Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1946. Starring William Bakewell, Sumner Getchell, John Merton, Buzz Henry, Jennifer Holt, Wheeler Oakman, Ernie Adams, Emmett Vogan, Peter Michael, Jim Diehl, Charles King, Claire James, Jack Ingram.
Mr. Arnold (Emmett Vogan), owner of the Aviation Finance company, hires freelance pilot Hop Harrigan (William Bakewell) to transport a secretive and eccentric scientist Dr. Tobor (John Merton) to a hidden mountain laboratory. It seems that Tobor, with Arnold’s financial backing, has discovered and harnessed a new energy source of tremendous power–and has also attracted the attention of a mysterious criminal called the Chief Pilot. Hop is soon forced to battle the Chief Pilot’s henchmen in order to keep Tobor’s discovery from falling into the wrong hands; he must also cope with the obstructive and increasingly paranoid behavior of Tobor himself.
Originally the star of a backup feature in DC’s All-American Comics title, the Hop Harrigan character went on to become the hero of a popular and fondly-remembered ABC/Mutual radio series. Hop’s sole film vehicle, the chapterplay Hop Harrigan, was much less successful than his venture onto the airwaves–since it was turned out by Sam Katzman during his first three years as Columbia’s serial producer, and suffered from the serious flaws common to most Columbia cliffhanging efforts from that dark era.
Above: An apparently tense aerial rescue turns out to be a mere rehearsal that concludes with comedy-relief mechanic Sumner Getchell (far right) falling into a mud puddle as Jennifer Holt, Buzz Henry, and William Bakewell (latter two behind plane) laugh. This opening sequence foreshadows the generally disappointing serial to follow.
Unlike the scripts of contemporary Katzman debacles Brenda Starr, Who’s Guilty, and Chick Carter–all of which featured hour-long B-mystery plotlines stretched painfully to fill chapterplay plotting requirements–the screenplay of Hop Harrigan contains the raw material for a respectable serial; the struggle for control of a powerful new energy source makes a more interesting source of conflict than the mundane capers in the aforementioned serials. This struggle also boasts a varied collection of participants–Hop and his friends, the Chief Pilot’s gang, the enigmatic Ballard (a mysterious “playboy” bent on acquiring Tobor’s invention), and the unpredictable Tobor himself; the four-way tug-of-war between these adversaries could have made for an entertaining if somewhat repetitious serial–but didn’t.
Though serviceable in outline, Harrigan‘s screenplay is faulty in several particulars. Writers George Plympton and Ande Lamb make their ostensible hero Hop seem far too passive and far too uninvolved in his adventure; he continually takes time out from his clashes with the villains to consult with Arnold, and regularly defers to the cautious tycoon’s wishes instead of taking charge of situations himself (a realistic employer-employee relationship, perhaps, but not what we want to see in a serial). He also comes off as far too willing to let his friends–comic sidekick Tank, kid sidekick Jackie, and heroine Gail–undertake dangerous jobs while he lingers calmly on the sidelines. For example, when Gail calls him on the radio and tells him that Ballard (whom she’s been trailing) has taken her car keys, Hop doesn’t rush out to assist her in his plane, or even try to pinpoint her location; instead, he gives her hot-wiring instructions that allow her to continue on the suspect’s trail, and then sits by his radio waiting for further reports. Even worse is the unbelievably ill-advised scene in which Hop sends Jackie to distract some armed villains by imitating a coyote–and then gets alarmed when Tank suggests that the youngster might get shot (he almost does, too).
The Chief Pilot is even more passive than Hop, and ranks as perhaps the most forgettable mystery villain in serial history. A shadow on the wall who occasionally appears to issue brief orders via radio, the Pilot never directly interacts with any of the other characters, disappears for chapters at a time, and is unmasked in a pair of scenes that feel like afterthoughts. The villain’s true identity is actually something of a surprise, but since the Pilot is so nebulous a presence, the revelation has very little impact; the principal Pilot “suspects” (Arnold’s board of directors) are also so ephemeral that it takes the viewer a while to even realize that they are suspects. Another potentially interesting plot thread, the rapport that starts to develop between Jackie (who’s fascinated by the science of aeronautics) and Dr. Tobor (who treats the boy as a kindred spirit and shows him a respect he denies everyone else), is also left dangling by the writers; after taking some pains to establish the characters’ budding friendship, they fail to have it play any significant part in the plot, and eventually forget all about it.
Like most early Katzman serials, Harrigan is filled with pace-killing padding; director Derwin Abrahams repeatedly wastes screen time on scenes of characters walking, driving, or flying around at painfully slow speeds. This padded plodding even intrudes into Hop’s climactic scene, and kills any suspense the sequence might have had: the serial’s finale has Hop, Tank, Ballard, and a sheriff supposedly racing the clock, in order to stop Tobor from blowing up the entire world–but their “race” is depicted through a series of shots that show them trudging lethargically up an easily-ascendable hillside, moving with all the swiftness and determination of middle-aged golfers in Florida. Less laughable, but equally tiresome, are irrelevant and needlessly prolonged scenes like the laborious post-robbery cleanup in Chapter Two, Hop and Tank’s slow and careful Chapter Five efforts to sneak up on a hideout that proves to be abandoned, and the regular conferences at Arnold’s office (during which the characters painstakingly tell each other about events we’ve already seen). While sequences like these are milked tediously, scenes that could have been exciting take place off camera–like the last-chapter explosion of Tobor’s experimental plane, which is excitedly described by Hop but is never shown (thus saving the economically-minded Katzman from having to shell out for miniature work).
The slow pace of Harrigan allows viewers plenty of time to notice the essential repetitiveness of the plot, which quickly resolves itself into a marathon hunt for Tobor–who’s repeatedly kidnapped, and repeatedly escapes either through the intervention of the protagonists or (more frequently) through his own ingenuity. The serial’s serious lack of action emphasizes this plot repetition even more; captures, rescues, and escapes can be very enjoyable if they gives rise to an interesting variety of action scenes, but when they don’t, they simply become tedious. Not counting a few quick tackles and punches, there are only four fistfights in Harrigan–only one of which (the short grapple in the truck cab in Chapter Eight) involves the hero. Two of the others (in Chapters Seven and Thirteen) have the comic sidekick battling henchmen, in respectably energetic scenes that are interrupted by cutaways to the hero (who in both instances calmly tries to sneak into the villains’ hideout while his friend is battling desperately for his life). The fourth fight is between Ballard and the Chief Pilot’s men in Chapter Nine; Eddie Parker, Bud Geary, (both of whom have bits as henchmen) and George DeNormand (who can be spotted doubling Sumner Getchell in the Chapter Thirteen fight) handle what little stuntwork is required in these scenes.
Gunfights are uncommon in Harrigan, too, since the heroes (foolhardily) fail to carry guns half the time; the only protracted bit of gunplay is the static battle at the airport in Chapter Ten, which has Hop, Tank, and Jackie taking comically cramped cover inside a packing crate while Hop returns the villains’ fire. There’s not much death-defying aerial action in Harrigan either, despite the serial’s subtitle (“America’s Ace of the Airways”); planes are used for little besides transport and surveillance. The first-chapter rescue sequence, in which Hop must climb to the top of his own plane in order to fix Arnold’s damaged landing gear, is moderately exciting, though diminished by the fact that we only see Hop performing his feat in medium shot against a process screen; a Republic or Universal serial would have used stock footage, stuntwork, or a dummy to give us at least one clear shot of the hero standing on the plane. However, this sequence is still preferable to the airborne rescue scene in Chapter Thirteen, during which Hop spends considerable time in slowly climbing (all in medium close-ups) along his plane’s wing, in hopes of jumping to an endangered plane piloted by the inexperienced Jackie–and then clambers back into his own aircraft, proclaiming that the transfer would be too risky; he subsequently decides to talk Jackie down instead. This scene cheaply consumes screen time (no doubt to the pleasure of Katzman), but also leaves an unfortunate impression that the hero has chickened out.
Jackie’s aerial escape from Tobor’s mountain lair in Chapter Twelve (which sets up the above-mentioned plane “rescue”) is one of the few aerial sequences in the serial that’s visually exciting, featuring as it does some impressive shots of the towering mountains that the plane must circumnavigate; the episode’s cliffhanger, which has the plane hitting one of the peaks and going into a spin, is good too–but is resolved by a blatant cheat in the following episode. Three other chapters (One, Two, and Eleven) end with plane-in-trouble cliffhangers too; in all of these sequences, the good guys’ planes start acting up in midair but never actually crash, unlike the aircraft in other aviation serials. This expedient makes the airborne cliffhangers rather flat, but it also (like the off-camera destruction of Tobor’s plane) does away with the need for miniature work.
Most of the grounded chapter endings tend to be either abrupt or weak, among them the hazily-resolved ray-gun zapping in Chapter Five, the Chapter Six car crash in a haystack (yes, really), and the apparent shootings of Tank in Chapter Seven and Hop in Chapter Thirteen. Some of the cliffhangers are not only routine, but clumsily edited as well: Chapter Four concludes with Jackie being run down by a car, but also shows him ducking safely behind a knoll of gravel to escape before the chapter cuts off–while the ending to Chapter Nine has Arnold being apparently shot, but makes it clear he’s only wounded by showing him clutching his arm; this scene also continues beyond the obvious cut-off point, and shows Arnold’s mysterious assailant being shot off the side of a building–creating the impression that the would-be killer is the officially-imperiled character.
Above left: Jackie dives safely into cover, negating the Chapter Four cliffhanger. Above right: A car driven by Tank and Gail is about to hit a haystack and (inexplicably) set it afire for the Chapter Six cliffhanger.
Most of the alleged action in Harrigan takes place along stretches of desert road, at Hop’s small airport headquarters, within Tobor’s cave laboratory, and inside various offices; it’s the desert locations (many of them Arizonan) that dominate the serial, which at least makes Harrigan‘s scenery a little more interesting than the backlot city streets that provided the main setting for contemporary Columbia chapterplays like Chick Carter or Brenda Starr.
The stuffily dignified William Bakewell is badly miscast in Harrigan’s title role, looking and sounding far too effete and pompous to be believable as an eager daredevil. He comes off as smugly condescending (instead of breezily good-natured) when bantering with his sidekicks, irritably flustered (instead of gravely thoughtful) when confronted with mysteries, and cringingly terror-stricken (instead of grimly alarmed) when facing hazards. His performance, combined with the writers’ frequently poor handling of his character (already referenced), makes Hop seem remarkably unheroic overall.
As Hop’s mechanic sidekick Tank Tinker, Sumner Getchell is not any more likable than Bakewell; the portly actor managed to avoid becoming irksome as the comedy relief in Adventures of Frank Merriwell, but crosses the line into obnoxiousness here. Tank on the radio show was occasionally thick-witted, but tough and capable; Getchell’s Tank, on the other hand, spends most of his screen time either pining for food, whining annoyingly over dangers and inconveniences, or acting so blithely brainless that one wonders if he could safely perform maintenance on a bicycle, let alone an airplane.
As aspiring pilot Jackie Nolan, child actor (and future stuntman) Buzz Henry is the most dynamic of the serial’s protagonists. He conveys an inquisitive alertness and a cheerful self-confidence that makes him seem a great deal more capable and more appealing than either Bakewell or Getchell; his nervous but excited facial expressions as he flies the plane in Chapters Twelve and Thirteen are also excellent. As Jackie’s sister Gail (the owner of the small airfield where Hop hangars his plane), Jennifer Holt is exceptionally attractive, but is given very little to do; she spends most of her time hanging around the airfield office, and only occasionally gets involved in the plot. A good actress as well as a beautiful one, she does a fine job of displaying affection and concern for Henry, although at times her performance is so muted that she often comes off as (understandably) bored–as when she disinterestedly leans against the wall and fiddles with her hair while Henry eagerly tries to devise an escape from the closet in which they’re both locked.
John Merton, sporting a shaved head, a sinister-looking moustache, and an intimidating set of eyebrows, easily steals the show as the unstable Dr. Tobor, the single most distinctive character in Harrigan. Arrogant and paranoid from his first scene, Tobor becomes more and more demented as the serial progresses, until he finally decides to destroy all his enemies, both real and imagined; his angry speech on this subject in Chapter Fourteen is priceless. Merton plays this scene (and all his others) to the hilt, snarling out his lines with harsh and haughty vigor–and enlivening the serial immeasurably every time he’s on screen. Venerable heavy Wheeler Oakman is also a lot of fun as the mysterious Ballard; his suave and roguish geniality plays well off of Merton’s bristling ferocity. Ernie Adams, another old pro, is similarly entertaining as Tobor’s fanatically loyal assistant Retner–who’s quietly mousy when obeying Tobor’s orders, but becomes shrilly fierce when confronting the henchmen that have endangered his beloved master.
Familiar character player Emmett Vogan is his usual brisk and businesslike self as Mr. Arnold; former Miss America contender Claire James (also seen in Katzman’s Jack Armstrong) makes several brief appearances as his rather flirtatious daughter. Peter Michael is properly urbane-looking as Arnold’s secretary Craven, a secret ally of the Chief Pilot’s–but is so low-key as to seem almost somnambulistic at times. The trio of elderly and rather self-important actors who make up Arnold’s board of directors are unfamiliar to me, as is the girl who portrays Arnold’s attractive receptionist. The board members would prove hard to recognize, even if familiar; in another cost-saving move, director Abrahams films virtually all the scenes at Arnold’s office in medium-to-long shots, eschewing close-ups entirely and making the office sequences seem even duller than they are.
Tiny Brauer plays Hunter, the crooked air-freighter who gives orders to the Chief Pilot’s men; he delivers a credibly thuggish but fairly bland performance. The principal supporting henchmen–Charles King, Anthony Warde, Jim Diehl, and Terry Frost–are a more interesting lot, although Frost is almost completely relegated to backup duties. Warde only has a few more individualized moments of villainy than Frost does, while Diehl and King fare a little better, both of them serving as pack leader at different times. King in particular has some good bits; his sarcastically deadpan delivery makes his wisecracks at the expense of Diehl and Sumner Getchell seem fairly amusing. Former child actor Jackie Moran (Buster Crabbe’s sidekick in Buck Rogers) is fine as the tech-savvy henchman who operates the villains’ plane-stopping ray, affecting a preoccupied air well-suited to the role.
Jack Ingram surprisingly turns up on the right side of the law as Lieutenant Riley, a capable police detective who becomes prominent in the later chapters and succeeds in unmasking Craven and the Chief Pilot almost single-handedly; the long-winded quasi-Sherlockian speech in which Riley explains his deductions was obviously intended as more padding–but it is entertaining to watch Ingram deliver the uncharacteristic dialogue in his coolly complacent style. Jack Rockwell pops up briefly as a sheriff, and minor henchman roles are played by stuntman Eddie Parker, a weaselly-looking actor named Bobby Stone, and top-notch heavy Bud Geary–who sadly has very little to do in his final serial appearance.
Hop Harrigan has such a staggering array of shortcomings that it’s only made watchable at all by some of its supporting performances (particularly Merton’s). However, these performances can’t dispel the numbing sense of boredom generated by mediocre cliffhangers, an unimpressive hero, an unfunny sidekick, a weak mystery villain, a slow pace, and an absence of action. As mentioned, Harrigan is remarkably free of plane wrecks, but the serial itself definitely qualifies as a wreck of some kind.
Above: John Merton orders the blind-flying Sumner Getchell and William Bakewell to drive directly towards a mountain at the end of Chapter One of Hop Harrigan; the terrified “heroes” avoid disaster, but the viewers don’t.