Thursday, March 12, 2009

Where’s the Rest of Me: Ronald Reagan’s “Brass Bancroft” Films or, Kiss My Brass!

“The Errol Flynn of B-Pictures” is how actor and future U.S. President Ronald Wilson Reagan used to describe his motion picture career, which began when Warner Bros. signed the former WHO radio announcer to a contract in 1937. Although Reagan would get the opportunity to appear in the studio’s A-product from time to time, he was prominently featured in programmers in his Warner days, and an excellent example of these was a short-lived series of features that cast him as Secret Service agent “Brass” Bancroft. The Bancroft films—many of which barely ran an hour—were fast-paced, cheaply-made actioners not unlike serials, and were produced by Bryan Foy, Warner’s self-proclaimed “The Keeper of the B’s.” Bryan’s bro, Eddie Jr., also appeared alongside Reagan in all four Bancroft films as Brass’ comedy relief sidekick Gabby Watters. (Both brothers were the progeny of legendary entertainer Eddie Foy, and appeared with their father in vaudeville as “The Seven Little Foys.”)

Secret Service of the Air (1939) was the debut entry in the Brass Bancroft series, and as such I’ll examine it in a bit more depth. As the picture opens, we find a pilot named Joe LeRoy (John Ridgely) giving a set of instructions to a group of foreigners as they prepare to take off for a trip across the U.S./Mexico border. These men are aliens about to be smuggled into the States, and in mid-flight a man named Durell (John Harron) confronts LeRoy in the cockpit to announce that he’s a federal agent and that LeRoy is under arrest. The quick-thinking LeRoy puts the plane into a steep climb, sending Durell spinning into the back of the plane—and then the pilot pulls a lever that ends up dumping the “cargo,” sending the passengers to their doom from 10,000 feet up. (Proving, of course, that you should heed the old adage about it only costing a few extra bucks to go first class.) After arriving at the headquarters of Jim Cameron (James Stephenson), the boss of the alien smuggling operation, LeRoy gets a real dressing down and the organization decides to lay low for a while.

The scene shifts to an official-looking building in Washington, DC…where behind a door labeled “Secret Service Bureau” (I know, I think they’d want to keep that location a secret, too) Tom Saxby (John Litel) discusses with his superior (Pierre Watkin) the events surrounding Durell’s death. It seems that Durell stumbled onto the alien smuggling ring purely by accident; he was actually investigating a stolen bond racket and, in the words of Saxby, “got a bonus.” When the Chief stresses the need for further investigation, Saxby recommends his pal, ex-Navy flier Lt. “Brass” Bancroft (Ronald Reagan), for the gig—Brass has been itching to get into the Secret Service for sometime now. The next scene introduces our hero; he’s at the controls of a plane nicknamed “The Oriental Express,” which he flies for Admiral A.C. Schuyler (Herbert Rawlinson). With him are his navigator Gabby Watters (Eddie Foy, Jr.) and co-pilot Dick Wayne (Larry Williams); Dick is a rather nondescript fellow whose only claim to being in this picture is that he’s a rival with Brass (no snickering, please) for the attentions of Schuyler’s daughter Pam (Ila Rhodes). Gabby, on the other hand, is a virtual one-man comedy attack: when his attempts to contact the radio tower start to get on Bancroft’s nerves, Brass suggests he set it to music—and Gabby starts singing their position over the airwaves! What a corker!

After landing the plane, Brass is racing to get dressed and beat Dick over to Pam’s house—until his pal Saxby greets him in the locker room:

SAXBY: Well, young fellow—your chance has come at last…there’s an opening for you in the service…
BRASS: Oh, that’s swell, Tom…I know how hard you’ve been working to get me in and I appreciate it…have you got something on the fire?
SAXBY: Yes, and it’s a very tough case…it requires immediate action…
BRASS: Good! I’ll go tell A.C. I’m quittin’…
SAXBY: Oh, no…unfortunately, it can’t be done that way…now it’s going to be your job to get in with a smuggling gang…and win their confidence…and you couldn’t do that without a criminal record…so we’re going to give you one…

I’d say Reagan’s policies toward Central and Latin America would more than qualify, but that would be mean.

BRASS: All right…when do I go to work?
SAXBY: Be prepared for a summons any time now…day or night…and remember you’re to take no one into your confidence…not even Miss Schuyler…
BRASS: You certainly make things tough for a fella…
SAXBY: You asked for it…goodbye…and good luck…

Brass is able to beat Dick in the “getting-there-first-to-make-time-with-Pam” competition thanks to loyal Gabby, who arranges for Dick’s roadster to have four flat tires (Look out! He’s a maniac, I tell ya!). But his presentation of an engagement ring for his beloved is stopped short when a couple of agents crash the party, accusing Bancroft of distributing counterfeit money. The quickly-wearing-out-his-welcome Gabby steps in to help his pal, but he ends up in the Greybar Hotel as well.

Through a montage of sensationalistic newspaper headlines, Brass is put on trial and found guilty…and is sent to the pen for a five-year-stretch. Of course, this is all a setup to allow Bancroft close proximity to Earl “Ace” Hemrich (Bernard Nedell), an ex-smuggler who once worked for Cameron’s gang. The two men become quick pals (it’s like that in prison) and Ace works out a foolproof escape plan: while he and Brass are working on the chain…gaaaaang…Ace’s moll will drive up in a car and seduce one of the guards (and she does; you won’t believe how lax the security is in that place), allowing he and Brass to swipe the ride and take it on the lam. This results in your typical car-chase sequence (although there is a nifty stunt involving a motorcycle cop) and ends when the two escapees attempt to outrun a speeding locomotive. They fail miserably, and are picked up by the authorities—Ace is sentenced to the “hole” (hence the expression, “Ace in the hole”) and Brass “goes to Alcatraz.”

BRASS: You ought to try getting mixed up in a prison break sometime…why didn’t you tell me what you were letting me in for?
SAXBY: Why didn’t I? Because you and your thug friends were the only ones who knew…till you tipped off the warden…
BRASS: I hope they keep those boys locked up…I’d hate to run into one of them on the street…
SAXBY: How did you make out with Hemrich?

Oh, in the usual prison fashion—rimshot! All seriousness aside, Bancroft shows Saxby a brochure for the Los Angeles Air Taxi Company, an outfit run by Edward Powell (Morgan Conway) that Brass believes operates as a front for Hemrich’s—and subsequently Cameron’s—activities. Brass is champing at the bit to get on the inside, but Saxby offers a word of caution:

SAXBY: Don’t forget, my boy—you’re supposed to be in Alcatraz…where would you be if this fellow Powell wrote Hemrich to check up on you?
BRASS: That’s one of the chances I have to take, isn’t it?
SAXBY: You can’t do that, Brass…now, you’ve been doing fine so far, but don’t be hasty…remember that patience is the creed of the Secret Service…it’s like boxing…don’t lead—make the other fellow come to you

Using the Republican philosophy of “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps,” Bancroft attempts to get a job at Powell’s company…but finds himself needing a little assistance from Saxby, who arranges to conveniently have pilot LeRoy slightly jailed. When Powell is told this news by his gal Friday, Zelma Warren (Rosella Towne), Brass just happens to be loitering around the office during this announcement, and Powell hires him on the spot. Powell’s partner, “Doc” Burke (Frank M. Thomas), suggests that Powell hire Bancroft to take over LeRoy’s other assignments (alienway ugglingsmay) but Powell is concerned about what Cameron will say (“He’s superstitious about switching jockeys”) about that arrangement. Doc reassures Powell that he’ll discuss the matter with Brass, doing so in another montage of Bancroft executing numerous flights.

BRASS: I’m going to get a proposition to fly that murder plane any day now…that fellow Doc asked me to smuggle some silk across the border for him…
SAXBY: Trying you out on some small stuff first, huh? Whaddya tell him?
BRASS: Well, I keep telling him I’m afraid to take a chance…but he keeps right after me, so I think the next trip he’ll ask me to fly some aliens…
SAXBY: Well, if he asks you, you do it…we’ve got to start rounding them up…now, remember—our big job is to get the head of the outfit across the border with the evidence to convict him…

Bancroft and Saxby’s conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Gabby to remind the audience that he’s still in the picture and he’s not going away anytime soon. He meets up with Brass at a Mexican cantina where Doc and Cameron are also having a chinwag…and Cameron arranges to test Bancroft’s mettle by bringing in a few of his goons to provoke Brass into a common barroom donnybrook. (By the way, it is true about Reagan doing his own fistfights in this picture—it’s clearly him in the long shots, and he’s not too shabby a brawler, either.) After the melee—which results in an unconscious Gabby—Doc advises Brass to lam it out of there and take his third banana stooge to Cameron’s headquarters. There, one of Cameron’s thugs places a phone call to the boss…who informs Brass that one of the men he punched out in the cantina is dead in an attempt to force Bancroft into making an alien smuggling flight. In the air, Brass finds himself followed by a pair of U.S. Patrol airplanes who advise him to set down so “we can check you over.” Ever the maverick, Brass executes a series of fancy flying stunts and loses the Patrol in a thick fog of sea poup.

Cameron is satisfied with Bancroft’s abilities…but there’s trouble ahead. Hemrich has escaped from prison (again) and winds up at Cameron’s hideout. He’s telling the gang about the breakout that went sour with Bancroft…and suddenly realizes that Brass is responsible for putting the kibosh on his escape:

CAMERON: I want you to meet an old friend…
BRASS: You call him an old friend? Say, listen—he’s
America’s No. 1 stool pigeon!
ACE: What’re you getting at?
BRASS: You know what I’m gettin’ at…framin’ me into a prison break so I get sent to
Alcatraz…well, I fooled ya…
ACE: No you didn’t…how’d you get out of
Alcatraz so soon?
BRASS: Wouldn’t you like to know!
CAMERON: Answer his question, Brass…
BRASS: Well, I’ll answer you, Jim…I had a smart lawyer who made a deal with Uncle Sam…turned over some counterfeit plates they wanted and got my sentence commuted to time served…
ACE: Yeah? Do you expect me to swallow that baloney? You went to work on me just now, didn’t ya? Thinkin’ you could cover yourself up…well, you’re not doin’ it…you’re fixin’ to hang a rap on my friends and you’re not gonna get away with it!

This particular invective doesn’t sit too well with our hero, and Bancroft quickly challenges Hemrich to fisticuffs—Marquis of Queensbury rules be darned. The others look on, watching the two men mix it up until Cameron breaks up the fight.

Keeping an eye on his number-one boy, Saxby arrives at the cantina and asks Pedro the bartender (Alberto Morin)—an old pal of his from DC—if he’s seen Bancroft lately. As if on cue, Brass enters the joint and the two men sit down at a table, where they exchange information. Bancroft clues in Saxby that Cameron is running the smuggling ring and that the individual who killed Agent Durell is the individual they’ve had on ice for sometime now, LeRoy. The two agents then depart in opposite directions…but unbeknownst to them, Hemrich has been watching the whole time and pumps Pedro full of questions about what their meeting was about. Ace is able to piece together enough of the story to pass it along to Cameron, who refuses to believe Ace’s story. So Ace arranges for Saxby’s hotel room to be bugged—unaware that Saxby is wise to the operation—and both Brass and Saxby set a trap for Cameron by talking about some “additional” counterfeit plates Bancroft is supposedly hiding. If all goes according to plan, Cameron will accompany Bancroft back across the border to get to the location of the plates…allowing Saxby and the Feds to arrest Cameron and put him away…in THE BIG HOUSE.

Unfortunately, Brass and Saxby haven’t counted on Gabby gumming up the works. Gabby has overheard Cameron and Doc discussing Bancroft and the counterfeit plates deal and though he is stunned to learn that his bosom pal is a common counterfeiter, he reasons that he can clear Bancroft by placing a call to the Border Patrol, informing them of the flight (Cameron has decided to smuggle in some aliens and kill two birds with one stone). Just as Brass is getting ready to take off, he discovers that Gabby has snuck aboard the plane and Gabby spills the beans about what he’s done, prompting Brass to silence him with a haymaker (if only he had thought about that before the picture started) and locking him up in a closet in the cockpit. With Cameron riding shotgun, Brass takes off with a load of “passengers”—and just in the nick of time, for Cameron’s operation is the target of a raid by the Border Patrol, led by Captain Cortez (George Sorel) of the Mexican Police. Doc tries to escape being arrested but fails—however, he does manage to contact Cameron on board via radio to let him know that Hemrich was right about Bancroft—he’s a Fed!

CAMERON (Pointing a gun at Bancroft): Turn around and head back across the border or I’ll blow your head off…you’ve played your hand out, Mr. Secret Service Man

Wasn’t that a hit record by Johnny Rivers?

BRASS: You can’t win, Cameron…14,000 feet’s a long drop
CAMERON: I said turn around
BRASS: All right…if that’s the way you want it…

Brass ends up wrestling Cameron for the gun, causing the plane to momentarily spin out of control. But Gabby has managed to free himself from the closet and grabs the controls in order that this picture doesn’t end with a fiery crash—he even manages to subdue Cameron by hitting him upside the head with a monkey wrench. Brass contacts the airport to let them know they’re coming in for a landing…right into the waiting arms of the Feds.

Having wrapped things up, Brass is surprised to find Pam waiting for him on the ground—she was clued in to what went down courtesy of Saxby, of course. After the requisite smooching, Brass whispers into Pam’s ear and nodding her head, the two of them get back in the plane:

SAXBY: Hey, boss—where are you going?
BRASS: Yuma!
SAXBY: That plane has no license!
BRASS: Neither have we!
GABBY (to Saxby): I’ll bet they’re gonna be married…
SAXBY: I’m afraid you’re right…
GABBY: Well…that finishes him as a Secret Service man…
GABBY: Well…he won’t be able to keep a secret now

Oh, Gabby…you’re incorrigible. Secret Service of the Air is a pleasant if unremarkable programmer, and because it was so economical to make a second picture, Code of the Secret Service (1939), started production almost soon afterward. Apparently things didn’t work out on the way to Yuma, because in the sequel Bancroft is still a bachelor—and back in Mexico, trying to track down more counterfeit plates. Eddie Foy, Jr. returned as the irrepressible Gabby, and Rosella Towne—who played Zelda in the first Bancroft opus—was also back, only this time as Brass’ love interest. John Litel didn’t make it back, either (he was probably busy being Bonita Granville’s father in Warner’s Nancy Drew series); he wouldn’t return to the Saxby role until the final Bancroft film, Murder in the Air (1940). (As a result, Joe King would play the part in both Code and its follow-up, Smashing the Money Ring [1939].)

Legend has it that actor Reagan thought Code was so terrible—and a threat to his career—that he begged the studio not to release the film; Warner Bros. sympathized with the star but there was money to be made and they insisted it would be released…but agreed not to show it in the Los Angeles area. As the story goes, Reagan was walking down an L.A. street when he saw the picture’s title on a theatre marquee…and when he looked at the individual working the box office, that person stared back at Reagan and muttered: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” This sounds like one of those apocryphal stories “Dutch” liked to make up from time to time; the film’s not really all that bad…but it’s definitely the weakest of the four. (Apparently the studio had producer Foy “fix” this one—I’d be curious to see how bad it was before Foy worked his magic.)

Many consider the final feature in the Bancroft lineup, Murder in the Air, to be the best in the short-lived series—but for my money, I think Smashing the Money Ring is far superior. In Money Ring (a remake of a 1936 B-quickie entitled Jailbreak), Bancroft must go undercover once again in prison to learn the origin of a lucrative counterfeit money operation—which ingeniously relies on the big house’s printing press (on which the prison’s newspaper is printed) to generate the phony dough. It’s fast-moving fun at fifty-seven minutes, and features Margot Stevenson (a one-time Margo Lane on radio’s The Shadow) as the love interest…for Gabby! (That’s right, Gabby gets to score in this picture…just about the time the rug is pulled out from under him at the end.) In later years, Reagan often credited Foy, Jr. as being the integral ingredient to the success of the series…but personally, I think Ronnie was already starting to lose it. Foy, though certainly no slouch as an entertainer (his finest onscreen moments are his portrayal as his father alongside James Cagney’s George M. Cohan in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy and his appearance in 1957’s The Pajama Game, where he performs that sublime duet with Reta Shaw, I’ll Never Be Jealous Again), regularly brings many of the Bancroft outings to a screeching halt with his painfully unfunny antics.

Murder in the Air gained a bit notoriety around the time of Reagan’s presidency because some of his critics (whom I guess were classic film buffs as well) couldn’t help but notice a similarity between the movie’s “Inertia Projector” and The Great Communicator’s grandiose SDI (“Star Wars”) project. In fact, 60 Minutes once did a segment (“Ronald Reagan: The Movie”) that provided evidence demonstrating Reagan often had difficulty telling the difference between real life and cinema. Ironically, this report would end up as one of the veteran news program’s most unpopular segments—I guess people are just naturally uncomfortable with the concept of contradicting…Brass Bancroft!


John said...

An excellent post on the Brass Bancroft films. I agree that Eddie Foy Jr.'s antics are a bit much in the features.
I did enjoy Foy's work in Republic's "Honeychile" with Judy Canova and I remember him fondly on the old TV series "Fair Exchange".

Anonymous said...

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Scott said...

Thanks, Ivan. I've been curious about the Brass Bancroft films for years, but could never bring myself to watch one, since Reagan -- whether as actor or politician (but I repeat myself) -- always gave me the heebie-jeebies.

prompting Brass to silence him with a haymaker (if only he had thought about that before the picture started) and locking him up in a closet in the cockpit.

If you're thinking of buying an airplane remember: the most important thing to look for in a cockpit is adequate cabinet space (DC-3's were prized by pilots for their walk-in cedar closets).