Columbia Pat Savage, Part 1

Many thanks to guest blogger Atom Mudman Bezecny, who takes us deep into the movie career of Pat Savage…that never was. But oh, if it only had been…


In the early days of cinema, movie theaters operated rather differently than they do today. Instead of offering a single A-tier feature for the price of a ticket, theaters would run showings that would typically consist of a cartoon or short, a serial chapter, an hour-long B-movie, and then finally the feature presentation. The origins of these programs involve the long, complicated history of the Hollywood studio system and the practice of “block booking,” wherein theaters would effectively be forced to buy inexpensively-produced movies alongside the desirable A-movies, which would ensure that the studio would make on a profit on what were often lower-quality productions. In spite of their lower budgets, however, a great many of the B-movies produced during this period are just as entertaining as their blockbuster counterparts, and part of this is due to their willingness to adapt “lowbrow” media to the screen. When studios in the 1930s and 1940s needed B-movies for their revues, it was only natural that they’d turn to popular media that had proven to be successful in its original format—and so began the Golden Age of Pulp Movies. Dozens of characters from pulp magazines and pulp-like fiction began appearing in movie form, from The Shadow and Bulldog Drummond to The Spider and Tarzan. Legions of detectives, monsters, sci-fi heroes, jungle explorers and more flooded the screen, entertaining viewers of all ages.

But one of the most famous pulp characters of this era was conspicuously absent from the world of movies: Doc Savage. Though Doc Savage’s home magazine ran from the dawn of the ’30s to the end of the ’40s, and sold millions of copies, Doc and his fabulous team of aides were apparently never even considered for movie options during this time. That’s not to say that Doc’s world, sans Doc, didn’t make it onto the screen, however. In 1937, Columbia paid Street & Smith Publications for the rights to make a series of B-pictures about Doc’s adventurous female cousin Pat Savage. For the role of Pat, they chose one of their up-and-coming players: a lovely young woman named Rita Cansino, who would very soon become more famous under the name Rita Hayworth.

The casting of Rita Hayworth as Pat Savage more than makes up for the lack of Golden Age movies starring Pat’s cousin. It is an almost unbelievable casting, one only made possible by Hayworth’s inauspicious start in B-movies. Pat is a cult favorite among the pulp fandom, and to have such a talented and gorgeous actress as Hayworth in the role is superb. Hayworth infused Pat with the sort of fiery energy which not only reflected the original pulp character, but also gave a rare sort of raw feminist energy to this era of cinema. The only character comparable to Pat in these movies is Torchy Blane, played variously by Glenda Farrell, Lola Lane, and Jane Wyman in a series of nine movies made between 1937 and 1939—the brilliant, bold journalistic adventures Torchy embarked on were a huge inspiration on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation of Lois Lane. Pat has a youthful, spritely energy that contrasts and complements the moody passions of Hayworth’s later roles, such as her turns in the seminal films noir Gilda (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947).

The Pat Savage movies were still B-movies, in spite of a young Hayworth’s presence, and that meant there were some stipulations on what the writers were allowed to do. First of all, the rights secured by Columbia only covered Pat herself. While the films were allowed to mention that Pat had a famous adventurer cousin, they could never name or show Doc Savage. They were also forbidden from featuring or mentioning Doc’s five aides and any of the villains from the pulps, and locations such as Hidalgo, the Fortress of Solitude, and the 86th floor headquarters were off-limits as well. Pat’s beauty parlor could appear, and would indeed be her “home base” during the films, but that was it. There were some allowances, however—in the interest of keeping a connection between the films and the pulps, Street & Smith permitted the filmmakers to use the storylines of novels in which Pat appeared to build their own stories. At the time of signing, this gave Columbia ten Doc novels to use, within the limits of their other guidelines (the contract included Red Snow, in which Pat only appears via phone call).

Because minimal expense was the goal of any B-picture production, studios employed directors who were able to work quickly. One director who was consistently reliable in this regard was William Beaudine, who commonly provided quality material in short time. Contrary to the rumor spread by Michael and Harry Medved, who called the director “One-Shot Beaudine” in their 1978 book The 50 Worst Films of All Time, Beaudine did not neglect to do retakes of flubbed scenes. Comparing his B-movies to others of the period, especially his crime and horror entries, shows that he was an above-average director with very few obvious blunders onscreen. In fact, Beaudine had been A-class director in the silent era, and he worked on and off at Columbia until 1931 when a bad encounter with producer Sam Briskin left him shut out of higher-end productions. Briskin left Columbia in 1935 to work at RKO, and only returned in May 1938, when the final Pat Savage movie was already scheduled for production—in Briskin’s absence, Columbia held no ill will towards Beaudine, giving him one of the more lucrative jobs of this period of his life. And this is to the series’ great benefit, as Beaudine helps infuse the Pat films with his typical energy and humor.

With all of that history in mind, I’d like to take a look at the three Pat Savage movies and give my thoughts on what makes them some of the most entertaining pulp B-movies of the ’30s.


Columbia adopted a “simple but stylish” approach for the poster of the first film of the Pat Savage franchise.
The “Bronze” in the title refers exclusively to Pat’s hair; she is far paler in the films than her bronze-skinned pulp counterpart, probably so that the filmmakers could avoid having to darken Hayworth’s skin.

Columbia adopted a “simple but stylish” approach for the poster of the first film of the Pat Savage franchise.

The “Bronze” in the title refers exclusively to Pat’s hair; she is far paler in the films than her bronze-skinned pulp counterpart, probably so that the filmmakers could avoid having to darken Hayworth’s skin.

The first film in the series is very loosely based on the first Doc Savage novel in which Pat appears: Lester Dent’s Brand of the Werewolf (1934). That story sees Doc Savage and his team travel to Canada, where a criminal called the Werewolf has murdered Doc’s uncle Alex, Pat’s father. Pat joins Doc and his team as they battle the Werewolf over an ivory cube that contains a map to a cache of pirate treasure. For the most part, the film adopts the same general premise, but in addition to filling Doc’s role in the story with Pat, the story splits off in many ways from the original pulp. In spite of these deviations, this is a fantastic first entry for a movie series.

The movie opens as the novel does, on a train. Unlike in Brand of the Werewolf, however, where the train carries Doc Savage from the U.S. to Canada, here the train is bringing Pat Savage from Canada to New York. The first emergent oddity coming from Pat taking Doc’s place is that Alex Savage has been changed to being Pat’s uncle as well. The identity of Pat’s father in the movies is never specified, but aside from a transplant to the States, the role of Alex Savage is the same for Pat in this movie as it is for Doc in the original pulp. Pat has received a request from her uncle Alex to come see him right away, on apparently urgent family business. The wealthy Alex (who will be played by Oscar O’Shea when we see him) has long considered Pat to be the daughter he never had (ironic, given their pulp relationship) and, suspecting that he wishes to discuss his will, Pat fears her uncle is dying. She meets a fellow passenger, Inspector Fielding (Jonathan Hale) of the NYPD, who is returning from a vacation in Canada. As she is explaining the situation to Fielding, Pat is suddenly accosted by an eccentric elderly woman who speaks to her of a “plague” in New York named “Lobo.” After Fielding shoos the old lady away, Pat’s curiosity is piqued, and Fielding says that he received a telegram a week ago about a crime lord named Karl Lobo who has been ransacking seemingly random homes in Long Island. As her uncle Alex lives in Long Island, Pat is understandably concerned, but also fascinated. She’s never been in the same city as a real live crime lord before.

We get our first allusion to Doc Savage in this scene when Pat mentions that her cousin is “a real famous science-detective,” of whom she is “green with envy.” She longs for an adventurous lifestyle such as his, and sort of always has. Fielding is clearly skeptical of a pretty girl getting into the crime-fighting business, but he entertains her excitement, largely because he enjoys scoping out her legs.

Upon meeting up with Alex, Pat’s worst fears (and perhaps greatest hopes) are confirmed: her uncle has been receiving threatening notes from Karl Lobo, demanding that he give him “it.” Alex is a collector of rare objects, but he has no idea what Lobo wants specifically. Pat asks him if anything weird has been happening around the house, but he hasn’t seen anything. Later that night, Pat is retiring to bed when she overhears her uncle arguing with a man outside. Suddenly, Alex seems much more certain of what object from his collection Lobo is after. Pat watches as Alex goes to one of the back rooms of the house, and inspects a chest. When he crosses her path coming back to his bedroom, she feigns a trip to the kitchen, which fails to fool him. He warns her not to meddle in his affairs, suddenly taking a gruff demeanor with her—but she’s not intimidated. Instead, she stays awake until her uncle finally falls asleep, and then creeps back downstairs. Opening the chest, she finds a strange white cube inside. As this happens, a gunshot goes off, and Alex cries out—when Pat runs to find him, it’s too late, and her uncle is dead. Shocked, she calls the police.

When the cops arrive, they are led by Inspector Fielding, who is pleased to see the pretty young lady from the train again. Pat immediately realizes that the much older Inspector has developed a crush on her, and slyly manipulates this to avoid being arrested as a suspect in her uncle’s murder—something advocated by the other officers, given that Pat was the sole heir in Alex’s will as well as seemingly the only one in the house at the time of the murder. Thanks to Fielding’s interference, Pat is given a slap on the wrist and told not to skip town, leading her to shoot back: “If you think I’m gonna run away from the craziest thing to ever happen to me…you’re nuttier than Karl Lobo!” With that, she launches into an investigation of her own.

At first, Pat decides to take the white cube to a historian she knows named Smith (played by Charles Quigley). While on the way to Smith’s antique shop, she is attacked by a thug who demands that she hand over the cube. Pat defends herself, and she does with an astonishing level of viciousness for a woman in a late ’30s film. Movies have never been averse to women slapping male aggressors, even in eras of high censorship, but the punches and judo throws that Pat gives out allow her to easily surpass any male combatant in films of the same era. There is no comedy surrounding Pat’s efficiency either; it is played entirely straight, for the sole purpose of promoting how awesome the character is. For 1937, this is an astonishingly forward-thinking move, and Smith, when he emerges from his shop to watch Pat dust her hands off, praises her instead of undercutting her. (Smith may also be coded as gay, but that’s just my own perception.) Pat mentions offhandedly to Smith that her skills are something her cousin taught her. This incarnation of Pat has evidently met her version of Doc before the events of her first story—sadly, their first adventure together was never explored.

Upon inspecting the cube inside the shop, Smith ascertains that it is a puzzle-box left behind by the pirate Henry Morgan. His sources indicate that cube contains is a map to the pirate captain’s treasure. He has no idea how it’s meant to open, but according to an old Indian legend, “the howl of the wind spirit” will unlock it. Pat leaves the cube in Smith’s safekeeping while she goes to research the Indian legend—warning him that people may come for it. Smith says he doubts that Lobo’s men will know he has it.

Unfortunately, he is wrong. Later that night, while studying an old book from his library, Smith is attacked by a hooded figure, who clubs him over the head and steals the cube. As Smith slumps to the ground, he takes his book with him, and ensures that it falls a certain way.

In the morning, Pat heads back to the shop to investigate, but finds Fielding and his men already there. Smith has been taken to the hospital—he’s in a coma, and might not make it, so he won’t be able to say if he saw anything. Pat asks to inspect the crime scene, and when Fielding refuses, she flutters her eyelashes at him and lectures him on how giving a lady what she wants can lead to splendid rewards. Fielding’s heart races, and when he rushes in to take Pat in his arms, she ducks past him and runs into the house.

Here, she finds the overturned book, and before Fielding rushes in to arrest her, she catches a glimpse of what Smith was studying: Rock Grotto Cave. The Inspector, furious at having been tricked, throws Pat into the back of his cop car to bring her downtown, now being more than willing to process her as a suspect not only in the case of her uncle Alex, but that of Smith as well.

On their way to the station, however, a car runs a red light and T-bones Fielding’s car. The Inspector is knocked unconscious and two men rush out and kidnap Pat, gagging and blindfolding her and dragging her into their own car. Once in the backseat they tie her up and take her to an old house outside of town. Though blindfolded, Pat listens to the bumps in the road, biding her time. At the house, the men take her inside and tie her to a chair, and a voice behind a curtain calls out that he is Karl Lobo. He has tried for the last several hours to open the ivory cube, and suspects that Pat knows something that he doesn’t. He intends to have his men interrogate her, by whatever means necessary, to learn how to obtain the treasure map inside.

Pat is still blindfolded, which the gangsters try to take advantage of. One of the men takes a cigarette lighter and runs it over her feet, claiming it’s a red-hot poker. Pat flinches from the heat. The men chuckle, as they take a sharpened piece of ice and jab it against the heel of her foot. She cries out, and then laughs. “That’s an old sorority trick,” she muses. “Don’t try any more—I invented half of them.” Karl Lobo growls at his men to torture her for real—she won’t fall for any psychological stuff. One of the men takes out a knife and begins pressing it against Pat’s skin. She pales, realizing that this is real trouble. Just as Lobo commands his man to start cutting her, Pat runs her fingers over the man’s sides and tickles him. As he giggles, he drops the knife, severing the rope that holds Pat’s feet. In an instant, she kicks the man away from her, sending him reeling.

What follows then is one of the most thrilling sequences in the series, as Pat, still bound at the arms and blindfolded, battles the gangsters with just her footwork. The goons rush her again and again, each time falling victim to her strong kicks, while she struggles to break the ropes binding her to the chair. From behind the curtain, Karl Lobo rather ineffectually calls to his men: “Get her! Get her!” Pat breaks one of the ropes by grinding it into the edge of the chair’s arm. She quickly frees her other arm and removes her blindfold. At that moment, Lobo runs out from behind the curtain, his face hidden under a hood (he is the one who attacked Smith). He has a gun, and fires rapidly at Pat. She manages to evade his shots, and runs for a nearby window. Diving through the glass, she sprints off into the wilderness. Men stream out of the house in pursuit of her, heading for the nearby woods. As they enter the forest, however, we see Pat dart out from hiding behind a tree—she runs back to the house. She finds another window, this time taking the time to open it the right way. She enters into a large parlor room, where she begins searching for the cube. She is forced to hide when Karl Lobo enters into the room. The fast-paced action sequence becomes one of steady suspense.

While we don’t yet see Lobo’s face, Pat does, reacting when he lowers his hood off-camera. Pat accidentally creaks a floorboard, and Lobo swiftly throws his hood back on. He searches for her, but fails to locate her—he decides to continue on his way. When at last he does leave the room, Pat continues searching, until she finds a box with the cube inside. She takes it and heads back out through the window, where she once more runs into the wilderness.

As she runs, we see flashbacks of her listening to the bumps in the car. She knows where she is, and as such knows how to get to Rock Grotto Cave. After a long run, she heads into the cave, where she finds a passage at the end that opens up into an underground river. An odd-sounding wind blows through this part of the cave, formed by a face-shaped hole in the rock resembling a demon. When Pat holds the cube up to this hole, the sound causes it to vibrate. To her delight, the lid pops open, and inside is a folded manuscript—the preserved treasure-map of Henry Morgan.

Pat turns to leave, and finds herself standing face-to-face with a man named Gunter (played by Dwight Frye). He is one of Lobo’s heavies; he has a gun, and he’s come for the map. He explains that his boss saw her in the parlor, and allowed her escape with the cube. Now that she’s opened it she’s saved them all a whole lot of trouble. Left with no other choice, Pat hands over the map—she tries to sneak a peek at it, but fails thanks to Gunter’s keen eyes.

Inspector Fielding arrives shortly after Gunter flees, and when Pat asks the Inspector how he found her, he explains that he noticed the same thing she did—that Smith was researching Rock Grotto Cave when he was attacked. He came down here on a hunch, and Pat’s glad he was right. She explains that Lobo now has the map, and Fielding frets that with the treasure, he could hire more men than ever, and sweep over the city in a massive crime wave. Pat then reveals that while she wasn’t able to look at the map, she snagged a tiny strip of it on her fingernail, and pressed it under her nail to avoid Gunter finding it. The fragment doesn’t show much more than a small piece of coastline, but Fielding believes that Morgan’s treasure is somewhere in New York, narrowing down the possibilities.

At the police station, Pat and Fielding pour over a dozen maps of New York, passing long into the night. When the Inspector goes to get more coffee, Pat finds that the map fragment matches a stretch of coast near to a tiny village called Fata Morgana. Realizing the connection between the town’s name and Captain Morgan, Pat exits the police station before Fielding returns, and tells a young officer that the Inspector is allowing her to borrow a police car. The officer doesn’t believe her, but she speaks confidently enough that eventually he lets her pass, giving her the keys, too. She speeds off in the cop car, running the sirens the whole time. “For the first time in this caper, everyone’s getting out of my way!” she cries triumphantly.

In the town of Fata Morgana, Lobo’s gang is working their way down to the beachfront, where they plan to excavate the pirate treasure. In a small beach cave, they find a small symbol made from stacked rocks which Lobo (still hooded) names as Morgan’s family crest. They start digging, but Pat pulls onto the beach outside in the police car. She pops open the glove compartment, and finds a service pistol inside. “They should be careful who they give these things,” she mutters. Then, she heads off towards the cave.

She comes up behind two of Lobo’s men, and orders them to stick ’em up. The men drop their guns, but there are two others who still have their rods. Lobo mocks Pat, saying her coming here will only get her killed. She returns that the cops probably won’t let someone who stole a police car get very far. True to her word, a small fleet of cop cars swoop onto the beach, intent on getting Pat for her theft. The officers rush into the cave and Lobo tries to take Pat hostage. She replies by putting him ahead of what W.C. Fields might call a kitten stocking—a sock on the puss. The cops disarm Lobo’s men, and unmask Lobo as a mean-looking tough. Inspector Fielding is about to arrest the man for the murder of Alex Savage, the attempted murder of Carson Smith, and the burglaries, when Pat interrupts. She points out that the man named Gunter is in fact the real Karl Lobo. She saw his face when he took his mask off. No doubt by posing as one of his lesser thugs, Lobo was hoping to serve a lighter sentence, and reorganize his operations more quickly. She wondered why “Gunter” didn’t just kill her in the cave and get it over with, but this “switcheroo” explains it: he wanted to avoid a direct murder rap. But now, he’ll face the full consequences of his crimes.

Pat’s uncle wanted to keep the treasure a secret from her because he intended to leave its wealth to her in his will. That was why he had tried to act gruff around her. She speculates that if he had just told her the truth, maybe she could have done something—but now it’s too late. Fielding mentions that on the plus side, Smith has recovered splendidly in the hospital. He then asks if Pat is going to stay in New York now that she’s a wealthy woman. She replies that she intends use her uncle’s money to open a beauty parlor. The old man immediately asks her out on a date, and she agrees, writing him her phone number before leaving. An officer comes up behind the lovelorn Inspector, and bursts his bubble by pointing out that Pat gave him the non-emergency number for the police station.

For anyone who feels that the series might be bogged down by Pat being chased around by a much older man, don’t worry—Inspector Fielding never appears after this first movie. And so much the better. Pat didn’t need a male sidekick for these films—she easily carries them all by herself.

This movie is a feast of wild, anarchic pulp-fiction energy. Pat fights Lobo’s men like a hell-born wildcat, and her stunts build on each other until that last climatic rush when she steals the police car. She’s always two steps ahead of nearly every other characters, and runs circles around them with ease—though she’s not invincible. Modern viewers may find her a touch sociopathic for the aplomb and excitement she demonstrates after the murder of her beloved uncle, but the tone is never so dark that this affects the viewing experience. In fact, Hayworth’s performance is so fine that it suggests that Pat copes with grief by throwing herself into the fray. Movies made later in the century, more serious ones, would have built on the horror of Alex Savage’s death, but like many other pulp B-movies, this film is effectively a live-action cartoon. There’s not gonna be much deep emotional weight. People cry their tears and then the action picks up again.

There are some definite faults to be found in Bronze Knockout—the “old Indian legend” is a pretty cheap story element for resolving the riddle of unlocking Morgan’s cube. This bit is a relic of the Native American elements in Brand of the Werewolf. But reducing these elements of the story to something so minor is probably for the best when one considers the racism of the original pulp tale—many a Doc Savage fan still cringes at the depiction of the Native character “Boat Face.” Karl Lobo is in many ways a weaker villain than the Werewolf, but there are still some elements about him—mostly his hooded appearance, and his portrayal by Frye—that make him stand out.

Frye really is one of this movie’s best stars, helping to support a low-key spookiness that haunts the entire procession. This movie is rife with plenty of enjoyable minor horror moments, from Lobo’s hooded face to the demon-visage in Rock Grotto Cave to the creepy abandoned house where Lobo and his men interrogate Pat. It gives the movie an eerie feeling that the Doc Savage pulps, including Brand of the Werewolf, relished in.

Overall, Pat Savage, Bronze Knockout is cinematic gold, one of the most enjoyable action-adventure B-movies of the period—to say nothing of being a great start for Pat’s movie career. Unfortunately, the sequel would go on to miss the mark a little bit—showing that this was a tough act to follow.

To be continued…next: Pat Savage, Lady Lancelot (1937)

2 thoughts on “Columbia Pat Savage, Part 1

  1. Yup! It would have been nice to have some celluloid record of Pat Savage. Several of the stories (e.g. Dynamite and Will Murray) put out have been quite enjoyable!


  2. Pat couldn’t ve just Any Vamp of Hollywood’s choosing.
    Rita.. nah. For me, it would be nigh unto Impossible to find n actress who could be ‘Pat.’
    Much less an actor to attempt to be the Man of Bronze.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: