Friday, November 28, 2008

Foreign Agent (Monogram, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually ran ourselves a sort of cinematic nightcap, Foreign Agent, yet another World War II thriller about sedition on the home front, loosely based on a couple of real-life traitors named Robert Noble and Ellis Jones, who had a couple of groups called “Friends of Progress” and the revealingly titled “National Copperheads” (after the original Copperheads, who were pro-Southern Northerners who attempted to sabotage the Union effort during the Civil War; it was to stop them that President Lincoln invoked the constitutional right to suppress habeas corpus “in cases of Rebellion or Invasion” and still got slapped down by the courts). In this version, they’re called “Robert Nelson” (Edward Peil) and “Elliott Jennings” (Boyd Irwin) and they’re an active part of a German-Japanese espionage and sabotage ring operating out of a recording studio in Los Angeles and sneaking messages to their agents in the “secret” grooves of otherwise innocuous records. (The one we see on screen is called “To a Water Lily” — the title is also used by the spies as a password — and is billed as a “Piano Solo by Eddie Kay.” The real Eddie Kay was the musical director for the film.)

The star is an actor named John Shelton, who plays an actor at a Poverty Row studio (this film was produced by a real Poverty Row studio, Monogram, and was directed by Monogram stalwart William Beaudine from a story by Martin Mooney and a script by Mooney and Joseph Krafft) who’s anxious to get into uniform and fight the war for real instead of playing a servicemember on a Monogram soundstage. Instead he’s recruited by Bob Davis (William Halligan), a grey-haired radio commentator who uses his daily show to expose Axis fronts, including the phony “peace” group Nelson and Jennings have organized at the behest of the master of the spy ring, Dr. Werner (Hans Schumm, who despite his seemingly authentic German name has a “German” accent so outrageously phony it sounds like he just has a cold), who works with a Japanese agent named Okura (played by Russian actor Ivan Lebedeff, who makes no attempt to make himself up to look at all Asian and whose sole concession to “Japanese-ness” is to spit out his lines in a high-pitched whine that sounds like no racial or ethnic group on earth) and has a Dietrich-esque girlfriend named Anna (Fee Malten).

There’s also a comic-relief couple consisting of a sound man at Monogram (the fictitious one, not the real one) named Eddie McGurk (Lyle Latell) and his stuntwoman girlfriend Joan Collins (Patsy Moran). Eddie turns out to be an undercover FBI agent at the end and Monogram sound department head Nick Dancy (George Travell) turns out to be one of the Axis agents. The script is packed with little details to bolster its factual background — including a newspaper headline about the eight real-life Nazi saboteurs who were arrested on the East Coast (Muller says they would not have been apprehended that quickly if he’d been in charge of them!) — and though it makes little sense, it’s at least better entertainment than many Monogram productions. The plot is kicked off when a Monogram lighting technician is found hanged to death in his hotel room — the police are convinced it’s suicide but Our Hero correctly intuits that it’s murder — just when he had invented a filter to be put over searchlights so their lights would still illuminate the sky but the planes they were designed to spot wouldn’t see the tell-tale beams. (Just how this was supposed to be physically possible Mooney and Krafft never bother to explain.)

Both the good guys and the bad guys are convinced that the victim’s daughter, Monogram star and nightclub singer Mitzi Mayo (Gale Storm, charming as ever and showing a real talent that had she been signed to a major studio instead of Monogram would probably have given her a shot at Doris Day-type roles instead of the dreck Monogram usually put her in), who sings in a nightclub that (thanks to Monogram’s budget restrictions) actually looks like a nightclub and renders her two songs (Bill Mellette’s “Down Deep in My Heart” and Bill Anderson’s “Taps for the Japs”) with only an on-screen accordionist as accompanist and not the infamous “secret orchestra.” Foreign Agent isn’t any great shakes as a movie, and the script by Mooney and Krafft really makes very little sense (the Axis is supposedly warming up to bomb Los Angeles but we’re shown almost none of that for real; about all we see of their supposedly nefarious activity is the usual standby, the bad guys relaying information about cargo convoys so submarines can sink them — though in this case the sub gets sunk instead and the radio operator on the ship that sinks it cables the famous real-life message, “Sighted sub — sank same”), but though it doesn’t have the high-tension speed Warners was able to bring to a similar story in Spy Ship, at least it’s a (relatively) fast-moving and entertaining film (director Beaudine for once doesn’t pace the film like he’s napping during much of the shoot), and John Shelton and Gale Storm are a pair of personable leads and well worth watching — and the historical background makes this film more interesting than it would be otherwise.