? as Pilot X

Pilot X Puts a Crimp on the Business in ‘The Mysterious Airman’

Mystery writer Arthur B. Reeve's influence in this film doesn't follow convention -- it follows his invention.

Arriving out of the wild blue yonder for silent film buffs is this serial from the tail end of the silent era, running just over three hours in ten chapters.

The setting is a flying company owned by an elderly gentleman (C.H. Allen) who has invented a few handy devices like a radio-controlled Flying Torpedo and something called an aerometer for flying through fog. Alas, a masked Pilot X (the actor continually identified as “?” in the title cards) keeps raiding the joint and causing all their planes to crash, which at a certain point puts a crimp in the business. Ace pilot Jack Baker (Walter Miller) and the owner’s daughter Shirley (Eugenia Gilbert), a crack pilot herself, investigate while carrying on their implicit romance.

As the title implies, the story belongs to that common narrative device in serials whereby a masked villain plagues the heroes throughout the chapters with a variety of nefarious shenanigans, including shooting a Gatling gun through his own propellers without mishap, and we’re supposed to figure out which of the several other characters is behind the mask. It’s apparently as hard for these folks to figure out as the idea that Superman is Clark Kent without glasses, although the audience may have less trouble.

One character you can rule out immediately is “world-famous aviatrix” Fawn Nesbitt (Dorothy Talcott), who “hopes to become the first female pilot to fly around the world”, although frankly, she does very little flying in this effort. The suspects / friends / hangers-on are played (and introduced afresh in every chapter) by Robert Walker, Eugene Burr and James A. Fitzgerald, with Arthur Morrison as the skulking butler.

As with the vast majority of serials, the story ain’t much for such a protracted running time, and the promised flying footage and stunts are severely hampered by a budget that was apparently limited to extremely distant shots of a few flying planes interspersed with obvious on-set close-ups against backdrops. The “crashes” are presented abstractly, to put it kindly.

All of that said, this print is in astonishingly clear shape for an independent silent serial. There are even scenes with some of the original tinting. Relatively few blemishes materialize, although the first half of Chapter 9 has vanished thanks to nitrate decomposition, and it’s in the nature of the story that you hardly notice. Yet another crash is walked away from.

An inevitable part of these chapter-plays is what Kathy Bates’ character in Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990) called cheating, whereby much more information is shown in the continuation than was presented in the cliffhanger. “He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doody car!”

Film historian Richard Roberts offers a commentary in which he primarily offers background on the careers of everyone involved and makes comments on the biplanes and monoplanes for aviation buffs, plus a little time wasted being defensive about “the product”. This serial is one of the Weiss Brothers Productions, a long-lived “Poverty Row” company that cranked out many independent films for decades and moved successfully into TV, and Roberts gives much useful information about it.

The most important creator involved with this film is prolific mystery writer Arthur B. Reeve, best known for creating “scientific detective” Craig Kennedy. He also wrote many serials, including the 1914 milestone The Exploits of Elaine, widely described as the first serial to use a mystery villain who’s unmasked at the end. So Reeve wasn’t merely following convention in this case, he was following his own invention. The Exploits of Elaine (Louis J. Gasnier, George B. Seitz, 1914), released the same year as The Perils of Pauline (Louis J. Gasnier, Donald MacKenzie, 1914), made a star of Pearl White, who starred in both of them and instantly became Queen of the Serials. So, again, the plucky heroine-aviatrixes (aviatrii?) of this film are part of Reeve’s modus operandi.

Pilots Jack Baker (Walter Miller) and Shirley Joyce (Eugenia Gilbert)

Director Harry Revier, who does a serviceable if unspectacular job, is most famous or infamous for the exploitation pictures Lash of the Penitentes (1936), which added a leering story of female nudity and crucifixion to documentary footage of New Mexico Calvary rituals, and the “educational” Child Bride (circa 1938), “a throbbing drama of shackled youth!”

Both films played the exploitation circuit for years, more or less flouting censorship standards with their heavy-breathing, hand-wringing moralizing in the name of public service. This serial is a much more innocent pleasure, and this excellent print comes with a good new score and a bonus 1928 short called Flying Cadets for military aviation buffs.

RATING 5 / 10