Monday, June 16, 2014

Code of the Secret Service (1939)

Code of the Secret Service was the second of the four Brass Bancroft thrillers Ronald Reagan made at Warner Brothers in the late 1930s. They were solid and fairly entertaining little movies, well worth a look if you’re a B-movie fan.

Lieutenant “Brass” Bancroft (Reagan) is a Secret Service agent. As you might expect from his job description he’s on the trail of counterfeiters. The gang has stolen genuine Treasury plates and the only thing stopping them from making perfect undetectable counterfeit bills is the need for the right paper. And they have a solution to that little problem - they have a gambling joint in Mexico that takes in paper money and only pays out in silver dollars. That way they accumulate a nice supply of small denomination bills. They bleach the small bills and then use the paper to make counterfeit $20 dollar bills.

Brass in soon on his way to Mexico to meet up with Secret Service agent Dan Crockett who has a promising lead. Unfortunately that lead gets Crockett killed so now Brass has a personal score to settle as well. 

The trail leads Brass to a Catholic mission in a remote part of Mexico. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that this is the counterfeiting gang’s headquarters but unfortunately it also doesn’t take the gang long to figure out that he’s a Secret Service man.

Ronald Reagan was in his late 20s when he made this movie so he has the energy and athleticism to carry off an action hero role without difficulty. He also has the easy-going charm to make Brass Bancroft a character the audience will have no problems empathising with. The role is not exactly a demanding one but Reagan handles it with a pleasing lightness of touch.

Of course this being 1939 the studio was convinced that Brass needed a side-kick to provide comic relief, so they saddled him with Eddie Foy Jr as his inept but enthusiastic buddy Gabby. Like almost all the comic relief side-kicks of that era he’s irritating and entirely unnecessary but the good news is that he doesn’t get enough screen time in this movie to sink it.

Rosella Towne adds some glamour as an American girl who finds herself, very unwillingly, helping out the hero. She doesn’t get much chance to exercise her acting talents but she’s an adequate heroine. Moroni Olsen makes a suitably sinister villain.

Noel M. Smith was an incredibly prolific if undistinguished director whose career started in 1917 and was approaching its end in 1939 when this picture was made. He gets the job done but don’t expect anything fancy. Of course the job of a director of B-features was to bring them in on time and on budget and not to get ambitious and waste the studio’s money. 

Lee Katz and Dean Riesner’s screenplay is by-the-numbers but serviceable enough.

This movie has action to keep things interesting. Brass even manages at one point to get himself pursued, on horseback, by a troop of Mexican cavalry. Like most major studio B-movies this one looks respectable enough and not too cheap. 

The four Brass Bancroft movies have been released as a set on two made-on-demand DVDs in the Warner Archive series. The transfers are excellent making the set very good value for B-movie fans.

Code of the Secret Service is an undemanding lightweight secret agent thriller. It’s strictly B-movie stuff but it’s not trying to be anything more than not. Recommended.

You might also want to check out my review of the first Brass Bancroft movie, Secret Service of the Air.

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