Saturday, June 15, 2013

Don Winslow of the Navy (1942) – Chapter 11: Caught in the Caverns

OUR STORY SO FAR (taken directly from the “crawl” that opens Part the Eleventh): Don Winslow from his plane sights a Scorpion submarine, and is amazed to see it disappear into an under-sea cave.

Landing his plane, Don boards a tug, sets out for the cave, goes down as a diver and discovers a mine field.

But Scorpion agents board the tug and battle the crew, while Don, on the ocean floor, signals desperately for help...

Here’s how Don (Don Terry) “signals” for help, by the way: “Red!  Red!  What’s wrong with my airline?!!  Stop clowning around, you hosers!”  Moan, moan, moan.  Well, one good thing does result from all this—Mike Splendor (Wade Boteler) finally gets to throw a few punches, and one of them sends henchman Spike (Ethan Laidlaw) into the drink.

This fight could continue for two more chapters, but henchman Corley (Lane Chandler) spots the 620 coming their way and alerts Paul Barsac (John Holland) that the destroyer “is bearin’ down on us!”  So the two of them and a third unidentified goon make tracks for their motor boat and—here’s the sad part—leave poor Spike behind.  Spike must make do with clinging to a tow rope on the S.S. Mickey.  (So much for the buddy system.)

While Splendor goes back to manning the air pumps, “Red” Pennington (Walter Sande) calls down to a gasping-for-air Winslow via radio telephone:

RED: Don…Don…are you all right, Don?
DON (after finally getting some oxygen): Red…pull me up…
RED (to Splendor): He’s all right!
SPLENDOR: Oh, fine!
RED: He wants to come up… (To the crew) Stand by to bring up the diver!

Don’t forget the diver, sir…don’t forget the diver.  (Couldn’t pass up an ITMA reference.)  But what about poor Spike?

Hang in there, buddy.  Don is brought to the surface, and as Red and the others remove the helmet his first words are “Who was farting around with the air hose?”  (No, not really—I made that up.)

DON: Why was my air cut off?
RED: Some Scorpion agents jumped us!
DON: Did you get rid of them?
RED: Yeah!
SPLENDOR: What did you find down there?
DON: Observation mines…
RED: Observation mines?!!
DON: Yes…there’s a whole field of them laying on the bottom!  They must be guarding some secret underground cave…

It’s a good thing Spike is still in the water; clinging to that rope…otherwise he’d be missing all this plot exposition.

RED: What are you going to do about it?
DON: Find the control shack that operates the mines and explode them before they can do any harm…
RED: Well, let’s get busy!

How do you know there is a “control shack,” Don?  Maybe it’s a control bungalow, or a control grotto.  (Writers be lazy!)  Winslow orders the tug captain to get going, and then gives this one last bit of exposition to his compadres:

DON: …the first thing we have to do is get back to Tangita as quickly as possible and radio Captain Tilbert aboard the Eureka…tell him to attack the mine and the mining village with a landing party as soon as he can get into position!

So Spike, having been tipped off to the plot of this chapter, starts to swim away from the tug…and a quick screen wipe finds him striding up to the mine entrance, sopping wet.  (I swear I’m not making this up.)  How he managed to beat Winslow and Company back goes unexplained (maybe the guys on the S.S. Mickey broke out some brews and fishing equipment and partied like it’s 1943) but he takes the elevator down into the shaft (no elevator operator around, which I found strange) and heads for the secret headquarters of Scorpion, LLC…where brains heavy Spencer Merlin (John Litel) is holding forth with the two dry henchmen, Barsac and Corley, as radioman Parker (Ray Teal) looks on.

BARSAC: I’m telling you, M-22…we had Winslow and his entire gang under control…when the 620 came barging down on us…we had to get away!
MERLIN: And you don’t know what happened to Winslow…?
SPIKE (entering the room): I do!  They pulled him up!  He’s on his way to the warehouse to radio the Eureka to send a landing party to attack the mine!
MERLIN: Barsac…you and Corley get down to that radio station…

“Tell them if they don’t start playing I’ve Never Been to Me at least once an hour we’re pulling our ads!”

MERLIN: …cut the power line…do anything you have to, but stop that radio call!
PARKER: Hey, what about Winslow’s two girlfriends we’re holding prisoner in the intercave room?

Two girlfriends?  Don is awfully broad-minded.

MERLIN: I nearly forgot about them…

I can see why this would be the case, because they were apparently kidnapped sometime between this chapter and the last.  There is a quick cut to Mercedes Colby (Claire Dodd) and Misty Gaye (Anne Nagel) cooling their heels in some sort of holding cell.

MISTY: I don’t suppose there’s any hope of us ever getting out of here…
MERCEDES: There is!  If Don ever finds out Merlin’s holding us as prisoners…

Okay, we know the girls are okay…back to the action:

MERLIN: Now get down to that radio station!
SPIKE: I’ve got to get some dry clothes!
MERLIN: All right—make it fast!

Yes, because little things like this make me laugh like a hyena…well, I laughed like a hyena.  A dissolve finds Barsac, Corley and Spike barreling out of the mine entrance—all three of them dressed the same, because that makes it easier for the stuntmen.  Another dissolve shows Don, Red, Mike and John Blake (Ben Taggart) just now getting off the S.S. Widemouth.  (They had to be doing something in the meantime…either that or Spike could give Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe some swimming competition.)  Yet another dissolve finds the four men entering the warehouse, where Don calls out for Misty and Mercedes.  Seeing no sign of them, the quartet march into the radio room, where the ever faithful Seaman Chapman (Peter Leeds) sits dutifully at his post.

DON: Where are Miss Colby and Miss Gaye?
CHAPMAN: I don’t know, sir…they haven’t been around all day…

“You know how women are…all shopping and sh*t…”

DON: That’s strange…get Captain Tilbert aboard the Eureka for me…
CHAPMAN: He’s been tryin’ to reach you for the last hour, Commander…
DON: All right…call him back…
CHAPMAN: Aye aye, sir…

As Chapman prepares to raise Cap’n Tilbert on the radio, Spike lurks menacingly outside the radio room while Corley runs over to a large power pole and starts to climb.

CHAPMAN: Commander Winslow, Rondana…calling cruiser Eureka…Captain Tilbert…come in, please…
TILBERT (on radio): Captain Tilbert…United States cruiser Eureka
DON: Winslow speaking, sir…I have just located The Scorpion’s headquarters on this island…it is directly connected with the Tangita Gold Mine inside the North Reef…please put ashore a landing party at once…and attack both the mine and the mining village…
TILBERT (on radio): I’ll head out for the North Reef and put a landing party ashore at once…any further suggestions?

“Yes…mail your Christmas cards and packages early…”  Before Don can continue with the conversation, there is a cut to Corley atop the power pole—unfortunately, he cannot read what it says on the other side.  But no matter: he takes out a pair of shears and cuts the cable, ending the transmission between Don and the Eureka before Winslow can warn them about the mine field.  Chapman informs Don that the power is out, and he’s told to switch to emergency power—but the resourceful Spike fires through a window and knocks out the radio.  “Find out who fired that shot!” barks Don, as if he couldn’t hazard a wild guess.  Spike, Barsac and Corley regroup to gloat about their deviltry.

SPIKE: Well…Winslow’s radio will never send another message
(Splendor and Blake come running up to the power pole where Corley cut the wire)
BARSAC: Look…Winslow’s Irish stooge and Blake…

Honest to my grandma—the first time I heard him say that I could have sworn he said “Winslow’s Irish stew.”

SPLENDOR (to Blake): Aw, sure—there’s no use tryin’ to do anythin’ with those wires…
BARSAC: Here’s a chance to take two more of Winslow’s gang…

“We might as well go back and tell Winslow…” starts Blake, but he’s interrupted by Barsac, who snarls that he’ll “tell Winslow nothing.”  Splendor and Blake are then captured by the bad guys!

If you have a passing familiarity with cliffhanger serials, you may be aware that many of them—even the good, classic ones—often concocted what was called a “recap” chapter.  This chapter would consist of ample footage from previous installments (allowing them to cut a few corners in the production budget), and would usually involve either the heroes or villains reminiscing about what they did in the past to foil the machinations of the good or bad guys. 

Don Winslow of the Navy does not need to resort to this kind of cinematic chicanery…but then again, they don’t have to.  They are able to generously sample of a lot of stock footage courtesy of the U.S. Navy, and this is no more evident than in “Caught in the Caverns.”  It’s sixteen minutes long; the opening credits eat up about two minutes of that, and I’d be willing to bet at least seven minutes are made up of crew members scrambling off the cruiser and getting into boats (this is the “landing party”) while other scenes of sailors sending semaphore messages are spliced in.  This is a positive boon to the lazy writers, who really only had to come up with seven minutes of plot for this chapter…which we now return to, back in Merlin’s lair:

MERLIN: Well…what happened?
BARSAC: We captured Splendor and Blake…we put them in the intercave room with the two girls…Winslow’s radio is completely out of commission!
MERLIN: Good!  How far did he get with that radio message?
BARSAC: He radioed the Eureka to send a landing party to attack us at once!
MERLIN: He sent that landing party to a sure death
BARSAC: You mean the mines?
MERLIN: Certainly…take Corley and get to that control shack as fast as you can…
BARSAC: And blow up every boat that tries to pass the mine…
MERLIN: Right!  (Corley and Barsac take off) Spike…round up all the miners…cover the beaches in case of any of that landing party should get through…

“And change that shirt you’re wearing…it clashes with your tie.”  Merlin puffs out his chest in pure supervillain fashion, muttering “I’ll teach Winslow what it means to attack me.”  But he’s forgotten that he’s merely the second-in-command in this operation, so to make sure no one in the audience has forgotten this either, it’s time for our weekly visit from you-know-who.

SCORPION: What’s your report…?
MERLIN: We have failed to intercept the cruiser and the transport…they are now about to put a party ashore to attack the mine and the village…
SCORPION: You have bungled this job, M-22, to the point where your only chance of success…is to fight to the death…you know the penalty if you fail…

I’m going to take a stab at a guess here…more death?

MERLIN: Yes, Master…that’s what we’re preparing to do now…fight to the death!

To the death!  Keep in mind that this residual force from the Eureka is going up against a henchman named Spike and a few men who work in a gold mine.  What’s the over/under on this turning out well for The Scorpion?

More stock footage follows; it’s essentially a repeat of what we saw earlier, with a few shots of the mighty mining force taking positions on the beach as the landing party starts to approach the island in boats.  There is then a cut to the warehouse radio room:

RED: What happened?
DON: They blew our radio out…what did you find out about Mercedes and Misty?
RED: I called the Pacific Hotel and they haven’t been seen there since this morning!  Couldn’t get a trace of them!
DON: I’m afraid there’s only one answer then…

“They’re out somewhere on Tangita with a couple of johns.”

DON: …The Scorpion’s agents must have gotten hold of them somehow…they may have taken them up to the mine!
RED: That’s where I’m going!
DON (holding his arm): No, you’re not

“Let me explain this to you one last timeI’m the hero…you’re the sidekick.”  Don tells Red that he’s got to go out to the 620 and radio Captain Tilbert about that mine field he’s liable to sail through.  “We can’t stand a chance of having an entire landing party wiped out!” he pleads with Red.

In the meantime, faithful Seaman Chapman wants to know what he can do to help.  Don tells him to scout around the mines and look for any sign of the girls while he (the hero) heads out to locate the “control shack” that operates the mines.  “We can’t take a chance on Lieutenant Pennington not reaching the 620 before Captain Tilbert makes his attack!”

It would appear Don knows his ginger-haired buddy all too well…for in the next scene, Red is trying to start up the motorboat…with no success.  Nothing more comes of this other than Red grabbing a wrench and opening up the back to see what’s wrong, so we’ll move on to The History Channel’s The Battle for Tangita…as an unnamed henchman editorializes while Barsac looks through a periscope.

GOON: If they ever reach land…we haven’t got a chance…

“We can’t stand a chance.”  “We can’t take a chance.”  “We haven’t got a chance.”  I don’t want to say anything before all the facts are in but it sounds to me as if this thing were being written on the fly.  A self-assured Barsac chuckles and says, “They won’t land…once they get over that minefield, it will be the end of them.”

Spike can be spotted among the platoon of miners, and he brings his hand down in a signal for the firing to commence.  Meanwhile, Barsac has farmed out the operation of stopping the landing party to the previous underling, demonstrating that when the indicator hands are at zero he’s to pull the patented Evil Scientist Switches and blow them ships up real good.  You are no doubt asking yourself: “Why would he entrust this task to such a minor league staffer?”  Well, as stated previously in our serial hypothesis, Barsac is apparently a relative on The Scorpion’s payroll…and when the eventual you-know-what hits the proverbial fan, he’ll no doubt escape serious retribution in the form of The Scorpion’s deadly sting.

The tension begins to mount as close-ups of the indicator are intercut with shots of the miners and landing party exchanging gunfire.  But soft!  In the distance is Don Winslow of the Freaking Navy, who is running toward the control shack at top speed.  How has he managed to locate the shack, when in earlier chapters he was constantly stymied by the whereabouts of several other bad guy outposts in the jungle?  I suppose he could have heard the gunfire and pinpointed the location…but he lobs a live grenade in the direct pathway of the shack, which to be honest is kind of a hundred-to-one shot…

KA-BOOM! goes the shack.  The mines go off before the landing boats get there, and everyone is saved—and Don runs off, his Navy whites immaculately clean.  There is then more stock footage of sailors loading a gun and firing at an unseen enemy (the miners, in this case)   Despite buildings being blown up real good all around them and being pinned down in a withering crossfire by men who have established a beachhead, the miners have not retreated…for they know the penalty of failing The Scorpion.

Don arrives at the mine entrance.  The Scorpion’s agents, realizing security is a top priority, have a single man guarding the elevator—the henchman called Rocky, whom we met in last week’s chapter.  And he has his back turned to Winslow, so Don essentially taps him on the shoulder and then sends him to the floor with a sock to the jaw…despite Don’s previous record of not being able to punch his way through Cool Whip.  Don then descends to the bottom of the shaft and instinctively pushes his way past the barrier to the mine’s secret Scorpion clubhouse.

BARSAC: We haven’t got a chance…

There’s that “chance” thing again.

MERLIN: Yes, we have…all I have to do is blow out the main lateral tunnel and plug up the entrance…no one can reach us then…

Merlin pulls a switch, and a loud explosion sends Don to the floor of the tunnel.  He pulls another switch, and Don just narrowly misses being explodiated.  “The last one,” Merlin muses.  “It’ll take a month to dig into the mine after this one!”



Stacia said...

Is it me, or did the cinematography get a little German Expressionistic this episode?

The guy showing up at the mines soaking wet? Hilarious. I'm picturing some studio intern having to pour a bucket of water on the guy...

I’m going to take a stab at a guess here…more death?


So, I've been thinking (this is what keeps me up at nights), why would audiences put up with serials that were all stock footage? Or were these mostly ignored for decades until someone in the studio system realized no one was watching?


James Vance said...

Ivan, I know you got stuck with a bow-wow in this serial, but I think you really rallied with this chapter. This is funny stuff. I'm looking forward to your huge sigh of relief next week. And I prescribe a big early '50s cheeseball from Columbia to clear your palate next.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Stacia had a query:

So, I've been thinking (this is what keeps me up at nights), why would audiences put up with serials that were all stock footage?

I won't pretend to know the specific details...but I'd bet it probably had a lot to do with the audience being comprised chiefly of a kid element. Children are not particularly discerning when it comes to movies ("I found the performances rather shallow, and the writing mediocre to the nth degree") and I think the sight of things blowing up, coupled with the impressive military weaponry, made their young hearts go pitter-pat. (Either that or they were too busy throwing popcorn and shit at the screen to notice.)

Anytime you see a credit at the beginning of a serial that reads "We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the U.S. (fill in the blank)" it's pretty much shorthand for "Score! We won't have to shoot a damn thing with all this stock footage."

You yourself experienced this with Raiders of Ghost City; Universal shot B-westerns out the wazoo during the silent era, and recycled all that footage in their sound serials for decades after. Spirited scenes of the heroes being chased by Indians? They've probably been running since 1925.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

James gushed:

I'm looking forward to your huge sigh of relief next week.

It will be audible on all seven continents. Heck, aliens from other worlds will say: "Did that sound like a sigh to you?"

And I prescribe a big early '50s cheeseball from Columbia to clear your palate next.

Well, I've got Riders of Death Valley scheduled for the week after (kind of a penance for suggesting Raiders of Ghost City to Stacia)...and then I promised Prince Barin I'd tackle The Desert Hawk after Riders since he was kind enough to send me the Don Winslow replacement. Therefore I won't get around to another Columbia for a while...though Hawk is from that same studio, and might be worth a laugh or two.

Stacia said...

Ugh, the stock footage. I squinted my eyes in intellectual curiosity over the stock footage in Raiders of Ghost City, and I finally decided it was from the early 1930s, but I honestly have no idea. I was telling the truth when I said I wish I knew which film it was because it looks pretty darn exciting.

I know I teased you and James mercilessly on SBBN but the serial you suggested doesn't sound like a bad idea at all. When I do a new serial, it'll be either Monster and the Ape or Undersea Kingdom.