Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when cinematic thrills came in action-packed, weekly installments. In the first half of the 20th Century, movie theaters would lure young audiences back for weekly Saturday matinées, no matter what feature film was being unspooled, by including a serial as part of the program. These serials, also known as chapterplays, told a complete tale of adventure with iron-jawed heroes and flamboyant, maniacal villains in 12 to 15 weekly episodes of 15 to 30 minutes each. At the end of each episode (apart from the final installment), the hero or another innocent would find themselves in a precarius situation with no apparent means of escape. This would naturally draw the audience back to the theater the following week to see how the hero extricated themselves from the cliffhanger.
At the height of the popularity of the serials in the 1930s and 40s, one studio stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of their serial output — Republic Pictures. With the expert action directing team of William Witney and John English, legendary stuntmen like Yakima Canutt and David Sharpe, and the special effects miniature work of Howard and Theodore Lydecker, Republic had an unbeatable team. The resulting films included some of the greatest serials of them all, such as Dick Tracy (1937), Hawk of the Wilderness (1938), The Lone Ranger (1938), Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939), Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), and Spy Smasher (1942). Republic was also responsible for Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939), which is not only considered one of the best serials ever made, many experts consider it THE best.
As chapter one of Daredevils opens, an escaped convict, Harry Crowel (played by Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton) is intent on enacting revenge upon Horace Granville (Miles Mander), the millionaire industrialist who sent him to prison. Crowel, a madman who prefers to be referred to by his prison number of 39013 (pronounced Thirty nine-oh-thirteen), has been targeting Granville’s businesses and destroying them one by one. Next on his list is the Granville Amusement Center, where three daring daredevils are performing — Gene, a high diver (Charles Quigley, who looks like Cary Grant’s less charismatic younger brother); Tiny, a strongman (Bruce Bennett, credited a Herman Brix), and Bert, an escape artist (David Sharpe). After the amusement center is destroyed, the daredevils use their special skills to defeat the schemes of 39013, with the occasional help of Granville’s granddaughter (Carole Landis) and their faithful dog, Tuffie. It’s a crackerjack premise for a serial, which takes full advantage of the acrobatic prowess of its heroes.
Of the few serials that I’ve watched all the way through, Daredevils of the Red Circle is far and away the best. Serials were never meant to be watched in a single sitting, as the action, cliffhangers, and recaps tend to get repetitive. However, Daredevils of the Red Circle is an exception to the rule. There is enough variety to the situations, action, and stunt-work that Daredevils plays well either in weekly installments or watched all at once (which is the way I enjoyed it). Middleton always makes an exceptional villain, and the rest of the cast is quite good, including star-in-the-making Carole Landis and real stuntman David Sharpe. Casting Sharpe as one of the three daredevils was a stroke of genius, as he could perform some close-up acrobatics that gave the serial a feeling of realism that the chapterplays rarely achieved. Adding to the realism was the rare use of location shooting at various real industrial plants, which serve as Granville’s holdings and the setting for several of the action set pieces.
I would recommend this title to anyone interested in viewing a good example of a classic movie serial with one major caveat; it contains a particularly egregious example of racial stereotyping. It was not unusual in the Thirties and Forties to feature an African-American actor as comic relief, depicting the actor as uneducated or cowardly. I can usually tolerate such casual racism to a certain degree, thinking of it as a time capsule of a less evolved period in our past. However, the racism in Daredevils of the Red Circle is particularly mean-spirited. Everytime the character of Snowflake, Granville’s black cook/valet is on screen it is simply for the purpose of degrading him and to make jokes at his expense. Just having an African-American character named “Snowflake” is cringeworthy enough, but to make the character the constant butt of unfunny jokes is enough to make your skin crawl. It doesn’t help that Fred “Snowflake” Toones is an actor of very limited skill (as opposed to a talent such as Mantan Moreland who often outshined his costars in his comic relief roles). Fortunately, the Snowflake scenes only comprise about 10 minutes in a 211 minute serial; but unfortunately, the last chapter ends on one such scene, which leaves the viewer with a bad taste in his/her mouth.
USA/B&W-211m./Dir: John English & William Witney/Wr: Barry Shipman, Franklyn Adreon, Rex Taylor, Ronald Davidson, and Sol Shor/Cast: Charles Quigley, Bruce Bennett, David Sharpe, Carole Landis, Miles Mander, Charles Middleton, C. Montague Shaw, Ben Taggart, Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones
If You Like: If you like a little film known as Star Wars (1977) or another named Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), you may want to give a classic serial a try. Both blockbusters were directly inspired by the Saturday morning chapterplays, and George Lucas even began Star Wars with a serial recap narrative crawl.
Video: Kino Lorber has released a beautiful 4K restoration of
Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) on Blu-ray. The image quality is strong and sharp throughout, much crisper than one would expect from low budget kiddie fare such as this. The disc also features entertaining audio commentary by film historian and enthusiast Michael Schlesinger on four of the episodes — “The Monstrous Plot,” “Sabotage,” “Ladder of Peril,” and “Flight to Doom.”
Streaming: Not available on any of the streaming services at the time of this review.
More to Explore: Kino Lorber also recently released a Blu-ray of what is considered the best of the super hero serials,
Adventures of Captain Marvel.
Trivia: Since stuntman David Sharpe had a featured role as Bert in Daredevils of the Red Circle, he wasn’t allowed to perform all of his own stunts for fear that an injury would delay production. Beyond a few flips, filmed in close-up, Bert’s stunts were doubled by James Fawcett.
For More Info: Consult the very thorough
Encyclopedia of American Film Serials by Geoff Mayer.