Basic Story Line
Lieutenant Terry Kent of the Coast Guard is hunting down the mad scientist who killed his brother and has created a deadly disintegrating gas.
Released in 1937
Directed by Alan James and William Witney
Written by Barry Shipman, Franklin Adreon, Morgan Cox, Ronald Davidson, Edward Lynn, Winston Miller, and Lester Scott Jr.
Starring Bela Lugosi, Ralph Byrd, and Maxine Doyle
SOS Coast Guard is a perfectly decent serial. It has boats, planes, some special effects and Bela Lugosi playing the villain. However, what I think of most is how similar it is to other serials and movies.
The most obvious film to compare it to is the Dick Tracy serial. Both are action adventure serials filled with chases and fights. Both have intelligent and tough heroes who are trying to track down the madman who killed (or abducted) their brother. Both serials have the bumbling sidekick and the plucky female assistant. Both serials were released in 1937. Both are Republic serials, star Ralph Byrd as the hero and share some of the same writers. William Witney did not direct Dick Tracy but did go on to direct some of the Dick Tracy sequels. It is not surprising that as I was watching SOS Coast Guard I had the feeling I was watching Dick Tracy with boats.
The villain, Boroff, played by Bela Lugosi, is fairly typical. The mad scientist villain with the doomsday device is a staple of many serials, including Batman and Robin, The Crimson Ghost, and The Phantom Creeps. In fact, when Bela Lugosi wasn’t playing in horror movies he pretty much made his living playing mad scientists in serials.
The unstoppable, but silent, giant henchman is not something you find in most serials. Thorg is more of a precursor to James Bond henchmen like Odd Job and Jaws. Thorg is played by Richard Alexander, who is best known as Prince Barin in the first two Flash Gordon Serials. In serials henchmen are usually pretty unlikeable characters. They do the villains dirty work but have none of his charm or intelligence. They are not paid to think. They are paid to do what they are told, be unpleasant to nice people, bumble their boss’ plans, and completely fail to kill the hero at the end of every chapter. Thorg is different. You feel for him. Boroff turned him into what he is through brain surgery. He is a character filled with contradictions. He hates Boroff for what he did to him and the abuse he continues to receive, but is like an abused dog, he is loyal and loves his master.
The plot and characters are not the only bits of fiction in this serial. Although they don’t have ray guns, or devices that can render a person invisible, there is a large amount of made up science in SOS Coast Guard. Boroff has made a disintegrating gas that can melt anything but glass. The main ingredients to this gas are the rare elements are Arnatite and Zanzoid. He is selling this deadly and highly fictitious gas to the morally questionable government of the reality impaired country of Morovania. It is almost as if someone in the writing room said, “Hey! What if turned this highly corrosive acid into a gas that could destroy whole cities? But we don’t really have time to find out if such a gas exists or what would go into making such a gas, so we’ll just make it up.”
Although there is nothing really remarkable about SOS Coast Guard it is an enjoyable action adventure serial. If you’re into serials and boats it’s worth the watch. If you don’t know a whole lot about serials but are curious, there are others I’d recommend first.
Things to watch for
-Underwater fight scenes
-Bela Lugosi’s character playing with the dog he plans on disintegrating.
-A ship called The Toronto (Possibly. That’s sort of what it sounds like they’re saying.)
The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: I can’t recommend you take a drink every time a made up name gets use. I suppose it all depends on how drunk you want to get.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Medium
Side note: Director William Witney married actress Maxine Doyle.