This week’s edition of Serial Saturdays kicks off the inaugural chapter of a brand-spanking new chapter play…though when I use that term, I mean it in the sense that it is new to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. Released on
Granted, there’s an impressive cast in this one—which we’ll introduce in a minute—and the production values were a little loftier than the usual Universal shoot-‘em-up cliffhanger; so much so that stock footage from this one turned up in countless western serials and B-oaters churned out by the studio in its wake. My BBFF Stacia mused on a number of occasions while dissecting Raiders of Ghost City (1944) whether the stock footage in that one originated in a more exciting narrative…and though I can’t say for certain, there’s a good bet that some of Riders was borrowed for Raiders.
The million-dollar budget seems more likely to have comprised the amount of advertising promoting the serial, including a lavish pressbook for exhibitors. Because of the hype, a goodly number of serial fans tend to dismiss this one for retribution’s sake…and that really does Riders of Death Valley a disservice. I’m not saying Riders doesn’t have its faults: its plot is straight out of Westerns 101 (bad guys try to take a mine that does not belong to them) and most of it is extended chase sequences—you often have six good guys on the run from two or three bad guys, which seems a little…peculiar. (The scribe who came up with the story for Riders, Oliver Drake, once joked that because Universal had had success with a previous serial entitled Sky Raiders and one that followed Riders called Sea Raiders he was surprised the studio didn’t call this one Land Raiders.) Some of the cliffhangers are pretty weak tea, and though the interplay between stars Dick Foran and Buck Jones is enjoyable it often seems like, as Hans J. Wollstein once pointed out, Jones is “perhaps the highest paid B-western comedy relief in history.”
Also, too: my
DVD copy of
this is the one released by VCI Entertainment
in 2006. Alpha Video also released a
version, and while I have not watched that one I’ve had one or two people tell
me the VCI release is the better quality of
the two. Unfortunately, the company
chose to “watermark” its logo throughout each chapter a number of times,
apparently at the bequest of the person who secured them the print. Some people tear their hair out at things
like this: my personal take is that while it is an inconvenience, it’s not
something for which I will contemplate homicide. (But you’ll probably see the watermark in
some of the screen caps, so I thought I’d give you a heads-up.)
Dick Foran gets top billing as Jim Benton, the de facto leader of the gang—in fact, the gang of good guys is frequently referred to throughout the serial as “Benton Riders.” Foran could very well be called “the matinee idol of B movies;” he started out as a band singer and was then signed to a contract by Warner Brothers to be a supporting player—his best-known Warner’s gig is probably that of Bette Davis’ would-be paramour in The Petrified Forest (1936). He also made quite a few B-westerns for WB, and then later moved to Universal and did the same for them while being versatile enough to appear in such movies as The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and Ride ‘em Cowboy (1942), an Abbott & Costello romp. This was actually Foran’s second Western serial for Universal: his first was 1940’s Winners of the West, in which he co-starred with Anne Nagel, previously seen here on Serial Saturdays in both Don Winslow of the Navy and The Green Hornet (1940).
In the role of Pancho Lopez is Leo Carrillo…and yes, considering that Carrillo later played Pancho in both several Cisco Kid programmers and the 1950-56 TV series, this is kind of spooky to say the least. Carrillo was a master of dialects, and it would do him a disservice to simply dismiss him as Cisco’s sidekick: his movie credits include The Guilty Generation (1931), Four Frightened People (1934), If You Could Only Cook (1935) and History is Made at Night (1937).
And as Borax Bill—though I don’t think it’s “borax” in the sense of the twenty-mule team and soap—we have our old pal Guinn “Big Boy” Williams: a character legend that appeared in a gazillion B-pictures and westerns usually as a quick-to-anger but well-meaning lunkhead. Williams appears in such films as The Glass Key (1935—in the part that William Bendix played in the better-known 1942 version),
Oh, and though he’s mentioned in the opening credits (he just doesn’t get his very own picture), character great Glenn Strange is also riding with Jim Benton and his boys, and he answers to “
Tex.” The man who would later become famous both as
the Frankenstein monster (after Karloff said “no mas”) and bartender Sam Noonan
is no stranger to the B-western, but he also had bit parts in such serials as Flash Gordon (1936), The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939) and Flying G-Men (1939).
Our heroes dismount just in time for the orchestra to strike up
(Oh, movies are magic!) Borax Bill makes his way over to a spring to
wash the dust out of his throat, and we welcome (okay, maybe that’s not the
word I should use) the first of many “quarrels” between B.B. and his pal
BORAX: Who, me?
PANCHO: Yeah, you! (As Borax finishes and gets to his feet) Don’t you know I gotta held your horse and you put germans in the water?
BORAX: Oh, crawl under a rock…
Okay, so it’s not Noel Coward. But Jim and
find all this tres amusing…and I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that
they spend a lot of time outdoors.
JIM: No, we gotta go on to Stovepipe Wells and meet Smokey…
BORAX (looking off into the distance): You ain’t gonna meet Smokey in Stovepipe Wells today…
PANCHO: Hey, look! There comes Smokesie now!
Smokesie…er, Smokey, is a
SMOKEY: Hey, Jim—Kirby and Davis is havin’ a meetin’ in the Panamint Saloon this afternoon…they’re organizin’ a miners’ protective association…
BORAX: Them hombres ain’t aimin’ to protect nobody but themselves…
JIM: You’re right, Borax…
“Your grammar is atrocious…but you’re right…”
JIM: …if Kirby and Davis put over that protective association they’ll have control over every claim in
PANCHO: I guess purty soon all the miners is gonna be workin’ for them…no, Mr. Jim Benton?
PANCHO: I think, uh, maybe we went to that meeting…no?
JIM: You’re right…let’s get movin’…
BORAX: Hey—how come they didn’t hold the meetin’ tonight…it’d be a lot easier for everybody to get there…?
JIM: That’s a cinch to figure out, Borax…
PANCHO: When men of Mr. Kirby and Mr. Davis don’t want all the people to go there, no?
JIM: That’s right, Pancho…
“And you could do with a little cracking of the English books, too.”
SMOKEY: So…we’d better get ramblin’ now…huh?
You guys should have gotten ramblin’ a couple of dialogue passages back and maybe discussed all this while riding. (I don’t know what they’re gonna talk about on the way to Panamint. “A lot of weather we’ve been having lately, huh?”) Jim tells Smokey to stay behind to rest his horse (this is a plot device that will pay dividends soon) and the rest of his riders mount up and ride to…
Panamint! I remember when they used to sponsor Bob Hope, by the way. (Panamint…now with extra Irium!) Okay, now that I’ve got those jokes out of my system we drop on into the Panamint Saloon, owned by prominent bidnessman Joseph Kirby (James Blaine). His partner in no-goodism is Rance Davis, played by SBBN crush Monte Blue (whom I admittedly often confuse with cowboy star Monte Hale—do not ask me why, because I have no explanation) and the third man attending the meeting in the backroom of the saloon is lackey Dan Gordon, as essayed by William Hall.
KIRBY: This association will give us absolute control over every once of gold mined in
KIRBY: The only opposition I’m worried about is
and his riders…and they won’t be here… Benton
Before Kirby can begin tenting his fingers, a figure walks into the saloon, looking every picture of the Western badass. That man is…
…you got it, pilgrim. Charles Freaking Bickford. Charles Bickford in his only serial, playing the meanest hombre who ever drew a breath: Wolf Reade (even his name is badass). This is one of several reasons why I’m such a big fan of this serial—Bickford has got to be the most unlikely actor to ever grace a chapter play. I leave out Bela Lugosi, of course, because Bela was in several (including S.O.S. Coast Guard and The Phantom Creeps)—and I don’t include thespians who were just starting out…like George Macready in The Monster and the Ape (1944) or Jennifer Jones (still being billed as Phyllis Isley) in Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939).
But let’s get back to Wolf Reade, who strolls into both the bar and backroom like he owns the joint.
KIRBY: You sound like the dealer in this game, Wolf…
WOLF: I am…
KIRBY: Is this a showdown?
WOLF: It is…
GORDON: Wait a minute, Wolf…we ought to be able to get together and…
to “get over there where I can see ya” as Kirby pleads with his partner not to
make any sudden moves around Reade.
KIRBY: What’s got you all riled up, Wolf?
WOLF: I wanna know why you’ve ordered me to hold up the Berdoo stage today…
KIRBY: Why? The usual reason, of course…
“I’ve got a payroll to meet…”
WOLF: Come on, Kirby…answer my question…
KIRBY: I have answered it!
WOLF: No you ain’t…but I will…you got Lafe Hogan’s note for $50,000…that money don’t get here by noon, you take over his bank and everything else he owns!
KIRBY: Well…what of it?
“Well…I’m on record as saying that’s just a bit unseemly, old man.”
“And…I want a company horse.” Kirby stops to ponder Wolf’s proposition, and then graciously agrees to Wolf’s terms because Reade is not a man you want to be on the bad side of, particularly if you have family. “You win,” concedes Kirby.
“This time,” mutters
Davis. Wolf asks him to repeat that last
remark. “I said I was glad you got the
whole thing settled,” he says mealy-mouthed.
KIRBY: Now that holdup, Wolf…no unnecessary killings…remember?
WOLF: You handle your end…I’ll take care of mine…
Something tells me this is not going to be a good day because innocent people are going to die. After Wolf leaves and heads out to do that job he dearly loves, Gordon speaks up: “Gee, boss…for a minute there I thought you were gonna plug him…”
GORDON (rapping on a table for attention): Order, please, gentlemen…order…
KIRBY: Men…this meeting is called to organize an association to protect you miners in
An actor whom I don’t recognize (and playing a prospector type) asks: “And what are you and Davis gonna get out of this, Kirby?” (I couldn’t swear to it, but I believe that’s Gabby Johnson, formerly of Rock Ridge.)
KIRBY: Nothing! Davis and I will finance all claims…prospecting expeditions…transporting ore to Panamint for smelting…
PROSPECTOR (getting up from his seat): I don’t believe a word you say, Kirby!
“…and no sidewindin' bushwackin', hornswagglin' cracker croaker is gonna rouin me bishen cutter…” Before Gabby can continue with any more of his authentic frontier gibberish, an unidentified cowboy seated next to Gabby rises and connects with a right cross, sending to Johnson to the floor. Gordon continues to press for order.
GORDON: …quiet, please…Mr. Kirby wants to help you all…
“…off a sixty-foot cliff…” Gabby, rubbing his chin, says to the man seated next to him: “Why ain’t Jim Benton here? Kirby’s sure gonna put this thing over…”
KIRBY: Now, men…you’ve all heard my proposition…any comments? Those in favor of this association stand up…
JIM (as he and the riders come through the swinging doors): Keep your seats…everybody…
There is a good deal of hubbub in the saloon resulting from Jim and the riders’ entrance…but the funniest is from Gabby Johnson, who sort of wistfully waves at
JIM: Kirby…how can you hope to form a miners’ protective association when half of the miners are out working their claims?
KIRBY: It’s not my fault the miners aren’t here to speak for themselves…
JIM: I say it is…you only invited these miners here you thought you could intimidate…
KIRBY: Are you hinting this meeting isn’t on the level?
JIM: I’m not hinting, Kirby…I’m telling you…
Jim then addresses the saloon contingent: “Boys, there’ll be no association until all the miners are here to vote.” Well, Joseph Kirby didn’t get to where he is today by simply being a ruthless essobee…so he decides to walk away in temporary defeat by postponing his scheme until all the miners are able to show up for the meeting. And to demonstrate his heart’s in the right place, he’s buying drinks for the house. (Actually, it might have been smarter to do that in the first place—with those yahoos drunk, passing that association legislation would have been easier than falling out of a rowboat.)
“You hear that, boys?” asks Gordon, in prime suck-up mode. “Mr. Kirby’s buying drinks for the house—step up and name your poison!” The three scalawags, having licked their wounds, disappear back into their office.
PANCHO: Well, I say no…
BORAX: All right then…no…
PANCHO: What it gonna be—yes or no?
BORAX: I don’t think they’ll hold another meeting…can’t you understand?
PANCHO (shaking his head in the affirmative): No…
BORAX (disgustedly): Adobe brain…
Abbott…Costello…you’re needed on stage twelve. (Actually, the funniest thing about these exchanges is watching Glenn Strange’s reactions…he later said in an interview he had a difficult time keeping a straight face around Carrillo during filming.) Back in the bad guys’ office:
KIRBY: Not any longer than it takes me to find a way to get rid of him…
Well, what did you expect—you guys are buying the drinks! As Jim and his boys are availing themselves of the open bar, Smokey enters the saloon carrying a half-dead prospector.
SMOKEY: Where’s Doc Murphy?
BORAX (referencing the prospector): It’s Chuckawalla Charlie!
“I get knocked down/But I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me…” Oh, wait a second—I’m thinking of Chumbawamba. My bad. Jim and his gang help Smokey bring Charlie (Frank Austin) over to one of the tables; Jim asks for some water but
JIM: Where did you find him?
SMOKEY: Near the waterhole, after you fellas left me…his canteen was clear dry…
JIM (to the prospector): Charlie…Charlie, this is Jim…Jim Benton…
CHARLIE (delirious): Howdy, Jim…I…I found it…
JIM: Found what, Charlie?
SMOKEY: He’s been ravin’ like that all the way in here! He keeps sayin’ somethin’ about findin’ a Lost Aztec Mine!
CHARLIE: I found it, Jim…I found the Lost Aztec Mine…Jim…Jim…it’s yours, Jim…
JIM: Take it easy, pardner…
CHARLIE: I got proof…
Charlie reaches into his crusty clothing and pulls out several nuggets and a weather-beaten piece of paper. It lands on the floor of the saloon, and Kirby—who by this time has returned with Davis and Gibson to see what the hubbub was about—makes a grab for it…but
KIRBY: From the looks of those nuggets he certainly found something…and he laid it right in
’s lap! Benton
KIRBY (after a pause): When the Wolf gets in from that stage holdup at Dry Wells…I’ll have him and his men take care of Benton…and his whole outfit!
Back at the bar,
remembers that he stuffed Charlie’s map to the mine in his vest and he hands it
JIM: Yeah…I wonder who this Mary is?
BORAX: Maybe it’s his burro…
PANCHO: (intelligible Spanish phrase)
Chuck was pretty closemouthed about
his personal affairs… Tex
“Also his personal hygiene. But I digress.”
PANCHO: Say…maybe this Mary is ol’ Chuck’s sweetheart…gonna ask
when he come…he know Chuck a long time before you do, did he? Tombstone
JIM: That’s right, Pancho…he might know who she is…
BORAX: Yeah—we’ll ask him when he comes in from Berdoo…
And as if it were scripted, the scene shifts to a rider on a white horse, galloping through the hills. (I’m going to spare you the Silver jokes—because the horse is, in fact, called by that very name…Buck Jones was riding Silver long before the Lone Ranger saddled up.) There is a brief return to the saloon, where Jim remarks: “You fellas stay here and wait for him…I’m going over to the bank and see Lafe Hogan.”
We iris in on a Berdoo stagecoach as the strains of
That rider is
Before we continue on—in case you were asking yourselves “Might this have been called ‘the million dollar serial’ because of the money used to pay the salaries?” the answer would be no. Actually, the situation in having all these top celebs in this serial was really a fortuitous one—a rare example of everyone being available to work at the same time.
Back to the action:
Billed here as Jeanne Kelly, the lovely actress had already appeared in two Universal serials—Junior G-Men (1940) and The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1941)—but is probably better known to classic movie fans as Jean Brooks…she would later go over to R-K-O and make programmers like The Falcon in Danger (1943) and The Falcon and the Co-Eds (1943). She’s best known for her work in several Val Lewton movies—chiefly as the doomed Jacqueline Gibson in the blog’s favorite Lewton film, The Seventh Victim (1943).
I don’t recognize the two gentlemen riding with Jeanne—whose character goes by “Mary Morgan” (not the burro)—but seeing as how they’re not long for this world I won’t take the time to research them. Mary comments on the various sights and sounds as the stage makes it way to Panamint—and upon seeing some wild stallions in the hills she remarks that “Uncle Charlie never wrote me about any wild horses.”
FIRST PASSENGER: Chuckawalla never paid any attention to wild horses…he spent all his time looking for the Lost Aztec Mine…
SECOND PASSENGER: I wish I had all the money Jim Benton spent grubstaking that old desert rat…
FIRST PASSENGER: He didn’t? Why everybody in
knows Jim Benton!
SECOND PASSENGER: Why, if it wasn’t for Jim and his riders this country wouldn’t be a safe place to live in!
Go Team Jim!
FIRST PASSENGER: Yeah…and I’d feel a whole lot safer right now…if he were along to protect this $50,000 we’re carrying…
During this conversation,
keeps sneaking looks at his comely female passenger…who turns in his direction
just as he turns away himself. An
amusing moment—and then there’s a scene shift to the Panamint City Bank, where
president Lafe Hogan expresses his concerns to the heroic Jim.
HOGAN: I’ve got a shipment of money comin’ in on the Berdoo stage…if it doesn’t get here by , I’m gonna lose my bank!
JIM: How’s that?
HOGAN: Well, I borrowed the money from Kirby and Davis…
JIM: You got nothing to worry about…the stage will get here all right…
HOGAN: Yeah, I know…but while I was looking for you I heard that Wolf and his gang were headed for the stagecoach trail near Death Valley Junction!
JIM: Say…that doesn’t sound so good…
Ya think, Jimbo? Well, he may not be the smartest hero in serial history but he tells Hogan he’s going to round up the boys and see what’s up. There is an establishing shot of Jim and his riders mounting up, and then we come to one of the funnier continuity errors of the production: The Case of the Missing Horse!
You can see in the above screen cap
…vee-ola! The horse has vanished! That horse appears and reappears constantly in this upcoming chase footage…but instead of obsessing about that, let’s introduce our last big star as he comments to Wolf Reade upon spotting the stage: “Here she comes, boss…”
Yes, Lon Chaney, Jr. was a movie or two away from his breakout role in The Wolf Man (1941)…even though he had made some favorable critical noise in 1939’s Of Mice and Men. Lon turns up in quite a few serials: The Last Frontier (1932—R-K-O’s only chapter play), Ace Drummond (1936—as a henchman named “Ivan”),
“All right, men,” snarls Wolf. “I want a quick job…no witnesses.” Sounds as if he’s going to ignore that “no unnecessary killings” proviso, too. Wolf and his raiders go riding after the stagecoach…which at that point was kind of poking along until the first passenger shouts out “Look out—a hold-up!” The stage then lurches into gear, and there is much gunplay from
the other two male passengers, directed at Wolf and his bandits. (Chivalrously, Tombstone
pushes Mary to the floor of the stagecoach.)
The first passenger is shot in the arm…but for some reason falls over dead. (Walk it off, you crybaby…) The shotgun rider is soon picked off by Reade’s desperadoes…but help is on the way as Jim and the Riders appear from over a nearby ridge.
Then the stagecoach driver is whacked. Wolf catches up to the stagecoach and climbs aboard, grabbing the reins to control the horses. Somehow, Jim comes out of nowhere and manages to climb aboard the coach, too (Wolf’s gang was riding right behind him, so how Jim avoided being shot I’ll leave to your imagination). The two men then scuffle on top of the stage, with Wolf being knocked to the ground.