The Mysterious Pilot

Mysterious Pilot--titles
Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1937. Starring Frank Hawks, Dorothy Sebastian, Rex Lease, Kenneth Harlan, Frank Lackteen, Harry Harvey, Tom London, Yakima Canutt, Guy Bates Post.

Carter Snowden (Kenneth Harlan), a shady but wealthy and powerful Canadian politician, is accosted by an old enemy, a man named Crawford, while on a train trip; Jean McNain (Dorothy Sebastian), a guest and fellow-passenger of Snowden’s, overhears the two men’s angry conversation–and is so alarmed by it that she gets off the train at a backwoods station. Shortly afterwards, Crawford is found murdered aboard the train, and Mountie Sgt. “Kansas” Eby (Rex Lease) is ordered to find the culprit; he sets out in search of Jean, whose suspicious departure was noticed by witnesses. In the meanwhile, Jean has convinced pilot Jim Dorn (Frank Hawks), an aerial cartographer for the RCMP, to fly her into the back country–where she hopes to hide from Snowden, who has some mysterious hold over her. Snowden, for his part, is determined to get the girl back into his power, and recruits several dangerous characters to look for her, chief among them the murderous backwoodsman Yoroslaf (Frank Lackteen). Dorn, who soon begins to fall in love with Jean, must protect her from Snowden’s satellites and keep her location a secret from his Mountie friends, while also endeavoring to find out the nature of her connection to Snowden.

Based on the novel The Silver Hawk, by William Byron Mowery, The Mysterious Pilot represents Columbia Pictures’ second and last attempt (the first being the studio’s inaugural chapterplay, Jungle Menace) to attract the grown-up audiences that had flocked to view silent chapterplays but had largely left serial-viewing to the younger generation by the 1930s. Pilot, like Menace, was produced for Columbia by the father-and-son team of Louis and Adrian Weiss, who, in their own earlier independently-produced serials Custer’s Last Stand, The Clutching Hand, and The Black Coin, had also endeavored to appeal to older viewers–principally by filling their serials with enough characters and plot convolutions to stock a three-volume Victorian novel, and by including as many silent-era stars as possible in their casts. Inevitably, all of these Weiss independent efforts suffered from severe narrative overcrowding, as did Jungle Menace–but Pilot, probably due to its derivation from Mowery’s book, is much more streamlined and uncomplicated, though not entirely free of padding.

Mysterious Pilot poster
Above: An exhibitor’s ad for Mysterious Pilot, showing the audiences Columbia hoped to target.

Pilot still follows the Weiss tradition in some ways; its cast is quite big and is filled with many one-time “names,” but, unlike in other Weiss efforts, the multiple characters don’t all trip over each other or obscure the central plotline; instead, they merely enliven the narrative. Pilot’s story is, in the main, quite simple, with its explanations in the last two episodes tying things together far more neatly and logically than in other serial “mysteries” turned out by the Weiss outfit. The only real loose end in writers George Rosener and George Merrick’s screenplay is the embryonic subplot concerning Jim Dorn’s moonlighting as an undercover “mysterious pilot” for the RCMP; references to this “important work” are occasionally tossed off by other characters–but we never see the hero actually performing said work, which makes the references to it sound like they were tacked on in order to justify the serial’s title (which they probably were).

By serial standards, Pilot moves at an extremely deliberate pace, no doubt due to the production team’s hopes of making it appeal to “Mr. and Mrs. Theater-Goer;” dramatic, romantic, or reflective scenes are regularly alternated with fights and chases. Some of these sequences work very well, and make the serial feel like an A-feature–such as the altercation at the French-Canadians’ dance in Chapter One, which supplies some nice local color and provides an unusually distinctive introduction for Frank Lackteen’s henchman character. Other scenes, such as the conversation between the ebullient Kansas and the thoughtful loner Dorn in Chapter One, Dorn’s dismissal from the RCMP, or Dorn’s proposal to Jean and her regretful refusal, are well-conceived and capably written, but don’t have the emotional impact they could have had–partly because of the extremely laid-back demeanor of leading man Hawks, partly because of an almost complete lack of background music, and partly due to the direction of Spencer Bennet–who, as in his later Republic serials, shoots dialogue scenes very statically and perfunctorily, reserving camera movement and visual flair for the action scenes. In the action-packed Republic outings, Bennet’s lack of interest in mere “talk” did little damage, but in a serial so heavy on inter-character dynamics, his indifference constitutes more of a problem. Bennet’s habit of leaving his actors to more or less direct themselves (attested to by his later producer Alex Gordon) also probably didn’t help Hawks when it came time for the non-professional thespian to play dramatic scenes.

Mysterious Pilot--hero's proposal
Above: Frank Hawks reacts as Dorothy Sebastian rejects his proposal of marriage.

To be fair, writers Merrick and Rosener, like director Bennet, miss opportunities for enhancing the serial’s drama; the conflict between Dorn and Kansas when the former starts helping Jean elude the Mounties isn’t played up as strongly as it could have been, with the two heroes remaining very chummy despite being opposed to each other. Jean is also cleared of the murder charge far too early in the serial, which removes a lot of tension from Pilot’s second half; once the RCMP stops pursuing the heroine, the serial also becomes a bit more repetitive, with Snowden’s gang relentlessly pursuing Dorn and Jean and the Mounties merely providing the protagonists with periodic assistance–instead of throwing an added complication into the plot. The writers do try to vary their storyline in the later episodes by introducing an entirely new subplot concerning Snowden’s attempt to take over a lumber mill co-owned by Jean, but this plotting detour comes so completely out of left field and disappears so quickly (after a couple of episodes) that it’s more jarring than anything else. Pilot, like so many other 15-chapter serials, could have benefited from being cut down to 12 chapters.

The scenery in which Pilot’s plot unfolds is that of the San Bernardino National Forest, also seen in Republic’s Mountie serials; hills, pine forests, streams, rustic wooden buildings, and the expanses of the Forest’s Big Bear Lake all lend a tremendous boost to the serial’s visuals, with director Bennet and cinematographers Edward Linden and Herman Schopp filming the scenery to excellent advantage throughout. Among the action scenes memorably backed by the Forest locations are the overturning of the canoe at the end of Chapter Four and the fight in the stream that follows it in Chapter Five, the fight that begins in the hero’s tent at the end of Chapter Seven and carries the combatants into Chapter Eight, down a hill, and on to the lake’s beach, and the lengthy Chapter Eight fistfight/shootout on the rocky slopes around the lake (and, eventually, in the lake itself).

Mysterious Pilot--scenic 1 Mysterious Pilot--scenic 2
Above left: Yakima Canutt prepares to ambush Frank Lackteen’s canoe along a picturesque stretch of water and rescue Dorothy Sebastian. Above right: Lackteen and Frank Hawks grapple on the edge of another nice-looking stream.

The indoor action scenes in Pilot are quite good too, thanks to the stuntwork of Dave O’Brien (who doubles hero Frank Hawks) and Yakima Canutt (who doubles various heavies), and to the expertise of the action-loving Bennet; the fights here might not be as elaborately and precisely staged as those in Bennet’s 1940s Republic efforts, but are several notches above the sloppier brawls in most other 1930s chapterplays. The slam-bang brawl in the ruined mill in Chapter Twelve is a particular highlight, with O’Brien leaping and swinging through the ramshackle building as he battles Canutt (doubling Frank Lackteen); the big fight between O’Brien and multiple antagonists at Snowden’s lodge in Chapter Six is terrific as well, with the participants racing up stairs, knocking each other off second-story landings, and overturning furniture.

Mysterious Pilot--lodge fight Mysterious Pilot--mill fight
Above left: Dave O’Brien sends Yakima Canutt plunging through a balustrade during the Chapter Six fight scene. Above: O’Brien swings from a beam and launches Canutt backwards with his feet during the Chapter Twelve mill fight.

As one would expect from the title, there’s plenty of aerial action in Pilot, depicted through a generally effective combination of miniature work (sometimes rather obvious), process-screen shots (made more convincing than the miniatures by the use of good lighting), and actual stunt flying by Loren Riebe. Dorn’s Chapter Nine attempt to “talk down” Jean  (trapped in a pilotless ship), and his plane-to-plane transfer when the attempt fails, are quite exciting, as is Dorn’s Chapter Two escape from pursuers–during which he turns his plane perpendicularly in order to soar through a narrow pass. However, perhaps the most memorable airplane scene is the Chapter Eight dogfight between Kansas and Dorn in one plane and henchmen Kilgour and Yoroslaf in another–a tough and fast aerial machine-gun duel.

Mysterious Pilot--air battle 1 Mysterious Pilot--air battle 2 Mysterious Pilot--air battle 3
Above: Shots from the Chapter Eight dogfight.

 Chapter endings in Pilot are, for the most part, low-key “situational” ones more reminiscent of the conclusions to the chapters of a “page-turning” print book than of the typical movie cliffhanger. One episode ends with Dorn confronting Snowden and his henchmen, another with Snowden’s plane taking off with Jean inside, a third with henchmen creeping stealthily inside an old mill where Jean and Dorn are camped. In other episodes, potential cliffhangers are set up, but are cut off midway–like Chapters Six and Nine, which fade out as Dorn is preparing to make dangerous aerial transfers but before he actually makes the potentially fatal leap. Only about a fourth of the chapter endings are genuine cliffhangers, among them the several plane-crash endings and the one that has the hero trapped in a canoe headed for a waterfall.

Mysterious Pilot--old mill cliffhanger
Above: Frank Lackteen’s clutching hand menaces Dorothy Sebastian to conclude Chapter Eleven.

Frank Hawks, a captain in the Air Service during WW1 and a celebrated civilian pilot during the 1920s and 1930s, provides Pilot with a pleasant but somewhat under-energized leading man. Unlike some other non-actors who starred in serials, he seems perfectly at ease before the camera, preserving a cheerful and easygoing calm throughout the entire chapterplay; unfortunately, he never varies this calm with any convincing displays of stronger emotions like anger, grim determination, or affection–even when (as aforementioned) a scene clearly calls for it. Dorothy Sebastian, an A-list star during the silent and early sound era, is a little mature for her ingénue role but delivers a far more nuanced performance than her leading man–effectively registering sadness over her fugitive status, warm gratitude to the people who assist and sympathize with her, controlled fear of Snowden, and growing affection for Dorn.

Mysterious Pilot--Sebastian and Hawks
Above: Dorothy Sebastian and Frank Hawks.

Rex Lease, another former silent star who later went on to play bits in innumerable Republic serials, is likably affable and enthusiastic as Mountie co-hero “Kansas” (no reason is ever given for the presumably Canadian character’s American moniker); his chipper demeanor helps to counterbalance Hawks’ unflappably low-key performance. Kenneth Harlan, yet another prominent figure of silent days, is excellent as the scheming Snowden, conveying a combination of dignity, suavity, shrewdness, and cold ruthlessness that makes it very easy to believe in his villain’s supposed political eminence. Harry Harvey also does a good job as Snowden’s aide-de-camp Cardigan, giving the character  a bustling, self-important, but slyly weasel-like manner.

Mysterious Pilot--Rex Lease Mysterious Pilot--villains
Above left: Rex Lease joshes the off-camera Hawks. Above right: Harry Harvey (light suit) and Kenneth Harlan connive on the rear platform of a train.

As the grimly murderous half-breed Yoroslaf, Snowden’s principal backwoods accomplice, Frank Lackteen makes the most of one of his meatiest sound-serial parts–silently and intently lurking behind unsuspecting good guys, staring malevolently at anyone who crosses him, and occasionally bursting into ferocious rages when things don’t go his way. The ever-reliable Tom London is both shifty and convincingly tough as the crooked pilot Kilgore, another key henchman; Ted Adams is characteristically slick as another pilot-heavy. Beautiful one-time star Esther Ralston, despite third billing, only appears in two chapters (and in about the same amount of scenes) as the heroine’s venal stepmother.

Mysterious Pilot--London and Lackteen
Above: A nasty argument breaks out between Tom London (aviator’s cap) and Frank Lackteen.

Guy Bates Post affects a thick but fairly convincing French-Canadian accent as Papa Bergelot, a genial old backwoods denizen who assists the good guys; his avuncular but lively performance here is quite a contrast to his much more staid turn as the High Lama in Ace Drummond. Actor/co-writer George Rosener, on the other hand, is much more subdued in Pilot than in his depiction of the wacky Captain Cuttle in Secret of Treasure Island. However, he still makes his character–a helpful German trading-post proprietor–quite colorful; distinguished stage and silent-film actress Clara Kimball Young is very appealing as his kindly wife. Stuntman Yakima Canutt plays a fairly large acting role as the stalwart, tobacco-chewing guide Indian Luke; while Canutt’s voice and face aren’t particularly well-suited to his Indian impersonation, his stoically tough demeanor definitely is; his best moment comes when he gruffly defies Frank Lackteen, who’s angrily threatening to drown him.

Bob Terry is suitably dashing and dogged as Rex Lease’s chief Mountie aide, while Joseph Girard is ponderously dignified as a high-ranking RCMP officer. Reed Howes and George Regas pop up as other Mounties, and Loren Riebe appears in a minor recurring part as a cheery buddy of the hero’s. Roger Williams and Robert Walker (not the Strangers on a Train actor, but another silent-film notable) are crooked lumberjacks, Walter McGrail is an irritated train engineer, William Desmond has an amazingly small bit as a woodsman, Dorothy Short (heroine of Call of the Savage and Captain Midnight) pops up as a flirtatious French-Canadian girl, and Martin Garralaga plays her pugnacious beau. Fred “Snowflake” Toones is a railway porter in the first chapter, and Carl Stockdale–a major player in Essanay Productions’ numerous “Broncho Billy” western shorts during the 1910s–is Crawford, the man whose murder sets the plot in motion.

With tighter scripting and pacing, a more dynamic leading man, and a co-director as interested in character interaction as Bennet was in action scenes, Mysterious Pilot could have been a classic. As it is, it’s a frequently slow-moving but frequently enjoyable curiosity, one worth watching for a viewer who’s patient enough to endure many pedestrian scenes in order to relish the serial’s lovely locations, its large and interesting supporting cast, and its periodic bursts of first-class action.

 Mysterious Pilot--last
Above: Guy Bates Post waits as Frank Hawks’ plane cruises towards shore, along the waters of Big Bear Lake.

One thought on “The Mysterious Pilot

  1. *** out of ***** Just got around to this one. Has that doing it differently 1930’s vibe which makes it interesting, despite a stiff performance from Hawks. I thought the actions of Harry Harvey in the last chapter were too contrived–no one would do that–and dragged it down a bit for me. Still, entertaining. Also odd that Harvey always had on a suit and tie out in the Canadian woods. The other actors were more appropriately dressed.

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