Western marshal Jim Lane (Lon Chaney Jr.) is recruited by the Army to investigate repeated Indian attacks on stagecoaches and Pony Express riders in the wild region between the towns of La Paz and Silver Creek; these attacks are wreaking havoc on mail deliveries, much to the concern of the Federal authorities. Lane, with the help of his pals Sierra Pete and Buckskin Bill Burke (Noah Beery Jr. and Don Terry), soon learns that disguised white outlaws are leading the Indians in their raids on the mail service; however, it takes much longer for the trio to discover that the man behind the raiders is jovial businessman Frank Chadwick (Noah Beery Sr.). This scheming profiteer is bent on ruining Tom Gilbert (Tom Chatterton), who holds a million-dollar franchise from the government to deliver the Overland Mail; Chadwick plans to take over the lucrative franchise once Gilbert has been driven out of business by the depredations of the outlaws–but fails to reckon with Jim, Sierra, and Buckskin.
Paul Huston’s screenplay for Overland Mail (based on a story by prolific pulp-Western writer Johnston McCulley) consists of little more than a series of battles between heroes and villains over stagecoach gold shipments, wagonloads of supplies, important letters and other property vital to the survival of Gilbert’s mail company; though highly repetitive in outline, this storyline nevertheless manages to occupy fifteen chapters without ever seeming tedious–and manages to be extremely entertaining in the process, due to the same assets that made other thinly-plotted Universal Western chapterplays like Flaming Frontiers or Riders of Death Valley so enjoyable: excellent location shooting, plentiful action, fast pacing, a colorful assortment of heroic and villainous characters, and a terrific cast.
As in Universal’s four John Mack Brown serials, the pines, rocks, slopes, and rivers of the Kernville area are given extensive exposure in Overland Mail; although several sequences take place on the streets of Universal’s Western town or in the studio’s cave set, the serial’s characters spend the majority of their time chasing, trailing, or shooting each other out in Kernville’s wilds. Directors Ford Beebe and John Rawlins do an excellent job of staging their outdoor action scenes so as to show off the scenery to maximum advantage; standout sequences include the pursuit of the stagecoach in Chapter One, the hero’s hillside shootout with the heavies in Chapter Two, the Chapter Three scene that has another coach encountering a herd of stampeding cattle in a narrow draw, the Indian attack at the river in Chapter Five, the heroes’ clash with ambushers later in the same episode, the gun battle around the wrecked stage in Chapter Ten, the horseback chase in Chapter Twelve, the Chapter Thirteen hillside battle, and the good guys’ climactic pursuit of the fleeing villains’ stage in Chapter Fifteen.
Above, top left: Noah Beery Jr. and Lon Chaney Jr. gallop to the rescue. Top right: Beery Jr. plunges his horse into the Kernville river. Bottom left: Charles Stevens (feathered headdress) and other henchmen blaze away at the hero. Above right: The good guys make a stand around a wrecked stagecoach.
Other standout action sequences include the protracted battle at the cabin in Chapter Four, the assaults on the jail in Chapters Eight and Thirteen, the fight in the stage-yard in Chapter Nine, and the short but fierce gunfight at the cave in Chapter Fifteen. In this scene–and in many of the serial’s other gun battles–the heroes dispatch their enemies quite summarily, instead of merely plugging them in the arm or missing them altogether; the villains also fatally shoot many incidental good guys over the course of the serial, giving the action a realism and a sense of danger often lacking in many of Universal’s other Western serials. Thanks to the first-rate gunfights and the numerous chases, the viewer scarcely notices that Mail is almost entirely devoid of fistfights; the aforementioned tussle in the stage-yard is the only prolonged brawl of any kind in the serial. Tom Steele, who can be seen in a bit as a Pony Express rider, doubles for star Lon Chaney Jr. in the stage-yard scene and in a few neat “throwaway” bits like the Chapter Twelve leap from a rock; Eddie Parker, Henry Wills and wrangler brothers Bert and Art Dillard are also on hand to double the principals during some of the riding sequences–although both Chaney and sidekick Noah Beery Jr. seem to be handling a great deal of their own horseback work.
Mail, like all of Universal’s Western serials save Riders of Death Valley, makes some use of silent-film stock footage–as well as stock shots from earlier sound serials. The latter insertions (most of them borrowed from The Oregon Trail) fit far more unobtrusively into the serial than the latter do, although the silent footage is confined mostly to occasional shots of Indians mustering for attack; only the attacks on the wagon train in Chapters One and Two, the assault on the stockade in Chapter Three, and the cavalry-Indian town battle in Chapter Twelve make notable use of silent stock (which, as always, is given away by graininess and different filming speed)–although even these sequences feature plenty of new shots. The cattle stampedes in Chapters Three and Seven use some less familiar stock, which is matched fairly smoothly to the new footage–being assisted in this regard by the deployment of a good-sized group of steers in the aforesaid new footage.
The chapter endings in Mail make use of stock footage as well (most noticeably the powder-barrel explosion from Oregon Trail and the suspension-bridge collapse from Wild West Days). However, the cliffhangers also include several new and elaborately staged sequences, like the Chapter One stagecoach explosion, the bulk of the stage-wreck and cattle-stampede scene in Chapter Three (pictured above), and the bridge explosion and plunge into the river at the end of Chapter Four. Chaney’s apparent burning at the stake for the Chapter Six cliffhanger also consists of new footage–rather surprisingly, since similar scenes appeared in several preceding Universal Western serials; his sidekicks’ clever rescue of him in the ensuing episode is original as well, making no use of the horse-stampede-through-the-Indian-village sequence that originated in Wild West Days and later popped up in both Oregon Trail and Winners of the West. Several of the chapter endings, in standard Universal fashion, are resolved by having the heroes simply live through their peril, but their survival in most cases (as in the aftermath of the Chapter Four river plunge) is at least plausible; the only really weak cliffhanger resolutions here are those that follow the seeming shootings of the hero at the end of Chapters Eleven and Fourteen–which the writer doesn’t bother to explain away with even a “just-a-scratch” remark.
The action scenes are so numerous and the pacing so fast in Overland Mail that there’s less time left over for character moments than there was in Rustlers of Red Dog or Winners of the West–but writer Huston still gives the leading heroes and villains more individuality than any of the principals in Republic’s contemporary serials, with a big assist from Mail’s cast. Lon Chaney Jr.–whose success in The Wolf Man the preceding year had finally won him stardom at Universal–brings plenty of charisma to the serial’s leading role; he’s infectiously jovial when kidding with his sidekicks, quiet and gentlemanly when conversing with the heroine and her father, and convincingly crafty when devising strategies (particularly in the Chapter Seven scene that has him tricking the villains into moving their herd of stolen cattle). He handles the running and riding required of a Western-serial star with an athleticism surprising in a man of his hulking build–and uses that build and his powerful voice to give his character a slightly menacing edge in his confrontations with the villains; when he gruffly interrogates captured outlaws or roars “drop it” to gun-wielding henchmen, he sounds and looks far more intimidating than any other Universal cowboy hero.
Noah Beery Jr. gives his Sierra Pete character a perfect combination of rustic awkwardness and folksy shrewdness; his puzzled reaction when he’s arrested for gunning a henchman in town (“All I did was shoot him down!”) and his drawling comments on Chadwick’s self-important helpfulness (“If that Chadwick could work as good as he talks, he’d get a lot done”) are particularly amusing, as are his cheery day-dreaming about gold mining in California and his impish teasing of Chaney about the latter’s growing interest in the heroine. Also participating in said teasing is Don Terry (of Don Winslow fame) as Buckskin–who, although he receives less screen time than Beery Jr., is equally colorful, and seems to be greatly enjoying the opportunity to break out of leading-man mold. He delivers his colorfully ungrammatical lines in a boisterous growl, swaggers cheerfully and confidently into action, and generally gives his character a rough-hewn roguishness light-years removed from his clean-cut and officerial Winslow.
As the beleaguered Gilbert’s daughter Barbara, dimpled, curly-haired Helen Parrish makes a very appealing heroine–and not just on account of her looks; her energetic concern for the other good guys and her boundless but good-natured spunkiness make her so attractive that it’s very easy to forgive her character’s occasional outbursts of willful recklessness. Tom Chatterton is also highly likable as her father, conveying convincing worry over the fate of his business but retaining a dignified geniality that keeps him from ever seeming dour or glum; unlike many serial fathers, he displays enough presence and personality to make the audience actually care about him for his own sake and not just for his connection to the heroine.
Noah Beery Sr. is absolutely delightful as the villainous Chadwick–whether he’s gloweringly outlining schemes, expansively offering assistance to the heroes, putting down his henchmen with smiling sarcasm (“It’s called using your head, Darson; you should try it some time”), hypocritically holding forth about law and order to a lynch mob composed of his own followers, affably worming secrets out of the unsuspecting Gilbert, or simply chewing on his cigar and chortling exuberantly over the wealth the “million-dollar mail contract” will bring him. The elder Beery is so cheerfully exuberant in his rascality that it’s hard for the audience to resist feeling a sneaking fondness for Chadwick, despite his brazen villainy; the actor’s superb performance makes his character’s unusual final scene–which would have seemed unconvincing if performed by most other serial villains–seem quite apposite.
Harry Cording, as Chadwick’s henchman Gregg, contrasts well with the more congenial Beery; his husky frame, murderous scowl, and overall air of surly anger make him a very threatening heavy. As half-breed outlaw Puma, the serial’s other principal henchman, Charles Stevens is less physically formidable than Cording but comes off as far more cunning, particularly in his sly manipulations of the Indian chief Black Cloud; as in his other serials, Stevens also is given plenty of opportunities to display furtive nervousness and a even a sort of dogged toughness when his character’s back is against the wall. Sleazily slick-looking Robert Barron, as Chadwick’s business associate Darson, completes the serial’s triumvirate of supporting villains; he does a good job of alternating between smugness (when he delivers orders to Stevens) and irritability (when he’s bawled out by Beery Sr.)
Cranky Ethan Laidlaw, smooth-voiced Carleton Young, and clean-cut Riley Hill serve as the serial’s principal background henchmen; all three (even Hill, who usually played bland juveniles) do a very good job of acting tough and nasty. Chief Many Treaties (whose real name was William Hazlett, but who was a genuine Blackfoot Indian) is the hostile chief Black Cloud, who aids the villains after they convince him that his renegade son was unjustly killed by the hero; Hazlett makes the character seem suitably mean but also somewhat sympathetic, due to the way in which he grimly harps on his son’s death. Chief Thundercloud makes a brief appearance late in the serial, aiding the good guys as a stern but friendly chieftain named Many Moons; the ubiquitous Iron Eyes Cody also pops up periodically as one of Black Cloud’s warriors. Ruth Rickaby has a small role as a reprehensible old woman in the villains’ pay, and plays the part to the cackling hilt.
Jack Clifford is the temporarily misguided but honest and canny Sheriff, Forrest Taylor has a colorful bit as a disreputable crony of Bucksin’s, and Ben Taggart is sleekly pompous as a suit-wearing henchman who unwisely attempts to blackmail Chadwick. Jack Rockwell is excellent in an unexpectedly touching bit as a dying henchman, while Ray Teal also appears as an outlaw just long enough to die on-stage. William Gould is the colonel who gives the hero his assignment in the first chapter; George Sherwood and Frank Pershing are other army officers (a lieutenant and a captain, respectively). William Desmond makes two very brief appearances as the town banker and (later) as a different townsman, Harry Tenbrook is a stage driver, Henry Hall a wagon-train leader, and Marguerite De La Motte (a prominent leading lady in the silent era) a café waitress; despite having a grand total of three lines, she’s given very prominent billing, doubtless in recognition of her bygone fame. Bob Baker, coming off an ultimately unsuccessful run as a Universal B-western star, has two scenes as a young Buffalo Bill Cody; his billing, like De La Motte’s, is ridiculously out of proportion to his actual role, although his second scene in Chapter Fourteen does include one of the serial’s most memorable bits of dialogue.
Universal’s serial department would only release two more Westerns after Overland Mail–both of them (Raiders of Ghost City and Scarlet Horseman) complicated and very serious affairs that felt more like espionage adventures in period dress than traditional cowboy movies. In effect, Mail was the last of Universal’s long string of simple, colorful, and pulp-magazine-flavored Western serials–and, thanks to all the virtues enumerated in the preceding paragraphs, provides a suitably grand finale for that generally excellent series of chapterplays.