March 4th, 2013
Now that the Oscars are over the theaters can get back to showing fun and exciting films instead of a conglomeration of films they don't think will do well mixed with Oscar contenders. I am sure there are those of you who would disagree with that sentiment, but since films like Jack the Giant Killer and Oz the Great and Powerful are coming out this month while Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters came out last month after sitting on the shelf for over a year, I think my case has some merit. What does this have to do with Government Agents vs Phantom Legion (1951)? It is a fence sitter. It is fun and enjoyable, but it is not a great serial and would definitely fit into the category of being dumped in theaters during the slow season.
Cargoes being shipped by the companies making up the Truckers Association are being targeted by hijackers. The gang is lead by a mystery man who meets his men in a hotel room and gives orders from behind a two way mirror from the room next door. Since they only hear him, he is referred to as The Voice (actually that is only in the plot synopsis on the back of the Video Treasures VHS cover, in the serial he is just referred to as the boss. What no one knows is that he is also one of the members of the Truckers Association, and is using the attacks to sell goods to foreign buyers.
Association member Hal Duncan (Walter Reed) is attacked by the gang but manages to knock over a billboard into their path and get away. At the next board meeting, Federal Agent JJ Paterson (John Phillilps) is on hand due to many shipments attacked have been Government supplies, to discuss the problem with the board; which is made up of Armstrong (Pierce Lydon), Willard (George Meeker), Thompson (Mauritz Hugo), Crandall (Arthur Space) and Hal.
Patterson wants to have Hal reinstated to his former position of Federal Investigator that he had held during the war. This will allow him to both investigate the hijackings and also act as a liaison between the Association and the Governement. This is approved by the board. Associate secretary Kay Roberts (Mary Ellen Kay) agrees to be his personal secretary for the duration.
Henchmen Regan (Dan Curtis) and Cady (Fred Coby) attack a truck carry a supply of grenades. The truck is being guarded by Hal and his best driver Sam Bradley (John Pickard). Hal and Sam are captured and handcuffed. Regan decides to kill them with one of the grenades but Hal knocks Sam down a hill and into a gulley. He follows and the two manage to get away.
Later Hal manges to trace the car the hijackers used to a warehouse. He and Sam investigate, getting into a major fist fight with Rega, Cady and a warehouse worker. Realizing that even though its three against two, Hal and Sam are the better fighters, Regan and Cady duck down into a tunnel and start running. While Sam keeps the warehouse worker under guard, Hal follows Regan and Cady. They exchange shots.
Seeing they are going to get away, Hal jumps up on a handcar and takes after them, not realizing it is carrying a load of grenades. Regan realizes that Hal is going to over take them, he thinks fast, and spotting gas leaking from a tank punctured during the shoot out, Regan lights a match and tosses it into the gasoline. It ignites and makes a beeline down the track toward Hal. Hal sees the approaching conflagration and reverses direction, but even pumping as fast as he can the fire keeps getting closer and closer......
As I said earlier this is an average serial, but it is enliven by a great cast. The mystery is well handled, and is helped by all the suspects having played villains in the past, so any one of them could really seem to be the villain. Although a problem does occur due to all four men having dark hair and mustaches. The reveal is just a quick shot of his face before the hero and villain get into a major fight in a darken room lit only by a raging fire from the next room. The first time I watched the serial I thought it was one character. Upon subsequent views I realized it was a different character.
But it is a minor quibble. The serial is as action packed as fans have come to expect from Republic. With lots of fist fights and car chases. My favorite scene appears in Chapter Seven. Regan and Cady have Hal at gun point and are forcing him to drive them to a specific spot so they can get information from him. Hal start driving like a mad man, taking dangerous curves at high speed and other reckless maneuvers. Regan threatens to shoot him and Hal says to go ahead, that way they'll all die. Eventually the henchmen are forced to give their guns to Hal and and let him take them in.
Reed is excellent as the hero. He is very business like, and displays a crafty intelligence. There are also some amusing moments where he shows a visible irritation with Pickard's constant wisecracks during arrest attempts. Pickard's motormouth sidekick is pretty funny. He can't seem to help himself when he gets the drop on the bad guys, he just has to start cracking jokes, which then leads to a distraction and a fight. Mary Ellen Kay is extremely underused as the heroine. She mostly stays at the office and relays messages to Reed or Pickard over the radio. She is only put in danger once in Chapter Ten when the office is attacked.
Sadly this was Dick Curtis' final serial, as he passed away soon after. But he goes out in style. Though he had made many serials, this was his only one where he got to play the main henchman and he does a great job, barking orders at the nameless red shirts that get popped off throughout the proceedings and scheming with his partner when things don't go as planned. He uses his larger size to good advantage in his confrontations with the heroes. Coby is a rather colorless henchman next to Curtis. Lyden, Hugo, Meeker and Space all play well off of each other during the board meeting scenes, each taking turns at being the disagreeable one so that they seem to be the most likely suspect.
All and all it is a decent offering from the early fifties, a bit thread bare due to the reused plot devices and stock footage from previous serials, but the mystery helps keep interest from flagging.
March 3rd, 2013
Prolific character actor Jay Novello got his start in radio as a dialect specialist due to his fluency in Italian, German and Greek. When he began appearing in films Novello's small stature and swarthy looks typecast him as weasely street characters and minor thugs.
His film work includes minor parts in Boys Town (1938), Swamp Woman (1941), Sirocco (1951), and Lisbon (1956). During this time he was quite active in serials playing various henchmen in Junior G Men of the Air (1942), The Adventures of Smilin' Jack (1943), Captain America (1944), The Mystery of the Riverboat (1944), The Great Alaskan Mystery (1944) and Federal Operator 99 (1945).
As he got older he moved to television and began playing prissy or henpecked husbands on Make Room for Daddy, The Real McCoys, The Bob Cummings Show and The Andy Griffith Show. He also had a recurring role on McHales's Navy as a wily town mayor during the season they were stationed in Italy. A favorite of Lucille Ball he made many memorable appearances on both I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show.
Novello worked well into the Seventies, appearing on Mannix, Kojack and Chico and the Man. His final screen appearance was in the film The Domino Principle (1977).