Fates Worse Than Death: Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery

When last we saw “Tailspin” Tommy Tompkins, the youthful daredevil pilot from Littleville, he had a steady job at Three Points airfield and a steady girl in Betty Lou Barnes, and was even something of a celebrity, having acted in a movie. As the second Tailspin Tommy serial begins, Tommy and his partner “Skeeter” Milligan are still working out of Three Points, with Skeeter operating a camera as Tommy flies them over fleet maneuvers for the Navy. Once they finish up, they get their next job offer: Betty Lou’s uncle Ned Curtis hires the pair to make an aerial survey of a tropical island and blaze trails for the oil pipelines Curtis and his partner, Don Alvarado Casmetto, are laying. Tommy and Skeeter are to join Betty Lou, her uncle, and Don Casmetto’s niece Inez on a dirigible bound for the island of Nazil.

However, after a detour to Littleville, Tommy and Skeeter miss their flight; they decide to follow the dirigible’s path in their own plane with the intention of docking in mid-air. The captain refuses at first, but then a mysterious plane decorated like an eagle appears, and its pilot–also wearing an eagle-themed suit and helmet–sends a message instructing the dirigible to take the boys on board. The eagle plane lays down a smoke screen and vanishes as quickly as it had appeared. Soon the boys have docked and joined their party. But a storm blows up, and with the dirigible’s radio damaged, the only chance to send an S.O.S. is the radio in Tommy’s still-docked plane. He descends into the cockpit while the storm rages around him; suddenly the wind knocks the plane loose from its mooring with Tommy inside it; it plummets toward the ocean below while the dirigible collapses. Will Tommy’s adventure be over before it even begins? Audiences in 1935 would have to wait a whole week to find out in subsequent chapters of Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery!

During the 1930s, the promise of freedom and adventure in the skies fueled an entire subgenre of aviation-themed comic strips, books, and movies. Hal Forrest’s Tailspin Tommy, a footnote today, was one of the most popular, branching beyond the comics to radio, Big Little Books, and, of course, motion pictures. Like so many of the kids in his audience, Tommy Tompkins was a small-town boy obsessed with airplanes and flight, and his first serial relayed his journey from wannabe to hero pilot in compressed form, stringing together several episodes from his comic-strip adventures over an unusually long period of time.

Filmed just a year later, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery is a much more typical serial, focused on a single plot: when Tommy and Skeeter and the rest finally arrive at the island of Nazil, they find that it is disputed territory. Don Casmetto’s half-brother, Manuel (Herbert Heywood), has a base on the opposite end of the island, and with the encouragement and financial backing of an unscrupulous oil speculator named Raymore (Mathew Betz) he is making war with the goal of taking over Casmetto’s lucrative oil fields. Manuel has airplanes and pilots of his own at his disposal, so the situation provides plenty of opportunities for scenes of aerial reconnaissance, chases, dogfights, crashes, and daring rescues (not to mention the kinds of fist fights and cave-ins that provide the thrills in all serial genres). Nazil is Hollywood-exotic, combining elements of the island/jungle genre (namely, an active volcano and aggressive natives on a neighboring island) with the kind of Spanish colonial color–haciendas, mariachis, and the elegant lifestyle of the dons–seen in the Zorro series. The story’s self-containment in an exotic locale is somewhat similar in that regard to the near-contemporary Ace Drummond, with a south-of-the-border setting in place of that serial’s Mongolia.

One of the chief elements of suspense is the eagle-themed plane and its pilot, nicknamed “El Condor” by Manuel’s men: who is he, and how does he achieve such amazing aerial maneuvers and disappear so quickly once he is no longer needed? From the very first chapter, El Condor appears to be on Tommy’s side (and, by extension, Don Casmetto’s); he is an example of a standard character type in the serials, the masked hero who is not the main protagonist, but who comes to the aid of the main characters and whose identity is eventually revealed to them. (The solution to this mystery is one that is in plain sight, but one could be forgiven for missing the significance of a few lines of dialogue by a secondary character in the first chapter.) Although the mysterious plane isn’t treated as a macguffin like in some serials, there is a nod toward the trope of high-tech equipment that mustn’t fall into the “wrong hands”: once Tommy has learned El Condor’s true identity and flown with him, experiencing one of the plane’s miraculous getaways for himself, El Condor says with understandable pride, “A great weapon for war, Tommy,” to which Tommy immediately replies, “A great weapon for peace, you mean.”

However, El Condor is not the only masked flyer in the serial, nor the only character who has secrets. One of Don Casmetto’s friends, Enrico Garcia (Paul Ellis), is quickly shown to be a traitor, feeding damaging information to Manuel and Raymore, as well as taking to the air himself as “Double X,” retaining his anonymity with an aviator cap and goggles marked by twin Xs, a literal “double cross.” Garcia is able to play both sides for quite a while, and is even able to convince Don Casmetto for a time that he is the mysterious “El Condor.”

Another character, Bill McGuire (Jim Burtis), first appears as a cook and gopher for Manuel, but he is actually a reporter and a friend of Tommy’s, working undercover as he gathers information for a big story. In several chapters he helps Tommy and Skeeter by setting them free from Manuel’s dungeon or giving them key information; he also, it turns out, knows the real identity of El Condor, making him critical to the serial’s climactic chapters. At the same time, he occasionally serves as a surrogate character for the audience, watching events unfold from the ground and exchanging a “gee, whiz” or a whistle of amazement with his pet parrot. (He provides a bit of comic relief, but he’s not a bumbler in the Smiley Burnette mold; he only appears to be one when serving Manuel to avert suspicion.)

Despite the short time between the two serials’ production, Great Air Mystery recasts most of the main characters, with Clark Williams taking the title role in place of the first serial’s Maurice Murphy; Jean Rogers, the future Dale Arden, now plays Betty Lou, replacing Patricia Farr. (Such recasting occasionally happens today, but it was even more common in the studio era when film production was more akin to an assembly line.) Fittingly, Noah Beery, Jr. returns to play Skeeter, the most distinctive character among them, but even here his shtick is changed: as a comic relief sidekick, Skeeter usually has a running gag: in the first Tailspin Tommy serial, he had a tendency to make a proclamation or observation and proclaim it an “unwritten law.” In the 1939 feature Sky Patrol, Skeeter was given to malapropisms, mangling or misusing polysyllabic words. In Great Air Mystery, however, Skeeter’s comedy isn’t that broad, mostly limited to attempts at card tricks (in one sequence he attempts to use one to distract Manuel’s men after being captured) and his nervous reaction to Inez Casmetto’s obvious come-ons (not an unusual trait for a comic sidekick at the time).

Of course, Betty Lou isn’t content to sit back and let the boys have all the adventure: recall that in the first serial, it was she who first had her pilot’s license and was Tommy’s introduction to the world of flying. In Great Air Mystery, despite Tommy and Skeeter’s efforts to keep her away from danger, she several times either stows away (hiding in a truly tiny-looking compartment in Tommy’s plane!) or flies off on her own, alone or with Inez (Delphine Drew). (Needless to say, this sometimes does put her in danger, but that just puts her on the same footing as everybody else in this serial.) Betty Lou’s attitude is summed up in Chapter Seven (“The Crash in the Clouds”) when she arrives at Don Casmetto’s oilfield in her own plane with Inez after being told to stay away. Skeeter tells her, “Hey, don’t you know this is men’s work?”, to which she replies, “Where’s the sign?” When Skeeter asks what sign, she spells it out for him: “Men. At. Work.” (No, it’s not exactly Preston Sturges.)

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery isn’t bad: it features likable characters in a colorful environment and keeps the plot moving along. Of course, the main draw is the aerial action, which is for the most part exciting and not hard to follow, and there are several well-done action set pieces. (Apparently it was the practice to blaze trails by flying above the territory and dropping grenades on the jungle below, and you can bet all those explosives find other uses, blowing up warehouses, hangars, and airplanes on the ground alike!) On the other hand, Great Air Mystery doesn’t have the small-town charm of the first serial, so nothing about it stands out from the other aviation-themed serials that were being churned out in the mid-’30s. Needless to say, however, there is the possibility that I am simply becoming jaded and harder to surprise as I watch more of these films. As always, YMMV.

What I Watched: Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (Universal, 1935)

Where I Watched It: This serial ran on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday mornings last summer, and I recorded it on my DVR. I had originally promised to write this up last fall, but it didn’t quite work out that way (I remember why I usually write these articles in the summer!). As it happens, since TCM didn’t make it easy to record the whole thing as a series (a pet peeve of mine!), I missed recording about an episode and a half. The only place I found to watch the missing parts online was at Night Flight Plus behind a paywall (and knowing how these deals work, I assume that TCM and Night Flight licensed the same restoration, and this new financial investment is the reason the serial has been scrubbed from YouTube). It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Crossed and Double Crossed” (Chapter Nine) I like this one because, in addition to its nice use of repetition, it accurately describes the main action of the chapter, in which El Condor is captured and impersonated and then reclaims his identity. It also involves a pun, as this chapter is the climax of Garcia’s arc as the masked “Double X” flyer.

Best Cliffhanger: Unsurprisingly, there are several cliffhangers in this serial involving plane crashes, or planes exploding or colliding in mid-air. There are also no fewer than three cliffhangers in which a building is blown up while one or more of our heroes are inside (or are they?). I particularly like the ending of Chapter Two (“The Roaring Fire God”) in which, after another skirmish with one of Manuel’s planes and a timely rescue by El Condor, Tommy loses control of his plane, goes into a dive, and appears to fly straight into the smoking crater of a live volcano.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the peril at the end of Chapter Six (“Flying Death”): Tommy and Skeeter have stolen one of Manuel’s planes, a bomber specially brought in by Raymore to attack Casmetto’s oil fields, but little do they know that onboard the plane is a time bomb, set specifically to prevent such a theft. Such a cliffhanger, complete with a countdown to the deadly explosion, wouldn’t be too unusual, but for the large “TIME BOMB” label on the control panel that neither seems to notice. (The solution to this cliffhanger is singled out by Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials, a book I have frequently referred to in this series, as an example “typical of the hokum of the medium.”)

Sample Dialogue: “What a twist! Is that a story or is that a story!”

–Bill McGuire, after Raymore experiences a particularly ironic comeuppance (Chapter Twelve, “The Last Stand”)

What Others Have Said: “After Universal released Tailspin Tommy back in 1934 [notably the first serial based on a newspaper comic strip], they couldn’t wait to get its sequel into release. Exactly 12 months later, they released Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery, and then in succession at least one comic strip every six to ten months for the next seven years, up to Don Winslow of the Coast Guard in December 1942.” –William C. Cline, “Coming Back Like a Song” in Serials-ly Speaking

What’s Next: This is just a one-off entry for the spring, but I intend to return to my regular schedule of serial coverage this summer; I usually begin on Memorial Day and publish an entry every one or two weeks. Earlier this year I bought a big box of serials on VHS; I’m not nostalgic at all for videotape, but the price was right, and it will keep me in serials for months to come. I hope you’ll join me then!

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Fates Worse Than Death: Tailspin Tommy

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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 CafĂ© (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.

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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.

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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.

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Sample Dialogue: “Someday, I’m gonna be a real flyer–a great flyer, too.”

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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!