Their Purple Moment

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Chapter Two of THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS (continued from last week) comes leaping at us with the homoerotic title of THE PURPLE DAGGER.

Seems I erred last week in stating that the serial’s cinematographer is uncredited. His credit is proudly present on the film, just not on the IMDb. King D. Grey had a reasonably long career consisting mainly of serials and B pictures, taking time out in 1918 to shoot Cecil B. DeMille’s THE SQUAW MAN, first remake of what’s sometimes claimed as the first American feature film. (Thanks to Randy Byers for the correction.) His work on TTOTO is superb, and he must be considered a subject for further research.

The second part of our twisting tale starts just as enticingly as the first — the opening titles identifying leading man Ben F. Wilson and leading lady Neva Gerber are illustrated by shots of the characters menaced by the cliffhanging situations we last glimpsed them in, thus enabling the show to get up and running in record speed. The idea of the lengthy recap seems to be a later innovation. Latecomers to this saga just have to fend for themselves.

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The bizarre magic trickery that showed hands coming through walls now materializes a whole platoon of unsympathetic chop-socky experts for Wilson (as Carter Holmes, eminent criminologist) to wrassle with. They come looming out of the wallpaper like a dying vision of Oscar Wilde. Fortunately, a good white man has the strength of a dozen fiendish orientals, and he fends them off until dropped down a trap door into the lair of the evil cultists where our heroine is currently threatened with ritual sacrifice.

Did I mention that TTOTO is a thriller?

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Now Holmes remembers his gun, and keeps the cultists at bay. They seem to be mainly faux-Arabic, suggesting a Sax Rohmer style non-white alliance. All the shiftier races ganging up on the poor caucasian. Sax Rohmer had already created the Si-Fan, his dastardly pan-Asian conspiracy, but his paranoid racial fantasies hadn’t yet been adapted to the screen — the first adaptation, THE YELLOW CLAW, seems to have happened the year after TTOTO.

Escaping through a secret passage, Carter and Ruth (Neva’s character) are pursued by the masked man, Monsieur X, who seems to be the leader of this whole throng of miscreants. They all give him a left-handed Hitler salute when he shows up (theory: Hitler sneaked into a Berlin cinema to see this, liked the salute, but was watching from behind the screen and so got it backwards).

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The film continues surefootedly — having fled down cardboard corridors with hand-painted stonework, our heroes now find themselves in a real stone corridor, which leads them out into the street. The actual interior location thus acts as a kind of buffer zone or pressure chamber allowing the transition from studio set to actuality. Nice.

Now Carter’s bulbous Scottish sidekick, Sandy McNab comes bouncing up with news of another murdered professor. Being involved in the sciences in the 1910s was truly hazardous. Oh, and while this is all going on, every now and then THE EYES intermittently stare out of the wallpaper at people. Holmes empties his revolver into the beady devils, and they blink and fade out, but they’re soon back. This seems evidence of a genuine supernatural element to the serial, which strikes me as unusual. We’ll see where it all leads.

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The remainder of the episode is less hectic — the action decamps to the sinisterly named Seal Island (where the unwary visitor stands in danger of being slapped to death with a wet flipper) — breezy outdoor scenery and a dynamite plot by the evil rug merchant who runs the mystery cult. Carter Holmes wants to fit the two daggers he’s obtained thus far (the plot being a kind of treasure hunt) into the stone vault. It being a nice day, he takes Neva along too.

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I must have missed the explanation of what’s in the stone vault and why it matters. I think it might be the cursed Egyptian figurine from episode one. I dunno.

Little does he dream that the rug merchant has wired the cave containing the stone vault with “enough explosives to blow up the island.” A rash plan, one might think, since the rug merchant is sitting with the detonator on the island, just a few hundred yards away. But it’s certainly enough of a cliffhanger to end the episode on ~

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Food for thought, that. I’m not sure I was even wondering if Monsieur X and the Eyes were One and the Same. I guess since he wears a fringed domino mask concealing his eyes, and they are simply a pair of disembodied, hovering eyes gazing through the wallpaper in a curious fashion, if you put the two together you’d have a pretty good identikit of your felon. Watch this space.

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11 Responses to “Their Purple Moment”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    There’s very nice “Rembrandt Lighting” in the first screen grab of the menacing “Yellow Peril,” reminiscent of how much of it there is in DeMille’s THE CHEAT (15) whenever Sessue Hayakawa is present. The white people get “furniture lighting” (Byron Haskin’s phrase), but Asians get the moody chiaroscuro. King Grey must have been looking at Alvin Wyckoff’s mid-teens work for CB.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    The only good dialogue in FOR THE BOYS…

    James Caan: ‘Two hours with you? That boy deserves a Purple Heart!’

    Bette Midler: ‘Well, it was purple all right, but I don’t think it was his heart!’

  3. Plus ther’s Marcel L’Herbier’s remke — which also starred Sessue Hayakawa.

  4. Have just completed a piece on L’Herbier where I make mention of his DeMille influence. It won’t be appearing at Shadowplay, but I’ll announce it here when it’s published…

  5. This one seems like a killer — I’ve been looking forward to it based on the title alone ever since they announced iti at serial squadron. Apparently the story wanders off sometime in the middle and never really returns…

  6. Christopher Says:

    colorful criminal empires seemed to be the rage in the teens and early 20s..this,les vampires..the chaney crime films,The Shock..The Penalty..etc..even some of dashiell hammetts early short stories..The Big Knockover…Batman and the like must have sprung from this sort of gobble de gook…results from an era when you’ve not much but your wild imagination to draw from.

  7. I’d be interested in reading a good sociological study of where the teens and twenties crime-conspiracy obsession came from. Or at least, as interested as I could be in a sociological study.

  8. Pure nitpickery here, but while I can imagine people saying that the 1914 version of THE SQUAW MAN is the first American feature film, I can’t imagine anyone making that claim for the 1918 version. Meanwhile, this serial looks absolutely great!

  9. Oh, that’s not notpickery, it’s VITAL FACT-CHECKING. Thanks!

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