Sky Patrol (1939)

Today we have a Golden Oldie from the not-so-Golden Age of pre-WWII fear and uncertainty. Sky Patrol is a film adaptation of the once-popular Tailspin Tommy Tompkins series, which started as a daily newspaper cartoon strip in the late 1920s and before its run petered out in the early 1940s, the Tailspin Tommy media empire included several parallel arcs of the strip, a few full-run serials, and four feature films (Sky Patrol being one of those). I have to admit I had barely heard of him before watching this movie, but I do remember the similar Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon which came soon after Tommy's run was over.


Jump in the Way-Back Machine, kids, history lesson time. In the 1930s, America had an obsession with airplanes and pilots like at no other time since Kitty Hawk. Lindbergh, Earhart, and Hughes were all celebrities and every new speed record or Transatlantic flight was widely reported by the media (in many ways it was like the early days of the Apollo program, when every first was indeed a first). The rudimentary airplanes of that day were simple enough that Joe Schmoe could keep one running and learn to fly it himself, so aviation was much more accessible to the general public than it is today. We take flying for granted in our era of regular air travel and media saturation, but in the 1930s it was still a novel experience to even see an airplane, let alone fly in one. As well, word was filtering in of a new type of vicious air combat between the high-tech participants in the Spanish Civil War and it was clear that the next War to End All Wars would use aircraft heavily (and in the end, might be decided by who controlled the skies).

Repaired with a screwdriver and a hammer, GPS and cruise control optional.

It's in this background then that our story takes place. We open with a newspaper frontpage telling us of the "Sky Patrol", a newly-formed unit of the Army Air Corps tasked with patrolling our continental borders. This was long before the "US Air Force" was created as a separate branch, back when the flying wing of America's military was still a part of the US Army. The Sky Patrol concept might be seen as a precursor of the Air National Guard, with citizen airmen backing up the professional pilots of the regular Air Corps. Being a famous barnstorming pilot, Tailspin Tommy has been given a ceremonial commission as a First Lieutenant and placed in charge of training cadets for the Sky Patrol. The site for this is "Randolph Field" in Texas, soon to be Randolph Air Force Base, which in the real world was indeed the home of the US Army Air Corps Training Center (I'm a plane nut, sorry).

Newspaper (pan-and-scan sucks!).

Let's meet the Colonel, the man in overall command of the Sky Patrol. The Colonel's twentysomething son Carter is a greenhorn cadet, and while he's a fair pilot, he has some sort of mental block when it comes to firing a gun. This phobia is never explained, even a little bit, but it doesn't matter in the end as you will see.

The Colonel (l) with Carter (r).

Off now to the airfield, where the cadets must pass one final test before graduation. This consists of strafing a big stationary target out in an open field from a slow-flying bi-plane (perfect training for when the Krauts invade us and then stand politely in one place waiting for death from above). Each cadet flies with an instructor who grades his flying and shooting skills with the single Browning machinegun mounted above the engine cowling (watch them have to pump a handle to charge the gun, seriously old school). The planes are all identical dual-control bi-planes with tandem open cockpits and stretched fabric skins. I suck at pre-WWII planes, but they look like classic Waco UPFs. Or maybe Boeings? Stinsons? Stearmans? Ryans? Help?

Sky Patrol planes, note the WWI-vintage roundels and the tri-color flashes on the rudders (yes, it's a black and white film, just use your imagination).

Carter flies his turn with Tommy in the pit behind him. Despite his reservations, Carter manages to fire the gun (hitting the target, no less), but is so intent on the queasy task that he forgets to pull up and they are zooming towards a very messy end. Tommy, and this made me laugh, leans out of his cockpit and knocks Carter over the head with what looks like a fire extinguisher and takes over, pulling them out of the dive. He then does some twisting aerobatics over the assembled cadets on the field, maybe trying to convince them that it was Carter doing the flying, though everyone recognizes Tommy's unique barnstorming style.


Later, Carter and Tommy talk about what happened (or don't talk, the conversation is halting and never actually addresses anything), and it's clear that Tommy has seen that Carter "has the heart for it" even if he doesn't have the actual stones to be a combat pilot. Tommy and the Colonel then talk about it (or don't, again, there's too much testosterone in the room for an open and honest conversation about anything). Tommy is being downright deceptive here, lying to his superior officer when he says that Carter did a fine job on the final test. He's also doing a great disservice to Carter, potentially putting him into a situation where he could get himself (or others) killed just because he doesn't want him to disappoint his father (who explicitly said that he'd be fine with his son going back to med school anyway).

Talking with Carter.

Time passes and news comes from Washington about "arms smugglers" suspected to be operating in the area. The newly-minted airmen of Sky Patrol are tasked with patrolling the Texas Gulf Coast. The area is divided up into seven zones, with each of the seven pilots given a zone to cover. Of course, if you think about it, with only seven pilots you can't cover all zones all the time, as they are going to have to sleep, eat, and pee at some point. Plus those bi-planes have a limited endurance measured in hours, need frequent maintenance, and can only fly in daylight and in fair weather conditions. So, realistically, they might be able to cover three of those seven zones at any given time, and then only if the conditions are perfect. Anyway, we get lots of shots (most stock footage) of flying planes and insert shots of pilots chatting on their radios and peering over the sides (via back-projection skyscapes behind a parked plane shaken by off-screen key grips). With the film's not-inconsiderable budget, it surprised me that we don't see any of the all-metal monoplanes that were currently flying in Stateside Air Corp units (P-26s, P-35s, and P-36s, to name a few).

Tommy outlines the plan.

The patrols are generally uneventful, but one day Carter is out alone in his zone when he spots a big seaplane tooling along at 10,000 feet, headed out to sea. Carter pulls up alongside and radios back to base for orders. The seaplane's registration and serial number turn out to be bogus, checked by a guy who goes to a filing cabinet and looks through some folders (how did people live before Google?). This reminds me, whenever anyone is on a radio, they repeat everything three times ("Base to Carter. Base to Carter. Base to Carter..."). While it might be historically accurate, it gets damned annoying after a while and it eats up an inordinate amount of screen time when everyone is doing it. Carter is told to force the seaplane down (not shoot it down, just scare it with a few warning shots), but Carter freezes. Or maybe he doesn't, it looks like he just doesn't have the time to get into position before things start happening. During his training he didn't have a problem with shooting at ground targets, he just can't shoot at people, so maybe he just was too slow here.

I'm 97.3% sure that's a Douglas Dolphin seaplane there.

The seaplane has no intention of being forced to land, however, and the crew pokes a machinegun out the cabin window and opens fire on Carter! Hit in the tailplane and spinning out of control, Carter bails out over the Gulf and his plane crashes in the water (pretty neat tissue-and-balsa model work). The seaplane lands and picks up Carter, effectively kidnapping him (the bad guys recognized him as the Colonel's son and thought he'd be of some use to them).

Carter bails out.

These are indeed the smugglers Washington warned them about. They are not foreigners, however, but American citizens with Texas drawls and felt fedoras. History lesson time again. It's (perhaps) well known that we did not want anything to do with WWII in the beginning, but were dragged into it when the Germans kept torpedoing our ships and when the Japanese punked Hawaii. Up until late 1939, America staunchly held on to its neutrality, even to the point of passing numerous laws forbidding the transfer of weapons to any of the belligerents. This, of course, only opened the door to the blackmarket smuggling of guns. So maybe these smugglers in their mysterious seaplane were not Nazi spies, but were actually selling arms to the British or some of the free forces of occupied European nations, the same people who in a few short years we will be fighting alongside.


Anyway, the subsequent search for the missing Carter turns up nothing. Tommy is indeed upset about this situation, which, in a roundabout way, is his own fault for sending Carter out on patrol when he knew he wasn't ready. He's brooding and snappy to those around him, even to his friends, hiding his conflicted emotions behind a wall built of pure dickishness. The lunky guy playing Tommy was never a professional actor (he was an airline pilot) so it's hard to tell if his prickly exterior is him trying (and failing) to give his character some sense of inner turmoil, or it's just his own lack of acting nuance.

Angry eyes.

Additional reports of the mysterious seaplane in the area lead them to make a general call for all ground spotters to keep an eye out. "Plane spotting" was a popular pastime back in the 1930s, as people competed to see who could collect as many sightings of planes and match their registration and serial numbers (a lot more fun when there were just a few hundred planes in all of America). It's not a dead game, by the way, and even I'm a member of Scramble's world-wide plane spotting team. It's a feisty little boy who provides the cinching clue, having seen the seaplane flying over his house numerous nights and also knowing that it's based at a nearby warehouse. The warehouse is owned by respected local industrialist and "licensed munitions broker", which suggests to Tommy that he's dealing in contraband weapons, delivering them via the seaplane to a ship offshore in nocturnal flights.

Talking to Opie.

They need proof so they go back to Sky Patrol HQ and rig up an "impulse meter" thingie to see if the seaplane is indeed flying out to sea, past the 12-mile territorial line. It tracks a plane's direction and speed by measuring "intersecting magneto impulses", or something, I was trying to cook dinner at the same time so I didn't catch half of what they were saying. I'm not sure if this was a real-world concept or not, but the dorky tabletop machine with its sparking electrical arcs and beeping dials certainly looks like something out of a Flash Gordon serial. [Editor Pam: I've never heard of "intersecting magneto impulses," and that machine looks way too small to be able to track airplanes at any distance. It looks phony anyway, like somebody stuck some dials and metal things on a box. lf anybody knows anything about a real detection system like this, please let me know.]


But it works and they have proof now that the industrialist is smuggling. Just when the cops are ready to raid the warehouse, Tommy has a hunch (huh?) that Carter is still alive. He begs the Colonel to give him 24 hours so that he and Skeeter can go alone on a mission to find his son. Skeeter is Tommy's comic relief sidekick, Robin to his Batman, a reoccurring character from the very first comic strip. I'm sure he has had his moments in the sun over the years, but in Sky Patrol, he pretty much just follows Tommy around and tries not to get in the way. The only thing memorable about him is the running gag about his inability to pronounce "amphibian", which is actually more amusing that you might think. Also, it's clear from the literature that Skeeter was just as accomplished a pilot as Tommy, but while Tommy got commissioned as an officer, Skeeter is just a buck sergeant, a full 13 pay grades below him. If he's bitter about that, he doesn't show it.


Tommy and Skeeter fly out to sea in an old unmarked plane, following the seaplane's course. They come across the smugglers' ship, what looks like a schooner, and after buzzing around it for a while, Tommy has a brilliant plan. He fakes the engine failing and then crash lands in the water near the ship!!! He's hoping the smugglers will then fish them out of the water and they'll be able to see if Carter is aboard. Of, course, he's assuming that a) he and Skeeter survive ditching a fragile bi-plane in rough seas, b) the smugglers take the time and effort to save them even though they shouldn't because they are doing illegal business, c) he's right and Carter is on the ship, which he has absolutely zero evidence of, and d) that he'll figure out a way to then get them all off a ship on the open sea full of armed criminals.


It doesn't matter anyway as they are busted immediately as the head smuggler knows Tommy's famous face and figures Sky Patrol is involved somehow (duh, everyone knows Tailspin Tommy!). They are locked in a stateroom with a beaten and bruised, but very much alive, Carter. He tells Tommy and Skeeter how the smugglers picked him up after shooting him down and then beat him senseless after he refused to cooperate with them (he won't fire a gun but he'll resist torture?). One wonders why the smugglers didn't put a bullet in his head once he proved to be worthless to them, or for that matter why they don't shoot all three of them now.

Talking with Carter.

The smugglers have been monitoring Sky Patrol's radio frequencies for some time, so they know about the impending raid on the warehouse (wow, hard to mount an effective anti-smuggling operation when you are broadcasting your locations and plans over non-encrypted open radio freqs). They force Tommy to get on the radio and tell Sky Patrol to back off, which he agrees to do when threatened. While Tommy is supposedly selling out his buddies, he is sending a sneaky Morse code message by surreptitiously tapping the send key while no one is looking.

On the radio.

This hidden message is decoded by the superfine Betty Lou, who is hanging around there at Sky Patrol headquarters. Over the course of Tailspin Tommy's history, the Betty Lou character went from Tommy's "best gal", to his "only gal", to his "red hot lover", which she is now. While Betty Lou has virtually zero role in our movie, I understand that in the comics and the serials she held her own in numerous feats of daring-do. For anyone who says that women 70 years ago were not as beautiful as women today, I present to you Betty Lou.


The problem is that they then give away Tommy's plan over the radio, the same radio that the smugglers are monitoring. So now the bad guys know everything again. The police raid goes forward and the cops bust up that end of the smuggling ring. The Colonel and some cops take the captured seaplane and fly out to sea posing as the smugglers, though I wonder how do they know where to go exactly? The Gulf of Mexico is a big place, wouldn't the smugglers sail away further into international waters once they knew their operation was blown?

Cops raid (I love the suits).

On the ship, Tommy and the boys manage to escape and they sneak below decks to the cargo hold. Along the way, Tommy gets ahold of a revolver and shoots a goon without even aiming. I've brought this up in other reviews, but the whole ultra-macho "shoot from the hip" gunfight style grates on me like few other things. I'm not sure when it fell out of favor with Hollywood producers, but I'm glad it did (well, I guess I'd rather see that than the lameass John Woo sideways gangsta hold).

Real men don't aim, bullets just fly where they demand them to go.

Down in the hold they find boxes of Springfield rifles and hand grenades and cans of gunpowder. For some reason, Tommy gives the pistol to Carter to guard the stairs while he and Skeeter look around. A bad guy comes down the stairs and Carter screws up his courage and shoots him (from the hip, grrr). Tommy says, "Atta boy!", and we are to assume that now Carter is reformed and can now shoot people dead without worrying about that pesky moral conscience holding him back. Of course, Carter was just an allegory, representative of Average Joe America's blind unwillingness to accept that another World War was brewing and that, no matter how wide and deep the seas were, America would be eventually dragged into it. It's hard to look back at WWII through the lens of four years of brutal combat for the United States and think that in the years just leading up to the war the general consensus in America was that Nazi Germany was "someone else's problem". [Editor Pam: Americans were used to thinking Europe was so far away that nothing that happened there could affect them. Also, I've read some of the popular literature of the time, and I suspect there was a certain amount of sympathy for Nazi Germany anyway, for being able to lift its economy out of the Depression. Besides that, although almost nobody was going to admit it, a lot of Americans shared Nazi opinions on the general inferiority of everybody who wasn't of northern European background. I understand there were Americans who actually thought it would be a good idea for America to become an ally of Germany. Charles Lindbergh was one of them.]

Carter with the gun.

Anyway, as Tommy rigs up a bomb down below, up on deck the seaplane has arrived in the area (unaware that the smugglers know they are cops). The bad guys have a one-pounder cannon and are about to open fire when Tommy's bomb goes off (eeek, bad special effect here as the model boat blows apart with way too much gusto). Our heroes jump off in time and swim to the seaplane and the day is saved.


The stinger is our cast sitting around talking about forming the "Sky Scouts" for local kids, a version of the then-popular Boy Scouts where eight-year old boys would presumably be allowed to fire machineguns and land planes. Sky Patrol ends with a teaser for the next movie in the Tailspin Tommy series, Scouts of the Air. Unfortunately, this sequel was never made as the franchise collapsed the next year as America's tastes turned to other treats. Perhaps some enterprising filmmaker (ie: me!) could produce this long-awaited sequel, using a mix of stock footage and unpaid local actors (ie: friends paid with pizza). Hmmm...

I'm taking funding offers!

The End.

Written in November 2009 by Nathan Decker.

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