THE SIGN OF THE WOLF Metropolitan 1935 / 10 Chapters Directed by Harry Webb and Forrest Sheldon Restored Edition
Starring Rex Lease as Tom Virginia Brown Faire as Ruth Farnum Harry Todd as John Farnum Jack Mower as Butch Kohler Joe Bonomo as Bud Al Ferguson as Winslow Josephine Hill as Pearl Edmund Cobb as Prince Kuva King the Wonder Dog
"Your days are numbered if you do not return the secret of the jewels to its rightful owners." So reads one of the many warnings in this early sound serial from an independent studio called Metropolitan. The sought-for secret? Radioactive chains that change ordinary sand into fine jewels. An eccentric explorer discovers the chains in India, where he also acquires a puppy apparently marked by the Sign of the Wolf. Years later, with the setting now the American West, the finder of the chains and his daughter are endangered by criminals who, for obvious reasons, would like to get their hands on the valuable chains. An equally interested party is a religious sect to whom the chains are sacred. Were it not for two helpful cowboys, Tom and Bud, the beleaguered Farnums would have little chance against double competition. Review by Raymond William Stedman: The Sign of the Wolf is obviously not the polished product that would, in a few years, characterize the sound serial, but its ten chapters have more interest--and coherence--than most of its early 1930s contemporaries. And the cast is a good one. Rex Lease (Tom) is a solid hero. What's more, as Tom's pal Bud, Joe Bonomo provides solid, if almost silent backup. Although Harry Todd could scarcely be accused of underplaying as the now jewel-mad finder of the chains, Virginia Brown Faire excels as a heroine who can do more than scream and look helpless. While spoke dialogue is not exactly his friend, Al Ferguson, a prominent heavy in the serials of the silent era, performs his nefarious activities in talkies with no loss of nastiness. And Jack Mower, who played both good guys and bad ones in silent days, matches him in villainy as Ferguson's ramrod. Lastly, Edmund Cobb, in his transformation from cowboy star to character actor, portrays an emissary of the foreign cult. Working in what was still a learning period of the anything-but-settled sound serial mode, directors Forrest Sheldon and Harry S. Webb do a fine job of balancing action and dialogue, even though the fight scenes are not the adventure's high points. The directors also use the trained dog effectively, not an easy task by any means. Chapter synopses also merit consideration for their inventiveness. The Sign of the Wolf is clearly worth a visit by those interested in the evolution of the talking serial.
Dr. Grood's Notes on the Restoration: I don't always have much to say personally about a serial that I have worked on, but this one I think is special and interesting in many ways. I was hesitant at first as to whether the Squadron should release the serial on DVD as it appears at first glance to be primitive and sometimes bare, due mostly to its hissy soundtrack and complete lack of music in its original form. Existing film prints are also cropped a little too closely, and printed sometimes with sloppy focus. Could THE SIGN OF THE WOLF still entertain an audience in 2006? I decided to pull together all the Squadron serial restoration techniques I have access to and see what happened. And to my delight, they all worked and worked very well. The new SIGN OF THE WOLF DVD is perhaps the best example so far of what a difference a digital transfer and currently available video and audio enhancements can bring to breathe some life back into what has previously been considered a borderline serial. I can tell you now, after having seen the finished product, that picture and sound quality mean EVERYTHING to this production. In VHS form, with heads cropped off, fuzzy picture, noisy sound, etc., this serial looked and sounded like hell. But the excellent quality digital transfer and every bit of cleanup on this new version shows and makes viewing the chapter play a completely different experience. Noise reduction has eliminated sound hiss on the track. Very slightly letterboxing the picture and bringing it downward a little allows tops of heads to be seen and handwritten notes and chapter summaries to be readable on your TV screen. A warm tone on the Western scenes makes them more inviting, and an optional cliffhanger music track provided on the DVD allows the viewer the option to enjoy the action scenes at the beginnings and ends of chapters with the feeling they are more focused, cohesive and exciting. (Purists can also choose to watch the chapters with the original music-free soundtrack by selecting an alternate menu on the DVD.) The enhancements in this edition make ALL the difference here and at least in my opinion have transformed an OK or ho-hum serial into a "good" one, with the same kind of charm that THE VANISHING SHADOW has. Another bonus for many will be that if you passed up on buying it in VHS format, it will be something entirely new to you. Anyway the more I worked on this serial the more I enjoyed it, and was very pleasantly surprised with the result, and so I highly recommend this release for all serial fans.
Some additional notes on content of the serial and the DVD:
The Opening Theme: THE SIGN OF THE WOLF's original library-music theme, which has all the appeal and excitement of a funeral march, uniquely began about 30 seconds BEFORE the opening credits, over black -- like the overture before the curtain rises on an opera. This extended theme music has been retained for Chapter 1 on the DVD, with a Squadron logo and the Sign of the Wolf onscreen. Subsequent chapter openings are backed by a appropriate length cue of the rather livelier and more suitable contemporary tune "My Sahara Rose."
Original material: Just to note, all the cliffhangers and important material in this serial is original, and there's not a bit of stock footage to be seen excepting two or three shots of India in Chapter 1. And some of the cliffhangers are completely unique, with chapter 6's involving rampant wild dogs a particular standout.
Ending cards: This serial was also one of few to include chapter ending cards that actually said "To Be Continued."
The Fights: Fight scenes in this serial are all over the place. These guys fight on cliffs, on the plains, in town, out of town, in the basement, the saloon, they just can't seem to get along without it for longer than ten minutes any time, any day. Unlike later sound serials, these fights appear to have hardly been choreographed, if at all, and are often shot in long takes, giving the effect sometimes that we are watching grown men slap each other ineffectively. Some action seems tentative and sometimes it even looks completly silly. Then later on, as you keep watching, you realize these guys, without having been given any real direction, have no choice but to genuinely fight each other during these scenes, and as the serial goes on you realize that's exactly what they're doing -- really punching each other, really throwing each other around, and really taking a lot of abuse! And as the actors lose their fear and tentativeness they get better at their improvised fighting technique as the story moves on. By the end of the serial they seem pretty fearless and the fights look pretty darn realistic! With the cliffhanger music option on, things end up looking a lot more focused, too, and the silly factor is greatly diminished.
Ed Cobb is not bad at all in a rare heroic/character role as Prince Kuva, who also gets more interesting as the story progresses, even getting the best lines and most interesting business to do at the serial's finale.
King the Wonder Dog is also good in this serial, and is treated as an equal participant in the action.
Bad guy Butch has a really big hat and an equal size ego.
Virginia Brown Faire performs practically the entire serial braless in a white satin shirt. And that's all I have to say about that.
Rose's Butt-swingin' Dance in Chapter 6: This serial includes an out-of-the-blue musical bit by an apparent ex-flapper who hangs out in the local bar that has to be seen to be believed. Unquestionably one of the greatest impromptu saloon tap dance numbers by the director's girlfriend ever filmed. Don't miss it.
Picture quality note: The print we worked with of this serial was at least 50 years old and included a few regrettably unfixable imperfections, most notably a highly annoying wiggly artifact that appears at the left of the screen during almost all of chapters 3 and 4. Just when you think it's about to go away the damn thing floats back up into the screen and quite frequently overstays its welcome. You can see the offender below, on Ruth's arm. Some unintentional funnyness results when the bug seems to wake Ruth up out of bed, King seems to bark at it, and Mr. Farnum looks like he is trying to hit it with a shovel and bury it at various points in the action. I apologize for not being able to get rid of this bug -- this could be done only frame by frame -- and have accepted it as yet another peril of the serial-DVD-making process. I hope you do not find it too distracting. It did not stop me from enjoying the serial.
2-DVD Set Features: Sharp and centered picture Noise reduced sound Light sepia toned Western scenes Cliffhanger music on/off option PLAY ALL option with music on or off (kicks in if menu plays about 90 seconds) Scene markers within chapters Animated menus