Who would have dreamed that in the year 2011 it would be possible to make genuine discoveries in two of my favorite areas of film history: cartoons and serials? This has come to pass because of the dogged determination of some true movie lovers. One of them, Steve Stanchfield, has labored mightily to create a definitive DVD of Private Snafu cartoons from World War Two for his Thunderbean Animation label; I’ll review this in a subsequent post. Bob Blair, of VCI Entertainment, has a particular fondness for serials and has demonstrated that passion by clearing long-tangled rights issues, finding original negatives, and dubbing the missing soundtrack for chapters of otherwise-unreleasable chapter-plays like Mandrake the Magician. But even he had given up 1945’s Brenda Starr, Reporter as a lost cause after learning that the video master made by the Library of Congress from a nitrate negative in the 1980s was missing the soundtrack on portions of Chapter 3 and 4, and had no usable picture at all for Chapter 4. What’s more, there was nitrate deterioration throughout the serial.
Over the years, Blair made repeated efforts to spruce up the picture and—
—mitigate the effects of decomposition. He still hesitated to release the serial because the quality was substandard, and there was no way to bring back those missing chunks. Finally, he realized that serial buffs would appreciate having a chance to see this long-dormant title, regardless of its shortcomings. Speaking as a member of that audience, I’d say he was right. (I fell in love with serials when I was a kid and my enthusiasm for them has never waned; if anything, as I get older I cling to their utter simplicity of storytelling.)
Brenda Starr, Reporter is great fun to watch, warts and all. B-movie regular Joan Woodbury is well-cast as the intrepid heroine of Dale Messick’s comic strip (which just ended its seventy-year newspaper run), matched by serial stalwart Kane Richmond as dashing police lieutenant Lieut. Larry Farrell. They approach their roles with zest and conviction, and maintain that energy from start to finish. (For some reason, no other actors are credited onscreen, but it’s easy to recognize such familiar faces as Syd Saylor, playing Brenda’s photographer sidekick Chuck, Billy Benedict as the newspaper’s copy boy Pesky, Joe Devlin as Lieutenant Farrell’s second-in-command, George Meeker as a slimy nightclub boss, Wheeler Oakman as a suspicious character—and his twin brother, and as Meeker’s henchman; Jack Ingram, Ernie Adams, and John Merton. Where would B movies have been without these hard-working people?) The distinctive voice of Knox Manning is heard narrating the opening and closing of every chapter, inviting kids to come back “to this theater” the following week to see how each cliffhanging climax would be resolved.
This marked prolific, penny-pinching producer Sam Katzman’s first serial for Columbia Pictures after a long stretch at Monogram; he brought along with him journeyman director Wallace W. Fox, whose résumé stretched back to the 1920s. The screenplay was crafted by a relative newcomer to the genre, Ande Lamb (billed here as Andy), who went on to write a number of B movies and TV episodes, and a veteran, George H. Plympton, who probably wrote more serials than anyone else in history (including Flash Gordon and its two sequels), for virtually every studio that made them.
Brenda Starr, Reporter establishes the heroine’s pluck—and recklessness—early on, and puts her in friendly competition with Lieutenant Farrell, who would prefer that she stick to reporting news instead of making it. A missing cache of $250,000 is at the heart of the story, which sends both Brenda and the police on many wild goose chases, and in and out of George Meeker’s nightclub, which turns out to be secret headquarters for a criminal mastermind, the unseen “big boss” who doles out orders over a hidden radio wire.
The serial is peppered with action, chases, and comedy relief, but it’s the two stars and their sidekicks who add personality to the formula, and that’s what makes the serial enjoyable. The cliffhangers don’t cheat too much, and there are few signs of the drastic economies producer Katzman brought to his later Columbia serials, except for heavy use of Columbia’s standing street sets and unknown actors in a number of supporting roles. There are even a couple of nightclub scenes with a chorus line that—to my surprise—weren’t lifted from another film!
Because the storyline is so simple and straightforward, the missing sections of chapters 3 and 4 don’t impede one’s ability to follow the plot. (Existing audio is accompanied by a shot of a console radio, or freeze-frames of the actors in similar scenes.)
As to the picture, it looks quite good on the whole, although there are times when the image isn’t sharp and occasionally smears as the actors move through the frame. It’s only when you examine the “before and after” demonstration on the disc and see what the picture looked like before restoration that you realize how much work was done on some chapters to make it presentable at all.
The highest compliment I can pay Brenda Starr, Reporter is that I was sorry to see it come to an end.