Watching 1939: Code of the Secret Service (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Code of the Secret Service (1939)

Release date:  May 27, 1939

Cast:  Ronald Reagan, Rosella Towne, Eddie Foy Jr., Moroni Olsen

Studio:  Warner Brothers

Director:  Noel M. Smith

Plot:
Lt. ‘Brass’ Bancroft (Reagan) is an agent in the United States Treasury Department trying to hunt down a counterfeit money ring who stole plates from the U.S. Treasury to launder the money.

1939 Notes:
• Ronald Reagan starred in seven films released in 1939.
• Shot on location in Mexico and some of the Mexican extras were borrowed from Juarez (1939), also filmed that year at Warner Brothers.
• This film is the second in a four-part series, which includes: Secret Service of the Air (1939), Smashing the Money Ring (1939) and Murder in the Air (1940).

Other trivia: 
• Jerry Parr was inspired to join the secret service after seeing “Code of the Secret Service” as a child. Parr went on to be on the secret service when Ronald Reagan, who starred in the film, was president. Parr was the agent who on March 31, 1981, directed the presidential limo to go to the hospital rather than back to the White House after Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinkley, according to a 2015 Washington Post article.
• While on the Dick Cavett Show in December 17, 1971, Ronald Reagan said this was his worst movie.
• Two of the vaudeville Foy family members were involved with this film. Eddie Foy Jr. co-starred and Bryan Foy was an associate producer.

Ronald Reagan and Rosella Towne in “Code of the Secret Service.”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Ronald Reagan hated this film so much, he asked Warner Brothers not to release it. At this point in his career, Reagan was the hero of low-budget B-Warner Brothers films. Starting in Hollywood in 1937, this was his fourteenth film, and he was in a total of seven films released in 1939. Reagan was able to break out of the B films in 1940 after starring in “Knute Rockne All American.”

And while Reagan said “never has an egg of such dimensions been laid,” I didn’t think it was that terrible. I have a special place for hour long, low-budget Warner Brothers movies and this wasn’t a bad way to pass an hour.

Code of the Secret Service (1939) plays an interesting bit in film history, as Warner Brothers was making films to put law enforcement in a positive light and not let the criminal always win.

“Code of the Secret Service” was part of a four-film series to aid in the overall goal to “restore the dignity and public confidence” in police and government officials. After Warner Brothers crime movies of the early 1930s, like Public Enemy” (1931), Will Hays (who tried to keep Hollywood’s morality in check) pressured Harry Warner to make positive crime films. To help with accuracy, Warner Brothers hired former chief of the Secret Service, William Moran, and ex-FBI special agent William L. Guthrie as consultants, according to Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics by Stephen Vaughn.

I think it’s interesting that this film was later tied to a future secret service agent, Jerry Parr, who directed security for Presidents Carter and Reagan. Parr wanted to become a secret service agent because of this film, which starred the future president he worked under. Parr was present when President Reagan was shot in 1981 and rode in the limousine with him to the hospital.

Aside from having former government agents as consultants, “Code of the Secret Service” is similarly made as other low-budget Warner B films, like Torchy Blane. It may not have been the best work of any of the actors, but it’s entertaining.

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