The Revision: Brenda Starr, Reporter

Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr, Reporter is an iconic comic strip. It started in 1940 and ended in 2011, with Messick writing and drawing it for 40 years (she contributed to the storylines until 1982). That’s an impressive run.

Brenda Starr is a glamorous reporter for The Flash. She’s known for her tenacity at pursuing a story, her sense of adventure, and her fashion sense (she’s mistaken for a model more than once). Yes, she gets into trouble quite a bit, but she uses her intelligence to find her way out most of her problems. There is certainly a little bit of her needing to be rescued by some handsome love interest, but mostly, Brenda can take care of herself and she does it well.

Cover for Brenda Starr, Reporter, by Dale Messick: The Collected Dailies and Sundays: 1940-1946

I read Brenda Starr, Reporter: The Collected Dailies and Sundays: 1940-1946, since that was the era the film serial was from and I was surprised at how much the strip dabbles in science fiction and the supernatural, and even when it doesn’t, there’s such a pulpy sense of melodrama. It’s weird, delightful, and fun.

It’s a bit hard to evaluate Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945, directed by Wallace Fox) as a movie since it isn’t one but I’m counting it in terms of this project since it did run in theaters. Each of the 13 chapters (of about 20 minutes each) ran weekly. Watching it was more like binge-watching a show, although a show where each episode ends on a preposterous cliffhanger that immediately resolves at the beginning of the next.

All of that is forgivable, though. I understand that’s just the nature of this. What I don’t understand is how much this completely misunderstands what makes Brenda Starr a great heroine.

Joan Woodbury certainly looks enough the part as Brenda, and yes, she’s a reporter for The Flash. She has a vague, affectionate rivalry with Lt. Lawrence Farrell (Kane Richmond), her love interest here (although that’s never quite as clear as it could have been). She (and the police) are investigating some stolen money. Along the way, there’s a criminal’s twin brother, a few people who are killed and a surprising number of explosions.

They also can’t seem to start a scene unless it involves someone getting out of a car (I guess that’s one way to show transitions).

A still from Brenda Starr, Reporter

Brenda spends way too much time trapped in closets or blindfolded or being chased. Clearly, the comic strip had enough instances Brenda being captured in one way or another but she always managed to find a way to gain control of the situation. That’s not really the case here — Lawrence or her photographer, Chuck (Syd Saylor) are constantly coming to her aid.

Everyone is also making questionable choices, like staying too long in a burning building or smelling gas in a house and then deciding to keep going. Or in one case, Brenda is warned of the danger of explosives in a mine but then runs in anyway. While it’s not just Brenda who is making bad choices, it’s disappointing to see a character who is known for being smart being the exact opposite.

Mostly, I think what bothered me the most about this was not the writing (which is convoluted but adequate) nor how much it seems to misunderstand who Brenda is but that it’s not that much about Brenda Starr at all. No, Brenda didn’t appear in every panel of the comic but even when she wasn’t in the comic, it was still very much about her. So much of this film serial seems to just revolve around the men here (Chuck, the police officers, the criminals) and it doesn’t feel like Brenda drives that much of the action (except for when she has to be saved from a closet).

And, it’s a small complaint, sure, but for a comic strip that was very much about what Brenda Starr was wearing, Woodbury mostly only has one outfit here (she does change once or twice). I assume that’s probably for budget reasons, but I found it distracting.

I had some hopes for this one — I figured it would at least be fun even if it wasn’t great. It was fun in parts, but it definitely wasn’t great. It’s a poor adaptation of the Brenda Starr, Reporter and not much more than a vague amusement from the past.

Brenda Starr has been adapted two more times — once as a made-for-TV movie from 1976 starring Jill St. John and once as a theatrical film starring Brooke Shields that was eventually released in the U.S. in 1992., both of which I’ll cover later this week on my Patreon.

There was also an unaired TV pilot in 1979 and some talk as recently as 2006 about trying to develop the property for TV. I’d love to see that, but only if they manage to get this right.