Historian of Horror : Republic Robots Running Rampant!

In 1935, Herbert J. Yates ran a small film processing laboratory in Hollywood. He’d been processing movies for the major studios for several years, but when they all decided to take care of that chore in-house, Yates needed to diversify in order to keep afloat in the midst of the Great Depression. He managed to acquire six small Poverty Row studios, and combined them into one mini-major studio he called Republic Pictures.

One of the six, Mascot Pictures, provided Yates with three things that make this little foray into the history of celluloid mechanical horrors possible: experience in producing movie serials going back into the silent era; the former Mack Sennett studio; and the recent discovery of singing cowboy Gene Autry.

Serials, or cliffhangers for those of you who remember Annie Wilkes talking about them in Misery (“He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie car!”), were cheaply made adventure films broken up into ten to fifteen chapters intended to be shown on successive Saturday afternoons for the kiddie crowd, mostly. Mom would drop her brood off at the local cinema with a dime for admission and another for snacks, and they’d be entertained by a couple of B-movies, cartoons, assorted short subjects, and a serial chapter long enough for the materfamilias to run her errands. Good clean fun, with plenty of violence but no sex.

Yates’s first venture into serial making made use of his new film star, as well as the well-appointed studio he’d inherited from Sennett. Before Autry went on to become the biggest western star in the world (yes, bigger than John Wayne for his most active years), and long before he owned the Los Angeles Angels baseball team, he starred in one chapterplay for the new studio, The Phantom Empire (1935). Starting off from his day job as a radio performer, Autry discovered an underground kingdom under his ranch. Murania was a technologically advanced civilization that made extensive use of robots. Hence, the title of this installment. Gene managed to escape Murania and save Radio Ranch from the bad guys who were after his radium mine, all in twelve chapters. 

Autry soon switched over to making B-Westerns and was known as the “King of the Cowboys” until going off to fight in World War II. After the war, Autry finished out his contract with Republic, then transferred to Columbia for the remainder of his movie and television career. He passed away in 1998, at the age of 91.

A year after Autry triumphed over the Muranians, former stuntman and future Terror from Beyond Space Ray “Crash” Corrigan found similar adventures in Atlantis in another twelve-chapter serial, Undersea Kingdom. Future Wolf Man Lon Chaney, Jr. played one of the main villain’s henchmen. Once again, the villains had robots to assist them in their nefarious schemes. 

Republic let a few years go by before throwing another mechanized marvel at the Saturday afternoon audience. One of the best serials ever, Mysterious Doctor Satan, is rumored to have been intended as the first Superman chapterplay, but if so negotiations with DC Comics fell through. Instead, a generic hero called Copperhead took on the title villain and his mechanical monster. When the fifteen chapters were spliced together a few years later into feature length, the resulting version was called Dr. Satan’s Robot. That’s how I first saw it on our local television station’s afternoon movie, The Big Show, in the Summer of 1973. 

Republic got out of the mechanical monster business after that, although their robots were later recycled for serials at Columbia and Universal. Almost immediately, they made the first two serials based on comic book characters, Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and Spy Smasher (1942), before ceding that source to Columbia, who managed to make two Superman cliffhangers near the end of the decade. Television killed off the serials by 1956, and Republic shut down production in 1958.

Speaking of Columbia, they featured their own version of a robot terror in 1945’s The Monster and the Ape, with the aforementioned Ray Corrigan in a gorilla suit helping to steal the mechanical marvel from its inventor. From hero to monkey in the short span of nine years – quelle horreur!

Universal made one significant contribution to the pantheon of serialized mechanical monsters in 1939. Bela Lugosi starred in The Phantom Creeps, in which he created what had to be the creepiest robot ever filmed. It was so memorable that DC Comics even adapted it in Movie Comics #6. The Phantom Creeps was one of several serials Lugosi starred in, but the only one featuring a robot. Pity, he demonstrated quite a knack for constructing them.

And so, all who are intrigued by the inhuman, until we meet again…

Be afraid…

Be very afraid.

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