Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, November 22, 2018


The Spider in action! 
THE SPIDER RETURNS (15 chapter Columbia serial/1941). Director: James W. Horne.

When The Spider's Web proved successful for Columbia, a sequel came out with most of the original players reprising their roles. In The Spider Returns, Richard Wentworth (Warren Hull) has pushed aside his plans to retire and settle down with girlfriend Nita (how played by Mary Ainslee), so he can tackle a group of saboteurs out to destroy America's defense structure. The head of this group is a masked, unknown figure known only as the Gargoyle, but it later develops that he is one of the men whose industries are being targeted by the villain. 

The Gargoyle plots 
The Gargoyle has a number of schemes in play, the first of which is to secure some important government plans. Then the villain spends a lot of time sending out men to destroy his enemies, especially the Spider, Wentworth, and Commissioner Kirk (Joseph W. Girard). It is interesting that Kirk objects to the violent vigilantism of the Spider, but doesn't seem to mind that Wentworth, his alter ego (although Kirk is unaware of this), is always playing undercover cop despite his not being a member of the force. At one point in Kirk's office, Wentworth immediately countermands Kirk's orders to two police officers, who obey the former without hesitation! I mean, just who is the commissioner anyway? Of course the fact that Kirk seems to be bordering on senility at times doesn't help.  

O'Brien, Hull and Duncan
Warren Hull is energetic as Wentworth and the Spider, although -- as in the previous serial -- he is way too jaunty at times. In one chapter Wentworth mis-identities the wrong suspect as the Gargoyle, which ultimately results in the innocent man's death, but Wentworth doesn't seem the least bit embarrassed or regretful but as flippant as ever. Nita emerges as her own woman in the serial, not afraid to mock her lover if she thinks he's making a fool of himself, but otherwise being strong and supportive. Associates Jackson (Dave O'Brien), Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan), and Jenkins (Stephen Chase) aren't given that much to do, especially Ram, who seems to sit around looking bored most of the time when he isn't driving the car. 

Anthony Warde as "Trigger"
One very notable supporting player is Anthony Warde, who gives a very adept and flavorful performance as "Trigger.," the head man in the Gargoyle's gang. Warde played a similar role in King of the Forest Rangers and other serials and features. Warde has especially good scenes interacting with Wentworth when the later is in disguise as low-life "Blinky" McQuade -- on two occasions he tries to kill Blinky and winds up begging for his life. As for Blinky, although Hull does a great job portraying him, he is seen so often throughout the serial that he begins to wear out his welcome. 70-year-old Joseph W. Girard also gives a vigorous performance as the commissioner, although -- not to be ageist -- you can't overcome the feeling that he goes off to take a nap as soon as he steps out of camera range. 

Girard, Ainslee, and Hull
There are some zesty fisticuffs and terrific cliffhangers in The Spider Returns. The floor of a room suddenly hangs down at an angle to reveal a fiery pit below. Wentworth is tied up and left on top of the tracks as an express train approaches. Testing a new experimental plane, Wentworth crashes, and surprisingly, doesn't manage to bail out but survives nevertheless. The best death trap has Wentworth, Nita and her Uncle (Charles Miller of Phantom of Chinatown) trapped in a room with fire on each end and spiked walls closing in from either side as the Gargoyle cackles. In the final chapters the serial builds up some considerable suspense over the true identity of the Gargoyle and whether or not his various dastardly plans will be stopped in time. 

Verdict: Despite a variety of imperfections, this is one of Columbia's very best and most thrilling serials. ***1/2. 

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