“Wild West Days”
The plot of “Wild West Days” (‘37) couldn’t be more conventional: a rancher, Larry Munro (Frank McGlynn) who’s having trouble with land grabbers, sends for help from old friend Kentucky Wade (John Mack Brown). Kentucky and three of his friends show up at Larry’s Circle B ranch, just outside of Brimstone—where “the Indians are bad but the whites are even worse.” A criminal group, the Secret Seven, kidnap Larry when they discover an ore sample he’s brought in to be assayed is rich in platinum. They’ve wanted his land all along so they can control the entire area, but now they determine to get it from him (he’s unaware of its value) by hook or by crook, and that’s pretty much the story, with little variation. The intro titles for Chapters 5 through 8 all begin the same way: “Larry Munro is a prisoner of the Secret Seven who are trying to make him reveal the location of a platinum deposit.”
Despite its pedestrian nature, “Wild West Days” is nonetheless consistently entertaining and has to rank among the best of western serials for several reasons, not the least of which is its stellar cast. I have a weakness for bit players and character actors—I love ‘em—and this serial has an abundance of them. Kentucky Wade’s number one sidekick is Trigger Benson—Bob Kortman in a rare good-guy role; his craggy face is a welcome addition to any movie. In this one, his menacing appearance is played to good advantage, especially in a scene (Ch. 13) in which he slowly advances upon Keeler, the head bad guy, who aims a gun at Kortman and threatens to shoot, but becomes totally unnerved by Trigger’s grim, menacing expression, shown in delightful closeup. And unlike most of Kortman’s other films, he gets to smile a lot in this one.
Mike, Kentucky’s number two buddy, is played by Frank Yaconelli, who adapts a broad Mexican accent borrowed from Leo Carrillo to provide alleged comedy relief. Kentucky’s third buddy is The Dude (George Shelley), younger than the others, and more interested in serenading the heroine, Lucy (Lynn Gilbert), than anything else. One of the songs he croons, “Song of the Sage” (written by Kay Kellogg, who also wrote Jungle Jim’s song, “I’m Takin’ the Jungle Trail”), is actually pretty good. (I wonder if she wrote Ace Drummond’s song, “Give Me a Ship and a Song”,” which is uncredited.)
Leading the roster of bad guys is Russell Simpson who plays Matt Keeler, ostensibly the “law and order” publisher of the BRIMSTONE NEWS, but really the leader of the Secret Seven. Simpson, born in 1880, was a stage performer who got into movies in 1910 (his first known film is “The Virginian” in 1914). His career encompassed at least 221 films or shorts, the last being “The Horse Soldiers” in ‘59. In most of his films he played a rural, no-nonsense type, and usually had few, if any, lines, but in “Wild West Days” he’s a major character with plenty to do. His unflappable Matt Keeler is a very cool customer indeed, smoothly turning potential defeats into potential victories. He alternates from affable (when he’s conning the townsfolk) to ruthless (when dealing with his gang) with oily ease. The Secret Seven hold Larry prisoner in a cave behind a waterfall, the gang’s hideout.
Among the bad guys, one of the Secret Seven is the half-breed Buckskin, played by Charles Stevens, another actor who rarely had meaty roles but who has a juicy part here. Stevens is fascinating in that there is so little documentation about his background. A number of sources say he’s the grandson of Geronimo, although there is no birth certificate that would provide researchers with valuable information to follow up, and his filmography is (as with most bit players) tentative. It seems certain he made his film debut in “The Birth of a Nation” (‘15) and one reliable source says he was in all but one of Doug Fairbanks’ silent pictures. (The exception seems to be “Mark of Zorro”.) All in all he appeared in a least 177 movies (not counting TV work), the last being “The Outsider” in ‘62. (Stevens is one of 314 heavies profiled in Boyd Magers’ BEST OF THE BADMEN book.) As Buckskin, the Secret Seven member who is the group’s contact man with the local Indian tribe—which he is able to manipulate at will—he gets to say lines like, upon hearing that Kentucky has survived an Indian attack, “He’s the first white man to ever escape from Red Hatchet.”
The Secret Seven’s other accomplices read like a film buff’s dream. There is one shot (in Ch. 2) that contains Russell Simpson, Charles Stevens, Al Bridge, William Royle, Walter Miller and Francis McDonald—sensory overload for me. For the first seven chapters badguy Walter Miller, as Doc Hardy, doesn’t have much to do, mostly brandishing a see-gar, making pithy remarks and standing by the window inside the BRIMSTONE NEWS office so he can announce Kentucky is riding into town after being reported dead, which occurs with startling regularity (at least five times). Miller is pretty much dormant until Ch. 9, in which he suddenly becomes a pivotal figure, only to be killed off halfway into the chapter, shot in the back by Keeler.
The serial has other virtues, aside from its cast. Production values are maximized (hats off to producers Henry MacRae and Ben Koenig), and the serial’s “look” is that of a feature. There’s a lot of scenic splendor, in locations obviously chosen for their beauty. Good use of stock footage enhances all the big scenes.
There are some good cliffhanger endings: a stagecoach crashing down a mountainside to end Ch. 1, Kentucky and Trigger caught on a rope bridge as boulders are dropped upon them (Ch. 3), or Ch. 6 when Kentucky has been knocked unconscious by Francis McDonald and lies helpless in a horseless, out-of-control flaming wagon loaded with dynamite which careens down a steep slope and explodes. There’s an ambitious gold rush scene in Ch. 8, in which the citizens of Brimstone virtually abandon the town in a mad drive to get to gold supposedly discovered by a prospector but really part of Keeler’s machinations. There’s excellent use of stock shots and the scene achieves a degree of genuine spectacle, ending with the onrushing, galloping gold-rushers and their wagons about to trample helpless heroine Lucy Munro (Lynn Gilbert), Larry’s sister.
As with most serials, there is also no shortage of cheater resolutions: at the end of Ch. 8 we see Lucy among the hooves of the onrushing gold rushers, but the beginning of Ch. 9 shows she awakened, saw what was happening and merely stepped out of the way of the rushers. The end of Ch. 9 has Kentucky and Dude trapped in a raging forest fire, with huge trees crashing down upon them, an ending which has no resolution at the beginning of Ch. 10, which starts with them presumed dead yet again. When they show up later, Kentucky explains “our horses found a way out.” In one scene Kentucky is locked in mortal hand-to-hand combat with Buckskin in a small room, but still manages to shoot four Indians as they file, one by one, through a narrow opening, in what should be a dramatic but is actually a funny scene. Don’t let these minor imperfections deter you. If you haven’t seen “Wild West Days” in a while, it’s well worth another look.
“Chandu the Magician”
Frank Chandler, Chandu the Magician, returned several times. His adventures began on a Los Angeles radio serial in 1932 and ran for six years, with Gayne Whitman (later the voice of “The Masked Marvel”) usually starring. Electrical transcriptions of many of the original episodes still exist. A ‘48-‘50 radio remake starred Tom Collins in a breezier, less menacing, version of the original. Stories and characters were repeated. When the 15 minute episodes for White King Granulated Soap became half-hour complete stories, some plots and minor characters appeared for a third time.
Meanwhile, Edmund Lowe and Bela Lugosi had starred in a 1932 feature built around the first radio plot line. Stars were effective; the movie disappointing. Chandler was an American who had served with British Intelligence during “the war” (which war depended on which series) and had become fascinated by his encounters with the occult. He was allowed to resign from the service, then studied with a yogi in India for many years, where “Chandler” became “Chandu”…the magician.
The story began when he contacted his sister, Dorothy Regent, and her teenage children, Betty and Bob. Dorothy’s husband Robert had supposedly gone down on the Athenia, one of the first passenger ships torpedoed by German U-Boats in the early days of the war. Now, Chandler has sensed danger to his family and returned to California. In the first episode, he has phoned the Regents from an airport 50 miles away, instructing them to lock the doors, pull the curtains, and turn off the lights. In an outstanding bit of radio storytelling, they hear “Now, you may turn on the light.” Chandu was there in the room with them. Robert had been working on dangerous inventions prior to his disappearance and had been worried about the efforts of a German, Von Boden, who sought the same secrets. Radio, and the first movie, began with the search for Robert Regent. There were clues suggesting he was alive, and menaced by the evil Roxor. After a quest through the orient, Robert was rescued…then killed off, as having little more to contribute to the adventures. Nadji, Egyptian princess, was Chandu’s love, threatened by a danger which kept them apart. It was spelled out in a later adventure (first series only) where the Ubasti followers of Ossanna, cat goddess, hoped to raise their sunken continent of Lemuria to rule the world by the sacrifice of a princess of Egypt. There was only one.
The ‘34 Principal serial produced by Sol Lesser was a most satisfactory retelling of these events, ranging from Chandler’s magical transportation from the airport to the Regent’s home, to his battles with the Ubasti. Bela Lugosi, promoted to hero, seemed to enjoy his role. Other players were effective, although Clara Kimball Young was considerably older than the previous Dorothy Regent.
Elaborate sets from “King Kong” and “Son of Kong” were reused. Chapters, especially the first, ran very short (as did the radio episodes) but left no sense of omission. Many scenes were taken directly from the radio serial. Format was 12 chapters, or a feature edited from the first four. This could be followed (if the exhibitor chose) by a preview of the remaining episodes, to be run for the next eight weeks. A second feature (“Chandu On the Magic Isle”) was issued later to tie up loose ends of the plot for viewers who had only seen the first.
Serial adaptations of stories or characters from other media were often disappointing (“Chick Carter, Detective”) but, this once, the movie respected its source.
With big budget movies, or TV pictures or series, being based on everything from comics (graphic novels, if you prefer) to video games, I can’t help but wonder what might be done today with sources as solid as The Spider (now back in comic books along with the Shadow) pulps…or “Chandu, the Magician”.
Shapely Ruth Roman, 75, was reared in a showbiz atmosphere in Boston, MA, (her father was part owner of a sideshow and her mother was a dancer). In that environment she learned some of the aggressiveness that served her well when she came to Hollywood in 1944 after a small part in “Stage Door Canteen” filmed in New York.
Her first lead was opposite Ken Maynard and Eddie Dean in “Harmony Trail”. Although she received no screen credit, the 1944 Republic serial, “Zorro’s Black Whip”, was based on a story idea by her. The screenplay was finalized by four regular Republic scriptwriters.
A year later, Roman starred as Lothel, Universal’s “Jungle Queen”, for 13 chapters with Edward Norris. After several more films, Ruth landed a Warner Bros. contract in ‘49 where she made several A-westerns with Randolph Scott and Gary Cooper. Other films and TV work followed into the ‘70s. She once told Hedda Hopper, “Acting is my life. The profession can break my heart. In fact, it certainly has several times, but I love it.”
As a footnote to history, she and her three year old son, Dickie, were two of the 760 survivors of the collision of the Italian Liner Andrea Doria with the Swedish motorship Stockholm that claimed 51 lives in July 1956.
Roman died in her sleep September 9, 1999, at her home in Laguna Beach, CA.