Flaming Frontiers opens with famous scout Tex Houston (John Mack Brown) en route to the town of Plainsville. After rescuing a dog, tangling with some Indians, and taking over the mail pouch of a mortally wounded Pony Express rider (all in a day’s work for a hero), Houston arrives in Plainsville, where he finds that the father and sister of his friend Tom Grant are in serious trouble. Scheming businessman Bart Eaton (James Blaine) is trying to force Mary Grant (Eleanor Hansen) to marry him by threatening to send her father (Eddy Waller) to prison on a false charge of embezzlement. The Pony Express pouch proves to hold good news for the Grants, however; Tom (Ralph Bowman) has struck it rich out in Gold Creek, California. This news winds up sending the Grants, Houston, and Eaton and his gang of henchmen (who hope to grab Tom’s gold mine) west to Gold Creek with a wagon train; en route, Andy Grant is killed. Upon the train’s arrival in Gold Creek, slick saloonkeeper Ace Daggett (Charles Middleton) comes into the picture as well, setting his sights on Tom’s mine. It will be up to Houston to protect Mary from both gangs of villains, clear Tom of a false murder charge, and keep the mine in the Grant family–with help from Buffalo Bill (Jack Rutherford), friendly Indian Thunder Cloud (Chief Thundercloud), and faithful dog Sudden.
Flaming Frontiers, like most of Universal’s Western serials from the 1930s and early 1940s, overuses silent-movie stock footage (chiefly during Indian attacks) and stretches a rather basic plot to make it fill the required number of chapters. However, Flaming Frontiers also shares the virtues of Universal’s other cowboy cliffhangers of the era; its pace is fast, its characterizations distinctive, and its atmosphere more evocative of the real Old West than that of Republic and Columbia’s slicker-looking western serials. Ironically, the aforementioned silent stock footage has a lot to do with this Old West ambience; many of the silents in question were produced not long after the frontier’s last fading, and both actors and sets in the 1930s footage are dressed to match the older stock.
The serial’s script–by George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Paul Perez, and Wyndham Gittens–is rather padded in places, mostly during the wagon-train trek in the first four chapters. Frontiers would have benefited by being reduced from fifteen to twelve or thirteen chapters, since, although the characters’ journey West gives rise to some good action scenes, it does little to advance the plot and feels like a dragged-out prologue to the main story. However, when the characters arrive in Gold Creek in Chapter Five, the narrative becomes much more interesting, with the three-cornered fight over the gold mine providing more than enough action and chicanery to fill the remaining chapters–with help from a few Indian attacks, the murder-charge subplot, and the oscillation of the double-dealing Breed (Charles Stevens) between the Eaton and Daggett gangs.
The action scenes in Frontiers are rarely spectacular, but are very frequent and are also very well-executed by directors Ray Taylor and Alan James–with the partial exception of a few large-scale Indian attacks that, while exciting, are marred by too-obvious use of the aforementioned stock footage. Johnny Mack Brown’s ambushing of a small group of Indians from a rocky outcropping in Chapter Three is well-done, as is his fight with Eaton’s henchmen in the saloon in Chapter Four. Other highlights include the shootout at the cabin in Chapter Six (as a fire blazes in its cellar), the fight inside another cabin in Chapter Nine, the excellent shootout in the rocks in Chapter Ten and the ensuing chase, the good guys’ crossing of a stream under villainous fire in Chapter Thirteen, and the Chapter Fourteen sequence that has Brown fighting Charles King in Tom Grant’s cabin and Chief Thundercloud battling Charles Stevens in the mine beneath–as a burning fuse prepares to blow them all sky-high.
Most of these shootouts and chases–and many other entertaining pieces of action–are staged in the rocky, rolling, and semi-forested hills of the Kernville, California area (where other Universal Western serials, and several Mascot ones as well, were filmed); this setting provides the serial with plenty of visual appeal. Kernville’s standing outdoor Western street serves as Gold Creek; its rough and weather-beaten look seems appropriate for a mining boom town in the middle of wild, Indian-haunted country.
The serial’s chapter endings feature some good situations, though far too many of them are resolved by having the heroes simply survive their danger (a standard shortcoming of Universal serials). The flood sequence that closes Chapter Nine is memorable, despite its use of stock footage; the Chapter Three ending, with a wagon containing Brown and Eddy Waller plunging off a cliff, is also very good (and, unlike most such catastrophes in the serial, actually has serious repercussions for one of the characters involved). Perhaps the best cliffhanger is the Chapter Eight one, with heroine Eleanor Hansen dodging out-of-control wagons in the street at Gold Creek; it’s very well-staged and apparently carried off with very little use of stock footage or process-screen shots.
Along with its numerous action scenes and the Kernville locations, Flaming Frontiers’ biggest asset is its cast of characters (and the actors who play them). Johnny Mack Brown is extremely likable in the leading role; he’s appropriately tough and serious when necessary, but his performance here–as in his other serials–is chiefly distinguished by his completely unaffected geniality. No other chapterplay hero was as infectiously cheerful, and few were as good at shrugging off acts of derring-do in such a natural and unassuming fashion; Brown’s Tex Houston comes off as a hero who doesn’t even realize he is a hero.
Leading lady Eleanor Hansen is beautiful and very appealing–whether setting out to help Brown escape from the Indians in spunky but matter-of-fact fashion or worrying about her brother’s plight as a fugitive. Ralph Bowman, as her harried sibling, is much more tough and rugged-seeming than the listless juveniles usually cast in such roles; he would later go on to a successful career as a heavy, character actor, and occasional lead in movies and television under the name of John Archer.
James Blaine’s Bart Eaton, with his designs on the heroine’s hand and her family mine, is a stock villain right out of melodrama, but he plays the part in a complacent and businesslike fashion that downplays its more clichéd aspects. Blaine avoids theatrical gloating or sneering in favor of a smug, selfish, and slightly pompous manner that makes the character seem far more hateful than a hammier approach would have. Good as Blaine is, however, Charles Middleton as Ace Daggett manages to upstage him with ease– without ever venturing beyond his saloon headquarters. The cigar-puffing gambler is the least maniacal serial heavy that Middleton ever portrayed, but he’s just as enjoyable to watch as more intense Middleton villains like Ming the Merciless and Pa Stark–whether he’s jovially deceiving the good guys, snapping orders to his henchmen, or tossing sarcastic remarks at Bart Eaton.
William Royle is very good as Eaton’s tough cohort Crosby, more of a full-fledged partner in crime than a mere henchman; his confident performance makes his Crosby seem just as intelligent as (and considerably tougher than) Blaine’s Eaton. Charles Stevens is also excellent as Breed, playing the sneaky, cowardly, and bullying character with hissable flair, but generating a touch of sympathy for the cocky little wretch when his own associates turn on him halfway through the serial.
Roy Barcroft and Ed Cassidy are Blaine’s other principal henchmen; Barcroft delivers his lines in aggressive, snarling fashion and makes the most of his background part, while Cassidy is hilarious as an unusually dull-witted thug, continually making stupid comments that win him disgusted looks from William Royle. Charles King, Karl Hackett, and Jack Richardson play Charles Middleton’s principal thugs, while Jack Roper has a good bit as the sinister desperado “Wolf” Moran. Other henchmen of various persuasions are played by Slim Whittaker, Pat J. O’Brien, and Tom Steele (who, along with Cliff Lyons, provides much of the stuntwork). Al Bridge has a one-chapter bit as a crook named Merkel, whose murder (by Stevens) brings major repercussions to all the characters when it’s blamed on Ralph Bowman.
Chief Thundercloud is dignified but tough as the helpful Thunder Cloud, while Jack Rutherford is appropriately authoritative and swashbuckling as Buffalo Bill, popping in and out of the story to assist Johnny Mack Brown as the situation requires. The dog Sudden deserves a mention as well; the story allows him some nifty displays of heroism, and the floppy-eared mutt himself is an interesting visual change from the German Shepherds that dominated movie serials.
Eddy Waller is good in his short-lived role as the heroine’s father–suitably distraught over his many woes, but retaining a certain resigned toughness in the worst of circumstances. Horace Murphy, a silent-film comic, is very amusing as the gabby and excitable Gold Creek sheriff, while Frank LaRue is the serious town judge. Chief Many Treaties plays Chief Thundercloud’s father, while Chief John Big Tree plays another Indian leader. Iron Eyes Cody pops up as multiple Indian braves, Earle Hodgins as a loony drunk in Daggett’s saloon, Jim Farley as a wagon train leader, and Frank Ellis–usually a thug–as a helpful pioneer.
Many serial fans have been unable to get past the silent stock footage and “routine” plotlines in Universal’s Western serials, but those chapterplays hold many hidden treasures for those with more tolerance for old-fashioned frontier adventures. Flaming Frontiers is a typical case in point; its vivid performances, wonderful locations, and almost continual action more than compensate for its thin story and for the occasional use of undercranked Indian-attack scenes.