Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939)

DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE (1939)
(Serial)
Article #1432 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-14-2005
Posting Date: 7-14-2005
Directed by John English and William Witney
Featuring Charles Quigley, Bruce Bennett, David Sharpe

Three daredevils decide to help the police track down an escaped criminal known by his prison number (39013) when one of his acts of sabotage brings about the death of their young mascot.

When I began this viewing project, I didn’t expect that I would end up watching as many serials as I have. This wasn’t a particular pleasure, as far as I was concerned, because I’m not really a fan of the form. Yes, they sounded really cool when I was a kid, but my enthusiasm was quickly cooled when I actually saw one (probably ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE), and saw how far they fell short of my imagination. As a consequence, I’ve learned to scale down my expectations of what to expect from the form quite a bit.

Nonetheless, it is nice that every once in a while I encounter a serial that actually comes close to being everything a serial is supposed to be, and this is one of them. The science fiction elements are slight (a death ray plays a role in a couple of episodes), but in all other respects it is truly worthy. The heros are a lot of fun—three daredevils with individual talents (one is extremely limber, another is very strong, and another is an escape artist) which use them in the course of the adventure (though when Tiny prevents some criminals by escaping by lifting the back end of their car so that the wheels are off the ground, they go a little too far; after all, that’s Superman-style strength there). The villain himself is also a winner, both in the fact that he’s played by Charles Middleton and also because his particular gimmick is memorable; he wears a disguise to make him look like the daredevils’ boss, who is actually being held prisoner in a secret room in his own house. The serial is largely free of the more mundane cliffhangers, and seems perpetually inventive. It also allows the child to die in the first reel, which not only gives the daredevils a real motivation to catch the criminal, but spares us from having to deal with the kid for the rest of the serial. One touch I really love is that there’s a mysterious double agent at work. Now, most serials have this element, but it’s usually someone spying on the actions of the good guys and informing the bad guys. This one reverses it; the daredevils get hints and clues from a mysterious friend known as the Red Circle, and you’ll have a lot of fun speculating as to who the spy is (though I must admit to being a little disappointed at the final revelation in this regard).

In short, this is one of the very best serials I’ve ever seen. I can only speculate as to how my attitude towards the form would have changed if I had seen this one for my first serial rather than ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE.

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