The Lost Special

The Lost Special--titles
Universal, 12 Chapters, 1932. Starring Frank Albertson, Ernie Nevers, Cecilia Parker, J. Frank Glendon, Francis Ford, Caryl Lincoln, Tom London.

A special train carrying a shipment of gold from the Galconda Mine is hijacked by a gang of crooks–who remove the gold and use a specially-laid section of track to run the train down an abandoned mine shaft, afterwards removing the temporary track so as to leave no connecting link between the main rail line and the disused spur leading to the mine. Potter Hood (Francis Ford), the president of the Galconda mining company, believes the baffling robbery was engineered by railroad owner Horace Moore (Frank Beal)–but the mastermind behind the theft is actually Hood’s scheming vice-president Samuel Slater (J. Frank Glendon). Slater’s schemes are hampered, however, when Hood’s son Tom (Frank Albertson) and his college buddy Bob Collins (Ernie Nevers) decide to turn detective and track down The Lost Special, teaming up with aspiring reporter Betty Moore (Cecilia Parker) and her friend Kate Bland (Caryl Lincoln). Together, the four youngsters set out to investigate the Special’s disappearance—searching for the stolen gold, battling Slater’s gang, preventing additional robberies, and drawing ever closer to unmasking Slater himself.

As the opening credits duly emphasize, The Lost Special is based on a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–albeit very loosely. Its only borrowings from its proclaimed source are its title, the ingenious method of hiding the train in the first chapter, and several character names–Slater, Collins, Bland, Horace Moore, Potter Hood; only the last-named character has any similarity to his print counterpart. The rest of the serial is the work of Universal screenwriters George Morgan, Ella O’Neill, George Plympton, and Basil Dickey, and has more in common with the Hardy Boys stories of the late 1920s and early 1930s than anything Sir Arthur wrote. The preceding statement is not intended as a criticism; Special is a straightforward and very enjoyable tale of two-fisted detection that’s far livelier than some of Universal’s other outings from the first half of the 1930s.

Like the protagonists of the Hardy books, and other juvenile mysteries of the era, Lost Special’s heroes are cheerfully but resolutely focused on their fight with their criminal opponents—unlike the protagonists of other early Universal serials like Perils of Pauline or Tailspin Tommy, for whom clashes with villains were distractions from other pursuits like archeology or aviation. This firm emphasis on crime-fighting makes Special seem a little repetitive at times–but also makes it exciting and fast-moving, with good guys and bad guys hurrying from one encounter to the next in a style more reminiscent of later Republic serials than of contemporary Universal outings. The pace does slow somewhat whenever the heroes or villains sit down to discuss their next move—but these plotting scenes, though sometimes overlong, are rarely dull–thanks to the energy of the leading actors and to many humorous pieces of dialogue (particularly prudent Kate Bland’s sharp-tongued objections when her more reckless friends are sketching out a campaign).

The Lost Special--office clowning
Above: A prankish Ernie Nevers (standing, right) gives secretly guilty J. Frank Glendon (seated, center) a momentary moment of panic by telling him to “stick ’em up” during an office discussion; Francis Ford (seated, left) and Frank Albertson look on in amusement.

The writers move their characters through a wide variety of locations, which helps to minimize the repetitive aspects of the ongoing battle between Tom Hood’s group and Slater’s men; protagonists and antagonists tangle with each other aboard speeding trains, on country roads, inside a nightclub, on the ocean, at a mine, and inside a huge mansion. The mansion’s interior is represented by an eerie-looking and impressive Universal studio set; the inside of the “Red Lantern,” filled with dozens of extras, is equally impressive. The gloomy outside of the mansion and the spacious grounds and marina of the nightclub (as well as the farmstead in another chapter) appear to be genuine non-backlot structures of the type often seen in Mascot serials but featured far less frequently in Universal’s efforts. Bronson Cave serves as the aforementioned mine, while Bronson Canyon and the hilly roads nearby provide the backdrop for other outdoor action sequences.

The Lost Special--nightclub exterior The Lost Special--Bronson Cave
Above left: J. Frank Glendon’s car pulls into the Red Lantern. Above right: Cecilia Parker and Frank Albertson explore Bronson Cave.

The action sequences in Special–indoor and outdoor—are more plentiful than in many other Universals of the era; although gun battles are even more noticeably deemphasized than in some of the studio’s other pre-1936 chapterplays, the serial teems with fistfights and chases. The fistfights, which feature the overcranking and the short, choppy blows typical of early-1930s screen fights, look very unconvincing when compared to those in later serials–but are still entertainingly energetic, with the heroes and the henchmen furiously flailing away at each other and emerging from the brawls in a convincing state of exhaustion and disarray. The mammoth fight between the heroes (backed by their football-team friends) and the heavies at the Red Lantern in Chapter Three is visually memorable, thanks to the way in which director Henry MacRae fills the screen with combatants; the wild battle on the mansion landing in Chapter Six is another standout, as are co-hero Ernie Nevers’s tussle with a trio of henchmen in the mansion hallway (which spans Chapters Seven and Eight) and the fight atop the train in Chapter One. The athletic Nevers—a Hall of Fame fullback for the New York Giants—seems to be doing most of his own stuntwork during the fight scenes, as does Frank Albertson (although George DeNormand subs for the latter in some sequences).

The Lost Special--nightclub fight The Lost Special--landing fight
Above left: The mammoth nightclub fight. Above right: Frank Albertson sends a henchman sailing over a railing during the brawl at the mansion.

Nevers’ lengthy race down the burning staircase of a towering office building (carrying the unconscious Albertson) and Caryl Lincoln’s dangerous leap down a hillside to escape from the henchmen’s car are excellent as well; other action highlights include the car-train chase in Chapter Two, the Chapter Three boat chase, the fight at the farmhouse porch in Chapter Nine and the car-motorcycle chase that follows it–which climaxes with both car and cycle soaring off a cliff for a spectacular chapter ending. Other cliffhanger scenes are similarly memorable–particularly the car-train collision in Chapter One, the collapsing building in Chapter Four, and the tunnel blast in Chapter Eleven. The only jarringly obvious use of stock-footage peril comes in the Chapter Eleven forest-fire scene, although many of the aforementioned chapter endings (and others like the motorboat explosion or the trapdoor fall) suffer from that chronic Universal flaw—the improbable “they-lived-through-it” escape. The flooding-room cliffhanger in Chapter Seven is the best of the lot, being both effectively executed and effectively resolved.

The Lost Special--car and train The Lost Special--car off cliff
Above left: The heroine’s speeding car heads for a collision with a speeding train. Above right: A car sails off the cliff at the end of Chapter Nine, with a motorcycle close behind it.

Frank Albertson, who went on to play major roles in classic comedies like Bachelor Mother and the Marx Brothers’ Room Service, is excellent  as Tom Hood—rattling off plans in chipper and eager fashion and managing to convey both self-assured savvy and youthful overconfidence without seeming either obnoxious or foolish. Co-hero Ernie Nevers’ extremely subdued manner provides a good contrast to Albertson’s breeziness; although the big fullback’s acting inexperience is quite obvious whenever his lines get too long-winded (his explanation of transmutation in Chapter Four is particularly painful), he handles less demanding dialogue with an easygoing affability that’s very likable—and seems quite at home in the action scenes.

The Lost Special--Ernie Nevers The Lost Special--Frank Albertson
Above left: Ernie Nevers. Above right: Frank Albertson.

Cecilia Parker’s reporter heroine Betty—who repeatedly and unconcernedly rushes into danger– is even more cheerfully reckless than Albertson’s Tom, but similarly manages to come off as endearing instead of irritating; the actress’s demure and angelic appearance provides an amusing contrast to her breathless eagerness and her character’s unconcernedly imprudent behavior. The attractive Caryl Lincoln is very good as Parker’s sensible but seldom-heeded friend Kate; although she has less to do than Albertson, Nevers, and Parker, she receives some of the serial’s best lines. Her sarcastic remarks after Betty has crashed the girls’ car into a train are particularly funny (Betty: “Kate, I’m so glad you weren’t killed!”  Kate: “Well, you did your best, but I’m still here.”)

The Lost Special--Cecilia Parker The Lost Special--Caryl Lincoln
Above left: Cecilia Parker cogitates. Above right: Caryl Lincoln urges a harbor-police officer on to the rescue of her friends.

Silent-serial star Francis Ford turns in a colorful and individualized performance as Potter Hood; like most serial parents, he’s soberly dignified when worrying over the dangers his son is encountering, but is also amusingly irascible when browbeating his supposed enemy Horace Moore, and admirably fierce and feisty when confronting the villains. The suave and poker-faced J. Frank Glendon does an excellent job as Ford’s duplicitous associate—affecting a sort of stuffy joviality when conferring with the good guys, but switching to a far keener and slyer demeanor when plotting with his henchmen; he uses his rolling, euphonious voice to great advantage in both aspects of his brains-heavy role.

The Lost Special--Francis Ford The Lost Special--Frank Glendon
Above left: Francis Ford. Above right: J. Frank Glendon.

Tom London is very good as action heavy Dirk—seeming shrewd and crafty enough to direct the lesser henchmen but also nervous enough to require the guidance of Glendon’s character. Al Ferguson is colorfully cocky and swaggering as Gavin, one of the principal subordinate thugs, while Jack Clifford is sinisterly suave as Doran, another leading heavy. Edmund Cobb is featured prominently throughout as a cranky goon named Spike, and engages in some hilarious (and uncharacteristic) antics with a bottle of liquor in Chapter Eleven. Stuntmen George DeNormand and George Magrill have lesser henchman roles, as do Bud Osborne and silent-serial star (and champion strongman) Joe Bonomo. Harold Nelson is distinctively quirky as a rather Dickensian professor in cahoots with the criminals, while Frank Beal is the harried but dignified railroad official Horace Moore. Reb Russell, later a star of some very low-budget B-westerns, is one of the heroes’ college chums, Harry Strang is a nightclub waiter, and William Gould is a railroad detective.

The Lost Special--heavies
Above: Al Ferguson (left), Tom London (center), and other heavies during a motorboat chase.

Unlike almost every other Universal serial, The Lost Special has never been given a commercial video release, and as a result remains one of the studio’s most frequently overlooked outings. Although extant prints of the serial are rather hazy-looking in places (and are also missing about five minutes worth of footage from Chapter Five), they’re well worth seeking out; Special’s simple but exuberantly energetic script, colorful assortment of action scenes, and equally colorful assortment of actors makes it very entertaining viewing.

Lost Special--last
Above: The Lost Special rolls down the abandoned mine in Chapter One.

5 thoughts on “The Lost Special

  1. Thanks for the review. Have not seen this one but it is now at the top of my next buy list. I have found a ;gray market source for this one. Besides its serial aspects, one factor that intrigues me is Ernie Nevers. He was a unanimous #1 pick on all the all-pro teams every year he was in the NFL, impressive as Bronko Nagurski was also in the NFL in 1930 & 1931, but no one picked him over Nevers. Nevers holds the longest standing NFL records, most points in a game (40)-alone-and most touchdowns (6)-which he shares. I am looking forward to see how he does in the action scenes.

  2. Have just finished watching it. Fun serial with a typically unusual 1930’s vibe. Serials hadn’t yet fallen into the post WWII cliché ruts. I liked that Francis Ford was interested in protecting his old friends name at the end. This is the earliest “girl reporter hot on story” plot I have seen. Nevers? As an actor, he was a great fullback. I am still glad he was in this. *** out of *****

  3. Sorry if I’ve been here before and have already commented, but I watched this serial (on DVDs from Onechapteraweek, who apparently specialize in digitized public domain serials) with an ax to grind: Research into the source material of, and for clues to the hidden plot of, the recent TV serial “Lost”, which was the baby of a friend of mine, Damon Lindelof. “Lost” was apparently named for, and included sly allusions to, every preceding adaptation I’ve ever read, viewed, or listened to, as well as the original of (and accompanying A.C. Doyle stories to), “The Lost Special”. This meant that I watched and laughed at scenes for reasons that didn’t even exist at the time they were produced, as I recognized their echoes on “Lost”.

    The tripartite falling of the train into the mine became a mid-air separation of an airliner into 3 pieces. The replacing of the weeds where the rails were taken up from became the “antiquing” of the ostensibly wrecked Black Rock (which in turn reflected the Black Mogul in another Doyle story, “The Club-Footed Grocer”). The shots wiping from the front to the back room at the Red Lantern became shots at the opening of “Expose”. (The Red Lantern itself became the Lamp Post.) The aftermath of a car wreck was carried over shot for shot. The Tank Room became a floodable room repurposed from the Dharma Initiative, with similar action sequences. The escape from the cabin in the fire became Locke’s torture-lesson to Boone. The cover-up at the end became “We’re going to have to lie.”

    I agree with old serial fan re Ernie Nevers’ acting. Also, the worst stunt fighting I think I’ve ever seen (and heard, with drumrolls standing for blows landing)! (I contrast them with the really excellent stunt fighting in the Superman serials of almost 2 decades later.) But even with all the unintentional humor, the story comes across seriously enough and is conveyed well enough that it produces feeling in the end.

    BTW, the original story was apparently inspired by a real world event: the loss of Engine 115 in a cave-in in Lindal-in-Furness, England (in the same general area covered by the story) on Sept. 22, 1892. That date was reflected on “Lost” in the date of the disappearance of flight 815: Sept. 22, 2004.

    For those who are interested, the other major serial visual research material for “Lost” background & clues is the British TV mystery series “Dept. S”.

  4. So fun to watch. Ernie is my husband’s father, whom he never got to actually meet as he just found that out. These are SPECIAL for us to watch, and they are the closest we will ever get to actually watching him. Are there better copies out there than the ones on youtube?

  5. Do you know where we can find the clearest copies of THE LOST SPECIAL? My husband is Ernie Nevers son, and a heavy weight boxing champ actually. Has quite the history, We never met Ernie, and this is as close as we will ever get to seeing him in action, Would appreciate anyone who can lead me to the very best quality of this series, Thanks

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