Monday, March 9, 2009

Tailspin Tommy and the Sinister Cloud

During the early years of television, which paralleled my own early years, broadcasting stations faced a problem with the late afternoon hours on weekdays. The viewers were mainly children home from school. We children had no buying power, and consequently the stations couldn't charge much for advertising in this time slot. So, to drive down costs, the stations would usually hire some local actor from community theater, dress him as a clown or sea captain or jungle explorer, and have him tell a few corny jokes and present cheap recycled entertainment from the 1930s. Cartoons were standard fare, as were short features by the Three Stooges and the Little Rascals. My favorites were the movie serials.

These Depression-era serials shaped my early worldview. Their sentimental idealism became my standard of conduct. Virtue triumphs in the long run; a hero never quits. I would dash home from school, sit on the floor in front of our Zenith black-and-white television set, and marinate in the popular culture of the bygone 1930s. If only I had been born about the time of World War One! I could been Bomba the Jungle Boy or, better yet, Tailspin Tommy.

Tailspin Tommy was a young go-getter who flew a biplane on a mail route. He was all pluck, gumption, and positive thinking. He had a comic sidekick named Skeeter, a well-meaning goof who used the catch phrase "It's an unwritten law" whenever he was stuck for an explanation. Tommy's girlfriend was Betty Lou. She was a nice small town girl – no Carole Lombard, but at least cheerful and dependable.

All my old memories of Tailspin Tommy came back to me last week when I was out walking and noticed the bowl-shaped cloud shown in the photo above. There was something peculiar and mysterious about this lone, dark cloud hanging so low in the sky. It looked like the opening shot of a Tailspin Tommy serial. The story might play out as follows.

Episode 1

Small town America, 1934.

Tailspin Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou visit Tommy's friend Lt. Bell at the military air base. Lt. Bell gives them a tour of the base, showing them everything but a restricted area that is walled off from sight: the secret test facility for prototype aircraft. There is a comical moment as Skeeter tries to light a cigarette on the flight line and is given a talking to.

After the tour, Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou head back to town in Tommy's old Model T, which breaks down a few miles from the base. While Tommy and Skeeter rig up a fix using their ingenuity and whatever materials are at hand (nuts, bolts, twine, postage stamps, whatever), Betty Lou pulls out her knitting bag and begins knitting a sweater. As she is knitting and purling away, a shiny wrapper drops from the sky and lands at her feet. The picture on the wrapper shows a chocolate candy bar, but the writing on the wrapper is not English but some Middle European language. (This is 1934 and Germany wasn't considered a threat yet by the movie serials. However, there was a bull market in generic Middle European spies in popular fiction and cinema, especially in England. Cf. Alfred Hitchcock's film of The Thirty-nine Steps, 1935.) Betty Lou looks up, but there is nothing overhead but a bowl-shaped cloud. She shows the wrapper to Tommy and Skeeter. Skeeter gets excited at this mystery and insists that they follow the cloud, because it must be involved with the mystery somehow. And a mystery always must be investigated. Why? "It's an unwritten law."

Tommy is unwilling to waste time chasing a cloud. Common sense tells him that the candy wrapper is probably some windblown litter from a foreign tourist. Tommy also worries that he won't get Betty Lou back to town by the time he had promised her stern father, the judge. But to humor Skeeter he agrees to follow the cloud for a little while.

They follow the cloud, which surprisingly picks up speed. Tommy does some slick driving along the country roads to keep the cloud in sight. Then the cloud descends and hovers above a large barn. The cloud's vapor dissipates, revealing a miniature dirigible. Tommy pulls off the road and parks the car behind some bushes. The three get out and sneak up behind the nearby farm house for a better look. Instantly, foreign gunmen rush out and capture them.

Episode 2

The leader of the spies – a sinister villain with un-American facial hair, a thick accent and faulty syntax, such as "Bah, you young people in trouble are being" – interrogates Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou. Perhaps he ogles Betty Lou a bit, just to get Tommy steamed.

This is a convenient point in the story to get the exposition out of the way. The leader explains how his band of spies uses the dirigible, camouflaged by its mist generator, to spy on the military base and take pictures of the prototype airplanes. They plan to take the dirigible on one more surveillance flight at dawn the next morning, and then the spies will return to their Middle European homeland. The exposition complete, the leader orders his henchmen to lock Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou in the basement of the farm house.

After some comical hysterics from Skeeter, the three captives settle down to figuring out how to break out of the basement without alerting the spies. The basement windows are too small to allow even slender Betty Lou to squeeze out. Skeeter suggests creating a bomb out of cleaning fluid and rags and blasting their way out. This is vetoed by the other two. Various other plans are proposed and rejected. Night falls and it grows too dark in the basement to see.

Episode 3

They sleep until dawn's light appears through the tiny basement windows and they hear the commotion of the dirigible being readied for flight. Betty Lou has used her knitting bag as a pillow. It occurs to her that Tommy could pick the lock on the upstairs door with one of her knitting needles. Tommy successfully picks the lock but is afraid to make a move without a diversion. He adapts Skeeter's idea for a bomb and pushes a small canister of cleaning fluid with a rag wick up the flue of the coal furnace. Tommy lights this off and when it detonates with a boom, the three make a clean escape as the henchmen are diverted to investigate the noise. (A snazzier escape plan could be concocted, but this one is about par for serials of this era.)

They return to the hidden Model T and race back to town. Tommy drops off Betty Lou at the courthouse, where she gets her father's help in alerting the authorities. Tommy and Skeeter hurry to the county airport and fire up Tommy's biplane. Skeeter yanks on the propeller. Sputter-sputter-vroom! Tommy swings the biplane onto the runway and roars into the sky.

Meanwhile, over the military base, the dirigible cloud is drifting slowly over the restricted area of prototype airplanes. In the little compartment beneath the dirigible, two spies are taking pictures via small hanging periscopes that descend through the mist. As they take their pictures, the spies are laughing – laughing in a sinister, un-American way.

But here comes Tailspin Tommy! He buzzes the military base to get their attention. Pilots come running and climb into their planes. Then Tommy banks his biplane hard and heads right at the sinister cloud. He veers off at the last second, approaching so closely that the mist is blown off, showing the dirigible beneath. The military aircraft quickly arrive to force the dirigible to the ground. The sinister foreigners are foiled!

The last scene shows Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou being honored by the base commander. Tommy gets a chaste peck on the cheek from Betty Lou. And Skeeter explains the story to a newspaper reporter and gets a final opportunity to add "It's an unwritten law."