Sky Racket

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ 

(1/10) In a nutshell: This non-western 1937 remake of the 1936 sci-fi death ray western Ghost Patrol is written and produced by legendary B-producer Sam Katzman, who succeeds in taking a film on my list of awful movies, and remaking it into another film that goes on the same list. Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel is the only good thing in this horrible affair.

Sky Racket. 1937, USA. Directed by Sam Katzman. Written by Basil Dickey. Starring: Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett, Joan Barclay, Duncan Renaldo, Hattie McDaniel, Henry Roquemore, Monte Blue.  Produced by Sam Katzman for Victory Pictures. IMDb score: 4.4

This is the only decent picture of the film I can find online.

This is the only decent picture of the film I can find online.

When someone saw the abysmal 1936 sci-fi aviation western film Ghost Patrol (review), it is no miracle they thought it could use some improvement. Unfortunately the remake Sky Racket (1937) fares no better, even though the western setting is removed. Indeed, the film is more interesting for the fact of who were involved than as a film.

Original poster.

Original poster.

Marion Bronson (Joan Barclay) is set to marry the foreign Count Barksi (Duncan Renaldo), because of her millionaire uncle Roger’s (Henry Roquemore) wish. But along with her black maidservant Jenny (Hattie McDaniel), she escapes out the window, steals a car and hides in a mail plane. The plane takes off, piloted by Eric Lane, Agent 17 (Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett), who at first mistakes her for a gangster.

Lane is out on a mission to see what has happened to all the mail planes that have been mysteriously disappearing over a woodland area, and just like the others, his and Marion’s plane is forced down by a mysterious ray that causes the engine to malfunction. The two parachute out, get into a fistfight (or Lane does, anyway) with four gangsters, and the two of them get kidnapped and turned over to the boss villain Benjamin Arnold (Monte Blue). The rest of the film basically takes place inside two rooms where Lane tries to convince Arnold that he is actually a double-crosser who wants to cut in on the action, and Marion wisecracks and tries to charm the henchman in charge of the ray machine. Cue another fistfight where Marion constantly tries to help, but gets pushed over, and then arrives the cavalry.

And that’s about it.

Marion hiding in the airplane

Marion hiding in the airplane

Slightly longer than Ghost Patrol and with a slightly slicker production, the script is still abysmally thin, the direction by legendary producer Sam Katzman is boring, the fight scenes awful, the stunts OK. Former shot put champion Herman Brix does have the leading man looks, but he is, if possible, an even worse actor than the star of Ghost Patrol, Tim McCoy. Staple villain Monte Blue pulls off a staple performance and Joan Barclay is not bad, but slightly miscast as the wise-cracking heroine. The rest of the cast is bland, with one notable exception – Hattie McDaniel. The best scene of the film is where Marion and her maid are on the run, and McDaniel is easily the best actor in the film, so it’s a shame that she disappears after the first ten minutes.

There’s also a few strange scenes – one where one of the henchmen is doing a ”comedic” soap box skit in a bar about news, and another where writer/actor Charles Williams does another comedy skit in the same bar. These are apparently there because the film needed some padding. And no, they are not funny.

Herman Brix at the 1928 Olympics.

Herman Brix at the 1928 Olympics.

Herman Brix was an Olympic shot put silver medallist from the 1928 Olympics, who like a few other athletes in the late twenties took up acting as an extra, and was one of the lucky ones that got cast as Tarzan because of their athletic looks. In fact Brix was slated to star as the titular hero of the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man, but he broke his shoulder in his first film appearance in Touchdown in 1931, so the role went to multiple Olympic swimming medallist Johnny Weissmuller, and the rest is history.

He got his second chance in 1935 when Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs himself produced the 12-part serial The New Adventures of Tarzan. Probably because of Burrough’s involvement, this is one of the few times Tarzan is portrayed accurately, as an educated nobleman choosing to live in the jungle. The Tarzan role got him typecast in B-serials and poverty row features, but because of his weak acting he soon found himself in uncredited bit-parts. That’s when he decided to get acting lessons (1939) and changed his stage name to Bruce Bennett, which seems to have helped, since his films and parts did improve.

Herman Brix and Ula Holt in The New Adventures of Tarzan in 1935.

Herman Brix and Ula Holt in The New Adventures of Tarzan in 1935.

Nonetheless, he never rose much above B-level, and partly dropped out of acting in 1960, although he did appear sporadically in films up to 1980. He played the hero in a few sci-fis, including the Boris Karloff film Before I Hang (1940), The Cosmic Man (1959) and the Alligator People the same year. He also had a small part as a lab assistant in The Clones (1973).

Hattie McDaniel was a remarkable woman and actress and one of the first black film stars in Hollywood. She started out as a hugely popular vaudeville act and singer, and made her film debut in 1932, as a maid. Over the years she would develop the maid into a character, a loud, stern, but motherly helper and sort of moral compass in the household, a role which she did in several films. When she didn’t do that character, they were mostly similar – maids and servants, sometimes mothers or grandmothers, and over the years she became a slight celebrity.

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in two Oscar-winning roles in Gone with the Wind in 1939.

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in two Oscar-winning roles in Gone with the Wind in 1939.

McDaniel’s quite unexpected shot to legend came in 1939, when she was cast as Mammy the house servant in Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind. To everyone’s surprise she was not only nominated for an Oscar for best supporting role – but won! This made her the first black actor to win an Oscar – and the only black actress to win an Oscar until Whoopi Goldberg repeated the feat 51 years later, in 1990.

Although the quality and sizes of her roles waned in the highly racially divided country in the forties, she was the star of a very popular radio show called Beulah, and appeared in the first episodes of the TV-series of the same name in 1952, before her health prevented her from continuing.

Hattie McDaniel and her presenter Fay Bainter at the Oscars.

Hattie McDaniel and her presenter Fay Bainter at the Oscars.

NAACP often attacked McDaniel for playing stereotypical black roles as maids and servants, to which she replied that she’d rather get paid 700 dollars a week for playing a maid than 7 dollars a week for being a maid. The NAACP was especially critical of her role in Gone With the Wind, which to a certain extent glorified slavery, promoted negative views of blacks and practised historical revisionism. When she won the Oscar, NAACP accused her of being an Uncle Tom. McDaniel and the rest of the black cast were banned from the premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta because of Georgia’s race laws. Star Cary Grant, a friend of McDaniel’s, also threatened to boycott the premiere, but she convinced him to go. In any case, McDaniel was the first black person to attend the Oscar gala as a guest and not as a servant.

Since then she has been commemorated with a plaque in the Hollywood cemetery, where she wished to be buried, but wasn’t allowed to, again because of race laws. She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for film and radio. The character Mammy in the cartoon Tom+Jerry is based on McDaniel.

Sam Katzman thankfully only directed five films, but was a very prolific producer, churning out loads of cheap films fast – and in some cases, like Sky Racket, the lack of time and money really shows. Nevertheless, Katzman was a sure bet for studios, since his films mostly brought in more than they cost.

Sam Katzman.

Sam Katzman.

Between 1933 and 1972 he produced 240 films or serials, in all conceivable genres, including quite a few sci-fi movies: Brick Bradford, (1947, serial), Superman (1948, serial, review), Batman and Robin (1949, serial), Atom Man vs. Superman (1950, serial), Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951, serial), The Lost Planet (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (review), Creature with the Atom Brain (both 1955, review), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Man Who Turned to Stone, The Night the World Exploded, and the much maligned here on the blog: The Giant Claw (all three 1957).

As one of the henchmen we see Jack Mulhall, who played supporting roles or bit parts in Undersea Kingdom (1936),  Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1936), Buck Rogers (1938), Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and The Ape Man (1943, review).  The staple heavy Richard Cramer (best known for his appearance in Laurel & Hardy films) also appeared in the 1934 serial The Vanishing Shadow. Duncan Renaldo was forever immortalized as The Cisco Kid in the early fifties.

Screenwriter Basil Dickey contributed to a number of science fiction serials in the thirties and forties, including Flash Gordon (1936, review), The Green Hornet (1940), Captain America (1942) and The Purple Monster Strikes (1945).

Sky Racket. 1937, USA. Directed by Sam Katzman. Written by Basil Dickey. Starring: Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett, Joan Barclay, Duncan Renaldo, Hattie McDaniel, Henry Roquemore, Monte Blue, Jack Mulhall, Roger Williams, Edward Earle, Eearle Hodgins, Frank Wayne, Ed Cassidy, Richard Cramer, Lois Wilder, Charles Williams. Cinematography: William Hyer. Editing: Holbrook N. Todd. Set decoration: Fred Preble. Sound: Hans Wereen. Production manager: Ed W. Rote. Produced by Sam Katzman for Victory Pictures.

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