Bruce Gentry: Daredevil of the Skies (1949)

Bruce_Gentry_(1949)‘Are the mysterious discs to fly again? For the answers see ‘The Flying Disc’ – Chapter 7 of ‘Bruce Gentry’ at this theatre next week!’

Bruce Gentry’s plane is almost wrecked by a badly animated flying disc. Super-villain The Recorder has kidnapped a top scientist to work on his saucers, which he plans to use in his takeover of America on behalf of ’a certain foreign power.’

Post World War II, the movie serial was in serious decline; major studios were suffering economically and many were shutting down their ‘B’ picture units, which had flooded the market with cheap and cheerful second features during the war years. Budgets were slashed, and although serials continued to be made until the late 1950s, they never clawed back the ground surrendered by cheap and tatty efforts like Bruce Gentry’s sole outing on the silver screen. In all probability they could not have survived the advent of television anyway.

The Columbia studios were a little late to the party, only forming their ‘serial unit’ in 1938. They stumbled through their first few projects but gained success quickly with popular adventures such as ‘The Spider’s Web’ (1938) and ‘Mandrake the Magician’ (1939). Separately hiring serial veterans George H Plympton (writer) and Spencer Gordon Bennet (director) proved a good long-term move, as coupled with ‘money conscious’ producer Sam Katzman, they collaborated on many a chapterplay through the 1940s and early 50s, usually with a good level of box office success. Unfortunately, none of them were able to make much of the weary, warmed over elements here, even with the addition of flying saucers, which were all over the news after the famous 1947 sighting by Kenneth Arnold and the Roswell incident.

Our hero is ruggedly handsome hotshot pilot Bruce Gentry, whose close encounter with a UFO brings him onto the radar of Hugh Prosser, head of the Radcliffe Insurance Company. Rather bizarrely, the U.S. government have entrusted the investigation of these saucery goings on to him and he’s keen on recruiting Gentry to lead the investigation (especially as he doesn’t seem to have any other staff apart from a sexy Secretary). He uses her as bait to entice Gentry, and it works, despite the fact that she wears the same outfit throughout most of the 15 chapters. The actress who plays her is sadly uncredited, heroine duties passing to bland cowgirl Judy Clark instead. She’s a blonde New Yorker, and seems a strange choice to be playing someone called Juanita, but perhaps there was a late casting change!

On the other side of the fence, we have our super-badass The Recorder, so called because he only communicates via reel-to-reel tape recordings. This is not very exciting, of course, even when they are played by top henchman Tristram Coffin, who was an old hand at this kind of thing and actually turned hero as ‘King of the Rocket Men’ (1949).

Bruce_Gentry_(1949)

‘I hate to ask, but is Juanita your real name?’

The secret lair is also somewhat less than impressive, consisting of two rooms in a cave filled with old radio parts. We never see the flying discs on the ground (wonder why?), and the plot is just the usual round of fisticuffs and car chases as Gentry tries to stop various McGuffins falling into the hands of the Recorder’s small gang of hat wearing thugs. Interior scenes seem at a premium, with less than half a dozen sets used, and the villainous horde often congregating in a car park!

It’s all bottom of the barrel stuff; even the rights to the character probably acquired on the cheap as the comic strip concerned was only syndicated in a handful of newspapers.

Star Tom Neal is best remembered these days for his leading turn in classic, no budget noir ‘Detour’ (1945), and brings an easy charisma to the title role here. But he never made it to the big leagues, his career derailed by his real life exploits. An amateur boxer with more than 25 first round knockouts to his name, Neal was just as ready to use his fists outside the ring. In 1951 he got into an argument with ‘A’ list actor Franchot Tone over starlet (and well-known party girl) Barbara Payton. Tone ended up in hospital with some serious injuries, including a brain concussion, but still recovered sufficiently to wed Payton a few weeks later. Hollywood might have forgiven Neal that, but not the fact that he and Payton ran off together barely two months after the wedding. The couple were blackballed by the establishment and split up 3 years later after a volatile, and violent, relationship. Payton sank into alcoholism, prostitution and premature death, but Neal reinvented himself as a successful landscape gardener! Unfortunately, he was in trouble again in 1965 when his third wife turned up with a bullet hole in the back of the head. The prosecution pushed for the death penalty, but Neal eventually served just 6 years for  involuntary manslaughter. He died of a heart attack less than a year after being released.

Neal’s life was a long way from the heroic, clean cut world of Bruce Gentry, but would make a far more interesting film.

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