Police detective Dan Barton (Paul Kelly) is dishonorably discharged from the force for negligence and insubordination, much to the dismay of his two closest friends–fellow detective Pat Flanagan (Clancy Cooper) and reporter Jean Ashley (Anne Nagel). What Pat and Jean don’t realize is that Dan’s apparent disgrace is really part of a plot concocted by Federal investigator Stover (George Lynn) and Barton himself, the first step in Barton’s planned infiltration of a Nazi espionage ring. Barton, using his possession of a “stolen” government rubber formula as a bargaining chip, is successful in contacting the Nazis, but Stover is unfortunately murdered by the gang–leaving the authorities ignorant of Barton’s undercover pose. Barton, despite his new status as a wanted traitor, manages to win the confidence of his old pal Flanagan, and the two decide to further Barton’s plans by utilizing an experimental commando costume they’d been developing to aid the war effort. As “The Black Commando,” Barton manages to repeatedly dodge the police and thwart the Nazis, while still functioning as a member (albeit a continually suspected one) of the spy ring in his own identity. Defeating the villains’ schemes won’t be enough, however; he must also discover the identity of their mysterious leader and crack The Secret Code that they use for transmitting messages.
Secret Code is an extremely popular serial; even genre historian Alan G. Barbour, who had small love for most of Columbia’s chapterplays, gave it high marks. Unfortunately, while the serial’s novel plot, strong cast, interesting masked hero, and veteran director (Spencer Bennet) make it sound great on paper, Code amounts to much less than the sum of its parts; it just might be the most overrated of all sound serials.
The chapterplay’s biggest flaw lies in one of its apparent strengths–its plotline. The idea of a hero working against the villains from within their own organization might sound fascinatingly unique for a serial (and does give our hero a strong reason to assume a dual identity) but the notion is clumsily handled by the writers and soon gives rise to a series of irritating and repetitious improbabilities. The serial’s first eight chapters follow a fairly rigid pattern: Barton learns of a Nazi plan but is not trusted enough by his semi-colleagues to be handed a key part in the scheme; he then manages to override the safeguards placed on him by the spies, thwart their plan as the Black Commando, and resume his place in the gang (who continually suspect him of treason, but are never certain enough to liquidate him). The villains’ suspicion levels begin to decrease around Chapter Nine, which causes a welcome reduction in the elaborate charades Barton goes through to hide his double identity; however, he still continues to foul up the villains from within and maintain his implausible cover until he finally reveals himself in Chapter Fourteen and puts the serial on a long-overdue new track–which really comes too late to offset the sense of tedium generated by the repetition of the earlier episodes.
The writers would have been better off blowing Barton’s cover much earlier and finding new ways for him to defeat the villains’ sabotage attempts; as it is, the script’s incessant repetition of a single basic plot device really serves to highlight said device’s unlikeliness. Some of the shifts that Barton uses to outwit his enemies (like the knockout-gas dodge in Chapter Three) are quite clever, but the villains still come off as incredibly obtuse for not realizing that the “traitor in the ranks” they’re continually seeking is their slippery new recruit–particularly when plenty of obvious clues (like the Commando’s reappearance after the henchman Marvin–left to guard Barton–is shot dead in the Commando outfit) point in his direction. Additionally, the Chapter Eight failure of the long-sought rubber formula, Barton’s card of admission to the gang, should have caused the Nazis to dispense with his questionable services; instead, our hero merely shrugs the failure off and is rewarded with a greater level of trust from the villains, making them appear even more foolish.
The Nazis’ blindness to Barton’s counter-espionage activities might still have come off as somewhat plausible, however, had the writers not insisted on making the hero as flippant and disrespectful as possible in his dealings with the spies. Barton presents himself to the villains as an opportunist willing to betray his country for a good place in the new world order, but continually undercuts this pose by his contemptuous attitude towards his new cohorts. He sneeringly refuses to treat with “stooges” and aggressively demands to do business only with the spies’ carefully shielded secret leader; he also subjects the villains to a steady stream of puerile wisecracks like “Heel Hitler!” (when performing a Nazi salute), “Relax, boys, the Russians haven’t got here yet,” or “So solly, Hirohito” (to the Japanese spy played by Beal Wong).
These propaganda bits not only make Barton’s undercover pose seem farcical, but also diminish the menace of the serial’s villains; when a hero treats the heavies with such smug contempt (and when they react with surly irritation to his continual taunts), it makes them seem much less threatening. Most other wartime serial-makers understood this, and managed to depict their Axis villains as evil while still having their heroes give them the respect that should be shown any despicable but dangerous enemy. Code, however, weakens its propaganda value instead of strengthening it, by making the hero’s triumph over his country’s enemies seem far too easy.
It’s perhaps worth noting that two of Secret Code’s three writers had very little experience penning serials; in fact, it was the only writing assignment ever handled by Robert Beche, a former Republic producer and later a TV production manager. Leighton Brill, a former Broadway director, also had few other screenplays of any kind to his credit (although he later did good work on Columbia’s serial The Desert Hawk). Only Basil Dickey, the serial’s third writer, was a cliffhanger veteran, with many chapterplays to his credit both before and after Code. The serial does debut many interesting bits that would figure in Dickey’s later serials–including the descending desk in the spies’ office, the truck crashing into a gas station, and the villain’s confrontation of the hero from behind a bullet-proof screen. Dickey’s hand is also apparent, however, in the serial’s circular plotting, which bears a definite resemblance to the repetitious storylines of the 1940s Republic serials that Dickey would shortly be working on.
Director Spencer Bennet (who, like Dickey, would soon become a Republic mainstay) handles the serial’s action scenes with his customary flair–although, without the stunt team, superior production values, and increased budget for breakaway props he would enjoy at Republic, he delivers no setpieces to match the fights in serials like Secret Service in Darkest Africa and Manhunt of Mystery Island. That said, some of the serial’s fights are quite impressive, especially the laboratory brawl in Chapter One, the later lab fight in Chapter Ten, and the mammoth battle at the villains’ bookstore hideout in Chapter Fourteen, which takes heroes Paul Kelly and Clancy Cooper and an assortment of heavies down a flight of stairs and into the bookstore itself–where they leap across tables piled with magazines, jump from bookshelf ladders, and perform other entertaining stunts.
The final fistfight, in the villains’ seaside lair, would be quite respectable as well, were it not for pieces of comic/propagandistic schtick like Cooper bonking two Nazis’ heads’ together in Moe-like fashion, his plugging of female spy Jacqueline Dalya with a pie to the face, and Kelly’s furious pounding of the much smaller Beal Wong while verbally reminding him of Japan’s various pieces of military treachery. The excellent rubber-plant fight in Chapter Six is also marred by a few such cartoony bits, particularly Kelly’s comic-book-like use of a giant-size set of rubber bands.
While Kelly and Cooper seem to handle a fair share of their own stunts, Tom Steele is noticeable in other scenes doubling for Kelly; Eddie Parker (who has a fairly large role as a Nazi), Chuck Hamilton, and Ted Mapes also contribute. Most of the action scenes center around indoor fistfights, but there are a few pieces of non-fistfight stuntwork (like Kelly’s wire-slide escape from a plant in Chapter Two) and some welcome outdoor car chases (the one in Chapter Eight, with the Black Commando transferring to the villain’s vehicle in the middle of the road, is particularly good). Most of the serial’s exterior filming is on the streets and dockyards of the Columbia backlot–which, shot (largely) by day, don’t convey the same sense of atmosphere they did in Columbia’s later and more nocturnal chapterplay Batman.
The serial’s chapter endings are generally well-staged–particularly Barton’s desperate attempt to escape from a power-house room while a sparking and malfunctioning generator threatens to fry him, his fall between two skyscrapers, his Chapter Eleven dangle from a slowly breaking drainpipe, his motorcycle plunge from a cliff-top, and his and Flanagan’s gradual gassing in the villains’ headquarters at the end of Chapter Fourteen. Another chapter ending, which has Barton being pressured by the spies to prove his loyalty by shooting the captive Flanagan, is memorably tense but is spoiled by a blatantly cheating resolution.
The cast of The Secret Code is excellent–but while some of its members alleviate its scripting problems, others aggravate them. Paul Kelly’s leading performance typically elicits adulatory reviewers from most chapterplay critics, who are automatically impressed by his work as a dramatic actor in numerous plays and A-films. Kelly was unquestionably an outstanding performer, but unlike Gilbert Roland, Victor Jory, Onslow Stevens, and other feature-film actors turned serial stars, he tends to play his role a bit too broadly–mugging, sneering, and swaggering to an annoying extent when his character is maintaining his hoodlum pose. However, it’s hard to tell whether this overplaying–most of which occurs in his scenes with the villains–arises from a disdain for his material or merely represents an attempt to play the script’s cartoonish propaganda to the hilt. Kelly seems much more sincere in his scenes with Clancy Cooper or Anne Nagel, conveying real affability and quietly confident courage; he also cuts an imposing figure as the Black Commando–his tough voice, solid build, and prominent jaw give the costumed hero real presence. Overall, his performance would be a winner if either he or director Bennet had toned down his behavior in his many interactions with the heavies.
Clancy Cooper has his best serial role as Pat Flanagan and makes the most of it; Pat might seem like the kind of straightforward flatfoot who settles things with gun or fists, but he displays plenty of dogged shrewdness as well. Cooper admirably depicts both aspects of the character, and also does a fine job of acting in the scene where Flanagan must agonizedly choose between believing his old friend Barton’s story or arresting him for treason. Cooper’s exaggerated “dumb Irish cop” pose in the presence of his brother officers does get a little annoying at times–but then it’s supposed to be irritating, an act designed to keep said officers from tumbling to his connection with Barton.
Anne Nagel is excellent as the reporter heroine, mixing saucy sarcasm with extremely appealing warmth (much as she did in the two Green Hornet serials). Her character has comparatively little to do in the first half of the serial, but she does receive a decent amount of screen time in the later episodes; her eventual admission into Kelly and Cooper’s secret alliance does much to brighten the good guys’ plotting scenes.
Trevor Bardette gives perhaps the serial’s strongest performance, and does much to offset the propaganda touches that diminish the villains. As the spy ring’s secret leader Jensen, he outlines plans with precision, snake-like coldness, and a calmly fanatical air that makes him extremely menacing. He’s also terrific when Jensen is posing as a doddering old camera-store proprietor, delivering baby pictures to the clueless police desk sergeant and spying on the law’s activities; Bardette is so convincingly vague and harmless in these scenes that it’s quite startling when he snaps back into his usual manner. Bardette’s villainous turn here is every bit as memorable and menacing as his better-known performance in the earlier Columbia outing Overland With Kit Carson.
Rudolph Anders (billed as Robert O. Davis) is also quite good as Bardette’s lieutenant Thyssen, switching from smiling slickness to curt decisiveness whenever necessary. Gregory Gay plays the spy-ring member most suspicious of Paul Kelly; despite the string of jibes his criticisms of the hero let him in for, he manages to be fairly sinister, although his Russian accent matches poorly with his German character. Ludwig Donath, a strong menace in several feature films, is more comic than threatening here as the pompous, easily-duped gang scientist Metzger.
Beal Wong as the Japanese spy Quito has little to do besides serve as a butt for Kelly’s jokes; other background members of the spy ring are played by Eddie Parker, Kenne Duncan, Jack Gardner, Eddie Woods, Dick Botiller, and attractive Jacqueline Dalya–who is underused as the slinky “receptionist” at the villains’ phony employment-agency headquarters. Lester Dorr is a shipping magnate in cahoots with the Nazis, Lucien Prival a U-boat captain, and Sigurd Tor a Nazi flyer. Peter Leeds, later a character actor in many TV sitcoms, appears in one chapter as a shipyard saboteur.
George Lynn, usually a heavy, is very good as the tough and intelligent Stover (and is killed off far too soon). Robert Fiske and Alex Callam play the astute but misguided police detectives tracking Paul Kelly, while Wade Boteler is the grumpy police chief, Charles Wilson the dull-witted desk sergeant, and Frank Shannon (in the first chapter only) the stern police commissioner. Joseph Girard pops up as a military officer, John Elliott as the inventor of the rubber formula, Stanley Brown as a police chemist, Gus Glassmire as a government agent, and Tom London as a watchman. James Millican, later a prominent character player in many post-war A-westerns, appears very briefly as a reporter in the first chapter.
Special mention should be made of Selmer Jackson, who, as US Intelligence officer Major Henry Burton, presides over the code-breaking sessions (written by Henry Lysing) at the end of each episode. These segments, unrelated to the serial’s main plot, are unexpectedly interesting; although the codes Jackson displays for the audience are fairly rudimentary, most of them are quite interesting (particularly the Revolutionary War-era “picket fence” code). Jackson’s manner–fatherly and instructive, but genial and never condescending–also helps to make these sessions quite enjoyable.
The Secret Code has frequently been hailed as one of Columbia’s best serials, but it does not really deserve that honor. It definitely contains the material for an above-average cliffhanger, but its combination of repetitive and credulity-straining plotting with excessive doses of childish propaganda continually undercuts the best efforts of its skilled cast and its veteran director. Despite the plaudits Code continues to receive from fans, it’s really more misfire than classic.