The Weiss Stage and Screen Serials
by Boyd Magers
Universal and Mascot dominated the sound serial market in the early ‘30s. Certainly, there was an occasional independent (“Sign of the Wolf” from Metropolitan, “Mystery Trooper” from Syndicate, “Last Frontier” from RKO, “Tarzan the Fearless” and “Return of Chandu” from Principal, “Young Eagles” from First Division, “Lost City” from Krellberg, “Queen of the Jungle” from Screen Attractions and “New Adventures of Tarzan”, an Ashton-Dearholt serial), but not until 1936-1937 (after Mascot merged into Republic) did independent denizens of poverty row make a real run at securing a significant place in the serial market.
Possibly thinking Republic might not make a go of it, Louis Weiss’ Stage and Screen announced an aggressive slate of six serials for the ‘36-‘37 season and Sam Katzman’s Victory Pictures came forth with two. Only three of the planned six actually appeared from Weiss as Republic not only survived, it flourished. Universal became bigger than ever with “Flash Gordon” and Columbia entered the fray in ‘37, actually absorbing the Weiss unit.
Looking back, Stage and Screen had the most ambitious program of any serial independent. Three in one year. Quite an achievement, unfortunately a mixed bag as far as success.
Born in New York City, when they finished school, the Weiss brothers (Louis, Adolph and Max) were initially in the Weisbach Lamp and Fixture line, later on taking over management of phonograph stores in Philadelphia and New York before entering movie production in 1917 as exhibitors. From 1922 to 1926 they churned out a number of features as Weiss Brothers Artclass Productions, also from ‘24-‘26 they operated Weiss Brothers Clarion Photoplays. In 1928 they re-cut and re-released 1921’s “Adventures of Tarzan” with Elmo Lincoln. In 1929 Louis Weiss reactivated Artclass with a Craig Kennedy detective thriller, “Unmasked”. Nothing more was done until ‘31 when Artclass once again became active with the release of 12 films over the ensuing year, including four Harry Carey westerns, all produced by Louis Weiss.
Low budget director Harry Fraser, in his book I WENT THAT-A-WAY, recalls, “Louis always worked as an independent, off the studio lot. Like everyone else, Louis was faced with the impossible task of producing an acceptable product on a too-tight schedule, calling for long days, with 60-70 scenes per day. Exterior shooting meant daylight to sundown, then the lights would come on so you continued working, often far into the night. Adolph Weiss, Lou’s older brother, was acting as company treasurer, relieving the assistant director of petty cash worries. All through the many pictures I directed for Lou, we never had a written contract. We’d shake hands on our verbal agreement and his word was always his bond.”
Artclass maintained offices in New York but folded in the wake of the Great Depression. Adolph was officially listed as president of Artclass with brother Max as VP and Louis as general manager. Louis re-emerged in ‘35 at both Stage and Screen and Superior Talking Pictures Corp. Between late ‘33-‘36 Stage and Screen only released a total of eight films, three of which were 15 chapter serials produced by Weiss in 1936—“Black Coin” (produced for $7,000), “Custer’s Last Stand” (made in 3 weeks for $7,500) and “Clutching Hand” (produced at $10,000 over four weeks). Teenage son Adrian was either production or assistant director on all three, all of which also saw feature version release.
Several other serials were planned, including “Jungle Perils”, which may have evolved into the Weiss/Jack Fier produced “Jungle Menace” with Frank Buck which saw release as Columbia’s first talkie serial in ‘37. Weiss and Fier also produced and released “Mysterious Pilot” and “Secret of Treasure Island” through Columbia. Adrian Weiss was on the crew of all three. His participation is unclear, but Louis also had a hand, with Fier, in “Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok”. Both Superior and Stage and Screen ceased operations in ‘36.
Louis Weiss managed a few independent releases over the ensuing years (“White Gorilla” in particular) but principally entered the distributing business, circulating to early TV their own product as well as that of William Pizor, Victor Adamson, some Lippert product and the A. W. Hackel Bob Steele/Johnny Mack Brown westerns.
Louis Weiss, born November 21, 1890, died December 14, 1963 in L.A. at 73.
Making an historical western such as “Custer’s Last Stand” their first serial, Stage and Screen weren’t about to let facts get in the way of standard western clichés. Whenever possible, they also shoe-horned in all the other historical figures 15 chapters would allow, whether or not the real characters fit the time frame and historical events or not. The oft-told story of Custer is reduced to trivia in the serial, with the primary story revolving around a sacred medicine arrow that is the key to a cave of gold. When we finally do get to Custer’s last stand in the final two chapters, it appears as a minor skirmish. Although full of plot holes and inconsistencies, the cliffhangers aren’t improbable and don’t involve cheats as resolutions, mostly they appear as natural breaks in the lengthy 15 chapter 315 minute narrative. George Chesebro, although at times chewing up all the scenery in sight, has the most interesting role as Lt. Roberts. Commandeered out of the Cavalry for drinking, he turns bad, then redeems himself. One of “Custer’s…” main claims to fame is the star-studded cast, boasting more “names” than the serial of Universal or Republic at the time. A 90 minute feature version was released just as the serial ended its run in most theatres.
“The Clutching Hand” is the best of the three Stage and Screen serials despite some involved subplots in its 15 chapter 308 minute running time. Dr. Paul Gironda discovers a formula for the manufacture of synthetic gold but mysteriously disappears from his lab just as the Research Foundation board of directors arrives. Newspaper reporter Walter Jameson, engaged to Gironda’s daughter, calls in eminent sleuth Craig Kennedy to find the scientist who was apparently abducted by the every-cloaked Clutching Hand. With some terrific action scenes and several red herrings along the way, we’re continually plagued by the question “Who is the Clutching Hand?” The final unmasking is more logical than many cloaked serial mystery-men revelations. The entire serial is propelled along by Jack Mulhall’s role as a thoughtful, energetic Craig Kennedy.
Stage and Screen’s third and final serial was a rambling affair involving Arabs, pirates, smugglers and cowboys. It’s really much ado about nothing. The title refers to a dozen black Arab coins stamped with an image of Santa Clara during the Crusades. Considered a curse, they nevertheless form a treasure map when joined together. However, the coins are actually a side issue with the main thrust of the 15 chapter 270 minute serial revolving around a constant search for “the Caswell papers” believed to hold the key to the smuggling operation using Caswell Shipping Company ships. One faction after another gains temporary possession of the papers. When it’s all played out, the ending actually reveals very little, and we never learn what the treasure of the coins really was. No real cheat cliffhangers here, just a cheat ending after 15 weeks of anticipation. Name players Ralph Graves and Ruth Mix (she is in all three serials), although billed before Dave O’Brien, are actually secondary to newcomer O’Brien in the plot and action.
“Heroes of the West”
Aside from being a very good serial, “Heroes of the West” (‘32 Universal) is notable as the first film in which Noah Beery Jr. has a starring role. Although he had small parts in several silent films and cameo parts in a few early talkies, this was the 19-year olds first role as a leading character and he gets star billing. He plays Noah Blaine, son of construction man John Blaine (William Desmond, in one of his typical hammy performances), who’s trying to fulfill a contract to build a section of the transcontinental railroad. His foreman, Rance Judd (always satisfying Philo McCullough) is the bad guy, representing certain eastern interests who want the railroad stopped. Rance is aided and abetted by Butch Gore (Harry Tenbrook) and Buckskin Joe (Frank Lackteen: a rarity—an actor who played exotic roles who actually was exotic—he was of Russian heritage, born in Kubber Ililias, Asia Minor, in what is now known as Lebanon), a renegade Indian.
Although Tom Crosby (Onslow Stevens), a top-notch engineer, is the serial’s leading man, it’s Noah who’s the real hero, coming to the rescue in one way or another in practically every chapter, twice in Chapter 2. He’s captured by Indians but with the help of his dog, King, escapes and returns to town, walking in on a meeting where his father and the local townsfolk are arguing about how to rescue him. He tells them not to bother, “I recued myself.”
In the first chapter, a prolonged Indian attack on a pioneer wagon train combines footage from other Universal films with new footage to produce a big-budget look. If you look carefully you’ll notice in the stock footage there may be over a hundred Indians while in the footage made for the serial there are no more than a dozen of them in any given shot.
Every western serial has its share of great riding and great stunts, but some the work in this one is particularly impressive. There are exciting tracking shots that keep up with the riding action as well as great transfer shots and some truly spectacular stunt work, all thanks to director Ray Taylor and his crew of pros. During that Indian raid in the first chapter, a wagon carrying Noah and Ann starts to tip over. You see Ann falling out and hitting the ground as other wagons and horses go speeding by, all in one shot. In Ch. 6, as the Overland stagecoach carrying Ann and others is being chased by Indians, one of them pulls up alongside it and shoots its driver. We see him fall from the speeding wagon and land about 10 inches—I’m not exaggerating—from the hooves of an oncoming horse. The skill and courage of the men and women who performed these stunts, and the dangers they faced, are demonstrated in that one shot.
Beery Jr. proves he’s no slouch on a horse, clearly doing his own riding and performing some of the less risky stunts.
Cavalry Captain Donovan is played by Francis Ford, and it’s a joy to see that old timer (only 50 when he made the serial but looking a lot older) on his horse, bravely leading his troops in charges against the Indians.
Rance pulls the usual tricks (you’ve seen them all before) in trying to stop the line from being completed: instigating the Indian raids, trying to assassinate Tom, Kidnapping Ann, blowing up mines, etc. In one chapter a crewman reports he’s planted enough dynamite in a mine “to blow out half the mountain.” And sure enough, when the explosion occurs we see that happen. But inside the mine, where Tom, Noah and Ann were trapped, there’s little damage—a few fallen timbers—and all emerge unharmed with Tom noting “that was a narrow escape.”
In Ch. 4 a saloon fight starts small but soon takes on gargantuan proportions and spills over into the next chapter.
There’s an interesting sub-plot: a feud between Tom and Bart Eaton (Ed Cobb), one of Blaine’s loyal hands. The origins of the feud are never given, but both men refer to an incident that evidently happened during one of Tom’s previous visits west. For reasons unknown, Bart keeps implying Tom’s a coward and not a “real man.” He’s sure he could beat Tom to the draw and is itching to prove it. He makes comments like “See here, Crosby, don’t you go and get yourself killed by Indians. I’m reserving that privilege for myself, in accordance with our long-standing agreement.” Tom, for his part, treats Bart lightly, waving him off as if he were a fly. Still, you get the feeling that underneath it all the two really like each other. The feud continues throughout the serial, resolving itself in the last chapter (when both men admit their mutual devotion).
Another running theme is Tom’s courting of Ann, Noah’s sister (Diane Duval aka Jacqueline Wells and Julie Bishop) something he finds time for no matter what’s going on. In Ch. 1 he’s so busy pitching woo he doesn’t notice Buckskin Joe, knife in hand, creeping up on them. The couple meet whenever there’s a nearby brook to sit by, especially on moonlit nights. There’s even a prolonged kiss. None of it, I’m happy to say, interferes with the action.
The serial’s ending—the way it deals with Rance and Butch—is particularly clever and satisfying but, on the chance you haven’t yet seen it, I’m not going to give it away. “Heroes of the West” is well worth checking out.
Character star Ann Doran was born July 28, 1911, in Amarillo, TX. Starting at the age of four she appeared on hundreds of silent films under various names. Beginning in 1934 she began using her real name and was a featured character lady in nearly 400 films and TV episodes through 1988. Ann was seen in three serials—“Spider’s Web” (‘38), “Flying G-Men” (‘39), “Green Hornet” (‘39).
Under contract to Columbia for three years in the ‘30s and Paramount for four years in the ‘40s, she worked in everything from a Three Stooges short to a Frank Capra “A”. “I’ve done just about everything you can imagine!”.
Ann dismissed her “stardom” in our WESTERNS WOMEN book, “If so, it’s because I was around so long. I was a working actress. Not a personality and not a star! I wanted to be a different person in every film I did. I never played the same type of part twice.”
Doran died at 89 September 19,2000, in Carmichael, CA.