Buck Gordon (Buck Jones), a carefree but sharp-shooting cowpoke, is hired as a range detective by rancher John Mulford (William Desmond), who, along with most of his neighbors, is being plagued by a band of cattle rustlers. Gordon soon discovers that the rustling gang makes its headquarters in a nearby abandoned town known as “Ghost City,” and also discovers that Mary Gray (Madge Bellamy) is trying to help her prospector grandfather Amos Gray (Tom Ricketts) reopen a rich gold vein beneath Ghost City–a vein discovered by Amos but subsequently lost in a cave-in that crippled him and killed his partner. Gordon of Ghost City soon finds himself not only battling the rustlers, but also trying to protect the Grays and their mine from the rustlers’ secret leader–Mulford’s foreman Rance Radigan (Walter Miller), who is determined to add claim-jumping to his list of criminal enterprises. Our hero must also discover the identity of a mysterious old man (Francis Ford), who haunts the abandoned town and takes indiscriminate pot shots at both good guys and bad.
Gordon of Ghost City, like most Universal serials from the early 1930s, is deliberately paced, with almost as much screen time spent on dialogue interchanges or explorations in Ghost City as on fights, chases, or shootouts. Again like most 1930s Universals, its storyline (the work of Basil Dickey, Harry Hoyt, Ella O’Neill, Het Mannheim, and George Plympton) is so simple that it risks become threadbare when stretched to twelve chapters; Gordon’s skirmishes with the rustlers and the struggle for the gold mine just barely provide enough narrative to fill the required episodes without becoming blatantly repetitive.
That said, the serial also possesses the typical virtues of its Universal contemporaries–excellent characterizations (more on that below) and strong production values. The action is filmed against some striking locations (most noticeably the rolling hills of Universal’s backlot ranch, the rocky slopes of Bronson Canyon, and the canyon’s famous cave). The Western town set at Kernville serves as Ghost City, and is decked with plenty of tumbleweeds and cobwebs that effectively augment its creepily deserted air; the tunnels beneath the ghost town are equally atmospheric.
The action scenes staged against these backdrops and others are exciting and entertaining, if generally unspectacular. The lengthy action sequence at the end of Chapter One–with Jones battling the rustlers in a Ghost City stable, then galloping after a wagon containing other rustlers and their prisoner Madge Bellamy–is a definite highlight, especially remarkable for Jones’ amazing crawl under the wagon and his climb onto its team of horses (Jones’ stunt double Cliff Lyons handles some of this sequence, but Jones himself is visible in part of it). Other good scenes include the hillside shootout around the wrecked wagon in Chapter Two, the fight in Bronson Cave in Chapter Three, the chase across the hills in Chapter Six and the subsequent prairie fire sequence (an effective mixture of stock and new footage), the nighttime buckboard chase in Chapter Ten, and Jones’ climactic pursuit of Walter Miller down the streets of Ghost City in the final chapter.
The cliffhanger sequences are very well-staged by director Ray Taylor, although in standard Universal fashion, too many of them are resolved when the heroes simply survive the danger. The outlaws’ ambush of Jones in the saloon at the end of Chapter Four is built up to beautifully, with ominous closeups of the various heavies as they lurk behind doors preparatory to blasting away at our hero. Jones and Madge Bellamy’s Chapter Three exploration of a Ghost City tunnel, without realizing that an episode-ending explosion is about to take place, is also suspensefully handled, as is the buildup to Jones’ plunge through the floor into a hidden well in Chapter Five. The buckboard and stagecoach crashes that conclude Chapters One and Eleven, Jones’ attempt to rescue Tom Ricketts from a blazing ranch house at the end of Chapter Nine, and Jones’ plunge into a river at the end of Chapter Ten (the last inserted smoothly from a Tom Mix feature) are memorable as well.
Gordon’s cast is filled with excellent players, all of whom give their characters–already fairly well-defined by the script–an added share of personality; this is especially true of the serial’s leading man. Buck Jones has all the toughness and laconic self-assurance expected of a Western star, but his most memorable quality is his wry humor; it’s fun to watch Jones galloping across the prairie or trading punches and bullets with the bad guys, but it’s even more enjoyable to watch him tossing quips at the villains (some apparently ad-libbed), besting villain Walter Miller in a shooting match but embarrassingly breaking one of his new boss William Desmond’s windows in the process, or bantering with heroine Madge Bellamy (his deadpan remarks after she’s involved him in a series of calamities five minutes after their first meeting are particularly funny). While the serial has many good qualities, its main attraction is definitely Jones’ charismatic screen presence.
Pretty Madge Bellamy is sweetly demure and energetically feisty by turns, but equally appealing in both aspects. Her breathless seriousness also provides an amusing contrast to Jones’ flippancy, although she gives some touches of humor to her performance as well; her reaction to Jones’ unusual method of restoring her to consciousness in Chapter Eight is particularly priceless.
Walter Miller is excellent as the crafty Rance Radigan–plotting tersely and intently with his henchmen, maintaining a gruffly honest facade around the good guys, and occasionally damaging said facade with outbursts of temper. The slick and handsome Hugh Enfield–the hero in Universal’s Perils of Pauline serial, released the same year as Gordon–is good as Miller’s cohort, convincingly keeping up a similarly sympathetic pose as a loyal ranch hand.
Ethan Laidlaw is wonderfully cranky and aggressive as the principal action heavy, snapping and snarling at everyone in sight. His chief followers include Bud Osborne, Jim Corey, Frank Ellis, and Cliff Parkinson–all of whom display a hard-bitten manner and weather-beaten appearance very appropriate to their owlhoot characters. Harry Tenbrook and Monte Montague can be seen in smaller heavy roles.
William Desmond is memorable as the dignified but extremely hot-tempered rancher Mulford, while Tom Ricketts is even more colorful as the wheelchair-bound but still tough and peppery Amos Gray. Francis Ford has few lines of dialogue but makes a vivid impression as the chuckling mystery man of Ghost City, while Tom London has a brief but good cameo (complete with a moving death scene) as range detective Pat Campbell.
Edmund Cobb plays a dependable Mulford cowboy, while stuntman Cliff Lyons and a young Dennis Moore both appear as additional ranch hands. Dick Rush is the slightly incompetent sheriff, Lafe McKee a wounded rustling victim, Frank LaRue a concerned citizen, and Buck Connors a crony of Tom Ricketts’. Chief Many Treaties appears as an Indian leader, but I was unable to identify the actors who play the affable Mexican commandant and the rustlers’ Mexican contact Tony (who, in a rather silly bit, is very pointedly designated as Portuguese, not Mexican–one wonders why it was verboten to utilize even a single Mexican heavy here, particularly since Universal’s very next Buck Jones serial–The Red Rider–prominently featured a South-of-the-Border villain).
Gordon of Ghost City sounds routine enough in outline, but emerges as a winner nonetheless. Its simple plot is enhanced by its settings and its overall smoothness of production, and the serial is given a further boost by its engaging supporting cast and its exceptionally likable star.