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The United Nations has island trader Tom Rogers (Harry Lauter) and Vivian Wells (Aline Towne), daughter of a schooner captain, spearheading the effort to keep subversive native groups from starting revolutions in Burmatra and neighboring Asian countries, which, thank you very much, they accomplish by the end of 12 episodes. Written by
Les Adams <email@example.com>
Chapter Titles: 1. Sea Saboteurs 2. Death Takes the Deck 3. Five Fathoms Down 4. On Target 5. The Fire Ship 6. Collision 7. War in the Hills 8. Native Execution 9. Mass Attack 10.Machine Murder 11.Underwater Ambush 12.Twisted Vengeance See more »
Lackluster cliffhanger from the final days of the Republic serial
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 adventure series that replaced serials in the popular imagination and made weekly chapter plays in theaters obsolete. Whatever inspiration and creative drive had motivated the production of so many great 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 few of the thrills that had once made Republic serials so celebrated. It tells 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 help 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 entire cast, Victor Sen Yung, and Gursan, the villain's mute henchman, played by stuntman Tom Steele in obvious latex makeup. Everyone drives American cars and the locations are all familiar Southern California ones. One episode involves a train trip and the train crew is all white.When the action finally shifts to the "interior" we get 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 men look more like Arabs than like anyone you'd find in the "China seas." When the "rebels" attack the hero 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 several 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 supporting parts in westerns and crime dramas but he was never suited to leading man material and often looks awkward doing the heavy lifting here. The lead female character 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 way 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 actually a foreign agent for an unidentified country, he doesn't get to do much. Every one of his scenes takes place 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 playing Inspector Henderson on the "Superman" TV series at the same time, shows up as good guy Major Conroy and differs from Henderson only by way of a wider-brimmed hat.
Having said 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 minutes long--certainly made it easy to get 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 get 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 troops from a hundred years earlier riding in to fight the rebels, all courtesy of stock footage from a vastly more expensive movie.
Also, there's a great 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 help from the troops 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 big 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.
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