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Operator 13

(1934) Directed by Richard Boleslavsky

IF YOU CAN ACCEPT BLUE-EYED, golden-haired Marion Davies playing a mulatto ladies’ maid in minstrel-show blackface, perhaps this lavish, romantic spy thriller set in the desperate days after the Second Battle of Bull Run is for you. Gail Loveless (Davies) is recruited to become a Union spy by her friend, Pauline Cushman (Katherine Alexander), a spy known as “Operator 27.” Working for the famed Major Allen Pinkerton (Sidney Tolar, better known later as Hollywood’s Chinese detective Charlie Chan), Gail agrees to become “Operator 13.”

The ladies head south to infiltrate the camp of Confederate cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart, where our heroine meets her soon-to-be hero, Captain Jack Gailliard (Gary Cooper). Dashing Captain Jack is also a spy and soon suspects that Ms. Cushman has nefarious intentions. He arrests her and, to maintain her own cover, Operator 13 rats out Operator 27 at trial. But, with the help of Dr. Hitchcock, a Northern spy and the owner of a traveling medicine show, the ladies manage to escape.

Compromised, 27 can no longer operate behind enemy lines, but 13, sans blackface, is still good to go. Her mission now is to learn more about Captain Jack. Using the name Anne Claybourne, she is “deported” to Richmond, where she passes on important information and falls in love with handsome Jack. The feelings are mutual, but Jack thinks he has seen “Anne” before. When he finally realizes who she is, Anne complicates things by saving his life when one of her operatives takes a shot at him.

Now Anne is on the run. Jack finds her and calls her a traitor. He handcuffs Anne, but they soon see Union soldiers shoot her operative and traveling companion because he’s wearing a Rebel uniform. Anne and Jack, hidden in a creek, escape together. A blacksmith files off their handcuffs and Jack heads South while Anne tearfully goes North. Of course, after the war they reunite and pledge their love.

This was Davies’ last film before she became full-time inamorata to newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.


Originally published in the November 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here