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Near the end of the Civil War, Northern forces are anxious to make sure their raid on the Southern stronghold of Richmond will be successful. In a meeting attended by General Grant (Fred Warren), Captain Lewis Dumont (Richard Dix) and his brother Henry (William Post, Jr.) are given their orders. They are to pose as Confederate soldiers and Lewis, an experienced telegraph operator, is to use the Richmond telegraph office to send false orders at an appointed time to divert Southern troops during the planned assault on the city. While Henry is planted in a Confederate prison, Lewis is wounded in a skirmish and helps a Rebel soldier, Howard Varney (Harold Kinney), return to his plantation home and sister Edith (Shirley Grey). Out of gratitude, Edith convinces Lewis to stay while he recuperates, and she falls in love with him. Lewis sends messages to his brother through the Varney's slave, Jonas Polk (Clarence Muse), and prepares to infiltrate the Rebel telegraph office in Richmond.
This RKO Radio Picture was an adaptation of a popular play by William Gillette. Secret Service opened on Broadway on October 5, 1896, and saw three revivals - in 1910, 1915, and 1976. Gillette is remembered today as the first actor to win acclaim for playing Sherlock Holmes. He wrote and staged the first such play, authorized by Arthur Conan Doyle, in 1899 and continued touring the country as Holmes for most of the rest of his life. Among Gillette's other plays as writer-performer were The Private Secretary and Too Much Johnson.
Director J. Walter Ruben and writer Bernard Schubert stage the action in the film version of Secret Service effectively enough that it does not feel like an adapted stage play. The Civil War action scenes near the beginning are suitably realistic, and a sense of scale is given to the comings and goings in the Richmond telegraph office, particularly during a tense series of sequences at the climax.
At the time of this film's release, Richard Dix was enjoying great acclaim as the star of Cimarron (1931), which had been released earlier in the year. Dix would go on to win the Best Actor Oscar® for that role, and would continue as RKO's most reliable and stalwart leading man through the 1930s and to his final film for the studio, Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship, in 1943.
Secret Service featured one of the best roles in the long career of African-American actor Clarence Muse. Muse, whose appearances spanned from the silent era through to Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion in 1979, was most often cast in minor roles typical for a black actor of the era, such as a porter or waiter. He gives one of the best performances in Secret Service, as the sympathetic and tragic Jonas - a slave who is both knowingly and unknowingly aiding the Union cause. Muse had just appeared in one of the other meatier roles of his career, as Jim in the lamentable 1931 version of Huckleberry Finn for Paramount Pictures.
The Gillette play Secret Service was adapted for the screen by Bernard Schubert. Other notable adaptations by Schubert followed, such as Symphony of Six Million (1932), from a story by Fannie Hurst, and the 1934 version of Peck's Bad Boy, with Jackie Cooper. Schubert was one of several contributing writers to Tod Browning's Mark of the Vampire (1935), and he also co-wrote several horror films at Universal in the 1940s, including The Mummy's Curse (1944), Jungle Woman (1944), and The Frozen Ghost (1945).
Producer: William LeBaron, Louis Sarecky
Director: J. Walter Ruben
Screenplay: Bernard Schubert, based on the play by William Gillette
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Film Editing: Jack Kitchin
Art Department: Max Ree
Music: Max Steiner
Costume Design: Max Ree
Cast: Richard Dix (Captain Lewis Dumont), William Post, Jr. (Lt. Henry Dumont), Shirley Grey (Miss Edith Varney), Nance O'Neil (Mrs. Varney), Harold Kinney (Howard Varney), Gavin Gordon (Mr. Arlesford), Florence Lake (Caroline Mitford), Frederick Burton (General Randolph), Clarence Muse (Jonas Polk).
by John M. Miller