Fates Worse Than Death: King of the Royal Mounted

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At a conference between agents of an unnamed enemy of the British Empire, a spymaster discusses the need for greater supplies of the mysterious “Compound X.” Discovered by a Canadian scientist who is actively mining it, Compound X has been greatly useful in treating infantile paralysis, but one of the spies shows (using a model ship) that adding a small amount of copper sulfide magnetizes it, making it perfect for explosive mines that are magnetically attracted to the steel hulls of blockade ships. The Allies don’t know this, so Kettler (Robert Strange), the spy assigned to mastermind the operation in Canada, has the job of getting more Compound X out of the country while hiding its military value from the Canadian and British authorities.

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Dropped off by a submarine at a remote inlet, Kettler takes command of the local spy ring, a band of ruffians headed by a scarred thug named Garson (Harry Cording). Meanwhile, tipped off to the spy’s arrival, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police organize a dragnet to find him and rid Canada of the spy ring. Sergeant Dave King (Allan “Rocky” Lane) is assigned to Tombstone Landing Station to coordinate the Mounties’ efforts, along with the local Inspector (King’s father, played by Herbert Rawlinson), and Corporal Tom Merritt, Jr. (Robert Kellard), the son of the scientist who has been mining Compound X. (It’s a small world.)

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Things are not as they seem at the Caribou Pitchblende Mine, the source of Compound X. Garson and his men have been stealing as much Compound X as they can smuggle out of the country with the assistance of Matt Crandall (Bryant Washburn), Merritt, Sr.’s partner. Crandall has a shortwave radio hidden behind a wall in the mine’s workshop with which he can communicate with the spy ring. In the first chapter, Merritt, who has suspected Crandall, overhears him making an exchange with Garson and confronts him: Crandall shoots him and fakes an attack by Garson, allowing him to keep his innocent appearance, at least for a while. That’s just in the first chapter of King of the Royal Mounted, and the plot twists more from there, becoming occasionally convoluted but always in motion.

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King of the Royal Mounted is an example of the “Northern” or “Northwestern,” the Canadian equivalent of the Western, popular since the 1910s. As in this one, the heroes are often Mounties, who combine the cinematic virtues of cowboys and police, and instead of prospectors and gunslingers, the local color tends to be made up of loggers and fur trappers, all of this set against the majestic mountains and forests of Canada’s wilderness. As an example, mountain man Vinegar Smith (Budd Buster) is full of lively metaphors (“tougher than skinnin’ a live coyote”) and second-hand Indian wisdom (although there are no actual Indian characters in this serial), and is often in convenient locations to witness strange goings-on or find clues, as when Linda Merritt (Lita Conway) is abducted by airplane and drops her bracelet from the plane attached to a flare in hopes of signaling her location.

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Viewers will also note the frequent references to the Empire; however, like many Northwestern adventures, King of the Royal Mounted is a product of Hollywood. As one might assume, the locations are actually Californian rather than Canadian (mostly filmed in the San Bernardino National Forest, according to always-informative Jerry Blake), but they make for a convincing Great White North on screen. Presumably, this is the reason why the enemy spy ring’s nationality remains unspoken: the U.S. hadn’t yet entered the war against Germany when this serial was produced.

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King of the Royal Mounted displays Zane Grey’s name prominently above the title, but Grey’s involvement was limited: Stephen Slesinger (who was also behind the development of Red Ryder) was the character’s primary creator and writer, with the prolific Western author’s name added for promotional purposes. Slesinger was a pioneer of licensing and merchandising, and Sergeant King, star of comics, Big Little Books, and other spin-offs, was conceived as a true multi-media figure like Tarzan. In 1942, Republic produced another serial, King of the Mounties, based on the same character, but there are several unrelated Mountie serials by Republic and other studios as well. (This also set the pattern for several Republic serials featuring heroes named King, allowing them to use the semi-punning title King of the __________.) The genre goes much deeper than Dudley Do-Right.

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Directed by veterans William Witney and John English, this serial compares favorably to many I’ve watched, with clear, exciting action sequences strung together with well-integrated dialogue scenes. While the emphasis is on the swiftly-moving plot, the dialogue that connects the action set pieces provides a strong sense of character: Kettler and his spy ring are motivated by either nationalism or mercenary concerns, and their continued frustration at King getting in their way turns more and more personal over the course of the serial. King and the Mounties are concerned not only with law and order and the security of the Empire but with the personal safety of their families and with the children who are going to be deprived of life-saving treatment if all the Compound X is stolen.

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In fact, unlike most serials, King of the Royal Mounted isn’t afraid of pouring on the sentiment: the death of Inspector King a third of the way through the serial has weight and the action slows down for a few scenes of mourning. After the Inspector is put to rest, his son is made acting commander of the post, inspiring a few sober words from the otherwise colorful Vinegar Smith: “Best man I ever knew sat in that chair. Any man that takes his place is going to have to do more than just set.” King takes a moment to acknowledge that Garson killed Tom Merritt’s father and (indirectly) his own, and then puts it into perspective, reminding the audience that the fate of the entire British Empire is on the line.

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The Canadian setting provides opportunities for some excellent locations: an abandoned saw mill (and here we get an example of the ultimate serial cliffhanger as Sgt. King, unconscious, is knocked onto a conveyor belt, moving inexorably toward a spinning blade); an abandoned cannery (filled with explosives disguised as crates of salmon); a dam, at which King is almost swept through the spillway, and from which he later dangles by his fingertips; and the best of all, a hidden refinery in a cave, where the spy ring processes its stolen Compound X before smuggling it down the river in hollowed-out logs. After King infiltrates the refinery by hiding in a truck, there’s a fight scene in and around the catwalks and ladders and over an open smelter that’s as good as any I’ve seen. It’s comparable to the fight in the gas works in Daredevils of the Red Circle, but unlike that scene, the refinery is clearly a set rather than an actual location, giving it an odd blend of gothic atmosphere and modern utility. (Of course somebody ends up falling into the smelter during the fight–but who?)

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(For that matter, while the consequences of all this violence aren’t graphically portrayed, there’s quite a bit that, if shown realistically, would be brutal, including fights with axes, sledge hammers, and the like, in addition to the usual fisticuffs and gunplay.)

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Another excellent sequence takes place at “Lakeshore Sanitarium,” a false front set up by the spy ring to assemble fuse caps for magnetic mines. King checks it out when he sees the unusually high shipments of Compound X sent there, and he runs up against “Doctor Shelton” (deep-voiced John Davidson, who we’ve been seeing a lot of this summer), who quickly has his underlings assume the roles of invalid patients. There’s an eerie, paranoid atmosphere in this chapter, as King knows something is wrong (he discovers burn marks and the fuse caps in the “operating room”) but can’t risk a frontal assault without backup. (It’s reminiscent of the excellent Cold War thriller The Whip Hand, which sets up a Communist spy ring in an isolated Wisconsin fishing village, similarly disguising its germ-warfare research as a sanitarium.) Eventually, King flushes out the fake paralytics by setting off the fire alarm, at which they all jump out of their wheelchairs, resulting in another big fist fight.

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Ultimately, while King is the primary hero of this serial, the heart of the story belongs to the Merritt family: Merritt, Sr. (Stanley Andrews), discoverer of Compound X and senior parter in the Caribou mine is killed in the first chapter. His daughter, Linda, carries the torch for his mission: her intimate knowledge of the grounds around the mine and her growing suspicion of Crandall both support King’s efforts and put her in danger. His son Cpl. Merritt is Sgt. King’s right-hand man, and it is he who makes the ultimate sacrifice to stop the spy ring once and for all (allowing King to continue his adventures, of course). The Mounties may always get their man, but sometimes they pay a high price.

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What I Watched: King of the Royal Mounted (Republic, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A DVD from VCI Entertainment. It doesn’t appear to be available to view online beyond a few isolated scenes, but there is a wealth of similar Mountie material on YouTube.

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No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Satan’s Cauldron,” Chapter Eight. (This is the chapter set in the refinery mentioned above.)

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Honorable Mention: “Death Tunes In” (Chapter Seven) is also a good title, and points to the importance of radio in this serial. Both the members of the spy ring and the Mounties communicate by radio, and both spend time listening in on each other, breaking each others’ codes, and tracking each others’ locations by radio.

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Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Six (“False Ransom”), Cpl. Merritt is riding out to meet the henchmen who claim to have Linda held hostage, exchanging the confiscated fuse caps for her safe return. Before he goes, Vinegar Smith tells him to watch out for a bear trap he has set on the trail: “It’s a man-killer!” Now, foreshadowing is typical of the serials, so anyone watching this knows it’s going to come up, but the filmmakers spent a lot of time on the bear trap prop, so we get several good looks at it. When the henchmen arrive (without Linda, as they are planning to ambush Merritt, of course), they accidentally set the trap off: a heavy wooden frame with spikes on it falls to the ground. They decide to reset the trap to use against Merritt, finding that preferable to shooting a Mountie. When Merritt arrives, he notices the rope and steps around the trap. When Sgt. King arrives (having previously rescued Linda from the cabin where she was being held) and fighting breaks out, there are several shots of the rope intercut with the fighting as King and his opponent, wrestling on the ground, inch ever closer to it. Finally, with King directly under the trap, the rope is released, and the chapter ends with a ground-level shot of the trap descending toward him!

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Sample Dialogue: “I didn’t expect a tea party when I joined the Mounties.” –Cpl. Tom Merritt, Jr., Chapter Six

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What Others Have Said: “Allan Lane, they say, was a pure-tee tyrant on his movie sets: wouldn’t let anybody else wear dungarees because he wanted to be the only one wearing them. Pretty rough on co-workers, they say, because he always wanted things done his way. Real ‘stuck-up’ sorehead, they say. Took himself too serious. You know. But when he visited [the Paramount Theater in Concord, North Carolina], the star . . . was a pleasant, jovial man. The people who saw his personal appearances on stage, and those who met him personally, thought he was a pretty nice guy. He readily shared stories of his personal experiences and movie roles with anyone who asked him. . . . Stuck-up? Guess he had us all fooled that day.” –William C. Cline, Serials-ly Speaking, “The Circuit Riders”

What’s Next: In our next installment, we take to the skies again, but this time in the mysterious Far East. Join me as I watch Ace Drummond!

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