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Murder in the Air (1940) was the last in a quartet of B-Movies that Ronald Reagan made at Warner Bros. in which he portrayed Treasury Department agent Brass Bancroft. Programmers were common at Warner Bros, but the unusually short running time (55 minutes) of Murder in the Air, plus the episodic nature of the story, the lack of any romantic subplot, the comedy relief, the use of stock footage, and the odd science fiction trappings, all tend to make this particular outing play more like one of Republic Pictures' Saturday matinee features made from a cut-down serial. This assessment is not a putdown of the final product, which is a brisk and lightweight entertainment - probably the best in the modest "Secret Service" series.
Reagan's first three Brass Bancroft movies were Secret Service of the Air (1939), in which our heroic T-Man takes on a ring of criminals who are smuggling illegal aliens into the United States by airplane. The next two entries in the series, Code of the Secret Service and Smashing the Money Ring (both 1939), dealt with counterfeiting rings. The series was produced by the head of the Warner Bros. 'B' unit, Bryan Foy, who was the son of famed vaudevillian Eddie Foy. It was no accident then that the sidekick role in the Secret Service series, Bancroft's pal Gabby, was played by the producer's brother: Eddie Foy, Jr.
Screenwriter Raymond Schrock turned in the script for Murder in the Air on September 1, 1939, and during the next few weeks, during which he was making revisions, World War II broke out in earnest in Europe. As a result the film was both timely in subject matter and a furthering of a pet cause of Warners warning audiences about what they perceived as possible subversive activities from foreign agents. The working titles for the film, in fact, included The Enemy Within and Uncle Sam Awakens.
The "Rice Committee" as seen in the film was based on the real-life Dies Session, a Congressional committee that looked into sabotage and the international spy game (and later grew into the House Un-American Activities Committee). The commission questions Joe Garvey (James Stephenson), a shady character who heads up a supposed patriotic society dedicated "to preserve American neutrality at any cost." The committee, though, is worried that he is mixed up in sabotage and other Fifth Column activities, and is linked to a known saboteur named Steve Swenko. The body of Swenko turns up in a train wreck; he is disguised as a hobo and is carrying a large amount of cash and a letter of introduction to Garvey written in invisible ink. The letter is discovered in a hollowed-out shoe heel discovered by Treasury agent Brass Bancroft (Ronald Reagan) and his partner Gabby Watters (Eddie Foy, Jr.). ("Slap me down and call me names what a spot for a married man to keep his money overnight," says Gabby when he finds the compartment). Brass is assigned to pose as Swenko and meet up with Garvey and infiltrate his spy ring. Set up in a seedy hotel, Agent Brass has a close call when Swenko's wife Hilda (Lya Lys) arrives to meet up with her husband. When Garvey is convinced that Brass is actually the ace saboteur Swenko, he assigns him the task of boarding a Navy dirigible which is carrying a new secret weapon The Inertia Projector a defensive ray gun that can render motorized vehicles dead with a paralyzing current. ("Nervous Objector?" asks Gabby innocently). Brass is told to make contact with Rumford (Victor Zimmerman), a spy who is posing as the assistant to Dr. Finchley (Robert Warwick), who developed the ray. Brass finds out from Rumford that he is to destroy the blimp while Rumford steals the plans for the secret weapon.
In his book Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics, Stephen Vaughn writes of the studio's concern about spying in America, saying that "few individuals were more alarmed about fifth columnists than Harry Warner. He had become deeply troubled, even obsessed, by reports of subversion in the United States. In his impassioned speech before the American legion in September 1938, he called on legionnaires to fight 'unwelcome, un-American forces...Drive them from their secret meeting places, destroy their insidious propaganda machines, drive out their...leagues, their clans and Black legions, the Silver Shirts, the Black Shirts and the Dirty Shirts.' So intense was his concern that it affected his health, and [brother and studio production head] Jack instructed employees to stop talking with Harry about such matters."
The year before Murder in the Air was released, Warner Bros. had released the high profile "A" picture Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), starring Edward G. Robinson. It had run into censorship trouble with the Hays Office. Since the United States was not yet at war, and there was still distribution of American films in some European countries, Joseph Breen and his staff expressed concern over content in such films that smacked of overt propaganda. As Vaughn noted, "In one draft of Murder in the Air, the film was to open with 'a group of six rough looking men, obviously German and Russian types,' tearing up railroad track in order to wreck an oncoming train. In the final script, however, the scene called for the men to be only of 'mixed nationalities.'" The movie was also originally going to open with a montage of the Axis military buildup in Europe and a map showing their increasing domination, with a voiceover saying that "once again the world was rushing headlong into a maelstrom of death and destruction, which would wipe civilization from the face of the earth." The opening was to continue with a contrasting view of serene life in the United States as the narration continued: "While in the United States, a peace loving nation was going about its daily pursuits, feeling secure in its traditional policy of isolation from foreign quarrels and entanglements... there was destined to occur a number of unrelated and unexplainable incidents which were to arouse suspicions of SABOTAGE and the presence in this country of INTERNATIONAL TERRORISTS." Over a montage of stock footage explosions, the Narrator was to tell us that "paid agents of destruction were seeking to paralyze industry, obstruct commerce and destroy natural resources... The failure of tested machinery to properly function gave rise to the belief that alien saboteurs were also infesting our airline and ammunition factories, even our Navy Yards, seeking to cripple our program for National Defense." The final film dispensed with the vast majority of this alarmist narrative, no doubt due to objections from the Breen Office. Ultimately, the movie opens with a brisk montage of destruction and a few newspaper headlines flashing onscreen.
The Inertia Projector that turns up rather casually in Murder in the Air was a not-too-distant relative of the deadly ray guns that could be found in many Saturday morning serials of the day, as well as in science fiction features such as The Invisible Ray (1936), starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Outlandish though it may seem to modern audiences, moviegoers in the late 1930s and early 1940s were no doubt aware that actual experiments with electromagnetic beams used for defense purposes had been conducted in real life. Reports suggested that in Italy, Guglielmo Marconi himself tried to develop a ray that could stop an automobile or bring down an airplane, although nothing came of the tests. Meanwhile, British scientists developed great refinements to existing radar systems during the time they investigated using electronic pulses against German air raids.
Notices for Murder in the Air were mixed. The reviewer in the New York Times wrote "Mr. Reagan, who had seen service previously with the Warners' FBI force, handles his role of counter-espionage agent with the customary daring... The screenplay by Raymond Schrock is compact, if not 'original,' and the direction of Lewis Seiler is swiftly paced. All of which tends to make Murder in the Air acceptable program fare." "Wear" in Variety was not very charitable toward the film, writing that "this is intended to be a spy thriller, but it gets badly tangled up in its own super-melodramatics at the finish for a silly and unsatisfactory ending." The reviewer had particular problems with the action-oriented science fiction elements of the script, saying "when the author is building suspense, he is okay. It is when he permits the story to get out of hand, as with the wreck of a navy blimp as well as the operation of an 'inertia projector' that the yarn skids."
Following completion of the "Secret Service" series, contract player Ronald Reagan went on to better roles in bigger budget "A" pictures at Warner Bros. His very next assignment, in fact, would provide one of the most memorable roles of his career: that of George "the Gipper" Gipp in Knute Rockne All American (1940).
Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: Lewis Seiler
Screenplay: Raymond L. Schrock
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: William Lava (uncredited)
Film Editing: Frank Magee
Cast: Ronald Reagan (Brass Bancroft, aka Steve Swenko and Steve Coe), John Litel (Mr. William Saxby), Lya Lys (Hilda Riker, aka Mrs. Steve Swenko), James Stephenson (Joe Garvey, Foreign Agent 321), Eddie Foy, Jr. (Gabby Watters), Robert Warwick (Doctor B.C. Finchley), Victor Zimmerman (R.G. Rumford), William Gould (Admiral Wm. A. Winfield)
by John M. Miller