Before he went to Washington, D.C. for reals, Ronald Reagan went there on screen as Lt. Brass Bancroft in a string of Warner Bros. cheapies in 1939 and 1940. All four films “ roughly one hour apiece at best “ are collected on two discs in Warner Archive‘s manufactured-on-demand “Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service Mysteries Collection.”
“Code of the Secret Service” is the second film in the series, but it pops up first on disc one “ no worries; it doesn’t matter. Reagan plays the hero; his sidekick, Gabby (Eddie Foy Jr.) is comic relief; and their assignments all seem to involve counterfeiters.
Here, that’s exactly who Bancroft is looking for, avenging his friend’s death by this “first cousin to a snake.” It’s kind of weird to see the future president smoking cigarettes, not to mention paying a guy $5 to swap clothes. The film throws a lot at you in a hair under an hour: Western elements, rock-climbin’ adventure, a bar fight, a monk, a one-legged man, Gabby dancing in his underwear in public, a pretty lady with her hand stuck in a cup (stoopid dames!), car chases and a patriotic epilogue that almost makes you feel like standing up and saluting.
To my knowledge, this is the only live-action film I’ve ever seen where someone uses a straw to breathe while underwater. That’s a total cartoon move.
The first film, “Secret Service of the Air,” involves a smuggling ring, a murder, a singing navigator and more car chases. Bancroft is framed for the homicide and put on rock-bustin’ duty and sentenced to Alcatraz. There’s a fight in a Mexican restaurant while an onlooker can’t decide between sarsaparilla and whiskey, lots and lots of aerial loop-de-loops, and Reagan singing a line of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” but as if he were Jack Torrance.
Movie number three, “Smashing the Money Ring,” might be the most uniquely plotted. Oh, it still deals with counterfeiters, but throws a gambling ship into the mix. It’s owned by semi-reformed mobster Steve Parker, who purposely slugs a copper so he can spend 30 days in jail so robber Dice Mathews can’t get to him.
But then Dice gets thrown in jail, too. So does Bancroft. That all leads a laundry room scuffle, a murder behind bars, and ultimately, a prison break. Earlier, on the ship, Gabby attempts to secure cover posing as an entertainer, and his “audition” is absolutely cringe-worthy.
Finally, there’s “Murder in the Air,” the only one of the franchise that they couldn’t squeeze into 1939. Maybe because it deals with more effects “ or what they were in the era, starting with a locomotive disaster and ending with hot dirigible action.
This one has a slight sci-fi bent, as the good government (the U.S.) and the bad government (not the U.S.) fight for control of an electrical-wave superweapon, called “the inertia projector.” And anyone who’s ever longed to see the Gipper nude to the waist, your dreams come true with this one.
Simple though they may be, each and every one of the “Brass Bancroft” films is great fun. With such slim running times, it’s tough to get bored or harbor any ill will toward them. Seeing Reagan play action hero is one novel kick, and dammit, it’s kind of a shame they didn’t keep making more of these. Because after watching all four, I wanted more.
Maybe that’s due to all the hammy, tough-guy dialogue. Some of my favorites:
” “I’ve been waiting a long time to get even with you, you big stumblebum.”
” “Aw, you wanna get tough, eh?”
” “Your pappy don’t play showdown unless he’s got aces back-to-back.”
” “Shut up, you!”
” “Well, smack me down and call me names!”
” “Why, it’s the dead hobo!”
And so on. Enlist! “Rod Lott