Wednesday, May 5, 2010

HOLT OF THE SECRET SERVICE

Jack Holt was another huge Hollywood star who is mostly forgotten today. He starred in nearly 200 films - mostly Westerns - between 1914 and his death in 1951. His career spanned both the silent era and Hollywood's "Golden Age." He was ruggedly good looking, with a granite jaw and dapper moustache, and though he appeared in a number of major films, it was as a tough leading man in B-action films that he had his most fame.

In 1941, after many years as Columbia Studios' go-to guy, he reportedly got into an argument with studio chief Harry Cohn. The story goes that Cohn wanted to teach Holt some humility, so he cast the star in a Saturday matinee kiddie serial which became HOLT OF THE SECRET SERVICE. The serial ended up being his last production for the studio.

Over the course of 15 chapters, Holt portrayed "Jack Holt" of the FBI and, with the aid of his female partner Kay (Evelyn Brent) fought a gang of counterfeiters who have kidnapped the country's top engraver and forced him to make printing plates that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Throughout all the gunfights, fistfights, car chases and other mayhem, the two-fisted, square jawed Holt never seems to break a sweat or wrinkle his suit, even when beating the hell out of several husky thugs at the same time. It's clear that the bad guys haven't a chance against this lawman.

Holt was 51 (and looks about ten years older) when he made the serial, but he's convincingly tough and it's easy to see why it's been suggested that Chester Gould based the look of comic strip hero Dick Tracy on the actor. With a revolver in his fist, and fedora pulled down over his forehead, Holt definitely resembles the iconic comics character (and, even moreso, Al Capp's Tracy parody, Fearless Fosdick). The pacing is decent for a serial directed by James W. Horne, who actually manages to keep the action, melodrama and humor fairly well balanced, but it's Holt who anchors the chapterplay with his self-aware but solid performance in the lead. He may of hated being there, but the old pro doesn't show it.

VCI has released HOLT OF THE SECRET SERVICE as a two-disc DVD, with a 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer from a decent film source. As with most of the company's serial releases, the print is far from pristine, with plenty of specks, scratches and other detritus, but it is clear and watchable. The mono audio is likewise serviceable. Text bios of Holt and Horne are included, along with trailers for other VCI serial releases.

HOLT OF THE SECRET SERVICE is a standard cops & robbers cliffhanger from Columbia, reasonably entertaining, but not as lively as those from Republic or as offbeat as Universal's. Still, Holt is worth watching, and for serial fans, VCI's DVD is worth adding to the library.

BUY: Holt of the Secret Service