MYSTERIOUS DR. SATAN [and] THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU. Both Republic, 1940. Serials: 15 chapters each. Directors: John English & William Witney.


   Back in Grade School I used to leaf eagerly through Famous Monsters and Screen Thrills Illustrated, tantalized by stills from old serials filled with costumed heroes, mad doctors, robots, and death rays, chock-full of perils to dazzle my pre-adolescent imagination.

   As I grew older, my tastes remained pretty much pre-adolescent, the serials became available on video, and I discovered most of them were about someone trying to conquer the world with two guys and a truck.

   That’s true of the later post-war serials, when everyone got a bit tired of it all, but Drums and Satan were made back when somebody cared about giving the kids a thrill, and each is fifteen chapters of constant action, delivered by the able directing team of William Whitney and John English, abetted by Republic’s hyper-kinetic stuntmen.

   We get car crashes, plane crashes, robot crashes, leaps from cliffs, daggers, pistols, trapdoors, gloating … everything, in short, that a kid dreams his world will be filled with when he grows up.


   The heroes of these things are your typical stalwart and two-fisted sort, but the eponymous baddies of these two efforts are memorable indeed. Doctor Satan (I guess some folks don’t care what they name their kids) is played by Eduardo Cianelli with the kind of dapper old-world charm you don’t see much in Mad Scientists anymore.

   Cianelli is remembered best as the evil religious fanatic (“Kill for the love of killing!”) in Gunga Din, but he was playing suave Gangsters ever since Winterset in 1936, and he wound down his career as an ancient medicine man in the surreally bloated Mackenna’s Gold.

   Fu Manchu, in Drums of… is a less showy part, written with stereotyped oriental reserve, but he’s played by Henry Brandon, who was probably the most notable movie villain you never heard of.

   Brandon started out in the movies (as Henry Kleinbach) hamming it up as evil Barnaby in Laurel & Hardy’s Babes in Toyland. Before Fu, he did dirty duty in serials like Buck Rogers and Jungle Jim, and afterwards served as the character model for Captain Hook in Disney’s cartoon Peter Pan, but his most critically respected effort is probably his few scenes as Chief Scar in John Ford’s The Searchers.