A railroad is planning to lay track through a prosperous ranching area–which causes a gang of outlaws to launch a destructive campaign aimed at driving the local ranchers and homesteaders from their property; the gang’s mysterious leader then plans to buy the vacated land and sell it to the railroad at an exorbitant price. The land-grabbers’ top target is the Hidden Valley Ranch, the region’s biggest spread–but their attempts to seize it from its owner Mary Grayson (Marla Shelton) are constantly thwarted by a white-clad masked man known as The Phantom Rider, the untiring protector of Mary and the other beleaguered ranchers. This “Phantom” is actually the supposed nester Buck Grant (Buck Jones), an undercover state ranger who’s been assigned to unmask the outlaws’ unknown boss and end their reign of terror.
In the hierarchy of Universal’s 1930s Buck Jones serials, The Phantom Rider ranks a definite third; though its plotting is much better than that of the lackluster Roaring West, it’s nowhere near as involving or interesting as the more character-driven Red Rider or the entertainingly mysterious Gordon of Ghost City. However, its cast is good, its locations pleasant, its action acceptable, and its script peppered with unusually funny dialogue; overall, it plays like a drawn-out but very enjoyable version of one of Jones’ lighter B-western features from the same period.
Basil Dickey, George Plympton, and Ella O’Neill–Universal’s regular pre-1936 serial-writing team–add enough wrinkles to their basic plotline to keep Phantom Rider from lapsing into the same repetitiveness that damaged Roaring West. The central land-grabbing plot–which would have been decidedly thin on its own–is reinforced by a second plot centered around a lost gold mine located somewhere on the heroine’s land, the discovery of which can save her from having to sell her ranch. The villains’ repeated efforts to steal a map showing the mine’s location, and the search for the mine itself, dominate much of the serial–but this subplot is balanced in turn with yet other plot threads which keep it from becoming tediously cyclical, like the charge of murder that hangs over the hero’s head in the first third of the serial or the heavies’ attempts to learn the Phantom Rider’s identity.
Although Phantom Rider‘s narrative is varied enough to fill its fifteen chapters satisfactorily, it moves at a decidedly slow pace, interspersing plenty of dialogue scenes and musical interludes with the action. However, while the musical bits are a mixed bag (see below), the dialogue is consistently good and generally very funny as well. Buck Grant’s bantering with his sidekick Spooky is amusing, as is both characters’ baiting of the bumbling Sheriff. Romantic scenes between Buck and Mary Grayson are also handled with a consistently light touch, from their awkward first meeting to their affectionate argument at the fade-out. There’s still more humor to be found in the outlaw leader’s sarcastic put-downs of his men, and in their own grumblings and bickerings (their reaction to their leader’s attempt to replace them with a band of renegade Indians is especially enjoyable).
This bountiful supply of humor is one of Phantom Rider’s biggest points of appeal; its action scenes, though numerous, are far less interesting. As in almost all of Universal’s pre-1936 serials, lethal violence is noticeably downplayed; the villains only kill two people in the entire serial (one of them off-stage and both early in the proceedings), while the hero never actually takes a life. This latter fact makes the heavies’ terror of the Phantom Rider seem rather strange at times; although he never does anything scarier than fire a few shots at them, the outlaws tend to flee whenever he shows up. His white bandana, white hat, white horse, and long white “duster” do give him an imposing look, but it’s hard to believe that the look alone is enough to cow badmen.
That said, our hero still participates in plenty of action–both masked and unmasked–although most of it is of the horseback-chase variety. Ray Taylor films these chases against the same attractively hilly grasslands seen in Buck Jones’ other Universal serials; among the highlights are the lengthy cross-country chase in Chapter Eight (which makes particularly good use of the scenery), the rescue of the stagecoach later in the same chapter, and the buckboard-chase sequence in Chapter Four (with the hero pursuing heavies who are pursuing the heroine). The runaway explosives-wagon scene in Chapter One is good too, as is the cattle stampede through town in Chapter Two; although the latter sequence is augmented by obvious stock footage, it also contains some very impressive brand-new shots of the steers crashing into the jailhouse where the hero is imprisoned.
Jones’ usual stunt double Cliff Lyons handles the more dangerous riding scenes and the serial’s periodic exchanges of punches–although the only protracted brawls in the serial are Jones’ fight with henchman Charles King in Chapter Twelve and sidekick George Cooper’s combat with treacherous cowpoke Hal Taliaferro in Chapter Nine. Many shots are traded in the innumerable horseback chases, there are few dismounted gun battles, the big exception being the Chapter Fourteen barn shootout, which is energetically staged despite its bloodlessness. The same cannot be said for the serial’s rather disappointing climactic confrontation–which, though dramatic enough, is almost completely action-free.
The serial’s chapter endings are strong for the most part–the aforementioned powder-wagon runaway and the cattle stampede being two of them. The hero’s Chapter Eleven plunge down a mine shaft is good too, as is the spectacular Chapter Four cliffhanger that has hero, heroine, their buckboard, and its team of horses plummeting off a cliff into a lake. Mixed in with these excellent endings, however, are others so low-key that they hardly qualify as cliffhangers–like the heavies’ stick-up of the hero that ends Chapter Seven or the hero’s mobbing by a band of Indians at the close of Chapter Nine.
Phantom Rider’s cast is excellent, with all the leading players getting as much mileage as possible out of their lines; this is especially true of star Buck Jones, who’s in top form throughout. Although suitably grim and tough in scenes like his barroom confrontation with henchman James Mason in Chapter Two, he never goes long without adding a humorous touch to his performance. His awestruck and befuddled look after escaping the powder-wagon explosion (“Where were you when the cyclone hit?”), is priceless; the same can be said of his panicked embarrassment when he has to tend to the heroine’s injured leg (“If it was a horse I’d know what to do”) and his wryly sarcastic manner when dealing with the idiotic Sheriff (Sheriff: “Where’s your horse?” Buck: “Let me see, where is my horse; you didn’t see him when you came in, did ya?”). Although his lines are well-written, it’s Jones’ delivery that really puts them across; it’s hard to imagine any other serial star handling both comedy and action as sure-footedly as he does.
The attractive and rather serious Marla Shelton makes a good co-star for Jones; her sober-mannered character is continually being provoked to laughter or to humorous exasperation by his flippant antics and by the bumbling of other characters like the Sheriff. Pert and pretty Diana Gibson is given third billing but has very little to do as the heroine’s best friend Helen Moore; her activities are mostly confined to delivering some arch but good-natured witticisms (as in the “sunset” scene) and mildly flirting with Hidden Valley ranch foreman Steve Scott (Joey Ray).
George Cooper, as sidekick Spooky, provides continual laughs through his owlish solemnity and deadpan quips, but does so without ever seeming incompetent or irritatingly stupid; his character is able to stoically stand up to threats of torture or single-handedly thrash a heavy without ever seeming out of character. He and Jones had previously worked together to amusing effect in the 1932 B-western Forbidden Trail, and they share a similarly excellent rapport here, casually tossing lines back and forth with the assurance of a practiced comedy team (Cooper, when besieged with Jones by heavies: “Wonder when they’re gonna quit?” Jones: “Why, ya gettin’ hungry?”)
Harry Woods as Harvey Delaney (a prominent rancher and a suitor of the heroine’s) does a good job of being studiously courteous to Mary while conveying a strong but concealed dislike of his rival Buck Grant. Delaney, of course, is the serial’s villain as well, which is made obvious from the start despite the director and writers’ half-hearted attempt to create a mystery villain. Woods is shot with his face obscured whenever he’s plotting with his henchmen, but makes no attempt to disguise his harshly confident and immediately recognizable voice; to further undermine the “mystery,” Buck voices his suspicions of Delaney well before the serial’s end, while the audience is given no other villainous “suspects.” Woods handles his lines in the plotting scenes his usual snarling energy, but one wishes the pretence of his “hidden” identity had been dropped, allowing him to sneer and scowl for the camera in his trademark style.
Above left: Harry Woods. Above right: Woods (his arm and clenched fist only visible) gives orders to his henchmen; Jim Corey is standing at far left, Charles King at far right; James Mason is next to King.
Woods’ henchmen are a scruffy and hard-bitten lot, with James Mason (not the English actor) and Charles King leading the pack; the former is sullen, thick-witted, and belligerent, while the latter is much more easygoing and shrewd. Other leading thugs include Jim Corey, Charles Le Moyne, Frank Ellis, Art Mix, and Allen Holbrook; Tom London and Slim Whitaker have smaller henchman roles, while Hal Taliaferro has a good showcase as Lew, the sly and smugly confident Hidden Valley ranch hand who’s secretly in league with the outlaws.
The dignified but jovial Frank LaRue is very good as the astute Judge Holmes, the Phantom Rider’s only confidant besides Spooky. Eddie Gribbon is hilarious as the stupid and self-important Sheriff, whether making fatuous statements (“If I knew whose handwriting was on that note, I’d know who wrote it”) or belatedly realizing that Jones has been making fun of him and reacting in slow-burn fashion. The great character actor Clem Bevans, in his only chapterplay appearance, lends the serial a considerable late-chapter boost as the doddering but crafty old prospector Hudson.
Joey Ray, as the heroine’s foreman, handles his dialogue and his occasional riding and shooting duties capably, but spends most of his screen time warbling a rather sappy song about Hidden Valley in the irritatingly affected style common to most 1930s tenors (“…and watch the waaarld go rooolling byyyy…”). Cactus Mack and his cowboy band–who play some of the heroine’s ranch hands–provide much more authentic-sounding and enjoyable musical interludes with their performances of genuine cowboy ballads like “The Old Chisholm Trail;” even their one rendition of the Hidden Valley song sounds much better than any of Ray’s.
Helen Shipman is very funny as the shrilly talkative maid at the Hidden Valley ranch; Matt McHugh has a small part as Buck’s ill-fated pal in the first chapter, while Lafe McKee has an even smaller role as the heroine’s murdered father. Orrin Burke is a somewhat pompous railroad man and Paul Regas a renegade Indian leader, while Cecilia Weston plays Clem Bevans’ long-suffering wife, Iron Eyes Cody and Jim Thorpe pop up as Indians, Cliff Lyons, Bert Lindley, and Bob Reeves are cowboys, and Lyons’ fellow-stuntmen Jay Wilsey and Wally West are deputies. Charles K. French and Eva McKenzie play two of the harried homesteaders, Hank Bell is a stage driver, and Priscilla Lawson–Princess Aura of Flash Gordon fame–has two non-speaking scenes as a saloon girl in Chapters Two and Six.
The Phantom Rider, with its slow pace and soft-pedalled action scenes, is simply too leisurely an affair to be a great or especially memorable chapterplay. However, while the action scenes, unsupported, would not have been enough to make the serial worthwhile, they’re materially assisted by a solid storyline, a first-rate collection of funny dialogue, and a lively cast headed by one of the greatest of all cowboy stars; the result is a very likable and consistently entertaining serial.