The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: The Crimson Ghost

Quick Facts
Released in 1946
Directed by Fred Brannon and William Witney
Written by Albert DeMond, Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy, and Sol Shor
Starring Charles Quigley, Linda Sterling and Clayton Moore

Basic Story Line
A mysterious madman, known only as the Crimson Ghost, has stolen a top secret military device. Professor Duncan Richards is charged with the task of retrieving it.

I am disappointed to find that my version of the Crimson Ghost is not the full length serial but an edited version that is about half of its original length. However, even in its shortened version The Crimson Ghost is still one of the coolest serials ever made.

By the 1950s, the glory days of the serial had past. It became the habit of studios to take their existing serials and edit them down to 90 minute movies. This was achieved with varying success. If you watch the Buck Rogers film version it is a muddled mess. What I have is probably the film version of the Crimson Ghost that was later broken back down into serial format with shortened chapters. Thanks to good editing and a strong narrative, I had no problem enjoying my Readers Digest version of this serial.

There are three things that make this serial a fun watch: The action sequences, the cat and mouse story, and the directing skills of William Witney. Last week I gushed about the directing team of Witney and English so I won’t subject you to that again (side note: this was the last serial Witney directed). Rather, I’ll focus on the action and the storyline.

Unlike other serials I enjoy, the action in The Crimson Ghost does not aim for realism. The action is meant to be dynamic and exciting. There are some impressive bits of choreography that sometimes involves our hero diving over tables, spring boarding off of a wall and usually involves the room being trashed. As well, there are some good, Hollywood style, stunts and car chases. This serial had enough of a budget to have actual explosions. In most serials an explosion involves a loud boom, a flash of light and a puff of smoke. In The Crimson Ghost they really do blow things up. Since they had the budget, they indulged in the action movie cliché of combining car chases and explosions by having a vehicle drive off a cliff and burst into flames.

I have two problems with the script. When the writers first came up with the idea that the villain should have a skull face, I’m sure it looked both cool and creepy on paper. The mask serves the dual purpose of hiding the villain’s identity. Unfortunately, on film a man in a skull mask looks silly. My second problem is that it is filled with the usual rubbish techno babble screenwriters throw in to try and explain how the hero plans on using his sci-fi device to stop the villain’s sci-fi device. Although techno babble in most serials annoy me (and would probably annoy me more if I had a background in science), here it is presented in a way that, when compared to other science fiction serials of its time, is quasi-believable.

The script is a clever, well written, cat and mouse game. Duncan Richards and the Crimson Ghost seem equally matched as they engage in move and counter move. I am very curious to find out what is left out of my copy of the Crimson Ghost and whether or not I would feel the script holds up over a full length serial.

The Crimson Ghost is an entertaining bit of pulpy sci-fi fun.

Things to watch for
– One of cinema’s cheesiest lines, “We have been tricked by cleverness.”
– A Doberman named Timmy

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink.
Odds of getting sloshed: Low to Medium

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