In The Balcony

The Invisible Monster strikes!
1950 12-episode serial
Directed by Fred C. Brannon
Available 9/22/15
Olive Films Blu-ray or DVD, $29.95

Difficult for us to appreciate these days, but once upon a time, there was a movie theatre in most every neighborhood. Each theatre had but one screen and the picture changed three times a week; you could go to the same theatre on Monday, Thursday and Saturday and see a completely different show, with a feature (or two), newsreel, cartoon and various entertaining or educational short subjects. As a way of keeping audiences coming back regularly, film producers turned to a popular sales promotion from newspapers and magazines: the serial. What Happened to Mary?, a tie-in with McClure’s Ladies World magazine, was the first motion picture serial (1912), but it was the original Perils of Pauline two years later that made the weekly “chapterplay” a must-see for adventure and action fans. For the next four decades, kids (and, often, their parents) made regular weekly trips to the Bijou to enjoy the latest adventures of Flash Gordon, Superman, The Green Hornet, Jungle Jim, and others on the silver screen. Typically, each episode ended with the hero or heroine in grave peril courtesy of the nefarious villain; often, the good guy or gal would be tossed over a cliff, where they’d be found hanging from a branch at the beginning of the next episode, the origin of the term “cliffhanger”.

Our friends at Olive Films has been releasing holdings from the Republic Studios vaults for the past few years on both DVD and Blu-ray, from major (The Quiet Man, Johnny Guitar) to obscure (The Atomic Kid), and serial fans have been waiting patiently for the first Republic serials (the studio produced 66 of them, 1936-1955) to join the releases, and here they are: this month, The Invisible Monster, joined in a few weeks by Flying Disc Man from Mars. The first has arrived in the Balcony, and we’re happy to report that it’s a fun time greatly augmented by sensational picture and sound, easily the best any Republic chapterplay has ever looked.

The serial

Stanley Price – who usually played the sniveling henchman who’s the first to die, before he can “sing to the G-Men” – graduates to role of lead villain for this one; he’s the Phantom Ruler, inventor of a cloak of darkness that, when shined on with a beam of light from a spectrum known only to him, renders him completely invisible. His plan: create an invisible army to conquer the world, which doesn’t sound quite as grandiose and crazy when he says it (he has a mission statement and a series of well-laid-out goals and everything). He just lacks the cash to supply his army-to-be, and so embarks on a series of daring robberies with a team of crack (but hapless) thugs. The Phantom Ruler is opposed by insurance investigator Richard Webb and police criminologist Aline Towne (Miss Towne
never gets enough credit: she starred in no less than five serials, including Don Daredevil Rides Again and Radar Men from the Moon). Over twelve weeks and through chapters with such titles as Murder Train, Death Car, Acid Clue, and High Voltage Danger, Mr. Webb and Miss Towne overcome a series of death traps and close the ring ever tighter on Mr. Phantom Ruler and his cronies.

No one is going to call this thing the greatest Republic serial (that would be Spy Smasher, Daredevils of the Red Circle, or Nyoka and the Tigermen, probably) but it’s a lot of fun in its way. We got a kick out of the Phantom Ruler referring to his “portable light ray” device for making his cloak invisible; it may be portable alright, but the darn thing is the size of a phone booth and has to be carted around by truck through the early episodes (an improved model comes along eventually). Notice how, no matter how wild the fisticuffs get, the fedoras stay on: those hats helped mask the stuntmen substituting for our stars, you see.

Olive’s presentation of The Invisible Monster is impeccable, crisp B&W in HD and with terrific sound and superb picture. There is no bonus material.

How to watch it

Not all at once. Serials aren’t built that way; each episode starts with a recap of what went before, so they seem awfully repetitive if you’re going to watch all 12 chapters back to back. We like to watch ‘em as part of a “movie night” with a vintage cartoon (Olive has four Blu-rays of Betty Boop cartoons, you know), a Laurel & Hardy or Three Stooges short subject, and a feature film, and serials augment the program quite nicely.

We're looking forward to many more cliffhanger serial releases from our friends at Olive.

Steve Canyon buzzes the Balcony!

Nearly a decade in the making, the restoration and presentation of all 34 episodes of the long-lost Steve Canyon TV show is at last complete.

Milton Caniff created the comic strip about the high-flying Air Force pilot in the late 1940s to replace Terry and the Pirates, and Steve Canyon remained one of the most popular of all comic dramatic newspaper strips for over 40 years. In 1958, the Steve Canyon TV series debuted on the NBC-TV network, featuring Dean Fredericks as Canyon, traveling troubleshooter for the U.S. Air Force. Caniff himself, unhappy wih earlier adaptations of his work, closely monitored the series' production, which unfortunately was cancelled after only one season. (A second season was broadcast a year later on ABC, but those were all reruns.)

Since 1961, the series had been largely forgotten until the Milton Caniff Estate, working with Harry Grant Guyton and John R. Ellis, began loving restorations (from 35mm network masters, with original commercials, promos and credits intact) that have been issued in three DVD volumes (with colorful, patriotic packaging and beautiful Caniff artwork). The shows themselves would be well worth the price, but they've stocked the darn things with extras, including commentary by such series guests as Marion Ross, Russell Johnson, and Richard Anderson.

Steve Canyon is one of the most testosterone-driven TV series ever; sponsored by Chesterfield, the characters light up as often as you inhale and exhale. Closeup looks at supersonic jets and periphery hardware, including terrific government footage, are a staple of the show. Unfortunately, the series producers couldn't seem to decide whether they had a kids show that adults would like or an adult show that kids would watch, probably resulting in its early cancellation.

At In the Balcony, we've been a proud supporter of this effort to present the Cold War classic program, unseen in over 50 years, for both historical and entertainment purposes. A true labor of love, Steve Canyon - with its original commercials, promos, etc., and lavish artwork and bonus material - is one of our favorite TV series DVD sets ever. Our highest recommendation, and you can order it at the Steve Canyon website.

Four other Balcony Reviews...

Olive Films offers four brand-new Blu-ray/DVD releases this week, and we’ve got reviews up of all four of ‘em for you, three from Republic Pictures and one from Allied Artists. Follow the links for our reviews!

In chronological order…

Academy Award™ nominee Richard Dix (from Minnesota) stars as one of history’s most famous Texans (from Tennessee) in Man of Conquest, a Republic ‘A’ picture from that golden year of 1939.

Errol Flynn was free from Warner Bros. after all those years and wrote(!) and starred in a film that turned out to be a delightful surprise, The Adventures of Captain Fabian (1951). Hint: Vincent Price steals the picture.

Meet Rear Admiral John Hoskins, disabled in WW2 but devoted to his Naval career and intent on captaining the ship he’d ben promised. Sterling Hayden stars in The Eternal Sea, 1955, and be glad you’re not married to THIS guy.

Well, in the 1950s we Americans knew we had Russkies and Martians to fear, which is what makes Hell’s Five Hours (1958), the tale of a homegrown terrorist, powerful. Vic Morrow is the troubled psycho, and Stephen McNally and Colleen Gray stand between him and the destruction of an entire town.


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