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: In these final chapters we get more outrageous situations for our entertainment pleasure. Clearly the filmmakers had no idea how grenades work. There are also some great visuals, like a tight shot of Keye Luke('s stunman) fighting to get out of a coffin sinking down into the river and slowly filling with water. Our heroes win out in the end, and the baddies gradually get knocked off one by one until it is clear who the winner is.
ADAM WILLIAMS: Secret Agent X-9 was directed by the team of Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins. The two directed 13 serials together, beginning with 1942’s Junior G-Men of the Air and ending with 1946’s Lost City of the Jungle. One gets the sense watching their work that it was pure scheduled and strategized efficiency. I would love to see the production files on this serial to see how they mapped out the filming. How many days did they spend filming in the House of Shadows set? Did they film all of Samuel S. Hinds' scenes in one or two days? Who was responsible for the (very impressive) aerial attack/exploding villages footage? Nobody is going to mistake Taylor/Collins for Hitchcock but look at how well they hid the switch to stuntman as Lloyd Bridges and Keye Luke jump through the window. That’s cinema!
RODNEY BOWCOCK: A lot of that information actually does exist for the Republic serials, and was chronicled in Jack Mathis’ fantastic Republic Confidential series. There’s also a great piece by Ed Hulse in his second Blood ‘n’ Thunder Cliffhanger Classics volume that goes into great detail regarding the filming of Spy Smasher. I’d recommend at the very least the latter for anyone who is interested in the goings on behind the scenes during the breakneck filming of a serial. Regarding this one, I’d love to know if that info exists someplace at Universal.
Regarding those impressive special effects, I must admit that I am stumped to determine if they were stock footage cribbed from an earlier film, or if they were created specifically for this movie.
SG: I thought the use of plastic surgery as an element to fool the opposition was an interesting choice. It was still somewhat new and primitive at this time. Although there is evidence of its use in Ancient Egypt, there were rapid improvements to the procedure following WWI because doctors needed to help rehabilitate men returning from the front with shrapnel wounds, missing limbs and severe burns. Some historians theorize that the rise of the horror genre is the result of these men living through the horrors of war in spite of their severely mangled bodies. The idea of using such procedures for criminal pursuits pops up in many novels; two that come to mind are Super-Gangster by Frederick G. Eberhard, a former doctor, and The Man With the Getaway Face by Richard Stark, the pseudonym of Donald Westlake, part two of the Parker series.
AW: With serials you’ve got a simple game of heroes vs. villains: the person tied to the train tracks and the sadist who devised this precarious scenario. I’m always grateful when Corrigan, Lynn, and Ah Fong live to see the next chapter but psychologically the Axis villains are way more interesting. That’s why I must nominate Victoria Horne as Nabura for best performance in Secret Agent X-9. “Ah, so,” you might be saying. It’s an odd yet fully committed bit of acting—the stillness, the downward tilted eyes, and the short precise steps that keep her kimono straight. Her line delivery leaves a lasting impression. The only time she strays from a vexed, clipped tone is when she is positive that she has X-9 in a full-proof deathtrap. Then a slight smile creeps onto her face and the ice-cold wickedness is in full display. It’s world’s away from her husband Jack Oakie’s broad caricature of Mussolini in The Great Dictator, but for my money it’s more fun. I’ll be on the lookout for any Nabura-like mannerisms the next time I watch a movie with a Victoria Horne appearance.
RB: Horne was actually trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which I am going to assume has a lot to do with her exceptional delivery in this film. She seems like a fine actress to me, and it’s unfortunate that so many of her film roles were uncredited minor parts. She always made the best of them though, admirably in Harvey and perhaps less admirably in the Three Stooges’ acid trip of a film Cuckoo on a Choo Choo.
SG: It is so strange to me that Nabura constantly meets up with her enemies at the bar on Shadow Island in a peaceful way. It is as if the war is a sports event, and the players shake hands at the end of each round and hash out their gameplay.
AW: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Nabura’s primary henchmen, George Lynn as Bach and Clarence Lung as Takahari. Lynn—who also has a small role in The Great Dictator—had a nice career playing Nazis, thugs, and other assorted tough guys. After Lung’s career of bit parts, he managed the Ah Fong restaurant in Encino for Benson Fong (see last week’s post for more details).
This serial was a lot of fun. Each time the ominous opening music began, each time the map showing Shadow Island off the coast of mainland China was shown, I was transported to this studio backlot with a cast of wholesome heroes and psychotic villains. This serial is certainly repetitious—how many games of tiddlywinks can one man play?—but there’s enough creativity on display to jolt the drowsiest of viewers. Four stars. I only wish I could see it properly, like the Ohio Theatre in Athens showed it, with
PRC’s The Devil Bat’s Daughter and the Bob Steele western The Navajo Kid (erroneously called “The Nevada Kid” in the ad).
RB: For me, the key to enjoying serials is to basically pretend that I’m 12 years old and it’s the year that the serial was released. With that in mind, I can easily transport myself to the Bijou with sticky floors and a pocket full of Jujyfruits and suspend my good sense and enjoy the proceedings. Comic strip adaptations can often be a let-down, as they so often bear little similarity with the source material beyond the name. I’m not super familiar with the strip (I hope to remedy that soon), but I really had a great time with this wartime serial. Four stars, easily, and I’m already thinking ahead to what my next serial will be.
SG: This certainly isn't a film arena I'm well-versed in, but I enjoyed the highs and lows of this series, and appreciate that the recaps at the beginning weren't overly long or repetitive. Sometimes these low-budget efforts can fall into the so-bad-its-good category and Secret Agent X9 definitely isn't one of them. It was a thrill to spend September breaking down this four star serial.