Red Barry begins in war-torn China, where importer Wing Fu (Cyril Delevanti) is given an important task by General Fang of the Chinese Army. The Russian government has donated two million dollars in bonds to the Chinese to aid them in their fight against the (never-named) Japanese invaders; it will be Wing Fu’s duty to transport the bonds to the United States, use them to purchase bombing planes there, and prevent this violation of the Neutrality Act from coming to the notice of the American authorities. Just before Wing Fu arrives in America, the bonds are stolen from him by the henchmen of Eurasian gang boss Quong Lee (Frank Lackteen)–who has also been murdering several of Fu’s American associates and baffling the police; in fact, police detective “Red” Barry (Buster Crabbe) is being threatened with dismissal by the Commissioner (William Gould) for his failure to solve the “Chinatown case.” However, Barry–with the loyal support of his friend and immediate superior Inspector Scott (Wade Boteler) perseveres, and soon gets on the trail of the missing bonds–although he has to contend not only with Quong Lee’s gang and Wing Fu and his followers, but also with a group of Russian exiles led by the ballerina Natasha (Edna Sedgwick), who claims the bonds are the rightful property of her family. Despite his multiple opponents, the hard-driving police detective eventually manages to crack the case, sorting out the circumstance-driven factions from the truly villainous ones in the process.
Red Barry, based on a comic strip by Will Gould, is both an entertaining and a frustrating serial; it’s swiftly paced, with fine action scenes and some memorable characters, most of them extremely well-played by the cast. However, the chapterplay’s script (by Norman S. Hall and Ray Trampe) also features some gaping plot holes and a very unfortunate mid-serial twist that robs the chapterplay of one of its most colorful characters; the final result, though entertaining, is also somewhat unsatisfying.
Red Barry, like many of Universal’s later 1940s serials, features an unusually large cast of players and several conflicting groups of good, bad, and “in-between” characters. However, Barry’s pace is much swifter than that of the later chapterplays, which turns the large cast into an asset instead of a detriment. Barry’s many characters, unlike their 1940s counterparts, don’t slow the plot with incessant recapitulation of their goals. Instead, the presence of so many factions serves to keep the plot moving continually; the constant passage of the bonds from the Chinese to the Russians to the gangsters to the police gives the narrative an appealingly speedy and fast-moving feel.
Unfortunately, the pace is a little too speedy at times, and leaves some plot threads dangling–particularly in the scene that has our heroine Mississippi (Frances Robinson) apparently shot by Natasha, only to appear at the police station in the next chapter with no mention of the occurrence (this unresolved sequence also makes the good guys’ later insistence that they have no concrete charges against Natasha seem contradictory, to say the least). Another plot hole is apparent in the sequence that has Barry following one of Wing Fu’s accomplices into a building that proves to have been booby-trapped by…Wing Fu’s mortal enemy Quong Lee! Additionally, Quong Lee’s exact motives for perpetrating the “Chinatown Murders” are never explained; scripting gaps like these bring to mind some of the plot holes that Hall and Trampe left in their Mascot serial screenplays from the early 1930s.
The biggest flaw in Barry, however, is its lack of a strong central villain. Since Wing Fu and Natasha, by avoiding really ruthless actions, make it obvious that they’ll wind up on the side of the angels before serial’s end, the narrative needs a formidable and unambiguously evil heavy to provide some menace. Frank Lackteen’s Quong Lee character fills this slot admirably for the first half of the serial–but he’s most unfortunately revealed to be nothing more than the assumed identity of another character, and is written out in the middle of the chapterplay; the actor playing Quong Lee’s “true” identity then takes over villainous duties for most of the remaining chapters. The player who replaces Lackteen, although capable enough, is far too bland to be as menacing or as distinctive as his predecessor, and the serial suffers from the substitution–although the writers partly salvage the situation in the final chapters by introducing yet another unsuspected villain, one much more interesting than the unmasked “Quong Lee.”
Barry’s action sequences are a lot more enjoyable than its lopsided plotline; its many fistfights and chases are all well-staged by directors Alan James and Ford Beebe and stuntmen Eddie Parker and Tom Steele, though lacking the spectacular stuntwork of contemporary Republic action scenes. The car chase in Chapter Five, with Barry pursuing the Russians while rival sleuth Valentine Vane (Hugh Huntley) chases him and Inspector Scott tries to catch up with all three participants, is particularly enjoyable. The Chapter Four fistfight atop a train is another highlight, as is the ship-board fight in Chapter Eight and a battle between Barry and Quong Lee’s henchmen in a third-floor opera box.
The settings for these and other action scenes are uniformly interesting, ranging from the streets of Chinatown to a seedy waterfront neighborhood to various winding country roads. The Chinatown theater where Natasha performs, Wing Fu’s ornate inner sanctum, and the posh estate of Valentine Vane also provide good backdrops to the action; like most Universal sets, they’re much more impressively furnished than their counterparts in other studios’ serials.
The serial’s chapter endings alternate several car crashes and shootings with more colorful perils–such as Red’s fall from the aforementioned opera box, his drop into the harbor through a trap door, his near-destruction by an explosive booby trap, and his near-devouring by a lion (surely the only sequence of its kind in a non-jungle serial). Unfortunately, a few too many of these cliffhangers–particularly the opera box fall, the booby-trap explosion, and the two endings in which Red is apparently shot–are resolved by simply having our hero survive the danger and shrug off any damage; such resolutions were a consistent flaw of Universal serials in both the 1930s and 1940s.
Barry’s cast, for the most part, does an excellent job with a screenplay that, despite its logic gaps, features more interesting character dynamics than a typical serial scenario. Buster Crabbe brings appropriate toughness and determination to his role, along with an appealing straightforwardness that contrasts well with most of the other characters’ deviousness. He’s also likably affable when interacting with his friends, and is memorably and movingly sincere in the Chapter Ten scene where he quietly vows to track down the murderer of one of those friends, even if the Commissioner follows through on his threat of dismissing him.
Wade Boteler, who played the bumbling and blustering Michael Axford in the two Green Hornet serials, is allowed to be much more intelligent here; his Inspector Scott, though irascible, is as tough and capable as Crabbe’s Barry. The two actors succeed admirably in conveying a mutual respect that makes their characters seem like long-time friends and colleagues.The lovely Frances Robinson, as girl reporter “Mississippi,” is one of the most appealing heroines in any serial; she succeeds in making her character funny, attractive, and intelligent. Her assumed Southern accent is not only cute but convincing, and her breezy interchanges with Crabbe and Boteler–not mention her impish teasings of the antagonistic Commissioner–are a joy to watch.
William Gould is very good as the pompous, overbearing Commissioner; his passages of arms with Inspector Scott and Mississippi are quite amusing. Hugh Huntley is also genuinely funny as Valentine Vane, the conceited, patronizing, and incompetent criminologist who the Commissioner keeps trying to replace Barry with; the character seems like a deliberate parody of the dilettante detectives, like Ellery Queen and Philo Vance, that were popular in American mystery fiction of the period.
Edna Sedgwick, as Natasha, is the weakest of the serial’s major players; though quite beautiful, she delivers almost all of her lines in the same petulant fashion, making her character seem more like a peevish socialite than a would-be avenger of family wrongs. British actor Cyril Delevanti, on the other hand, is excellent as Wing Fu; he perfectly balances Mandarin aloofness with patriotic fervor, and conveys a sort of bitter regret at being continually forced to sully his honor by participating in espionage.
Phillip Ahn is also terrific as Wing Fu’s son, a cultured and intelligent Chinese agent who poses as a gabby and uneducated amateur detective called “Hong Kong Cholly,” and in that capacity tags after the unknowing Buster Crabbe in order to recover the bonds. Such complexity in a serial “sidekick” is highly unusual, and Ahn makes the most of his unique role–startlingly switching back and forth between pidgin dialect and flawless English, and convincingly portraying “Cholly’s” internal conflict between his genuine friendship for Barry and his duty to his father and his country.
As already mentioned, Frank Lackteen is a colorful and sinister villain; his Quong Lee is a good deal more shrewd and sarcastic than many of the nervous secondary heavies Lackteen played in other serials. Wheeler Oakman, Tom Steele, and James Sheridan play Quong Lee’s principal henchmen, while Charles Stevens is Wing Fu’s loyal but rather shifty lieutenant, Captain Moy. Stanley Price (as crazed as ever) and Earl Douglas are Natasha’s Russian cohorts.
William Ruhl is smugly slick as Mannix, the suspicious owner of the Chinatown theater, while Eric Wilton provides humor as Valentine Vane’s befuddled butler. James Blaine pops up as the aircraft manufacturer that Wing Fu hopes to do business with, Edward Hearn appears as a police detective, and Lane Chandler as a ship’s officer. Guy Usher is General Fang in the first chapter, Tony Paton the Russian agent who brings him the bonds, and Rita Gould the Russian cafe owner who aids and abets Natasha’s gang.
It’s easy to be annoyed by the flaws in Red Barry’s script, but it’s just as easy to get caught up in the adventures of its exceedingly interesting characters. Those characters, the actors playing them, and the fast pace of the serial have led me to rewatch Barry several times, despite my continuing frustration at the serial’s needless plotting missteps. One thing is certain: the chapterplay has far too many strengths to be called a failure, even if it can’t qualify as a complete success.