Welcome to the inaugural edition of what we hope to be a regular feature here on CinemaNARCs, “Breakfast Serials!”. Each week (at best) we will bring you one episodic review of classic theatrical serials from the 1930′s! Each episode will be viewed and reviewed for the first time, as opposed to the whole thing at once. And since the serials will (mostly) come from www.archive.org, you can watch with us for free! Hooray for public domain!
SERIES – Ace Drummond
DIRECTORS – Ford Beebe, Cliff Smith
WRITERS – Wyndham Gittens, Norman S. Hall, Ray Trampe
SIX DEGREES OF CAST & CREW
- Based on the comic strip created by legit WWI pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, cousin to Adolph Rickenbacker, co-founder of Rickenbacker Guitars (named as such to feed off Eddie’s popularity) along with George Beauchamp, who is credited as having invented the electric guitar. Seriously.
- co-written by Ray Trampe, who also wrote serials for classic series like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Secret Agent X-9.
- Hunky star John “Dusty” King would go on to star in eighteen western movies as the character “Dusty King”, along with Ray “Crash” Corrigan, star of one of the more classic and over-the-top serials, which in turn also featured a young Lon Chaney Jr. in a lead henchman role, as he does the Ace Drummond series.
- Actress Jean Rogers was already the star of “Flash Gordon”.
- Chester Gan would have a part in another airplane adventure, John Wayne’s “Flying Tigers”, which also had a bit part from Victor Wong, aka Charlie the Cook from both “King Kong”, and “Son of Kong”. Wong was also in Peter Lorre’s “Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation”, which featured… John “Dusty” King!
- Okay, deep breath… James Eagles (radio operator Johnny Wong) was also a villain in “Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars”, which featured Ace Drummond‘s Jean Rogers, as well as actor Roy Barcroft, who was in another silly 1950′s sci-fi serial called “Zombies of the Stratosphere”, which featured a young Leonard Nimoy! And HE had an uncredited bit part in the classic creature-feature “Them!”, which also had a bit-part by actor Dick Wessel, aka Henchman Boris from… ACE DRUMMOND.
Going into any theatrical serial series from the 1930′s, I always experience a certain level of apprehension. You just have to watch the opening credit sequences to see a generic cast of a square-jawed hunk of a hero, a smartly dressed cutie-pie heroine in some manner of… hat, and a wide-eyed, wider-smiling boy of a sidekick, nine times out of ten named “Billy”. So right away, one envisions the hero being perfect and impervious, the girl being a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time magnet, and the kid sidekick being so annoying you just want to jam him up some clunky atomo-robot’s cardboard rear end!
But let’s do our best to not assume such stereotypes to be omnipresent in ALL these serials. At least for now, as we sit back, relax, and view-and-review Eddie Rickenbacker’s “Ace Drummond” series, one episode at a time! And no better place to start than the beginning…
Chapter One – “Where East Meets West”
We begin our story somewhere in China, with stockfootage snapshots of what appears to be a Tibetan area, replete with “Lama” played by not-Tibetan Guy Bates Post. Thankfully he doesn’t ham up any stereotypes; even more thankfully he appears to be (so far) the only caucasian feigning a foreigner (or I guess the caucasian is technically the foreigner… oh well, you know what I mean). There is a chinese radio operator who looks a bit… odd, but regardless, it seems early on that the series isn’t out to create a gussied-up exotic charicature of Chinese culture. Let’s move past such aesthetics.
International delegates (primarily American) are looking to officially open their new China-based airstrip, and simply need a few successful landings to show the world how safe and beneficial the airport can be. This of course is despite the secretly transmitted warnings of the mysterious “Dragon”, broadcasting via… electrical fans? A test plane is set to arrive just the same, only to have its pilots killed via electric shock through their radio headsets, their planes tailspinning to destruction! The Dragon is real after all, more planes soon fall victim!
But not the next one, a fully-boarded passenger plane including hero war pilot Ace Drummond! After openly singing (don’t ask) over a coincidentally-instrumental orchestral march number somebody thinks is jazz (don’t ask) being played over a passenger’s personal on-board AM radio (don’t ask), the ever-handsome Ace (John “Dusty” King”) saves the airplane from a similar fate after the pilots are shocked (one survives). Good thing ever-helpful Billy (Jackie Marrow) is there to wake up the surviving co-pilot and take Ace’s jacket as…
Ace parachutes to Mongolian soil to investigate a smaller plane seen circling his passenger plane, where we quickly learn that Peggy Trainor (Jean Rogers) has shown up just in time seeking her father, and is even quicker-ly held hostage by a German, an American, and random Chinese and Mongolian henchman already holding her father for some manner of questioning. A shoot-and-miss and punch-up ensues as Ace and Peggy escape in the German’s plane, only to have the controls fried by… The Dragon! Will Ace and Peggy survive? Well, they just tailspun and crashed in downtown Mongolia soooo…
I know, it all sounds fantastic and silly on paper, but it’s actually executed with a fair amount of grace, pacing, and, well believability. A far more cheesier effort would boast exponentially loud, explanatory dialogue (primarily from the villains), uber-unrealistic technology, and leave you with a desire to throw Billy out of the plane after two minutes. But needless to say, so far so good! This episode burns through the last five minutes rather quickly, at the expense of confounding the nature of Peggy, her father, and the Germans, but assuming things are fleshed out later it may be fine as-is. There’s not much room for character development yet, apart from establishing the fact that Ace can sing, fly, and judo-throw your ass. The acting is flat-to-nominal, the only notable performance so far being, oddly enough, Guy Bates Post’s “Lama”. He does give off the soothing wisdom of what I’m assuming is supposed to be a Dalai Lama.
The picture has that classic 30′s grittiness, but nothing is lost or indistinguishable. The editing is 99% smooth and paced well, and the only visual complaint is that some of the somewhat obvious stock footage does not match the regular film quality. The audio is by-and-large clear, with only a handful of muffled or poorly-dubbed parts. All in all we’re off to a decent start, including what could be… an actual fire-breathing dragon?
So tune in next week for another adventu-review, here on Cinema NARCs’ “Breakfast Serials!”
RATING – 4 jammed frequencies out of 5
STINGER – 10:42, “Mammy!”