Mysterious Doctor Satan is a 1940 Republic Pictures black-and-white film serial, produced by Hiram S. Brown Jr., directed by William Witney and John English, that stars Edward Ciannelli, Robert Wilcox, William Newell, C. Montague Shaw, Ella Neal, and Dorothy Herbert. The serial's name is derived from that of its chief villain.
Doctor Satan's main opponent is the masked mystery man, "The Copperhead", whose secret identity is Bob Wayne, a man searching for justice and revenge on Satan for the death of his stepfather. The serial charts the conflict between the two as Bob Wayne pursues Doctor Satan, while the latter completes his plans for world domination.
Henry Brandon was originally intended to play the part of Doctor Satan while wearing a regular devil costume, complete with horns. At the end of the 1930s, however, this would have stretched credulity too far, even for a serial, so a more realistic villain was written in the form of a sleek, gangster-style mad scientist played by Ciannelli.
The serial first began as a screenplay for Republic's never-produced Superman serial, which was cancelled after various problems arose with securing the rights to the famous and popular comic book character.
Mysterious Doctor Satan was later remade as The Deathless Devil.
Governor Bronson, who raised Bob Wayne from childhood after the death of his parents, is killed at the hands of a world-domination-seeking mad scientist called Doctor Satan. Fearing his death might be at hand, as it has been for everyone else who had opposed the Doctor, the Governor first confides in Wayne with a secret about his past. Bob's father was really an outlaw in the Old West, who fought injustice while wearing a chainmail cowl and leaving small coiled copper snakes as his calling card.
Following his guardian's death, Wayne decides to adopt his father's Copperhead persona and cowl. Doctor Satan, meanwhile, requires only a remote control device invented by Professor Scott to complete his army of killer robots and gain all the power and riches he desires.
The Copperhead fights Doctor Satan, rescuing the Professor and others and preventing the Doctor from completing his plot.
- Return of the Copperhead: Doctor Satan's henchman remotely blows up the experimental ship, with Lois and crew aboard, as ordered.
- Thirteen Steps: Copperhead is electrocuted in Doctor Satan's lab as he captures the Doctor and his thugs.
- Undersea Tomb: A depth charge explodes. The diving bell, containing Bob & Lois, cracks and begins to fill with water.
- The Human Bomb: Copperhead drives into a sheet of flames and his car explodes.
- Doctor Satan's Man of Steel: Copperhead is caught in the crushing grip of The Robot.
- Double Cross: Lois is bound and gagged, the door handle is rigged to electrocute the Copperhead if he attempts a rescue, and poison gas is set to be released by a timer.
- The Monster Strikes: Splashed acid burns The Robot's circuitry and sends it out of control. It topples a case of acid on itself and the stunned Copperhead.
- Highway of Death: Copperhead, fighting on the back of a truck, is knocked off the vehicle. Speed, pursuing in a car, runs him down.
- Double Jeopardy: An open can of gunpowder is knocked over when a fight breaks out in a mine. An escaping thug knocks a lit torch onto the trail which in turn sets off all the explosives.
- Bridge of Peril: During a chase across a gas works, Copperhead is knocked from a narrow beam by a block and tackle swung at him.
- Death Closes In: Doctor Satan drops the Copperhead through a trap door and activates a sliding wall in the cell beneath to crush him.
- Crack-Up: An aircraft being flown by Copperhead crashes into a mountain.
- Disguised: As the Copperhead leads escapees round a corner, Joe the thug opens fire on them, and the leading figure falls, shot.
- The Flaming Coffin: Copperhead hides in a box about to be delivered to Doctor Satan's new hideout. Doctor Satan suspects a poison gas booby-trap and has the still sealed box incinerated.
- Thirteen Steps: Lois and the Copperhead jump overboard before the ship explodes.
- Undersea Tomb: Copperhead shoots out the controls and escapes by jumping through a window.
- The Human Bomb: Bob and Lois survive inside an air pocket within the diving bell.
- Doctor Satan's Man of Steel: Copperhead jumps away from the car before it explodes.
- Double Cross: Professor Scott deactivates The Robot with its control panel. The released Copperhead falls into the sea.
- The Monster Strikes: Copperhead enters through the window and rescues Lois from the cloud of poison gas.
- Highway of Death: Copperhead recovers in time and rolls aside.
- Double Jeopardy: Copperhead lies flat in the road so the car passes safely over him.
- Bridge of Peril: Copperhead dives into a shallow crevice for shelter from the explosion.
- Death Closes In: Copperhead catches the block and tackle as he falls, pulls himself to a walkway and continues the chase.
- Crack-Up: Doctor Satan leaves to escape the newly arrived District Attorney's Men. Copperhead shoots out the controls using a reflective object (possibly a cigarette case) to aim.
- Disguised: Bob's aircraft is the one that crashed, after he parachuted to safety.
- The Flaming Coffin: Professor Williams is the one shot by Joe, who is punched out by the Copperhead.
- Doctor Satan Strikes: Copperhead had already left the box when the delivery truck parked, substituting sacks of ore to maintain the box's weight.
Mysterious Doctor Satan was originally planned as a Superman serial for Republic, but the license National Comics provided to the Fleischer Studios to make their Superman cartoon series was exclusive and therefore prevented other film companies from using the character at the time, even in a non-animated production. The script was subsequently reworked with a new character standing in for Superman. The Copperhead's love interest, Lois, had only her surname changed between these drafts, while his secret identity, down to the surname, mimicked Batman's Bruce Wayne, National's other major comic book character.
Mysterious Doctor Satan (serial production number 1095) was filmed between September 20 and October 29, 1940 under the working title Doctor Satan, at a cost of $147,381.
According to Raymond William Stedman in Serials: Suspense and Drama By Installment (1971), Republic was unconsciously "observing the transfer of the costumed crusader from prairie to pavement" in the writing of this serial. The western cowboy hero would soon be replaced in popular culture by superheroes and masked crimefighters.
The Mysterious Doctor Satan serial introduces the updated "Republic robot". A more primitive design had appeared in Undersea Kingdom. The new robot would appear again in Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952). It was parodied in the metafictional The Adventures of Captain Proton "holo-novels" of Star Trek: Voyager as "Satan's Robot".
Director William Witney in his book, In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door (2005), considered the Mysterious Doctor Satan as one of his lesser serials. He was especially unhappy with the robot and proposed a more extravagant one to special effects head Howard Lydecker. The studio, however, had neither time nor money to create the new robot before filming was to begin, so Witney was stuck with the "hot water boiler" used in previous Republic serials.
The "bank robbery by robot" scene was reused in the later Republic serial Zombies of the Stratosphere.James Fawcett doubling William Newell
David Sharpe doubling Robert Wilcox, playing The Copperhead when in costume.
Helen Thurston doubling Dorothy Herbert
The official release date for Mysterious Doctor Satan is December 13, 1940, although this is actually the date the seventh chapter was made available to film exchanges.
In the early 1950s, Mysterious Doctor Satan was one of 14 Republic serials edited into a television series. It was broadcast in seven 26½-minute episodes (the other 13 all had only six episodes).
Mysterious Doctor Satan was also one of 26 Republic serials re-released as a film on television in 1966. The title of the film was changed to Doctor Satan's Robot. This version was cut down to 100-minutes in length.
Film historians Harmon and Glut describe Mysterious Doctor Satan as "one of Republic's best serials ... [which] set the pace for others that followed". They go on to narrow it down to one of the five or six greatest serials Republic ever made. Many people involved in the serial are singled out for praise, but the main one is Ciannelli as Doctor Satan, a character who steals the show from the relatively bland Copperhead. The directors, William Witney and John English are noted as the best in their field. Cy Feuer is praised for his music, which is both moody and exciting. Mention is also made of the "superior" lighting and "some of the best stunt work in the fights to ever appear on screen in any kind of film".
The tone of the serial was set by Eduardo Ciannelli's "piercing malevolent countenance". Ciannelli's performance "in a role so susceptible to overacting and scenery chewing" maintained the "exact balance between a wild-eyed lunatic with dreams of world conquest and the brilliant, gifted man of science that Doctor Satan might have been. There was a poignancy in his portrayal that gave the uneasy feeling that this cruel genius was somehow a victim of forces that drove him to evil against his basic desire. Nothing was said or done in the screenplay to indicate it, but the feeling was there, nonetheless".