Sunday, April 20, 2014

Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939)

A certain Harry Crowel (Charles “Future Emperor Ming” Middleton doing some fine mugging), now preferring to be called after his prison number 39013, has escaped from prison. He’s out for revenge on his former (legal) business partner Granville (Miles Mander) whom he makes responsible for his prison stint.

39013 is quite the evil master mind, so soon Granville’s various business holdings are exploding left and right. One of these attacks kills the little brother of circus performer Gene Townley (Charles Quigley). Together with his performing buddies Tiny Dawson (Bruce Bennett) and Bert Knowles (David Sharpe), and their rather handy dog Tuffie, Gene hires on as a very special security detail for Granville, in the hopes of laying hands on 39013 this way.

Little do they expect that Granville isn’t Granville anymore but 39013 who keeps the real Granville locked up in a hidden cell in his house for regular gloating sessions. Consequently, the daredevils’ missions to thwart 39013 tend to be rather more dangerous than they should be. Fortunately, they’re serial heroes. Additionally, a mysterious shadowy figure our daredevils imaginatively come to call the Red Circle leaves them helpful – yet not too helpful – warning messages under their own red circle symbol.

In general, serials do have a worse reputation now than they actually deserve, and I think much of the blame for it lies in later generations like mine watching the poor things in inappropriate ways. They were, after all, made to be seen in weekly instalments, and neither to be binged on like a TV show made in the 2010s – which makes their repetitive nature annoying – nor to be watched in the often horrible film versions that try to stitch a serial into a narrative that makes sense as a movie – which doesn’t work because the source material was usually just not written that way.

When watched properly (or if you’re like me once a day), perhaps as an appetizer before each film in your own private Bergman retrospective, it becomes far easier to appreciate the serials’ actual strengths, as well as their weaknesses. The latter mostly lie in cardboard characters, sometimes illogical plotting, again repetitiveness, and sometimes pretty horrid racism (in Daredevils represented by the fortunately not very frequent horrifying “comedy” stylings of Fred “Snowflake” Toones, and the horrifying way the rest of the cast treats him, which is to say, worse than the dog). The first three things aren’t much of a problem if you’re watching the episodes with the fact in mind that what you’re seeing was meant to provide a jolt of excitement before the evening’s cinematic main event; the last one is inexcusable, but for me at least (and in this case) easily shrugged of by seeing it as a sign of its times and the people the serials were made for. Everyone’s mileage will of course vary at that point.

What’s good about serials, and the Republic serials of directors John English and William Witney (with English shooting the talky stuff and interiors, and Witney the outside scenes and the action), of which Daredevils is supposed to be one of the best, is the sheer excitement and pacing of the action sequences, with some really imaginative stunts, and as many explosions and destroyed buildings as the budgets could come up with or the directors could special effects magic in. It’s all pleasantly breathless, sometimes uncomfortably dangerous looking, shot with surprising care if you keep the shooting schedules and budgets for these things in mind, and directed with a lot of visual imagination. You can, in fact, watch this and see how Witney (co-)invents not a little of the visual language of action filmmaking; much of it is still used today.

While the acting of our three heroes is at best serviceable, they do have the right sort of physicality for the action, and given that Daredevils expresses all that’s important to it, and all that’s good about it, through its physicality, that’s exactly what the serial needs.

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