A recent discovery online has been one of the serials whose instalments were a weekly highlight of life for cinema-goers in the 1930s. Pretty much every major genre was represented in these movies, which broke a longer story into 10-12 chapters like a pulp fiction novel for the silver screen, but the antics of Tailspin Tommy take some beating.
Just look at the hardware on show in these first two chapters of Tommy’s first tale! There’s an entire encyclopaedia of US Navy aviation in the Thirties on screen almost throughout the film, with the added joys of some proper barnstorming aerobatics.
Tailspin Tommy himself was a creation of comic strip artist Hal Forrest, a former WW1 pilot, who sought to capitalise on the popularity of barnstorming and the surge in popularity of aviators thanks to the record-breaking exploits of Charles Lindberg et al.
Tommy Tomkins made his comic strip debut in four newspapers during 1928, but such was the thirst for air-related yarns that this rose to 250 newspapers by 1931! The central character was America’s answer to Biggles, an aircraft-obsessed teenager from Littleville, Colorado who comes to the aid of an airman in trouble and earns himself a job with Three Point Airlines in Texas.
Once in Texas, Tommy soon earns his wings as a pilot and picks up a new best friend, Skeeter Williams, and a girlfriend, Betty Lou Barnes, and the tree of them buy shares in Three Point Airlines. Along the way the trio have many and varied adventures throughout the USA, usually with a ticklish problem to solve.
Hollywood soon beckoned and Universal snapped up the rights to these adventures. The first movie serial, Tailspin Tommy, appeared in 1934 as a 12-episode tale in which Tommy must help Three Point Airlines overcome an unscrupulous rival to win a major contract. Not only that but he must win Betty Lou’s heart from a rival suitor.
The second serial, Tailspin Tommy and the Great Air Mystery, is where the above clip hails from – an altogether bigger and more ambitious production. Tommy must stop a corrupt businessman from stealing vital oil reserves, and along the way befriends an investigative journalist played by screen legend Pat O’Brien.
This was to be the last of Tommy’s serial adventures, although he would return for four full-length movies later in the 1930s. The cinema-going public’s affections had switched from air-minded melodrama to the utterly fantastical, which was good news for one of the stars of the Tommy Tomkins movies – Jean Rogers.
From playing the businesslike, if slightly flighty, Betty Lou Barnes she went on to become a genuine Hollywood icon playing Dale Arden, the love interest of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon in the greatest serial of them all.