Riders of Death Valley

Riders of Death Valley--titles
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.

Riders of Death Valley--mine
Above: The Lost Aztec Mine in operation.

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.

Riders of Death Valley--gun battle 1 Riders of Death Valley--gun battle 2
Above: The Riders (left) and the Wolf Pack (right) blaze away at each other.

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.

Riders of Death Valley--gun battle in hills Riders of Death Valley--gun battle on horseback Riders of Death Valley--hillside chase Riders of Death Valley--blazing barrel
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).

Riders of Death Valley--scenery 1 Riders of Death Valley--scenery 2 Riders of Death Valley--scenery 3 Riders of Death Valley--scenery 4
Above: An assortment of scenic desert shots.

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.

Riders of Death Valley--stampede
Above: Jim Benton tries to stay out in front of the stampeding horse herd.

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).

Riders of Death Valley--wagon cliffhanger 1 Riders of Death Valley--wagon cliffhanger 2
Above: The burning wagon heads for a shack containing the hero and heroine (and a lot of explosives).

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.

Riders of Death Valley---Dick Foran
Above: Dick Foran.

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.

Riders of Death Valley---Buck Jones
Above: The irrepressible Buck Jones.

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.

Riders of Death Valley--Big Boy Williams and Leo Carillo
Above: Big Boy Williams and Leo 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.

Riders of Death Valley---Jeanne Kelly Riders of Death Valley---Glenn Strange
Above left: Jeanne Kelly tells James Guliofyle her plans for her share of the mine profits. Above right: Glenn Strange brings good news to the jailed (and off-camera) Buck Jones and Dick Foran.

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.

Riders of Death Valley---Charles Bickford
Above: Charles Bickford.

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.

Riders of Death Valley--Chaney and pack
Above: Jack Rockwell reports to a grinning Lon Chaney Jr. during a shootout; Ethan Laidlaw and Roy Barcroft (far right) are in the background.

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.

Riders of Death Valley--Monte Blue and James Blaine
Above: Monte Blue (standing) and James Blaine.

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.

Riders of Death Valley---last

5 thoughts on “Riders of Death Valley

  1. Having seen this on first release I have a fondness for Riders.Even tho I was only seven at the time, there were moments that have stayed with me all this time. One was the classical themes and one instance showing Buck Jones skill with a rifle while fleeing the outlaws in a moving stagecoach.Again , I rarely saw all chapters of a serial,money was scarce and this was no exception.This is one of a handful of Universals that after viewing in their entirety many years later,I can say I actually enjoyed. Rating……**** out of *****stars.

  2. I agree that Foran did a much better “cowboy” job in this movie. I still don’t think he was ever a top flight horseman but he was certainly good enough in this one to get by. He was also noticeably slimmer, which helped him in the hero mode. As he had made all kinds of westerns at Warners, it occurred to me that he might have been injured when filming Winners and so couldn’t do his own riding for the most part. Don’t know, but a possibility. As for the serial as a whole, it impressed me as ordinary with an extraordinary cast. Foran held up his end, but still doesn’t come across as that “western” to me, but Jones, Carrillo, Bickford, and Chaney were superb. I liked the tornado and lightning cliffhangers, but the horse stampede and falling into the mineshaft were about the worst cheats ever. There is just no way with a herd of horses stampeding shoulder to shoulder through a narrow gorge that a man on the ground wouldn’t end up mush. Even the characters in the serial didn’t believe he survived. There was a great deal of action, but much of it did seem endless chases and shooting without hitting anyone. Also the two boss villains were forgettable, but this didn’t matter much as Wolf took over at the end. ***1/2 out of *****

    • That’s an interesting theory about Foran being injured when he worked on Winners of the West; it’s also possible that Foran could have been simultaneously working on another Universal production while Winners was being filmed (he did The Mummy’s Hand and The House of the Seven Gables at the studio that year, among others) and thus not available for some of the location shooting.

      I agree about the outrageous cliffhanger resolutions in Riders, although I can think of equally ridiculous examples in other Universal serials (like the “resolution” to Richard Talmadge’s cliff fall in Pirate Treasure). The mine shaft one was the most unbelievable for me; as Leo Carrillo says, “It’s pretty high down from there.” I also had to laugh at the bit in Riders in which Chaney exclaims “what luck” after Foran has survived yet another catastrophe, and James Blaine quite inaccurately snaps back “It’s not luck, it’s brains; he’s outsmarted you and the Wolf at every turn.” Chaney and Bickford should really have called him on that misstatement.

      I have my own system of terminology for mishandled cliffhangers in serials; the ones that the heroes simply survive, no matter how improbably, are “live-through-it” cliffhangers; I use the term “cheats” for the ones that show the hero getting killed at the end of the chapter and then alter the existing action next week instead of simply adding an escape shot (The Vigilantes Are Coming is filled with these; Buck Rogers has at least one notorious example too); I find such cliffhangers even more jarring than the “live-through-it” ones. I see some other reviewers complain about resolutions in which the heroes simply jump out of the car (wagon, plane, train, etc.) before it crashes, but while these escapes may be unimaginative, they don’t strain the suspension of disbelief; still, the best cliffhangers are those that use completely unexpected methods to save the hero or heroine, but they’re few and far between.

      As an addendum to the Riders review, here’s an interesting picture of a reunion between Wolf Reade and Jim Benton twenty-six years after their clash in the serial–in other words, a shot of Charles Bickford and Dick Foran, playing old friends–instead of enemies–in “The Reckoning,” a 1967 episode of The Virginian TV show (which Bickford was a co-star on at the very end of his career):

      Foran and Bickford

      I wonder if they reminisced at all about Riders while filming this episode.

  3. Jerry Blake–I think there are two types of “live-through-it” cliffhangers. The ones which are plausible, such as the chapter 14 one in Riders. And ones that are just implausible, like the mine shaft or horse stampede bits. I don’t mind the plausible ones if they are not used too often. Universal did have a tendency to use this out too often.
    One other thing I liked about this serial was that while Blaine and Blue were rather weak boss villains, this was turned into an advantage as Wolf and his men held them in contempt as weaklings who wanted the rewards of being criminals but weren’t willing to personally run the risks.
    I will try to remember your definition of cheats.

  4. Another great review with all the important points covered. Western serials are my least favorite (except for serials which have both a robot and a gorilla in them) but this was quite good. The action was exciting but a little drawn out at times, and some wearisome gun battles that foreshadowed the A Team hurt the action somewhat. However the acting carried the day for me, all the protagonists were great fun to watch, I found the interplay among them to be engaging and often very funny. The bad guys were also well portrayed, both the cunning and the savage. I read that Bickford was arrested for attempted murder when he was nine! His dog was run over by a trolley and he gave the driver a serious drubbing. My viewing was hampered by a very poor print and distorted sound, but the story made me stick with it. Overall an easy **** out of ***** for me.

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