Universal, 15 Chapters, 1941. Starring Dick Foran, Buck Jones, Charles Bickford, Leo Carrillo, Jeanne Kelly, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Lon Chaney Jr., Monte Blue, James Blaine, Glenn Strange, Jack Rockwell, Richard Alexander, Ethan Laidlaw, Roy Barcroft, Noah Beery Jr.
The Riders of Death Valley are six fearless vigilantes who have assembled to protect the miners of the Panamint region from the schemes of crooked businessmen Kirby and Davis (James Blaine and Monte Blue) and the raids of this duo’s outlaw associate Wolf Reade (Charles Bickford). Vigilantes and villains soon find themselves clashing over a map to the legendary Lost Aztec gold mine–which was discovered by old prospector Chuckawalla Charlie just before his death. Charlie has willed the map to his niece Mary Morgan (Jeanne Kelly) and to the Riders’ leader Jim Benton (Dick Foran), who grubstaked his prospecting venture; Benton, his pal Tombstone (Buck Jones), and the other Riders must now help Mary locate the mine, file a claim on it, and develop it–while fighting off Wolf’s outlaw “pack” every step of the way.
Riders of Death Valley was heralded as a “Million Dollar Serial” by Universal’s publicity department when first released. It was probably not quite as expensive as that; nor is it really the super-serial epic that the studio made it out to be–having been conceived as just another run-of-the-mill Western outing by original-story writer Oliver Drake, and given an unexpected budget boost when several big-name actors happened to become available all at once. However, while its advertising may have been overblown, Riders is a very successful chapterplay–flawed in spots, but irresistibly entertaining.
Though lacking the scope one might expect of from the plot of a “Million Dollar Serial,” Riders’ screenplay is quite respectable. The struggle for control of the Lost Aztec Mine, which serves as the basis of the serial’s action, doesn’t become as repetitive as one would expect–due to the way in which the narrative changes its focus around the halfway point, allowing the heroes to discover the mine after many episodes of search; once they’ve successfully staked their claim and borrowed money from the bank to develop the mine, they then find themselves racing the clock to make the mine pay off before the villainous Kirby (who’s acquired their note from the bank) can foreclose on it. Many Western serials either rely on a search for a mine(Gordon of Ghost City) or a fight to hold onto a mine (Flaming Frontiers) for their entire length; by combining these two stock plots, Riders’ screenwriters give their narrative some welcome variety.
Those screenwriters–George Plympton, Joseph Connell, Basil Dickey, and Sherman Lowe–also give Riders a very fast pace by allowing action scenes to overlap individual chapters; the capture of Jim Benton and his rescue by Tombstone (for instance) begins in Chapter Two, but leads to a chase and then to a shootout/siege that runs all the way into the middle of Chapter Three. While this emphasis on non-stop action largely deprives Riders of the personality-driven subplots that marked many other Universal serials, there are still some memorable character moments to be found here–from Tombstone’s jovial teasing of Jim as the latter hangs from a cliff to Wolf’s unexpected display of loyalty towards his lieutenant Butch.
Riders’ action scenes, though pleasingly plentiful, suffer from a touch of the same malady that plagued Columbia’s Overland With Kit Carson: during gunfight sequences, both heroes and villains exchange an enormous amount of shots, yet rarely manage to score a hit (the battle at the mine that occupies parts of Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight is a particularly ridiculous example). However, Riders’ gunfights are not as uniformly bloodless as similar scenes in Carson or some of Universal’s own 1930s Western serials; the Riders do manage to dispatch several minor henchmen over the course of the serial, and tackle the principal heavies to satisfyingly fatal effect in the final chapter. The villains are allowed to be genuinely deadly at times, as well–with Wolf making a violent and lethal attack on the stage in the first episode, and eliminating enemies with frightening cold-bloodedness in later chapters.
The large-scale gunfights between good guys and bad are also helped by the fact that many of them take place during horseback chases–giving the repeated clashes an exciting sense of movement that distracts from the ineffectual gunplay; the chase-fight around the Riders’ supply wagons in Chapter Three is the first of many such running battles. Other action highlights include the Chapter One stagecoach raid, the shootout in the rocks in Chapter Three, the cross-country chase sequences in Chapters Four and Five, the terrific escape from the lynch mob in Chapter Nine (which has sidekicks Pancho, Borax, and Tex galloping dramatically down the street and swinging blazing powder barrels from their lariats), the assault on the mine in Chapter Eleven, and the brief shootout and longer chase scene that climax Chapter Fifteen.
Above, top left: Wolf and his men fire at the heroes during the Chapter Three shootout. Top right: Tombstone and Jim in a galloping gun battle. Bottom left: the Wolf Pack pursues the heroes down a hillside. Bottom right: Borax (Big Boy Williams) twirls a blazing barrel during the Chapter Nine jailbreak sequence.
Fistfights are heavily outnumbered by shootouts and chases here, numbering only about half-a-dozen in all and rarely lasting more than a couple of minutes; the best of these scenes are the burning-stable fight in Chapter Ten and the combat inside the mine in Chapter Eleven. Future serial star Rod Cameron can be spotted doubling Buck Jones in the stable fight and in a few of the riding scenes; Cliff Lyons serves as both fight double and riding double for Dick Foran. Gil Perkins and former rodeo champion Frank McCarroll can also be spotted here, playing heavies in their own right and doubling for other heavies.
The visual quality of Riders’ action scenes is boosted immeasurably by the serial’s imposing locations; the barren slopes of Red Rock Canyon and the rocky wastes of the real Death Valley provide a stark and almost otherworldly backdrop for the chases and shootouts; directors Ray Taylor and Ford Beebe and cameramen Jerome Ash and William Sickner fill the serial with shots that show off these locales to great advantage. The rugged Kernville ranch–which look quite tame in comparison with the Death Valley landscapes–serves as the backdrop for other sequences (like the ore wagon’s trek in the later chapters).
The serial’s disparate locales do lead to one dreadfully jarring scene in Chapter Fourteen (which jumps from outdoor shots of the heroes at Kernville, scenes of the heavies on a soundstage in front of a Death Valley process-screen, shots of the hero and villain climbing on the bluffs of Red Rock, and clips of a cliff-top fight at Kernville borrowed from The Oregon Trail)–but this sequence is, fortunately, the only major editing blunder in the serial, which is mostly free of the abrupt switches in backgrounds that marred Winners of the West. The borrowed Oregon Trail shots provide one of the few examples of stock-footage use in the serial, aside from the editors’ reuse of Riders’ own footage during a couple of chase scenes and a few chapter-ending wagon crashes. Universal’s overused and grainy shots of silent-film Indians and townsmen are entirely absent here; the only “big” stock-footage sequence is the wild-horse stampede in Chapter Two–and even this scene is made effective by the clear presence of about a dozen actual horses in the new footage, who are shown galloping furiously in the same shot as the fleeing heroes.
The horse-stampede sequence provides a very good chapter ending–albeit one that, like several of the other cliffhangers, is resolved by having the hero simply survive his peril. This chronic Universal flaw rears its head in the resolutions to other perils like the mine-elevator crash (in Chapter Eight) or the novel sandstorm cliffhanger (Chapter Seven); the stagecoach-off-the-cliff chapter ending in Chapter One is handled with a little more imagination, as are the avalanche (Chapter Five), the excellent stable fire (Chapter Ten) and the memorable burning-wagon sequence that closes Chapter Four (this last is perhaps the best of the serial’s cliffhangers).
Dick Foran, though frequently overshadowed by his colorful co-stars, does a solid job in the serial’s top-billed role; he’s likably breezy in his many bantering scenes with his “pardners,” suitably tough and grim in confrontations with villains–and, unusually for a serial hero, even acts convincingly angry at times (as in the bank scene in Chapter Nine). He also acquits himself very well in the horseback-chase sequences, notwithstanding his ungraceful appearance; the discussion of Foran’s equestrian skills in the comments section to my Winners of the West review made me pay close attention to his riding scenes while re-viewing Riders; I found, somewhat to my surprise, that Foran (Easterner though he was) was clearly doing plenty of his own horseback work; even the waist-up “riding” shots occasionally used to show him in action are Winners are entirely absent here.
Despite Foran’s fine lead performance, the great Buck Jones steals scene after scene from him as co-hero Tombstone–toughly and capably taking part in practically as many action scenes as Foran does, but steadfastly refusing to take anything very seriously; he exchanges non-stop banter with the other characters and tosses off quips even when blasting away at outlaws with his Winchester rifle. His wisecracks during the Chapter Three shootout (“The horses are takin’ a vacation, and Wolf and his gang of little wolflets are gonna sneak up and bite us right from behind”) and his running commentary on Dick Foran’s fight with a henchman in Chapter Eleven (“What is this, a Holy Roller meeting? Close yer fists!”) are particularly hilarious–and seem to be ad-libbed, judging by the hastily-repressed grins they provoke from Foran and leading lady Jeanne Kelly.
Leo Carrillo, as the garrulous Pancho, is the most prominent of the serial’s subordinate Riders–and, like Jones, engages in some obvious and very amusing ad-libbing, lapsing into fluent Spanish when excited and confidently but confusingly holding forth in outrageously mangled English in calmer moments (“Let’s went”). The contrast between his sloppy appearance and his grandiosely suave caballero-like manner is also quite funny, as is the deadpan style in which he bounces sarcastic remarks off of Big Boy Williams (as fellow-sidekick Borax). Williams has less screen time than Foran, Jones, or Carrillo, but still acquits himself well in both the action and the comedy departments–performing some impressive riding and rope-twirling during the above-mentioned jailbreak scene, and bringing an entertainingly exasperated manner to his many interchanges with Carrillo.
Jeanne Kelly, who later changed her name to Jean Brooks and played key roles in several of Val Lewton’s RKO horror films, makes an attractive and likable heroine, providing a good counterpoint to the exuberant flippancy of the male leads with her combination of quiet good-humor and earnest seriousness. Glenn Strange (also a future horror-movie notable) has an uncharacteristically heroic role as background sidekick Tex; his formidable size and the intimidating swiftness with which he goes into action (as in his alert rescue of the map in the first chapter) lends the character a strong presence, despite his relatively few dialogue scenes. Noah Beery Jr. has a much smaller role as Tex’s fellow-Rider Smokey, receiving no more than six or seven lines and even dropping out of sight for most of the serial’s second half; though billed as one of the serial’s “stars” in its trailer, he was apparently unavailable for much of its filming.
Distinguished A-list character actor Charles Bickford is superb as Wolf Reade, delivering perhaps the best outlaw performance in any Western serial. Bickford doesn’t need to swagger or sneer to make his character seem menacing, being able to register toughness and implacability with a single cold glare or one harshly growled line; he also conveys both utter confidence in himself and almost complete contempt for everyone else–outlining schemes and reacting to setbacks with grim but unflappable calm, and verbally putting down his henchmen and his supposed partners Kirby and Davis with brusque and sardonic disdain. Bickford gives the character such an aura of ruthless self-sufficiency that he makes Wolf seem an “outlaw” in the most literal sense of the word–someone who has placed himself outside all the conventions of civilization and become a law unto himself.
Lon Chaney Jr., in his most prominent serial-henchman role, is very good as Wolf’s lieutenant Butch–bullyingly smug when threatening the heroes or ordering around lesser henchmen, but subdued and respectful when receiving commands from Wolf. Chaney also manages to lend an unusual degree of nuance to Butch’s relationship with Wolf, reacting to his boss’s gruffness in the half-frustrated, half-admiring fashion an ambitious young soldier might adopt towards a drill sergeant who’s taught him everything he knows. The stocky and shrewd-looking Jack Rockwell is quite effective as the cagy Trigger, the most prominent of the supporting henchmen; the other leading members of Wolf’s pack are played by three top-notch heavies—aggressive Ethan Laidlaw, grumpy Richard Alexander, and crafty Roy Barcroft.
Portly and smooth-voiced James Blaine is properly urbane as Kirby, coolly disregarding the sarcastic remarks thrown his way by the heroes and by his colleague Wolf. Monte Blue is far less smooth—though enjoyably energetic–as Kirby’s loud-mouthed partner Davis, who continually grumbles and blusters at both opponents and associates. The hulking and thuggish William Hall plays the partners’ bodyguard, while Jack Clifford manages to seem both weak-willed and sympathetic as the banker that Kirby pressures into helping him.
Ruth Rickaby and Ted Adams—the former boisterous, the latter slickly shifty—are amusing as a villainous nester couple in cahoots with Wolf’s gang. James Guliofyle is also funny as the honest but sharp-tongued Judge Knox, while Ernie Adams is delightful in a small but colorful turn as an old desert rat who aids the heroes in the penultimate chapter. Edmund Cobb is the good-natured Lost Aztec mine foreman in the later chapters, Don Rowan a belligerent mine worker, William Pagan the surly town marshal, Frank Brownlee an old-timer in the saloon, Charles Thomas a crooked prospector reluctantly forced into Wolf’s service, and Slim Whitaker a friendly townsman. Bud Osborne and Jack Perrin are the driver and guard (respectively) of the ill-fated stage in the first chapter, while radio actor Jay Michael—racketeer “Foranti” from The Green Hornet Strikes Again—is one of the passengers. Frank Austin is very good in his extremely brief scene as the dying Chuckawalla Charlie.
“Chuckawalla’s” moving death scene is very effectively underscored by a slowed-down version of the sad cowboy song “Little Wrangler Joe;” other scenes in the serial are accompanied by various stock studio compositions or classical pieces—the most memorable of which is Mendelssohn’s ominous and dramatic Hebrides Overture, also heard in the first Don Winslow serial. Unlike most Universal serials, Riders also boasts a piece of original music, the theme song “Ride Along”—which is rendered during the opening credits by Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, and Glenn Strange (the only singers among the serial’s leads); although this song is far too operatic in its wording to be convincing as a Western ditty, its tune is undeniably rousing.
As some of its harsher critics (the most notable of whom was Alan Barbour) have pointed out, Riders of Death Valley is nothing more than a simple and small-scale Western adventure given an outrageously elaborate mounting. However, that mounting largely succeeds in doing what it was intended to do—namely, make Riders thoroughly enjoyable. Between its location work, its fast-paced action, and its many excellent performances (especially those of Jones and Bickford), it provides a viewer with virtually continuous entertainment.