Mascot, 12 Chapters, 1931. Starring Harold “Red” Grange, Dorothy Gulliver, Walter Miller, Theodore Lorch, Francis X. Bushman Jr., Tom Dugan, Frank Brownlee, Gwen Lee, Ernie Adams, Tom London, Edward Hearn.
“Red” Grange (Harold “Red” Grange), Clay College’s star football player, find himself immersed in a sea of troubles when his best friend Buddy Courtland (Francis X. Bushman Jr.)–the Clay football team’s other star–gets involved with a crooked gambling ring. In desperate need of money to pay off his blackmailing wife Irene (Gwen Lee), whom he impulsively married in defiance of college rules, Buddy accepts money from the gamblers to throw an important game; Red tries to stop his friend from taking this shameful step–but, through a chain of circumstances, finds himself accused of colluding with the gambling ring. Out of consideration for Buddy and for Buddy’s sister Barbara (Dorothy Gulliver), Red keeps quiet about his friend’s guilt, despite being thrown off the Clay football team and then out of college. The remorseful Buddy attempts to clear Red, but is stricken with amnesia before he can confess; soon, the hazy-minded football player is being frantically sought by Red and Barbara (who hope to restore his memory), the villainous gamblers (who hope to do away with him before he can regain his memory and identify them), and Irene (who hopes to blackmail the gambling ring’s secret leader after learning his name from Buddy). Red and Barbara are assisted by cabdriver Jerry (Tom Dugan) and Jerry’s pals at the Independent Cab Company, while the gambling ring receives the aid of the drivers from the shady Mogul Cab Company. Irene also has an ally–a black-clad, crippled, and mysterious doctor (Theodore Lorch), who dwells in a creepy old mansion.
The Galloping Ghost gallops along at a pace to match that of its fleet-footed titular hero (“The Galloping Ghost” was real-life gridiron star Grange’s nickname, something most of my readers probably know already). The serial’s narrative, centering as it does around the three-cornered tug-of-war over the amnesiac Buddy, at first seems as if it will be too simple to fill twelve chapters–but writers Wyndham Gittens, Helmer Bergman, and Ford Beebe don’t rely solely on this central plot to drive the action; they put Red on the trail of a second game-fixing scheme in Chapter Six, then slap a murder charge on him in Chapter Eight that forces him to dodge the police as well as fight the villains in the serial’s remaining chapters. These additional subplots allow Gittens, Bergman, and Beebe to keep the action moving satisfactorily for the serial’s entire running time, without resorting to the flashback sequences used to pad out the narratives of several other Mascot chapterplays.
However, the writers are unable to avoid the logic gaps common to most Mascot outings; Ghost’s lack of a mystery villain makes the serial more cohesive than many of its peers–but its last-chapter plot twist still renders several earlier scenes nonsensical, and will leave even the most forgiving viewer scratching his head. This is a pity, since the twist itself is quite interesting, and gives rise to a melodramatic but moving revelatory scene that would have been very compelling if it had been more convincingly set up. Other touches of melodrama in the screenplay are better prepared-for, and thus more satisfying–such as Red’s steadfast refusal to divulge Buddy’s secret, even when faced with disgrace, or his triumphal return to the football field to save the game for his foundering team in the final episode; as corny as such moments might sound, both writers and actors handle them with a sincerity that makes them work well.
Director B. Reeves Eason does an excellent job of staging Galloping Ghost’s action scenes–helped by Yakima Canutt (who performs most of the vehicular stuntwork), acrobat siblings Arthur, Victor, and Otto Metzetti (who handle most of the fights), and leading man Red Grange (who seems to be doing much of his own running and jumping in the serial’s chases and combats). Although the punching in the fight scenes is the choppy and unconvincing kind seen in most early-talkie films, Eason and his stunt team wisely keep said punch-throwing to a minimum–instead emphasizing spectacular leaps, flips, and other acrobatics in Red’s many encounters with the villains; as a result, Ghost’s fights look far livelier and less awkward than those in many contemporary serials and features. The fight inside the roadhouse in Chapter One is excellent, as is the Chapter Nine fight in the old house, but perhaps the most memorable of the serial’s numerous brawls is the Chapter Three street fight between Red and the gamblers–which turns into a terrific large-scale combat between armies of good and bad cabbies, and is filled with jumps from parked cabs, leaps over them, and fights atop them (Eason’s experience in staging epic battle scenes, acquired during his silent-film career and evident in his later serials like Undersea Kingdom or The Desert Hawk, obviously came in handy here).
The War of the Cabbies sequence is shot outdoors on what appears to be a genuine city street; many of the serial’s other action setpieces, in typical Mascot style, are similarly filmed against “real-life” backdrops–giving Ghost’s visuals an authentic Depression-era look. The extremely well-shot motorboat chase through a dockyard in Chapter Two is a case in point, as are the wonderful chases and fights inside the Independent and Mogul garages in Chapters Six and Nine. Additional action highlights include Red’s rooftop escape from the roadhouse following the Chapter One fight, the amazing chase in Chapter Three (which has Red transferring from a taxi to a railroad handcar and then jumping from an overpass onto the roof of the villains’ auto), Red’s nimble elusion of the police at the campus in Chapter Eight, and the car chases in Chapters Five and Eleven. There are many other exhilarating pieces of action spread throughout Ghost; the characters (especially Red) never walk when they can run or pile into a car for a chase, and never exit by doors when they can jump out of windows or leap from balconies.
Above, top left: Red leaps from a cab roof to the rafters of a garage. Top right: Red and Barbara’s boat zips under a pier during the boat chase sequence. Bottom left: The villains’ car, pursued Barbara’s, races under an underpass–as Red, atop the handcar on the railroad bridge, moves to head them off. Bottom right: Red leaps down a campus stairwell to elude pursuers.
The chapter endings in Ghost are just as exciting as the in-chapter action scenes; the Chapter One cliffhanger, with Red heroically sacrificing himself to save Barbara by letting go of her overtaxed parachute, is especially memorable, with a shot of our hero free-falling towards the ground that’s quite impressive (his escape from this peril, though a little implausible, is even more visually stunning). The Chapter Two ending, with Red and Barbara’s motorboat being crushed between two ships, is also outstanding. Later Republic serials would reuse this situation–but would depict it via process-screen work; here, we can actually see the hero and heroine pushing vainly against the huge hull that’s closing in on them, making the sequence ten times more effective than in the Republic outings. Red’s apparent squashing by a grease-rack-elevated tax in Chapter Eight is also excellent, and, like the boat sequence, was echoed several times in later serials. Red’s Chapter Six plunge from a cliff atop a motorcycle is yet another standout (although the resolution is somewhat disappointing); the cliffhangers for Chapter Five (a head-on train/car collision) and Chapter Nine (an aerial bombing of a mansion) are very good as well.
As aforementioned, Galloping Ghost’s cast members handle their roles with a whole-hearted sincerity that suits well with the melodramatic nature of the plot. Red Grange turns in a likable and intently earnest leading performance; though his voice is not a very commanding one, he rattles off his lines in very confident fashion, seeming far more comfortable with dialogue delivery than either Sammy Baugh or Ernie Nevers, serialdom’s two other footballers-turned-heroes (considering that Grange turned to broadcasting when his football career was over, this assurance is not surprising). He occasionally sounds as if he’s declaiming instead of conversing, while his attempts at facial emoting are often a bit over-dramatic–but the same is true of many of the professional actors in the serial’s cast–who, like many performers in early talkies, are obviously still in the process of adjusting their silent-film acting techniques to the sound era.
Grange’s leading lady Dorothy Gulliver handles most of her lines in very expressive fashion, fervently conveying concern for Red and Buddy–but tends to falter and become wooden whenever she’s given an extended piece of dialogue (as during the climactic scene in the hospital). However, the appealing combination of sweetness and spunkiness she brings to her characterization makes her acting awkwardness easy to forgive. Francis X. Bushman Jr. is the most stoic of the serial’s major players; he does a very good job of looking first tormented and then blankly confused, but is not always able to make Buddy’s conscience-stricken laments and his later bouts of amnesic paranoia sound quite as intense as they should. Gwen Lee is excellent as Buddy’s brassy, money-hungry ex-showgirl wife, giving the character a flippantly cynical and properly hard-bitten manner.
As Elton, the wealthy socially-respectable sportsman who secretly heads the gambling ring, Walter Miller is given many opportunities to be both genteelly helpful (when pretending to assist the good guys) and aggressively villainous (when sarcastically reproaching his henchmen for their failures or outlining schemes for them); he handles both gentility and villainy with highly enjoyable gusto. The colorfully shifty Ernie Adams, looking every inch a raffish 1930s gambler, is similarly enjoyable as Miller’s crafty and cockily self-congratulatory chief henchman; Tom London is also good as Miller’s other principal accomplice, alternating between smug toughness and furtive nervousness (his hysterical insistence in Chapter Nine that he’s been “tortured” with a “hot iron”– actually an ice cube–is priceless).
Theodore Lorch is outrageously but entertainingly hammy as Irene Courtland’s sinister medical ally–punctuating his dialogue with fiendish grins, unctuous leers, and maniacal laughs, while invariably walking around bent over like a “carpenter’s rule” (to borrow cabbie Jerry’s description of him). He manages to steal every scene he appears in; his crazed-sounding laugh also plays over the closing credits of each episode. Edward Hearn, no stranger to theatricality himself, is cast as Grange’s concerned football coach; he delivers pep talks to the team and furious denunciations of Red’s seeming treachery with all the histrionic vigor he displayed in other Mascot serials like The Shadow of the Eagle or The Last of the Mohicans.
Tom Dugan makes the good-natured but perpetually perplexed cabbie Jerry one of Mascot’s better comedy-relief characters, using his low-key cheerfulness to balance out the breathless seriousness of Grange and Gulliver; his confused stammer is only mildly amusing, but never becomes obtrusive or obnoxious. However, the funniest performance in the serial comes from Frank Brownlee as Tom, the elderly but comically feisty manager of the Independent Cab Company; his pop-eyed indignation over the villains’ activities, his clumsy but well-intentioned efforts to mix in the action (as when he half-leaps out a window after a fugitive crook), and his exuberant enthusiasm every time he sees an opportunity of starting a scrap with the Mogul Cab Company’s drivers are all hilarious.
Dick Dickinson has a brief but memorable turn as the bribed football player Tod Burns, showily but effectively registering guilt, fear, and desperation during a locker-room confrontation scene. Edward Peil is the coach of Burns’ team, while the serial’s various stuntmen–Canutt, the Metzettis, and George Magrill–appear as minor thugs. Joseph Mack plays a thug assisting Irene and the mysterious doctor; the Internet Movie Database (often unreliable) and serial historian Raymond William Stedman (almost always reliable) both list Lon Chaney Jr. as appearing in Ghost, but I was unable to spot him. If he is in the chapterplay, he has no distinguishable speaking part, and is probably one of the extras in the football scenes or in the big cab-driver battle. Another future celebrity (of a sort) is recognizable, however; Stepin Fetchit pops up very briefly as a college janitor. Lafe McKee narrates the serial’s plot recaps, and also is heard as a police dispatcher; Wilfred Lucas is a sportscaster in the first and last episodes..
The Galloping Ghost is one of the most entertaining of all Mascot’s many entertaining serials; its plotting illogicalities are not irksome enough to seriously diminish the enormous appeal of its likable performances, its involving central storyline, its fast pace, and its innumerable well-staged action scenes.