But let us travel back to the time when Don Winslow’s popularity was at its peak—courtesy of a purchased DVD copy of the 1942 chapter play that came from Heritage Hill Media, a Mom-and-Pop company with whom I have dealt with in the past and have rarely walked away disappointed. Their print of Winslow of the Navy is not by any means pristine…but that’s because from the title credits…
…we can see that it was a re-release from Filmcraft, Inc. (1952 according to my information), a company set up to re-issue Universal’s serial product. The serial has been released to disc by other companies, notably Alpha Video…but I’ve watched both of those DVDs (Volumes 1 and 2) and the only way I could tell the good guys from the bad guys was that the heroes were wearing Navy white.
After the cast is listed and we’re informed that once again Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor were the directing culprits (the team also did the SBBN-featured The Phantom Creeps and a previous Serial Saturdays feature, The Green Hornet) we get this informational tidbit:
Loosely translated, this means “Thanks for the stock footage, U.S. Navy!” And believe you me…there is a buttload of it.
As Chapter 1 of the serial begins, we find our hero conducting stock footage naval maneuvers and looking damn good while doing so. Winslow is played by actor Don Terry, a hard-working if unremarkable leading man who worked in a number of low-budget features before attracting the attention of Universal after starring as reporter Larry Kent in the 1938 Columbia chapter play The Secret of Treasure Island. Though Don made uncredited appearances in such films as You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and Hold That Ghost, it would not be an exaggeration to say that starring in Don Winslow of the Navy (and its 1943 follow-up, Don Winslow of the Coast Guard) was pretty much his shining moment on the silver screen. (His other noteworthy serial is 1942’s Overland Mail, where he played a buckskin-wearing sidekick to Lon Chaney, Jr.’s hero.) Terry appeared in a few more films (his last was White Savage in 1943) but apparently his Don Winslow activities influenced him in real life because he joined the Naval Reserve shortly after Coast Guard (receiving a Purple Heart in 1944) and upon leaving the service in 1946 decided to find honest work outside the film industry.
During the maneuvers, Winslow is addressed by his sidekick, Lieutenant “Red” Pennington. Actor Walter Sande will play this part—in the 1930s, the heavyset Sande also went the B-picture route as his co-star Terry…and in addition benefited from exposure in serials, with small roles in Universal fodder like The Green Hornet Strikes Again! and Sky Raiders before landing a nice assignment as the photographer pal of hero Charles Quigley in
1941 serial The Iron Claw. Walter worked a great deal on the Columbia
lot, with a recurring role as Detective Matthews in the studio’s Boston Blackie films, and he later had
high-profile parts in such films as To
Have and Have Not, Along Came Jones,
The Blue Dahlia and .
Sande would later score a pair of regular TV gigs: first as Captain
Horatio Bullwinkle in the syndicated series The Adventures of Tugboat Annie
(based on the 1933 film, which also inspired two movie follow-ups) and later as
Papa Holstrum, father to Inger Stevens’ Katy on the sitcom The Farmer’s Daughter
(also based on a movie). In fact, Sande
had quite a lengthy boob tube resume, guest-starring on the likes of The
Lone Ranger, Dragnet, Dark City ,
Wild Wild West. Laramie
By the way…you might recognize the man in the moustache in the above screen cap as our old pal John Merton—last seen here on Serial Saturdays as inept Saxon king Ulric in Adventures of Sir Galahad. The guy next to him speaking into the microphone is also a well-known character thesp, but I’ll talk about him later in the write-up.
This gentleman in the middle, identified as Admiral Warburton, informs the individual to his right that “Commander Winslow has just scored four direct hits, sir.” Warburton is played by Herbert Rawlinson, a veteran film thesp that’s so veteran he was a leading man in films during the silent era (his IMDb profile lists his first movie appearance in 1911) but then gradually settled into a long career as a character actor, appearing in such films as Show Them No Mercy!, Bullets or Ballots and Dark Victory. He did tons of B-features, quickie oaters and serials…though in chapter plays he had the stature to appear in one chapter and be done with it. Among the serials in which he had a fairly larger role: Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, S.O.S. Coast Guard and Perils of the Royal Mounted.
Character great Samuel S. Hinds is Rawlinson’s superior officer…and all I have to say is that for a guy who’s only in the first chapter yet gets fifth billing in the opening credits Sam had one hell of an agent. We all know Hinds for his role as Jimmy Stewart’s pop in It’s a Wonderful Life—not to mention films like Little Women, You Can’t Take It with You and Destry Rides Again—but he also turns up in fun serials like The Great Alaskan Mystery and Secret Agent X-9 (the 1945 version). Hinds was also a regular in several of the M-G-M Dr. Kildare films, playing the role of the elder Stephen Kildare (Lew Ayres’ pop). Hinds’ briefly-appearing character answers to Admiral Colby—his official title is Commander in Chief
Fleet, or “Cincus.” The characters use
the “Cincus” designation a lot, which is sort of distracting because I thought
they were saying “Sink us.”
Well, now that the filmographies are out of the way…Admirals Warburton and Colby are beside themselves with admiration at Winslow’s ass-kicking during the war games.
COLBY: Admiral Warburton…you’re to be congratulated on the manner in which your fleet has conducted these maneuvers…
WARBURTON: Thank you, sir!
COLBY: Commander Winslow is also to be commended…
WARBURTON: I agree with you, sir…he deserves a lot of credit for the way he’s readjusted himself…after being transferred back to his command from Naval Intelligence…
COLBY: Order Commander Winslow aboard…I want to talk to him…
WARBURTON: Aye, aye sir…
Warburton instructs one of his flunkies to send a signal to Winslow’s ship that he’s received a request from “Cincus” for much butt-kissing. (I’ll get to the reason for this in a second.) Having been notified that they’re in the old man’s good graces, “Red” Pennington cracks: “That oughta knock a couple of years off our grades!” Another seaman passes along to Winslow the information that he’s wanted aboard the Cincus’ flagship, and a dissolve finds Winslow aboard the S.S. Cincus.
COLBY: Commander…I’ve sent for you to congratulate you on the skillful handling of your ship during the maneuvers…
DON: Thank you, sir…but the officers and enlisted men deserve most of the credit…
COLBY: I’m glad you realize that…we commanding officers must never forget that it’s the spirit of the entire personnel that makes our Navy the great force that it is…
The soundtrack’s a little muddy on this print, because the first time I watched this I could have sworn he said “farce.” (Okay, I made that up.) Warburton is handed a telegram by an underling…he reads it, and then looking at Colby, hands it off to him. Colby peruses its contents, and then he looks at Warburton…then he proffers it to Winslow, saying “This concerns you, Commander.” Essentially what we have here is a scene where two other guys read a third person’s mail. The contents concern a supply ship, the Corda Queen, that has been sunk off the coast of Tangita Island, and—gasp!—organized sabotage has been suspected! The sender of the ‘gram, Captain Holding, requests that our hero be transferred back to his division at
Captain Holding, also a one-chapter-only player, is portrayed by veteran actor Kenneth Harlan, who appeared in a goodly number of silent features including The Hoodlum, The Penalty, The Toll of the Sea and the 1923 version of The Virginian, in which he played the titular cowhand. (He has also been described by my BBFF Stacia in the past as “the worst kind of person.”) Small roles in studio films and tons of B-pictures followed, as well as appearances in such serials as The Mysterious Pilot and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (You might remember him for a brief appearance in one of the Green Hornet chapters—Chapter 7, to be precise—before he was croaked.) Cap’n Holding is briefing Don and Red on the events surrounding the supply ship that was sunk.
HOLDING: The first intimation that we’ve had of sabotage is this report from Miss Mercedes Colby…
By the way, Mercedes is pronounced “Mer-Suh-Dees” here, always a classy move.
DON: Mercedes Colby?
HOLDING: Yes…she and her friend Misty Gaye were the only survivors of the Corda Queen—do you know them?
DON: Very well! I’ve worked with them before…they’re both very intelligent girls…
RED: Well, they’re more than that! Especially Misty!
“I believe the naval term is ‘my old lady.’” We’ll meet Mercedes and Misty here in a sec—Mercedes is a nurse assigned to a medical dispensary on Tangita Island; Misty is gal Friday to the bidnessman responsible for building the naval base—but if you were wondering why Commander Winslow was held in such high esteem by the Cincus it’s because Mercedes is his daughter. (In other words, Don knows her very well…if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Don Winslow was John McCain before it was fashionable.)
RED: What’s so important about Tangita?
HOLDING: Well, although it’s off the main trade routes…patrols based there can control our shipping lanes…
DON: Then the destruction of these supply ships is the work of saboteurs determined to prevent our building a base on Tangita!
Annnnnnd there’s the plot, boys and girls! “That’s why I’m sending you there, Winslow,” intones Captain Holding, allotting Don and Red the next eleven chapters to find out just who these slimy saboteurs are.
…that he’s excited as all get-out about his assignment. Peering through his binoculars, Winslow observes: “Tangita looks peaceful enough…” But then we hear the ominous stirrings of Mendelssohn’s
Yes, it’s our old pal John Litel…and for those of you visiting this blog for the first time, let me state for the record that you can make some easy money from your friends by betting that Litel will turn up in practically any Warner Bros. film of the 1930s. (I am exaggerating, of course, but he was in an awful lot of their features.) He’s best remembered here at TDOY for his roles in two film series: Warner’s short-lived Nancy Drew franchise (he played
Merlin enters a room where a thuggish-looking underling is peering through a periscope. “Take a look,” invites the goon, and after complying with his request Merlin mutters “It’s the U.S. Navy, all right.” The thug answers to “Prindle,” and is played by Robert Barron…whose cinematic stock-in-trade was B-movie henchmanry, appearing in chapter plays like Jungle Girl and Overland Mail.
PRINDLE: You know what brought him here?
MERLIN: Certainly…to investigate the report that the Corda Queen was torpedoed off this island…
PRINDLE: Tranker’s carelessness in allowing those two girls to escape when he sank the Corda Queen may disrupt our whole layout here!
MERLIN: I’d hate to be in Tranker’s shoes when the Scorpion finds out that Winslow has been sent to Tangita…
I haven’t even met Tranker and already I feel sorry for the guy. Through the periscope, Prindle spots our hero departing his ship…so he and Merlin leave the observation room to walk through more of the underground hideout. This serves no useful purpose other than to impress those of us watching what kind of sweet setup they have. In fact, Prindle suggests to his boss that they just take Winslow out but he’s quickly reprimanded by Spence, who disdainfully retorts “And bring a flock of
destroyers down on us?” (Is “flock”
really the right collective noun to use here?
I would think “a pride of destroyers” would be more accurate…though I
personally like “an exultation of destroyers” better.) Merlin is cognizant of the fact that if they were to carry out this mahd scheme of
Prindle’s this serial would be short eleven chapters.
But before we get any more of the cave hideout tour, Prindle and Merlin spot the previously mentioned Tranker in a nearby area of the cave. Tranker is a submarine captain played by the luckless Arthur Loft, a character thesp that I describe in that fashion because in most of the movies I’ve seen him in he rarely makes it to the end alive. We saw him previously in The Green Hornet (as Joe Ogden, business partner of chief villain Curtis Monroe) and he also appeared in that serial’s follow-up, The Green Hornet Strikes Again! I remember him best as newspaper editor Clyde Matthews in 1942’s The Glass Key…who ends up blowing his brains out when star Alan Ladd starts macking on his wife. (He can’t catch a break.)
Henchie Prindle tells Tranker that Tranker’s submarine (Z-37) will remain in port until “the undersea oil well’s repaired”—and Merlin drops the bombshell that because Tranker allowed Mercedes and Misty to escape from the floundering Corda Queen—which set in motion the arrival of Don Winslow and Company—he’s really in Dutch with The Scorpion. So Tranker starts pacing, getting all
…this screen cap really made me laugh because both men have been bragging about all the money The Scorpion has funneled into this state-of-the-art spy facility and yet they have to stumble around like it was some sort of gold mine…which it is. The two of them go topside, and Merlin tells his stooge that he’ll be the one there when Winslow is welcomed into port. (So why was it necessary for Prindle to go above ground in the first place?)
A scene shift finds Misty Gaye spotting Don and Red disembarking from their destroyer, and she calls out to chum Mercedes Colby “Look who’s here!” Green Hornet fans will recognize the actress playing Misty as Anne Nagel, who was Lenore “Casey” Case in the Har-nut chapter play as well as the follow-up The Green Hornet Strikes Again! The Universal starlet also played leading lady to Dick Foran in the chapter play Winners of the West and emoted alongside Paul Kelly in The Secret Code (this one was done at
Claire Dodd’s portrayal of nurse Mercedes Colby in Winslow of the Navy marks her only serial work—she was well known in the 1930s for films she made at Warner’s and Paramount that include Guilty as Hell, Lawyer Man, Ex-Lady and two films in the Perry Mason franchise (in which she played Della Street), The Case of the Curious Bride and The Case of the Velvet Claws. Because Don and Red are sailors, and have been at sea a good while, they are naturally exuberant upon seeing Mercedes and Misty.
MERCEDES: Don! Don Winslow!
DON: Hello, Mercedes…it’s good to see you…
MISTY (to Red): Hi, sailor!
RED: Hi, Misty—how’s the shipwrecked mermaid?
MISTY: Oh, I won’t forget about it…it was pretty horrible…
If you’re wondering whether or not we have enough characters in the first chapter of this thing, the answer is no. As if it were scripted, Misty’s “boss,” John Blake comes lumbering in for an introduction to the girls’ nautical boyfriends—Mr. Blake being played by actor Ben Taggart. Taggart, a veteran of silent films, enjoyed a long career playing bit parts in features great and small; he turns up in a number of Charley Chase comedies (both at Hal Roach and Columbia) and his serials include Daredevils of the Red Circle and The Green Hornet (he was crooked flying school owner Phil Bartlett in that one).
MISTY (to Blake): Your job will be a lot easier with Don Winslow and Red Pennington on the island…
MERCEDES: To say nothing of the 620 standing by…
BLAKE (chuckling): I don’t doubt it…we’ve heard of Winslow, even in Tangita…
DON: Nothing bad, I hope!
“Well, if you run into some guy toting a shotgun I’d start back for the ship…his daughter gave birth to a boy, by the way.” As the four of them share a hearty guffaw, the sebaceous Spence Merlin arrives on the scene, and introductions are made on his behalf as well.
MERLIN: Oh…that’s good news! Be sure to let me know, Commander, if there’s I can do to help you…
DON: Thank you, Mr. Merlin…I will!
(Merlin slithers off)
BLAKE: Well, Commander…I’d like to show you the offices we’ve arranged for you at our headquarters…
MERCEDES: Oh, I’m sure you’ll like them!
MISTY: Especially the radio!
Oh, the enthusiasm. Clearly this is the highlight of their week. So the five of them duck into the offices of Blake’s operation, and then a scene shift follows Merlin as he traipses through a jungle-like area on the island, stopping briefly to salute a sentry standing outside a hut. Inside the hut, we discover two more henchmen played by Ethan Laidlaw (who answers to “Spike”) and Lane Chandler (“Corley”). Laidlaw had a lengthy career in the flickers (stretching back to the silents) in bit parts, mostly as henchmen in serials and B-Westerns…and then when TV came in, he continued playing various barflies and townsmen in boob tube oaters such as Outlaws, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and The Rifleman.
Chandler also started his film career in the silent era as a leading man opposite the likes of Clara Bow (Red Hair) and Greta Garbo (The Single Standard) before drifting into bit parts in second features and B-Westerns in the 1930s/1940s (it had been suggested that Paramount was grooming his co-star in The Legion of the Condemned, Gary Cooper, for roles intended for Chandler, sadly). The story also goes that
while at Universal, was tested for the role of the Frankenstein monster before
the studio decided on Glenn Strange. Chandler
is also a Green Hornet alumnus,
having played a truck driver in the aforementioned Chapter 7.
Merlin directs the two men to open up a panel inside the hut that contains a Dictaphone the size of Rhode Island, and the three of them turn it on to try and eavesdrop on
…is this guy, who’ll be quite familiar to any of us who’ve recently put Stan Freberg’s Banana Boat parody on a turntable. Peter Leeds (“It’s too piercing, man…too piercing…”) is Seaman Chapman in Don Winslow; throughout his long show business career he played straight man to a plethora of comics that included Bob Hope and Milton Berle, and appeared in a gazillion films and TV shows—notably The Lady Gambles, D.O.A., 99 River Street and Tight Spot. He was seen briefly on the 1957-59 Robert Culp series Trackdown (as Tenner Smith) and later on the December Bride spin-off Pete and Gladys as neighbor George Colton.
We’ve got a little more than ten minutes in this thing to go, so let’s put a little action in action…
BLAKE: I’ve been waiting two days for a message from the Baratavia…
DON: The Baratavia? Is she headed for Tangita?
BLAKE: Yes! With equipment, skilled technicians and their families…my work on the new naval base is practically at a standstill until she arrives…
DON: Well, that looks like our first job, Red—to see that the Baratavia reaches here safely…
RED (cheerfully): The 620 will see her through…
Not so fast, my comic relief sidekick! You’ve just telegraphed your plans to Spencer Merlin and his faithful goons Corley and Spike! Spence directs Corley to stand by the Dictaphone for further details, while Spike is tabbed for “a more important job.”
There is then a cut to a vessel at sea. It’s the S.S. Baratavia, and inside the bridge we are visited by another refugee from The Green Hornet, suggesting it’s perhaps “old home week” in this serial. Wade Boteler, who played the irrepressible Michael Axford in both Hornet and The Green Hornet Strikes Again!, is Mike Splendor in this chapter play, business partner of John Blake. Splendor addresses the skipper of the Baratavia, Captain Fairfield (Paul Scott):
SPLENDOR: …have you had any word yet from Blake?
SPLENDOR: Oh, sure…sure…
Splendor is getting ready to leave but is stopped by a knock on the door of the bridge, and a skeevy-looking individual enters. One might be tempted to think this is one of the “skilled professionals” that Blake referred to as being on board the Baratavia—but it is actually a man named Paul Barsac, whom we will later learn is in league with Merlin and his bunch. Actor John Holland plays the role of Barsac;
film career began in the mid ‘30s and was mostly comprised of bit parts in
features but he occasionally landed some henchman roles in serials like Dick Tracy and Sky Raiders.
BARSAC: But this message is important!
SPLENDOR: Sure, ‘tis more important than our workers and their families reach Tangita!
…you’re the captain… Fairfield
“For now, anyway…” Barsac departs the bridge, letting the captain win that round—but Splendor can’t resist rubbing a little salt in the wound by commenting: “And let that be a lesson to you…Mister Barsac.”
Back on Tangita and inside the gold mine, Spencer confers with a radio operator about a message he dictated be sent to Barsac on the Baratavia. Here it is:
It all seems rather innocuous—but when you decipher the secret code, it’s a directive for Barsac to kill the Baratavia’s radio operator (which he does). But not before
Back on the island, Chapman has the unfortunate duty of informing Don that he can’t contact the Baratavia on the radio. Winslow then instructs him to get with the 620 on the off-chance that the ship gave acting commander Grady their position. The scene then shifts back to Spence’s headquarters, where—addressed by the radio operator as “M-22”—he is informed that The Scorpion is ready to speak. Spencer punches up a big screen TV and he and Prindle get their orders from an Asian-looking gent with a Teutonic accent.
SCORPION: Our submarine base on Tangita must not be discovered…and Winslow is to be taken prisoner and held until I order his execution…destroy the Baratavia—and leave no survivors…Tranker is a valuable agent…but he must be punished as I advised for his carelessness in placing us in great danger…these are your orders, M-22…you know the penalty for failing to execute them…
Scorp is played by Kurt Katch, a Yiddish theatre performer who enjoyed success in German silent cinema before emigrating to the
Well, as predicted…The Scorpion is not going to let Tranker off with a slap on the wrist—and Merlin is sure as shooting not going to risk “the penalty for failing to execute” The Scorpion’s orders. Spence tells Prindle to order Spike to “destroy Winslow’s radio,” and then he heads back to the sub to give a nervous Tranker the bad news…
MERLIN: Tranker…your carelessness threatens us with the loss of our undersea submarine base and our whole setup here…our master The Scorpion demands that you be punished…
TRANKER: Well, just don’t stand there talking about it—get it over with!
MERLIN: The Scorpion has been most generous…he gives you a fifty-fifty chance to escape with your life…and at the same time render him a great service…do you accept that chance?
TRANKER: What else can I do? I know there’s no escape from The Scorpion…now…what’s the chance?
MERLIN: You’re to sink the Baratavia…
TRANKER: Well, that’ll be easy! I’ll get the Z-52 submarine right away!
MERLIN: You won’t need the submarine…you’re to sink the Baratavia alone…
“You’re to become the first successful human torpedo!” gushes Merlin with a merde-eating grin…and I’d just like to say that if this is an example of The Scorpion’s generosity I’d hate to see him when he is not filled with the milk of human kindness. Meanwhile, outside Blake’s office…henchman Spike skulks, having a smoke. Inside the office, Chapman gives Winslow the news that the 620 has not heard from the Baratavia. Then—Spike springs into action, firing at the radio…
…and creating this bit of hilarity, which made me think that Mayberry R.F.D.’s Emmett Clark might have been in the Navy. Don Winslow springs into action, giving chase to the all-ass-and-elbows Spike as Red, Chapman, Blake, Mercedes and Misty survey the damage done to the radio.
Winslow trails Spike to the jungle hut hideout from earlier, and eavesdrops outside as Spike relays what happened to his pal Corley.
SPIKE: There won’t be any message between Winslow and that destroyer…
CORLEY: Then Tranker can’t miss blowin’ up the Baratavia with his human torpedo!
SPIKE: I’m sure glad I ain’t no human torpedo!
I’m breathing a sigh of relief myself as I type. Outside, an anonymous goon gets the drop on our hero by announcing: “Okay, sailor...get rid of the gun!” This is the cue for this chapter’s fight sequence, which I have to say is one of the worst in the history of Universal serials. Seriously—if you wanted to watch punches thrown and furniture destroyed in an entertaining manner…that’s why the good Lord created Republic Studios. Fight choreography simply wasn’t Universal’s meat…though it wasn’t
Red and Chapman arrive in the nick of time to save Don’s stuntman from a right pummeling (Chapman is particularly in love with his firearm because he fires it a number of times, often at nothing at all) and while the logical thing would be to go after the henchmen Don waves Red off. “It’s no use, Red…we can’t find anybody in this jungle.” (“And what’s more…we have to make this look good for another eleven chapters…”)
CHAPMAN: They smashed our radio, sir…
DON: Well, get it fixed as quickly as possible…
CHAPMAN: Yes, sir! (He leaves)
DON: Red…this is all a plan to blow up the Baratavia with a human torpedo before the 620 comes out to protect her!
RED: Well, we gotta warn the Baratavia!
DON: There’s only one chance…we’ll use the mosquito boat!
As our heroes race back to grab their mosquito boat, Merlin and Prindle instruct Tranker on the proper protocol regarding his suicide mission. “And when you get a direct line on the Baratavia…pull that lever and jump for your life…”
“My life isn’t worth much from now on,” laments Tranker as he climbs into the boat. You serrit, kiddo—how you’re going to jump for your life from inside a boat is something The Scorpion probably wasn’t too concerned about. And through the magic of YouTube—here’s the final exciting of this serial! (Yes…I’m tired of writing.)