A gang of outlaws led by Ben Brady (Kenne Duncan) are using an Indian reservation as a safe base from which to launch highly profitable raids against the neighboring settlers; the unarmed Indians are unable to chase them out, while the local lawmen are bound by Federal treaties that deprive them of jurisdiction on the reservation. Blue Feather (George J. Lewis), the college-educated son of the Indian chief Yellow Wolf (Chief Thundercloud), proposes to remedy the situation by petitioning Congress to create an Indian police force that can drive Brady’s gang off the Indians’ land–but the outlaws quickly begin doing everything they can to prevent the organization of such a force, and order their secret Indian ally–the medicine man Ceta (Tom London)–to prejudice his tribe against the notion. However, a strange figure unexpectedly emerges to oppose Ceta–the Phantom Rider, a legendary Indian spirit who’s seemingly come to life; he convinces the tribe to back Blue Feather, and repeatedly blocks the outlaws’ succeeding attempts to prevent the passage of the Indian Police bill. The Rider is actually local doctor Jim Sterling (Robert Kent); with the assistance of Blue Feather, Yellow Wolf, reservation schoolteacher Doris Shannon (Peggy Stewart), and grizzled prospector Nugget (Hal Taliaferro), he slowly paves the way for the Indian Police–but is hampered by the fact that seemingly helpful Indian Agent Fred Carson (LeRoy Mason) is actually an impostor, and the real boss of Brady’s plundering gang.
The Phantom Rider is the most neglected of Republic’s mid-1940s serials; even its use of a dual-identity masked hero has failed to give it much of a cachet among chapterplay buffs. However, while the serial is no overlooked gem, it is quite worthwhile–and is happily free of the budget-shrinking that was soon to begin afflicting Republic’s serials; its action scenes still have the expansiveness characteristic of the studio’s wartime period, its cast of major characters is large, and its backup outlaws and Indians are also very numerous. Rider additionally benefits from a writing team larger than that of Republic’s later and cheaper serials; scripters Albert DeMond, Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy, Lynn Perkins, and Barney Sarecky manage to make their plotting less repetitious and their dialogue livelier than Ronald Davidson was ever able to do when working solo.
Rider’s plotline, centering as it does around the villains’ efforts to hold on to their power, is uninvolving in comparison to those of other Western serials in which the heroes, rather than the heavies, are placed on the defensive. However, the writers do succeed in making said plotline fairly varied, due to the way in which the villains’ strategies shift as the Indian Police bill draws closer to passage. The devious Carson spends the first six chapters trying different means of keeping the Indians and the settlers from getting their pro-police petition to Congress; when these attempts fail, he has his men target the senator sent to investigate the situation. When the bill’s passage is assured in spite of the assault on the senator, Carson starts trying to eliminate Blue Feather, Yellow Wolf, and the Phantom Rider, hoping to remove the Police’s potential leaders and thus control the new force if he can’t prevent its creation; his machinations in this direction occupy the serial’s final four chapters and lead directly to his downfall. An earlier attempt to destroy the Phantom Rider provides relief from the petition-related scheming in the serial’s first half, further diminishing the repetitive aspects of the plotting and making the narrative overall feel pretty well-balanced.
Above: Senator Williams (John Hamilton, center), supporter of the Indian police bill, reads a report on the outlaws’ activities. Listening are (left to right) Robert Kent, LeRoy Mason, George Carleton (back to camera) and George J. Lewis.
Although the writers assign some amusing lines to both the hero (“Ceta will probably have the gods signed up in advance”) and the villains (“I don’t like pill-pushers who mix in politics”), the bulk of the lively dialogue mentioned above comes from the Nugget character, an illiterate but canny prospector who’s enrolled as a second-grade pupil in the heroine’s schoolhouse; his deadpan bluffing when the villains catch him lighting a signal fire is particularly good (“I just like to play with matches; keeps me feelin’ young.”) The prospector’s complaints about being forced to write “I will not chew tobacco in school” on the blackboard are also entertaining, and set up a closing gag that’s actually funny (unlike most of Republic’s alleged punch lines). One suspects that the Nugget character–unusually colorful by 1940s Republic standards–was the brainchild of Rider writer Barney Sarecky, who utilized many such comic-relief figures in his screenplays for 1930s Mascot serials like Mystery Squadron or The Three Musketeers; like “Jellybean” in Squadron or the titular characters in Musketeers, Nugget is depicted as both comic and capable, carrying the action by himself in a few scenes.
However, like all 1940s Republics, The Phantom Rider places its principal emphasis on its action sequences, not on humorous (or non-humorous) dialogue. Rider has fewer fistfights than most of co-directors Spencer Bennet and Fred Brannon’s other 1940s serials, apparently due to the fact that the Phantom Rider’s face-mask was found to be too vision-obstructive and top-heavy for stuntman Tom Steele to manage during long brawls (one can notice him quickly adjusting it during the clifftop fight in Chapter Seven). Thus, although the hero spends the greater portion of his time masked, the serial’s lengthiest and most elaborate fights take place when he’s unmasked; the resulting fisticuffs deficiency is, I suspect, one of the principal reasons for Rider’s unpopularity with buffs. However, I find it hard to regard this (comparative) scarcity as a flaw; it allows more room for chases and shootouts and thus gives the action more variety than in other 1940s Republics; its also prevents the fight scenes (which are excellent, when they do occur) from canceling each other out as they do in many of Bennet’s other outings.
The slam-bang fight in the Indian Agency office in Chapter Ten, with Tom Steele (doubling star Robert Kent) and Dale Van Sickel (doubling villain Hugh Prosser) hurling props at each other and demolishing several pieces of furniture, is particularly impressive; the brawl between Steele and Eddie Parker in the cabin in Chapter Two is pretty spectacular as well. The fight in the bank in Chapter Three is also good, albeit much shorter (since it has Steele wearing the Phantom Rider mask, unlike the office and cabin brawls). The bank fight leads into an excellent chase across the rooftops, while a shootout between outlaws and townsmen rages in the street below; other action highlights include the chase and the schoolhouse siege in the first episode, the horseback chase/foot chase/outdoor shootout in Chapter Ten, the gun battle at the cabin in Chapter Six, and the Chapter Seven sequence that has the hero changing to the Phantom Rider outfit while his buckboard is being chased, then jumping from a tree to surprise his pursuers.
Fred Graham, Cliff Lyons, Ted Mapes, Bill and Joe Yrigoyen, Tommy Coats, and Henry Wills assist the aforementioned Dale Van Sickel and Eddie Parker in the fights, playing some heavies and doubling others. While Tom Steele stands in for the hero in most of the fistfight scenes, he relinquishes the honor to Joe Yrigoyen during the riding sequences–the Phantom Rider’s face-concealing mask making the substitution easy. Incidentally, while that rubbery mask–which is topped by a feathered headdress–may appear a little awkward when the hero’s in action, it also has an aquiline and slightly sinister appearance that makes it look impressive in more static scenes. The hero’s means of transporting the costume is also memorable, and unusually intelligent; Dr. Sterling carries the Rider outfit in a secret compartment in his buckboard, and only has to assume it, unharness a buckboard horse, and gallop off when trouble arises, instead of having to race back to a hideout to assume his getup, like some of Republic’s Zorros.
Cliffhanger sequences in The Phantom Rider are creative, and make very little use of stock footage; the most memorable of the bunch are the Chapter Six ending (which has the villains rolling a blazing hay wagon downhill towards a cabin containing the heroes) and the Chapter Eleven ending (which involves the toppling of another cabin that perches precariously on the edge of a cliff). The explosion of the rock podium at the reservation (Chapter One), the hero’s fall from a roof into the path of the heavies’ oncoming horses (Chapter Three), the mine-car scene (Chapter Four), and the boulder-fall sequence (Chapter Ten) are also quite good. The last-named scene features some nice skyline shots of the cliffs of Iverson’s Ranch; the Ranch is featured to similarly good advantage in innumerable other sequences throughout the serial.
Above left: LeRoy Mason prepares to topple a boulder onto the hero. Above right: A cabin supposedly containing the hero and heroine rolls down a hillside, courtesy of the Lydecker Brothers’ miniature effects.
Robert Kent, a somewhat bland but very capable leading man in B-features and a few other serials, does a creditable job in Phantom Rider’s title role. His noticeably “Eastern” voice and demeanor (he was born in Connecticut and acted on the New York stage) would have made him utterly unconvincing in a conventional cowboy-hero part, but are quite well-suited to his educated and politely self-assured doctor character. He plays the “doc” with an appropriate combination of intelligence, quiet authoritativeness, and low-key cheerfulness–and also manages to sound properly stern when underneath the Rider’s mask.
Peggy Stewart’s feistiness furnishes a good counterpoint to Kent’s calmness, but she has little to do in the serial beyond expressing indignation over the outlaws’ actions and listening to the hero’s plans–which she does with her customarily lively charm. Hal Taliaferro cuts a picturesquely rough-hewn figure as Stewart’s overage pupil Nugget–using his thick Western drawl to give the maximum amount of color to his lines, and affecting an ungainly gait that matches well with his rather scarecrow-like habiliments.
LeRoy Mason is in his element as the phony Indian Agent–lying coolly and glibly to the good guys, and explaining his plans to his henchmen with a cynically cheery self-confidence that occasionally gives way to grim seriousness or stony anger. Kenne Duncan is also ideal as Mason’s henchman Brady, conveying both wary selfishness and an almost military obedience as he listens to his boss’s orders. As in his other action-heavy performances, he also repeatedly flashes a memorably nasty and self-congratulatory smirk whenever he sees a chance of murdering one of the good guys.
George J. Lewis is very earnest and serious as Blue Feather, but is too energetic and good-natured to seem stuffily self-righteous. Chief Thundercloud, in his final serial role, is imposingly dignified as Lewis’s father, delivering his lines with all the slow, measured force that marked his 1930s turns as Tonto; he does a particularly good job with his speech in Chapter One, in which he vows to take action against the outlaws. As Thundercloud’s tribal opponent Ceta (the type of role that would have been ideally suited to Charles Stevens), Tom London is horribly miscast; although he does a good job of acting furtive and duplicitous, he looks and sounds so completely unlike an Indian that his characterization falls flat. Fortunately, he has relatively few scenes.
Hugh Prosser, who would soon become a regular cast member in Sam Katzman’s Columbia serials, has a minor but noticeable role as Mason’s pessimistic office aide, who continually brings his leader bad news and aggressively demands to know what his next move will be. John Hamilton is good as the honest but irascible Senator Williams; his choleric performance is not too far removed from his later depiction of Perry White on the Superman TV show. Roy Barcroft, though prominently billed, has only one scene (and a short one at that) as the town marshal; Jack Kirk, as his deputy, has a little more screen time. George Carleton makes periodic appearances as the grave and upright town banker; future B-western star Monte Hale pops up very briefly as a badly beaten settler in the first chapter, while Rex Lease has a slightly longer cameo as a dying stage driver. George Chesebro makes the most out of a bit as an outlaw, future A-Western heavy Bob Wilke gets to indulge in a little bit of characteristic sneering as a renegade Indian, and most of the serial’s stuntmen make multiple appearances as outlaws, Indians, or townsmen.
The Phantom Rider would probably be a better-known serial had it featured a more iconic leading man and a higher percentage of fistfights–but it’s unlikely that such alterations would have made the serial anything more than what it is: a decidedly unremarkable but well-made and enjoyable chapterplay.