Thus far we’ve found blaxploitation films, Soviet space epics, slasher flicks, and similar fare, films originally made for or re-cut and marketed to the now defunct secondary markets of drive-ins and independent theaters, largely in the 70s and early to mid 1980s.  This era was a great one for films of this type-but it is hardly the only time that low-budget films were cranked out to meet a market need.   During the 1930s and 1940s Poverty Row movie producers like Monogram cranked out horror, crime, and comedies on the cheap, to fill out a double bill as the “B” picture.  Short running times were married to marketable properties that were either seen as disreputable (the horror, crime, low-brow comedy and sci-fi genres, for example) or were considered beneath the major studios.  This later category encompassed adaptations of radio shows, comic books, comic strips and pulp novels.  Series like The Whistler, The Lone Ranger, The Great Gildersleeve, The Shadow, and Inner Sanctum were turned into B-movies and serials by the like of Darmour Inc., Republic Pictures, RKO, and even major studios like Columbia, and Universal.

One of the least well-known film series of this type is Cyclone Bill, Carny Detective, known in some markets simply as The Carnival Detective or Cyclone Bill.  Although the Universal Pictures entries in the series exist, they are currently tied up in a rights fight while the rest of the series, produced by independent Dixie Pictures were believed to be lost, which makes the presence of The Midway Mangler in Crate 23 all the more exciting.

Cyclone Bill was the brain child of Elliott Polk, a self-styled New York intellectual and playwright who turned to writing for pulps and comic books to survive.  His biggest hit was Cyclone Bill, The Carnival Detective.  Whereas most detective characters worked out of an office in the big cities, Cyclone Bill ran a stall in a traveling show, where he used his Holmesian powers of deduction to guess his customers height, weight, and profession.  Inevitably Cyclone Bill would find himself drawn into a mystery, in which his deductive powers, sideshow gimmicks, and his skill as a bare knuckle boxer would allow him to prevail over his opponents, usually stuffed shirts, intellectuals, aristocrats, big time gangsters or crooked cops.

Some critics see Cyclone Bill as a parody of detectives, with the unlikely figure of an unkempt carney proving himself as intellectually gifted as a Holmes or Poirot, or as adept as Marlowe or Sam Spade at navigating the hard-boiled world of crime.  Cyclone Bill is also said to prefigure the “Underground Comics” of the 1960s with its bizarre plots and villains and its hero which embraced not only carnival and gypsy elements, but also the 1930s hobo underground, with Bill speaking in an amalgamation of the argot of carneys, Romany, and hobos.

Everything changed when Polk sold the rights of his character to Cary Willis, one of the major producers of 1930s radio.  Willis, looking for a new angle on the Detective format, easily convinced Polk (who saw the character as a way to make money for the theater productions he hoped to mount) to sell him the rights to Cyclone Bill.  Willis’ radio version began well enough, adapting Polk’s pulp Cyclone Bill stories more or less intact (though the racier elements and the Hobo/carny argot were downplayed) and with Polk’s Quicksilver Theater Company providing the actors.  Eventually Willis (and more importantly, parent network MBS and sponsors) grew tired of the Quicksilver Theater Company’s radical politics and on air tricks (one episode featured extensive use of Esperanto; another featured Cyclone Bill investigating sponsor Napoli Wines).  A completely new cast of radio regulars was brought in and the tone of Polk’s pulps was dropped in favor of a more conventional melding of the comedy and crime genres.  Cyclone Bill became less of a genius trickster outsider and more of a wise cracking tough guy who followed his hunches, with a regular FBI contact who helped him out of jams.

With the cast (and tone) change, Cyclone Bill became a major hit, and the pulps were also changed to match the radio show.  Polk and his associates eventually lost all control of the character, and Willis worked with Universal Pictures to put out a series of Cyclone Bill films, starting with 1940’s Cyclone Bill:  Carny Detective.  By 1946 the Cyclone Bill character was no longer popular on radio and his films were no longer making a profit (after Cyclone Bill at the Fair, Cyclone Bill and the Stall Strangler, Cyclone Bill Goes to College, Cyclone Bill Goes to War, Cyclone Bill in Jungle Hell, Cyclone Bill Meets Lon Chaney Jr. and Cyclone Bill Vs. The Bowery Boys) Universal sold the property to Dixie Pictures.  Dixie was an extremely low rent distribution company that specialized in getting films to the Southern market, the one place where Cyclone Bill was still making a profit.  Dixie didn’t manage to get a Cyclone Bill picture together until 1947, when it released Cyclone Bill Heads South.  The film was so successful that Dixie continued to pump out Cyclone Bill films until 1954,  when the company finally went bankrupt.

The Midway Mangler was one of Dixie’s few attempts to revamp the formula, attempting to include some Film Noir elements while keeping enough of the later entries in the series humor and music.  The story is set entirely on a Midway that Cyclone Bill (Danny James) is working with his sidekick Tornado Tommy (Tony Goodman).  Tornado Tommy was one of the elements introduced by the radio show after Polk’s departure, a wise cracking kid that Cyclone Bill found left in his stall one day.  Also on the Midway are Madame Ling (Una Roy), a “Chinese” belly dancer, a former mistress of a Chinese Communist general, who is pursued by Communist agents for stealing secrets that she plans on selling to the highest bidder.  The Reds are on the Midway, too, both Russian (complete with a dancing bear) and Chinese (posing as acrobats).

Ling gets Bill mixed up in the whole affair, appealing to him to protect her when victims of the Mangler start turning up dead.  She believes it’s the Russians using their bear to frighten her into giving up the vital secrets she posses.  Bill falls for the dames tricks, only to find out that it’s not the Communists’ bear doing the killing, but Ling’s mute manservant (actor unknown, but credited as Changoff), in an attempt to get the Communists to wipe each other out, leaving her free to sell the secrets to an interested American party.  Bill figures out the switch just in time to save Tommy from death at the hands of Changoff, and leaves Ling in the hands of the FBI.

The Midway Mangler is an extraordinarily cheap movie, using one section of midway set over and over and going so far as to use rear projection for crowd scenes.  The story features gags so tired from overuse that I knew more than half from the surviving radio shows (only 50 episodes of the 15 year series remain)!  It does give us some idea what the later Dixie Pictures entries in the series were like, with lots of cheap hilly billy jokes and offensive stereotypes in evidence.  James seems very tired in the film, and the utter despair that lead to his drinking death on the set of Cyclone Bill and the Thunder Road Murders is barely concealed in his performance.

Fans of the early Cyclone Bill pulps would do best to stay away, but scholars of both radio and B-movies will rejoice that another piece in the Carny Detective puzzle has been found.

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