By Ed Garea
Foreign Agent (Monogram, 1942) – Director: William Beaudine. Writers: John W. Krafft (s/p), Martin Mooney (story & s/p). Stars: John Shelton, Gale Storm, Ivan Lebedeff, George Travell, Patsy Moran, Lyle Latell, Hans Schumm, William Halligan, Kenneth Harlan, Herbert Rawlinson, Boyd Irwin, David Clarke, Fay Wall, Edward Pell, Sr., & Paul Bryar. B&W, 64 minutes.
Those who have seen a lot of Monogram’s output during the Second World War might well come to the conclusion that when goofier movies are made, Monogram will make them.
It might be argued by some that this is a train wreck movie. However, train wreck films are made by major studios and have budgets. This is Monogram, where the budget at times is practically nonexistent.
In only a little over an hour Monogram gives us a nearly incomprehensible story of a Hollywood starlet who teams with a technician to take on Japanese spies in California.
The movie opens with the murder of a Hollywood lighting technician named Mayo, found hanged in his apartment by a maid. At the time of his murder he was working on a new kind of filter that would allow a searchlight to expose enemy aircraft without visible light.
He was murdered by two foreign agents named Nick Dancy (Travell) and Okura (Lebedeff). They work for master Nazi spy Dr. Werner (Schumm), who in turn works with Robert Nelson (Pell Sr.) and Elliott Jennings (Irwin) who head a Quisling-type organization called the North American Peace Association, funded by the Nazis.
Dancy and Okura bring Mayo’s papers to Dr. Werner but nothing of note is found in them aside from an autographed photo of Mayo’s daughter, Mitzi (Storm), a struggling actress at the studio. This leads Werner to believe that she might have the plans. (How many daughters – even if they are movie stars – give their father an autographed photo?)
Meanwhile, the film shifts gears as Mitzi's boyfriend Jimmy (Shelton), an actor at the same studio, tells her that he is joining the Army. Mitzi, who shares an apartment with stuntwoman Joan Collins (Moran), also sings at the Harbor Club. Joan, who is practically engaged to studio sound man Eddie McGurk (Latell), borrows Mitzi’s car for a date with Eddie. They are followed by Dancy and Okura, who, mistaking them for Mitzi and Jimmy, steal Joan's diamond engagement ring and Mitzi's car.
Later, as Mitzi and Jimmy return to Mitzi's after a date, they discover the house has been ransacked. Mitzi confesses to Jimmy that she has the plans for the filter and asks him to keep them safe. Jimmy suggests that they show the plans to George McCall (Harlan), an electrician at the studio who might be able to build the filter.
When Jimmy goes to the recruiting office to sign up, it’s explained to him that there are many ways he can help his country right here at home. Jimmy is asked to defer his plans to join the Army to help radio commentator Bob Davis (Halligan) investigate subversive groups. When Jimmy goes to his office he becomes involved in a fight that was apparently staged by Davis to test Jimmy’s mettle (and to pad out the rather thin plot). Having passed his entrance exam, Jimmy is assigned to watch Nelson and Jennings and report on their activities.
Later, Joan goes to see Mitzi perform at The Harbor Club. While there she recognizes one of the men who robbed her and calls Eddie. When Eddie arrives a fight breaks out and the men flee. However, one has dropped his wallet and an examination of the papers inside reveal his connection to Werner's group.
Meanwhile, Davis discovers that his office is bugged. With Jimmy's help, he feeds the eavesdroppers false information as Jimmy discovers the location of the spies's headquarters and sets up a system to tape their interactions. During a lull in the action Jimmy and Mitzi play around with one of Davis’s recording machines. Speaking with horrible German accents, they somehow decide they’d be good in Nazi movies. (“Everybody’s making them these days!” Jimmy says.) But then they think it over and decide they don’t want money badly enough to play Nazis (!). Later, while listening to the tapes Jimmy and Mitzi learn the group plans to bomb Los Angeles. They agree to turn the recordings over to the FBI.
However, Werner’s men discover they were being bugged and trace the tap to Mitzi's apartment. There they capture Jimmy, Mitzi and Davis. Jimmy then plays them the recording that he and Mitzi made, convincing the spies that it’s actually Werner and his mistress Anna (Wall) planning to double-cross them. During the ensuing confusion, U.S. government agents arrive and arrest Werner and his men. Later, Jimmy and Mitzi watch a demonstration of her father's invention, and Jimmy tells Mitzi that he loves her.
As a spy movie, the only thing Foreign Agent has going for it is a mercifully short running time of 64 minutes. It’s more interesting as a rather unpleasant mirror of its times – 1942 America. When it was made the possibility of a Japanese raid on Los Angeles was seen as very possible, giving the plot of this movie the illusion of being ripped right out of the day's headlines. And so the movie’s goal seems to be to remind Americans to keep their lips zipped about defense matters and the like, and also to be suspicious of foreigners, because spies are everywhere.
The film is marked by its casual racism, which is so over the top that it engenders more laughs today than outrage. For instance, one of the songs Mitzi sings at The Harbor Club is an entertaining little ditty written by Bill Anderson and titled “It’s Taps For the Japs, Buddy,” with lyrics like “that sneaky race is gonna diminish/’cause what they’ve begun we’re prepared to finish!” (With only an on-screen accordionist as accompanist.)
The main drawback of the film is its dopey plot reinforced by some amazingly shoddy acting. As Mitzi, Gale Storm gives an amazingly lifeless performance, but compared to the others in the cast she comes off like Myrna Loy. John Shelton, as Jimmy, is, as they say, what might be described as mercifully inadequate. He spends his time as an extra on the studio lot whining such witty lines as “Why do they give all the American military movies to foreign directors?” Obviously a deep thinker.
The movie’s plot spends too much of its time wallowing in Mitzi and Jimmy’s insipid love story. It’s all too obvious that Mitzi’s night job as a lounge singer is simply a poor excuse to perform a few seemingly endless awful musical numbers and eat up even more of the plot before returning to our foreign agents of the title as they plot away.
Even worse than the love story between Storm and Shelton is the comic relief duo of Patsy Moran and Lyle Latell. It seems that every time the film begins to demonstrate a plot, director Beaudine cuts back to these two as they engage in a form of argument found mainly in bad sitcoms. At least it’s better than some of the utterly inane morale propaganda cut-ins, like the starlet at a bar who complains that her boyfriend has just been shipped off to Australia, leading the bartender to admonish her by pointing at a poster with a picture of a dead hand with a caption that reads “Somebody blabbed!” That’s as subtle as it gets.
There also is a curious scene concerning a first-generation American whose family was still back in mother Russia standing up to Nazi thugs at a rally. That he is practically the spitting image of Stalin was obviously Monogram’s idea of showing support for the Soviet Union.
And, of course, there are the accents. One would think that the terribly phony German accents of Mitzi and Jimmy would be spotted right away by the Axis spies. Actually, they would – if the spies’ own accents weren’t just as atrocious.
Actually, the idea of spies operating on Hollywood studio lots is a good one, and was used in quite a few B-movies of the time. But no studio used it as outrageously as Monogram did with Foreign Agent.