"From what I've learned of the nature of the blasts, they seem more like an atomic ray of some kind. Of course, that's just a guess."
By the early 1950s, only Republic and Columbia continued to turn out serials*, Universal having withdrawn from the field at the end of 1946. Increasing production costs and the in-roads of television, however, were making serial production (and B-westerns, that other staple of the Saturday matinee) more and more un-economic. The demise of both types of production was less than half a decade away. In the meantime, the studios tried to minimize costs by way of reduced cast size, reliance on stock footage, and the use of summary chapters.
Science fiction, specifically that involving potential invasions of Earth by evil rulers of other planets, had long been a staple topic for serials, with Universal's "Flash Gordon" trilogy probably best known. Republic got in on the act with several efforts including The Purple Monster Strikes (1945) and Flying Discman from Mars (1951).
In 1952, it produced another with this theme—Radar Men from the Moon. This 12-chapter serial has now been released on DVD by Whirlwind Media, Inc (formerly Rykodisc).
Facts of the Case
Commando Cody, who heads up a scientific lab developing a moon rocket for the government, is approached to investigate a number of severe explosions that are suspected of having an atomic origin and possibly linked to atomic activity on the Moon.
Retik, the lunar leader, is apparently intent on invading Earth and has sent his assistant Krog to Earth to carry out a program of explosive destruction aimed at reducing the planet's defensive capability. Krog's henchmen are Graber and Daly, a couple of criminals that he has enlisted locally.
After a trip to the Moon to determine how best to combat Retik and Krog's actions, Commando Cody and his assistants return to Earth where Cody is required to combat a series of subversive activities attempted by Graber and Daly. The failure of these activities forces Retik to travel to Earth himself to assume direct command of the invasion operation, leading to a final confrontation with Commando Cody.
The pleasure of watching a serial from the genre's heyday of the late 1930s to mid-1940s sure seems far away when you see something like Radar Men from the Moon. I watched all twelve episodes at one sitting even though I was sorely tempted to skip forward a number of times. There are certainly worse serials, but all the cost-cutting measures are clearly in evidence in Radar Men from the Moon.
Commando Cody, to begin with, is a pale imitation of the hero in Republic's 1949 serial King of the Rocket Men. He wears the same rocket suit, basically a leather jacket with a jetpack strapped to its back and a large metal helmet, which allows Radar Men from the Moon to use all sorts of footage from the earlier serial. Cody is played by George Wallace, who's so wooden looking and sounding that it's a relief whenever he dons the rocket suit. Much the same situation is true of Retik, played by serial and B-western veteran Roy Barcroft. His outfit is tailored to match that worn by an earlier Barcroft portrayal, the interplanetary villain from the 1945 serial The Purple Monster Strikes, thus allowing usage of footage from that effort. Unlike Wallace, however, Barcroft was a seasoned performer and could always be counted on for an effective portrayal. He was completely wasted here, however, as Retik seems to spend most of his time communicating with Krog on a radio transmitter connecting Earth to the Moon.
Republic's savings on the size of the cast mean that surely Radar Men from the Moon must represent the most efficient invasion/defense of the Earth ever shown! The total defense forces are apparently Cody, three assistants, one government official and two policemen to guard the rocket ship. The total invasion forces seem to comprise Retik and about five others on the Moon plus Krog and two henchmen on Earth. It does get a little tiresome seeing the same two henchmen here, there and everywhere carrying out Krog's commands—or rather, not carrying them out. These guys can't even bring off a simple bank robbery, never mind spearhead an invasion. At least, however, we get the pleasure of seeing Clayton Moore as Greber, the lead henchman. Moore, famous of course as television's "The Lone Ranger," had a long history in serials, appearing in ten in all. In 1952, Moore had been dropped from his Lone Ranger role (temporarily as it turned out, for his replacement John Hart just didn't quite fit the bill) and so was available when Republic came calling. Actually, Moore's role as Greber was one of only two heavies he played in serials (the other was in The Crimson Ghost [1946, Republic]); all the others were as heroes.
Despite the above limitations, there are aspects of Radar Men from the Moon to be admired. It had the usual quota of fistfights between heroes and villains. Republic excelled in this area. Their stunt people were first rate and they knew better than anyone else how to effectively choreograph a fight sequence. The punch sequences always looked realistic, even if sometimes the punchees seemed capable of absorbing an inordinate amount of punishment. In addition, the excellence of Republic's special effects/model team of Howard and Theodore Lydecker was firmly in evidence in the explosion scenes and Cody's flying sequences. Much of was stock footage, but it was great stock footage.
Despite the shortcomings of the serial itself, Whirlwind Media's DVD is still a disappointment. The title is in the public domain and the source material that Whirlwind has used is apparently in rather rough shape. The image is marked by scratches and speckles throughout and looks somewhat washed-out much of the time. Additionally, there are a few splices where frames are lost and dialogue is momentarily compromised. The sound is mono with a moderate level of hiss, although it's not a real distraction.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are many, many serials better than Radar Men from the Moon available on video. Most of them haven't made it to DVD as yet. Artisan, which controls Republic's catalogue from which one presumes the best transfers could be made, has not chosen to release any serials so far. Many were released by Republic on laserdisc, so there is hope that some may be forthcoming on DVD. If you're looking to sample a serial for the first time, avoid this one. The Flash Gordon ones, while still not among the top tier, are not a bad bet.
As to the Radar Men from the Moon DVD, unlike some of its other DVD offerings, Whirlwind gives us no supplementary material whatsoever. One has the option to watch the entire twelve episodes straight through or to watch each chapter (about 12 minutes each in length) one at a time, but that's it. This serial has also been released on DVD by The Roan Group (available through Troma) in a somewhat better-looking transfer, so if you must have it, Roan's version is the one to consider.
I also take issue with Whirlwind's use of the Scanavo keep case. The tightness of the central spindle means it's a devil of a thing to get the DVD out of safely.
Radar Men from the Moon represents the serial in decline; it has all the trappings of the genre's final days: slim casts, stock footage, and repetitive, uninspired scripts, although it's not as bad as some from the final few years. If you judge the serial by watching this particular one as your first, you'll be doing serials an injustice. Given that, Whirlwind's DVD doesn't show Radar Men from the Moon in its best light. The source material is pretty battered and manifests itself in a disappointing DVD. Nor has any effort been made to provide supplementary information of any sort, not even a few background production notes on the case or its insert. Not recommended. If you must have the title, however, I suggest considering the Roan Group version instead.
Both serial and disc are guilty of delivering substandard entertainment value and remanded into custody. Court is adjourned.
* For more general background, please see the "Precedents" column on serials that appeared earlier in October.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Whirlwind Media
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