Mascot, 12 Chapters, 1932. Starring Harry Carey, Edwina Booth, Bob Kortman, Frank Coghlan Jr., Walter Miller, Walter McGrail, Lucile Browne, Hobart Bosworth, Edward Hearn, Mischa Auer, Nelson McDowell.
The Last of the Mohicans–based, of course, on James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel–takes place in colonial America in 1757, during the final French and Indian War. The Hurons, allies of the French, are on the warpath; as the serial begins, the Huron chief Magua (Bob Kortman) is attempting to convince the Mohican tribe, allies of the English, to join him. Thanks to the integrity of the Mohican chief Sagamore (Hobart Bosworth) and the intervention of the famous scout Hawkeye (Harry Carey), Magua’s recruiting attempt fails, but the wily Huron later leads his warriors in a massacre of the Mohicans while Sagamore and his young son Uncas (Frank Coghlan Jr.) are absent from the village. Magua then helps a captured British officer, Major Duncan Heyward (Walter Miller), to escape from the French, and uses Heyward’s confidence to obtain the job as guide for the Major and the two girls he is charged with escorting–Cora and Alice Munro (Edwina Booth and Lucile Browne), daughters of British officer Colonel Munro (Edward Hearn). The Colonel once had Magua flogged for treachery, and the Huron is determined to gain revenge on him through his daughters. His plot to betray Munro and the girls to the Hurons is thwarted by Hawkeye and the two surviving Mohicans, but the wilderness and the hazards of war have many more dangers in store for the Munro sisters. Hawkeye, his Mohican friends, and Major Hayward must not only protect the girls from Magua’s plans of vengeance, but from the slippery, double-dealing French-Canadian spy Dulac (Walter McGrail), while also trying to hinder the French General Montcalm’s (Mischa Auer) military plans.
Last of the Mohicans is one of Mascot’s least popular and most underrated serials–partly because the only print available for years was not only of poor quality but also overlaid the serial’s music-free soundtrack with (highly incongruous) strains from a Russian opera. But now that a pristine print without the new musical score has become widely available, the serial appears to stand some chance of escaping from its negative reputation among buffs. Mohicans certainly deserves such a reevaulation; it’s a strong and well-made serial, one of Mascot’s more all-round successful efforts. While its plot is decidedly thin, it’s pleasantly simple and uncomplicated (particularly in comparison to many of Mascot’s other cliffhangers); it also features beautiful location work, nearly continuous action, and a solid and interesting (if sometimes over-dramatic) cast of players.
The serial’s screenplay is the work of writers Colbert Clark, John Natteford, Wydham Gittens, and Ford Beebe (who also co-directed with B. Reeves Eason). While their script strays far from Cooper’s story, it still recreates several details from its source and features consistently old-fashioned dialogue that echoes Cooper’s work. Hawkeye in particular talks just like his book counterpart, frequently using words like “yon” and “aught” that seem very appropriate to the serial’s unique period setting. As already mentioned, the storyline is somewhat minimal, and I could wish that the writers had placed the fall of Fort William Henry later in the serial, since the struggle over Hawkeye’s dispatches (vital to the safety of the fort) served as a very interesting subplot. As it is, the military/espionage elements of the serial are dropped halfway through when the French take the fort, and the writers are forced to abruptly introduce a new subplot–Dulac’s pursuit of a cache of stolen gold–in order to keep the “Magua’s revenge” plotline from wearing too thin. Even with this subplot added, the second half of the chapterplay is basically an extended tug-of-war over the Munro sisters.
Above: A mortally-wounded French soldier (Yakima Canutt) hides a gold shipment; he will subsequently tell Cora Munro of the gold’s location before expiring–setting the serial’s second-half plot in motion.
However, the serial moves fast enough to compensate for its often repetitive narrative, and its action scenes–well-staged by Eason, Beebe, and stuntman Yakima Canutt–are very impressive; the first-rate camerawork of cinematographers Jack Young and Earnest Miller also gives the production a strong visual boost. Direction and cinematography are particularly strong during the really excellent Chapter Five attack on Fort William Henry, during which Beebe and Eason, their cameramen, and his stuntmen so effectively fill the screen with action that they create the impression of a large-scale battle, despite their undoubtedly limited budget. Eason was probably the guiding spirit behind this sequence, since he had considerable experience directing epic-sized action scenes (in the silent Sea Hawk and Ben-Hur, among others) during the 1920s.
Other standout action scenes include the chaotic and frightening struggle between the Hurons and the Fort Henry civilians later in Chapter Five, the lengthy Chapter Eight battle in which Dulac, Cora, and Uncas are besieged in a cabin by Magua, the Chapter Four capture of a French powder train by Hawkeye and his party, and the subsequent chase sequence; there are also two excellent canoe chases, and any number of fierce forest shootouts between the good guys and the Hurons. The action scenes are far more violent and intense than similar sequences in Universal’s contemporaneous serials; Hawkeye, Sagamore, Dulac and Magua all dispatch opponents at close range with muskets, arrows, knives, and tomahawks. Even the youthful Uncas runs up a respectable body count, quite unusual for a “kid sidekick” character.
The cliffhangers in Mohicans are often quite good, particularly the Chapter One ending in which Duncan and the Munro sisters plummet down a waterfall in a canoe, and the Chapter Eight ending in which Uncas is trapped beneath the falling roof beams of a burning cabin. However, the cliffhanger resolutions often come off as rather weak, since they are repeatedly resolved by either showing that the characters have faked injuries or simply lived through calamities. This is a result of the way the chapter endings are structured; almost all of them go out of their way to involve all of the principals (Hawkeye, Heyward, the Mohicans, and the Munro sisters) in simultaneous perils; with so many characters to rescue from apparently certain death at the beginning of each chapter, the writers are force to rely rather heavily on improbable contrivances.
Above: Sagamore and his horse plummet from a cliff into a river, Hawkeye and Uncas are apparently shot off a cliff, and a canoe carrying Duncan, Alice, and Cora sails over a waterfall–all at the end of Chapter One.
Harry Carey, who leads an unusually large cast of actors, is excellent as Hawkeye–his gruff voice and weathered face making him a convincingly tough veteran woodsman. When Hawkeye is holding a knife to Dulac’s throat and taxing him with his treachery, Carey’s menacing growl makes it seem as if he’s quite ready to plunge the blade home; from most serial heroes, the threat would have sounded like a feeble bluff. Carey also gets to show flashes of sardonic humor in some scenes, as when he lectures Walter Miller on Indian fighting while casually picking off a Huron that has snuck up behind him. Carey’s commanding but natural and down-to-earth style of acting also helps him to regularly hold center stage among more theatrical co-stars, despite the fact that his share of screen time is not really that much larger than his co-stars’.
Edwina Booth, Carey’s co-star in the famous Trader Horn in 1931, sometimes seems excessively melodramatic as the courageous Cora Munro (gasping and gesturing in particularly over-theatrical style when the Munro girls are first captured by the Indians) but fortunately doesn’t play all her lines at the same dramatic level; she’s quite low-key in some of her less emotional dialogue moments. Walter Miller is the second most hammy member of the main cast; his attempts to express fervent concern for the heroines sometimes sounds hysterical rather than solicitous. However, he also modulates his performance at times, and it’s nice to see him playing a part reminiscent of the heroic roles he handled in silent serials–although he’s a little too old for the part of Heyward, who’s frequently referred to as “lad” or “the young paleface” by other characters.
Veteran stage and silent-film star Hobart Bosworth is a bit physically miscast as the doughty Sagamore; his elderly and rather frail appearance makes it hard to believe in him as a seasoned Indian warrior–although his calm and polished vocal delivery gives him a strong presence, and lends a lot of dignity to his performance. Frank Coghlan Jr. is remarkably good as Uncas, abandoning his usual “gee-whiz” manner and playing the character as tough, determined, and self-confident; his bristling ferociousness as he swears vengeance on Magua in Chapter One is light-years removed from his cheerful Billy Batson characterization.
The lovely Lucile Browne has little to do besides stare in horror or scream in terror as Alice Munro; she handles her sparse dialogue capably, while her attractively sweet and gentle appearance give her an air of innocent vulnerability very well-suited to her role. Edward Hearn plays Cora and Alice’s father, Colonel Munro, in his usual dignified-but-overwrought fashion, ranting in grand style when he learns of his daughters’ plight. Frequent sound-serial henchman (and silent-serial hero) Walter McGrail has the best role of his talkie career as the slippery Dulac; his performance is suave, smirkingly unpleasant, and effectively low-keyed–save for the sequence in which he impersonates Miller, and gives Hearn a floridly dramatic (and fictitious) account of his daughters’ deaths.
The standout performance of the serial, however, is that of Bob Kortman, who is exceptionally menacing as the treacherous Magua. Talking with a slow, grating snarl, and combining a toughly stoic manner with a sullen, barely-repressed rage, Kortman takes center stage in most of his scenes; only Carey and Mischa Auer as Montcalm offer him competition in the screen presence department. Auer is a revelation to those familiar only with his later screwball comic roles in films like My Man Godfrey; he gives Montcalm suavity, politeness, quiet-spoken authoritativeness, and shrewd intelligence. Although he drops from sight halfway through the serial, his characterization is one of the best in the chapterplay. The writers are also to be credited here, for giving Auer an unusually nuanced character to work with; though the French general is an antagonist, the script presents him as an honorable gentleman (like the real-life Montcalm), instead of turning him into a stock villain.
Nelson McDowell, as the awkward singing teacher David Gamut, serves as the serial’s mild comic relief. Gamut, an Ichabod-Crane-like figure, is not your typical slapstick sidekick, and his comedy chiefly consists in his ill-advised attempts to sing at every opportunity; he sometimes becomes as irritating to the audience as he does to Harry Carey (who growls amusingly at him on several occasions)–but he’s redeemingly allowed to play unlikely hero when all seems lost in Chapter Eleven. Al Craven and Jim Corey play Dulac’s two henchmen, and Joan Gale (later an Indian heroine in Mascot’s Miracle Rider) has a small part as an Indian girl with an unaccountable crush on the loathsome Magua. Yakima Canutt, the serial’s leading stuntman, appears variously as a Huron, a French soldier, and a British colonist. Although the Internet Movie Database’s sparse cast listing is not helpful, I suspect that several other familiar faces are hiding under the serial’s powdered wigs and Indian haircuts; I’m pretty sure that I recognized Hooper Atchley’s voice as both a French and British soldier.
The serial’s locations–Iverson’s, Lake Sherwood, and the Kernville area–are strikingly attractive, and appear to have been carefully selected to match the serial’s historical setting; as a native of the Northeast, I’m very impressed by the care that seems to have been taken to make sure that the serial’s locales resembled the hills, dales, and forests of that region. There are no obviously far-Western stretches of landscapes to be seen; instead, thick foliage, rolling hillsides, and rushing rivers dominate the scenery, effectively making it seem as if the characters really are running around in the wilds of pre-Revolutionary-War New York, and not in California. All of these nicely woodsy locations are shown off to maximum advantage by cameramen Young and Miller, who fill the serial with impressive and well-composed long shots.
The Last of the Mohicans’ subject matter might be different than that of the typical Mascot serial, but it possesses the enthusiastic energy of the studio’s best releases, and lacks the confusing qualities of many of them. Now that prints which do the chapterplay full justice are available, fans of Mascot serials–and of serials in general–should give this offbeat but exciting outing another look; it’s definitely due for a thorough reexamination.