RSS Feed

Category Archives: July 1945

Secret Agent X-9 (13 chapters) (July 24-Oct. 16, 1945)

Secret Agent X-9Republic 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.

X-9The 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.

Advertisements

The Woman in Green (July 27, 1945)

WomanGreenRoy William Neill’s The Woman in Green is the eleventh film Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce made together in which they played Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively. It’s perhaps not the best in the series, but it presents an excellent mystery, and offers everything fans of the previous Sherlock Holmes films will look for. There are gruesome yet puzzling clues, a pretty young woman who comes to Holmes for help, a bewitching femme fatale, a clever blackmailing scheme that involves hypnosis, and Professor Moriarty behind it all.

This was only the third time that Moriarty, Holmes’s archenemy and “the Napoleon of crime,” showed up in the series. The first time was in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), when he was played by George Zucco. The second time was in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), when he was played by Lionel Atwill. Somewhat confusingly, all three men also appeared in different roles in Universal Pictures’ Sherlock Holmes series. Zucco and Daniell even appeared together as cooperating villains in Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943). If I had my druthers, Zucco would have played Moriarty in all three films, since he’s my personal favorite, but we can’t always get what we want. And apparently Rathbone named Daniell as his favorite Moriarty, so clearly it’s just a matter of taste. Daniell was certainly one of the more dependable Hollywood villains of the ’40s. He was smooth and sophisticated with just the right touch of menace.

When The Woman in Green begins, Moriarty is presumed dead, since he is believed to have been hanged in Montevideo. Meanwhile, Holmes has his hands full in London with a series of mysterious murders. Young women are being killed, and in each case one finger is missing from the corpse. Aside from that one detail, however, there is no connection between any of the murders, and Scotland Yard can’t make heads or tails of the case. When a young woman named Maude Fenwick (Eve Amber) comes to Holmes for help, however, things start falling into place. She’s worried about her father, Sir George Fenwick (Paul Cavanagh), who has been acting very strangely ever since he took up with an alluring and mysterious woman named Lydia (Hillary Brooke). When Maude catches her father trying to bury a finger in his garden, she realizes it’s time to enlist the help of the great detective.

The way the mystery unfolds is satisfying, if somewhat fanciful. One has to suspend some disbelief in order to go along for the ride, but what else is new?

Midnight Manhunt (July 27, 1945)

MidnightManhuntAnn Savage and William Gargan play competing newspaper reporters in this mercifully brief bottom-of-the-bill B mystery from Pine-Thomas Productions. Distributed by Paramount Pictures, Midnight Manhunt has the look and feel of a P.R.C. cheapie, right down to its minimal sets and poorly handled mixture of comedy and suspense.

The film begins promisingly, with the great George Zucco (playing a hitman named Jelke) shooting a man in a hotel room, then taking a cool quarter of a million in diamonds from the corpse’s inside jacket pocket. It’s a great sequence; wordless and thick with atmosphere (although the lack of any sound when Zucco fires his revolver is strange). Unfortunately, Zucco doesn’t show up again for awhile, and the film quickly settles into a series of shenanigans at a wax museum where Leo Gorcey works the night shift. Gorcey’s character and trademark malapropisms will both be familiar to anyone who saw him in any of the innumerable Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys movies he appeared in. When the feisty girl reporter (Savage) who lives on the second floor of the wax museum discovers the body of the dead man, she recognizes him as an infamous gangster who had disappeared years earlier. Wanting the scoop for herself, she hides the body by setting it up in one of the wax museum’s displays. Gargan plays her ex-boyfriend and rival reporter. A lot transpires in the film’s short running time (an hour and four minutes), but none of it adds up to much. Savage and Gargan have good chemistry, and I would have rather the film just focused on their characters. Zucco is also good, but he doesn’t get much screen time.

Midnight Manhunt isn’t a terrible film, but it’s all over the place. It’s also really stagy and a lot of the humor is dated. If, however, lines like “I think he’s havin’ optical delusions” and “I figgered it out through a process of mental reduction” give you a chuckle, then it’s probably worth a look.

Along Came Jones (July 19, 1945)

AlongCameJonesAlong Came Jones is a silly little western that verges on being a spoof of the genre, but it’s worth seeing for a couple of reasons. Gary Cooper pokes fun at his stalwart image without devolving into parody, and the gender reversals in some of the action scenes are still surprising.

Cooper plays a singing cowboy (sort of), named Melody Jones. This in itself is funny, because Cooper can barely sing. He’s halfway between a hum and a grumble in the few scenes when he’s called upon to croon a ditty. Along with his crotchety old sidekick, George Fury (played by William Demarest), Jones rolls into the town of Payneville, where he’s mistaken for vicious outlaw Monte Jarrad (played by vicious little squirt Dan Duryea), because his monogrammed saddle has the same initials, “M.J.” The only problem is, it’s not a charade he can keep up very long. Although Jones is tough enough, and can dish out haymakers with the best of them, he can’t handle a gun to save his life (which, by the end of the film, he will be called upon to do more than once). It’s not just that Jones can’t shoot straight, he literally can’t get his revolver out of its holster without it flying out of his hand. At one point, the real Monte Jarrad’s girlfriend, Cherry de Longpre (played by Loretta Young), calls Jones a “butterfingered gun juggler,” and it’s an apt term of derision.

The interesting thing about this film is that Jones never gets any better at handling a gun. Yes, he eventually manages to hold it steady, but he still can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Cherry, on the other hand, is a crack shot who could give Annie Oakley a run for her money. In the climactic showdown, she becomes a distaff John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and the effect is stunning. Nevertheless, Cooper never comes off as unmanly, especially since he’s willing to stand up to overwhelming odds with absolutely no shooting skills whatsoever. And he twice kisses Young in what has to be the most macho way I’ve ever seen in a movie. I don’t want to give anything away. Just see it.

Anchors Aweigh (July 14, 1945)

AnchorsAweighI don’t generally like musicals, but I loved Anchors Aweigh. It probably doesn’t hurt that I really like both Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, and this movie uses both of them to wonderful effect. Kelly’s dance sequences are all high points, and even Sinatra comports himself well in the one dance in which he has to match Kelly step-for-step. Although I can only imagine how many takes it took to get it right. Unlike today’s hyperkinetic editing styles, most of the dance sequences in Anchors Aweigh are done in what appear to be one take, or just a few at most.

In Anchors Aweigh, Sinatra and Kelly play sailors who are granted a four-day shore leave in Los Angeles due to extraordinary bravery. Kelly is a ladykiller with a woman in every port, while Sinatra is a dope when it comes to love. Kelly just wants to hook up with his beloved Lola, while Sinatra just wants a girl … any girl. Their amorous plans hit a snag, however, when they’re charged with the care of a Navy-worshipping runaway played by the very cute child actor Dean Stockwell. (Viewers familiar with Stockwell’s film and television work as an adult might wonder while watching this movie … what the hell happened to the guy?) Sinatra falls for the boy’s young aunt (Kathryn Grayson), while Kelly find himself drawn to her as well, which he resists, since his buddy has already spoken for her. But the draw is mutual. What’s a guy to do? Not to worry. With the help of orchestra leader José Iturbi (playing himself), everything will turn out O.K. in the end.

Sinatra gets top billing, even though Kelly is clearly the more seasoned performer. Sinatra may have been one of the most popular crooners in the country, but this was only his third real acting role on screen. At points he looks like a kid in a high school play who doesn’t know what to do with his hands. If you’d told anyone in 1945 that he’d win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor just eight years later they probably wouldn’t have believed you. But his natural charisma makes up for a lot. Iturbi is clearly not a professional actor, either, but the few scenes in which he has to perform (and not just conduct), he’s charming and fun to watch. He has a wonderful sense of comic timing, and projects warmth and empathy when he needs to.

Clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes, Anchors Aweigh is the kind of candy-colored fantasy that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in … there’s even a fantasy dance sequence in which Kelly dances in a cartoon world with an animated mouse (Jerry of Tom & Jerry fame). Its Bollywood-sized ambitions might turn off some modern viewers, but I thought it was great. At no point was I bored. I was entranced and delighted throughout.

Ernie Pyle’s “Story of G.I. Joe” (July 13, 1945)

StoryGIJoe
The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
Directed by William A. Wellman
United Artists

Ernie Pyle was a journalist for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. Long before the term “embedded journalist” entered the national consciousness, Pyle traveled with servicemen, writing about the war from their perspective. He had a conversational writing style, and attracted a huge following during World War II. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his work as a war correspondent. He was killed in combat in 1945.

William A. Wellman’s film Ernie Pyle’s “Story of G.I. Joe” stars Burgess Meredith as Pyle, and co-stars Robert Mitchum as Lt. (later Capt.) Bill Walker and Freddie Steele as Sgt. Steve Warnicki.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said it was the finest war film he had ever seen, and I tend to agree with him. Wellman is a superior craftsman. Not only is The Story of G.I. Joe one of the best war movies I’ve seen, its gripping scenes of combat have yet to be improved upon. For all the credit that Saving Private Ryan (1998) got for ushering in a new era of realism to the World War II film, watching this film reminded me that the horrors of war don’t necessarily need to be depicted in gruesome detail to be affecting. The first combat scene comes early in the film, when a German plane attacks the company on the ground, strafing them as they return fire with mounted machine guns and BARs. After the dust has cleared, there’s a low-angle shot of the men looking down, dejected and stunned, followed by Walker brusquely saying, “All right men, in the truck. Come on, make it snappy, the medics’ll take care of him.” As the men disperse, he says to Pyle, “First death’s always the worst.” The corpse is never even shown on the screen, but the impact is huge.

The battle scenes in the film are gripping. Walker and his men fight amidst bombed-out rubble, in close quarters, in the destroyed towns and cities of Italy. But the focus of the film is on the day-to-day lives of the men in the infantry. For most of the film, Warnicki carries a phonograph recording of his baby boy’s voice that he received in the mail, but he can’t ever seem to find a record player. The living conditions of infantrymen are unglamorous. The men are nearly always unshaven, wet, filthy, tired, and underfed. Mud, rain, and fatigue are a few of the running themes. Pvt. Robert “Wingless” Murphy (played by Jack Reilly) is constantly falling asleep on his feet. His sleepiness provides a few comic moments, but not without some sadness. When he marries a WAC and they go the “bridal suite” (a truck), he passes out immediately.

Meredith is the first actor billed, and a large part of the film is about Pyle’s relationship with the men he writes about. When a G.I. asks Pyle his age, he says, “Forty-three,” and crosses himself. The G.I. responds, “I’m twenty-six. If I knew I’d live to be forty-three, I wouldn’t have a worry in the world.” Pyle says, “Oh yes you would. You’d be just like me. Worrying about whether you’d get to be forty-four.” Meredith was actually 37 years old when he made this picture, but with his dyed white hair and bald pate, he looks older. He has a natural rapport with the men, but he doesn’t try too hard to be anyone’s buddy. In fact, in most scenes, he’s almost aloof. He’s also more soft-spoken than the real Pyle, who had a blunt, straightforward style, at least in the single piece of newsreel footage I’ve seen of him.

Pyle’s ordinariness is stressed. He learns that he has been awarded the Pulitzer from a couple of servicemen during mail call. He shrugs off their praise, then sits down at his typewriter to eulogize a man who has just died, and whom he thought of as a friend. “He was just a plain Hoosier boy,” Pyle writes. “You couldn’t imagine him ever killing anybody.”

I liked Mitchum in his supporting role in the 1944 film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (another excellent World War II film), but he’s even better here. The Story of G.I. Joe received four Oscar nominations, including one for Mitchum for best supporting actor. It was the only Academy Award nomination he would ever receive. He never won an Oscar. In The Story of G.I. Joe he displays effortless star power, even though the film is not a star vehicle for him.

Director Wellman was a fighter pilot in World War I, where he earned the nickname “Wild Bill.” Like many pilots, he had no use for the infantry, and originally had no interest in making this film. Producer Lester Cowan went to great lengths to cajole Wellman into being his director, but Wellman only agreed to take on the job after meeting Pyle and spending time with him.

An aura of tragedy and sadness pervades the film. Pyle acted as technical advisor on the film. The extras were all American combat veterans of the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Most of them were in the process of being transferred from active duty in the war in Europe to the war in the Pacific. And many of them were killed fighting in Okinawa, the battle in which Pyle himself was killed.