Adventures of the Flying Cadets begins at the Elliott Air Training school, where four former street kids–Danny Collins (Johnny Downs), “Scrapper” McKay (Ward Wood), “Zombie” Parker (Billy Benedict), and “Jinx” Roberts (Bobby Jordan)–are trying to make good as pilots with hopes of joining the US Army Air Force. Unbeknownst to the boys, their mentor and foster-father, retired Army officer George Bolton (Joseph Crehan) is being stalked by a sinister masked figure called the Black Hangman, who seems to be a Nazi agent. The Hangman is actually explorer and aircraft engineer Arthur Galt (Robert Armstrong), who wants to locate the lost caves of An-Kar-Ban in Africa so he can sell the invaluable helium deposits they contain to the Nazis for a fortune. As part of his scheme, he’s killing off the men who accompanied him on an unsuccessful search for An-Kar-Ban before the war. Bolton is on his list of targets, as is Major William Elliott (Charles Trowbridge), the head of the Air Training school; when the Major bounces Danny from school after his attempts to show off result in a plane crash, and is subsequently murdered by the Hangman, his death is blamed on Danny and Scrapper–who came to see the Major to plead for Danny’s reinstatement. Shortly afterwards, the Hangman murders Bolton as well, and the two boys–with the help of their pals Zombie and Jinx–set out to clear themselves and avenge their benefactor. They must deal not only with Galt but with Galt’s ostensible henchman Corby (Eduardo Ciannelli)–who is actually a Gestapo agent named Von Heiger, assigned to circumvent Galt’s mercenary schemes and pave the way for a direct Nazi takeover of the An-Kar-Ban caves. With Galt posing as their friend and with dogged Army Intelligence Captain Carson (Regis Toomey) determined to arrest them, the cadets will have their work cut out for them.
Adventures of Flying Cadets is a (largely) well-written and interesting serial that balances fine action scenes with strong plotting and characterization. The script (by George Plympton, Morgan Cox, and Paul Huston) maintains a forward momentum for most of the serial’s running time, avoiding stagnation by continually introducing new characters (the heroine, a scheming pair of married Nazi agents, the heroine’s father)–or settings (the action takes the characters from America to a secret German base in Africa and finally to the Caves of An-Kar-Ban). The continually shifting alliances between the villains, and Captain Carson’s transition from antagonist to ally of the cadets, also helps to keep the narrative interesting. Unfortunately, the serial bogs down horribly in the last one-and-a-half chapters, with the cadets sidelined as the villains kill each other off and the suddenly all-knowing Army Intelligence swoops in to arrest the survivors; the final chapter also raises the script’s propaganda elements–already a little heavy-handed in preceding episodes–to almost laughable levels.
Disappointing as Cadets’ conclusion is, the chapters that precede it are very worthwhile. As in almost all of Universal’s serials, production values and a sense of atmosphere are very strong; although much of the action takes place on the studio’s backlot, said backlot is so spacious and varied that it manages to serve equally well as American city streets, the villains’ African compound, and the caves of An-Kar-Ban (the mammoth steps in the An-Kar-Ban caves are particularly impressive). However, as usual, Universal’s editors have trouble matching stock-footage sequences to the rest of the serial; a large-scale battle between British troops and German-backed Arabs in Chapter Six is just as jarring as the many stock-footage Indian attacks in Universal’s Western serials.
The exciting airplane action scenes at the flying school in Chapter One also feature a lot of stock footage (from Abbott and Costello’s Keep ’em Flying), but the stock is handled much more skillfully here. Other action scenes are handled with uniform skill–although action is secondary to plot development here. Ken Terrell is on hand to double for both Ward Wood and Johnny Downs and gives the fight scenes an additional lift, backed by Duke Taylor, Kermit Maynard, and Eddie Parker. The fight sequence in Chapter Three–with two of our heroes battling the villains inside a blazing lab while the other two fight another pair of Nazis in an elevator is particularly impressive, and finishes with a memorable cliffhanger when the elevator crashes down the shaft and apparently dooms Downs, Wood, and Bobby Jordan.
Other highlights include the car-truck chase through the streets in Chapter Two (during which the villains employ a novel means of throwing the cadets off their trail), the fight inside the airplane in Chapter Four (which ends with Downs about to plummet out of the plane into the ocean), and the chase and shootout in the mine in Chapter Eight (which also ends with a dramatic, and rather unique, cliffhanger). The fight in the Nazi compound’s radio room, while British bombers strafe the compound, is also good (and, like the airplane rescue in Chapter One, makes unexpectedly smooth use of stock footage). The lengthy escape from An-Kar-Ban that occupies the second half of Chapter Eleven and the first half of Chapter Twelve is so exciting (especially the shootout on the stairs) that one wishes it had served as the climax of the serial. Directors Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins stage all these scenes–and the many dialogue sequences as well–with accustomed skill.
Flying Cadets’ four juvenile leads–who could easily have become obnoxious–are instead genuinely appealing. Johnny Downs handles a difficult starring role well; although his character is designated from the start as hot-tempered and rather reckless, Downs gives him a grim toughness that keeps him from ever seeming like a cocky hotshot. Ward Wood makes a good counter-balance to Downs as the calm and down-to-earth Scrapper, and serves as a strong co-hero. Billy Benedict, as the awkward but wisecracking “Zombie,” provides humor without becoming an “idiot sidekick” type, while fourth protagonist Bobby Jordan, despite his prominent billing, is largely a background player, though a likably sincere and energetic one.
The villains of the piece are equally good. Grim-faced Eduardo Ciannelli is perfectly cast as the dedicated Nazi Von Heiger, alternating between murderous grimness and smirking, devilish sarcasm. Robert Armstrong matches him as Arthur Galt–suave and persuasive when trying to deceive the heroes or the Nazis, and smugly ruthless when eliminating his victims. He and Ciannelli make the ongoing villainous duel between their characters very enjoyable to watch.
Jennifer Holt–as Andre Mason, daughter of a kidnapped professor–doesn’t enter the scene till Chapter Five,but immediately commands attention. Her beauty and charm are considerable, and she plays her character with a combination of ingenuousness and quiet determination that’s very endearing. Regis Toomey does a terrific job as the methodical and phlegmatic Captain Carson, a laconic and shrewd investigator who isn’t nearly as stupid and short-sighted as he first appears to be.
Phillip Van Zandt plays the slick and double-dealing German agent Klott, while Joan Blair is his curt and nasty wife. Louis Adlon is very sinister as Ciannelli’s principal henchman Roum, a hard-faced young Brownshirt type. The affable Joseph Crehan, the dignified Charles Trowbridge, and the suave Addison Richards–great character actors one and all–have little to do before being knocked off by the Black Hangman in the first two chapters, but they make the most of their scenes. Selmer Jackson is as distinguished and intelligent-seeming as ever as Jennifer Holt’s father in the last three chapters.
Leyland Hodgson appears as a British officer rescued by the cadets in Chapter Six, and William Forrest as a flight-school official in the first few chapters. Ian Keith plays an American colonel later in the serial, and seems to be doing an imitation of General Douglas MacArthur. Robert Barron, John Merton, and Ralph Dunn are Armstrong’s henchmen at An-Kar-Ban, while Pat Flaherty plays an improbably patriotic American thug who turns on Ciannelli when he realizes the latter’s Gestapo connections. Gene Roth and John Bagni play Nazi agents, John Elliott is a general in the final chapter, and veteran screen cowboy Kermit Maynard pops up as–of all things–an Arab.
Adventures of the Flying Cadets shows definite signs of the terminal talkiness that would consume most of Universal’s releases during their remaining serial-producing years, but is overall one of the last really entertaining chapterplays the studio turned out. Its action is respectable and its locales are interesting–but it’s the large and individualized cast of characters, the actors who play them, and the continually twisting narrative that keep the viewer most strongly involved for the majority of the serial’s thirteen chapters.