Many moons prior to his holding office as 40th President of the United States, being elected as Governor of California or establishing the classic phrase “I don’t recall” into the national lexicon, Ronald Wilson Reagan was an actor. Granted, he wasn’t a very good actor (see: Death Valley Days) — not by today’s standards, at least (and some feel the same way about his status as Head of Government, as well) — but, as the quintessential b-movie leading man of the ‘30s and ‘40s, ol’ Ronnie turned the heads of many a lass and inspired American men and boys of all ages to proudly support their country.
Wait, what? Actors stirring some sort of patriotic enthusiasm out of their audiences? Yeah, we really don’t see that sort of thing anymore like we did with the Silver Screen stars of from the Greatest or Silent Generations, do we? Well, we do every once in a while, but they’re usually sitting with people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Alas, we are not here to mete out any feelings some of us may hold towards maniacal conservative talk-show shock-jocks with verbal diarrhea and incurable folly; we’re here to take a gander at a couple of old Ronald Reagan movies from World War II — long before the words “patriotism” and “extremism” became so confounded with each other.
And, honestly folks, I’m not trying to make fun of Ronnie here. Really.
Now then, during the ‘30s and ‘40s, Hollywood concocted many a strewn franchise about cowboys, detectives, and even secret agents. A few of such now-legendary characters have gone down in the Annals of Cinematic History, while many others were simply swept under the Red Carpet over the years for being nothing more than cheapo b-movies. Which brings us to a guy known as “Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service.” While this character isn’t as noteworthy in the Chronicles of Moving Pictures as someone like, say, “Hopalong Cassidy” (or even “Holt of the Secret Service,” for that matter), he isn’t quite as easily forgotten as Bill Elliott’s legacy as “Wild Bill Saunders.”
And, to make sure we don’t forget about Brass and his celluloid exploits, Warner Bros has put together a Manufactured-On-Demand DVD(-R) release of Brass Bancroft Of The Secret Service Mysteries Collection, a series of four quickie movies that were based on several real life accounts accumulated by former Secret Service Chief W.H. Moran, and which played on the bottom end of a Saturday Matinee double feature. All four films were made by Warner Brothers, starred the great Ronald Reagan as our dashing hero, and served as starring vehicles for the actor.
We begin with 1939’s Secret Service Of The Air, which introduces Lt. “Brass” Bancroft — a pilot who gets recruited by the Secret Service to infiltrate and help bring down a ruthless gang of smugglers based just below the American border in Mexico, who have been runnin’ illegal immigrants in that aren’t Mexican (such émigrés exists, believe it or not — you hear that, Limbaugh?) for a fee. A jaunting moment at the beginning has a nervous pilot dropping his entire cargo (read: human beings) from his small aircraft via a secret trap door (years before Christopher Walken ever did it in A View To A Kill) when the Feds get wise to ‘em.
Secret Service Of The Air also familiarizes us with Bancroft’s wacky sidekick, “Gabby” Walters: who is always savin’ Brass’ bacon throughout the string of films when he’s not being the token comic relief. Our first film also tosses in a love interest for Lt. Bancroft, who is played by one Ila Rhodes. Not only was the beautiful young actress engaged to Ronald Reagan around the time the movie was made, but the poor lass never went anywhere as an actress after she and Reagan separated and Ronnie went on to marry Jane Wyman the following year (in Hollywood, it’s not what you know…). True to life, that particular love interest is never seen, heard from, or mentioned ever again — even though Brass heads off to marry her at the conclusion of the first film.
In the second Brass Bancroft flick, Code Of The Secret Service (also from 1939), Brass journeys down to Mexico (again) to go after some counterfeiters. While he’s there, he gets framed for murder when bad guys knife one of his fellow undercover agents and has to track down the phony money makers while eluding the Mexican authorities (whom Brass’ sidekick Gabby plays strip poker with) in the process.
Now, while there were already a lot of similarities between the first and second films, the series really started to get repetitious come the third and fourth (and final) entries — Smashing The Money Ring (1939) and Murder In The Air (1940), respectively. Brass goes undercover in prison (that’s what Secret Service guys do, right?), fights counterfeiters, gets framed for murder, or heads down to Mexico (well, Iverson Ranch) all too often for one to really differentiate each movie over time. Truthfully, if you watch Smashing The Money Ring and Murder In The Air back-to-back, you probably won’t be able to recollect which is which immediately thereafter. In fact, you might find yourself saying “I don’t recall” if someone asks you about them.
Anyhoo, the only one factor that really made me slightly adept enough to distinguish the third and fourth film apart would have to be co-star Eddie Foy, Jr., who — like all good comic relief characters — made even the most straight-forward Saturday Matinee fodder at least half-way amusing for the kiddies. Foy, the third-youngest child from the famed vaudeville team “Seven Little Foys,” was brother to Bryan Foy, the head of Warner’s b-movie unit, and the (uncredited) executive producer for the entire Brass Bancroft series.
Oh, wait, I take that back. There is something memorable about that last film, Murder In The Air, wherein Brass has to save a science fictiony gizmo called the “Inertia Projector” from falling into enemy hands. When the crazy cliffhanger serial prop (which many people would go on to jokingly compare Reagan’s later SDI project to) is first depicted onscreen (onboard a zeppelin, nonetheless), a government official proudly states “It not only makes the United States invincible in war, but in so doing, promises to become the greatest force for world peace ever discovered” to whit another follows: “Which is the hope and prayer of all thinking people, regardless of race, creed, or government.”
Odd words indeed to be uttered by a dirigible full of god-fearing white guys. Hey, maybe Camper Van Beethoven was right, and Reagan was “living in some b-movie!”
But seriously, I’m not ridiculing him, people: it’s just good-natured ribbing. For realsies.
In all earnestness, none of these films are what most people would refer to as “good.” These were little more that wartime b-movies when they were made. But much like some cheeses get better with age, the Brass Bancroft series is certainly entertaining and enjoyable in its own right.
All four Brass films are included in Brass Bancroft Of The Secret Service Mysteries Collection as part of Warner Bros.’ “made-to-order” Archive Collection, available on DVD-R via www.wbshop.com. Like many of Warner’s other “manufactured-on-demand” releases, these wartime b-movie relics have not been remastered. That said, though, all four films look and sound pretty damn good when one stops to consider how old they are!
Warner’s double-disc set delivers two features per disc. Interestingly enough, the first disc lists the freshman and sophomore entries of this short-lived franchise in reverse order, with Secret Service Of The Air displayed as the “second” feature. So, if anyone’s all obsessive-compulsive like I am about watching any sort of series in chronological order, be warned. I doubt it’ll make much difference to anyone, though, to be perfectly honest. All four features are presented in their original 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio and with their good ol’ Mono English soundtracks. There are no special features or subtitle options to be found with this release, but the mere fact that yet another transitory American hero has found a new home on DVD is special enough.
Now, if only we can learn to tell one film apart from the other…