Fates Worse Than Death: Brenda Starr, Reporter

Daily Flash reporter Brenda Starr and her cameraman Chuck Allen race to cover a fire in a downtown neighborhood, hoping to beat police Lt. Larry Farrell and his assistant Tim Brown to the scene: a fire is big news, but this could be the break Brenda needs in the story of Joe Heller, the thief who stole a quarter-million-dollar payroll and was recently seen in the neighborhood. As it happens, Heller is in the burning building, but before he can escape he is cornered by Kruger, a gunman for the gang to whom Heller was supposed to hand off the loot. Kruger recovers the payroll bag and shoots Heller; when Brenda enters the room, Kruger thrusts her into a closet. After being rescued by Farrell, she bends down to check on Heller, and with his dying breath he slips her a piece of paper with a code on it.

Later, at the swanky Pelican Club, Kruger and his fellow gangster Mullin turn the bag over to their superior, club manager Frank Smith. The bag turns out to be full of blank paper! Even in death, Joe Heller has double-crossed them! Kruger saw Brenda take the note from Heller, so he suspects that she might know where the real loot is. Meanwhile, Farrell passes along a story that Heller is still alive but unconscious, a trap to lure his killers into the open. Communicating with his superior, the “Big Boss,” by radio, Smith is instructed to pass a tip to Brenda Starr through an underworld contact named Charlie, sending her to spring the trap the police have set. When she and Chuck get to the house (that both the police and the gang are watching), she finds it full of gas: only a lucky fall out of a window saves her when absent-minded Chuck lights a match, igniting the gas!

After surviving that little incident, Brenda finds that Joe Heller, played by serial regular Wheeler Oakman, is actually dead, and the cover story was all a ruse. “Woakman” fans (or “Wacorns,” as we call ourselves) will be happy to learn, however, that Joe Heller had an identical twin brother, Lew, also played by Oakman, who turns up a few chapters later to avenge his brother’s death and find the payroll himself. Joe, we barely knew ye, but Lew turns out to be just as slippery and self-interested, holding on to what little he knows in hopes of making a deal with the police (especially after he fractures a milkman’s skull making one of his getaways). The payroll is still out there somewhere, and while the police codebreakers try to make sense of the paper Brenda was given, Frank Smith and his gang try to flush out Lew and the payroll; if they can get rid of the troublesome reporter Brenda Starr at the same time, so much the better!

Brenda Starr, Reporter was, of course, an adaptation of the comic strip of the same name, begun by Dale Messick in 1940 (and continued after her death until 2011). Brenda stands apart from the other brassy dames reporting the news in her day by being glamorous as well as gutsy, and the comic strip is notable for Brenda’s fashionable outfits and the elements of romance that accompany the adventure. Naturally, the sex appeal is toned down in the serial, but star Joan Woodbury makes a convincingly beautiful serial-budget replacement for Rita Hayworth (the original model for comic-strip Brenda) and wears a few nice gowns when the occasion arises. She and Lt. Farrell (serial stalwart Kane Richmond) are clearly crazy about each other, and as in the raucous romantic comedies of the era their banter and disagreements are a cover for their mutual attraction. Here’s one serial where the last-scene kiss between male and female leads actually feels like it’s in character!

This is the second serial in a row I’ve watched in which the villains take orders from a disembodied voice, and I know I’ve seen at least a couple that have the same solution to the mystery of the “Big Boss’s” identity; mostly we get a number of scenes with smooth Frank Smith (George Meeker, according to IMDb: other than the leads, the actors go uncredited) and his underlings (regular heavies Anthony Warde and John Merton; Jack Ingram plays Kruger). Smith and his gang have some of the usual serial tricks at their disposal, such as the “special sedan” with the sealed-off backseat that takes men (and women) who have outlived their usefulness on their “last ride.”

A singer at the nightclub, Vera Harvey (Cay Forester), gets reluctantly involved when Brenda identifies her car as the one used in a crime; at least a few chapters’ worth of incident are spun out of poor Vera getting in over her head, first cooperating in a plot to trap Brenda and then asking for help when she realizes her own life is in danger.

Other than the usual henchmen, the sketchy stool pigeon Charlie (Ernie Adams) makes the biggest impression, playing both sides against each other. With a toothpick dangling from his mouth and his “wise guy” way of talking, Charlie is the picture of a movie gangster; frankly, it’s not clear why anyone ever trusts him when he’s so obviously looking out for Number One.

We also get a bit of Brenda’s home life: she lives with her cousin Abretha (Lottie Harrison), a one-note character from the comic strip. Abretha (full name: Abretha Breeze, which is almost a pun) is a full-figured gal, and like other “fat” characters such as Wonder Woman’s pal Etta Candy, almost every line of dialogue she has revolves around food, and spends her time cooking lavish meals for Brenda and her colleagues that she ends up eating herself. Hilarious! Abretha seems like a nice girl, and it’s useful to have a character who doesn’t share the main cast’s zest for adventure, but a little goes a long way. I haven’t read much of the original Brenda Starr comics, but reading up on the various punny characters like Abretha actually leaves me sympathetic to the usual serial habit of creating new characters as foils for the hero.

In fact, my first impression of this serial is that its strength lies in its sense of character, as the plot and its complications are nothing special. So far, Columbia’s serials have been my least favorite of any studio’s output, with even the better ones having lumpy pacing and a casual, slapdash air. That works, however, for the mostly comic scenes of rapid-fire banter in the newsroom: the Flash’s blustering editor, Walters (Frank Jaquet), has the air of an indulgent but frequently exasperated father, offering and rescinding bonus checks with every change of fortune. Then there’s Pesky (William Benedict), the copy boy who can be counted on to get everything backwards: this is an obvious source of comic relief, but it also informs and complicates the plot, as when he sends the cops to Brenda’s apartment instead of the Pelican Club at a crucial moment, or when Brenda, surprised by Lew at home, tells Chuck over the phone not to come over and to “be a good boy and obey orders like Pesky would”–i.e., by doing the opposite of what she told him.

Finally, there’s the friendly rivalry between the cops and the press: just as Brenda and Lt. Farrell are paired up as co-leads, so do their respective sidekicks have a bantering, semi-antagonistic relationship: Chuck (Syd Saylor) and Officer Brown (Joe Devlin) are betting men, wagering on who will arrive at the scene first and keeping a running tally. Chuck’s sad-sack demeanor is also an excellent comic foil to Brenda’s brash stop-at-nothing energy: “Maybe we don’t live right,” he complains at one point. “Everything bad happens to us.” Buddy, that’s the life of a serial hero.

What I Watched: Brenda Starr, Reporter (Columbia, 1945)

Where I Watched It: DVD from VCI Entertainment (It’s worth noting that the VCI disk is missing scenes from Chapters 3 and 4 due to deterioration of the source material; Serial Squadron has located these missing chapters and is in the process of restoring them for a future release. There is enough redundancy in the serial format that it’s not hard to pick up on what happens in the missing sections, however.)

No. of Chapters: “13 Spine Tingling Chapters!”

Best Chapter Title: “Hot News!” (Chapter One)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Eight (“Killer at Large”), Charlie comes up with a plan that will help Lew get his revenge on Kruger for killing his brother. Charlie convinces Frank Smith to hire a phony fortune teller named Zelda (Marion Burns) for the Pelican Club, and Lew comes along as her assistant, “Abdul,” in a turban and false beard. (The stuff with Zelda, in this and the following chapter, is a lot of fun, and probably the high point of the serial for me.) Brenda and Chuck are invited to watch, as are Lt. Farrell and Tim. As “Abdul,” Lew walks among the audience, calling out for Zelda (who is blindfolded) to say what the marks are thinking, or what is in their pockets. Approaching Kruger, Abdul asks Zelda for her impression and is told that she feels a great sense of evil; through leading questions, Zelda says that a murder has been committed in the past, and that if Abdul looks in Kruger’s pocket he will find the gun that killed Vera Harvey. The plan to trap Kruger in front of the police goes awry when the lights in the club go out and shots are fired. This is one of several cliffhangers in which uncertainty or a reversal of fortune takes the place of an immediate deadly peril, but the implication is that any of our heroes might be on the receiving end of those gunshots. (At the beginning of the next chapter, when the lights come back on, both Kruger and Lew are gone. )

Sample Dialogue: “Whether you believe me or not, I’m going to write a story that’ll crack this town wide open!” –Brenda Starr to Lt. Farrell, Chapter Five (“The Big Boss Speaks”)

More Brenda Starr: Brenda Starr returned to the screen a few more times during periods of revived interest in the comics: in 1976, former Bond girl Jill St. John played Brenda in a TV movie (I haven’t been able to watch this one yet, but if I have anything worthwhile to say about it I may post a capsule review), and a TV pilot was made in 1979 starring Sherry Jackson.

A feature film starring Brooke Shields was produced in 1986, released overseas in 1989, and finally landed in the U.S. (to dismal reviews and poor box office) in 1992. It features Timothy Dalton (no stranger to pulp) as Brenda’s love interest, the enigmatic Basil St. John. In this movie Brenda dodges international spies and a reporter from a rival newspaper while tracking down an ex-Nazi scientist’s miracle fuel additive. The film also goes meta in the vein of The Purple Rose of Cairo, with a cartoonist (not Dale Messick, but an assistant) entering Brenda’s 1940s comic strip world and falling in love with her (Brooke Shields was my very first celebrity crush, so I can’t say I blame him). It’s a hook, but it’s less magical to learn that Brenda doesn’t have a belly button and is unable to swear (because of newspaper censors, you see) than the filmmakers seem to think. Shields makes a great Brenda, even if the film around her is (to be charitable) uneven. There are a lot of clever touches, but it’s pretty damn goofy as well, and everything to do with the Russian spies led by Jeffrey Tambor would be too broad for a live-action Disney movie. But then the movie shows us something sublimely silly like Brenda waterskiing on a pair of alligators and it comes all the way back around to being good.

What Others Have Said: “What Columbia was trying to do in the mid-1940s was trade upon–some would say tarnish–the reputations of heroes of other media. Beginning in 1945, when ‘Produced by Sam Katzman’ was stamped upon every Columbia serial, the borrowings were regular and frequent. The funny papers’ Brenda Starr, Reporter began the procession. . . .” —The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment, Raymond W. Stedman

What’s Next: I dive back into my big box of VHS tapes with another adaptation of a classic comic strip, Terry and the Pirates!

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