Fates Worse Than Death: Don Winslow of the Navy

We dedicate this picture to the United States Navy, its officers and men, in grateful acknowledgment of their invaluable co-operation and assistance.

As the above blurb, which appears at the beginning of Don Winslow of the Navy, indicates, the involvement of the U.S. military with Hollywood movie-making has been going on for a long time. Even without that acknowledgment, one could guess by the sheer volume of stock footage–of naval maneuvers, of ships and planes in action, and (in the penultimate chapter) of sailors storming a beach–that there was some connection. Of course, this was released during wartime, so it makes a dandy recruiting film for the Navy, but serials and B-movies generally weren’t going to be critical of the military (or law enforcement) anyway: aside from the demands of the Production Code, it would get in the way of the clear-cut good guys and bad guys narrative that is the spine of such films. Having said that, there are some interesting contrasts here to other pro-military and wartime serials.

The basic setup is a familiar one: Don Winslow, fresh from a stint with Naval Intelligence and recently put back in command of his own ship, U. S. Destroyer 620, is summoned to Pearl Harbor for his new assignment. Supply ships approaching the Pacific island of Tangita, where the Navy is building a new base, have sunk, and sabotage is suspected. Commander Winslow is to take the 620 to Tangita and get to the bottom of the mystery, assisted by his best friend, Lieutenant “Red” Pennington. After another attempt on an approaching ship, Winslow learns that infamous foreign spymaster the Scorpion is behind the attacks, and there must be a base of Scorpion agents somewhere on the island. If the Scorpion’s secret headquarters can be found and the saboteurs wiped out, the Navy base can be completed. So far, so good.

Beyond the unfinished base at Rondana Bay and its community of American workers, Tangita is a movie-land jungle island with all the amenities, including a native tribe with a temple and some crumbling ruins; a gold mine with a separate village for its laborers; and abandoned facilities such as the old smelter and old sea mill, ready to be destroyed in cliffhangers. The audience learns quickly that the Scorpion’s secret base (including an underwater submarine dock) is accessible through a shuttered tunnel in the gold mine, and that the gold mine’s operator, Merlin, is actually “M-22,” the Scorpion’s lead agent on the island. Throughout the serial, Merlin pretends to help Winslow while secretly luring him into traps or away from the real base, even going so far as to kill one of his own agents and plant papers on him to convince Winslow that he got the real M-22. As in many serials, the dirty work is carried out by lower-level Scorpion operatives so that Merlin’s duplicity isn’t discovered until the end. The Scorpion himself never sets foot on the island, instead issuing orders via television, and while Winslow triumphs at the end as expected, the story is open-ended: he moves onto his next assignment in hopes of bringing down the Scorpion for good.

Don Winslow of the Navy is also unusual in the degree to which its hero has it both ways, both commanding from the bridge and operating on the ground. I’ve quoted this passage from Raymond W. Stedman’s The Serials before, but it’s worth mentioning again: “No doubt about it, in jungle, prairie, or metropolis, the cliffhanging heroes and heroines did their part in the war effort–though one must overlook their apparent aversion to ordinary service in the armed forces. Scenes of battle action were no more than inserts in tales of spy fighting or fifth-column activity.” When action heroes are part of the military, they’re often commandos or intelligence agents, or are cut off from their units as a way of justifying their independence. Often, officers are remote characters in this kind of movie, issuing orders from behind a desk, far from the action. Not Winslow! At one point, asked why he always heads into danger alone instead of letting his underlings take the risk, he explains, “The Scorpion wants to get me alive–they’ll shoot the rest of you on sight.” But he also commands a full-sized destroyer, providing scenes of large-scale battle (at one point the 620 even rams a submarine, saving another Navy ship from danger) that are often out of the reach of serial heroes. The scope of the action, and the addition of all that footage from the Navy, makes it feel like a real war picture.

It also brought another genre to mind: this serial may be set on earth, but I think Don Winslow and Buck Rogers would have a lot to talk about. Gene Roddenberry may have pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars,” but one can see the naval influence in the quasi-military treatment of the ship and its crew, and more importantly the balance of ship-to-ship combat and planetside “away missions” that the captain takes part in. Substitute “islands” for “planets” and the roots of the genre are clear: “final frontier,” indeed.

While watching Don Winslow, I also often found myself thinking of The Fighting Marines: there are some similarities, including an unknown master spy and a base on a Pacific island, as well as heroes who are in uniform but given a free hand. But since The Fighting Marines was made in the 1930s, before the war, it’s typically coy about the nationality of the villain. Don Winslow was made in 1941, so it is also not very specific: the Scorpion (played by Kurt Katch) is apparently German, going by his accent, but like many of those villains of the interwar years, his actual goals and politics aren’t mentioned. He’s against America, so that’s all we need to know. The serial began distribution in October of 1941; the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor made it both timely and a little quaint: following the declaration of war, subsequent serials would be less circumspect in naming America’s enemies.

Winslow is played by Don Terry, who is really everything one could expect of an upright, square-jawed, red-blooded serial hero of the time period. Like many of his colleagues, Terry (born Donald Loker) had an athletic background; interestingly, after playing Don Winslow in two serials, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve for real and earned a Purple Heart serving in the Pacific, and he left the film industry shortly after that. Of course, a serial hero needs a supporting cast. In addition to Lt. Pennington (Walter Sande), there’s older Navy man Mike Splendor (Wade Boteler, playing the kind of blustering Irishman he played in The Green Hornet and Red Barry, among many, many Irish cop roles) and civilian construction head John Blake (Ben Taggart). Navy nurse Mercedes Colby (Claire Dodd) and secretary Misty Gaye (Anne Nagel, also seen in The Green Hornet) are established as the only survivors of the shipwreck that serves as the inciting incident, but they go way back with Winslow and Pennington (romance, or at least double dating, is implied, but as in most serials it’s kept in the background).

After a couple of sluggish Columbia serials, Don Winslow of the Navy (also based on a comic strip and radio show) was a breath of fresh air: not only was it a tight twelve chapters, it moved quickly, balancing character scenes with action. Other than the weird Mascot serials of the ’30s, I think Universal’s have been my next favorite; the production is generally (if not always!) good, but not so slick as to be unsurprising and formulaic. In this case, a stirring score helps smooth out the rough edges: the Navy march, “Anchors Aweigh,” forms the theme song, of course, but the incidental music includes a lot of Elgar-sounding stuff and dramatic strains in the vein of Victory at Sea.

What I Watched: Don Winslow of the Navy (Universal, 1942)

Where I Watched It: VHS set from VCI’s Classic Cliffhanger Collection

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Fighting Fathoms Deep” (Chapter Ten)

Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Nine, “Wings of Destruction,” Winslow sets out to test a new plane, and Mercedes talks her way into going with him. Scorpion agent Barsac (John Holland) gets to the hangar first with the intention of sabotaging the plane, but when he is surprised by Winslow’s arrival, a hastily discarded torch sets a fire. Barsac is confident that the fire will put an end to Winslow’s meddling, but that turns out not to be the cliffhanger. Winslow and Mercedes are able to take off, saving both the plane and themselves from the fire. Meanwhile, Barsac radios one of the Scorpion’s subs, having it launch its onboard plane to bomb the 620, carrying out the other part of the Scorpion’s order. With both planes in the air and bombs falling on the Navy Destroyer, a dogfight ensues; Winslow is grazed by a bullet and falls unconscious, and the plane goes into a dive. By the kind of lucky coincidence serial heroes are blessed with, the plane collides with the Scorpion’s bomber, shearing the bomber’s wing off and causing it to crash. But how can our heroes pull out of the fatal dive with Winslow still unconscious? (Hint: remember that passenger who insisted on coming along for the ride?)

Not the Best Cliffhanger: In a very odd sequence, Winslow darkens his skin and puts on a sarong to disguise himself as a native and investigate an old ruin that Merlin has directed him to (it’s a trap, of course). Aside from the ways in which brownface is problematic (although common at the time), it’s odd because Winslow never makes an attempt to blend in with the natives; he is almost immediately joined by (white) members of his party. At the same time, Merlin has provided the native witch doctor, Koloka, with a loudspeaker and microphone to make it seem as if the temple’s idol is speaking (just like in Terry and the Pirates!), which will allow the corrupt Koloka, a Scorpion loyalist, to usurp the tribe’s rightful chief, Tombana. Meanwhile, Blake (overseeing construction of the Naval base) brings Mercedes to the village to help some sick children.

Once of all of our heroes are at the temple, Koloka stirs up the natives using the loudspeaker in the idol, blaming the white newcomers for the sickness in the village. Chased by a mob, Winslow and the others are cornered; their only hope of escape is for Winslow to dive into the water, distract the natives, and come back for his friends. (I had thought that perhaps this dive was the reason for his native costume, so the filmmakers could insert footage of a Pacific islander diving, but there really isn’t enough to the shot to make such trouble worth it, and it looks like star Don Terry performs the jump.) All would be well, if it weren’t for all the sharks in the water! All of this is in Chapter Six, “Menaced by Man-Eaters”; the other reason it seems out of place is that the natives are hardly relevant to the plot except in this chapter and the resolution in the next. The episode definitely feels like filler to pad out the serial, but I don’t mind digressions when they’re enjoyable.

Sample Dialogue:

Winslow: What do you know about the men who just escaped?

Miner: You mean Spike? Not much. Him and a couple other guys by the name of Prindle and Corley come over here sometimes.

Winslow: Do they work in the mine?

Miner: Sometimes, not regular. Why? They deserters in the Navy?

Winslow: Hardly. We don’t have their kind in the Navy.

–Chapter Eight, “The Chamber of Doom”

For Your Further Don Winslow Viewing Pleasure: This serial was followed up by Don Winslow of the Coast Guard in 1943, also starring Don Terry.

What Others Have Said: “Boys who enlisted in Don Winslow’s Squadron of Peace received along with a bronze ensign’s badge a copy of the creed Winslow himself was bound to uphold. Composed before World War II neared American shores, it is quaintly touching today:

I consecrate my life to Peace and to the protection of all my Countrymen wherever they may be. My battle against Scorpia represents the battle between Good and Evil. Never will I enter into any jingoistic proposition, but will devote my entire life to protecting my Country. The whole purpose of my life is that of promoting Peace–not War. I will work in the interests of Peace and will promote the fulfillment of all things that are clean, wholesome and upright. Join me not alone in observing this creed, but likewise be patriotic. Love your country, its flag and all the things for which it stands. Follow the advice of your parents and superiors and help someone every day.

–Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

Commander Winslow was a close personal friend of Captain Marvel, but only on the covers of their shared comic books, sadly.

What’s Next: I’m going to take a break from fiddling with my VCR and look at a serial I have on disc: join me next time as I investigate The Vanishing Shadow, which promises to be something different!