Haunted Harbor/Pirates’ Harbor (1944)

Haunted Harbor/Pirates' Harbor (1944)‘Sea serpent off the port bow!’

A young sea captain finds himself in dire financial straits after his second ship disappears carrying a cargo of gold bullion. When he finds his main creditor murdered, the authorities arrest him for the crime. Escaping with the help of friends who believe in his innocence, he begins a search for the real killer. It doesn’t take long before he suspects a connection to the mysterious happenings at an isolated harbour…

Wonderfully old-fashioned rock ’em, sock ’em movie serial from Republic studios. Thie efficient 15-part chapterplay comes courtesy of co-directors Wallace Grissell and Spencer Gordon Bennet, who was the undisputed master of the genre. There’s the usual procession of last-minute escapes, exploding vehicles, crashing aeroplanes and energetic bouts of fisticuffs, delivered with the breathless pace and ruthless efficiency which was the studio’s trademark. If it’s not a particularly well-known and celebrated title, that’s probably down to choices made with the overall story, rather than a lack of thrills and action.

Captain Jim Marsden (Kane Richmond) is still upbeat despite his recent troubles. A storm seems to have wrecked his second ship and its valuable cargo, which has put him in dutch with businessman Fredrick (not Jason) Vorhees (Edward Keane). But he can still rely on shipmates Yank (Clancy Cooper) and Tommy (Marshall Reed) and has the backing of local trader, Galbraith (Oscar O’Shea). However, Keane has his other vessel impounded, and an angry Richmond rushes off to see the man, only to find him dead at the hands of villainous associate, Carter (Roy Barcroft). Richmond is discovered standing over the body and is banged up as a result.

Haunted Harbor/Pirates' Harbor (1944)

The Fleet’s In.

Things are looking grim for our square-jawed hero, but his friends organise a jailbreak and O’Shea offers him a job running the trading post on a nearby island. Conveniently, this place has no extradition treaty with the mainland (and seemingly no police force!) and, even better, it turns out to be Barcroft’s centre of operations where he is running a gold mine under the name of Kane. On his way there, Barcroft rescues local sawbones Dr Harding and his pretty daughter, Patricia (Kay Aldridge) from their yacht during a storm, and they are happy to pitch in and help prove Richmond is an innocent man. Their investigations lead to weekly run-ins with Barcroft’s men, led by his callous foreman, Gregg (Keene Duncan).

Richmond has a special set of skills to deal with the bad guys, of course, by my, he’s such a butterfingers! His gun is knocked out of his hand at least once in every chapter when he’s covering Barcroft’s goons, although, to be fair, they return the compliment often enough. What’s perhaps most curious is his choice of attire. Yes, he’s a sea captain, so the peaked cap is understandable. However, some of the time, he’s wearing what looks suspiciously like a Naval uniform, although he’s a private citizen. Rather brilliantly, he’s also allowed to wear it in his jail cell early on! Disappointingly, he only reaches Haunted Harbor once in the first twelve chapters, and then he is quickly scared off by a rather mechanical looking sea serpent.

Haunted Harbor/Pirates' Harbor (1944)

‘You know, she’ll kick your ass, right?’

In all these endeavours, he assisted by crewmembers Cooper and Reed, but also, far more notably considering when the serial was made, by Aldridge, who proves to be no shrinking violet but quite the badass, at least by 1940s standards. She saves Richmond’s life twice, once with an exhibition of sharpshooting to rival Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ and once by throwing some dynamite overboard just before it explodes. She shoots at both the bad guys and the sea serpent and doesn’t always need rescuing by Richmond. When trapped in a burning truck about to explode, she bashes a hole in the back of the cab and gets out herself. And it’s not only the character that’s a badass either as that is quite plainly Aldridge doing her own high-speed horse riding during a chase sequence. Of course, the character’s efforts to get involved in the fisticuffs always end with her getting knocked out at the earliest opportunity, even twice during one fight! Seriously, she hits her head so often (with no apparent ill-effects!) that a trip to the hospital to get checked out for long-term concussion injuries is a must. Perhaps she should have worn a hard hat.

Although it seems at one stage that proceedings won’t end up making a lot of sense, to the credit of the screenwriting team (all 5 of ’em!), events do tie up satisfactorily in the end. Of course, the story has plenty of contrivances to get our heroes into life or death situations at the end of each chapter, but it flows better than many of its kind. The reason that the serial isn’t remembered in the same breath as some of its more famous contemporaries is probably down to some flaws with the overall story.

Haunted Harbor/Pirates' Harbor (1944)

‘This is some righteous shit, man.’

The problem is that it shows some of its biggest cards far too early. We’re clued in from the get-go that villains are operating at Haunted Harbor and so it’s immediately evident that the alleged ‘demons, sea serpents and monsters’ are fake (and it turns out there’s only one of them anyway). Furthermore, Barcroft is not a supervillain with a hidden identity; he’s just a run of the mill crook and, again, we know that from Chapter One. He doesn’t make for a useless bad guy by any means, but how much more fun would everyone have had if he’d been a mysterious, masked figure with a flamboyant costume and ridiculous name? It’s these kinds of outlandish touches that are cherished by fans of the movie serial to this day.

Richmond began with small supporting roles in minor studio productions before getting his big break as the lead in bizarre, low-budget serial ‘The Lost City’ (1935). He played mostly in b-movie thrillers, although did snag the occasional supporting gig in a major studio production, such as ‘Knute Rockne, All American’ (1950). He also played Lamont Cranston in Monogram’s brief (and threadbare) series based around the exploits of comic-book crimefighter, ‘The Shadow.’ But he never really escaped the serials and is probably best remembered today in the title roles of ‘Brick Bradford’ (1947) and ‘Spy Smasher’ (1942), one of the best of the genre.

Haunted Harbor/Pirates' Harbor (1944)

‘Come on, you pussies, go for it!’

Aldridge got her start as a photographer’s model and her success at the job led to a contract with 20th Century Fox in 1939. Despite being tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939) (but then, wasn’t everyone?), she was cast in a brief series of minor pictures in nondescript roles. When her contract expired, she accepted the title role in Republic’s ‘Perils of Nyoka’ (1942), which was to be her most famous role. The success of that serial led to other parts in the studio’s better chapterplays before she retired in 1945. Duncan was a veteran of many b-grade Westerns, but is, of course, celebrated in cult movie circles for his late career appearance as fake medium Dr Acula in Ed Wood’s notorious ‘Night of the Ghouls’ (1959).

A thoroughly entertaining experience for fans of the movie serial, elevated by the easy camaraderie and underrated charisma of its two stars.

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