Frontier newspaperman Tex Granger (Robert Kellard) sets up shop in the town of Twin Buttes and soon discovers that slick businessman Rance Carson (I. Stanford Jolley) not only owns most of the local real estate but also controls most of the local outlaws. Adopting an outwardly peaceful stance, Granger begins opposing Carson’s plundering henchmen as the masked “Mystery Rider,” lending aid to the area’s beleaguered ranchers and miners. Blaze Talbot (Smith Ballew), an ex-outlaw appointed as a puppet sheriff by Carson, apparently supports his boss in the struggle with the Rider–while secretly plotting to unseat Carson and seize control of Twin Buttes himself, with the help of another band of badmen led by Reno (Jack Ingram).
Tex Granger does not reach the depths of tediousness plumbed by other Columbia serials like Who’s Guilty or Son of the Guardsman–but it’s a pretty disappointing affair all the same, thanks to dull plotting, slow pacing, and a notable lack of action scenes. Though officially based on a comic-book character, it borrows both its central premise (a newspaper editor doubling as a masked rider) and several minor touches (a comic printer’s devil, a cave hideout for the hero, arguments about whether or not the pen is mightier than the six-gun) from Columbia’s 1940 serial Deadwood Dick; however, it fails to capture any of that earlier chapterplay’s frantic energy.
Lewis Clay, Harry Fraser, Arthur Hoerl, and Royal Cole provide the screenplay for Granger, with George Plympton receiving a “story” credit (possibly as a nod to his work on Deadwood Dick’s screenplay); the script’s basic premise is solid, but is developed in a very half-hearted fashion. The serial’s nominal hero is given surprisingly little to do, with Granger maintaining a studiously passive pose while unmasked and becoming only slightly more active after putting on his Mystery Rider outfit: the Rider rarely confronts the heavies directly and spends most of his time either trailing outlaws, escaping from them, or rescuing their victims after the villains themselves have left the scene. His direct interactions with the bad guys are, with rare exceptions, limited to a few quick punches or a perfunctory exchange of shots, making the viewer wonder after awhile just why the villains are so set on destroying such a unthreatening foe.
The villains themselves are only slightly more formidable than the hero, their crimes confined to repetitive small-scale robberies unconnected by any overarching scheme (like keeping out the railroad or seizing a priceless mine). They also fight far too much among themselves, with Blaze coolly defying Carson and slyly undermining him throughout, finally pulling off a definitive double-cross and eliminating both Carson and Reno without any assistance from Granger (who’s quite content to stand on the sidelines and play the heavies off against each other). Due to the amount of screen time devoted to the Blaze-Carson conflict and the hero’s comparative inactivity, Blaze emerges as the serial’s most prominent and most interesting character, a “villain” we feel like rooting for most of the time–which is presumably not what the writers intended.
Granger’s fight scenes, though few and far between, are quite well-staged, thanks to stuntmen George DeNormand (who doubles Robert Kellard) and Eddie Parker. The first-chapter saloon brawl between Blaze and Marshal Peterson is very good, as is the Rider’s lengthy hillside fistfight with several outlaws in Chapter Five; unfortunately, scenes of this sort only number about a half-dozen in all. This lack is not compensated for by good shootout scenes; potentially exciting gunfights (like the saloon sequence in Chapter Three, the attack on Reno’s camp in Chapter Eleven or the barn gunfight in Chapter Twelve) are flattened by the participants’ almost complete inability to actually hit anyone–and by the lackluster way director Derwin Abrahams films said scenes: he relies almost completely on intercut medium shots of characters aiming and firing their weapons at off-camera foes, with no panoramic shots (as in Overland With Kit Carson) to make the gun battles more interesting.
The Kernville hill country, with its boulders, streams, and scattered pine trees, provides the serial with attractive outdoor locations, even though the scenery is used principally as a backdrop for tedious ducking and dodging among the rocks or the overlong and slow-paced horseback trailing scenes beloved of Granger’s producer Sam Katzman (there’s even one pointlessly drawn-out sequence in which a dog follows the villains to their hideout). The Western street at Kernville, altered somewhat since its appearances in 1930s Universal serials like Flaming Frontiers, furnishes the setting for the remainder of the story.
Granger has a few good chapter endings–particularly the stagecoach-off-the-cliff scene that closes Chapter Four–but most of its cliffhangers are far too abrupt, like the sudden dynamite blasts in Chapters Two and Eleven; one ending (that of Chapter Three) comes so quickly and is staged so poorly that it’s impossible to even tell what peril the hero is supposed to be in. The booby-trapped printing-press cliffhanger in Chapter Seven, on the other hand, features too much buildup instead of too little; though the idea is good, the time spent in setting the scene up has us waiting for the payoff with impatience instead of suspense.
Granger’s cast members make the most of the weak and excessively talky script. Robert Kellard does his best to give his uninteresting character some personality, playing the part with quiet confidence, shrewdness, and likable affability. Pretty but feisty Peggy Stewart is well-cast as the hot-headed heroine Helen Kent, continually pestering the laidback Granger to abandon his printing press and take up a gun; she and Kellard manage to make their characters’ Clark Kent/Lois Lane style banter fairly amusing at times. Buzz Henry, as Tex’s young sidekick Jimmy Perkins, turns in a likable but very subdued performance; he’s clearly too old for the pre-teen “golly, gee-whiz” dialogue he’s given, and seems decidedly embarrassed at times, delivering his lines without the enthusiasm of other serial juveniles like Sammy McKim. His dog Duke, a shaggy little mutt, is cute-looking enough but far too diminutive to take as much part in the action as earlier serial canines.
One-time B-western star Smith Ballew is excellent as Blaze Talbot–his laconic manner, slow Texas drawl, and cagy facial expressions giving his gunfighter character an appropriate air of restrained menace. I. Stanford Jolley is similarly good as the urbane Carson, delivering his lines with all his accustomed smooth-voiced suavity. Jack Ingram is also his usual self as the brusque and sarcastic Reno, although he has less to do here than in most of his other Columbia serials. Dependable character player William Fawcett has some good moments as Jolley’s shifty and rather shyster-like clerk, Terry Frost figures as Jolley’s chief henchman in the earlier episodes, and Tiny Brauer, John Hart, and Jim Diehl play other recurring members of Jolley’s gang. Rusty Westcoatt and Eddie Parker pop up periodically as two of Ingram’s henchmen.
Britt Wood, briefly a sidekick to William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, is moderately funny as Kellard’s sleepy-voiced but dependable printer Sandy. Veteran henchmen Al Ferguson and Slim Whitaker get to play good guys for a change, appearing throughout the serial as leaders of the citizens’ vigilante group. Marshall Reed appears briefly as another vigilante, as do Forrest Taylor and Ralph Moody. Charles King and Frank Ellis have bits as henchmen, Hank Bell is a stage driver, Edmund Cobb a bartender, and Stanley Blystone the crooked marshal replaced by Blaze. The portly character actress playing the outspoken boarding-house proprietress is unidentified, as is the Indian squaw assigned to guard Peggy Stewart in one episode (I suspect they might be the same player in different makeups).
Tex Granger is not the worst of Sam Katzman’s Columbia serials, but it has a strong claim to be considered the weakest Western serial ever turned out by Columbia, Universal, or Republic; I can’t think of another cowboy chapterplay so cripplingly lacking in the elements (fistfights, gunfights, hero-villain confrontations) needed to make up a satisfactory Wild West adventure.