“Ace” Holden (Billy Halop), then son of a California junkyard proprietor, drives a scrap-collecting truck for his dad but is studying to become a pilot; his brother Eddie (Gene Reynolds) is also interested in aeronautics, and has been working assiduously to develop a muffler that can be fitted to an airplane engine. Only a few moments after Eddie perfects it, this muffler is stolen by Araka (Turhan Bey) and other agents of the Black Dragon, a Japanese sabotage and espionage ring that’s operating in the Los Angeles area; the muffler is destroyed when this robbery goes awry, leading the Black Dragon’s leader, the Baron (Lionel Atwill) to order Eddie’s kidnapping in hopes of forcing him to rebuild the muffler. Ace and his roughneck friends “Bolt” (Huntz Hall), “Stick” (Gabriel Dell), and “Greaseball” (Bernard Punsly) initially try to deal with the Black Dragon agents on their own–but eventually join forces with Junior G-Man Jerry Markham (Frank Albertson) and state police detective Don Ames (Richard Lane), after realizing that they’re dealing not just with invention-grabbing thugs but with foreign enemies bent on sabotaging America’s defense systems. However, neither the boys nor the police are aware of the Baron’s ultimate goal: a mass, state-wide armed assault that’s scheduled for the 7th of December, and is to be synchronized with a surprise Japanese military attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.
The third and last of Universal’s Dead End Kids chapterplays, Junior G-Men of the Air was also the first Universal serial with an explicit World War Two theme. It seems likely, however, that it was originally written as a pre-war “preparedness” chapterplay much like the first two Dead End Kids serials (Junior G-Men and Sea Raiders), only to be hastily and incompletely revised after Pearl Harbor–judging from the incongruously American names (Monk, Beal) sported by some of the supposedly Japanese heavies, the rather generic tone of many of Don Ames’ frequent warnings about “subversives,” and the comparative infrequency with which the villains’ Japanese allegiance is referenced (both by the heroes and by the villains themselves). The serial’s finished screenplay (by Griffin Jay, Paul Huston, George Plympton, and Brenda Weisberg) still contains its share of propagandistic plugs for the US Government and vehement denunciations of its enemies, but the propaganda is a little less pervasive and heavy-handed than in many of Universal’s subsequent wartime serials–save during the stentorian voiceovers that accompany the opening credits of each chapter; these narrations are not only bombastically over-the-top, but also frustratingly drown out much of the unusually rousing stock-music piece that serves as the serial’s main theme.
Above: The shadows of our heroes (Billy Halop and Frank Albertson) blot out the Japanese rising-sun emblem on the stairs to the villains’ hideout, in a bit of subtle visual propaganda more effective than some of the verbal propaganda sprinkled throughout the serial.
The storyline of Junior G-Men of the Air is structured fairly well; the villains’ variegated sabotage schemes (attacks on warehouses, oil fields, dams, etc.) keep it from seeming too repetitious, while Ace’s fight to protect Eddie and the airplane muffler from the spies provides a compelling connecting thread on which to string the episodic clashes with the saboteurs. The screenplay also wastes less time on the “comic” hooliganism of the Dead End Kids than Junior G-Men or even Sea Raiders did; though the kids subject their obnoxious acquaintance “Double-Face” to some (well-deserved) ill-treatment, and interact with each other in typically noisy and rough-hewn style, they don’t harass innocent bystanders or get into repeated clashes with the police. However, this abstention from law-breaking makes Ace’s initial hostility towards “cops” and his reluctance to accept their help seem inexplicable; in Junior G-Men, the boys were basically petty criminals, while in Sea Raiders they were wrongfully suspected of grand larceny by a bumbling police detective–which made their refusal to trust the authorities seem logical in both serials. Here, no clue is given as to why Ace–who seems fairly responsible in most respects–loathes lawmen; it would seem that the writers simply regarded such an antipathy as a basic plot requirement for a Dead End Kids serial, and shoehorned it in without realizing they hadn’t provided a rationale for it.
Like Junior G-Men, Junior G-Men of the Air allows its climactic action to unfold over the space of its last three chapters, instead of crowding its finale into a single episode; Ace finds the Baron’s hideout and rescues Eddie in Chapter Ten, leaving room for the good guys’ assault on the hideout to play out at unhurried length in Chapters Eleven and Twelve. This final assault includes a full-fledged battle between National Guardsmen and Black Dragon agents–a sequence that makes frequent and obvious use of stock footage, but incorporates it into the new footage with reasonable smoothness. This battle serves as a much stronger finish than the mass fistfight at the conclusion of Junior G-Men, although it could have been more impressive had it been a little tougher; several Dragon agents are shot during the conflict, but not a single Guardsman is seen to bite the dust–which makes the villains seem rather less formidable than they should. One suspects that the battle was staged in this fashion for propagandistic purposes, to show that America’s troops can take out the countries’ foes without breaking a sweat.
The large-scale fight in the final chapter is accompanied by a smaller-scaled but well-staged shootout between the main heroes and the chief Black Dragon agents in the passage leading to the Baron’s headquarters; the serial’s other action scenes center mostly around fistfights, chases, or aviation. The stuntwork of Ken Terrell (who doubles for star Billy Halop) helps to make the fights (most of them relatively brief) enjoyably lively–particularly the Chapter Six clash inside the warehouse, the Chapter Seven lab fight, and Chapter Nine’s fight at the oil field. The most distinctive fight scene, however, is the Chapter Four one that takes place inside the storm drain: it’s depicted almost entirely through a series of quick cuts, the camera continually jumping from one pair of combatants to another and creating a sense of mounting frenzy that serves as an admirable buildup to the cliffhanger that follows (a gas explosion). One wonders if the unusual approach to this scene was chosen by one of the directors (Ray Taylor and Lewis Collins), the cameraman (William Sickner), or one of the editors (Alvin Todd, Paul Landres, Louis Sackin, and Edgar Zane).
The serial’s various vehicular chases (most of them involving Ace’s ramshackle and distinctive junk-collecting truck) are filmed on Universal’s city-street backlot and on various San Fernando Valley roads; the lengthiest and best of these scenes are the Chapter Five one that has the truck dodging the bombs dropped by a Black Dragon plane, and the Chapter Eleven car/truck chase (which ends in the trusty truck’s destruction, provoking a silently sorrowful–and unexpectedly affecting–reaction from Billy Halop’s Ace). The Universal backlot not only provides the aforementioned urban streets, but also warehouses, oil fields, dams, and other sabotage targets; the rural “farm” that provides a front for the villains’ main hideout is a backlot location too–save for the scenes that show the villains landing their plane in its barn-disguised hangar, in which said hangar is represented by a miniature.
Miniature work is also used during Ace and Eddie’s hairbreadth airborne escape from the farm in Chapter Ten; this scene (in which the boys’ ship is damaged as it clears a fence, catches fire in the air, and ignites their parachute when they try to escape) is the most exciting piece of aerial action in the serial–but the airplane race in Chapter One and the aerial bombing of the National Guard truck squad in Chapter Eleven are fine too, even though both of them are mostly built around (unobtrusive) stock footage. Stock use is more noticeable (and more distracting) in the Chapter Two sequence in which an out-of-control biplane swerves dangerously around a speeding train; this very grainy-looking scene seems to have been borrowed from a silent serial.
All of the above-mentioned airplane scenes culminate in cliffhangers; the escape from Chapter Ten’s blazing-parachute peril is believable enough, but the Chapter One air-race crash and the Chapter Two crash on the railroad tracks both feature extremely improbable live-through it resolutions–as does the Chapter Four explosion inside the storm drain. The Chapter Six burning-building cliffhanger is made memorable by a really spectacular upwards shot of falling debris (presumably stock footage, but smoothly fitted into the serial); the point-of-view shot utilized in the Chapter Nine cliffhanger (which has a van on a collision course with a blazing oil derrick) is visually effective as well. Another noteworthy cliffhanger is the ending of Chapter Three, which has Ace running into a rapidly-burning plane in search of his brother, only to seemingly fall victim to a explosion. The Chapter Eight exploding-dam cliffhanger could have been an effective chapter ending too, if the “explosion” that supposedly shatters the dam miniature hadn’t been a too-obvious optical effect.
Billy Halop displays a convincingly frantic concern during the Chapter Three cliffhanger, and handles his other scenes with the same conviction; his reaction to the loss of his truck (mentioned above) is excellent, as is his quietly bitter attitude when he’s accused of cheating to win the air race. He also does a good job of conveying both protectiveness and pride in his interactions with his inventive younger brother; his character’s relationship with his stern and irritable father is (disappointingly) left largely undeveloped by the writers, but Halop’s frustrated yet respectful demeanor towards his dad is just as good as his more affectionate attitude towards his sibling. Halop maintains his characteristic balance of gruffness and wry humorousness in his scenes with his Dead End Kids cronies, and is typically hard-boiled in his earlier interactions with the police–though, fortunately, never as exaggeratedly thuggish as in Junior G-Men.
The ever-cartoonish Huntz Hall is more tolerable here than in either of his other serials. His character is never depicted as a complete moron (as he was in Junior G-Men), and is actually allowed to be helpful and even heroic on multiple occasions; though he still indulges in some of his usual mugging and blustering, he’s also not as noisily overbearing as he was in Sea Raiders. Most of his “comic” bantering is energetic but not particularly funny, although his feigned innocence when his girlfriend accuses him of roughhousing is rather amusing, as is the later scene in which he brags of his heroism to the same girl. Gabriel Dell, as in the other Dead End Kids serials, is more subtle and more funny than Hall, but isn’t given nearly as much to do; still, he succeeds in stealing scenes from time to time–as when he tersely delivers an unusually grim wisecrack during the air race, or when he wordlessly reacts to being designated an official Junior G-Man. The serial’s fourth Dead Ender, Bernard Punsly, is consigned to his usual background role–getting a few lines here and there, but mainly serving as someone for Halop, Hall, and Dell to bounce dialogue off of.
As the adult law-enforcement figure who eventually wins the boys’ trust, Richard Lane (Inspector Faraday in Columbia’s popular Boston Blackie B-movies) is a huge improvement over Phillip Terry (who played a corresponding character in Junior G-Men). Terry was insufferably sleek and complacent, but Lane is aggressively brisk and energetic; his cheerful but no-nonsense demeanor and his rat-a-tat-tat dialogue delivery not only make him come off as highly competent, but also remove any hint of pomposity from his fatherly admonishments to Halop and the other kids. Frank Albertson, on the other hand, is very miscast as Lane’s “Junior G-Man” ally, who serves as a liaison man between the police and Halop’s group; though his character is supposedly the same age as Halop’s, Albertson was actually over ten years older than his co-star–and easily looks it. His calmly genial performance is likable, but he’s never remotely convincing as the youngster he’s supposed to be; however, he’s much less grating in his incongruous role than the similarly overage juvenile Kenneth Howell was in Junior G-Men, since (unlike Howell) he doesn’t attempt to act forcedly boyish.
Lionel Atwill has limited screen time as the Baron (only venturing outside his underground lair in one short scene), but makes the most of his periodic appearances–his sheer acting panache helping him to overcome the potential handicaps of thick “Japanese” makeup and an assumed accent. His cuttingly sarcastic remarks to his henchmen, his sinister politeness to prisoners, his suave handling of a police enquiry, and his occasional outbursts of maniacal gloating are all great fun to watch. As the Baron’s sinister chief cohort Araka, the youthful Turhan Bey holds his own against the older Atwill; he comes off as deferential but resentful when being rebuked by his leader, urbanely arrogant in his interactions with his fellow-henchmen, restrainedly angry when dealing with the Dead End Kids, and intimidatingly alert at all times. His indeterminately exotic features also make him more believable as a Japanese than most of his villainous co-stars are.
Universal’s propagandizing tendencies decidedly undermine the serial when it comes to the casting of the supporting heavies; an apparent determination to show that not even America’s criminals would work for the Axis compels the production crew to depict all of the Black Dragon agents as Japanese nationals, despite most of the henchmen actors’ unsuitability for such impersonations. Noel Cravat, as the grim and harsh Black Dragon pilot Monk, does possess a Mongol-like face that makes him more visually acceptable in his role than the other recurring thugs; however, the writers and directors carelessly let him switch back and forth between a formally “Oriental” manner and a slangy American-gangster demeanor. John Bleifer is horribly unconvincing as Beal–who, along with Bey’s Araka and Cravat’s Monk, handles the bulk of the active villainy; wearing sketchy eye makeup, affecting a squint, and adopting an accent that sounds more Russian than Japanese, he’s a continually jarring presence. As henchman Augar, John Bagni is made up more heavily (but not more effectively) than Bleifer, while his noticeable New York accent doesn’t do much to make him sound Japanese. Swarthy and furtive-looking Eddie Foster (wearing no makeup at all) rounds out the henchman pack–and comes off as a thoroughgoing big-city gangster type, despite being tagged with an emphatically Japanese name (Komora); the talented and multilingual character actor Jay Novello is much more believably alien as the gatekeeper of the villains’ hideout, but is not given much to do.
Gene Reynolds, a former MGM child actor and a future television producer/director, does a good job of acting thoughtful and determined as Billy Halop’s beleaguered inventor brother; despite receiving second billing in the credits, he makes only token appearances for much of the serial, periodically defying Lionel Atwill in quietly earnest fashion. Eddy Waller is also good in his unfortunately scarce appearances as Halop and Reynolds’ grumpy father, while Paul Phillips is capable but bland as Richard Lane’s aide. David Gorcey (who’d go on to work with his more famous brother Leo and with Huntz Hall in the Bowery Boys films) is properly sneering and unpleasant as the trouble-maker Double-Face.
Above left: The seated Gene Reynolds scornfully denounces the Baron’s “murdering gang,” despite being flanked by henchmen John Bagni (left) and Eddie Foster. Above right: Turhan Bey buys some information from shifty David Gorcey.
Frankie Darro is wasted in a small role as the Junior G-Men’s analytical chemist; he’d have been a much better choice for the Frank Albertson part. Charles Lung, Rico De Montez, Angelo Cruz, and Paul Bryar play various Japanese agents, Lynton Brent and Guy Kingsford appear as National Guardsmen, Frederick Burton is a National Guard colonel, Hugh Prosser portrays the soldier who announces the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Guy Usher (portraying a senator) delivers the patriotic speech that concludes the serial. Vinton Hayworth does an entertaining walk-on as a jaunty but easily bored millionaire playboy who conveniently decides to sell the boys his used plane after their own cracks up, charming Kathryn Adams (the leading lady of Sky Raiders) is rather improbably cast as Huntz Hall’s sometime girlfriend, and Billy Benedict has an amusing bit as a crony of Hall’s who reluctantly lets him borrow his car.
Universal’s first two Dead End Kids serials were both solid and entertaining chapterplays, though too flawed to place among Universal’s best; the same can be said of the Kids’ third and final chapterplay outing. Junior G-Men of the Air’s plotting is sturdy, its action sufficient, and its cast strong–but the script’s contrived handling of its hero’s initial conflict with the police, the miscasting of Albertson, the unconvincingly “Japanese” supporting heavies, and several other minor but noticeable blemishes keep it from ranking as a particularly distinguished chapterplay–although it’s a consistently enjoyable one.