Fighting with Kit Carson

Fighting With Kit Carson--titles
Mascot, 12 Chapters, 1933. Starring John Mack Brown, Noah Beery Sr., Noah Beery Jr., Betsy King Ross, Al Bridge, Edward Hearn, Edmund Breese.

Army scout Kit Carson (John Mack Brown) is ordered to transport a government gold shipment through Indian territory; however, among the frontiersmen recruited to assist him are several undercover members of the Mystery Riders, a ruthless outlaw band. These infiltrators kill the other gold-guards while Carson is off dealing with hostile Indians, but lose the gold itself when one surviving guard, Matt Fargo (Edmund Breese), escapes with it and hides it somewhere in the wilds. Reynolds (Al Bridge), one of the secret Riders, tells the Army that Carson was behind the massacre of the guards and the theft of the gold, forcing the scout to become a fugitive; to clear his name, he sets out to locate the gold and deal with the Mystery Riders, assisted by Fargo’s young daughter Joan (Betsy King Ross) and by Nakomas (Noah Beery Jr.), a Cheyenne chieftain whose father was murdered on the orders of the Mystery Riders’ leader. Said leader is one Cyrus Kraft (Noah Beery Sr.), an outwardly honest trading-post proprietor who is determined to keep settlers out of “his” fur-trapping country, and who is equally determined to get his greedy hands on the missing gold shipment.

Since Fighting With Kit Carson features no masked masterminds or other “mystery” elements, writers Barney Sarecky, Colbert Clark, Jack Natteford, and Wyndham Gittens are able to avoid the illogical and confusing plotting found in many of their other Mascot serial screenplays. However, the writing team falls victim to another writing weakness common to Mascot’s serial scripters; they don’t make their storyline meaty enough to fill twelve chapters, and instead pad four different episodes with lengthy flashbacks to earlier chapters. The characters’ indulgences in reminiscing sessions are at least adequately motivated, and the sequences don’t consume entire chapters–but they still jar on the viewer, partly because they’re so unnecessary; a little more emphasis on subplots like the Army’s pursuit of Carson (which is neglected until the last three episodes) or Kraft’s plan to stir up the Indians (which is forgotten after Chapter One) could have provided enough additional plot fodder to remove the need for the irritating recap scenes.

In fairness to Sarecky and his colleagues, the flashbacks were probably more a budget-saving maneuver by producer Nat Levine than a symptom of writers’ block; in fact, the non-flashback portions of Carson are not only very fast-moving but also capably plotted. The first half of the serial is centered around the battle over the unfortunate Fargo, with the villains trying to coerce him into revealing the location of the gold shipment and the heroes try to rescue him; the second half of the chapterplay consists of a struggle for the located gold itself. A mutiny by the Mystery Riders, Kraft’s masterful suppression of same, the deaths of two major characters halfway through the serial, the late entrance of an Army detachment bent on arresting Carson, and Carson’s efforts to outmaneuver these soldiers all help to keep the serial’s basic tug-of-war scenario from getting too repetitious.

Fighting With Kit Carson--plot complication 1 Fighting With Kit Carson--plot complication 2
Above left: Noah Beery Sr. (center) is taken prisoner by his own men, after his attempt to double-cross them goes awry. Above right: John Mack Brown (foreground) is marched off to jail by a misunderstanding soldier; henchman Edward Hearn is directly behind Brown.

Like most Mascot serials, Carson is filled with strong action scenes–most of them centered around the excellent stuntwork of Yakima Canutt, who doubles hero John Mack Brown throughout. The climax of Chapter One–which has Canutt leaping from one pair of runaway wagon-team horses to another in an attempt to recover the wagon’s lost reins, and then falling beneath the team–is the serial’s single most spectacular piece of action, but is followed by many other good sequences. Gunfights are realistically tough, usually terminating in the demise of heavies instead of their mere disarming; fight scenes are also satisfactory, with Canutt, his fellow-stuntmen (Kenny Cooper, Tommy Coats), and the actors themselves grappling with each other in believably ferocious style, and landing punches that actually look convincing instead of the wild windmill-like blows more often seen in early 1930s serials; the Chapter Eleven fistfight in the guardhouse is particularly good.

Fighting With Kit Carson--team leap Fighting With Kit Carson--guardhouse fight
Above left: Yakima Canutt (doubling John Mack Brown) prepares to leap from one pair of galloping horses to another. Above right: Edward Hearn and John Mack Brown (both undoubled here) grapple for a knife during their Chapter Eleven fight.

The innumerable horseback chases in Carson are also decidedly above-par, particularly those in Chapters Two and Seven; the equestrian work of the actors and stuntmen is very good, but it’s the direction of Armand Schaefer and Colbert Clark, and the outstanding photography by cinematographers Ernest Miller, Alvin Wyckoff, and William Nobles that really makes the serial’s many furious cross-country gallops stand out. Directors and cameramen repeatedly show horses and riders in strikingly well-composed long shots, shots that give the viewer a breathtaking sense of the sheer size of the frontier landscapes that pursuers and pursued are traversing; the hills and plains of Iverson’s Ranch (the serial’s principal outdoor location) have rarely looked more impressive than they do here.

Fighting With Kit Carson--riders and scenery 1 Fighting With Kit Carson--riders and scenery 2

Fighting With Kit Carson--riders and scenery 3 Fighting With Kit Carson--riders and scenery 4
Above, top left: Indians riding on a raid. Top right: John Mack Brown and Noah Beery Jr. race up a hillside. Bottom left: The Mystery Riders pursue Brown across the landscape. Bottom right: Betsy King Ross in flight from the Riders, who are on the verge of emerging from the shadows at right.

The lengthy Chapter Nine sequence in which an outnumbered Carson attempts to delay the Mystery Riders until a posse shows up, by leading the Riders on a risky wild-goose-chase up and down a canyon (by rolling boulders, firing off guns in unexpected places, etc.) also makes good use of the landscape, and is suspensefully edited and cleverly written to boot: the jerry-rigged hat/gun/canteen device that the hero uses to misdirect the heavies is especially ingenious. This sequence, which manages to be memorable and exciting even without any especially striking stuntwork, ranks as one of the best and most distinctive action setpieces in any Mascot serial; the episode in which it occurs is appropriately dubbed “The Invisible Enemy.”

Fighting With Kit Carson--canyon hunt Fighting With Kit Carson--rigged gun
Above: The Mystery Riders are on the verge of discovering Brown’s hiding place (left-hand picture), until a gun previously rigged by the hero goes off in the nick of time (right-hand picture).

The chapter endings sequences in Carson are respectable in concept if a bit repetitive, many of them involving apparent shootings of the good guys; however, far too many of them (the Chapter Seven horsefall, the explosion at the end of Chapter Ten, the barn-loft fall in Chapter Eleven) are marred by blatantly cheating escapes in the following chapter. The resolution to the Chapter Three cliffhanger is particularly bad, and is made all the more frustrating by the fact that it could have been ingeniously and fairly resolved with slightly more careful editing. The best cliffhangers are the Chapter Five cliff-fall, which is well-photographed and neatly and legitimately resolved, and the Chapter Four knifing cliffhanger–a tense and startling scene which is nicely foreshadowed way back in Chapter One; though the resolution is unimaginative, it isn’t a cheat.

Fighting With Kit Carson--knife cliffhanger 1 Fighting With Kit Carson--knife cliffhanger 2
Above: the buildup to the Chapter Four cliffhanger. Noah Beery Sr. starts tossing his pocket-knife around while conversing with John Mack Brown (left-hand picture)–a signal to henchman Maston Williams (right-hand picture) to throw his own knife into Brown’s back.

John Mack Brown, making his serial debut, heads up Carson’s cast; though he’s sometimes a bit stiffer than in some of his subsequent Universal chapterplays like Wild West Days, he’s still a very appealing hero–intensely serious when confronting villains or misguided Army officers, but pleasantly genial when trying to cheer up young Betsy King Ross or (in the opening scene) explaining the art of scouting to a group of frontier kids. As in his other serials, the ex-footballer is also very convincing in the action scenes–exuding an impressive air of speed and strength as he combats the heavies or races through the wilds on foot and horseback.

Fighting With Kit Carson--John Mack Brown
Above: John Mack Brown spots an important sign while scouting.

Most unusually for a Mascot serial, Carson has neither a leading lady nor a comedic sidekick; the only major female character is the little girl portrayed by young trick-riding champion Betsy King Ross, while the usually comic Noah Beery Jr. (in his first major serial role) plays things straight as the helpful Nakomas. The excited but inconsistently inflected fashion in which Ross delivers her dialogue frequently makes her sound amateurish, but her acting is so unaffected and so likably enthusiastic that her character becomes quite endearing; expectedly, she handles her riding stunts with more assurance than her lines. Beery Jr. is also likable and energetic, and gets to make an interesting transition from hot-headed antagonist (in the first chapter) to loyal and canny sidekick (in the subsequent episodes); however, he’s frankly miscast. Though he’s less facially unsuited to his Indian role than some actors would have been, he simply can’t suppress his usual drawl enough to make his characterization altogether credible.

Fighting With Kit Carson--Betsy King Ross Fighting With Kit Carson--Noah Beery Jr
Above left: Betsy King Ross saddles up to go to Brown’s aid. Above right: Noah Beery Jr. prepares to climb up the side of a barn.

Noah Jr.’s redoubtable father Noah Sr. has the meatiest role of his entire serial career in Carson, and all but walks off with the chapterplay. As the super-Machiavellian Kraft, the elder Beery is both hateful and charismatic, performing his evil deeds with incredible flair and style. His jovially righteous pose in his interactions with the good guys, his grim rants about his plans for becoming “the most powerful man in the entire Southwest,” his cheerful brazenness as he faces down and wins over his rebellious men after betraying them, his glowering calm when he orders his foes killed, and the throaty chuckle with which he accompanies most of his acts of villainy all combine to make his performance positively magnetic–and grandly entertaining.

Fighting With Kit Carson--Noah Beery Sr
Above: Noah Beery Sr. delightedly sets a death trap.

Beery Sr.’s chief henchmen are played by Mascot regulars Al Bridge and Edward Hearn. Bridge is sneeringly down-to-earth, and grimly sarcastic, a perfect foil for his more exuberant boss; Hearn, in an atypically villainous turn, registers furtiveness and malice with the same hammy but sincere intensity he brought to his sympathetic roles in other Mascot serials like The Shadow of the Eagle and The Vanishing Legion. Frank Ellis is the most prominent of the subordinate Mystery Riders, and the grubby but sly-looking Maston Williams has an important role in the earlier chapters as Beery’s knife-throwing bodyguard; Jack Mower and Slim Whitaker also have noticeable henchman parts, while Dick Dickinson, Jim Corey, Lew Meehan, and Ernie Adams (nervous as ever) are seem in smaller heavy roles.

Fighting With Kit Carson--Al Bridge Fighting With Kit Carson--Ed Hearn
Above left: Al Bridge. Above right: Edward Hearn.

Edmund Breese is energetically feisty as the harried but tough Fargo, and Robert Warwick is dignified in his single scene as the murdered Chief Black Hawk; unlike Beery Jr. (and unlike most other screen Indian impersonators), he affects a distinct Indian accent in the role, instead of merely speaking broken but perfectly-pronounced English. Lane Chandler figures prominently in the later chapters as a stubborn but honest Army sergeant, Lafe McKee is a settler, and a surprisingly unbilled William Farnum has a small role as the brusque government official whose impatience leads to the initial gold theft. Tully Marshall, as grizzled scout Jim Bridge, is given prominent billing, but drops out of sight after Chapter Two–a pity, since his lively and colorful performance provides a good contrast to the more laid-back Brown in the few scenes that the two actors share.

Like all Mascot serials, Fighting with Kit Carson has no music score–but it does have a theme song of sorts, a ballad about shadows, death, and terror sung by the Mystery Riders over the credits and at various points within the serial itself, as they ride out on their nefarious missions. The tune is striking, but far too operatically formal (and too obviously dubbed) to be remotely believable as the outlaws’ war-chant. This silly gimmick has sometimes led critics to dismiss the entire serial as a risible failure–a judgment that is quite unfair. If one can look past its singing outlaws, its cliffhanging cheats, and its excessive flashbacks, Fighting with Kit Carson makes for extremely enjoyable viewing, blessed as it is with excellent action, first-rate cinematography, a good hero, and a magnificent villain.

Fighting With Kit Carson--last
Above: A striking shot of the Mystery Riders on one of their villainous errands.

3 thoughts on “Fighting with Kit Carson

  1. Mascot’s practice of having four economy chapters started with THE DEVIL HORSE (1932) and continued with all five Mascot serials of 1933, THE WHISPERING SHADOW, FIGHTING WITH KIT CARSON, MYSTERY SQUADRON, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and WOLF DOG. I read that exhibitors protested so loudly that Mascot discontinued the practice in 1934. They did it once more with their last serial, THE FIGHTING MARINES. (1935)
    Noah Beery Sr certainly made an outstanding villain here, but he was just as good in OVERLAND MAIL (1942).

    • I agree Beery Sr. was just as good in Overland Mail–and in Devil Horse too, for that matter–but neither those serials nor his two Republic outings (Red Ryder and Zorro Rides Again) gave him as much scope for outrageously double-dealing villainy as Fighting With Kit Carson does; the cheerfully swashbuckling audacity with which he betrays pretty much every single character in the serial (good guys and bad guys alike) is really something to see.

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