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.

Fates Worse Than Death: Fighting with Kit Carson

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Famed scout Kit Carson is tasked with accompanying a shipment of government gold across hostile Indian territory.  Although it would be safer to wait and travel with the wagon train that will be arriving soon, Carson’s superiors insist that the gold shipment is urgent and that he hire some unfamiliar locals to ride with him.  Unbeknownst to him, the riders are part of a gang secretly run by fur trader Cyrus Kraft, who plans to steal the gold and use it to cement his control of the Southwest.  Sure enough, the party is attacked by Indians, and Carson is accused of betraying the riders by Reynolds, one of Kraft’s gang.  Carson is locked up to await trial for treason.

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Elsewhere, Kraft parleys with Cheyenne chief Dark Eagle in his trading post office.  Kraft encourages Dark Eagle to make war against the settlers filling the territory, the better for Kraft to control it, but the Cheyenne have no quarrel with their white brothers and Dark Eagle refuses.  (A memorable part of Kraft’s shtick is the knife which he toys with while in conversation; if Kraft hears something he doesn’t like, he drops the knife, seemingly by accident, a signal for his hidden confederate to kill whomever Kraft is talking with.) For his obstinance, the Cheyenne chief is murdered and his body is left in the path of the wagon train so that his tribe will blame the settlers.  Dark Eagle’s son, Nakomas, at first takes the bait, but Carson suspects foul play and convinces the young chief to join forces so they can uncover the truth.

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In the mean time, the gold is missing: Carson’s friend Matt Fargo, who also rode with him, suspected that something was up when the Indians attacked, and hid the gold before it could be stolen.  Fargo’s little daughter Joan disguises herself as a boy and stows away on the westbound wagon train to find her father.  Carson escapes from jail to find Fargo and the gold, and clear his name; when the wagon train is attacked by the enraged Cheyenne, Carson and “Johnny” Fargo end up on a runaway wagon, careening toward a stand of trees.

The 1933 serial Fighting with Kit Carson is the first serial I have watched based on a historical figure: Christopher “Kit” Carson (1809-1868) really was a famous tracker and scout, blazing trails across the Southwest, negotiating with (and ultimately warring against) the Indians.  The subject of hagiographic dime novels even during his own lifetime, Carson has fallen out of public favor in recent decades as the history of the Indian Wars is no longer taught in such a one-sided fashion and the bloody conquest of Native peoples no longer seems so glamorous.

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Needless to say, Fighting with Kit Carson is in the dime novel tradition, crafting a typical pulp narrative around a few familiar names and character traits.  However, while the Carson of the serial is unambiguously good (and Kraft equally evil, even stooping so low as to shoot his own men to gain Matt Fargo’s trust), the conflict is not the simple “cowboys vs. Indians” one might expect from a 1930s Western.  Part of Carson’s legend is that he was a friend to the Indians (they refer to him as “White Chief” in the serial), equally trusted by the Cheyenne, settlers, and the Army.  The Cheyenne are presented as honorable, if volatile: Dark Eagle refuses to be manipulated into war by Kraft, and his son Nakomas, while quick to judgment, is an equal and ally of Carson. Of course, the surest way to introduce conflict is to call Carson’s trustworthiness into question, something that happens over and over again as Kraft works to undermine him in private while claiming to support him in public.  (The “Mystery Riders,” a band of masked and cloaked vigilantes under the control of Kraft, are another clearly cinematic element, complete with their own song that they sing as they ride, and which doubles as the theme song for the serial.)

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Fighting with Kit Carson stars Johnny Mack Brown, a college football star who got his start at MGM, as the title character.  Brown would go on to specialize in Westerns, having first played Billy the Kid opposite Wallace Beery in 1930.  Beery’s brother Noah plays Kraft, exactly the sort of sneering, scenery-chewing “heavy” that the serials were famous for, in a performance reminiscent of Edward G. Robinson.  (With his imposing size and mixture of bonhomie and sudden violence, Kraft would be a great role for John Goodman today.)  Noah’s son, Noah, Jr., plays Nakomas in braids and bronze makeup (a common practice then).  Rounding out the main cast (and second billed, above Beery Sr. and Jr.), Joan Fargo is played by Betsy King Ross, a rodeo performer and child star whom Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials describe as Mascot’s answer to Shirley Temple.

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Fighting with Kit Carson is much less linear in its storytelling than the serials I’ve watched so far: leaving aside some of the backtracking in resolving its cliffhangers, the serial cuts back and forth in time, revealing new information about settled events, and the use of flashbacks is more extensive than the simple recapping used in the typical “economy chapter.”  (There are also some interesting graphic effects, like the use of double exposure to show the passage of time when Carson is tracking, and a dotted line representing the secret passageway between Kraft’s office and the barn that is the secret meeting place of his gang.)  The end result, while introducing variety, is frequently disjointed and hard to follow.

There are exciting stunts aplenty, however, and as in all serials there is a premium on action.  Many of the fight scenes are edited to within an inch of their lives: according to Harmon and Glut, the standards of the time required that

Bullets could not be shown striking a man’s body; the gun and the human target had to be separated by cuts from one camera angle to another.  The same rule held true for a man being struck with a club; the swing of the gun butt or blackjack had to be shown from one angle, the victim falling from another.

Perhaps it is because the Western setting puts more emphasis on gunplay than on the fistfights of Batman, but this was very noticeable in Fighting with Kit Carson, and to the blackjacks and gun butts I would add tomahawks, which were also evidently subject to this rule.

The wagon and horse chases fare better: famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, while not credited, is recognizable for his hand in a scene where Carson leaps from horse to horse on an out-of-control wagon team and is then dragged underneath the wagon, a stunt Canutt pulled off in dozens of Westerns (and which was an inspiration for the similar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones is dragged underneath a speeding truck).

Fighting with Kit Carson is a bit of a mixed bag, less streamlined than the serials Mascot’s successor studio Republic would be making in just a few years, but with some memorable performances (in addition to the cast already mentioned, Edmund Breese as Matt Fargo is quite good) and some literally explosive action sequences (of which more momentarily).

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What I Watched: Fighting with Kit Carson (1933, Mascot)

Where I Saw It: It is on YouTube, starting here.  (This accounts for the lower quality screenshots—sorry about that.)

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “The Secret of Iron Mountain” (Chapter Six)

Best Cliffhanger: For the first two thirds, the cliffhangers are pretty underwhelming: in my notes I’ve included “Carson and Nakomas fall down cliff,” “Carson shot?” (he fell down when the shot was fired to fake out his attacker, something that happens several times in this serial), “Carson and Nakomas fall down cliff again,” and “Joan Fargo falls off horse.”  Things heat up considerably in the last few chapters, however, starting with the end of Chapter Eight (“Red Phantoms”), in which Carson appears to be shot just before his wagon plunges into a canyon.  I say “appears,” as of course added footage in the next chapter shows that he not only wasn’t shot but actually jumped from the wagon before its fall.  Even Carson’s enemies are suspicious, saying uncharacteristically sensible things like “How do you know he didn’t jump?” and “Funny we haven’t found any trace of Carson’s body.” This overturns a longstanding convention of the serials, in which henchmen are constantly assuring the villain that the hero is dead, only for him to keep coming back, over and over again.

The filmmakers were obviously saving their budget for Chapter Nine (“The Invisible Enemy”), because suddenly all hell breaks loose, with Carson DROPPING A BOULDER on the Mystery Riders and leading them on a merry chase up and down the cliffside through misdirection (at one point, Carson throws a cocked rifle off the cliff, counting on it to land on a rock and fire, which of course it does).  The wagon was full of black powder (“Hey, be careful with that powder!”) which the Mystery Riders plan to use to blow up the settlers who are riding into the canyon.  Carson rushes to get the powder keg out of the way, but IT EXPLODES AS SOON AS HE PICKS IT UP! HOLY DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT, BATMAN!

At the beginning of Chapter Ten (“Midnight Magic”), we back up, and this time Carson picks up the powder keg and hurls it at a group of Mystery Riders, where it blows them up (I should point out that the keg was lit with a line of powder on the ground, not a fuse, so in order for it to explode after being picked up it’s necessary for Carson to throw the keg into a conveniently-placed campfire).  I could only imagine the confusion and cries of “CHEAT!” that must have greeted this development in the movie theater in 1933.

I was boggled: how could this have happened? I went back and watched both the cliffhanger and the resolution closely, again and again, as if it were the Zapruder film.  Ultimately, I decided there were only two explanations: either Kit Carson had the ability to warp time and space (“midnight magic,” indeed!), or those cockadoodie dirty-bird screenwriters counted on everyone in the audience to get amnesia.  There is no question that both “Best Cliffhanger” and the Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat goes to Kit Carson, Master of Time and Space, getting blown up at the end of “The Invisible Enemy.”  After this, Kraft’s comeuppance in Chapter Twelve, as explosive as it is in its own right, could only be anticlimactic.

Sample Dialogue: “If I can only live long enough to tell the gang about this!” –a Mystery Rider named Rawlins, after being shot in the back by Kraft, his own boss (Chapter Four, “The Silent Doom”)

What Others Have Said: “The old breed of cowboy star was a lot tougher and gutsier than today’s star is.  Course, most of the old ones was real cowboys and circus stars at one time too, and this all helped them as film stars.  But today’s cowboy star never has the chance or the rugged real-life experiences on the range the old stars had, so they naturally are softer when it comes to the he-man action stuff.” –Noah Beery, Jr., interview with Lee O. Miller in The Great Cowboy Stars of Movies & Television

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I acquaint myself with one of the most famous names in the serials. Can you guess?