talkies he was able to keep working as a character actor in fairly big supporting roles for a few years, but was quickly reduced to smaller roles and uncredited bit-parts, sometimes in huge films like Casablanca, sometimes playing more substantial roles in B-films and serials, much of it within the western genre.
C. Montague Shaw was an Australian stage actor, who later moved to London and travelled the commonwealth to train actors in ”elocution”, before moving to the States. He appeared in small, often uncredited bit parts in some bigger fims, earning credits like ”Gentleman 1” in The Mummy (1932), but became a staple in serials, often playing British paternal, professorial characters. He played the Clay King in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), Professor Huer in Buck Rogers (1939), Professor Thomas Scott in Mysterious Doctor Satan, and appeared in a small role in The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1940).
Lane Chandler was another actor who, like Blue and Farnum, started out as a leading man, helming a few dozen westerns in the late twenties and early forties. But around 1934 he started seing his name appear lower and lower in the credits, until he started getting credits like ”shark man” or ”policeman” in serials and B-films. Lane Chandler was something of a sci-fi veteran, having already appeared in the 1933 disaster film Deluge and The Phantom Empire. He appeared (as a shark man) in Flash Gordon and both Flash Gordon sequels and Green Hornet serials, as well as in Buck Rogers and The Phantom Creeps (1939), The Purple Monster Strikes (1945), and was picked up in sci-fi films in the fifties, like The Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, review), Space Master X-7 (1958).
This was the sci-fi debut of later Universal superstar Lon Chaney Jr, son of the even bigger superstar Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces. Although Chaney initially tried to escape his father’s shadow by staying away from horror films, his big breakthrough came in 1941, when he played Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man in The Wolf Man, a role he would later reprise. He was also the actor who picked up many of the iconic monster roles after their initial portrayers had bailed out because of bad scripts and unwillingness to be typecast. He played, on different occasions, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula. He wasn’t much of a sci-fi staple, though, his only other entries being Man Made Monster (1941, review), the remake Indestructible Man (1956) and The Alligator People (1959). Beside his Wolf Man portrait, his best remembered (and probably best) role was as Lenny in the 1939 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
In smaller parts we find Jack Mulhall, who played supporting roles or bit parts in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, Buck Rogers, Mysterious Doctor Satan, Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and The Ape Man (1943, review). Lloyd Whitlock appeared in The Invisible Ray (1936, review), The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938), and Mysterious Doctor Satan. John Merton appeared on over 260 films or serials, mostly in bit-parts, including The Fighting Devil Dogs, Brick Bradford (1947) and the TV-series Adventures of Superman (1953), starring George Reeves.
Undersea Kingdom. 1936, USA. Directed by B. Reeves Eason & Joseph Kane. Written by John Rathmell, Maurice Geraghty, Oliver Drake, Tracy Knight. Starring: Ray ”Crash” Corrigan, Lois Wilde, Lee van Atta, C. Montague Shaw, Monte Blue, William Farnum, Smiley Burnette, Frankie Farnum, Lon Chaney Jr, Sinbad the parrot, Boothe Howard, Raymond Hatton, Lane Chandler, Jack Mulhall, John Bradford, Malcolm McGregor, Ralph Holmes, John Merton, Ernie Smith, Lloyd Whitlock. Cinematography: Edgar Lyons, William Nobles. Editing: Richard Fantl, Helene Turner. Art direction: Ralph Oberg. Costume design: Robert Ramsey. Special effects: John T. Coyle, Howard Lydecker, Theodore Lydecker, Bud Thackery. Produced by Nat Levine for Republic.