(3/10) In a nutshell: This 1940 film is the third version of the same story of a gang of criminals shooting planes out of the sky with a death ray, and arguably the best, thanks to its light tone and comedy. It is also the last entry in a series of juvenile films featuring Sergeant Renfrew of the Royal Mounted.
Sky Bandits. 1940, USA. Directed by Ralph Staub. Written by Edward Halperin. Based on the novel Renfrew Rides the Sky by Laurie York Erskine. Starring: James Newill, Dave O’Brien, Dwight Frye, William Pawley, Dewey Robinson, Louise Stanley, Joe De Stefani, Jim Farley, Karl Hackett. Produced by Phil Goldstone for Criterion. IMDb score: 5.1
I guess the third time’s the charm. And luckily so, because this was getting a bit annoying. Sky Bandits is the second remake of the horribly bad sci-fi western aviation film Ghost Patrol (review), made in 1936, starring Tim McCoy with a really, really big hat. Sky Racket (1937, review) subtracted the western setting, but the film didn’t get any better just because it was made more in the vein of the classic crime drama. So it was with a sense of dread that I prepared to see yet another version of the story of a kidnapped scientist who’s forced by gangsters to shoot down mail planes with a death ray – this time accompanied by singing Canadian royal mounted police Sergeant Renfrew. But lo and behold, it actually manages to stay away from my list of awful movies!
With a few deviations from film to film, this is the basic plot: Authorities are baffled by planes carrying bonds/gold repeatedly disappearing in the same area and a government agent/mountie is sent to investigate by plane, and gets shot down. It turns out a gang of crooks have kidnapped a kindly professor who is forced to use his death ray against his will, and they also capture his daughter who comes snooping around (the kidnapped professor is absent from Sky Racket). In Sky Racket and Ghost Patrol the government agent infiltrates the group, gets called out, but ultimately saves the day. In Sky Bandits Sergeant Renfrew doesn’t do any infiltrating, since it’s hard to infiltrate while dressed like a Christmas tree.
And with a few minor subplots left out, that’s more or less Sky Bandits for you. Renfrew of the Royal Mounted was a boys’ adventure book series written by Laurie York Erskine between 1923 and 1941, which also became popular as a radio show and magazine stories. Renfrew was a former army pilot who joined the mounted police and took on baddies by both horse and plane. Responsible for bringing a series of films to the screen was Criterion Pictures, a short-lived production company not to be confused with today’s non-theatrical distributor Criterion Pictures, nor the DVD/Blue-ray re-releaser The Criterion Collection.
For the role of the sergeant Criterion cast the dark, dashing radio singer James Newill, because of the popularity of films with singing cowboys, and he would go on to catch bad guys and sing jolly songs about the Canadian mounties throughout eight films. Sky Bandits is the last in the line, and is supposedly based on the 1928 novel Renfrew Rides the Sky, although I can find no review or plot synopsis online. So one must either surmise that the film is very loosely based on the book, and more on Ghost Patrol, or that Ghost Patrol was in fact based on the same book. The latter is quite probable, since death rays that could stop planes were all the rage in juvenile fiction in 1928, thanks to the British inventor Harry Grindell Matthews, who caused a stir in the early twenties when he claimed to have invented a ray that could immobilise an entire army (more on him in my review of the 1925 film The Death Ray).
James Newill is joined by Constable Kelly, his trusted sidekick, played by Dave O’Brien, who also featured in another 1940 sci-fi film, The Devil Bat (review) alongside Bela Lugosi. By this stage, this being the last Renfrew film, Newill and O’Brien have developed a good rapport, which adds to the movie. While their friendly comedic banter isn’t always of the best quality, it adds a nice feeling of familiarity to the flick, and their on-screen chemistry works well. While probably not as good a singer, O’Brien is the better actor and he has some pretty funny moments as the slightly slow-witted and whining sidekick. Newill carries the lead competently, as the goodie-two-shoes crime fighter, and even his upbeat marching songs, which he performs three of in the film, are enjoyable.
Today Newill is perhaps best known for his 13 films as Texas Ranger Jim Steele – and apart from these and the Sergeant Renfrew movies, he only appeared in a handful of films. O’Brien might be best known to a modern audience as a frantic pot smoker in the classic ”so bad it’s good” anti-marijuana film Reefer Madness from 1936. He appeared in over 200 films throughout his career, mostly B movies, but with the occasional stint as a bit-part player in A-listers. He also wrote and directed a number of short films.
Although the script is daft, the film moves along at a nice pace, and is actually quite enjoyable thanks to its many humourist quirks. There’s a half-deaf nimwit hotel clerk who dreams of being a mountie, and a burly gangster and radio specialist who tabs the mounties’ office. He then sends clues to his accomplices over short-wave radio about where and when the planes are going to fly and how much gold they will carry – disguised as moral fables for children. The part is beautifully played by prolific gangster staple Dewey Robinson. Comedian Snub Pollard turns up confused in a nightshirt to set the police off their trail as they storm a house that formerly served as the gangsters’ hideout. Pollard worked with many of the comedy greats in the thirties, forties and fifties, including Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, the Keystone Cops and Harold Lloyd. Louise Stanley in the female lead is forgettable thanks to her underwritten part. Stanley starred in 39 films between 1936 and 1944, mostly in B westerns.
And then there is the biggest star of the movie, at least to viewers today – Dwight Frye. I doubt anyone clicking on a review of Sky Bandits doesn’t know who Dwight Frye is, but for the sake of that one confused person who for some reason was looking for Zoran Perisic’s 1986 WWII film Sky Bandits, lets have a brief introduction. While even people looking for films by Zoran Perisic know who Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff are, for many horror fans Dwight Frye is an equally revered legend. The small, electric actor rose to cinematic immortality out of obscurity with his legendary performance as the madman Renfield in Dracula in 1931. He further cemented his position as Hollywood’s weirdo number one the same year with his portrayal of Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz. Unfortunately for him, these roles led to him being typecast as unbalanced crazies or creepy henchmen, and apart from these roles he mainly received bit-parts, apart from a few substantial supporting roles in A movies. This must have been frustrating for the theatrical actor, who was used to leading roles on Broadway, where he spent most of his acting days. A turning point for him as a film actor could have come in 1944, when he was cast in a substantial part in the Woodrow Wilson biopic Wilson, but he died of heart failure before filming began. Nevertheless, his wild-eyed energy and crazy antics are part of horror film legend. His portrayals of the mad, often deformed henchmen set a standard for horror and mad scientist films, and today he is held by many as one the true icons of horror films.
In Sky Bandits Dwight Frye plays Speavy – the actual inventor of the death ray – who is initially on the bandits’ side, but is sidestepped when his design hits a snag, and the gangsters trick ”the world’s greatest expert on electricity”, Professor Burton Lewis (Joe De Stefani) into finishing the ray cannon, sending Speavy into fits. For some bizarre reason that is never explained, Frye walks through the movie cuddling a bunny. Perhaps not Frye’s greatest role, but he is always memorable.
Joe De Stefani was born in 1879 in Venice, Italy, and didn’t enter the movie business (at least credited) before 1931, although a short online obituary claims he worked in films as early as the 1910’s. He seems to have at least worked partly on stage in the twenties. He appeared in 25 B movies from 1931 to 1940, mostly in smaller parts. His best remembered role was opposite Boris Karloff in The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review), followed by Sky Bandits. In the former he actually held up his part well against his famous colleague, whereas in Sky Bandits he seems to be constantly wondering what the hell he is doing in the film.
All in all, the film features a surprisingly strong, although anonymous, supporting cast. But despite this, the film’s lack of a decent budget is obvious, never more so than in the set design, which is virtually non-existent. Most of the film takes place in a tightly cropped plane, on an anonymous dirt road, in a sparsely decorated hotel lobby and two nondescript room, one which is filled by loads of electrical whirring and sparking machines rented out by Kenneth Strickfaden – an avid viewer of thirties and forties sci-fi films will spot many familiar gadgets.
Ralph Staub’s direction is workmanlike and uninteresting, and despite having hired legendary stunt man David Sharpe, he is unable to make the fight scenes memorable. Sharpe doubled for almost all the action heroes of the thirties and forties, and also worked as an actor, mostly in bit-parts, in numerous films. IMDb lists about 400 films in which he appeared as either actor or stunt man, or both. According to his own words, though, he worked on over 4 000 films, mostly unrecognized, since stunt personnel usually weren’t credited in ye olde days. This may or may not be a slight exaggeration.
Director Ralph Staub mostly directed documentaries, and only did a handful of feature films. He is best known for his short subjects on the history of Hollywood, for which he was nominated for Oscars three times, but never won.
Sky Bandits. 1940, USA. Directed by Ralph Staub. Written by Edward Halperin. Based on the novel Renfrew Rides the Sky by Laurie York Erskine. Starring: James Newill, Dave O’Brien, Dwight Frye, William Pawley, Dewey Robinson, Louise Stanley, Joe De Stefani, Jim Farley, Karl Hackett, Ted Adams, Jack Clifford, Bob Terry, Kenne Duncan, Eddie Fetherston, Snub Pollard. Cinematography: Mack Stengler. Editing: Martin G. Cohn. Assistant director: Ben Chapman. Sound: Glen Glenn. Stunts: David Sharpe, Wally West. Produced by Phil Goldstone for Criterion.