A serial has become an annual staple at the Columbus Moving Picture Show. Since we usually break them up into a few chapters each morning at the event, it made sense to do the same for each week of the month of September. Join us as we review an entire serial.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: By the time Universal got around to adapting Secret Agent X-9 for the screen the second time, the strip was completely different from the one that Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond had created in 1934. That’s of no matter, really, because you don’t have to see many serials that are comic strip adaptations to know that the studios had a tendency to play fast and loose with the source material. This one, at least, gets the names right.
See, it’s late 1942 when our scene opens and a Japanese scientist (Benson Fong, AKA Charlie Chan’s number 3 son, Tommy) has discovered that an old explosive formula (7-22 for the uninitiated) turns into gasoline when combined with distilled water. There’s only one problem, and it’s a big one. The formula for 7-22 is currently in California. Naturally, the Japanese scientists need to figure out how to get the formula before the Allies catch on to what they’ve already got.
They set up shop on a ‘neutral’ island, Shadow Island, hoping to get some disloyal Americans to help smuggle the papers, but you know what they didn’t count on? Phil Corrigan, that’s what. See, he’s Secret Agent X-9 and he’s on the island trying to figure out just what’s going on, assisted by Ah Fong (Keye Luke) and an Australian operative, Lynn Moore (Jan Wiley).
If this sounds a little confusing, well, it is. There is a LOT of plot going on in this thing, especially since we only watched the first three chapters.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: The story moves fast and furiously so you have to pay attention to keep up. The recaps at the beginning of each chapter aren't overly drawn out which is helpful for binge watching.
ADAM WILLIAMS: It takes me a couple chapters to acclimate to these serials. By that time, I’ve dismissed the intricacies of the story and, rather than trying to keep up with the details, I simply get into the spirit of the careening story and the studio-bound atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed Shadow Island’s seedy saloon, House of Shadows (proprietor: Lucky Kamber). I call it a saloon because it is basically a bamboo-trimmed Western bar with pith helmets and linen suits rather than ten-gallon hats and dungarees. Besides the usual roulette and poker games, I was drawn to the character Solo (played by the distinguished character actor Samuel S. Hinds) who—appropriate to his name—is preoccupied by a game of Tiddlywinks (Full disclosure: I had to show this clip to my girlfriend and ask what Solo was doing. “It looks like he’s playing Tiddlywinks,” was her response. It was at this point that I learned that Tiddlywinks was an actual game.)
SG: It seems appropriate that in this story that appeals strongly to a youthful audience, the ruffians in the seedy bar would be playing a kid's game.
RB: With titles like Torpedo Rendezvous, Ringed By Fire, and Death Curve, you expect a good time, and you definitely get one. Production values are high (higher I’d say than the more beloved Republic serials) with music cribbed from Hitchcock’s Saboteur and Gung-Ho.
SG: The fun thing about serials is knowing that they were typically produced with a small budget. Sometimes the sets feel small and claustrophobic, and the actors are forced to keep their movements contained, adding to the hilarity of some of the fight scenes. Here there is a little more room to spread out, but the Nazis are overtaken much too easily time and time again. It seems to be a serial trope that men attack each other by flying across the room to make a tackle. Lloyd Bridges as Phil Corrigan reveals his hero identity by shouting, "I am not a Nazi!" and going on the attack. Everyone seems to have a gun, but no one seems how to use it well.
AW: Fist fights are such a crutch to the low rent writers of pulps, B-movies, and serials. Unfortunately, they are one of the most difficult things to film or write about with any degree of intensity. I agree, these are routine fisticuffs.
On the other hand, I did appreciate the explosive effect work in Secret Agent X-9. The filmmakers didn’t shirk their responsibility to live up to the chapter titles; that torpedo made its rendezvous, the lake was ringed by intense flames, and the curve was indeed deadly! Now I’m genuinely curious about Chapter 5: Doom Downgrade. Does a downgrade to doom mean that doom is less likely to occur? Somehow, I think it’s the opposite. We’ll see next week.
SG: A character only has to say, "There's trouble on board," before they run smack into it. You'll never find yourself getting bored in this one; it is action-packed.
Although the Japanese characters are playing sinister stereotypes, I appreciate that the parody is not so excessive as to become uncomfortable to watch.
AW: Is Lynn Moore really the Tokyo Rose-like propogandist Miss Australia, bent on demoralizing Aussies? Or is she heroically transmitting codes in her messages? I’m really enjoying Jan Wiley’s femme fatale-lite performance. Wiley had the quintessential B-movie career, making her debut for RKO as one of the New Faces of 1937. From there it was nine years of uncredited bit parts, serials (along with X-9, she had leads in Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. and The Master Key), numerous roles in P.R.C. and Monogram productions, a lead role in the independent picture A Fig Leaf for Eve, and a couple Universal monster pictures. After one last bit part in The Best Years of Our Lives, the Marion, Indiana native—more famous for being the hometown of James Dean—married composer Mort Greene and retired from the screen.
RB: Next week, we’ll pick up with chapters 4-6. Assuming, of course, that Corrigan makes it out of chapter 3 alive.