Republic Lands the Punch: Art of the Serial Dust-up

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Fisticuffs were an obligatory component of almost every serial, but Republic gained distinction for developing the form into a precise articulation of force and agility. Columbia and Universal serials tended to cede pacing and presentation of fights to casually organized stuntmen, covered by a more or less distant camera.

Universal In Action

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Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor’s The Green Hornet (1940) offers a good example of Universal’s fighting style. The serial as a whole places less emphasis on fisticuffs as an attraction. Beebe and Ray tend to stage brief scuffles that interrupt standoffs or lead to car chases. When the Green Hornet (Gordon Jones) and Kato (Key Luke) do fight, they tend to struggle with henchmen in close formation in long to medium-long shots. For instance, in chapter 5, Time Bomb, the hero fights three racketeers in a garage as (unbeknownst to the Green Hornet) the clock runs out on a time bomb in a nearby car. screenshot_1172

Green Hornet punches out two assailants when a third, armed with a wrench, attacks. As they struggle, Kato rushes toward the garage and a gun heavy revives enough to take aim at Green Hornet. Kato arrives just in time to blast the heavy with his gas gun and Green Hornet overpowers the wrench heavy, just before the garage clock reaches 11:00 and the car explodes.

Beebe and Ray cover the 50-second fight in 26 shots for an average shot length of just under two seconds. The speed of cutting, though, does not guarantee kinetic engagement. Most of these cuts are away from the fight to intensifying details like the garage clock inching its way to the 11:00 deadline, a heavy preparing to enter the fray, or Kato rushing to the rescue.

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The physical struggle between The Hornet and the henchmen receives little cinematic elaboration. Beebe and Ray film the action from three camera positions: one long shot and two medium shots. Shot scale is dictated by practical concerns.When Green Hornet grapples with a single assailant, medium shots prevail. If a third participant should enter the frame, or the action occurs closer to the ground, the editor selects a long shot.

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Since the camera constantly reframes during the fight, the dominant impression is that cinematographers are working just to capture the staged event in an efficient and legible way. Only three cuts articulate the fight by lending punctuation and emphasis to a moment. When Green Hornet swings two of his attackers to the ground in medium shot, a match on action to long shot allows us to follow movement to the floor, and the graphic change accentuates the fight’s development. More effective is a cut from medium to long shot that punctuates Green Hornet’s left hook to a heavy’s chin. The edit is timed with an audible snap on the foley track, and it is one of the few affective moments in the fracas.

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The third articulating edit is something of a jump cut. When the wrench heavy enters the frame and raises his weapon to strike, we move suddenly from a long to medium shot that brings both figures closer, obscuring his attack but amplifying it nonetheless.

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The hand-to-hand combat isn’t wholly uninteresting, but it reflects Universal’s priorities. The editors are more precise when cutting between contiguous spaces. When Kato fires his gas gun and his target collapses we are treated to two distinct bursts of action in two shots, each with their own beat. Action within the frame can be treated as so much filler, quickly staged and easily captured.

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The Columbia Method

Columbia serials follow much the same model as Universal’s; cinematography and editing tend to follow the staged event. In an effort to inject dynamism into fairly rote dust-ups, the Columbia unit used more undercranking (running the camera at a slow speed so that the resulting footage appears fast) than other producers. The effect is at the forefront of James Horne’s Captain Midnight (1942).

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Horne treated henchman as bumbling comic relief characters, and though his fight scenes were “straight” the fast motion could lend the action a light quality. When Midnight (Dave O’Brien) is set upon by Ivan Shark (James Craven) and three of his henchmen on a country roadside in chapter 9, Horne sticks to long and medium shots, cutting away for comic asides, and shifting shot scale to accommodate the action. Columbia’s stunt team stages the fight more broadly than The Green Hornet, and they pack several combinations into each shot. One shot begins with a henchman clocking Midnight with a right hook, continues as Midnight returns the blow, throwing his assailant out of the frame, then pans left to follow our hero as he grabs a second heavy by the shoulders, tosses him rightward, and spins to face a third henchman who surprises him from the rear.

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A cut back to a long shot opens room for Midnight to fall on his back from the punch, and then catch his attacker with his feet, flipping him over his head. Just as Midnight stands up, another heavy enters and pulls him into striking range before finishing his punch in the next, closer, shot.

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Each take delivers two or three small stunts and sets up an action that bridges the next edit. Undercranking speeds up the choreography and helps mask the contrived staging which sets the stuntmen up for each gag. The fighters also telegraph the punches they throw by swinging out from their shoulders and exaggerate the impacts they receive with a good deal of tumbling and rolling. They tend to use more space within the frame than their Universal counterparts.  

Later Columbia serials, produced by the notoriously cut-rate Sam Katzman, retain the undercranking for even looser choreography. In Jack Armstrong: All American Boy (Wallace Fox, 1947) and Blackhawk (Spencer Gordon Bennett and Fred. F. Sears, 1952), for instance the stunt teams stage group fights with multiple assailants and defenders within a single frame. Fast motion and constant movement give the fights a “free—for-all” quality that can degenerate into disorganized flailing. The images below from a single take of a single fight in Blackhawk illustrate the late Columbia method. Note that in the first frame, the heavy reacts to a punch before our hero can throw it, while in the fourth, a stuntman has time to adjust his hat before his next engagement. This is the fighting style lampooned by the camp Batman and Robin television series in 1966.

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Our Heroes: Witney, Sharpe, and Republic

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The fights and stunts at Republic in general, and particularly in Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939), achieve a level of craft polish well beyond the competitors. In his autobiography, Republic Director William Witney (pictured above with his wife Maxine Doyle) takes credit for innovating a new style of shooting the sequences. In a description that well suits the Universal style, Witney writes:

I was never satisfied with the way movie fights were shot. …The stuntmen staged the fights, and they stunk. … The fights always seemed to be okay for the first punch. Then the stuntmen were always out of place for the next punch. By the time three or four minutes had passed, the stuntmen were out of breath, scattered all over the set and seemed to be staggering around waiting for someone to hit them. (135)

Witney was inspired by a visit to the Warner Bros. lot around 1937, where he watched Busby Berkeley at work. Berkeley had broken a long dance into short segments and intensively rehearsed sequences of steps. Once the forty dancers had mastered the steps to the point “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone,” they were sent to wardrobe and makeup while Berkeley’s assistant “shot a close-up of one of the leads doing the same dance steps that the other girls had done.” (136) Witney and his parter John English decided to bring the “rehearse, break, close-up” method to Republic’s stages. Hurst suggests that Daredevils of the Red Circle was the first serial for which Witney choreographed his own fights in this manner, though he offers no citation. Witney describes the process thusly:

Each cut might be only fifteen seconds: a punch, cut, a fall over a chair, cut, a charge into someone over a desk, cut. Each time you saw “cut” in the lines above represents a close-up of one of the leads.

The stunt people caught on fast. It made their work easier. A fall over a table could be done with precision and without the chance of being off balance as they hit the table…. And after a few walk-throughs, everyone knew exactly where they should be at all times. There was no more wandering around the set looking for someone to hit them so they could fall down.” 

Witney’s technique roughly resembles “segment shooting” which David Bordwell identifies with Hong Kong martial arts cinema from the 1960s on. Facing small budgets, short schedules, and high demand Hong Kong directors found it more efficient to rehearse and film combat in short segments, setting camera angles and constructing the fight as they went. (Planet Hong Kong 129) As Bordwell notes, this method is labor intensive, requiring long continuous workdays from the crew, but it yielded more “tangible benefits” than spending equal time on story construction and screenwriting. (130). The Republic fights are not as painstakingly precise as those of the Hong Kong masters, and it is almost certain that schedules were at least as tight for serials as for Kung Fu films. Still, one senses a kindred “kinesthetic artistry” in the work of Republic’s stunt team. (199)

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The studio’s stunt crew originally formed around the incomparable Yakima Canutt (above), who worked for Mascot when Republic formed. Though he continued to stunt and direct for Republic, by the late 1930s Canutt was in high demand and already considered Hollywood’s premiere stuntman. In 1939 alone he appeared in Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Dodge City, and Gone with the Wind, and 16 other productions. His protégé at Republic was former vaudeville acrobat, juggler, and national tumbling champion, David Sharpe (below).

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According to William Cline, Sharpe took leadership of the Republic team between 1939 and the start of WWII. (In the Nick of Time, 162) In industry parlance, the lead stuntman was known as the “ramrod,” a crew chief who organized the other performers as instructed by the director. Cast as a lead in Daredevils, and therefore indispensable to the production, Sharpe was himself doubled in the film by Jimmy Fawcett, another vaudeville acrobat who started at Republic that year. (Mathis, Valley of the Cliffhangers 111) Still, Daredevils owes some of its dynamism to the fact that Republic’s ramrod was a major player. Sharpe brings physical panache to routine exposition scenes, as in chapter 3 when he sits down to the breakfast table by effortlessly leaping over the back of his chair.

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The other stunt doubles on Daredevils included veteran professionals Cy Slocum and George DeNormand (for Gene), and Ted Mapes (Tiny). Together, they created gag-packed energetic routines in which each hero was fully individuated.

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Many of the Daredevils’ fights develop into wide-ranging chases as each of the trio engages a fleeing henchman or two. The dust-up in chapter 6 Thirty Seconds to Live is contained to a single room and so offers a nice comparison to the Universal and Columbia sequences. The trio has been dispatched to investigate Professor Seldon (Stanley Price) who supplies scientific secrets to criminal mastermind 39013 (Charles Middleton). Seldon tricks the three and locks them in a storeroom from which they almost immediately escape. In the meantime, four of 39013’s henchmen interrogate Seldon and threaten to eliminate him. To hold his assailants at bay, Seldon reveals a contact switch bolted to the edge of his desk and announces: “There’s a time bomb planted in this room, and in just 30 seconds after I throw this switch, it will blow up.” One of the henchmen (a gun heavy) shoots Seldon in the stomach and he falls to the ground. The Daredevils have been spying on this confrontation from the doorway, and they immediately burst into action. Twenty-nine shots fly by in 63 seconds and Gene, Burt, and Tiny engage the four henchmen. Unlike the Green Lantern example, only two shots might be called “cutaways,” a medium shot of Seldon writhing on the ground and a quick close-up of a heavy knocking the contact switch closed. All of the remaining shots feature the heroes punching, flipping, and wrestling the heavies, and this action is covered from 13 different camera positions. Clearly, Witney and English have invested more time and creative energy in their brawl than their Universal and Columbia counterparts.

Professor Seldon’s laboratory is a simple three-wall set with his desk near a window at the far left and a doorway on the opposite wall at right. The rear wall is lined with what appears to be radio equipment, and a second desk is placed near the doorway. This wide set design affords plenty of floor space in its center, as well as desks, chairs, and cabinets for the stuntmen to knock into. When our trio burst through the door, they have room to race leftward in a panning long shot, picking up momentum as they near the heavies at Seldon’s desk.

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All three leap into the air at precisely the same time. In a flamboyant opening maneuver, Bert uses his running start to dive over the desk and bounce across the back of a thug on the other side. Bert’s (in this shot played by Jimmy Fawcett) altitude is breathtaking; he clears the desk, a tall lamp, and a henchman standing beside the desk in a full shot that rules out any hidden trampolines or other devices. 

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As Bert lands at the left, Tiny punches two heavies down to the floor in the background, beyond the desk, while Gene drags a foreground thug off frame right by his leg. In a single fluid movement and less than two seconds, the Daredevils have floored all four thugs. Choreography distributes action across all areas of the. Bert’s leap activates the air above the desk and pushes our attention leftward, at the same time Tiny uses the background to sweep his thugs downward and in the foreground Gene whisks his target in the opposite direction. The timing is immaculate. The camera pans back right as Bert on the left and Gene on the right rise upward in symmetry to reengage their opponents.

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 The entire shot runs just under five seconds, and in that time the viewer’s attention courses first to the left, then toward the background and finally it is pulled between to synchronized foreground actions at either edge of the frame. It may be too swift for us to track each individual, but the flurry of action high and low, left and right, fore and back, catches us up in a smooth kinetic movement.

This wide shot works as a master: a camera position that takes in all of the action from a distance by panning and reframing. But it isn’t an all-purpose composition. The framing of the opening leap is too precise for that, and the very set furnishings have been adjusted for maximal clarity and dynamism in this shot. Four shots later, when we cut back to a seemingly identical wide composition, a large worktable loaded with electrical equipment suddenly appears in the middle of the room, between Seldon’s desk and the door.

screenshot_1146 The table materializes just in time for Gene to crash into it, reeling from a thug’s right hook.  Rather than shooting coverage of the entire action sequence and then inserting a series of close-ups, Witney and English have broken things down into discrete units and that allows a finer control of each frame. Even so, their work isn’t flawless. When Bert and Gene each rise on either edge of the composition, the camera operator does not pan far enough right and Gene steps out of the frame where we can miss the punch he throws at his opponent. In the next shot, a heavy falls backward against a radio on the far wall, but since we haven’t seen the strike, his relation to the larger fight isn’t clear.

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It is a momentary incoherence that might reflect the editor’s practice of covering gaps in action with closer shots of random thugs falling down (a nearly identical example can be found in the first fight in episode 1).  The two shots would have proper continuity if the first were reframed just a little. The filmmakers seem to have recognized the error, because they eliminated the cut when fight was replayed at the start of the next episode. As a form, serials are invariably marked by the compromises and contingencies of quick production. This must not blind us to the filmmakers’ considerable achievements within those constraints.

The fight is constructed around the individual struggles of our heroes, mostly Bert and Tiny, in tighter shots, followed by wide compositions that allow the combatants to interact. Small stunts can occur within single frames, or cutting can punctuate a blow. Toward the end of the sequence, for example, Bert blocks a thug’s jab and returns a right hook in a medium shot. A ninety-degree cut to long shot reveals new space near the doorway, a desk chair, and another worktable against the wall. In a match-on-action, Bert completes his punch and the thug careens backward knocking the chair and table away.

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Cutting doesn’t follow action so much as create it; the sudden widening of the frame and revelation of new space carries the force of Bert’s punch. The new composition has been arranged to accommodate the stuntman’s fall, allowing him to spectacularly (and safely) hit his mark. This simple articulating cut achieves elegance when the shot continues to facilitate a second stunt. While Bert’s thug is still crashing into the table, our hero races back into the frame, picks up another heavy and tosses him leftward as the camera pans with him.

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Two distinct beats, foreground and background, in a single take.  Witney and English vary this method in the shot of Gene crashing into the surprise worktable described above. While Gene is socking his thug in the corner, a cutaway shows Bert rolling a heavy across Seldon’s desk and landing him on the floor. When Gene is propelled into the table, Bert has been well placed at the foot of Seldon’s desk. As the thug steps forward to finish Gene off, Bert bounces up from the floor and intercepts him, plowing him back into the frame. Action surges forward and then backward in the frame as the two lines interconnect in a single shot. The rough and tumble clash achieves the grace of a dance.

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In this way, phases of action flow into one another and overlap. The filmmakers pack the short sequence with flips, leaps, and falls, and these tend to cohere into larger units of action. The first seven shots follow Bert’s opening leap through his defense of Gene just described. Shots eight through thirteen generally focus on Tiny and his struggle against two heavies. When one of them lifts a desk chair to bash Tiny, Gene appears and disarms him. All three lines again intersect in the fourteenth shot, a wide composition in which Gene is tackled by the chair heavy, Tiny knocks his opponent over Seldon’s desk, and Bert punches down another assailant.

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The next seven shots alternate between Tiny battling a tough near Seldon’s desk and Bert fending off his attacker near the door. The editors blend the Tiny and Bert scuffles by carrying the direction of action across cuts. When Bert throws a henchman off toward the left, a cut to Tiny punching his thug leftward against a cabinet creates a continuous motion.

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Organizing the larger fight into smaller sets of action lends the whole a sense of progress as we shift among characters encountering and solving physical problems. The emphasis, though, is on process rather than goal. It is standard for an assailant to help his opponent to his feet so that he can deliver a second blow. Both sets of combatants appear endlessly capable of leaping back up to throw another punch, no end is in sight.

The deftly woven series of stunts comes to a sudden halt when Tiny knocks his thug into Seldon’s contact switch (an action depicted in four continuous shots). The thug pulls a gun and everyone freezes when he announces: “Hold it! We gotta scram outta here. I closed the contact!” It is an arbitrary interruption.

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The fight could have continued indefinitely or been halted at any moment that the henchman remembered he was carrying a gun. The fight is an intricately choreographed, neatly designed end in itself. The Republic crew has mastered a particular brand of kinetically engaging physical storytelling. In place of an undefined mêlée, viewers are given a flowing series of defined but interconnected physical feats. Frames are filled with speed and motion, so details like suit color (the trio always wears contrasting shades), fighting style (Bert leaps and tumbles, Tiny prefers to fight two men at once), and the distinct cracks and thwacks on the foley track keep things legible. At any moment, the immediate stakes and the status of the combatants are clear. This is a sophisticated form, crafted from space, frame, movement and tempo.  

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