Brenda Starr, Reporter never has a chance. Worse, lead Joan Woodbury never has a chance. Of all the characters in Brenda Starr, Woodbury gets the worst. Well, wait. No. Lottie Harrison gets the worst part. She’s Woodbury’s cousin (and roommate) and she’s constantly making fat jokes at her own expense. Other characters get close, but Harrison gets the majority of the worst jokes. It’s unfortunate–but is apparently comic strip accurate.
Based on my cursory research–I read Brenda Starr back in the nineties for a bit, but had no idea going into the serial knowing who was from the comic strip and who wasn’t. Anyway, based on cursory research, only William ‘Billy’ Benedict is playing another comic strip character. He’s the idiot newsroom gopher. The script plays him for dumb laughs, but it never works. Benedict’s terrible, Fox’s direction of him (and the actors in general) is lousy, and the script isn’t funny. So they’re these painful scenes. And Benedict is on the bottom of the Brenda Starr caste system. It goes Benedict, dimwit copper Joe Devlin, photographer Syd Saylor, Woodbury herself, then Kane Richmond is at the top of the food chain. Alongside Frank Jaquet as Woodbury and Saylor’s boss, which is weird.
Richmond’s the dreamy police lieutenant who Woodbury always seems to be competing with. Because all either of them do is go to the scenes of crimes, either in progress or to follow-up, and get in trouble with the bad guys. Richmond never investigates anything. Woodbury never actually publishes stories. The Reporter part of the title is a complete misnomer after the third or fourth chapter because Woodbury becomes Richmond’s de facto deputy. Any information she finds, she has to turn over to Richmond and get permission to use it in a story. Managing editor Jaquet isn’t a crusader, he’s a stooge for the cops and sells Woodbury out every chance he can get.
And it’s no spoiler to say the serial isn’t about Woodbury going out against orders and saving the day. It’s not. It’s about her going out against orders and not saving the day until she learns her lesson. Once she learns her lesson, the bad guys start kidnapping her more. They’ve also hold her hostage various times throughout. Sometimes Woodbury gets to save herself, usually it’s up to Richmond.
Shocker the serial is much better when it’s Woodbury and not Richmond doing the saving. Richmond’s obnoxious and not very good. Woodbury’s sympathetic and fine in a poorly written part, but her performance never impresses. She’s likable though. She’s totally solid lead and if she got to do anything solo, the middle chapters of Starr would work much better.
It probably wouldn’t save the thing. The ending’s real, real bad. The serial rallies towards the end, at least in parts, with this subplot involving Ernie Adams and Wheeler Oakman. They’re two-bit crooks who are trying to blackmail George Meeker’s gang leader. He works for an unknown boss who speaks to Meeker and the gang. Starr’s constant with its thugs–Jack Ingram, Anthony Warde, and John Merton are more sympathetic than most of the rest of the cast too. Especially Ingram. Ingram can’t hide his exasperation with the serial from his face. It’s kind of funny.
Meeker’s pretty good. Adams and Oakman are both better than good, Adams more often. Oakman’s scenes with Woodbury are pretty weak, unfortunately, but because of the script.
Before I forget, sometimes screenwriters Ande Lamb and George H. Plympton repeat conversations. Especially with Adams and Oakman. It’s not just the same expository information, it’s the same lines. From the same character. And it doesn’t seem to be a mimeograph error, it seems like filler.
Okay, back to the acting. Saylor’s bad when he’s the butt of jokes, better when he’s sincere (worrying about Woodbury, kind of a dopey uncle), sometimes real funny when he’s doing physical humor, sometimes not. It all depends on how much Fox’s setups are going to mess things up. Fox will occasionally have a good action sequence or a good big scene but it’s somehow never encouraging; it’s always clear they’re flukes.
The script has occasional flukes too. Marion Burns is awesome as this magician who Adams and Oakman enlist to get Meeker. She gets a three or four chapter arc. Cay Forester gets an arc early on, which is unfortunately lost. Brenda Starr, Reporter is incomplete. It was thought entirely lost until it was restored in 2011, unseen for almost seventy years. The missing material is from early chapters and might have a good performance from Forester. She’s not in what’s left enough to gauge her performance. But it’s not like more Brenda Starr would make anything better. The serial forgets subplots–or introduces big ones deus ex machina. It doesn’t build to anything. A bad serial can seem like all it needs is the first chapter and the last, everything in between is inconsequential. Brenda Starr isn’t consequential until the penultimate chapter. And even then the last two episodes would be full of redundancies. There’s just no story.
The basic plot has Oakman knowing about a payroll heist, which happens before the first chapter starts. Instead of investigating the heist, idiot cops Richmond and Devlin hound Woodbury, who’s at least managing to investigate something. Meanwhile, Meeker is a model citizen running a crime empire out of a night club. Meeker plays it like a sleaze-bag running a crime empire out a night club, yet Richmond and Jaquet treat him like a prince. Even for what’s obviously a cheap, rushed serial, Starr gets mind-boggling dumb.
There’s some bad day for night photography from Ira H. Morgan. Brenda Starr mostly takes place at night–Woodbury will get woken up at two in the morning and go out and get in trouble while Harrison is at home cooking for her. Harrison cooks for everyone. Lamb, Plympton, and Brenda Starr creator Dale Messick sure are comedic geniuses. But there are a lot of poorly lighted night scenes.
There’s not much to like about Brenda Starr, Reporter. It makes casualties out its better cast members. Its visual range is from ugly to low mundane. It’s a fail because of the production, not the cast. Not even the bad ones. Not even Richmond’s cop. Who you end up hissing after a while, he’s such a patronizing dick.
Directed by Wallace Fox; screenplay by Ande Lamb and George H. Plympton, based on the comic strip by Dale Messick; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Charles Henkel Jr.; music by Edward J. Kay; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Joan Woodbury (Brenda Starr), Kane Richmond (Lt. Larry Farrell), Syd Saylor (Chuck Allen), George Meeker (Frank Smith), Wheeler Oakman (Heller), Cay Forester (Vera Harvey), Marion Burns (Zelda), Lottie Harrison (Abretha), Ernie Adams (Charlie), Jack Ingram (Kruger), Anthony Warde (Muller), John Merton (Joe Schultz), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Pesky), and Joe Devlin (Sgt. Tim Brown).