Fates Worse Than Death: The Painted Stallion

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Westward! The trail to empire! From Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe dogged pioneers fought to penetrate a wilderness of savage Indians, massacres and death. Even worse were the white renegades, outlaws and bandits unscrupulous in their greed.

So begins The Painted Stallion, a 1937 serial set along the Santa Fe trail in the early years of the nineteenth century. With some stunning Southwestern scenery, exciting and arduous physical stunts, and a streamlined plot, The Painted Stallion is a prime example of what Republic was bringing to its productions in the late 1930s. It even tops off the entertainment with a minor historical gloss: I wonder how many Depression-era school kids tried to get away with cribbing the preamble text above for writing assignments, or the shorter dedication that preceded subsequent chapters:

To the heroes of yesterday! Those pioneers who braved the perilous trek Westward, defeated a hostile wilderness, and blazed a glorious trail across the pages of American history!

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The Painted Stallion gets underway with several plot threads converging: in Santa Fe, the Spanish colonial government has just been overthrown by Mexican revolutionaries. Dupray, the Spanish-appointed governor (LeRoy Mason), conspires with his right-hand man, Zamorro (Duncan Renaldo), to hold onto his power (and the plunder he is able to collect through taxation and graft) by abducting the incoming Mexican governor before he can arrive in Santa Fe. At the same time, American Walter Jamison (Hoot Gibson) is preparing a wagon train heading to Santa Fe from Independence, Missouri, with the goal of establishing trade between the United States and the new Mexican government. Dupray reasons that if he and his men can destroy the wagon train or force it to turn back, the blow to legitimate trade will strengthen his own position.

The first chapter thus establishes this conflict and puts the characters in their starting places. Although Jamison is the leader of the wagon train, the real hero is Clark Stuart (Ray “Crash” Corrigan, star of Undersea Kingdom), a government agent sent to protect the traders and carrying letters empowering him to negotiate with the Mexican governor. An all-around athlete and stuntman, Corrigan has plenty of opportunities to perform physical acts of derring-do, but they’re a little more organic than the wrestling and high-wire walking he performed in Undersea Kingdom. (Worth noting is the presence of Yakima Canutt in the cast, and you’d better believe his signature stunt–climbing beneath the chassis of a runaway wagon to take control of the reins–is included among the many spectacular set pieces.)

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Stuart is first seen on a riverboat, where a young stowaway (Sammy McKim) saves his life from an assassination attempt by one of Dupray’s men. In return for the boy’s help, Stuart assumes responsibility for him when he is caught by the Marshal; it turns out the boy is a runaway, heading west in hopes of becoming a scout. When asked his name, he answers, “Christopher,” and Stuart muses, “That’s too long a name, we’ll change it to . . .” (dramatic pause) “. . . Kit.” Holy heck, it’s Kit Carson, future scout, Indian fighter, and Western hero!

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That’s not all: young Kit is at first left in Independence to help the storekeeper run things in Jamison’s absence, but he stows away again, hiding in one of the covered wagons. Recognizing an ambition that will not be denied, Stuart accepts Kit as part of the trading expedition and entrusts him to legendary frontiersmen Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, who also just happen to be riding with the wagon train. Between these three role models, young Kit begins learning the ropes of scouting and wilderness survival.

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Also along are Elmer and Oscar, a pair of comic types; in the tradition of comic relief, their characters on screen have the same names as the actors. From what I can tell, the pair frequently worked together, bringing their established personas into the film with them like the Three Stooges (or much as Dan Whitney is usually credited in films under his better-known alter ego, Larry the Cable Guy). Elmer stutters. That’s it: it’s his only defining trait. Like Porky Pig, Elmer struggles to get out a sentence, only to give up and spit out a much pithier paraphrase. Elmer (real name Lou Fulton) is no Mel Blanc: most of his scenes are excruciating, and it only gets worse when he is given a mule with a polysyllabic Spanish name. Oscar (Ed “Oscar” Platt) is slow of speech and wit (yes, that means he has even less characterization than Elmer) but translates for Elmer when the scene is going on too long.

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Finally, Dupray has a number of his men planted in the wagon train as saboteurs. None of them are very interesting or deep, but they need to be mentioned, as their treachery provides the danger in the first few chapters as they attempt to halt the wagon train and/or murder Stuart. Later, after they’ve been discovered and escaped capture, several of them form the gang that supports Dupray in his increasingly desperate maneuvers to hold onto power.

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The titular Painted Stallion belongs to a mysterious Indian rider who appears at opportune times to warn the wagon drivers of trouble or protect them. Although Stuart and the other characters don’t find out for a few chapters, the Rider is a beautiful blonde woman (Julia Thayer) wearing a feathered chief’s headdress; appearing on the top of a ridge or other cinematic vantage point, she fires “whistling arrows” (the sound effect is like a long glissando on a violin) to warn the Americans, send messages, or (sometimes) kill hostile Indians or Mexicans. Speaking only a few words of English, she is shown having the power to command animals (her own horse and a panther, which she sets to guard Stuart after he has been knocked out at one point), and she knows the land intimately, including secret entrances to Dupray’s mountain hideout. Who is she? Why does she ride alone, and why do even the local Indians defer to her? Other than Stuart’s brief expression of surprise when he first meets her, no one has much time for that question until it’s resolved at the very end of the serial.

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Even after the wagon train makes it safely to Santa Fe and Dupray’s plot is discovered, there’s trouble. The new governor won’t sign the trade agreement until the Americans can catch Dupray and the bandits who have been under his leadership all along, and with Dupray having fled Santa Fe, the second half of the serial turns into a series of sieges of both the Presidio in Santa Fe and the gang’s hideout. Any historical animosity between Mexico and the United States is wiped away by their mutual foe, the dastardly Spaniard Dupray. “We’re holding them off successfully, thanks to you Americans!” says the new governor during a fire fight. At one point, Jim Bowie is captured. When asked where he is after the fight, Crockett says, “I don’t know, but those bandits had a prisoner that sure looked like him.”

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After the main conflict has been resolved, and all the villains get their comeuppance (even the Painted Stallion gets to face off personally against Zamorro’s black steed), a bunch of loose ends are tied up in literally the last two minutes. (Spoilers follow if you actually plan on watching this, as if you couldn’t guess these developments.) As the new governor signs the trade agreement, he casually notes a story told of a white child raised by the Comanche, the sole survivor of a massacred settlement, and worshiped as a “Goddess of Peace” by the Comanche because of her blonde hair. I was beginning to think the filmmakers were never going to get around to explaining this, but it’s exactly what it seems, a variation on the “White Goddess” trope as seen in She and Green Mansions, the romantic “best of both worlds” fantasy seen in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a far cry from the complexities of something like The Searchers.

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In addition to this explanation, Kit is taken under the wing of Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, who, like everyone else in the serial, foresee his future as a great Western scout. Elmer gets kicked by his mule and finds that his stutter is gone: he rails at the mule with a stream of articulate invective: “You bothersome beast! I denounce you henceforth!”

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Finally, Stuart and the Rider are shown riding off together after watching the now-successful wagon train head back up the trail. Unlike some of the conclusions of other serials, it’s unclear what their relationship is. In general this is a boy’s affair, like many serials (Thayer is the only woman in the film), but Corrigan and Thayer have real chemistry in their scenes together, so a romantic ending is possible. On the other hand, they don’t so much as hug, so they could just be platonic friends, celebrating their victory over the corrupt Dupray. Even the complication posed by their obvious cultural differences could go either way. I’ll admit that The Painted Stallion has challenged my preconceptions about characters pairing up in formulaic fiction: it’s subtle enough that you could read Clark Stuart as asexual, a progressive representation before its time, or it could just be that the presumed audience of preteen boys wouldn’t want any icky kissing or stuff. And if you wanted to believe that he and the Rider get married and have ten children, you could do that too. Or perhaps I’m overthinking this.

What I Watched: The Painted Stallion (Republic, 1937)

Where I Watched It: A DVD from (ahem) Cheezy Flicks

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Tunnel of Terror” (Chapter Eleven; this is a favorite chapter title, used in many serials.)

Best Cliffhanger: Dupray’s mountain hideout includes a trap door that spills out onto a rugged cliff face, spelling certain death for anyone unlucky enough to fall through it. In Chapter Eight (“The Whistling Arrow”), Stuart is captured by the renegades, but manages to turn the tables on them, holding them at gunpoint as he walks backward through the cave. The tease is a little more artful than usual as we are first shown the trap door, and Stuart almost steps on it, but then doesn’t, but then finally does, giving the bad guys the split second they need to dispose of him (cue footage of a ragdoll-limbed dummy falling down the rock wall).

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Sample Dialogue: “The West is too big for those hankerin’ to spoil it, Kit. They may try for a while, cause a lot of trouble, maybe kill a lot of good men. The West’ll win out. This wild country we’re travelin’ across will someday be settled. There’ll be railroads, pushing all the way across to the Pacific. The land will be covered with farms, ranches, and homes. Youngsters like yourself, Kit, might even be going to school somewheres close by. Heh, heh. Ah, I wonder how many of them’ll be knowin’ a young fellow named Kit Carson, who first became a scout in these here . . .” –Clark Stuart, Chapter One (The scene simply fades out in the middle of Stuart’s speech, implying that he goes on like this for some time. Give the kid a break, Stuart!)

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Sample title cards illustrating the "Chosen One" theme decades before Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter

Sample title cards illustrating the “Chosen One” theme decades before Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter

What Others Have Said: “Several historical personages assisted Corrigan throughout–among them a young runaway named Kit Carson, who was played by Sammy McKim. The young Carson, as befit a future Western legend, was written as less of a ‘kid tagalong’ than as a genuinely helpful junior frontiersman, and McKim’s hardiness and spunk suited the role perfectly.” —The Files of Jerry Blake, “Sammy McKim”

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Point of Connection: While watching The Painted Stallion, I was continually reminded of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., the short-lived but fondly-remembered Western TV show starring Bruce Campbell as the title character. While Brisco County drew from many sources, Corrigan was clearly playing the kind of strong-jawed, wholesome (and completely white-bread) hero that Campbell has, in his own winking way, made a specialty. No one would deny that Campbell is more charismatic than Corrigan (not to snark, but compared to Corrigan, Buster Crabbe is Laurence Olivier), but there’s a resemblance. It didn’t hurt that The Painted Stallion is full of the kinds of pulp bric-a-bric–chases, traps, Western lore, and flamboyant characters–that The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., lovingly indulges in.

What’s Next: Next week I’ll be looking at the Republic serial Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion, again courtesy of (sigh) Cheezy Flicks.

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