Aug 10, 2011

DVD Review: Code of the Secret Service (1939)

It turns out George H. W. Bush was not the only former spook on the Republican ticket in 1980 and 1984. Bush may have run the CIA, but his running mate Ronald Reagan was actually a field man… in a series of four Warner Bros. B-programmers made between 1939 and 1940. Long before working for the government for real, Reagan played Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service, a square-jawed agent who pursued spies, counterfeiters and other threats to national security in exploits supposedly “based upon material compiled by W.H. Moran, ex-chief of the U.S. Secret Service”—at least according to the credits. The first Brass Bancroft movie, Code of the Secret Service, actually offers all the elements of a classic spy movie… on a poverty row budget, and packed into 60 minutes! All you’d need to add is color and booze and it could pass itself as a Eurospy movie. In one of many sequences audiences would come to associate with the genre two decades later, Bancroft’s adventure begins when he meets his boss at HQ to receive his assignment. Brass is far too wholesome, however, to engage in any flirtation with the pretty secretary. That sort of behavior is reserved for the comic relief sidekick, Gabby (Eddie Foy, Jr.).

The mission, to take down a counterfeiting gang flooding the US with their phony currency from South of the Border, takes Brass and Gabby all the way across America, from Washington D.C. to a Southwest border town, as an animated line on an Indiana Jones-style map superimposed over an airplane traces their route. Like any good agent in decades to come, Brass hits up a nightclub for his first clue—a disreputable establishment across the border, in Mexico. There (still strictly following a formula that technically hasn’t even been established yet), he naturally gets into a fight. His contact is killed—and the bad guys frame Brass for the murder.  Soon the Mexican authorities are after him in force, but instead of running for the border, Brass escapes by heading deeper into Mexico.

Quickly fulfilling another spy movie expectation (one already firmly in place in 1939), Brass soon enough finds himself embroiled in intrigue on a train as he tries to follow one of the villains back to his secret hideout. After some lame Thirties and Forties comedy bits from the faux-Mexican train conductor fall flat, the bad guy spots Brass on his tail and tips off the police that he’s on the train. This leads to a pretty great stunt for this kind of micro-budget programmer: as the train stops on a bridge and the police drive him to the caboose in a car-by-car sweep, Brass makes a daring and thrilling escape by diving off the high bridge into the water far below! (It's achieved more through clever editing than actual stunt work, but I still found it impressive.) There, he hides underwater using a reed to breath (as James Bond would one day do in Dr. No) as the police pursue him through a swamp. 

Of course, Code of the Secret Service can’t expend the entirety of its brief running time prefiguring Sixties spy movies. After all, Forties spy actioners have their own set of clichés to deliver, every bit as predictable as those in the Eurospies. For instance, when Gabby presents Brass with a book, Spanish in 7 Days, you just know he’ll put it in his breast pocket and it will stop a bullet… which, indeed, it dutifully does! (Though it doesn’t keep him from getting captured.) What I didn’t see coming, however, is that when Gabby tries to find a way to get Brass out of jail, he instead manage to get himself arrested for indecent exposure. Yes, things get very silly very quickly.

Brass does manage to escape, of course, and quickly finds himself on the run again, now handcuffed to a beautiful and innocent woman, Elaine (Rosella Towne). Yep, someone’s been watching Hitchcock! The plot in fact follows The 39 Steps pretty closely from there on, complete with the two of them being hauled off in a car by fake police who are really working for the enemy. The enemy in question, however, can be identified by his peg-leg instead of his missing finger. See what they did there? 

Eventually, Brass gets into more of an Indiana Jones kind of outfit with a leather jacket and puffy breeches he could have stolen from Katherine Hepburn. In this suitable attire, he’s able engage in some fisticuffs, cause—and escape from—some explosions, and even participate in a pretty good car chase which ends in a big wreck stunt! (Surely this footage is reused from something else, but I can’t identify the source.) Belying its immediately pre-war genesis, the movie concludes with a patriotic quote akin to the propaganda at the end of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies of the era, spoken over a waving American flag. It’s a fitting finale for a spy movie starring a future US president! Code of the Secret Service is predictable, cheap and cheesy—but quite a lot of fun for fans of the low budget films of that period. I’m hopeful that all the Brass Bancroft movies prove as entertaining. All four are collected in the 2-disc Warner Archive MOD DVD-R collection Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service (currently on sale for just $14.98 on Oldies.com—45% off!), and the audio and video quality are impressive, as with nearly all the Archive titles I’ve seen. With this sort of movie, if the picture is soft, it's more likely because the shot's out of focus than anything to do with the transfer!

2 comments:

Moggy said...

An interesting historical postscript to these movies: a little boy named Jerry Parr watched them back when they were in theaters and was deeply inspired by them. Decades later, that boy was the Secret Service agent who saved President Reagan's life by shoving him into the car when he was being shot at.

Tanner said...

Thanks, Moggy. That IS interesting! Fascinating, even. I'd never heard it. Cool tidbit!