|A Brief History of the Big Trouble Serials|
Jumpin' Jehosaphat Burton first appeared as a wildly-whiskered fuel truck driver in a panel of the February 2, 1923 comic strip McGoohan's Sky Raiders1. Within a few years, Burton's wisecracks and foolish leaps into perilous situations made him more popular than McGoohan or the earlier characters from that strip. Just as its creator Cliff Norvell began talks with Mascot Pictures to develop a screen version in 1929, the strip ceased due to royalty disputes and internal politics at the syndicate. In order to shut out the syndicate from movie rights, Norvell sold the story of "Jack Burton" with no mention of McGoohan or the Sky Raiders.
Finally The Jungle Airman appeared in 1931, a feature film helmed by B. Reeves Eason and Richard Thorpe, with nothing to show the connection to the comic strip except for the prominent tagline "Jack Burton is The Jungle Airman" in lobby cards and print advertising. Fred Bowditch gave a rousing performance as Jack, but a little too earnest.
The series hit its stride one year later when young John Wayne played Jack as the cocky but lovable scoundrel we’ve all come to know and love in Big Trouble in the Casbah. Although much of the film's action takes place in the desert outside of the citadel, a few glorious shots of the Casbah's labyrinthine alleys and souks proved inspirational for Henri La Barthe. Early drafts of his novel Pépé le moko were set in Marseille, France. Barthe struggled with how to finish the story until he saw "Sands of Doom" (chapter three of Big Trouble in the Casbah) and took that for the setting. It's safe to say that without this greatest installment of Big Trouble, there might have been no film of Pépé le moko, no Algiers, no Casablanca.
The best parts of the Big Trouble formula fell into place with the sequel Escape to Zanzibar (1933): John Wayne as the bumbling hero, along with the right mix of comedy, action, magic and monsters. They dropped "Big Trouble" from the serial title, but worked it into the title of Chapter Eleven, "Big Trouble in Chwaka Bay". This time Jack escapes from shape-shifting Zambezian rhino-men to Unguja, the largest island of the Zanzibar Archipelago. He tries to catch his breath at a seaside cafe, where the beef curry stew is flavored with nutmeg and cloves plucked from branches just outside the window. Cecelia Parker pouts her way to Jack's heart as the cafe owner whose brother has been kidnapped by Yemeni corsairs. A thrilling chase in authentic dhows ends at the pier of a ruined fortress, with a duel between a Zanzibar witch-doctor and a Djinni who serves the corsairs.
It's worth noting that the lovely cafe owner who Jack reluctantly leaves behind at the end (as always) is described as "mulatto" in the script. The part was cast with the pale blond Cecilia Parker because white audiences and theater owners of the Thirties would have been outraged by a mixed-race romance.
Some shuffling of contracts behind the scenes at Mascot Pictures led to Ralph Byrd taking the role of Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little Atlantis (1934). There is a reason why the submarine which Jack piloted to Atlantis looks like a bubbling rocket ship with a periscope. The model had been designed as a rocket for The Chessmen of Mars, an RKO feature film that died in development. Accompanied by Charles Middleton as Professor Malcom, Helen Foster as a gutsy reporter and Frankie Darro stowing away as her younger brother, Jack evades a giant manta ray and steers past beautiful matte paintings of the underwater city. Once they enter the underwater city, the next ten chapters are spent almost exclusively running around sets within the city. The underwater fight scenes in chapters five and nine inspired viewers to try holding their breaths as long as Jack did.
Thankfully, the Duke returned in 1935 for Big Trouble in Chattanooga. (No offense, Ralph. We loved you in Dick Tracy!) Jack travels back east to visit his folks, but only gets as far as Tennessee when he cons his way into a job as railroad detective. Chasing off hobos sounds like a cushy job, except the freeloaders on this train are hairy, blood-sucking mutants sent to steal a shipment of gold for Dr. Malaga (Ray Mala in a rare villainous role).
For decades, John Wayne was dogged by the rumor that one of his cigarettes had burned down half the circus sets in A Little Trouble in the Big Top (1936). Others blamed the malfunctioning motors that controlled tentacles within the elaborate monster puppets, which had been sparking throughout the production. Whatever the cause, the flaming tents were caught on film and later worked into the story. In another strange bit of serendipity, a quick-thinking cameraman captured John Wayne and Yakima Canutt having a genuine, personal fight between scenes2. They patched things up and agreed that it should be used in the film, which made for a very realistic fistfight, none of the usual punches missing by a mile.
A Little Trouble in the Big Top signaled the decline of the series, with dramatically lower box office numbers than previous installments. Wayne's popularity in B-Westerns had been growing throughout the Thirties. Mascot Pictures thought audiences wanted to see Wayne as a cowboy in everything, so they turned Jack Burton into a cowboy doing lasso tricks. When have you ever seen the Duke do lasso tricks? Using the monster's tentacles as a lasso took things way too far, and turnout fell precipitously after the first few chapters.
In Big Trouble in Luxembourg (1937), Wayne tried to energize a lifeless script of ghost chasing with his powerful delivery. Unfortunately the script was penned by the Luxembourg National Tourist Office. For once, filming on location proved to be a drawback in spite of how beautiful some of the sites were. A heavily accented woman guides Jack past attractions like Vianden Castle, the Bock Promontory and the Church of St. Ulric. The exciting confrontation between Jack and the ghost, set in a steel mill where the ghost died, is marred by another long chunk of exposition about Luxembourg's leadership in the steel industry.
Mantan Moreland's interplay with Wayne rejuvenated the series in Big Trouble in Haiti (1938). The Duke didn't flirt much with his female lead in this instance, since the role of the rich coffee exporter's daughter was played by Francine Everett. Why would that stop the Duke from flirting? Perhaps you remember Ms. Everett as Miss "Tall, Tan and Terrific" from the 1946 movie by that name, or a few other lead roles in "race films" of that era. Except for a few exchanged smiles, their relationship is almost as platonic as Jet Li and Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die.
Early in the film, Everett coos a sultry song called "Haunted Haiti" in a dimly lit nightclub, backed by a tinny but still effective band. As much as I love John Wayne and zombies and all the Big Trouble serials, I forgot everything else while she sang. Then it's back to the living dead, gunfights in secret passageways between the mansion and the graveyard, and a voodoo demon (actually a murderous gorilla sent by a rival coffee exporter).
Mascot merged with other studios in 1935 to form Republic Pictures. By 1938, the new honchos felt that Wayne's star was rising, but were disappointed with the results of the latest Big Trouble serials. Director Ford Beebe convinced them he could make the next one profitable by reducing costs, hiring cast and crew from Sack Amusement Enterprises (a studio which made all-Black productions). Except for Wayne, leading lady Yola d'Avril, and the monster, all other roles in Big Trouble Up in Harlem were performed by African Americans.
In one of the strangest deviations from the standard formula, this one had Jack Burton tangling with two mummies, one male and one female, and removing the curse from the lady mummy so he could run away with her in the end. Comedian Willie Best gave a moving performance as a distraught father avenging the death of his son by tearing apart the mummy.
Two other films deserve mention alongside the Big Trouble serials:
Rafael Baledón and Victoria Argota starred in the 1940 Mexican production Fracaso en Guatemala (Trouble in Guatemala). The shots of Mayan pyramids, brujos, even the winged serpents look great. Cost overruns meant little advertising and no international distribution. The Mexican film company Cinematigraficá Picó closed before they could recoup the costs. Although the VHS and laserdisc releases were only in Spanish, you can find amateur English translations of "Fracaso" on the web.
The CBS anthology series Westinghouse Studio One aired Big Trouble in the Congo as a live, one hour episode on September 21, 1953. Michael Ansara played Jack in this serious suspense story. No jokes or fantasy elements this time around. Jack foils a plot to smuggle uranium out of Shinkolobwe mine. The lovely Sandra Spence played the femme fatale from some unnamed Eastern European nation. No further Big Trouble films or serials were made between this and 1986's Big Trouble in Little China.
1 This entry is completely fictional. Any resemblance to real studios, locations or living persons is coincidental. I'm hoping B. Reeves Eason, Richard Thorpe, Fred Bowditch (aka Kane Richmond), John Wayne, Henri La Barthe, Cecilia Parker, Ralph Byrd, Charles Middleton, Helen Foster, Frankie Darro, Ray Mala, Yakima Canutt, Mantan Moreland, Francine Everett, Ford Beebe, Yola d'Avril, Willie Best, Rafael Baledón, Victoria Argota, Michael Ansara or Sandra Spence won't mind my using them fictitiously. (Oops, Michael Ansara is alive!)
2 I doubt that John Wayne ever got in a fistfight with Yakima Canutt behind the scenes, but it sounds like the kind of thing that would be a healthy part of any relationship between two macho hell-raisers in the 1930s.
| ||Click here to be the first person to discuss this Guide Entry|