Captain Robert Dayton (Donald Woods), an ace flyer who officered an elite American air squadron during the first World War, now heads up a company called Sky Raiders Inc., which derives its cognomen from the nickname of Dayton’s old outfit and specializes in developing new aviation technology. Dayton and his crew at Sky Raiders are currently working on a speedy and highly maneuverable “pursuit plane” for the US Army; foreign spy Felix Lynx (Eduardo Ciannelli) is determined to seize this valuable new aircraft, with the help of his shrewd female accomplice Innis Clair (Jacqueline Dalya) and of a scoundrel named John Cain–who happens to be a perfect double for Dayton. The real Dayton is aided in his ensuing encounters with Lynx’s gang by his wartime lieutenant and current right-hand man Ed Carey (Robert Armstrong), his secretary Mary Blake (Kathryn Adams), and his young pilot protegé Tim Bryant (Billy Halop).
Sky Raiders has little in common with Universal’s other early-1940s espionage outings like Sea Raiders or Junior G-Men, although it’s often lumped with those outings by reviewers. Instead, it’s more closely akin to a Universal serial released seven years earlier–Tailspin Tommy. Like Tommy, Raiders focuses quite as much on the perils and pleasures of aviation and on the personalities and relationships of its protagonists as it does on said protagonists’ fight with the villains. Again like Tommy, it’s often treated with disdain or frustrated perplexity by serial buffs–but is solidly entertaining nonetheless once it’s accepted on its own unusual terms.
Writers Paul Huston and Clarence Upson Young (Eliot Gibbons is also credited with original story) draw Sky Raiders’ four principal characters–Bob Dayton, Mary Blake, Ed Carey, and Tim Bryant–with an unusual degree of care, and fill their interactions with funny dialogue and bits of business (the “feminine intuition vs. male intelligence” interchange in Chapter Four, the repeated book-throwing gag), as well as many memorable dramatic moments (Mary’s reaction to Bob’s apparent death and his seemingly miraculous return, Ed’s angry rebuke of Bob when the former thinks Tim has cracked up a plane through the latter’s negligence). Thanks to these scenes and many others, the audience becomes genuinely involved in the many character-driven subplots surrounding the four principals–such as Mary’s unspoken love for Bob, Ed’s much more open romantic interest in Mary, Tim’s progress as a pilot, or Mary and Ed’s attempts to get the daredevil Bob to abandon test-flying and settle down to a merely managerial position at Sky Raiders.
Above: “All right, go ahead and kill yourself. The Army’ll appreciate that; they don’t give a hoot whether they get those planes or not!” Ed (Robert Armstrong) hollers at the seated Dayton (Donald Woods) in typical fashion as Mary (Kathryn Adams) watches).
These subplots provide a much livelier and more interesting means of filling out the serial’s twelve chapters than the laborious and long-winded plot recapitulation common in later Universal serials. Lynx’s efforts to steal the pursuit plane would have seemed far too repetitive had they not been skillfully balanced with the many scenes centered around the protagonists’ relationships–the energetic arguments between Bob and Ed, Ed and Mary’s wryly frustrated discussions of ways and means to protect the unconcerned Bob from the spies, or Tim’s flying lessons under Bob’s fatherly supervision. Aerial adventure scenes not directly related to the central espionage plotline (like Mary and Tim’s storm-tossed journey back to the Sky Raiders airfield in the pursuit plane) furnish additional padding–which, like the many character bits, is too enjoyable to ever actually seem like padding.
Despite its character-driven script, Raiders still manages to serve up some respectable action scenes. Its fistfights are scarce, but are excellent when they do occur; the Chapter Seven fight in the burning hangar between Dayton and Lynx’s men is particularly energetic and well-staged, as is the office fistfight earlier in the same episode between Ed Carey and Dayton’s villainous double John Cain. Dayton’s fierce rooftop fight with Cain in Chapter Eight is very well-handled too, with directors Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor managing–despite frequent close-ups of the combatants–to create the illusion that we’re watching star Donald Woods fight himself, while also hiding the identity of the stuntmen involved with unusual skill. Dale Van Sickel seems to be doubling one of the participants in the last-named fight, while it looks as if Ken Terrell might be standing in for Robert Armstrong in the office battle; both Van Sickel and Terrell definitely appear in their own person as thugs in other fights, as does Eddie Parker.
The serial’s airplane action scenes feature fairly effective combinations of process-screen shots, (obvious) model work, and actual flying work by stunt pilot Jerry Jerome. The looping and diving demonstrations of the pursuit plane in Chapters One and Eleven are exhilirating enough at first, but go on a bit too long to be very interesting to anyone other than an airplane buff. The clash between Dayton and one of Lynx’s pilots in Chapter Two–with Dayton eventually taking out the villain by smashing his propeller–is more exciting, as is the terrific Chapter Three sequence that has Carey making an aerial attack on the villains’ car along a desert road; another airplane-related highlight is the memorably suspenseful Chapter Ten sequence that has Mary trying to land at the fog-enveloped Sky Raiders field, as Dayton tries to “talk her in.”
Due to the drastic fashion in which airplane design changed between the releases of Sky Raiders and Universal’s 1930s aviation serials (Phantom of the Air, the two Tailspin Tommy serials), the stock-footage use here is largely confined to shots of parachutists, aerial views of the ground, and rather grainy-looking shots of airport bystanders. The obvious newsreel stock used to represent the Sky Raiders airplane factory and its workers is not featured extensively enough to become irritating, while some apparent location shooting at an actual airfield is nicely mixed with process-screen work in the scenes that take place on the Sky Raiders landing field. The above-mentioned desert road sequence also features some nice location work; most of the serial’s other scenes–indoor and outdoor–are shot on the capacious Universal backlot.
The serial’s chapter endings are not exactly varied, with no less than seven of them centering around plane crashes of various kinds; here, as elsewhere, Sky Raiders strongly echoes the Tailspin Tommy serials. However, the resolutions to these crack-ups at least have the protagonists bailing out at the last minute, instead of simply weathering the crash as in most of Universal’s 1930s outings; the resolution to the Chapter One ending takes an even more creative approach to explaining away Dayton’s apparent death in a fiery plane wreck. Of the serial’s non-plane-crash cliffhangers, the most memorable is easily Dayton’s seemingly fatal fall from a skyscraper at the end of Chapter Eight; other grounded cliffhangers include an impressive fire inside a hangar and the car-trapped-in-the-blasting-area sequence that originated in The Vanishing Shadow.
Although Sky Raiders’ script is well above-average, it could still have fallen flat in the hands of a weaker cast; fortunately, the acting lineup here is an exceptionally strong one. Donald Woods, a likable and charismatic B-picture leading man who’s often been (aptly) compared to Ronald Colman, is perfectly cast as Captain Bob Dayton; his polished voice and his distinguished face make him seem mature and dignified enough to be believable as the head of a successful business, while his cheerfully dashing manner matches equally well with the daredevil flying-ace side of his character. Woods does a similarly good job in his secondary role as Dayton’s evil double John Cain–behaving in a jittery, loutish, and grumpy fashion that stands in sharp contrast to his confident, gentlemanly, and good-natured demeanor in the Dayton role.
Robert Armstrong’s gruffness and matter-of-fact demeanor makes his Ed Carey a perfect counterpoint to Woods’ Dayton–but, although he’s grimly and even harshly blunt in the many scenes in which he tries to bring Woods back down to earth (both literally and figuratively), he also injects plenty of humor into the part, particularly during his half-joking, half-serious flirtations with Kathryn Adams. Adams–a very attractive actress whose film career was short-lived–also turns in an excellent performance, playing her capable but secretly love-struck secretary character with a combination of pert self-assurance and endearing wistfulness that seems very appropriate. As fledgling pilot Tim Bryant, former “Dead End Kid” Billy Halop is given one of his few non-delinquent roles–and does quite well in it, eschewing the frequently obnoxious belligerency of his “bad boy” characters in other serials like Junior G-Men for a sincere, eager, but rather awkward manner that’s quite appealing.
The villains in Sky Raiders aren’t given as much screen time as the heroes, but the leading heavies are all individualized to a degree–and, like the heroes, are portrayed by excellent performers. Sultry Jacqueline Dalya, as the scheming Innis Clair, is the most prominent of the serial’s villains–and she’s terrific in the part, whether she’s offering disparaging comments on her colleagues’ schemes, slyly manipulating Dayton with tearful concerns over a non-existent dying mother, or coolly spying on the good guys after winning a secretarial job at Sky Raiders (where she succeeds in making Adams’ character both suspicious and jealous). Eduardo Ciannelli only makes brief appearances as Felix Lynx, but handles his scenes with his customary combination of sinister suavity and equally sinister intensity; his harsh rants about the “stupid imbeciles” that serve him are very enjoyable, as is the smoothness with which he hoodwinks a pair of policemen and the debonair Continental grace with which, in his good moods, he greets Dalya’s character (who seems to be something more to him than a mere business associate).
Reed Hadley uses his distinctive voice to good effect as Lynx’s chief henchman Caddens, a shrewd and sarcastic heavy who trades some memorably barbed dialogue with Dalya’s equally sharp-tongued Innis. Slick-looking John Holland makes the most of his background part as Caddens’ assistant Hess; Irving Mitchell displays convincing indecision and nervousness as the furtive Sky Raiders treasurer Hinchfield, who’s secretly in cahoots with Lynx. Edgar Edwards, his roughneck appearance a sharp contrast to the refined air of most of the other heavies, figures prominently in several earlier episodes as another henchman, while Jean Fenwick has a small but important role as a phony Countess; Walter Sande is uncharacteristically villainous in an even smaller bit as her pilot.
Among the most notable members of the serial’s fine supporting cast are Roy Gordon as an upright but slightly choleric Army general, Lyle Latell as a shady but likable mechanic, and Bill Cody Jr. as a resourceful farm boy who aids Dayton. Plug-ugly Frank Richards–later a prolific TV character actor–pops up as a thug, Pat O’Malley has a brief but colorful turn as a policeman, and the venerable William Desmond appears as another cop later in the serial. Larry Steers and Alex Callam are army officers, Lane Chandler, Pierce Lyden, and Ed Cassidy airfield personnel, Roy Barcroft a Coast Guard sailor, Tristram Coffin a Coast Guard officer, Stanley Blystone a sheriff, Stanley Price a mechanic, and future B-western star Eddie Dew an ambulance driver. The usually affable Phillip Warren has a memorable bit as a quietly crazed anti-war “crackpot” who tries to kill Dayton in Chapter Four.
Though Sky Raiders departs very noticeably from the standard parameters of the chapterplay genre, the serial is both well-written and well-acted enough to rank as a definite success–although it’s simply too offbeat to ever become very popular with the majority of serial fans.