Fates Worse Than Death: The Painted Stallion

PS.title

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!

PS.Dupray2

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.)

PS.Stuart1

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!

PS.Stuart.Kit2

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.

PS.Kit.Bowie.Crockett

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.

PS.Elmer.Oscar

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.

PS.renegade2

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.

PS.Rider

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.”

PS.Zamorro1

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.

PS.Rider1

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!”

PS.Elmer

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).

PS.Stuart2

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!)

PS.Kit.title05

PS.Kit.title06

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”

PS.Kit2

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.

Fates Worse Than Death: Undersea Kingdom

UK.title

A troubling rise in earthquake frequency and intensity has led Professor Norton to build an earthquake prediction machine, with which he also hopes to prevent future quakes. Guessing that the earthquakes are somehow being caused by radio signals from deep beneath the sea, Norton plans an aquatic expedition to find its source. “I hope you’re not going to spring that yarn of the lost continent of Atlantis,” chides reporter Diana Compton, but oh, yes! The Professor has his suspicions, and the discovery of oricalcum–the legendary metal that Plato described as unique to the sunken realm–gives the Professor all the evidence he needs to proceed.

UK.Norton2

Naval Lt. Ray “Crash” Corrigan, all-around athletic champion and straight arrow, is Professor Norton’s only choice to accompany him in his experimental submarine (an excellent miniature, one of many created by Howard and Theodore Lydecker). The submarine’s crew grows when Diana invites herself along for a story too good to resist, and again when it’s discovered that Professor Norton’s young son Billy has stowed away. The sub’s pilot cracks under the pressure when he realizes how deep the Professor intends to take it, and in his madness sends the sub into a steep dive.

UK.sub1

Little do the submariners know that Atlantis survives under a great dome of oricalcum, like a bubble at the bottom of the sea, and even now is riven by conflict: Unga Khan, usurper to the throne, is laying siege to the city of Atlantis, where high priest Sharad, described as the last of the true Atlanteans, is the only force remaining to stand up to Unga Khan. From his metal tower, Unga Khan commands a legion of black-robed horsemen and soldiers; robotic “Volkites;” airships; and the juggernaut, a fast-moving electric tank. It’s only a matter of time before Sharad’s defenses give way.

UK.tower

Unga Khan, detecting Norton’s submarine, latches onto it with a magnetic beam and brings it safely into Atlantis’ inland sea, hoping to turn it to his own advantage. Upon discovering Professor Norton’s scientific abilities, Unga Khan brainwashes him with a “transformation chamber” and puts him to work building engines to turn his tower into a rocketship, so that he may ascend to the surface world and either conquer or destroy it! Only Crash Corrigan and his allies can prevent Unga Khan’s mad plans from wreaking havoc on both Atlantis and the surface world in the 1936 Republic serial, Undersea Kingdom!

UK.Unga4

Undersea Kingdom has similarities to both Flash Gordon (released the same year) and The Phantom Empire, which had come out the previous year. Like The Phantom Empire‘s underground kingdom of Murania, Undersea Kingdom‘s Atlantis is a classic “lost world,” a remote corner of the world untouched by modernity but paradoxically full of superscience. Other than its underwater location and the mention of oricalcum (dropped after the first chapter), there’s not much to connect the film’s Atlantis to Plato’s account, but it is part of a long tradition of using the name as a code word for a hidden place where anything becomes possible. And like Murania and Flash Gordon‘s Mongo, in Atlantis ancient swords and chariots are used side-by-side with atomic rays and futuristic war machines: boundaries between science fiction and fantasy were not so rigidly defined before World War II.

UK.Atlantis

Just as singing cowboy Gene Autry starred in The Phantom Empire as singing cowboy Gene Autry, Undersea Kingdom stars “Crash” Corrigan as a fictionalized version of himself and gives him plenty of room to show off his talents. As an actor, he does OK with dialogue, which is largely functional (“At least those mechanical men can’t follow us through those flames!”), but it’s displays of athleticism that are the real draw. Corrigan was a trainer and bodybuilder who started out in film as a stuntman, often portraying gorillas (he played the “sacred orangopoid” in Flash Gordon), and as a leading man his onscreen persona emphasized his mastery of physical culture and sports. Just as The Phantom Empire gave ample opportunities for Autry to sing within the story, every chapter of Undersea Kingdom finds Corrigan wrestling, climbing, pole-vaulting, swimming, or even walking a tightrope, and that’s aside from the usual running, riding, and fighting that are typical for serial heroes.

UK.Crash4

The other characters fit into clearly established types: Professor Norton (C. Montague Shaw) is the inventor whose submarine makes the adventure possible but then spends almost the entirety of the serial enslaved by the villain (and unlike Flash Gordon‘s Dr. Zarkov, Norton is so completely brainwashed that he actively resists rescue and demands to be taken back to his “Master” until he is restored in the transformation chamber). Speaking of the villain, Unga Khan (Monte Blue) is cast from the same mold as Ming: imperious, given to grandiose monologues (“With Crash Corrigan out of the way, nothing can interfere with my plans to conquer the upper world!”), and ruthless in carrying out his scheme. The fact that his plans are so over-the-top crazy is one of the pleasures of this kind of pulp.

UK.juggernaut2

As mentioned, Unga Khan has quite a bit of futuristic hardware at his disposal, including a “disintegrator ray” that strangely takes the form of a missile (recycled from The Phantom Empire). Also as in The Phantom Empire, television is an object of fascination, with Unga Khan observing the surface world, the Atlantean countryside, and even Sharad’s inner sanctum through his “reflecto plate,” all without any indication of having cameras in those places. Some of Unga Khan’s doomsday weapons are even more vague than is usual for serials, but they sure look cool. The standout is his army of Volkites, mechanical men armed with “atom guns,” old-school cylindrical “water heater” robots that look intimidating but move slowly and are clumsy enough that Corrigan is able to hang one from a suspended hook at one point without much trouble.

They break into old people's houses and steal their medicine to use as fuel.

They break into old people’s houses and steal their medicine to use as fuel.

Diana Compton (Lois Wilde) is a gutsy, brassy reporter, and while she talks her way onto the submarine, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything she actually does other than offer commentary and occasionally fall into some peril from which she must be rescued. As formulaic as that role is, however, it’s worth mentioning that she is literally the only woman in the entire serial: the above-ground scenes with which it begins take place at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and the Atlantean scenes are divided between Unga Khan’s tower and Sharad’s city, both militarized settings filled with soldiers (the latter resembles a Spanish mission or French Foreign Legion outpost dressed up with a few exotic props). And while Diana and Crash end up together, there’s little romantic spark between them: this is boy’s adventure, through and through.

UK.Diana1

There is a literal boy, as well, and Billy Norton (Lee Van Atta) divides his time between dialogue even more functional than Corrigan’s (“Boy, I’d sure like to explore that city,” and cheering on the hero with “Let ‘im have it, Crash!”), engaging in junior acts of derring-do, and being rescued himself. He’s more a sidekick than an audience-identification character (he doesn’t have anything like the screen time or personality of Frankie and Betsy Baxter in The Phantom Empire), but there is some pathos when his own father, brainwashed by Unga Khan, doesn’t recognize him.

UK.Billy1

Smiley Burnette is also along to provide (mercifully brief) comic relief: he and Frankie Marvin play submarine crew members who, along with their mischievous parrot Sinbad, take off to explore Atlantis on their own, getting in and out of trouble with prankish incaution. Burnette performs some of his usual shtick, such as playing the harmonica and causing slapstick trouble with explosives (including a stunt that I’m sure would have left at least one black-robe guard dead), but unlike in The Phantom Empire his and Marvin’s antics don’t have any bearing on the story, and could in fact be cut entirely without affecting the plot. (According to Jerry Blake these scenes were added after the fact to pad out the serial’s run time, and it shows.)

UK.volkite5

Finally, Crash Corrigan himself–the fictional version, that is–is every bit the strong-jawed hero of this era’s serials, pulp magazines, and comics. In a development that will be very familiar to readers of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard, Corrigan inserts himself into the Atlantean conflict, first inadvertently and then by appointment. Captured by Sharad’s forces (who suspect him and the other surface-dwellers of being spies in the service of Unga Khan), Corrigan is forced to fight a group of prisoners to the death. After demonstrating his superiority by wrestling them into submission, he refuses to deal a killing blow, assuring the loyalty of Moloch (John Merton), the opponent whose life he spares.

UK.Sharad2

Moloch becomes a trusted friend and ally during Corrigan’s time in Atlantis (a character as useful to the writers as to Corrigan, allowing for fight scenes that don’t rely entirely on Corrigan to carry them), a native brother-in-arms like Tars Tarkas or Umslopogaas. Then, after saving the high priest Sharad’s life, Corrigan is offered command of the Atlantean White Robe Army (“Commander of the army? Oh boy, oh boy!” says Billy) and the magnificent uniform that comes with it. The loyalty of the White Robes to Corrigan is unquestioned, and like John Carter, Flash Gordon, and others, Corrigan proves that what the Atlanteans need for victory is a strong American leader at the front.

UK.reflecto

What I watched: Undersea Kingdom (1936, Republic)

Where I watched it: A DVD from TV Serial Classics. I don’t usually comment on my sources unless they’re especially high- or low-quality, but I do want to point out one of the ugliest menu screens I’ve run across (especially in comparison to Republic’s typically excellent titles):

UK.menu

No. of chapters: 12

Best chapter title: “Revenge of the Volkites,” Chapter Four. I’m not really sure where the “revenge” angle comes in, as the robotic Volkites are neither paying back the surface dwellers for an earlier defeat nor turning on their master, Unga Khan. It’s surely the kind of title George Lucas had in mind when naming his Star Wars episodes, however, and with about as much connection to the actual story.

UK.Chaptertitle

Best cliffhanger: This one is easy. At the end of Chapter Eight (“Into the Metal Tower”), Crash Corrigan, captured by Unga Khan’s Black Robes, is lashed to the front of the juggernaut and driven to the gate of Sharad’s city. If the gates are not opened to the invading army and Sharad given up, the juggernaut will ram the gates, crushing Corrigan. In the face of such barbarism, Corrigan defiantly tells the juggernaut’s driver, “Go ahead and ram!”

UK.Crash6

The image of Corrigan strapped to the front of the juggernaut like a human hood ornament looked teasingly familiar, almost as if I had seen it somewhere recently . . . but where?

fury_road

Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: Republic seems to be the worst offender in this (and in fact Harmon and Glut in The Great Movie Serials cite the juggernaut cliffhanger as a textbook example of a cheat), so as always there are several candidates. At the end of Chapter Eleven (“Flaming Death”–honestly, all of the chapter titles are pretty good), Moloch, Corrigan, and Professor Norton are trapped beneath the rocket engines that will lift Unga Khan’s towers to the surface when they begin firing. There’s no way they’re getting out of there without being burned to a crisp, right? Right?

Well, I don’t think it will spoil the movie to say that Corrigan gets away at the beginning of Chapter Twelve, and the hole in the floor that he conveniently falls through at the very moment of the rocket’s ignition definitely wasn’t there at the end of Chapter Eleven.

A word on costuming: The 1930s were the heyday of art deco in film, and that extended beyond titles and set design to the costumes themselves. Like other space operas and lost worlds of this time period, Atlantis is a jumble of medieval, Romanesque, and completely fanciful motifs. Uncredited but attributed to Robert Ramsey, Undersea Kingdom‘s costumes are partially unified by the importance of finned headgear: like the intricate tail feathers of male birds, the number and complexity of fins indicate the strength and importance of the wearer. Most of Unga Khan’s Black Robes have only a single dorsal fin on their headgear (right), while leaders like Captain Hakur (left) and Unga Khan’s major domo Ditmar have a trifold fin (and check the zig-zag lightning motif that also appears on Unga Khan’s throne).

UK.Hakur

Those pale, however, before the righteous plume that decorates Corrigan’s helmet once he takes command of the White Robe Army (a force whose uniform is otherwise completely unfinned: the entire budget for military bling went into this one outfit): look upon it, and mourn for the days such a costume could be worn without any self-consciousness.

UK.Crash5

Sample dialogue: Too much to choose from!

“Little do the people of the upper world realize what is in store for them. . . . Start the disintegrator. . . . Start the earthquake!” –Unga Khan, Chapter Eight

“Is my plan of empire to be wrecked by this handful of strangers from the upper world!?” —ibid.

“They’ll never expect to find any Volkites in the submarine!” –Captain Hakur (Lon Chaney, Jr.), Chapter Eleven

“Prepare the disintegator [sic]!” –Unga Khan, Chapter Twelve

What Others Have Said: “The serial features few of the fistfights common to Republic’s later serials, but compensates by including some truly unique action sequences, chief among them the large-scale attacks on Sharad’s Sacred City by the Black Robes; these battle scenes are beautifully staged by directors Joseph Kane and B. Reeves Eason (Eason directed many similar sequences in silent and sound “spectacles” like 1925’s Ben-Hur and 1936’s Charge of the Light Brigade).” –Jerry Blake, whose blog Files of Jerry Blake includes extensive reviews and commentary on movie serials and “other cliffhanging material.”

What’s Next: The New Adventures of Tarzan