September 29th, 1915 — July 6th, 1966
Anne Nagel, heroine in four cliffhangers and supporting heroine in a fifth, specialized in playing characters as pert as they were pretty. While she excelled at playing sharp- tongued and sarcastic girls, she always gave her heroines enough warmth, sincerity, and good-humor to keep them from seeming abrasive. In the majority of her serials, she had little to do but deliver dialogue and only occasionally participated in the main storyline, but she delivered that dialogue so well that she remains one of the better-remembered serial actresses.
Anne Nagel was born Anne Dolan in Boston. She worked part-time as a photographer’s model during her high school years, and became interested in an acting career. She subsequently joined a Boston theatrical group, then moved out to California with her parents when her stepfather, a Technicolor expert, landed a Hollywood job in 1932. She began her own Hollywood career playing bit parts, chiefly in Fox films, before being signed to a contract by Warner Brothers in 1936. For the next two years, Anne played prominent ingenue roles in Warner Brothers B-films like the whodunit Mystery House and the Dick Foran western The Devil’s Saddle Legion, while playing small parts in Warners A-features like China Clipper. She left Warner Brothers in 1938, and after briefly freelancing in B-films for Monogram and various independent studios, she signed a contract with Universal Pictures in 1939. She would quickly become one of that studio’s most prolific B-movie performers, appearing in their medium-budget horror movies (Black Friday, Man Made Monster), B-westerns (Stagecoach Buckaroo, Road Agent), and action/adventure films (Mutiny in the Arctic, Hot Steel). One of her earliest Universal assignments was her first serial, 1939’s The Green Hornet.
Based on the popular radio show created by Fran Striker, The Green Hornet chronicled the adventures of Britt Reid (Gordon Jones), crusading publisher of the Daily Sentinel newspaper, who assumed the identity of the Green Hornet in order to wage a more effective battle against urban graft and gangsterism. The Green Hornet was one of Universal’s best serials, thanks to a strong script and a good cast that handled the script with flair; the cast included Keye Luke as Reid’s valet and confidant Kato, Wade Boteler as Reid’s bumbling bodyguard Axford, and Anne Nagel as Reid’s secretary Lenore Case. Miss Case, affectionately known as “Casey,” was unaware of her boss’s true identity, but unlike Axford (Wade Boteler) and reporter Jenks (Phillip Trent) she was firmly convinced that the Green Hornet, though considered a dangerous outlaw by the police, was a heroic foe of crime. Her perpetual arguments with her colleagues as to the Hornet’s true motives amused both Reid and the audience. Although all Nagel’s scenes took place on the same set (the Sentinel offices), the skill and energy she displayed when trading wisecracks with Axford made each of her scenes memorable.
Anne’s next serial for Universal was 1940’s Winners of the West. An action-packed and colorful Western, this cliffhanger reunited Nagel with her old Warner Brothers co-star Dick Foran. Foran played Jeff Ramsay, a determined but somewhat roughhewn frontier engineer trying to establish the Hartford Transcontinental Railroad’s route through Hellgate Pass, the domain of the powerful outlaw King Carter (Harry Woods). Nagel played Claire Hartford, the refined but courageous daughter of the railroad’s owner, who was both repelled and attracted by Ramsay’s gruff manner and traded humorously acid remarks with him throughout the serial; Claire also was momentarily attracted by King Carter, whom she (initially) found more charming than Ramsay. By the end of the serial, though, Carter was defeated and Jeff and Claire were husband and wife. Winners of the West gave Anne the largest role of her serial career; whether she was arguing with Foran or aiding him in his various battles against outlaws and Indians, she shared center stage with him throughout.
Nagel followed Winners of the West with a reprise of her “Casey” Case characterization in The Green Hornet Strikes Again (Universal, 1940). Like the first Hornet serial, Strikes Again featured a good script and engaging performances. Warren Hull replaced Gordon Jones in the role of Britt Reid/The Green Hornet, but blended in well with Nagel and her fellow returning co-stars Keye Luke and Wade Boteler. Once again Anne’s Casey engaged in some sharp bantering with Boteler’s Axford and new arrival Eddie Acuff’s Lowery, defending the Hornet against their criticisms. Again, her role was largely limited to entertaining dialogue scenes at the Sentinel office, although this time she did get to go undercover with Britt Reid in one chapter, as he investigated a nightclub that was fronting for a stolen car ring.
Above: Axford (Wade Boteler) and Lenore Case (Anne Nagel) are temporarily united against a crooked acting editor (William Forrest, offscreen) in the first chapter of The Green Hornet Strikes Again (Universal, 1940).
Nagel’s final serial for Universal was Don Winslow of the Navy (1941), a South Seas spy-fighting adventure. Don Terry played Naval officer Don Winslow, who battled a gang of saboteurs trying to thwart the construction of a naval base on Tangita Island. Anne was cast as Misty Gaye, secretary of Navy contractor John Blake (Ben Taggart) and girlfriend of Don’s sidekick Red Pennington (Walter Sande). Like the two Green Hornet serials, Don Winslow possessed an above-average script, although Nagel’s character was not the principal heroine this time out; that role was assumed by Claire Dodd as Navy nurse Mercedes Colby. Though Nagel’s role was small, she was given some amusing lines and, together with Sande, Dodd, and her Green Hornet co-star Wade Boteler, she helped to make Winslow’s team of helpers a colorful one.
Shortly after leaving Universal in 1942, Nagel appeared in her last serial, Columbia Pictures’ The Secret Code. This wartime cliffhanger had some excellent action scenes and a fine cast, but was burdened by a repetitive and strident script that stressed the propaganda note too heavily. Paul Kelly starred as Dan Barton, a police detective who got himself dishonorably discharged from the force so he could infiltrate a ring of Nazi agents. Once inside the spy ring, Barton donned the guise of the “Black Commando” so he could fight the spies from within without giving himself away. Anne was Jean Ashley, a quick-witted reporter who was sweet on Dan and was distressed by his apparent disgrace; once she learned his secret, she assisted the “Commando’s” mission. While Kelly and Clancy Cooper (as Kelly’s sidekick) held center stage for most of The Secret Code, Nagel was given a respectable share of screen time, as she ferreted out the hero’s double masquerade and then backed him up loyally despite threats from both spies and policemen. Her character, both witty and persistent, recalled her “Casey” from the Hornet serials–heightening the resemblance, she crossed swords again with Wade Boteler again in Code, who was playing a perplexed police chief this time out.
Anne worked in A and B films sporadically throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, but Jean Ashley in Secret Code was her last leading part, and only a few of her later roles would prove at all memorable. She played the murder victim in the Monogram Charlie Chan film The Trap, had a touching scene as the wife of the hero’s slain partner in Richard Fleischer’s RKO police drama Armored Car Robbery, played the mother of child star Gary Gray in a pair of RKO boy-and-his dog shorts, and made a few TV appearances in on shows like Range Rider. Her screen swan song, in a 1957 episode of the Western/circus TV series Circus Boy, was a surprisingly appropriate one, as it reunited her once more with her B-western and serial leading man Dick Foran. Titled “The Return of Buffalo Bill,” the episode featured Foran as an aging Buffalo Bill Cody and Anne as his loyal wife Louisa. Nine years after this acting farewell aired, Anne Nagel passed away in Hollywood.
Had Anne Nagel been retained by Warner Brothers, one can easily picture her moving to that studio’s A-films, playing tough-talking but good-hearted heroines akin to those played by Warners stars like Ann Sheridan; she certainly had the potential talent. Instead, she wound up utilizing that talent in serials, giving her characters a combination of sarcasm and sincerity that made them quite unique among the cliffhanger’s leading ladies.
Above: Anne Nagel verbally scores off Wade Boteler (facing her, back to camera) in another argument about the Green Hornet. Phillip Trent (far left) and Gordon Jones watch in The Green Hornet (Universal, 1939).
Acknowledgements: “frankfob2’s” Internet Movie Database biography of Anne Nagel provided me with much of the information in this article.