Blu-ray blog: ‘Daredevils of the Red Circle’
By Bob Bloom
I have previously written about “Daredevils of the Red Circle,” one of Republic Pictures’ finest serials.
This 12-chapter thriller, directed by the great team of William Witney and John English, was released on June 10, 1939, and features great action, stunt work, miniatures and cliffhangers, especially in chapter one.
I am revisiting the serial because it is making history as the first classic Republic serial to be released on Blu-ray by a major, legitimate company.
Kino Lorber released “Daredevils” on Tuesday, April 25. The serial retails for $29.95, with Amazon selling it for $18.78.
Olive Films has released Blu-ray versions of later Republic serials such as “Flying Disc Man From Mars,” “The Invisible Monster” and “Panther Girl From the Kongo,” but these were made when serials were on the decline and were filled mostly with stock footage from earlier releases.
I was impressed with the picture and audio transfers after viewing the entire picture.
It is not grainy like several serials available on DVD, whose source materials were either laserdiscs or available 16mm prints.
The visual quality captures the shadows and grays that are needed for the atmospheric sequences as well as the lighting for Charles Middleton’s evil Harry Crowel, alias 39013.
No scratching was detected on the soundtrack. It was clean and precise.
The Blu-ray’s only bonus feature is a commentary track by film historian Michael Schlesinger.
I have known Schlesinger for more than 30 years. He is passionate about classic movies, having worked at Sony, trying, sometimes successfully and — unfortunately — most times, not, to convince studio executives to release its vast library of Columbia Pictures on Blu-ray and DVD.
Smartly, Schlesinger’s commentary is featured on just four of the 12 episodes. As he says during the first chapter, there is not enough to say for close to four hours about the serial.
Still, Schlesinger offers interesting insights not only about the main characters — Charles Quigley, Herman Brix (later Bruce Bennett), David Sharpe, Carole Landis, Middleton and Miles Mander — but also such supporting players as Ben Taggert, Raymond Bailey and C. Montague Shaw.
He also gives information about many of the bit players and stuntmen who worked on the serial.
Schlesinger points out various outdoor locations that may be familiar to serial fans and film buffs alike, discusses the work of special effects masters Howard and Theodore Lydecker and points out the racial climate of the times by citing how actor Fred “Snowflake” Toones was used as the comic butt of several unfortunate jokes in the film.
Schlesinger’s commentary is informative and light-hearted befitting the subject matter.
Releasing a serial on Blu-ray is a major step for any company, since the market for the genre is limited to fans who fondly remember those Saturday matinee at the movies.
The serial may be gone, but its influence has staged a resurgence, especially on television where most series now end their season’s with cliffhangers intended to draw viewers back in the fall.
Kino Lorber is scheduled to release “The Adventures of Captain Marvel,” one of the most popular serials ever produced — again from Republic Pictures —on Blu-ray on June 20.
I am hoping that these releases are first steps in a move to revive and remember these exciting old movies for a new generation.
Below, are excerpts from my earlier article about “Daredevils of the Red Circle.”
The serial centers on three carnival performers — known as the Daredevils of the Red Circle — who, after the death of the kid brother of one of its members, joins the investigation to track down Harry Crowel, an escaped convict who goes by his prison number — 39013.
Crowel is out to destroy all the business enterprises of his former partner, Horace Granville. To do so, he has captured and imprisoned Granville while at the same time, he is impersonating the tycoon.
The Daredevils — high diver Gene Townley (Charles Quigley), strongman Tiny Dawson (Herman Brix) and escape artist Burt Knowles (David Sharpe) — gain entrance to the fake Granville through his granddaughter, Blanche (Carole Landis), whom they saved in the fire that destroyed the amusement park where they performed. It was this fire in which Townley’s kid brother, Sammy (Robert Winkler), was killed.
“Daredevils” combines action with mystery: We know that Crowel is masquerading as Granville. But how long will it take before our trio of heroes finds out?
Another mystery angle is the appearance of a cloaked figure who leaves clues for the trio on cards displaying their Red Circle emblem. Who is this figure?
The serial plays fair on all aspects. When the identity of the Red Circle is revealed, it is a logical character with a solid motive.
Charles Middleton, best known for battling Flash Gordon as Ming the Merciless in a trio of Universal serials, portrays Crowel with stark malevolence.
Here, grounded on Earth, he is a heartless, unforgiving sadist singularly focused on destroying the man he blames for his incarceration.
Miles Mander, who was part of the Universal stock company in Basil Rathbone’s “Sherlock Holmes” series gives a strong performance as the helpless imprisoned Granville and as Crowel, masquerading as the tycoon.
The serial’s action is fast and furious, with the daredevils using their fists, athletic abilities and brains to continually thwart Crowel’s plans.
The cliffhangers are just as good, with the flooding channel tunnel that is the first chapter cliffhanger, being one of the most memorable in the genre’s history.
Plus the resolution also is plausible.
The stunt work is solid as usual for a Republic production. Ironically, Sharpe, one of the best stuntmen in history, had to be doubled by fellow stunt performer Jimmy Fawcett, to avoid injury so as not to hold up production.
William Lava’s score is one of his best. Excerpts from it can be heard on the CD, “Music From the Serials” from the original Republic scores, performed by James King and the CinemaSound Orchestra.
“Daredevils of the Red Circle” incorporates all the elements that combine to make a serial memorable: quick-thinking heroes, a heartless villain, solid cliffhangers, some mystery, lots of thrills, action and stunts and an explosive finale.
Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. He reviews movies, Blu-rays and DVDs for ReelBob (ReelBob.com), The Film Yap and other print and online publications. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow Bloom on Twitter @ReelBobBloom and on Facebook. Movie reviews by Bloom also can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.
“Daredevils of the Red Circle” chapter titles
1. The Monstrous Plot
2. The Mysterious Friend
5. The Ray of Death
6. Thirty Seconds to Live
7. The Flooded Mine
9. Ladder of Peril
10. The Infernal Machine
11. The Red Circle Speaks
12. Flight to Doom