Wednesday, April 11, 2012

B-Western Wednesday: Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937)

Although author William Colt MacDonald worked briefly as a screenwriter at Columbia Pictures in the 1930s, his stock-in-trade was pulp westerns—and in 1933, with the publication of Law of the 45s, he would introduce his most famous creation: a trio of cowboy heroes collectively known (with apologies to Alexander Dumas) as The Three Mesquiteers.  (It should be noted, however, that two of the “Mesquiteers” had been introduced by MacDonald in an earlier book he penned, 1929’s Restless Guns.)  In fact, that first book was brought to the big screen in 1935 as The Law of 45s (a Normandy/First Division release), but contained only two Mesquiteers—as played by Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and Al St. John, before he became fuzzy…er, “Fuzzy.”  St. John’s character was renamed Stoney Martin (not Stony Brooke) and Williams was referred to as Tucson “Two-Gun” Smith.

A second film based on a MacDonald Mesquiteers novel, Too Much Beef, was released by Normandy in 1936—but apparently the economics dictated that they could only afford one hero in the form of Rex Bell as Tucson.  Things were a little better financially at R-K-O, where they produced Powdersmoke Range (again, based on MacDonald’s book and billed as “The Barnum and Bailey of Westerns”) and got a fairly impressive cast to appear: Harry Carey as Tucson, Hoot Gibson as Stony, and Law of 45s star Williams as the third member of the trio, Lullaby Johnson.  Range was an entertaining little oater (it also had movie cowboy legends Tom Tyler and Bob Steele on hand), one that I got to see many, many moons ago on TNT before the advent of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.  It might have made a successful film series for R-K-O, but they weren’t interested in starting one…and so it would be up to Republic to get the ball rolling in 1936 with the first film in the official series, The Three Mesquiteers.  In the roles of Stony Brooke, Tucson Smith and Lullaby Johnson were Robert Livingston, Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Syd Saylor.  (Saylor never made it past the inaugural film; he was replace in the second outing by Max Terhune and the Livingston/Corrigan/Terhune combination remains the best known lineup of a successful series of films that would spawn countless imitators and command a presence on movie screens until 1943.)

It’s the fourth Mesquiteers outing we’re going to look at today (also based on a MacDonald novel—with a screenplay by Oliver Drake and John Rathmell, based on Drake and Bernard McConville); it’s considered by many fans to be one of their very best and certainly the most unusual.  In Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937), we’re introduced to a team of academics who are currently conducting an expedition to locate Lukachukai, a lost Indian city in the American Southwest.  The head of the expedition, Professor Marsh (John Van Pelt), has apparently gone missing and his daughter Betty (Mary Russell) is most anxious to locate him.  Marsh’s colleagues—Brewster (John Ward), Fronc (George Godfrey) and Cleary (Earle Ross)—aren’t entirely convinced that Marsh is as lost as Betty claims, but that’s when the Mesquiteers ride into town with the unconscious form of Marsh’s colleague, Flaxon (C. Montague Shaw).  When Flaxon comes to, he begins to rave about how he and Marsh found the city…and also its tremendous treasure located wherein.  Just as Flaxon is spilling his guts on how to get to the city, the lights go out…

…aieee…I hate when that happens.  The pool of suspects in Flaxon’s murder is rather limited—the man was knifed in a windowless room with the doors shut—so amateur detective Stony (Livingston) is convinced that if he, Tucson (Corrigan) and Lullaby (Terhune) ride along with the expedition they’ll eventually discover the identity of the murderer.  There’s death along the trail (the expedition leader, Cleary, gets an Indian arrow in his back) and a few encounters with a hostile Indian cult (like there’s any other kind in these movies) but our heroes eventually locate the lost city and Professor Marsh, who’s looks a little worse for wear but at least he’s breathing.  They also learn that trading post proprietor Rutledge (Roger Williams) is the man responsible for the murders—it is revealed that he’s a “half-breed”—and he’s been whipping the cult into a frenzy because Marsh and his colleagues want to take their treasure (nobody seems to be bothered by the fact that the professorial bunch is laying claim to something that isn’t theirs).

"Boogedy boogedy boogedy!"
Here’s the thing about the Three Mesquiteers films.  I consider myself a fan of them, but I’ll be darned if I know why.  They’re certainly not the most sophisticated films to come down the pike; most of the time the dialogue seems to have been improvised on the spot and if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s fine locations available to shoot the darn things (canyon, hills, etc.) the seams on their five-dollar budgets would be most noticeable.  Livingston and Corrigan are solid action heroes but their camaraderie often comes across as stiff and forced…and as for Terhune…well, for some odd reason his Lullaby Johnson carries this around with him:

"I'll clip ya, Terhune!  So help me, I'll mow you down!"
Yes, Lullaby Johnson was the Edgar Bergen of the prairie (actually, he was better than Bergen in the “not-moving-your-lips” department).  I’m not sure I’d want to ride around out West with a guy packing a ventriloquist’s dummy at the ready—I can picture bedding down one night under the stars and waking up to a Dead of Night scenario—but audiences loved “Elmer” (Terhune’s dummy) and they always seemed to find a way to shoehorn Terhune’s talents into the plot (in Skull, he brings the dummy out for the sheriff’s benefit).  Terhune left the Three Mesquiteers films after the 22nd outing, Three Texas Steers (1939), and later went to Monogram (along with Corrigan) to form The Range Busters.  (There he played a character named “Alibi,” and in fact he was often billed as Max “Alibi” Terhune.)

There was a tremendous amount of turnover in the Three Mesquiteers series over its eight years on motion picture screens.  Livingston left the group after Heroes of the Hills (1938) (he was supposed to be in 1937’s The Trigger Trio, but he suffered an injury and was replaced in that one film by Ralph “Dick Tracy” Byrd) but returned after eight more Mesquiteers vehicles for The Kansas Terrors (1939) and did fourteen more, finally leaving for good after Gangs of Sonora (1941).  (Livingston was the champ, appearing in 29 of the total 51 films.)  The eight-film Livingston void was filled by the Duke himself, John Wayne…but when Wayne achieved stardom in 1939’s Stagecoach his stint as Stony Brooke came to an end.  Other actors who appeared in the films were Bob “Trooper Duffy” Steele, Tom Tyler, Raymond Hatton (as “Rusty Joslin”), future Cisco Kid Duncan Renaldo (playing a character known variously as “Rico,” “Renaldo,” and “Rico Renaldo”), future Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd and future Petticoat Junction conductor Rufe Davis.  There were about nine variations of the lineups, and often you will need a score card to tell the players—Chuck Anderson has one right here at The Old Corral.

"That's no Indian's rope...that's a white man's!"  (Actual line of dialogue.) 
I’ve only seen a handful of these movies, but the more I watch the more they grow on me.  The entries with Wayne and the Livingston-Corrigan-Terhune lineup are usually the most popular among fans, but there are individual titles that have their devotees because of the novelty involving the leading ladies.  For example, just as a young Rita Cansino (Hayworth) was a player in the earlier-discussed Tex Ritter oater Trouble in Texas (1937), Rita is also in the Mesquiteers flick Hit the Saddle (1937).  Carole Landis appeared in a pair of 3M films, Cowboys from Texas (1939) and Three Texas Steers (1939), and Phyllis Isley—later Jennifer Jones—graced New Frontier (1939).  But the winner of the “WTF?” actress award goes to Louise Brooks, who made the Mesquiteers vehicle Overland Stage Riders (1938) her cinematic swan song.

The face may not be familiar but the voice certainly will be.  Earle Ross plays the doomed Professor Cleary, but he's best known as the Honorable Judge Horace Hooker, nemesis to Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve on the Harold Peary/Willard Waterman radio sitcom.
The original running time on Riders of the Whistling Skull was 58 minutes, but the copy I watched (courtesy of the DVD box set America’s Greatest Westerns) is 53 minutes…and I have to say, it helps the movie immeasurably.  Director Mack V. Wright keeps things moving along at such a sprightly clip, Skull doesn’t give you much time to examine the logical holes and inconsistencies until afterward, and there are a few moments in the film that made me laugh out loud (none of them, by the way, have anything to do with Terhune—who may very well be the worst comic relief in the history of B-westerns).  In one scene, Corrigan’s Smith is arguing with Livingston’s Brooke that they don’t have time to get involved with this expedition nonsense—damn it, they have a ranch to run!  Lullaby agrees with Tucson, and a resigned Stony says: “Well…that’s the way you feel about it…”  There is a dissolve, and we see Stony and Tucson riding along…followed by a wagon and the members of the expedition.

Before Tuscon Smith can run and get help, he must completely take off his shirt.  (Apparently actor Ray "Crash" Corrigan had a William Shatner clause in his contract.)
The other hilarious moment comes when Stony, having been captured by Rutledge and his Indian brethren, has been tied to a stake for burning purposes.  Livingston looks at Roger Williams and deadpans: “Well…it begins to look like a hot time in the old town tonight.”  (Don’t know why I found that so funny, but I’m kind of wired that way.)  The blending of western, mystery and supernatural elements in Riders of the Whistling Skull has made it a favorite of both B-Western and cult film fans, and its public domain status means that it’s available in a variety of formats…as well as the P.D. film’s best friend, YouTube.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.


ClassicBecky said...

I'm not a big fan of B westerns, but I love the title of this one. Frankly, I think your captions -- "Apparently actor Ray "Crash" Corrigan had a William Shatner clause in his contract.)" are likely much more fun than the movie itself! But I'm not completely immune to B movies -- my taste runs to the B horrors!

Kevin Deany said...

Ivan, I really appreciate these B-western write-ups. I've seen some, but there are just so many of them I don't know where to get started, and I find your write-ups to be very helpful.

However, I have seen "Riders of the Whistling Skull" and enjoyed it tremendously. I do have a soft spot for Max Terhune however. A ventriloquist with a dummy in a western is so surreal that I'm all for it.

KimWilson said...

I'd have a problem going anywhere with a person who had a sidekick that was a doll. One of the many reasons I don't like children. But back to my point, who'd ride into dangerous territory with a man who carried a dummy around?

dfordoom said...

It's an odd but fun little movie.

Julie Kovacs said...

If you like Tom Tyler's movies I recommend signing a petition to get his surviving FBO silent B-western films digitalized and released on DVD: