Gangster Nick Pollo (George Meeker) is trying to force nightclub owner Joe Carney to fork over his valuable Blue Diamond in payment of a fifty-thousand-dollar debt, but Carney is determined to pay off his creditor without losing the stone. He makes it appear that the diamond has been stolen, planning to settle his debts with the insurance money he’ll collect for his “loss”–but this scheme goes awry when the gem disappears for real. The theft of the diamond quickly sets multiple investigations and cover-ups in motion, and eventually leads to several murders and attempted murders–creating plenty of work for police lieutenant Chick Carter (Lyle Talbot).
Like some of producer Sam Katzman’s other early Columbia chapterplays, Chick Carter, Detective takes a mundane storyline that might have worked well enough in one of Katzman’s early-1940s Monogram B-films and mercilessly stretches it to fill fifteen chapters. After a few actual plot twists in the early episodes–the revelation that the faked robbery has turned into a real one, the murder of insurance detective Dan Rankin–the serial’s storyline settles down into an interminably prolonged hunt for the Blue Diamond and Rankin’s killer. Writers George Plympton and Harry Fraser achieve this prolongation chiefly by devoting sizable portions of each episode to repetitive dialogue scenes in which various characters–Carney, Pollo, Carter, Rankin, nightclub singer Sherry Marvin–make accusations, ask questions, refuse to answer questions, or remind each other of plot points that the audience already knows. The inexplicable actions of certain characters–principally Sherry and the mysterious Ellen Dale–also serves to keep the wheels of the narrative spinning; as the serial progresses, the circular conversations and the mystifying behavior have such a befuddling effect that it becomes very difficult to keep track of the Blue Diamond’s whereabouts.
It’s also hard to care very much about the Diamond’s whereabouts–or its ultimate disposal; the serial’s protagonists have no stake in its recovery aside from preventing Carney’s insurance fraud, which doesn’t make the search for it a particularly gripping one. Plympton and Fraser do give Carter a more compelling reason for tackling the diamond case by connecting it to the Rankin murder, but though they do have Carter periodically reiterate his determination to track down Rankin’s killer, his quest fails to make the story seem that much more involving–partly because Carter spends too much time suspecting Carney’s henchman Mack of the crime (while the audience knows all along that Pollo’s henchman Vasky did the deed), but mostly because Carter, despite being the titular character, isn’t really the serial’s central figure. He remains on the plot’s sidelines most of the time, monitoring the activities of Vasky, Mack, Ellen Dale, and reporters Spud and Rusty; while he occasionally takes a direct hand in the action himself (and takes charge of things in the final chapter), he simply doesn’t have enough screen time to be considered the serial’s hero, or to get the audience involved in his manhunt.
None of the other protagonists of Carter qualify as a full-fledged hero either; Dan Rankin, Ellen Dale, and reporter Rusty Farrell assume the mantle of central figure at different times, but never on a consistent basis. The only non-villainous character who remains firmly at the center of the action throughout is the bumbling photographer Spud Warner; he’s also involved in more of the cliffhangers than anyone else, but is hardly the hero type–spending most of his screen time being threatened, mocked, or bamboozled by the other characters. The serial is nearly as deficient in standard villainy as it is in standard heroics; Pollo and Carney both try to avoid ordering any direct act of violence against the good guys, leaving practically all the serial’s menace to be carried single-handed by Vasky, who ignores the pleas of his cautious bosses and continually attempts to do away with everyone who crosses his path, almost always without the assistance of any backup henchmen. The writers’ reliance on this overworked villain is so heavy that, in one of the only chapter-ending sequences in which he isn’t present, they’re forced to conjure up a pair of outrageously violent garbage-men (and a load of explosives that they’ve mistakenly collected) to provide an absurd threat for Rusty and Spud to face while searching the city dump.
Between the abundance of dialogue, the failure to focus on a central protagonist, and the diffident chief villains, the serial is almost completely deprived of physical action; there are several quick punchings, shootings, and sluggings throughout the serial, but only a few action sequences that extend for more than a few seconds–the exchange of shots and the brief chase on the fire-escape and roof of Pollo’s apartment in Chapter Two, the brawl with the killer garbage-men in Chapter Six, the slightly clumsy-looking but reasonably well-done fight at the nightclub in Chapter Eight, the short gunfight in Chapter Eleven, and the excellent chase and fight at the rock-crushing plant in Chapter Twelve (the only piece of Carter’s action that could actually be called memorable). Another potentially good action scene, the showdown between Carter and Vasky in the darkened nightclub in Chapter Fifteen, is ruined by the swiftness with which it ends (in order to allow for another dialogue session) and by the decision to have it take place off-camera. Eddie Parker and George DeNormand handle what little stuntwork the serial requires.
Carter’s locations include the rural roads and hills of the French Ranch area, the aforementioned garbage dump and rock-crushing plant, and the city streets of the Columbia backlot. Carney’s nightclub, the backdrop to a good portion of the “action,” is the most spacious of the serial’s interiors (the others consisting principally of apartments and offices), and is more heavily populated with extras that one would expect in a Katzman production–at least in the opening sequence, in which director Derwin Abrahams neatly pans through crowds of dancers as Mack walks towards Carney’s office; this scene seems deliberately designed to make the serial look “classier” to prospective exhibitors. Subsequent visits to the nightclub tend to be made when the establishment is closed for the day, but the crowds do reappear occasionally in later episodes–although they’re never again shown off so elaborately. Chapter One’s large-scale nightclub musical number was also probably intended to give the serial additional production classiness–though “classy” is hardly the adjective I’d apply to the sequence in question, which involves prancing mini-skirted chorus girls and a brassy-sounding song with atrocious lyrics called “I’m Gonna Roll Me a Snowball.” The snowball number is reprised with only slightly less fanfare in two subsequent episodes, while two other songs (somewhat less lousy) are featured in other sequences.
Above: “I’m gonna roll me a snowball that’s so nice and so big, so round, so firm, so fat like a pig.” The author of this deathless lyric isn’t listed in the serial’s credits, probably for fear of reprisals.
The cliffhanger endings in Carter are more than a bit repetitive, an inordinate number of them involving car-crashes brought about by Vasky’s incorrigible habit of leaping into vehicles and assaulting their drivers (examples including the cliffhangers of Chapters One, Three, Five, and Eleven; Chapter Seven also ends this way, though without Vasky involved). Except in the case of the Chapter Three ending, the victims simply survive these wrecks; other cliffhangers, like Spud’s fall into an industrial pond, his creaming by a truck, and his encounter with explosive garbage are also resolved in live-through-it style. Other cliffhangers–like the one that has Vasky swinging a chair at Chick and hitting an electrical switchboard, and the one that has Vasky (!) falling from a catwalk after a fight with Chick– are truly strange; judging from pressbook synopses, both sequences were supposed to present Chick as the imperiled character, but were apparently bungled in the staging or editing and not considered worth reshooting. The serial’s best cliffhanger overall is the Chapter Nine one, which has Mack trying to run down Ellen Dale with a car in a highway tunnel; though the sequence is given insufficient buildup, director Abrahams’ use of lighting and closeups makes it fairly exciting.
Though assigned reams of meaningless dialogue (and flat and dimensionless characters), most of the actors in Carter handle their roles with a degree of professionalism that keeps the serial from ever quite descending to the ninth level of boredom. The underused Lyle Talbot is dignified, shrewd, and authoritative as Chick Carter, and makes the viewer wish that he had much more to do; his wryly sarcastic reactions to suspects or pesky reporters are also good, as are his quietly grim reiterations of his desire to nail Dan Rankin’s murderer. Douglas Fowley, a first-rate heavy and character player in many features and television shows, plays his stereotypical “wise-guy reporter” character with plenty of energy and comes off as both tough and savvy; however, though he figures as Carter’s acting hero several times in the serial’s first half, he’s shoved almost completely into the background in the second half–a disappointing waste of a fine actor who, unlike Talbot, made no other serial appearances.
Eddie Acuff as the brash but put-upon Spud is forced to play a more dull-witted and fumbling character than in any of his other chapterplays–but keeps his griping, babbling, and fretting as low-key as possible, and comes off as humanly flustered and awkward instead of sub-humanly stupid in most of his scenes. Though her character’s actions are irritatingly confusing, Pamela Blake does quite a good job as Ellen Dale, maintaining an enigmatic, brisk, and coolly intelligent demeanor without seeming unlikable (unlike Amelita Ward in a similar role in Who’s Guilty). Julie Gibson, as the shady songstress Sherry Marvin, turns in a much weaker performance, delivering almost all her lines in the same half-puzzled, half-tired voice; the only scenes in which she displays any liveliness are her various musical numbers.
George Meeker, a seasoned portrayer of slick underworld types, is typically smug and reptilian as Nick Pollo, although he’s only permitted to be overtly menacing in one fleeting scene, and spends most of his screen time calmly pestering either Julie Gibson or Charles King about the missing diamond. King, for his part, is rather amusing as the harried Joe Carney (particularly when reacting to the influx of new “employees” at his nightclub in Chapter Seven), but completely non-threatening; the glumness and befuddlement he expresses over the spiraling results of his initial crime make him seem more sympathetic than anything else.
As Vasky, Leonard Penn makes his serial debut and delivers the first of many excellent chapterplay performances–using his harshly resonant voice to give plenty of force to threats and commands, brusquely dismissing the warnings of the more careful Meeker, and exuding a quietly arrogant self-confidence that makes his murderous character seem very formidable. Jack Ingram, as King’s lieutenant Mack, is his usual cynically gruff self–but cedes almost all active henchman duties to Penn’s Vasky, and gets to little besides confer with King, occasionally snarl at Penn, and (after becoming a murder suspect) dodge the police.
Robert Elliott is likably cagey and colorful as the laid-back but astute Dan Rankin; however, he’s too portly and elderly to be entirely convincing when called on to perform standard private-eye heroics–like knocking out a gunman and relieving him of his weapon. The gunman whom he thus disarms (Pollo’s secretary/bodyguard “Creeper”) is at least a diminutive one, though–being played by none other than Frankie Darro in his final serial appearance. Darro is more or less wasted in this part, serving principally as an occasional sounding board in dialogue scenes with Meeker and Penn, but does give an entertainingly lively turn to his lines–and even comes off as rather heroic when he feistily but foolhardily tackles Penn in the final chapter.
Eddie Parker has a good-sized background role as Carter’s chief assistant; Kermit Maynard and Jim Diehl have much smaller roles as other police detectives. Stanley Blystone and Frank Ellis pop up as policemen, Ernie Adams as a night watchman, Zon Murray as a garbage-man, and Joel Friedkin as a diamond expert. Carter wouldn’t be a Columbia serial if there weren’t a few unidentified and unfamiliar faces in the cast; here, the “mystery” actors are the portrayers of the acerbic newspaper editor, the newspaper copy-boy, Chapter Seven’s freelance stick-up man, and the underworld character Alley Charlie.
Chick Carter, Detective isn’t the worst of Katzman’s generally dreadful early Columbia serials; it’s not as embarrassingly cheap-looking as Son of the Guardsman, or as tiresomely obnoxious as Who’s Guilty, and its cast is a pretty good one. However, there’s little else to be said in its favor; its severe lack of action and its padded, almost completely uninteresting script make it a stupefyingly dull serial.
A note on the source material, courtesy of Raymond William Stedman’s The Movie Serial Companion, Book 2: Chickering “Chick” Carter was famed dime-novel sleuth Nick Carter’s adopted son, who starred in his own series of boy-detective stories; the serial under discussion was originally crafted as a vehicle for Nick Carter himself, but Katzman found that the rights to the less-famous Chick Carter name were more affordable–and wound up using little but said name in his “adaptation” of young Chick’s adventures.