Universal, 12 Chapters, 1941. Starring Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, William Hall, Stanley Blystone, Reed Hadley, John McGuire, Hally Chester, Gabriel Dell, Bernard Punsly, Mary Field, Marcia Ralston, Edward Keane.
Wealthy yachtsman Elliott Carlton (Edward Keane) is financing inventor Tom Adams’ (John McGuire) development of a new torpedo boat; Adams thinks that his valuable invention will be put at the disposal of the US Government, but Carlton is secretly plotting to sell the boat to Carl Tonjes (Reed Hadley)–who’s ostensibly Carlton’s secretary, but is really the agent of a belligerent foreign power. Tonjes and Carlton have also been sinking American ships that are carrying war materiel to Europe, using another new invention–torpedo-like underwater time-bombs–to surreptitiously destroy the targeted vessels. Tom’s pugnacious kid brother Billy (Billy Halop) and his equally rough-hewn pals Toby (Huntz Hall), Bilge (Gabriel Dell), and Butch (Bernard Punsly) become entangled in these Sea Raiders’ schemes when Billy and Toby witness the theft of Tom’s torpedo-boat blueprints and are wrongfully accused of the theft themselves; chased by harbor policeman Brack Warren (William Hall), they’re also pursued by the Sea Raiders gang, whose members feel that the boys know too much. However, the beleagured young “wharf rats” eventually join forces with the stubbornly suspicious Warren, and ultimately manage to turn the tables on the Sea Raiders.
Sea Raiders, a follow-up to the first serial vehicle (Junior G-Men) for Billy Halop and his fellow “Dead End Kids,” improves upon its predecessor in one very important regard. The Dead Enders in G-Men began their serial adventure as obnoxiously unsympathetic young hoodlums, ostensible hero Billy Halop being the most thuggish of the lot; their abrupt and unconvincing reformation only came about after they’d been subjected to many lectures by priggish government agents. In Raiders, however, the Kids’ early rowdiness is kept within tolerable limits (the worst thing we see them do is comically battle with a bombastic grocer while trying to sell lobsters), while Halop’s character is consistently depicted as a basically decent fellow despite his swaggering toughness (as when he refuses to swipe supplies from Toby’s sister, even as he prepares to run away from home). The Kids also decide to shape up and battle the villains on their own, instead of being pestered into doing the right thing by other characters; as a result, they remain reasonably sympathetic and credible throughout the serial, instead of suddenly and incredibly turning likable part-way through (as in Junior G-Men).
Above: The Dead End Kids (and one unaffiliated “Little Tough Guy”) ponder their situation aboard an old barge. Bernard Punsly (light sweater) and Gabriel Dell are in the foreground; Hally Chester (the Little Tough Guy, in checkered shirt), Billy Halop, and Huntz Hall are in the background.
Screenwriters Paul Huston and Clarence Upson Young not only show care in their handling of their principal characters, but also delineate several of their supporting characters with unusual skill. The smug and duplicitous newsboy Swab, at first an antagonist of Billy and his friends, is given sufficiently plausible motivation for his eventual repentance–but retains some of his abrasive personality after his turnabout, instead of unbelievably transforming into an entirely different person. The stalwart but blunderingly dull-witted Brack Warren character is even more interesting, being an atypically comedic version of the “adult authority figure” common in most juvenile-hero serials. The sharp-tongued Aggie–Toby’s sister and Brack’s sometime girlfriend–is also a distinctive and amusing character, especially when she’s bouncing sarcastic remarks off of the harried Brack. Billy’s brother Tom and his love interest–Carlton’s daughter Leah–are not nearly as prominent or individualized as Brack and Aggie, although the familial affection between Leah and her otherwise irredeemably villainous father is quite unusual by serial standards, and plays a key part in the plot.
Above left: John McGuire watches as William Hall’s Brack Warren tries to deflect the ire of Mary Field’s Aggie Nelson. Above right: Edward Keane as the traitorous Carlton tries to justify himself to his daughter Leah (Marcia Ralston).
Though Sea Raiders’ characterizations are much better than those in Junior G-Men, its story is not as well-paced as that of the earlier serial. The first seven chapters of Raiders do move swiftly, though, despite the dialogue scenes necessitated by a large cast of characters–thanks to a deft and well-balanced interweaving of the serial’s various plot threads and to a plotting shakeup at the halfway mark. Billy and his friends’ efforts to elude both the villains and Brack Warren are neatly alternated with said villains’ sabotage and espionage activities during the first five episodes–but, before this scenario can get stale, the whole situation changes: the villains show their hand to the authorities, Warren and Billy’s gang join forces, Carlton and Tonjes have a violent falling-out, and all the characters embark for the Raiders’ island headquarters for a showdown. However, this promised showdown is delayed by several detours; in order to prevent the serial from concluding too soon, the writers shipwreck Billy’s bunch and Raider agent Captain Nelson, have them picked up by a whaling ship, and compel them to spend over a chapter aboard said ship–which allows the boys to forget the main plotline long enough to go after a whale in exciting (if antiquated) Moby Dick fashion.
While its function as padding is obvious, this whaling sequence is offbeat enough to be interesting, and also provides the framework for the reconciliation between Billy and Swab. Subsequent padding is less forgivable, however; the serial’s pace slows down to an aggravating crawl for most of Chapter Ten–which is almost entirely given over to two long and pointless stock-footage scenes (a shark-octopus fight and a sub’s sinking of a freighter) and to the over-elaborate introduction of the (stock-footage) panther that provides the episode’s cliffhanger. The pace fortunately picks up again in the next episode, but slows slightly again at the beginning of Chapter Twelve, as the numerous good guys wander around in search of each other after a cave-in; the final face-off in the second half of Chapter Twelve is satisfying, though–with the heroes hurriedly trying to blow up Tonjes’ submarine before he can blast their boat out of the water.
While the lengthy shark/octopus and sub/freighter scenes are so grainy that their stock-footage provenance is obvious, most of the serial’s other reused action scenes are combined pretty skillfully with the new footage. The impressive storm-at-sea sequence in Chapter Eight is put together so well that it’s difficult to tell old and new shots apart; the Chapter Nine whaling scene relies heavily on stock and on obvious process-screen work, but does a good job of matching up close-up shots of the protagonists with the stock-footage long shots–and features effective brand-new footage of Billy and Swab being dragged underwater by the whale-rope. The octopus attack on Billy at the end of Chapter Ten is quite good as well, with prop tentacles, underwater photography, and octopus stock-shots combining to create the impression of a genuine battle with a sea beast; Billy Halop’s panicked expression as he’s dragged under and Hally Chester’s horrified yells as he watches also do much to put the scene across.
The octopus attack and the whale-rope scene rank as two of the serial’s better chapter endings; the motorboat’s crash into the pier at the end of Chapter Three is also a good cliffhanger, though marred by a live-through-it resolution. The same is true of the Chapter Six plane-crash cliffhanger (originally seen in Phantom Creeps) and the Chapter Eleven arsenal explosion; other chapter endings, like the Chapter Two warehouse fire, are less improbably resolved. As in most Universal serials of the 1940s, the majority of the action scenes in Raiders occur towards the end of each chapter and help to set up the cliffhangers–among them the exciting fight aboard the burning ship in Chapter Five, and the similarly good Chapter Eleven tunnel fight. The fight aboard Carlton’s yacht in Chapter Six, which comes earlier in the episode than some of the other action scenes, is another highlight; stuntwork in this sequence and in the other fights is handled capably by (among others) Bud Wolfe, Tom Steele, and Eddie Parker.
Above left: Tom Steele (doubling Reed Hadley) leaps from a table during the Chapter Six yacht brawl. Above right: Bud Wolfe flies backward onto a shelf at the end of another phase of the Chapter Six fight.
The serial’s single best action scene, however, is the lengthy, lively, and exciting motorboat chase in Chapter Three, which appears to have been shot in a real harbor by directors Ford Beebe and John Rawlins–much like the chases in many of Beebe’s 1930s Mascot serials. This harbor reappears in a few other scenes, but most of the other action takes place on Universal’s backlot, which furnishes a convincing and colorfully rundown-looking assortment of docks, piers, barges, and old ships during the serial’s first two-thirds; the backlot also provides a few stretches of forest and a disguised Western fort to serve as the Sea Raiders’ island base in the concluding episodes. The miniature used for the hollow-hulled ship that hides the stolen torpedo boat is nifty-looking, but also a bit toy-like in appearance; the life-size mockup of the torpedo boat itself is more convincing, and is strikingly sleek and semi-futuristic in design (it looks rather like something you’d see in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland).
Top left and right: Shots from the Chapter Three motorboat chase. Bottom left: A miniature of the stolen torpedo boat zips into its hiding place. Bottom right: Huntz Hall and Billy Halop steer the life-sized torpedo boat through the fog.
Star Billy Halop isn’t given any dramatic moments in Sea Raiders to match his reunion with his father in Junior G-Men, but his performance is still very good. He’s frequently uncouth and gruff in demeanor, but never (thanks in part to the script) the unbearably cartoonish hooligan he was in the earlier chapters of G-Men; he manages to be toughly authoritative when giving orders to his “gang,” quietly but bitterly regretful when he thinks his brother wants to send him away, and even wryly good-humored (as when he shrugs off his heroic rescue of Swab). Huntz Hall, as Halop’s chief sidekick Toby, is less likable; though his character is not the frustratingly inept moron that he was in Junior G-Men, he’s still loud-mouthed and frequently irritating. A natural comedian (and natural scene-stealer), Hall seems to be trying to get laughs and audience attention any way he can, mugging repeatedly and indulging in noisy grumbling that often sounds ad-libbed; his sheer energy makes it hard to really loathe his performance, but he’s definitely the least appealing of the serial’s major players.
Hall and Halop’s two fellow Dead End Kids–the coolly easygoing Gabriel Dell and the stocky, puzzled-looking Bernard Punsly–have a little more to do here than in Junior G-Men, receiving some bits of their own this time out (especially in Chapter Five); however, they still remain largely in the background. Hally Chester (who’d later become feature-film producer Hal E. Chester), is quite good as the reprehensible Swab–lying to the other kids and squealing on them with smooth oiliness, but maintaining a humorously deadpan air that makes him seem more amusing than hateful. Hulking William Hall, a henchman in several other Universal serials, plays Brack Warren with enjoyable gusto, emphasizing his Brooklyn accent to good comedic effect as he growls at the Dead End Kids, nervously reacts to his girlfriend’s sharp remarks, or groans “what’s the use” in reaction to various setbacks; he also manages to come off as ferociously and admirably fearless when he confronts the villains in the later episodes, without seeming out of character.
Mary Field, who bears a definite physical and vocal resemblance to A-film character actress Mary Wickes, makes the most out of her periodic scenes as the humorously outspoken Aggie Nelson–whether she’s verbally hectoring both Hall’s Brack and the heavies, or comically but capably supervising an escape attempt from the Sea Raiders’ hideout (in Chapter Eleven; her attempt to bluff her way past a guard is particularly enjoyable). John McGuire, the star of the RKO film noir Stranger on the Third Floor, turns in a subdued but effective performance as Billy Halop’s sober older brother, adopting a quiet, earnest, and thoughtful manner befitting his inventor character. Marcia Ralston is attractive as Leah Carlton, her slight British accent (Australian, specifically) giving her line delivery a refined sound appropriate for a supposed upper-crust heiress; she also manages to successfully convey proper dismay and emotional conflict after learning that her father is a Sea Raider.
As her father, Edward Keane is slickly smug and briskly pompous, projecting the self-satisfied amorality one would expect of a profiteer willing to sell out anyone in order to make a “cleanup” (as he puts it in Chapter Seven). The main villain of the piece, however, is Reed Hadley–whose height, intensely baleful glare, ominously suave bearing, and marvelously resonant voice make his Tonjes a commanding and menacing figure indeed. Stocky and harsh-voiced Stanley Blystone is perfectly cast as the bullying sea-dog Captain Nelson, who functions as the serial’s chief action heavy; the role is one of perennial background-actor Blystone’s biggest serial parts, and gives him many good opportunities to snarl viciously at the good guys–as well as some chances to be unusually crafty, as when he instigates a mutiny aboard the whaling ship. Blystone’s chief accomplices are the grouchy and intimidating Richard Alexander, the gruffly phlegmatic Jack Clifford, and the lively and furtive Ernie Adams.
Above left: Reed Hadley watches as Edward Keane makes a radio call. Above right: Stanley Blystone receives the same radio call, as Richard Alexander watches and Ernie Adams bandages Jack Clifford’s head in the background.
Forrest Taylor plays a small but pivotal role as the obsequious but embittered Fenwick, the villains’ reluctant accomplice and the inventor of their torpedo time-bomb. Juvenile actor Joe Recht is prominently billed but has almost no screen time as Lug, an occasional crony of Billy’s gang. Morgan Wallace is dignified and determined as a Navy officer, Hans Schumm–later the main villain in Spy Smasher–is fittingly curt and nasty as a U-boat commander, and Eddie Dunn is tough and self-confident as a whaler captain. The urbane but mean-looking Richard Bond is a Sea Raider agent, Duke York (Flash Gordon’s King Kala) a murderously mutinous whaler crewman, Guy Kingsford one of York’s crewmates, Dick Curtis a crabby officer on another ship, Ed Cassidy a policeman, James Blaine a desk sergeant, John Merton a sentry on the Raiders’ island, Eddie Parker a sailor on Carlton’s yacht, and House Peters Jr. another Raider henchman.
Sea Raiders’ music score stands out among other Universal scores of its time–not, alas, because of its quality, but because of its bizarre unevenness. Typically, the studio’s music editors more or less attempted to match their various stock-music cues to their serials’ footage–but here, a myriad of classical pieces seem to have been haphazardly slapped together with little regard for their appropriateness; the music sometimes fits the action, but is frequently either too light or too bombastic for the scene it accompanies.
The irksome music–and, much more importantly, the second-half padding of the storyline–prevent Sea Raiders from surpassing Junior G-Men, despite the superiority of Raiders’ characterizations. However, Raiders–like G-Men–is a solid chapterplay; though it’s not one of Universal’s more memorable efforts, its fine assortment of aquatic exploits, its strong cast, and its interesting characters make it a pleasantly entertaining chapterplay.