Tailspin Tommy, closely following the early storyline of Hal Forrest’s daily comic strip of that name, tells the story of Tommy Tompkins (Maurice Murphy), a youthful garage mechanic in the small rural town of Littleville. Tommy studies airplanes and aviation in his spare time and dreams of becoming a pilot some day; he gets his chance when a mail plane from the Three Point airport makes a crash landing in Littleville. Tommy repairs the plane and then helps its injured pilot, Milt Howe (Grant Withers), make it to Three Point in time to save the airport’s government mail contract. This achievement lands Tommy and his trusty pal Skeeter (Noah Beery Jr.) a job as mechanics at Three Point, and before long, Tommy is promoted to pilot and is battling enemies like wind and foul weather, while also combating the schemes of Wade “Tiger” Taggart (John Davidson), a tycoon and rival airline owner out to destroy Three Point. Between thwarting Taggart, flying the mail, falling in love with Aileron Cafe waitress Betty Lou Barnes (Patricia Farr), and winning a Hollywood contract to star in an aviation picture, Tommy has his hands full for twelve whole chapters.
Though an extremely enjoyable serial, Tailspin Tommy has received little critical attention. Most books on cliffhangers merely mention Tommy’s historical importance as the first comic-strip-based serial without really commenting on the cliffhanger itself, while many critics–if they comment on the serial at all–dismiss it as a corny piece of junk and one of Universal’s “worst” serials. It’s true that Tommy is not going to please the serial fans who think all chapterplays should follow the Republic model, with fistfights occurring on a regular basis; it’s also not going to please those fans who look for larger-than-life, colorfully unbelievable plots in their serials.
However, while Tommy may lack choreographed fight scenes or world-threatening villains with death rays, the serial is one of the better chapterplays from Universal’s pre-Flash Gordon years; its abundance of aerial action compensates for the scarcity of fistfights and gun battles, and its character-driven and relatively realistic script suits its modestly-scaled storyline perfectly. The studio’s low-key approach to serial action–which fitted so poorly with the fantastic plot of Universal’s 1933 cliffhanger Perils of Pauline–works well in Tailspin Tommy. In fact, Tommy could easily have been made as a medium-budget feature film of the period, so strong is its characterization and real-world atmosphere (although admittedly this realism is slightly dissipated by the quickness with which Tommy wins a Hollywood contract, and by the presence of a mad scientist in one chapter).
Tommy’s largely realistic screenplay is the work of Basil Dickey, Ella O’Neill, Vin Moore, and the apparently moonlighting Mascot regular Norman Hall. The writers do an excellent job in characterizing both people and places in this serial, and make the Three Point airfield seem like a vivid and believable workplace; even Three Point’s minor employees are individualized. Tommy’s hometown Littleville is also skillfully sketched as an endearingly rustic and old-fashioned village (there are only two phones in the town, the entire population turns out from curiosity when a plane lands, and the postmaster hauls out his shotgun to stand guard over the mail in Milt Howe’s plane while the pilot is visiting the doctor).
Tommy’s aerial action scenes are well-directed by Louis Friedlander (better-known as Lew Landers); many sequence utilize quite a bit of stock footage but manage to blend it seamlessly into the new action–in marked contrast to Universal’s Western serials of the same period, where the use of creaky Indian attack footage from silent films is very noticeable. One Tommy highlight–derived from stock but very exciting nevertheless–has our hero pursuing an equestrian henchman while hanging from a biplane wing, then jumping and pulling the heavy from his horse. The scene in which Tommy dangles from a plane high in mid-air in an attempt to aid the heroine’s damaged plane is also memorable, as is the sequence in which Tommy has to fly over some forbiddingly snowy mountains to get an injured Skeeter to the hospital in time.
Above: Tommy dogfights with a payroll thief (top left), flies through a blizzard (top right), prepares to jump an equestrian henchman from a plane wing (bottom left), and dangles from a refueling hose in mid-air (bottom right).
As the preceding descriptions indicate, Tommy is the only aviation-themed serial that derives virtually all of its plot situations from aerial action–air races, the making of an airplane movie, attempts to rob airborne payroll shipments, emergency airborne missions, and so forth. It’s the credit of the director and the writers that this relentless focus on airplane sequences never gets monotonous; the airborne adventures themselves are varied in nature, and are mixed with enough interludes on the ground that they don’t wear out their welcome. The reliance on airplane sequences induces a certain sameness in the serial’s chapter endings, however, most of which feature an aerial crack-up of one kind or another (the Chapter Four electrical-arc cliffhanger and the Chapter Nine building-collapse cliffhanger are two exceptions).
The cast of Tommy really helps put its simple storyline across; all the key players deliver strong performances. Star Maurice Murphy’s uninhibitedly enthusiastic Tommy (“Gosh, Mr. Smith–thanks! This is the biggest day of my life!”) will take a little getting used to for those who are used to more mature and stoic serial heroes, but Murphy’s exuberance is infectious and his acting grows on one as the serial progresses; he does a good job conveying his character’s growth from impetuosity to cool-headedness, and comes off as far more relatable and human than most serial leads.
Noah Beery Jr. provides excellent and likable comic relief as Skeeter. His character is a bit of a hayseed, but not a mere buffoon; his naivety and awkwardness are endearing and amusing without being cartoonish, even when he’s puzzling over the phrase “unwritten law” (in a very funny running gag), or accidentally crashing a motorcycle through the window of a Hollywood set.
Patricia Farr as Betty Lou makes a great heroine–pert, self-possessed, and exceedingly spunky, yet still very good-natured. The contrast between her smart, practical, and at times almost cynical character and Murphy’s ingenuous and daydreaming Tommy is an interesting one, and makes their slowly-developing romance a little more distinctive than most of the mild hero-heroine courtships that figure in early sound serials.
Walter Miller’s Bruce Hoyt–a crooked Three Point pilot secretly working for Taggart–serves as the serial’s principal heavy; Miller plays the character with proper sneakiness but gives him such a believable facade of congeniality that he seems truly likable at times. The character has considerably more dimension than most serial villains; though quite willing to make an attempt on Tommy’s life, Hoyt is genuinely fond of Betty Lou and concerned about her safety, as well as being a genuinely skilled and courageous flyer. Miller gives his unusual part enough depth to make one feel rather sorry for Hoyt when he meets his inevitable demise.
John Davidson’s cool, calculating, and ruthless Taggart is much more unambiguously evil than Miller’s Hoyt; although he only makes brief appearances throughout the serial, Davidson gives the part his all, using his deep voice and his smoothly serpentine manner to great advantage. Grant Withers does a fine job as Terry’s mentor and friend Milt Howe, remaining in the background for most of the serial but periodically taking a hand in the action; his tough and taciturn underplaying is ideally evocative of Howe’s supposed past as a well-travelled veteran aviator.
Charles A. Browne is warm but firm and kindly but dignified as Paul Smith, the owner of Three Point. Browne’s slightly sinister appearance helps to make his benevolent-employer act seem less stereotypical; a more typical elderly and white-haired actor might have seemed a little too maudlin when handling the character’s many displays of fatherly understanding. The usually dour Edmund Cobb is very cheery and affable as helpful Three Point pilot Speed Walton, while deep-voiced Dennis Moore (making his screen debut but already very self-assured) has a smaller role as another Three Point flyer. Jack Leonard and Monte Montague are hilarious as a couple of Three Point mechanics whose occasional comic bits include some excellent slapstick moments reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy’s antics.
Ethan Laidlaw is memorably cranky and aggressive as John Davidson’s tough chief henchman, ably backed up by experienced screen thugs like Al Ferguson, George Magrill, Slim Whittaker, and Lynton Brent. Charles Murphy and Bud Osborne play a pair of crooked mechanics in the villains’ pay, Otto Hoffman is the mad scientist mentioned earlier, and dignified William Desmond has an atypically shifty role as Sloane, John Davidson’s secretary and accomplice. Bryant Washburn takes a prominent part in the serial’s last three chapters as the authoritative but affable director of Tommy’s aviation film; his wry patience with Tommy as the fledgling actor stumbles through his first love scene is particularly enjoyable.
Belle Daube plays Tommy’s mother, while Horace B. Carpenter and Lee Beggs are two of the leading citizens of Littleville–the postmaster and the Deacon, respectively. Two future non-serial “names” may be seen in small roles–Jane Withers as a Littleville girl attending the premiere in the final chapter, and Walter Brennan as a hapless hospital attendant whose clothes Skeeter “borrows” to help Tommy get to an air race on time.
In summation, a description of the serial’s last chapter will serve to crystallize Tommy’s differences from the serial norm: Taggart is dealt with early in the episode, and the remainder of the serial deals with Tommy’s return to Littleville with a special print of his Midnight Patrol film, followed by an amusing contrast of the glitzy Hollywood premiere of the film with the down-home Littleville premiere. If you find such a conclusion corny and anti-climactic, you should steer clear of Tailspin Tommy; the ending is of a piece with the rest of the serial, which is chiefly about a small-town boy making good in the adventurous new world of aviation, and only incidentally about his battles with villains. However, those who are interested in old-time aerial excitement, genuine 1930s period flavor, and interesting and well-acted characters, are strongly advised to take a spin with Tailspin Tommy. It’s a pleasant and very well-done serial, as enjoyable as more fantastic and action-packed cliffhangers in its own quiet way.