After a Civil War prologue introducing hero Confederate Army Captain “Wild Bill” Tolliver (Bill Elliott) and his friendly opponent, Major Stacy Roberts (Lane Chandler), Valley of Vanishing Men’s main plot gets underway, as Tolliver and his sidekick and ex-bugler Missouri Benson (Slim Summerville) ride West to join Tolliver’s prospector father near the town of Canyon City. They discover Canyon City to be in terror of a gang of mysterious raiders that have been abducting citizens on a regular basis, Tolliver’s father being the first to disappear. Outlaw leader Jonathan Kincaid (Kenneth MacDonald) is the man behind the vanishings; he and his gang have taken over the senior Tolliver’s gold mine and are using him and their other captives as slave labor in order to work it. Kincaid is also plotting with the Austrian general Engler (Arno Frey) to help the Emperor Maximillian oust President Benito Juarez of Mexico, and trying to disrupt the efforts of border rancher Consuela Ramirez (Carmen Morales) to aid Juarez’s cause. It will be up to Bill Tolliver and Missouri, with the help of Consuela and her group, Major Roberts’ cavalry, and the citizens of Canyon City, to smash Kincaid’s far-reaching scheme and rescue his unwilling miners.
Valley of Vanishing Men has to be one of the least-discussed and least-known serials of 1940s serials. Like the similarly obscure Desert Hawk, it suffers from being one of a handful of Columbia serials not based on a comic book, radio show, or comic strip; it also lacks the curiosity factor of the comic James W. Horne serials that preceded it or the masked hero of the serial (The Secret Code) that immediately followed it. However, Vanishing Men is greatly superior to the Horne serials when it comes to genuine serial excitement, and in terms of action, plotting, and acting, is at least the equal if not the superior of Secret Code. Vanishing Men is blessed with an excellent cast, some terrific action scenes, and plenty of the secret passages, death traps, and other gimmicks that make the serial genre so enjoyable (the giant but movable stone idol that guards the entrance to MacDonald’s headquarters, and the fan device the villains use to sweep hoofprints from the street of their ghost-town hideout, are especially striking). However, Vanishing Men also has a rather padded storyline and poorly-conceived central plot; we’ll tackle the worst first.
Vanishing Men’s writers–George A. Gray, Harry Fraser, and Lewis Clay–manage to keep their plot from ever hitting a standstill, despite the long running time (twenty minutes on average) of each chapter and the serial’s overall fifteen-chapter length; intelligently, they have Bill Elliott begin to unravel the secrets surrounding the villain’s hidden mine around Chapter Nine, rather than having the hero and villain play unproductive cat-and-mouse until the final chapter; this gives the plot more of a feeling of progression. However, the script still feels padded and contrived in many places; promising subplots (the villains setting the Indians on the warpath, the fake gold-rush that Elliott starts to cause an occupation of the villains’ ghost-town hideout) are trotted out but abandoned quickly, making their space-filling purpose too apparent.
The serial’s biggest scripting misfire, however, is in the violent marriage of the “secret gold mine” plot with the “Mexican politics” plot. The non-Mexican, non-Austrian Kincaid’s motivations for taking part in the plotted overthrow of Juarez are never really explained–money? Power? Political principle? (the way he and his henchmen salute each other with “For the Empire” suggests the last, but it’s hard to picture George Chesebro, Tom London, Jack Ingram, and the other outlaws that make up Kincaid’s band as being committed to any political cause, let alone a foreign one). In a Republic or Universal serial, Kenneth MacDonald would be laying Kincaid’s ambitions out in every chapter, which would undoubtedly have proved tedious but would have at least cleared things up a bit. Kincaid’s abandonment of his gold mine to make an all-out military assault on Juarez (with a rather small band) in the final chapter seems particularly stupid and poorly motivated, since he knows his enemies have discovered the mine’s location.
Additionally, the “history” that the writers build the Mexican subplot on is severely wrong-headed; we’re asked to regard Maximillian as an outside invader trying to overthrow a stable republic and its “lawful president,” instead of the conscientious ruler–handed the impossible job of ordering a chaotic and bankrupt nation–that he was in reality. The serial could have benefited from excising the Mexican part of the plot entirely and made protecting the secret gold mine Kincaid’s sole goal, but that would have probably forced the writers to keep the serial to twelve chapters, a strict no-no at Columbia. Additionally, I suspect that the scripters were particularly eager to depict noble, freedom-loving Mexicans and nasty, Germanic military invaders in order to propagate the era’s Good Neighbor Policy and work in some anachronistic World War 2 propaganda.
Despite the aforementioned plotting problems, Vanishing Men is pretty good in most other departments. Although director Spencer Bennett operates here without the stuntmen and the production crew he would utilize later at Republic, he orchestrates some great gun battles, horseback chases, and fistfights, with the able assistance of stunt performers Ted Mapes, Kermit Maynard, and others. Some of the high points are Bill Elliott’s rooftop pursuit of henchman Tom London in Chapter Three, and the nighttime attack on the Ramirez ranch in Chapter Six, which culminates in a lengthy fistfight between Elliott and Kenneth MacDonald that takes them down the cellar stairs and up a rickety ladder above a well. The Chapter Eight fight between Elliott and Robert Fiske in the latter’s store is also a standout, as is the shorter fight between Elliott and Roy Barcroft in Chapter 12. The last chapter’s rock-bound cavalry/outlaw battle (filmed, like many of the serial’s other outdoor sequences, at the Corriganville ranch) is very well-staged, and is followed by a good climactic fight between Elliott and MacDonald at the mine (while a candle burns down to explosives that will blow the heroine and other prisoners sky-high). These two sequences help to make the last episode one of the most exciting and satisfying climaxes in any Columbia serial.
Above, top left: Bill Elliott (probably doubled by Ted Mapes) is about to catch Tom London during the rooftop chase. Top right: Elliott lunges at Kenneth MacDonald during the Chapter Six tunnel fight. Bottom left and right: Shots from the climactic outdoor battle scene.
The serial’s chapter-ending cliffhangers contain some good ideas, but–as seems too frequently the case at Columbia–are sprung with very little buildup and are thus less suspenseful than similar sequences at other studios. A case in point is the Chapter One ending, when the villains abruptly trap Elliott in a blazing canyon; by the time we’ve figured out how the villains caused the fire and realized Elliott’s predicament, narrator Knox Manning is telling us the name of next week’s episode. The later cliffhanger that has Elliott about to be burned alive by an ancient Toltec sun-magnifying is set up a little better and cleverly resolved, while the death device itself is quite impressive–but MacDonald’s reason for disposing of Elliott in such a roundabout Rube-Goldberg-like way is not even weakly explained (Elliott even points out the impracticality to MacDonald, but is ignored). Even for the serial genre, rife with improbably motivated death traps, this stands out as sloppy writing.
However, some of the chapter endings do manage to combine inventive ideas with good staging, particularly the one that has Elliott rushing to stop the villains from blowing up a saloon full of prospectors, only to be caught in the blast himself; the buildup here, with shots of the ticking clock that will signal the explosives’ set-off, is very well done. Another good chapter ending has heroine Carmen Morales atop a porch roof that is knocked from its support by cattle stampeding down the street; this sequence is an excellent example of how standard stock footage (the cattle stampede consists of scenes used in many other serials) can be blended with a new idea (the girl on the porch roof) to create a memorable cliffhanger. Another well-staged cliffhanger sequence has Elliott atop a ladder knocked from a high cliff; the shots from Elliott’s point-of-view are convincingly dizzying, although the resolution is a bit of a cheat (Bennett would reuse this cliffhanger, minus the cheat but also minus the point-of-view shots, in Haunted Harbor at Republic).
As was already mentioned, Valley of Vanishing Men’s cast is outstanding. Bill Elliott’s role doesn’t play to his strengths as much as his first leading serial part (in Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok) did; Vanishing Men lacks the one-on-one gun duels that allowed Elliott to display his laconic grimness so well in his first serial and his B-westerns. However, Elliott’s charisma still shines through in Vanishing Men in his curt interchanges with belligerent or cowardly townspeople, his wryly humorous reactions to Slim Summerville’s comic behavior, and his quietly determined confrontations with the villains; throughout the serial, he brings much more to his basically written role than the typical serial lead would have.
Slim Summerville as Missouri Benson also makes his standard comic “buffoon” sidekick something special, despite the annoying music and excessively cartoony sound effects (particularly the slingshot twang) that accompany his antics. Summerville’s comedy doesn’t need such embellishments; his owlish facial expressions, gangly movements, and mild-mannered but quirky dialogue delivery are inherently amusing, and help to make even his goofiest bits enjoyable. Unlike many other comic relievers, he’s never shrill or manic, and never seems to be straining for laughs.
Kenneth MacDonald is memorably cold and menacing as Kincaid, especially when matter-of-factly telling unsatisfactory henchmen that they’re “finished” before shooting them, or when making his sweating followers stand in front of the muzzle of his ingenious gun-desk while they give their reports. However, his character is a known villain from the beginning of the serial, and while this allows MacDonald to participate in more action than usual in his serial roles, it robs him of the chance to pose as a good guy; casting MacDonald as the brains heavy and not letting him hoodwink the heroes is almost like casting Gene Autry in a film and not letting him sing.
Leading lady Carmen Morales doesn’t have a large role, but handles her screen time well; she’s graceful and charming, and thankfully doesn’t play her character as an irritatingly hot-tempered “South of the Border” type. She even manages to make her overdone (and, in view of later Mexican history, very embarrassing) speech about Mexico’s “beacon of liberty” bearable. Julian Rivero, looking much older than he did in Burn ‘Em Up Barnes, made only eight years earlier, is her faithful servant, while Martin Garralaga is her dignified and resourceful Mexican ally, General Garcia. If anyone can tell me the name of the actress who plays Morales’ talkative maid, who flirts periodically with Slim Summerville, please do so in the comments section.
George Chesebro is the leader of MacDonald’s henchmen, and plays his role with an enjoyably energetic sneer throughout. Old reliable Tom London is the next most prominent member of the henchman pack, while Jack Ingram and John Shay (though both prominently billed) have somewhat fewer villainous activities to perform. Kenne Duncan appears in the serial’s middle chapters as another henchman, while Lane Bradford (in his serial debut) appears very briefly as yet another outlaw. Stuntman and former James. W. Horne regular Chuck Hamilton is another member of the henchman pack, while Hamilton’s fellow henchman in many Horne serials, Constantine Romanoff, has the small but noticeable role of the slave-driver in MacDonald’s mine, menacingly cracking his whip under the opening credits of each chapter. Stanley Price, true to panic-stricken type, plays a henchman who vainly pleads for mercy before being dispatched by MacDonald’s gun-desk in the first chapter.
Sly, poker-faced Robert Fiske figures prominently in the serial’s first half as the outlaws’ inside man in Canyon City, a slick and seemingly-respectable storekeeper. Roy Barcroft is present throughout the serial as a loutish deputy marshal, and takes over the position of town inside man after Fiske’s demise; both before and after being revealed as a villain, Barcroft largely plays his character as thuggish and none too bright, but does briefly indulge in the sort of nice-guy pose he would utilize in many later serials. Ernie Adams is delightful as a cocky but high-strung bartender in the pay of the gang, especially when irritably trying to pry the truth about a phony gold strike out of Slim Summerville. Arno Frey, as MacDonald’s military accomplice General Engler, has little to do but stand at attention by MacDonald’s desk and look and sound as like a proto-Nazi as possible.
Lane Chandler is affable and stalwart in his periodic appearances as Major Roberts, while William Newell–as one of his troopers–provides additional humor in his bickering Yank-Reb exchanges with Slim Summerville. Michael Vallon plays the self-important Marshal of Canyon City in the earlier chapters, Chief Thundercloud is his usual imposing self as an Indian chief pacified by Chandler but set on the warpath again by MacDonald, and I. Stanford Jolley has an extended bit as a gun-runner. Forrest Taylor plays a doctor enslaved in MacDonald’s mine, and Karl Hackett is the most rebellious of his fellow-prisoners. Frank Shannon has the small but important part of Bill Elliott’s father, continually defying his captor-employer MacDonald and making an escape attempt with the aid of high explosives–both actions calling to mind his famed Dr. Zarkov role. Incidentally, I seem to be almost the first reviewer to notice Shannon’s turn in Vanishing Men; the Internet Movie Database incorrectly lists Rick Anderson, a regular Columbia B-western player, as playing Tolliver senior, while Gene Blottner’s book Wild Bill Elliott: A Complete Filmography correctly lists Shannon as old Tolliver in its cast listing for the serial, only to mistakenly credit the role to Anderson in the following synopsis.
Ben Corbett and Davison Clark play solid and fairly helpful Canyon City citizens (the editor and the banker, respectively), and Helen Gibson, a former silent-serial heroine, can be seen as one of the townswomen (probably by coincidence, a cut from Gibson and her gossiping friends to a flock of clucking hens foreshadows an identical juxtaposition in the 1962 film version of The Music Man.) Another odd foreshadowing comes in the presence of Missouri’s mule Jericho, which periodically brays insults at its master in the voice of Billy Bletcher. Possibly the most bizarre and pointless character in the history of serials, the out-of-place Jericho nevertheless anticipates those later sarcastic equines, Francis and Mr. Ed.
Despite the flaws discussed above, Valley of Vanishing Men is a solidly entertaining serial, well-acted and action-packed, and most undeserving of its almost complete obscurity among fans. Like The Desert Hawk, The Phantom, and a few other early-1940s Columbia chapterplays, it gives us a look at what more of that studio’s serials might have been like had so many of them not been handled by either the talented but overly-humorous James W. Horne or (later on) the penurious Sam Katzman. Speaking for myself, I would gladly have seen fewer serials like Terry and the Pirates or Brick Bradford and more serials like The Valley of Vanishing Men.