Strange Science Serials, Part II: Bring on the Bad Guys

An interesting thing about science-fiction serials of the 1930s is that, with the world poised on the brink of war yet again and scrupulously evil dictators presiding over much of the globe's territory, scenario writers and chapterplay directors really had to work hard to invent fictional villains who measured up to their real-life counterparts. The mid-1930s through the early 1940s gave matinee-goers some of the greatest evil-doers in the history of movies, thwarted week by week by square-jawed, two-fisted he-men (and she-women) who stood up for truth, justice, and, yes, the American way. In this installment, we'll look at some of the great science-fiction villains of the era.

Dagna of Joba

Okay, I said they were great villains, I didn't say they had great NAMES.

Dagna, as portrayed by Lucien Prival in the 1936 Republic serial Darkest Africa, is a sniveling, rather prissy weakling, despite his innate rottenness. (He'll probably remind you of Franklin Pangborn in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.) Dagna is the High Priest of the lost African city of Joba, and he's kidnapped the village's gorgeous blonde Goddess to keep her from spoiling his evil plans of jungle conquest; in this nefarious plot he's aided by a flying army of Batmen, and yes, you read that right. Who can stand against such evil might? How about a guy in jodhpurs, who carries a whip and chair?

Fame is a funny thing; we'll bet you couldn't name a lion tamer practicing his or her craft today, but back in the 1930s, Frank Buck and Clyde Beatty were two of the most famous men in the world, and both starred in motion picture serials, including Clyde's brush with the weird in this one.

Beatty (playing himself, and very well, too) is in the jungles of East Africa looking for big game when he finds the biggest game I've ever seen, and it's not an elephant, although there's some speculation about that: it's actually Baru the Jungle Boy, a chubby little mound of pasty white flesh whose jungle diet appears to consist of lard-encrusted Krispy Kreme donuts. Baru is the little brother of the Goddess of Joba (I didn't know goddesses even HAD brothers) and he and his pet gorilla, Bonga, have gone off in search of Clyde Beatty for assistance. It'll take 15 weeks, but Clyde'll come through for the round li'l guy and his cute sister, you can bank on it. Of course, he'll need an exploding volcano as well as his chair and whip to accomplish his task.

Ming the Merciless, Master of Mongo

Oh, NOW we're talkin' great super-villains. Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) had no less than three run-ins with the bald reprobate Ming (Charles Middleton); the stuff of movie legend.

In the original Flash Gordon (Universal, 1936) Ming has steered the planet Mongo onto a collision course with Earth; Flash, his gal Dale Arden (Jean Rogers at her loveliest), and the brilliant scientist Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) head off to overthrow Ming and get that planet out of our way. Politics are involved, with a great cast of characters who switch sides depending on whoever is winning; contestants include Thun of the Lion Men, Barin of the Forest Men, and Vultan of the Hawk Men, the heftiest bird you've ever seen.

Just as much fun was the first sequel, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938). It seems this time, Ming has allied himself with Azura, Witch Queen of Mars, and taken control of earth's weather with death beams from space. (He seems to have no real purpose; he simply doesn't like earth people. Few do, come to think of it, based on other invaders from space on the nation's motion picture screens over the years.)

After accidentally becoming Buck Rogers and battling Killer Kane in Buck Rogers (1939), Buster was back for a third and final fling against Ming in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). This time, Ming's infected our planet with a plague called the Purple Death, and so Flash (and a new Dale) once again go and teach him a good lesson.

All in all, between the three serials there are 40 rounds of excitement and thrills in the greatest rivalry in cliffhanger history.

The Lightning

Ming doesn't really have much competition in the Greatest Sci-Fi Serial Villain sweepstakes, but there are a few contenders not too far behind. The Lightning warrants consideration if only because his dark helmet, cape, and bad attitude inspired George Lucas to whip up Darth Vader several decades later. The Lighting's space cruiser stalks the skyway in the 1938 Republic serial The Fighting Devil Dogs.

The Lightning has the interesting hobby of cruising the globe in his Flying Wing (purchased used from the villain in a Dick Tracy serial), blasting torpedoes made from electricity at various peoples who annoy him, which is practically everybody. When he wipes out a Marine base in the Far East, though, two survivors (Lee Powell and Herman Brix) vow to bring him down. This is one of those films in which the villain is the only interesting character, and it's a shame he wasn't brought back for more thrills -- one could picture him freezing Brix in carbonite in a sequel.

The Infamous Name In the Title

Speaking of interesting villains, occasionally the bad guy was the star of the show, and even got to be the titular character. The Mysterious Doctor Satan (Republic, 1940) was Eduardo Ciannelli, later to be the jazz club owner for Johnny Staccato. His gig here was to create a vast army of remote-controlled robots to conquer the world; alas, he could only afford the one (the famous Republic Studios' 'water cooler on legs' robot) and his efforts to raise more cash (short of going public as DoctorSatanCo) were thwarted by the Copperhead, a not-too-super hero who puts a bag over his head and punches fairly hard for a lightweight.

The Phantom Creeps (Universal, 1939) gives us another madman with one robot that he hopes to see go forth and multiply; Dr. Zorka is portrayed by Bela Lugosi, whose plans for world conquest include him dropping bombs from his airplane on 'famous buildings in Washington' while we, the audience, see stock footage of the Hindenburg aflame. Oh, the humanity.

The Crimson Ghost (Republic, 1946) may have the most famous face in screen villainy, thanks to his gruesome skull visage being appropriated by the punk band The Misfits. He's created dog collars that make the wearer follow his every command, and you'd think he'd sell the patent to PetCo and retire a billionaire, but no, he'd rather use the necklaces of doom to force scientists to build him a death ray. Charles Quigley -- one of those Republic leading men seemingly chosen because they met the greatest challenge any actor on the lot could have: he had to resemble one of the stuntmen -- teams up with Linda Stirling to crack the skull.

Batman v. Superman: Who Has the Worst Villains?

In the comics, the World's Finest team had a plethora of outstanding nemeses, and with four chapterplays between them, you'd think the pickings were ripe for the Joker or Penguin to invade Gotham City, or Mr. Mxyzptlk or the Prankster to bedevil the Man of Steel, but the serial villains were hit and miss. Batman went first (Columbia, 1943), battling a Japanese warlord called Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish), who spoke with a ridiculous faux accent, fed his minions to the pet crocodiles he kept under his office rug, turned scientists into zombies by placing what appeared to be laundry baskets over their shoulders, and in general made a nuisance of himself until Batman, Robin, and a few of those crocodiles sent him to meet his ancestors. Louis Wilson and Douglas Croft were the Caped Crusaders in this serial, which is actually pretty good.

Next up was Superman (1948, Columbia), who found himself battling The Spider Lady (Carol Forman). Actor Kirk Alyn wasn't billed as Superman; they told us the REAL Superman was playing himself, but we knew the REAL Superman would've polished this villain off in less than six pages, let alone 15 weeks.

The success of Superman brought back Batman and Robin (1949) for more fun, this time Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan square off against a black-cloaked mystery villain called the Wizard, displaying no magical powers to speak off, although he CAN turn himself invisible; probably, he got the cloak from his dad. Batman and Robin shows the worst of the DC Comics serials, but it's good for a lot of unintentional laughs, as when a pack of cigarettes falls out of Batman's utility belt.

Finally, we got a great villain with Atom Man vs. Superman (1950);Lex Luthor himself shows up, in the person of long-time leading man and then supporting player Lyle Talbot, who not only plays Luthor, the guy IS Luthor: easily the best of all the movie Luthors, and highly reminiscent of the guy from the comics I read as a kid in the 1960s. Lex has a partner in crime in this one, the mysterious Atom Man, wearing what appears to be a wastepaper basket over his head. Still, either Kirk Alyn or the REAL Superman, depending on what you believe, manages to run Luthor back to prison by the end of the chapterplay. Metropolis can sleep tonight.

To Be Continued: Invaders from Space!

Clifford Weimer is a writer and film historian in Sacramento, CA. He can usually be found lurking about the dark corners of a movie theatre at