S.O.S. Coast Guard (1937)
Film review #390
SYNOPSIS: The renegade scientist Boroff has invented a disintegrator gas that unsurprisingly disintegrates everything around it when released. Boroff’s ship gets in trouble at sea, leading the coast guard to mount a rescue. However, he is recognised by some reporters along for the ride as a wanted criminal and they give chase as Boroff tries to escape. When one of the coast guards is killed as Boroff escapes, his brother Lt. Terry Kent, also a member of the coast guard, swears revenge and he and the reporters Jean Norton and Snapper McGee attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding Boroff and to put a stop to his evil schemes.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: S.O.S. Coast Guard is a 1937 movie serial by Republic Pictures. The serial starts off with a ship in distress off the coast and the coast guard being deployed. Jean Norman, a newspaper reporter and Snappy McGee, a photographer for the newspaper, recognise the man rescued from the ship as Boroff, a wanted scientist who has been developing deadly weapons to sell to foreign powers. The coast guard give chase, which ends up in the death of one of them, Ensign Jim Kent. His brother, Lt. Terry Kent, who is also a member of the coast guard, swears revenge, and attempts to track down Boroff with the help of Jane and Snapper. The serial unfolds very much like every other serial, so there shouldn’t be no surprise with the cliffhangers, chases and fist fights that fill the chapters. The setting of the coast guard does make it stand out a little, with the scenes at sea and on the ships being well executed. There’s enough variety and a tangible thread of story all the way throughout to make it a watchable serial, but again the format does show its age, and if you’ve seen one you’ve more or less seen them all. The format meant that a lot of content could be produced quickly and at a small cost, but nothing original or innovative was attempted outside of those original constraints.
The characters are one of the noteworthy aspects of the serial, with some recognisable faces amongst the cast. The character themselves are pretty typical: you have the young, courageous American male for the lead, one female character, a mad scientist villain, and a comic relief character. Lt. Terry Kent is the typical lead, this time played by Ralph Byrd, who would be recognisable from the successful Dick Tracy serial that was released earlier in the same year. His character wears a hat most of the time so he distinguishes himself from Tracy enough that you wouldn’t be distracted by the similarities, but Byrd’s appearance in this serial definitely rides the success that Dick Tracy had. The villain is played by famous horror actor Bela Lugosi, who is not in a horror film role because of the ban on making horror movies that was put into effect between 1936 and 1938. The name of his character Boroff is more than likely a reference to fellow horror movie actor and Lugosi’s somewhat rival Boris Karloff. The character of Snappy McGee is very similar to the character of Mike McGurk in the Dick Tracy serial, and I was quite surprised to see it wasn’t the same actor, as they are very similar in terms of looks and mannerisms. Jean Norman’s actress Maxine Doyle also went on to marry the director of this serial (William Witney), so all round an interesting bit of trivia from the casting, even though their characters aren’t as stand-out.
Being set at sea for a decent amount of the runtime, there’s a lot of scenes on the ocean which are all executed fairly well. In the opening chapter we see Boroff’s ship the Carfax caught in a storm, and the set definitely looks like a boat in a storm, with huge waves soaking the set and the actors. There’s some decent effects and props which also breathe some life into the predictable storyline. While setting a serial in the coast guards might not sound as thrilling as a Flash Gordon serial or the like, it still manages a decent story with a good cast. If you liked the Dick Tracy serial, no doubt you would have sought this serial out as well.
Dick Tracy (1937)
Film review #381
Directors: Alan James, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: F.B.I. G-man Dick Tracy is on the trail of the criminal gang known as the Spider Ring. They have invented a flying fortress called The Wing and it is Tracy’s job to find a way to stop it and the gang’s evil schemes. Alongside this, he is also trying to find his brother Gordon, who has gone missing, and unbeknown to Dick, has been brainwashed by the Spider Ring to do their bidding…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Dick Tracy is a 1937 movie serial based on the comic book character of the same name. The serial stars, unsurprisingly, Dick Tracy, who is a “G-man” working for the F.B.I. investigating crimes, specifically trying to bring down the criminal gang known as the Spider Ring, who leave the mark of a spider on their victims before they kill them. Dick also has to find out what has happened to his brother, who has gone missing, and unbeknown to him has been captured by the Spider Ring and been brainwashed into becoming their servant. The serial’s story unfolds across a lengthy fifteen chapters, with the usual serial shenanigans taking place. Despite the length, the serial does a good job of keeping things interesting, and has a number of mini-arcs in the story to keep things varied. Dick Tracy’s character as a criminal investigator plays a strong role in the story, as he is actually investigating the crimes and following the evidence, rather than just showing up and getting into a fistfight like a lot of these serials.
The action scenes are also well varied, with their being chases across land, sea and air. The aerial scenes are probably the most interesting, as they are fast-paced and have plenty of stunts. The real sci-fi element of the serial comes in the form of The Wing: a large plane that resembles a flying fortress crossed with a stealth plane. It is the sort of thing that would not have been seen before when it was released, so it certainly gives the serial some originality. While The Wing plays a large role in the earlier chapters, it appears less frequently in the later ones, which is a shame since it probably had some more potential, but there’s plenty of other things going on so it doesn’t feel like the serial runs out of steam.
As mentioned, Dick Tracy’s role as a criminal investigator gives him plenty to do, and separates him from the similar white-male leads of these type of serials by giving him a unique character trait. The cast of supporting characters is quite large, but they all serve a purpose and you can tell them apart. The comedic relief in the form of the young Junior and his guardian McGurk aren’t overplayed, and provide just enough of a contribution to the story without being distracting. The villains, including the leader of the Spider Ring known as “The Lame One” are also well varied, including the rogue doctor Moloch who performs the operation to brainwash Gordon Tracy (who also has his face changed, which is rather pointless as none of the heroes see his face that would recognise him). The Lame One’s identity is kept a mystery until the end, but if you follow the serial closely, you can probably tell who it is, and it doesn’t act as too much of a revelation. Nevertheless, an overall interesting cast that are recognisable and add different dynamics to the serial.
The special effects of the film are pretty good for the time, and while a lot of the plane stunts are done with models, they are still convincing. A lot of the aerial stunts are pretty implausible and flying the face of physics, but given that cinema goers in 1937 would probably have not been in a plane (or maybe even seen one), it’s not going to break the immersion. Overall, Dick Tracy manages to take the typical aspects of the serial format and excel with them: the action is varied, the story is full of drama and suspense, the characters are well-defined, and there’s plenty of content to keep viewers coming back to the theatre every week.