Universal, 12 Chapters, 1937. Starring Grant Withers, Catherine Hughes, Mickey Rentschler, Adrian Morris, Frank Lackteen, Gordon Hart, Leonard Lord, C. Montague Shaw, Max Hoffman Jr., and Silver Wolf as Irish.
John Adams, an inventor who has discovered the secret of producing flexible steel, is murdered by an unknown culprit shortly after testing his revolutionary discovery at industrialist Wellington’s (C. Montague Shaw) steel mill. Ex-convict Harry Selkirk (Max Hoffman Jr.), who’s been keeping track of Adams’ researches for his own reasons, is first on the murder scene and makes off with the paper on which Adams, just before the murder, wrote down his priceless formula. It falls to police officer Pat O’Hara (Grant Withers) to locate the missing formula (now the property of Adams’ young son Pinky), discover the identity of Adams’ murderer, and battle two different sets of henchmen in the respective services of sinister Iranian envoy Tahata (Frank Lackteen) and unscrupulous steel magnate Harrison (Gordon Hart)–both of whom are determined to acquire the formula for themselves. O’Hara’s investigation is aided by his partner Sam Maloney (Adrian Morris), the resourceful Pinky (Mickey Rentschler), Pinky’s dog Irish, and–eventually–by Selkirk’s sister Molly (Catherine Hughes), who’s trying to clear her seemingly guilty brother.
Of all the Universal chapterplays turned out by former Mascot Pictures personnel, Radio Patrol is perhaps the most thoroughly Mascot-like. Its colorful and fast-moving screenplay features an even higher percentage of familiar Mascot plot devices and character types than other Mascot-Universal hybrids like Ace Drummond or Secret Agent X-9, while its unusual location shooting further heightens its resemblance to a Mascot outing.
Radio Patrol is based on a comic strip by Eddie Sullivan and Charlie Schmidt, but the serial’s three writers (Wyndham Gittens, Norman Hall, and Ray Trampe) take little from their source save the names and personalities of policeman hero Pat O’Hara and his sidekick Sam. Other strip characters are noticeably altered to fit patterns created by Gittens, Hall, and Trampe during their Mascot-serial days; heroine Molly, a policewoman in the strip, becomes the “girl reluctantly working against the hero to clear the name of her closest relative”–also seen in Mascot outings like The Hurricane Express and The Devil Horse–while the strip’s detective-urchin “Pinky” Pinkerton is deprived of his female friend and counterpart Red, receives a new surname, and is given a murdered parent, so he can become the “orphaned boy seeking to avenge his father’s death” featured in The Lightning Warrior, the aforementioned Devil Horse, and other Mascot efforts. The transformation of Pinky’s dog Irish from an Irish Setter to a German Shepherd was probably the producer’s decision, not the writers’–the latter breed being easier to obtain in Hollywood–but the use of a Shepherd further strengthens the serial’s Mascot atmosphere, recalling as it does the various members of the Rin-Tin-Tin family that co-starred in so many of that studio’s outings.
There are many other echoes of Mascot’s serials in Patrol’s script–the rival groups of villains (The Last of the Mohicans, The Miracle Rider), the corporate background (Hurricane Express, The Wolf Dog), and the fez-wearing foreigners with near-occult powers (Adventures of Rex and Rinty). One Mascot hallmark, however, is missing–the masked mystery villain, whose absence minimizes the wild logic gaps common to many of Gittens, Hall, and Trampe’s Mascot screenplays. That said, the last-chapter unmasking of Adams’ killer still forces the viewer to mentally fill in some blanks in order to make complete sense of the revelation; the serial’s other big Chapter Twelve revelation (concerning Tahata and his hypnotized lackey Franklin) helps to explain the twist concerning the killer–but in turn creates problems of its own, rendering some bits of dialogue from earlier episodes absolutely nonsensical in retrospect.
Aside from the unnecessary confusion in the last chapter, the writers do a pretty good job of keeping their involved storyline from becoming incoherent, neatly explaining the motives of Molly and her brother and keeping careful track of the coveted formula as it changes hands. Gittens, Hall, and Trampe also manage to keep the storyline interesting, even though the serial’s narrative is in essence a non-stop chase after a single MacGuffin. The first four episodes have Tahata’s gang alternately pursuing Selkirk and his sister for the formula, while O’Hara tries to arrest all the parties concerned; Harrison and his shady private-eye accomplice Pollard lurk on the sidelines during these early episodes, only occasionally interfering with the police, the Selkirks, or Tahata. Had this setup remained unchanged for twelve chapters, the serial would have been unbearably repetitive–but the writers wisely start to shake things up in Chapter Five, beginning with Harrison and Pollard’s assumption of a larger share in the action and Molly’s decision to confide in Pat. An even bigger change in plotting course comes in Chapter Seven with the startling death of a major character–which proves to be only the first of several unexpected character demises spread out across the ensuing episodes; this steady string of casualties gives rise to several accompanying plot twists, lending the serial an unpredictable feel that obscures the repetitive aspects of its storyline.
Radio Patrol features many sloppy-looking but energetic fights–brawls that have the lack of staging and wild-looking blows common to most 1930s serials, but also feature some good punches and some nice flips and leaps (as in the Chapter Eight office fight). However, almost all the fistfight scenes are marred by one recurring flaw–directors Ford Beebe and Cliff Smith’s decision to shoot all the fight-scene close-ups of star Grant Withers against the same backdrop (a cement steel-mill wall with the shadow of a ladder in this background); when these shots of Withers are inserted into fights that take place in locations other than the steel mill (apartments, sidewalks, etc.) they have a jarring effect on the viewer–particularly since these mismatched close-ups provide the only glimpses of Withers during the fight scenes; the star’s stunt double Eddie Parker stands in for both medium and long shots, with Beebe and Smith taking few pains to hide the switch.
Still, scenes like the Chapter Four café fight, the balcony fight in Chapter Six, and the aforementioned Chapter Eight office fight are enjoyable in spite of their distracting editing; the Chapter Five warehouse fight and the final fistfight scene in Chapter Twelve–with Pat battling two thugs inside an abandoned mansion while Sam fights another outdoors–are rather better, largely because the background in the infamous close-up matches fairly well with the warehouse and mansion interiors. The best of the fights, however, is Pat’s encounter with a thug on a beam high above the steel-melting furnaces in Chapter One; the close-up matches perfectly here, while the scene is shot at angles that keep Parker’s presence from becoming too obvious. Tom Steele “partners” with Parker here and in other fights, doubling various heavies throughout the serial; George Magrill and Carey Loftin also stand in for some of the villains.
The steel mill mentioned above is the genuine article, a working concern that Patrol’s producer Barney Sarecky (like director Beebe and the writing team, a former Mascot staffer) arranged to film in and around. It’s highly unusual for a Universal serial to use anything other than the studio’s own backlots for contemporary big-city locations, although it was standard procedure in Mascot’s chapterplays and Republic’s earlier outings; this departure from typical Universal practices gives an added boost to Patrol, enhancing its sense of atmosphere tenfold and providing a fascinating and dangerous-looking backdrop for more than one action scene. The fight atop the beam in Chapter One is bookend by a neat chase through the smoky mill that extends into Chapter Two; earlier in Chapter One, there’s another excellent mill scene that has Pat and Selkirk climbing girders and swinging from cables as the policeman pursues the fugitive. Pat’s chase of a henchman through the outdoor portion of the mill in Chapter Four also makes good use of the location, as does the hero’s later pursuit of Tahata through the plant in Chapter Eleven (during which Eddie Parker does a nice slide down a pipe).
Above: O’Hara swings down from a girder (top left) to catch the lurking Selkirk inside the steel mill (top right). At bottom left, a henchman hops from a fence into the outdoor portion of the steel mill, while at bottom right O’Hara climbs down the mill office’s wall.
The junkyard in which Pinky and Irish live is so realistically cluttered that I suspect it might be the “real thing” as well–but, whether an actual junkyard or a backlot set, it’s visually interesting and helps to give a strong Depression-era ambience to the serial; it also lends itself to some good action scenes, like the foot chase in Chapter Nine and the car escape in Chapter Eleven (which has Molly and Pinky cleverly toppling a stack of tires in their pursuers’ path). A towering mansion house (definitely a Universal set) is also well-utilized, while Universal’s outdoor Middle Eastern street figures prominently as the town’s unlikely but interesting “Egyptian Quarter”–which contains Tahata’s “Cairo Café” headquarters and is depicted as a peculiar variant of most cities’ Chinatowns. The Quarter and its burnoose-wearing inhabitants provide an interesting and colorful contrast to the solidly American city streets seen in other parts of the serial, although one wonders why the supposedly Iranian Tahata favors this Egyptian motif (he even lodges his hypnotized henchman Franklin inside a mummy case).
Pinky’s elusion of Tahata’s men in the Quarter in Chapter Four (during which he races across the Cairo Café’s room, slides down a pipe, and runs through the crowded bazaars to the Quarter’s towering gates) gives the serial yet another interesting chase scene; the car chases out on the San Fernando Valley roads–particularly the ones in Chapters Four and Ten–are also very good. Irish’s ferocious fight with Harrison in the roadway in Chapter Ten is memorable too, as is the dog’s Chapter Seven pursuit of a jewel thief’s car, his leap into the villain’s vehicle, and his fight with the crook–although this scene has absolutely no connection to the main plot, and seems to have been inserted solely to give the canine performer a little extra screen time. The dog’s trainer, Louis Vokali, doubles here and elsewhere for the various heavies that engage in one-on-one combat with Irish.
Radio Patrol’s cliffhanger scenes are a bit uneven; the fire scene in Chapter Three and the explosion in Chapter Five are decidedly unspectacular, while the more impressive falling-tree and exploding-steam-engine endings in Chapters Six and Nine are weakened by their highly implausible “lived-through-it” resolutions. The crushing-door scene at the end of Chapter Two is memorably shot, but could have used a little more buildup; the deadly door is not introduced before its use in the cliffhanger, with the result that it takes a minute to figure out what’s going on when the gadget suddenly begins endangering the hero. The Chapter Five car-crash ending is good, and features an interesting resolution, but the apparent shooting of the hero at the end of Chapter Eight is the best of the serial’s cliffhangers–since it shows O’Hara meeting an apparently inescapable doom, only to save him next week by an unexpected but honestly foreshadowed trick (rather than the cheat that the viewer is expecting).
Although his disappearances during the fight scenes are disappointing, Grant Withers does an excellent job with the acting aspects of his unusual starring role–“unusual” in that the typical law-officer hero is almost invariably a G-man, not an ordinary cop like Pat O’Hara. Few serial stars could have pulled off the part of a heroic but down-to-earth “flatfoot” as well as the gruff-sounding and determined-looking Withers; he’s terse and skeptical in manner when questioning suspects, doggedly grim when following clues, and believably perplexed whenever his character is temporarily stumped. However, he’s never hard-boiled to the point of grumpiness; he’s likably cheerful when his O’Hara is chatting with Pinky or Sam, and–as in Jungle Jim–even displays surprising gentleness in his scenes with the leading lady, after their characters have come to trust each other.
The slender, graceful, and altogether charming Kay Hughes (here billed as “Catherine” Hughes) has easily the best of her three serial parts here (her earlier heroine turns in Republic’s The Vigilantes Are Coming and Dick Tracy gave her very little to do). She expresses plenty of plaintive concern over her brother’s plight, but always remains calm and self-possessed enough to keep to make her character’s spunky actions–like her surreptitious entrance into the steel mill in the first chapter–seem quite believable. She also manages to be thoroughly endearing from her first appearance onwards; even when her reluctance to confide in the police is impeding the hero’s investigation, she’s so appealingly sincere that it’s impossible to be annoyed with her.
As Pinky, child actor Mickey Rentschler eschews the chipper exuberance of most serial juveniles; he’s very quiet-spoken and almost phlegmatic at times–even when he raises his voice to yell out lines like “get him, Irish,” he sounds merely alert instead of excited. Though decidedly low-key, his performance is quite likable; his stoicism also gives Pinky an air of quiet independence and self-assurance that seems appropriate for a youngster living more or less or his own. Rentschler also seems to get along very well with Silver Wolf, the energetic portrayer of the super-intelligent Irish.
Adrian Morris, Grant Withers’ co-hero in The Fighting Marines, is here reduced to a sidekick role, lending efficient backup to Withers in clashes with crooks, but spending more time in thick-witted musings over crossword puzzles (Sam: “What’s a four-letter word meaning stupid?” Pat: “Try ‘dumb.'” Sam: “Naw, that won’t work–the second ‘M’ doesn’t fit.”). These comic bits are quite amusing, but never make Morris seem too unbelievably stupid to be a police officer; instead, the beefy actor comes off as a credible cop of the pre-police-academy era, a trustworthy lug hired for his ability to hit hard rather than for outstanding brainpower.
Silent-serial heavy Frank Lackteen has his second-best sound-era role (Shamba in Jungle Girl being his meatiest talking part) as the slick and sinister Tahata; while his thick Lebanese accent periodically causes him to put the wrong emphasis on words, it also gives an arrestingly weird sound to even his most perfunctory lines–and, of course, sounds quite fitting for his Middle Eastern character. The writers and directors also take care to menacingly highlight Lackteen’s forceful gestures and piercing stare (hallmarks of his silent days) in the recurring scenes in which Tahata demonstrates his hypnotic power over his henchman Franklin.
The scowling and powerfully-built Max Hoffman Jr. is well-cast as the heroine’s suspicious brother; he looks menacing enough to make us wonder whether he’s a good guy or a bad one, but is more than enough of an actor to make his character’s dignified protestations of innocence sound convincing. Gordon Hart is also well-cast as the unscrupulous Harrison; his beaked nose, stooped shoulders, shrewd expressions, and croaking voice give him a vulture-like air perfectly suited to the grasping tycoon he’s playing. C. Montague Shaw–with his upright bearing, white hair, and polished British accent–makes an ideal contrast to Hart as the more philanthropic businessman Wellington.
Leonard Lord is enjoyably odd as the mesmerized Franklin, adopting a…slow…measured…monotone…like…this whenever he reports to Tahata, and giving a slightly off-kilter tone to his lines even when Franklin is interacting more normally with other characters (the writers actually take care to explain his shifts between a zombie-like state and near-normalcy in the first chapter, by having Tahata tell his lackey that he will return to his “former self”–but remain under his command–when he leaves the Cairo Café). Frank Sully and Tom London are the most prominent of the non-mesmerized thugs who back up Franklin, while dog-trainer Louis Vokali takes a noticeable henchman role in the earlier chapters and Ray Teal figures as a background pack member throughout; all four players skillfully veer from sneering confidence to shifty furtiveness, as the occasion demands. Sharp-voiced Dick Botiller does a similarly good job as Tahata’s concerned and rather cranky office aide Zutta.
Monte Montague makes the most of his periodic appearances as the venal private eye Pollard, confidently swaggering in and out of Harrison’s offices while chewing on a cigar. Wheeler Oakman, another practiced scene-stealer, also does his best in his recurring bits as Harrison’s perplexed chief chemist. Earl Dwire is a delight as Pinky’s unofficial guardian, the crotchety old junkman Jeremiah Crockett–particularly in his bickering exchange with a sarcastic hobo (well played by Al Herman) in Chapter Eleven. Charles Murphy is a hobo-henchman in the service of Harrison, Ernie Adams has a bit as yet another hobo, and Stanley Blystone plays the foreman of the steel mill.
Harry Tenbrook, Carey Loftin, and Jim Toney have small henchman parts, Eddie Parker and Tom Steele appear as policemen, and the inimitable Richard Cramer is frequently heard (and occasionally seen) as a police dispatcher. William Gould and Hooper Atchley play (respectively) a police chief and a mayor in the serial’s brief “prologue” (which chronicles the rise of radio-equipped patrol cars); Gould reappears as the police chief in the main body of the chapterplay. William Royle is the brusque detective-lieutenant who gives O’Hara a tenuous promotion, and Harry Davenport–a prominent character actor in many A-films–makes a very brief appearance as the doomed inventor Adams. Jack Mulhall is great fun in his occasional appearances as a boisterous desk sergeant, particularly in his exasperated interchanges with Sam.
Despite the awkwardness of its fight scenes and the occasional illogicalities of its plotting, Radio Patrol is overall a very entertaining serial–thanks to its good pacing, its unique location work, its large and interesting cast, and its vivid 1930s atmosphere. The David-versus-Goliath nature of its storyline–strongly reflective of the Depression period in which the serial was made–also has a lasting appeal; there’s something very satisfying in the notion of a resourceful kid, his faithful dog, a plucky girl, and a hard-working cop smashing a colossal industrial-espionage scheme through sheer courage and dedication. Like many other elements in Radio Patrol, this aspect of the serial recalls the Mascot chapterplays of Patrol’s crew-members Sarecky, Beebe, Gittens, Trampe, and Hall–a great number of which (The Galloping Ghost, The Hurricane Express, Burn-’em-up-Barnes) focused on the extraordinary exploits of fairly ordinary people