Tuesday, April 21, 2020


A while back I reviewed a 1938 film called CIPHER BUREAU, starring Leon Ames as an army intelligence officer involved in code-breaking. Two films were made in that series before Grand National Pictures went out of business in 1939, and those films were meant to follow in the footsteps of this series, featuring Conrad Nagel as federal agent Alan O’Connor. Four features with Nagel as agent O’Connor were made in 1936-37: YELLOW CARGO, NAVY SPY, THE GOLD RACKET, and the final one in the series, BANK ALARM. Series films were a staple for B-movie studios such as Monogram or Columbia or Grand National. They would get a pre-sold audience coming back to the theater for future entries, AND a series could be sold as a package to exhibitors. You can find online with a little searching vintage trade ads from poverty-row studios proudly announcing packages of films starring the likes of Jack Perrin or Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother), and franchises such as The Bowery Boys or Blondie produced dozens of films over many years, continuing to bring in audiences. Grand National had a big name here in former silent star and Garbo leading man Conrad Nagel, a charismatic and affable performer who moved from big-budget films for major studios to B-programmers like this one to radio and television and even game-show hosting, working regularly in films until 1959 and remaining a public figure until his passing in 1970. He had a warmth and charm and a self-deprecating humor as well as a touch of class that served him well whatever he did, and his stage training gave him a fine speaking voice that he put to good use in his many hosting and announcing gigs over the decades. Next to James Cagney, who made two films at Grand National while on strike from Warner Brothers, and Tex Ritter, who became a western star through his series at GN, Nagel was the biggest name the studio ever had to offer, though these films were cheap programmers, from a period when former silent stars like Rod La Rocque was making “Shadow” films at Grand National, and the great Ramon Novarro was making a threadbare comedy at Republic parodying his old “Latin Lover” image from the silents. Men like these always radiated class and were the kind of troupers who always gave audiences their best, even in reduced circumstances.

It’s interesting to note that BANK ALARM shares the same director (Louis Gasnier) and producer (George Hirliman) from REEFER MADNESS (which I’ve always felt was a Grand National film in spirit), made the year before. And speaking of exploitation film greats, WHEELER OAKMAN (Escort Girl) is the heavy here, running a sleazy nightclub called KARLOTTI’S, right before he appeared in the classic SLAVES IN BONDAGE and right after he appeared in GAMBLING WITH SOULS, two of Brad Kohler’s favorite films.

This is clearly the fourth film in the series, in that no effort is put into introducing or explaining Nagel’s character, but do you REALLY need any? He’s Alan O’Connor (his name is stated for those who did not see the earlier entries in the series), federal agent, and he’s played by Conrad Nagel, movie star. What else is there to know?

There is a series of bank hold-ups and vault break-ins in moderate-sized towns across central California, and they are well-executed and seem to have inside information on the security details of the banks. Stalwart and charming Alan O’Connor, paired with his spunky and witty sidekick Bobbie (played by Eleanor Hunt, also a regular in the series), work to crack the gang’s secret. They are “assisted” by the film’s comic relief, BTC favorite VINCE BARNETT (see pic), as photographer Clarence “Bulb” Callahan, who was also in all four films. Bulb also has some kind of detective business on the side, but it matters not what his official position is, his function is as buffoon and thorn-in-the-flesh for the leads. Barnett, a veteran of silent comedy who also had his own sound comedy shorts, is a bit reminiscent of Al “Fuzzy” St. John’s roles as western sidekick in that I’d guess the script has non-specific sections where a minute or three is just given over to “Bulb” to do his thing, five or six times during the course of the film, and he takes some prop (and as a photographer with a tripod and the other equipment, there’s a potential goldmine of sight gags for Barnett to milk) and works a routine around it the way that Stan Laurel might with a piece of flypaper. In one scene near the film’s middle, where Barnett is explaining some new detective trick he’s got up his sleeve to Eleanor Hunt, the actress is clearly cracking up personally, not just in character as Bobbie the federal agent. I’d guess the crew were also in stitches over Barnett’s physical comedy. He appeared here at BTC a few months ago in the review of the 1934 TAKE THE STAND with Jack La Rue and Thelma Todd, and whatever he pops up in, he’s always welcome.

The plot complication here is that Nagel’s sister is dating some ne'er-do-well who claims to be a screenwriter but is actually part of the criminal gang working out of Wheeler Oakman’s sleazy club. So we alternate between new robberies, new investigations of past robberies, comedy sequences with Vince Barnett, scenes at the club, scenes of Nagel reporting to his superior, more comedy scenes with Vince Barnett, scenes of the sister getting caught in the phony screenwriter’s web, etc etc, leading up to a final shootout and the closing credits, exactly at the sixty-minute mark.

BANK ALARM features some attractive location photography (uncommon in Grand National’s non-Western product) on the streets of the cities maybe 30-40 miles out of Los Angeles, along with auto courts (early versions of motels) and cafes of the day. It provides an entertaining mix of action, comedy, intrigue, and the charm of Conrad Nagel, a name that should be better known today. Incidentally, Nagel was the co-star, along with Lon Chaney Sr., of the lost 1927 film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, which along with the full-length version of Erich Von Stroheim’s GREED, is probably the most-desired “lost” silent film, so maybe if that is ever found, it can lead to a mini-revival of interest in Nagel. His two films with Greta Garbo are THE MYSTERIOUS LADY (1928) and THE KISS (1929), both highly recommended. BANK ALARM is in the public domain, and the circulating copy is of fine quality, just waiting for you to settle back for an hour to enjoy it!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Scholarly stuff, Bill! Part of what makes this site unique. Cheers! Alvin Bishop