Astral Projection Booth; or, Carter Beats the Devil

I’m in London today on a Mission of Great Importance. More later! But meanwhile ~

trail_of_the_octopus.15

Episode 15 of our serial photoplay and THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS finally slithers to its corruscating conclusion. Even more excitingly, part of the final episode is missing, thus retaining that all-important sense of mystery and frustration. The lost sequence means we can never know the identity and fate of masked malefactor Monsieur X… those responsible for restoring the serial insert a few shots culled from elsewhere and one bogus special effect, and while leaving X’s ID unsolved, suggest that after a hypnotic duel with oriental mastermind Wang Foo, X is dragged off into another dimension by spectral hands.

I call bullshit on that! You just didn’t get talk of other dimensions in 1919 serials. I have my own theories.

vlcsnap-2013-07-21-13h18m19s116

First, the mystery man’s secret identity — for weeks I was convinced he must be Raoul Bornay, the shifty Tunisian gentleman. But Bornay perished several episodes ago, slain by an envenomed knife handle in Montmartre. Still, I don’t think I’m being unfair to serial photoplaywright J. Grubb Alexander when I suggest that he might stoop to resurrecting a slain character. In fact, he has already done so, three times in this serial.

But there’s another strong possibility, and it has the advantage of also clearing up the question of X’s fate. What if Monsieur X was Wang Foo all along? We know that Foo can bilocate using his “atomic form,” and this bilocation ability becomes central to the plot in this final installment. The only puzzle would be the incidents when Wang Foo and Monsieur X seems to be working to different agendas. But that could easily be explained away as bad writing, which already explains so much in this series.

Anyway, last we saw, Ruth Stanhope was being menaced by a dwarf behind a sofa. However, to all our surprise I’m sure, he fails to stab her to death, and another mystery is cleared up when the disembodied eyes which have been peeping in at us since episode one appear again and turn out to belong to Omar, Professor Stanhope’s manservant, unseen since the first episode.  Omar dispatches the stunted “ape-man” but is himself felled by a poisoned dart, thus closing that loophole neatly. It’s a thrilling action sequence and I suggest we watch it together ~

I like the dainty way Omar wipes his hands after they’ve encircled the ape-man’s unwashed throat.

vlcsnap-2013-07-21-12h37m12s25

And featuring Woodrow Wilson as himself!

Seriously, ever-resourceful/opportunistic director Duke Worne splices in a bit of actuality film of the visiting prez.

What else? Professor Stanhope is rescued and his bearded kidnapper (the false Monsieur X, the guy who seemed to die in episode 1) is arrested. Ruth escapes too.

Meanwhile, Wang Foo succeeds in opening the stone safe with the last of the sacrificial daggers we’ve been chasing since episode one. Conveniently forgetting the crucial symbols (or “symbals”) tattooed on Professor Stanhope’s arm, he uses the ancient Egyptian figurine stashed there to jumpstart his astral projection booth, where he can mass-produce spectral clones of himself to go forth and do his evil eastern bidding. He also plans to cause a blackout, during which his maxi-me army will loot the city using a dirigible fleet.

Waitaminute, dirigible fleet? Did J Grubb Alexander just pull another deus ex machine from his capacious ass? It must be like a TARDIS in there. Like a vast library containing the plots of everything ever written. The Library of Alexander. Up his ass. I hope science found a way to extract it after his death.

vlcsnap-2013-07-21-13h10m07s68

To my delight, the zeppelin raid is rendered using the medium of cut-out animation, a technique hitherto unseen in any serial photoplay I know of. It’s certainly a first for this one. OCTOPUS keeps on giving.

Anyhow, Carter traces Wang Foo to his lair, where the busy megalomaniac is still cranking out astral replicas of himself. The crafty stereotype promptly turns suicide bomber, tugging a lever which, he explains, will cause a cylinder to fill up with “radio gas” so that both men will be “blown to atoms” ~

vlcsnap-2013-07-21-12h43m20s69

Wait a minute — that says “down to atoms.” I guess by Episode 15 J. Grubb Alexander’s faithful spellcheck (the 1919 version of spellcheck was known as “Mrs Alexander”) was worn out.

As Wang Foo, Al Ernest Garcia, persistently billed as “Earnest Garcia,” drops his inscrutable act and suddenly starts cackling like a stereotyped Mexican bandit. His oriental moustache morphs before our eyes into something Alfonso Bedoya would be proud to sport. And is that a gold tooth, or just a missing tooth?

The misspelled Mexican actually had a more distinguished career than anyone else associated with OCTO, appearing for Chaplin in THE IDLE CLASS, THE GOLD RUSH, THE CIRCUS, CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES (as president of the Electro Steel Corps).

Anyway, radio gas, yes. This was the age, you’ll remember, when the word “radio” was irresistibly futuristic and jargon-y, able to enhance any sentence or phrase with a mystical glamour, as in “Radio City Music Hall.” Modern equivalents might be words such as “sharknado,” “sideboob” and “Belieber.” I’m wondering how a gas-powered radio might function, and am forced to imagine the strange apparatus used in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, whereby messages are sent through the gas mains using pulsations in the pressure which can be detected by spies wearing gas masks connected to the supply. Interestingly, the novel ends around the time of TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS…

Carter Holmes escapes death! By jumping out the window. Big explosion, and the primal Wang staggers about in a classic barnstormer’s death scene, before expiring amid rubble. His clones fade from existence via a series of dissolves, and America is made safe.

Coda: Duke Worne enlists a lookalikey Woodrow Wilson to pop in at the end and congratulate the heroes for “defeating this gigantic octopus” which menaced San Francisco. I fear the faux-Woodrow is confusing this serial with the plot of IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

The End.

5 Responses to “Astral Projection Booth; or, Carter Beats the Devil”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    Ahem … that’s “CLOWN to atoms”. Which is also the title of a movie you were born to make.

  2. You’re absolutely right about radio being the big fascination and buzzword of that time. It had the idea of limitless possibilities behind it and a few years later it terrified the entertainment industry, too.

  3. Have you met Wang Foo’s brother?

  4. “Clown to atoms” is a much more explicable typo (and a funnier one)! I think I have the idea for my funeral oration: Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, clown to atoms.

  5. I just finished the serial yesterday. I agree with your assumption of who Monsieur X is because he is the only main character not seen at the same time with M. X, but you’re thinking of Jan Al Kasam (spelling is off, but I don’t have the character’s name in front of me) not Raoul Bornay. I really felt the construction of the plot in the serial was badly handled since so much happens in chapter 15 and not much is made of the opening of the vault w/ the Devil’s Trademark and it rushes into Wang Foo making clones of himself. Granted, it seems every silent serial winds up with an ending that seems like it ignored the facts in the previous chapters, but the pace at times (especially in chapters 4 – 7) is excellent and I also love the double cliffhangers at the end of the chapters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: