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Friday, May 30, 2014

Fighting Devil Dogs

Republic Studios was cranking out four theatrical serials a year in the 30s. This was the heyday for serials. Republic had several popular characters: The Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy and Captain America. While most serials were westerns or crime mysteries, a few had sci-fi tendencies. One such was Republic’s 1938 Fighting Devil Dogs (FDD). Nominally about the exploits of a group of U.S. Marines, FDD was more of a mystery/thriller than anything. The Marines were searching for a masked super villain named The Lightening, who had harnessed electricity into a deadly weapon and had other cool gadgets. Naturally, The Lightening intended to rule the world. The synopsis below retains the twelve chapter breakup of the story. The serial was edited into a feature film in 1943, which omitted the cliffhangers and recaps.

Semi-Quick Plot Synopsis
Chapter One: The Lightening Strikes — Tom and Frank are lieutenants in a platoon of Marines sent to Shanghai in the late ‘30s when Japan was invading China. They are ordered to escort some people in Lingchuria to safety, but when they get to the fort, everyone is dead. While Tom and Frank look around outside, a mysterious glowing/screaming ball lands on the fort, electrocuting all of Tom’s men. Tom faces court-martial over the loss. A chinese diplomat tells the court that he knows the secret of the electric torpedoes, but he is electrocuted before he can speak. Realizing that Tom’s story had merit, he and Frank are assigned to find The Lightening. They take some burned secret documents to a professor Warfield for analysis. They try to discover the secret of The Lightening’s torpedoes. One of the torpedoes lands on the lab, killing Tom’s father, but everyone else got out.
Chapter Two: Mill of Disaster — Some of Lightening’s henchmen try to finish off Tom, but Frank saves him. Lightening has, meanwhile, taken off in his cool flying wing, boasting that no one will learn his secret identity. At the lab, Tom and Warfield have found a fragment of the deadly torpedo. Analysis points to the Atlas Steel Company. Tom and Frank go there to investigate. Lightening’s thugs get there first. When Tom and Frank arrive, another fist fight ensues. Tom is knocked out and an I-beam is falling towards his head.
Chapter Three: The Silenced Witness — Tom rolled away just in time. He and Frank take a casing back to the lab. Escaping an ambush, one of the hoods is captured. Jacobs is given “truth serum”. Before he can say where the secret base is, the lights go out and Jacobs is found dead. Tom is dispatched via motorcycle to fetch shipping records. Lightening’s hoods take the records first. Tom gives chase. He gets in the open car and another fight breaks out. The driver is shot and the car careens off a cliff.
Chapter Four: Cargo of Mystery — Tom jumped out of the car just in time. He returns with the records. They indicate that the casings are on a ship bound for the island of Gehorda. Tom and Frank fly to the island before the ship arrives. When it does, they sneak aboard. Frank discovers the gyroscopic guidance device used to control the torpedoes. Crewmen catch Tom and Frank. A fight ensues. The ship catches fire. Frank is knocked overboard. Tom is knocked out just as a flaming mast falls towards him.
Chapter Five: Undersea Bandits — Tom rolled away in time to escape the burning mast. He and Frank swim to shore. They get dive gear and a boat. While Tom is on the bottom, exploring, a man from Lightening’s sub swims over and cuts his air line. The sub surfaces and blows up the dive boat with it’s deck cannon. Tom is left gasping for air. Frank is being chased by a shark.
Chapter Six: Torpedo of Doom — Frank escaped the shark and Tom walked ashore. Before leaving the wreck, Tom found the gyro. They fly back in their seaplane. Hoods are hiding inside and a mid-air fight breaks out. One hood is captured. He and the gyro are put aboard the dirigible D5. Lightening fires an electric torpedo at the D5. Tom and Frank decide the only hope for the D5 is to fly their plane in the path of the torpedo. They do. It blows up.
Chapter Seven: The Phantom Killer — Fortunately, Tom and Frank parachuted from the plane just seconds before impact. The captured hood, named Ellis, faces an official enquiry. This gives the scriptwriters a break as footage from previous chapters provides a recap. Just as Ellis is about to reveal the identity of Lightening, the lights go out and he is zapped dead with a lightening ray gun. Tom tries to give chase, but is himself, zapped by Lightening.
Chapter Eight: Tides of Trickery — Tom did not die because the car’s window was rolled up. Tom and Frank give automotive chase to Lightening. He evades them. The gyro is stollen, but it was a fake planted by Tom. Lightening kidnaps Janet, Warfield’s lovely blonde adult daughter. In a radio ransom call, Janet manages to utter a clue to her whereabouts. Tom and Frank understand and rush to rescue her. The hoods take Janet away in a speedboat. Tom pursues in another boat. Both boats race between two huge freighters that are drifting together. The hood and Janet get out. Tom’s boat is crushed.
Chapter Nine: Attack From the Skies — Tom jumped out in the nick of time. He and Frank fly back to the island where they suspect Lightening has Janet. They are right. She ripped off Lightening’s mask and gasped. “It’s YOU!” Lightening has a group of mercenaries attack the Marines who are set up in a warehouse. After much gunfire and several casualties on both sides, the flying wing bombs the warehouse. It blows up.
Chapter Ten: In the Camp of the Enemy — The Marines managed to get out of the warehouse before the bombs fell. The mercenaries, however, had just gone inside. Blamo. Tom sets out alone overland towards the secret base. He goes in just as the hoods were removing all their gear to the submarine. Another fight breaks out, which Tom does not win. Lightening takes Janet aboard The Wing. The hoods tie Tom up and leave him amid cans of dynamite and a lit fuse.
Chapter Eleven: The Baited Trap — Frank and the Marines come into the cave just in time to snuff out the fuse and rescue Tom. A patrol boat fires at the sea cave, sinking the submarine. Tom, Frank and the others are invited to a remote warehouse for a demonstration of a detonator ray invented by Crenshaw (Warfield’s assistant). While everyone sits around waiting, they discuss how Crenshaw seems like a prime suspect for being Lightening. The butler and gardener are suspicious too. Unknown to the group, Lightening’s hoods are pumping carbon monoxide into the room. Everyone falls asleep.
Chapter Twelve: Killer At Bay — Tom, not quite unconscious, manages to rouses a Marine and bash down the door. Everyone revives. They go to a house, defeat some thugs and rescue Janet. Tom arranges a meeting. In a darkened room, Janet appears between two curtains and says, “Lightening is…” Then someone in the crowd stands up and shoots at her with the lightening ray gun. It’s her father, Professor Warfield! Gasp. Janet was unharmed as her image was a mirror reflection. Tom arranged the Janet-in-mirror trick to make Warfield incriminate himself. Warfield escapes his guards and runs to his flying wing. He plans to torpedo the house. They aim Crenshaw’s interceptor ray at the torpedo aboard The Wing. It blows up. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
FDD is full of action and plot twists. Fans of the old Serial formulae will find almost all of the tricks employed at some point. The Lightening is a great super-villain.

Cultural Connection
Pre-War — The setting for the opening of the first chapter contains a glimpse of real history — events overshadowed by WWII. World War II did not just flare up overnight. It had been a long time brewing. Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931 under the pretext of quelling trouble (the Mukden Incident) then, helping locals secede from China. (Does this sound like Crimea in 2014?). Once Japan was ensconced in “liberated” Manchuria, clashes between China and Japan continued off and on for years, with China steadily losing territory. The 4th Marines had been stationed in China since the late 20s to protect American interests. They did look like WWI “doughboys”. In 1937, Japan fought to capture the city of Shanghai. After protracted urban fighting, which included aerial bombing, the city finally fell to the Japanese. FDD uses newsreel footage from the events. To modern eyes, the footage looks quaint and random. To audiences of 1938, however, it would have been as fresh as scenes of fighting from Ukraine and equally filled with foreboding.

Roots of Darth? — It has been suggested that The Lightening was an inspiration for George Lucas’ Darth Vader. The Lightening did have an all black outfit — boots, gloves and a full cape. He had a full-visored helmet which concealed his identity. The pretext being that he needed those things, functionally, as insulation when using his high-voltage devices. (Though this does not explain the cape). The mega-villain dressed in all black also turns out to “be your father.” While there are interesting parallels, this doesn’t establish inspiration. Lucas was born in 1944, well after the FDD serial and even a year after FDD The Movie played in theaters. Perhaps young Lucas had seen The Lightening on television. Many old Republic serials found new life in television syndication in the early 50s.

A Tale of Multiple MacGuffins — An interesting feature of FDD is how it relied upon Hitchcock’s MacGuffin tool. Instead of relying on just one MacGuffin, the writers of FDD employed several. In a sense, the identity of Lightening is one MacGuffin that remains throughout the chapters. The first MacGuffin is the torpedo casings. The second is the gyro device. After that, Janet becomes the MacGuffin — particularly since she did very little within the plot (no romantic sub-plots, for a change). She functioned mostly as a thing to be captured and rescued.

Recycling Efforts — Republic went to extra effort to keep FDD a very small budget production. They typically put out two higher-budget serials and two lower-budget serials in the same year. The past several productions had gone over budget, so Republic put an extra effort into producing FDD as cheaply as possible. They did this mostly through rampant recycling. The Flying Wing, and associated footage, as well as the airship footage, were lifted from Republic’s 1937 Dick Tracy serial. The speedboat being crushed between freighters was also from Dick Tracy. The burning “schooner” (actually a bark) was lifted from 1937’s Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island. This prior serial was also the source of the native village (and dance) segments as well as the oft-repeated footage of the Douglas Dolphin seaplane. Most of FDD was shot in the studio, with rear projection of prior films supplying the settings. Only a few outdoor shots were filmed. With all the economizing, FDD was one of Republic’s least expensive serials. While the result turned out surprisingly well (given all the recycling), audiences in 1938 would have recognized the massive recycling effort. They had just watched most of those scenes a year before.

Aviation Dreams — The mid-30s was a period of wild-eyed wonder at the future of aviation. Flying, itself, was only 25 years old. In just the last few years (early-30s), engineering advances were changing airplanes from the “traditional” wire-braced biplanes to sleek monoplanes. Flying Wings were assumed to be the next great leap forward. This dream would persist until it petered out in the post-war stasis. (the YB-49) Also featured in FDD is the romantic notion of flying aircraft carriers. Dirigibles were called “airships”, so it was only natural to dream of them being a mother-ship for a swarm of fighter planes. This was actually accomplished in the early 30s with the USS Akron and USS Macon. Both were large dirigibles, nearly up to Hindenburg size. They carried a few small biplanes which could be launched and retrieved via a hook and “trapeze” system. Both the Akron and Macon crashed due to storms. Then, the Hindenburg’s fiery crash in 1937 spelled the end of the daydream about airships generally. FDD is a peek back before the dream died.

Stable Characters — Republic had a stable of actors that they used in their serials. Regular matinee audiences in the mid and late 30s could not help but see them over and over, in different characters. Lee Powell, who plays Lt. Tom, also starred in the Lone Ranger serial as rancher Allan King — who might actually BE the Lone Ranger. He also played Marshal Powell in Texas Manhunt and Captain Roka in Flash Gordon. Herman Brix, who played Lt. Frank in FDD, was also rancher Bert Rogers, who also might be the Lone Ranger. Brix was one of the Tarzans and played Kioga in Hawk of the Wilderness. John Picorri played Lightening’s evil genius, Professor Gould, but was THE villain, The Spider, in Dick Tracy and the unscrupulous scientist Rackerby in SOS Coast Guard. Most of the rest of the cast of FDD were similarly used in other serials.

Bottom line? FDD is actually pretty good for a 30s serial, despite the heavy recycling. The pacing is brisk, with only a few talky scenes. Being a chapter play, there are frequent fist fights, car chases and near-death-experiences. The Lightening makes for a fun villain. Young viewers, raised on CGI in HD may balk at the low production values of 1930s serials. Those willing to suspend connoisseurship can get into the action and maybe see the forerunner of Darth Vader.


Darci said...

FDD was directed by the team of William Witney and John English, Republic's most talented serial makers. Sadly, Witney wrote in his biography that English considered it one of his worst efforts.

Nightowl said...

Yes, I've read that English thought it was his worst, but wondered why. I have certainly not watched all of English's efforts to be able to compare. FDD was one of his earlier projects, so perhaps he felt he was still 'green' then. All of the economizing shenanigans probably disappointed him, but those weren't his choice, but Republic's.

Anonymous said...

i have the fighting devil dogs DVD , i watched and yes George Lucas said he saw a movie serial with a Darth Vader in it . i notice stock footage from the bird of paradise , Delores De Rio down there the topless (flower necklace) dance and on her way to the volcano scenes . also key images that are in Star Wars are found here .