Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Gang Busters (Universal, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched a short movie: the first episode in the 13-chapter Universal serial Gang Busters from 1942, which I’d downloaded from (most serials were in 10, 12 or 15 episodes, and it seems that Universal was the only company making serials that did 13-episode ones despite 13’s reputation as an unlucky number), which was an attempt 13 years before the 1955 Gang Busters movie to exploit the terrific popularity of the radio show of the same title. The radio project originally emerged as part of the mid-1930’s campaign to glorify the police in general and the FBI in particular as our lines of defense against the menace of gangsterism, and judging from the titles of the 1950’s Gang Busters TV episodes also available on, a number of them actually did deal with real-life criminals. (Among the famous criminal names appearing on the episode titles were John Dillinger, Alvin Karpis, and Homer Van Meter.) Indeed, the person who entered the information for the 1955 Gang Busters movie onto seemed to think it was a documentary, since the words “archive footage” appear after the name of every character listed! The 1942 Gang Busters was an attempt to continue the campaign that had begun in the mid-1930’s to enlist public support for law enforcement and end the (presumed) glorification of criminals of the gangster films of the early sound era like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, etc. (though since the leads of those films met ignominious deaths at the end, it’s hard to see how any reasonable person could read them as glorifying the life of crime!).

The attitude behind the movie is exemplified by the opening narration, which apparently preceded all the episodes: “Calling the police, calling the G-men, calling all America to war on the underworld. Gang Busters, with cooperation of law enforcement officers of the United States, presents a picture of the endless war of the police on the underworld, illustrating the clever operation of the law enforcement officers in the work of our citizens — the All-American crusade against crime!” According to an “Trivia” poster, the real Gang Busters radio show took actual unsolved crimes of the period and dramatized them in hopes that people in the listening audience would call in if they had information that could help police apprehend the real criminals — sort of the America’s Most Wanted concept decades earlier — but the plot of Universal’s Gang Busters (unlike that of the 1955 movie, which was about a fictional but mostly believable criminal) drew heavily on Universal’s expertise in horror and science-fiction. The principal villain is a man calling himself “Professor Mortis” (Ralph Morgan, brother of the Wizard of Oz — or at least of Frank Morgan, who played the title role in the 1939 film — Ralph often got cast as murderers, but usually in realistic whodunits), who leads a criminal organization called the “League of Murdered Men.” Ostensibly these are people who were executed for their crimes but whom Prof. Mortis (also identified as Dr. Clayton Maxon in the cast list) has been able to bring back to life, though it’s unclear (at least from the first episode) whether Mortis really has the scientific capability to raise the dead or was just giving these people a drug or hypnotic treatment so they would appear dead and be declared dead when they were “executed.” Anyway, during the course of this first episode Mortis tells a new recruit to his gang that in order to have the job he must first kill himself so Mortis can revive him — and the would-be henchman is understandably miffed at this and not altogether concerned that every man in Mortis’s operation who has “died” has been brought back to life — “so far,” Mortis adds, ominously and unreassuringly.

Mortis steals a police car and broadcasts a warning on the police band announcing that he’s responsible for the crime wave gripping the city (the city itself is carefully unspecified in the script by the usual committee — Morgan Cox, Al Martin, Vic McLeod and George H. Plympton — but it contains an elaborate subway system, and neither Charles nor I could think of a U.S. city with subways in 1942 besides New York and Boston), which includes not only sensible crimes (like robberies of genuinely valuable property) but senseless ones (like people gunned down on the street for no apparent reason except to spread fear and terror). It’s not all that clear just what Mortis is after, and quite frankly Ralph Morgan is too weak an actor to be playing a mad scientist (oh, how one wishes for Lionel Atwill’s authority in a similar part in Republic’s Captain America serial!), but the film itself is fast-moving — the directors are Noel Smith, a veteran of the Warners’ factory; and Ray Taylor, whose serial credits include the marvelous The Return of Chandu; the final Universal Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe; and the engaging if rather silly The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack — and it looks more like a major-budget gangster film than a serial (though part of that is due to the scads of stock footage from major-budget gangster films it contains!). Gang Busters the movie was probably a disappointment to fans of the radio show (as no doubt Dick Tracy and Captain America were to people who’d got to know those characters from the comics), but on its own it’s quite a production (even though the good guys are, at least so far, even more colorless than usual) and I’m looking forward to the subsequent episodes. — 12/18/12


I ran Charles episodes two and three of the 1942 Universal serial Gang Busters (notice the two-word spelling of the title, which is also correct for the radio and TV shows producer Phillips H. Lord created); the serial was more or less based on the radio program — I say “more or less” because though the radio show had documentary pretensions (at least one description of Gang Busters on radio indicated it was the America’s Most Wanted of its time, broadcasting dramatizations of real-life crimes for which the police had a solid suspect but hadn’t actually caught him, in hopes an audience member would provide the information that would lead police to the person they were seeking so they could be apprehended, tried and given justice), the serial is a fantastical plot in which the mysterious crime wave sweeping its city (unnamed in the dialogue but quite obviously New York, especially since there’s a subway running through it and the criminals hide in its tunnels, and often have to cross the tracks very quickly to get to the secret door of the hideout before a train bears down on them and runs them over) is headed by a mysterious “Professor Mortis” (in the first episode a helpful bit of dialogue pointed out that his name is Latin for “death”) and consists of his minions, the “League of Murdered Men.” Apparently Mortis is in the habit of recruiting his gang from recently arrested prisoners and slipping them a drug which, when they take it, results either in them actually dying in their cells or slipping into a coma indistinguishable from death. (The writing committee — Morgan Cox, Victor McLeod, Al Martin and George H. Plympton — still, as of the end of episode three, hasn’t made it clear which.)

 Gang Busters is an interesting serial in a number of ways, but the oddest of them is that the story is a weird mix of gangster drama and horror film — Mortis is a character straight out of the horror wing of Universal (indeed, the “subway tunnels” which conceal his hideouts seem to me to have been recycled from the sets of the Paris sewers built for the 1925 Lon Chaney, Sr. version of The Phantom of the Opera) and the macabre gimmick behind his gang is that they have to follow his orders because the only way they can stay alive after he’s either brought them back from the dead or reversed the effects of the coma-inducing drug he smuggled them in prison is with another drug Mortis has concocted, and for which only he knows the formula. The best aspect of the episodes so far has been the character of Mike Taboni (William Haade), who’s “killed himself” in jail so Mortis can revive him and turn him into one of the League of Murdered Men; Haade’s acting, even within the bounds of movie-gangster cliché, actually does a good job of delineating his uncertainty about his new role as one of the living-dead members of Mortis’s mob and the control Mortis has over him because he’s the only one with the antidote that keeps him alive. Gang Busters has its flaws, though; for one thing, Robert Armstrong is billed fourth (and is playing one of the cops rather than one of the gangsters, thank goodness) but he’s ill-used and doesn’t get enough screen time. For another thing, directors Ray Taylor (an old serial hand who in 1934 had directed one of the best — and most unusual — serials ever made, The Return of Chandu) and Noel Smith decided to put an arty dissolve effect at the end of every episode, so you don’t get that clear an idea of what the cliffhanger is because no sooner have you registered it than it dissolves into the montage of prisoners walking up and down the halls of a prison that was cribbed from stock footage and used in the opening as well — which rather takes the edge off the whole concept of the cliffhanger. It’s a fun serial and, unlike a lot of them, actually moves fast even between the action highlights, but there were better serials than this (notably The Return of Chandu and the 1943 Columbia Batman) and, as with Universal’s other “modern” serial The Green Hornet, there are surprisingly few fisticuffs — most of the action scenes are car chases (the cliffhanger at the end of episode one is a runaway plane which the villains attempt to hijack, killing the pilot, only the lead cop, Kent Taylor as Lt. Bill Bannister, overpowers the bad guy in the plane and, despite having no previous flying experience whatsoever, has to land the plane — and has to do it with one landing-gear wheel off because he clipped the top of a building with it earlier). — 12/22/12


I ran Charles episode four of Gang Busters, the 1942 Universal serial that remains an odd mixture of gangster and sci-fi/horror tropes. The Gang Busters property began as a radio series that depending on what source I’ve read (I’ve never actually heard a radio episode) was either a re-enactment of famous crimes of the past or an America’s Most Wanted precursor that re-enacted current crimes in which a suspect had been identified but not caught. Universal bought the rights from producer Phillips H. Lord to do a serial based on it, but instead of having the leads — police detective lieutenant Bill Bannister (Kent Taylor, bringing the same authority to the role he did as Boston Blackie on TV a decade later) and reporters Tim Dolan (an ill-used Robert Armstrong — but then again, aside from Howard Hawks’ marvelous silent A Girl in Every Port and the classic King Kong and its sequel, Son of Kong, it’s hard to think of a time when Armstrong was well used in film) and Vicki Logan (Irene Hervey, admirably spunky — one of my aesthetic tests for a serial is how well the women are drawn: are they just screaming damsels in distress or active participants in the action? Needless to say, I much prefer the latter!) — fight either genuine gangsters or fictional characters based on them, they decided to have the super-villain be Professor Mortis (Ralph Morgan, the Wizard of Oz’s brother), who’s invented a way of either raising the dead or giving convicts a coma-inducing drug that makes them appear dead, then reviving them with his own antidote — but one which has to be taken regularly or the person will die permanently. Naturally, Mortis keeps control of all his revivified sidekicks — whom he calls the “League of Murdered Men” (!) — because only he has the antidote and the formula to make it, and in episode four (called “Hangman’s Noose” for some reason even though no noose actually appears in the film) he hits on the idea of turning Bannister to his will by kidnapping him, giving him the “death” drug, then reviving him but making his continued existence dependent on the antidote only Mortis has. I still find it annoying that the same self-consciously “arty” montage scene is used at the beginning and ending of every episode — it’s especially bothersome when the cliffhanger dissolves into it, leaving us uncertain as to just what deadly peril is affecting which character at the end of each episode — but Gang Busters, though hardly at the level of the all-time best serials (which I would say were the 1934 The Return of Chandu and the 1943 Batman), is still a lot of fun to watch despite (or perhaps because of) its dorky genre-bending. And episode four does contain a quite well-staged fistfight, belying my continuing complaints that too many of Universal’s serials relied on car chases for the action highlights; this time, at least, their collection of stunt people acquitted themselves in hand-to-hand combat at least as well as Republic’s. — 12/27/12


I ran Charles two more episodes, the sixth and seventh, of the Gang Busters serial. This has been an interesting one to watch because most serials were either superhero stories, action tales or Westerns — the tropes of a gangster movie fit rather oddly with those of a serial, particularly since the principal villain is Professor Mortis (Ralph Morgan), not your standard-issue movie gangster but a mad scientist who’s figured out a way either to induce actual death in people or give them a drug that makes them look dead, enough to fool prison medical authorities so when he gives the drug to a convict, said convict is declared to have committed suicide in their cell and Mortis then has someone claim the body so he can revive it with an antidote drug only he knows about. The fourth-episode cliffhanger — Mortis sends two minions out to kill the serial’s good-guy lead, detective lieutenant Bill Bannister of the police (Kent Taylor, who a decade later would play Boston Blackie on TV with the same authority) — was resolved rather disappointingly when he escaped the trap with absurd ease at the beginning of episode five, but the later cliffhangers were much more spectacular, including Bannister and the female lead, reporter Vicki Logan (Irene Hervey). being caught at the end of episode six inside the new, and uncompleted, City Hall which Mortis has set incendiary bombs to burn down (obviously Universal had stock footage of a half-finished building burning and the writing committee wrote this story line into the script to use it); and a “water trap” at the end of episode seven — though Charles was wondering how the villains could possibly set the water trap for the heroes when they were in different parts of the building in which it was located. What’s more, the cliffhanger at the end of episode five — a nicely shadowy shot of Bannister taking a header out of the window of a multi-story building — got resolved really disappointingly when we were supposed to believe that he landed on an awning and it broke his fall so well that within a second or so he was able to get up and give chase to the baddies! — 12/29/12


Charles and I ran episodes eight and nine of the 1942 Universal serial Gang Busters last night — and, praise be, this is one of those serials that’s actually getting better as it goes along instead of just running its situations into the ground. It’s true that some of the cliffhangers are the usual cheats, but the good parts of this serial include unusually atmospheric direction by Ray Taylor (the remarkable talent behind The Return of Chandu) and Noel Smith (who started in the Warners’ “B” salt mines and should have had the talent to rise above them the way Vincent Sherman and Gordon Douglas did), and a personable and quite dynamic cast headed by Kent Taylor as Detective Lieutenant Bill Bannister, the leader of the gangbusters’ force of the city police department (the city is pretty obviously New York — as Charles pointed out, the crooks have their hideout inside the city’s subway system and New York and Boston are the only U.S. cities with such extensive subways — though in the usual practice of the time the city’s identity is kept secret and the police cars simply say “Police Department” on them); Irene Hervey as an appropriately spunky heroine, reporter Vicki Logan; Robert Armstrong as Tim Nolan (though in some of the episodes he seems to be affiliated with the police as Bannister’s partner and in others he seems to be Vicki Logan’s co-worker at the paper!); Ralph Morgan as a surprisingly personable and subtly played villain, “Professor Mortis”; and oddball characters like newsboy Mr. Grub (John Berkes, later one of the crooks Bela Lugosi recruits for his gang in Bowery at Midnight) and Frenchie Ludoc (Edward Emerson) — whoever was painting the prop sign for his waterfront restaurant had only the dimmest idea how to spell a French name! — whose character is surprisingly morally ambiguous for a serial, willing to let crooks use his place as a hideout and keep their stolen money and goods there but not O.K. with having his place used as a murder scene. The script for this one is by the usual committee (Morgan Cox, Al Martin, Victor McLeod and George H. Plympton, who’d later work on DC Comics-based serials for Columbia) but it’s facile, and one should give them credit for some quite inventive gimmicks — like one cliffhanger in which Vicki is about to take Bannister’s picture with a camera that, unbeknownst to her, has a gun inside that will shoot Bannister when the shutter button is pressed, and directors Taylor and Smith get a nice suspense thing going since we know the camera is booby-trapped but the on-screen characters (at least the good ones) don’t— though the resolution is something of a cop-out (Vicki hits the shutter button and the camera fires, but Bannister escapes harm because he just happened to trip and fall moments earlier). One wonders if the writers got this gimmick from the Marx Brothers’ film The Big Store, made just a year earlier! — 12/30/12


I ran Charles episodes 10 and 11 of the 1942 Universal serial Gang Busters — a quite interesting production, despite some of the usual serial problems (like weird glitches in continuity between episodes — interestingly, instead of a formal recap of the preceding episode’s contents, each new chapter begins with a prologue containing new footage of the previous episode’s events as well as recut scenes from the earlier one, and there’s a device at the beginning with a newspaper headline giving the details of the latest crime committed by sinister Professor Mortis and his gang, the League of Murdered Men). Not only is the gimmick of the criminal gang itself unusual for a serial outside the sci-fi/horror genre — Professor Mortis (played by reliable heavy Ralph Morgan in a surprisingly courtly fashion, especially given the hammery of other serial master villains) has either revivified dead criminals or given them a drug that simulates death, then worked them to do his will by saying that they will die for real if he doesn’t keep giving them an antidote to the original drug, which of course only he has the formula for — but Mortis’s motives aren’t the usual ones of greed: when one of his henchmen actually asks him why he isn’t in it for the money and what he is in it for, he says, “Revenge … and power!” Though so far we haven’t been given enough of Mortis’s background to have a clue what he might want revenge for, or against whom, he has said throughout the serial that what he really wants is to destroy the city government and put his own in power in its place. In these two episodes, he hires a bomb builder to make a dynamite bomb and conceal it in a truck — with which he plans to blow up police headquarters and kill everyone inside — though the hero, police lieutenant Bill Bannister (Kent Taylor), hijacks the truck and forces it off a bridge into a river, where its bomb explodes harmlessly (clever editing turns this into a cliffhanger by making it appear briefly as if Bannister has been blown up).

There’s also a great deal made of the exposure of Happy Haskins (Richard Davies) as Mortis’s “mole” in the police department, and the death of the very interesting character Mr. Grub (Johnnie Berkes — he later played a crook recruited by Bela Lugosi to join his super-gang in the film Bowery at Midnight, though in that one he was merely “John Berkes”), a newsboy who works as courier for the gang by slipping messages from one gang member to another concealed in the newspapers he delivers. He’s run down by a subway while on his way to the gang’s underground headquarters, which are concealed behind a maintenance door in the subway tunnels — which means the gang members are severely inconvenienced when they have to wait for the trains to pass so they can get into their hideout (and Mortis himself never seems to leave there — this is not one of those serials where the villain’s identity is a secret and he’s hiding in plain sight as an ostensibly respectable, law-abiding person — though the story might have been more interesting if the writers had used that trope). Gang Busters is good by serial standards, and it’s one Universal serial where the directors had access to enough good stunt doubles to stage convincing fist fights (the way their confrères did at Republic) instead of having to rely on car chases for the action (though there’ve been some good car chases here, too, including one rather kinky one in which the crooks stole a cop car so the chase was between two identical-looking vehicles, and it was a challenge to remember which was the police car containing the crooks and which was the police car containing the police); it’s also fast-moving and isn’t suffering from the longueurs a lot of serials showed off towards their later episodes, and I’m looking forward to watching the last two episodes (this contained 13 chapters, an odd number I think only Universal used — 10, 12 and 15 were the norms), probably tonight so we can close out this very interesting serial before the year ends! — 12/31/12


I ran Charles and I the last two chapters of the 1942 serial Gang Busters, and while the ending was a bit disappointing — the big reveal of Professor Mortis’s identity was that he was someone called Dr. Clayton Maxton, who (like the part Boris Karloff played in his first mad-scientist movie for Columbia, The Man They Could Not Hang) put a volunteer to death intending to revive him — only the police came in at the wrong moment and arrested him for murder without even giving him a chance to bring his “temporarily” killed victim back to life. Dr. Maxton served a prison sentence and, when he got out, he had decided to avenge himself on the mayor and police chief of the carefully unnamed city where this takes place for the years he lost due to his conviction — so he invented a drug that would give the appearance of death, had convicts take it, then had his associates claim their bodies so he could revive them … or actually just pretend to, since contrary to what he’s been telling his gang members all movie, the drug’s antidote only needs to be taken once: you don’t need maintenance doses of the antidote every week to keep yourself alive the way Mortis told his staff so they’d be loyal to him as the only one who could provide the presumably necessary drugs to maintain their revived existences. All through the previous episodes we had been kept in suspense about whether Mortis was genuinely a scientific necromancer giving life to dead gangsters to form his so-called “League of Murdered Men” or the suicide drug he was giving them was simply a heavy-duty soporific that put them under and made them look dead; these last two not only answered the question but offered a rather lame cop-out that explained the serial’s hero, Detective Lieutenant Bill Bannister (Kent Taylor, who in a plot twist anticipating Clint Eastwood’s movie, accepts being fired from the police force on the ground that as a private citizen he won’t be bound by legal and constitutional technicalities and therefore will be that much more effective in prosecuting the “war on crime” alluded to in the opening credits and spoken prologue), being able to get injected with Mortis’s drug (the needle approaching his body was actually the serial’s final cliffhanger!) without having to take maintenance doses of the antidote for the rest of his life.

I’d been hoping that was how it would end — the police scientists would have discovered Mortis’s antidote and figured out how to make it themselves, but Bannister would have to stay on the drug for all his remaining days — but that would have brought this film too close to the Production Code’s flat ban on stories about drug addiction. Aside from that, though, the 1942 Gang Busters is a quite interesting serial that — unlike a lot of members of the breed — got more interesting, not less, as it continued; it was helped by a fast, relentless pace (though the principal villain character seemed to have wandered over from the part of the Universal lot where they made their famous horror movies, the film did gain from the speedy action and staccato violence typical of the gangster genre, especially in the 1930’s) and by highly competent acting from a cast that, while hardly from the “A”-list of the time, was far better than the no-names that usually played in serials: Kent Taylor, spunky Irene Hervey, villain Ralph Morgan (who usually played a less exotic sort of bad guy — though he got one part, Condemned to Live, in which his portrait of a decent man cursed into becoming a monster would have been worthy of Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill or John Carradine in similar parts) and Robert Armstrong, albeit wasted as Taylor’s sidekick. (One would have thought his parts in King Kong and the sequel, Son of Kong, would have “made” his career — but Armstrong was probably too difficult to cast to achieve major stardom, too heroic to be re-“typed” as a villain the way RKO did with his King Kong co-star, Bruce Cabot, and not good-looking enough for conventional romantic leads.)

The writing, though done by the usual serial committee (Morgan Cox, Al Martin, Vic McLeod and George H. Plympton), is also quite inventive — especially in the climax, in which in order to spare reporter Vicki Logan (Irene Hervey) and Detective Tim Nolan (Robert Armstrong) from being drugged to death and then revived as members of the “League of Murdered Men,” Bannister agrees to assassinate the mayor and police chief on Mortis’s orders — and actually goes into the office where they’re meeting, closes the door behind the reporters waiting outside, then two shots ring out and he announces to all and sundry that he’s done the dirty deed. It’s an effective scene and would have worked even better if directors Ray Taylor and Noel Smith had actually staged it — if the mayor and chief had been shown getting hit, bleeding and crumpling to the floor so that they looked dead when the reporters saw them — and we’d only later found out that the shootings had been faked, with a blank-loaded gun and blood packets that “exploded” on cue, the way they would be done in a movie. Still, Gang Busters is a better-than-average serial, and if it rejected the “ripped from the headlines” pretensions of the original radio program and substituted a mad scientist and rank serial melodrama in its place, it was at least good, well-done rank serial melodrama, the sort of story that moves fast enough that we don’t pick out the relatively obvious plot holes until well after the movie is over! — 1/2/13