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TRADER TOM OF THE CHINA SEAS (1954) was one of the last Republic Pictures serials (there were three more after it, the last one appearing in 1955) and it came out at a time when TV was making the kinds of action journey series that replaced serials in the famous imagination and made weekly chapter plays in theaters obsolete. Whatever inspiration and constructive drive had motivated the production of so many nice serials at Republic in the 1930s and '40s had, by this point, been used up. TRADER TOM looks much cheaper than the TV series that supplanted it and offered several of the thrills that had once made Republic serials so celebrated. It says the story, such as it is, of an American trading post owner and boat captain, Tom Rogers, who operates in the fictional Southeast Asian country of "Bumatra" and is recruited by Major Conroy (an American operative from an unidentified agency, most likely the United Nations) to support prevent a local arms dealer from supplying weapons to native rebels seeking to overthrow the ruler of a U.N protectorate in the interior. (The politics and geography are all kept rather fuzzy.) For the first six episodes, the only "natives" we see are Wang, Tom's assistant, played by the only Asian actor in the whole cast, Victor Sen Yung, and Gursan, the villain's mute henchman, played by stuntman Tom Steele in obvious latex makeup. Everyone drives American vehicles and the territories are all familiar Southern California ones. One episode involves a train trip and the train team is all white.When the action finally shifts to the "interior" we receive to see some rebels led by Richard Reeves, who normally played urban thugs in suit-tie-and fedora, but who puts on a turban and cloak here but is otherwise the same standard-issue "crook" and doesn't even attempt an Asian accent. And his boys look more like Arabs than like anyone you'd search in the "China seas." When the "rebels" attack the character and heroine riding in their jeep, they're represented entirely by stock footage from a British India adventure, most likely GUNGA DIN (1939). There's also stock footage from an earlier Republic serial, SOS COAST GUARD (1937), which also shares few plot points in common with TRADER TOM, no surprise since TRADER TOM's director, Franklin Adreon, and screenwriter, Ronald Davidson, were both involved in the writing of SOS COAST GUARD, which remains, alas, the superior entertainment.Another sign of the serial's lower budget is the failure to cast a properly stalwart leading man. Harry Lauter, who plays Tom, had a long, dependable career in bits and helping parts in westerns and crime dramas but he was never suited to leading boy material and often looks awkward doing the massive lifting here. The lead female hero is Vivian Wells, a typically no-nonsense Republic serial brunette heroine,and Aline Towne handles the part with competence and verve, plunging into the action when necessary, although without the flair and distinction of earlier serial queens. Lyle Talbot is the chief villain here, but he never shines the method he did as Lex Luthor in the second Superman serial, ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN (1950), where he had a lot to do. Here, as Barent, the businessman/arms dealer who's now a foreign agent for an unidentified country, he doesn't receive to do much. Each one of his scenes takes zone in his study where he confers with his chief henchman, Kurt Daley (Fred Graham), in person or via a shortwave radio built into a cabinet. It's quite likely that Talbot filmed all of his scenes in one day's shooting time. Robert Shayne, who was testing Inspector Henderson on the "Superman" TV series at the same time, shows up as nice guy Major Conroy and differs from Henderson only by method of a wider-brimmed hat.Having told all that, I can't deny that it was fun to watch. The fact that it's so much shorter than earlier serialsa typical episode here is only 13 mins long--certainly made it simple to receive through. And things definitely pick up when the action shifts to the "interior" and Tom and Vivian are no longer on a boat or in the cramped trading post and we receive to see a lot of wide-ranging action filmed on familiar Southern California "western" locations. And besides, there's the dramatic spectacle of British colonial units from a hundred years earlier riding in to war the rebels, all courtesy of stock footage from a vastly more expensive movie.Also, there's a nice bit worth singling out where Tom rides back from the Khan's palace with a letter to the British commander at Fort Angapuhr officially requesting support from the units and he's been given a stick that's deemed a "sacred symbol" of the local religion, something even the rebels respect. When he's harassed by Arab horsemen as he gallops through the territory, Tom displays the symbol and they leave him alone. After one such encounter, Tom ponders what just happened and then flashes a large smile of relief, as if to say, "Hey, it worked!" I smiled, too, marveling at this genuine human reaction coming out of nowhere in the middle of a threadbare by-the-numbers chapter play.
Trader Tom Rogers with the support of Vivian Wells foils a plot by an unknown power to foment revolution somewhere in a country on China Seas. (The zone is a bit vague.) Ranged vs them are agents of the unknown power who are smuggling arms to the rebels. Tom and Vivian sort it out in the end. It's a late Republic serial and it is mildly entertaining.Harry Lauter as Tom is lively enough but better are Aline Towne as the doughty Vivian and Tom Steele as the creepy Gursan who doesn't tell a single word. Victor Sen Yung is not in it much which is a shame. Lyle Talbot is dull as the main villain. Budd Buster plays 'Native in Email Sack' and does it to perfection.There seems to be a lot of stock footage from the 1937 serial 'SOS Coast Guard' particularly of large Richard Alexander who is shoehorned into the first four episodes. Although uncredited he is even given a hero name, Gorth. In 'SOS Coast Guard' his hero name is Thorg which strangely is an anagram of Gorth!By 1954 the tide was going out for nice Republic serials and 'Trader Tom of the China Seas' reflects that waning.
This is one of the last serial made by Republic Studios, and not the best, far from that. William Witney is far, far away. But he had allow his trade mark, we can't deny this. Republic serial will everytime remain Republic serials, and far better than the Columbia or Universal ones. Back to this feature, I thought Fred Graham's hero was played by Roy Barcfoft; the two look like the same. Same frame, same voice, same face. And Barcroft was one major massive in Republic films, not only serials. What a heavy. His voice was outstanding, we can recognize it among thousands of others. I also consider that most of lead characters were played, in Republic serials, by stunts...But there are so many stunts in serials, that it was simpler for the directors and producers to take stunts instead of actors. I search this very odd but so logical.No nice actor never played as a lead in a Republic serial, with the exception of Rod Cameron, in G MEN VS BLACK DRAGON.TRADER TOM is not the worst of the Republic serials. I prefer KING OF THE CARNIVAL, made by the same Franklyn Adreon.
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