Republic Pictures is the unassailable king of the cliffhangers after the silent era. Most of the best chapterplays of the ’30s and ’40s were Republic productions. Dick Tracy (1937), The Lone Ranger (1938), Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939), Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), Perils of Nyoka (1942), The Masked Marvel (1943), and Captain America (1944) are just a few of the more than sixty serials produced by Republic Pictures, most of which are still incredibly entertaining. The best Republic serials combined wild action and elaborate stunts with nicely paced stories that could be strung out over 12 to 15 weekly installments with a few subplots here and there, but nothing too complicated or that viewers couldn’t pick up with in the middle. Each chapter ended with a cliffhanger (like Captain Marvel flying toward a woman falling off a dam, or a wall of fire rushing down a tunnel toward Spy Smasher). The next week’s chapter would begin with a minute or two of the previous week’s climax and the resolution, and the cycle would repeat until the final chapter.
Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures were the two other major producers of serials in the sound era. Universal ceased production of serials in 1946, leaving only Columbia and Republic to duke it out into the ’50s. One of the last serials made by Universal was Secret Agent X-9, released into theaters starting in July 1945. It was based on a daily newspaper strip created by writer Dashiell Hammett (the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) and artist Alex Raymond (who worked on Flash Gordon). Both creators left the project soon after its inception, and the King Features strip continued under various hands, vacillating between espionage and private eye stories.
The first film serial featuring Secret Agent X-9 was made by Universal in 1937, and starred Scott Kolk as Agent X-9, a.k.a. “Dexter,” who sought to recover the crown jewels of Belgravia from a master thief called “Blackstone.” The second featured a boyish-looking 32-year-old Lloyd Bridges as Agent X-9, a.k.a. “Phil Corrigan.” Made toward the end of World War II, the 1945 iteration of the character focused on wartime intrigue and Corrigan’s cat-and-mouse games with Axis spies. Taking a cue from Casablanca (1942), the serial was set in a neutral country called “Shadow Island,” in which Americans, Japanese, Chinese, French, Germans, Australians, and the seafaring riffraff of the world freely intermingle. A fictional island nation off the coast of China, “Shadow Island” has a de facto leader named “Lucky Kamber” (Cy Kendall) who owns a bar called “House of Shadows” and has a finger in every pie, including gambling and espionage. Various German and Japanese military officers, secret agents, and thugs run amuck in this serial, but the one who most stands out is the unfortunately made-up and attired Victoria Horne as “Nabura.” In her role as a Japanese spymaster, Horne is outfitted with eyepieces that cover her upper eyelids, appearing to drag them down from sheer weight. She doesn’t look Asian, she just looks as if her eyes are closed.
While Nabura is played by a white actress in yellowface makeup, the main Chinese character is actually played by a Chinese actor, which was typical in World War II-era Hollywood. Keye Luke, surely one of the hardest working Chinese-American actors in Hollywood history, plays “Ah Fong,” Corrigan’s faithful sidekick. Corrigan is also aided by an Australian double agent named Lynn Moore, played by American actress Jan Wiley. Wiley does nothing to alter her accent, which was also typical for American actors who played Aussies in Hollywood productions during the war.
Secret Agent X-9 has good production values and special effects. The stock footage that shows up in nearly every serial is judiciously used, and integrated well into the newly filmed material. Where this Universal serial just doesn’t measure up to the best Republic offerings is in the pacing and action departments. Republic serials featured stuntwork that still impresses (e.g., Spy Smasher leaping through the air, landing on a mechanic’s creeper chest-first, rolling under a car, and grabbing a goon’s ankles before he can escape). Secret Agent X-9 features ho-hum shootouts, fistfights, and car chases.
Also, instead of a plot that evolves naturally over the course of the series, there is a simple story that seems as if it’s been stretched from a 90-minute feature into 13 chapters, most of which are longer than 20 minutes. Secret Agent X-9 also suffers from poor timing. When the first installment was released, V-E Day had already passed, but the United States was still at war with Japan. By the time the final installment was released, atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan had surrendered to the Allies, and a new phase in world history had begun. Secret Agent X-9 is set in 1943, so it’s never out of date, per se, but its MacGuffin, a substitute for aviation fuel called “722,” which everyone in the film is scrambling to secure for themselves, seems like small beer after the advent of the Atomic Age.