Saturday, January 5, 2013

Don Winslow of the Navy (1942) – Chapter 2: Flaming Death

OUR STORY SO FAR (taken directly from the “crawl” that opens Part Deux): Comdr. Don Winslow, U.S. Naval Intelligence, is sent to Tangita, United States island in the South Pacific, to investigate Sabotage in connection with the construction of a Naval Base at Rondana Bay, Tangita’s fine harbor.

LEARNING that the “Baratavia”, a freighter enroute with supplies to Rondana Bay, is to be sunk by a “human torpedo”, Don and his loyal friend, Lieut. “Red” Pennington, race to the rescue in a “mosquito” boat and…

…well, you saw it from last week’s YouTube video—the “mosquito” boat collides with the “human torpedo,” destroying them both.  Was our hero Don Winslow (Don Terry) killed in this collision?  He most certainly was not!  He managed to abandon ship at the very last second…otherwise this serial would be called “Red” Pennington of the Navy.

Winslow swims to where Red is treading water with a live preserver.  “Good boy, Don!” Red enthuses.  “You saved the Baratavia!”

“You mean we did,” his pal answers back…conveniently forgetting that Red was ordered to bail shortly before the boat smashed into the torpedo.  (As for poor Tranker [Arthur Loft]…well, he’s in a better place now.  And by that I mean away from this serial.)  “I hope they pick us up!” offers up Red in an attempt to make small talk.  (“I hope they don’t leave us here for the sharks!”)

On board the Baratavia, the dependable old sea dog known as Captain Fairfield (Paul Scott) gets a visit on the bridge from Michael Splendor (Wade Boteler), business partner of the man in charge of constructing the new base on Tangita, John Blake (Ben Taggart).  It was noticeable in the last chapter but becomes increasingly evident by now that the character of Splendor is really just a reboot of The Green Hornet’s Michael Axford (a part also played by Boteler in two serials)—they could have saved themselves some trouble and just called him “Axford” though they may have been restricted from doing so for legal reasons.  Anyhoo, Splendor asks the cap’n if he’s investigated that “explosion,” and Fairfield responds that he’s sent a boat out there.  “There seem to be a couple of men swimming out there,” he says, rather nonchalantly.

There is then a quick cut to Winslow’s ship, the Destroyer 620, which is being piloted in his absence by the wildly enthusiastic Lt. Cmdr. Grady (Dirk Thane).  A crewman tells Grady that the 620’s radio operator still hasn’t been able to contact the Baratavia…and that’s because, unbeknownst to the crew, the Baratavia’s radio is still being repaired.  Because Grady is not really engaged in anything besides babysitting Winslow’s ship (it’s not like he’s battling saboteurs like Don and Red), we quickly move away from his lame part in this scenario and back to the Baratavia, where Don and Red have since been rescued from the drink and are on the bridge with Fairfield and Splendor.

DON: …so you see, gentlemen, the only way to stop the human torpedo was to ram it
FAIRFIELD: You not only saved my ship, Commander Winslow…but the lives of these skilled workers and the cargo, supplies and equipment…
SPLENDOR: You know, Don…this human torpedo thing sounds like the shenanigans of The Scorpion!

Axford…I mean, Splendor pronounces that last word as “Scar-pian”…giving further credence to my belief that the filmmakers told Boteler: “Just play him like you did that Irish boob in the Hornet serials.”

DON: We could have made sure if the crook who killed your operator and wrecked the radio hadn’t made his escape
FAIRFIELD: He’s still somewhere aboard this ship!
DON: Then we’re going to find him!
FAIRFIELD: How?  Nobody saw him!

Au contraire, mon Capitan!  As if it were neatly plotted, Red comes rushing onto the bridge with a crewman, played by Phil Warren.  Warren had a lengthy if not particularly distinguished career in B-pictures and serials; his movies include King of Alcatraz, Badman’s Territory, The Falcon’s Adventure and Superman and the Mole Men.  He turns up in bit parts in many of Universal’s serials, notably the last three chapters of The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack; he was also in the risible Republic chapter play Dangers of the Canadian MountedMole Men would be his cinematic swan song; he left acting to become a retail advertising manager—first for the Los Angeles Mirror, and then for the Los Angeles Times when the Mirror folded in 1962.

Crewman Warren witnessed a suspicious passenger hanging around outside the Baratavia’s radio room shortly before the radio operator snuffed it…and though he didn’t see the man’s face; he tells Don that if he lined up the passengers he’s certain he could make a positive I.D.  Sadly, our would-be hero will not get that opportunity because the real culprit in the operator’s killing, the increasingly loathsome Paul Barsac (John Holland), just happens to be conveniently lurking outside the bridge…and he quickly ensures Warren’s silence by inserting a bullet into him, then tossing the gun overboard.

This sort of thing happens all the time in the Charlie Chan movies.  But before the crewman draws his rations, he hands an object to Don that Barsac dropped after Warren initially frightened him off.  It appears to be an insignificant key chain …but then Mr. Naval Intelligence holds it up to a mirror…

RED: Looks like your hunch was right, Mike!
SPLENDOR: ‘Tis The Scorpion, all right!
DON: This proves the murderer on this ship is working for The Scorpion…
FAIRFIELD: I’ve heard of The Scorpion…isn’t he some sort of legendary spy master?

“And wasn’t he also the villain in The Adventures of Captain Marvel?”

SPLENDOR: Spy genius, Captain…and he’s no legend, blast his hide…
DON: We now know who The Scorpion’s gang is working for…
RED: You can bet their biggest job is to prevent our Navy building a submarine base on Tangita Island!
DON: Right!  That makes it more urgent than ever that we capture the murderer aboard this ship…

Captain Fairfield thinks that will be a pretty tall order…but has failed to reckon with the amazing deductive powers of Winslow, who believes the identity of the rogue passenger can be discerned by “checking the code messages received by passengers on board this ship!”  “That’ll do it, laddie,” confirms Splendor in an admirable display of butt-kissing.

“And when we’ve found him,” warns Don, “the first thing we’ll make him do is tell us where The Scorpion’s headquarters are located on Tangita!”

After a couple of quick stock footage shots of lovely Tangita Island (“Come for the breadfruit…stay for the dysentery!”) and the island’s main industry, the Tangita Gold Mine…we find “brains heavy” Spencer Merlin (John Litel) putting out a cigarette just outside the mine entrance.  This same footage of Litel was used in the last chapter, and I’ll be amused to the point of laugh-out-loud mirth if they continue to feature this bit in each subsequent installment.  After descending to Scorpion Headquarters in the usual fashion (the mine’s elevator) and navigating his way through the mine, Merlin joins his lieutenant, Henchman Prindle (Robert Barron), in front of the big screen TV where the two men will receive this chapter’s orders from none other than The Scar-pian himself.

SCORPION: I received your message, M-22…I cannot not tolerate failures…the Baratavia must be sunk before her cargo is unloaded…use a submarine…Winslow is holding the passengers aboard ship, placing Barsac in constant danger of discovery…Winslow must not reach him…my orders to capture Winslow and hold him a prisoner must be obeyed

If The Scorpion is well aware as to what’s going down on the Baratavia (i.e. Don’s search for the saboteur)—why doesn’t he have the confederate who’s feeding him that information capture Winslow instead of entrusting it to Spence and his crew?  We do not learn the answer to this.

MERLIN: The Scorpion’s right…the Baratavia must be sunk before Winslow finds out about Barsac… (To Prindle) Get the Z-52 ready…
PRINDLE: Sorry, M-22…but both submarines will be tied up until our undersea oil well’s repaired…
MERLIN: The perfect sub base…entrance hidden from the sea…enough oil on the ocean floor to refuel an entire Navy…and now it’s useless!  I don’t want excuses—have that oil well operating within the next 24 hours!

Merlin, having been chewed out by his superior (The Scorpion), has no other course of action but to give his underling a right pranging—that’s how the whole chain of command thing works.  We then shift to the office of John Blake, where we find Seaman Chapman (Peter Leeds) handing a communiqué to Winslow.  It’s a report of the radio messages “sent from Pearl Harbor by Transpacific,” he tells his commanding officer.  Not to be outdone, Nurse Mercedes Colby (Claire Dodd) has scared up “a complete list of  names from Captain Holding,” the head of Naval Intelligence whose acquaintance we made in the first chapter.  Winslow asks Chapman to go outside and round up Pennington, because he’s apparently too lazy to do it himself.

DON: Mercedes…my hunch is right…there’s one message listed by the Baratavia as having been sent by Transpacific which is not on Holding’s list!
MERCEDES: What does that mean, Don?

“I haven’t the slightest freaking idea.”

DON: Well, it means it must have been sent by a secret radio station…
RED (entering the office with Splendor): Did you uncover something, Don?
DON: Yes, Red…we can have Captain Fairfield release his passengers…

“Except for the ones in steerage.  They’re to continue being beaten and given nothing but bread and water.”

SPLENDOR: Then there was no one a’ tall on the list that you can suspect as the murderer?
DON: On the contrary—there was!  And his name…is Paul Barsac!

Dun dun DUN!!!

RED: Great!  I’ll arrest him at once!
DON: No, no…wait a minute, Red…

“Pacing, my friend.  We’ve still got ten more chapters.”

DON: …it won’t do anything to let him know we’ve spotted him…but we’ll have him followed the minute he leaves the ship…

The camera then careens wildly over to an area beside Seaman Chapman (seated at the radio), which cues the audience into letting them know Winslow’s plan is being overheard by Merlin and his goon Corley (Lane Chandler) at a hidden Dictaphone located in a shack on Tangita.  Merlin tells Corley that Barsac will need to be warned, and although Cor volunteers to meet Barsac at the boat, Spence tells him to sit tight…because Barsac will be checking into the Pacific Hotel, and they’ll be able to get in touch with him through a contact known as “Tangita Jim.”  (No relation to Tambosa Tim, by the way.)

I love that wall that slides back to keep the Dictaphone hidden.  Back in Blake’s office, Don paces a bit until Blake and his secretary, Misty Gaye (Anne Nagel), enter.

MISTY: Red just told us you’re releasing the passengers on the Baratavia…

“And not coincidentally, he told me this as he was helping me zip up my dress.”

DON: That’s right…
BLAKE: That’s good news, Commander…I need those skilled workmen to keep going on the new naval base…

They seem to refer to these guys as “skilled workmen” a lot in this serial.  Are they trying to cover up for the fact that they’re really undocumented laborers?  How do they know they’re skilled—maybe they’re just a bunch of mooks who couldn’t pass the physical to get into the service…?

MISTY: Mr. Blake’s already three weeks behind schedule…
DON: Oh…I’m sorry to hold you up, Blake…but it’s important that we get a line on the Scorpion’s gang…

Splendor comes barging into the office with the news that Red’s investigation has turned up an additional tidbit: Barsac has reservations at the Pacific Hotel.

DON: The Pacific Hotel?
BLAKE: It’s the only hotel on the island, Commander…run by a half-caste by the name of Tangita Jim…
MISTY: I have a room there!  I was just going over to freshen up a bit…

Don tells Misty that there will be none of her feminine freshening up by asking her to do him a favor and stay away from the hotel for the rest of the day.  “Anything you say, Don,” she responds with blind obedience.  Turning to Splendor, he says: “Mike…you get up there as quickly as you can…and tell Red…”

We never learn what exactly Mike was supposed to tell Pennington, because a scene dissolve puts us smack dab in the lobby of the Pacific as Barsac enters through the front doors.

Mercedes keeps an eye on Barsac.  (Apparently there’s nothing for her to do in the infirmary.)  Barsac informs the man at the front desk that he has a reservation, and that man is the previously mentioned “Tangita Jim”…who curiously refers to himself in the third person.  T.J. is played by Jerry Mandy, who began his film career in the 1920s and spent a good many years working at the Hal Roach studios as a supporting player in two-reelers headlined by the likes of Charley Chase, Our Gang and Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts.  Mandy appears in the 1927 silent classic Underworld, but by the 1930s/1940s he was doing mostly bit parts in films like Sailor’s Luck and On the Avenue.

As Barsac signs the register, “Red” Pennington breezes into the lobby and asks Tangita Jim if Misty Gaye is in.  “Sorry, sir,” replies T.J., “but she left early this morning.”  Because Red was to meet her there, Jim graciously allows him to stick around to wait for her.  Jim announces rather loudly that Mr. Barsac will be in Room 18, and as Red exits the lobby he does a slight head motion towards Mercedes, signaling her to follow him.

Barsac unlocks the door to his room and upon entering, finds it infested with rats.  Oh!  My mistake…it’s just Spencer Merlin.

MERLIN: Took you long enough to report…
BARSAC: I couldn’t help it, M-22…they held us all on board ship…
MERLIN: Thanks to your bungling of the job…
BARSAC: I followed your orders to the letter
MERLIN (muttering): Yes, I suppose you did…

“Sorry about being so shirty…The Scorpion has really been on my ass lately.”  Spence is a little on edge because of Don Winslow’s presence on Tangita, and Barsac helpfully provides the info that “his red-headed friend followed me here.”  The camera cuts away briefly to Red and Mercedes, with Red asking her to inform Don that he spotted Barsac at the hotel and to come right over.  Back in Barsac’s hotel room, Merlin asks Corley to come out for this interesting development:

Corley is outfitted to resemble Barsac—but the odd thing is that all three men are essentially dressed the same (though the effect is spoiled by the fact that Merlin is the shorter of the three).

BARSAC: Well…that’s quite a…striking resemblance…
MERLIN: Looks enough like you to throw Winslow off the trail…
CORLEY: Yeah…and put me on the spot
MERLIN: Not if you’re smart, Corley…and lead Winslow into a trap as we planned…

Will this silly plan actually work?  Well, by this time Mercedes has returned with Don (who ends up sending Red to pick up Splendor “at the wharf”) she glances over at the hotel entrance and sees Not-Barsac (Corley)…but she points him out as the genuine article.

DON: He’s heading for that jungle trail…
MERCEDES: You’ve got to stop him!
DON: No…

Maybe it’s too early in the serial…but I’m starting to suspect that Don Winslow is a bit of a lily-livered coward.

DON: …he’s probably heading for that hut where Red and I had the fight…when he comes back with Mike, tell him to wait here…

I’m going to assume Don means Red…and not Not-Barsac.  Don gives chase, and his pursuit of Not-Barsac is witnessed by Tangita Jim…who phones Merlin up in Barsac’s room to give him the skinny.  Spence then tells Barsac that all is going according to plan, and gives instructions to an anxious Barsac on how to get to The Scorpion’s headquarters.

MERLIN (pointing off in the distance): Take that brown car…follow the coast road…
BARSAC: Does that lead to the mine?
MERLIN: No…I’ll be waiting for you on the road at Lookout Point…
BARSAC: Well, that shouldn’t be too hard to find…
MERLIN: Well, be careful you’re not followed…you know what it means if Winslow finds out in any way that the mine is connected with The Scorpion
BARSAC: Why don’t you let me finish off that nosy commander?
MERLIN: No…The Scorpion is reserving that very pleasure for himself…Winslow must be taken alive

Pay very close attention here.  The flimsy logic of any serial would dictate that Job Number One is to eliminate the hero…but in Don Winslow, the thugs can’t harm a hair on his chinny chin-chin because the Head Man wants to do it himself.  We will revisit this in subsequent chapters.

On the “jungle trail,” Corley is slowly leaving a path for Don to follow…and as Don rightly guessed (of course—he’s never wrong…he’s Don Freakin’ Winslow!). that path leads back to Dictaphone Hut.  Here’s what I don’t understand.  Wouldn’t a Naval Intelligence officer have had that place shut down and secured by now?  Apparently not, because by the time Don reaches the hut Corley has ducked out of sight…and our hero enters the dwelling with his pistola drawn.  From behind the front door, another henchman answering to “Slug” jumps Don, and Henchman Spike (Ethan Laidlaw) quickly joins in the melee.  Don’s all-too-obvious stuntman is attempting to fight these guys off but the odds in their favor increase when Corley turns up for a pile on.

Spike manages to waylay Winslow with a balsa wood chair, and as the unconscious Don slumps to the floor (and on top of Slug, which sort of made me chuckle) Corley tells his fellow goon: “We’ll throw him in that corner and put a mat over him…you keep close guard over him—I’ve got to report to M-22.”  So the “trap” that Merlin mentioned earlier consists of a simple mat placed over the knocked-out Winslow because, as I have stated in an earlier paragraph, disposing of Don is right out.

Corley instructs Spike to keep an eye on Winslow and not let anyone approach the hut…but for some reason, has Slug come along with him.  I would think that greater numbers hutside would discourage anyone from rescuing Donnie, and I would be right on that score because blundering along the jungle trail in search of Commander Winslow are his pals Red and Mike.  (In case you’re still not convinced that Splendor is channeling Mike Axford, he refers to Winslow as “that hot-headed young spalpeen.”)  The two of them eventually arrive outside the hut and spotting Spike outside throwing darts at a dartboard, Splendor tells Red to circle around the back of the hut while he distracts Spike by shooting his gun into the air.  (No, unfortunately none of them fall back to Earth to kill Mike.)  Red then gets the drop on the distracted Spike, and from inside the hut Don calls out for help.  Spike then hauls ass-and-elbows off into the horizon (like Axford, Splendor is unable to hit the broadside of a barn with his pistol) and when Splendor starts off after him Red interrupts him to say: “It’s no use following him…that jungle’s too thick!”  (“It’s like Don was telling me—we have to make this look good for ten more chapters!”)

Inside the hut, Red and Mike help Don to his feet and start to untie him.

SPLENDOR: Looks like you walked right into a trap!
RED: They sure put one over on us that time!
DON: Yeah…and it was cleverly done

“Somehow they knew that Mercedes was nearsighted!”

DON: …that wasn’t Barsac I followed!
SPLENDOR: By golly—I think you’re right!

Boy, you could energize a 9-volt battery with the brain power in that hut.  Don decrees that they need to hie themselves back to the hotel and pick up the trail of the real Barsac.  Speaking of which, Mr. B has descended the stairs of the Pacific and dropped a key in front of Tangita Jim at the front desk.  “I’m leaving,” he tells the proprietor.  “You can send my stuff over to headquarters.”

“All right, Barsac,” responds T.J. cryptically.  “But be careful they don’t follow you.”  Exiting the hotel, Barsac fails to notice at first that Mercedes is seated outside, thumbing through a magazine…and she’s able to get a better look at him this time.  He makes tracks for the “brown car” Merlin told him about earlier, and Mercedes decides to follow him…though a bit reluctantly.  But she won’t have to muss herself doing spy work: Don, Red and Mike have arrived back at the hotel just in time.

MERCEDES: Don…something just happened that I don’t understand—another Barsac came out of the hotel, got into a car and drove down the coast road!
DON: That was the real Barsac…let me have the car, Mercedes—I’m going after that crook!
SPLENDOR: Now you’re talkin’, laddie—we’ll catch him!
DON: No no, Mike…you and Red follow me in another car and keep me covered…our friends have a habit of shooting in the back!

“And besides—the cliffhanger won’t make sense otherwise!” Don is shortly in hot pursuit of Barsac, who by virtue of his head start reaches Lookout Point, where Merlin and Prindle are waiting beside another car.

MERLIN: Get away without being followed?
BARSAC: That girlfriend of Winslow’s spotted me as I left the hotel…
PRINDLE: Bungled again…she’ll send someone after you…

I love Prindle’s little editorial comment.  (“You see, Spence—you should have let me handle it!”)

MERLIN: If she does, they won’t find Barsac alive…get that can of gasoline out of the car…
PRINDLE: What for?
MERLIN: Never mind—get it!

“Are you going to set him on fire, Boss?”  There’s a falling-down funny moment when Prindle retrieves the gas can from the car and handing it to Merlin, has his cigarette pulled out of his mouth by Spence.  (“Idiot!  You want to blow us to kingdom come?”)

“Now pour it over that car,” Spencer orders Prindle.  Prindle douses the car with petrol, and the idea is that the crooks will roll the car downhill so it will crash…everyone will think Barsac cashed in his chips while inside.  But here’s the hysterical part—Merlin strikes a match and sets the car ablaze…then the car is pushed down the incline.  (How were they able to release the brakes on the car once it had been set on fire?  Oven mitts?)

Well, you can see where this is headed—Don drives like a maniac in pursuit of Barsac…car on fire rolls downhill…nowhere to swerve…

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