MICHAEL H. PRICE: Spy Smasher Smashes Spies
In a bygone age of self-defeating fair-play isolationism, comparatively few outposts of the U.S. entertainment industry saw fit to take issue with the congealing Axis powers. Timely Comics’ Captain America books tackled a larger agenda of wish-fulfillment Nazi-busting in 1941 at a time when popular sentiment and much of the mass communications media, stateside, were still holding out for an anti-inflammatory approach. Just two years earlier, the lower-berth Hollywood producers Ben Judell and Sigmund Neufeld had run afoul of their industry’s attempts to repress a film called Hitler – Beast of Berlin, starting with a Production Code Administration complaint that the very title might pose an affront. It is always an awkward choice, even in the realm of heroic fiction, between pre-emptive action and a wait-and-watch attitude.
And between this difficult patch for the Judell–Neufeld movie and the ferocious début of Captain America, the Third Reich began insinuating such self-glorifying motion pictures as Campaign in Poland and Victory in the West into American theaters with impunity if not necessarily articulate English intertitles. Said the show-biz tradepaper Variety, bucking the mollifying influence of the Production Code: “Instead of making Americans frightened of the terrible power of the Reich’s Army, [Victory in the West] inflames them.”
The Captain America stories may have been thusly inflamed, but likelier Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the talents responsible, were springing from an intuitive sense of developments more appalling than any ostentatious display of aggression. (Superman had tackled fictional-allegory aggressors and, then, squared off against Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as early as 1940 – though far outside his own formal continuity, in an isolated gimmick story for Look magazine.)
As emphatic a stand belonged to the comics series known as Spy Smasher, from Fawcett Publications. The property’s retooling as a movie serial began taking shape in 1941 at Republic Pictures – which recently had adapted Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, with a tone markedly grimmer than that of the funnybooks – and a shooting script was completed shortly before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor. It was with a newfound sense of propagandistic ferocity that the Spy Smasher serial went into production on Dec. 22. The attraction began arriving in weekly big-screen installments on April 4, 1942.
The movie version takes some savvy liberties with the source, providing the lead character – Alan Armstrong, alias Spy Smasher – with an entirely civilian twin named Jack, and thus obliging star player Kane Richmond to handle essentially three roles. A recurring villain called the Mask was literally un-masked for the screen, allowing Hans Schumm a richer opportunity for characterization.
The story starts off in bravura fashion, with Spy Smasher captured in occupied France while uncovering a Nazi plot to undermine the American economy. Over a dozen chapters, Spy Smasher faces certain doom from a gasoline explosion; machine-gun and torpedo volleys; a man-made flood; the crash of a futuristic flying machine; a descending elevator car; a brick-cutting blade and a blast of steam; a collapsing tower; a comparatively mundane automobile crash; an industrial-strength pottery kiln; and a headlong fall from a rooftop amidst a hail of bullets. Needless to say, the hero survives to receive a medal for valor – although the story takes on a strong tragic resonance, typical of Republic’s interest in the darker shadings, in the death of Spy Smasher’s brother.
Richmond (1906–1973), more generally seen as a supporting player, makes not only an impressive costumed presence but a winning pair of guys in street clothes, as well. A sophisticated combination of split-screen shots and body-double casting leaves no question but what there are two Kane Richmonds on the scene. A strong romantic interest is provided by Marguerite Chapman, who usually graced the B-unit productions of Columbia Pictures. Sam Flint is a classy Naval Intelligence honcho.
Veteran director William Witney pulls a curious departure from serial-shooting tradition, handling the assignment solo rather than the customary team-directing approach. Over the course of 17 prior chapter-plays, Witney had co-directed with John English. The tactic of attaching two directors to one serial had become S.O.P. as early as 1932’s The Shadow of the Eagle, enabling one party to prepare for the next day’s shooting while his colleague was on the set. Witney wrapped Spy Smasher in a brisk 38 days.
Scenic locations include an imposing brick-and-mortar factory in the L.A. area’s Temecula Canyon, where Spy Smasher comes uncomfortably close to being sliced into building-blocks. Set designers Russell Kimball and John McCarthy provided magnificent interiors that would have been right at home in some top-of-the-line picture from MGM or Fox. The special-effects unit of brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker delivered their usual astonishingly realistic miniatures and life-sized mechanical props. Mort Glickman’s imposing musical accompaniment incorporates Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Co-author of The Prowler and the forthcoming horrific graphic novel Fishhead, Michael H. Price claims a movies-and-comics pedigree via blood-kin ties with Vincent Price (1911–93) and Mad magazine’s Roger Price (1918–90). MHP’s movie commentaries can be found at The Fort Worth Business Pressand at SciFi And Horror.com.