Captain Video and His Video Rangers

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(3/10) In a nutshell: The first science fiction TV show, the first TV show to feature a robot, spaceships, aliens and ray guns, the first TV show to be adapted for the big screen. This live broadcast kiddie show aired six days a week in the US for over five years between 1949 and 1955 and had a number of prolific sci-fi authors as screenwriters. It was hugely popular and created an avalanche of similar shows. It was also very shoddily made, extremely cheap, sometimes mind-bogglingly dumb, badly directed, awfully acted and had unrelated clips of old western films spliced into the action to pad out time, save cost and allow for set changes.

Captain Video and His Video Rangers. (1949-1955). Created by Lawrence Menkin and James Caddigan. Directed by Steve Previn et. al. Written by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Jack Vance, Damon Knight, James Blish, Isaac Asimov, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Stephen Marlowe, Wabrocklter M. Miller Jr, Robert Sheckley, J.T. McIntosh, Robert S. Richardson, et. al. Directed by Steve Previn, et al. Starring: Richard Coogan, Al Hodge, Don Hastings, Ben Lackland, Brain Mossen, Hal Conklin, Fred Scott, Ed Condit, Edward Holmes, Jack Orrison, Mary Vallee, Dave Ballard, Ernest Borgnine, Arnold Stang. Produced by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Olga Druce, et. al. for DuMont Television Networks. IMDb score: 7.2

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The opening shot of the early Captain Video episodes, showing the Video Ranger Headquarters.

You won’t see me reviewing many TV shows, since this blog focuses primarily on sci-fi films. But occasionally I will pick up one or two TV shows, as I have done with film serials, if they have an especially important role in the history of the sci-fi genre. Ultimately you can’t pretend to give any cohesive resumé on the history of sci-fi films unless you at least mention TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek and The X-Files. Now, granted, Captain Video and His Video Rangers aren’t perhaps quite all the way up there with those shows, but it is central to the history of sci-fi as the first science fiction TV show in the world. Continue reading

The superhero serials

The Spider’s Web: ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (5/10)
The Fighting Devil Dogs ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (3/10)
The Green Hornet: ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (4/10)
The Adventures of Captain Marvel ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (6/10)
Superman ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (8/10)
Batman ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (3/10)
Captain America ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (4/10)

In a nutshell: To a varying degree of quality, the superhero serials of the late thirties and early forties laid the foundations of many sci-fi film tropes, although at the time borrowing heavily from urban crime dramas and western serials. 

The Spider’s Web. USA, 1938. Starring: Warren Hull. The Fighting Devil Dogs. USA, 1938. Starring: Lee Powell, Herman Brix. The Green Hornet. USA, 1940. Starring: Gordon Jones, Keye Luke. Superman. USA, 1941. Animated short films. The Adventures of Captain Marvel. USA, 1941. Starring: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr. Batman. USA, 1943. Starring: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J Carrol Naish. Captain America. USA, 1944. Starring: Dick Purcell, Lionel Atwill. Produced by Columbia, Universal and Republic.

Tom Tyler flying high as Captain Marvel/Shazam.

Tom Tyler flying high as Captain Marvel/Shazam.

As I have mentioned numerous times when reviewing film serials: I don’t review film serials. The problem is, that if you want to write any sort of comprehensive blog on the origins of science fiction tropes, you just can’t leave out certain serials. Especially during the thirties and forties much of what we take for granted in sci-fi today got their humble screen beginnings as serials. That’s why I’ll use this post and to least take a brief glance on a number of the serials that came out of the States in the late thirties and early years of the forties, including: The Spider’s Web (1938), The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938), The Green Hornet (1940), Superman (1941), The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and Batman (1943). What sets these apart from previous serials is that they all contain masked superheroes or supervillains. Unlike other posts, though, I won’t go into great detail regarding makers and actors. Continue reading

Undersea Kingdom

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(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

Crash Corrigan fighting off two Black Robes in the Republic sci-fi serial Undersea Kingdom.

Crash Corrigan fighting off two Black Robes in the Republic sci-fi serial Undersea Kingdom.

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. Continue reading

Loss of Sensation

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(5/10) In a nutshell: A 1935 communist propaganda film with quite a few enjoyable quirks. Capitalists and communists fight over an army of robots that is controlled by saxophone. Based on a story by “The Jules Verne of Ukraine” and directed with a certain expressionist and avantgarde flair, the film is not without its merits, although the acting is stiff and amateurish and the script and dialogue leave room for improvement.

Loss of Sensation / Jim Ripple’s Robot (Gibel Sensatsii / Robot Dzhima Ripl). 1935, Soviet Union. Directed by Alexandr Andriyevskiy. Written by Georgiy Grebner. Based on the novella Idut Roborati! by Vladimir Vladko (uncredited). Starring: Sergei Vecheslov, Vladimir Gardin, M. Volgina, Anna Chekulayeva. Nikolai Rybnikov, Vasili Orlov. Produced for Mezhrabpomfilm. IMDb score: 6.5

Capitalist robots dancing to modern jazz on a drunken sax in the 1934 Soviet sci-fi propaganda Gibel Sensatsii.

Capitalist robots dancing to modern jazz on a drunken sax in the 1935 Soviet sci-fi propaganda Gibel Sensatsii.

Loss of Sensation apparently made a tour of the modern art circuit in 2012 as a part of a collection of Soviet films, which has led to some commentators euphorically labelling it as a forgotten Soviet alternative to Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis (1927, review). Well, let’s start off by putting that one to rest: it is not. Not because Loss of Sensation would necessarily be a bad film, but because Metropolis was made by one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, on a budget that was the biggest the world had ever seen at that point, and the film subsequently laid the groundwork for futurism, mad scientist films, dystopian films, created the android as we know it and even inspired architecture and interior design, and has frequently been placed among the three best sci-fi films in history. Loss of Sensation has not.

Good.

I’m glad we got that out of the way.

Now to the film. Continue reading

Master of the World

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(4/10) In a nutshell: A mad scientist, an army of killer robots, a grieving widow and a dashing hero. There are the ingredients for this German 1934 film by the self-styled action hero Harry Piel. Perhaps his darkest movie, and one of the few where he doesn’t appear on screen. A predictable script and flat filming, but the acting is good and the special effects not bad either.

Master of the World (Der Herr der Welt). Germany, 1934. Directed by Harry Piel. Written by Georg Mühlen-Schulte, Harry Piel. Starring: Siegfried Schürenberg, Sybille Schmitz, Walter Franck. Cinematography: Ewald Daub. Editing: Erich Palme. Art direction: Willi Hermann. Music: Fritz Wennels. Makeup: Arnold Jenssen. Produced by Harry Piel for Ariel Films. IMDb score: 5.8

The robot attacks.

The robot attacks.

Officially the last German science fiction film released before the Nazis killed off the genre for years to come, Master of the World (1934) is not the most glorious of its kind. Directed by the prolific action film writer, producer, director and actor Harry Piel, it shows many similarities with the successful Gold (review), released just months earlier, but lacks its predecessor’s flair and wit.  Continue reading

The Vanishing Shadow

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(4/10) In a nutshell: Mature direction and script, quality effects, a good lead actor and a whole heap of Strickfadens make this early sci-fi serial a relatively entertaining outing – but it is nonetheless a pretty cheap exploitation of The Invisible Man and earlier crime dramas.

The Vanishing Shadow. USA, 1934. Serial. Directed by: Lew Landers. Written by: Basil Dickey, George Morgan, Ella O’Neill, Het Mannheim. Starring: Onslow Stevens, Ada Ince, Walter Miller, James Durkin, Richard Cramer, Lee J. Cobb. Music: Edward Ward. Cinematography: Richard Fryer. Editing: Saul A. Goodkind. Alvin Todd, Edward Todd. Special effects: Elmer A. Johnson, Raymond Lindsay, Kenneth Strickfaden. Produced by Henry McRae for Universal. IMDb score: 6.1

Original poster for the early sci-fi serial The Vanishing Shadow.

Original poster for the early sci-fi serial The Vanishing Shadow.

The Vanishing Shadow (1934) was one of the serials riding on the wave of newfound interest from studios in serial-making. After sound cinema bloated the budgets of filmmaking, most studios quickly dropped their serials, and only Mascot and Universal hung on – and this of course opened the door for many smaller studios to cut in on the action. Serials were again on the rise after western star Tim McCoy fronted the hugely successful The Indians Are Coming in late 1930, and after this stars like John Wayne, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi (The Whispering Shadow, 1933, review) and the dog Rin Tin Tin all helped to further drive the format forward. The Vanishing Shadow had no real big-name star, but in this serial it is Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical sci-fi gadgets and the special effects created by director Lew Landers and cinematographer Richard Fryer, along with editor Saul A. Goodkind, that shine. Continue reading

Metropolis

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(10/10) In a nutshell: The plot may be slightly simplistic and the political message naive, but the thematic and visual influence of Austrian director Fritz Lang’s exciting 1927 masterpiece Metropolis is rivalled by few in science fiction and in film in general. A great, entertaining, sprawling epic in a future tower of Babylon.

Metropolis. 1927, Germany. Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang. Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlig, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Cinematography: Karl Freund. Produced by Erich Pommer for UFA. Tomatometer: 99 % IMDb score: 8.3 (#106) Metascore: 98/100.

The hugely influential Maschinenmensch robot and some early, beautifully rendered special effects.

The hugely influential Maschinenmensch robot and some early, beautifully rendered special effects.

Few films have been so much written about and analysed as Austrian director Fritz Lang’s stupendous epic Metropolis. Not only is this dystopian sci-fi classic with political and religious undertones one of the most influential sci-fi films of all time. It is also one of the films that has had the biggest influence, not only on the movies, but on art, literature and even architecture and design, in history. Despite all this, Fritz Lang himself disowned the film nearly from the day it was released. Continue reading

The Mechanical Man

No rating due to only partially surviving film

In a nutshell: Partially lost Italian silent sci-fi comedy from 1921, noted for being the first feature film to revolve around a robot. What remains is fairly entertaining.

The Mechanical Man (L’uomo meccanico). 1921, Italy. Written and directed by André Deed. Starring André Deed, Valentina Frascaroli. Produced for Società Anonima Milano Films.IMDb score: 5.9

The Mechanical Man in all its faded glory.

The Mechanical Man in all its faded glory.

This film is partially lost, and the only thing remaining is about 26 minutes of the original 80(?) minute film, so I cannot with any good judgement give this one a rating. I want to include in it here, though, for two reasons. The first is that this is probably what remains of the first full length feature movie to revolve around a robot – although it wasn’t referred to as a robot in 1921 when the film premiered. The second reason is so that it can represent one of the tragedies of early film: about 80 percent of all the films made in the 1920’s are presumed to be lost. Continue reading

The Master Mystery

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(4/10) In a nutshell: This 1919 serial starring Harry Houdini is fast-paced, action-packed and well filmed, and features the first robot in a lengthy feature. A thin, repetitive script and mediocre acting pulls the serial down.

The Master Mystery. 1919, USA. Directed by Burton L. King & Harry Grossman. Written by Arthur B. Reeve & Charles Logue. Starring Harry Houdini, Marguerite Marsh. Cinenatography: William Reisman. Produced by B.A. Rolfe for Rolfe Photoplays. IMDb score: 6.7

Q the Automaton was the first robot in a long production. The first robot of a feature film was presented two years later.

Q the Automaton was the first robot in a long production. The first robot of a feature film was presented two years later.

I generally don’t review serials or series, as it would be too much of a workload to go through all of he sci-fi series for reviewing. In very rare cases, though, I make exceptions. One such exception is the 1919 Harry Houdini serial The Master Mystery. Not because it would be exceptionally good or extremely important to the science fiction genre, but because of the simple fact that it is the first lengthy production featuring a robot (or an automaton, as it was called back then). Continue reading

The Automatic Motorist

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In a nutshell: In yet another George Méliès-ripoff, the father of UK sci-fi films, Walter R. Booth, takes a car on a trip to Saturn and back in this hilarious 1911 short film.

The Automatic Motorist. UK, 1911. Silent short film. Directed by Walter R. Booth. Starring: Walter R. Booth. Produced by Charles Urban for Kineto Films. IMDb score: 5.8

The car is on Saturn. We don't know how it got there.

The car is on Saturn. We don’t know how it got there.

A bridegroom takes his bride on a honeymoon in their car, which has a robot driver. When they are stopped by a policeman, they knock him down and tie him to the back of the car, and drag him along, through London, up on the roof of Buckingham Palace and all the way to Saturn, where they drive around the rings a couple of times before crashing through the surface of the planet and encounter the inhabitants, who take the poor policeman hostage. But don’t you worry, he soon becomes the lover of the queen of the planet, and the sit snuggling on the rings of Saturn. The car then falls off the planet and back to Earth, where it first falls into an geyser – and then apparently into the sea – and then … something happens, because they are suddenly spinning in the air, until a guy shoots them down with a rifle. The couple lands safely back in London, but the robot is ruined. Continue reading