Heroic, courageous pilots engage enemy aircrafts in “Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery”

By on March 20, 2019

Once upon a time, audiences full of children of all ages were simply fascinated for some reason by the heroic exploits of courageous pilots engaging enemy aircrafts in daredevil dogfights while somersaulting and dive-bombing in mid-air.

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery is a fine example of these types of suspense-filled aviator stories and you can now watch all twelve episodes of this serial — all the nail-biting suspense, thrilling stunts, and unbelievable special effects including anti-aircraft guns, bombs, and even a volcano — over on Night Flight Plus.

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Hal Forrest’s popular syndicated Tailspin Tommy newspaper comic strip (published from from 1928 to 1942) and the Jimmy Allen radio series of the same name seemed to be mutually inspired by one another before becoming a theatrical serial, typically screened during matinees.

In the serial, teenager “Tommy Tompkins” (Maurice Murphy) works as a garage mechanic in the tiny fictional town of Littleville, but he dreams of becoming a pilot.

His best friends are fellow mechanic “Skeeter Milligan” (Noah Berry Jr.), and budding aviatrix “Betty Lou Barnes” (Patricia Farr), who runs the airport café at Three Point Airport.

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Tommy’s life is shaken up by a dashing pilot named “Milt Howe” (Grant Withers) who crash lands his fragile fixed-wing bi-plane at the airport during a competition flight for Three Point Airlines, the winner of which will be awarded an important mail delivery contract.

Three Point’s nemesis and their competition in the flight contest/race is Taggart Airlines’ owner (Wade ‘Tiger’ Taggart,” played by John Davidson) and main operator “Paul Smith” (Charles Browne).

They’re aided by daredevil pilot “Bruce Hoyt,” played by Walter Miller (a popular silent serial hero, now playing for the bad guys team).

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Hoyt is subbed-in for the injured Howe in the race, which takes place during a storm, but Howe — with a broken arm — steps in when Hoyt seems to deliberately stall for time.

Luckily for Howe, he’s brought along teen mechanic Tommy Tompkins, who helps the pilot by taking controls during a deadly tailpsin, which earns him the nickname “Tailspin Tommy.”

Tommy is given a job as mechanic (and Skeeter gets to be his assistant) after Three Point Airlines decides to award the teen for his heroic actions by giving him free flying lessons.

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Tommy’s exploits — he takes over for a grounded pilot to fly the Atlas Mine payroll cash — lead to him becoming enemies with the Taggart crew, which leads to a series of further misadventures and high flying stunts in the first series, “Tailspin Tommy,” directed for Universal by Louis Friedlander a.k.a. “Lew Landers.”

“Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery” is actually the 1936 sequel to that first series, directed by Ray Taylor, which sees Noah Berry Jr. and Grant Withers returning as “Skeeter” and “Grant,” respectively, but now features a brand new “Tommy” — Clark Williams — and a sexier new “Betty Lou” (she’s played by Jean Rogers, who would go on to even more fame later as “Dale Arden” in the first two “Flash Gordon” serials for Universal).

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Read more about the Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery serial below.

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In this second aviation serial, the basic plot follows what happens when corrupt profiteers try to steal the oil reserves owned by a mythical and fictional Latin American country called Nazil.

That’s basically just the broad strokes of the story in order to stage some of the stunts, which involve flying in and out of volcanoes and engaging in aerial dogfights and dangerous swooping loops in the sky, coming to within feet of crashing into the ground.

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We’re introduced to a mysterious new character, “The Eagle” (a.k.a. “El Condor”), played by Pat O’Brien.

Obviously, you should begin with “Episode 1: Wreck of the Dirigible,” but you won’t have to wait too long for the serial’s real highlight, one of the very first cliffhangers (an essential part of the serial-telling format) which involves a dirigible in peril, being buffeted by a storm.

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We have to remember that most famous dirigible of all time was the Hindenburg, which crashed and burned, killing 36 people on May 6, 1937, but at the time this serial was unspooling in matinee screenings in 1936 the air-filled Zeppelin had not yet crashed (you may have seen the famous photo taken of the flaming Hindenburg on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s first album).

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Here are the titles of all twelve episodes, which may give you some idea of what to expect, although you probably shouldn’t expect any “great air mystery” of any type:

Wreck of the Dirigible,” “The Roaring Fire God,” “Hurled from the Skies,” “A Bolt from the Blue,” “The Torrent,” “Flying Death,” “The Crash in the Clouds,” “Wings of Disaster,” “Crossed and Double Crossed,” “The Dungeon of Doom,” “Desperate Chances,” and “The Last Stand.”

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The first five minutes of every episodes recaps what happened during the entirety of the previous episodes.

Airplanes of all types are seen onscreen more than 75% of the screen time, but we all have to remember that when this serial was produced, in 1935, audiences were still absolutely fascinated by anything that had to do with flying and jets and planes of all types.

Watch all twelve episodes of Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery — now available for the first time in digitally remastered and restored Hi-Def from the original 35mm fine grain negative — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.