Young Billy Barton (Billy Halop), the son of a distinguished inventor supposedly killed in a laboratory accident, has run away from school and become the leader of a gang of street kids; he suddenly finds himself a person of interest to the Order of the Flaming Torch, a subversive group plotting to overthrow the government. The Order has faked the death of Billy’s father, Colonel Barton (Russell Hicks), and is holding him prisoner, hoping to force him into giving them his formula for a powerful new explosive; to aid in the coercion of Barton, they decide to kidnap his son. FBI agent Jim Bradford (Phillip Terry) warns Billy of his danger and tries to get him to cooperate with the authorities, but Billy is hostile towards “coppers” of every kind and attempts to fight off the “Torchies” on his own, aided only by his own gang. Eventually, however, Billy and his friends join forces with Bradford and with his nephew Harry Trent (Kenneth Howell), the leader of a group of young would-be detectives called the Junior G-Men; together, they not only thwart the Torch agents’ attempts to abduct Billy, but finally destroy the Order itself.
The “Dead End Kids” who are billed above Junior G-Men’s titles were a group of young actors who’d first won critical and popular attention playing slum-dwelling hooligans in the Broadway play Dead End and the MGM adaptation of said play. The Dead Enders (originally six in number) followed up their success in Dead End with starring or co-starring roles in several Warner Brothers films; when their act palled on A-film audiences, four of them found regular work in B-films and serials at Universal, supported by a group of auxiliary juvenile delinquents billed as the “Little Tough Guys.” Junior G-Men was the Kids’ and Tough Guys’ first chapterplay vehicle, and is rendered both enjoyable and problematical by its atypical choice of stars.
Having the heroes begin their adventures as street toughs, and then shape up in order to take on arch-villains, is a novel concept indeed for the serial genre. However, neither Junior G-Men’s actors nor its writers (Basil Dickey, Rex Taylor, George Plympton) handle the concept with much skill or subtlety; Billy and his gang are far too aggressively antagonistic and broadly thuggish in the early chapters. The serial’s opening sequence, in which the boys casually commit several petty crimes in the space of a few minutes, is apparently supposed to be funny, but instead creates a strongly negative impression of our “heroes;” subsequent scenes, like the boys’ “ganging” of a single Junior G-Men in Chapter Two and their systematized theft of apples later in the same episode, don’t help to dispel this impression. Billy and his gang do become far more sympathetic once they firmly focus on fighting villains instead of stealing or wrecking things–but the extremely heavy-handed way in which their early delinquency was depicted makes this transformation into heroes seem more than a bit unlikely.
Above: A furious (and pie-faced) Jack Roper (wearing cap in left-hand picture) is baited by Gabriel Dell (behind Roper), Roger Daniels, Billy Halop, and Bernard Punsly (left to right, right-hand picture) in the serial’s ill-advised opening sequence.
The G-men (both Junior and Senior), who serve first as antagonists and then as allies for Barton and his buddies, are depicted just as heavy-handedly as the street kids are. The Junior G-Men are a drab and largely interchangeable group with little personality–and are as annoyingly serious-minded as Billy and his gang are irritatingly irresponsible; their sober dullness becomes less of an issue when Billy and company join their ranks and liven up their detecting sessions, although Harry Trent’s smug gloating to Billy about the efficacy of scientific deduction remain rather hard to take. The serial’s adult authority figure, G-man Jim Bradford, is even more smug, whether he’s smirking as he arrests suspects or gravely and priggishly lecturing Billy on social responsibility or the democratic legal process. As in the case of the overly-thuggish street kids, the aggravating aspects of the Bradford and Trent characters are heavily accentuated by the actors who play the roles (more about them later).
Though Junior G-Men’s characterizations are poorly handled, its plotting is solid enough. The initial tensions between Billy’s gang and the G-men causes the two sets of protagonists to battle the villains separately during the serial’s first third, adding a distinctive wrinkle to what would otherwise be a standardized hero-villain duel; even after Billy and the Junior G-Men combine forces, they still operate almost independently of the real G-Men, which keeps the action from becoming formularized. The writers also do a good job of building the action towards the climax in the later episodes, allowing the heroes to spot the villains’ hideout and raid it in Chapter Ten, locate Colonel Barton in Chapter Eleven, and smash the Order in Chapter Twelve–instead of reserving all this climactic action for the last episode. The final showdown, unfortunately, comes off as rather anticlimactic after the excellent buildup–but at least gives us a direct physical confrontation between heroes and villains, instead of having have the heavies finish each other off (as in so many Universal serials).
Above: Edward Fielding, Billy Halop, and Kenneth Howell (left to right, left-hand picture) make an aerial sighting of the villains’ hideout (shown in right-hand picture), setting up the good guys’ Chapter Ten raid on the place.
Junior G-Men contains much more action than some of its Universal contemporaries; fistfights and chases figure prominently in most episodes, and give the serial a pleasantly fast-paced feel. Stuntmen Dave Sharpe (who doubles Billy Halop) and Ken Terrell inject plenty of energetic leaps and flips into the fistfights, while cinematographer Jerome Ash and directors Ford Beebe and John Rawlins film the chase sequences in fluid and exciting style. Standouts among the many good action scenes featured in the serial include the car chases in Chapters Three and Seven, the boarding-house fights in Chapters Four and Eight, the two lab fights in Chapter Five, the fight at the villains’ hideout in Chapter Ten and the ensuing car chase, and the Chapter Eleven warehouse fight.
Above, top left: A striking up-angled shot from the Chapter Three car chase. Top right: A shot from the furniture-smashing second lab fight in Chapter Five. Bottom left: Another good car-chase shot, from Chapter Seven this time. Bottom right: A shot of the mass brawl between tough kids and henchmen in the Flaming Torch’s headquarters in Chapter Ten.
Beebe, Rawlins, and Ash make good use of Universal’s capacious backlot and some off-lot locations; the ramshackle slum neighborhood (convincingly crowded with extras) in which Billy and his friends live and which the villains periodically invade, provides an unusual and vivid backdrop to a portion of the action. Other sequences are shot in Universal’s backlot dockyard, in spooky-looking old warehouses, in the spacious grounds of the Torch Order’s imposing fenced-in mansion, in small forests, on country roads, and at the L. A. Metropolitan Airport–providing the serial with more visual variety than many stateside cops-and-robbers serials.
Above left: A pair of coverall-wearing henchmen try to repair a sabotaged car on the teeming “mean streets” of Billy’s neighborhood. Above right: Billy and his friends invade the villains’ domain, scaling the wall outside their mansion hideout.
The chapter endings in Junior G-Men range from average to excellent, some of the highlights being Chapter One’s plunging-elevator cliffhanger, the Chapter Eleven ending that has the heroes about to be crushed by a different elevator, the Chapter Four plummet from a billing ledge (which might be stock footage, but is well-integrated into the new footage, if it is), and the Chapter Eight balcony crash. The blockhouse and warehouse explosions in Chapters Two and Six are memorable too, due to the good miniature work involved. However, far too many of the serial’s cliffhangers rely upon the dreaded “lived through it” resolution too common in Universal’s serials; time and again, protagonists Billy and Harry simply crawl out of the rubble of a violent crash or apparently devastating explosion.
Though all of the “Dead End Kids” and “Little Tough Guys” featured in Junior G-Men receive prominent billing, Billy Halop is the unequivocal star of the serial–and plays his part with compelling energy throughout, even though his thick New-York-tough accent makes it impossible to buy him as a supposed upper-crust kid who’s only recently taken to the streets. He also does too good a job of acting like a hoodlum in the serial’s early chapters; his snarling and swaggering is so convincing as to make him (initially) seem extremely unpleasant. However, once he relaxes his antisocial belligerency, he becomes much more likable, without losing any of his appealing intensity. He comes off as both shrewd and forceful when planning campaigns against the “Torchies,” handles hard-boiled wisecracks well, and effectively conveys concern for his missing father (his reunion with him in Chapter Eleven being genuinely moving).
Of the supporting Dead End Kids, Huntz Hall as the loud-mouthed Gyp receives by far the most screen time, serving as alleged comic relief. His noisy blustering and grumbling is only intermittently funny and is more often annoying, as are the acts of potentially disastrous idiocy that the writers assign to his character (his failure to deliver a vital message during the climactic chapters is particularly frustrating). Dead End Kid Gabriel Dell, tough in appearance but likably laid-back in manner, has much less to do as Terry, another member of Halop’s “gang;” however, his occasional gruff quips are far more amusing than Hall’s antics. Bernard Punsly, the other original Dead Ender in the cast, has very little dialogue and spends almost all of his time in the background.
The rather slick-looking Kenneth Howell is horribly miscast as clean-cut Junior G-Man Harry Trent; far too mature to believably portray a teenager, he unwisely attempts to seem youthful by adopting a breathlessly earnest manner that comes off as embarrassingly forced and unconvincing. Halop completely shoulders him off the screen in their scenes together, even though Howell’s character is presented as a co-hero and equal to Halop’s Billy. Phillip Terry is much less unbelievable but even more unappealing as Howell’s G-man uncle Jim Bradford; his unflappably complacent bearing and his smooth monotone of a voice make his civic-minded lectures to Billy and his explanations of the FBI’s infallible crime-fighting systems almost insufferable.
The serial’s lead villain is miscast as well; though Cy Kendall sneers and schemes with enjoyably slimy flair as Flaming Torch leader Brand, he’s simply not a convincing aspiring dictator, despite his frequent references to the “government I plan to set up in this country.” Ideal as cynical opportunists (Secret Agent X-9) or greedy mob bosses (The Green Hornet), Kendall is just too relaxed to be credible as a power-crazed revolutionary; an actor with a more intense, dynamic screen presence (such as Henry Brandon) was needed here. The dignified Ben Taggart, on the other hand, is very well-suited to the role of Kendall’s chief henchman Severn; he gives his character a grave, precise, and briskly efficient manner that seems appropriate to the executive branch of a supposed underground political organization.
Russell Hicks is excellent as the courageous and intelligent Colonel Barton, repeatedly standing up to Kendall and Taggart with suave and scornful dignity. The most prominent Torch henchmen are the hard-faced Gene Rizzi, the phlegmatically crafty Victor Zimmerman, and the tall and intimidatingly cranky Edgar Edwards; other heavies include Pierce Lyden, George Eldredge, Donald Curtis, Al Hill, and Ethan Laidlaw. “Little Tough Guys” Roger Daniels and Ken Lundy are given high billing as two of Billy’s pals, but have almost nothing to do; the subordinate Junior G-Men are similarly marginalized–and receive no screen credit, making me unable to positively identify any of them; the actor who plays Bradford’s slightly grouchy G-man aide Duke is also uncredited. William Hall pops up as another G-man, future serial heroine Jeanne Kelly (Riders of Death Valley) as a waitress, William Desmond and Tom London as cops, Edward Fielding as an endangered scientist, Kenneth Harlan as a security guard, and Florence Halop (Billy’s sister) as the girl who serves the food at the Junior G-Men’s lunches.
Junior G-Men’s action scenes and fast pacing, combined with its offbeat protagonists and good Universal production values, make it an interesting and entertaining serial overall–albeit one that could have been considerably improved by some recasting, and by considerably less ham-fisted depictions of its bad kids, good kids, and G-men.