1941-1950ActionCrimeSpencer Gordon BennetUSA

Spencer Gordon Bennet – The Masked Marvel (1943)

From the files of Jerry Blake:

Republic, 12 Chapters, 1943. Starring William Forrest, Louise Currie, Johnny Arthur, Richard Clarke, Rod Bacon, Anthony Warde, David Bacon, Bill Healy, and TOM STEELE as the Marvel.

THE MASKED MARVEL is almost universally recognized as one of Republic’s best. The action alone would be enough to place it in the top ten. The story deals with a wave of sabotage unleashed by Mura Sakima, a Japanese super-spy who employs former racketeer Killer Mace and other no-good turncoats in his evil schemes to destroy the American war effort. The World-Wide Insurance Company, principal insurer of the war materials, sends its four of its top investigators to stop the sinister sabotage. The Masked Marvel, mysterious foe of crime, aids the quartet in their battle, and it becomes evident that he is secretly one of the foursome. The Marvel is aided by Alice Hamilton, daughter of Warren Hamilton, the murdered head of World-Wide, and hindered by Hamilton’s partner, Martin Crane, who is actually in league with Sakima.

The acting talents of the four heroes–the insurance investigators played by Dave Bacon, Rod Bacon, Bill Healey, and Richard Clarke–seem to be the biggest bone of contention among fans where this serial is concerned, but I think that all four actors are passable in their roles. They’re not great, but they’re certainly not bad. And even if they were bad, that wouldn’t affect the performances of the other cast members and the magnificent direction of Spencer Gordon Bennett. Rod Bacon is the best of the group: he has some energy and seems not to be “lost”; too bad he gets killed off first. David Bacon is subdued but competent, but Bill Healey and Richard Clarke are frankly rather stiff. Healey doesn’t even remotely resemble Tom Steele physically, so one wonders why he was cast in the first place. I doubt any one of them could carry a serial alone, but all working together and partnered with Louise Currie and the mysterious Marvel, they’re very easy to watch.

This one is a companion volume to SECRET SERVICE IN DARKEST AFRICA—the two of them together contain enough great stunts and furniture-breaking fights to supply every other serial ever made. Bennett once said that the bills for balsa wood for these two were enormous. The Masked Marvel, as played by Tom Steele, is most definitely a man of action. Steele runs, fights, and jumps his way into serial immortality in the role of the hero–even with his voice dubbed by Gayne Whitman (By the way, Whitman’s deep, commanding voice is a perfect compliment to Steele’s physical presence).

The central theme, the mystery of the Marvel’s identity, is intriguing, and a nifty inversion of the usual “guess the heavy’s identity” gimmick. And (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) the guessing game is conducted fairly (as Jack Mathis says) because Dave Bacon, revealed as the Marvel at the end, bears the closest physical and facial resemblance to Steele.

Heroine Louise Currie deserves, in my opinion, “Serial Queen” status right alongside Linda Stirling and Kay Aldridge. She only made two cliffhangers (the other one is CAPTAIN MARVEL), but they compare to Linda and Kay’s output in quality, if not quantity. She creates a very memorable heroine in the person of Alice Hamilton, smart, capable, and a worthy assistant to the Marvel.

Anthony Warde is nastier than nasty as action heavy Killer Mace (Jack Mathis, in his book VALLEY OF THE CLIFFHANGERS, says George J. Lewis was originally intended for the role. George would have been good, but it’s hard to picture anyone but Warde in the role after seeing the serial). I love the way Mace snarls “The Masked Marvel!” every time he is confronted by the masked do-gooder, invariably following up the exclamation with a hail of lead. Johnny Arthur’s letter-perfect portrayal of Sakima is the exact opposite of Mace; one is pure brain, the other pure brawn. Arthur’s manner of sneering every time he mentions “the Marvel”, “those investigators”, or “the American war effort”, must have had every kid in the theatre jumping up and down and shouting “Just wait, you rat! The Marvel’ll get you in the end!” The fact that he is made up to resemble Hirohito makes him a perfect embodiment of wartime Japan’s threat to the US. William Forrest, as the turncoat Crane, is smart, slick, suave, and slippery, the epitome of the double-dealing “man at the trading post.”

The final showdown between Sakima and the Marvel is tense and exciting, and topped by the most priceless line in the history of serials–it’s a really great moment.

I’d forgotten that Roy Barcroft pops up in this one–he plays the crooked diner manager in Chapter Six. HAUNTED HARBOR and the top rank of villainy was still a year away. Bud Geary and Tom London also pop up in the same scene, as a pair of truckers doped by Barcroft. George J. Lewis appears in Chapter Five, as attorney Phillip Morton. As I said above, he was originally slated to play Mace himself, but apparently Republic, realizing he had to sleep some time (he had just completed G-MEN VS. THE BLACK DRAGON, was working on CAPTAIN AMERICA, and about to start TIGER WOMAN) they signed Anthony Warde to give him a much-needed break. Harry Woods, Barcroft’s acting role model, also appears in Chapter Seven. I can’t believe that Republic utilized an actor of Woods’ standing for such a small part deliberately. I think he must have been filming a B-Western on another lot, and it was a case of “Hey, come over here for a minute, will you?”

And, once again, let me mention Tom Steele. He REALLY does yeoman work in this one–playing the Marvel, doubling ALL FOUR investigators, and getting killed twice in his usual “stunt-mug” parts. Steele and Spencer Bennett are truly the guiding forces behind this truly great serial. THE MASKED MARVEL is quintessential Republic, and well deserves its place in the pantheon of the greats.

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