A tough outlaw known as “King” Carter (Harry Woods) has built a trading empire in the wild frontier territory surrounding the Hellgate Pass region–an empire that is now being threatened by the advent of Eastern contractor John Hartford’s (Edward Keane) transcontinental railroad, which is due to cut straight through the Pass and is sure to bring unwelcome civilization to Carter’s lawless domain. To keep out the railroad’s construction crew, Carter has his henchmen and his Indian allies make repeated assaults on the crew and their supply sources; however, the railroad wreckers run into formidable opposition from the rail crew’s boss–former lawman Jeff Ramsay (Dick Foran), who’s every bit as tough as Carter. With the help of his pals Tex Houston (Tom Fadden) and Jim Jackson (James Craig), Ramsay tirelessly keeps the railroad project afloat despite Carter’s attacks, while also trying (usually unsuccessfully) to keep Hartford’s headstrong daughter Claire (Anne Nagel) out of danger.
The writers of Winnners of the West–Charles Condon, Basil Dickey, and George Plympton–are decidedly repetitive in their plotting; the action quickly falls into a pattern that has Carter’s gang attacking the railroad and damaging it in some way (blowing a bridge, stealing supplies, etc.), after which Ramsay comes up with a plan for remedying the damage (building a new bridge, journeying to procure replacement supplies)–which in turn leads to another outlaw attack, as the heavies try to thwart Ramsay’s counter-move. Once the follow-up attack is defeated, the villains immediately launch another offensive against the railroad, beginning the cycle all over again. Occasional captures and rescues of various protagonists (one of which brings about the serial’s final showdown) provide the only variations to this formula.
The above scenario might sound tedious in outline, but on screen it’s consistently entertaining–largely because of the serial’s individualized leading characters and the entertaining dialogue that marks their interactions. Ramsay and Carter’s unusual attitude towards each other–hostile, but wryly humorous and even mutually respectful–gives rise to some particularly enjoyable pieces of banter–among them the scene in which Ramsay shows up to interrupt Carter’s celebration of the hero’s supposed demise (Carter: “Remarkable; every time your death is reported you appear to prove the lie.” Ramsay: “Find it disappointing?” Carter: “Well, rather disconcerting.”) The hero’s contentious relationship with the heroine also furnishes plenty of sharp lines, like Claire’s acerbically witty “apology” to Jeff (“Mr. Ramsay, the other day I called you a bully and a coward. I apologize–you’re not a coward”).
These bits–and many others–lend the serial’s hero, heroine, and villain a good deal more personality than many serial principals; the supporting characters are also well-drawn, particularly Jeff’s wise-cracking but crafty sidekick Tex and Carter’s loyal right-hand man Raven. The latter functions as a sort of inverted conscience for his boss, grimly admonishing him whenever he shows flashes of decency–as when Carter considers the idea of rescuing the heroine from his Indian allies (Raven: “Women don’t belong in this business.” Carter: “But if they insist on entering it?” Raven: “Then they should be treated exactly as any other enemy.”)
The dialogue and characterizations aren’t the only strong points in Winners; its action scenes, as handled by Ray Taylor and Ford Beebe, are both numerous and exciting. The heroes’ Chapter Three attempt to stop the heavies from destroying a bridge with an explosives-laden train is a standout; so are the protracted outdoor gun battle that spans Chapters Four and Five and the rescue of the stagecoach later in Chapter Five (during which the hero makes a daredevil leap onto a runaway team of horses). Cliff Lyons stands in for star Dick Foran in the stagecoach sequence and other pieces of horse-related stuntwork, while Eddie Parker doubles Foran in fistfight scenes–most memorably in the slam-bang climactic brawl between Foran and Harry Woods (doubled by the hard-slugging Fred Graham), during which Parker (not usually remarkable for nimbleness) performs a surprisingly athletic leap from a staircase. This fight is another of the serial’s action highlights; the Chapter Twelve brawl between Parker and Graham (this time doubling henchman Edgar Edwards) is very good as well.
Above, top left: The hero races to catch a runaway train. Top right: The hero climbs on the stagecoach team to retrieve the reins. Bottom left: James Craig (kneeling in foreground) and the railroad crew do battle with off-camera Indians. Bottom right: A shot from the climactic fistfight.
The Chapter Nine shootout in the gully and the Chapter Twelve gun battle in Carter’s town of Black Hawk are also memorable, as are the Indian attacks on the moving work train in Chapters One and Seven. Both of these train sequences borrow stock footage from Universal’s earlier railroad-themed western Heroes of the West–but these borrowings are much better-integrated with the new footage than the silent stock seen in most of Universal’s 1930s western serials, largely because both old and new footage are filmed at standard sound-era speeds. The aforesaid silent footage is, thankfully, almost entirely absent from Winners–except for some shots of buffalo, an unconvincing but thankfully brief scene featuring a timber-cutting crew at work, and a few clips of Indians falling from their horses. By 1940, Universal had produced enough sound Western serials to furnish them with a backlog of newer stock footage, allowing them to put to rest overused sequences like the “Indians invade the town” scene, the wagon-train attack, and the “war party crossing the river” shot.
The newer stock footage chiefly makes itself apparent in Winners of the West’s chapter endings; the first-rate powder-wagon explosion and suspension-bridge collapse from Wild West Days both close out episodes here, as does the saloon explosion featured in The Phantom Rider. Both old and new cliffhangers are mostly free of Universal’s “lived-through-it” resolutions, although the new endings are not otherwise remarkable for imaginativeness (no less than four cliffhanger scenes have the hero either being trampled by horses or apparently run over by a train). The best chapter endings are the striking train-off-the-cliff scene in Chapter Two and the equally spectacular bridge explosion that closes Chapter Three; both are excellent and are not identifiable as stock footage–although, knowing Universal, I suspect that they did originate in another production.
The Kernville locations seen in Universal’s four John Mack Brown serials are absent here–although the wild and rocky Kernville would have been perfectly “cast” as the forbiddingly-named Hellgate Pass region. Instead, Winners’ outdoor action scenes take place on the Universal ranch, seen in their Buck Jones chapterplays; its steep hills, scattered groves of trees, grassy plains, and gullies provide a visually pleasant backdrop for the serial, albeit one less rugged than Kernville’s slopes. Less pleasing are the obvious interiors used for the Indian village, which match poorly with long shots (borrowed from Wild West Days) of the outdoor Indian encampment at Kernville; soundstages unfortunately pop up in several other supposedly out-of-doors scenes as well. The sprawling outdoor railroad camp is satisfactory, however, as is Universal’s western-town street.
Winners’ excellent cast makes the absolute most of the serial’s above-average dialogue, further strengthening their already strong characters. As Jeff Ramsay, Dick Foran is both likable and a bit more hard-edged than the typical serial hero; he’s gruffly sarcastic, jovial, almost swaggeringly tough, and quietly determined by turns, making his character come off as heroic but also something of a roughneck–a tireless builder of civilization who hasn’t yet found the time to completely civilize himself.
Anne Nagel, with her pert manner and refined Bostonian voice, provides a perfect counterpoint to the blunt and unpolished Foran. Although her Claire Hartford is sharp-tongued and rather willful, Nagel never makes the character seem too abrasive; she does an excellent job of conveying both irritation with Ramsay and growing affection for him–particularly in the recurring bits in which she tries to apologize to him, is brusquely ignored, and determinedly relapses into sarcasm.
Harry Woods is outstanding as an unusually complex heavy–who’s more than a bit reminiscent of his “Rocky” character from Rustlers of Red Dog. As in Rustlers, Woods does an excellent job of conveying both ruthlessness and strength of character; the sportsmanlike respect he shows for his enemy Ramsey, his cheerful self-confidence in the face of setbacks, and his indomitable determination make his King Carter seem rather admirable despite his villainy. In the final chapter, Foran’s Ramsay actually seems somewhat saddened by Carter’s fall–an emotion the viewer is likely to share, thanks to Woods’ excellent performance.
Character actor Tom Fadden is very entertaining as the cagy Tex Houston–coolly guarding the hero’s back in showdowns, confidently and capably demonstrating his scouting know-how, and delivering sardonic quips in a relaxed but slightly impudent drawl. Future MGM star James Craig, as backup sidekick Jim Jackson, avoids being completely overshadowed by the quirkier Fadden; his Tennessee twang and laid-back but slightly swashbuckling manner lend him more personality than most of the serial genre’s secondary heroes.
Trevor Bardette establishes a very menacing presence as Carter’s quiet-spoken but deadly counselor Raven, whether he’s making murderous use of his derringer or icily advising his boss; he manages to steal scenes even when merely standing silently in Carter’s office–by continually dusting off his coat or hat in an ominous manner that suggests a panther grooming itself. Charles Stevens is his usual inimitable self as Carter’s field commander, the half-breed Snakeye–continually veering from craftiness to cockiness to perplexity, and successfully conveying a sullen (and slowly mounting) resentment when Carter rebukes him for his failures.
Edward Keane–pudgy in appearance but shrewd and assertive in demeanor–is well cast as railroad-builder John Hartford; he looks both smart enough to own a railroad and soft enough to require someone else to build it for him. Chief Yowlatchie is imposingly stern as the hostile Indian chief War Eagle, particularly in the unexpected scene in which he finally realizes that his supposed friend Snakeye has been speaking with a “forked tongue.”
Chuck Morrison is good as the loud-mouthed and treacherous Blade, the most prominent of Carter’s henchmen after Raven and Snakeye. Roy Barcroft has less to do as another outlaw named Logan, but remains a noticeable background presence throughout the serial. Edmund Cobb is a recurring henchman in the serial’s first half, while the intimidatingly aggressive Edgar Edwards makes a strong impression in the later episodes as yet another badman. Vyola Vonn is Carter’s brassy saloon singer, and Ed Cassidy is Carter’s puppet lawman.
William Desmond–a near-ubiquitous presence in Universal’s serials–is as stalwart and dignified as ever as the foreman of the railroad’s work crew, while Slim Whitaker is likable as a cheerful stage driver. One-time screen Tarzan James Pierce appears briefly as a lumberman, Harry Tenbrook as a railroad worker, Al Bridge as a cavalry captain, Bob Kortman as a spy at the railroad camp, silent-serial heroine Grace Cunard as a railroad worker’s wife, and Earl Douglas as a dying outlaw. Hank Worden has a funny bit as a drunk in Carter’s saloon, Evelyn Selbie is Carter’s Indian housekeeper, Iron Eyes Cody appears regularly as one of War Eagle’s braves, and Tom London, Bud Osborne, and Frank Ellis all pop up as thugs. Stuntmen Ken Terrell and Henry Wills play Indians, in addition to assisting the above-mentioned Lyons, Parker, and Graham (all of whom play bits as well) with the serial’s action scenes. The unmistakable voice of Richard Cramer provides the narration that accompanies the montage of railway construction in the last chapter, while James Blaine appears as a senator at the final dedication of the railroad.
Winners of the West’s storyline may be simple and repetitious, but its strong characterizations and excellent dialogue easily compensate for its ordinary plotting–and, together with its terrific cast and good action scenes, turn the serial into a definite winner of a Western.
Above: A victorious Dick Foran embraces Anne Nagel and promises Edward Keane (standing at left) that the railroad will go through. James Craig is seated on horseback behind Kean, Tom Fadden is mounted behind Foran, and William Desmond is standing on the far right.