Universal, 13 Chapters, 1945. Starring Bill Kennedy, Daun Kennedy, George Dolenz, Paul E. Burns, Milburn Stone, Robert Armstrong, Addison Richard, Danny Morton, Joseph Haworth, Helen Bennett, Tom Fadden, George Eldredge.
This serial, set in Canada in the year 1900, deals with the murder of a mine owner named Tom Bailey (Guy Beach) in the gold-mining town of Canaska. The prime suspect in the killing is wealthy and domineering businessman Jackson Decker (Addison Richards), who, shortly before the murder, had ordered his foreman Taggart (Milburn Stone) to confiscate Bailey’s heavy mining equipment in payment of money owed to Decker. Taggart, however, is the real culprit: upon discovering that Bailey had struck a new vein of gold that no one else yet knows about, Taggart killed him, and, after dumping his body a distance from the mine, sealed the vein off with an explosion. The villainous foreman is now attempting to covertly dig into the sealed-off gold tunnel from a neighboring Decker mine, with the help of a group of ruthless henchmen. Corporal Wayne of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police–who is in reality is Wayne Decker, Jackson Decker’s estranged son–investigates the murder, wanting to prove his father innocent but fearing that the senior Decker’s unscrupulous business practices, which led to the break between father and son, may indeed have led to Decker’s murdering Bailey. His investigation is hampered by several other people with their own interest in Bailey and the mine. There’s the thoroughly evil saloon owner Jonathan Price (Robert Armstrong), who suspects what Taggart is up to and attempts to deal himself in on a share of the gold. There’s Bailey’s daughter June (Daun Kennedy), who is convinced that Jackson Decker killed her father and is out to prove it through her own investigations, with the help of her friend Dillie Clark (Helen Bennett), who poses as the fortune-teller Madame Mysterioso to aid their plans. And then there’s Latitude Bucket (Paul E. Burns), a garrulous and cunning old codger who seems to be working both for and against every faction, for mysterious and unfathomable motives.
The Royal Mounted Rides Again is one of the least-discussed cliffhangers from Universal’s last days as a serial-making studio, lacking as it does the sci-fi elements of The Great Alaskan Mystery, the costumed hero of The Scarlet Horseman, and the exotic trappings of Lost City of the Jungle. However, Royal Mounted Rides Again is quite comparable to these and other late Universals, in both positive and negative ways. On the positive side, Royal Mounted has an excellent cast of accomplished actors, and a script that is very strong in dialogue and characterization. On the negative side, the serial is quite weak when it comes to action scenes and suspenseful atmosphere, and the full-bore excitement that the plot always seems to promise never quite materializes.
The writers of Royal Mounted Rides Again–Tom Gibson, Joseph O’Donnell, and Harold Channing Wire–include many intriguing elements in their screenplay, including the hero’s conflict with his father, the tension between hero and heroine caused by the latter’s suspicions of the former’s father, the conflicts between the tenuously allied villains Taggart and Price, and Bucket’s ambiguous behavior towards all the other characters. However, once these character relationships are established, little is done to develop them and they ultimately (except for the villains’ antagonism) have little bearing on the serial’s plot. Part of this problem arises from the extreme pains that this outing and other latter-day Universals take to make each episode self-explanatory and self-contained; in episode after episode the characters not only recap the plot verbally, but remind us of their goals, motivations, and personalities (the Latitude Bucket character even reminds us of the reason for his peculiar first name once a chapter).
Though all this dialogue is considerably better-written, better-delivered, and more entertaining than the excruciatingly bland and talky exposition sequences in serials made over at Columbia Pictures during this period, it tends to eat up each chapter’s running time and leave time for little else than the end-of-chapter cliffhanger after the talking is finally concluded, forcing many potential action scenes to take place off-screen; in one chapter, the hero’s tracking of henchman George Eldredge and Eldredge’s ambush and capture of his pursuer, which would take up at least five minutes of footage in a Republic serial, is only referred to in dialogue; thanks to many examples of condensed outdoor action, the serial’s impressive location–the San Bernardino National Forest–doesn’t make nearly as much of a visual impression as it did in other Mountie serials. The script of Royal Mounted Rides Again would perhaps have worked better as a feature film (interestingly, both Gibson and Wire worked principally in that area; only O’Donnell had substantial serial experience); in a feature, the character relationships could have been established early in the picture, thus clearing the decks for plot development and removing the need for constant recapitulation.
As you may have already gathered, this serial is long on dialogue and short on action scenes, but it does contain some good cliffhanger sequences, among them the one in which Kennedy is apparently crushed by a mining car following a fistfight (this chapter is rather cleverly titled “One-Car Collision”), the one in which Kennedy is apparently run over by a log shooting down a flume, the one in which Kennedy is accidentally shot by a fellow Mountie while riding against the skyline, and the one in which Kennedy, leading lady Daun Kennedy, and Paul E. Burns are dropped into the river by a booby-trapped suspension bridge. These last three sequences (and at least one other cliffhanger) are borrowed from the 1933 Universal serial Clancy of the Mounted, and serve as a kind of bittersweet reminder of the higher excitement levels Universal serials were reaching a dozen years ago.
Really, the chief element that makes Royal Mounted, talky as it is, watchable and even rather entertaining, is the serial’s cast. Composed almost entirely of proficient character actors who worked in many features, said cast ensures that the viewer is seldom bored despite the lack of action. Bill Kennedy, who usually played slick bad guys, brings dignity and authority to his leading role, thanks to his stern appearance and his deep voice, but while a very competent actor he’s still one of the less lively performers in the cliffhanger. George Dolenz, as his sidekick, Constable Frenchy Moselle, is much more energetic, and his excitable and sometimes grammatically mixed-up delivery is quite funny. Daun Kennedy (no relation to her co-star Bill) is an attractive leading lady, though like Bill Kennedy somewhat overshadowed by the flamboyant supporting players.
Addison Richards is superb as Jackson Decker; though his character is tough, blunt, and a bit unprincipled, Richards brings convincing feeling to Decker’s dismay over his relations with his son and his concern about the false charges that are being laid against him, ultimately making the character fully likable despite his hard-edged ways. Milburn Stone, hero of two other serials and, of course, co-star on the Gunsmoke TV series, is somewhat hard to accept as a villain at first, but is very good in the part nonetheless. His gruff, matter-of-fact demeanor makes his charade as a good guy more convincing, and his businesslike, unconcerned attitude towards his villainous deeds makes them rather more appalling. Robert Armstrong also does a great job as the sarcastic, cunning, and sinister Price, bouncing some very amusing insults off of Stone’s less verbal character, and Danny Morton is quite memorable as his quiet and thoughtful–but murderous–poker-playing associate Dancer. Grim and hatchet-faced Joseph Haworth is excellent as Stone’s chief henchman, and George Eldredge makes a strong showing as the resourceful lower-ranking henchman Grail. George Lloyd and William Haade, two stocky, ugly, and thoroughly entertaining old reliables, are the other principal henchmen.
Helen Bennett as Madame Mysterioso is the only cast member who’s difficult to watch; she was an accomplished stage actress, but, as in her parts in Lost City of the Jungle and Scarlet Horseman, she seems either unwilling or unable to scale back her acting for the screen, and a result her loud, aggressive, forceful delivery really begins to jar on the viewer after a while. Joseph Crehan is very good as the tough and somewhat grouchy RCMP Sgt. Nelson, and Selmer Jackson, a perennial dignified authority figure in serials and B-films, is similarly good as the RCMP Commissioner. Tom Fadden, another trustworthy character player, is the folksy mining partner of the murdered Bailey, and Guy Wilkerson has a small but enjoyable role as a local blabbermouth.
Acromegalic Rondo Hatton, who played “the Creeper” in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death and some followup Universal horror films around this time, is prominently billed as Armstrong and Morton’s saloon henchman, but has no dialogue and only a closeup per chapter to remind us that he’s there; Universal obviously included him just to capitalize on his Creeper fame. Paul E. Burns, a wonderful character actor who played many memorable parts in A and B features, practically steals the serial as Latitude Bucket, with his puckish smile and jovial but evasive wise-cracking.
Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins direct The Royal Mounted Rides Again, and, while it’s a sad comedown from the action-packed, swift-moving serials Taylor did for Universal in the 1930s (such Pirate Treasure and Flaming Frontiers), it’s still a painless and often interesting serial, though not a great or even notably good one.