Frontier newspaperman Tex Granger (Robert Kellard) sets up shop in the town of Twin Buttes and soon discovers that slick businessman Rance Carson (I. Stanford Jolley) not only owns most of the local real estate but also controls most of the local outlaws. Adopting an outwardly peaceful stance, Granger begins opposing Carson’s plundering henchmen as the masked “Mystery Rider,” lending aid to the area’s beleaguered ranchers and miners. Blaze Talbot (Smith Ballew), an ex-outlaw appointed as a puppet sheriff by Carson, apparently supports his boss in the struggle with the Rider–while secretly plotting to unseat Carson and seize control of Twin Buttes himself, with the help of another band of badmen led by Reno (Jack Ingram).
One of only two 1948-1955 Sam Katzman/Columbia serials not directed by Spencer Bennet, Tex Granger doesn’t reach the depths of tediousness plumbed by other non-Bennet Katzman serials like Who’s Guilty or Son of the Guardsman–but it’s a pretty disappointing affair all the same, thanks to dull plotting, slow pacing, and a notable lack of action scenes. Though officially based on a comic-book character, it borrows both its central premise (a newspaper editor doubling as a masked rider) and several minor touches (a comic printer’s devil, a cave hideout for the hero, arguments about whether or not the pen is mightier than the six-gun) from Columbia’s 1940 serial Deadwood Dick; however, it fails to capture any of that earlier chapterplay’s frantic energy.
Lewis Clay, Harry Fraser, Arthur Hoerl, and Royal Cole provide the screenplay for Granger, with George Plympton receiving a “story” credit (possibly as a nod to his work on Deadwood Dick’s screenplay); the script’s basic premise is solid, but is developed in a very half-hearted fashion. The serial’s nominal hero is given little to do, with Granger maintaining a studiously passive pose while unmasked and becoming only slightly more active after putting on his Mystery Rider outfit: the Rider rarely confronts the heavies directly and spends most of his time either trailing outlaws, escaping from them, or rescuing their victims after the villains themselves have left the scene. His direct interactions with the bad guys are, with rare exceptions, limited to a few quick punches or a perfunctory exchange of shots; on the few occasions on which he clashes with the heavies for a protracted period, he carefully avoids killing or even wounding them, which eventually starts to make the viewer wonder just why the villains are so set on destroying such a unthreatening foe.
The villains themselves are only slightly more formidable than the hero, their crimes confined to repetitive small-scale robberies unconnected by any overarching scheme (like keeping out the railroad or seizing a priceless mine). They also fight far too much among themselves, with Blaze coolly defying Carson and slyly undermining him throughout, before finally pulling off a definitive double-cross and eliminating both Carson and Reno without any assistance from Granger (who’s quite content to stand on the sidelines and play the heavies off against each other). Due to the amount of screen time devoted to the Blaze-Carson conflict and the hero’s comparative passivity, the much more proactive Blaze emerges as the serial’s most prominent and most interesting character, the man most responsible for destroying Carson’s empire and a “villain” that we ultimately feel like rooting for–which is presumably not what the writers intended.
Above: Smith Ballew calls out the off-camera I. Stanford Jolley for a showdown–a scene that would be involving and dramatic if it involved the hero, and wasn’t just part of a squabble between villains.
Granger’s fight scenes, though few and far between, are quite well-staged, thanks to stuntmen George DeNormand (who doubles Robert Kellard) and Eddie Parker. The first-chapter saloon brawl between Blaze and Marshal Peterson is very good, as is the Rider’s lengthy hillside fistfight with several outlaws in Chapter Five; unfortunately, scenes of this sort only number about a half-dozen in all. This lack is not compensated for by good shootout scenes; potentially exciting gunfights (like the saloon sequence in Chapter Three, the attack on Reno’s camp in Chapter Eleven or the barn gunfight in Chapter Twelve) are flattened by the participants’ almost complete inability to actually hit anyone–and by the lackluster way director Derwin Abrahams films said scenes: he relies almost completely on intercut medium shots of characters aiming and firing their weapons at off-camera foes, with few panoramic shots to make the gun battles more interesting.
Above left: Robert Kellard’s Tex watches the ferocious finish of the saloon fight between Eddie Parker (doubling Smith Ballew and throwing that beautiful haymaker) and George DeNormand (doubling Stanley Blystone and flying backwards). Above right: Robert Kellard (partially hidden behind the post), Smith Ballew (crouching), I. Stanford Jolley (in black suit) and John Hart in a pedestrianly-staged gun battle in Chapter Eleven.
The Kernville hill country, with its boulders, streams, and scattered pine trees, provides the serial with some attractive outdoor locations, as do the rocky and mazy slopes of the Corriganville area; however, this scenery is used principally as a backdrop for tedious ducking and dodging among the boulders or overlong and slow-paced horseback trailing scenes–a variation on the money-saving walking-to-and-fro scenes beloved of Granger’s producer Sam Katzman (there’s even one pointlessly drawn-out sequence in which a dog follows the villains to their hideout). The apparent rock-crushing plant or stamp mill also seen in Jack Armstrong and Brick Bradford figures in several scenes as well.
Granger has a few good chapter endings–particularly the stagecoach-off-the-cliff scene that closes Chapter Four–but most of its cliffhangers are far too abrupt, like the sudden dynamite blasts in Chapters Two and Eleven; one ending (the rope-swing that closes Chapter Three) is handled so poorly that it’s impossible to even tell what peril the hero is supposed to be in. The booby-trapped printing-press cliffhanger in Chapter Seven, on the other hand, features too much buildup instead of too little; though the idea is good, the time spent in setting the scene up has us waiting for the payoff with impatience instead of suspense.
Most of the members of Granger’s large and solid cast make the best of the serial’s weak and excessively talky script. Robert Kellard does his best to give his uninteresting character some personality, playing the part with quiet confidence, shrewdness, and likable affability. Pretty but feisty Peggy Stewart is well-cast as the courageous and hot-headed heroine Helen Kent, continually expressing indignation over outlaw outrages and continually exhorting the laidback Granger to abandon his printing press and take up a gun; she and Kellard manage to make their characters’ barbed bantering (somewhat in the Clark Kent/Lois Lane vein) fairly amusing at times.
The nimble and alert Buzz Henry, as Tex’s kid sidekick Jimmy Perkins, turns in a likable but rather subdued performance. Highly believable when galloping around on horseback or coolly trailing outlaws, he sometimes seems a little awkward and embarrassed when called on to deliver boyish, “golly-gee-whiz” dialogue that he’s clearly too old for–although he does bring an appealing air of wry, low-key humor to several of his lines. His dog Duke, a shaggy little piebald pooch, is cute-looking enough but far too diminutive to take as much part in the action as earlier serial canines; when he does tackle villains in man-to-mutt conflict, the heavies’ violent reactions to the diminutive dog’s attempted savaging looks decidedly fake.
One-time B-western star Smith Ballew is excellent as Blaze Talbot–his laconic manner, slow Texas drawl, and cagy facial expressions giving his gunfighter character an appropriate air of restrained menace. I. Stanford Jolley is similarly good as the urbane Carson, delivering his lines with all his accustomed smooth-voiced suavity. Jack Ingram is also his usual self as the brusque, sarcastic, and suspicious-minded Reno, although he has less to do here than in most of his other Columbia serials. Dependable character player William Fawcett has some good moments as Jolley’s shifty, shyster-like clerk, and Terry Frost figures as Jolley’s chief henchman in the earlier episodes; John Hart, Jim Diehl, Charles King, Frank Ellis, and Tiny Brauer play other recurring members of Jolley’s gang. Rusty Wescoatt and Eddie Parker pop up periodically as two of Ingram’s henchmen.
Britt Wood, briefly a sidekick to William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, is moderately funny as Kellard’s sleepy-voiced but dependable printer Sandy. Veteran henchmen Al Ferguson and Slim Whitaker get to play good guys for a change, appearing throughout the serial as the leaders of the citizens’ vigilante group. Ralph Moody is a put-upon but feisty storekeeper, Hank Bell is a stage driver, Edmund Cobb a bartender, and Stanley Blystone the crooked marshal replaced by Blaze. The portly character actress playing Peggy Stewart’s outspoken mother (proprietress of the town boarding-house) is unidentified, as is the Indian squaw assigned to guard Stewart in one episode; I suspect that they might be the same actress in different makeups.
Tex Granger is not the worst of Sam Katzman’s 1940s Columbia serials; its strong cast gives it a degree of interest, while its wide-open Western spaces save it from the cramped feel that plagued Katzman’s mid-1940s big-city crime chapterplays, and its Western atmosphere–being easy to establish on a low budget–protects it from the comically chintzy air that damaged both those crime serials and the would-be medieval period piece Son of the Guardsman. However, it’s still much too pedestrian in the pacing and action departments, and too lopsidedly uninteresting in the plotting department, to be very satisfactory as either a Western or a serial.