Kendra Steiner Editions

July 29, 2017

The Mysterious Airman (1928 serial, Sprocket Vault DVD)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 3:53 pm

mysterious

From the mid-1910’s through the mid-1950’s, the multi-chapter movie serial entertained millions weekly here in North America. During the VHS era, one could amass a good collection of sound-era serials….Republic Pictures Home Video issued high-quality copies of Republic’s serial library, various public domain companies issued the serials of Nat Levine’s Mascot Pictures, and grey-market “collector” copying services offered the serials of Universal and Columbia. While Olive Films has been releasing some of Republic’s serials, and of course the ever-reliable Grapevine Video has never stopped putting out good quality versions of various public domain serials, both silent and sound, here in the DVD/Blu-Ray era, the go-to source for quality restoration and release of serials, including many super-rare silent serials, has been The Serial Squadron, which you can visit at http://www.serialsquadron.com

However, it’s always an event when a lost serial surfaces, and for me it’s even more of an event when it is a silent serial. Serials were huge in the late 1910’s and throughout the 1920’s, and in the genre’s early years, many of its biggest action stars were women, starting with the Queen of the Serials, Pearl White. In this case, the lost serial is the 1928 THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN, surfacing in a beautiful print presented by The Sprocket Vault, the new organization run by film archivist and vintage film authority Kit Parker, who for many years released his product through VCI.

THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN is a 1928 (meaning late-silent) serial, produced by the Weiss Brothers, best-known to serial lovers for the amazing trifecta of CUSTER’S LAST STAND, THE CLUTCHING HAND (certainly in my top 5 most entertaining serials of all time), and the BLACK COIN in 1936. They also produced the serials for Columbia during that studio’s first year of serial production, 1937 and 1938 (and Grapevine recently released their Columbia serial JUNGLE MENACE, which is highly recommended).

THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN is a wonderful find on many levels. First of all, I have never before seen a silent serial produced by the Weiss Brothers. Many of their two-reel silent comedy shorts survive, and the ones with Snub Pollard are must-see comedy. This serial is quite well-done, and while their sound serials often have an “old-fashioned” quality to them, it’s because they were hearkening back to THIS period of film-making–it’s great to see a prime piece of exciting serial product from the time that they were later echoing!

mysterious airman

The plot is one which will be familiar to serial fans from such later releases as Mascot’s THE WHISPERING SHADOW (with Bela Lugosi) or THE SHADOW OF THE EAGLE (with John Wayne) or THE MYSTERY SQUADRON (with Bob Steele)—-a company/inventor is under attack by sinister forces to steal its intellectual property/business, and there are both cut-throat competitors out to shut them down AND a diabolical evil overlord who wears a mask (or is obscured in shadows) and is secretly one of the persons involved with the business. The various characters, except for the hero and heroine, are all at one time or another presented as red herrings to create mystery and suspense, and the many attempts to kill the good guys and gals and/or to derail the company and/or to steal the invention create fine opportunities for cliffhanger endings, which are resolved at the beginning of the next chapter with some piece of information or some camera angle not included at the end of the previous chapter.

Those who enjoy such action-filled serial entertainment will want to get a copy of THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN as soon as possible. It is a ten-chapter serial, in excellent condition, and all that is missing is one reel (about half) of chapter nine, and because of the nature of the serial format, some stills and an explanation of what happens during that half-of-a-chapter is quite adequate to fill the gap. The piano score by Andrew Earle Simpson is suitably 1920’s sounding while also laying back and never getting in the way, yet at the same time pulling the viewer along and suggesting moods….it DOES NOT telegraph emotions or plot movement the way some soundtracks do. We are also treated to a commentary track by film historian Richard Roberts, who did a fine job  with his commentaries on Kit Parker’s releases of the Lippert/Hammer UK crime films with imported American stars, released in a number of volumes under the HAMMER NOIR label. Roberts provides a history of the Weiss Family’s rich history in genre films, talks about all the cast and crew, talks about the filming and locations, provides context for the film, and also is knowledgeable about planes and aviation, which adds a lot to our appreciation of the film and the excitement of flying (then, still a novelty) to audiences of the 1920’s (remember, this film was issued the year after Charles Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight).

mysterious airman 2

I have a job where I take home a lot of work each night, and many evenings I do not have time for a feature film….and I can’t stand today’s television. A serial episode or two is EXACTLY what I need to wind down after a long day, providing escapist thrills and exciting situations, much like pulp magazine stories or adventure comics or adventure radio programs, the other and similar popular entertainment offerings of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Film being a visual medium, the silent serials are in some ways even more entertaining than sound serials—-they certainly can’t be accused of being overly talky! I’ve watched probably a dozen silent serials thanks to Grapevine and The Serial Squadron, and THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN is an excellent quality entry for today’s serial fan. Again, the print is excellent, often tinted, and is so sharp it looks like it was shot yesterday. The actors—-led by serial stalwart Walter Miller, star of King of the Kongo and some early sound serials, who later graduated into character roles, often villains, using the gravitas he’d earned during his leading-man days in serials and action films—-and actresses all fill the hero and villain and grey-area roles quite well, there is a lot of flying footage (though, as the commentary points out, no real “air battles” or crashes, but do you really expect them in a low-budget film), it’s well-paced, and the location shooting (and most of this is shot at existing locations) of 1920’s Southern California is fascinating and beautiful. Just as in the low-budget comedy shorts of the 1920’s, you see priceless footage of a Southern California long gone, the Southern California that attracted millions of migrants and showbiz hopefuls.

If you are a fan of classic action serials, or low-budget independent genre films of the 20’s and 30’s (and if you are not a fan, it’s never too late to become one!), THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN is a wonderful find….and an all-around quality presentation. Hats off to the Sprocket Vault for this release, which I’ve already viewed three times and have treated various family members and visiting friends to chapters of. Check out the Sprocket Vault website at http://thesprocketvault.com and your order will be promptly fulfilled by Amazon. BTW, I highly recommend their HAMMER NOIR series (mentioned above) and their many FORGOTTEN NOIR releases, with little-known low-budget crime gems from the Lippert Pictures library, films I grew up watching on UHF channels 27 and 38 with snowy reception on a 12″ B&W television. Also, fans of the Weiss family’s films should check out Kit Parker/VCI’s releases (available through the Sprocket Vault) of silent comedy shorts on WEISS-O-RAMA, of the 1949-50 CRAIG KENNEDY: CRIMINOLOGIST television series, based on the stories of Arthur B. Reeve, who wrote THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN, and whose Craig Kennedy character was featured by the Weisses in their amazing 1936 serial THE CLUTCHING HAND, and also the jaw-dropping patchwork 1945 release WHITE GORILLA. Make a point to order all of those next payday!

The renewed interest in serials in the last few years is long-overdue. Trust me, THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN is a true find and well-worth the time and money of anyone who admires the spunk and creativity of the folks who make low-budget action films, then or now. Also, you’ll learn pretty much everything you could ever need to know about the Weiss family’s many decades in film. Highly recommended!

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