Fates Worse Than Death: Junior G-Men

Which is more terrifying: to be trapped in an out-of-control elevator, plummeting down the shaft to the basement, or to be in the bottom of that shaft, trapped as the elevator descends to crush you? Billy Barton and Harry Trent, the heroes of the 1940 serial Junior G-Men, face both situations: the first as enemies thrown together by chance and the second later as allies, once street kid Billy has seen the necessity of joining forces with the Junior G-Men, perhaps even signing up to become one himself! In between those two cliffhangers, they and their friends face off against kidnapping attempts, fires, and explosions, even experiencing a building coming down around them! It’s all in the line of duty for the Junior G-Men!

Several times during this series, I have commented on the necessity of combining the action and mystery formulas of the serials with other genres: of course there are superhero, Western, and jungle adventure serials, to name a few, settings capacious and widespread enough to encompass whole strands of serial style. One can be a fan of one of those formats and have plenty to watch without ever having to branch out. But there are also settings and premises that were only adapted to the serials a few times: the “giant bug” creature feature of Panther Girl of the Kongo comes to mind, and Junior G-Men is an example of the serialization of the “juvenile gang” film. Kid characters aren’t too unusual in serials, but Junior G-Men is a vehicle for the Dead End Kids, essentially a genre unto themselves. The Dead End Kids began as a group of young actors who broke out together in the Broadway play (and 1937 feature film) Dead End, a slice-of-life drama about tenement life in Lower East Side New York. They went on to star in numerous films together in different combinations, eventually devolving from the socially-conscious melodrama of Dead End and Angels With Dirty Faces to the goofy, sitcom-like antics of the Bowery Boys in the 1950s. The additional billing of the “Little Tough Guys” in the cast of Junior G-Men does not indicate a second group, but rather an attempt to rebrand the troupe after moving from Warner Brothers to Universal; it’s a little confusing. (Trav S.D., author of books on Vaudeville and film comedy, has a more detailed breakdown of the Dead End Kids and their various spinoffs here.) Notably, Leo Gorcey, whose name is most closely associated with the later Bowery Boys, does not appear in Junior G-Men.

As Junior G-Men begins, we observe Billy Lang’s gang in its natural habitat, the city streets, engaging in the kind of behavior teenage boys get up to in packs: rough-housing, verbally busting each other’s chops, catcalling women, and cadging apples from street vendors (okay, that last one is a bit more specific to their time and place). The only indication that these tough kids might be more than loudmouthed delinquents is when Billy (Billy Halop) pushes one of his fellows out of the way of a speeding car. You could call it Billy’s “Save the Cat” moment, but it just ends up causing more trouble, resulting in a wreck and traffic jam that spirals into a fight between the drivers.

While the cops are distracted and the other adults are rubbernecking, Billy and the boys help themselves to the pies from the back of a stalled bakery truck. A slick-looking, better-dressed boy observes them at a distance, and once they’ve left, helps the cops track down the teenage pie thieves. That boy is Harry Trent, head of the local Junior G-Men chapter and an aspiring Fed, just doing the right thing in the name of law and order; once Billy and his gang find out who squealed on them, they invade the Junior G-Men’s clubhouse and beat the snot out of them, at least until one of the junior agents is able to place a call and summon the police.

It might end there, but once Harry’s uncle, FBI agent Jim Bradford (Phillip Terry), arrives, he learns that “Billy Lang” is actually Billy Barton, the missing son of one Colonel Barton, a scientist and inventor who had disappeared years earlier. (Col. Barton had placed his son in a military school before going on the mission during which he went missing, a school which Billy ran away from, leading to life on the streets and his new assumed identity.) Bradford realizes that Billy may be the key to defeating the Order of the Flaming Torch, a secret organization dedicated to overthrowing the United States government.

With their choice of iconography, an arm holding a raised torch, and their penchant for Roman columns in their hideout, the Torch gang (or “Torchies,” as they are frequently called later) suggests a fascist insurgency, but as usual their exact politics are left a mystery beyond their goal of replacing democratic government with their own rule. And they seem close to achieving it: their cells are spread out across the country, and they’ve succeeded in kidnapping several scientists and other prominent individuals, like Barton, to force them to work for their cause. Col. Barton (Russell Hicks) is the inventor of a new explosive (“Bartonite,” of course) that is not only more powerful than any yet developed, it can somehow cause the detonation of any other explosives within a range dependent on how much of the substance is used. Barton has thus far refused to share the formula for his explosive, only preparing small amounts for the Torchies to test; while he maintains that leverage, he remains alive. Once the Torchies, and their leader Brand, have the formula, they can manufacture as much of the substance as they want, and they will be ready to make their move. Brand learns that Billy is Col. Barton’s son, and immediately plans to kidnap him, hoping to use Billy to force his father’s hand.

Many serials and pulp narratives start out with characters suspicious of or antagonistic to each other, but Junior G-Men really goes the extra mile in establishing Billy’s dislike for Harry. Harry Trent (played by Kenneth Howell, not one of the regular Dead End Kids) is an uptight square, at first appearing to be the kind of rich “softy” the Dead End Kids beat up for laughs in their earlier films. His efforts to bring the kids to justice for stealing a few pies shows, at best, an eagerness to show off and be part of the system, and he seems to expect Billy to thank him for showing him the way back to the straight and narrow.

Because of the Production Code and the need for clearly-drawn heroes and villains, the serials were generally pro-law-and-order (their earnest squareness is a frequent target of later spoofs), so making the anarchic, sarcastic, and authority-defying Dead End Kids the heroes (and keeping the antagonism going for as long as it does–it’s about halfway through before Billy really commits to working with Harry and his chums) makes for an unusual change of pace. When Jim Bradford appeals to Billy’s sense of patriotism, the word hardly has any meaning, he’s been pushed around so much. “The government or the cops never did nothin’ for me!” Billy sneers. “Stop preachin’ to me, wiseguy.” Proof that the “juvenile delinquent” archetype of the 1950s had deeper roots than many think.

At first Billy doesn’t believe Bradford’s claim that the Torchies are holding Col. Barton, but once he sees the evidence for himself he acts: at first on his own, still refusing the aid or advice of the FBI (“I’ll find him without the help of any copper!”), and later only grudgingly cooperating. Most of the middle chapters feature at least one scene in which Billy observes Harry’s cutting-edge police work, so like the Dick Tracy serials, and says something like, “That scientific stuff of yours is pretty good.” There’s even a montage in which Bradford explains the FBI’s fingerprint database, complete with stock footage of agents combing through thick files and using the latest technology like computer punch cards.

Billy is won over as much by the cool radio equipment and good food at the Junior G-Men clubhouse as he is by Harry’s and Bradford’s efforts at persuasion. Eventually he agrees to “put our wallop together and go after those Torchies.” Even then, Billy and his gang do things their own way, and they don’t really change character. It’s sometimes a little frustrating–there are plenty of times Billy takes dumb risks instead of waiting for backup, but that’s what we love about the loose-cannon detectives in later mismatched buddy cop comedies, isn’t it? Serial heroes can sometimes be a little too perfect, so the often-fractious efforts at teamwork between the raucous kids and the straitlaced FBI makes for a lively, colorful adventure. It’s also generally exciting and satisfying to see the kids get one over on the pompously assured Brand (Cy Kendall, seen before in this series in The Green Hornet and Jungle Queen). “They got away, as usual,” Brand’s right-hand man, Severn (Ben Taggart), says morosely after yet another failed encounter.

Aside from Billy, the Dead End Kid who gets the most screen time is Gyp, the cut-up (and would-be lady’s man) played by lanky, rubber-faced Huntz Hall. Most of the overt comic relief comes from Gyp (or at his expense), giving Billy space to brood and take charge of situations. Many of Gyp’s lines, mostly “so’s your old man” non sequiturs, are really memorable because of Hall’s delivery: when Gyp–who is earlier shown learning how to drive–jumps into Harry’s car after Billy and Harry have been grabbed yet again by the Torchies, he yells at a pedestrian, “Hey, whadya wanna do, become an angel or somethin’?” It’s funnier on screen than it is in print.

Other gang members, regular members of the troop, include Lug (Bernard Punsly) and Terry (Gabriel Dell), but they don’t get more than a few lines at a time and are mostly noticeable when the kids have to split up into different groups for plot reasons (that’s pretty much the way the formula plays out in regular Dead End Kids or Bowery Boys vehicles, as well). They still come off better than the Junior G-Men, however: aside from Harry, I couldn’t remember the names of any of the others, and they’re pretty much completely interchangeable. The numbers of kids pays off in fight scenes, however, which they throw themselves into with gusto, filling the screen with action and practically tearing the sets down (that rowdiness apparently continued off the set, and was one of the reasons the troupe passed under different studios and producers over the years).

As far as I can tell, Junior G-Men lies halfway between the soapy but plausible mixture of drama and comedy in the early Dead End Kids films and the kooky, formulaic encounters with ghosts, psychics, and Russian spies in the Bowery Boys pictures. Already, Billy’s gang is shown living out the teenage fantasy of independence, with a cool junkyard clubhouse (hidden behind a secret entrance in a fence, of course), and it goes without saying that their battles with the Torch gang are pure pulp. With America pulling out of the long Depression, even such concerns as hunger and physical danger are mere inconveniences or opportunities for adventure rather than the soul-destroying epidemics of Dead End. Conversely, Billy’s disillusionment with the government is mined for drama, and the Torch gang isn’t playing around (interestingly, gunplay is largely avoided because the FBI doesn’t want to start shooting with kids around, and the Torchies don’t want to lose their leverage over Col. Barton by accidentally killing his son). Much of the charge in Junior G-Men comes from characters from two different genres–the slapstick and sarcasm of the kid gangs and the clipped “Now see here” patter of the crime serial–bumping against each other. The result is a unique and entertaining film in which the roots of many future kiddie adventure flicks can be seen.

What I Watched: Junior G-Men (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Rhino Video (It is also on YouTube, which is where I grabbed the screen caps.)

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Trapped by Traitors” (Chapter Six); but have no fear, victory is ultimately assured by “The Power of Patriotism” (Chapter Twelve)!

Best Cliffhanger: In the aforementioned “Trapped by Traitors,” Billy and the gang trace the Torchies to their city hideout in an unfinished apartment building and decide to do some snooping without involving Bradford. However, Bradford overhears the boys’ plans and summons his own G-men to raid the hideout. Bradford arrives just in time to help Billy and Harry out of a trap and shake off their would-be captors, but unbeknownst to our heroes, Brand has had both towers of the apartment building wired with explosives that can be set off remotely. Learning that their cover has been blown, Brand gives the signal, and stock footage of the apartment tower collapsing are alternated with interior shots of billowing dust and rafters caving in. Will the senior and junior G-men make it out in time? (Dialogue from Chapter Six, including “Oh boy, that was a close one!”, suggests they will.)

Sample Dialogue:

Bradford: Did the Torch gang clear out?

Gyp: Yeah, but they won’t get far.

Bradford: Why not?

Gyp: I knifed one of them.

Bradford: Knifed ’em?

Gyp: Ehhhh, I knifed one of their tires.

(Chapter Seven, “Flaming Death”)

What Others Have Said: “A big, stout, lumbering man, whose first impression of drowsiness or laziness was disarmingly deceptive, [Cy Kendall] portrayed with finesse the sly, crafty, insinuating gang boss who badgered those around him with guile and deceit, praising them with a sarcastic display of oily supercilious charm, while constantly nagging them with a cynical sneer of thinly disguised contempt. His ‘boys’ never knew what he really thought of them, but the audience did. He was so easy to hate that regular serial fans grew to love him.” –William C. Cline, In the Nick of Time: Motion Picture Sound Serials

What’s Next: The Dead End Kids starred in two more serials for Universal, Sea Raiders and Junior G-Men of the Air, which I may get to, but for now I’m heading back to the jungle with Clyde Beatty in Darkest Africa! See you next time!

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