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Mysterious Dr. Satan
by Grant Tracey

Mysterious Dr. Satan (1940) is another great serial from Republic Studios. This time our hero is the intrepid Copperhead, Robert Wilcox as Bob Wayne (whose heroic name conflates the dynamics of Bruce "Batman" Wayne with that character’s creator, Bob Kane), a sort of westerner for the 1940s.

  Robert Wilcox as the Copperhead gets squeezed by a robot in Mysterious Dr. Satan.

Bob Wayne is a figure between worlds—the old West and industrial society—and one visual from directors William Witney and John English stunningly captures that mix, as the Copperhead (stunt man Dave Sharpe) leaps from a large rugged rock not onto a horse but into the bed of a moving truck! Throughout the serial, Witney and English conflate the range with the city as the Copperhead fights equally well in an abandoned mine shaft or atop White Heat look-alike gas refineries. And our hero, himself, has roots in the old West. His father was a misunderstood outlaw who fought for justice. Following Governor Bronson’s murder, Bob dons Dad’s old chain-mail mask in order to wipe out the stigma attached to his father’s name, and to preserve the new West from an even newer evil: encroaching technology.

Dr. Satan, played with lower East-side Little Caesar bravado by Eduardo Cianelli, is the mad scientist bent on conquering the world with his mechanical robots--narrow tin cans with square-cut shoulders and arms and legs encased in what looks like the same ventilation tubing connected to my clothes dryer. (These robots were recycled from Undersea Kingdom [1936] and they would appear again in Zombies of the Stratosphere [1952]). Cianelli brings the dark specter of ethnicity to the West’s "purity." Moreover, whereas the medical profession has often fared well in popular cultural representations from the hard work ethic of Dr. Kildare to the domestic problem solving of Marcus Welby, Dr. Satan blights that landscape. Perhaps he’s not a "real" doctor, but the opening credits—with the fallen over test tubes and noxious contrails of white vapor—suggest someone who has broken his Hippocratic oath.

Dr. Satan (Edward Ciannelli) commands his robot
Mysterious Dr. Satan.

But the real strength to Mysterious Dr. Satan, like all Republic serials of the golden period is its cliffhangers. In "Undersea Tomb," Bob and Lois Scott attempt, in a diving chamber, to beat Dr. Satan to a remote control cell at the bottom of a sunken yacht (Dr. Satan needs it to animate his army of robots). But they run into trouble as water rushes through the rivets on a side panel and then the chamber porthole shatters. The resolution is incredibly low key, but effective. Water floods the diving chamber, as Lois and Bob buoy above the rising ebb. Suddenly the flood stops. "We're in an air pocket," Bob Wayne says.

"Double Cross" contains the typical Witney/English charm of building cinematic surprise by restricting our range of information. In the cliffhanger, Lois is tied to a chair by the nefarious Dr. Satan. Above hangs a basket of pellets (set to a time release), below a pan of acid. If the Copperhead goes through the door to rescue Lois he’ll be electrocuted. In his attempt to rescue Lois, the Copperhead tangles with a bad guy and they fall to the street, motionless. The basket opens, pellets drop, and Lois screams as vapor fills the room! This very set-up captures the wonderfully dark pleasures of 1940s comic books: the genre’s emphasis on female bondage/male rescue combined with an admiration for devious criminality (the Moriarty-like trap).

The next-week rescue hinges on an expanded crosscut. (SPOILERS ahead.) The Copperhead wasn’t knocked unconscious by the fall. Instead, Witney/English now reveal more information to us, as they cut between the Copperhead rising, climbing the fire escape, and Lois bonded to the chair. He eventually breaks the window and rescues Lois, sliding her and the chair, toward the broken window and the fresh western breeze.

Dr. Satan (Edward Ciannelli) at the controls
Mysterious Dr. Satan.

"Flaming Coffin" contains an even bigger surprise, as again Witney and English experiment with the serial form. In order to get the drop on Dr. Satan, the Copperhead pretends to be the robot, and has himself boxed in a coffin. Satan, whose men have already retrieved the robot, knows that the coffin can’t contain his mechanical monster, but assumes it’s a poisonous gas tank triggered to explode once he lifts the lid. In order to avoid his own destruction, he sends the coffin into a 400 degree furnace. As flames belch and twist around the box, we wonder just how is the Copperhead going to escape this one! (SPOILERS ahead.) But in the resolution, we see the box continue to burn and we begin to despair. Moments later, however, Bob Wayne telephones Lois and intones, "No, I wasn’t in that box." In a flashback, he explains how he escaped death. When the truck carrying the coffin had parked, he climbed out of the lid, loaded the coffin with sand bags and jumped off the bed. Witney and English use an elliptical edit (the previous chapter’s space between the box arriving at Dr. Satan’s and his inspection of the contents) in order to create a jarring surprise.

But the biggest surprise, however, is in the film’s hybridized ideology. Even though the West had closed long before 1940, The Mysterious Dr. Satan, in the face of America’s encroaching involvement in World War II and the changing landscape of Europe, attempts to secure our feelings in the past, while also looking ahead to the future (the truck on the range motif). After defending his father’s honor, the Copperhead tells Lois, "I’ve done my best to clear his name. When you write your part of the story . . . will you explain the whole truth about my father?" "Leave it to me, Bob," she says with a smile, guaranteeing that the past will live with us now, and that the values of the old West (honor, justice, open spaces and the rights of the individual) are something that we can return to despite the darkening dawn of war.

The Serials: An Introduction
Page 1: In the Theaters
Page 2: The Beginnings
Page 3: Enter Flash Gordon
Page 4: The Golden Age
Page 5: The Downfall

The Phantom Empire

Flash Gordon

Dick Tracy

The Fighting Devil Dogs

Zorro's Fighting Legion

The Shadow

Mysterious Dr. Satan

Spy Smasher

Perils of Nyoka

The Tiger Woman

Serials Web Links



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