Dr. Satan (Edward Ciannelli) commands his robot
in 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
"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
in 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
The Fighting Devil Dogs
Zorro's Fighting Legion
Mysterious Dr. Satan
Perils of Nyoka
The Tiger Woman
Serials Web Links