“Daredevils of the Red Circle and Other Cliffhangers” is a blog on serials by Geoffrey Mayer, the author of Encyclopedia of American Film Serials (McFarland, 2017).
The Hollywood studios, except one, studiously ignored Hitler and the fascists throughout the 1930s. The exception was Warner Brothers who, under the leadership of Harry Warner, tirelessly fought anti-Semitism and fascism at a time when expressions of anti-Semitism and isolationism pervaded many aspects of American society. Such attitudes were overtly supported by the industry censor, the Production Code Administration (PCA) under the leadership of Joseph Breen. These attitudes and institutions, along with the financial self-interests of the studios, virtually prevented the production of films that specifically addressed Nazi atrocities in Germany along with German espionage within the United States. A poll in November 1936 reported that 95% of Americans were opposed to United States participation in any potential war while, three years later, a Gallup poll found that 42% of the public thought it more important to investigate American war propaganda than to investigate the spread of Nazism, fascism or communism in America.i This did not deter Harry Warner and his determination to use the studio to highlight Nazi aggression. When Hitler declared an official boycott of Jewish business in Germany in April 1933 and ordered that all Jewish employees be dismissed from the American distribution exchanges in the country, Warner Brothers responded, at considerable financial costs, by closing their German offices in July 1934. Fox, Paramount and MGM, on the other hand, retained their offices in Germany until 1939.
Warner Brothers, aware of the impact of their “entertainment films” on audiences, produced the first anti-Hitler film, an animated short titled Bosko’s Picture Show in August 1933. The short included a segment that showed an agitated Adolph Hitler chasing Jimmy Durante with a meat cleaver. During this turbulent period Harry Warner received no support from the other Jewish studio heads, especially Louis B. Mayer at MGM who, as late as 1939, hosted a group of Nazi newspaper editors on the MGM lot – much to Harry Warner’s disgust. However, Warner’s greatest opposition came from inside the Hollywood film industry where Joseph Breen opposed any attempt to criticize, or even mention, the Nazi regime. Breen, who authored a few anti-semitic letters in the early 1930s where he described the studio heads as “Eastern Jews, the scum of the earth,”ii responded to Warner’s plans to produce anti-Nazi films by banning their release through the PCA’s power of denying the Production Code seal of approval necessary for the distribution and exhibition of all studio films in mainstream theaters throughout the United States.
Warner’s response to the ban was the production of allegorical films that attacked authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and racial and religious intolerance, without reference to the words ‘Nazi,’ ‘Germany’ or ‘Jew.’ This included films such as Black Legion (1937), They Won’t Forget (1937), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Juarez (1939). This situation changed after the announcement by J. Edgar Hoover on February 26, 1938 that the FBI had exposed and dismantled a Nazi spy ring. Hoover’s announcement provided the impetus for Warner Brothers to renew their attack on fascism in general along with the existence of Nazi espionage in the United States. The result was the release of one of the studio’s most controversial films, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), which followed the indictment in June 1938 of 18 people in a New York Federal Court, although 14 managed to flee before sentencing. Warners sent screenwriter Milton Krims to cover the trial and Krims and John Wexley developed a script partly based on articles serialized in the New York Post by FBI agent Leon Turrou.
The filming of Confessions of a Nazi Spy took place between February 1 and March 18, 1939. Warners tried to shield the production from the media by giving the film the working title Storm Over America. However, news leaked out and opposition to the production intensified during the filming period. Dr. George Gyssling, the German Consul General in Los Angeles, pressured Breen and the Production Code Administration to halt production and Breen tried to do this on a number of occasions. There was also opposition from the other major studios, particularly MGM, who feared the release of the film would damage profits in Germany and elsewhere. Reluctantly, however, the PCA gave the film their Production Code seal of approval and it premiered in Los Angeles on April 27 – without reference to terms such as “concentration camp” and “Jew.”
Warners, realizing that the film would face considerable opposition from within the United States from isolationists and pro-German groups, released a printed ad showing a man sitting with his feet on a desk with the dismissive comment:”Nazi spies in America? That’s got nothing to do with me!”. The ad responds to this comment with: “He’ll learn differently when he sees Confessions of a Nazi Spy.” The film, an excessive, strident melodrama, employed a wide range of formal devices to convince the public of its “truth” or “reality.” This included newsreel footage showing Nazi rallies and German troops marching into Austria and Czechoslovakia along with scenes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, footage of Bund activities within the United States, newspaper headlines, an authoritative voice-over similar to the style employed by the March of Time newsreels, direct address to the camera in the trial sequence, references to real people such as Josef Goebbels (Martin Kosleck), and thinly veiled transformations of other real-life people such as Edward Renard (Edward G. Robinson) who represented Leon Turrou. The film also recreated actual events such as the attempt by American Legion veterans to oppose a Bund meeting in New York in April 1938. The film’s uplifting, patriotic ending employed a “we the people” address when Renard, after listening to a customer in a diner criticizing the Nazi espionage attempt, commented to District Attorney Kellogg (Henry O’Neill) that this is “the voice of the people.” The emotional intensity of the film’s closure is reinforced by the use of “America the Beautiful” on the soundtrack. Narrative strategies employed to condemn Nazi behavior in the United States also included the moral condemnation of the leader of the America German Bund, Dr. Karl Kassel (Paul Lukas), who is shown in an adulterous affair with a young German woman, Erika Wolf (Lya Lys) – much to the distress of Kassel’s wife Lisa (Celia Sibelius).
Confessions of a Nazi Spy is a remarkably brave film within the political context of 1938/39 when isolationist sentiment in the United States was strong. The film was immediately banned in Germany, Italy, Japan, Holland, Norway and Sweden and 18 more countries over the next twelve months and the PCA subsequently re-imposed its ban on all anti-Nazi productions by the Hollywood studios, a prohibition that lasted from September 15, 1939 to January 1940.iii Typically Warners, unlike the other studios, defied the PCA with films such as British Intelligence (1940) with Boris Karloff as a German spy who infiltrates the household of a British war official, Sea Hawk (1940), an allegory that associates the Spanish King Phillip with Adolph Hitler and Sea Wolf (1941) with Edward G. Robinson as the sadistic Captain Wolf Larsen and the film’s obvious sub-text condemning fascist and authoritarian behavior. However, the studio had a much harder time with Underground (1941). When Breen received the initial script on August 11, 1939 he unequivocally opposed the production on the grounds that it was a biased attack on the fascist regime under Adolph Hitler.iv Breen’s prohibition was supported by Will Hays, the president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and the film did not get PCA approval until May 1941.v
A familiar narrative device used by Warner Brothers in their anti-Nazi films in this period, and by other studios after 1941, was to show the regeneration or transformation of the central character from a pro-isolationist position to, by the end of the film, an interventionist stance. One of the studio’s most effective films in this regard was Sergeant York which was in production between February 3 and May 1, 1941. Its New York premiere was on July 2, 1941 and it became the highest grossing Hollywood film in 1941. The narrative follows the transformation of the central character, real-life Tennessee farmer Alvin York (Gary Cooper), from an anti-war position to one where he became America’s most decorated soldier during the First World War, killing numerous Germans and capturing 132 prisoners in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. York, who assisted in the supervision of the film, received the American Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism.
Based on the script by Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch and John Huston, the film could have easily, in a different period, become an anti-war tract, a tragic drama involving guilt and self-doubt, qualities exhibited by York during the film’s production. When, for example, a member of the crew asked York how many Germans he killed, the war hero reportedly started sobbing before vomiting.vi Indeed, the film has been described as the “tragedy of a man rewarded for going against his beliefs.”vii While this may have been true of the actual war hero, the film, on the other hand, shows York’s transformation from devout pacifist to an aggressive, committed patriot. Initially, at the start of the film, York enrolls as a conscientious objector during the First World War. When this is overturned, and he is drafted into the army, he refuses to participate in killing the enemy. York’s commanding officer, reluctant to lose an able soldier, offers him a book on American history, together with a ten-day leave, to reconsider his decision. Following an overnight stay on a hill in his native Tennessee, where he battles his doubts and indecision, conveyed by an emphatic voice-over expressing his inner conflict between “obey your God” and “defend your country,” York’s reluctance to fight is gradually eradicated (at least in the film). This occurs when a gust of wind blows his bible open to the specific passage that resolves his dilemma (“render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s …”). York’s renewed determination to fight the enemy occurs just as the sun begins to rise with its rays gradually spreading over York’s face, symbolically ‘legitimizing’ his decision, a wonderfully effective rendering of Peter Brook’s dictum that in melodrama internal doubts are eventually dispelled and “the universe bathes in the full, bright lighting of moral manichaeism.”viii
Warner Brothers continued in this vein during the period before America’s entry into the Second World War, often employing a mixture of comedy, romance and melodrama to warn the American people of the dangers of Nazi espionage and move the populace from an entrenched isolationist perspective. While Casablanca (1942) is the most popular example, earlier films such as Dangerously They Live (1941), starring John Garfield, and All Through the Night, starring Humphrey Bogart, employed the same narrative device. This latter film, which was filmed between August and October 1941 and released on January 10, 1942, was described by its director Vincent Sherman as ‘Damon Runyon meets “Watch on the Rhine,”’ix It concludes with police captain Forbes (James Burke) finally realizing the extent of the Nazi threat and yelling “We’ve got to wake up,” followed by the heroine’s comment that its about “time somebody knocked the Axis back on their heels.” Bogart, as ‘Gloves’ Donahue, reverses this by telling her “that what you mean is that it is about time somebody knocked those heels back on their Axis!” However, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, nobody was laughing as the mood quickly shifted to one of intense indignation coupled with a burning desire for retribution.
Following the release of Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), the remaining Hollywood studios gradually, perhaps reluctantly, joined Warner’s mission, especially after the PCA lifted its ban on anti-Nazi films in January 1940. MGM subsequently released The Mortal Storm, Escape and Flight Command in 1940 while 20th Century Fox released Four Sons and The Man I Married which had the working title I Married a Nazi. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was also released in 1940 by United Artists. Republic, one of Hollywood’s smaller studios, joined the anti-Nazi cycle with its serial King of the Royal Mounted on September 20, 1940. The serial took its title, and little else, from a popular comic strip that was, supposedly, devised by author Zane Grey. Apart from collecting royalties and providing some broad story outlines, Grey displayed little interest in the comic strip and his son Romer assumed responsibilities for the comic’s narrative continuity. Republic’s screenwriters Norman Hall, Franklin Adreon and Sol Shor began work on the script on November 21, 1939, nearly six weeks after Canada declared war on Germany on September 10, 1939. They completed the first draft on December 8, 1940.x and the script reflects the growing anti-Nazi sentiment in the United States. The surnames of the villains included Admiral Gerhardt, General Feldhausen, Dr. Kohler, Kurt Kettler and Captain Tarnheim. Unfortunately, the studio lost its nerve and these names were changed to Admiral Johnson, Excellency Zarnoff, Dr. Wall, John Kettler and Captain Tarner and references to the “Fatherland” were also deleted in the final script.xi On the other hand, the use of newsreel footage and a succession of newspaper headlines in the opening moments of the serial identified the villain as it showed Germany battling Britain for control of the North Sea.
After the final draft of the script was completed on June 13, filming took place between June 18 and July 12, 1940, a remarkable feat for a production that had a running time of 211 minutes at the miserly cost of $137, 874. The story involved Sergeant King (Allan Lane) of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police battling representatives of an unnamed foreign power determined to acquire a native pitchblende concentrate called Compound X. Local Canadians are also interested in Compound X as it contained properties to cure infantile paralysis. The enemy, on the other hand, was interested only in Compound X’s military potential after they discovered that with the addition of copper sulphate, Compound X produced a magnetic mine capable of disrupting the British shipping blockade of their homeland.
King of the Royal Mounted employed a narrative device that became a convention in war films released during the early years of the Second World War – the sacrifice of a key protagonist for the greater good. This occurs in the final chapter, chapter 12 (“Code of the Mounted”), when the partner to the hero, Corporal Tom Merritt Jr. (Robert Kellard), saves the life of Sergeant King after they are imprisoned in the torpedo room of an enemy agent’s submarine. When King orders Merritt to put on the sole aqualung in the room so that he can escape from the submarine, Merritt disobeys the order, knocks out King and ejects his partner out of the torpedo tube to safety. When the villains corner Merritt in the torpedo room, Merritt hits the nose of a torpedo with a wrench, thereby blowing himself, and the villains, apart as the submarine explodes. Traditionally, film serials close in an upbeat fashion with the hero victorious and the villains subjugated. King of the Royal Mounted, on the other hand, closes on a somber, patriotic note as King presents Merritt’s sister Linda (Lita Conway) with her brother’s posthumous awarded, the Victoria Cross. Linda’s reply, accompanied by the superimposed image of her brother Tom riding his horse in the Canadian forest, represents a moving, emotionally excessive, finale:
Linda: I don’t even think of you [Tom] as dead. I’ll always see him riding as he used to ride. Happy, free, proud of the uniform he wore, proud to serve Canada. I’ll see him riding like that as long as I live.
The sentimental, patriotic dialogue and imagery showing the dead hero and his sister is intensified by he use of the musical motif “Linda,” written specifically for the serial by Paul Sawtell. This continues during the serial’s final moment, over the technical credits, showing King’s father Major King (Herbert Rawlinson), who sacrificed his life to save his son earlier in the serial, riding alongside his son and Tom Merritt Jr., accompanied by composer Mort Glickman’s stirring music. Although King of the Royal Mounted is the best of the four Mountie serials produced by Republic, co-director William Witney was not impressed with the production which he described it as a “dud” because it “was pure and simple propaganda.”xii
Ten months later, on June 17, 1941, Republic began production on King of the Texas Rangers, a typical Republic concoction assimilating contemporary concerns and settings within the iconography of the historical west. The serial starred real-life football star “Slingin” Sammy Baugh as Texas Ranger Tom King Jr. and the first chapter (“The Fifth Column Strikes”) quickly establishes the nationality and moral nature of the villains when Felix Hauptman (Neil Hamilton), posing as the seemingly respectable American rancher and oil company stockholder John Barton, orders the death of King’s father Tom King Sr., (Monte Blue), a captain in the Texas Rangers. Although the serial does not explicitly identify the nationality of the villains, the names, and the fact that the chief foreign spy known only as “His Excellency” (Rudolph Anders), hovers over Texas in a zeppelin dispensing orders to Hauptman, clearly establishes the nationality of the villains. When the leader greets Hauptman aboard the zeppelin they employ a Nazi raised arm salute, although the serial replaces the Nazi greeting of “Seig Heil” with “For the Cause.” The villains also wear a close facsimile of the German military uniform. It was released on October 4, 1941, just over 2 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the serial-producing studios immediately initiated the production of war related serials with clear propaganda intentions in Captain Midnight, and The Secret Code from Columbia, Junior G-Men of the Air from Universal, King of the Mounties and, the best of them all, Spy Smasher from Republic. Released less than five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Spy Smasher was produced by a studio that possessed the best serial directors, producers, scriptwriters and production personnel at that time, including special effects experts the Lydecker Brothers. Directed by William Witney, in his first solo serial after co-directing 17 serials with John English, Spy Smasher starred Kane Richmond in the dual roles of Alan Armstrong (aka. Spy Smasher) and his twin brother Jack. Richmond, in his best screen role, expertly and subtlety, differentiated the different nature of the two brothers, the mature, serious and politically committed Alan compared with his less experienced, and more immature, brother Jack. In the action sequences, some of the best in the history of the serial, stuntman Dave Sharpe stands in for Richmond although Corey Loftin doubled Richmond in a dangerous motorcycle sequence. Scriptwriters Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, William Lively, Joseph O’Donnell and Joseph Poland provided a better than average serial narrative that smoothly incorporates the serial’s overriding theme: the need for personal sacrifice in the face of an imposing threat from outside the United States.
The first episode of Spy Smasher was released on April 4, 1942 and the opening credits, arguably the best serial credit sequence, are immediately imbued with a sense of urgency and tension. While Fawcett, the publisher of Spy Smasher, wanted Republic to use the comic book cover as background art for the credits, Herbert Yates decided to use the credit design suggested by his own company, Consolidated Film Industries. Nowhere has a serial better utilized music to plunge the audience into the topical world of the Second World War than Mort Glickman’s adaptation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony over the serial’s opening credits, a musical cue consisting of three rapid notes followed by a lower prolonged note. xiii This musical presentation of the international Morse Code symbol for the letter “V,” a symbol associated with the European underground movement, immediately transports the audience to the war raging in Europe and imbues the serial with a sense of urgency and tension. The images representing the Morse Code signal of “dot/dot/dot/dash” printed at the bottom of the screen are followed by a series of animated “V for Victory” wipes that take the form of a searchlight. This is synchronized with the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony assimilated into the musical score by Republic composers Arnold Schwarzeld, Paul Sawtell and Mort Glickman.
Spy Smasher shares a production history with Republic’s The Flying Tigers, starring John Wayne and John Carroll, and a small number of Hollywood productions that began pre-production in the months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor while filming was completed after the attack. When the production was first proposed, Joseph Breen and the PCA warned the studio not to identify Germany. Thus, the script, completed by December 1, a week before America’s declaration of war against Japan and Germany, never specifically mentions Germany although the nationality of the villains, as the first chapter (“America Beware”) shows, is never in doubt. This was corrected during production when Germany is mentioned at the beginning of chapter one. Screenwriter Harrison Carter began work on the serial on August 7, 1941, and he developed a 15,000 word treatment over the next five weeks. On September 11, Davidson, Hall, Lively, O’Donnell and Poland began writing the script from Harrison’s treatment. They submitted their script on December 1 and an estimating script was completed by December 9. Filming took place from December 22, 1941 to January 29, 1942. Thus production bridged the period before the declaration of war and the immediate period after President Roosevelt’s declaration of war and it was ideally placed to capture the nation’s sense of turmoil, anger, and indignation permeated by a powerful desire for retribution. To achieve this the central theme of the serial is the need for personal sacrifice, motifs deployed by the death of two major characters: [spoiler alert] Pierre Durand and Jack Armstrong.
Spy Smasher was based on the character created for Whiz Comics which was owned by Fawcett Comics. The first appearance of millionaire sportsman Alan Armstrong was in February 1940 in Whiz Comics number 2, the same edition that introduced Captain Marvel. Spy Smasher was created by Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck. In mid 1941 Fawcett rejected Universal’s offer of $5,000 for the rights to Spy Smasher and fellow super hero Bulletman while the publisher accepted a lower figure ($1500) from Republic as they were impressed by the quality of Republic’s production of their other super-hero in The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). The contract between Fawcett and Republic was signed on August 28, 1941 and the studio retained the rights for three years as well as perpetual re-release rights. In its initial phase studio head Herbert Yates favored the theme of a subversive enemy working within the United States and a prologue for F.B.I Director J. Edgar Hoover was prepared. In this prologue Hoover warns “Spy Smasher symbolizes American patriotism in action against those subversive forces which may be far from imaginary.” However, following America’s declaration of war on Japan and Germany it was decided to abandon Hoover’s prologue.
Filming began on December 22 in various Californian locations, including Lake Elsinore and its accompanying military academy and water tower plus the nearby Los Angeles Brick and Clay Products Company plant at Alberhill. Other locations included the Consumer Rock and Grave Company in North Hollywood, the Van Nuys police station and the Iverson ranch. The first chapter, one of the strongest in the history of the sound serial, begins in German-occupied Paris at Gestapo headquarters as the Nazis plot to devalue the American dollar by flooding the United States with counterfeit money. After Spy Smasher is captured while searching the headquarters he is taken to a large room and flogged while manacled to the wall. The French Provost Marshal Captain Pierre Durand (Franco Corsaro) is then ordered to execute him. However, Durand allows Spy Smasher to escape by ordering his men to shoot around him and the costumed hero travels back to the United States. On a train bound for Lakeside Junction he is reunited with his twin brother Jack after confronting a German spy on the train. The twins fly to the home of Admiral Corby (Sam Flint) and his daughter Eve (Marguerite Chapman), Jack’s fiancée. Later, while the Mask (Hans Schumm), the head of the Nazi spy ring, cruises beneath Shark Bay in a U-78 submarine discharging buoys loaded with counterfeit notes, Alan and Jack patrol the estuary from above. The chapter ends with Spy Smasher in a cave. However, the villains construct a clever trap so that once he reaches the end of the tunnel an explosion will be triggered. Trapped in a mining handcar with hand grenades on board, the chapter ends with Spy Smasher desperately pumping the handle of the car in a vain attempt to outrun the fireball following him. This exciting cliffhanger is resolved at the beginning of the next chapter when Spy Smasher throws a hand grenade into the fire, causing the flames to extinguish.
In chapter two (“Human Target”) the action moves to Martinidad, a fictional French possession under German control off the coast of the United States. Here Alan Armstrong repays his debt by rescuing Pierre Durand as the Germans are about to hang him. This episode concludes with another tense cliffhanger as Spy Smasher, trapped by Nazi agents on Martinidad with a prisoner, is seemingly machine-gunned to death. However, chapter three reveals that Spy Smasher exchanged uniforms with his prisoner before the machine gun fire and it is the German prisoner that is gunned down. Even better is the ending to chapter three (“Iron Coffin”) and the resolution at the beginning of chapter four (“Stratosphere Invaders”). This sequence foregrounds the serial’s main theme and establishes its credentials as a prime example of screen propaganda. The cliffhanger to chapter 3 and the takeout to chapter 4 are specifically designed to reinforce the theme of personal sacrifice. At the end of chapter 3 Pierre and Spy Smasher are trapped in the torpedo room on the Mask’s submarine. After the Germans open up the sea valves, the room begins to flood and both men appear to perish at the end of chapter three. However, at the beginning of chapter four Pierre slips an aqualung on the unconscious Spy Smasher and saves his life by ejecting him out of the submarine through the torpedo tube. As there is only one aqualung Pierre drowns, a fate he accepts after saving Spy Smasher’s life. When Spy Smasher learns of the Frenchmen’s sacrifice, he fondles a small tricolor that Durand pinned on him while declaring that this “must have been his way of saying, ‘Go on and win for freedom and democracy.’” “Some ‘day,” he adds, “I’ll fasten that on top of the Eiffel Tower in free Paris in honor of Pierre Durand.” This theme is reiterated at the end of chapter 11 (aptly titled “Hero’s Death”) and the start of chapter 12 (V * * *-). When Jack realizes that the Mask’s men have kidnapped Eve Corby as a means of trapping Spy Smasher, he knocks his brother (Alan) out, dresses as Spy Smasher, and walks into the trap. After Eve is safe, Jack, dressed as Spy Smasher, is pursued to the roof of an industrial building where he is gunned down before plummeting to the street below. As Jack dies in the arms of his brother he tells him “forgive me …. I guessed it was a trap, and I couldn’t let you walk into it … America needs Spy Smasher.” Alan and Eve solemnly acknowledge Jack’s sacrifice. In the final episode, Drake (Tristram Coffin), a German agent conducting sabotage behind the cover of his Trans-Ocean Television service, attempts to flee in a motorboat. In an attempt to stop him Spy Smasher, doubled by David Sharpe, dives off the pier at Lake Elsinore as the motorboat pulls away. The sequence was intended to show Spy Smasher grabbing onto the rope and hauling himself up into the boat in one shot. However, when the stuntman could not grasp the slippery rope the sequence was broken up into separate shots as Sharpe nearly drowned when he was dragged across the lake at high speed.
When episodes of Spy Smasher were previewed at in-house screenings at Republic during March, April and May 1942, the consensus was that the studio had produced its best serial to date. And they were probably right. However, a planned sequel never eventuated. This was mostly due to the delicate balance between costs and profits. The film’s budget was $153, 682 and the final negative cost was only $156, 431 – and it was a popular serial. Yet in October 1943 Herbert Yates, the head of Republic Pictures, decided not to renew its option with Fawcett Publications. This was largely due to the fact that although the serial was popular in 1942, they decided that a reprise of the character might not be as popular in 1944 and beyond. The possibility of a second Spy Smasher serial was also complicated by legal action instigated by National (DC) Comics against Fawcett alleging that Captain Marvel, a Fawcett comic hero, was a copy of Superman, the property of DC Comics. As Republic had produced the serial Adventures of Captain Marvel, starring Tom Tyler, in 1941 they became involved in the litigation. This eventually resulted in Republic ending its association with Fawcett.
The serial deviates from the comic in a number of ways. In the comic Alan Armstrong is a Virginian sportsman and Eve is his fiancée who later learns that Alan is Spy Smasher. The serial differs by providing Alan with a twin brother (Jack) who is Eve’s fiancée. Jack never appeared in the comic. On the other hand Alan, in the serial, is a news service correspondent thought killed in France. The serial also retained the Mask, a Nazi agent, as the chief villain and he was lifted directly from the comic strip where he was Spy Smasher’s main adversary in the first 13 issues in 1939 in Whiz Comics. In 1941 Spy Smasher had his own comic for eleven issues. While the character was popular in the early years of the Second World War, sales gradually diminished and by 1948 the character was extinct as far as the comics were concerned. In an effort to revitalize the character after the war, Spy Smasher was transformed into Crime Smasher, a private detective. This change was not successful. The serial Spy Smasher was subsequently edited into a 100-minute feature film (to fit a 120 minute television slot) and released in March 1966 as part of Republic’s Century ’66 television package.
Recently The Serial Squadron released Spy Smasher on Blu-ray. The release is accompanied by a 250 booklet detailing the history of Spy Smasher in comics and the movies. The booklet includes the comics, “Death Itself Must Die” from Spy Smasher number 5 and Spy Smasher and the Dark Angel, as well as the Spy Smasher Dime Action Book, “Spy Smasher and the Red Death!” There is also a summary of each chapter of the serial plus some brief background information on director William Witney and the major players. One minor quibble, and it is minor, the information on Witney includes a reference to the fact that after his initial serial, The Painted Stallion (1937), Witney “would go on to direct 23 more cliffhangers for Republic, many with second-unit director John English” (p. 102). It is a little demeaning to describe John English as a “second-unit director.” Both English and Witney, as Witney pointed out in his 1996 biography In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase, shared a similar visual approach and it was often difficult for the two directors to pick out who had actually directed sequences during the editing process of their 17 co-directed serials.xiv As a I show in my entry on John English in the Encyclopedia of American Film Serials,xv English was not far behind Witney as one of Republic’s top directors in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s until 1947 when he left the studio with Gene Autry to direct Autry’s westerns at Columbia. English’s solo directed 1943 serial Daredevils of the West remains one of the high points in the history of the sound serial and his ability to work in a wide variety of genres is demonstrated by his filmography. In 1944 alone, he co-directed the serial Captain America with Elmer Clifton, the film noir The Port of Forty Thieves, three westerns, one South Seas melodrama (Call of the South Seas) and one domestic melodrama (Faces in the Fog).
i Quoted in Steven J. Ross, Confession of a Nazi Spy: Warner Bros., Anti-Fascism and the Politicization of Hollywood, https://learcenter.org/pdf/WWRoss.pdf
vi See Derek Winnert, http://ww.derekwinnert.com/sergeant-york-1941-gary-cooper-walter-brennan-joan-leslie-classic-movie-review-2345/
vii Quoted in Clyde Jeavons, A Pictorial History of the War Film (London, Hamlyn, 1974), 90.
viii Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination. Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995), 43.
ix Quoted in John M. Whalen,“DVD Review: All Though the Night,”http//www.cinemaretro.com/index.php/archives/8770
x Jack Mathis, Valley of the Cliffhangers (Northbrook, Il., Jack Mathis Advertising, 1975), 156.
xi Ibid., 157.
xii William Witney, In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase (Jefferson, McFarland & Company, 1996), 174.
xiii See Geoff Mayer, Encyclopedia of American Film Serials (Jefferson, McFarland & Company, 2017), 264.
xiv Witney, 200.
xv Mayer, 113-114.
Geoffrey Mayer teaches film studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Encyclopedia of American Film Serials (McFarland, 2017), Historical Dictionary of Crime Films (Scarecrow, 2012), Encyclopedia of Film Noir (with Brian McConnell, Greenwood, 2007), and Roy Ward Baker (Manchester University Press, 2004).