THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Spider's Web *****

The Spider's Web
Directed by Ray Taylor and James W. Horne
(Columbia Pictures, 1938, 15 chapters, 300 minutes, b&w)
Columbia Pictures' "The Spider"

"What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to"...retrieve this outstanding 15-chapter Columbia serial that, though it entered the public domain January 1, 1967, is still rather hard to find as an official DVD release. Thankfully, it's available as a DVD-R from a couple of online vendors (classiccliffhangers.com, comicweb.com), as well as from vendors that sell their wares at the various sci-fi, comic book, and memorabilia conventions that come to town, such as the recent Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention at the Wydham Hunt Valley. That's how my movie serials-collecting friend Dave Cawley scored his coveted copy. Of course, you can also view episodes for free at YouTube.com and Comicweb.com.

I've only watched the double-length (30-minute) introductory chapter, "The Night Terror," on YouTube, but I'm already hooked. See if you agree with my enthusiasm by checking out this episode below:

The Spider's Web (1938), Chapter 1: "The Night Terror"

Inspired by this taste of two-fisted thrills to come, I read up on The Spider's Web. Following is what I've found...


The Spider's Web is a 1938 Columbia Pictures movie serial (the fifth of the 57 released by the studio) based on Harry Steeger's popular 1930s pulp magazine character The Spider. It is widely considered to be Columbia Pictures' crowning achievement in serial cliffhangers.

"The Spider's Web...is almost invariably ranked by serial buffs as Columbia Pictures' greatest chapterplay...Despite a fair share of minor flaws, its winning combination of strong production values, vivid atmosphere, excellent action sequences, and breakneck pacing - and its overall air of exuberant energy - cannot be matched by any of the studio's other releases..." - Jerry Blake, Serials expert (filesofjerryblake.com)

Harry Steegar's Spider was created to be Popular Publications' answer to Street and Smith Publication's vigilante hero, The Shadow. In the pulps, his stories were written by Norvell Page and Reginald Thomas Maitland (R.T.M.) Scott. Though similar to the Shadow, the Spider was a millionaire playboy, Richard Wentworth, a WWI veteran and amateur criminologist who was the last surviving member of a wealthy family. But while Wentworth was a friend of police commissioner Kirk, The Spider was decidedly not. Like a later crime-fighting arachnid-masked vigilante, Marvel Comics' Peter Parker/Spider-Man, The Spider is misunderstood by the authorities, who consider him no different than the criminals he fights against.

Based on a screenplay by Spider pulp writer Norvell Page, The Spider's Web was directed by serial-and-western veteran Ray Taylor and serial-and-comedy veteran James W. Horne. The series proved wildly popular when first released in 1938; according to Wikipedia, "it was the most popular serial of that year, according to a tally published in The Motion Picture Herald, and was such an exhibitor favorite that Columbia used it to launch a series of reissues in 1947." A sequel, The Spider Returns, was released in 1941; of the Spider's Web principal actors, only Warren Hull and Kenne Duncan returned in their original roles for the sequel.

In the serial, Warren Hull portrayed Richard Wentworth and "The Spider." Pleasant and smiling in civilian life, Wentworth is sometimes ruthless as The Spider, using his two .45 semi-automatic pistols against any public enemies who attack him. He is even not above shooting an an old lady in the back (OK, maybe it's a henchman in disguise). No doubt his disdain for due process rankles the legal authorities, who see him as just another hood.

Warren Hull also played Blinky McQuade, Wentworth's undercover alter ego, an over-the-hill safecracker who, disguised with glasses and an eyepatch, rubs elbows with the criminal underworld as a means to get valuable crime-fighting information Blinky also serves as comic relief in between all the fast-paced action sequences.

In the pulps, Wentworth adopted the hunchback persona of "Tito Caliepi," to infiltrate the underworld. Blinky McQuade is the serial's equivalent of this disguised faux-criminal. Wentworth is clearly a master of disguise; while flying with his fiancee, he describes how the authorities will greet him during their honeymoon to Hong Kong by donning a sampan, glasses, and mustache (all conveniently stored in his snug two-seater plane!) - and a cringe-worthy Chinese accent. These were definitely pre-PC times!

Nita Van Sloan and Richard Wentworth in an airplane built for two

The Spider's nemesis is "The Octopus," a masked crime lord who, wearing a Klansman-style white cloak, is only ever seen by his henchmen while sitting in a throne-like chair. He is bent on crippling America with a wave of terror as he sets about to control "the very nerve centers of the nation" - its multi-tentacled transportation systems. Likewise, the Octopus is himself a cripple, needing a cane to hobble around on his peg-leg. He demands tribute from railroad magnates and other "captains of industry." Interestingly, author Frank Norris wrote a novel called The Octopus, that emphasized the control of "forces"—such as the power of railroad monopolies—over individuals.

The rest of the cast includes perky Iris Meredith as Nita Van Sloan, Richard Wentworth's fiancée; Richard Fiske as Jackson,Wentworth's driver; Kenne Duncan as Ram Singh, Wentworth's Sikh bodyguard; Donald Douglas as Jenkins, Wentworth's butler; and Forbes Murray as Commissioner Kirk.

Nita hopes The Spider chooses baby powder over gunpowder

Drive, he said
"Yes, Saheeb!"

"You rang, sir?"
The definitive authority on The Spider's Web is reviewer Jerry Blake, whose web site The Files of Jerry Blake (www.filesofjerryblake.com) is a treasure trove of information about movie serials and "other cliffhanger material."

He lauds The Spider's Web for both its well-paced action sequences and its casting.

Jerry Blake on the action:

"...the real strengths of the Spider's Web lies not in its script but in its action scenes and lead performances. Directors Ray Taylor and James W. Horne...fill the serial with an impressive array of action sequences, with the assistance of a stunt team that incudes George DeNormand, Dave O'Brien, Bud Geary, and Tom Searle. The action scenes benefit from considerable variety, with gunfights (usually lethal ones) predominating but plenty of fistfights, chases, and acrobatic stuntwork mixed in...The action scenes are further enhanced by the serial's high percentage of nocturnal scenes, which casts a memorably ominous mood over the proceedings. The serial's atmosphere is also enhanced by the well-appointed locations, which consist chiefly of Columbia's city-street backlots; these locales, with an unusual amount of extras on the sidewalks and vehicles on the roads, not only help the directors and photographers in giving a gritty detective-pulp feel to the action, but also aid in sugesting the bustling life of the city under threat - which makes the Spider's crusade seem more urgent than that of many serial heroes, who tend to conduct their war with master criminals in a kind of vacuum free of bystanders." - Jerry Blake
Jerry Blake on the cast:

"As aforementioned, the serial's leading performances are another big factor in its success. The charismatic Warren Hull gives his character a suavity, intelligence, and aristocratic self-assurance rare in serial heroes, ans makes both the "millionaire socialite" and "brilliant detective" aspects of his character utterly credible. However, he never comes off as too slick or too arrogant, displaying convincing esteem and affection for his crimefighting aides - and for his misunderstanding friend the Commissioner as well - throughout the serial... 
Iris Meredith's delicate beauty and quietly courageous bearing make her an equally appealing heroine; her wryly good-humored reaction to the postponement of her character's marriage to Wentworth in the first chapter endears her to the audience from the start... 
Richard Fisk plays the part of Jackson with infectious energy and enthusiasm, making is character a cheerful daredevil ten times more interesting than most non-comic serial sidekicks... 
Kenne Duncan is also terrific as the knife-wielding Ram Singh, forbiddingly stern most of the time but always conveying a fierce love of battle beneath the stoicism, both through his air of repressed excitement and the gusto with with he delivers warlike maxims ('He who treads the path of evil shall meet with evil; I will ruin the pigs!')... 
Don Douglas, as the fifth member of Wentworth's team, has a much less active role than Meredith, Fiske, or Duncan, but still gives butler Jenkins a proper combination of intelligence and imperturbability... 
Forbes Murray is excellent as Commissioner Kirk, his tremendous affability and his briskly professional manner keeping him from ever seeming like a nuisance or a fool... 
Marc Lawrence - one of the screen's great gangsters in films ranging from Key Largo to Hold That Cloak, is a welcome presene as the Octopus' second-in-command; his slick, smug, and cooly menancing characterization is so good that it's a definite disappointment when he's killed off a little after the halfway mark... 
The Octopus is himself one of the less interesting masked serial heavies...the Octopus' dangerous 'third arm' and his off-screen execution chamber are overall more memorable than the villain himself."

The Octopus' identity was listed in the credits as "?" but (spoiler!) he was played by veteran actor Charles Wilson. Apparently a late "reveal" reveals him as a supposedly kidnapped banker named "Chase."

Warren Hull went on to portray Mandrake the Magician in Columbia Pictures' 1939 serial of that name, where he once again teamed up with Forbes Murray.

Iris Meredith would resurface in another Columbia superhero serial, The Green Archer (1940).

Ram Singh catches up on his reading

After playing in a number of Republic Western serials, Kenne Duncan would end his career performing in the films of his pal Ed Wood, Jr. He once again donned a turban to portray the spiritualist Dr. Acula in Wood's Night of the Ghouls (1959) and he was Lt. Matt Carson in The Sinister Urge (1960). He also appeared in Wood's TV pilot Crossroad Avenger and showed off his cowpoke shooting skills in the Wood short "Trick Shooting," as shown below:

Watch all 15 chapters of "The Spider's Web" here:

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