Mystery Mountain deals with the attempts of the Rattler, a mysterious villain in mask and cloak, to sabotage the construction of a railroad tunnel through Iron Mountain. He hopes to conceal a secret gold mine that he and his henchmen are working in the heart of the mountain, and will stop at nothing to halt railroad work. As part of his schemes, the Rattler stirs up enmity between the railroad and its rival, the wagon-freighting Corwin Transportation Company; towards this end, his men raid both groups, making it appear to each company that their rival is behind the attacks. Jim Corwin, head of the Transportation Company, is killed in one of these attacks, leaving his daughter Jane (Verna Hillie) in charge of both the company and the feud with the railroad. However, beleaguered chief railroad engineer Frank Blayden (Edward Earle), receives assistance in the shape of Ken Williams (Ken Maynard), an ace railroad detective. Williams, together with his trusty horse Tarzan and his pal, reporter Breezy Baker (Syd Saylor), sets out to track down the Rattler and put an end to his raids. But the Rattler is a tricky opponent, and could be almost any one several suspects; could he be railroad doctor Edwards (Hooper Atchley)? Jane Corwin’s foreman Henderson (Al Bridge)? Blayden’s clerk Matthews (Lynton Brent)? Independent freight-hauler Lake (Edward Hearn)? Discovering the Rattler’s identity will prove difficult, as the fiend can disguise himself as almost anyone he pleases, casting suspicion on innocent parties and making Williams’ job even harder.
Mystery Mountain is a standard Mascot serial, which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s fast-paced, with enthusiastic performances and exciting action scenes, but at the same time possesses an extremely thin plotline and features a hopelessly complicated and illogical “guess-the-mystery-villain” game. Your enjoyment of the serial will depend on whether your appreciation for the former outweighs your frustration at the latter. We’ll tackle the “bad part” first. The serial’s screenplay, though the product of five writers (Bennett Cohen, Sherman Lowe, Armand Schaefer, Barney Sarecky, and director B. Reeves Eason, serial and B-western veterans one and all) has little variety in its storyline; the Rattler’s schemes of railroad destruction quickly take a back seat to the good guys’ continuing attempt to uncover the villain’s identity and the Rattler’s attempts to hide it, as in the earlier Mascot cliffhanger Shadow of the Eagle. There are multiple chases after important pieces of evidence that will reveal the bad guy’s identity, and a lot of suspicious behavior from assorted characters that might be the Rattler. However, don’t try to figure out the villain’s identity from clues inserted in the film, or you’ll wind up either insane or frustrated; just go along for the ride without guessing, or simply pick a suspect’s name out of a hat.
The incoherence mentioned in the proceeding paragraph is the abiding flaw of most Mascot serials, at least those that feature a mystery villain, but Mystery Mountain also shares the chief virtue of other Mascot serials, namely swift and enthusiastic performance by those behind and in front of the camera. The action scenes, directed by good old B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason and Otto Brower and performed largely by Yakima Canutt and Ken Maynard’s long-time stunt double Cliff Lyons, are first-rate, with an emphasis on horseback chases and gunfights; star Ken Maynard, one of Hollywood’s best horsemen, undoubtedly contributes to the former as well. One of the best action sequences has Maynard pursuing an unwitting group of henchmen on horseback; the villains imagine they are chasing our hero but it’s the other way around, as Maynard bulldogs them from their horses one by one until there’s none left. Another good scene features a large-scale shootout between the heroine’s teamsters and the henchmen, as Maynard climbs down a cliff-face via a rope tied to his horse Tarzan’s saddlehorn to surprise the villains in their shack.
Most of the action is shot at Iverson’s Ranch, but the serial also features some scenes set at the imposing Bronson Canyon cave, often seen in movies but too infrequently in cliffhangers. The climactic chase, with Maynard pursuing the unmasked Rattler to the villain’s hideout in the canyon and then trading shots with him as the villain takes cover in Bronson Cave’s gaping mouth, is more visually exciting than many last-chapter showdowns due to the striking scenery. The serial’s cliffhangers are good ones, especially the Chapter One ending in which a stagecoach containing our heroes plunges off a cliff, and the Chapter Eleven one that has the Rattler apparently knocking Maynard off a clifftop following a fight.
The cast, which is good all the way down the line, is headed up by Ken Maynard. Now, Maynard could reputedly be an enormous jerk off-screen, but none of his real-life personality flaws show up in Mystery Mountain. He’s an extremely charismatic lead, with a laid-back, serious delivery leavened by a very cowboy-ish sense of humor and complemented by a grim tough-guy attitude when necessary. And, of course, he’s highly convincing in the action scenes, as already mentioned. Having only seen Maynard up till now in a few 1940s “Trail Blazers” B-westerns, in which he was showing definite signs of wear (mainly around the waistline), I had often wondered just what had made him so popular in the 1920s and 1930s; now, I can easily see his appeal. I shouldn’t neglect to mention his horse Tarzan, who isn’t as memorable an equine co-star as Trigger or Buck Jones’ Silver (at least not in this serial), but who does his fair share of helpful tricks, and who is vital in the villain’s undoing in the final chapter.
Syd Saylor, a frequent target of critics when this serial discussed, is actually an excellent sidekick. Saylor is a lot less frenetic and obnoxious than many serial comics; his facial reactions (except for his famous Adam’s-apple wobbling, which he actually does not perform very often) and comedy bits are more in the deliberate, slow-reaction style of Laurel and Hardy and thus a lot more enjoyable than the speeded-up pratfalls of other “comic relief” characters. His reaction to a sweaty outlaw hat that he tries to don when he loses his own is priceless, and the sequence in which he tries to straighten out a team of six stagecoach horses is also quite funny, since instead of displaying subhuman stupidity, Saylor simply amuses us by doing what most of us tenderfoots would do in a similar situation–get slowly, understandably, but inexorably mixed up. Saylor’s character is thus “human” enough to convincingly carry whole scenes by himself, which he does frequently–for example, it’s his character that uncovers the Rattler’s secret hideout and gold mine later in the serial, without any help from Maynard.
Blonde and sweet-faced Verna Hillie is an appealing heroine, rather reminiscent of Cecilia Parker. Edward Earle as the railroad engineer is dignified and upright, while Hooper Atchley, with that unique, crisp-sounding voice of his, is perfect as the intelligent but slightly shifty Dr. Edwards. Snarling, sarcastic Al Bridge has a good guy role for a change as Hillie’s faithful foreman, and Edward Hearn is considerably less histrionic than he was in Shadow of the Eagle or Last of the Mohicans as the grouchy freight-hauler Lake. Ugly Bob Kortman and stocky Lew Meehan are the Rattler’s two chief henchmen–the former cunning, the latter dull-witted. They’re backed up by old reliables George Chesebro, Tom London, Frank Ellis, Slim Whittaker, and Jim Mason. Lynton Brent, usually a henchman pack member himself, is Edward Earle’s clerk, and Hal Taliaferro and Jim Corey also get to play on the good guys’ team as two of Verna Hillie’s teamsters. Perennial screen father Lafe McKee is Hillie’s ill-fated parent, and John “Pegleg” Wallace, Trevor Bardette’s double in several scenes of Overland with Kit Carson, is the Rattler’s peg-legged hideout guardian.
The Rattler himself is voiced by Edmund Cobb, who really seems to have fun in the role, deepening his voice to an angry, sinister growl which serves to intimidate his own henchmen and the good guys (except Maynard, of course) alike. Cobb, who doesn’t appear elsewhere in the serial, seems to be playing the Rattler beneath his cape and mask in some scenes, while in others his voice seems to be dubbed in.
Finally, take a close look at two of Edward Hearn’s wagon drivers, who first appear in Chapter Six and pop up at other points throughout the serial. They are none other than Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette, freshly arrived in Hollywood and earning a little extra money pay from Mascot producer Nat Levine, who was using them concurrently in the Ken Maynard Mascot B-Western In Old Santa Fe. Smiley only has a few lines, but Gene’s role is slightly more notable; he is the wagon driver who shoots Maynard in the Chapter Six cliffhanger sequence, mistakenly thinking him a bad guy.
Mystery Mountain is an enjoyable viewing experience, at least for those who can enjoy the fightin’, ridin’, and shootin’ of Maynard, Saylor, Cobb, and company, and forget about trying to solve the hopeless riddle of the Rattler’s identity. Despite its logic gaps, the chapterplay–like many another Mascot outing–is too much fun to miss.