The spymaster known as the Scorpion (Nestor Pavia) and his Axis allies are using island bases just off America’s Pacific coast to launch submarine raids on American shipping, while also engaging in sabotage on the American mainland–all as part of a plan to pave the way for a Japanese invasion of Oregon and California. Navy Commander Don Winslow (Don Terry) and Lieutenant Red Pennington (Walter Sande), both experienced in dealing with the Scorpion, are transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard and placed in charge of the fight against the master spy–and soon begin to successfully block his sub attacks and thwart his sabotage schemes, gradually locating and destroying his many secret bases in the process.
Don Winslow of the Coast Guard, like its predecessor Don Winslow of the Navy, is a solidly entertaining serial–never outstanding, but enjoyable and invariably interesting, with a fast pace and a strong cast. It also features far more action than most other wartime Universal serials, and–again like its predecessor–is happily free of the excessive dialogue and over-complicated plotting that plagued so many Universal chapterplays during the 1940s.
Paul Huston and Griffin Jay, who wrote the screenplay for Navy, do similar duty for Coast Guard, assisted by George Plympton and by future Oscar-winner Richard Brooks–who later scripted and directed many pretentious A-movies, but receives a humble “additional dialogue” credit here. Coast Guard’s screenplay moves at a very fast clip, keeping the heroes almost constantly on the go; some episodes (like Chapters Four and Nine) feature almost non-stop action. This fast pacing keeps the serial’s basically repetitive plotline from becoming a liability; the writers also take care to make Winslow’s repeated encounters with the Scorpion’s forces as varied as possible, alternating naval skirmishes with clashes on the mainland or on the Scorpion’s island bases.
As in other wartime Universal serials, the writers fill their script with propagandistic lines–but the heroes’ continual anti-Axis comments (both humorous and serious) are terse enough to avoid complete heavy-handedness. The propaganda dialogue assigned to the villains is a little more bothersome; although they (fortunately) never engage in the ridiculous infighting that plagued the Axis heavies in Universal’s Adventures of Smilin’ Jack or Adventures of the Flying Cadets, the Scorpion and his allies still spend too much time sneeringly second-guessing each other after failures or grumbling about the setbacks they’ve experienced at the hands of Winslow and other defenders of America (“I hadn’t counted on such an alert military and civilian defense,” says the Scorpion after one defeat). Showing the Axis agents as less united and less self-confident than their American opponents might serve a propaganda purpose, but it also diminishes the menace posed by the heavies.
The villains here are more distinctive and colorful than the heavies in the first Winslow outing–but are also so numerous that the writers are unable to give all the leading spies the screen time they deserve. Ironically, the Scorpion himself receives the shortest shrift, being pushed into the background by the activities of three different lieutenants and two additional subordinate villains; his activities are practically as limited as they were in Don Winslow of the Navy–in which he was only a face on a video screen. The good guys fare much better at the writers’ hands; the characters of Don, Red, and nurse Mercedes (the only other returning protagonist from Navy) share the same easygoing but convincing camaraderie they displayed in the first serial, with the tough old Coast Guard petty-officer Ben Cobb making a likable fourth member of the heroes’ team.
Coast Guard’s action scenes are numerous and–as mentioned above–quite varied; the serial is filled with land, air, and sea battles–both small-scaled and large-scaled–and garnished with a few fistfights and car chases. The smaller-scaled gun battles are well-staged by directors Ray Taylor and Lewis Collins; in keeping with the wartime backdrop, they’re also far fiercer than the Universal norm, with combatants on both sides biting the dust regularly. The lengthy fight between a Coast Guard landing party and one of the Scorpion’s island garrisons in Chapter Ten is particularly good; Don and Red’s two-man raid on a Scorpion base in Chapter Four and the shootout at the Crow’s Nest café in Chapter Nine are also highlights, as is the heroes’ brief but exciting encounter with a sniper on a blacked-out city street earlier in the same episode.
Don and Red’s aerial combats with Scorpion planes in Chapters One and Three are first-rate as well–being skilled and effective mixtures of close-ups, miniature work, process-screen shots, and stock footage. The naval action is somewhat more uneven; while some sea-fights–like the battle between Winslow’s cutter and a surfaced Scorpion sub in Chapter Two–feature efficient blending of stock footage and new shots, many others (Winslow’s rescue of the hospital ship in Chapter Two, the last-chapter encounter between the Navy and the Scorpion’s sub fleet) are marred by blatantly obvious insertions of actual combat footage. This combat stock raises its head in many non-naval scenes, as well–most noticeably during the reduction of a Scorpion island base in Chapter Five. Like the overused silent-film Indian attacks in Universal’s Western serials, Coast Guard’s stock footage doesn’t dominate the serial enough to fatally damage it–but it does have a jarring effect on the action whenever it appears.
Coast Guard’s fistfight sequences are fairly scarce, but are well-done when they crop up; the fight in the Crow’s Nest café in Chapter Seven is particularly impressive, with a multitude of sailors, detectives, and spies slugging it out with each other in a carefully-staged brawl that’s a far cry from the sloppy mass fights seen in many of Universal’s 1930s serials. Stuntmen Fred Graham and Dale Van Sickel are noticeable in these and other fights–particularly the combat between Walter Sande and henchman Paul Bryar in the final chapter, with Graham doubling the former and Van Sickel the latter.
Other memorable pieces of action include the fight in the runaway taxi in Chapter Eleven (with the vehicle running backwards towards the harbor down a steep city street), the car chase during the blackout in Chapter Eight, and the suspenseful Chapter Two sequence that has Winslow piloting his ship through a fog-shrouded mine field. The location work in these and other scenes in confined to the outdoor portions of Universal’s backlot, but said backlot–as always–is more than spacious enough for the purpose; its city streets, back roads, forest, lagoon, and atmospherically seedy dockyard area are all used to good effect. The villains’ waterfall-masked sub harbor (a miniature) is distinctive, while the cavernous harbor itself is identical to the Tangita Island base seen in Don Winslow of the Navy (the writers amusingly acknowledge the resemblance by having the Scorpion’s accomplice Tasmia remark “reminds me of Tangita” on her first glimpse of the hideout).
The serial’s cliffhangers are often resolved in Universal’s standard “live-through-it” fashion; more unusually, there are also some minor but noticeable cheat resolutions on hand–the escape from the Chapter Six plane crash being the most blatant. The chapter endings themselves are good, however–even if their resolutions often leave something to be desired; the Chapter One ending, with Don and Red trapped in a blazing patch of oil-soaked sea as they try to rescue two drowning sailors, is a particular standout. The Chapter Five derrick explosion, the shelling of the heroes’ motorboat in Chapter Nine, and the taxi-off-the-pier ending to Chapter Eleven are also memorable.
Coast Guard’s cast, like that of most Universal efforts, is exceptionally strong. Don Terry, as in Don Winslow of the Navy, makes a strong lead, combining a convincingly authoritative officer’s manner with a affability that keeps him from ever seeming stiff. As befitting the wartime setting, he makes the character a bit more tense and driven than in Navy, pondering strategies in gravely preoccupied fashion and occasionally displaying convincing anger at the Scorpion’s treacherous behavior (he does a particularly good job with the “hit ’em twice as fast–twice as hard–and twice as often” speech in Chapter Two).
Walter Sande–the only other returning cast member from Navy–complements Terry perfectly as capable co-hero Red Pennington; less flippant here than in Navy, he still provides touches of humor with his breezily easygoing manner and his occasional wisecracks. Universal starlet Elyse Knox–breathtakingly beautiful in her simple nurse’s uniform–takes over the part of Mercedes Colby, turning in a likable performance and showing a nice rapport with Terry and Sande. Veteran character player Edgar Dearing is very good as the stalwart old salt Ben Cobb; although he looks almost too old for active service, his deep voice and weather-beaten appearance suit the part well.
June Duprez as Tasmia is the most prominent of the serial’s heavies; although her lovely speaking voice and her delicate good looks are hardly threatening, she gives the character a smoothly sarcastic manner that helps to compensate for her lack of vocal or visual malevolence. Although the role must have been a colossal comedown for her as an actress (she had previously played the female leads in the British movie classics The Four Feathers and The Thief of Bagdad), she still handles it with considerable verve–whether coolly pointing out flaws in the Scorpion’s plans, charmingly playing café hostess to sailors and pumping information out of them in the process, or abruptly slugging her non-villainous counterpart Mercedes.
Lionel Royce is excellent as the Scorpion’s chief German collaborator Reichter–the serial’s principal male heavy. He makes his character seem militaristically tough and gruff, but also considerably crafty; his sly maneuvering during the villains’ blackout getaway in Chapter Eight is especially enjoyable. Phillip Ahn is also excellent as the urbane Japanese officer Hirota, delivering suavely aloof dialogue in that mellifluous but slightly sinister voice of his; unfortunately, he receives comparatively little screen time. The undersized and crabbily furtive-looking Charles Wagenheim is ideal as henchman Mussanti–a trigger-happy little weasel who’s frighteningly quick to gun people down and just as quick to run away when the odds are against him. Distinguished Henry Victor, as the serial’s other principal recurring henchman (Heilrich by name), comes off as highly intelligent–but often seems almost too dignified for a villain.
First-rate character actor Nestor Pavia never manages to make the Scorpion as outstandingly menacing as he ought to be. His limited screen time is partly to blame, but Pavia is also miscast in the role; he scowls and growls with flair, but lacks the satanic intensity Kurt Katch brought to the role during his brief appearances in Don Winslow of the Navy. Pavia is also too coarse in appearance and grumpily straightforward in manner to be entirely convincing as a brilliantly subtle master spy–particularly when his fellow-spies are played by the refined likes of Duprez and Ahn. Although Pavia does his best with the part, one wishes Katch had been available to reprise the Scorpion role; he would have been far more frightening and far less likely to be overshadowed and outclassed by his cohorts.
Harry Strang makes several brief appearances as a Coast Guard officer, Stanley Blystone pops up periodically as a police detective, future singing cowboy Eddie Dean is Winslow’s headquarters orderly, and Kernan Cripps has an amusing bit as an alert and suspicious farmer who mistakes the protagonists for spies after they’ve bailed out of a captured Scorpion plane; Al Ferguson is a member of Cripps’ rustic home-defense squad. Paul Bryar appears throughout the serial as the henchman guarding the villains’ “waterfall,” but has little dialogue; Rico De Montez and Louis Vincenot play a Japanese officer and a Japanese soldier (respectively), while the aforementioned Van Sickel and Graham–along with fellow-stuntmen George Magrill and Chuck Hamilton play bit parts (Van Sickel as a sailor, Hamilton as a coastguardsman, and the other two as henchmen).
Don Winslow of the Coast Guard could easily have been improved in many areas; its heavies’ griping about the might of their American opponents should have been toned down, its lead villain recast, and its stock footage applied with a more sparing hand. Despite these flaws, it’s still an entertaining and satisfying serial–and one of the last Universal outings to escape the twin curses of slow pacing and talkiness, by placing its emphasis squarely on action.