Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Forgotten Films: Daredevils of the Red Circle

Okay, so I've run this before. It's called recycling.

Here's the set-up for this highly regarded Republic serial: An escaped convict named Harry Crowel (he prefers to be called by his prison number, 39013, pronounced Thirty-nine-Oh-thirteen) sets out to ruin Horace Granville (Miles Mander) by destroying all his holdings and properties. Charles (Ming the Merciless) Middleton plays 39013, who, by wearing a really good mask is posing as Granville.

The real Granville is being held captive in a prison cell in the basement of his own home, and the cell is an exact replica of the one 39013 was in when he was imprisoned. Don't ask me how 39013 was able to build this cell in Granvilles basement or how he was able to honeycomb the house with secret passages without anybody knowing. He just did it, the same way he arranged to have the garage fitted out with pipes that pump poison gas.

No one suspects the impersonation because 39013 never lets anyone near him. Granville has supposedly had a stroke, so 39013, taking advantage of Granville's supposedly weakened condition, can meet people only if they are separated from him by a glass wall. He speaks to them over a microphone. 39013 of course looks and sounds just like Granville, and he never slips up because, as he tells Granville, as long as he wears the mask he speaks in Granville's voice. When he removes the mask, he looks and sounds just like Charles Middleton.

I should also mention that down in the basement with the cell there's a Rube Goldberg device on which glass balls filled with poison gas are balanced. If 39013 doesn't return to the room regularly and refill the counter-balancing bottle with water, the balls will fall to the floor and break, killing Granville with the deadly gas.

So much for the set-up. One of the first properties that 39013 destroys is the Granville Amusement Center (Granville owns a little of everything, including a radium mine, which apparently is pretty much like a gold mine). The fire that consumes the amusement center takes the life of the younger brother of Gene Townley (Charles Quigley), one of the Daredevils. Townley and the other two daredevils, Tiny Dawson (Bruce Bennett, aka Herman Brix) and Bert Knowles (David Sharpe), sign on with Granville (in reality, 39013) to put a stop to 39013's depredations. The escaped con hires them so as not to arouse suspicion. Then, of course, he immediately sets out to get rid of them, and we're off to the races.

But let's stop for a moment to talk about Bruce Bennett. He was an Olympic shot-putter, and as Herman Brix, he starred in one of my favorite serials, Hawk of the Wilderness. After he got tired of the athletic roles, he took acting lessons, became Bennett, and had a long career in movies, including a role in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. According to the IMDb, he's still alive. If that's true, he'd be 99 years old.

David Sharpe was a U.S. tumbling champion who started out in movies in 1923. He did mostly stunt work, but he was one of the Rangebusters in that Monogram series. He was the stunt double for just about everybody in Hollywood at one time or another. His last credit was as a stunt driver in 1978. Fifty-five years isn't a bad career in any field.

Charles Middleton will always be Ming the Merciless to many of us. It's sad to look at his career as outlined on the IMDb and see all the "uncredited" parts he took, or, even sadder, the movies that say "scenes deleted." But he managed to hang around for a long time.

Carole Landis is one of the sad stories of Hollywood. She was beautiful, and she could act, but she never really got much of a chance. She was only about 19 or 20 when she made this serial, and ten years later she was dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. She could have livened up the serial considerably, but she's barely used at all.

Miles Mander, as all you fans of Philip Marlowe will recall, played Mr. Grayle inMurder, My Sweet.

Charles Quigley didn't do much of note either before or after this serial. Unless you want to count a minor role in Mexican Spitfire Out West.

The butler, Snowflake, is played by Fred "Snowflake" Toones, who played the same Stepin Fetchit type of character in tons of movies for 20 years. He was often uncredited and often billed as Snowflake. You can imagine the kind of humor he was involved in.

And now back to our story. Oh, what the heck. You know the story. 39013 plots to destroy stuff, and the Daredevils foil the plots. There's a fistfight in every episode, of course, with lots of climbing around gas plants, electric plants, and oil rigs. David Sharpe does some tumbling stuff in most of the fights. The cliffhangers are OK, with the one in the first chapter being the most memorable. It has Quigley racing through a tunnel only yards in front of a wall of water that seems certain to overtake him.

The weakness are those of most serials. Like, why did 39013 put that gas pipe in the garage in the first place? And, when the Daredevils investigate, why does someone say, "That valve comes from the gas plant down the road. Let's go there an check it out," instead of, "Why don't we trace that pipe and see where it goes?" (Because if they'd done that, of course, they'd have found the tunnels, which would have led them to 39013 and ended the serial.)

And of course anybody over the age of five will figure out the identity of the mysterious figure who's helping out the Daredevils, though I defy anyone of any age to figure out how the MF is getting the information that's passed along.

Then there's Chapter 11, a total cheat, since it's nothing but padding to make the whole thing 12 chapters long. All Chapter 11 does is repeat scenes from earlier episodes. But that's why remotes have the "fast forward" feature.

The good stuff? Well, the score is a dandy, the stunts are good, the fistfights are well-choreographed, and all three leads seem to be having a good time. I wouldn't put this one in the same class with some of my favorites, like Captain Marvel and all the Rocketman serials, but it's still worth watching. I'd give it three stars.


Anonymous said...

Bruce Bennett died a year or two back. at least his obituary ws in the New York papers.

Unknown said...

Correct. This was originally published a year or so before his death.

Bud said...

Well worth recycling. Good review!

Richard Moore said...

I've always enjoyed Charles Middleton. His various villains in Laurel & Hardy films are my favorite, even above Ming. There was a nice memoir from a grandson in Filmfax a few years ago.

One of Middleton's smaller roles was in 1943's "Two Weeks to Live" featuring radio's Lum and Abner. The name of the character Middleton played: Elmer Kelton.

You can't find this sort of trivia just anywhere.

Unknown said...

Excellent trivia, indeed!

Bud said...

@ Moore, No, you can't. Thanx!