I would think that these days, most serials would count as Overlooked Movies for most people, so for my inaugural post in this series I’m going to take a look at what I consider one of the best movie serials I’ve ever seen: S.O.S. COAST GUARD.
Ralph Byrd, who was a lot more famous for playing Dick Tracy in a long series of serials and B-movies about the famous comic strip detective (more Overlooked Movies there, perhaps) is Coast Guard Lt. Terry Kent in this one, who's trying to prevent evil scientist Dr. Boroff (Bela Lugosi) from getting the ingredients to make a disintegrating gas. Terry fails at that (no huge surprise), so then he has to find the plant where Boroff is making the gas and keep him from selling it to agents from the evil European country Morovania. Other than the disintegrating gas, this is actually a pretty realistic serial, with lots of underwater action on the sunken liner Carfax (an in-joke for Lugosi fans). There’s plenty of good miniature work and stunts galore -- boat stunts, airplane stunts, motorcycle stunts, car stunts, etc. Ralph Byrd is as jut-jawed and hyperactive as ever. Lugosi underplays and is very effective in his role, coming across as more of a ruthless businessman than a mad scientist. Although there is one scene where he's playing with a dog that's absolutely chilling, because we know that he's about to test his gas on the poor pooch . . .
As far as I'm concerned, though, the show is stolen by an actor I wasn't familiar with at all, Richard Alexander. After looking him up on IMDB, I see that he had a long but undistinguished career as a supporting player and bit part actor (he's listed as "uncredited" in most of the movies he appeared in). Evidently he's most famous for playing Prince Barin in the Flash Gordon serials. In S.O.S. COAST GUARD, he plays Thorg, the mute, hulking, tormented henchman of Dr. Boroff. It's a fine performance, conveying both menace and tragedy.
This serial also has a slam-bang, very satisfying conclusion, unlike many that sort of just limp to an end. The photography is quite good, including an unusual number of scenes shot on location, and the direction by William Witney and Alan James keeps things moving right along. I highly recommend this one.
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