May 10, 2011

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This year’s summer movie season was inaugurated by the gentle guttural drawl of Vin Diesel in Fast Five, the latest iteration of the jokey car fetishist franchise. Listening to Diesel’s lazy growl battle The Rock’s aggressive, crystalline enunciation offers more diversionary pleasures than most Hollywood money-grabbers. But the most fun I’ve had this year is watching a minor hit from the summer of 1939, the movie serial Daredevils of the Red Circle, which I picked up a $.99 VHS copy of on Amazon. The history of the summer blockbuster is usually traced to Jaws and Star Wars – in which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas filmed B-movie scenarios with A-level budgets and cemented the studios’ preference for the holy teen demographic. Lucas has previously stated that the Flash Gordon serial was one of the influences on Star Wars, and both men further indulged their serial fantasies with the Indiana Jones franchise. While  Spielberg and Lucas continue their attempts to recapture their sense of childhood wonder, always undercut by a winking self-consciousness, the originals are still around, providing unpretentious pleasures their wildly successful descendents have never quite been able to match.

Daredevils of the Red Circle began shooting on March 28th, 1939, and finished a month later, with enough footage to fill 12 episodes released that June. The first is a three-reeler, close to a half-hour, but the rest are two reels clocking in around 17 minutes each. It was budgeted by Republic Pictures at $126,855, but directors William Witney and John English completed it for $126,118. English and Witney had just completed The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939), the sequel to their smash hit serial The Lone Ranger (1938)  (the current spate of sequels and remakes is nothing new). In his autobiography, In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase,  Witney writes that after a two week vacation, Republic producer Bob Beche called him into his office for the next project, which would be Daredevils. When he heard the pitch from the screenwriting team led by Barry Shipman, he said, “I think you guys should stop drinking and give yourselves a chance to get over the DTs.”

The story follows the adventures of three circus daredevils: the leader (and high diver) Gene Townley (Charles Quigley), the nimble escape artist Tiny Dawson (Bruce Bennett) and the strongman Burt Knowles (David Sharpe). After their trapeze act is firebombed by the notorious Harry Crowel (a skeletal, menacing Charles Middleton), and Gene’s kid brother dies in the blaze, the trio starts investigating Crowel – who has been calling himself by his prisoner number, 39013. 39013 has been attacking the holdings of Horace Granville (Miles Mander), the rich industrialist who had fingered him for arrest. The Daredevils offer Granville assistance, and with the help of his daughter Blanche (Carole Landis) and their dog Tuffy, they attempt to bring 39013 to justice.

The story is an efficient delivery system for action acrobatics, if not narrative logic, and Witney and English take advantage of their athletic leading men. Bennett was an Olympian shot-putter, while David Sharpe was the stunt coordinator and main stuntman for Republic. Of Sharpe, Witney wrote, “It was a director’s dream to have a leading man capable of doing his own fight sequences. It meant you could keep the camera close to him and it gave us a chance to show him off.” The directors take full advantage of this in fight sequences of unusual physicality and intensity. Witney mentions getting the camera close, but he and English often use wide shots with few inserts and fewer cuts, letting the actors and stuntmen careen through industrial landscapes and drab offices with reckless abandon. The closer shots he mentions must be the numerous times he gets Sharpe to bust through a locked door as deadly gases are seeping in.

There is a joy in just letting these expert tumblers loose, epitomized in a late bit in episode 11 where Sharpe, having failed to break into a room where a hired goon cowers, slips around a corner and knocks the thug out through the side window. Sharpe begins to crack a smile at all the fun he’s having, before Witney-English cut to the next bit of wild action. This is the smile that Harrison Ford puts in quotes in Indiana Jones, but here it’s an accidental bit of non-fiction entering the screen. Sharpe’s character is a no-nonsense bruiser, who doesn’t crack a smile in any other bit of action. Unable to repress his happiness in his work, and with Witney-English eager to move on the next shot, this arrested upturn in Sharpe’s mouth remained in the film, and I can’t think of a better example of Godard’s dictum, “film is truth 24 frames per second”, even if it desperately wants to be lying. Along with Sharpe’s exertions, there are dives into oil fires, leaps from speeding cars and innumerable crashes into inanimate objects. This is dangerous and thrilling stuff, held together with flimsy but fleet story material that knew to keep moving forward.

Witney and English recombine basic scenario elements in each two-reeler, with minute variations to keep things rolling. The trio will inevitably get locked inside a room with death stalking them, fight off thugs at an industrial site, demean Granville’s black servant (this racist role is endured by Fred “Snowflake” Toones), and do it all with nary a crease in their natty suits. The use of repetition and variation brought the structure of these works to the forefront, and it is one of the central pleasures of the serial form. In their haste to crank out the serials, Republic created the forerunners of 70s structuralism, who, Hollis Frampton foremost among them, made films in which the structure and shape of the films was the content. The work of Witney and English made their structures just as visible, unintentionally laying bare the devices of their making, a kind of unconscious self-consciousness.

Another remarkable facet of Daredevils in particular is its emphasis on the hopes and fears tied into technology. Almost all of the major fight setpieces take place in a factory or major industrial site. The first episode ends in spectacular fashion, when a tunnel connecting Catalina Island to Los Angeles springs a leak, and Blanche Granville is stuck inside. Using the wonderful miniature work of Babe Lydecker, their tunnel is flooded. Then there are the brawls at an electrical station, an oil derrick and a gas plant, the sabotage of an experimental laser, and 39013′s expert makeup job to pass himself off as Granville. There is a thin line between technological advancement and abject terror, and the unease with the rapid changes of the era is palpable in every frame. The Daredevils offer split-second escapes from the apocalypses of the imagination, and do it with an unguarded smile.

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