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Ronald Reagan stars as Treasury Department agent Brass Bancroft in Code of the Secret Service (1939) the second film in Warner Bros.'s Secret Service series. The saga kicked off with Secret Service of the Air (1939), starring Reagan, Eddie Foy, Jr., and Rosella Towne. All three were back in action for the sequel and so were director Noel Smith and producer Bryan Foy (who was the brother of star Eddie Foy, Jr.). This time the story centered on some stolen U.S. Treasury engraving plates and a counterfeiting ring that Reagan and Foy trace to Mexico. Yet, despite the talented cast and momentum from a successful first outing, Code of the Secret Service failed to live up to the expectations set by Secret Service of the Air.
In fact, Reagan disliked the picture so much that he urged the studio not to release it - and he was not the only one who felt that way. Producer Foy, known for saving many a film in the cutting room, deemed Code of the Secret Service beyond repair. Even when director Smith approached him with an idea to fix the movie ($30,000 worth of reshoots), Foy decided it was not worth the expense. As Reagan would later relate, it was often necessary for the main actors and director to rewrite the quickly churned out Secret Service scripts on the set, "plugging [their] more glaring holes." But in this case, producer Foy had urged them to shoot the script as written. The results left Reagan to comment, "never has an egg of such dimensions been laid."
Of course Warners was not about to shelve the film, no matter how disappointing it was. The studio did, however, make a concession to rising star Reagan they would not release the film in Los Angeles. Still, it seems Reagan could not escape the film's shadow. One famous anecdote related how he was walking past a theater in another city where Code of the Secret Service was showing and the ticket taker recognizing him. The boy just shook his head and told the future President, "you should be ashamed." Critics generally agreed with this assessment. Variety likened Code of the Secret Service to the ridiculous tribulations silent star Pearl White used to endure in her serials.
From today's perspective, however, Code of the Secret Service is an interesting snapshot of its era - an example of the studio machine at work and a barometer of the country's climate in the late '30s. The genre of the law and order film, for example, was a direct response to the gangster films which had been popular earlier in the decade. For its part, Warners' had turned out such crowd-pleasing gangster dramas as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both 1931). Some politicians such as Attorney General Homer Cummings did not find these films entertaining and instead believed they bred disrespect toward law enforcement. Cummings set up the Conference on Crime in 1934, with the aim of improving the image of federal agents, and enlisted the help of Hollywood morality watchman Will Hays.
Hays put pressure on studio head Harry Warner to turn out more "positive" crime pictures and the result was a new trend beginning with G-men (1935) starring James Cagney as a FBI man. The Secret Service series was also an attempt, along these same lines, to highlight the heroism of federal agents. The studio even hired the former chief of the Secret Service, William Moran, and ex-FBI special agent William L. Guthrie as consultants. Guthrie, for one, praised the series, citing the "fear and respect they inspire[d] in the hearts of law-breakers and would-be-law-breakers."
Along with shaping public perception of law enforcement, Warner Bros. was also busy creating a persona for Ronald Reagan in the Secret Service pictures. One frequently repeated story from the set of Code of the Secret Service had Reagan showing up for work and asking his director, "when do I fight and whom?" The studio PR version of the story also found the all-American Reagan with "five skinned knuckles, a bruised knee and a lump half the size of an egg on his head" just an hour later.
Code of the Secret Service was Reagan's fourteenth film appearance in only two years he had made his film debut in 1937's Love Is on the Air. Two more Brass Bancroft films would follow: Smashing the Money Ring (1939) and Murder in the Air (1940).
Producer: Bryan Foy, Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner
Director: Noel Smith
Screenplay: W.H. Moran, Lee Katz, Dean Riesner
Cinematography: Ted D. McCord
Film Editing: Frederick Richards
Art Direction: Charles Novi
Music: Bernhard Kaun, Max Steiner
Cast: Ronald Reagan (Lt. Brass Bancroft), Rosella Towne (Elaine), Eddie Foy, Jr. (Gabby Watters), Moroni Olsen (Parker), Edgar Edwards (Ross), Jack Mower (Decker).
by Stephanie Thames