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: Way back when I was a single guy, a part of my reckless bachelorhood was watching a serial chapter every night when I would eat dinner. Now that I’m older and blissfully attached, I’ve often struggled with getting in the habit of watching the countless serials that I’ve acquired over the years. I’ve tried various techniques, short of plunking myself on the couch for four straight hours and watching one straight through. Secret Agent X-9 has reignited my love of the format though.
ADAM WILLIAMS: How do you watch a serial on home video? Unless your movie watching is habitual, it’s hard to maintain the one chapter per week regiment. Watching more than three chapters in a row gets a bit tedious. I suppose this is the reason I don’t watch them often.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: When we were on lockdown for Covid, I had a routine where I'd watch something each night after the kids went to bed, and one thing I watched was Daredevils of the Red Circle. It was a pleasant experience but without the structure of a regularly planned viewing, it would be easy not to complete the story. Though they've been dubbed cliffhanger serials, they don't have the hook that modern TV show cliffhangers do to keep you binging.
RB: Chapters 4 through 6 really have the plot kicking into high gear as Hakihima has a new plan for getting the formula for 7-22 out of California (What’s 7-22 you might ask? Well, I might ask where you were last week when we covered chapters 1-3? All the answers you seek are contained therein). Mustering all of the serial logic that he can, Hakihima decides that what they really need are several criminals that look like the scientist who created the formula. This way, all of them can be sent to California, where surely one of them will manage to steal it for the Japanese.
SG: It makes total sense. Rather than going in guns blazing, they spend a bunch of time securing allies, then training them to mimic the mannerisms of the American in California. That isn't a waste of time at all. Or resources.
RB: As much fun as this serial is, it’s worth mentioning that Phil Corrigan is actually a terrible secret agent. At one point in chapter 5, he interrogates a spy this way… Corrigan: “You know who I am, don’t you?” Spy: “Yah. You are X-9.” Well, so much for that mystery.
AW: With that bit of dialogue, it’s probably a good time to bring up the fact that one of the screenwriters for Secret Agent X-9 was a former Busby Berkeley chorus girl.
“There ain’t no future here for a gal. I’m going to get in the movies or bust.” With these words, Patricia Harper left her newspaper advertising position, husband, and small child in Oklahoma and headed to Hollywood. Unlike the stifled life described in The Kinks’ “Oklahoma U.S.A.,” Harper actually crossed the Rubicon into the glamorous West. There’s no comprehensive biography to flesh out her journey, so we’re left with disjointed newspaper and trade notices to piece together this intriguing story. In 1932, Patricia did what young and attractive people could do: she joined the chorus line. Her beaming visage can be seen in such musical extravaganzas as Roman Scandals and Dames. Then came the excited announcement—printed in newspapers across the country—that she was to wed Jesse Lasky, Jr. Within a day of the announcement, those same newspapers, including Patricia’s old employer in Oklahoma, ran a follow-up story. Lasky denied the engagement. His words read like a death sentence: “We are just good friends.” Just like that, the door to Hollywood royalty was shut to Patricia.
In 1941, the Oklahoma news again reported on Patricia Harper, this time it was an even sadder story about her attempt to regain custody of her then 13-year-old son from her parents. The reporters mentioned that she was working as a contract writer for MGM. None of this work for the major studio seems to be documented, but by 1938 she had indeed reinvented herself as a screenwriter. Patricia wrote a slew of Westerns for the lower rungs of the industry, including Sigmund Neufeld Productions, Republic, and Monogram. Her work for Universal, including X-9 and a story credit in the Bob Crosby B-musical My Gal Loves Music, were the only changes of pace from horse hoofs and six shooters. Perhaps sitting in front of a typewriter churning out B pictures wasn’t much more exciting than selling ads in Oklahoma. Maybe even denizens of Hollywood question themselves, “If life’s for livin’, then what’s livin’ for?” Whatever the case, in 1947 two things happened: Patricia’s final screenplay, Ghost Town Renegades starring Lash La Rue was released and she married advertising executive George Johnson Ross. I’m sorry to end this story with a cliffhanger, but that’s where the public life of Patricia Harper ends.
SG: Impressive research, Adam! The only research I did on the writers was to find out that Dashiell Hammett began work on the King Features strip in Hearst's papers with illustrator Alex Raymond on January 29, 1934, just before the Thin Man series became a hit and his life changed forever. But Hammett had nothing to do with the serial and so is really only loosely connected to our topic.
RB: There’s a very good and exciting car chase in episode 5, although, we do seem to be going down a path of lots of car chases. The rear projection is really getting a workout in these chapters, but they’re all done quite well. Universal clearly seemed to pump a little more budget into this serial, vs some of their more claustrophobic outings around this time, like The Master Key.
AW: Yeah, regarding those cliffhangers. The “Floodlight Murder” is a dandy. Corrigan is cornered into Nabura’s audition room. With a spotlight shining into X-9’s face, Nabura uses a remote control to blast off a machine gun aimed at the secret agent. I thought Chapter 5’s car chase was uninspired. Corrigan zooms along a mountainous road in his convertible with bullets whizzing past him. We’ve already had a better, more explosive vehicular cliffhanger in Chapter 3. In Chapter 6, we again find a spotlight and machine gun fire aimed at Corrigan. This time the spotlight is a target for a Japanese aircraft making a delivery and the machine gun fire is from that “Zero.” I’m grading this batch of cliffhangers B, D, and B-.
SG: The visual of the machine gun propped up in a box really got me and I had to get a screenshot. Secret Agent X-9 is really fulfilling my expectations for flying fists, car chases and other assorted action sequences.
RB: Incidentally, it’s really difficult to find a lot of information about this serial. For decades, it was considered lost, although that probably was never the correct term, unavailable was more like it. I don’t think anyone doubted Universal having a copy in their vault, but it was never released to TV due to rights regarding the comic strip source material. Some of the pioneering research works on serials don’t even mention the existence of this one. It wasn’t until VCI wrangled it out of the vault in the early part of this century that it became widely available. I’m glad that happened, because this serial is a real winner.