After leading Fardale College to victory on the baseball field, super-athletic student Frank Merriwell (Don Briggs) is drawn into an unexpected adventure when a mystery man tries to steal a gold ring left him by his explorer father–who’s been missing for two years. The ring turns out to be a clue to a buried treasure, and sends Frank, his girl Elsie Belwood (Jean Rogers), his best friend Bruce Browning (John King), and other members of Frank’s circle at Fardale on a voyage that takes them from the Northwestern timber country to Mexico, repeatedly clashing with the mystery man’s henchmen en route. Frank ultimately manages to locate the treasure, fight off the villains, and find his father, while participating in various sporting events along the way; he also makes it back to Fardale in time to carry his college to victory on the football field.
Like Universal’s Tailspin Tommy (which preceded it by two years), Adventures of Frank Merriwell places as much emphasis on its hero’s personal achievements and on his interactions with his friends as it does on his battles with the villains; however, both achievements and interactions are far less interesting in Merriwell than they were in Tommy. As in the dime novels and radio program from which Frank Merriwell was derived, Frank is an accomplished star athlete who can almost effortlessly succeed in any given sport; his victories on the athletic field consequently lack the emotional resonance of the more inexperienced Tommy’s struggles to make good as a pilot. As for Frank’s friends, while they’re a lively and likable lot, they’re not very strongly characterized, being rendered somewhat interchangeable by their collective attitude of near-worshipful admiration for the hero. The character of Merriwell’s surly and unsportsmanlike rival House Peters could have added an interesting dynamic to the story had he been presented as an actual threat to the hero’s pre-eminence–but is treated with such contempt by all the other supporting characters, and shown to be so completely out of Merriwell’s athletic league, that he never comes off as anything other than an ineffective minor troublemaker (albeit such a persistent and mean-spirited one that his eventual reconciliation with Merriwell in the final chapter seems utterly phony).
However, while the exploits of Frank Merriwell and his friends never become terribly involving, writers George Plympton, Ella O’Neill, Basil Dickey, and Maurice Geraghty manage to make them rather enjoyable. The serial’s narrative is more than varied enough to avoid the repetition that plagues many serial storylines; the tussle over the gold ring gives way to a protracted treasure hunt, which in turn gives way to a search for Frank’s father. The battles and travels arising from these quests are accompanied by multiple sporting events in which Frank demonstrates his prowess; while these sequences may not be particularly compelling from a dramatic point of view, most of them are well-done enough–and novel enough–to be entertaining. The sports sequences are also intertwined rather neatly with the treasure-hunt plot–as when the incommoding of a lumberjack boxing champion by the villains forces Frank to take his place. The way in which the writers “bookend” the serial with the baseball and football games is also worthy of commendation; both games go badly for Fardale until an unavoidably detained Frank shows up in the nick of time to tip the scales in favor of his college, which gives a pleasingly symmetrical feel to the script.
Merriwell makes very heavy use of stock footage, even by Universal’s standards; both the baseball game and the football game feature numerous shots culled from newsreels of actual sporting events (the latter more so than the former), while the chapters set in the timber country make excessive and unconvincing use of lumber-cutting footage; the stock-footage-derived student rally in Chapter Eleven also goes on a bit too long. The heavy use of stock from the Universal feature The Big Cage during the Chapter Ten circus sequence is more irritating than the log-cutting or rally footage, however–since it’s so tenuously connected to the serial’s main characters; Frank and his friends merely sit and watch in horror as a very visible Clyde Beatty and Anita Page (Big Cage’s stars) fight off big cats and fall from a trapeze, until a non-stock-footage lion jumps on Frank to end the chapter.
The non-stock action scenes in Merriwell are quite solid, however, and benefit from some good outdoor location work. Several sequences (like the boat chase in Chapter Seven) were obviously filmed in a working harbor (see the picture above); the forests and the treasure cave featured during the lumber-country sequences are part of the Universal backlot, while said backlot’s excellent cliff/cave/waterfall setup (also seen in Jungle Jim and Wild West Days) figures in the scenes set in Mexico. The chase up the cliff and the ensuing fight above the waterfall in Chapter Eight are both well-done; the chase through the jungle in the subsequent chapter (with Frank using his previously-established athletic skills to cleverly elude his renegade Indian pursuers) is also very good, as are the siege of Frank’s party at the cave and Frank’s race to the rescue at the head of a group of Mexican rurales (some of the outdoor territory featured during these sequences appear to be off-backlot locations). The horseback chase through the woods (and the ensuing fight) in Chapter Six is another action highlight.
Director Cliff Smith, in his only solo serial outing for Universal, does a solid job with these and other action scenes; his fistfight sequences here actually look smoother and less awkward than those staged by his frequent collaborator Ford Beebe in other serials, with the participants throwing and receiving punches in rather convincing fashion–although this is probably due more to the presence of ace stuntman Dave O’Brien as the hero’s double (Beebe usually had to make do with the less nimble Eddie Parker in the “leading” role) than to especial expertise on Smith’s part. The fight with the prowler at the Merriwell home in Chapter Two, the dressing-room fight in Chapter Four, and the aforementioned cliff fight are all above-average by Universal’s 1936 standards; the brawl at the dance in Chapter Three is a bit more sloppy-looking (due to the huge number of combatants) but still better than one would expect; George DeNormand, Tom Steele, and the ubiquitous Parker assist O’Brien in these and other sequences.
The serial’s sports scenes vary in quality–and in direct proportion to the amount of stock footage involved. The Chapter Seven boxing match, composed entirely of new footage, is quite good (and realistically allows Frank to take numerous licks from his beefy lumberjack opponent before finally triumphing); the track-and-field scene in Chapter Two is also carried off effectively, with a minimum of stock. The Chapter Eight boat race, on the other hand, falls flat–consisting as it does of grainy long shots in which the hero vanishes into a stock-footage boat crew and unconvincing close-ups of Frank supposedly pulling on an oar. The baseball and football games are less hokey-looking than the boat race; they feature plenty of stock shots, but also make much more use of new footage–which was obviously filmed outside on real athletic fields, not shot in front of a process screen like the inserted footage utilized in many a low-budget sports feature.
Merriwell’s cliffhanger scenes feature several recycled perils from The Lost Special (the car off the bridge) and Pirate Treasure (the car off the dock and the burning ship’s hold); these are incorporated pretty unobtrusively with the newer footage. Other chapter endings (like the train crash and the octopus attack) apparently derive from far older film sources and are thus more obtrusive; the all-new Chapter Eight cliffhanger–in which the villain coolly picks off Frank with a rifle just as the hero has finished the boat race–is very good, however (although its resolution is unimaginative). Frank’s plummet from the top of the waterfall in Chapter Nine is good as well, but the serial’s best cliffhanger is the excellent runaway bus sequence in Chapter Three (which Universal would partially reuse in the later Green Hornet); the shots of the bus careening along the steep roads of the Bronson Canyon area (some of them from the driver’s point of view) provide a highly suspenseful buildup to the vehicle’s eventual crash into a wall.
Don Briggs, a Broadway actor who had previously played Frank Merriwell on radio, is well-cast in the lead–being young enough (25) to believably pass as a college student, muscular enough to be convincing as a star athlete, and authoritative enough in voice and manner to effortlessly take charge of situations in typical serial-hero fashion. His combination of earnest eagerness and self-possessed confidence gives him a strong and appealing screen presence, albeit a slightly humorless one; he can be dignifiedly cheerful at times, but he lacks the hearty affability that helped Buster Crabbe make his serial super-athlete, Flash Gordon, seem like a “regular guy” in spite of his extraordinary prowess. The beauteous Jean Rogers, with her beaming smile and effusive manner, helps to counterbalance Briggs’ seriousness; John King, though rather vocally similar to Briggs, gives a likably easygoing quality to his performance that lends further balance to the scenes between the three principals (Briggs’ Frank, Rogers’ Elsie, and King’s Bruce).
Sumner Getchell, as Frank and Bruce’s comic chum Harry Rattleton, treads on the outer fringes of obnoxiousness (particularly when he’s giving a falsetto rendition of “Last Rose of Summer” at the school talent show or whining nervously about Indians during the Mexican sojourn) but never descends into the depths of annoyance plumbed by other comic-relief characters like Snapper McGee (SOS Coast Guard) or Willie Dodge (Perils of Pauline); he mostly manages to keep his character’s excitability and perplexity within acceptable limits, and even provides a few mild but genuine laughs in scenes like the pie-eating contest or the bogus stick-up. Carla Laemmle, niece of Universal’s famously nepotistical boss Carl Laemmle, is predictably given co-star billing for her performance as Jean Rogers’ best friend, but her participation in the serial is minimal and does little damage; she has barely a dozen lines overall and delivers them quite respectably. Only in her character’s two pointless and unremarkable dancing sequences do her off-screen connections become obvious; while these are not prolonged for too painful an amount of time, the other characters’ rapt reactions to them are a bit embarrassing.
Like Miss Laemmle, several of the serial’s supporting players were cast due to their family connections; Frank’s classmates are played by several prominent silent-era actors’ sons–House Peters Jr., Edward Arnold Jr., Bryant Washburn Jr., Herschel Mayall Jr., Wallace Reid Jr., Carlyle Blackwell Jr., Gibson Gowland’s son Peter Gowland, and Jean Hersholt’s son Allen (the fathers of Arnold, Hersholt, and Washburn continued working well into the sound era). These “juniors” were well-publicized in Universal’s promotional campaign for Merriwell, but only Peters Jr. as Frank’s rival plays a major role in the serial (perhaps not coincidentally, he was the only one of the juniors to enjoy a lengthy film career). Peters’ performance here is one of his best; his energetically angry sneering at Merriwell and Merriwell’s friends is light-years removed from his soporific later turn in Republic’s King of the Rocketmen; it’s rather odd, however, that Peters’ semi-villainous character is give the actor’s own name. The other juniors similarly play “themselves;” they remain an interchangeable background group throughout the serial, only being briefly spotlighted during the school show scenes (during which a quartet of them sing a comic song and then back up John King on the Fardale college anthem).
Above left: House Peters Jr. sneers at Jack Donovan (back to camera). Above right: Four of the “juniors” rehearse a song. Left to right, the quartet is composed of Allen Hersholt, Herschel Mayall Jr., Wallace Reid Jr., and Bryant Washburn Jr.
Bentley Hewlett, as the criminal mastermind Daggett, rattles off his orders in brusque but decidedly bland fashion; he’s unable to generate any real menace, despite his sinister-looking visual accoutrements–black gloves and a black half-mask which he (inexplicably) wears till his final scene. His gang of followers is far more interesting, being composed of some of the best serial thugs of the period; the henchmen are led by Al Bridge (who’s typically sarcastic, cynical, and untrustworthy) and Monte Montague (who’s characteristically jumpy and talkative, but more cunning than in other serials like The Red Rider). Prominent supporting heavies include the shifty but tough Bud Osborne (who’s nicely spotlighted during the runaway bus sequence), the ever-grumpy Edmund Cobb, and–in the first of a long line of screen thug roles–a comparatively young Dick Wessell. Bert Young is a cocky henchman in the earlier chapters, and Slim Whitaker a shady lumberjack.
Walter Law is very dignified as Jean Rogers’ professor father, who presides over the students’ expedition; William P. Carleton appropriately combines weariness and uprightness as Frank’s victimized father, while Ella Ethridge is the hero’s concerned mother. Sam McDaniel is the loyal but slightly bumbling Merriwell family butler, and Jack Donovan is Fardale’s brisk and straightforward sports coach. Philo McCullough is Frank’s bullying boxing opponent at the lumber camp and Max Wagner the lumberjack boxer whose place Frank must take; Al Ferguson plays a lumberjack, and Chester Gan is a good-natured lumber camp cook. William Desmond, as in Pirate Treasure, is cast as a tough sea captain; Fred Sumner is a professor of oceanology, Richard Cramer a surprisingly sympathetic construction boss, and future producer Mike Frankovich a sports announcer. The irrepressible Dickie Jones is endearingly enthusiastic as the young son of Merriwell’s landlady; his mother is played by Viola Callahan. Chief John Big Tree appears as an Indian guide and gets to explain a local legend about “Eagle Rock” in the same inimitable halting voice he used to memorable effect in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon many years later. Carlos Montalban, brother of Ricardo and star of the old Savarin coffee commercials, appears as a rurale officer; Dave O’Brien pops up as a very confident yachtsman.
Even if its stock footage use was less extensive, Frank Merriwell would not qualify as one of Universal’s best serials–due to its lack of the strong characterizations needed to make its unconventional storyline really compelling. However, while Merriwell is largely uninvolving, it’s never dull–thanks to a likable trio of leads, good stuntwork, a colorful pack of henchmen, and a varied and steady succession of locales and sporting events. All in all, it does a good job of capturing the pleasant but formulaic flavor of the dime novels on which it was based.
Above: Frank Merriwell comes up to bat in the top of the ninth with two men out, the bases loaded, and his team down by three runs; he will proceed to hit a bases-clearing, inside-the-park home run–and will then take the mound in the bottom of the ninth and shut down the opposing team’s star hitters to preserve the one-run lead. All in a day’s work.