Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lynn Gilbert, Jan Wiley and 2 x Secret Agent X-9 (1937 & 1945)

Lynn Gilbert, nee Helen McHale (b. Chicago 1913), was Mrs. Gilbert E. Keebler, a Chicago socialite matron when she reportedly mailed a photo of herself to Universal. The result: a role as a nasty gun-moll in the 1937 serial Secret Agent X-9, where she menaced the studio's premiere serial queen, Jean Rogers; and the Johnny Mack Brown Western chapterplay Wild West Days (1937), where she actually replaced Miss Rogers, who was on to bigger and better things at the studio. The Western serial offered the usual, prominent heroine billing but very little screen time. And that, as they say, was that for Lynn Gilbert's screen career. At one point, she divorced Mr. Keebler, an attorney, and in 1939 wed prominent Hollywood producer, and erstwhile head of Paramount Pictures, B.P. Schulberg. Their elopement made headlines but we don't know how long Miss Gilbert was Mrs. Schulberg and thus the stepmother of writer Budd Schulberg.

Secret Agent X-9 (1937)

Despite a Ruritanian opening set in mythical Belgravia and the presence of such comic opera characters as Baron Karsten, Universal's first serial version of Secret Agent X-9 quickly reveals itself to be an imitation Dick Tracy, pure and simple. A clever imitation, mind you, but Universal was obviously heavily inspired by Republic’s very recent serialization of Chester Gould’s comic strip hero. Unfortunately, for all the qualities he had shown as one of the doomed German soldiers in Universal’s great Academy Award©-winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Scott Kolk, i.e. X-9, was no Ralph Byrd, to put it mildly. In fact, the forgettable Kolk, who later adopted the more palatable moniker of Scott Colton, remains the serial’s one serious weak point, unusual for Universal who regularly came up with strong leads even in material less deserving than X-9. It appears that the studio used this serial to showcase some of their younger talent, and in addition to Mr. Kolk we also see Henry Hunter, George Shelley, Lynn Gilbert (see above), and Larry Blake. With the possible exception of the latter, who plays X-9’s tight-lipped superior, they are all eminently forgettable, including Lon Chaney, Jr., who had yet to find his true niche at Universal. Luckily, the busy Jean Rogers, Dale Arden herself, plays the heroine, the eponymous Shara Graustark – and don’t be fooled for a minute by the hardened, bleach-blonde look and furtive ways, deep down Jean is her usual pleasant self. Meanwhile, associate producers Barney Sarecky and Ben Koenig hit pay-dirt by hiring the always watchable Henry Brandon to portray the main villain. As the future would show, Brandon had even more to offer the serial genre but he already exhibits the suave and slightly degenerate malice for which he would become known. Whether or not Dashiell Hammett had anything to do with the serialization of Secret Agent X-9, other than lending his name as co-creator of the original comic strip, is debatable; suffice it to say, he certainly did not contribute to the serial’s rather commonplace dialogue, which instead came from the pens of the usual studio hacks. What they created remains a fast-paced adventure yarn in which everyone wears a hat at all time. Significantly, left by the villains to drown after a boating mishap in chapter 2, Agent X-9’s first thought is to recover his headgear!

Graustarkian Belgravia

It is no coincidence that Jean Rogers’ character in the first Secret Agent X-9 is named Shara Graustark. “Graustark” was the mythical Eastern European comic opera principality created by American writer George Barr McCutcheon for a series of romantic Edwardian novels, including “Graustark” (1901) and “The Truxton King” (1909), which borrowed heavily from “The Prisoner of Zenda.” “Graustark,” along with “Zenda’s” “Ruritania,” is today occasionally used to describe exactly such a country as X-9’s non-existing Belgravia. The Belgravians (or should that be Belgraves?) sound vaguely Hungarian when speaking in their native tongue, but in writing their language appears to be English with an ‘o’ attached to the end of nouns, as in “sireno” for siren and “alarmo” for alarm.

Beginning her screen career with a bit in Stage Door (1937) and billing herself Harriet Brandon, Jan Wiley (1916-1993) later played one of the reporters in Citizen Kane (1941; another serial regular, Louise Currie, was another) and she was Ralph Byrd's leading lady in the final Dick Tracy serial caper, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc (1941). The latter was more indicative of Wiley's screen career than the former and while under contract to Universal she graced two additional chapterplays, The Master Key (1945) and, of course, Secret Agent X-9. That year also saw her separating from her husband, B-Movie actor Roger Clark (1908-1978). She was granted a temporary divorce decree in July of '45 after testifying that Clark “expected her to cook dinner for his guests, and pay the household expenses in addition to her film work.” Sometimes, she added, she cooked dinner for 14 persons, “but we didn't entertain my friends; they were his friends. He was very nasty to my friends, and it was embarrassing.” Later that year, however, she found comfort in the company of Dr. Kildare himself, Lew Ayres.

Secret Agent X-9 (1945)

A quick look at the character names will persuade you that apart from the King Features copyright, the second X-9 had nothing whatsoever to to with either the comic strip or the 1937 serial. Instead, the production owes a debt of gratitude to Warner Bros.’ Casablanca (1942). Like in the Bogart classic, a motley group of various nationalities is assembled less by choice than circumstance in a remote locality far away from the raging World War yet entirely dependent upon its outcome. The comparison stops right there, however, and instead of the witty Epstein brothers, Michael Curtiz, Bogart and Bergman we get Joseph O’Donnell, Ray Taylor, Lloyd Bridges, and the patented Universal style of hokum. That’s all right as far as it goes, but there are several reasons why the second X-9 fails as a serial, chief among them perhaps the most grating performance by a villain in history. Or close to it. Victoria Horne was a competent enough supporting/bit player under the right circumstances but she is entirely out to sea playing the Nipponese Nabura in X-9. Horne strangely suggests her then-despised nationality by appearing so downcast that you constantly fear she shall bump into the scenery, while constantly saying “Ah, soo!”, the latter apparently meant to
be unscrupulous. If the production couldn’t get around employing a Caucasian to play the role, a Gale Sondergaard type would at least have been tolerable. (Sondergaard herself was actually working in a Sherlock Holmes feature at Universal around this time but could perhaps not be persuaded to appear in a serial.) Although the production values are high for this sort of thing, the second X-9 just doesn’t go anywhere, and the spectacle of beloved character player Samuel S. Hinds playing tiddly-winks at the same table in the same dive seemingly day and night is at best waste of talent. In contrast, Lloyd Bridges makes a wonderful hero in a performance that predates his starring role on television’s Sea Hunt. As we all know, Bridges eventually progressed to more expensive productions – X-9 was one of his first starring roles – and the serial experience was probably quickly forgotten. Yet son Beau Bridges, reached by comic strip author Max Allan Collins in conjunction with the VCI DVD release, enjoyed his father’s work in X-9 and lauded its production values.

About the productions

Created by Flash Gordon’s “father,” Alex Raymond and, ostensibly, crime writer Dashiell Hammett, the comic strip “Secret Agent X-9,” was syndicated by King Features as a back-up to “Flash” and ran from January 22, 1934 until February 10, 1996. The character also appeared in the “Flash Gordon” comic books and even enjoyed starring publications in the 1940s.

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