“Reach for the ceiling!”
The year 1937 saw all three of the major serial producers in action. Republic, generally considered the class of the serial-makers, released Dick Tracy, The Painted Stallion, SOS Coast Guard, and Zorro Rides Again. Meanwhile Columbia, which was just entering the fraym offered Jungle Menace and The Mysterious Pilot. Universal, with its 1936 Flash Gordon success to build on, was the most prolific of all with five 12-chapter releases: Jungle Jim, Radio Patrol, Secret Agent X-9, Tim Tyler’s Luck, and Wild West Days.
Universal was the company that turned most often to the daily comic strips for inspiration for its serials. Secret Agent X-9 was a good example. The strip originated in 1934 from a combination of factors — Dashiell Hammett’s desire to write a private detective strip and King Features’ interest in a government/secret agent strip to compete with the then successful “Dick Tracy” strip. The initial four cases handled by Secret Agent X-9 were stories created by Hammett (although modified by King Features) and were drawn by legendary strip artist Alex Raymond. Thereafter, Hammett departed, soon to be followed by Raymond, both unhappy with the relationship with King Features. The strip endured, however, and eventually was retitled “Secret Agent Corrigan” around 1960.
Universal’s 1937 serial version proved to be a popular release and in 1946, a second Secret Agent X-9 serial was produced, with a new cast featuring Lloyd Bridges and a new story. While the latter serial is just in the process of being released on DVD by VCI, the 1937 version was released by VCI two months ago and is the subject of this review.
A well-known international jewel thief known as Brenda steals the Belgravian crown jewels, which are in transit back to Belgravia after a public showing in the United States. Department of Justice Secret Agent X-9 is assigned the case of bringing Brenda to justice. The actions of Brenda’s chief lieutenant, Blackstone, and his gang provide X-9’s best clues to cornering Brenda and recovering the jewels. X-9’s work is complicated by the presence of Baron Karsten, who is also trying to locate the jewels on behalf of Belgravia. Despite this, however, X-9 and his partner Pidge zero in on the location of the hideout of Brenda’s gang after a series of skirmishes on both land and sea. All that remains is to expose Brenda.
As a rule of thumb, Universal’s serials were usually considered to be long on plot, but short on action. For once, however, Universal managed to get it right with Secret Agent X-9, providing a pleasing blend of action with a plot that’s thoughtful but not unnecessarily complex. Inevitably, there a few holes in the story and a few lapses in continuity, but for the most part it plays fair with the audience and has enough twists to keep one’s attention.
Direction is by the team of Ford Beebe and Cliff Smith. Smith had plenty of experience in westerns and was teamed with Beebe at Universal in the mid-1930s. Beebe was a veteran serial director with extensive experience at Mascot before joining Universal. In addition to Secret Agent X-9, the duo would be responsible for four other Universal serials — Ace Drummond (1936), Jungle Jim (1937), Radio Patrol (1937), and Wild West Days (1937) — before Smith died unexpectedly in late 1937. In Beebe and Smith’s hands, Secret Agent X-9 moves along briskly and displays some flair for interesting camera work. The various action sequences show a reasonable degree of variety, including several good boat chases in the harbour, the usual car chases both in the city and in the country, and plenty of fistfights. The stunt work excels on several transfers between moving vehicles, although the fistfights are not as well choreographed as a typical Republic serial. The chapter cliffhangers are just okay. One particularly good one involves X-9 apparently shot by a harpoon gun and another has him being knocked out of a window to the pavement several stories below. But too many are resolved with little flair (including one involving an apparent car crash), a situation that is made very noticeable if you watch several of the episodes at once. Serials were made to be seen one episode per week and it’s best when watching them now to allow a reasonable interval of time to pass (at least a day) between viewings of each episode.
Production values are good, for a serial, with some very detailed-looking sets in evidence. The variety of shops and props spread around the quayside set of the pirate ship museum is a cut above the norm, even if it is presumably a set created for another Universal production. Even the chapter openings with the shots of the harbour and city in the background provide a touch of class.
The cast is adequate. Henry Brandon is particularly effective as Blackstone and Lon Chaney Jr. provides good support as Maroni, one of the chief gang members. Scott Kolk is less compelling as X-9. He’s rather bland and just doesn’t give the lead character the gravitas that one expects. This is a bit of a drag on the first few episodes, but as you become used to Kolk, it becomes less of a problem and the serial really takes off over the last eight episodes. Jean Rogers (Dale Arden in Flash Gordon) is a welcome sight as the somewhat mysterious character Shara Graustark, but she’s underutilized to some extent. Familiar character actors Bob Kortman, Si Jenks, Larry Blake, and Monte Blue also appear.
Serial fans will welcome the quality of this DVD’s full frame (in accord with the original aspect ratio) image transfer. It’s not of the same standard as some of the restored classic releases from the major studios, but it is fairly crisp and clear overall. There are some soft sections, but black levels are deep and shadow detail is quite satisfactory. Edge effects are not an issue. Compared to some of the serial releases from the public domain specialists, this DVD is a pleasure to look at.
The mono sound is also in quite good shape. Dialogue is clear and sound effects are at least realistic-sounding. The serial mood music has little depth, but is conveyed pleasingly.
Supplements include trailers for four serials (Adventures of Red Ryder, Winners of the West, Gangbusters, Tailspin Tommy), although there is not a separate scene selection for each. Brief biographies and selected filmographies are provided for Scott Kolk, Jean Rogers, and Ford Beebe.
Secret Agent X-9 (1937) is a pleasant surprise — a Universal serial that offers a nice production with a good blend of action and interesting plot. It could have used a stronger lead player, but the bad guys are well cast. Watch this one with a day or more between episodes and I think you’ll find yourself more than happy with the result. VCI’s DVD version is quite good.