Movie serials were a staple of movie matinees in the 30's and 40's, but they were incredibly popular in the silent era too. Unfortunately, there are few chapterplays from the 1910's and 20's that still exist in complete form. That's why it's so exciting that Sprocket Vault has unearthed, restored, and released a complete 10 chapter serial from 1928: The Mysterious Airman. Not only is the film of interest to historians however, but it's a fun cliffhanger in its own right. The tinted picture looks amazing too, especially for a film this old that was presumed lost for decades.
Jack Baker (Walter Miller) is the owner of an aviation company and engaged to one of his pilots, Shirley Joyce (Eugenia Gilbert). Joyce's father has invented a new device, the Joyce Aerometer, which makes flying safe in all sorts of weather and even at night. He's leased the gadget only to Baker and won't let anyone else use it.
That really irks Albert Orren (Eugene Burr), the owner of a rival company. Not only does he want to have the advantages that Joyce's invention gives to planes, but his fiancÚ, the wonderfully named Fawn Nesbitt (Dorothy Tallcot) wants to be the first female to fly around the world and need the new safety device to complete the journey.
The plot gets complicated with the appearance of Pilot X (listed in the credits as "???") and his team of deadly planes. He's been shooting down Baker's plans but has made no demands. Not wanting to involve the police, Baker and his crew, including his plucky girlfriend, vow to bring the mysterious airman of the title to Earth. They won't be able to do it before there are plenty of fist fights, aerial battles, and red herrings.
This was a really good serial on several fronts. The story itself was engaging and fun, and this cliffhanger has its share of goofy devices that make serials so enjoyable. Another invention, the Joyce Flying Torpedo is wonderful... as the name indicates it's a flying bomb that has no means of propulsion. My favorite plot device however is the trained monkey that Pilot X and his henchmen use to further their nefarious schemes. Every criminal organization should have a monkey that can climb in windows and steal secrets.
It's also amazing to see how primitive aviation was in 1928. Intellectually I knew that the field was still in its infancy, but seeing an airfield that's just an open expanse of grass really drives the point home. There are also some interesting scenes in an airplane factory where workmen are assembling a flying machine. It was interesting seeing the workers pull the sewn canvas covering over the wing spars, for example.
While some silent serials from Europe that have made their way to home video are more like connected mini-movies with each chapter having a beginning, middle, and end to that week's story, this adventure is more like the sound serials that most of us are used to. Each two-reel chapter ends with a cliffhanger, usually one of the good guy's planes plummeting to Earth. The following chapter reveals how the hero escaped... apparently crashing a plane in 1928 wasn't all that dangerous based on the number of people who were able to walk away unscathed. And like sound serials, one has to be willing to suspend their disbelief at some of the more outrageous things that happen over the course of the adventure, but that's all part of the fun.
The 10-part serial arrives on a single-sided DVD in a standard keepcase.
The black and white (with original tints) 1.33:1 image is pretty astounding. It was sourced from an original 35mm tinted nitrate print (only the first reel of chapter 10 missing and that was recreated from stills and plot synopses). This was restored and the result is beautiful. The image is much sharper and clearer than I was expecting. The contrast is great and the level of detail is very impressive. It's not perfect (my 5 out of 5 star rating not withstanding), there are some scratches and other minor imperfections, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Viewers will be very pleased with the way this looks.
There is a new piano score composed and performed by Andrew Simpson. He does a good job, picking up the pace of the music when a fight breaks out and doing a good job of matching the tone of the score to the action on the screen. The stereo soundtrack is free of any audio defects.
From a small publisher I wasn't expecting much in the way of extras, but Sprocket Vault included some great bonuses. First off is a 2-reel short from 1928, Flying Cadets. This was made by the U.S. Army Air Corps as a recruitment tool that shows what boot camp is like for a new recruit. It's a great little flick.
There's also an interesting commentary track by historian Richard M. Roberts. The track isn't over just the first chapter, but the entire serial, which is pretty impressive. Roberts has studied the Poverty Row studios and particularly the Weiss Brothers who made this serial, and he has a lot to say about the film. It's well worth listening to. (I especially enjoyed the part where he tells people who want to run to the Internet to criticize every video flaw that they can detect in the print to just "sit down and shut up.")
Not only is this rare silent serial a lot of fun, but it looks amazing too. Add to that an informative commentary track and a bonus short and you've got a great title. Check this one out. Highly Recommended.