Dramatic Final Journey for Spenser Packard, Forgotten ‘King of the Cliffhangers’
Reprinted with permission from the Hollywood Recorder, 5th February 2010
Spenser Packard, the reclusive millionaire movie producer, became the unwitting star of a real-life cliffhanger on Tuesday morning when the hearse carrying his remains veered off the Pacific Coast Highway and was left balanced precariously on a bluff overlooking the ocean. The vehicle was eventually hauled to safety by the County of Los Angeles Fire Department.
The Final Chapter
Packard’s memorial service at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery was delayed for six hours. When the centenarian was finally laid to rest, Lorna Stirling, granddaughter of matinee idol Kip Corrigan, remarked: ‘Don’t be surprised if he digs himself out of that hole, too.’ Her words were a tribute more fitting than any epitaph for a man who made a fortune out of improbable escapes, real and imagined.
A True Adventurer at Heart
Born in Montana in 1909, Packard quit the family ranch at sixteen for a more adventurous life. He worked as a miner, fossil-hunter, and amateur archaeologist until he discovered a cache of Pre-Columbian gold in Costa Rica in 1936. How he escaped the country with his prize has been the subject of more than one barely-fictionalised blockbuster.
Packard returned to the US a wealthy man and found himself caught up in Hollywood’s glamour and hedonism. A win in a high-stakes mahjong game made him the owner of Pinnacle Pacific Pictures, a poverty-row outfit cranking out third-rate serials for Saturday matinees. Packard employed the studio’s previous owners, William James and Charles Anderson, as production managers while he directed his considerable charm to improving Pinnacle’s reputation.
For two years Pinnacle showed little to no profit. Low budget productions like Ko-Nar, Jungle Lord and Hitch Harrison and the Rogues of the River (both 1938) failed to attract audiences even when their star, Eugene Florence, was killed spectacularly by an escaped antelope outside Pinnacle’s Gower Street studio.
King of the Cliffhanger
By 1939, Packard’s charisma, enthusiasm and private fortune had secured several high-profile investors, including Cyrus Munroe, the Marshmallow Mogul. Packard fired James and Anderson and reorganised Pinnacle into five production units, all serviced by central technical and administrative departments. Each unit concentrated on developing serials in a particular genre. Amazing tales of super science, gritty crime dramas, accounts of fiendish maniacs, globetrotting action adventures, and weird stories of supernatural and other horrors all poured out of Pinnacle’s gilded gates and into movie theatres across America. Saturday matinees would never be the same again.
An Enduring Legacy
Packard’s productions laid the foundations for much contemporary television. Seen now, the influence of Rick Rhodes in Rhodes to the Stars (1940) and Radium Rangers (1941) on the tv space adventure is obvious. The crime- busting ‘G-Men’ trilogy, G-Men Versus the Shadow Ring (1942), G-Men: Against the Web of Night (1943) and Return of the G-Men (1944), established the conventions of the police procedural.
Darker and meaner were Pinnacle’s gangland stories, Shakedown in the Sleeping City (1941) and Brotherhood of the Snake (1944), both re-released under the umbrella title, Empire of Crime. These caused consternation at the Production Code Administration but the serials’ skilful balancing of street violence with moral retribution enabled Packard to avoid the worst of the censors’ interference.
He was less fortunate with Pinnacle’s horror chapterplays, which bordered on the blasphemous and appealed to their audience’s prurient instincts. The Terror Out of Time (1940), Dr Prospero (1941) and Trials of the Lizardmen (1942) all ran into difficulties with the censors, not least because of the presence of the heaving, pneumatic Russian émigré starlet Olga Annikova.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the Second World War, Packard’s serials were laced with anti-Nazi propaganda. Pinnacle’s thrilling adventures changed from journeys into the exotic unknown, typified by Killers of the Congo (1940), Isle of Ghosts (1940) or The Treasure of the Marie Celeste (1941), to deadly races against Hitler’s forces in serials like Secrets of the Golden City (1943) and The Idol of Balaam-Rey (1944).
Closer to home, maniacs bent on crushing America met with square-jawed patriotic might in the form of Cal Cage: Special Agent (1942) and Jack Radford and Hank Wilde, who faced The Mad King of Mesa Verde (1944) and the insidious The Whispering Legion (1945).
Life Imitates Art
By this point, Packard was staggeringly rich. His Bel Air mansion was home to a splendid collection of automobiles, a private art gallery, and innumerable mistresses, at least three of whom attempted to murder him for infidelity. Having survived being shot by a seventeenth century crossbow, bound and left to drown in his own swimming pool, and forced off an unfinished bridge in his prized 1936 Auburn Speedster, Packard became increasingly reclusive and wary of the company he kept. The macabre The Devil’s Triangle (1946) fictionalises his growing isolation.
The Final Reel
Disaster struck in 1947 when the wrap party for Pinnacle’s most expensive production, The Legend of Harker Barnes, ran out of control. The catastrophic fire that swept the studio just after midnight on the 14th October was never adequately explained but rumours persist it began in Olga Annikova’s dressing room. Annikova and leading man Tor Stone both died in the conflagration.
Neither Pinnacle nor Packard recovered from the catastrophe. The Legend of Harker Barnes was the studio’s last chapterplay. The surviving buildings and backlot were sold off and Packard became a reclusive patron of pop culture enterprises around the world. He helped create Ad Astra, New York’s celebrated science fiction publishing house, was a silent partner in Britain’s great horror film production company, Anvil Films, and provided overseas finance for Sidney Barron’s 7TV Studios. In return Barron brought Packard’s serials to a new generation, airing several ahead of such classic British series as Department X, Shiva and The Children of the Fields.
Packard’s death last week marks the end of a remarkable career and the start of a historic legal battle for his legacy. He is survived by his wife, twenty-two-year-old Miss California 2009, Tessa-Leigh Ardent, and thirty-seven children claiming Packard as their father.