Universal, 12 Chapters, 1931. Starring Tom Tyler, Rex Bell, Lucile Browne, Francis Ford, William Desmond, George Regas, Bud Osborne, Chief Thunderbird.
Jim Rodney (Francis Ford), a shady saloon proprietor in the frontier mining community of Hard Rock, is determined to drive his fellow-citizens out of town–planning to seize all of the area’s gold-rich land for himself once everyone else has fled. The better to empty the town, he and his henchmen stir up the Cheyenne and Blackfoot Indians to attack the townsfolk; however, the ensuing Indian raids are stoutly resisted by settlers like John Mills (William Desmond), his daughter Jane (Lucile Browne), and Jane’s fiancé Dave Archer (Rex Bell). These embattled inhabitants of Hard Rock receive invaluable help from a renowned scout and Indian fighter–one “Buffalo” Bill Cody (Tom Tyler).
When it comes to scripting, Battling With Buffalo Bill is one of the blandest and most generic of Universal’s 1930s Western chapterplays; like most of those outings, it features a very simple storyline–but almost entirely lacks the quirky characters, the romantic subplots, and the clashes of personality featured in most of said outings. Heroine Jane and secondary hero Dave are already engaged when the serial begins, meaning there’s no path-of-true-love that needs to be made smooth for them (as in The Indians Are Coming or The Red Rider); likewise, though Rodney’s henchmen occasionally grumble over their boss’s ruthless selfishness, their resentment never causes a serious upheaval on the bad guys’ team (as in Rider or Rustlers of Red Dog). The protagonists also get along very well with each other–never even exchanging the cheerful insults seen in Rustlers, Rider, or Gordon of Ghost City, let alone actually feuding with each other as in Heroes of the West.
With character development thus minimized, Battling With Buffalo Bill’s storyline is reduced to a series of encounters between heroes and outlaws or between heroes and Indians; it’s to the credit of writers George Plympton, Ella O’Neill, and Henry MacRae that these encounters come off as only slightly repetitious, despite the serial’s lack of subplots. The writers accomplish this partly by keeping their characters almost constantly on the move, and partly by stretching out incidents to fill multiple chapters. The Cheyenne raid on Hard Rock and the events it gives rise to (the rescue of several principal characters from the Cheyenne village, their trek back to town, Buffalo Bill’s search for the causes of the raid) are utilized to occupy the first five chapters, while Rodney’s efforts to elect himself marshal occupy the bulk of the next two episodes. The framing of Dave Archer for murder in Chapter Eight, and the complications that ensue, carry the serial all the way to Chapter Eleven. Rodney’s attempt to stop gold-mining equipment from reaching town then occupies the concluding chapters and leads into the serial’s final action scenes–a large-scale wagon-train attack, and a short but fierce hand-to-hand struggle–which together provide the serial with a climax which is actually more satisfactory than those of many other Universal serials.
Of course, that last-chapter attack on the wagon train incorporates a great deal of obvious silent-film stock footage, although the stock is a good deal less jarring here than in Universal serials of even a slightly later date–since the new footage surrounding it still carries many of the visual hallmarks of the just-ended silent era. Other big Indian-attack sequences, such as the excellent Cheyenne assault on Hard Rock in the first chapter, appear to consist chiefly of new footage. This invasion of the town would be reused in many later serials, but fits far better in its original “setting” than in those outings; not only do the locations match up better, but the “moving camera” effect used as the Indians tear down the street neatly complements other fluid zoom shots of the street used elsewhere in Bill.
Above: The camera follows two horseman down the street in an establishing shot of the town, and later charges down the same street (showing the raiding Indians’ point-of-view) as it fills with the smoke of the townsmen’s guns.
Overall, the action scenes in Bill (directed by Ray Taylor and staged by stuntmen Yakima Canutt and Cliff Lyons) are pretty good for their time, though never as spectacular as some of the fights in contemporary Mascot serials. Some of the serial’s fistfights (like the one in the first chapter) have the clumsy and chaotic look common to the screen brawls of the late 1920s and early 1930s, but fistfights overall are relatively scarce; shootouts and chases are far more frequent, and are much better-handled–the innumerable chases making good visual use of the rolling slopes and thickets of Universal’s ranch locations. The writers, as in other Universals of the period, occasionally try to downplay lethality in the shootout scenes (the hero very unconvincingly claims that his opponents are only wounded after one such gun battle), but do so far less often than in The Lost Special, The Perils of Pauline, or Gordon of Ghost City; good guys, bad guys, and Indians typically bite the dust permanently, giving the action a tough edge fitting the old-fashioned dime-novel atmosphere of the serial. Any chapterplay that actually has two villains burned to death by Indians in its opening chapter (as Bill does) can’t really be accused of soft-pedaling frontier violence.
Individual action highlights in Bill include the aforementioned attack on the town in Chapter One, the Chapter Two shootout by the tree, the wagon chase in Chapter Four and the accompanying scrambling atop a team of runaway horses (performed by Yakima Canutt), the cross-country chase in Chapter Five, the brief cliff-edge shootout at the beginning of Chapter Six, the Indian attack on some gold-seekers’ wagons later in the same episode, the fight between Cody and the henchman Breed in Chapter Nine (a ferocious one-on-one grapple which works much better than the serial’s mass brawls), and the climactic fight/shootout between Cody and the principal villains, which takes place on an outdoor hillside.
Most of the chapter endings in Bill (save the cabin explosion in Chapter Six) are fairly mundane–Indians jump from a tree onto Cody, Indians swarm in to overwhelm the heroes, the hero is shot from ambush, a burning wagon overturns). The apparent lynching of Dave Archer at the end of Chapter Eight is one of the more memorable chapter endings, as is the Chapter Seven cliffhanger that has an Indian stalking Cody, drawing a bead on him, and (seemingly) shooting him as the picture fades out; this scene is well-shot and is set up in an effectively suspenseful fashion, which makes it more striking than many other Western “apparent shooting” cliffhangers. This sequence would have worked even better with musical accompaniment, but Bill–like other early talkies–has no real music score.
The cast of Bill is uniformly good, although many of its members are having obvious trouble in adjusting to the new sound-film medium. Tom Tyler, complete with goatee, long hair, and buckskins, cuts a very impressive visual figure as Buffalo Bill, and is similarly impressive when giving villains a steely glare or tersely pow-wowing with Indian chiefs; he’s also good when he’s smilingly and laconically shrugging off other characters’ praise of his valor. However, he sometimes stumbles over extended bits of dialogue–as during his accusation of Francis Ford in Chapter Ten, during which he pauses pointlessly more than once.
Rex Bell, a B-western star in his own right who cut short his acting career to go into Nevada politics (and who looks a bit like a young Joel McCrea), often seems more comfortable delivering dialogue than Tyler does; while his furious denunciations of the villains can sound a bit overdramatic, he definitely makes his secondary hero seem more commanding and authoritative than most such backup leads. As the heroine, the exceptionally cute Lucile Browne spits out her lines in breathlessly excited fashion, frequently over-enunciating them to an amusing extent; unintentionally funny as her performance is at times, it’s also so enthusiastic and spirited as to be quite endearing–particularly when she’s delivering flowery melodrama-style dialogue (“You would take the life of an innocent man with as much indifference as the red man, whom you pretend to despise!”) with a commendably straight face.
William Desmond, old stage trouper that he was, handles his lines with perfect assurance, playing the same stalwart, dignified, assertive, and slightly pugnacious “solid citizen” character he would portray in so many later Universal serials. Francis Ford, as the villainous Rodney, is every bit as assured as Desmond is, growling out orders or making threats with gusto. However, his character ultimately comes off as more of a gruff military officer than a genuine villain; he never indulges in the sneers and snarls needed to give a sinister cast to his handsome and distinguished features, and as a result doesn’t look or sound nearly as evil as he’s supposed to be. Swarthy and smirking George Regas is more convincing as Rodney’s chief henchman Breed; though he’s not given as much to do as the various “Breeds” played by Charles Stevens in later Universal Westerns, he still makes the character seem intimidatingly crafty and murderous.
Dependable Bud Osborne is his usual rough-hewn and drawling self as Ford’s other principal henchman; Edmund Cobb and Yakima Canutt both make several appearances as tough and helpful townsmen who assist Cody. Joe Bonomo has a much smaller role as another settler, Harry Tenbrook and Jim Corey are outlaws, and Merrill McCormick receives a good death scene as a crooked prospector. The grim and stolid Chief Thunderbird is quite effective as the hostile but ultimately fair-minded Cheyenne chief; his character, like the other Indians in the serial, never speaks a word of English–which makes said Indians come off as wilder, more incalculable, and more believable than the average movie Indian. Jim Thorpe and Chief Many Treaties play Thunderbird’s sons, while Beulah Hutton (a minor villainess in almost every Universal serial of the era) is a female cohort of the Rodney gang. Lew Kelly has a grand time as the old-timer who moseys up to the camera to verbally recap the action at the beginning of each episode; while he lays on the frontier slang rather thick, he’s still very entertaining to watch.
Battling With Buffalo Bill isn’t really so “all-fired excitin’ that it’ll raise you plum up in your saddle” (as Kelly claims in his introduction to Chapter One), but it’s still a well-made, fast-moving, and enjoyable (if forgettable) romp through the same rugged Western world that served as a backdrop to later and more distinctive Universal serials.