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Chapter Twenty-Eight

Cliffhanger Commentary by Bruce Dettman.

“The Adventures of
Captain Africa” (‘55)

Two-gun John Hart as Columbia's "Captain Africa".With only a few exceptions most Hollywood sequels don’t live up to expectations although there are a handful of efforts such as “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “Godfather II” which prove that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Usually sequels are limp and uninspired re-workings of the parent product, lazy retreads churned out quickly to take advantage of the success of the original. But sometimes sequels are even worse than this. Sometimes they are simply drop dead awful.

“The Adventures of Captain Africa”, a cliffhanger produced by Columbia in ‘55, falls into this latter category. It is, in fact, one of the worst serials ever made, not a minor achievement given some of the bottom of the barrel chapterplays turned out in the closing days of this film genre.

Originally “The Adventures of Captain Africa”was intended to be a follow-up to Columbia’s earlier offering “The Phantom”, produced in ‘43 and based on the popular Lee Falk comic strip character. “The Phantom” starred Tom Tyler, a former record-holding weightlifter and western player who, in costume, physically bore a startling resemblance to Falk’s purple-suited and masked creation. A solid serial but not a great one, it boasted good action and was fairly loyal to its comic strip storyline.

12 years later the folks at Columbia (that is to say producer Sam Katzman) got it into their heads to make a second Phantom serial, this one staring John Hart who had starred in the studio’s earlier cliffhanger “Jack Armstrong” and would go on to replace Clayton Moore for a couple of seasons on “The Lone Ranger” TV show.

Cliffhangers had been dying a slow death beginning some years earlier and their life expectancy wasn’t long.  Budgets had been slashed and early TV adventure and comic book inspired shows were beginning to encroach on their territory. In order to trim costs even further many serials produced in the ‘50s were shoddy makeovers, old concepts with a thinly applied coat of celluloid paint that relied heavily upon resurrected scenes from older and better serials. To this end actors were often hired to match stock footage of other performers from earlier productions, often even dressed in the same costumes.

John Hart as The Phantom in the originally filmed serial. Beside him are Rick Vallin, Ben Welden speaking with an Arab character player.

Such was going to be the case of the Phantom sequel. In an interview many years later, Hart explained the entire Phantom sequel was actually filmed with him in the proper costume (stills exist depicting this). However, a stumbling block occurred when King Features, who owned the rights to the character of The Phantom, wanted too much money to use him again. This did not, however, deter skinflint Katzman who decided to go ahead with the project only altering the character’s name to Captain Africa and slightly changing the familiar comic strip costume. According to Hart, aside from certain shots without him, the entire serial was scrapped and re-filmed as “Adventures of Captain Africa”. Captain Africa wore a similar double holstered gun belt as his precursor but the skintight purple outfit with the striped trunks, hood and mask were replaced by a heavy-turtleneck sweater, an aviator helmet and goggles. It was hardly an improvement.

Frankly, the serial is a total mess. Screenwriter George Plympton and director Spencer Gordon Bennet went back to the drawing board and fashioned a crazy-quilt concoction made of scenes from the first Phantom serial, the aborted sequel, several other of the studio’s cliffhangers (especially “Desert Hawk”, but also “Congo Bill”, “Jungle Menace” and the Johnny Weissmuller feature “Voodoo Tiger”) and shot after shot of stock footage clumsily woven together within a totally nonsensical storyline. To aid in making some sense out of this a voice-over narration was also introduced. It didn’t help.

The plot, which takes place in what is described as the Near East has something to do with an attempt on the part of Nat Coleman (Bud Osborne), an animal trapper, and Ted Arnold (Rick Vallin), an adventurer who works for a world government agency (hmmmm, the United Nations perhaps), to help Nat’s native assistant Omar (Ben Welden) who is working against the evil intentions of  bad guys Boris and Greg, to help restore his country’s throne to its rightful heir, the disposed caliph. Although they get into assorted scrapes along the way they are invariably assisted by the mysterious Captain Africa, described as a strange being the natives fear but worship.

Captain Africa”, in addition to being one of the talkiest, most long-winded, action free and dullest serials ever produced, also looks as if it was filmed 30 years earlier. In comparison to watching this serial crawl along, observing paint dry is an exciting spectator sport.

Title card for "Adventures of Captain Africa" Chapter 13 "Renegades at Bay!".

One can only imagine what the actors made of all this. The reshuffle from the earlier shoot and attempt to integrate so much diverse footage into the action as a means to curb costs must have made things very confusing. Moreover, serials, particularly Columbia serials, were on an incredibly minuscule budget already, so the idea of having to film this production twice must have really caused havoc with the front office.

In any case, the performances, like the serial itself, run the gamut from indifferent to embarrassing, but to be fair, given the mishmash of the production, one can hardly hold the most-likely bewildered players responsible. It was undoubtedly a payday they wouldn’t have minded forgetting about.

John Hart in "Adventures of Captain Africa" ('55 Columbia).As Captain Africa poor John Hart has little to do but stand amidst a bunch of potted plants—doubling for an exotic jungle—pretending to observe the action going on around him. Likable Bud Osborne, traditionally a fixture in B-westerns, probably has more dialog in this than the sum total of lines spoken by him in all his other films combined. He seems completely out of his element and Rick Vallin, who shares most of his scenes with Osborne, looks similarly uncomfortable and perplexed. The always enjoyable Ben Welden as Omar gets to play a good guy for once but seems more silly than sincere. He was no doubt hired to match his original footage lifted from “Desert Hawk” (‘44). While there is really no female lead, a lackluster June Howard portrays Princess Rhoda with all the pizzazz of a park bench. Familiar faces Lee Roberts and Terry Frost are the bad guys Boris and Greg.

Judging by this production, the motion picture serial was not just dying. It was mercifully putting itself out of its own misery.

“Captain Africa” Serial Cast

Actor
Character
John Hart Captain Africa
Rick Vallin Ted Arnold
Ben Welden

Omar

June Howard Princess Rhoda
Bud Osborne    Nat Coleman
Paul Marion      Abul El Hamid
Lee Roberts     Boris
Terry Frost Gregg
Ed Coch Balu
??
Shipboard man (Ch. 1)
??
Garmand (Ch. 1)
??
Joe
Boyd Stockman

Boris’ heavy (white suit) #1

Lynton Brent Boris’ heavy (white suit) #2
George Robotham Boris’ heavy (Pith helmet)
Augie Gomez Hamid’s man (Ch. 1); Outlaw (Ch. 7)
Michael Fox Hamid’s Prime Minister (Ch. 7, 8)
Kermit Maynard Akbar (Ch. 8)
Paul Stader Bearded heavy (Ch. 8, 13)
Ed Colebrook (?) Outlaw leader (Ch. 9)
??
Benoud (Ch. 9)
??
Guard (Ch. 10)
??
Guard (Ch. 10)
Marshall Reed Guard with dagger (Ch. 11)
George DeNormand Gorilla Guard (Ch. 12, 13)
??
Gorilla (Ch. 12, 13)
??
Guard (Ch. 13)
??
Merchant (Ch. 13)
Roger Creed Cave heavy (Ch. 14)
 

And various other non-speaking heavies of the World Organization, desert outlaws, and tyrant’s guards. The patched together serial was originally intended as a second Phantom serial but when producer Sam Katzman realized, after filming the serial, he didn’t have the proper rights, all of star John Hart’s scenes were re-shot. The serial includes stock footage from “Jungle Menace”, “The Phantom”, “Desert Hawk”, “Voodoo Tiger” and “Congo Bill”. Hal Polk notes stuntman Paul Stader often doubled Rod Cameron. Ed Coch was in Katzman’s last four serials and had bits in many ‘50s films like “Creature With the Atom Brain”, “Riding Shotgun”, etc. Formerly billed as Rico De Montez in Universal serials and features. (Cast compiled by Boyd Magers and Hal Polk.)

D'ja Know?

Roger Creed, who is a cave heavy in Ch. 14, later starred as "The Phantom" in an unsold 1961 TV pilot.

Shoenberger on serials by Jim Shoenberger.

“Sky Raiders” (‘41) was Universal’s 50th release. Unfortunately, there were definite moments when I almost wished they’d stopped making serials with their 49th entry, “Green Hornet Strikes Again”.

Title card for Chapter 1 of "Sky Raiders".

There certainly was nothing wrong with the major cast members. Leading man, Donald Woods, was an actor equally accomplished on stage or in front of cameras. He made a handsome appearance with his prematurely gray hair and neatly trimmed mustache. His leading lady, Kathryn Adams, a Universal contract player, is probably best remembered from Johnny Mack Brown western features. The supporting players were no strangers to serials throughout their careers. Although our main heavy was billed Eduardo Ciannelli in “Mysterious Dr. Satan” (‘40), a year later he’s billed here as Edward Ciannelli. Two years later in his final Universal serial, “Adventures of the Flying Cadets”, he’s listed once again as Eduardo. Reed Hadley is known primarily for “Zorro’s Fighting Legion”. Robert Armstrong’s other serials were “Royal Mounted Rides Again”, “Adventures of the Flying Cadets” and “Gangbusters”. Serials aside, he’s easily best known as the man who found and captured “King Kong”. Billy Halop matched Armstrong’s four serial appearances with “Junior G-Men”, “Sea Raiders” and “Junior G-Men of the Air”.

Throughout most of this 12 chapter serial, Ciannelli went around with a perennial expression on his face giving the impression he smelled something bad. In my opinion it was the serial’s script. Playing the role of master spy Felix Lynx, his headquarters was located on the top floor of a New York skyscraper and could only be reached by helicopter (unless you knew the secret entrance). Lynx had learned of a new invention, a pursuit plane that would out-fly all others. His goal was to steal the plane and get the plans for this “miracle” aircraft. To accomplish this he had to have people under his control close to the company, Sky Raiders, where the plane was being built.

The inventor and head of the Sky Raiders organization is Captain Robert Dayton (Wood’s character). We learn Hinchfield, the company’s treasurer and controller, is already betraying Dayton by reporting to Lynx. But Lynx wants someone even closer to Dayton’s activities. Knowing Dayton has a sympathetic nature, Lynx has one of his female agents, Innis Clair, obtain work in his office as Hinchfield’s secretary, giving her the flexibility to move around the offices without suspicion, engaging in such extracurricular jobs as going through Dayton’s papers, eavesdropping and planting a microphone in his office.

Edward (Eduardo) Ciannelli, unknown, William Desmond, Donald Woods in a tense moment from Ch. 9 of "Sky Raiders".

Dayton’s secretary (Adams), in addition to having a secret crush on him, knows he has a kind heart and talks him into hiring a teenage airplane enthusiast, Tim Bryant (Billy Halop), for the summer months. Lt. Ed Carey (Robert Armstrong) is Dayton’s friend, associate and sometimes critic, working with him at Sky Raiders. He’s attracted to Adams but knows how she feels about Dayton, who is unaware of any of this. Caddens (Reed Hadley) is Lynx’s head henchman.

We’ve now met the key players in this offbeat serial. I have often lamented that many Universal serials relied far too much on characterization and plot as opposed to the continuing action scenes in Columbia and Republic serials.

Obviously, there were things in this serial that displeased me. As a serial fan I entered the theatre at a Saturday matinee filled with expectation. I wanted to see the hero (or heroine) faced with some different and imaginative peril. “Sky Raiders” cruelly disappointed me. Out of the 11 chapter endings, seven of them involved planes crashing or about to crash. Some degree of variety was attempted by having different individuals at the controls, but I found 7 times a bit much. Ch. 1 ends with the first of these devastating crashes. When Dayton, the test pilot in the new plane, is asked what happened, he blithely replies, “It was the motor. There was nothing wrong with the ship.” (Hello! Isn’t the engine an integral part of the plane?)

Early in Ch. 2 Lynx is told by Innis there are no blueprints of the miracle plane to steal as Dayton keeps the plans “in his head.” Without hesitation Lynx responds, “Alright, then we’ll get his head!” I mention this scene because of what happens about 3 or 4 minutes later. Dayton is flying alone to a business meeting in Denver when, suddenly, his aircraft is attacked by another plane piloted by a man we have never seen before. Dayton rams the enemy plane which crashes and he continues on his way. The incident is never mentioned again by anybody. At this point, nobody wanted Dayton to die with his secret. What were the writers thinking?

Donald Woods, Kathryn Adams, Billy Halop in "Sky Raiders".However, in Ch. 4 a potentially interesting plot development was introduced. Lynx hires a dishonest actor who is an exact double in appearance of Dayton. (Not surprisingly this role is also played by Donald Woods.) Capt. Dayton learns of the plan to impersonate him, allowing both friend and foe to believe him dead. It’s Dayton’s hope the imposter will lead him to his boss. The false Dayton starts for Sky Raiders Manufacturing Company to monitor the progress of the new miracle pursuit plane being built. His friends and co-workers are puzzled and offended by “Captain Dayton’s” dramatically different personality. It’s rather amusing how the fake Dayton is presented to the audience so there will be no question who he is: his hair is mussed, he smokes constantly, he is abrupt or rude to those he comes in contact with (excepting Innis and Hinchfield), puts his feet up on his office desk and reads cheap pulp magazines.

This storyline continues from Ep. 4 to the closing moments of Ch. 8 which features the weakest cliffhanger in the entire serial. The real Dayton learns of the skyscraper hideout and, disguised as one of Felix Lynx’s helicopter pilots, lands on the roof. He has a confrontation with his evil duplicate in a fist fight which brings the two fighting men closer and closer to the edge of the roof. Suddenly, one of the men slips, rolls off and begins falling into space. The other man makes a desperate lunge to grab him and fails as he plunges down. End of chapter. The devoted serial fan automatically knows the hero would try and save the bad guy and is equally certain the villain would not risk his life to save the good guy. So there was no suspense at all with this cliffhanger.

Donald Woods grapples with Lyle Latell and Reed Hadley in "Sky Raiders".There were other annoying scenes throughout the serial. To set up the cliffhanger for Ch. 9, Tim has to collapse at the controls of the plane he’s flying with Mary at his side. So earlier in the episode, he and Mary are on the ground in the woods. Separated from Mary, Tim sees a bear and runs from it. He trips, striking his head and is knocked out. Recovering, he finds Mary and they take off in their plane. In between rubbing and shaking his injured head, he assures Mary he’s alright. Suddenly, lapsing into unconsciousness, the plane, out of control, goes into a dive. Mary cradles Tim in her arms, screaming his name as the plane hurtles towards the ground! End of episode. In the recap of Ch. 10, Mary remembers she can fly the plane even better than Tim, takes the controls, and pulls the plane out of its dangerous dive.

To pad the length of the 20 minute chapters, screen writers injected situations of angst and verbal bickering between the main characters. While things start out well in Ch. 2 between Lynx and Innis with him saying things like, “Best of luck darling, I’m counting on you.” By Ch. 11 Lynx is commenting to her, “If you weren’t so valuable to me I’d like to choke the…” Then we have the exchanges between Innis and Caddens: “Are you crazy or have you been drinking?” “Will you shut up? How can I hear anything with you babbling like that?” (This to Hinchfield), and then, “Caddens had his hands on the plane until he had butterfingers!”

Newspaper ad for "Sky Raiders".There was also tension among “the good guys”. Three times during the serial Dayton threw a book at Ed Carey. During a scene when Carey thought Dayton had made a decision putting many in danger, he snarled, “You haven’t the brains of a moron child.” He calls him a moron again later in the serial.

Spoiler warning! Hinchfield tries to run out on Lynx and is killed by Hess, one of Felix’s men. Learning all of his enemies are in a car together, Lynx decides to run them off the highway in his own car accompanied by Innis, Caddens, Hess and another henchman. Guns drawn, they pull up alongside of Dayton’s car but fate intervenes as they are now driving in the wrong lane. Speeding towards them is a large truck with a sleepy driver at the wheel. They desperately swerve their car to avoid certain collision and go off the road, down an embankment, all dying in a fiery crash. The serial’s final scene has Capt. Dayton announcing to Ed Carey that he and Mary are married. The serial ends as Ed dodges another book thrown at him. I sat there gnashing my teeth, frustrated. I waited through 12 chapters for a final confrontation between Capt. Dayton and Felix Lynx and what happens? They’re all killed in a traffic accident. There was a final irony. The last chapter is titled “Winning Warriors”. Well, Captain Dayton and his friends may have been considered “Winning Warriors”, but there were losers as well—the audience that endured this inept serial entry.

Serial Boo Boos

In Ch. 12 of “Vanishing Shadow” as the robot knocks Walter Miller to the floor, Miller does not have on a hat, but as he falls it is on his head.

Cheat Endings

The end of Ch. 11 of “Jr. G-Men of the Air” shows what you’re led to believe is Billy Halop’s Army truck being blown up. But in Ch. 12, no such footage of the truck blowing up exists.

 

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