Columbia, 13 Chapters, 1945. Starring Joan Woodbury, Kane Richmond, Syd Saylor, Wheeler Oakman, Jack Ingram, George Meeker, Joe Devlin, Ernie Adams, Anthony Warde, John Merton, William “Billy” Benedict.
Gangster Joe Heller (Wheeler Oakman) has double-crossed his associates after participating in a big payroll robbery–grabbing all the proceeds of the crime for himself and going into hiding. However, he’s soon cornered by Kruger (Jack Ingram), one of his former colleagues, who guns him down but fails to recover the payroll money. Daily Flash reporter Brenda Starr (Joan Woodbury) stumbles onto the murder scene and receives a cryptic coded note from the dying Heller; she promptly begins trying to solve the mystery of the missing loot, aided by her photographer Chuck Allen (Syd Saylor), but is repeatedly threatened by others equally interested in the loot’s location: Heller’s equally criminal twin brother Lew (Wheeler Oakman again), Kruger and his fellow-gangsters, and the man who gives the latter their orders–slick nightclub owner Frank Smith (George Meeker), the agent of a mysterious “big boss.” Police lieutenant Larry Farrell (Kane Richmond) tries to keep an eye on all these shady characters, while also trying to locate the purloined payroll and prevent Brenda’s nose for news from leading her into serious trouble.
Brenda Starr, Reporter (based on the comic strip by Dale Messick) was producer Sam Katzman’s first serial for Columbia; before signing on to supply that studio with chapterplays, he’d been turning out low-budget B-pictures for Monogram Pictures. Katzman retained Wallace Fox–who’d directed many of the producer’s “East Side Kids” Monogram mystery-comedies–to helm Brenda, and assigned Universal serial screenwriters Ande Lamb and George Plympton to write it; Lamb had also worked on many of Katzman’s Monogram features.
The structure of Brenda’s screenplay is in some ways similar to a contemporary Universal serial (no surprise, given the presence of Lamb and Plympton); like most Universal outings produced after 1944, it’s very heavy on dialogue, with characters spending a lot of time verbally recapping the plot or talking about what they’re going to do–but devoting very little time to actually doing anything. However, the search for stolen money that drives Brenda’s narrative is far less compelling than the complicated high-stakes espionage plots that made Universal serials like The Master Key and Secret Agent X-9 gripping in spite of their talkiness. Like the stolen-diamond storyline in the very similar Katzman effort Chick Carter, Detective, the hunt for the payroll in Brenda might have provided a moderately interesting basis for an hour-long Monogram feature, but it’s far too uninvolving to hold much interest over the course of an entire chapterplay. The payroll hunt is also too basic to furnish enough plot material for a serial; the need to make it last till the thirteenth chapter forces Plympton and Lamb to make Brenda more pointlessly and repetitively talky than even the weakest Universal serials. Wheeler Oakman’s Chapter Eight scheming session with Ernie Adams provides a particularly good example of the serial’s padded dialogue: Oakman’s character winds up repeating practically every line twice.
Above: Wheeler Oakman (right) engages in a rambling, time-killing monologue. Some excerpts: “I got a hunch I can put a finger on the guy that bumped off Vera Harvey….but I gotta get into the Pelican Club to do it…now, don’t get excited, Charlie, don’t get excited. One of Frank’s gang did for her, all right, but I don’t know which one now. Listen to me, Charlie, one of Frank’s gang took care of Vera all right, and if I can get into the Pelican I can prove which one did it.”
When the writers aren’t using protracted dialogue scenes to make sure the characters don’t locate the stolen money too soon, they’re focusing on a series of futile and extremely repetitious attempts by the Smith gang to do away with Brenda and Lew Heller. These attempts serve to distract everyone from the coded note that holds the key to the money’s location, which is almost completely forgotten after the serial’s first five episodes–until it’s brought back into the spotlight in the final episode, and decoded with such ridiculous ease (by a comic-relief character, to boot) that a viewer is likely to feel like shouting, “why’d it take you so long to figure that out?” The hazily-motivated murder of a nightclub singer in Chapter Three is used to pad the plot further, as is Lew Heller’s absurdly roundabout scheme to finger Kruger for this crime–which involves having a nightclub mind-reader go into a “trance” and denounce Kruger during her act. Ridiculously, police detective Larry Farrell immediately tries to seize Kruger on the strength of this extremely suspect “testimony”–the same Larry who, earlier in the serial, skeptically and smugly laughed off the singer’s report of a stolen car as a publicity stunt. The interminable subsequent scene in which Brenda watches eagerly as Zelda (the mind-reader ) scans a crystal ball and pretends to be trying hard to dredge up Kruger’s name is equally silly, since Zelda has already made up her mind to squeal on Kruger, and can’t seriously think that her evidence will seem more credible if it’s delivered in this mystic style.
Yet more padding is provided by allegedly comic interludes in which Brenda and Larry bicker about her nosiness and his habit of withholding information, Chuck bedevils Larry’s sergeant Tim, and Brenda’s editor apoplectically thunders at her and Chuck for getting into trouble. These scenes are supposed to be funny, but more often come off as abrasive–particularly the Brenda-Larry “banter,” which reaches a sneering and snappish low in the scene following the resolution of the Chapter Two cliffhanger. Fortunately, this bantering noticeably diminishes after Larry and Brenda call a truce midway through Chapter Five (following a labored scene that has him insisting that she and Chuck “cross their fingers” before promising to behave), although the tiresomely long-winded tirades by editor Walters continue throughout the serial, as does the bickering between Chuck and Tim. Even the humorous bits that actually are somewhat funny (like a couple of the editor’s quips) are weakened by the way in which they’re played; director Fox has his actors enact “comic” scenes in a broad and noisy style that recalls his East Side Kids films.
Humorous and non-humorous talk so effectively swamps Brenda Starr that very little time is left for action. The serial contains exactly three fistfights–a routine tussle between Jack Ingram and Wheeler Oakman in Chapter Seven, a brief but acceptable fight between Syd Saylor and Anthony Warde in Chapter Ten, and another fight–the best of the three–between Warde and Kane Richmond on a rooftop later in the same chapter. As for gun battles, there’s only a pair of them in Brenda–the one in the warehouse in Chapter Three, and the one in the garage in Chapter Five (a sequence annoyingly interrupted by a cutaway to a more static scene in Brenda’s apartment). About the only other noteworthy pieces of action are the short chase on the fire escape in Chapter Twelve, Brenda’s Chapter Eleven escape from the villains’ car and the ensuing foot chase (the tension of which is severely undermined by cutaways to other characters), a shorter and similar chase in Chapter Seven, and the Chapter Two scene that has a killer stalking Brenda in a warehouse and shoving a loading cart at her. None of these scenes are particularly striking (although the fire-escape chase and the warehouse scene are nicely shot by cameraman Ira Morgan); however, they all seem a little better than they are, since they provide such a welcome relief from the dialogue-heavy tedium that surrounds them.
The chapter endings in Brenda are about as light on action as the chapters themselves are. The “cliffhangers” of two episodes (Six and Nine) feature no threat more arresting than sudden entrances by gun-wielding thugs, while two other episodes (Four and Eight) end simply with shots being fired in darkened rooms; Chapter Eleven also concludes very weakly, with Brenda screaming in reaction to an off-camera gunshot. Other cliffhangers are idiotically contrived–the Chapter One ending, which has Chuck absent-mindedly lighting a match in a room after noticing that it’s full of gas–and others are solid in concept but given little editing buildup–like the mine-tunnel explosion in Chapter Seven, the Chapter Five car run-down ending, or the collapse of the warehouse loft at the close of Chapter Two. The best of the serial’s cliffhangers is undoubtedly the Chapter Ten one, which has the villains trapping Brenda in the gas-filled rear compartment of a car; her frantic pounding on the glass that separates her from the henchmen in the front seat, and the smilingly cold way in which they ignore her, gives the sequence an actual edge.
Above left: Jack Ingram and John Merton ignore Joan Woodbury as she suffocates in their gas-chamber-on-wheels at the end of Chapter Ten. Above right: Woodbury screams in reaction to off-screen shots, providing an exceptionally weak cliffhanger for Chapter Eleven.
Brenda’s action (such as it is) is confined to the Columbia lot, which provides the necessary urban streets, alleys, and tall buildings, along with some suburban houses and lawns, a couple of dirt roads, and some rural-looking fields. With dialogue scenes so prevalent, however, we see comparatively little of these exteriors–the characters instead spending more time conducting conversations in small offices or rather shabby apartments. The most lavish-looking of the serial’s interiors is the nightclub set representing Smith’s “Pelican Club,” which is generously populated by extras and chorus girls; the sequences taking place in the club–like the similar ones in the previously referenced Chick Carter–were obviously filmed in one session and scattered throughout the serial to give it a more expensive look. Fortunately, the Pelican sequences contain none of the dreadful full-scale production numbers featured in Carter (at least not in the extant print of the serial–see below); we hear part of a song and see fragments of a vaguely Latin American dance routine, but no more.
The strong cast of Brenda is its chief saving grace; though saddled with excessive dialogue and a director without serial experience, the chapterplay’s actors are too capable a lot to be completely submerged by such handicaps. The vivacious but somewhat hard-faced Joan Woodbury, the unofficial queen of Monogram’s B-pictures, lacks the movie-star looks of the comic-strip Brenda, but turns in a good performance nonetheless; she sometimes sounds far too harsh when bouncing supposed quips off of co-star Kane Richmond, but she still manages to keep her Brenda from turning into a stereotypically obnoxious and thoughtless girl-reporter character. When she argues with Richmond over scoops or inside information, she comes off as intently serious about her job instead of willfully contentious; she also reacts with convincing regret to the several deaths that occur during the course of the serial, and conveys some actual affection for Richmond’s Larry, Syd Saylor’s Chuck, and Lottie Harrison’s Cousin Abretha.
Kane Richmond receives second billing but has precious little to do as Larry Farrell; his character rarely gets a chance to initiate action or directly tangle with the villains, and is largely limited to fruitlessly questioning suspects, helping Brenda pull herself together after near-calamities, berating her for her reckless ways, and smilingly dismissing her investigative suggestions. Richmond displays his characteristic combination of self-assurance and quiet geniality when his character is conducting his law-enforcement duties, but is far too forcedly humorous in “lighter” scenes, alternately seeming excessively breezy and excessively flustered when required to engage in weakly-written bantering bouts. His natural likability keeps his characterization afloat, but it’s very frustrating to see one of the serial genre’s best leading men relegated to such a poorly-conceived and thankless role.
As photographer Chuck Allen, Syd Saylor actually has more screen time than Richmond does, accompanying Woodbury’s Brenda in most of the action. He plays things a bit more boisterously than in his Mascot serials, irritatingly mugging it up in several scenes–but never gets so cartoonishly rambunctious as to become unbearably annoying; he remains sober enough to be recognizable as a human being, and (aside from that Chapter One match-lighting incident) is not made to do anything unforgivably stupid. Joe Devlin is loudly pugnacious as detective-sergeant Timothy Aloysius Brown, Richmond’s aide and Saylor’s frequent foil; his blustering is not very funny, but–like Saylor’s antics–isn’t insufferable either; the two comics even manage to be mildly amusing at times, as during the Chapter Five adding-machine sequence.
As Frank Smith, George Meeker is suitably sarcastic when criticizing underachieving henchmen, and properly slick when deflecting the questions of the police and the press, but is never allowed to act authoritatively sinister enough to make a really satisfactory brains heavy–mainly because he defers to the unseen big boss whenever direct orders need to be given. This boss, like most Katzman mystery villains, is voiced by the actor who’s eventually revealed as the mastermind’s alter ego; the actor in question tries to conceal his identity by adopting a relaxed and affable tone that doesn’t really succeed as a vocal disguise–but does make the boss sound less threatening than almost any other serial heavy; his blandly jovial tone is incongruously reminiscent of Pete Smith, Art Gilmore, and other narrators of vintage comical/informational shorts. The “mystery” of the boss’s identity is as bland as the boss himself; the good guys remain ignorant of his very existence for most of the serial’s running time, and he’s only belatedly unmasked in an dully anticlimactic sequence that follows the almost equally dull climactic showdown.
The three henchmen who serve Meeker and his shadowy backer are a solidly nasty trio: Jack Ingram, John Merton, and Anthony Warde. Ingram, beginning his long association with Katzman’s serials, has the meatiest henchman role–receiving multiple opportunities to angrily talk back to his villainous superiors and gun people down in frighteningly cold and businesslike style. Warde is severely underused, serving as a scowling but mostly silent backup-man to Ingram; he’s finally spotlighted at the end of Chapter Nine (when he gets to do some of his trademark sneery gloating) but is killed off shortly thereafter. Merton is assigned the role of Meeker’s office assistant, and is thus mostly restricted to discussing strategies–but does get a few opportunities to take part in active villainy, as well as adopt an entertaining air of false joviality when trying to convince shrewd independent crook “Toothpick” Charlie to assist him.
Toothpick Charlie himself is played by Ernie Adams, who’s great fun to watch in the role; his colorfully shady underworld character forms alliances with practically all the serial’s heroes and villains at one time or another, and betrays practically all of them as well. Repeatedly chewing on a toothpick, regularly talking out of the side of his mouth, and consistently exuding an unflappably tough air that contrasts amusingly with his puny appearance, Adams easily steals all of his scenes. Wheeler Oakman is also quite enjoyable as Lew Heller–particularly during the mind-reading sequence in Chapter Eight, when he hides his rough-sounding big-city accent behind an over-theatrically suave voice. His oscillation between smirking smugness and cringing panic as situations pass in and out of his control is entertaining as well, although his advanced age makes his nervous pleading during his panicked moments (“Honest, Mr. Kruger”) seem so pathetic that one frequently winds up feeling more sorry for him than anything else. His befuddled and worried demeanor when explaining his plight to Brenda in Chapter Twelve has a similar effect; the same goes for his nervousness when he’s portraying the luckless Joe Heller in the serial’s opening sequence.
Billy Benedict makes his final serial appearance as the newspaper copy-boy Pesky, whose habit of getting everything from street addresses to lunch orders backwards causes no end of confusion for other characters. This confusion is so easily preventable that it comes off as irksome instead of funny; characters who are well-aware of this quirk of Pesky’s still keep stupidly entrusting him with important messages. The running gag about his backwardness is cleverly used for an impromptu coded phone interchange in Chapter Six, however, while his “cart-before-the-horse mind” also plays a key part in the final chapter. Benedict’s acting in this absurd role is pleasantly droll, even if the confusion he gives rise to is not; he adopts an owlish, confident, and Stan-Laurel-like bearing that makes it seem as if Pesky is completely unaware of his mental eccentricities and instead regards the rest of the world as a little off-centered.
The grotesquely overweight Frank Jaquet pompously frets and fumes as Brenda’s editor, while the similarly corpulent Lottie Harrison provides yet more comic relief as Brenda’s cousin and roommate Abretha–who spends most of her time either enthusing about food or ditheringly worrying about her trouble-hunting relative. Former B-western leading lady Marion Burns (Kane Richmond’s real-life wife) is lively in the role of the duplicitous spiritualist Zelda, affecting an outrageous French accent when performing her mind-reading act and switching to a crafty and irritably hard-boiled manner when she realizes her sneaky activities have placed her in danger. Cay Forester plays the ill-fated nightclub singer Vera Harvey, and gets to deliver the partial song mentioned above.
Brenda Starr, Reporter spent over sixty years as a “lost” serial, not receiving a post-1945 public screening until it was shown at the fan event “Serial Fest” in 2006–and not coming out on commercial DVD until 2011. Because of its long unavailability and the understandable jubilation attendant upon its rediscovery, it hasn’t been as uniformly or as harshly criticized as other early Katzman Columbias like Who’s Guilty, Son of the Guardsman, Hop Harrigan, and Chick Carter, Detective have been. However, it’s fully as listless as those disappointing efforts; though its cast is stronger overall than those of Guilty, Guardsman, or Harrigan, this strength is offset by Brenda’s more complete lack of action. Its closest relative is Chick Carter, with which (as we’ve seen) it shares many plotting similarities; like that chapterplay, it’s ultimately sunk by a thin, talky, uninteresting, and nearly action-free screenplay, despite a solid acting lineup of B-movie and serial veterans.
A note about prints: One of the reasons for Brenda Starr, Reporter’s long sojourn in limbo was the fact that the only extant print had begun to suffer decomposition. VCI Entertainment, the leading purveyor of serial DVDs, finally put out what remained of the serial on home video; though most of it was in pretty good condition, all things considered, Chapter 3 was missing its second reel of sound, while nothing remained of Chapter Four but its first reel of sound. The VCI DVD provides liner notes that explain what was going on in the scenes where sound, picture, or both are missing, although given Brenda’s padded script it’s fairly easy to divine what’s going on even without consulting the notes. One missing sequence from the second half of Chapter Four is not described in the notes, however–a nightclub show featuring a performing horse called Pansy, whom we hear introduced on the extant soundtrack just before it cuts out; the riddle of whether this was a real equine or, as seems more likely, a pair of chorus girls performing a musical number in a horse costume, will probably remain unsolved–but, given the quality of the musical numbers in Chick Carter, I’m not that curious to see “Pansy’s” act in Brenda Starr.