The Hurricane Express is the oldest and most reliable train in the yards of the L&R Railroad; as such, it becomes the target of a mysterious railroad saboteur, who causes a crash between it and another L&R train. Its engineer, Jim Baker (J. Farrell MacDonald), is killed in the wreck, and his pilot son Larry (John Wayne) vows to track down the man responsible; that man is the Wrecker, a master criminal whose reasons for wreaking havoc on the L&R are just as mysterious as his actual identity. He could be Jordan (Matthew Betz), the other engineer involved in the Express’s wreck, who has vowed vengeance on the railroad for firing him after the crash. He could be Gray (Lloyd Whitlock), Larry’s former boss and the head of the L&R’s chief rival, the Air Transport Company. Then there’s railroad manager Edwards (Tully Marshall), railroad lawyer Stevens (Conway Tearle), and stationmaster Karlson (Al Bridge). The most likely suspect, however, is Stratton (Edmund Breese), the company’s former manager, who has escaped from the prison where he was serving time for embezzling railroad funds. Stratton is convinced that Edwards held back evidence that would have cleared him at his trial, and with the help of his daughter Gloria (Shirley Grey), who is working as Edwards’ secretary under an assumed name, is determined to acquire said evidence–even going so far as to make off with an L&R gold shipment stolen by the Wrecker’s gang, hoping to use it to blackmail Edwards into compliance. Gloria has reservations about her father’s methods (but no doubt of his innocence), and she joins forces with Larry to keep the gold from falling back into the Wrecker’s hands, prevent further attacks on the Hurricane Express, and discover the Wrecker’s identity–with both help and hindrance from railway detectives Matthews and Hemingway (Joseph Girard and James Burtis). However, the chase after the villain is made additionally complicated by his ability to impersonate anyone he chooses, with the help of some extraordinarily life-like masks.
The Hurricane Express is one of the most entertaining of Mascot’s many mystery-villain serials, thanks to its wonderfully varied array of action scenes and chases, typically interesting Mascot location shooting, and a particularly interesting cast of “suspect” characters. The plot is also less muddled than that of Shadow of the Eagle, The Three Musketeers, and Mystery Mountain; most of the suspects are given logical reasons for their behavior, and the Wrecker’s powers of disguise provide a convenient explanation for most of the skullduggery performed by innocent persons. The masks also give rise to some genuinely unnerving, Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers-like moments in which a character suddenly reveals himself to be the villain in disguise.
Above: The Wrecker doffs a mask after impersonating a train conductor (it’s never explained, incidentally, how the villain’s masks are apparently able to transform him physically as well, allowing him to impersonate such widely varying types as John Wayne and Tully Marshall. Later serial villains 39013 and the Black Widow would go to the same costumier).
Writers Colbert Clark, Wyndham Gittens, George Morgan, Barney Sarecky, and J. P. McGowan (also the serial’s co-director) not only keep the plot relatively free of confusion, but pace it nicely as well. There are only two principal plot threads–the railroad’s pursuit of the Wrecker and the Wrecker’s attempts to wrest the gold from Stratton–but McGowan, his fellow writers, and co-director Armand Schaefer manage to prevent either scenario from becoming tedious by keeping their characters constantly on the move. The scripters do resort to flashback sequences to pad a few later chapters, but at the same time avoid a second-half slump by introducing some unexpected plot developments (including the death of a major character) in said later episodes.
The serial’s action scenes center around trains, planes, and cars by turns. Chapter Two consists of almost non-stop action, during which Edmund Breese makes off with the boxcar full of gold, Wayne runs along the top of the train, the villains strafe the train with a machine gun from the air, and Wayne captures the heavies’ plane only to crash it. The lengthy Chapter Three car chase, which culminates in Wayne driving his car across a railroad trestle, is another standout, as is the fight in the railyard in the same chapter. Other highlights include Wayne’s motorcycle pursuit of a runaway boxcar in Chapter Five, the shootout in the abandoned mine in Chapter Eight, and the action in the climactic chapter–which begins with another shootout by the mine, leads into a fight on the railroad tracks and Wayne’s automobile pursuit of the Hurricane Express (driven by the Wrecker), and finishes with a fight between hero and villain in the engine’s cab.
Above: Wayne hops the stolen gold train (top left); Wayne drives his car onto the railroad tracks during the Chapter Three chase (top right); Wayne catches the boxcar on his motorcycle (bottom left); at bottom right, Matthew Burtis (light suit) and Joseph Girard prepare to start a shootout in the old mine (Bronson Cave).
Yakima Canutt performs much of the stuntwork, with help from Eddie Parker and Bert Goodrich–although Wayne performs the motorcycle chase himself. He and the various heavies also seem to handle most of the fistfights on their own (several of which feature the amusing sight of Wayne using diminutive action heavy Ernie Adams as a human projectile against the other thugs).
The serial’s many car chases are excitingly shot on the steep, twisting roads of the Bronson Canyon area. Bronson Canyon itself, with its famous cave, appears as the abandoned mine, while other action scenes play out in actual railyards or along rural railroad tracks–giving the serial a nice feeling of authenticity. Co-director J. P. McGowan was probably of great help to Mascot in selecting such locations–as well as in handling the train action–given his considerable experience in directing railroad-themed adventure films during the silent era (including the lengthy series of Hazards of Helen shorts).
The chapter endings alternate train, plane, and car crashes with less spectacular “dramatic” endings; my favorite among the latter group is the Chapter Nine one, which makes it seem that the Wrecker has actually shot and killed Wayne after a confrontation between the two in a darkened room. The boxcar crash at the end of Chapter Five, which features some good miniature work, is one of the best of the more standard chapter endings, as is Wayne’s near-crushing underneath a massive locomotive in the railroad’s repair shed at the end of Chapter Six.
John Wayne is excellent in the leading role, not only throwing himself athletically into the action scenes but also handling dramatic moments with flair. His enraged reaction to his father’s death in the first chapter is impressive and even a bit frightening; he’s also quite intense in his periodic confrontations with suspects, and manages to make his incessantly repeated line “The Wrecker–the man who murdered my father” sound heartfelt despite its overuse.
Heroine Shirley Grey is one of Mascot’s most attractive leading ladies–not only because of her very noticeable good looks, but because of the warm and natural way she delivers her lines, in strong contrast to the rather stiff and mannered heroines seen in so many of the studio’s other chapterplays. Edmund Breese is likable as her father–crafty and rather hard-bitten in manner, but never so bitter over his lot as a fugitive as to become irritating; he also gets to display endearing solicitude for Grey and commendable loyalty to Wayne.
Tully Marshall has an interestingly complex role as Edwards; the character is selfishly hard-hearted and shows little concern for anything but the railroad’s profit line, but at the same time is admirably tough and determined in the face of danger. Marshall’s wizened, rather buzzard-like appearance and harsh voice suit the part well. Lloyd Whitlock is much more likable as Gray, the airline owner with designs on the railroad’s business and a romantic interest in the heroine; his characterization is suave and gentlemanly, but tinged with enough untrustworthy slickness to make him a credible suspect.
Matthew Betz is excellent as the tough and snarling Jordan, giving ferocious energy to the ex-engineer’s angry tirades against the railroad. Al Bridge is entertainingly shifty and smug as Karlson the stationmaster, while former silent-era star Conway Tearle is cultured and dignified as the railroad’s attorney. Joseph Girard does a good job as the dignified but uncompromisingly tough railroad detective, and James Burtis is unobtrusively funny as his bumbling assistant.
Ernie Adams, usually a nervous minor henchman, plays well against type as the Wrecker’s decisive and aggressive lieutenant; his principal followers are three of the best henchmen to be found in the serials of the 1930s–Al Ferguson, Charles King, and Glenn Strange. Yakima Canutt also pops up as a thug, while Eddie Parker plays multiple roles as a detective, doctor, and pilot, and Fred “Snowflake” Toones–later a frequent player in Republic’s features and serials–appears as a railway porter. J. Farrell MacDonald is perfect in the small but pivotal role of Wayne’s father; the scene in which he fondly recalls that he took the Hurricane Express on her first run and (prophetically) says that he’ll be driving her on his last run is genuinely moving.
The Hurricane Express ranks high on most buffs’ lists of Mascot serials, the author’s included. Its action scenes and location shooting are up to Mascot’s usual standard, while its stars (particularly John Wayne and Shirley Grey), its comparatively logical treatment of its mystery villain, and its distinctive railroad background serve to raise it several notches above the studio average.