Sky Racket

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(1/10) The actors know how to hit their marks and the DP is capable of setting up a shot in the 1937 remake of the equally bad 1936 film Ghost Patrol. A government agent and a bride on the run are captured by a gang of criminals using a death ray to shoot mail planes from the sky. Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel is criminally underused. 

Sky Racket. 1937, USA. Directed by Sam Katzman. Written by Basil Dickey. Based on novel by Laurie York Erskine. Starring: Herman Brix, Joan Barclay, Duncan Renaldo, Hattie McDaniel, Henry Roquemore, Monte Blue.  Produced by Sam Katzman. IMDb: 4.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1937_sky_racket_001When someone saw the abysmal 1936 sci-fi aviation western film Ghost Patrol (review), it is no miracle they thought it could use some improvement. Unfortunately the remake Sky Racket (1937) fares no better, even though the western setting is removed in favour of a more prosaic G-man backdrop — still not the Canadian Mountie background of the source novel. Indeed, the film is more interesting for the fact of who were involved than as a film.

Marion Bronson (Joan Barclay) is set to marry the foreign Count Barksi (Duncan Renaldo), at the bequest of her millionaire uncle Roger. (Henry Roquemore). But  Marion is not feeling the love for the good count, along with her black maidservant Jenny (Hattie McDaniel), she escapes out the window, steals a car and hides in a mail plane. The plane takes off, piloted by Eric Lane, Agent 17 (Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett), who at first mistakes her for a gangster.

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Joan Barclay and Herman Brix.

Lane is out on a mission to see what has happened to all the mail planes that have been mysteriously disappearing over a woodland area, and just like the others, his and Marion’s plane is forced down by a mysterious ray that causes the engine to malfunction. The two parachute out, get into a fistfight (or Lane does, anyway) with four gangsters, and the two of them get kidnapped and turned over to the boss villain Benjamin Arnold (Monte Blue). The rest of the film basically takes place inside two rooms where Lane tries to convince Arnold that he is actually a double-crosser who wants to cut in on the action, and Marion wisecracks and tries to charm the henchman in charge of the ray machine. Cue another fistfight where Marion constantly tries to help, but gets pushed over, and then arrives the cavalry.

And that’s about it.

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Detail from lobby card.

Slightly longer than Ghost Patrol and with a slightly slicker production, the script is still abysmally thin, the direction by legendary Z movie producer Sam Katzman is boring, the fight scenes awful, the stunts OK. Former shot put champion Herman Brix (who later changed his stage name to Bruce Bennett) does have the leading man looks, but he is, if possible, an even worse actor than the star of Ghost PatrolTim McCoy. Staple villain Monte Blue pulls off a staple performance and Joan Barclay is not bad, but slightly miscast as the wise-cracking heroine. The rest of the cast is bland, with one notable exception – Hattie McDaniel. The best scene of the film is where Marion and her maid are on the run, and McDaniel is easily the best actor in the film, so it’s a shame that she disappears after the first ten minutes.

There’s also a few strange scenes – one where one of the henchmen is doing a ”comedic” soap box skit in a bar about news, and another where writer/actor Charles Williams does another comedy skit in the same bar. These are apparently there because the film needed some padding. And no, they are not funny.

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Joan Barclay swinging her chair.

Literature at the time was full of death rays in one form or the other. They featured in future war novels, crime mysteries, juvenile fiction and of course in science fiction.One of these books was Laurie York Erskine’s 1928 juvenile novel Renfrew Rides the Sky, in which a Canadian Mountie solves a mystery in which a villain is using a radio beam to shoot planes with gold shipments out of the sky. I haven’t been able to get my hands on the book yet, and can find no plot synopsis online. However, the 1940 film Sky Bandits (review) gives Erskine’s book a “based on” credit, and its plot is very similar to that of Ghost Patrol and Sky Racket, so there’s hardly any doubt that all three films used Renfrew Rides the Sky as its template.

I have previously written at some length about the origins of the death ray trope, and won’t go further into its fascinating real-life origins, but I strongly recommend you take a look at my write-up on the subject in my article on the early death ray serials. Suffice to say that while the idea of the death ray has mutated throughout its fictional history, the way it is described in Renfrew Rides the Sky and the films based on the book is actually completely in line with the claims made by the real-life mad scientists who tried to convince the world of their inventions. While all were very sketchy about the details of how their inventions worked, the idea was that their rays used some kind of electric signal that could travel through the air and affect certain materials or forces it came in contact with. The most famous “death ray inventor” was Briton Harry Grindell Matthews, who in 1923 claimed that he had invented a ray that could stop combustion engines by somehow disabling the magnets in the motors. This was at a time when aviation had brought a new and terrifying possibility to warfare, as a country with a large air force could easily devastate any country it entered into war with, suddenly bringing the terrors of war so much closer in the minds of the civilian population. Thus, when Matthews claimed that given enough funding from the British government, he could create a weapon that would disable an entire armada of planes before they got anywhere near the British isles, the international press had a field day.

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Detail from lobby card.

And it had an even bigger field day when the UK army refused to fund Matthews’ unsubstantiated research, as he stubbornly refused to explain how the thing was supposed to work or even give a small scale demonstration in controlled circumstances. Now Matthews travelled abroad and started shopping around for other buyers, and soon newspapers were filled with speculations of the death ray getting into the hands of “the enemy” or bought up by some shady private interest, to be used for nefarious means. Thus, it was no surprise that death rays quickly turned up in pulp magazines, dime novels, radio shows and movies. By 1928 it was already so commonplace that it featured in decidedly non-SF book series such as the Renfrew of the Mounties franchise.

Herman Brix was a shot put silver medallist from the 1928 Olympics, who like a few other athletes in the late twenties took up acting as to make some extra dough, and was one of the lucky ones that got cast as Tarzan because of their athletic looks. In fact Brix was slated to star as the titular hero of the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man, but he broke his shoulder in his first film appearance in Touchdown in 1931, so the role went to multiple Olympic swimming medallist Johnny Weissmuller, and the rest is history.

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Herman Brix in his shot putting prime.

Brix got his second chance in 1935 when Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs himself produced the 12-part serial The New Adventures of Tarzan. Probably because of Burrough’s involvement, this is one of the few times Tarzan is portrayed accurately, as an educated nobleman choosing to live in the jungle. The Tarzan role got him typecast in B-serials and Poverty Row features, but because of his weak acting he soon found himself in uncredited bit-parts. That’s when he decided to get acting lessons (1939) and changed his stage name to Bruce Bennett, which seems to have helped, since his films and parts did improve. Yes, one would think it would have been the other way around, but Harold Herman Brix was actually his real name. At a time when actors took stage names like Buster Crabbe, Crash Corrigan and Bull Montana, Herman Brix seems like it would have fit right in.

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Brix as Tarzan in 1935.

Nonetheless, Brix never rose much above B-level, and partly dropped out of acting in 1960, although he did appear sporadically in films up to 1980. He played the hero in a few sci-fis, including the Boris Karloff film Before I Hang (1940, review), The Cosmic Man (1959) and the Alligator People the same year. He also had a small part as a lab assistant in The Clones (1973).

Hattie McDaniel was a remarkable woman and actress and one of the first black film stars in Hollywood. She started out as a hugely popular vaudeville act and singer, and made her film debut in 1932, as a maid. Over the years she would develop the maid into a character, a loud, stern, but motherly helper and sort of moral compass in the household, a role which she did in several films. When she didn’t do that character, they were mostly similar – maids and servants, sometimes mothers or grandmothers, and over the years she became a slight celebrity. According to The Hollywood Reporter McDaniel played a maid in a total of 74 of her 96 films before her untimely demise from breast cancer in 1952.

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Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind.

McDaniel’s quite unexpected shot to legend came in 1939, when she was cast as Mammy the house servant in Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind. To everyone’s surprise she was not only nominated for an Oscar for best supporting role – but won! This made her the first black actor to win an Oscar – and the only black actress to win an Oscar until Whoopi Goldberg repeated the feat 51 years later, in 1990.

Although the quality and sizes of her roles waned in the highly racially divided country in the forties, she was the star of a very popular radio show called Beulah, and appeared in the first episodes of the TV-series of the same name in 1952, before her health prevented her from continuing.

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Hattie McDaniel with her Oscar plaque.

NAACP often attacked McDaniel for playing stereotypical black roles as maids and servants, to which she replied that she’d rather get paid 700 dollars a week for playing a maid than 7 dollars a week for being a maid. The NAACP was especially critical of her role in Gone With the Wind, which to a certain extent glorified slavery, promoted negative views of blacks and practised historical revisionism. When she won the Oscar, NAACP accused her of being an Uncle Tom. McDaniel and the rest of the black cast were banned from the premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta because of Georgia’s race laws. Star Cary Grant, a friend of McDaniel’s, also threatened to boycott the premiere, but she convinced him to go. In any case, McDaniel was the first black person to attend the Oscar gala as a guest and not as a servant.

Since then she has been commemorated with a plaque in the Hollywood cemetery, where she wished to be buried, but wasn’t allowed to, again because of race laws. She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for film and radio. The character Mammy in the cartoon Tom+Jerry is based on McDaniel.

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Sam Katzman and Little Richard.

Sam Katzman thankfully only directed five films, but was a very prolific producer, churning out loads of cheap films fast – and in some cases, like Sky Racket, the lack of time and money really shows. Nevertheless, Katzman was a sure bet for studios, since his films mostly brought in more than they cost.

Between 1933 and 1972 he produced 240 films or serials, in all conceivable genres, including quite a few sci-fi movies: Brick Bradford, (1947), Superman (1948), Batman and Robin (1949), Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951), The Lost Planet (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea, Creature with the Atom Brain (both 1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Man Who Turned to Stone, The Night the World Exploded, and the much maligned The Giant Claw (all three 1957).

As one of the henchmen in in Sky Racket we see Jack Mulhall, who played supporting roles or bit parts in Undersea Kingdom (1936, review),  Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1936), Buck Rogers (1938), Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and The Ape Man (1943).

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Herman Brix.

Screenwriter Basil Dickey contributed to a number of science fiction serials in the thirties and forties, including Flash Gordon (1936, review), The Green Hornet (1940), Captain America (1942) and The Purple Monster Strikes (1945).

I actually managed to find a positive review for Sky Racket (I think there’s exactly four critic reviews online, including mine), and it is by none other than Hans J. Wollstein at AllMovie, a critic that I find myself almost infallibly disagreeing with. According to Wollstein the film is not at all bad for its kind and benefits from a “superior cast”. He writes that Katzman “manages to squeeze every drop of excitement out of a typically daffy script and a meager budget”. But before you run off to buy the the DVD against my expressed recommendation, please note that Kevin Lyons at the always well-informed EOFFTV calls it “a flavourless comedy thriller with a science fiction twist that rapidly gets lost amid the tedious mechanics of the plodding plot”. If this is not enough to convince you, Lyons writes: “Dickey’s clunky script would have defeated anyone but Katzman compounds its many crimes against cinema audiences but being static and clumsy. The film’s many fist fight are particularly badly handled, hilariously choreographed punch-ups that even those involved don’t seem to be able to take seriously.” He calls it “if anything, even worse the already dreadful Ghost Patrol“, and concludes that: Excruciatingly dull even at just over an hour in length, Sky Racket is utterly awful“. 

Technically Sky Racket is a halfway decent movie, although no-one can claim that it is in any way well filmed. It’s a cheap cash grab, and no-one involved thought it was anything else, and it shows in the result. It has barely enough script to cover a serial episode or two, and the padding stretches thin. It’s not amateurish enough to be watched as a so-bad-it’s-good film either. Normally I recommend watching a bad film, any bad film, just for its novelty value, but Sky Racket simply isn’t worth the effort. At least Ghost Patrol had Tim McCoy’s really big hat. I would conclude with some wisecrack about the impossibility of polishing a turd, but Mythbusters proved that to be a fallacy.

Janne Wass

Sky Racket. 1937, USA. Directed by Sam Katzman. Written by Basil Dickey. Based on novel Renfrew Rides the Sky by Laurie York Erskine. Starring: Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett, Joan Barclay, Duncan Renaldo, Hattie McDaniel, Henry Roquemore, Monte Blue, Jack Mulhall, Roger Williams, Edward Earle, Eearle Hodgins, Frank Wayne, Ed Cassidy, Richard Cramer, Lois Wilder, Charles Williams. Cinematography: William Hyer. Editing: Holbrook N. Todd. Set decoration: Fred Preble. Sound: Hans Wereen. Production manager: Ed W. Rote. Produced by Sam Katzman for Victory Pictures.

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