Banker Calvin Drake (Harry Worth), thanks to an inside contact in Washington, knows that the Western Pacific railroad will soon be seeking to purchase a right-of-way through the ranchland surrounding the town of Mesquite, Arizona. Keeping this knowledge secret, he partners with shady saloonkeeper Ace Hanlon (Noah Beery Sr.) to acquire a land monopoly in Mesquite that will allow them to hold the Western Pacific up for millions. To this end, the scheming pair hires outlaw leader One-Eye Chapin (Bob Kortman) to burn out Mesquite’s ranchers, forcing them to sell their property at starvation prices to a dummy land syndicate headed by Hanlon. When leading local rancher Colonel Ryder (William Farnum) proposes to organize a vigilante group to assist beleaguered Sheriff Andrews in ending One-Eye’s reign of terror, Drake and Hanlon have both the Colonel and the Sheriff murdered, which installs their cohort Deputy Sheriff Dade (Carleton Young) as Sheriff. Unfortunately for the land-grabbers, Ryder’s son “Red” (Don Barry) proves an even more formidable opponent than his father; the young cowpoke first nails the outlaws who shot Colonel Ryder, then sets out to smash One-Eye’s entire gang and its secret backers, while trying to keep his Circle R ranch and his neighbors’ ranches afloat financially in the face of outlaw depredations.
Adventures of Red Ryder ranks as Republic’s best Western serial, and also as one of the studio’s best chapterplays regardless of genre. It’s full of the continual but varied action scenes and memorable chapter endings typical of Republic’s Golden Age efforts, and is further enhanced by vivid characterizations and a script that manages to give added interest to standard B-western plot devices by incorporating them into a narrative far more compelling than the serial norm.
Writers Franklin Adreon, Ronald Davidson, Sol Shor, Barney Sarecky, and Norman S. Hall deliver a strong emotional blow to the audience not long after the first-chapter credits, showing the outlaws’ ruthless elimination of a rancher and his older son, and giving the hero a strong entrance as he shows up just in time to save the rancher’s younger child from the same fate. This sequence establishes the heinous effects of the villains’ land-grabbing far more strongly than the generic destruction montage that precedes it; the subsequent shooting of Colonel Ryder and the Sheriff, and Red’s grim avenging of the killings, serves to cement the serial’s serious tone and firmly places the whole ensuing struggle on a more intense and personal level than most of the similar battles over property rights that motivate the action in almost all Western serials.
The writers manage to maintain this urgent tone in subsequent episodes, diminishing it slightly over the serial’s first half but reviving it strongly in the second. After the captured henchman Shark–the focus of much of the first two episodes–is killed, the next four chapters have Red thwarting a stage holdup, combating waterhole-poisoners, attempting to prevent the dynamiting of a pass, and competing in a stagecoach race–all fairly typical western-serial exploits, albeit ones that are linked up neatly with the main plot. However, before the serial can slip into an excessively repetitive pattern or lose too much of its initial momentum, the writers raise the tension level–and shake up the storyline–by having Red framed for murder in Chapter Seven; the resulting complications lead directly to the exposure and death of one of the key villains in Chapter Eight. The writers then move directly into the serial’s climactic plotting sequence in Chapter Nine, springing several more surprising developments on the audience in the subsequent episodes; another major villain is unmasked, and two other prominent characters killed, before the narrative even reaches Chapter Twelve and the exciting final confrontation.
Red Ryder’s action scenes would be memorable even if not set in such a well-handled screenplay, although several of them derive additional excitement value from the style in which the script leads up to them. The first-chapter showdown sequence, in which Red strides down the street and into the saloon to confront his father’s killers, shooting two and besting the third in an elaborate fight scene, is a particularly strong combination of well-staged action and dramatic buildup–as is the avenging Red’s Chapter Eleven face-to-face gunfight with a major villain following the death of another key good guy.
Other action highlights include the nighttime shootout and fight by the water towers in Chapter Four, the fight in the barn loft in Chapter Five, the Chapter Six stagecoach race sequence, the cabin fight and frightening jail fire sequence in Chapter Eight, the race against time to beat a mortgage deadline in Chapter Nine and the same episode’s fight in the land office, the Chapter Ten saloon fight and subsequent horseback chase sequences, and the final chase and battle on the Kernville suspension bridge. Dave Sharpe, leaping and back-flipping around with typical aplomb, doubles Don Barry in the fights, with Bill and Joe Yrigoyen standing in for some of the horseback stunts. Ken Terrell, Ted Mapes, Jimmy Fawcett, and Duke Green also contribute to the stuntwork–the latter two being especially noticeable as wildly gymnastic heavies in the Chapter Ten saloon fight sequence.
Above left: Dave Sharpe fights Jimmy Fawcett as Duke Green prepares to leap into the fray from a saloon balcony. Above right: A stuntman doubling Don Barry (probably Joe Yrigoyen) jumps his horse across Beale’s Cut.
The serial’s cliffhangers manage to be varied despite the inevitable limitations that the Western milieu always places on perils. The stagecoach-off-the-bridge ending of Chapter One features an excellent Lydecker Brothers miniature that was reused in countless Republic features afterwards; the collapse of the flaming water tower that closes Chapter Four also features some good miniature work. Less spectacular, but no less memorable, are chapter-ending scenes like the hero’s apparent crushing by a mine car in Chapter Three, his near-hanging in Chapter Six, and his seeming shooting by a rooftop sniper at the end of Chapter Eleven. The aforementioned jail fire sequence also furnishes a memorable cliffhanger; the fire in question managed to get out of hand and destroy most of the jail set–which represented a loss to Republic but also serves to enhance the on-screen impressiveness of the sequence.
Directors William Witney and John English film both mid-chapter and chapter-ending action with customary flair, and also do a good job in showing off the serial’s various outdoor locations to best advantage, with help from cinematographer William Nobles. Iverson’s Movie Ranch, Republic’s most common Western filming location, figures in some scenes, but the area around Lake Sherwood is also heavily utilized while other scenes are shot at Beale’s Cut and Kernville, giving the serial more visual variety than many later Republic western outings.
While Witney and English (particularly Witney) thought their star was unsuited for his part, Don Barry still makes a very strong hero. Too short and too intense to be an accurate representation of the lanky, easygoing comic-strip Red Ryder created by Fred Harman, he’s terrific in all other aspects of the part. He’s convincingly agile in the action scenes, conveys ferocious anger when confronting villains, and delivers some movingly anguished reactions to various characters’ deaths. Despite the general seriousness of his performance, he also gives the role a touch of irrepressible cheerfulness, sometimes flashing a quick grin in the tightest spots and interacting genially with his young sidekick Little Beaver.
Tommy Cook does a fine job as Little Beaver, balancing the enthusiasm of the typical kid tagalong with deadpan stoicism befitting his Indian character. He has comparatively little to do, however–his main function in the serial being to accidentally overhear the villains plotting and then inform Red. The continual repetition of this plot device points up how difficult Republic’s writers found it to insert a child character into their established Golden Age formula; had Little Beaver not been a major figure in the Ryder comic strip, he would probably have been omitted entirely from the serial, just as Junior was in the final two Dick Tracy outings. Still, the use of Little Beaver as little Mr. Eyewitness, unintentionally comic as it gets at times, is preferable to the frequently dangerous stupidity that the writers forced on Junior in the second Dick Tracy serial.
Harry Worth is memorably hateful as the cold-hearted and dryly arrogant Calvin Drake, deceiving the good guys with a punctiliously respectable but slightly condescending façade, while snapping at his men in acidly sarcastic fashion. Noah Beery Sr., as his lieutenant Ace Hanlon, is just as nasty but much more jovial, scowling ominously over setbacks but always ready to burst into a booming laugh when things are going well; as in all his serials, he does his best to steal scenes with gestures, facial expressions, and bits of business (Hanlon’s omnipresent cigar comes in particularly handy in the last department). Worth, however, holds his own against his delightfully hammy associate with his own array of subtly quirky mannerisms; the contrasting duo make very memorable heavies.
Maude Pierce Allen has some good moments as Red’s peppery rancher aunt, “the Duchess,” but spends most of her time in the background. However, she fares better than nominal leading lady Vivian Coe as the murdered Sheriff’s daughter; Coe, a slender, graceful beauty reminiscent of Peggy Stewart, unfortunately drops out of the narrative almost completely after the first chapter. Hal Taliaferro has a much meatier part as the Duchess’s tobacco-chewing foreman Cherokee, serving as Red’s sidekick in many of the action scenes and managing to come off as both colorfully scruffy and dependably stalwart.
Bob Kortman is memorably sinister as One-Eye Chapin; his skeleton-like face and gap-toothed grin made even creepier by the addition of an eye-patch, he looks every inch the sort of outlaw who positively enjoys gunning down unarmed men and burning ranch buildings. Carleton Young is very good as the slick and self-assured Sheriff Dade, and tough-looking Reed Howes enjoys a fair share of villainy as subordinate henchman Slade; Al Taylor and stuntman Ken Terrell appear throughout the serial as other outlaws. Ray Teal, later a prominent character actor in 1950s films and TV shows, has a meaty role in the first two chapters as the sullen but crafty killer Shark. Bud Geary has a small part as a loud-mouthed henchman, as do various members of the stunt team, while Ernest Sarracino features prominently in one episode as a nervous outlaw and Lynton Brent is a crooked land-office clerk.
On the right side of the law, Gene Alsace is very good as Carleton Young’s laid-back but completely honest deputy; his ostentatiously oblivious expressions as he deliberately ignores Don Barry’s violent interrogation of Ray Teal are quite funny. Lloyd Ingraham is colorful in his very brief turn as the aged but feisty Sheriff Andrews, while William Farnum brings his usual air of stagy but likable dignity to his role as Barry’s father. Ed Cassidy and Billy Benedict play unfortunate ranchers in the first episode, while John Dilson, Gayne Whitman, and Edward Hearn also pop up in the opening chapter (as railroad officials and an army officer, respectively). Wheaton Chambers plays a railroad land buyer in the final chapter, and Hooper Atchley has a substantial part as an upright but understandably nervous land commissioner who’s targeted by the heavies in the climactic episodes. Ed Brady is another doomed rancher, Budd Buster a storekeeper, and Jack Rockwell a townsman.
The other jewel in Red Ryder’s crown is its music score–the work of Cy Feuer, who makes wonderful use of “Oh Susanna” as a central theme, speeding it up to really rousing effect in action sequences and using a slower, more melancholy-sounding arrangement in quieter scenes. His use of “Susanna” is so effective here that I’ve come to associate the classic tune with the serial in the same way that I and most other pop-culture buffs identify “The William Tell Overture” with the Lone Ranger or “Flight of the Bumblebee” with the Green Hornet.
Well-acted, slickly-produced, full of memorable action setpieces, and boasting a script that gives some actual emotional weight to those setpieces, Adventures of Red Ryder showcases Republic serial-making at its finest. Its Western theme has caused it to be somewhat underrated in comparison with two more fantastic Republic outings released the same year (Mysterious Doctor Satan and Drums of Fu Manchu), but in terms of quality it easily holds its own against those equally excellent releases–and against almost every Republic chapterplay from the studio’s other years of serial production.