Like Mascot’s later serial The Wolf Dog, The Devil Horse spends most of its opening chapter introducing its trio of protagonists–“A boy, a horse, and a man.” “The boy” is young Frankie Graham (Carl Russell), who is orphaned when a band of rustlers led by Canfield and Boyd (Noah Beery Sr. and J. Paul Jones) murder his rancher father. Frankie wanders into the wilderness and falls in with a wild horse herd. The story skips ahead six or seven years to introduce “the horse:” a racehorse named El Diablo (Apache), who’s coveted by Canfield and Boyd–now prosperous and seemingly respectable businessmen, but still surreptitiously running their rustling operations. They steal the horse while he’s traveling by train, but they’re forced to kill a state ranger (Lane Chandler) who interrupts the attempted horse-napping. In the confusion, Diablo escapes, and both the escape and the murder are witnessed by Frankie Graham (now played by Frankie Darro), who has forgotten how to speak English during his years in the wild but who can verbally communicate with horses. Diablo joins Frankie’s band of equine friends, leaving Canfield determined to recapture the horse. Meanwhile, “the man,” state ranger Bob Norton (Harry Carey), sets out to investigate the death of his colleague–who was also his brother. Norton soon discovers that Frankie, known locally as the “Wild Boy,” was a witness to his brother’s murder, and starts trying to befriend the youngster. He also clashes with Boyd and Canfield’s rustler band and is framed for murder, which puts him at odds with the sheriff and a group of vigilante ranchers. Linda Weston (Greta Grandstedt), sister of similarly-framed rancher Lee Weston (Barrie O’Daniels) helps Norton in his search for the truth, however–as do the Wild Boy and his ferocious friend El Diablo, the titular “Devil Horse.”
The Devil Horse is one of Mascot Pictures’ more satisfying serials, since it features the fast and furious action and lively performances typical of the studio’s cliffhangers while lacking the mystery-villain-centered confusion also typical of many Mascot outings. There are still a few loose ends in the script (we never find out the reason for Lee Weston’s suspicious involvement with the outlaws) but overall the serial’s storyline–the work of George Morgan, George Plympton, Barney Sarecky, and Wyndham Gittens–is straightforward and comprehensible throughout. The lengthy opening chapter, and the multiple crimes it reveals to the audience while leaving them unknown to the good guys, makes the gradual build towards the plot’s resolution more gripping and the final unmasking of the villains more exciting. Even the multiple flashback sequences in the later chapters aren’t particularly irritating, since they recapitulate the several key events from Chapter One and help to build towards the climax.
The serial’s action scenes and cliffhanger endings, overseen and executed by Yakima Canutt (who doubles Harry Carey) and Richard Talmadge (doubling Frankie Darro), with assistance from other stuntmen like Cliff Lyons, are rough, tough, and energetic. Carey’s tussle with the Devil Horse in the first chapter is memorable, particularly when Canutt, doubling the star, jumps onto the horse’s head and holds on for dear life–a stunt that looks even riskier than Canutt’s famous fall-under-the-stagecoach bit. There are some great horseback and car chases (despite the Western setting, the serial appears to take place in the 1930s) through the pine woods of Big Bear Lake, lovely locations usually reserved for Mountie serials. One standout chase scene comes in Chapter Five, with Harry Carey pursuing a car on horseback and transferring to it, then gunning it determinedly through a line of mounted henchmen only to veer off a cliff for the chapter ending. Then there’s a shootout at a barn and a fistfight in its loft, followed by a scene in which Carey and heroine Greta Grandstedt crash through the barn door in a car. Other good action sequences include Carey’s jump from a tree onto a truck carrying the stolen Rex and his subsequent battle for the wheel with henchman Al Bridge, Darro’s ingenious capture of Noah Beery Sr. in the final chapter, and Carey’s spectacular blocking of Beery’s escape attempt in the same chapter.
The serial’s cast is anchored by three marvelous performers–Harry Carey, Frankie Darro, and Noah Beery Sr. Carey manages to convey as much emotion by silence as by dialogue; many serial heroes seem to forget the murder of a friend or relative after the opening chapter, but Carey’s quiet grimness leaves no doubt that his character has not forgotten his investigational motivation. Carey is also wonderful in his scenes with Darro–kindly, fatherly, and wryly good-humored. Darro handles the difficult part of the wary and resourceful Wild Boy well, not speaking in coherent sentences until well after the serial’s halfway mark but making his role memorable nevertheless. His tearful breakdown as he recalls his father’s murder in the final chapter is a particularly good piece of acting. Beery, who steals scene after scene with offhand dialogue delivery, hammy facial expressions, and colorful hand gestures is priceless as the villainous and supremely confident Canfield–gleefully chortling over his various schemes, obsessively insisting that he will capture “that Devil Horse,” and smugly pulling the wool over the good guys’ eyes.
The supporting cast is good too, though the aforementioned trio of stars dominate the proceedings. J. Paul Jones–shifty and shrewd but rather jittery–is an excellent contrast to Beery as Canfield’s co-conspirator Boyd. Al Bridge is great as their leading henchman Curley Bates, a reptilian and untrustworthy individual who spins lies with sardonic assurance and coolly tries to doublecross his own bosses at one point. Greta Grandstedt is cute and appealingly energetic as the heroine, and Barrie O’Daniels makes an unexpectedly suave and dignified “girl’s brother.” Jack Mower is the determined leader of the vigilantes and Ed Peil is the harassed sheriff; Al Taylor, Jack Byron, Victor Adamson, and Charles Schaeffer play some of the leading outlaws, and Yakima Canutt appears as two separate rustlers. Lew Kelly is Darro’s ill-fated father, and little Carl Russell does a very moving job as the young Darro; Kelly’s death and Russell’s reaction to it is one of the most tear-jerking scenes in any serial. William Desmond pops up as a ranger captain in Chapter One, and Lane Chandler is suitably likable and authoritative in his brief appearance as Carey’s brother.
I shouldn’t omit to mention Apache as the serial’s title character, although he performs fewer animal heroics than the various members of the Rin Tin Tin clan in Mascot’s other serials (probably because producer Nat Levine was unable to secure the famous Rex, King of the Wild Horses, as he’d originally planned, and had to go with a younger and less thoroughly-trained equine). Still, he’s a fine-looking horse, and his character certainly lives up to his ominous nickname as he repeatedly stomps the unlucky villains that threaten his young pal Darro. The opening titles, which show Apache galloping around majestically, begin the serial on a properly rousing note; interestingly, the music accompanying these openings is none other than the William Tell Overture, before it began its long association with the Lone Ranger.
The Devil Horse’s combination of fast-moving action with a simple but emotionally involving plot makes the serial very appealing, and its strong cast gives it yet another boost; though seldom listed by reviewers as one of Mascot’s top efforts, it definitely belongs on such a list.