Cowpoke Montana Larkin (Buck Jones) and his pal “Jinglebob” Morgan (Frank McGlynn Sr.) join with Jinglebob’s prospector brother Clem (Harlan Knight) to file a claim on some gold-rich land–but are plagued by crooked ranch foreman “Gil” Gillespie (Walter Miller), who repeatedly tries to capture Clem and force the location of the valuable property from him. Montana finds himself battling Gillespie in other arenas, too, continually blocking the outlaw’s rustling and robbery schemes–while still finding time to romance pert Mary Parker (Muriel Evans), the daughter of rancher Jim Parker (William Desmond).
The Roaring West, one of Universal’s weakest 1930s serials, fails to measure up to either of Buck Jones’ previous chapterplays (Gordon of Ghost City and The Red Rider)–even though the same director and many of the same writers worked on all three outings. Its pacing, like that of Gordon and Rider, is quite deliberate, but its plot is far less interesting and its characters (atypically for Universal) are only sketchily drawn; the result is a chapterplay that begins to drag terribly after the first six chapters or so.
George Plympton, Nate Gatzert, Ella O’Neill, Basil Dickey, and Robert C. Rothafel’s screenplay for Roaring West (supposedly based on a magazine story by Edward Earl Repp) completely lacks the involving and suspenseful aspects of Gordon or Rider. Buck Jones’ character in the former was a range detective trying to unmask a secret rustler leader and discover the secret of Ghost City, while in the latter Jones was determined to prove the villain guilty of a crime that had been pinned on his best friend. In Roaring West, however, Jones’ Montana is just a cowpoke who’s primarily interested in the heroine and in his partners’ gold claim; he has no personal or professional reason to actively track down the heavies and contents himself with fending off their repeated attacks throughout the serial, not going on the offensive against them till the last episode. The other characters take the same attitude towards the villains, treating them as nothing more than nuisances that interfere with day-to-day activities like ranching, logging, or prospecting.
The outlaws’ kidnapping of Clem Morgan could have been used to give the plot some suspense and urgency, but the poor old man is never held prisoner long enough to make the search for him seem very serious; he’s captured, rescued, and recaptured so frequently that the tug-of-war over him and his claim comes to seem almost comical. Other potentially compelling plot threads are similarly neglected; Gillespie’s romantic interest in Mary Parker is almost completely forgotten as the serial progresses, the false murder charge against Montana is dropped after two chapters, and the interestingly ambiguous character of Steve–an old friend of Montana’s now riding with Gillespie–switches to the heroes’ side quite early in the chapterplay and is relegated to the background thereafter (until the serial’s very abrupt and frustrating climax).
Steve is just one member of the serial’s interesting but too-large supporting cast of characters, almost all of whom spend most of the serial practically tripping over each other, riding or walking about en masse and receiving little solo screen time. Red Rider featured a large cast of heroes and heavies too, but in that outing every major player brought something to the storyline and was given at least one memorable character moment; here, characters like Steve, the heroine’s father, the heroine’s friend Ann, bumbling ranch-hand Happy, or Gillespie’s saloon-owner associate Brett really fill no purpose in the narrative, beyond providing additional footage that helps to pad the serial out to fifteen chapters.
Though set in a tedious narrative, the serial’s action scenes are respectably handled by director Ray Taylor, who turns in many excellent horseback chase scenes; the lengthy Chapter Three chase sequence (which begins and ends with some nifty trickery by Jones), the cross-country galloping in Chapter Five, and the pursuit of the stagecoach in Chapter Nine are among the highlights. Expert rider Cliff Lyons doubles Jones in these sequences and in the serial’s fight scenes–which are far scarcer than the riding scenes and much less smoothly staged; the large-scale cave brawl in Chapter Seven is particularly chaotic, while the one-on-one fight between Buck Jones and Tom London, though unpolished, is more satisfactory.
The shootout at a cabin hideout in Chapter Three and the gun battle at the ranch in Chapter Six are good too, albeit bloodless (like most of Universal’s other 1930s serial gunfights). Universal’s Western town and the rolling hills of the Universal ranch provide the backdrop for most of the action, although Bronson Canyon and its cave figure in a few sequences. Lone Pine is also utilized briefly in the first chapter and again during the wagon-train attack in the sixth episode; this extra trip was apparently made for stock-blending purposes, since the wagon-train sequence blends old and new Lone Pine footage in noticeable but fairly smooth fashion. The excessive timber-cutting stock during the characters’ later sojourn to wooded territory is integrated much more sloppily; the footage merely provides padding and fails to convince us that the backlot thickets on which new dialogue scenes are shot are actually part of a forest.
The stock-footage use in the Chapter Thirteen cliffhanger sequence–with Montana and the Parkers riding a canoe down a river in the midst of a forest fire–is also unconvincingly blended with new footage, although it is visually striking. The cliff fall that follows the land-rush sequence at the end of Chapter One features a much better mixture of old and new footage, although the cliff in question is so steep that the hero’s subsequent survival is patently unbelievable. Universal’s standard stampede cliffhanger is on hand, as are a good cabin explosion and a plunge down a mine shaft, but the best of the chapter endings is the flood sequence at the end of Chapter Two, in which flood waters convincingly break down a jail wall and engulf the hero.
Buck Jones does his best by the uninspired script, handling his lines with his usual likable breeziness and managing to be both heroic and funny; the first-chapter scene in which he and his sidekick frantically pass a “stolen” mail-order catalog back and forth as the sheriff approaches is particularly amusing. Heroine Muriel Evans also brings a light touch to her role; the pert and pretty actress is easily the most vivacious of Jones’ serial leading ladies, and her saucy, mildly flirtatious interchanges with Jones are very enjoyable.
Walter Miller makes, as always, a great villain, threatening the hero and ordering around henchmen in grim, intense, and aggressive fashion; stalwart William Desmond is similarly true to form as tough but dignified rancher Jim Parker. Frank McGlynn Sr. is very good as Jones’ feisty and irritable sidekick, a quirky, occasionally bumbling, but generally capable character; unfortunately, the oversized cast of characters keeps him from enjoying as much screen time as he deserves. Elderly Harlan Knight, as the victimized Clem, is much less energetic, failing to deliver colorful insults like “You thievin’ coyotes” with the pepperiness they warrant; some his grumpy interchanges with McGlynn are funny, however.
Charles King plays the most prominent of Walter Miller’s henchmen, his laid-back demeanor contrasting nicely with Miller’s snappishness; other recurring henchmen are played by Slim Whitaker, Tom London, Paul Palmer, Cecil Kellogg, Jim Mason, and Harry Tenbrook, all of whom are excellent. Roger Williams has a short-lived role as a slain henchman whose murder is blamed on Buck Jones, and William L. Thorne (who showed a talent for being both scheming and convincingly respectable as the brains heavy in Universal’s earlier Clancy of the Mounted) makes the most of his underwritten role as crooked saloonkeeper Marco Brett.
Eole Galli is attractive as the heroine’s cousin and best friend, but has little to do other than talk with Muriel Evans and periodically ride across country with her. Pat J. O’Brien looks and acts slick and self-assured as Steve, but, as aforementioned, is shunted into the background for most of the serial. Tiny Skelton is extremely irritating as Happy, a whiny, idiotic, cowardly, and shrill-voiced ranch-hand who’s supposed to provide humor but doesn’t; Charles Ovey is much better as a grizzled cowpoke named Shorty, and Fred Humes and Jay Wilsey also have a few good moments as other cowboys. Dick Rush is the somewhat self-important Sheriff, Stanley Blystone is a deputy, and Fred Santley has a bizarre but funny bit as a hammy and off-key saloon singer belting out “The Old Oaken Bucket” (much to the disbelieving disgust of Walter Miller) in Chapter Four.
The Roaring West is worth watching for Jones, McGlynn, Muriel Evans, the veteran heavies, the outdoor horseback chases, and for the occasional moments of wry humor. However, Universal’s production team was definitely coasting on Jones’ name and on the success of his earlier serials here, and the chapterplay is ultimately liable to leave viewers frustrated by its haphazard plotting and wasted potential–particularly if they’ve seen Gordon of Ghost City or The Red Rider beforehand, and are expecting West to measure up to either of those releases.