Mascot, 12 Chapters, 1932. Starring John Wayne, Dorothy Gulliver, Edward Hearn, Richard Tucker, James Bradbury Jr., “Little Billy” Rhodes, Ivan Linow, Lloyd Whitlock, Kenneth Harlan, Walter Miller, Pat O’Malley, Roy D’Arcy, Yakima Canutt, Bud Osborne, Ernie Adams, Edmund Burns.
During the first World War, American flying ace Nathan Gregory (Edward Hearn) was mistakenly downed by friendly fire when flying a mission in a captured enemy ship; though presumed dead, he survived and is now “living from hand to mouth” as the proprietor of a small carnival. Gregory suspects that five of his “old war buddies” (Richard Tucker, Lloyd Whitlock, Walter Miller, Pat O’Malley, Edmund Burns) deliberately shot him down so they could steal a valuable aeronautical invention of his. The five ex-pilots, along with a sixth partner (Kenneth Harlan) are now the directors of a successful airplane factory and are being threatened by a mysterious flyer calling himself the Eagle–which, incidentally, was Gregory’s nickname during the war. Gregory’s daughter Jean (Dorothy Gulliver) and carnival stunt pilot Craig McCoy (John Wayne) must prove that The Shadow of the Eagle does not belong to Gregory, and must fight the directors, the Eagle’s thugs, and the sinister Eagle himself (who is actually one of the directors, seeking sole control of the factory) to do so. Fortunately, our hero and heroine are aided throughout by three trusty carnival performers–Billy the midget (Billy Rhodes), Heinie the strong man (Ivan Linow), and Henry the ventriloquist (James Bradbury Jr.).
Shadow of the Eagle has one of the most nonsensical and weakly-plotted scripts of all Mascot’s serials. Despite the recap narrator’s continual emphasis on the Eagle’s campaign against the directors, almost all of the villain’s energies are directed towards attempted kidnappings of Gregory, presumably as part of the plot to frame him. The Eagle does spend a lot of time sky-writing the factory directors’ names and crossing them out–but he rarely follows these threatening displays with concrete action against his targets, making their terror of him seem somewhat ridiculous. Additionally, the directors themselves behave like outright criminals throughout most of the serial–committing almost as many thefts, assaults, and kidnappings as the Eagle’s gang–yet abruptly become friendly and sympathetic in the final chapter. Even by Mascot standards, writers Wyndham Gittens, Colbert Clark, and Ford Beebe (the latter also directs) turned in some sloppy work here.
Despite the sloppy plotting, Shadow of the Eagle is highly entertaining, thanks to its lightning-fast pace, its action scenes, and its colorful supporting characters. Its extensive location shooting is also a big part of its appeal. Like other Mascot serials set in contemporary times (Burn ’em up Barnes, The Galloping Ghost), Eagle features some fascinating glimpses of 1930s California; the factories, city streets, rural roads, back alleys, apartment buildings, sanitarium gardens, and carnival grounds that the characters chase each other through are all represented partly or wholly by the “real thing.”
The action that takes place against these and other backdrops is consistently exciting–much of it supervised by Yakima Canutt, who plays one of the leading henchmen as well as contributing to the stuntwork (The Internet Movie Database also lists B. Reeves Eason as an uncredited co-director, but this is unverifiable). Star John Wayne performs a fair share of stunts on his own–including most of the motorcycle-riding sequence in Chapter One, during which Wayne rides his cycle up and down the sides of a ditch and later zips past two henchmen to snatch some important papers right out of their hands. Other action highlights include the fight on the airplane plant’s roof in Chapter Three, the chase at an abandoned construction site in Chapter Eight, and Wayne’s leap into the villains’ car from a hillside (and the subsequent tussle in the out-of-control vehicle) in Chapter Ten.
Above left: Wayne crashes the gate of the airplane factory. Above right: Yakima Canutt (doubling Wayne) makes a leap during a chase at a construction site. Bottom left: Wayne overhauls the crooks’ car on his motorcycle. Bottom left: Ivan Linow hurls a coat-tree at the villains during a fight.
The serial features some good cliffhangers, too–among them the “double peril” that has a car containing Wayne and Billy Rhodes crashing into a scaffolding that Dorothy Gulliver and Ivan Linow are standing atop at the end of Chapter Two, and Wayne’s plummet from a ferris wheel at the end of Chapter Three. The most memorable chapter ending, however, is the first one, a well-shot sequence that has the Eagle trying to run down Wayne and Dorothy Gulliver in his biplane (shades of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest).
John Wayne is the most natural of the serial’s leading performers; as in his other serials, he delivers even his most florid dialogue in a low-key but convincing manner that makes it seem more believable–while still conveying exuberant and seemingly boundless energy in the action scenes. Pretty Dorothy Gulliver is very spirited and expressive when delivering short lines or silently reacting to danger, but tends to become rather flat and robotic-sounding in extended dialogue sequences. Edward Hearn, as her father, overacts outrageously but entertainingly, particularly in the first-chapter scene where his character laments the wrongs he’s suffered.
Of the Eagle suspects, Richard Tucker and Lloyd Whitlock have the most screen time; Tucker is pompous and aggressive while Whitlock is urbane and shifty. Both are very good, albeit quite hammy. Walter Miller, Pat O’Malley, and Kenneth Harlan are more subdued and are give much less to do, although Miller does become more prominent in the serial’s last two chapters. Edmund Burns, as the sixth suspect, is killed off too early to make much of an impression.
Roy D’Arcy, Bud Osborne, and Yakima Canutt are the Eagle’s principal henchmen; Osborne and Canutt are tough and very capable-seeming, making a formidable and convincing pair of thugs, while D’Arcy, as a slicker henchman, delivers an eye-rolling, moustache-twirling performance worthy of Snidely Whiplash. Ernie Adams brings liveliness and surprisingly effective pathos to his turn as Kelly the carnival barker, a likable but shifty figure who eventually turns out to be pivotal to the plot. Billy West plays a traitorous clown, and Monte Montague pops up as a policeman.
Despite the vivid performances of other cast members, it’s Eagle’s trio of offbeat sidekicks that steal the show. The gigantic Ivan Linow is physically perfect as the strong man, and is given plenty of opportunities to toss stuntmen around like bales of hay and engage in other Herculean heroics. His thickly-accented and occasionally clumsy line delivery don’t damage his performance at all; both seem well-suited to his dependable but slow-witted character. Rubber-faced James Bradbury Jr. is also wonderful as the glib, eternally self-confident ventriloquist, who–like Linow’s strong man–repeatedly aids the good guys with his peculiar skills. Most memorable of all is “Little Billy” Rhodes as the swaggering, cigar-chomping midget, continually bouncing hard-boiled dialogue off the strong man (“Ya big palooka!”), talking tough to characters three times his size, and getting irritated every time someone mistakes him for a child (although he turns this confusion to advantage in one scene, pulling off a bizarre but successful masquerade as an abandoned baby).
Above left: Ivan Linow and Billy Rhodes bait Roy D’Arcy (back to camera) after sabotaging the latter’s car. Above right: James Bradbury Jr. tips his hat to captive henchman Bud Osborne, prepatory to duping him into a confession with his vocal-impersonation skills.
If a viewer can manage to overlook the confusing, contradictory, and repetitive plotting of Shadow of the Eagle, they’ll find plenty of entertainment value in its fast-moving races and chases through the Depression-era Los Angeles area, John Wayne’s energetic leading performance, and–especially–the colorful antics of Wayne’s quirky sideshow allies.