The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail--titles
Universal, 15 Chapters, 1939. Starring John Mack Brown, Louise Stanley, Fuzzy Knight, Bill Cody Jr., James Blaine, Jack C. Smith, Edward LeSaint, Charles Stevens.

Renowned scout Jeff Scott (John Mack Brown), and his pal Deadwood (Fuzzy Knight) are enlisted by the US Army to investigate the cause of the suspicious calamities that have been befalling Oregon-bound settlers. Joining a wagon train led by one John Mason (Ed LeSaint), Jeff soon succeeds in unmasking the treachery of wagon boss Bull Bragg (Jack C. Smith), who’s been deliberately leading the train into one trap after another; it seems that Bragg is in the pay of frontier businessman Sam Morgan (James Blaine)–who in turn works for an Eastern syndicate that controls the fur trade in Oregon. Morgan and his backers have been making a fortune from their one-sided fur deals with the Indians, and don’t want new settlers undermining their monopoly by establishing a more equitable trading system. With the help of Deadwood and of orphaned youngster Jimmy Clark (Bill Cody Jr.), Scott must hunt down Bragg and force him to name the man who ordered him to wreck the wagon train–while protecting Mason, his daughter Margaret (Louise Stanley) and their fellow-pioneers from the attacks of Morgan’s henchmen and their renegade Indian allies.

The Oregon Trail is not a bad chapterplay by any means, but it’s a decidedly uninspired one. Like John Mack Brown’s previous three Universal chapterplays–Rustlers of Red Dog, Wild West Days, and Flaming FrontiersTrail boasts a good cast, excellent location shooting, and some fine action scenes; however, it’s also somewhat slower-moving–and far less involving–than its three predecessors.

The principal flaw in Oregon Trail is its screenplay; writers Basil Dickey, George Plympton, W. W. Watson, and Edmond Kelso fail to inject much suspense into their script. The search for the missing Larry Munro lent some tension to Wild West Days, while the ongoing attempt to clear Tom Grant of murder did the same for Flaming Frontiers; in Trail, the action largely revolves around Scott’s relentless pursuit of Bragg, which only indirectly affects the safety of the principal good guys and is thus not as riveting as the quests in the earlier serials. The characterizations of the serials’ villains also lower the suspense level; Morgan himself, like many serial brains heavies, refrains from active violence–but his henchmen, who should balance his mental menace with a physical one, aren’t much more intimidating. Bragg is a blustering and cowardly petty crook–while the other lead henchman Breed is shrewd and shifty, but never as threateningly tough and confident as the otherwise similar Buckskin Frank character in Wild West Days.

The Oregon Trail--villains
Above: Bragg (Jack C. Smith, left) presents Jeff Scott’s hat as “proof” of the hero’s demise, but is met with skepticism by his boss Sam Morgan (James Blaine).

The script not only lacks tension, but is also padded and repetitive; the search for Bragg is balanced for a while with attacks on the wagon train and a struggle over a valuable batch of furs–only to completely take over the chapterplay around the two-thirds mark, with the hero continually capturing the henchman, trying to get him to talk, and then losing him when the other heavies interfere (one of the other characters even comments on Scott’s repeated failures to extract any information from Bragg). This scripting flaw is more the fault of the studio bosses (who presumably mandated Trail’s fifteen-chapter length) than it is of the writers, who could probably have made their scenario fill a shorter twelve-chapter outing neatly enough. However, Dickey, Plympton, and their two co-writers could have tried to pad their elongated narrative with some of the character-driven subplots that made Brown’s earlier serials so enjoyable; unfortunately, they largely fail to do so, and rarely tap their scenario’s potential for drama, romance, inter-villainous conflict, and colorful comedy.

The Oregon Trail--Scott and Bragg
Above: Jeff Scott (John Mack Brown, right) gets the drop on Bragg for the umpteenth time.

Jeff Scott and Jimmy Clark’s interchange after the death of the latter’s father in Chapter One is genuinely moving, but there are no heartfelt moments to match it in later chapters. The hero-heroine romance is handled much more perfunctorily than its equivalents in Rustlers of Red Dog or Flaming Frontiers, while the potentially interesting subplot of Breed and Bragg’s embezzlement of Morgan’s choicest furs doesn’t really pay off until Chapter Fourteen (when we are rewarded with an unusual scene that has Breed refusing to kill his pal Bragg, despite Morgan’s orders). The cheerful insults exchanged by  Deadwood and his trapper friend Idaho Ike are amusing, and recall the quirky bantering of the sidekicks in Rustlers and Wild West Days–but Ike abruptly disappears from the serial after five chapters (with no real explanation of his fate). The writers’ failure to play out these threads to their deserved length is made more frustrating by their use of less interesting scenes to fatten the script—pace-slowing sequences like Jeff and Deadwood’s fruitless investigation of an Indian camp, their periodic progress reports to their Army contact Colonel Custer, or Jimmy and heroine Margaret’s excursion into the wilderness to observe stock footage of beavers and deer.

The Oregon Trail--Idaho departs
Above: Ike! Come back, Ike! That promising character Idaho Ike (Jim Toney) is about to gallop off-stage, never to be seen again.

Speaking of stock footage, Trail–like most of Universal’s Western chapterplays–features plenty of easily discernible silent-film sequences, which are integrated with the new footage with varying degrees of success. This time out, there are also many newer shots on hand from Brown’s three previous serials, which match better with Trail’s filming speed than the silent footage. The calamitous river-crossing in Chapter One is a largely successful combination of silent-film clips, stock from Flaming Frontiers, and new footage; the massive Indian attack later in the same chapter is edited more sloppily, with the surrounding terrain constantly changing due to the assortment of stock used. The fire scene in Chapter Two–part stock, part new footage–is carried off well, as is the almost all-new Indian attack on the wagon train in Chapter Eight (although the latter sequence is followed by some jarringly noticeable silent-stock usage, as the Indians and settlers continue their fight in town and the cavalry rides in at over-cranked speed to break up the battle).

The Oregon Trail--stock shot
Above: A shot from the silent-stock battle in town.

The serial’s brand-new action scenes are quite well-handled by directors Ford Beebe and Saul Goodkind; the attack on the cabin in Chapter Four, with Bragg and his Indian allies tossing lighted powder barrels through the windows–as they ride around the building and dodge the hero’s bullets–is particularly good. The lengthy Chapter Seven horseback chase/shootout sequence (which is launched by the hero’s leap through a window and extends into Chapter Eight) is also a standout, as are the terrifically energetic saloon fight between Scott and Bragg in Chapter Three, the attack on the jail in Chapter Eleven, the cliff-top chase and fight in Chapter Twelve, and the climactic pioneer-outlaw gun battle in the final chapter–a large-scale street shootout that ranks as one of Universal’s stronger serial finales. Tom Steele doubles John Mack Brown for the saloon fight, the window leap, and other scenes of that kind; riding specialist Cliff Lyons handles the star’s horseback stuntwork, while Matty Roubert contributes to the action as well. Said horseback scenes feature the excellent scenic backdrops of Kernville; its rocky hills and pine forests are just as impressive here as in Brown’s other three serials.

The Oregon Trail--cavalry at Kernville The Oregon Trail--fight on rocks
Above left: The cavalry races to the rescue during the Chapter Eight chase. Above right: Brown and Jack C. Smith slug it out in extreme long shot atop a Kernville cliff in Chapter Twelve.

Chapter endings are mostly up to the usual Universal standard–which is to say, they’re exciting in concept and skillfully built up, but too often resolved by having the protagonists simply survive their peril rather than escape it. The Chapter Four cabin explosion, Brown’s apparent shooting at the end of Chapter Eight, his Chapter Thirteen plunge from a cliff, and the powder-wagon explosion at the end of Chapter Fourteen are all cases in point; the good burning-jail cliffhanger in Chapter Eleven is more creatively resolved. Two chapter endings are borrowed wholesale from Wild West Days–the Chapter Three stagecoach crash and the trampling by Indian ponies in Chapter Six; the former is blended seamlessly with the new footage, but the latter unconvincingly tries to make us believe that heroine Lynn Gilbert from Days is actually Fuzzy Knight, and is resolved by a blatant cheat–probably because Gilbert was even more noticeable in the escape footage from the corresponding Days sequence.

The Oregon Trail--fire scene
Above: The jail fire from the Chapter Eleven cliffhanger sequence.

John Mack Brown does an excellent job in his final chapterplay role (he would almost immediately go to become Universal’s top B-western star after wrapping this serial). Since his character here is an army agent with a definite mission, not the roving adventurer type he played in his previous serials, he’s more serious and less grinningly easygoing than in those outings, but no less likable. He still displays much of his characteristic cheerfulness in his scenes with his leading lady and his two sidekicks (Deadwood and Jimmy), while also facing down Bragg’s blustering threats with cool assurance and brusquely overriding the imprudent suggestions of perplexed pioneers.

The Oregon Trail--James Blaine, Bill Cody, and John Mack Brown
Above: John Mack Brown asks James Blaine a few questions as Bill Cody Jr. looks on.

Professional advertising model Louise Stanley makes a first-rate heroine, enhancing the charm of her gorgeous face and figure with an appealing vivacious manner; although she doesn’t receive as much screen time as one would wish, she brings as much liveliness as possible to her part, particularly in her older-sister-like interactions with Bill Cody Jr.’s Jimmy–during which she alternates between sweetly complimenting his scouting prowess and impishly poking fun at his fallibility. The often underrated Cody is also extremely good as young Jimmy, managing to seem boyishly confident and self-reliant without coming off as annoyingly cocky, and youthfully immature without coming off as stupid—always a difficult tightrope for a serial child actor to walk.

The Oregon Trail--Louise Stanley and Ed LeSaint
Above: Louise Stanley and Ed LeSaint.

Fuzzy Knight, who would appear as buffoonish sidekicks in all of Brown’s subsequent Universal B-westerns, plays things surprisingly straight as the pugnacious and outspoken scout Deadwood. Knight does play the character’s gruff garrulity for all it’s worth, grumbling boisterously throughout–but is also convincingly tough and level-headed; unlike the stammering clowns Knight portrayed in Brown’s features, Deadwood is fully capable of protecting himself and others in dangerous situations (his rescue of Brown from the Indians and his abrupt dispatching of two Indian pursuers providing two examples). As mentioned, the Idaho Ike character temporarily serves as a foil for Knight’s Deadwood, with lanky character player Jim Toney making the laid-back but dryly sarcastic trapper a good counterpoint to the more bombastic Knight.

The Oregon Trail--Fuzzy Knight
Above: Fuzzy Knight pow-wows with Iron Eyes Cody (far left) as Louise Stanley, a settler, and a pair of Indians look on.

James Blaine is very good as the slick Sam Morgan; though not as memorably flamboyant as someone like Noah Beery Sr. would have been in the part, he does a good job of being unctuously sincere in his dealings with the good guys and smoothly authoritative in his plotting scenes with his henchmen; his disapproving attitude towards Bragg, epitomized by the “don’t sit on my desk” line in Chapter Three, is also good. His two best moments are his two brazen betrayals of Bragg in Chapters Five and Twelve; in both scenes he calmly ignores his suspicious henchman’s threats, adroitly convinces him he’s going to help him—and then sells him out with a perfectly straight face.

As the blundering Bragg, gravelly-voiced Jack C. Smith is not very menacing–largely because of the way the part is written—but is memorable nonetheless; his tough-talking but easily-panicked character comes off as a cowardly bully who tries to maintain as hard-bitten a manner as possible, but can never keep up the pretense for long. Smith makes this unusual character seen both comic and hateful by turns—and also succeeds in making him so pathetically befuddled that he’s almost sympathetic at times.

The Oregon Trail--Jack C. Smith
Above: Jack C. Smith as Bull Bragg.

Old reliable Charles Stevens is very enjoyable as henchman Breed; as aforementioned, the character is not as tough or swaggering as his Buckskin in Wild West Days—but is also not as slow-witted or cowardly as his character (also named Breed) in Flaming Frontiers. This time around, Stevens’ heavy is a cunning and furtive schemer who shies away from open conflicts with his boss or the hero, but is very handy when it comes to surreptitious assassinations or verbal misdirections (Stevens’ sly prevarications when Blaine asks him if he’s finished off Smith are especially entertaining). One-time Irish stage star Colin Kenny is distinctively harsh and nasty as supporting henchman Slade; had his screen time been augmented, he could perhaps have supplied some of the physical menace lacking in the performances of Blaine, Smith, and Stevens. Forrest Taylor and Charles King play the serial’s other two principal recurring heavies; both are good, but neither receives much dialogue.

The Oregon Trail--Charles Stevens The Oregon Trail--henchmen
Above left: Charles Stevens (left) and an Indian associate. Above right: Colin Kenny (far left), Charles King (partially hidden behind Kenny) and Forrest Taylor.

Ed LeSaint is miscast as the heroine’s father; besides being too old for the role, he’s also too pompous in manner, and comes off as a querulous and indecisive old grouch instead of a sturdy pioneer–although he does manage a convincingly moving display of grief when his daughter is held hostage in Chapter Nine. Charles Murphy, who’s fairly prominent as a feisty pioneer named Tompkins, is more likable overall, however—and would have been a better choice for LeSaint’s part. Roy Barcroft has one of his only non-villainous serial roles as Colonel Custer, and plays the historical character with an appropriate combination of dash and military dignity—continually riding to the rescue with his cavalry when the odds pile up too heavily against the heroes, to the dramatic accompaniment of the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Suppe’s Light Cavalry Overture. Incidentally, these are the only really distinctive musical pieces in the serial’s score, the rest of it being composed of the stock cues heard in a dozen other Universal outings.

The Oregon Trail--Barcroft
Above: John Mack Brown and Roy Barcroft examine a cache of stolen furs.

Warner Richmond is very well-cast as General Sherman, his physical appearance and his larger-than-life screen personality both matching those of the real-life general; he doesn’t get enough screen time to make the old fire-eater as colorful as he could have, however. The ever-dignified Kenneth Harlan also appears in the first episode as another historical figure, General Terry. Karl Hackett, usually a weaselly henchman, turns in a good against-type portrayal as Jimmy Clark’s tough, capable, and ill-fated father in the opening chapter. Dick Botiller is a nasty renegade Indian leader, while John Big Tree is his more peaceable father; Iron Eyes Cody pops up later in the serial as a friendly chieftain. Helen Gibson–one of the stars of the silent quasi-serial The Hazards of Helen–has a bit as a pioneer wife, Tom London puts in a one-chapter appearance as a henchman, Hank Bell and Frank Ellis are townsmen, Harry Tenbrook and Blackjack Ward are minor heavies, Lane Chandler appears as a trooper, and Frank LaRue pops up as a heavy who spreads the word of a false Indian attack and is knifed by Charles Stevens after being exposed by John Mack Brown.

If reduced to twelve chapters and subjected to some judicious re-writing, Oregon Trail would not stand so disadvantageously in the shadow of John Mack Brown’s other Universal serials. As it is, one can still enjoy it for its good acting and its action, while wishing that it had managed to come up to the level of its three distinguished elder brethren.

The Oregon Trail--last

4 thoughts on “The Oregon Trail

  1. If this wagon train moved any slower, it would be going backwards. Fifteen chapters is definitely too long for such a repetitive and thin storyline, but I’m not sure that even shortening it to twelve installments would have helped. There are plenty of good performances and some good action scenes as well, but just not enough to relieve the overall feeling of tedium.

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