Like all the readers of SERIAL REPORT, I’ve seen a few serials over the years. Like most readers, I’ve decided which I think are the “best” (good script, action, production), such as “Jungle Girl”, “Flash Gordon”, “Daredevils of the Red Circle”, “Adventures of Captain Marvel”, “Perils of Nyoka”—you know the list. But when I think about the ones I actually go back to and watch with the greatest frequency, it’s none of the above. No, instead it’s two serials that don’t appear on anyone’s best list (not even mine), one of which appears on quite a few worst lists. The two serials are “Last of the Mohicans” (Mascot ‘32) and “Clutching Hand” (Stage and Screen ‘36). The former because I really enjoy it (despite a major deficiency), the latter because it’s the funniest serial I’ve ever seen, it always leaves me smiling.
“Last of the Mohicans” has an almost mythic quality about it (its images stick with you), and a fabulous cast. The old James Fenimore Cooper novel had been made into a movie several times previously; in 1909 D. W. Griffith did a one-reel adaptation, “Leatherstocking”, Pat Powers and Thanhauser both did versions in 1911, and Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown co-directed another version in 1920. The Tourneur-Brown production (restored a few years ago) is justifiably famous for its beautiful photography, for Wallace Beery as Magua and for Boris Karloff’s appearance in a small role. The Mascot version is a worthy successor to that Tourneur-Brown version, and in some respects is (arguably, I’ll admit) even better.
Visually, the serial is probably the most beautiful, most carefully photographed of all the Mascots and was the studio’s “big-budget” (—for Mascot) serial for ‘32. There’s a lot of attention to detail and an attempt at historical accuracy in terms of sets and costumes, which are all first rate. The Mohican and Huron huts and lodges (exteriors and interiors) are reasonably accurate (no teepees), to an extent usually ignored in serials. Harry Carey gets lines like “I mustn’t tarry,” and Walter Miller gets to wear a wavy white wig.
Almost all of it was shot on location—California hills and mountains, and Sherwood Lake and the Kern River for water and canoe scenes, according to Jon Tuska’s excellent “The Vanishing Legion”. Most of the topography could pass for Mid-Atlantic. A lot of the shots are from on high, with broad vistas of hills and forests in the background. Sites seem to have been selected for their beauty or grandeur, and the shot composition and lighting are obviously influenced by the Tourneur-Brown version.
The cinematography is excellent, with a lot of care taken to get a variety of shots—closeups, medium and long shots—at different angles to cover, for example, the canoe chase in Ch. 1 and the subsequent fight between Major Duncan Heyward (Walter Miller, in his last role as a romantic lead in serials) and the Hurons, and later canoe chases, or the attack on Fort William Henry (Ch. 5)—suggesting production values far above standards usually set by Mascot and at least equal to B-studios like Columbia and Universal. When the ceiling collapses on Col. Munro and his men in the attack on the fort, it’s pretty convincing. The serial’s opening scene is powerful: Magua (Bob Kortman) describing to Mohican tribesmen how the British whipped him—a Huron chief—like a dog, as he tries to incite them to war against the British, and Hawkeye’s (Harry Carey) timely entrance and denunciation of Magua’s story. It sets the scene and establishes motivation and character.
Carey is perfect as Hawkeye. He is calm, sincere, fittingly laconic, cuts a memorable figure in his coonskin cap and leather-frilled garments, and exudes dependability. It’s hard to think of anyone who could have done a better job. Ex-superstar Hobart Bosworth was cast as Chingachgook—for some reason called “the Sagamore” in this version. It’s an odd bit of casting but Bosworth is fine, and looks pretty fit for a man in his mid-sixties. Junior Coghlan played Uncas. He looks as much like a Native American as, say, Billy Benedict, but nonetheless gives an earnest and totally winning performance.
Edwina Booth is Cora (or “dark hair” as Magua calls her—she had to dye her hair for the part). Co-star Lucile Browne (Alice) didn’t think much of Booth’s acting ability, and thought she was “shallow.” Author Jon Tuska says Booth had been having personal and business problems, was deep in debt, feeling despondent, and her “performance deteriorated even more from her woodenness in ‘The Vanishing Legion’ (‘30).” If that’s true, it sure was a lucky break for the serial, because her haughtiness and cool detachment are perfect for the part. When Cora threatens to kill Magua, or volunteers to be burned at the stake, or places herself in front of loaded muzzles, you get the sense she ain’t kidding.
Then there’s Bob Kortman, whose acting ability has also been criticized. But again, I can’t think of anyone who could have done a better job. Kortman’s Magua is easily the most unforgettable aspect of the serial and emerges as a kind of icon: when I think of this serial, his gaunt face is the first thing I visualize. It was, I suspect, the meatiest role Kortman ever had. He gets to act up a storm (he’s perfectly adequate), talk a lot and make impassioned speeches, certainly a rarity given the roles he usually played. He even gets to deliver a few sly gag lines, as when he’s asked by his former girlfriend Red Wing (Joan Gale) if he intends to marry Cora. “It needs no witch doctor to answer that,” he replies.
There are lots of familiar faces: Yakima Canutt, Mischa Auer, Edward Hearn, but special mention must be made of Walter McGrail as Dulac, the treacherous Canuck. As is the case for Kortman, this is a meaty part for McGrail, and he has a field day as (in my opinion) the most slippery, devious, fast-thinking, conniving, opportunistic, inventive, glib villain ever to appear in serials. This guy can talk his way out of anything, and does. It becomes increasingly enjoyable to watch him ooze his way through tight spots…at least til a long-distance shot from Hawkeye’s rifle puts an end to his exploits in the last chapter.
As Tuska has pointed out, the last few chapters move along at an exciting, brisk clip, gathering momentum as it reaches its conclusion. The entire serial is better paced than most, a tribute to its directors, Reeves Eason and Ford Beebe.
The serial does have one major defect: musical accompaniment. (It could not under any circumstances be called a score.) My video is one “copyrighted” by Burbank Video, so the following comments might apply only to it, and not necessarily to the version released by Mascot. The opening title and credit music sounds like a stock score, typical opening music of poverty row serials. But from then on the accompaniment consists almost exclusively of two classical music pieces, one a rousing action theme, the other a lovely romantic piece. These two pieces are used whenever music is deemed necessary. Which would be okay if they matched what was happening on screen, but this is not the case. They’re used almost randomly (in fact, after a few chapters the action music vanishes), with the lovely romantic melody being heard as Miller and the two women go over a waterfall in a canoe, as they’re trapped in a burning cabin, as savage hand-to-hand combat takes place, as they’re being burned at the stake, and so on. But it would take more than inappropriate music to spoil this great serial, which is well worth another look.
Ken Weiss and Jon Tuska alude to Edwina Booth’s “personal and business problems” during the making of “Last of the Mohicans”. Released in ‘32, the serial was made in late ‘31 at which time she’d been extensively involved in a $50,000 alienation of affec-tions suit brought against her by Susette Duncan, wife of Duncan Renaldo, with whom Booth had filmed “Trader Horn” (‘31) in Africa. At one point in the trial, Booth was forced to say “no” 18 times in succession when questioned by her attorney. After only a couple more screen roles, the Provo, UT, born Edwina Woodruff left the scandal of Hollywood behind her and became an employee at a Mormon Temple in Hollywood. Born in 1909, she died in 1991.
For those under the impression the so-called buddy action film began with such titles as “Magnificent 7”, “The Professionals” oreven “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, it might come as somewhat of a surprise to learn the heyday of this sort of fare was really the ‘30s and ‘40s when assorted groups of good guys such as The Three Mesquiteers, The Range Busters and Rough Riders hooked up in B-western programmers to unite against a myriad of villains and evil schemes.
In serials, heroes generally tended to be loner types only occasionally aided by a male sidekick (sometimes comedic, sometimes not) to help them over the rough spots with a fetching damsel in distress on the sidelines waiting to be rescued. Occasionally, there were a few exceptions to this tried and true structure, instances when more than one hero was called for and Republic’s “Daredevils of the Red Circle” is one, if not the best, example of this. The “Daredevils” of thetitle were three terrific actors and action players all of whom, at one time or another in their busy film careers, were linked with the serial form. Future cliffhanger veteran Charles Quigley (“Crimson Ghost”, “Superman”, “Iron Claw”) was top-billed followed by Herman Brix (“Hawk of the Wilderness”, “New Adventures of Tarzan”, “Fighting Devil Dogs”)
The Daredevils are circus performers out to avenge the death of Quigley’s kid brother, killed during a fire set by a criminal who goes by his old prison number, 39013—played with scene stealing relish by the cadaverous and ghoulish Charles Middleton (whose very voice scared me when I was a kid)—and who has vowed to destroy his former partner, Granville. 39013 captures Granville (portrayed by the wonderfully mannered British character actor Miles Mander) and using a life-like mask impersonates him successfully enough to fool even his own niece, Blanche (future doomed star Carole Landis).
For 15 whirlwind chapters, 39013 throws everything he can at the Daredevils, but they just shrug off what comes their way and keep coming back for more. This is a high voltage serial with the three leading men hardly having time to breathe between athletic confrontations with Granville’s minions. If it’s short on brains and long on muscle it’s also a cliffhanger lover’s dream and not just because of all the great serial conclusions. (Who could ever forget Quigley on his motorcycle trying to outrun a flood roaring through a tunnel?) Like a lot of the best serials, you could lift the cliffhanger endings and still have a nifty, well-crafted B thriller.
Ace helmsmen William Witney and John English do one of their finest directorial jobs setting the pace and turning out the thrills, with William Lava’s brassy and muscular score perfectly complimenting the action.
I’m also fond of this serial, as well as a dozen other Republic products produced during the same period, because of all the wonderful outdoor shooting which highlights many Hollywood and San Fernando Valley locations (before they were turned into strip malls and Radio Shacks). I love the factories and refineries, oilrigs and docks they used. I also enjoy the fact Republic allowed for a whole gang of thugs to back up the main villains, not like later chapterplays where the hero was often up against just two heavies over and over.
Supporting players here include C. Montague Shaw, George Chesebro, Ray Miller, John Merton and Raymond Bailey. Oh yes, and Tuffie the dog playing (brilliantly) himself.
“Daredevils” is unquestionably one of the great cliffhangers of the screen. If you’re a fan of the genre it’s hard to find fault with it. It’s a roller coaster of action, a rip snorter of thrilling escapes boasting a great cast and solid production values.