“A fabulous fortune is at stake! The Iron Claw is hot on the trail! He lurks in the dark! He strikes in the back! Murder! Intrigue! Horror! Destruction! Brother against brother! Friend against friend! Who is this man who holds them all at bay? Who is this man who laughs at the law and the underworld alike? WHO IS THE IRON CLAW?’
So declaims narrator Knox Manning at the start of The Iron Claw’s first chapter (and at the beginning of every subsequent chapter), setting the tone for perhaps the most consistently outrageous James W. Horne serial of them all. Other Horne serials like Perils of the Royal Mounted and The Green Archer have their comedic hi-jinks stalled in spots by chunks of serious plot; even Horne’s Terry and the Pirates had its out-of-place serious moments. The Iron Claw, however, is almost sheer comedy from start to finish. Its insane pace never slows, and it keeps its heroes, villains, and suspects continually on the go–in and out of secret passages, in and out of death traps, and in and out of exaggeratedly heated arguments about who the Iron Claw really is; overall, the serial plays like a knowing spoof of both the “old dark house” movie and the “mystery villain” serial. I understand the annoyance that many serial fans have felt and still feel with such Horne’s self-parodying approach, but I have to admit that Iron Claw is a well-done and enjoyable parody indeed, coming closer to being a comic whole than any other Horne serial.
The Iron Claw’s plot, such as it is, concerns the Benson family, a greedy and self-seeking family that rivals Charles Dickens’ Chuzzlewits in avariciousness. There’s ex-con spendthrift Roy Benson (Norman Willis), his pompous brother Culver (James Metcalfe), their slick nephew Dr. James Benson (Alex Callam), their grasping niece Milly (Edythe Elliott), and her weaselly husband Simon Leach (Allen Doone). They’re all after the Spanish gold that Culver and his supposedly wheel-chair-bound brother Anton (Forrest Taylor) brought back from a treasure hunt years ago; Anton is the only one who knows where the loot is and is just as bent on hiding it from his relatives as they are on getting it away from him. There’s one more player in the game, the mysterious Iron Claw, who murders Culver in the first chapter, after Culver has accused Anton of cheating him out of his share of the treasure. Anton thinks the Claw might be Captain Flint, the leader of the treasure-hunting expedition that he and Culver abandoned at sea–but, since Anton is soon revealed to be faking his crippled condition, he can’t be ruled out as a suspect himself. Neither can the other Bensons, or Anton’s butler and accomplice Gyves (John Beck). Anton’s niece Patricia Benson (Joyce Bryant), the only honest member of the family, and intrepid newspaper reporter Bob Lane (Charles Quigley) set out to unmask the murderous Claw–dodging the mystery man’s fiendish plans, the machinations of wily old Anton Benson, and the schemes of gangster Silk Landon (Charles King), whose gang has been enlisted by Roy Benson to help him find the gold.
Don’t waste any time waiting for The Iron Claw’s plot (concocted by writers Jack Stanley, Basil Dickey, Charles Condon, Jesse Duffy, and George H. Plympton, undoubtedly with an assist from Horne) to make sense; the whole storyline is nonsensical. Each and every member of the Benson family, along with the Claw himself, appears to know about the secret tunnels under the house where Anton character stores his gold–yet they never utilize the knowledge to make off with the treasure. Additionally, the guilty suspect’s motive for dressing up as the Claw is never explained, and neither are his random assassinations of other suspects. Whether this confusion was present in the screenplay to begin with or if Horne intensified it, I can’t say, but if it was there to begin with, Horne was certainly wise to play the whole serial for laughs, since the mystery plot would have proved unsatisfyingly confusing in any event.
The Iron Claw possesses some pretty good cliffhanger sequences (such as the one in which the Claw runs a mine car full of explosives down a track towards a shack containing Quigley), along with some laughably overdone cliffhangers (such as the one in which the Claw attempts to kill our heroes by trapping them in a mine cave-in and then setting the mine tunnel on fire into the bargain). There are also a lot of energetic fight scenes scattered throughout the serial, but most of them, in typical Horne tradition, are rendered comedic rather than exciting by the impossible number of foes that the hero takes on at one time (sometimes as many as six at once). Horne does include an interesting visual effect in several of the fight sequences; instead of keeping the camera focused on the main brawl at all times, the lens follows individual combatants in a continuous take as they’re knocked to the floor, leap up again, and charge back into the fight.
Above left: The camera follows Charles King as he’s knocked to the ground during a fight, while his henchman continue to battle Charles Quigley at the edge of the frame. Above right: A shot from the overdone Chapter Ten cliffhanger; if you think getting trapped in a collapsing mine shaft is bad, try getting trapped in a collapsing mine shaft that’s on fire too
The Iron Claw’s cast seems to have fun with the serial’s breathlessly ridiculous script. Leading man Charles Quigley isn’t cranky and aggressive like most of Horne’s heroes (particularly Dave O’Brien and Robert Kellard). The lightness of touch that he occasionally showed in his Republic serials comes to the fore here and helps him to deliver a very funny performance; his character is smooth and slick, yet over-energetic to the point of frenzy at the same time. Walter Sande, a very underrated comic talent, is also very amusing as Quigley’s sidekick; he handles physical comedy (including a number of slapstick pratfalls) very well, while keeping up a steady flow of funny quips. The lovely Joyce Bryant is an appealing heroine, although she spends a good deal of her screen time screaming at the top of her lungs, often for the slightest of reasons (another hallmark of a Horne serial).
Forrest Taylor shows himself a rival to Horne’s favorite villain James Craven in the ham department. As Anton, he amusingly chews up the scenery right and left, whether he’s gloating over his gold, exploding with irritation at his greedy relatives, snapping at his long-suffering butler, or plotting the downfall of anyone who threatens his treasure (the maniacal laugh he gives when he tests out a spike-pit trap has to be heard to be believed). Norman Willis is also entertainingly hammy, particuarly in his sardonic interviews with his relatives (when Taylor warns him to make an allowance last, Willis smirks, “I’ll tryyyyy, but I’m a spendthrift”). Allen Doone is comically sneaky and James Metcalfe comically pompous, while the urbane Alex Callam is slightly more dignified, although not by much. Edythe Elliott is properly shrewish as Taylor’s daughter, although she looks far too old to really be his offspring (similarly, Callam looks too mature to be Taylor’s nephew, while Willis seems too young to be Taylor’s sibling–changing the family relationships of the Elliott, Callam, and Willis characters, without otherwise altering their roles might have been a good idea). Grumpy and furtive-looking John Beck makes a good foil for Taylor as (in Walter Sande’s words) “that creepy butler”, Gyves.
Former Laurel and Hardy foil James Morton is quite funny as the bumbling police detective Casey; his bulk and his bowler hat bring to mind Hardy himself, and the disgusted look he gives the audience after colliding with a closed secret passageway is even more reminiscent of Ollie. Charles King plays it relatively straight as the gangster Silk Landon, but his henchmen (particularly frequent comedy-short actor Cy Schindell, who talks with a cartoonish “mug” accent) are all so goofy that his deadpan seriousness in ordering them about comes off as comic nevertheless. Ted Mapes, Jack Perrin, and Joe Devlin are other King accessories, while Hal Price is a dopey policeman and Richard Alexander puts in a one-chapter appearance as the Iron Claw’s giant mute henchman.
Above left: Cy Schindell (standing) laments the death of a colleague, while Charles King (seated left) looks annoyed. Above right: James Morton (center) is puzzled as Alex Callam (left) and Allen Doone hurl accusations at each other.
The Claw himself seems to have come right out of a silent movie; he’s the only serial mystery villains who never utters a word of dialogue, instead delivering a series of exaggerated “double-takes.” The character seems quite menacing in his first appearance, as he creeps up on a sleeping James Metcalfe, but the menace is shattered, never to be restored, when his intended victim awakes and engages him in a lengthy knock-down-drag-out fight, after which the Claw just barely manages to finish him off–a darkly comic anticlimax that serves as the serial’s first notice of Horne’s tongue-in-cheek approach.
Once The Iron Claw is accepted as a comedy, and not a source of thrills and chills, it can be highly enjoyable to watch–representing as it does the most unabashed serial example of its talented director’s quirks.