Universal, 13 Chapters, 1937. Starring John Mack Brown, Lynn Gilbert, Bob Kortman, George Shelley, Frank Yaconelli, Russell Simpson, Charles Stevens, Walter Miller, Frank McGlynn Jr., Al Bridge.
Rancher Larry Munro (Frank McGlynn Jr.), one of the few holdouts against the rustlers, claim-jumpers, and gun-runners that have been driving honest settlers from the Paradise Valley area, discovers platinum on his ranch–making himself the prime target of the Secret Seven, the group of supposedly-respectable citizens that are behind the outlaw reign of terror in the Valley. Munro is kidnapped by the Seven’s henchmen, who try to make him divulge the location of his platinum strike–but, fortunately for him and for his sister Lucy (Lynn Gilbert), four old friends of his show up for a visit and quickly join battle against the Seven. This quartet of sharp-shooting adventurers consists of Kentucky Wade (Johnny Mack Brown), Trigger (Bob Kortman), Mike Morales (Frank Yaconelli), and Dude (George Shelley); between them, they manage to rescue Larry, defeat the outlaws and Indians that serve the Secret Seven, and unmask the Seven’s leader–newspaper editor Matt Keeler (Russell Simpson), ostensibly one of the area’s staunchest advocates of law and order.
Above: The villainous Keeler (right) plots with a henchman (Al Bridge).
Rustlers of Red Dog, Johnny Mack Brown’s first Universal serial, has enjoyed a strong resurgence in popularity among chapterplay buffs in recent years–but Wild West Days, his second Universal outing, has remained comparatively and undeservedly obscure, generally being dismissed as a middling imitation of the earlier Rustlers. This treatment does Days–and those fans who haven’t seen it–a disservice; the serial, although lighter in tone than Rustlers, shares that serial’s highly colorful pulp-western flavor, while also boasting faster pacing and slicker production values than its predecessor.
While the increased production smoothness of Days–particularly its often superior integration of stock footage–is due simply to the ever-developing film technology of the 1930s, its faster pacing is more directly attributable to writers Wyndham Gittens, Ray Trampe, and Norman Hall, director of Ford Beebe, and associate producer Ben Koenig, all of them veterans of Mascot Pictures–where they learned the art of keeping serial action in near-perpetual motion, without the sometimes lengthy pauses between action scenes or the tangential subplots more typical of the Universal formula. After a false start with an unnecessary Indian attack on a wagon train, the writers plunge into the main storyline and keep their characters almost constantly on the move for the remainder of the serial, with the narrative staying firmly focused on the battle for Larry Munro’s ranch.
Fortunately, the continual battle between good guys and bad never becomes repetitive; the writers wisely come up with new plot developments at intervals to keep their simple storyline fresh. Kentucky and his friends discover the existence of the platinum deposits in Chapter Five, which in turn leads directly to the exposure of the crooked assayer Purvis as one of the Secret Seven at the serial’s halfway point. Larry, the villains’ captive since Chapter Two, is then rescued in Chapter Eight, forcing the heavies to contrive new devices for locating the platinum deposit and allowing the heroes to shift their focus from locating Larry to tracking down other members of the Seven–three more of whom are unmasked before the final chapter. These developments not only help to shake up the narrative at strategic points, but also make the audience feel that the heroes are really accomplishing something through their continued campaigning instead of merely sparring with the villains until the final chapter.
Above, left to right: Frank Yaconelli, George Shelley, John Mack Brown, and Bob Kortman discover the body of one of the Secret Seven’s members.
Despite their fast pace, Gittens, Hall, and Trampe don’t stint on the colorful supporting characters that were a staple of earlier Universal western serials; they also manage to devote screen time to each of the serial’s numerous protagonists and antagonists without clogging the narrative. The hero’s two principal sidekicks are vividly characterized, and are also allowed to perform multiple acts of heroism on their own; the leading subordinate villains are also individualized–particularly half-breed henchman Buckskin and crooked gambler Doc Hardy. Singing cowboy Dude’s romance with Lucy Munro, although it remains firmly in the background, also adds a nice character touch to the proceedings–as do the prankish reactions of the other characters, Trigger in particular, to Dude’s serenades of the girl.
Above: Bob Kortman (left) pleads innocence after fouling yet another of George Shelley’s attempts to sing.
The serial’s action scenes are solidly handled by Beebe and his co-director Cliff Smith, with less use of jarring silent-film Indian stock footage than in Rustlers of Red Dog (the wagon train attacks in Chapters One and Five being major exceptions). The Indian attack on the Munro ranch in Chapters Four and Five and the later assault on the line shack in Chapter Twelve consist largely of new footage; both are well-staged, as is the exciting close-quarters combat with the Indians at the hideout cave in the final chapter–which seems to be carried off without any stock footage at all. Other action highlights include the attempted backshooting of Kentucky in Chapter Seven and its thwarting by Trigger’s quick shooting, the lynch mob’s siege of the jail in Chapter One, the canyon shootout in Chapter Three, and the shootout on the hills by the waterfall as the heroes try to rescue Larry in Chapter Seven.
Above left and right: John Mack Brown exchanges shots with Bud Osborne and Al Bridge as the two henchmen try to escape with Frank McGlynn Jr. (between the heavies) along a steep ledge. Below left and right: Bob Kortman saves Brown by nailing a would-be backshooter.
The waterfall/hillside shootout scene and the canyon gun battle–and other sequences like the Chapter Twelve clash with the Indians and the many excellent horseback chases scattered throughout the serial–are greatly enhanced by the rolling, rocky, and rugged slopes of the Kernville area, also seen to good advantage in Rustlers of Red Dog and Brown’s other Universal serials.
Above: Frank Yaconelli and Bob Kortman pursue Charles Stevens across the Kernville landscape.
Indoor fistfight scenes are scarce in comparison to the outdoor action sequences, but Days does contain two strong efforts in this area–Johnny Mack Brown’s fierce, furniture-smashing Chapter Seven brawl with crooked rancher Bruce Mitchell in the assay office, and the later, even more elaborate saloon fight between Brown and Walter Miller’s Doc Hardy in Chapter Eleven, which has the combatants battling up and down a staircase and crashing through the railing of a second-story landing. George DeNormand seems to be handling Brown’s stuntwork in these scenes; expert riders Cliff Lyons and Jay Wilsey also contribute to the action sequences.
Above: John Mack Brown smashes Bruce Mitchell through a gate in the assayer’s office in the Chapter Seven fight.
The serial’s chapter endings feature an inordinate number of near-trampling sequences, with the hero repeatedly winding up beneath the hooves on oncoming horses, but there are some more novel sequences interspersed with these–the standout cliffhangers being Brown and Bob Kortman’s plunge from the Kernville swinging bridge (Chapter Three), Brown and Frank McGlynn Jr.’s drop into a waterfall (Chapter Seven), and Brown and George Shelley’s seeming immolation in a brushfire in Chapter Nine. The last sequence makes unusually effective and convincing use of stock footage for a Universal fire scene.
Above: Shots from the brushfire cliffhanger, with Brown trying to carry an injured George Shelley out of the path of the blaze.
Johnny Mack Brown is at his most endearingly happy-go-lucky in Wild West Days, tackling gunfights with proper seriousness but never abandoning his cheerful grin for long, even when faced with burning at the stake by Indians. He also manages to seem uncharacteristically shrewd when questioning suspected villains–employing a folksy but cagy manner–and gets one opportunity to display convincing anger, when confronting Walter Miller after the latter has murdered an innocent character.
Above: Johnny Mack prepares to cope with a horde of deluded gold-seekers.
Lynn Gilbert has fairly little to do as Lucy Munro, but makes an attractive and spunky heroine. The bland but likable George Shelley also has limited screen time as Dude, his main function being to warble two pleasant ditties (“Song of the Sage” and “Get Along, Little Pony”); his professional-sounding tenor voice is decidedly un-cowboy-like, but this actually meshes well with his character’s moniker, which denotes non-Western origins. The towering Frank McGlynn Jr. is perfectly cast as Larry Munro, his forbiddingly tough appearance and gruff voice making him utterly believable as a rancher who won’t be driven from his land.
Above: Lynn Gilbert and George Shelley tend to an injured Frank McGlynn Jr.
Frank Yaconelli is very good as the voluble Mike Morales–providing humor with his excitability and his colorful American-cum-Mexican phraseology, but still coming off as entirely capable–believably carrying off his character’s one-man commando raid against the Indians in one episode. The most memorable and interesting of the protagonists, however, is Bob Kortman’s Trigger; the veteran matinee heavy is terrific in his one and only sympathetic serial part, playing his lethally accurate gunslinger with a wryly cynical sense of humor, a strong suggestion of craftiness, and even a touch of familiar Kortman menace (as when facing down villain Russell Simpson in the climactic chapter).
Above: Frank Yaconelli and Bob Kortman.
The aforementioned Russell Simpson–a prominent character player in many A-pictures, including several John Ford films–makes an excellent brains heavy–cool, decisive, and authoritative when scheming with his followers, and convincingly hearty when hoodwinking the good guys–adopting a rather senatorial mixture of affability and harmless pomposity for the latter purpose. Walter Miller is also terrific as Simpson’s saloonkeeper accomplice Doc Hardy, abandoning the usual intensity and aggressiveness of his brains heavy characters for a laid-back, cheerfully sarcastic, and almost flippant demeanor that contrasts well with Simpson’s more sober bearing.
Above, left to right: Bruce Mitchell, William Royle, Russell Simpson, Jack Clifford (in shadow), and Walter Miller.
Charles Stevens also plays somewhat against type as Buckskin; the character is not the furtive and frequently pathetic henchman Stevens portrayed in some of his other serials, but rather a tough little bantam rooster who coolly awes his comrades with his knife-throwing prowess, reacts menacingly to deprecatory remarks about his mixed ancestry, and cheerfully back-talks his own boss. Stevens handles the part very well, exuding swaggering self-confidence despite his diminutive size and managing to look merely worried instead of panic-stricken (his more typical expression) in tight spots. Al Bridge, as the other chief action heavy, is just as sneering and sarcastic in manner as usual, but a bit more timid, nervous, and slow-witted than he was in most of his other henchman roles–in some ways, he’s more like a Stevens character here than Stevens himself.
Above: Charles Stevens prepares to make a seemingly impossible knife throw; Merrill McCormick is at left.
Bruce Mitchell and Francis McDonald have sizable roles as the tough and self-assured rancher Driscoll and the cowardly assayer Purvis, respectively; both handle their parts well. Old pros William Royle and Jack Clifford play the other leading members of the Secret Seven, although they have little to do beyond chortling over successes and fretting about failures (for the curious, the Seven’s official membership is comprised of the characters played by Simpson, Miller, Stevens, Mitchell, McDonald, Royle, and Clifford). Bud Osborne plays one of the Seven’s recurring henchmen, as do Merrill McCormick and James Sheridan. Sidney Bracey is the mute printer on Keeler’s paper, whose habit of communicating via written notes throughout the serial is cleverly tied in to the climactic action.
Ed LeSaint is properly serious and determined–if definitely too elderly-looking for the job–as the town sheriff; Joseph Girard is the laid-back but dignified judge, and Robert McClung evokes genuine pathos as the simple-minded but helpful youngster who plays the mouth-organ in Doc Hardy’s saloon. Lafe McKee pops up as a wagon train leader, Charles Murphy as a genial teamster, Monte Montague as a bartender, and Robert Homans, Pat O’Malley, and Si Jenks as belligerent prospectors. Chief Thunderbird plays Buckskin’s chieftain cousin Red Hatchet, whose tribe continually assists the villains; Iron Eyes Cody is one of his principal warriors. Stunt rider Jay Wilsey is a bearded cowboy on the Munro ranch, and also pops up clean-shaven in other bit roles. Chester Gan appears in one sequence as the Munros’ Chinese cook, but is then oddly replaced by fellow-Chinese actor Miki Morita–who seems to be playing the same character as Gan despite being much thinner–in subsequent episodes.
Like several other Universal serials from the same period–Ace Drummond, Tim Tyler’s Luck, Radio Patrol—Wild West Days is a very entertaining blend of Universal’s characteristic production values and strong characterizations with Mascot’s energetic pacing. Despite some surface similarities to Rustlers of Red Dog, it’s no mere clone of that serial, but a first-rate and highly worthwhile chapterplay in its own right.
Good review as usual, but I disagree with you about their use of stock footage. I feel that in this and many other Universal western serials, the use of stock footage was mishandled and out of place. Other than that,I enjoyed Wild West Days ,especially the performances of Brown and Bob Kortman
The stock in Wild West Days’ two wagon-train attack sequences is indeed jarring, but my point was more that Days steers away from excessive use of it made in Rustlers of Red Dog and the later Oregon Trail. The key lies in Days’ getting away from the wagon-train backdrop that figures so prominently in those serials; Universal’s overused Indian stock mostly seems derived from some silent wagon-train epic.
I liked this one a great deal thanks mainly to the cast. Brown, of course, was a top of the line western action hero. Kortman and Stevens were superb, but the guy who really put this one over was Russell Simpson. He might be the best of all western villains–and there is a lot of stiff competition–as his jovial granddad persona makes him so effective as the one no one would suspect of being the cold-blooded SOB behind all the wrongdoing.
The plot-line certainly isn’t anything special, mostly consisting of a pastiche of the usual Western film cliches. Credit is given to W.R. Burnett’s “Saint Johnson” novel as the basis for the story, but there’s precious little in the narrative that is remotely connected to that source.The strengths here are John Mack Brown in the starring role, his interesting group of sidekicks (particularly Bob Kortman playing against type), and a great group of villains. I agree totally with “Old Serial Fan” that Russell Simpson is a really terrific heavy. Crafty and nefarious throughout, he absolutely makes the most of his role.
I didn’t find the use of stock footage to be too much of a problem, except for the fact that the same Indian was shot off his horse at least five times during the course of the serial! What bothered me the most was the heavy-handed stereotyping throughout. Given the era and the Western venue, I’m never surprised regarding the Native American portrayals, but then the writers had to throw in the laughable Chinese and Mexican characters as well, along with several “mighty white of you”- type comments. It all just seemed so totally unnecessary.
All told, this serial was more entertaining than I expected, largely because of the great cast. As a life-long resident of the Southwest, the unreality of Hollywood’s vision of the West always makes these films tough sell for me.
Super, super racist. Like, “racist even for the 1930s” racist.
Still a pretty fun serial overall. The conclusion seemed rushed–ok, Wade drops a comment to basically test Keeler, and Keeler fails, but what led him to suspect Keeler in the first place?
Always been kind of curious what went wrong for Johnny Mack Brown. Started out in the big time as an A-lister, then poof, demoted to B-movie star. Why?
The Turner Classic Movies run of this series that I just finished aired an episode out of order.
Great fun from beginning to end. Liked all the outdoors action, played out before some picturesque locations, they lend a certain grand sweep to he production. Johnny Mack Brown is his usual tough, easygoing self, although he seems jarringly out of place in his overly stylized cowboy suit. Bob Kortman gives a great performance, managing the same menace he brought to his villainous roles when called upon. His scenes with Brown define screen chemistry. Also enjoyed Charles Steven’s, great to see him play it tough. Never found Russell Simpson particularly menacing, but he holds the plot together with his constant scheming.
Coming after a fine run of fine Buck Jones serials, Wild West Days holds it’s own as an exciting, rough hewned cowboy story.