I’ve always had a thing for masks. I even have a modest collection culled from various countries prominently displayed on my living room wall. As a kid—and wouldn’t the shrinks have fun with this?—this fascination led me to fashion a whole array of homemade facial coverings which I regularly donned at play, as well as following with great enthusiasm all the various masked heroes on the silver screen, a great many of them being featured in serials. There was Zorro and my old favorite the Copperhead from Re-public’s “Mysterious Dr. Satan” and, of course, the Lone Ranger. Everyone, it seemed, eventually turned up on occasion wanting their mugs concealed, from Buck Jones to the Durango Kid.
“The Scarlet Horseman”, a 1946 Universal serial, isn’t one of your better-known masked daredevils. I recall seeing a few chapters of this sometime in the late ‘50s and finding the hero’s costume somewhat bizarre, a reaction unchanged by the years. The shiny blouse and baggy trousers are bad enough (suggesting the kind of festive outfit you’d expect on a gypsy), but the mask with the big eyeholes and the drooping, pillow case-like sides gives the Horseman the appearance of a most bedraggled and unhappy rabbit.
Anyway, for a cliffhanger, the plot, as created by screenwriters Tom Gibson, Patricia Harper and Joseph O’Donnell, is somewhat complex and overly embroidered. It has to do with a plan to break up 1875 Texas into several parts. In order to accomplish this, the villains of the piece kidnap the wives and daughters of prominent state legislators and hold them prisoner in order to force their spouses to do their political bidding. Working against them, however, are two Texas investigators—one of whom dons the trappings of a Comanche god called The Scarlet Horseman—and a Wells Fargo Agent. There are a few subplots as well and numerous characters, both bad and good (and with peculiar names like Zero Quick), to keep track of.
A couple of other things bothered me about this serial, small things really, but they kept repeating themselves which is often the case in cliffhangers since every week producers knew they might be catching a paying customer yet unfamiliar with the storyline. There are the sounds of the Scarlet Horseman’s horse’s hooves, exaggerated by studio magic so you’d swear the guy was riding through an echo chamber or his shower stall rather than over the dry prairie. Even more disconcerting, however, is the five-note bugle call heard each time the Horseman makes an appearance. At first I couldn’t figure out who was playing the thing—it couldn’t just be a musical cue since other characters make reference to it—but I finally realized he was blowing his own theme song on a kind of kazoo. “Doot-ta-doot-ta-do!”
Paul Guilfoyle is an odd choice for the Scarlet Horseman. With his worn and craggy hound-dog features he was usually cast in films as petty crooks, bums and unsavory squealers, although he isn’t bad in the part. His partners are Peter Cookson, who handles most of the action stuff (there’s just no way the Horseman could effectively duke it out with that mask on), and Harold Goodman.
Villains and supporting characters include familiar faces like Jack Ingram, Edmund Cobb, Danny Morton, Cy Kendall (as a Mexican no less) and Guy Wilkerson (in the part of a Shakespeare quoting baddie) with Virginia Christine as the brains behind the villainy and Victoria Horne as her Indian confederate. Uncredited players include Paul Birch and Ellen Corby (of TV “Waltons” fame). I could be wrong in this, but I also believe Milburn Stone is the narrator.
There’s lots of economic corner cutting in “Scarlet Horseman” with a great deal of footage from earlier (and better) Universal serials. As soon as Cookson inexplicably dons an all black outfit you just know he’s going to be matched with some shots of an earlier serial western hero, in this case I believe it’s Dick Foran (or at least Foran’s stuntman).
The cliffhangers are predictable stuff for a sagebrush serial: stampeding horses, falls off cliffs, rampaging steers, barn fires etc. Directors Ray Taylor and Lewis Collins try to keep the pace going, but there’s generally too much talk, too many characters and a leaden, ponderous feeling to the whole thing, mask or no mask.
In the waning days of serial production at Columbia, producer Sam Katzman came up with a new face in Michael Fox, casting him in rapid-fire succession in four serials starting with a role in ‘52 as William Case/The Leader Vs. “Blackhawk (Fearless Champion of Freedom)”, a “trusted” member of the Security Council secretly in league with dark-haired, evil Laska (Carol Forman), saboteur against freedom for mankind. Then, in ‘53, Fox was back as Dr. Ernst Grood, an electronics genius who plots to conquer the world in collusion with Reckov (Gene Roth) evil ruler of planet Ergro in “The Lost Planet”. In ‘54, Fox was King Carney, trying to keep a new railroad out of the territory in order to carry out his illegal operations in “Riding With Buffalo Bill”. One last serial saw Fox as a kidnapped prime minister rescued by John Hart and Rick Vallin in the stock-filled “Adventures of Captain Africa” (‘55).
Fox, born February 27, 1921, first “trod the boards” in grade school plays in his hometown of Yonkers, NY. After toying with the idea of becoming a history teacher, Fox became, strangely, a migratory railroad worker, taking jobs as a brakeman with various lines. In the mid-‘40s his interest in acting was rekindled when he appeared in several little theatre plays in L.A. An acting-directing stint in a Players Ring production of “Home of the Brave” caught the eye of an associate of Sam Katzman, landing him a role in “A Yank In Indochina” (‘52 Columbia) followed by “Blackhawk” and other roles, including several for Katzman.
Fox also began to appear regularly on TV, especially on “Science Fiction Theatre”, “Ford Television Theatre”, “Trackdown”, “Burke’s Law”, “Rifleman” and “Perry Mason” (as the autopsy surgeon). Good roles in major films also came his way—“Rogue Cop”, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”, “Dunwich Horror”, “Young Frankenstein” and TV’s “Missiles of October”. Late in his career, he was part of the cast of TV’s “Falcon Crest” (‘88-‘89) and “The Bold and the Beautiful” soaps (‘89-‘96) as Saul Feinberg.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Fox in ‘95 at the Universal Sheraton during a FAMOUS MONSTERS convention. I found him to be a gregarious, warm, personable man who enjoyed people and was proud of his work in serials. On a panel he recalled, “Each 15 episodes was 30 reels of cut film, the equivalent of roughly four normal movies. We shot those in 17 days. Actors worked hard in those days. My call used to be 6am and I worked til 6pm. We didn’t have Saturday off til the late ‘50s, so we worked 72 hours a week. Those serials were all directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet, who had absolutely no sense of humor but was a wonderful chap and a very good action director.”
Fox died at 75, June 1, 1996, of complications from pneumonia at the Motion Picture Home.
Helen Holmes, born June 19, 1892, in Louisville, KY, became one of the serial queens of the silent film era in Hollywood. In her serials, Helen played an independent, strong-willed, resourceful heroine, just as capable at jumping on and stopping a train as she was batting her eyes at the male lead.
Helen was raised in a home where her parents struggled to earn enough money for themselves and their son and daughter, so Helen became a photographer’s model to help pay the family bills. When her brother became ill, the family was forced to move from the damp climate of Chicago (where the family had moved when Helen was quite young) to the dry, hot desert near Death Valley, CA. It was here Helen’s taste for adventure was given birth. She prospected for gold for a short time and also lived with a local Indian tribe. When her brother died in 1910, she moved back east to New York and began working on stage.
Becoming friends with film star Mabel Normand, Helen was invited to Hollywood and introduced to movie people. Helen entered films with Mack Sennett in 1912, and the following year moved over to Kalem, where she starred in several railroad dramas before becoming a world-famous serial queen in “The Hazards of Helen”. Helen, with her long black curls, starred in 48 chapters from 1914 through 1915 chasing villains atop moving trains. It was while working in this serial she met her future husband, J.P. McGowan, who was acting in and directing the film. Although Helen left the serial and the company in 1915 to work briefly at Universal, “The Hazards of Helen” continued to run through 1917 with Helen Gibson in the title role for a total of 119 chapters. Future cowboy stars Hoot Gibson and Jack Hoxie had small parts in this serial.
Helen and McGowan then began producing their own films and serials, including the highly successful serial “The Girl and the Game” (‘15 Signal), which was also directed and co-scripted by McGowan. For several years only Pearl White and Ruth Roland were more popular as serial queens than Helen. She appeared in seven more serials (interlaced with a number of features), three of which had a railroad background: “A Lass of Lumberlands” (‘16 Signal), “The Railroad Raiders” (‘17 Signal), and “The Lost Express” (‘17 Signal) (this serial concerned a train carrying a valuable form of granulated gasoline which disappears before reaching its destination. Railroad investigators and authorities try to determine where it is and who took it.) In these railroad serials, Helen’s specialty was chasing the bad guys along the top of a moving train and leaping from train to horse and vice versa while both were in motion.
When their distributor, Mutual, went under in 1919, their films lacked the needed financial backing, so their budgets shrank. No longer being able to afford to produce the railroad stories, Helen’s characters were turned into newspaper-women, which did not please her fans. One of these, “The Fatal Fortune”, starred Helen as a young newspaperwoman who travels to a South Seas island searching for buried treasure.
Although she continued to freelance in films, many were no longer starring roles, and a good part of them were for the cheap independent market and did not receive the wide distribution her earlier ones had.
Helen’s marriage to McGowan ended in 1925, and she subsequently married stuntman Lloyd Saunders, then basically retired from the screen in ‘26 after a starring role in the feature, “Peril of the Rail”.
Helen kept her hand in the business as a trainer for movie animals, which lasted until her husband’s death in ‘46. Helen died from a heart attack in Burbank, CA, on July 8, 1950.