Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1941. Starring Jack Holt, Evelyn Brent, John Ward, Joe McGuinn, Tristram Coffin, C. Montague Shaw, Edward Hearn, Stanley Blystone.
Holt of the Secret Service begins with a car chase, as a counterfeiting gang pursues a government engraver (Ray Parsons) along a country road. The gang succeeds in kidnapping the engraver, but one of their number is injured and captured during the police pursuit, while another gangster, one Nick Farrell (Jack Holt) narrowly eludes the same fate. Then the narrative moves to Secret Service Headquarters, where we learn that Farrell is really Jack Holt, a Secret Service agent detailed to track down the unknown boss of the counterfeiting ring. Holt has himself committed to the prison hospital along with Crimp Evans (Joe McGuinn), the wounded gangster, pretending he too was captured by the police. Female Secret Service agent Kay Drew (Evelyn Brent), posing as “Mrs. Farrell,” helps “Farrell” and Crimp escape the hospital, and the trio attempt to join the counterfeiting gang at their mountain hideout. Following Crimp’s seeming death in a canoe accident, the “Farrells” reach the hideout, where the apparent gang leader Ed Valden (Tristram Coffin) is forcing Severn, the captured engraver, to turn out counterfeit money with a set of stolen Treasury plates. Holt and Kay, posing as the hard-bitten and quarrelsome Farrells, quickly bring dissension and chaos to the mountain hideout. They succeed in rescuing Severn and capturing some of the gang, but they fail to apprehend Valden or discover the identity of his boss, big-time gambler “Lucky” Arnold (John Ward). Still maintaining their undercover poses, Holt and Kay continue their pursuit of the mysterious counterfeiting mastermind, using the stolen Treasury plates as bait to trap him and encountering additional interference from Crimp, who has survived his canoe accident and organized a rival gang. Yet another ingredient is thrown into the stew when all the principals are trapped on a tropical island run by the small-time despot Garrity (Stanley Blystone), who soon decides he’d like to get his hands on the plates as well. In the end, though, Holt of the Secret Service finally triumphs over his assorted foes.
Holt of the Secret Service is not the best of director James W. Horne’s serials, although it could have been. Like most of his other cliffhangers, it’s full of comedic bits, but these do not undercut its action scenes and serious plot elements as comprehensively as in other Horne outings; it has more in common with Horne’s Deadwood Dick (a basically traditional serial with some wacky touches), than it does with Horne’s Terry and the Pirates (an ostensibly serious serial fatally crippled by incongruous comedy) or Horne’s The Iron Claw (an out-and-out parody). Holt’s over-the-top moments are not its real problem; instead, it is hampered by a plot which is a little too thin to be stretched over fifteen chapters and comes to an overly-convoluted conclusion.
Watching Holt, I almost get the impression that its screenwriters, Basil Dickey, George Plympton, and Wyndham Gittens, split the serial’s chapters between them, cobbling their separate work together when each finished their allotted portion. The cliffhanger divides into three segments–Chapters 1 through 4, which take place at the villains’ mountain hideout, Chapters 5 through 9, in which Holt, Crimp, and Arnold’s gang wage a three-way tug-of-war over the plates, and Chapters 10 through 15, which introduce Garrity as a new chief villain and almost feel like part of another serial. The first two segments give the viewer some feeling of plot progression; the mountain hideout is broken up just as Holt and Kay’s adventures there begin to seem repetitive, while the battle over the plates gains interest from being accompanied by Holt’s gradual infiltration into the counterfeiters’ inner circle. Unfortunately, the final segment on the island bogs down considerably; although the locale is interesting at first, the new set of villains (along with a group of misguided natives) overcrowd the narrative and mute the colorful characterizations established earlier in the serial. Arnold, previously a secretive and cunning heavy, stupidly reveals his identity to Garrity’s gang, and his anticipated unmasking by Holt never comes to pass. The hitherto contentious and rebellious Crimp Evans happily becomes one of Garrity’s thugs, while Jack Holt himself is given less opportunity to trade barbs and blows with the villains as the bad guys’ infighting takes center stage.
Above: The room is overcrowded with villains in the final chapter of Holt of the Secret Service. Stanley Blystone (left) and Joe McGuinn are seated at the table. Standing, from left to right, are an unidentified player, Jack Perrin, John Ward, and Ted Adams.
Fortunately, Holt possesses a lively cast that carries the serial handily, even in the disappointing concluding chapters. The serial derives most of its humor from its leads’ pose as criminals and not, as in other Horne serials, from the clownishness of the bad guys. The Farrells, as played by Jack Holt and Evelyn Brent, are the most hard-bitten pair of crooks in serials, only taking time out from snarling at each other to snap at their ostensible partners in crime. Holt, a popular lead in earlier action films and a dependable character actor in later movies, is uncharacteristically cartoonish in these scenes, albeit very amusing. With an exaggerated sneer in his voice and an overbearing swagger in his walk, he bullies and berates thugs and higher-ranking villains alike, obviously relishing this opportunity to chew the scenery. His straightforward efforts to undermine gang morale in the earlier chapters are quite hilarious, as he shoots his colleagues’ laundry off a clothesline, slaps around a thug for questioning his toughness, and repeatedly beats the stuffing out of two or three henchmen at a time on very slight provocation. His drunk act in a later chapter is also hilarious, and his scornfully unconcerned reaction to a threat of a firing squad in the island sequence is not to be missed.
Above: Jack Holt, gun in hand, gives a shooting demonstration to his “friends” by plugging off-screen clothespins. Tristram Coffin is on the far right.
Evelyn Brent, another popular performer of earlier days fallen on hard times, makes a perfect screen partner for Holt. Like him, she seems to relish her scenes as a supposed crook, using an exaggeratedly harsh “hard-boiled” voice to deliver some amusingly sarcastic dialogue, as in the scene when she and Holt arrive at the mountain hideout. Holt explains to Tristram Coffin how he and his “wife” were lucky to escape from the canoe accident that seemingly killed Crimp. Brent glares around at the dumpy hideout and snaps “From the look of this place, Crimp was the lucky one!” This leads to an escalating verbal battle between her and Holt, which drives the harrased Coffin to a state of nervous frenzy. Both Brent and Holt, however, manage to give a more natural and less cartoonish tone to the scattered sequences in which they are not “in character” as the Farrells. The two performers have as good a rapport in these scenes as they do in their multiple bouts of comic hard-boiled bickering.
Above: Tristram Coffin attempts to intervene in a dispute between Holt and Evelyn Brent.
The supporting cast of Holt is an interesting one, since it features several actors that generally played small parts in unusually large roles, among them Joe McGuinn, John Ward, Ted Adams, and Stanley Blystone. McGuinn, who was a good but underused action heavy in Mysterious Doctor Satan, has much more time in the spotlight here as the rambunctious Crimp Evans, defiantly and belligerently double-crossing everyone in sight. His gravel voice, threatening manner, and stocky, prizefighter-like build make him the only villain in the serial who seems almost as tough as Holt himself. John Ward, usually a comic character actor, is surprisingly good as the smooth Lucky Arnold; though his appearance is non-threatening, his character’s constant maneuvering to keep himself in the shadows and his casually ruthless exterminations of various rivals make him come off as a mentally if not physically impressive villain.
Ted Adams is Quist, Arnold’s lieutenant, who poses as the head of the gang in order to keep Arnold’s identity a secret; oddly, Adams, who usually played nervous weasels, seems much more smooth than the usually urbane Tristram Coffin in this serial. Coffin himself has little to do in Holt after the plot leaves the mountain hideout; he begins the serial with something of the suave self-assurance he displayed in Spy Smasher and Perils of Nyoka, but is quickly reduced to a harried nervous wreck, getting verbally lambasted by Holt, Brent, rival villain Joe McGuinn, and higher-ranking villains Ted Adams and John Ward on a regular basis.
Above: Middle Management (Tristram Coffin, second from right) reports to the Executive (John Ward, at head of gaming table).
Although Stanley Blystone’s character throws the serial off-kilter, as already mentioned, Blystone himself is a lot of fun as the blustery, self-important Garrity (when Holt tells him, “I wouldn’t open that package if I were you,” Blystone roars, “Well, you’re not me–I’m me, and me is gonna open it!”). C. Montague Shaw, though billed third, makes only token appearances as the Secret Service chief; he’s as distinguished as ever in the small role. Edward Hearn, a frequent character actor in Mascot serials, has a much bigger role as Jim Layton, Holt and Brent’s Secret Service contact. It’s unusual to see Hearn, whose emphatic style was best suited to 1930s serials, appearing in a 1940s cliffhanger, but his rather theatrical and overstated acting fits nicely into director Horne’s unique milieu. George Chesebro and Stanley Price have noticeable parts as Stanley Blystone’s henchmen, although Chesebro’s character seems patently schizophrenic–cheerfully dropping bombs on defenseless natives one moment, then proclaiming to Blystone “I’ve had enough of your murders!” the next. Price’s best moment comes when he glibly explains to the hapless native chief how Holt can be supposedly bombing the natives from the air while the natives are chasing Holt through the jungle at the same time. The chief is played as an amusingly befuddled type by Nick Thompson, the tipsy medicine man from Horne’s Perils of the Royal Mounted.
Harry Harvey has a good role as a sneaky, ambitious bartender who sides with different factions at different times, finally getting too cocky for his own good. Ray Parsons is sympathetic as Severn, the persecuted engraver. Horne regulars Harry Tenbrook, Charles Hamilton, and Constantine Romanoff play various counterfeiting thugs, while Buddy Roosevelt, Guy Kingsford, and Jack Perrin are also seen as henchmen. Pierce Lyden and George Magrill play associates of Joe McGuinn’s, while McGuinn’s co-henchman from Mysterious Doctor Satan, Walter McGrail, pops up as the captain of Lucky Arnold’s gambling ship. Dale Van Sickel plays another henchman, and, together with Hamilton, Lyden, and Tom Steele, handles the serial’s stuntwork.
Most of the serial’s fight scenes, despite the presence of Van Sickel and Steele, are wild brawls not choreographed in the manner of Republic’s action scenes. The fights almost become something of a running joke, as Holt repeatedly takes on four or five villains at once, slugging his opponents into unconsciousness no matter how heavy the odds against him. The chapter- ending action scenes are a more serious affair. In fact, there are some outstanding cliffhangers among them, including a scene in which a blazing trailer with Evelyn Brent inside crashes into Holt’s car, a chase up a ladder inside a mine shaft which ends in Holt being overcome by acid fumes and falling down the shaft, and a fight aboard the villains’ gambling ship between Holt and a thug, during which the two hurtle from an upper deck and plummet into the hold.
Above: Jack Holt (or his stuntman) crashes into a blazing trailer.
The serial’s varied locations are another point in its favor; the villains’ mountain hideout, situated in a canyon (at Iverson’s Ranch) and possessing a network of mine tunnels, is an interesting locale, as is the posh gambling ship that serves as Lucky Arnold’s headquarters. Both the gambling ship and the later island village are populated by a generous amount of extras, making the locations seem more real than is often the case in serials.
Above: Holt, Evelyn Brent, and a henchman descend into the villains’ canyon hideout.
Holt of the Secret Service is a meandering affair, with some of the unevenness of tone expected from James Horne, but a far more uneven plot. However, disjointed as the serial is, it still makes an enjoyable picaresque adventure, largely because of the antics of its spirited cast and eccentric director.
This one seems to divide folks more than most. I like it a lot more than you do. Two assets raise it from a mediocre serial to an above average one for me–Jack Holt and Evelyn Brent. Holt is my pick as the most charismatic serial lead of them all. Despite his age, he really sells the tough guy stuff. Those one on five fights which normally look so silly come across okay with Holt playing the part because he really throws that right like a pro boxer. Nor did any other serial actor bite off his lines like Holt. I remember reading a review in which the critic said this was a C serial lifted to a B+ by Holt. I don’t know if I would be quite that positive about it, but I generally agree. Brent is also top-flight barking out her caustic lines. The scenes between the two of them are unique in serials and quite funny, but the humor doesn’t undercut the action for me as the two are playing their bickering spouse roles for the benefit of the bad guys and therefore these scenes fit in a way most of the comedy in Horne’s other serials doesn’t, and most comic relief characters don’t. I find this by far Horne’s best effort. The weaknesses you pointed out are true enough-ordinary villains, a convoluted plot, small-fry villainy (counterfeiting doesn’t match up with taking over the world), too much villain infighting, etc., but it is fast-paced and action packed with Holt and Brent keeping it entertaining all the way through. **** out of *****
I am also very fond of this serial for a lot of reasons. Primarily it’s the leads – no other couple in serials comes close to Holt and Brent. Moore and Ames had a brief stint in a similar vein in G-Men Never Forget, even the hospital bust out idea, but Mr and Mrs Farrell are something else indeed. The fights were very good and even tho the number of opponents was unrealistic, that big right hand of “Holt” was believable serious business. I thought it was Eddie Parker doubling Holt in the fights. Cliffhangers were also well done. Lots of locale changes and a big cast kept things interesting, but the plot did drag on and 15 chapters was a bit overlong.
Curiously, Blystone seemed to have a tough time with his dialogue at several points. Cheseboro had the funniest line in any serial I’ve ever seen in the last chapter. We’ve all suffered through most of the comedy relief that was a staple in serials and you can get it straight up with Sid Saylor or Smiley Burnette or it can be stirred into the plot with dialogue or an amusing situation and I think that’s how Horne chose to include it here. For example that early scene where Jack goes nuts on that crook just to prove he’s tough is hilarious. But it’s Jack, and it kind of endears the character to you. I was also really shocked at the undressing of Brent in one of the last chapters, I could not imagine a Republic serial heroine portrayed as clad only in a bedspread of sorts as males burst into the room. Just another James Horne touch.
From what I understand Jack and Harry Cohn had a tiff and making this serial was Jack’s punishment. It doesn’t show at all because Holt went at his role full throttle and gave us a standalone serial performance to enjoy.
There’s tough, there’s tougher, and then there’s Jack Holt! it certainly has its share of flaws, but it’s still one of my personal favorites. A totally entertaining and fun-to-watch serial.