The Great Alaskan Mystery (1944)

Explosions, bare-fisted brawls, shoot-outs, poison gas, avalanches, and icebergs are just a few of the hazards faced by a just-returned-home marine when he heads to the wilds of Alaska with a scientist in search of a special quartz to power a unique new device.

Seattle scientist Dr. Miller (Ralph Morgan) has created a new contraption, the Peratron, a machine meant to project particles from one location to another. Unfortunately, it’s only a partial success, since he and his associate, Dr. Hauss (Martin Kosleck), haven’t found the proper element to fully power the device. Dr. Miller’s daughter, Ruth (Marjorie Weaver), and her recently discharged marine boyfriend, Jim Hudson (Milburn Stone), witness another failed attempt in Miller’s lab. If only they could find the right element! It just so happens that Jim’s father owns a mine up in Alaska, and one of the workers recently discovered something that had incredible energy, knocked him clear across the mine. Care to check it out? Don’t worry, Pop’s got a lab, too.

Conveniently, a steamer is headed up to the Last Frontier the very next day, and Hauss happens to know the captain. In fact, the two know each other very well and are in cahoots to steal the Peratron. The following day, Hauss, Miller, and Jim set sail, with two mysterious bearded trappers, Dunn and Grey, coming aboard at the last minute. Who the trappers are is anybody’s guess (per IMDB, they’re supposed to be undercover agents), but it doesn’t much matter, because they’re cannon fodder. After Dunn spies Capt. Greeder sending a message via carrier pigeon, Hauss tips off Greeder, who, in turn, pitches Dunn overboard. The captain is prepared to shoot the others, but smartest man standing Hauss gives him a colorless, odorless, water activated poison to use instead. The captain calls Miller, Jim, and Grey into a cabin, then sneakily dumps the poison in a carafe of water and locks them in the room. Right about that time, the ship hits an iceberg. Hauss grabs the Peratron, and he and Greeder take off in the only usable lifeboat.

As this is a serial, the heroes escape what appeared to be their doom with the assistance of Bosun Higgins (Edgar Kennedy), and after checking what’s left of their cabin, Miller and Jim believe the Peratron was destroyed and Hauss is dead. After more thrills and spills (including Grey going crazy, then being eaten by a polar bear), the heroes make it to land with the assistance of newly licensed pilot Ruth, who’s been buzzing the north Pacific in a seaplane looking for them, and a village of helpful Eskimos. The villains have made it to land, too. Facing a potential run-in, Greeder hides Hauss’ identity by wrapping his head in bandages, à la The Invisible Man, saying he was a crewman burned in the shipwreck. Suspicious Jim and Bosun beat up Greeder and the disguised Hauss and retrieve the Peratron, instructing the Eskimo chief to hold the men until US marshals arrive.

The plot becomes more intricate at this point. Once they make it to a town, Jim puts in a call to a family friend in Saskatch who owns a transportation company, a man named Brock (Samuel Hinds), and arranges for the group to catch a ride on a transport plane up to his father’s mine. Brock, however, is on the bad guy’s side, and radios a henchman in Saskatch. He also sends men masquerading as law enforcement to free Hauss and Greeder (after which, the captain is out of the picture).

Everybody, good guys and bad, eventually make it to Saskatch (but not without hazards and danger for our heroes). At the Gunsite mine, the mystery power source is a highly energized quartz, nestled in the deep tunnel. A sample proves it to be just what the doctor needed, but upon further experimentation, Dr. Miller realizes he’s created an atomic death ray. Brock’s team of kerchief wearing desperado hijackers make numerous attempts to kill Jim Hudson and put the Peratron in the hands of Dr. Hauss. Will they succeed? Will good triumph over evil? Will true-blue Americans thwart the efforts of the Nazi who’s never called a Nazi and the fifth column?

Although this 1944 serial by Universal can at times be absurd (mostly due to the impossible escapes from certain death), it’s a lot of fun. Stone, Kennedy, Kosleck, and Joseph Crehan, as Jim’s father, Bill, are the most solid on the acting front. Marjorie Weaver doesn’t have all that much to do, frankly, so it’s hard to judge her performance. Surprisingly, as Brock, Samuel Hinds (Dr. Kildare) doesn’t seem fully committed most of the time.

There’s plenty of action, stock footage, and outdoor shooting locations, not to mention, fist fights, gun fights, and explosions from dynamite, hand grenades, and the Peratron itself. The Saskatch band of hijackers are incredibly inept, led by an incompetent named Brandon, who keeps radioing Brock and telling him Jim Hudson is dead. I’m convinced that’s an intentional running gag. The smartest person in all of this is Dr. Hauss, a quick, clever thinker and a cool liar (as an interesting aside, Martin Kosleck didn’t mind playing Nazi bastards because he loathed them; he’d been listed as an undesirable and fled Germany before a death squad could catch up with him).

This is the first serial I’ve watched in full and I enjoyed it. I’ve been watching more B-movies from the 1940’s of late, many from Universal, and I’m developing an appreciation for what the studio accomplished. The on-screen talent ranged from decent to exceptional, the latter helping to lift middling pictures, and the writing, if not always straight forward, didn’t sink in unnecessary and confusing convolutions. This title is an example of that, especially when considering the cast. Clocking in at just over 3-1/2 hours, The Great Alaskan Mystery is fun entertainment over several evenings or a binge watch on a dreary weekend afternoon. I rate it 6.5 out of 10.

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