Guest blogger Atom Mudman Bezecny wraps up her look at the 1930’s Columbia Pictures movie series featuring the magnificent Pat Savage. The films that never were…but should have been.
PAT SAVAGE, GIRL GANGBUSTER (1938)
Saving the best for last: the poster for the third Pat movie captures the glamour and giddiness the series embodied.
Pat Savage, Girl Gangbuster (or Gang-Buster, to use the poster’s parlance) marked the first Pat movie in which Rita Cansino was credited as Rita Hayworth. Hayworth’s rising fame may have partially influenced the series ending on this entry, but it’s more likely that falling box office returns were to blame. This is entirely too bad, as Girl Gangbuster shows that the series was in many ways just getting started.
Girl Gangbuster is based on Dent’s Doc Savage novel Death in Silver (1934), and it starts off with a bang—literally. Our villains are the Death’s Head Moths (loosely based on the Silver Death’s Heads from the pulp), a gang of masked criminals who are blowing up building in New York for seemingly no reason! The stock market is going crazy, and theories as to the crooks’ identities and motives abound, from foreign spies to a cult of sun-worshippers. When her girls at Park Avenue Beautician give her news about the United Bank blowing up, Pat is as jumpy as she can be. She’s been ready to take a crack at this case for weeks now, and she’s finally managed to clear her schedule. Her secretary tries to force more clients on her, as her personal services are in high demand, but Pat blows her off and heads to the streets. Her girls wonder if they should unionize.
Pat rushes to the ruins of the United Bank, where a variety of discussions are taking place. Bankers are fretting about all the money that was destroyed, while others celebrate the fact that selfish millionaire Taylor West, a slumlord who abuses his tenants, lost all his money in the blast. Pat wonders if maybe the Death’s Head Moths were setting their sights on West. Talking to the police, she learns that nearly every attack the Moths have committed has involved a millionaire in some way. Pat wonders why this pattern has never been commented on before, but the cops explain that the city’s rich folk are paying the papers to hide it.
Pat presses the officers on their phrasing “nearly every attack.” They spill that one of the bombings targeted the house of a working class man, John Withers. Withers (Marc Lawrence) and his wife Lorna (Lynne Roberts) survived the attack, and at once, Pat suspects they know something. She tracks them down to Lorna’s sister’s house, and interviews them.
John Withers is unsure why he and his wife were attacked, but during the conversation, Pat observes that Lorna is nervous. She finds time to talk to Lorna alone, and the terrorized young wife explains that she was approached romantically by her employer, Hugo Burgess, who owns the company she works for, Silver Spoon Industries. Lorna rejected Burgess’ advances instantly, but is scared of telling her husband, fearing that she’ll think she’s a liar. Pat, who is understanding, asks Lorna for information on Burgess, but Lorna doesn’t want to talk in the house. Pat asks her to write a letter to her at Park Avenue Beautician. As she says this, we transition to the parlor, where an imposing-looking man (Skelton Knaggs) approaches the front desk, and dryly requests an appointment.
The secretary is shocked, but pulls herself together and explains that this is normally a place for women. The man wants a manicure—he demonstrates his nails in a way that highlights his long fingers. The secretary remains hesitant until the man gives her a big wad of cash. She agrees to book him with the manicurist immediately. When she asks his name, he replies: Hugo Burgess.
(All throughout the movie, Burgess’ long fingers will be highlighted throughout the movie, along with Burgess’ tendency to dress all in one color. This will be discussed below.)
Pat returns to her parlor unawares. Her secretary greets her, concerned, and explains the situation with their strange guest. Upon hearing the name Burgess, Pat tenses up, but quickly produces one of her trademarks from the pulps—her six-shooter. After two movies worth of trouble, Pat is ready this time. She strides confidently into the back parlor and levels the gun at Hugo Burgess’ head. His sinister face splits open in a grisly smile as he lets forth a rare, brief rattle of a laugh.
Burgess explains that he heard of Pat’s legendary services, and praises her manicurist on the job she did on his nails. Pat tells him to stop being coy and explain why he’s here. He explains calmly that her visit to the Withers house was spied on. He always has someone watching that house, with a radio set on hand. He doesn’t like anyone messing with “his” Lorna, male or female; he always gets what he wants, and he wants Lorna.
Pat wonders if he wants more than her. Maybe he wants whatever a man could get from being leader of the Death’s Head Moths.
To her surprise, Burgess immediately confesses to being the leader of the Moths. He challenges her to bring him down. The cops won’t help her, as she has no evidence. She’ll need to find some to gain any ground against him, but meanwhile he’ll be working against her. “It’s war, then,” Pat says simply. “Oh, yes, I’m afraid so,” Burgess replies.
And war it is. From the moment that Burgess steps out of Park Avenue Beautician, with his splendidly-done nails, he and Pat fight spectacularly. Their clashes are of a scale usually only attained by chapter serials. The Pat Savage movies have always had a resemblance to the serials, starting all the way back with Karl Lobo’s status as a hooded mystery villain, but here the intensity and relentless of the action resembles the most brutal serials of the time, such as The Spider’s Web (1938). In rapid succession, we see Pat foil several attempts by the Moths to blow up her beauty shop, only to be confronted with some of her girls being kidnapped. As she rampages across the city to rescue them, Burgess sends men to attack the Withers house. To Lorna’s horror, the Moths murder her husband, and take her prisoner—Pat valiantly saves her from death.
So much of this action is better seen than described in a review, so I’ll refrain from describing the other subplots of the movie’s middle act. At the end of it, Lorna has revealed that John was working on a secret government project to develop a new kind of submarine. Burgess was interested in working with him to develop these subs, but John, perhaps sensing Burgess’ attentions towards his wife, snubbed him on the contract. Pat begins to get an idea about where the Moths retreat to once they’re done blowing something up. With Lorna’s help, Pat gets in touch with government officials who have developed John’s blueprints into a working prototype. Pat explains that she believes that a spy in the department copied the blueprints, and that the Death’s Head Moths have built a sub of their own first. The department worker she’s meeting with, Crawford (Roy Barcroft), disagrees with that theory. Pat decides to check Crawford out, hiding in the government base after-hours to spy on him.
When she goes back to Crawford’s quarters, she finds him communicating to Burgess on a radio, saying that Pat is onto him. She breaks into his office and demands that he take her to the sub. He explains calmly that she’ll be arrested and convicted for espionage for what she’s doing. She counters he could be subject to the same thing. He tries to attack her, but she disables him with a punch to the face. Someone outside the room hears the commotion and starts knocking, but instead of fleeing she searches the room. Eventually she finds a copy of the sub blueprints hidden in Crawford’s desk, proving he was a spy. However, Pat isn’t ready to turn over the evidence yet. She breaks back out of the office and speeds to the base’s dock. Here she finds the submarine prototype, and climbs inside. She intends to use the blueprints to steer it.
Now Pat’s managed to piss off the Army. Soldiers try to break their way into the sub, but she locks them out. Working quickly, she pulls away from the dock and heads out into the cold waters of the Atlantic. If her theory is correct, then the Moths’ base can’t be far away. If she’s wrong, she’ll go to prison for life.
Sure enough, however, she finds another submarine, one far larger that the one the government developed. Part of the sub opens and she is able to guide her ship inside. Upon stepping out of her vessel, Pat finds herself surrounded by Burgess’ gunmen. Burgess compliments her, saying she’s nearly as deadly as her cousin.
Pat says that she’s owed an explanation, and Burgess agrees. He confesses that he doesn’t really care overly much for Lorna Withers—he desired her because he wanted her husband’s plans, and because stealing her would hurt a man who snubbed him. As for the other millionaires he’s hurt or killed, he’s done so either to eliminated rivals or to use his company’s resources to seize their assets. Once he kills Pat, nothing will stop him from continuing with his industrial takeover. Maybe at some point, he suggests, he’ll go into politics, and impose his own sense of order on the world.
This time, Pat doesn’t wait for her lawful pursuers to catch up with her. She still has her six-shooter, and she’s going to blast her way out. She explains calmly that she’s seen the blueprints for this submarine—Burgess has modified it, but it’s general design is the same, and it still needs special air-compression chambers to submerge. Some of those chambers are kept in this very room. One of her bullets blows a nearby tank open and sends Burgess’ men flying. The gang charges at her, but she drives them back with her gun, resorting to her fists when she runs out of bullets. It’s a fantastic battle sequence, wherein Pat’s stolen submarine is damaged, falling free from its restraints and sinking. One by one the goons fall, until at last the fight ends with Pat chasing Burgess to the head of the ship. The damage she inflicted earlier is causing the submarine to flood. At the head of the ship is a smaller sub which Burgess intends to use to escape. Pat knocks him out and drags him into the pod, using it to escape herself. Burgess’ ship goes down, and Pat takes its captain back to the government base—where a small army of soldiers awaits them.
Pat explains Burgess’ scheme to an Army General (Onslow Stevens), who agrees to pardon Pat of the theft of the sub and take Burgess into custody. It is not to be, however—Burgess breaks free from captivity, and tries to run back to the sub to escape. The soldiers are forced to shoot him when he gets his hands on a gun. And so ends Pat Savage’s last cinematic adventure.
The sheer wildness of the action in Pat Savage, Girl Gangbuster can’t be understated. This is an earth-shaking movie, where Pat gets in a literal street war with a supervillain and sinks a submarine with a six-chamber revolver. These reviews have probably made the Pat Savage of these movies seem like a bitter hardass, but that exciting humor that Hayworth is so adept at prevents Pat from becoming a vicious figure. She’s always fun to follow, from the first frame to the last, whether she’s gossiping with her girls at her beauty parlor or throwing herself clear of bomb-blasts. This is a particularly strong entry for Park Avenue Beautician, with its able team of girls getting a good amount of the spotlight this time around. One gets the impression that Pat teaches these girls to fight even as she shows them hot new makeup tricks.
There are some interesting elements of political satire in this script, which may well be accidental. The film is never particularly sympathetic to the millionaire the Moths blow up, and those of them we see are shown to be quite awful people. The police have been shown to be inefficient all throughout this series, but now both government bureaucrats and the U.S. Army are skewered as well. It’s an enjoyably cynical touch which gives the movie a sort of covert progressive nature. It’s a movie where the working class are the heroes—though one wonders if Pat, in her opulent salon, fully counts as working class.
There’s also an elephant in the room, which I’ve been trying to save discussing up until now. Hugo Burgess is clearly based on the most popular Doc Savage villain of all time, John Sunlight. Sunlight first appeared in October, 1938’s Fortress of Solitude, two months before the release of Girl Gangbuster. This movie was in production in October, and it is doubtless that the writers decided to borrow Sunlight for their film, despite their contract not allowing them access to him. (Pat Savage doesn’t appear in Fortress of Solitude.) Hugo Burgess derives his name from Bedford Burgess Gardner, the villain of Death in Silver, whose real name is Hugh McCoy. But his monochromatic style of dress and long fingers makes his connection to Sunlight clear. Skelton Knaggs is thus the only actor in history to have played John Sunlight in a movie (that I’m aware of). He does a fantastic job, conveying Sunlight’s quiet creepiness with great subtlety.
I think the writers knew that this would be their last hurrah, so they decided to pit Pat against someone they saw was a truly formidable villain. They decided to go all-out with the production in general—and I believe they did so because they fell in love with Pat, as so many writers and pulp fans have before. They wanted to celebrate her before the grim reality of capitalism took her away from them. They succeeded in their goal of making a worthy capstone to her series, which has been a blast to revisit. I can’t recommend these movies enough—and of them, Pat Savage, Girl Gangbuster is undoubtedly the best.
There were other attempts to bring Pat Savage to the screen after the end of the 1930s series. Pat’s famous cousin would finally get his own studio film with 1975’s Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, but Pat didn’t appear in that movie. Previously Doc had appeared in the ’60s fan film adaptation of Fear Cay, and had nearly starred in an adaptation of The Thousand-Headed Man in 1966, a film whose resources would be reshuffled into the Western movie Ride Beyond Vengeance. But Pat’s own turn in the movies back in the ’30s sparked interest in putting her, specifically, back in films.
In 1952 Edgar Ulmer, the director of such classic films as The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945), expressed interest in making a continuation of the Pat Savage films for United Artists. Ulmer wanted to cast Irish-Welsh actress Peggy Cummins, star of the unforgettable film noir Gun Crazy (1950), to play the titular character in The Daughter of Pat Savage. Story details are vague, but the story centers around Sally Savage, Pat’s daughter by an unspecified father. Unfortunately, legalities would stand in the way of this film’s productions. At the time, there was some ambiguity regarding the film rights to Pat Savage, with neither Lester Dent nor Columbia certain as to who owned the rights. So this film never made it off the ground. Ulmer’s screenplay, said to be complete, has never been found.
Pat reappeared in an unconventional form in the late ’60s, as part of an apparent attempt to cash in on the recent Bantam re-releases of the Doc Savage series. 1967 saw sexploitation director Barry Mahon release a quartet of movies based on John Cleland’s 18th Century erotic novel Fanny Hill—these were Fanny Hill Meets Lady Chatterly, Fanny Hill Meets the Red Baron, Fanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico, and finally, Fanny Hill Meets Pat Savage. Pat in this crossover film was played by actress Cleo O’Hara, perhaps most famous for her turn as the psychotic Sister Sarah Jane in the 1972 horror film Evil Come, Evil Go. O’Hara’s sapphic interactions with Susan Evans’ Fanny are quite sensuous, but Pat doesn’t really get to do much besides roll around on a bed. The overall quality of Mahon’s Fanny series ultimately pales in comparison to Nouvelle Gauche Studios’ evocative 1971 epic, The Ghost of Che Guevara Meets Fanny Hill. (The chronology of all of these films suggest that either Fanny Hill is a time-traveler, or has many descendants, presumably through her daughter Kissey from the 1966 film The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill.)
At the end of the day, we will always have the Rita Hayworth Pat Savage movies. They are true gems, honoring their majestic protagonist with the kind of excitement she deserves. Though unjustly obscure today, like Tim McCoy’s 1943 turn as the Avenger, these movies are a fine distillation of all the fun these old B-movies can provide. It’s easy to see why Doc Savage fans have held these movies close to their hearts for decades.