Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"Bruce Gentry"; Columbia, 1949

Ever since Universal first adapted the popular comic strip ďTailspin TommyĒ (1934) to the serial screen, the genre has enjoyed a happy relationship between itself and both comics and non costumed aviator heroes. The last adaptation of a high flying comic strip hero who didnít wear anything more distinctive than a leather jacket and a pilot cap was Columbiaís ďBruce GentryĒ (1949). The serial is an exciting blend of foreign intrigue, western action, and mystery. Unfortunately due to the low budget of the production there is a scarcity of high flying action.

Bruce Gentry (Tom Neal) runs a charter service in South America. He gets a new client named Gregory (Dale Van Sickle) who is attacked by some spies at the airport. Bruce joins the fight and drives the attackers off. Gregory informs Bruce that he works for the U.S. Government and needs to be flown to LA to see Bruceís good friend Dr. Benson (Forrest Taylor) on matter of National Security. During the flight a large flying disc attacks the plane but Bruce manages to dodge the devise before it explodes.

Days later Bruce goes to visit Dr. Benson about his visit with Gregory and is on hand when Krendon (Tristram Coffin) shows up with some helpers to abduct Dr. Benson. Bruce fights all three men but the odds are against him and he is knocked senseless. Bruce comes to in time to jump in his car and give chase to the kidnappers. The spies shoot out Bruceís tire, but the plucky pilot is always thinking ahead and happens to have a mini-bike in the trunk of his car. Bruce chases them to an airfield where they get away in a plane.

Dr. Benson is taken to a secret hideout where he is questioned by The Recorder. The villain is never seen, always preferring to issue his orders to his men via tape recordings. Benson is informed that he will help The Recorder perfect his flying discs for world conquest. Benson refuses and is locked up for the time being.

Engineer industrialist Radcliffe (Hugh Prosser) has become interested in the possibility that the flying discs that have been sighted lately might have commercial uses. Since the only one who has ever really gotten close to one is Bruce, Radcliffe tries to contact him but Bruce doesnít return his calls. Using ingenuity Radcliffe has his secretary pretend to be a lady in distress to trick Bruce into going to see Radcliffe. Bruce sees through the ruse almost immediately but goes along with the gag anyway out of curiosity. After avoiding the ďstrangersĒ that are trying to grab the woman, Bruce agrees to see Radcliffe. When Radcliffe explains what he wants, Bruce says he will help Radcliffe only because it will help find Benson.

Bruce starts his investigation by flying over the area where he first saw the flying disc. Bruceís plane is spotted by Krendonís radar and a disc is dispatched to take him out. Bruce canít avoid the disc this time and has to bail out to save himself. Some of Krendonís men spot his landing and go to grab him but Bruce is saved by the timely arrival of teenage ranchers Frank (Ralph Hodges) and Nita Farrell (Judy Clark). After the spies lose a shootout they head for the hills. Frank and Nita suspect Bruce might be part of the gang that is trying to scare them off their ranch, but once they find out who he is, everything is alright.

They go to look over the crash site and Bruce finds the discís detonator with a manufacturerís label on it. The company is in LA and Frank offers to drive Bruce to the airport while Nita returns to the ranch. Nita passes the old abandoned silver mine she and her brother own and find that there are spies mining something there. She is seen and captured but her horse gets away. Bruce and Frank spot her runaway horse and follow itís back trail to the mine. The see the spies loading bags on to a truck and jump them. A furious fight breaks out that causes the truck, with a tied up Nita inside, to roll toward a cliff. Bruce manages to get her out of the vehicle before it goes over the edge, but the spies get away.

Frank takes Bruce to the airport and talks the famous flyer into letting him tag along. Once in LA they trace the label to a shipping yard where Bruce starts to question the shipping clerk but is interrupted by the arrival of two men he recognizes as being spies. Bruce hides in a crate but makes a bad choice. Upon hearing that someone has been asking questions the spies decide to get rid of any boxes that have the label on it by dumping them in a furnace. That just happens to be the very box Bruce is hiding in. Luckily Frank creates a diversion that allows Bruce to get out of the box in time. Our hero and his teen sidekick fight their way to freedom.

Meanwhile back at the spies hideout Benson has proven totally uncooperative. The Recorder needs an ore called platonite to build his discs. The only supply he had was from the mine on the Farrellís ranch but it has been exhausted. He knows that Benson has access to platonite from the government, and since the last of their supply was lost off a cliff, he has Krendon send two men to Bensonís home to see if they can find a way to get at Bensonís supply.

The break in goes bad and the men are chased off by guards stationed there by Radcliffe. The industrialist notifies Bruce of this. He and Frank go to the house to see if they can find what the spies were searching for. The find that the spies have returned and are knocked out. Before succumbing to unconsciousness, Bruce manages to turn on Bensonís dictograph. The men find a letter informing Benson that a shipment of platonite is arriving by train that day. They call a confederate to let him know that they will be coming by to pick up an electronic devise from him.

When Bruce comes around he replays the recording. By slowing it down he manages to make out the phone number that was called and traces it to a parking garage. He and Frank interrogate the attendant and discover that the two spies have a devise that will stop a train so that they can steal the platonite on it. Tying up the attendant they race to the crossing the scared man told them would be the spot for the caper.

Bruce and Frank jump the two spies and fight them. Bruce manages to destroy the machine. One of the spies gets to a car but Frank jumps in and the two men fight. Frank is knocked out and the car is left on the tracks in the path of the train. Bruce jumps in the car and manages to drive it off the tracks.

Trailing the men back to the shipping yard, Bruce sneaks in and overhears that the men will be driving a shipment of equipment to San Diego. Then they will return to the mine to pick up the platonite that has been recovered and take it to the hideout. Bruce hurries over to Radcliffeís office where he gets a tracking devise. He and Frank fly back to his ranch where Nita picks them up and they head for the mine. The men are there loading the truck with bags of platonite. Bruce creates a diversion that allows Frank to plant the devise but he is unable to get away and has to hide in the truck. When the truck pulls out, Bruce and Nita follow.

When the spies contact Krendon the tracking devise interferes with the radio signal. Searching the truck they find the devise and Frank. The teen is tied up and an ambush is laid for Bruce and Nita. As they round a hairpin curve their front tire is shot out. The car careens out of control towards a cliff, but Bruce manages to slam it into a large boulder, which falls off the cliff in their place. The spies hear the crash and assume Bruce is dead.

As they drive away, Frank manages to escape. Bruce changes his carís tire and tries to pick up the spiesí trail but is unable to, though he and Nita are glad when they come upon Frank safe and sound. They head back to the ranch to wait for the spy ringís next move.

This is a fun serial with a good cast of serial regulars, a fast moving plot, and plenty of fist slamming action. If anything mars the serial it is the cheap special effects. The flying discs are nothing more than barely passable animated drawings. The same kind of badly done cartoons used in the previous yearís ďSupermanĒ (1948) serial to simulate the superhero flying. Ironically the same flying disc footage would show up the next year in the Superman sequel.

Another problem with the serial are some of the cliffhanger resolutions. Most, like in Chapter Two where the hero simply grabs the heroine out a runaway car, are standard cliffhanger happenings. But some like, in Chapter 10 where the hero is saved from falling out a high window by landing on a table full of books, stretchís credibility. The most absurd cliffhanger resolution is in Chapter Fourteen. Bruce goes over a cliff on his min-bike and instead of landing on a ledge or falling into a lake as usually happens with that type of cliffhanger, the hero turns into a cartoon so that a cartoon parachute can pop out from under his jacket and float him safely to the ground. Now really!

The cheap production makes itself known not only by the previously mentioned lack of high flying stunts but also by the constant reuse of footage. The cliffhanger and resolution from Chapter One and Two are reused not only for Chapters Eleven and Twelve, but are also part of the action for the climax of the serial. Even though the original audience was seeing this several weeks apart it had to apparent they were just watching the same footage over and over again.

But enough about whatís wrong with the serial, and on to whatís right. This was Columbiaís best attempt to make a Republic style serial. They had their resident director Spencer Bennet, who had helmed many Republics during the mid forties, plus the uses of Republicís best stunt fighters Dale Van Sickle and Tom Steele. The fights in this serial are the best that have ever been done at Columbia because of this. For once the fighters arenít just rolling around and grunting; instead they are grappling all over the place with lots of punches, kicks, and people getting flipped over a combatantís shoulder.

Most of the fights are shot in long shot from start to finish, Bennet apparently couldnít afford any quick cuts to close ups of thrown punches that he peppered his Republic serials with. He compensates for this by placing his fights in interesting places. Take Chapter Two, the hero and a henchman are on top of a wooden derrick. Their fight starts at the top and works itís way to the ground with both men punching and kicking each other as they make their way down the derrickís ladder. Thatís something you donít see everyday!

The mystery villain is certainly unique in that his name is also how he contacts his henchmen, the Recorder is just a voice on a tape. The voice is obviously head henchman Tristram Coffin using a fake accent, but this bit of trickery on the part of the film makers isnít the usual bit of slight of hand that serials always did. Though he isnít the mystery villain, his voice being on the recordings isnít a cheat either. The solution is one of the more clever reveals done at the end of a serial.

The cast is top notch. Tom Neal was one of the best actors to work in serials and invests his character with a real devil may care attitude. He is full of snappy comebacks for any occasion and when a gun barrel is pointed him he usually just nonchalantly pushes it away. Now thatís grace under pressure. Ralph Hodges and Judy Clark as the juvenile leads arenít as irritating as others have been. They come across as smart and competent, but inexperienced instead of having the usual brain dead stupidity that gets other teen sidekicks into cliffhanger situations.

Tristram Coffin is one of the more active villains in the serial. Since the main villain is never seen you would expect Coffin as the second in command to be the one who is always at the hideout issuing orders, but no, he goes out into the field to get things done almost as much as his stalwart henchmen; regular thugs Jack Ingram, Terry Frost, and Charles King; do. This leaves him in the peculiar position of occasionally having only himself to blame when things go wrong due to the heroís interference.

Coming at the tail end of the serial era, where budgets were slashed mercilessly to combat lowering audience attendance, ďBruce GentryĒ is a lot better than it should be. The cast, director, and stunt men manage to over come certain gaps in logic and some absurd plot twists to make an exciting and enjoyable serial.

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