Universal, 13 Chapters, 1942. Starring Kent Taylor, Ralph Morgan, Irene Hervey, Robert Armstrong, William Haade, Ralf Harolde, Joseph Crehan, Richard Davies, John Gallaudet, Vic Zimmerman, George Watts.
A major city is rocked by a wave of robbery, property destruction, and murder; these outrages are being perpetrated by a criminal organization that calls itself the “League of Murdered Men.” The League’s leader, who goes by the name of “Professor Mortis” (Ralph Morgan), claims that he and his followers are “dead men returned from our graves to take revenge on those who sent us there,” and announces via the radio that the League’s reign of terror will not cease until the mayor, the city judges, the entire police department, and the rest of the municipal administration have been “thrown from office.” It falls to police detective Bill Bannister (Kent Taylor) to put an end to Mortis’ terrorism–and discover how the madman’s League can be composed of public enemies who have all been officially proclaimed dead.
Gang Busters is ostensibly based on a very popular radio show of the same name; it faithfully copies the gun-blasting opening credits of its airwaves source–after which it diverges wildly from the radio series, which consisted of true-crime case histories derived from the files of various police departments and the FBI. It’s true that the Gang Busters serial retains the radio show’s emphasis on real-life law-enforcement methods, with its heroes repeatedly using fingerprinting, ballistics, or various police-lab technologies to unearth clues; the serial’s snappily-dressed gangsters and seedy underworld characters are also relatively realistic. However, while the chapterplay’s detectives and hoodlums are normal enough, the antagonist of the former and the master of the latter is a dangerously deranged genius whose apparent power over death itself makes him seem like a character from one of Universal’s contemporaneous horror movies. The presence of Mortis makes the serial’s cops-and-robbers scenario about ten times more interesting than it otherwise would have been, while placing the mad scientist in a recognizably real-life milieu in turn makes him seem far more unsettling and sinister than others of his ilk.
Above: The police in their lab (left) and Mortis (Ralph Morgan) in his (right). The men in the left-hand image are, left to right, Joseph Crehan, George Watts, Pat O’Malley, an unidentified player (back to camera) and Kent Taylor.
Screenwriters Al Martin, Victor McLeod, George Plympton, and Morgan Cox develop their script’s excellent central premise to very good effect, neatly balancing action, crime detection, tinges of horror, and even touches of humor. Although the serial is not structured around action setpieces in the style of a Republic outing, the scripters still manage to involve their heroes and villains in numerous brawls and gunfights; they also keep the periodic clue-analyzing scenes in the police lab lively enough (and non-technical enough) to be interesting. Horror is provided by Mortis’ sinister means of recruiting henchmen into the League of Murdered Men (said means being gradually revealed to the viewer over the course of the first three chapters); the highly nervous wisecracking of the gangster Taboni (William Haade) as he reluctantly prepares to go through Mortis’ death-and-resuscitation process serves to simultaneously lighten and enhance the tension of the situation, while his enraged post-induction reaction when he learns his continued existence is dependent on Mortis accentuates the horror of the whole Murdered Men setup.
The writers also do a good job of pacing their narrative; the first three chapters deal with the consequences of Taboni’s murder of Bill Bannister’s brother–Bannister’s pursuit and capture of the thug, Taboni’s escape from prison via apparent suicide, his revival by Mortis, and Bannister’s tracing of the villains who removed Taboni’s “corpse.” The next five episodes feature a series of duels between Bannister and the League, with Bannister doing his best to thwart the heavies’ larcenous and terroristic schemes (despite the presence of an informer within the police department), while Mortis tries to remove the interfering detective. Before these duels can become repetitious, the writers launch the serial’s climactic story arc in Chapter Nine, with Bannister concocting a scheme to trap the informer; the scheme’s repercussions occupy the remaining five chapters, in the course of which Bannister manages to locate Mortis’ hideout but is turned into a “Murdered Man” himself–which results in a memorably scary and suspenseful climactic episode.
Gang Busters’ direction and camera work reinforce the horror-movie touches in the script; note particularly the camera angles in the warehouse scene in Chapter Four and the effective use of shadows when Mortis is working in his laboratory. I suspect a good deal of the credit for these and many other shots should go to co-director Noel Smith–who, unlike his collaborator Ray Taylor, did no other serials, but did helm some stylish and atmospheric B-mystery films for Warner Brothers in the late 1930s and early 1940s (Secret Service of the Air, Case of the Black Parrot, and others). The high preponderance of nocturnal scenes and Universal’s excellent big-city backlot sets strengthen the atmosphere further; darkened city streets, shadowy waterfront bars, and subway tunnels provide a striking and appropriate backdrop for much of the action. The serial’s setting is not exclusively urban, however; the San Fernando Valley roads and Universal’s backlot forest are used to good effect in other scenes, furnishing some visual variety.
Above, top left: The villains prepare to enter their hideout beneath a subway tunnel. Top right: The heroes confront the doorkeeper at Frenchy’s shady waterfront saloon. Bottom left: Hero Kent Taylor explores a warehouse. Bottom right: Members of the League of Murdered Men lurk outside a hotel.
As aforementioned, Gang Busters’ action scenes are not the serial’s primary focus, but are well-staged and plentiful enough to satisfy. Among the highlights are the shootout at the garage in Chapter Three, the police pursuit of the gangster Mason later in the same chapter, the excellent Chapter Four apartment fight, the gun battle in the warehouse in Chapter Five, the fight at Frenchy’s bar in Chapter Seven, the Chapter Ten warehouse fight, and Bannister’s pursuit of an explosives-laden truck (also Chapter Ten); Dale Van Sickel (who doubles star Kent Taylor), Tom Steele, Dave Sharpe, Carey Loftin, and Ken Terrell (who doubles henchman George J. Lewis) are among the stuntmen utilized in these and other scenes. The suspenseful sequence in Chapter Two in which the hero–trapped in a plane after its villainous pilot has been killed–must be “talked down” by airport officials is also good, and is highly unusual by serial standards; in most chapterplays, the protagonists have an apparently inborn familiarity with aircraft.
Above left: Kent Taylor (or Dale Van Sickel) sends Tom Steele (and his own coattail) flying during the Chapter Four apartment fight. Above right: Ralf Harolde blasts away at the offscreen Taylor in the garage shootout in Chapter Three.
The cliffhangers in Gang Busters are set up very effectively, and make minimal use of the grainy stock footage and the improbable resolutions that marked many other Universal chapter endings. The plane crash at the end of Chapter One and the truck explosion in Chapter Ten are both good, although the miniature work in both scenes is rather obvious; the terrific Chapter Three ending, with a car plunging from a bridge, is also very good, and is more convincing in appearance. Another car-crash ending–the plummet from the parking-garage’s top floor in Chapter Two–is borrowed from the Republic serial Dick Tracy Returns; one must assume that Universal purchased the footage (which is integrated into Gang Busters quite seamlessly) from their rival. The building implosion that closes Chapter Six, though obviously newsreel-derived, is also matched fairly well with the new footage, and is quite striking to boot. Smaller-scaled, but even more memorable, is the Chapter Eight ending that has the heroine unwittingly shooting the hero with a gun that’s been disguised as a camera; in classic Alfred Hitchcock fashion, the lethal device is introduced to the audience early in the episode, carried around unknowingly by the good guys for some time, and nearly fired on more than one occasion–which has the audience very keyed up by the time the gadget finally goes off to end the episode.
Most of the characters in Gang Busters are subtly individualized to some degree by the writers–an individualization that’s greatly heightened by the efforts of the serial’s superb cast. Kent Taylor, a solid leading man in B-features for Paramount, MGM, Universal, and other studios, does a first-rate job as Bill Bannister, giving the stern and hard-driving policeman a steely glare, a brusquely authoritative manner, and a sharply commanding voice that are all perfectly suited to the character. His quiet but broken-voiced reaction to his brother’s murder is also excellent, as is the combination of sarcastic disdain and wry amusement he brings to his interactions with the continually-carping mayor. As Bannister’s tough and down-to-earth partner Tim Nolan, Robert Armstrong is much more low-key than in his first serial Sky Raiders, but is just as effective; gruffly sardonic and utterly unflappable in demeanor, he’s very convincing as a veteran homicide cop.
Irene Hervey, an attractive former MGM starlet who never managed to hit the “big time,” is very good as reporter heroine Vicki Logan; she’s breezy and cheerful enough to provide a good contrast to Taylor and Armstrong and lighten the heroes’ investigation sessions, but is mature and intelligent enough to avoid seeming like a ditzy nuisance; even when her character takes reckless chances (as during the building demolition sequence), Hervey’s cool self-assurance makes her behavior seem more like calculated professional risk-taking than thoughtless irresponsibility. Richard Davies, as her savvy colleague “Happy” Haskins, is more laid-back than Hervey, but shares her good-natured and offhanded attitude towards the police news beat; despite his cognomen (which recalls horrendous 1930s serial characters like “Snapper” McGee), he is not a Designated Comic Relief character by any stretch of the imagination.
Ralph Morgan (aided and abetted by the writers) makes Professor Mortis one of the serial genre’s most memorable heavies, a character who deserves to be placed beside Ming, Fu Manchu, Dr. Satan, and other legendary chapterplay villains. Mortis is no suave and self-possessed master criminal out for money or power; he’s an embittered and obsessive madman burning for revenge against everyone who’s “wronged” him, as he makes clear in his memorable rant in Chapter Two. Morgan plays this scene and others (such as the incredibly sinister radio broadcast in Chapter One) for all they’re worth, chuckling evilly, snarling angrily, and extracting every possible drop of menace from his lines. He’s also able to switch from rage to calm with ease; his alternations between furious anger and professorial bemusement make him seem far crazier than constant raving would have. This air of creepy schizophrenia is underlined by the ever-present contrast between Morgan’s naturally avuncular appearance and the silkily threatening voice he adopts.
Mortis’ chief henchmen are quite memorable and distinctive in their own right. Ralf Harolde’s crafty face and raspy, smug-sounding voice give him a slickly cynical air that contrasts well with his boss’s brooding intensity (Harolde’s self-satisfied expression when he suddenly hits on the idea of a dropping a potential squealer down a trapdoor is priceless). The husky and emphatically New-York-accented William Haade is outstanding as Taboni; he manages to be very funny (particularly when he’s grumbling about having to undergo plastic surgery) without ever becoming unthreatening (the obvious glee with which he plugs the hero’s brother in Chapter One is especially chilling). Overall, Haade makes the character seem so thuggish and so noisily cheerful that Taboni comes off as a strange combination of a hardened hoodlum and a good-natured but unruly child–a figure who’s hateful in some scenes but almost lovable in others.
Stocky Victor Zimmerman, as the coolly easygoing Barnard, looks the part of a strong-arm man but gives his character a shrewd and cautious air unusual in a thug; he comes off as particularly cagy when he passes himself off as Taboni’s disapproving brother-in-law in order to claim his fellow-henchman’s body. John Galluadet is irritable, outspoken, aggressive, and intimidatingly confident as the businesslike killer Wilkinson, while George J. Lewis (as another prominent League member named Mason) sneers and snarls with considerable energy before making an early exit from the serial. Johnnie Berkes is shifty but also a little sympathetic as the elderly newspaper-hawker Grubb, who loyally shuffles into the League’s hideout with important messages on a regular basis; interestingly, his character is the only henchman who’s treated with unfailing politeness by Mortis.
Joseph Crehan does an excellent job as the pugnacious but level-headed police chief, actively and intelligently participating in the heroes’ planning sessions and defiantly brushing off the complaints of the blustery mayor. Ex-vaudeville comedian George Watts is quite amusing as said mayor; although a more stuffily self-important actor like William Gould would perhaps have been better-suited to the part, Watts makes up in bombastic energy what he lacks in dignity. As underworld personality Frenchy LuDuc, Edward Emerson overdoes his ersatz Gallic accent but is otherwise very good; his shady but resourceful and fearless character enlivens the serial’s midsection, as he tries to work with both the police and the League of Murdered Men without committing himself to either side. Stanley Price figures prominently in one chapter as a fugitive henchman who prevails on Frenchy to hide him from the law and the League, registering characteristic panic in the process.
Beatrice Roberts–Queen Azura from Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars–is a minor but noticeable presence as the police chief’s trusty secretary. Solidly dignified Pat O’Malley is the most prominent of the serial’s various police-lab technicians; Jack Mulhall and Eddie Dew also pop up as lab men. Rodent-faced Eddie Foster makes a perfect stool pigeon in the earlier episodes, while stunt pilot Jerry Jerome (who presumably handled the serial’s airplane sequence) is good as a self-possessed safecracker in a later chapter. Mickey Simpson is the bouncer in Frenchy’s waterfront bar, Ethan Laidlaw the barkeep, and Karl Hackett a crooked watchman who’s murdered there. Phil Warren is a crooked trucker, Jack C. Smith a desk sergeant, George Eldredge and Robert Barron policemen, Eddie Featherston an airport official, Paul McVey a lawyer, and Alan Gregg an armored-car driver. Three once-famous silent serial stars appear in bits: Eddie Polo as a crooked pilot, William Desmond as a citizen who witness a killing, and Grace Cunard as a talkative landlady. Milton Kibbee is enjoyably quirky in a small role as a stationmaster, and Riley Hill–a perennial juvenile lead in Universal’s B-westerns–is Bannister’s ill-fated brother.
Due to its cast, its script, its great strength in all production departments, and its memorable combination of down-to-earth crimefighting with quasi-supernatural villainy, Gang Busters ranks as one of Universal’s all-time best chapterplays. None of the studio’s subsequent 1940s serials approached it in quality, while only a handful of its 1940s and 1930s predecessors–Tim Tyler’s Luck, The Red Rider, the Flash Gordon trilogy–are strong enough overall to rival or surpass it.