Boroff (Bela Lugosi), an international criminal and dealer in munitions, hopes to sell a lethal disintegrating gas to the country of Morovania, a gas whose key element is the rare American mineral “arnatite.” His plans are upset when his cargo of arnatite, en route for Morovania, goes down aboard the SS Carfax before that ship has cleared the shores of the United States. Boroff escapes the US authorities after being rescued from the wreck of the Carfax, murdering a young Coast Guard ensign in the process; he then begins surreptitiously salvaging the arnatite from the wrecked Carfax with the help of his gigantic mute henchman Thorg, using it to manufacture gas-bombs for profitable export. However, Boroff reckons without the determination of the murdered ensign’s brother, Coast Guard Lieutenant Terry Kent (Ralph Byrd), who energetically pursues Boroff and repeatedly interferes with the villain’s deadly smuggling scheme.
Released just before directors William Witney and John English teamed for the first time to mark the “official” beginning of Republic’s Golden Age, SOS Coast Guard is often overlooked or neglected by serial buffs in favor of the classics that followed it, but it’s an excellent serial in its own right–fast-paced, tightly-plotted, atmospherically shot, and filled with good location work and interesting special effects.
Writers Barry Shipman, Ronald Davidson, Franklin Adreon, and Morgan Cox turn in a script that provides a good basis for continual action without becoming repetitious. By keeping Boroff firmly focused on the development of his gas bombs, the storyline avoids the episodic feel of many of Republic’s contemporary crime thrillers; there are subplots dealing with the hero’s attempts to investigate the sunken Carfax, trace Boroff’s chemical supply sources, and prevent Boroff from smuggling in scientific aides or smuggling out the bombs, but all of these are neatly connected to the main plot; the narrative never turns into a series of hero-villain duels over unrelated targets.
Directors William Witney and Alan James–and cinematographer William Nobles–give Coast Guard some of the same eerie visual ambience that Witney and Nobles would later bring to Fighting Devil Dogs and Mysterious Doctor Satan. While much of Coast Guard’s action takes place in bright daylight, sequences like the Chapter One shipwreck and the subsequent shooting of Terry Kent’s brother on a storm-swept beach are full of shadowy lighting and ominous camera angles–an approach which probably suggested itself to the crew because of the presence of Bela Lugosi in the cast. Other Lugosi scenes and many of the monstrous Thorg’s menacing entrances–like his arrival aboard the Carfax in Chapter One–are filmed in similar style; even some of the fight scenes feature this horror-movie look (like the battle on the edge of the elevator shaft in Chapter Four).
The fights lack the polish that Witney and John English would soon bring to action sequences in their Golden Age efforts; as in Universal’s contemporary serials, combats between hero and henchmen are limited to under-cranked exchanges of short, chopping blows. The fights are more fluidly filmed than their Universal counterparts, however, with Witney using varied camera angles (as in the aforementioned Chapter Four fight) to give them some visual variety. Along with that Chapter Four sequence, the fight aboard the Carfax in Chapter One and the fight in the prop-filled hold of the Adamic in Chapter Five stand out.
Duke Taylor doubles Ralph Byrd in most scenes, with Loren Riebe and Earle Bunn also helping out and Yakima Canutt contributing a terrific motorcycle chase across the hilly back country near Bronson Canyon. Striking chase sequences like this one easily compensate for the serial’s uninspired fights; there are several other excellent ones spread throughout the serial, staged against interesting real-life locations. The hero’s Chapter Four pursuit of the henchmen through an abandoned outdoor factory (which ends in a neat slide down a rope) is a highlight, as is the big chase at Boroff’s kelp plant in Chapter Eight.
Other action highlights include the Coast Guard’s full-scale assault on the kelp plant in Chapter Nine (with a squad of sailors charging up the beach and taking cover behind a huge dock), the Chapter Eleven boat chase and the rifle-versus-tommy-gun battle that accompanies it, and the suspenseful climactic chapter, with Byrd leading his men in an attack on Boroff’s headquarters only to be trapped by hidden gas bombs. This latter sequence makes excellent use of the forbidding slopes of Bronson Canyon; the seaside hotel later seen in Mysterious Doctor Satan, some genuine dockyards, and rocky stretches of California coastline near Santa Barbara also provide memorable backdrops to the action.
The serial’s chapter endings are quite good, although a few of them (most notably the water-tower-collapse at the end of Chapter Six) are resolved in the live-through-it fashion more common to Universal’s serials than to Republic’s. The kelp-plant explosion (Chapter Nine), the launch explosion (Chapter Two), and the ship-sinking (Chapter One) all utilize good Lydecker Brothers miniatures; the Lydeckers’ talents are also in evidence in scenes that show the dissolving gas in action, although the effect used (melting the film emulsion) is more convincing when the gas is destroying rock surfaces than when it’s supposedly dissolving more complicated sets like the laboratory in the Chapter Three cliffhanger. Among the less spectacular endings, two of the best are the hero’s apparent squashing by an elevator (Chapter Four) and the severing of the hero’s diving hose in Chapter Seven (the editing of the scene, and the facial expressions of Ralph Byrd, put this potentially undramatic ending across very effectively).
Byrd is excellent in all his scenes, of course; as in his Dick Tracy serials, he’s eager, confident, and rather driven in manner as he chases down clues and confronts criminals. He also managed to be both quietly but firmly authoritative, while still conveying genuine alarm in dangerous moments–as during the diving sequence or the climactic confrontation with the gas bombs (his shouts of “that gas is deadly!” in this and other scenes are tensely and urgently convincing).
Bela Lugosi, after the serial’s first chapter, has little to do but issue orders to his henchmen–but does it with plenty of flair, using his baleful stare, sinister voice, and forceful hand gestures to advantage in all of his scenes. Lugosi brings more to the part than glowering menace, however; he gives Boroff a smugness, suavity, and cruel joviality that accentuates the villain’s hatefulness–whether the criminal mastermind is taunting Thorg, gloating to Terry Kent, or stroking a dog that he plans to dissolve in a scientific test.
Richard Alexander is very memorable as the simple-minded mute Thorg, a murderous semi-aquatic brute who receives more screen time of any of the serial’s other heavies. Alexander’s extremely powerful physique and stonily determined face make him positively terrifying when he’s attacking the hero underwater or advancing towards the camera to strangle someone, although the character’s menace is somewhat diminished by his periodic participation in routine fistfights–in which he seems much less unstoppable than in underwater scenes. Still, if this serial is mentioned to a genre buff, the odds are strong that the monstrous Thorg is the first character he’ll recall.
Maxine Doyle, future wife of director William Witney, is likable as the spunky reporter heroine–cheerfully energetic but also calmly capable in manner; she’s far more convincing as a seasoned journalist than many serial actresses. Lee Ford, on the other hand, is so fumblingly moronic as her photographer “Snapper” that it’s impossible to believe he could hold down a newspaper job; his pratfalls, mindlessly stupid facial expressions, and occasional outbursts of shrill panic are irritating, not funny. Thankfully, his “comic” bits are limited, and are usually used to provide the hero with a clue of some kind instead of being merely inserted into the narrative for their own sake–but his performance still constitutes the only major flaw in the serial.
Allen Connor is very good as the heroine’s intelligent chemist brother, analyzing captured gas bombs with convincing assurance and thoughtfulness. Herbert Rawlinson, as the hero’s commanding officer, never leaves Coast Guard headquarters but issues orders and plans strategy with his usual resolute dignity; his best moment is his grim refusal to accept Boroff’s terms in Chapter Twelve. George Chesebro plays the field commander of Lugosi’s thugs–calling the hero “sonny boy,” chortling over successes, and otherwise indulging in his typically amusing loud-mouthed behavior.
John Picorri, in a change of pace from his demented-henchman roles in other serials, plays Boroff’s reluctant scientific associate Rackerby, convincingly describing the chemical principles behind the dissolving gas and worrying about the Coast Guard’s investigations with a sort of restrained panic. Carleton Young has an odd but amusing bit as a suave henchman who adopts decidedly British speech mannerisms when trying to deceive the heroine (“I say, this is rich, you know”); other henchmen are played by Jerry Frank, Kit Guard, Alan Gregg, Curley Dresden, Frank Ellis, James Millican, and Roy Barcroft–who makes the most of a very brief part.
Jack Ingram and Bob Wilke can both be glimpsed as members of Ralph Byrd’s Coast Guard squad; Ed Cassidy and Buddy Roosevelt have much larger roles as Coast Guard officers. Harry Strang has a bit as a telephone-company man, Lester Dorr plays a hospital orderly, Rex Lease pops up as a Coastguardsman, Jack Roberts is John Picorri’s fatally hot-tempered partner, Lawrence Grant plays a shadily distinguished Boroff agent, and Henry Hale is good as a Morovanian scientist. Future director Thomas Carr plays Ralph Byrd’s enthusiastically chipper brother in the opening chapter.
SOS Coast Guard shows Republic Pictures’ serial unit functioning at close to full power; the serials that followed it would hone fight scenes and special-effects sequences to a much finer point (and would happily eliminate the “brainless comic-relief character” from Republic’s formula), but SOS Coast Guard is definitely well-produced and entertaining enough to deserve a respectable ranking among Republic’s Golden Age classics.