During the early days of the Civil War, the US Army assigns Lieutenant Jim Archer (Jock Mahoney) to investigate a series of attacks on stagecoaches and Pony Express riders in the Western territories; the outlaws responsible for these attacks are secretly bossed by lawyer Mort Black (George J. Lewis), the agent of an Eastern business syndicate that’s out to gain a monopoly on frontier transportation systems. Going undercover as a hired hand at Ezra Graham’s (William Fawcett) relay station, Archer begins to battle Black’s outlaws, while trying to discover the identities of their backers; he’s aided by Army scout Doc Laramie (Tom London) and by Graham’s daughter Linda, but his most important ally proves to be a courageous young Pony Express rider by the name of Bill Cody (Dickie Moore).
Unlike two later–and far superior–post-war Columbia western serials, Roar of the Iron Horse and Son of Geronimo, Cody of the Pony Express fails to add any interesting embellishments to its very simple plot. Roar’s railroad-building storyline was lent additional interest by the unusual character of the Baron and the presence of a mystery villain, while the battles with outlaws and Indians in Geronimo were enlivened by the individualized depictions of the villains and of the semi-sympathetic Indian leader. There are no equivalent characters to make Cody’s repetitive fights over stagecoach cargoes and mail sacks exciting, however; both heroes and villains are written strictly by the numbers, with the minor exception of the henpecked comic-relief character Ezra Graham. Potential subplots are largely neglected, as well; the villains’ efforts to rile up the local Indians never really come to anything, while Black’s election to the position of local judge doesn’t complicate things for the good guys as much one would expect.
One-dimensional characterizations and a repetitive plotline are far from automatically crippling flaws in a serial, but the blandness of the characters and the sameness of the action are accentuated in Cody’s case by the dully depersonalized nature of the serial’s central struggle. Overland Mail and most of Republic’s Western serials placed superficially similar battles over land and transportation systems at the center of their plots–but always gave the audience an emotional stake in the struggle by introducing us to the plucky pioneers (usually the heroine and her father) who were going to lose their small business if the villains’ assaults on their operations weren’t stopped. However, in Cody the beleaguered Graham family are mere part-time Pony Express employees; we never even see their employers–and never meet Black’s syndicate backers either, making it feel as if both heroes and villains are mere pawns in an uninteresting corporate tug-of-war.
Archer’s commanding officer does make a comment in the opening episode about the Pony Express’s usefulness in wartime communication–as does Knox Manning in the first-chapter narration–but this “national importance” angle is completely forgotten in subsequent episodes and thus fails to make the serial’s central conflict seem any more urgent. The subplot introduced in the serial’s final third (which has the villains attempting to dispossess the Grahams with a phony land claim) makes the narrative seem a little more gripping, but the good effects of this interpolation are quickly undercut by another late plot twist–the introduction of a telegraph line into the plot; both heroes and villains comment that the telegraph makes the previously prized Pony Express service obsolete–basically negating the action of the preceding episodes. Screenwriters Lewis Clay, Charles Condon, and David Mathews (and story men George Plympton and Joseph Poland) would have been far wiser to either exclude the telegraph entirely from their narrative–or else make it the central bone of contention from the start.
The repetitious and uninvolving plot of Cody is further damaged by Columbia’s obligatory fifteen-chapter format; while the serial is a little lighter on pointless walking/riding scenes than some of Katzman’s other efforts, it’s still noticeably padded in places–particularly doing shootout scenes, which are often paced so slowly (and scored so poorly, with inappropriately sedate stock cues) that they start to seem tedious instead of exciting; it doesn’t help that very few good guys or bad guys receive anything worse than minor flesh wounds in these gunfights. The Chapter Fifteen battle at the Graham ranch–which should have been a rousing climactic combat–is particularly weak, with the outlaws moving at an incredibly sluggish clip as they try to encircle the heroes, and merely clutching their shoulders and walking off-camera whenever they’re hit. The earlier shootout at the ranch (in Chapter Ten) is similarly disappointing, with the villains ploddingly going about their work and then fleeing just as the tempo of the action starts to pick up.
Above left: Pierce Lyden kills time during the Chapter Fifteen gun battle, slowly taking very deliberate aim before firing as Ross Elliott watches. Above right: A wounded henchman walks off-stage during the same battle sequence.
The gun battle in the rocks in Chapter Nine is a little better, since it features more movement on the part of the combatants–but their ducking and dodging is still performed in irksomely pedestrian style. The attack on the way station in Chapter Eight is more dynamic than most of the serial’s shootouts; the wagon chase that follows it is also quite good. The same is true of most of the serial’s other chase sequences, like the excellent pursuit/rescue of the stagecoach in Chapter Four and the wagon chase at the end of Chapter Twelve. The backdrop for these and other pursuits is the semi-desert Pioneertown area, also seen in Son of Geronimo; as in that serial, it presents a remote and uncivilized appearance that seems appropriate to a supposed frontier region. The Pioneertown Western street and its buildings also figure in the chapterplay; Katzman had not yet abandoned interior shooting at this point in his serial-producing career.
Fistfights in Cody are infrequent and uneven; several of them suffer from the same lowered energy as the shootouts (particularly the cliff-edge grapple between Dickie Moore and Ben Corbett in Chapter Nine), but several others are quite good, if not as elaborate as director Spencer Bennet’s earlier Republic brawl scenes. The lengthy saloon fight between Dickie Moore and Jack Ingram in Chapter Seven is a particular highlight, featuring as it does a lot of energetic leaps, falls, and furniture-breaking. Moore is doubled here and elsewhere by George Robotham; his co-star, ex-stuntman Jock Mahoney, is given surprisingly few opportunities to engage in the action, but seems to be doing his own stuntwork when he does get a chance to mix it up–as in the good but brief street fight in Chapter Nine.
Above left: Dickie Moore lands a good punch on Jack Ingram. Above right: George Robotham, doubling Moore, leaps from the bar during the same Chapter Seven fight scene (apologies for the poor print quality).
Chapter endings in Cody partake of the serial’s general unevenness. Some are weak (the Chapter Eight wagon fire), some are patently absurd in both concept and resolution (the Chapter Fourteen lightning-strike), some are effective blends of stock footage with new footage (the Chapter Two teepee fire, which borrows partly from White Eagle), and some make more jarring use of stock (the Chapter Five avalanche, which suddenly rings in a wagon train–part of footage borrowed from Overland With Kit Carson–without any real explanation). The best of the bunch is probably the Chapter Nine cliffhanger, a simple but well-shot ending that has young Cody plummeting down an imposingly steep slope.
The above-mentioned cliffhangers (and all the unmentioned ones as well) center around the Cody character–who, despite Jock Mahoney’s top billing, is definitely presented as the chapterplay’s primary hero. In this starring role, former child star Dickie Moore is likable, but is a bit too low-key to carry the serial; his acting is so understated and his dialogue delivery so soft-spoken that he’d seem almost somnolent were it not for the athletic quickness with which he handles the riding and fighting aspects of his role. Mahoney brings a stronger screen presence to his part, but is prevented from taking center stage by the script’s emphasis on Moore, and doesn’t manage to make much of an impression; he only occasionally gets a chance to display the quiet shrewdness and intimidating toughness that marked his later serial-hero turns.
Leading lady Peggy Stewart is even more underused than Mahoney, but makes the most of her scenes as Ezra Graham’s courageous daughter–conveying spunkiness, brisk kindliness, and cheerfulness with charming ease. William Fawcett is a delight as Stewart’s father, providing above-average comedy relief through his crotchety grumbling–some of which is directed at the villains, but most of which is aimed at his overbearing and henpecking wife, who’s amusingly played by the intimidating Helena Dare; the interchanges between them are unusual by chapterplay standards and are a good deal funnier than the typical serial-sidekick antics. Old pro Tom London makes his final serial appearance as the grizzled and capable scout Doc Laramie, and is very good–managing to be colorful without being buffoonish; however, he has comparatively little to do.
As Mort Black, George J. Lewis gets to play an outwardly-respectable brains heavy for the first and only time in his serial career–and does it well, affecting a brusquely dignified pose when pledging his support for law and order, but sneering sharply and harshly as he plots his crimes or rebukes his henchmen. The hard-bitten and sinister Pierce Lyden, in one of his biggest serial roles, serves as Lewis’ principal henchman; his laconically icy gunslinger is depicted in unusually menacing style at first, particularly when he ruthlessly mows down fellow-henchmen. However, though Lyden maintains his intimidatingly cold demeanor throughout the serial, the scripters quickly let the character deteriorate into a more standardized and less threatening action heavy–albeit a good one, thanks to Lyden.
Jack Ingram, who begins the serial in the action-heavy slot but cedes his position to Lyden early on, is his usual grouchy and sarcastic self; Rick Vallin is memorably slick and slimy in a more short-lived turn as another prominent outlaw. Ross Elliott, later a specialist in television portrayals of doctors, teachers, army officers, and other professional types, is yet another leading henchman; though acceptable in the role, he’s a little too pleasant-mannered to be an entirely believable thug. Veterans Ben Corbett and Frank Ellis are solidly gruff as other henchmen, as is the solemn-voiced Jim Diehl; Rusty Westcoatt puts in a brief appearance as a hired gun, and Hugh Prosser is properly smug and businesslike in a similarly brief appearance as an agent of the sinister “Eastern syndicate.”
Baruch Lumet is a voluble French saloon-owner, Bud Bailey a surly rancher duped by the villains, and Iron Eyes Cody a friendly Indian chief. Michael Whalen, once an aspiring feature-film leading man, plays Jock Mahoney’s commanding officer, while Monte Montague and Frank Yaconelli have walk-ons as a mortally wounded pioneer and a blacksmith (respectively). Child actor Bobby Hyatt, best-remembered as the D.A.’s son in the classic Miracle on 34th Street, appears as Montague’s grandson; he’s very abruptly introduced to the serial, and written out with only a little less abruptness.
Unlike some Katzman serials, Cody of the Pony Express is not bad enough to be called a total failure, but neither is it good enough to be called a complete success. I’ve used the word “uneven” too much already in this review, but that word more or less sums up Cody. The locations are striking, but the storyline is uninteresting; the action scenes are frequently dull, but can be exciting at times; the actors are good, but the star is miscast and the second lead is wasted. The serial is such a mixed bag that its strengths and flaws tend to cancel each other out, making Cody ultimately an acceptable but highly unmemorable chapterplay.