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Serial September: Secret Agent X-9 (1945) chapters 7-9

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.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: The action heats up in these three chapters. The cliffhangers are tricky; they show our hero being reamed by a situation he couldn't possibly escape only to be resolved differently in the recap for the next chapter. In one scene, straight out of a Tomb Raider game, Secret Agent X-9 is trapped on a moving balcony that reveals a series of sharp spikes below, and the floor is getting scarce. There is also a scene where a mysterious hand holding a gun threatens ominously from an open window.

ADAM WILLIAMS: It was encouraging to see the cliffhangers get more bizarre in this stretch. We know how dangerous the liquid air freezer is because of the signs on the wall: “Do Not Operate Unless Qualified” and “Air pressure over 200 pounds can cause EXPLOSION.” Brace yourself as the clearly unqualified henchmen crank up the air pressure well above the threshold for a blast!

The Dropping Floor is great in concept but I’m calling foul on the resolution. I’ve done calculations based on trajectories and gravitational force and I’m coming right out and saying it: this is not realistic! I’m quick to forgive and forget, though. Chapter 9’s ending is spectacular and I’m genuinely worried about the fate of Corrigan. He’s been through a lot so far.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: I’ve been having a great time with this serial, to the point that I look forward to the weekly viewing session with some anticipation. Unlike most of the other serials I’ve seen, this one is building in suspense as the plot continues to complicate and twist. Most of the serials I’ve watched have been virtually plotless in between the first and last chapter, although I’ve always enjoyed those too.

SG: Keye Luke is very dapper in his light suit and wide-brimmed hat. He began his career as an artist designing ads for Grauman's Chinese Theater and RKO. It was while he was working for RKO that he was recruited to appear on the screen. Luke was patriotic, possibly extremely so by necessity, as Asians were viewed with suspicion and Japanese citizens were rounded up and forced to live in internment camps during the war. He worked with the Chinese government during WWII to create roadshow films to combat the Japanese propaganda infiltrating China. He also worked to entertain troops at the Canteen in LA's Old Chinatown. Luke was the subject of the first Chinese-American fan club which began in Columbus, Ohio. It is easy to understand why he had a loyal following. He appeared in a popular running series, Charlie Chan, and often portrayed intelligent men in skilled positions; he was a doctor in the Dr. Gillespie series and an Andy Hardy film. He also performed well in combat scenes in spite of his slight frame. Columnist Frank Cunningham wrote that although Luke was only 5'6" and 140 pounds, when a director badgered him for pulling his punches during a fight sequence, Luke let one fly that knocked out his scene partner who had 60 pounds on him. I consider him to be as much of a draw in this series as Lloyd Bridges.

Although he is the bad guy, I have major respect for Benson Fong's portrayal of Hakahima. He and Nabura have planned to reveal lies to their enemies in the case that he is caught. When he is captured and tied up, but his captor makes the mistake of letting his arms free. "No tricks," he says. What a silly choice. Hakahima immediately punches him square in the face and gets away. When the opportunity presents itself, you take it. I can't fault him for that.

RB: This seems to be as good a time as any to talk a bit about Benson Fong, who, in a story not unlike Lana Turner at the soda fountain, was spotted by a talent scout while bagging groceries in a Los Angeles supermarket (or while out to dinner with friends. There are a few versions of this story).

Anyway, this set him off on a lengthy series of film and TV appearances, usually uncredited, but often memorable. I’ve mentioned his work as Charlie Chan’s #3 son, Tommy, before, and besides those roles we’re likely watching his largest amount of screentime of his early career. Though, oddly enough, he did seem to have bigger roles in the early 60’s in films like The Love Bug and Flower Drum Song.

But, that’s not what he’s best known for. While researching Fong, I discovered stories of what seems to be a WONDERFUL Cantonese restaurant chain called Ah, Fong’s in the Hollywood area that Fong opened and ran until his death. Pretty sure it’s just a coincidence that the restaurant name is the same as Keye Luke’s character in the serial that’s currently unspooling at our homes, but one thing is for sure. This was a very beloved restaurant. I thoroughly enjoyed reading nostalgic remembrances on various blogs about people remembering family dinners there. The restaurant even figured into a season 8 episode of Bewitched, where Fong guest starred as a fictionalized version of himself. I strongly suggest our readers spend a little time checking out pictures, menus and memories of this amazing looking restaurant.

SG: It was a place where the celebrities flocked to enjoy a good meal. Fred Astaire, Jack Lemmon and even favorites of mine Dick Powell and June Allyson were seen there.

AW: If I had the opportunity to use a time machine, I’d probably squander it on a meal at Ah, Fong’s. First thing I’m ordering is their signature cocktail, Ah Fong’s Coolie Cup.

Kudos to all these actors fully immersing themselves in this crazy script. I want to present some out-of-context dialogue plucked from these chapters. Somehow it seems even more absurd in writing than it does being delivered dead earnestly by dedicated actors.

“If I had to choose between you and the film, I think I’d choose you.”
“When he comes, he will show her how a man can be chilled just cold enough to show agony yet never cold enough to die.”
“You resemble The Chinese, Mr. Kamber. Their stubbornness is a knife with which they stab themselves.”
“Having experienced Japanese treachery before, I am not ashamed to admit that I am sensitive to it.”
“The eyes of a woman are deadlier than her tongue.”

RB: Well, clearly, this is deadly serious stuff. The line about being never cold enough to die gave me serious pause, and really isn’t that what a good film script does? Give you something to think about and contemplate? I’d think so. By that criteria, we’re in the midst of cinematic history. More next week...

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