by Boyd Magers
“Sky Raiders” (‘41) is one of Universal’s most obscure serials. Aviation serials had earlier become a staple of Universal chapterplays beginning with “The Airmail Mystery” in ‘32 followed by “Phantom of the Air” (‘33), “Tailspin Tommy” (‘34), “Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery” (‘35) and “Ace Drummond” (‘36). After spending a few years with “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers” Universal revived their aviation theme to coincide with the looming threat of WWII.
The Sky Raiders was a WWI squadron whose veterans, headed by former ace Captain Robert Dayton (Donald Woods) and Lt. Ed Casey (Robert Armstrong), organized Sky Raiders Inc. as part of our national defense to manufacture fighting planes for the U.S. Army. Kathryn Adams is Dayton’s faithful secretary Mary who insists no matter the danger, Dayton leads a charmed life. Dayton hires Tim Bryant (Dead End Kid Billy Halop), a member of the Air Youth of America, and an expert model plane builder to do experimental design work for him.
Dayton has perfected a miracle fast pursuit plane which ruthless foreign agents (never named but obviously Nazis) led by Felix Lynx (Edward [Eduardo] Cianelli) are out to steal.
In his numerous—and failed—attempts to steal the plane or its plans, Lynx is aided by glamorous feminine agent Innis Clair (Jacqueline Dalya) and English aviatrix Countess Irene (Jean Fenwick) both of whom worm their way into Dayton’s confidence—much to the continuing jealousy of Mary who is in love with Dayton. (This subplot is a highlight of the serial.) Lynx’ other confederates are played by Reed Hadley, Irving Mitchell (secretly working for Sky Raiders as Comptroller), Edgar Edwards, John Holland and Frank Richards.
Young Bill Cody Jr. (son of the B-Western star) and another member of the Air Youth of America, turns up in Ch. 3 to aid Dayton following a crashed plane.
Speaking of plane crashes—seven of the 11 chapter cliffhangers end with either a plane crash or an about-to-crash-plane.
Fleshing out the cast in brief roles are Pat O’Malley, Lyle Latell, Stanley Blystone, Lane Chandler, Tris Coffin, William Desmond (two lines as a police officer), Eddie Dew, Jim Farley, Pierce Lyden, Frances Morris, Jack Perrin, Stanley Price, Walter Sande and Roy Gordon as General Fletcher. (Roy Barcroft is often mentioned “uncredited” but I fail to spot him anywhere.)
Stuntmen Tom Steele, Ken Terrell and Dale Van Sickel found work away from Republic doubling Woods and others in fight scenes.
There is some well-done airplane model work aided and abetted by plenty of stock footage—including a glaring flop shot of a Navy ship with the ship’s identity numbers being glaringly noticed backwards.
Kathryn Adams Recalls "Sky Raiders"
(Interviewed by Michael Fitzgerald)
“The serial was, as the kids say today, ‘a hoot’ all the way through. It really is an historic document, isn’t it? The techniques of filming have changed so much over the years that ‘Sky Raiders’ seems like a contribution to the Antique Road Show, which is the way I felt about myself when I attended my first film festival in Memphis. One of the reasons the serial was so much fun for me was because one of the producers, Don Brown, became a good friend and he would fill me in daily about how they would search for stock shots that fit the action, and then create the dialogue to match the stock shots.
“An example of this was the bear episode (Ch. 10). Actually, there wasn’t a hair of a bear on the set, only when they cut the film, a stock shot was inserted of one lazy looking bear nibbling on a forest delight. End of episode: I and Billy Halop are terrified and run like the wind to escape the unaware bear. In another episode the plane I was piloting in the San Bernardino Mountians crashes. End of episode. Beginning of next episode, I’m tripping through the forest with unmussed hair and, I believe, high heels, calling and calling, ‘Tim! Tim!’ who also managed between episodes to escape the crash without a scratch. Chapter Eleven: Don Woods and I are co-piloting a plane over the Pacific Ocean on our way to Hawaii when the plane explodes in the air over the Pacific Ocean—stock shot of plane bursting into flames, disappearing into the ocean depths and leaving nothing but a faint oil slick. End of episode. Opening of final episode: Don Woods and I are sitting in the captain’s quarters of a Coast Guard cutter, hair a bit damp and mussed, but looking quite unscathed. The Captain (Tris Coffin) calmly asks, ‘Captain Drayton, will you be going to Hawaii?’ ‘Yes, sir, as soon as the plane is repaired.’
As far as my co-actors are concerned, all were warm, friendly, considerate. Donald Woods and I did several B-pictures together besides the serial and enjoyed working together. It was a good fit. The director, Ray Taylor, happened to be from Perham, MN, so we enjoyed one another. Not a single glitch that I can remember. It was a good experience and it has grown even better in looking back…one of the rewarding things about aging.”
by Mike Fitzgerald
The late Noel Neill will be forever remembered to millions of television viewers as Lois Lane. But the dark haired Paramount starlet of the ‘40s had a cinema life before “Superman” (1951-1957), and Westerns were a significant part of it.
Born Noel (Noël΄ as in Christmas) Neill in Minneapolis, MN, November 24, 1920, the later-to-be most famous female reporter on television actually came from a journalistic background. “My father worked for three or four newspapers in the Minneapolis area. Usually he started out head of the copy desk and then went on to another position. He was with THE MINNEAPOLIS STAR JOURNAL a good many years until he retired.” Noel tried to act in high school plays to no avail, “I tried out and flopped each audition. I thought for certain I’d never act.”
A cross country road trip with her mother found them in California with relatives where, “…by chance somebody’s friend said would you like to audition for a singer? I’d sung since high school. I did, got the job and went to a thing for Bing Crosby’s orchestra down at Del Mar. I met a lot of people working there. All of them were in the biz, one way or another, so I got started at Paramount. ‘Henry Aldrich For President’ (‘41) was my first. I was put under contract to Paramount after I did that Henry Aldrich picture.” The five-foot-two starlet went on to appear in over 16 films for Paramount between ‘42-‘46.
In 1946 when her contract expired at Paramount, “I signed up with Monogram for seven of the Teenagers pictures. You work pretty fast in those cheapies. June Pressier was stuck up because she’d been in Vaudeville before that, she thought she was a star. I didn’t like her much. And vice versa I guess.” One of the seven Teenagers films, “Vacation Days”, was set on a dude ranch out west and featured Western stalwarts such as John Hart, Terry Frost, Hugh Prosser, Forrest Taylor and Spade Cooley’s band.
Noel’s first true Western was on loan-out to Hal Roach in ‘43, “Prairie Chickens” with Jimmy Rogers (Will’s son) and Noah Beery Jr. “(Laughs) I remember working on that. We shot over at the lot in Culver City. All the ‘girlies’, a couple that were fairly well-known in those days (Rosemary LaPlanche, Tommye Adams). We called Noah, Pidge.”Another Western was “Over the Santa Fe Trail” ('47) with Ken Curtis and the Hoosier Hotshots at Columbia. “That’s where I did the singing thing. They were trying to make Ken Curtis into another Gene Autry.” Noel’s Westerns in the next few years with Whip Wilson, Lash LaRue, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Mack Brown are a faded blur in her memory.
Noel’s first Columbia serial for Sam Katzman was as the sarong-clad Lulah, a beautiful but untrustworthy jungle princess, in Ch. 7-8 of “Brick Bradford”.
When it comes to Clayton Moore and their 13 chapter Republic serial together in ‘48, “Adventures of Frank and Jesse James”, Noel had “no recollections” other than Clayton called her years later in an attempt to get her to appear at some autograph shows. Republic produced a sequel to that serial in ‘50, “James Brothers of Missouri”, replacing Clayton (who was by now the Lone Ranger on television) with Keith Richards as Jesse James. “Somebody sent me a picture of the two of us recently. In fact, Keith and I did a thing together in Florida, ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ (‘52).”
The role for which she’ll always be remembered—ace girl reporter Lois Lane—originally began with the first “Superman” serial for Sam Katzman at Columbia in ‘48. “I saw it like Jesse James—something for the Saturday afternoon kids. For me, a month’s work.” Noel’s a bit harsh of her Superman of the serials, Kirk Alyn. “We didn’t get along too well. He was a little conceited. I saw him later on a ‘CBS This Morning’ interview (February ‘88). He’d matured a little. He made a good Superman visually and doing stunts, I’ll say that for him. But on interviews and at conventions, he’d dream up things, so to speak, to make it interesting. Many things weren’t true, but that’s what he had to do to make it interesting.”
As for producer Katzman, Noel said, “I’d done the Teenagers and the ‘Brick Bradford’ (‘47) serial for him before that. His wife was quite a horse player. I had a lot of friends that would go to the track and we’d always see Hortense…with her red hair, usually a fuchsia, or a lime dress and a silver mink (Laughs), so we could all spot Hortense. She loved the horses.”
Having played Lois Lane in the two Katzman produced Columbia Superman serials, “Superman” (‘48) and “Atom Man Vs. Superman” (‘50), one wonders why Noel wasn’t immediately called upon when the TV series was being cast in ‘51. Instead the role went to Phyllis Coates. “There were probably a lot of reasons. One side of town didn’t know what the other side was doing. (Producer) Bob Maxwell talked National Comics into making 26 and then he did a very naughty (Noel did not explain this remark) and he was canned. So was Phyllis Coates. Whitney Ellsworth was sent out from New York (as producer) to retrieve everything. He called and said, ‘You were the original Lois Lane, so if you’d like to reprise the role?’ and I said, well, why not? (Laughs) 13 weeks work…yeah…”
According to SUPERMAN: SERIAL TO CEREAL, “…the complexities of Robert Maxwell’s nature soured many of the associations he maintained in ‘51. He was appreciated better from a distance.” Whitney Ellworth, a pulp fiction writer in the ‘30s, was hired as National/DC Comics editorial director in ‘40. He had already been involved in other DC Comics to film projects—“Congo Bill”, “The Vigilante” and the “Superman” serials. It was he that tranquilized the violence of the Maxwell produced episodes and brought a more comedic approach to the villains, and finally color to the series.
As for the TV series Noel stated, “We made a few bucks but we had the world’s worst union. After playing Lois Lane off and on for nearly 10 years, the most I ever pulled in was $225 per episode. The only thing we walked away with after that were the fond memories of our relationships. Back then we were doing two a week, 13 shows a year. Then basically a year off. It was impossible for me to bank more than a few thousand dollars. People think we’re still getting money on residuals. No way.”
As for her favorite directors, “We had three or four on the ‘Superman’ series. Tommy Carr, nice. George Blair was really nice. Somebody else that was a real bear, but (Laughs) Mr. Reeves spoke to him and simmered him down a little bit.”
Noel was married in 1953 “shortly after I started ‘Superman’ to a gentleman named Bill Baron, from Santa Barbara. He’s not in the business.” They were married “about nine, ten years. I’m still in touch with him” but they had no children, “no rug rats. (Laughs)” Yet it wasn’t marriage that stifled her career. It was, “type casting. The marriage didn’t make any difference in those days. Then the big studios folded and the casting directors all got laid off when the young turks from New York came out and screwed up the motion picture business. The oldies didn’t have a chance. They wanted all young people, young people, young people and I didn’t care much. I’d done enough work for a few years. So it didn’t make any difference to me.” I did PR work for Tom Selleck.”
“Superman” made Noel Neill a household word but she sighs, “I haven’t gotten a thing out of the series since ‘65. I don’t care if it’s on or not. I don’t have an ego. I don’t live in the past. Some people do that, but I don’t. Basically I’m just a homebody. I was probably a couch potato before the term was invented. I do enjoy loafing around. It’s nice at my age.”
At 95, Noel died July 3, 2016, at her home in Tucson, AZ.