Classic Movie Blog Association’s Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathon underway this month from September 18-20 and celebrating those movies that others disdain but you love them to death. To see a full list of participants, visit the CMBA’s blog here for details.
Before I start, I wanted to state for the record that when the Classic Movie Blog Association announced the last officially sanctioned blogathon they would hold this year (they had its members vote in February on what struck their fancy, blogathon-wise) I sort of experienced a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach because…well, to be honest, I don’t care for the term “guilty pleasure.” I don’t like it…and yet I use it all the time; I think it’s because it’s for sheer convenience—it’s shorthand for “I love this movie but you’re probably going to react to it with complete revulsion.” Because the definition of “guilty pleasure,” according to Wikipedia, is “something one enjoys and considers pleasurable despite feeling guilt for enjoying it. The ‘guilt’ involved is sometimes simply fear of others discovering one's lowbrow or otherwise embarrassing tastes.” Those of you who have been stopping by this little scrap of the blogosphere for some time now are well aware that my “lowbrow or otherwise embarrassing tastes” have been in full-disclosure mode since time immemorial…and I have never felt the slightest bit guilty. (To the CMBA’s credit, calling this the I Love This Movie But You’re Probably Going to React to It With Complete Revulsion Blogathon would be a bit unwieldy.)
So the Guilty Pleasures Blogathon had been agreed upon, and in thinking of something to submit I naturally thought of one of my sublime pleasures in life: cliffhanger serials. I love these movies; I revere their sheer cheesy ridiculousness, their eye-popping stunt work and impressive low-budget special effects…and their plots that literally turn on a dime on mind boggling coincidence. I’m often at odds with other chapter play fans because there is a faction that will not tolerate levity (as in some of the serials directed by veteran James W. Horne) in these movies in any form, while I firmly believe that liberal doses of comedy can only help a serial. My position on this has been explained as having not been around when these productions were first unspooled during Saturday afternoon matinees in theaters long ago—an argument which with I certainly can’t disagree.
Ask any cliffhanger fan which studio made the best chapter plays and you probably won’t be surprised to hear the word “Republic” roll off their tongue; the studio known for being home to John Wayne for many years excelled at action-oriented flicks like serials and B-westerns, thanks to their top-notch directors like William Witney and John English, who were assisted by some of the best stuntmen in the business (Yakima Canutt, David Sharpe, etc.) and the special effects department headed up by the Brothers Lydecker, Howard and Theodore. After that, second, third and what-have-you-place is up for argument…but many serial fans usually believe that some of the worst were cranked out by Columbia, the motion picture studio once derisively referred to as “Columbia, the germ of the ocean.”
I’m on the record as being a defender of the
cliffhanger product. They sort of struck a happy medium between Republic’s serials (with their two-fisted action and special effects) and those cranked out by Universal (which were more plot-oriented), and some of them are some of the most entertaining movies you’ll ever watch. The aforementioned James Horne, who directed serials in the days of silents, had sort of graduated to feature film comedies (he directed Laurel & Hardy’s Way Out West, for instance) so by the time he got back into the serial game (for producer Larry Darmour; Columbia farmed out the production of their serials to him in 1939) his chapter plays had a tongue-in-cheek quality to them, featuring hammy villainy and you-got-to-be-kidding-me heroics (it is not uncommon for a Columbia serial hero to take on about six bad guys at one time and administer to all of them a proper ass-whupping). But I don’t care what the purists say, serials like The Shadow, The Green Archer, The Spider Returns (a sequel to 1938’s The Spider’s Web, genuinely considered by fans to be that rare Horne serial that takes itself seriously) and especially Captain Midnight are just irresistibly goofy fun. The Columbia cliffhangers’ cheekiness sort of came to an end with Horne’s passing in 1942, but three years later when the studio farmed the cliffhanger work out to legendary cheap film producer Sam Katzman (whose previous bread and butter was Bela Lugosi and East Side Kids features at Monogram) the WTF factor returned with a vengeance in such “classics” as The Monster and the Ape, Who’s Guilty?, Jack Armstrong and The Lost Planet—to name but a few. Columbia
Katzman had a sweetheart deal with
. He was originally hired to produce serials (but later worked his way up to features) and he got to use the studio’s people and resources while receiving a 25% cut of the profits for himself. As such, that was plenty an incentive for Samuel to be “cost-effective” (cheap) but the beauty of the Columbia chapter plays during the Katzman era was, yeah, they were definitely done with spit and baling wire but because he was able to use a lot of standing sets and the like the end result was miles and away better looking than the crap he cranked out at Monogram. Katzman was in the right place and at the right time when the studio got the rights to DC Comics’ main bread-and-butter, Superman…and the 1948 serial he produced with the character would be hugely successful, prompting a sequel (Atom Man vs. Superman) two years later and a resurrected interest in Batman with Batman and Robin in 1949 (the studio’s first serial with the Caped Crusader appeared in 1943). Columbia
But before Superman, Katzman had to get his feet wet with his premiere serial for Columbia once he sold his soul to Harry “White Fang” Cohn in 1945—one that was also based on a character from the comics. Cartoonist Dale Messick had debuted her strip Brenda Starr, Reporter in 1940 for the Chicago Tribune Syndicate and following success with other heroes from the funny pages (Terry and the Pirates, Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom) Columbia tabbed the famous girl reporter for a chapter play that would star B-movie actress Joan Woodbury in the title role with serial hero stalwart Kane Richmond (Spy Smasher, Haunted Harbor) as her “boyfriend,” Lieutenant Larry Farrell.
As Brenda Starr, Reporter opens, we find our heroine—accompanied by her photographer pal, Chuck Allen (Syd Saylor)—at the scene of an apartment fire…the two news hawks are there to cover the big story, but an even bigger scoop develops when Brenda spots a man she recognizes as Joe Heller (Wheeler Oakman) in one of the building’s windows. Heller was one of the men responsible for a recent payroll robbery of $250,000…but in double crossing his confederates he’s had to hide out in an undisclosed location to escape retribution and he’s literally been “smoked out” by the conflagration. As Brenda and Chuck race up the stairs to get the story from Heller, Joe is visited by one of the men in on the holdup, a thug named Kruger (Jack Ingram), who demands Joe hand over the loot and gives Mr. Heller a bullet for his trouble…and when he returns with what he thinks is the money to his boss, “brains heavy” Frank Smith (George Meeker), he discovers nothing put paper in the satchel. With Joe’s death, the location of the $250,000 remains a mystery…and for thirteen chapters, both the long arm of the law—represented by Farrell and his sidekick, Sgt. Timothy Hector Aloysius Brown (Joe Devlin)—and the bad guys, headed by Smith and his henchmen Kruger, Muller (Anthony Warde) and Schultz (John Merton), compete with one another to be the first to recover the serial’s “MacGuffin.” Brenda and Chuck are in on the pursuit, too (it’s a great story!)…and over the course of the serial our plucky reporter gal must face burning buildings, warehouse traps, mine explosions, etc. before triumphing in the end.
|Brenda and Chuck catch a glimpse of Joe Heller (Wheeler Oakman) in the window of one of the burning apartments. What I'd like to know is...if he was committing payroll robberies...when did he find the time to write Catch-22?|
Now, because I’m on a roll with this whole disclosure thing I’ll confess that Brenda Starr, Reporter was not my first choice when picking what I wanted to do for the CMBA Blogathon—I had originally planned on The Phantom Creeps (1939), but after a weekend of exhaustively searching for my VCI copy (generally acknowledged to be the best print of the serial available) and coming up with bupkis I was forced to fall back on a second choice. About 90% of the serials I own on DVD are currently in hibernation in my dad’s storage area (they could be waiting to be awakened from the kiss of a handsome prince, I don’t have all the details) so in looking at the ones on the shelves here at Rancho Yesteryear I considered tabbing 1947’s The Black Widow as a contender (because this one is seriously way out) but then I spotted my copy of Brenda Starr in a stack of discs that had not yet found a cubby here at home.
My choice of Brenda Starr is significant because for many years the serial was not available for public viewing—the only known print was the original nitrate negative, residing in the Library of Congress. The LOC attempted to restore the negative in the 1980s but it was unfortunately too late: the sound had gone missing from half of Chapter 3 and nothing but the audio remains from half of Chapter 4. VCI, the home video company that specializes in releasing classic films, serials and TV shows to VHS and DVD made a valiant attempt to try anywhere to locate the missing elements…but it turned out to be a fruitless search.
|I had hoped this screen capture would give you an idea of the extensive restorative work done on Brenda Starr, Reporter...but it just makes it look as if there's only a smidge of a difference.|
VCI President Robert Blair was reluctant to release a serial in Brenda Starr’s present-day condition (though the company had previously put out serials in just-as-hinky condition, like Mandrake the Magician) but many cliffhanger fans urged him to reconsider, rationalizing that it was better to have it “as is” than not at all. This practice is not uncommon in home video: the Serial Squadron released the long-lost King of the Mounties (1942) to DVD in 2007 with recreations of sound and picture added to the existing elements and subtitled dialogue added for that sound that could not be replaced. This February, the Squadron scored another coup with a restored DVD version of the Holy Grail of cliffhangers, Daredevils of the West (1943)—four chapters of this serial have seen the sound go bye-bye but the audio has been restored with sound effects and dubbing for missing dialogue.
With the history of Brenda Starr’s restoration out of the way—how does the serial hold up? Most people who have seen it seem to agree that it’s definitely one of Katzman’s better vehicles…I like the serial because it has a sort of classy sheen that belies its low-budget origins—though I do think it’s been overpraised in some quarters. Woodbury bears a faint resemblance to the famed comic strip heroine (though she lacks the drop dead Rita Hayworth-like glamour of the funny pages reporter) and
does what he does best: the square-jawed hero whose acting is merely so-so but rises to the occasion whenever gallantry is called for. (Brenda and Larry are supposedly dating but the only time they get affectionate is when Lar plants one on Bren before the final fade-out—and Woodbury’s reaction to this is kind of sweet.) These two receive the only billing in the opening credits; apparently Katzman was a little stingy when it came to giving actors billing—if you look for Charles Middleton’s name on Jack Armstrong you’ll search high and low in vain…despite the fact that he plays the chief villain! (A serial fan once told me that he speculated Middleton was cast after the credits were put together and “Jungle” Sam was too tight-fisted to institute a do-over.) Richmond
|This will be blasphemy to most Bowery Boys fans...but I always thought William "Billy" Benedict was the funniest, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall be damned.|
Other than retaining the character of Brenda and the notion that she punches a time clock at a newspaper the serial doesn’t bear a great deal of resemblance to the comic strip with the exception of a couple of characters, Pesky (Miller) the copyboy and Abretha (Breeze), Brenda’s cousin… played by Lottie Harrison. The role of Pesky is essayed by TDOY’s favorite Bowery Boy, Billy “Whitey” Benedict—who was no slouch to serials himself, having appeared in the one fans consider the greatest of them all, The Adventures of Captain Marvel…not to mention Tim Tyler’s Luck, Perils of Nyoka and The Adventures of the Flying Cadets. Benedict is sort of comic relief to the comic relief in this one; he’s a not-too-bright but eager young lad who actually provides the vital clue in helping Brenda and Larry round up the bad guys.
|"I am...Tondelayo." I'm not sure why they felt the need to dress Woodbury as if she were an extra in White Cargo...but I have to admit, girlfriend makes it work.|
|Brenda spends a lot of time being transported via automobiles in this serial...the blindfold is because she keeps yelling "Slug bug!"|
My enjoyment of Brenda Starr increased a great deal thanks to the presence of Benedict but there’s no shortage of mirthmakers in this one: as Chuck Miller, Brenda’s shutterbug chum, Syd Saylor occasionally rises above a lot of his admittedly corny material—he’s got a nice way with a line, particularly when he asks Richmond’s Farrell in one chapter: “Oh, Lieutenant—would you like to have your picture taken at the scene of the crime...that you didn't solve?” Saylor was in high demand as a character actor in the 1930s and 1940s, appearing in tons of films and B-westerns—he’s perhaps best known for a bit in 1948’s The Snake Pit in which he plays a patient looking for a dance partner at a psychiatric hospital soiree. Brenda has Chuck, so it naturally falls that Larry has Sgt. Brown to act as his sidekick; character thesp Joe Devlin, who looks like he could be Jack Oakie’s twin brother, appeared in such films as The Devil With Hitler, They Got Me Covered, Natzy Nuisance and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek…all playing the part of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
|Kind of unusual for Il Duce to drive himself, but...oh, wait...that's Mussolini-look-a-like Joe Devlin, with Kane "Spy Smasher" Richmond on his primitive cell phone.|
|If I ever decide to become a crime kingpin, these are the first two henchmen I'll hire. Jack Ingram (on left) and Anthony Warde (on right). Accept no substitutes.|
What makes Brenda Starr, Reporter stand out above the usual serial fare is its villainy—granted, the head man, Frank Smith is rather ineffectual (he’s an underworld boss posing as a respectable nightclub owner…though I’m curious as to how he got a liquor license in the first place) but he’s got three top henchies in Jack Ingram, Anthony Warde and John Merton—three of the best baddies serialdom has to offer. Add to this mix veteran character actor Wheeler Oakman, whose Grandpa-like looks belie a craven opportunist; he switched sides so often I lost track after a while. Another go-to serial henchman, Ernie Adams, is on hand as an informer named Charlie whose allegiance is also up for sale…to the highest bidder at any time. The cast also includes Cay Forrester (as a lovely but ill-fated nightclub chanteuse), Frank Jaquet (as editor E.J. “Pop” Walters—who has one of the funniest unintentional comedy lines when he barks at someone over the phone: “That'll be about enough of your alleged comedy”) and Marion Burns as a phony mystic named Zelda. (Marion Burns was also Mrs. Kane Richmond; though I’m sure she landed the part due to her thespic talents and not any rank nepotism.) And of course, there’s the stentorian voice of veteran announcer Knox Manning, authoritatively warning that the next chapter is sure to provide us with spills, chills and thrills…and getting in a corker at the end of Chapter Two when he breathlessly intones: “And what will happen even if she comes out of the wreckage alive?” (Well, a little Bactene and a brushing-off should work wonders.)
|The two faces of Zelda: phony spiritualist (left)...and ancient phony spiritualist (right).|
|This is my favorite thing in the movie...it's the secret getaway at Zelda's place, disguised as an everyday, garden-variety packing crate...|
|...and vee-ola! The crooks have successfully escaped!|
If you’re thinking about renting Brenda Starr, Reporter…let me warn you, the final product has more than a few rough spots despite its restoration—as Blair observes, “Throughout the remainder of the serial, there are sections of moderate to severe nitrate damage that is beyond today’s technology to restore.” But if any serial could be defined as a “guilty pleasure,” this is it—the story might be a little wanting (the bad guys take their orders from a “Big Boss” via a two-way radio…and if you don’t roll your eyes like I did when you learn the identity of this mystery villain you’re far more tolerant than I) but the acting is dependable, the sets sumptuous (for a serial—there are even a couple of musical numbers in the nightclub that haven’t been excised from previous footage), the dialogue snappy and Woodbury makes for an appealing heroine. (In Chapter 9, as she walks through several rooms guided by Zelda the Mystic—who’s disguised as an elderly housekeeper—she breathlessly observes: “Gee, this is a big tent.”) And at the risk of resorting to cliché, it’s a presentation the whole family will enjoy (though you might have to explain the ravages of film neglect to the younger folk…don’t you think it’s about time you did?) so pop up a big bowl o’popcorn and settle in for some solid entertainment, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear-style.