It’s not a national holiday yet, but today is President Ronald Wilson Reagan’s birthday, so we here at the Movies & Drinks offices decided to kick back and screen some guilt-free “B” grippers from the “Gipper,” our 40th President of these here United States.
By Paul Mavis
Warner Bros. irreplaceable Archive Collection of M.O.D. library titles still offers Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service Mysteries Collection, a two-disc collection of “Dutch” Reagan’s four “B” programmers in the Brass Bancroft series. They are Secret Service of the Air, Code of the Secret Service, Smashing the Money Ring, and Murder in the Air. With the first three films released in 1939 (you probably won’t find these listed whenever anyone writes about “Hollywood’s Greatest Year”) and the final one in 1940, the Brass Bancroft programmers certainly didn’t win any awards or critical accolades when they were released on the bottom of double bills over 70 years ago. However, within the bounds of acceptable “B” thriller fare, they work quite well.
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Critics and opponents during President Reagan’s political career used to try and score cheap points by dredging up entries like those in the Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service Mysteries Collection as examples of Reagan’s less-than-stellar movie career. It always backfired. The more they sneered about movies like Bedtime for Bonzo (a favorite target of Hollywood liberal elites) and Hellcats of the Navy, the more these movies were sought out by viewers…and the more people were reminded of what a genial, amiable, capable leading man Ronald Reagan was in the right project (he was aces, too, as a villain–check out his nasty, believable turn in Don Siegel’s masterpiece, The Killers). The same holds true for these fun little “B” programmers. “Art” they’re not (whatever the hell that is…), but they’re entertaining and fast-paced, and Reagan, right at the beginning of his career, already shows his promise as a reliable lead. Let’s look very briefly at each movie.
Secret Service of the Air
Mexico, high about the clouds, 1939. Illegal immigrants and enemies of the United States are flocking over the border (wait…this sounds familiar…) via a covert airline run by Jim Cameron (James Stephenson) and his procurer, Earl “Ace” Hemrich (Bernard Nedell). When a Secret Service agent, in pursuit of stolen bonds, stumbles on this racket, he takes a little trip, disguised as one of the illegals…before he tries to fly, once the whole human cargo is dumped through the plane’s false bottom when the pilot panics. Asked by his Chief to find someone with aviation experience to crack the case, Deputy Chief Tom Saxby (John Litel) lights on Lieutenant “Brass” Bancroft (Ronald Reagan), a former Navy flier and now a captain on the Pacific Orient Express clipper service. Deputized into service, Bancroft is deliberately arrested, tried, and convicted to prison for a phony counterfeiting rap, just so he can cozy up to rat fink “Ace” Hemrich. Worming his way into the human trafficking organization, “Brass” will need every ounce of derring-do to survive his various close encounters with death…including the deadly comedy of sidekick “Gabby” Watters (Eddie Foy, Jr.).
Having only just arrived in Hollywood in 1937, Warner Bros. contract player Ronald Reagan already had eleven movies released by the time he starred in Secret Service of the Air in 1939, such was the speed and efficiency of the various film units at Warner’s―particularly the “B” unit (two more Bancroft programmers would be churned out before the year was over). Reagan never made any bones about disliking these “B” efforts, and from the standpoint of a young, aspiring actor who happened to have these quickies released at the same time he was scoring significant supporting turns in A-list movies like Brother Rat, Dark Victory, and Knute Rockne: All American (something the studios did all the time to their contract players), his less-than-enthusiastic memories of his first starring efforts are understandable.
Removed from that context, Secret Service of the Air holds up quite well, giving the viewer a fairly exciting little mini-serial that plays as part spy film, part prison picture, and part action flick (the flight over the stormy Pacific is particularly well edited, while there’s a terrific bar fight from back in the days when no one cared if a stunt man got killed). No scene or sequence lasts too long here as we go smashing through one setup after another via plenty of Warner stock footage, leaving the viewer little time to question the story’s logic. While certainly not a heavily skilled performer at this point, Reagan’s amiable turn anchors the pic well; he’s ingratiating in a wholesome way, and that’s enough, sometimes, to make a star (watch Reagan when he’s not the focus of the scene; he’s much more relaxed and even a little snotty in some of his prison come-backs). As for sidekick Foy, his mugging probably elicited mild guffaws back in ’39…but it all wears heavily today. Not a bad start at all for the series.
Code of the Secret Service
Secret Service/Treasury Agent Lieutenant “Brass” Bancroft (Ronald Reagan) is sent by his superior, Saxby (Joe King this time), to hook up with Agent Dan Crockett in Texas, where Crockett has tracked down a ring of counterfeiters with stolen plates. Operating out of the Silver Slipper saloon, the ring pays out its gambling debts with silver dollars, hoarding their paper money to bleach it out for use in their counterfeit $20 bills. Unfortunately, Dan cashes in his chips early at the Slipper, and the mugs pin the rap on “Brass,” who lams it out of there with buddy agent “Gabby” Watters (Eddie Foy, Jr.). Across the border into Mexico, “Brass” looks for the headquarters of the counterfeiters, run by a mysterious man with a peg leg.
A come down from the first movie, this second entry in the Brass Bancroft series suffers from an exceedingly simple script, with plot coincidences and set pieces that seem fairly ridiculous at times, even by “B” filler standards (a bullet stopped by a thin 20-page Spanish-English dictionary, for instance). Reportedly, this was the one entry in the series that Reagan begged the studio not to release (they basically laughed at him). Compared to the first, admittedly cheap Secret Service of the Air, the even cheaper Code of the Secret Service is devoid of much interest. One or two moments of style (Brass’ leap from a moving train; Reagan and Ila Rhodes tied up in a Spanish mission bell tower―a beautifully composed frame, worthy of the Master, Hitchcock, that only lasts for a second or two) are followed by a lot of talking for a “B” programmer, with skirted Eddie Foy, Jr’s mugging reaching new heights of annoyance (when he breaks out one of his old man’s rubber-legged dances―executed poorly, I might add―this lover of vaudeville shook his head sadly). Stock footage is prevalent, of course (including Paul Muni’s breathing-through-a-water-reed trick from I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang), but the editor must have been stumped to find footage of a Spanish mission blowing up: they just skip right over it in the finale. Too much talk; not enough action.
Smashing the Money Ring
Up the river, at the Federal pen, the Big House Bugle prison newspaper (!) has a special supplement: counterfeit greenbacks. Outside those prison walls, counterfeiter “Dice” Mathews (Joe Downing) answers to a shadowy “big boss,” but he’s in charge of laundering the phony dough at ex-gangster Steve Parker’s (Charles D. Brown) floating crap game/gambling boat, the S.S. Kismet (love it). Parker, a reformed thug, doesn’t want any beefs, see, so he decides to rat out Dice anonymously, before taking a poke at a cop to get a 30-day “keep out of the hospital free” card in the joint. Unfortunately, Parker lands a judge who ain’t amused by this charming felon, and Parker lands a dozen. It’s up to Secret Service agent Lieutenant “Brass” Bancroft (Ronald Reagan) to get sent up the river, cozy up to “Dice,” and find out where the bogus clams are being stamped.
The best entry in the series, Smashing the Money Ring is a terrific little actioner, a fast-paced prison picture that should appeal to aficionados of the genre (particular the Warner Bros. variety). Although similar to a subplot in Secret Service of the Air, Smashing the Money Ring‘s prison plot takes up almost all the screen time―and deservedly so. If you’re from my generation and you watched a lot of old movies on TV, the Warner Bros. prison pictures were tops for gritty action and dialogue, and this Bancroft entry is no different. Reagan might not wholly convince you that he’s a hardened con, but he’s game to try (watch him smirk when he wipes the prints off a shiv to save Downing’s bacon), and it’s fun to watch the various prison motifs and stereotypes, ingrained in our collective pop culture minds from endless films such as this, roll out with typical WB economy. Terrific stock footage of real prison life (San Quentin, maybe, or Sing Sing?), and the dialogue is short and snappy. Only Foy, again, fails to impress, ironically during a scene where he’s supposed to convince Margot Stevenson that he’s a vaudeville entertainer. Clean and beautifully put together, this is entertaining “B” movie-making.
Murder in the Air
As saboteurs wreak havoc on the American homeland, a horribly mangled hobo, discovered in a train wreck, holds the clue as to the identity and purpose of the international espionage ring waging war on the U.S. of A. Lieutenant “Brass” Bancroft (Ronald Reagan), with the aid of sidekick “Gabby” Watters (Eddie Foy, Jr.), crack the identity of the hobo who had $50,000 dollars on him, discovering he was one of the world’s most talented anarchists―a saboteur for hire. With “Brass” assuming his identity, the Secret Service agent must infiltrate an “alleged patriotic” group of naturalized citizens, headed by Joe Garvey (James Stephenson), who desperately want America to stay neutral in the European war, and who sneer at “capitalist” enemies. At the same time, the U.S. Navy has developed a super-secret weapon, the “Inertia Projector,” that they promptly advertise in the newspapers, a weapon that can make America invincible in the upcoming war. Will “Brass” be able to stop the spies from stealing the plans for the “Projector?”
Another solid entry in the series, Murder in the Air tells a straight-forward―if thoroughly familiar―spy story, enhanced by the cool Flash Gordon aspects of the “Inertia Projector” element. No doubt of interest for critics who like to try and find parallels between today’s politics and yesterday’s movie plotting, Murder in the Air‘s unabashed distrust of socialist, unionist rabble-rousers will annoy about 30% of today’s American public, and about 85% of the millennials (the notion of “naturalized” spies and terrorists living among us, falling back on the permissive laws of the U.S. for protection when caught, will strike a far more disturbing note for the rest of us…and rightly so). But trying to correlate the political subtext of a pre-WWII “B” programmer that was more interested in thrilling than informing, with the politics of today may be a more fruitful exercise for the parlor rather than this review.
Thankfully, Foy is largely absent from the antics here, proving to be a better straight man for funny fiancé Helen Lynd in some bracketing sequences. Reagan looks ready to bolt the series, and certainly there seems to be little in the way of character development for Reagan’s “Brass” character after four films (not exactly a prerequisite for “B” programmers). However, Murder in the Air delivers the “B” goods in quick fashion, ending the series on a solid note.