Chief Running Deer (Chief Yowlachie) agrees to a treaty with the US Army, much to the irritation of local saloon-owner “Dandy” Darnell (James Craven). Darnell, it seems, covets the gold-rich Black Butte Pass region, which is part of Running Deer’s domain; the villain hopes to use an Indian war as a pretext for seizing the Pass for himself. To this end, Darnell and his outlaw followers set out to prevent the treaty from being ratified, repeatedly attempting to manipulate the Indians and the neighboring townsfolk into breaking the peace. However, these warmongering schemes are interfered with by the resourceful “half-breed” White Eagle (Buck Jones), a member of Running Deer’s tribe who’s familiar with the ways of both Indians and white men–and strives heroically to keep them off each other’s throats. Though most of the settlers distrust him due to his connection to the Indians, he’s aided in his campaign by Pony Express station-owner Dave Rand (Edmund Cobb), his sister Janet (Dorothy Fay), and the rascally scout Grizzly (Raymond Hatton).
White Eagle borrows its title, several of its character names, and the idea of an Indian hero trying preserve the peace of the West from a 1932 Columbia B-western that also starred Buck Jones–but the feature and the serial have no other points in common. The former was a very serious and dramatic affair, which placed as much emphasis on White Eagle’s efforts to find his place in frontier society and his love for Janet Rand as it did on his fight against the villains. The serial, on the other hand, puts said fight at the center of its plot and makes no attempt to combine it with character-driven subplots. There’s not even a hint of romantic attraction between White Eagle and Janet, while White Eagle seems so comfortable with his outsider status (despite the hostility that the townsfolk frequently display towards him) that the last-chapter revelation that he’s curious about his true background comes off as a completely out-of-left-field twist.
However, such neglect of characterization and dramatics isn’t White Eagle’s biggest flaw–although Buck Jones’ presence in the serial makes it hard not to compare Eagle unfavorably to the cowboy star’s several chapterplays for Universal, which placed much more emphasis on fleshing out the characters’ personalities. Eagle could still have worked as an entertaining action-centered serial, had it not been directed by the redoubtable James W. Horne–who, in his typical fashion, repeatedly undermines what genuine excitement Eagle has to offer by injecting the action scenes with pieces of incongruous comic business, staging cliffhanger scenes in blatantly unbelievable fashion, and allowing several of his major players to outrageously overact. The incongruously humorous touches in White Eagle, unlike those in the Horne-directed serial Iron Claw, aren’t numerous enough to turn the chapterplay into an out-and-out comedy–but are just numerous enough to throw the whole outing off-balance.
Among the most notable of White Eagle’s comical incongruities are the ridiculous demise of the Indian renegade Red Fox (a macabrely humorous bit that would have seemed quite appropriate in a Laurel and Hardy short, but is completely out of place here), the slapstick brawl between four henchmen in Chapter One, the ludicrous-looking cliffhangers that have the hero rolling down a hill in a barrel and rolling over a cliff while tied to a spool of telegraph wire, the cheerfully amoral acquiescence of a supposedly sympathetic surveying crew to the murder of their foreman, and the Leo-Gorcey-like interrogation of an outlaw (Kit Guard) by sidekick Raymond Hatton in Chapter Four. The “Don’t Miss the Next Chapter” narrations by Knox Manning are also among some of the most blatantly tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic voiceovers to be found in any of Horne’s serials, including such lines as “We wonder where these masked riders are galloping; not to deliver Valentines, we think” or “Stop waving that cane, mister–gosh, the darn thing exploded!” (spoken as James Craven plugs an enemy with a gun disguised as a walking stick). It’s hard to imagine such lines being in the script; one suspects Horne encouraged Manning to simply ad-lib them.
Above left: Buck Jones (hat-feather only visible) takes a barrel-roll down a hill–something one would expect of a sidekick, not a hero. Above right: Raymond Hatton somehow manages to intimidate Kit Guard by flipping back Guard’s hat brim, as Roy Barcroft (far right) looks on.
That said, writer John Cutting, who only worked on other Horne Columbia serials, probably deserves a share of the blame for Eagle’s out-of-place humor; the other screenwriters–Lawrence Taylor, Morgan Cox, and Arch Heath–have nothing in their filmographies to suggest that they would have so lampooned the serial genre if left on their own (particularly Cox, who contributed to classics like Drums of Fu Manchu and Gang Busters). The writing quartet’s screenplay, in outline, is respectable enough, with Darnell trying a succession of devious schemes (framing the Indians for robberies, tricking a surveying crew into invading Indian land, helping Indian renegades steal rifles) to set off a war, and doing his best each time to blame White Eagle for his own misdeeds.
Like most such simple serial plots, Eagle’s narrative is a bit too thin for its fifteen-chapter length, and begins to seem repetitive around the half-way mark; for instance, the hero is wrongfully accused, cleared, and re-accused so many times that it becomes hard to take his recurring plight too seriously. The writers also botch more than one chance of adding an interesting wrinkle to the storyline–almost casually killing off a major henchman when he falls out with his boss, instead of milking the two heavies’ dispute for at least one chapter; later, they abruptly and disappointingly write the mysterious gambler Pendleton out of the serial–after giving him a seemingly careful buildup for most of the chapterplay’s episodes, falsely leading us to believe that he’ll ultimately play an important part in the plot.
Many of White Eagle’s fistfight scenes (like those in most Horne serials) are staged rather sloppily, with the hero pummeling so many foes at once as to make the whole combat look comically unbelievable. However, there are many good pieces of stuntwork scattered throughout even the most silly-looking fights, courtesy of stuntmen Chuck Hamilton and Bob Woodward; the Chapter Nine barn brawl is particularly good. The fight in Chapter Twelve is not bad either, though marred at its conclusion by the cartoonish way in which the heavies fling their hands in the air and flee after the good guys start shooting at their feet–a typical Horne touch that appears more than once in White Eagle, not to mention several of his other serials.
Non-fistfight scenes tend to be better-handled by Horne–standouts including the barn-escape scene in Chapter Six (which features a neat rope-swing and a leap from a window onto a horse), the Chapter Twelve battle at the mine (which makes good visual use of the serial’s principal outdoor location, Iverson’s Ranch), and the lengthy outdoor chase/shootout at Iverson’s in Chapter Ten, during which the hero battles the villains while the heroine is trapped in a cave by a puma. The stock shots of this predatory animal (culled from the White Eagle feature) are mixed with Eagle’s new footage much more skillfully than in many serials–making the puma attack that concludes Chapter Ten one of the serial’s more memorable cliffhangers (even though the puma obviously turns into a stuffed one when it’s shown wrestling with the hero).
Other cliffhangers in Eagle are sound in conception (the explosion in the pass, the rock falling on the shack, the powder-barrel tossed into the mine, etc.) but are undone by their completely unbelievable resolutions; in almost every case, the hero simply crawls out from under the boulders or beams that have seemingly crushed him and dusts himself off. Then there are the chapter endings that are so silly to begin with that they can’t possibly be damaged by their absurd resolutions–the prize examples being the barrel-roll and the telegraph-spool sequences mentioned above. Horne serials as a whole use the “he lived through it” cliffhanger resolution so regularly that it’s hard not to speculate that the director staged his escape scenes this way deliberately, as a way of spoofing other serials (particularly Universal outings) that made periodic use of such cop-outs.
White Eagle’s assorted cast members either valiantly play straight despite the goofiness surrounding them, or else help to increase said goofiness. Buck Jones, who seems to have hoped to preserve the essential seriousness of his original White Eagle characterization, displays very little of the deadpan flippancy that marked his performances in other serials; he handles most of his lines in laconic and grimly determined fashion. He’s quite commanding and compelling throughout, whether he’s confronting belligerent settlers, angry Indians, or sneering thugs; he also never indulges in the obnoxious shouting and swaggering of other Horne leading men like Robert Kellard or Dave O’Brien. However, it’s hard not to be a little frustrated by the fact that Jones–one of the most comedically gifted of all serial stars–is one of the few actors in this highly comedic chapterplay who’s given virtually no chance to be funny.
Raymond Hatton, on the other hand, cuts up almost constantly–though his characterization can’t really be described as genuinely funny. The usually reliable character actor delivers a broad and noisy performance light-years removed from his colorful but slyly modulated turns in other serials–shaking with terror when confronted by villains, gleefully kicking heavies in the pants after they’ve been subdued, taking many pratfalls, and boasting loudly and repeatedly of his character’s mythical valor. The over-the-top gusto that Hatton gives to dime-novel lines like “I’m a ball of fire! I’m a hurricane! I’m full o’ thunder an’ lightning! Gimme room!” is amusing, but ultimately he’s so buffoonish and cartoonish that he becomes more irritating than entertaining.
James Craven, as the villainous but outwardly-respectable Dandy Darnell, is equally hammy in his own way–gloating in smugly maniacal fashion over triumphs, lapsing into petulant rage whenever his henchmen bring in reports of failure, and sneering so condescendingly and so harshly at the heroes as to make their unflagging belief in his honesty come off as inexcusable stupidity. As with Craven’s Bellamy in Green Archer and his Shark in Captain Midnight, the actor’s depiction of Darnell makes the villain seem so completely lacking in mental control that it’s impossible to take him seriously as a menace.
Slender and graceful Dorothy Fay, who played a supporting role (the heroine’s sister) in the aforementioned Green Archer, makes an attractive leading lady; she’s more poised and less consistently hysterical than in Archer, although she frequently sounds breathless to the point of breakdown, and does engage in some of the overdone screaming one expects of a Horne heroine. Edmund Cobb, as her stalwart brother, remains much calmer throughout; his good-natured but doggedly dignified bearing and his down-to-earth delivery of his lines provides a pleasant contrast to the hollering of Hatton and Craven. He even gets a chance to display some convincing (and touching) emotion, in the scene in which he reunites with his sister after the girl has been rescued from a cave-in.
Roy Barcroft is a joy to watch as Pendleton, the suave gambler who (literally and figuratively) plays his cards close to his vest, as he strolls about town and enigmatically lends aid to both heroes and villains. Barcroft’s unflappably smooth demeanor and his slyly sarcastic delivery of his lines help him to steal every scene he appears in–particularly those he shares with Craven; without ever raising his voice, he makes his character seem ten times more formidable than Craven’s ranting and raving Darnell.
Jack Ingram, as chief henchman Cantro, plays his role entirely straight, maintaining a gruff and sardonic attitude throughout, and never acting as exaggeratedly nervous or flustered as in some of his other Horne chapterplays. Bud Osborne, as Ingram’s chief assistant, takes a more comical approach to his part, chuckling with childish joy over his misdeeds but getting jumpy whenever he’s rebuked by Craven. Charles King and Al Ferguson are also leading members of the henchman pack; the former (like Ingram) plays his role straightforwardly, while the latter only lapses into hamminess in his final scene. Horne favorite Constantine Romanoff is expectedly goofy in voice and manner, while former silent comedian Kit Guard–another regular in Horne’s serials–is killed off before he has the chance to engage in more than a few comic sequences. Other noticeable thugs are played by Kenne Duncan, Harry Tenbrook, and George Chesebro, all of whom remain relatively true to their usual (non-Horne) form. Overall, the outlaws in Eagle are considerably less clownish than the henchman packs in most of Horne’s efforts.
Chief Yowlachie conveys appropriate primitive dignity as Chief Running Deer, stoically but fiercely proclaiming his people’s determination to protect their land. John Merton is suitably sinister and grim as Darnell’s Indian henchman Ronimo, snarling and growling his lines emphatically and doing his best to hide his Virginia accent. Though he’s not entirely successful at this, he still makes a more convincing Indian than Bert Stevens, who plays Ronimo’s fellow-renegade Red Fox; Stevens’ nasal twang of a voice, combined with his un-Indian features, make him look and sound ridiculously fake alongside Yowlachie, who of course is the genuine article. Edward Hearn delivers a typically overdone but likably sincere performance as Gardner, an upright trading-post owner who’s repeatedly harassed by the villains; Edward Peil, like Hearn a former regular in Mascot’s serials, is shifty but sympathetic as Hearn’s clerk. Chuck Hamilton, usually a henchman, has a good-sized non-villainous role as the chief surveyor of a telegraph company, and Kernan Cripps is decidedly unlikable as the loud-mouthed, gullible, and hot-headed leader of the townsfolk. Walter Shumway is alternately belligerent and shifty as Krantz, a major cohort of James Craven’s in the early episodes.
Above: Chief Yowlachie orders his tumultuous braves to lay down their arms (left-hand picture)–much to the annoyance of Bert Stevens, who prepares to take a shot at the Chief in the right-hand picture.
One-time child star and expert rider Buzz Barton has a small role as an ill-fated Pony Express rider, Charles French appears briefly as Hamilton’s aide, Hank Bell is a trapper, Steve Clark a stage-station manager, and crisp-voiced J. Paul Jones a dignified but very tough Army general. Edward Cecil hams it up as a henchman retained to impersonate J. Paul Jones’ character, while Lloyd Whitlock appears as another general in the first chapter. According to the ever-unreliable IMDB, Charles Stevens and John Merton’s son Lane Bradford both appear in the serial as well; Stevens, however, is definitely not present in the cast. I was unable to spot Bradford either, but it’s possible that he can be found somewhere in the serial; at the time of Eagle’s production, he would have lacked the broken nose he sported in his post-war films, making it hard to recognize him in a bit part.
White Eagle ultimately falls into the same limbo as Perils of the Royal Mounted, director Horne’s final serial–even though it’s not as big a misfire as that chapterplay, Eagle’s hero being more likable and its henchmen less comical than those in Perils. However, Eagle shares Perils’ biggest flaw: it’s too serious to be taken as a comedy and too comedic to be taken seriously, and ultimately leaves its viewers feeling unsatisfied.
Above: White Eagle’s surviving principal characters rejoice over the final ratification of the treaty–displaying more satisfaction than a viewer of the serial is likely to feel at the serial’s conclusion. From left to right are Raymond Hatton, Buck Jones, Chuck Hamilton, J. Paul Jones, Edmund Cobb, Dorothy Fay, Edward Hearn, and Chief Yowlachie.
Acknowledgments: My thanks to Chuck Anderson, the proprietor of the Old Corral, for identifying Walter Shumway as “Krantz,” and to Anthony Durrant (see the comment section) for identifying Bert Stevens as “Red Fox.”