Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1952. Starring Clayton Moore, Rodd Redwing, Marshall Reed, Bud Osborne, Tommy Farrell, Eileen Rowe, John Crawford, Sandy Sanders.
The Apache warriors of the famed Geronimo, alarmed by an influx of settlers in the Arizona Territory, are conducting ferocious raids against said settlers; these raids are led by Geronimo’s lieutenant and only surviving son Porico (Rodd Redwing), who’s out to avenge the massacre of his family in Mexico years ago. Jim Scott (Clayton Moore), a mysterious drifter, sets out to track down Porico (Rodd Redwing), hoping to persuade him–and, through him, Geronimo–to make peace. Scott’s difficult and dangerous attempts to halt the Apaches’ rampages are complicated by the scheming of tough Eastern lawyer Rance Rankin (Marshall Reed), who’s planning to capitalize on the chaotic state of the Territory; he and his outlaw cohorts have decided to scavenge the numerous valuable supplies abandoned after Indian attacks on wagon trains, and then sell these supplies to settlers at profitable prices. To ensure a steady supply of these goods, Rankin does everything he can to keep Porico and his tribesmen on the warpath, while pretending to be allied with both the Apache chief and with Scott; his treachery must be unmasked before peace can come to Arizona.
Like most Sam Katzman-produced Columbia serials, Son of Geronimo has its share of flaws; its plot is too thin for a fifteen-chapter serial, its action scenes are sometimes insubstantial, and its budget-saving production shortcuts (chiefly its careful but contrived avoidance of indoor scenes) are a bit too obvious. However, none of these weaknesses are pronounced enough to wreck the serial; a good cast, a fairly brisk pace, and a solid basic storyline make it one of Katzman’s better 1950s efforts.
Arthur Hoerl, George Plympton, and Royal Cole (Geronimo’s writers) wisely avoid saddling the serial’s villains with the wildly grandiose schemes of conquest that made the heavies of Gunfighters of the Northwest–a serial similar to Geronimo in many other regards–appear ridiculous. Here, the villain’s master plan is small-scaled enough to be believably carried out by the limited number of outlaws that the serial’s budget mandates–but also logically necessitates Rankin’s attempts to keep the Indian war going, and thus makes his actions high-impact enough to be worthy of the hero’s attention. However, Hoerl, Plympton, and Cole do a less effective job of handling quasi-villain Porico; his eventual switch from implacable enemy to trustworthy ally comes off as rather abrupt and unconvincing, after his many attempts to kill the heroes. The writers do try to foreshadow this change of heart by having Porico display grudging admiration for Scott, and by having him occasionally acknowledge his indebtedness to the hero for assistance rendered in Chapter One; still, they really don’t play up this angle strongly or consistently enough to make Porico’s turnabout seem less than arbitrary.
Above: The serial’s three central characters in a stand-off. Left to right: Rodd Redwing’s Porico, Marshall Reed’s Rankin, and Clayton Moore’s Scott.
The narrative action of Geronimo basically consists of a series of stagecoach and wagon raids by Indians or outlaws, and the hero’s efforts to prevent said raids or track down their perpetrators; given the serial’s fifteen-chapter length, the writers can’t prevent this scenario from seeming repetitive, but do keep the attacks and resultant chases coming at a swift clip–swift enough that Geronimo only features a few of the over-long “plodding to and fro” sequences so common in Katzman’s serials. It helps that Geronimo’s chapters, save its first, are a uniform 15 minutes in length, not 17-20 minutes like the average Columbia episode; the need for padding is thus reduced, although the scripters still toss in three separate (but short) flashback scenes. The villains’ sabotage of Scott’s efforts to pow-wow with Porico helps to vary the ongoing series of raids; Rankin’s attempts to maintain a precarious alliance with Porico, and the dissensions and double-crossings in the outlaw’s own camp, also enliven the narrative. These villainous dissensions, incidentally, are handled much better than those in Jack Armstrong, Tex Granger, or Gunfighters of the Northwest; they don’t sideline the hero (as in Granger and Armstrong) or make the chief heavy appear inept (as in Gunfighters), but do make the serial feel more unpredictable and less formulaic.
Above: Marshall Reed (standing) finishes beating up henchman Zon Murray (on ground), in the first of several clashes between their characters.
Some of the serial’s action scenes are filmed at Iverson’s Ranch, but most of them were shot in the Yucca Valley region near the Pioneertown movie ranch; the Valley’s semi-desert flats, rocky canyons, and numerous Joshua trees provide a good visual simulation of Arizona. As aforementioned, there are no interior sets in Geronimo, which–as in Gunfighters of the Northwest–forces director Spencer Bennet to have characters peer out of windows, stand in front of buildings, or sit on back porches to make some dialogue scenes work; though such sequences often look silly, they’re not as irksome as in Gunfighters–simply because there are less of them. Geronimo features very few buildings for the characters to studiously avoid going inside; both heroes and villains spend most of their time in the deserts and canyons, and practically the only stationary structures seen in the serial are the stage-station, its outbuildings and Rankin’s trading post–which actually helps to make the serial’s locale feel like the wild and unsettled Territory that it’s supposed to be.
Above left: A wagon train traverses the “Arizonan” desert lands. Above right: The good guys confer (as usual) outside the stage station.
Geronimo’s chases, gunfights, and (rather scarcer) fistfights are quite well-staged by director Spencer Bennet, though too often short-lived–several gun battles, like the promising clash in the rocks at the beginning of Chapter Six, being disappointingly truncated by the arrival of an omnipresent troop of cavalry. Stock footage from earlier Columbia Western serials (chiefly White Eagle and Bill Elliott’s two 1930s chapterplays) is called into service whenever a larger-scaled battle takes place, and is mixed fairly smoothly with the new footage; the big Chapter Ten wagon-train attack is particularly well-done, combining old and new shots to good, and exciting, effect. This sequence also features a nice horse-to-wagon-to-villain leap by the hero; other action highlights include the Chapter Five stagecoach chase, the Chapter Six assault on the stage-station, the neat takedowns of three Indian pursuers by Moore and his two sidekicks in Chapter Nine, a ferocious fight between Moore and Rodd Redwing later in the same episode, and another intense and energetic Moore/Redwing fight (this time on a cliff-edge) in Chapter Fourteen. Both actors seem to be doing most of their own stuntwork in the two latter combats, but were presumably doubled for some of the most risky leaps and falls–most probably by stuntmen Sandy Sanders and John Cason, both of whom play acting roles in the serial as well.
Above, top row: A stock shot borrowed from Overland With Kit Carson (left) and a new shot of wagon-master John Cason rallying his men (right), both scenes from the Chapter Ten wagon-train attack. Above, bottom row: Clayton Moore tackles Rodd Redwing to the ground in their Chapter Nine fight (left) and prepares to leap on him in their Chapter Fourteen fight (right).
Geronimo’s chapter endings, like its in-chapter action sequences, make frequent use of footage from White Eagle and the Elliott serials–examples including the Chapter Four fiery-wagon cliffhanger (which incorporates shots from Eagle) and the avalanche that concludes Chapter Seven (borrowed from Overland With Kit Carson). Some of the all-new cliffhangers–like the one that has blindfolded sidekicks Tommy Farrell and Bud Osborne stumbling off the edge of a precipice–are interesting ideas but wind up looking a little absurd; on the other hand, the Chapter Twelve burning-teepee sequence is made quite memorable by its ingenious resolution, despite being rather oddly conceived. The burning wagon’s crash into the fort gates at the conclusion of Chapter One is also memorable, a sequence that makes heavy but skillful use of stock footage from Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. Stock is more obvious in the Chapter Three wild-horse stampede cliffhanger, which uses very grainy-looking shots of rampaging mustangs; the periodic (non-cliffhanger) use of silent-era Indian footage, including the oft-used Wind River crossing shot, is also more jarring than the majority of the serial’s visual borrowings.
Above left: Eileen Rowe and Tommy Farrell (the latter not visible) are trapped in a burning wagon, which (above right) crashes through a stockade gate to end Chapter One.
Son of Geronimo’s leading players are all quite strong. Clayton Moore plays the hero with all his usual authoritativeness and intense earnestness–issuing orders with grim self-assurance, and confronting outlaws and Indians with intimidatingly steely glares. He’s also able to lighten up whenever the situation calls for it–displaying guarded affability when he’s trying to talk Porico into making peace, and occasionally grinning outright in lighter interchanges with his sidekicks. Rodd Redwing is also very good as the belligerent Porico, despite the above-mentioned inconsistencies with which his chieftain is saddled by the writers. Unlike many 1950s portrayers of semi-sympathetic Indians, he doesn’t overplay his character’s anger against the settlers and cause him to come off as petulant instead of fierce; instead, he plays him with stoic bitterness and quiet ferocity, making him seem genuinely tough and formidable.
Above: Clayton Moore confronts Rodd Redwing.
Weather-beaten serial veteran Bud Osborne, who was usually reduced to bits in the post-war era, has a pleasantly large part as Moore’s sidekick, the grizzled old-timer Tulsa; while he doesn’t play the role for laughs, his drawling remarks and his crusty grumbling add welcome color–and occasional touches of humor–to the proceedings. Tommy Farrell, as stage-station proprietor Frank Baker, serves as a secondary sidekick, but is given no chance to deliver the breezy wisecracks that made his earlier sidekick turn in Pirates of the High Seas so memorable; here, he seems bland in comparison to Moore and Osborne, though still likably cheerful and energetic. Eileen Rowe, as his sister Ann, is the serial’s nominal leading lady; she’s pleasant and attractive enough (despite an odd-looking and unappealing hairstyle), but disappears for chapters at a time, and doesn’t make much of an impression.
Above: Tommy Farrell, Bud Osborne, and Eileen Rowe.
Katzman regular Marshall Reed has the best role of his chapterplay career in Geronimo, and makes the most of it. His Rankin is a rather unusual villain by serial standards–a brains heavy who’s slick and crafty enough to outsmart his opponents (until he meets his last-chapter doom), but also rugged enough to outfight and outshoot them when he has to. The brawny Reed is quite convincing whenever Rankin gets physical, but is equally believable when the lawyer is engaged in prevarication, scheming, or non-physical villainous activities; he lies to other characters in such commandingly resonant tones that you can’t blame them for believing him, and outlines his plans in a cold and calmly arrogant manner that’s quite intimidating. John Crawford, as outlaw leader Ace Devlin (who’s bullied into becoming Rankin’s henchman early in the serial), drops his usual smoothness and makes his villain seem rough-hewn, generally easygoing, and almost likable at times, providing a nice contrast to Reed’s icy, ramrod-like Rankin.
Above: Marshall Reed and John Crawford.
The smirking and swaggering Zon Murray is well-cast as loud-mouthed Bat, the most rebellious member of the Rankin/Devlin gang; Oklahoma-born stuntman Sandy Sanders is also good as Cliff, another leading henchman, coming off as a rough but cagy customer. Rick Vallin is a background henchman, only briefly becoming prominent when his character is captured by the heroes; the other background outlaws are an unfamiliar and largely nondescript group. Most of the minor non-villainous players are similarly unfamiliar; several of them, from their amateurish line delivery, seem to be wranglers or locally-recruited extras, not professional actors. There are at least four well-known faces to be seen in small character turns, however: Frank Ellis has a small but important bit as a gruff pioneer, Lyle Talbot pops up as a jovially dignified Army colonel, John Cason figures in a couple of chapters as a ruggedly stalwart wagon-master, and a characteristically stern Chief Yowlachie puts in a last-chapter appearance as the elusive Geronimo.
Son of Geronimo ranks as one of the last satisfactory Western serials turned out by either Columbia or Republic; indeed, one could make a strong case for it as the last Western movie serial that works as a whole. Though uneven in places, it holds together quite well, and is, overall, an consistently watchable and entertaining chapterplay, despite the Sam Katzman imprint.
A strong cast carries Son of Geronimo heads and shoulders above the latter day Columbia serials. Clayton [Billed here as Clay] Moore is the stalwart hero. Moore, a former stunt man, is allowed to do some of the less dangerous stunts which makes his character more believable. Considering this is a Katzman product from Columbia,it comes as a surprise to find me giving it a rating of 3 stars out of 5.Bennet does yeoman work as director.
You have to hand it to Rankin. Not only does he plan to “scavenge the numerous valuable supplies abandoned after Indian attacks on wagon trains, and then sell these supplies to settlers at profitable prices” … he plans to re-sell the same supplies over and over again to different settlers, each time recovering them after the Indian attacks. I think this would make him the first serial villain to earn a living from recycling.
Excellent review. This is my favorite western serial of the post-WWII era, thanks to the lead actors and the post-Broken Arrow script. Cheapness doesn’t hurt a western very much, and in fact can be a positive in giving the sense it really is a primitive frontier. And give Katzman this–he did put out to hire good actors. **** out of *****
*Just a trivia note, and I don’t know what is true, but Western Clippings at The Old Corral website quotes Moore from his memoirs–“One of the few pictures in which I used no stunt doubles at all.”
Thanks for the Moore quote about his stuntwork in Geronimo; it was new to me, and I’ve slightly modified the review to reflect it. The presence of Sanders (who was Gene Autry’s regular stunt double at Columbia) and Cason (Bill Williams’ double on the Kit Carson TV show) in the cast made me assume they did some of the stuntwork, but the print I watched wasn’t sharp enough for me to notice the use of any doubles–if, indeed, doubles were used. I can see Moore and Redwing possibly performing most of their own stunts in the fight scenes, but–without doubting Moore’s recollections in the main–I’m pretty positive Moore would have been doubled at least for that Chapter Ten leap from his horse to a wagon-seat and then onto a villain.
Ken, GUNFIGHTERS OF THE NORTHWEST also had an excellent cast.
Old Serial Fan, check out CODY OF THE PONY EXPRESS. Alan Barbour claimed it had no action at all, but I thought it wasn’t a bad serial at all. William Fawcett stole the show as the henpecked relay station owner.
Thanks, Pa, for the recommendation. Cody will be on my next gray market order.
You do not have my poster the mysterious pilot
I’m not sure how to interpret this last comment, Pauline–did you mean to make it on the Mysterious Pilot review, and, if so, what does it mean?