The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies, Chapter 5: ‘Hop Harrigan’
ScreenCrush editor, comic-book lover, and undiagnosed masochist Matt Singer is systematically watching every single (American) comic-book movie ever made in the order in which they were released. This week in The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies: A forgotten hero flies again.
Hop Harrigan: America’s Ace of the Airways (1946)
Director: Derwin Abrahams
Writers: Ande Lamb, George H. Plympton
Starring: William Bakewell, Jennifer Holt, Sumner Getchell
Based on: Hop Harrigan, created by Jon Blummer in All American Comics #1
Onscreen Iteration: First appearance
The Best Special Effect: Hop Harrigan’s gang of sidekicks includes a pre-teen kid named Jackie, the younger brother of the woman who owns the airfield that serves as Hop’s base of operations. Jackie’s mostly a prop to be kidnapped and rescued, but he does provide the serial’s coolest moment. In Chapter 5, thugs sent by “The Chief Pilot” try to run Jackie down in their coupe. At the last moment, Jackie(’s stunt double, I hope) drops into a ditch as the car passes overhead. As far as I can tell, there’s no trickery here; it’s not so much a special effect as a crazy thing captured on camera.
The Worst Special Effect: The moment with Jackie and the car is particularly notable because it's the rare action sequence that doesn’t look faked or cheated with rear projection. Turns out “America’s Ace of the Airways” doesn’t spend a whole lot of time in the air; when he does take to the skies, he’s just hanging off the wing of a plane parked on a soundstage. Hop doesn’t even fly when a doomsday device is about to explode and the fate of the world is at stake. He walks instead. (No, seriously. He walks.) The adventures of a daredevil pilot should be fertile ground for an action-packed serial, but Hop Harrigan lacks the budget and quality stuntmen to pull it off.
Most Dated Moment: The character names in this serial are just bizarre. The human MacGuffin who drives the plot is a scientist named Dr. Tobor. His assistant is named Retner. No one knows how to pronounce either. (“Here comes Dr. Toe-bar!” “Where were you Dr. Too-ber?” “I think he was with Reh-too-ner!” “No, I saw Rat-nuh at the airfield!”) Then there's Hop Harrigan and his alliterative pal Tank Tinker. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get real for a second. These are not names. These are sound effects and random combinations of syllables.
Most Timeless Moment: Generally, Dr. Tobor acts like a moron, but he does have one clever escape. Kidnapped by agents of the Chief Pilot, he fakes an illness and rigs the bed in his room with wires, turning its metal frame into a giant electric chair (uh, bed). Then he lures one of the Chief Pilot’s men into the room and asks him to help him push the bed under the window. The goon grabs the bed and ZAP, he’s juiced. If only the rest of the serial had this much electricity.
Further Thoughts: If the name Hop Harrigan doesn’t ring any bells, don’t feel bad. He’s easily the most obscure character in this column to date, and maybe the most obscure character to ever receive his own comic-book movie — at least from the perspective of 2015. In 1946, Hop Harrigan was actually a multimedia star. He was the protagonist of a long-running radio show on ABC and a regular feature in the pages of All American Comics (the book that also launched the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott). All American’s characters eventually became DC Comics properties, but unlike his more colorful contemporaries, Hop never got a Silver Age revival and eventually found himself, to borrow the title of Chapter 11 of his serial, flying to oblivion.
It’s easy to see why. There’s little to distinguish Hop from any of comics’ other World War II aviation heroes. He doesn’t have any superpowers or a distinctive personality or costume (although the Hop Harrigan of the comics later became a masked vigilante known as The Black Lamp). Based on the evidence onscreen, he’s not even a particularly good pilot. He basically hangs around an airfield with an idiot named Tank, and then drives around through the desert, alternately chasing or being chased by gangsters. Shouldn’t a movie about an aviator involve, like, aviation?
The Hop Harrigan serial is as generic as its namesake. After five of these films, the contours of the superhero serial subgenre are becoming very familiar. Their plots are all nearly identical: The hero and his agents square off against a mysterious villain for control of an incredible invention that could revolutionize the world or destroy it. That’s fine; most superhero plots in 2015 are pretty similar too. The trick is in the execution, and unfortunately Hop Harrigan’s is quite poor. Something like Spy Smasher keeps things lively with lots of action, tons of different locations, and plenty of cool stunts. Hop Harrigan follows the same five characters as they wander through the same desert over and over with almost no action whatsoever. It's like the Gerry of comic-book movies. The poster promises this:
But the serial looks more like this:
That’s right, get ready for Chapter 4, which plunges you into a polite discussion of peril! Feel the excitement!!!
If Hop Harrigan was a single 15-minute episode, it might be tolerable. But it’s sooooo looooong; well over four hours stretched out across 15 interminable chapters. In the time it takes Hop to figure out who the Chief Pilot is, Lawrence of Arabia covered twenty years of T.E. Lawrence’s life with an extra half hour to spare. Hop Harrigan’s about as much fun as changing a tire — which is one of the big plot points in Chapter 7. (“Hurry Hop! They’re getting away! You really should have renewed your AAA membership!”) Watching paint dry might not be more exciting, but at least it would be quicker.
There’s simply not enough here to sustain a film of even half its length. The only way to drag things out is to make the characters morons who are incapable of judging anyone’s true motives. Dr. Tobor is so paranoid about someone stealing his invention that he forces good-hearted Hop to fly to his secret base while wearing a blindfold (which seems dangerous to me, but what do I know), but a few chapters later he willingly gets into a car with the Chief Pilot’s lackeys because they claim they want to help him. Hop’s stupidest moment comes in Chapter 3, when he leaves his keys in his car, and it gets stolen. Look, he’s America’s Ace of the Airways, okay? He’s not America’s Ace of Remembering to Lock His Car.
As the market for serials slowly dried up in the ’40s and ’50s, so did the money available to spend on them. The production values shrunk, along with the entertainment value, and Hop Harrigan is a pretty clear example of both. What little action Derwin Abrahams could afford to shoot he had to stretch out across 15 chapters. Bottom line: This serial is plane bad. Thank you, and good night.
Hop Harrigan is out-of-print on home video, but you can find bootlegs on eBay. I strongly urge you not to.