Brass Bancroft Series

Secret Service of the Air (1939) - 6.0

This is the first of a four film series relating the adventures of Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service. Three of them were produced in 1939 and then one in 1940. They were B films right from the beginning (this one is 60 minutes) as opposed to going through a cycle that many of the series went through - starting off as the headliner and slowly sinking to becoming the second part of a double feature. Always hard to remember that once upon a time a ticket would get you two films, some cartoons and a news reel. Now it's 25 minutes of commercials for the privilege of watching a film that we paid a ransom for to munch on popcorn that we sold our first child for.

Unlike many of the multiple crime series of the 1930's and 40's, this one has no back story of being based on literature or radio. It was an original story from Warner Brothers who had a young actor that they had signed up and they wanted to see how he fared. And he was never heard from again. He is a genial enough actor without a lot of acting chops but you really don't need them in a film like this that whooshes by like a bat out of hell. This has the feel of a serial without the serial unless you define the entire series as one long serial. In a narrative where a normal film would flesh out relationships or plot points, this film just leaves it up to the audience to fill in the blank. I wish more modern films would do the same. We aren't as stupid as we look.

Brass (Ronald Reagan) is a commercial pilot, along with his comedy relief navigator Gabby, who is set to propose to the boss's daughter when an old friend (the always reliable John Litel) from the Secret Service asks for his help. An old problem that is still in the headlines today - smuggling immigrants from Mexico over the border. In an early scene a Secret Service man has gone undercover and is on the plane with a group of immigrants when the pilot realizes he is about to be arrested and so pulls a Trump and releases the floor sending the people to their death far below. A bit of a shock. Any way, Brass agrees and goes so far as to be arrested to have a record to join the gang. There are two very solid fisticuff scenes in which Brass acquits himself well and a good car chase - for a low budget B film you can't ask for much more. By the way, Gabby is played by Joe Foy Jr and is in all four of the films as is Reagan. He was the son of the famous vaudevillian Joe Foy and was part of the act Joe Foy and the Seven Little Foys. Bob Hope made a film about them in 1955 - The Seven Little Foys.

Code of the Secret Service (1939) - 5.0

Brass Bancroft is back in the second film in this series once again protecting America from crooks across the border. He is now a full time agent as is his comedy relief Gabby. They are assigned to meet up with another agent south of the border who has a lead to a counterfeiting ring. Brass meets him in a hotel room where the fellow says to him I think they have caught on to me - look outside and pulls back the curtain - so that the two crooks can now identify Brass too as a Treasury man. Now exactly the brightest bulbs in the service. So the agent is killed and most of the remainder of the film is Brass being chased by the crooks or by the Mexican police (and you can imagine how well they come off) who think he killed the other agent.

With a lot of this chasing taking place out in the middle of nowhere, it resembles one of those Poverty Row Westerns with a lot of dust and tumbleweed. It is so indifferent that a few of the actors from the first film are brought back as different characters for this one. But like the first one it feels like a serial moving quickly and spending no money. At the end we get a little patriotic speech about the Secret Service - kind of a sign of how times have changed in that no movie would ever do that today without laughter breaking out in the theater.

I am sure Reagan who plays Brass in this series was thrilled to be a lead so early on in his career and in this same year he has a role as a playboy in the classic film Dark Victory. Only better things ahead for him. But not for us. What is weird after seeing this is that Jerry Parr said watching this film was the reason he joined the Secret Service later when he was a grown-up. Who is Jerry Parr? The Secret Service agent who saved Reagan's life when Hinckley tried to assassinate him in 1981. Which means I guess if I was 9 years old as Parr must have been I would have enjoyed this a lot more. Which is true of a lot of these old B films. They were often for children and when adults like me judge them it is rather pointless and unfair.

Smashing the Money Ring (1939) - 5.5

There is a part of me that likes to finish what I've started. Even if it is a series of mediocre films. So having watched the first two of the Brass Bancroft films, I took on the third. In their favor is that they all come in around the one-hour mark and go by quickly. In this one Brass is after a counterfeit ring and goes undercover at a prison to get into the confidence of the bad guys. If that sounds vaguely familiar that is because the undercover part occurred the first film and the counterfeit ring took place in the second. I am not sure if counterfeit still falls under the responsibility of Treasury and the Secret Service but it did in those days - as did illegal immigration interestingly - and of course protecting the President. Hard to see what connects those and these days of course immigration is in Homeland Security.

Reagan as still Bancroft and Eddie Foy Jr returns as Gabby his sidekick. At one point Gabby tries to go undercover as an entertainer and does a little soft shoe - hopefully his act with his father was better. Look out for John Hamilton as a Captain in the jail - he shows up in three films in the series but doesn't get credited in any of them - his days as Perry White were in the future. For a low budget B film, this is fairly solid - a jailbreak, a couple killings and the Big Boss's identity is kept hidden till near the end. Also no romance thankfully - which is good because at the end of the first film Brass is off to get married and we know Ronnie would never cheat on his wife.

Murder in the Air (1940) - 6.0

This is the first and last of the Brass Bancroft films starring Ronald Reagan and is perhaps the best. It is directed by Lewis Seiler who spent his entire career basically in the territory of B films but turned out some fine work in gangster films (King of the Underworld) and one terrific war film (Guadalcanal Diary). He brings that sure hand to this 54 minute film, slowing it down a bit and filling it out with some comedy (Eddie Foy Jr) and suspense. The plot takes it out of the mundane that the previous three films were anchored down with and jumps into spies and secret weapons.

A ring of spies are committing sabotage around the USA and when a spy is killed, Brass is asked by his boss (John Litel again) to take his place and infiltrate the gang. He does this but of course the wife shows up. But they even bring in a bit of sci-fi with a weapon developed by the Navy that can stop any electrical device and will stop a fleet from attacking America. Which takes place on a giant dirigible. Considering the year, I was expecting the villains to be fascists - but they are Red swine. As a plus for Reagan fans, he appears bare-chested at one point - nothing to write home about.

Right after this film Reagan had perhaps his most famous role and acquired a nickname that would stick with him through the Presidency - playing the Gipper in Knute Rockne All American. He stayed in acting till the mid-1960's but never became more than a mid-level actor. Which is too bad. He found something he thought he was better at. These four films can be found in a DVD set.