Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1939. Starring William “Wild Bill” Elliott, Iris Meredith, Richard Fiske, Dick Curtis, Trevor Bardette, LeRoy Mason, Richard Botiller, Bobby Clack, Hal Taliaferro, Olin Francis, Kenneth MacDonald, James Craig, Francis Sayles.
In the year 1836, a mysterious figure–known only as Pegleg–is determined to establish his own empire in the unsettled regions west of the Rocky Mountains; with the help of his band of outlaw followers and allied Indian tribes, he is making war on the trappers and scattered settlers in the area, and also attacking incoming wagon trains. The US Senate enlists Kit Carson (Bill Elliott) to deal with the situation, and the famous scout–with help from army officer Brent (Richard Fiske) and rancher’s daughter Carmelita (Iris Meredith)–soon begins spoiling Pegleg’s schemes. Trading post owner Stewart (Hal Taliaferro), gambler Webster (Kenneth MacDonald), Doc Parker (Francis Sayles), rival fur traders Baxter and Mitchell (LeRoy Mason, Trevor Bardette), and the traders’ respective lieutenants Pierre and Tennessee (Olin Francis and James Craig) all provide Carson with (apparent) help as well–but one of them is secretly Pegleg himself.
Overland with Kit Carson, like Bill Elliott’s preceding vehicle The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, was produced on a budget not only far higher than that of the average serial, but more lavish than that of many a B-feature. Again like Hickok, it was filmed largely on location in Utah, but makes even better use of that state’s scenery than the earlier serial, setting virtually all of the action (save the recurring trading post scenes and a few sequences in Santa Fe) in the great outdoors. The towering rock formations, high cliffs, pine forests, and deep canyons of Utah’s Zion National Park and its environs give the serial a visual distinction unmatched by any other chapterplay and by comparatively few feature films. The Zion locations also make it very easy to believe that the action is taking place in the days of the earliest Western settlement and exploration; the untouched landscape really looks like a wild world beyond the borders of American civilization.
Directors Norman Deming and Sam Nelson recruited numerous Utah locals to work as extras in Carson (Nelson, who co-directed Hickok, had followed the same course in that serial); as a result, the ranks of Pegleg’s Black Raiders, the various Indian tribes, and Kit Carson’s militia of mountain men are all filled with an impressive number of recruits. There are sometimes over forty players on-screen at a time in the serial’s battles, giving them a large-scale look that seems perfectly suited to the epic scope of Pegleg’s schemes and the national importance of Carson’s mission–although the repeating firearms used in the combats are strictly anachronistic for a serial taking place in the era of flintlock weapons.
Carson’s script, by Joseph Poland, Morgan Cox, and Ned Dandy, features some good ideas, especially Pegleg’s continual attempts to acquire a supply of rifles for his followers; such a realistic plot point is refreshing to find in a serial, most of which simply ignore the logistics of outlawry. However, this subplot (and other subplots like the investigation of Pegleg’s secret identity) is frequently obscured by the gigantic battles between the “Carson Men” and the Black Raiders–which brings us to this handsomely produced serial’s biggest flaw: the repetitiveness of its action scenes.
This repetitiveness wouldn’t be a real problem with the serial if said battles didn’t suffer from a backlash caused by earlier Columbia serials; the high body counts in Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok and The Spider’s Web so upset the censor’s office that Columbia took great pains to downplay violent death in the serials that followed those releases. As a result, while heroes and heavies exchange round after round of bullets in Carson’s many mammoth gunfights, the participants on either side are rarely shown to be hit. The sameness of the gunfight scenes–and their de-emphasizing of lethal violence–becomes rather tedious after several chapters; when almost every plot thread leads into one of these bloodless but noisy combats, the viewer can’t help noticing that the narrative is spinning its wheels.
However, it must be said that all of the battle scenes look very impressive, thanks to the scenery and the abundance of extras–particularly the attack on the trappers’ rendezvous in Chapter Two, the assault on the ammunition wagons in Chapter Four, the siege at the canyon mouth in Chapter Six, the Carson Men’s attack on the Raiders’ camp in Chapter Nine, the hillside shootout in Chapter Eleven, and the forest shootout in Chapter Thirteen (the last of which actually does allow a few Indians and outlaws to bite the dust).
For similar censor-dodging reasons, the vivid one-on-one gunfights that were such a highlight of Hickok are absent in Carson; the only personal duel that Bill Elliott engages in here is the suspensefully built-up but disappointingly resolved combat with secondary action heavy Richard Botiller in Chapter Five. Other small-scaled action scenes are few and far between, although the brief fight in the cantina in Chapter Three and the longer bridge fight at the end of the same chapter are quite good, as is the Chapter Four sequence that has Elliott surprising a Black Raider pack train and bull-dogging its members off their mounts.
Some of the more novel action scenes center around Pegleg’s trained killer stallion Midnight; the horse’s murderous pursuit of heroine Iris Meredith and one of Elliott’s men is memorable, as is the later sequence that has Midnight charging Elliott and Richard Fiske at the head of a wild horse herd; Elliott (doubled by Bob Woodward) swings onto the killer horse’s back to make him turn the stampede. Elliott’s breaking of Midnight in the final chapter is a dramatic sequence as well, but ends far too quickly.
The serial’s cliffhanger scenes are generally spectacular, although an inordinate number of them feature either landslides or powder-wagon explosions; the heroes (like those in Universal’s serials) also tend to simply survive these perils instead of plausibly escaping them. The powder-wagon’s plunge from a towering cliff (and its simultaneous explosion) at the end of Chapter Thirteen is very striking–despite having been preceded by many similar explosions. The best of the landslide cliffhangers is the Chapter Fourteen one, mainly because of its excellent buildup: Bill Elliott is discovered infiltrating Pegleg’s camp beneath a bluff during a nocturnal Black Raider meeting, and the subsequent fight plays out in eerie firelight, with Pegleg viciously shouting “Get him!” to his followers and henchman Ernie Adams reacting with terror as fire ignites the villains’ stock of explosives, bringing down the mountainside on Elliott.
Above: Shots from the great Chapter Fourteen cliffhanger sequence. Elliott fights the Black Raiders (top left) while Pegleg orders his destruction (top right). Ernie Adams warns of the oncoming explosion (bottom left) and the Raiders flee (bottom right), leaving Elliott to apparently perish in it.
Other standouts among the chapter endings include the bridge cliffhanger that closes Chapter Three, the collapsing mine cliffhanger at the end of Chapter Ten, and Elliott and Iris Meredith’s apparent trampling by a herd of bison in Chapter Five. Buffalo stampedes were common occurrences in Universal’s 1930s Western chapterplays, but Columbia’s version of the oft-used idea is much more memorable for a simple reason: these bison are the genuine article (inhabitants of Zion Nation Park), not mere stock-footage animals as in the Universal westerns.
Overland with Kit Carson’s large cast is filled with expert serial players, but the large-scale nature of the action gives most of them rather short shrift. Bill Elliott spends much of his time shouting orders to his men during the mass gunfights, but his distinctive screen personality–grimly tough but good-humored, crafty but sincere–still comes through in his dialogue scenes.
Iris Meredith makes for a gorgeous and exceptionally attractive heroine–whether charmingly acting as a sort of unofficial hostess at the trading post or calmly and cheerfully riding into danger with Elliott. Richard Fiske, as Elliott’s ally Lieutenant Brent, is a very likable assistant hero, delivering his lines in a serious and intensely earnest fashion that fits his military character, but relaxing into a more genial manner in lighter moments.
Pegleg is a memorably menacing villain, and is one of the few serial mystery villains to be played by the actor that is ultimately unmasked as the heavy’s alter ego. Unfortunately, this approach makes it fairly easy for a veteran serial viewer (and probably even for most novices) to spot the guilty party among the suspects, despite the elaborate disguise the actor wears in both identities. Giving Pegleg a mask and dubbing his voice would have made the guessing game a lot more interesting–but it would have been a pity to lose the performance of the actor in question, whose ominously friendly manner just before killing disobedient henchmen is only equalled in menace by the cold fanaticism with which he raves about his dream of empire. As a mystery villain, Pegleg is a misfire, but thanks to the actor playing him, he’s also the most memorable heavy in any Columbia serial.
Dick Curtis and Richard Botiller are very good as Pegleg’s two leading henchmen; Curtis is aggressive, sneering, and very decisive when it comes to concocting his own strategies in the field, while Botiller comes off as slower-witted but just as mean, thanks to his combination of a slightly hesitant manner with a gloating grin. Other prominent members of the Black Raiders are played by Art Mix, Jack Rockwell, and Ernie Adams (as the gang’s gunsmith).
Elliott, Meredith, Fiske, Pegleg’s enactor, Curtis, and Botiller fare the best in the competition for screen time; the many talented “suspect” actors are given little to do besides make recurring walk-ons, although each of them plays a potentially interesting character. Hal Taliaferro as the genial trading-post proprietor has the biggest role, while Kenneth MacDonald as the suave and courtly gambler and Francis Sayles as the dignified doctor make the most of their brief appearances. LeRoy Mason is gruff as fur trader Baxter, while Trevor Bardette is talkative and effervescent as his French-accented rival Mitchell. Tough-looking Olin Francis is well-cast as Mason’s hard-bitten aide Pierre, and future star James Craig already displays definite charisma as Bardette’s chief trapper. Unfortunately, not much is made of the rivalry between the two fur companies, and while one wouldn’t have wanted the suspects to descend into Mascot-style illogical behavior, more skullduggery from the dueling traders and their trappers would have helped to make the storyline seem less repetitious.
Young trick roper Bobby Clack is billed fourth but has almost nothing to do as a boy settler who “keeps an eye on things” for Carson at the trading post. Hank Bell puts in a brief appearance as real-life mountain man “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, and Flo Campbell plays Hal Taliaferro’s kindly wife. Francisco Maran (his last name misspelled as Moran in the credits) is good as Iris Meredith’s genteel adoptive father (a Spanish don), while Irene Herndon is Meredith’s maid. John Tyrell is an army captain kidnapped by the Black Raiders, and Martin Garralaga appears as a Spanish commandant in one chapter.
Iron Eyes Cody has a noticeable role as an Indian prisoner who becomes Bill Elliott’s ally in the later chapters after the hero sets him free; another Indian captive in an earlier scene looks a lot like Ray Mala (who also appeared in Bill Hickok and other serials), but is not definitely identified in any cast listings I’ve seen. Lester Dorr is rather improbably cast as an Indian chief, while Kenne Duncan pops up briefly as a trapper and Stanley Brown plays a rebellious Black Raider who’s killed by Midnight the horse in the serial’s memorable first sequence. Edward LeSaint appears as the Vice President (Martin Van Buren) in Chapter One, while Robert Fiske is an antagonistic Senator Henry Clay in the same sequence. Senator Thomas Hart Benton–another real-life figure–takes a prominent role in this scene as well, but I couldn’t identify the frustratingly familiar-looking actor that plays him.
Above, from left to right: Carl Stockdale (back to camera), Robert Fiske, and the unidentified actor playing Thomas Hart Benton. If anyone recognizes “Benton,” please feel free to let me know in the comments section.
The scope, production values, and performances of Overland with Kit Carson are so impressive that the flaws in its execution tend to be easily forgiven by serial buffs. I sympathize with this viewpoint, but still find myself wishing that the directors had ignored potential censor wrath and given more impact to their gunfight sequences–or that the writers had masked the directors’ self-censorship by placing less emphasis on titanic shootouts. With just a little more boldness or creativity on the part of the crew, Carson would have a strong claim to rank as the greatest Western serial ever made; instead, directors and writers delivered a serial that, while lovely to look at and generally enjoyable, fails to realize its full potential.