Friday, 1 January 2021

Red Barry

Barry In Haste

Red Barry
USA 1938
Directed by Ford Beebe
and Alan James
VCI DVD Region 1

Well this one’s a bit of a clunker, I’m sad to report.

Of the five Buster Crabbe serials I’ve reviewed here this week, Red Barry was the only one I’d not seen before or was familiar with. Nor am I familiar with the newspaper strip on which it was based so, yeah, I don’t know if this is an accurate fit or not.

Apparently it took fifty or so years for this to get any airplay on television, which would explain why I had to wait for a DVD release to get a look at it. Now I’ve seen it I can almost understand why. People get used to seeing continuity mistakes on the old serials, most commonly it’s rare that the stuntmen doing the fistfights look anything like the people they are doubling for. However, in this one, there are some really stupid things happening and, frankly, I can see how the people responsible for this high spirited mess may have been embarrassed if this serial was ever seen again.

Okay, so the main protagonists are police detective Red Barry played by Buster Crabbe, newspaper reporter Mississipi played by Frances Robinson, Russian ballet dance Natacha played by Edna Sedgewick, Red’s boss Inspector Scott played by Wade Boteler and... well there are way too many principle characters to list here but, also from Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (reviewed here) is Philip Ahn as Hong Kong Cholly (who was Prince Talon from Saturn) and William Gould as the Police Commisioner, who would go on to play the leader of the Hidden City in Buck Rogers (reviewed here).

Okay... so the serial is at least well paced, a little like the ones Republic used to make but, this one seems much sloppier. The two best things about it, apart from Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe’s absolute conviction in the role are 1) the opening episode recaps which are of a similar idea to the ones used in Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars, where comic strip artwork is flicked through from a police cabinet of files (instead of a televiewer) and 2) a really great looking, fire breathing Chinese Dragon on the post cliff-hanger, ‘Coming next week to this theatre’ cards (theatre spelled correctly, for some reason, which is unusual for an American serial). This dragon never appears in the serial in anything other than these end cards but it’s so well done for the time... it’s rumoured to have been created for another production, possibly an earlier Flash Gordon serial, but was left unused.

Okay, those are the only nice things I’ve got to say about this one, unfortunately. Lets look at the negatives...

The plot is convoluted, revolving around 2 million dollars worth of stolen bonds which at least four different parties, five if you count the police, are after (although one of those parties doesn’t reveal themselves as a bad guy until episode 11 of the 13 ‘exciting’ chapters (you'll see it coming though). So it gets a bit complicated to try and pin down the real villains of the piece, especially since one of the characters disguises himself as a Chinese gang head but is really some other guy when he takes the make-up off, even though it’s clear that the same actor is not being utilised for both parts. It’s interesting also that Philip Ahn’s character speaks fluent English, as he does later as Prince Talon in Buck Rogers, except for when he’s around his American friends when he speaks some kind of fake, pigeon-English attempt at sounding ‘properly Chinese’ so they don’t feel threatened by him. There’s a lot of this kind of thing going on in the serial... with some of the Chinese people also clearly being played by Western actors in ‘yellow face’ (or black and white face, I guess) and I can imagine that this would be difficult for younger, politically correct audiences to find acceptable in this day and age (I just think everybody should calm down and appreciate entertainments within their historical context but, to each his own I guess). This may be another reason why this one doesn’t get a lot of airplay, I suspect.

I knew I was going to have trouble with this one when, in the first episode, a diver is sent into the sea to fetch the bonds which have been thrown overboard from a ship in a waterproof container. Except... the guy in the big diving suit is clearly just being lowered into a standard set with a fish tank (with oversized gold fish) being placed between him and the camera to give the, not very good, impression that he is underwater. Oh dear. And then, in the second episode recap, there’s an important plot point shown in a drawing of... a scene which never happened. I’m guessing they forgot to shoot it or had to cut it for whatever reason and were just relying on audiences to not remember exactly what occured the week before. Can’t think of any real reason for this other than that kind of scenario.

But this is nothing to the blatant issue which plagues pretty much every single car chase in the entire serial. In fact, it’s almost difficult to believe that this wasn’t done deliberately but then again, why would you let prints go out to cinemas in this shape... I’m talking about the close ups of various characters in their cars. They car interior shots are obviously done in a studio with the landscape whizzing by the windows in back projection... and nothing wrong with that, that’s how it was in those days (David Cronenberg uses this particular effect in a brilliant, metatextual way in his movie eXistenZ). However, fully half of the shots of characters, mainly Buster Crabbe, have no back projection at all. It’s just a grey background with the screen turned off behind the character... with the car being pursued usually having the characters with the proper rear projection so... yeah, there are a lot of car chases utilising these kinds of shots throughout and it makes absolutely no sense. Did they just use rehearsal footage because the money ran out? Was the machine broken but they needed to hit deadlines anyway? I guess we’ll never know but, wow, how did it get released at all in this state?

And I don’t have much more to say on this one, I reckon. Which is a dampener considering the other four serials I’ve reviewed this week are all worth your time if you are a fan of cinema history and any one of them could be a good jumping on point if you’ve not seen anything like them before. Red Barry, however, I would say would be more likely to turn you off before you’ve even given other serials a chance so... yeah, if you’re a die hard Buster Crabbe fan (and why wouldn’t you be?) then maybe give this one a go just to see what he looks like in a regular suit and hat but, honestly, approach with caution.

If you’ve liked this week’s look at the old 1930s/40s theatrically released chapter plays then, I’m hoping to watch some more of these for the blog before the end of next year so, yeah, more serials forthcoming at some point. Meanwhile, back to normal schedule for a bit.


Buster Crabbe Serial Week at NUTS4R2

Flash Gordon (1936)

Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938)

Red Barry (1938)

Buck Rogers (1939)

Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940)

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