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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: The Iron Claw

The 2015 bombardment of superhero films is over. It was a relatively light year, just Avengers 2, Ant-Man, and the franchise-flopping Fantastic Four. But Warner Bros. and Marvel Entertainment have twenty superhero films in various states of production, all of them due in theaters by 2020.

Back in 1978 superheroes were so rare in Hollywood, the first Superman included the subtitle The Movie. So you may think of costumed do-gooders as relatively recent invaders of the silver screen, but they leaped to theaters long before landing in comics. 2016 promises Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America 3, and X-Men: Apocalypse, but 1916 saw three rounds too.

laughingmask the-purple-mask judez

In Arthur Stringer’s The Iron Claw, Creighton Hale plays “an easing going idiot” working as a millionaire’s personal secretary by day, but at night he dons the guise of the mysterious Laughing Mask. By the end, he’s wooed his boss’s daughter and thwarted the nefarious Iron Claw.

Francis Ford joined Hale as the similarly clad Sphinx in The Purple Mask, only this time the masked hero has a masked anti-heroine to woo too, Grace Cunard’s lady thief and so-called Queen of the Apaches, the first celluloid superheroine. She leaves her purple mask as a calling card.

But the first most influential superhero film award goes to Louis Feuillade’ Judex—a partial reversal of The Iron Claw since Judex begins as a vengeance-seeking blackmailer disguised as a personal secretary before falling for his boss’s daughter. I like to show my class the original unmasking scene, Yvette Andréyor creeping into the hero’s batcave of a bedroom and discovering his make-up kit. Nowhere nearly as dramatic as the Phantom of the Opera unmasking, but shot a decade earlier.

My favorite superhero silent film, the 1927 classic The Russian Affair, won Best Picture in 2011.


That’s because it exists only in the opening sequence of director Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. But the invented film shows how popular masked heroes were in the early 20th century. The Russian Affair—as well as glimpses of its equally pretend sequel, The German Affair—features the fictional silent star George Valentin in tuxedo, top hat, and domino mask—the quintessential costume of the pre-comic book superhero. Raffles, Tarzan, Robin Hood, Night Wind, Gray Seal, Lone Wolf, they all transformed themselves into silent superheroes, most unheard now. Except for Zorro, which The Artist inserts into Valentin’s fictional filmography, replacing the very real Douglas Fairbanks.


Judex had barely exited American theaters before Fairbanks was skimming issues of All-Story for his own pulp hero to adapt. A year later, the Judex-inspired Zorro was an international icon. Hazanavicius even reshoots the best action sequence, dressing The Artist’s Jean Dujardin in Fairbanks’ Zorro wardrobe. The Mark of Zorro didn’t win Best Picture in 1920 only because the Academy Awards didn’t exist for another decade.

The 1928 Alias Jimmie Valentine was going to be a silent adaptation of O. Henry’s gentleman thief tale, but MGM called the stars back to record the studio’s first talkie instead. Fairbanks’s 1929 Three Musketeers sequel included his spoken prologue, but his talking Taming of the Shrew flopped later that year, as did his final Private Life of Don Juan. Hazanavicius’s gives his alter ego a tap-dancing afterlife, a superpower not in Fairbanks’ repertoire, so the real Fairbanks was replaced by a new breed of action heroes, some of them actual supermen.

tarzan        buster crabbe tarzan

Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller took his last gold medal in 1928, Buster Crabbe in 1932. Both went on to play Tarzan. I watched Weissmuller on my aunts’ TV, one of those crate-sized machines that flickered as the cathode ray tubes heated. I’m thankful my aunts didn’t keep the battle scenes I doodled on scrap paper, all those blowdart-blowing savages gunned down by white hunters. All Hollywood sandpits, I surmised, were seven feet deep, designed to swallow everything but a victim’s groping fingers.

MGM did the same to Fairbanks and every other ex-star unable to adapt.Not that the superhero sound era was an easy transition for Hollywood either. MGM only started their talking Tarzan franchise because they had the footage.


Trader Horn, the first big budget film shot on location, was a disaster. The production team returned from Africa with scene after scene of inaudible dialogue, a star infected with malaria, and the suitcases of crew members devoured by crocodiles and trampled by rhinos. They also had miles of jungle footage, way more than could ever fit into a single movie. Trader Horn came and went in 1931, but to capitalize on all that location shooting they’d already paid for, MGM rolled out Tarzan the Ape Man the following year. It was a cheap hit that spawned five low-budget sequels that returned Burroughs’ superman to the pop culture spotlight.

After Christopher Reeve retired his cape following 1987’s catastrophic Superman IV, Tim Burton rebounded with Batman, but otherwise the 90s are a 1930s reboot. Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy. Billy Zane in The Phantom. Alec Baldwin in The Shadow. It’s hard to remember a time when the Marvel pantheon wasn’t pounding box offices, but Hollywood once preferred retro-heroes. Disney’s The Rocketeer sported 30s curves, even though the character debuted in comics in 1982. That’s why Jim Carey threw on a yellow zoot suit along with the 1987 The Mask comic book. When Sam Raimi of later Spider-Man fame couldn’t get the rights to the Shadow, he cast Liam Neeson as a modern master-of-disguise instead. Darkman isn’t any good, but it does show how much comic book superheroes were a mutation of their pulp predecessors, an evolutionary process repeated in film.

It took a couple of decades, but the double flop of Seth Rogen’s 2011 The Green Hornet and Disney’s 2013 Lone Ranger and Tonto may have finally closed the theater doors on the 1930s. According to that math, are Warner Bros. and Marvel Entertainment being over optimistic with their 2020 projections? If the 30s are finally over, how long can DC’s early 40s and Marvel’s early 60s continue to last?


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85th Academy Awards Nominations Announcement

I thought it was going to be 2012.

Remember all that Oscar hype Dark Knight Rises got back in July? Of course that was before it was actually released. If any DC fans were still holding out hopes, Spider-Man sweetheart Gwen Stacy (AKA Emma Stone) and toddler supervillain Stewie Griffin (AKA Seth MacFarlane) dashed them when they announced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ official nomination list this month. I like to think Marvel fans are a little more reality-based, though I’m sure a few were holding out hopes for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers too.

Dark Knight RisesThe AvengersAmazing Spider-Man

Add The Amazing Spider-Man, and three of the top grossing films of 2012 were dressed in spandex. Together they cashed in more than the GDP of Jamaica or Iceland. And yet both the Oscars and the Golden Globes snub them? Co-hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey didn’t even make JOKES about this year’s superhero movies. (Daredevil, AKA Ben Affleck, wins best director, and he can’t even see?!)

Ben Affleck as Matt MurdockBen Affleck as Daredevil

Isn’t it time for some kind of Golden Superhero Oscar Globe Ceremony Banquet Thing? Why doesn’t anyone have a category for Best Superhero Film?

Well, because that would be silly. Not to mention demeaning and/or redundant. Did Heath Ledger win Best Supporting Actor in a Superhero Film in 2009?

Best Supporting Actor 2009 Award

And just look at last year’s winner. The would-be Best Superhero Film of 2011 also won Best Picture of the Year.

ThorCaptain AmericaGreen Lantern

Green HornetX-men First ClassGriff the Invisible

No, I don’t mean Thor or Captain America. Certainly not Green Lantern or Green Hornet. X-Men: First Class was fun but certainly no Oscar contender, and while Australia’s Griff the Invisible deserved lots and lots more attention, Best Picture would be a stretch.

I’m talking about The Russian Affair.

The Russian Affair

The 1927 classic? Never heard of it?

That’s because it’s the opening sequence of 2011’s The Artist, winner of the Least Watched Best Picture of All Time. I’d not even heard of it until after last year’s Awards ceremony, and it still took me months to rent.

Which was stupid of me. Because not only is The Artist a brilliant film, it’s also the perfect history lesson for a superhero movie buff.

The Artist

You probably think of the superhero as a relatively recent invader of the silver screen. The folks over at consider the 1978 Superman the Krypton-like explosion that spawned the genre.

Not so.

Captain American turned to celluloid back in 1944, Batman in 1943, Captain Marvel 1941.


But, you might argue, those were just serials. Dinky 10-minute installments that aired each week before the main attraction. Like, say, the 1937 The Shadow Strikes, one of the first superhero films of the sound era.

But not the Silent Age.

Unlike all those other upstart film genres, superheroes hit the big screen back when movies were still movies, not talkies. The Russian Affair (as well as glimpses of its equally pretend sequel, The German Affair) features its pretend star George Valentin in tuxedo, top hat, and domino mask—the quintessential costume of the pre-comicbook proto-superhero, the gentleman thief.

Lone Wolf, Gray Seal, Scarlet Pimpernel, they’re all Batman predecessors, all but forgotten. Except for one. Zorro. Which The Artist inserts into the Valentin’s filmography too, replacing the real life film star Douglas Fairbanks. Director Michel Hazanavicius even reshot the best action sequence, dressing The Artist’s Jean Dujardin in Fairbanks’ Zorro costume. When Fairbanks first pulled on that mask, the avenging bandit was an obscure hero from a pulp magazine serial. A year later, Zorro is an international icon. The Mark of Zorro didn’t win Best Picture in 1920 only because the Academy Awards wouldn’t start for another decade.


But Fairbanks wasn’t the first masked movie star. He and his alter ego Dujardin/Valentin were just catching the wave started in 1916, the first year of the movie superhero.

Like 2012, 1916 saw three rounds of masked do-gooders. In The Iron Claw, Creighton Hale played a mild-mannered assistant by day, the mysterious Laughing Mask by night. By the end he’s wooed his boss’s daughter and thwarted the nefarious Iron Claw.


Francis Ford joined Hale as the similarly clad Sphinx in The Purple Mask, only this time the masked hero has a masked anti-heroine to woo too, Grace Cunard’s lady thief Queen of the Apaches, arguably the first superheroine in celluloid. She leaves her purple mask as a calling card.

The Purple Mask

But Best Superhero Film of 1916 goes to Louis Feuillade’ classic Judex. The 1930’s Shadow would borrow his cloak and slouch hat, but the master-of-disguise Judex sought revenge against a corrupt banker, while falling in love with and so of course protecting his daughter from villains. I like to show my class the original unmasking scene, Yvette Andréyor creeping into the hero’s bedroom (think Batcave) and discovering his make-up kit. (Nowhere nearly as dramatic as the big Phantom of the Opera scene, but this was shot a decade earlier.)


So when Hazanavicius is ready to shoot a sequel, The Artist II: The First Affair, he’ll have plenty more material to plunder.

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