Here’s how to tell when you’re about to see a so-so movie:
RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures is an American film production and distribution company. As RKO Radio Pictures Inc., it was one of the Big Five studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The business was formed after the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chains and Joseph P. Kennedy’s Film Booking Offices of America(FBO) studio were brought together under the control of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in October 1928. RCA chief David Sarnoff engineered the merger to create a market for the company’s sound-on-film technology, RCA Photophone. By the mid-1940s, the studio was under the control of investor Floyd Odlum.
I’ve been around a while, and I’ve seen a lot of movies. Some were even made before I was born. One thing I’ve observed. Sometimes the title doesn’t give much clue about the movie. If you had never heard of the movie True Grit before, and you came into it without advance notice, you would be several minutes in before you got the idea the movie was about a teenage girl who engages John Wayne to track down the man who murdered her father. If you had never heard of the movie Strangers on a Train before seeing it, you would still come on board figuring the plot had something to do with strangers on a train. However, seeing the title They Made Her a Spy would get you right to the point. You would have half the plot in your pocket when you bought your ticket.
This was made in 1939 while Axis powers were beginning to act belligerent but before Nazi Germany ignited the Second World War by invading Poland. About this time American, and especially British, studios were pumping out titles that pulled on an audience already geared for patriotism and suspicion of foreign mechanizations. This is not one of the better ones.
We get the lead-in with the opening shot. A formation of American bomber planes is seen among the clouds. Cut to the shot (obviously newsreel footage) of a bomber crashing at an air base. Newspaper headlines scream “Sabotage.” What is obviously a studio model shows a munitions factory being blown up. “Sabotage” again in the headlines. Then it gets personal. We see a young Army officer preparing to demonstrate his new explosive. You don’t need a telegraph to know what’s about to happen. His last act is to drop the mortar shell down the tube. The explosion kills two, according to the headlines.
As it is, fortunately for this movie’s plot, Lieutenant Eaton had a sister, Irene (Sally Eilers), and she wants revenge. She is resourceful, she is determined, and she is good looking. She meets in Washington with Army Intelligence to volunteer her services as a spy.
As it is, Intelligence has been having trouble. This spying and sabotage has been going on, but they have had no success in tracking down the ring leader of the foreign agents responsible. They take sweet Irene on and assign her to infiltrate the ring, apparently headquartered in an upscale restaurant. There she meets handsome James Huntley (Allan Lane), and you know something is going to happen between the two before the movie is over.
And it does. Irene meets the head spy at the restaurant and gets into his favor by delivering a copy of a secret treaty and also some blank passports. Figuring this is a girl who can get things done, the restaurant spy leader tells her, “One of our operators is coming by boat from Canada.” He wants Irene to meet him at the beach at night when he swims ashore. It turns out to be Huntley.
By this time the plot has gone off the rails. Their operator is coming in by boat from Canada? And he has to swim ashore? How about just driving across the border from Canada the way everybody else does? And this is the guy who was just in the restaurant attempting to make tête-à-tête with sweet Irene. If he was their operative then, why was it necessary for him to travel immediately to Canada so he could return by boat? Did not the spies notice the Huntley now being hauled in from the beach by Irene is the same Huntley who was hitting on her previously in the restaurant? If the spies didn’t notice, didn’t Irene notice? When she meets him on the beach at night and shines the flashlight in his face and recognizes him, why doesn’t she ask, “How come you drove off to Canada, and now you have to sneak back in by boat a few days later?”
Anyhow, she thinks he’s a spy, and he thinks she’s a spy, so the next thing they need to do is sleep together. He’s soaking wet from his swim, and the police have spotted Irene’s car and given chase, so they need a place to hide out, get dry, and sleep together.
This is the closest this movie gets to an Alfred Hitchcock moment. We’ve seen this in The 39 Steps and in Foreign Correspondent. It’s all comedy. They break into a B&B out in the country, and when the owners show up they pretend to be a married couple needing a place to stay for the night. That’s the only way the owner’s will allow it:
Lucius ‘Paul’ Wilkins: We’re respectable churchgoing folk, we are.
Mrs. Ella Wilkins: And we ain’t aimin’ to turn no house of our’n into a Sodom and Gomorry.
My, how movies have changed since 1939. Since this is 1939, he sleeps on the floor while she takes the bed.
Of course it turns out Huntley is only an imitation spy, and when the real spy ring leader is brought to ground (literally), the two are back at the same B&B, only now on their actual honeymoon.
Did you notice another thing about this movie? It starts out all about sabotage. When we finally meet the spies they are engaged in espionage, not sabotage. No further acts or attempts at sabotage appear after the opening scenes. There is a reason for this.
Sabotage is brief, visual and gripping. You need something like this to open a movie. Espionage can be tedious in depiction on the screen, but it costs less for a studio to produce. So this movie gets off with a bang and then cruises the remaining minutes of its life on espionage. That’s how the studios make money.