Stuck in rural Littleville, young mechanic Tommy Tompkins dreams of nothing more than becoming a flyer: he’s even rigged up an old jalopy with a throttle and flaps so he can practice the controls until he gets a chance at a real plane! Tommy’s opportunity arrives when Milt Howe, a pilot for the Three Points Air Line, makes an emergency stop in Littleville. As a reward for repairing his plane, Howe offers to take Tommy back with him to Three Points. When the injured Howe passes out before they can land, Tommy takes the controls and brings the plane in safely himself. Three Points owner Paul Smith is so impressed with the young man that he offers him a job with the ground crew and the chance to earn his pilot’s license.
Little do either of them know, however, that a rival air line, owned by Wade “Tiger” Taggart, is trying to muscle Three Points out of the way so that a lucrative gold shipment will be theirs. Worse yet, one of Three Points’ best pilots, Bruce Hoyt, is secretly in league with Taggart! Sabotage, misinformation, financial fraud, and even outright banditry are the weapons that Taggart will use to destroy Three Points and their bright young pilot, “Tailspin” Tommy. Will Tommy catch on to the plot against his employer? Will the traitorous Bruce Hoyt be found out? Will the suddenly successful Tommy remember his roots in Littleville? These and other questions are answered in the twelve-part 1934 serial, Tailspin Tommy!
Hal Forrest’s Tailspin Tommy was a very popular comic strip (the first to be adapted into a serial in fact), with spin-offs that included a radio show, books, and toys. The serial’s plot covers a diverse range of settings and episodes, I suspect reflecting the variety of adventures that comic strip heroes undertook regardless of their ostensible genre (according to Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, the serial follows episodes from the radio show closely). Obviously, Tailspin Tommy explores the rich, then-contemporary setting of small regional airports and the short-hop pilots who flew by the seat of their pants, romanticized as daring aerial warriors in World War I and now connecting the scattered communities of the United States through faster travel and mail delivery. As the film makes clear, even civilian flying took nerve in the open-cockpit biplanes of the time, and mechanical failure, bad weather, or just plain bad luck could prove as dangerous as enemy fighters. Tailspin Tommy captured the spirit of a young nation enamored of hero-aviators like Howard Hughes and Charles Lindbergh. The character was popular enough to be the subject of a second serial (with an almost entirely different cast) in 1935, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery, and two features in 1939, Mystery Plane and Sky Patrol.
Although Tailspin Tommy isn’t as well remembered today as many of its comic strip contemporaries, the youthful equation of flight with freedom has continued to inspire creators. One of Dave Stevens’ brilliant strokes in conceiving The Rocketeer was that, while borrowing liberally from such 1950s serials as King of the Rocket Men and Radar Men From the Moon, he transposed the action to this 1930s milieu, a setting in which pulp conventions, references to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the prewar intrigues of Nazi spies and saboteurs could mingle freely. Flight-obsessed George Lucas is another heir in spirit: the portrait of young Anakin Skywalker as an eager, inventive wanna-be pilot in The Phantom Menace could have been drawn directly from Tailspin Tommy‘s first chapter.
However, in addition to scenes of flight and its attendant perils, the episodic story includes car chases, gunfights, and fist fights–the usual sources of generic serial “action”–as well as more exotic elements like a mad scientist’s lab (in Chapter Four, “The Copper Room”), an earthquake (Chapter Nine, “The Earth Gods Roar”), and the production of a Hollywood movie (in the last three chapters) that gives the filmmakers the chance to indulge in some war movie action even in peacetime. (The mad scientist has a scheme for turning copper into gold, a subplot that is dropped once Tommy and Betty Lou escape from the scientist’s house; at least it isn’t that old standby of the serials, radium.)
There is a connecting thread in all this: Taggart (John Davidson of The Perils of Pauline) and his attempts to undermine his competition. Most, but not all of the dangers Tommy (Maurice Murphy) and his allies face are set up by Taggart directly or by his mole, Bruce Hoyt (Walter Miller). As good as Davidson is–he’s got a great sinister deep voice–Taggart is a one-note villain. It’s one of the strengths of the film that, in contrast with many serials, Taggart isn’t as interesting or compelling as the conflicted Hoyt or the good guy Tommy and his friends.
Those friends include “Skeeter” Milligan (Noah Beery, Jr.), Tommy’s partner in Littleville who stows away in Milt Howe’s plane to follow his friend and also ends up working for Three Points. Skeeter, given to pratfalls and one-liners, including a running gag about “unwritten law,” provides most of the comic relief, although he also backs up Tommy when things get rough and in one sequence he’s the object of rescue: after being blinded by a blast of hot oil while working on an engine, Skeeter must be flown to a hospital in Denver to be operated on or else lose his sight permanently; it wouldn’t be a serial if that emergency flight over the Rockies didn’t coincide with the biggest storm of the year, but Tommy makes it.
Then there’s Tommy’s love interest, Betty Lou Barnes (Patricia Farr), who is a well-rounded and active character in her own right: when Tommy first meets Betty Lou, she’s suffered a flat tire in Littleville, and tells him about Three Points, where she is learning to fly. She works behind the counter at the airfield’s Aileron Café (the kind of diner in which a grease monkey can order coffee and donuts by saying, “Gimme a sleep killer and a coupla spare wheels”). Betty Lou is gutsy, whether literally walking out of a flying lesson with Bruce Hoyt by jumping out of the plane with a parachute, or pulling a gun on some of Taggart’s men when they try to kidnap her and Tommy. In other sequences, she does her own detective work: she is the first to have any concrete proof of Hoyt’s treachery, and she gets lured into a trap herself as a result.
Betty Lou’s relationship with Tommy highlights another unusual quality of this serial: the amount of time it covers. Unlike the breakneck pace of many serials, Tailspin Tommy takes for granted the passage of time between exciting events (although not between chapters, as cliffhangers are still the rule), as well as giving a sense of Tommy’s development as both a flyer and a hero. At one point, six weeks are mentioned to have passed before Tommy has his pilot’s license; at another, the time it takes for Skeeter to recover from his surgery is similarly glossed over. Reference is made to the awards and publicity that Tommy has received for his achievements. The twelve chapters allow for the natural transformation of Tommy from an unknown who had never even been in a plane in Chapter One to a nationally-recognized hero whose involvement in a movie is assumed to be a draw in the last few chapters.
That sense of growth over time is unusual for a serial, and Tommy’s relationship with Betty Lou undergoes similar development. Unlike many serials, in which the pairing of the male and female leads is held off until the very last minute (or left to the audience’s imagination), Tailspin Tommy has Tommy and Betty Lou as an item midway through its run time, and far from threatening their relationship with complications or misunderstandings, the plot even reinforces it: in Chapter Ten, Tommy has begun filming the war movie Midnight Patrol, but he has no chemistry with the actress who plays his lover and can’t even remember his lines. Seeing how much of a connection he has with Betty Lou when she visits the set, however, the director fires the actress and replaces her with Betty Lou! Their performance of the same scene is like night and day, reminiscent of Naomi Watts’ intense reading of the corny soap opera dialogue in Mulholland Drive.
Interestingly, while Taggart’s villainy is the connecting thread through much of this serial, he gets his comeuppance early in the last chapter, so that the big question at the end is whether Tommy will appear at the Hollywood premiere of his new film or return to Littleville for a homecoming celebration among the people who love him. Considering we see Tommy make his travel plans and carry them out, it’s a little anticlimactic (the chapter is called “Littleville’s Big Day,” for crying out loud!). I’ve watched enough serials by now to observe that filmmakers of the time didn’t always put a lot of emphasis on suspense or use narrative twists as much as we might assume in retrospect. The template was often that of old-style mysteries in which the audience knows whodunit from the beginning and the real question was when and how the hero would find out. In the serials, sometimes that applied to little mysteries, too.
What I Watched: Tailspin Tommy (Universal, 1934)
Where I Watched It: A DVD from VCI Entertainment. This serial doesn’t seem to be online, although the follow-up is on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “The Earth Gods Roar” (Chapter Nine)
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eight (“The Thrill of Death”), Tommy is leading Three Point Air Line’s team in the Los Angeles Air Meet, an air show in which crews compete in airplane races and timed contests. For the refueling contest, Tommy rides with Bruce Hoyt and climbs out of the ship to attach a mid-air refueling hose from another airplane. Hoyt, sensing an opportunity to serve Taggart and rid himself of a rival, suddenly dives (blaming a snapped rudder cable which he has himself cut), leaving Tommy hanging onto the dangling hose without a parachute.
Sample Dialogue: “Someday, I’m gonna be a real flyer–a great flyer, too.”
What Others Have Said: “If you find such a conclusion corny and anti-climactic, you should steer clear of Tailspin Tommy; the ending is of a piece with the rest of the serial, which is chiefly about a small-town boy making good in the adventurous new world of aviation, and only incidentally about his battles with villains. However, those who are interested in old-time aerial excitement, genuine 1930s period flavor, and interesting and well-acted characters, are strongly advised to take a spin with Tailspin Tommy.” —The Files of Jerry Blake
What’s Next: Last summer’s weekly schedule was a bit too much for me to attempt again, so I’ll plan on making biweekly updates to Fates Worse Than Death this year; any extra material I get posted will be a bonus. Join me in two weeks as I examine 1944’s Captain America!