Friday, December 9, 2011

Marguerite Chapman & Spy Smasher

According to her official studio biographies, Marguerite Chapman (1918-1999), of Chatham, NY, was working as a switchboard operator when discovered by the John Powers modeling agency. Hollywood came calling soon after in the form of a contract with 20th Century-Fox, but Chapman's breakthrough assignment was the lead female role in Republic's Spy Smasher. Her career lasted well into the television era and she is best remembered today for playing Tom Ewell's supposedly lovesick secretary in the Marilyn Monroe comedy hit The Seven Year Itch (1955). Her final film was the Edgar Ulmer quickie The Transparent Man (1958), but she was evidently briefly in the running to play Old Rose in Titanic (1997). Sadly, she was not well enough to assume the part which, famously, instead went to Gloria Stuart.

Spy Smasher (Republic, 1942)

American secret agent Spy Smasher (Kane Richmond), alias Alan Armstrong, teams up with his identical twin brother, Jack (also Kane Richmond), to unravel a gang of fifth columnists headed by a Nazi known only as The Mask.

The submarine in chapters 3, 4 and 12 may look like what it is, a bathtub toy; the motivation for the Nazi villain The Mask to be wearing a mask in the first place remains obscure, and, looking for all the world like a handkerchief with holes, the garment appears downright ridiculous. And then there is the whole idea of a superhero wearing motorcycle helmet, goggles and a cape … well, you get the drift. But despite the silliness there is no denying that Spy Smasher holds your attention like few other serials, what with non-stop action and cliffhangers turning up with frequency in the middle of chapters as well!

Just take the scene in chapter 3 where Spy Smasher and sidekick Pierre (who is Franco Corsaro but may as well have been Republic serial regular Duncan Renaldo) seek help from the French governor only to realize too late that he is Vichy and not Free when the floor suddenly opens beneath them. Or how about the episode in chapter 10 where Spy Smasher narrowly escapes a stonecrusher while battling henchman Walker (John Buckley)? Not to mention the penultimate chapter whose title, “Hero’s Death,” and cliffhanger solution give new meaning to truth in advertising. Just three of the many thrills in store in this, Republic's finest wartime serial and arguably William Witney's shining hour as a solo director.

Everything is done to absolute perfection, from casting (even Marguerite Chapman, on loan from Columbia, seems classier than usual) to the legendary Republic company going full throttle in every chapter to Howard Lydecker's special effects. The comic strip original may never have enjoyed the success of, say, "Captain Marvel," or even “Bulletman” (who Republic at one point also considered), but the opening credits' dahdah- dah-dum from Beethoven's Fifth, done in Morse code accompanied by strobe lights forming the "V" for Victory, would be remembered decades later by then-young moviegoers looking for something uplifting instead of the increasingly dire reports out of real-life Europe and the Pacific.

Created by the same team that brought the world “Captain Marvel,” artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, Fawcett Comics’ “Spy Smasher” debuted in the very same edition of Whizz Comics as Marvel, #2, in February of 1940. The character underwent a post war name change to “Crime Smasher,” but Fawcett ceased publication (along with all the company’s other super-heroes) in 1953. DC Comics, the copyrights holders of “Superman,” who had sued the creators of the similar Captain Marvel, purchased the rights in 1972 and "Spy Smasher" began appearing irregularly. In a case of cross-over story-telling, the character of Alan Armstrong famously recounts his Cold War exploits in Power of Shazam! #24 to Captain Marvel’s Billy and Mary Batson.

About the production
Although Spy Smasher Alan Armstrong and twin brother Jack appear together throughout the serial only the opening chapter used expensive split screen effects. For the remainder of the serial actor James Dale/stuntman stood in for one twin or the other in dialogue sequences (his presence easily detected in a car scene in chapter 8), while earning a surprisingly potent $650 for his troubles. David Sharpe and Carey Loftin performed stunt duties for Alan in his Spy Smasher disguise while Bud Wolfe, John Daheim and Sharpe doubled the civilian clothed Jack. At no point in the serial, incidentally, was Jack Armstrong referred to by his full name, Republic thus avoiding a potential copyright infringement suit from the "Jack Armstrong—The All-American Boy" radio program.

… and their fellas: Kane Richmond
Despite the customary granite-jaw looks and better-than-average acting ability, Kane Richmond (1906-1973) never could escape B-Movies. But those he did made him a favorite of the action set, including three Shadow features produced by Monogram in 1946 and, of course, his starring serials, Spy Smasher, Adventures of Rex and Rinty (1935), the execrable The Lost City (1935), Haunted Harbor (1944), Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945), Jungle Raiders (1945), and Brick Bradford (1948). Richmond left the screen shortly after the latter and went into the haberdashery business.

Although physical production of Spy Smasher commenced on December 22, 1941, fifteen days after Pearl Harbor, the screenplay had been developed while America was still at peace and a storyline threatening to reveal that America employed secret agents, an act of aggression, was retained despite the censors. In contrast, the arbiters of public morality demanded the elimination of the designation "Germany" for the warring foreign power mentioned in chapter 10. Also eliminated, but for an altogether different reason, was a scene in chapter 2 where a soldier was accidentally hanged when the floor of a gallows sprang open beneath him and his head just happened to slip into the noose during a fight scene. Considered too grim, the sequence was modified by having the poor sod merely fall through the trap door.

Nazi ingenuity?
Why would a German plane, a futuristic Bat Plane at that, bear instrument labels in English such as "Gyro Stabilizer"? Well, considering that the plane in question is actually the Flying Wing from Dick Tracy the wily Nazis may simply have been in contact with The Spider before his untimely demise six years earlier. Just a theory.

In-house advertising, Republic style
Pursued by the Armstrongs, fifth columnist gangsters Crane and Hayes disappear through a false billboard hawking Ralph Byrd in Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc., which just happened to be the studio’s previous serial. (Chapter 9.)

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