Thrills! Chills! Mystery in the Air!

In the 1930s and ’40s, heroic pilots engaged enemy aircraft — every Saturday morning.

Over 15 episodes, Captain Midnight survived bombs, fire, near drowning, and more, before delivering criminal mastermind Ivan Shark to the police — a departure from the comic strip, in which Shark was devoured by a polar bear. (Courtesy Bill Allen/Allen Airways Collection)
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Best line:
Captain Robert Dayton to Mary Blake, his gal Friday:
“When I come back, remind me to fire you.”

The Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys save the day in this 1942 serial celebrating the efforts of “wide-awake, energetic young civilians” who expose a nest of dangerous fifth columnists working within the United States. “Ace” Holden, played by actor Billy Halop, leads a gang of scruffy juveniles who work at his father’s junkyard. His brother, Eddie (Gene Reynolds), the brains of the group, has designed a muffler for airplane engines; he plans to give the technology—which would enable entire bomber squadrons to fly silently—to the U.S. government. But the treacherous Black Dragon Society (“a dangerous alien organization working right here in our very midst, to pave the way for the conquest of the United States”) has other plans. A dated biplane, possibly a 1930s Great Lakes trainer, makes an appearance as the Black Dragon Society’s “hot new pursuit ship.”

Best line:
Ace Holden: Where are you takin’ me?
Bad guy: Up to about 12,000 feet — and then you’re going to try a little cloud walkin’.

Derived from the popular radio program of the same title, which was a favorite with the U.S. Army Air Corps, Captain Midnight was the code name of Captain Red Albright, a former World War I Army pilot engaged in a “one-man war against crime.” In this 1942 serial, scientist John Edwards invents a range finder and becomes a target of the evil Ivan Shark, who heads a mercenary organization. Captain Midnight comes to Professor Edwards’ rescue, of course, with his trusty sidekicks Ikky and Chucky. Shark flies a Stinson Model A Trimotor, an aircraft ideal for a villain: its double-tapered wing and forward-raked windscreen gave it a strikingly sinister appearance.

Best line:
Bad guys as they enter Professor Edwards’ home:
“The job will be easy if there aren’t any screaming women about.”

Although the comic strip was loosely based on the dashing air racing pilot Roscoe Turner, the movie serial made do with a former child model for Buster Brown shoes. In this 1943 serial, Smilin’ Jack works with the Chinese government to stop the Black Samurai, a covert Japanese spy ring run by Fraulein Von Teufel (German for “Miss Devil”), from learning the route from China to India through the fictional mountain kingdom of Mandan.

To outsmart a Black Samurai agent bent on hijacking their Fairchild 24, Smilin’ Jack and Janet Thompson use Pig Latin; little do they know that more agents follow closely behind in a Lockheed Vega. In a nice use of stock footage, Smilin’ Jack is escorted into Chungking by the Flying Tigers.

Best line:
In an effort to console the Mandan governor, whose first trip out of the kingdom isn’t going according to plan, Gertrude Muller points out,
“Well, it surely hasn’t been monotonous. Shot down by Japs, imprisoned in a sub tender, and finally escaping in this eggshell.”

In this post-Hiroshima serial from 1946, Hop Harrigan and sidekick mechanic Tank Tinker run a small charter service at Blakefield Airport. Although they’ve just landed a cushy job hauling gold from the nearby Atlas Mine, they decide to subcontract it in order to fly mad scientist Dr. Tobor to his mountain lair, where he has developed a new power source more potent than atomic energy. They’ll soon find out that the villain—the oddly named “Chief Pilot”—is also after the deadly ray. With this ray, Dr. Tobor powers his lightning-fast Mystery Plane (a PT-26 with the prop removed). It’s doubtful that Hop and his employer, Mr. Arnold, will be able to keep up in their respective Stinson 108 and Bellanca 14.

Best line:
First bad guy: Who fired those shots?
Second bad guy: Somebody with a gun.

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