Danny Morton appeared in three Universal serials during the ‘40s, “Royal Mounted Rides Again” (as Danner), “Mysterious Mr. M” (as Derek Lamont), and “Scarlet Horseman” (as Ballou).
Instead of discussing certain experiences that happened during the making of these cliffhangers, Danny reflected on how serials had played a part in his own childhood. “I was very fascinated with serials because when I was a kid I would go every Saturday to the movies, then I’d have to come back the following week to see how it turned out. I don’t think I was over seven years old when my brother and I really believed the actors were behind the screen and they would come out after it was over and we could meet with them. This is true,” Danny laughed. “I remember our hiding behind the seats so nobody would see us and waiting for 10 or 15 minutes. Finally, somebody came in to clean up. He said, ‘What are you kids doing here?’ We answered, ‘We’re waiting for the actors to come
When asked if working in serials and features had any differences, Danny replied, “I think, as far as acting, it was the same except, for me, working in serials, I identified with my early childhood and loved doing those because of that. They were very sweet memories that came back to me which did not happen on the features I did. The serials constantly kept bringing back those memories of my childhood. I identified with what I was doing and the memories of when I was a little boy.”
“DRUMS OF FU MANCHU”
I came late to Fu Manchu, years after discovering such favorite fictional creations as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Dracula and Zorro. By the time I finally caught up with Asia’s most infamous arch criminal (I suppose I was about 12 at the time), I had not yet seen Boris Karloff’s “Mask of Fu Manchu” (‘32) or experienced the short-lived syndicated TV show with Glen Gordon…and the Christopher Lee series of feature films produced by Harry Alan Towers was still a few years away. It was Pyramid Books, who in the early ‘60s began publishing most of author Sax Rohmer’s entire series of Fu novels in inexpensive paperback editions, that provided my introduction to the character. I remember them—as well as a whole slew of non-Fu Manchu mysteries Rohmer also churned out—as being great reads late at night with their ripe atmosphere of fog drenched streets, hidden rooms, cliffhanger-like situations and, of course, nasty old Fu himself aided by his deadly and obedient minions, human and otherwise.
Consequently, when I later learned Republic had produced a serial, “Drums of Fu Manchu” in ‘40, I couldn’t wait to see it. Of late, thanks to various restoration projects, “Drums” has emerged fairly pristine, which is great news since it still stands as one of Republic’s best efforts.
Given the almost cliffhanger-like endings Rohmer employed in his novels to showcase his evil genius’ penchant for torture and ingenious methods of death and destruction, Fu was tailor-made to build a serial around. The team of six Republic screenwriters involved in the project therefore already had a kind of established blueprint to work from, smoothly integrating Fu’s nefarious exploits into the patented studio format. I do think, given the myriad of nasty tortures Rohmer concocted over the years, the writers could have introduced a few more of these into the plotline but perhaps they found them to be bit too severe and graphic for the kids in the audience.
Still, a serial, whatever its original source material or how cleverly crafted or well helmed, is really only as good as its villain. Henry Brandon, a fairly young man at the time who was chosen to play Fu, was an inspired choice by the studio. Brandon, who died a few years ago, was a gifted actor who played every sort of part in film roles that spanned decades. The first time I saw him was in what is arguably his best-known role, that of the evil Barnibus, leader of the dreadful Bogeymen, in Laurel and Hardy’s delightful “March of the Wooden Soldiers” (aka: “Babes in Toyland”), a performance that made me mighty uncomfortable as a little squirt. His Fu is nearly as good. This was in the days before psychologists and screenwriters tried to humanize the bad guys, a time when evil was not questioned and the villain was without any discernable good points. This fit Brandon’s Fu Manchu to a tee. He is gleeful about his atrocities, amused by his own cruelty and sadism, very satisfied with his plans for world domination. Unlike other serial villains who sometimes have no real reason for their attempts to stage elaborate means of mayhem, cruelty is a built-in component of Fu’s makeup and his love of exotic violence need never be questioned. He is simply a joy to hate.
Fu’s plans, not surprisingly, are for total control of the world. Only holding him up in this goal is the necessity of locating the legendary lost scepter of Genghis Khan. In order to find this, he and his followers must first travel to America to trace the whereabouts of this powerful symbol. That’s where the fun starts. In chapter after chapter, Fu leads his enemies into a colorful—and deadly—array of death and torture traps which provide for great cliffhanger situations. Being a fan of any cinematic appearances by aggressive cephalopods, I’m particularly fond of chapter 3.
Aside from Brandon, the cast drops off in quality, my only real complaint with the serial. In most of Rohmer’s books Fu’s nemesis is the plucky Sir Nayland Smith aided by his Watsonish companion Dr. Petrie. In the serial, both characters—portrayed by William Royle and Olaf Hytten—while present, are a bit long in the tooth and their participation in the action is limited (although Smith does occasionally mix it up with Fu’s agents). The slack is taken up by a young man named Alan Parker portrayed by Robert Kellard. He tries hard but there’s something a bit forced about his heroism, something boyish and not totally believable the way better serial heroes appear. Luana Walters is pretty but adds little to her tag-along character and is no way as interesting as slinky Gloria Franklin in the showier role of Fu’s treacherous daughter Fah Lo Suee. Other familiar faces include Dwight Frye of “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” fame, George Cleveland (who I will always recall as Gramps from TV’s “Lassie”) and veteran bad guy John Merton as one of Fu’s bald, vampire-toothed Dacoit thugs.
Directors William Witney and John English, the Rogers and Hammerstein of serials, keep things going at a whirlwind pace and there are plenty of thrills, sometimes two per episode, for serial fans to sink their teeth into.
“Drums of Fu Manchu” is a must see for any cliffhanger devotee. In addition to the action, there’s much more of a menacing and atmospheric nature than usually found in chapterplays. It would have been great if Republic had made a sequel, particularly given the closing scene where old Fu is depicted chomping at the bit to get another chance at our heroes, but at least we have this wonderful effort to admire and enjoy.
GEORGE J. LEWIS
George J. Lewis saw duty on both sides of the law in 24 serials, but it was as an unrelenting villain in “Captain America”, “Federal Operator 99”, “G-Men Vs. the Black Dragon” etc. that we enjoyed him most.
Born December 12, 1904, in Guadalajara, Mexico, Lewis’ American parents moved to Brazil to evade the Mexican revolution when George was only six. Only two years later they moved on to Green Bay, WI. His father, formerly a typewriter company exec, now an Army officer, was guarding shipyards in Long Beach, CA, during WWI and was later in charge of patrolling the U.S. Mexican border, being stationed at Nogales, AZ. By 1919 George’s father was out of the service and living in Coronado, CA, where George finished high school and became interested in dramatics.
Soon after (1923), he was in Hollywood appearing in small roles for silent films. His first significant billed role was in ‘25’s “His People”, a prizefight story, after which Universal signed him to a six year contract. During this time he co-starred with serial-heroine-to-be Dorothy Gulliver in 46 Collegians short subjects between ‘26-‘29 as well as working in many features. Universal released George after only four years but Fox quickly put his Spanish speaking talent to work in Spanish versions of their films, including the John Wayne role in “The Big Trail”.
George began to freelance and found himself with a small role in his first serial, “Whispering Shadow” (‘33) at Mascot, followed by the adult lead (behind Rin Tin Tin Jr. and Frankie Darro) in Mascot’s “Wolf Dog”.
Disenchanted with the roles he was getting, George left Hollywood in ‘36 for the stage lights of New York where he appeared in numerous plays and on radio. At one point George added the initial J (for Joseph) to his name to avoid confusion with two other George Lewises prominent in show biz at the time, one a burlesque comic and the other a jazz musician.
By 1939 he was back on the west coast—this time to stay. Following a part in “Gang Busters” (his only Universal serial), he was in serials to stay, making five in ‘43, six in ‘44 and at least one every year (except ‘47) on through 1950.
Often his vivid black mustache lent a cunning note to his evil undertakings as in “Federal Operator 99”, a boss heavy role he thoroughly enjoyed. It was due to a shortage of leading men during WWII that George found himself back in the good guy column aiding Linda Stirling in “Zorro’s Black Whip” (‘44). He did turn up again on the side of right as the hero’s pal in “Phantom Rider”, “Ghost of Zorro” and “Radar Patrol Vs. Spy King”, but the bulk of his roles were as mean heavies.
George had high compliments for the stuntmen. “They were professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. They taught me a lot about timing. They made me look good on those fights even when I wasn’t being doubled. Dale Van Sickel and Ken Terrell were two of the very best in the business. For me, the difficult part of working in serials was the dialogue. It was geared for a young audience and trying to make dialogue sound believable that might be a little stilted was a challenge.”
Serials ended in the ‘50s but George continued to find work in dozens of features and on TV, in particular the serial-like “Zorro” TVer where he portrayed Don Alejandro de la Vega, father of Guy Williams (Zorro).
He retired in ‘65 after a 40 year career, devoting full time to his thriving real estate business from which he retired by 1980, living a quiet life until his death December 10, 1996, two days shy of his 92nd birthday at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, CA.
George’s serials are: “Whispering Shadow” (‘33), “Wolf Dog” (‘33), “Fighting Marines” (‘35), “Gang Busters” (‘42), “Perils of Nyoka” (‘42), “Spy Smasher” (‘42), “Batman” (‘43), “G-Men Vs. the Black Dragon” (‘43), “Daredevils of the West” (‘43), “Masked Marvel” (‘43), “Secret Service In Darkest Africa” (‘43), “Black Arrow” (‘44), “Captain America” (‘44), “Tiger Woman” (‘44), “Zorro’s Black Whip” (‘44), “Desert Hawk” (‘44), “Haunted Harbor” (‘44), “Federal Operator 99” (‘45), “Phantom Rider” (‘46), “Adventures of Frank and Jesse James” (‘48), “Ghost of Zorro” (‘49), “Radar Patrol Vs. Spy King” (‘50), “Cody of the Pony Express” (‘50).