Flyer Jerry Patton dies in a plane crash in Alaska during an attempted round-the-world flight, leaving his faithful dog and flying companion Pal (Rin Tin Tin Jr.) stranded in the wilderness; the dog soon fights his way to the leadership of a wolf pack. Meanwhile, young Frank Stevens (Frankie Darro), living in the Alaskan woods with his kindly mother (Sarah Padden) and his brutal trapper stepfather (Fred Kohler Sr.), discovers that he is actually the son of a recently deceased tycoon named Courtney and now controls the Courtney Shipping Line. Setting out for California to claim his inheritance, Frank encounters Pal, now The Wolf Dog, who has been wounded by ranchers; after the boy nurses the dog back to health, the two become traveling companions. Reaching a seaport, Frank and Pal are intercepted by Frank’s “stepfather,” who hopes to cash in on Frank’s inheritance; fortunately, the duo is rescued by Bob Whitlock (George J. Lewis), radio officer on a Courtney Line steamship. Bob helps Frank and Pal get to Los Angeles, where the Courtney Line’s crooked chairman Norman Bryan (Hale Hamilton) is less than pleased by the appearance of a Courtney heir: having previously framed Frank’s uncle Jim (Henry B. Walthall) for embezzlement, Bryan had expected to win sole possession of the shipping line after the death of Frank’s father. Bob and Pal must now help Frank dodge Bryan’s attempts to remove him, while also trying to clear Jim Courtney and protecting a valuable invention of Bob’s (a ray device that ignites gasoline over long distances) from the greedy Bryan’s grasp. Despite Bryan’s friendly pose, the trio of heroes manage to unmask him, with help from Jim Courtney’s daughter Irene (Boots Mallory), who’s been working as Bryan’s secretary under an assumed name in hopes of clearing her fugitive father.
The Wolf Dog is one of Mascot’s least-known serials. John Wayne’s three chapterplays for the studio continue to enjoy a certain fame because of their star, while the Mascot vehicles of other big names like Tom Mix and Red Grange receive similarly automatic attention. Still other Mascot chapterplays have repeatedly attracted viewers through their colorful mystery villains. Wolf Dog has no mystery villain, and, while hero George J. Lewis is well-known to serial fans as a heavy, he’s not considered an iconic hero. To make matters worse, good viewing copies of Wolf Dog were impossible to find until collector David Crowley and Eric Stedman of the Serial Squadron website finally located a clear and non-splicy print of the chapterplay and transferred it to DVD in 2015. As a result of these various handicaps, Wolf Dog is generally overlooked by serial fans–which is a pity, since it’s an entertaining, lively, and thoroughly solid effort–not as fantastical as some of Mascot’s other outings, but much more smoothly plotted than the studio norm.
Although they spend more time than necessary on Pal’s first-chapter origin story, Wolf Dog’s writers–Colbert Clark, Wyndham Gittens, Sherman Lowe, Al Martin, and Barney Sarecky–otherwise keep their plot firmly on track through the serial’s twelve chapters, with none of the logic gaps so common to Mascot. The simplicity of the storyline does lead to a certain amount of repetitive hero-villain dueling, but the continual shift of narrative focus between three overlapping subplots–Bryan’s attempts to eliminate Frank, his pursuit of Whitlock’s invention, and the good guys’ efforts to clear Jim Courtney–keeps things from seeming too repetitious. The definitive wrapping-up of the Jim Courtney subplot halfway through the serial further diminishes the wheel-spinning feel of the storyline, as does the new subplot that takes its place–the heroes’ investigation of Bryan’s aide Mason, which ultimately snowballs into an investigation of Bryan himself and leads to the climactic action. However, even with three plot threads in hand, the writers–as in The Devil Horse, Mystery Squadron, and other Mascots of the period–are forced to resort to brief but irritatingly numerous recap scenes to pad the serial out to the full twelve chapters.
Like almost every Mascot outing, Wolf Dog features interesting location work–the railyards, city streets, country roads, and (especially) ships and harbors that serve as backdrops to the action are almost all genuine. Directors Colbert Clark and Harry Fraser stage many excellent action sequences in these and other locations; among the highlights are George J. Lewis’s rope-swing rescue of Frankie Darro as Darro dangles from some suspended crates aboard ship in Chapter One, an excellent motorboat chase sequence later in the same episode, and a car-motorcycle chase (in Chapter Nine) during which Lewis, Darro, and Rin Tin Tin Jr. escape the villains by taking their cycle down a steep hill (this chase, like many similar scenes in other Mascot outings, is filmed on the roadways near Bronson Canyon).
Above, top left: George J. Lewis swings to the rescue of Frankie Darro in Chapter One (both actors are presumably doubled here). Top right: Lewis chases Max Wagner up a dockyard sandhill during a Chapter Four clash. Bottom left: Lewis zooms through a California crossroads town during a good car chase in Chapter Eight. Bottom right: A shot from the wild downhill motorcycle ride in Chapter Nine.
Other standouts include the extended fistfight in the dockyards in Chapter Four–with our trio of heroes taking on Fred Kohler and Max Wagner–and the well-staged and well-shot mass attack on Henry B. Walthall’s house in Chapter Eleven, with the thugs attempting to break in from all sides and Lewis, Darro, and Rinty desperately trying to stop them. Lewis’ final pursuit of the exposed Hale Hamilton, with a grisly finish for the villain in the harbor, is also memorable. Yakima Canutt, George Magrill, Kermit Maynard, and others handle the dangerous stunts, but the actors–in typical Mascot fashion–seem to handle a good deal of the fights and chases themselves.
The cliffhanger sequences and very good for the most part, particularly Lewis’ Chapter Four fall down a hillside into the path of a speeding train and the motorcycle crash that follows the above-mentioned downhill run; the Chapter Two shooting/explosion cliffhanger is memorable too, but its resolution seriously strains credibility. Perils are evenly distributed between the protagonists, with the writers avoiding contrived attempts (like those seen in Mascot’s earlier Last of the Mohicans) to involve the trio in simultaneous danger at the end of every chapter. Rinty, like Mascot’s other animal heroes, gets to experience some standard serial-hero perils himself; one chapter ends with him battling in a villain in an out-of-control car and then trying to haul the unconscious Frankie Darro out of it before it goes over a cliff.
Most of the leading actors deliver energetic performances to match the serial’s swift tempo, particularly leading man George J. Lewis. Lewis barks out his lines in such intensely eager fashion as to almost sound crazed at times (particularly when he’s enthusing about his invention); his facial expressions are similarly emphatic. The performance will be something of a shock to those familiar with Lewis’s later, more restrained serial turns, but his characterization–though highly theatrical–is still very likable for its sheer exuberance.
Frankie Darro’s performance is just as energetic, but much more subtle and natural than Lewis’s. As in his other chapterplays, he strikes just the right balance between youthful emotionalism and youthful spunk, conveying proper pathos when being bullied by heavies, but also displaying a likable self-confidence when rushing into action. Rin Tin Tin Jr, whose famous father co-starred with Darro in The Lightning Warrior, doesn’t play as central a role in the plot as his parent did in the earlier serial, but he still serves as an appealingly offbeat co-hero and gets several action scenes all to himself.
Hale Hamilton is wonderfully entertaining as the villainous Norman Bryan, delivering a scenery-chewing performance worthy of Noah Beery Sr. He snarls, chortles, gloats, and blusters his way through his role–maintaining a pompous but convincingly jovial manner when interacting with the good guys, but ordering his henchmen about in tyrannically overbearing fashion; he successfully steals every scene he’s in. Niles Welch, as Hamilton’s villainous associate Mason, is hammy as well, but in quieter fashion; he spends most of his time skulking in the background and registering “menace” with a series of extremely sinister facial expressions.
The great Henry B. Walthall, slumming in serials after his days as an acclaimed silent-film star, nevertheless lends genuine emotional depth to his turn as Jim Courtney, conveying an earnestness and a quiet dignity in the face of continual persecution that is downright touching. Former Ziegfeld girl Boots Mallory is very attractive as his daughter, and conveys a pleasantly sympathetic personality, but betrays a lack of acting experience; her line delivery is generally flat and she rarely varies her facial expressions.
Old pros Stanley Blystone and Tom London are fun to watch as Hale Hamilton’s lead henchmen– the former loud-mouthed and swaggering, the latter furtive and cautious. Gordon DeMain and Donald Reed are also good as a pair of slick and shifty “detectives” hired by Hamilton to “protect” Darro, and George Magrill is memorable in a small part as Hamilton’s resourceful chauffeur/henchman. Fred Kohler Sr. is intimidatingly nasty as Darro’s “stepfather,” functioning as a wild-card villain until he (disapointingly) drops from sight halfway through the serial. Sarah Padden is very sympathetic as Darro’s kindly foster-mother, while Max Wagner is Kohler’s loutish cohort.
Lafe McKee pops up as a veterinarian, Kernan Cripps as a police official, Lane Chandler as a ship’s officer (and later as a police radio dispatcher), and Yakima Canutt as a thug. Cornelius Keefe plays the ill-fated Jerry Patton in the first chapter, while Dickie Moore, star of Columbia’s Cody of the Pony Express serial nearly twenty years later, appears as a young boy watching Patton’s takeoff in the first chapter.
The Wolf Dog deserves greater attention from serial buffs, particularly those who are fond of Mascot’s chapterplays. Its leading performances are engaging, its pacing up to the studio’s usual standard, its locations interesting, its action sequences first-rate, and its plotting (though somewhat thin) is much less needlessly convoluted than that of many of its peers.