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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Tailspin Tommy – Gets the Monogram Treatment in Sky Patrol and Danger Flight (1939)

Mankind has always been fascinated by the possibility of flight. When the Wright Bros got off the ground in 1903, even though it was only for a few seconds, they ignited an air race that eventually put a man on the moon.

The early days of flight saw multiple individuals and companies competing with novel, sometimes outlandish plane designs that captured the public’s imagination. When Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927, America’s fascination with all things aviation caught fire. Tailspin Tommy was the first of the newspaper comic strips launched to cash in on the crazy and was soon followed by Skyroads, Scorchy Smith, Smilin’ Jack and  my personal favourite, Flying’ Jenny. During the war, strips like Terry and The Pirates and Capt. Easy that had not started out as aviation strips soon joined Johnny Hazard in putting their heroes into the cockpit.

The Tailspin Tommy newspaper strip is all but forgotten in the 21st century, but was immensely popular in its day. Written by Glenn Chaffin and illustrated by Hal Forest, it ran from 1928 to 1942. Notably, the legendary movie poster artist, Reynold Brown inked the strip from 1936 to 1942. Tailspin made his move onto film with two 12-part serials in 1934 and 1935.

 Artwork by Reynold Brown

John Trent took over the roll for four low-budget Tailspin adventures for Monogram that were all released in 1939. He was a seemingly good choice for the character, having gone into acting after a career in commercial aviation. However, despite having the physical cut of a leading man (he co-starred with Ann Dvorak in the comedy, She’s No Lady, 1937), his acting skills were modest at best, and he eventually returned to aviation as a test pilot.

Jason Robards, Milburn Stone, John Trent, and Marjorie Reynolds

Trent was backed up in the series by three actors who went on to much more substantial careers. Milburn Stone played Tailspin’s goofy pal, Skeeter Milligan, and Jason Robards was his boss/partner, Paul Smith, at Three Points Airline. The underutilized Marjorie Reynolds got second-billing as his girlfriend, Betty Lou Barnes, but she usually was only given a few lines per movie worrying about her hero, Tommy.

Tailspin Tommy in Sky Patrol (1939) predates the US entry into WW II, but has Tommy ‘drafted’ by the military into organizing a sky patrol to hunt for smugglers (read Nazi collaborators) on the west coast. Tommy is training the new recruits, but is having trouble with medical student, Carter Meade, who – surprise! - does not want to have to kill anyone. Unfortunately, he’s also the son of the commanding officer who sees his son’s aversion to killing as an ‘irrational phobia’ to be overcome. Tommy covers for Carter’s ‘weakness’ and gets him into the Sky Patrol, only to have him become the seemingly first causality of the team. However, it all turns out well when Carter is found alive, captured by the smugglers who are running guns in international waters. Carter saves Tommy by killing one of the bad guys, thus proving that he is really a man and not a peace-loving commie, or worse. Carter is played by a mid-career Jackie Coogan who does as much as he can with his brief, sketched-out part. Fans of his role as Uncle Fester in the 1960’s Addams Family TV show will only recognize the svelte Coogan here by his voice.

Jackie Coogan

The film has above average production values and script for a Monogram film, and even the ‘toy-boats-in-a-bathtub’ special effects are used sparingly and are not too distracting. Just don’t look too closely at the many holes in the story.

Tailspin Tommy in Danger Flight (1939) was the last in the series. It has a crackling good first half where Tommy becomes lost in a raging storm while trying to deliver medicine to a dam construction site that has suffered multiple injuries in an avalanche. Cutting between Tommy flying blind in the storm to Betty Lou and Skeeter desperately trying to help him from their radio room, the tension ramps up as Tommy’s fuel runs down with no place to land. Probably inspired by the flying sequences from the same year’s Only Angels Have Wings, with a healthy dollop of Clark Gable’s doomed flight to oblivion in Night Flight (1933), the first half of Danger Flight is as good as you’re going to get from any respectable B picture, and way above the norm for a Monogram film. However, the second half of the film pancakes back to earth as Tommy battles gangsters trying to steal the construction company’s payroll in what seems like a completely different film.

John Trent as Tailspin Tommy

I honestly only watched as many Tailspin adventures as I did just to enjoy the presence of Marjorie Reynolds, a pretty, button-nosed blonde with energy to spare. I suspect that Monogram used her as much as they did to help provide a much needed jolt to many of their otherwise lackluster productions. Playing the reporter Roberta Logan, she was the second best thing in the three of the six Boris Karloff-headlined Mr. Wong films (1939 – 1940) that she co-starred in. She also starred in a number of respectable poverty row crime/noir films before graduating to higher profile pictures at better studios in the early 1940’s (e.g., Ministry of Fear (1944) with Ray Milland). Although she never became a major star, she did help Bing Crosby introduce the classic song, White Christmas, in Holiday Inn (1942).

Ray Millard and Marjorie Reynolds in Ministry of Fear (1944)

What about the rest of the Three Points Airline personal?

Milburn Stone had a long career in show business going back to vaudeville in the 1920s. His film career consisted of mostly minor parts or bigger parts in minor films. Universal Shock Theater fans will recognize him from starring in Captive Wild Women and Jungle Girl (both 1943) and the Inner Sanctum film, The Frozen Ghost (1945) starring Long Chaney, Jr. Later in his career, Stone struck gold playing Doc in the long running Gunsmoke TV show. Appearing in 604 episodes, Doc became one of the most beloved characters in television history. Stone won an Emmy for the role in 1968.

 Milburn Stone in Gunsmoke
Jason Robards went on to be one the greatest stage and film actors of his era. After a decorated Navy career in WWI, his film career started slowly where he marked time in films like the Tailspin Tommy series until his talent was recognized. Amongst his many awards, he won a Tony, an Emmy, and two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (All The Presidents Men, 1976 and Julia, 1977).

 Jason Robards in Once Upon A Time in The West (1969)

Is Tailspin Tommy Worth My Time? Yes, if you’re a fan of the Monogram oeuvre or pulp serials. John Trent in Sky Patrol is about as flat as an actor can be and still be alive, but he is more animated in Danger Flight. The first half of that film is very engaging and would be a great introduction to the series. And, it’s fun to watch future stars, Reynolds, Robards and Stone early in their careers.

Availability: I watched these on YouTube as OK quality prints. The breaks in the films just add to the sensation of being at a Saturday afternoon matinee. Sky Patrol gets a B and Danger Flight a B+, bearing in mind the quality of films we’re dealing with. Both films benefit from their brisk 60 minute running times.

Bonus! More Reynold Brown poster art.