A dangerous espionage and sabotage ring is undermining America’s defenses in the tense pre-WW2 era, and a quartet of G-men–former pilots and heroes of an around-the-world flight–are assigned to put a stop to the ring’s activities. The investigators decide to create “The Black Falcon,” a masked flying ace who will be free from the constraints of the law and will be able to strike suddenly and effectively at the spies; one of the four is chosen (by the spin of a propeller) to fill this role, with the others three aiding him. The number of heroes is soon reduced to three when G-man Charles Bronson (Stanley Brown) is killed in action, but the remaining trio–Hal Andrews (Robert Paige), Bart Davis (Richard Fiske), and John Cummings (James Craig)–valiantly carry on the fight against the spies for the remainder of the serial, with help from Babs and Billy McKay (Lorna Gray and Sammy McKim), the sister and son of murdered inventor Ed McKay.
Flying G-Men is the least interesting of Columbia’s five in-house serial productions (the other four being Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, The Spider’s Web, Overland With Kit Carson, and Mandrake the Magician); its action scenes are uneven, its lead villains weak, and its plotting often disjointed. However, it remains watchable and enjoyable throughout, thanks to an extremely likable group of heroes and an unfailingly fast pace.
G-Men’s central gimmick–the Black Falcon idea–is an obvious attempt by Columbia to emulate the “who-is-the-hero” guessing game featured in Republic’s immensely successful Lone Ranger serial from the preceding year. As in Ranger, however, there’s little logical justification for the masked hero’s existence; he never actually does anything that the G-men couldn’t have legally done without masks, and the villains’ obsession with discovering the Falcon’s identity makes no sense when one considers that all three “hero suspects” are equally dangerous to the spy ring. The early death of Stanley Brown’s character also seems rather pointless; he’s killed off so quickly (and with so little evident effect on the other heroes) that one questions why it was necessary to introduce him in the first place.
The script (the work of Basil Dickey, Robert Kent, and Sherman Lowe) is mishandled in other places, too; the steel-mill subplot introduced in Chapter Four is abruptly wrapped up in the second half of Chapter Five, apparently so a new subplot–involving the spies’ observation balloon–can be introduced and hurriedly concluded in the same chapter; the spy balloon was definitely interesting enough to have occupied an entire episode. The script’s mystery-villain subplot is also abruptly abandoned; after making much of the unknown spy chief “The Professor” and introducing two suspects (airfield manager Brewster and aircraft manufacturer Hamilton) in the first chapter, the writers suddenly reveal Brewster as the Professor in Chapter Six, but keep his identity secret from the heroes for many more chapters.
These missteps and oddities aside, Dickey, Kent, and Lowe do an excellent job of keeping the heroes on the go throughout the serial, moving them from one investigation to another with a rapidity reminiscent of Republic’s Dick Tracy serials; in sequences like the G-men’s extended foray into the back-country ranching area controlled by the villains, or their climactic attack on the heavies’ island headquarters, the action is practically continuous for chapters at a time. Most of the spy ring’s capers are only loosely connected, but the recurrent subplot surrounding Ed McKay’s remote-control bomber helps to give the plot a little additional cohesion.
The action scenes, though numerous, often leave much to be desired. Due to the censors’ disapproval of the lethal gun battles in The Spider’s Web, the gunfights in Flying G-Men are ludicrously bloodless, with heroes and villains blasting each other at point-blank range but only ever managing to shoot someone in the hand; the gunfight by the trucks in Chapter Four and the one in the McKay house in Chapter Five being two of many embarrassing examples. Weirdly enough, the no-killings rule seems to have applied only to the grounded gunfights; when attacking airborne henchmen in his fighter plane, the Black Falcon repeatedly machine-guns his opponents and sends them crashing to their doom. These dogfight sequences make the villains’ dread of the Black Falcon quite credible, but are not particularly interesting otherwise; the battling planes are all mockups or models filmed against a process screen, and the aerial scenes lack the dizzying sense of depth and height that Universal and Mascot brought to their aviation serials via footage of genuine planes in action (Tex Rankin is frequently credited as the serial’s stunt pilot, but his activities seem to have been limited to takeoffs and landings).
The serial has some memorable action highlights nevertheless; the siege of the ranch house in Chapter Eight, the heroes’ escape on horseback, and their subsequent horseback assault on the villains’ supply trucks is particularly exciting, despite the improbable lack of casualties; the first car chase in Chapter Eleven is also very good. The fistfight scenes vary wildly in quality; some of them (like the big Chapter Nine fight) are filmed at comically over-cranked speeds, filled with unconvincing arm-swinging blows, and have the heroes thrashing far too many heavies at once. These scenes bear the unmistakable stamp of the serial’s co-director James W. Horne, while other fights (presumably the work of Flying G-Men’s other director, Ray Taylor) are much more satisfyingly handled, the most outstanding being the extremely lengthy barn battle in Chapter Seven. George DeNormand doubles the Black Falcon in the fights, with Tom Steele, Bud Geary, Eddie Parker, and Chuck Hamilton standing in for other heroes and heavies.
The serial’s chapter endings, like the action scenes, are a mixed lot; some are built up with care (like Richard Fiske and Robert Paige’s apparent immersion in a steel-factory vat or the Black Falcon’s collision with the observation balloon), but others are extremely abrupt (the bombing at the end of Chapter Two, the explosion that closes Chapter Fourteen). The serial’s settings are a mix of Columbia’s standard backlot sets (the suburban house, the city street near the office building) and various outdoor locations at Iverson’s–the latter serving as the villains’ ranch hideout and their Flame Island headquarters.
As already mentioned, the Black Falcon character is largely unnecessary to the plot, but his distinctive plane, his gun-blazing entrances, and his aviator’s jacket with its falcon insignia give him a strong presence (even though he has no dialogue). The three Falcon “suspects”–the shrewd-looking and authoritative Robert Paige, the tough but easygoing James Craig, and the cheerfully energetic Richard Fiske–are all terrific, and display plenty of convincing camaraderie; while their screen personalities contrast enough to make each of them stand out, they all share a determined but good-humored and self-deprecating attitude toward their heroics that makes them very appealing.
The lovely Lorna Gray, though scarcely out of her teens, brings her usual poise and assurance to her role, and manages to be believable when demonstrating the McKay remote-control bomber for airfield officials. Her character has a limited amount of screen time, however, generally coming to the fore only when the bomber subplot is revisited. Sammy McKim is very good as her resourceful nephew, particularly when standing up to the spies that killed his father; as in Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, McKim heads up a group of kids–the “Junior Air Defenders”–in support of the heroes, but they’re showcased much less often than Hickok’s “Flaming Arrows” and their activities never exceed the bounds of plausibility.
The antagonists in Flying G-Men are unfortunately much weaker than the protagonists; Forbes Murray, with his straightforward manner and distinguished appearance, is completely miscast as the supposed “mad genius” called the Professor. Murray was excellent as scientists (Perils of Nyoka) or police commissioners (The Spider’s Web), but while his respectable facade in G-Men is very convincing, he simply can’t convey any menace when barking orders or concocting schemes; his manner throughout is that of a slightly irritable businessman rather than a diabolical master spy, and his imposing secret office (with the silhouette of a stuffed bird casting an ominous shadow on the wall) is a good deal more sinister than he is.
Dick Curtis, who plays the Professor’s crippled lieutenant Korman, could have picked up some of the villainous slack for his chief, but his character almost never leaves the Professor’s hideout and is given nothing to do beyond issuing commands to lesser henchmen–which he least does in a suitably brusque and threatening fashion. Aside from Richard Alexander as another inactive middleman thug and Bud Geary as the villains’ radio operator, there are no other recurring henchmen in the serial–which, together with Murray’s lack of menace, makes the villains’ team rather uninteresting.
The serial’s lineup of incidental heavies is still a strong one, though; it includes Nestor Paiva, John Tyrrell, Glenn Strange, George Chesebro, George Turner, Stanley Blystone, James Millican, Harry Tenbrook, Curley Dresden, Jerry Frank, and Al Ferguson. Tom Steele appears more than once as a thug, with George DeNormand and Chuck Hamilton also popping up as heavies; Eddie Laughton is another henchman, and George Rosener makes the most of his bit as the self-important spy fronting a bogus “Historical Study Group.”
The earnest Stanley Brown is good in his short-lived role as the fourth flying G-man; William Lally is also good as the doomed inventor Ed McKay. Don Beddoe is very likable as the affable manufacturer Hamilton–although, as a more versatile actor than Forbes Murray, he would probably have been better cast as the two-faced Brewster. Ann Doran and Beatrice Blinn are given high billing but are barely seen as Beddoe and Murray’s respective secretaries. Bruce Mitchell is Beddoe’s crooked plant foreman, John Dilson a beleaguered scientist, Edward Earle an official, Ed LeSaint a steel-mill manager, Steve Clark a spy ring member, and Allan Cavan a military officer. Clancy Cooper has a bit as a trucker, and Eddie Fetherston has a good extended part as a reluctant spy who agrees to change sides and aid the G-men. Lee Prather is the G-men’s grave and rather sententious boss.
Flawed though it is, Flying G-Men is fast-moving and never dull, which makes said flaws much more forgivable and easier to overlook. With a stronger villain, better action scenes, and a few script adjustments, it could have been one of Columbia’s very best serials, but it still provides plenty of entertainment value for the chapterplay buff.