Mystery of the Riverboat

Mystery of the Riverboat--titles
Universal, 13 Chapters, 1944. Starring Robert Lowery, Marjorie Clements, Lyle Talbot, Arthur Hohl, Francis McDonald, Mantan Moreland, Oscar O’Shea, Marion Martin, Eddie Quillan, Eddy Waller.

Under an old landholding agreement called the Acadian Pact, three Louisiana families–the Perrins, the Langtrys, and the Duvals–hold joint title to a stretch of apparently worthless swampland near the small town of Duval’s Landing. However, this land is actually rich in a valuable type of oil called “nitrolene”–a fact that has come to the attention of unscrupulous speculator Rudolph Toller (Lyle Talbot) and the Duval family’s murderous black-sheep scion Paul (Arthur Hohl), who goes under the alias of Clayton; the schemes of these rival plotters soon trigger a series of murders and other crimes–and lead to an investigation by determined young lawyer Steve Langtry (Robert Lowery), the son of one of the Acadian Pact landholders.

Mystery of the Riverboat--map
Above: Scientist Byron Foulger shows Ian Wolfe (far right) and Wolfe’s henchman Dick Curtis a map that gives the location of the nitrolene deposits.

Though directed by Universal’s standard war-era duo of Ray Taylor and John Rawlins, Mystery of the Riverboat features another, more unexpected name in its credits; it’s one of the handful of post-1942 Universal chapterplays overseen by the studio’s veteran serial producer Henry MacRae (who died just before its release), instead of by Morgan Cox (the man responsible for most of the studio’s later serials). Riverboat also has a different scripter than most of its contemporaries; though its story is credited to regular Cox writer Ande Lamb (a native-born Louisianan, who probably suggested the serial’s unusual setting), its screenplay was handled by Maurice Tombragel–who only worked on one other serial (The Great Alaskan Mystery, another late MacRae production) and subsequently went on to a distinguished career as a writer for the Walt Disney Presents TV series.

With MacRae and Tombragel in charge, Riverboat (like the aforementioned Alaskan Mystery) happily lacks the great flaw of most of the serials turned out by former screenwriter Cox’s production team: needless and repetitive dialogue scenes. Tombragel–unlike Lamb, George Plympton, and the writers of other Cox-produced Universals–doesn’t have each character laboriously re-explain the plot, re-state their identity and goals, and remind us of what they’re doing in or are planning to do in chapter after chapter; instead, he and producer MacRae simply use a couple of blocks of on-screen text to keep the audience up-to-date on the basics of the plot each week, and don’t bother to have their characters issue constant additional verbal reminders.

Even without reams of dialogue, Tombragel delineates each of his many characters well, aided by an excellent cast; he also keeps the plot moving and developing nicely throughout the serial’s thirteen chapters. The first four episodes have the heroes dodging murder and sabotage attempts by rival sets of villains aboard the titular riverboat; before this novel setting can exhaust itself, the action moves ashore to focus on Steve Langtry’s efforts to protect fellow Acadian Pact landowners from the mysterious and murderous “Clayton”–while simultaneously dodging the law after being framed for Clayton’s crimes by the Toller faction. The plot shifts direction again in Chapter Ten, when both Langtry and Toller realize Duval is Clayton and the latter blackmails Duval into cooperating with him; Langtry squares himself with the police in the succeeding chapter, and the remaining episodes are devoted to the heroes’ race to bring in a nitrolene well before running out of money, in the face of the now-united opposition of the villains.

Mystery of the Riverboat--miscarriage of justice
Above: The unjustly jailed Robert Lowery confers with (left to right) Eddy Waller, Marjorie Clements, and Oscar O’Shea.

Only in the final episode does Tombragel stumble a bit, failing to provide proper buildup for an important courtroom confession by one of the heavies; however, the climactic sequence that follows the courtroom scene still makes the last chapter a lot more satisfying than the Universal norm, featuring as it does a vigorous fistfight between hero and villain while the fuse on some explosives burns dangerously–a nice change from the subdued wrap-ups more typical of Universal’s later serials. Some reviewers would count the several musical numbers aboard the riverboat in the earlier episodes as serious stumbles as well, but I wouldn’t concur; the singing sequences are admittedly padding, but they’re lively enough to be enjoyable, and are far less tedious than dialogue filler would have been; they also aren’t prolonged enough to kill the pace of the serial, most of them being intercut with action transpiring elsewhere (one of them even advances the plot directly, by having the singer Celeste pass a key to Toller under cover of her number).

Mystery of the Riverboat--musical number
Above: Jimmie Dodd (center) leads his fellow-musicians in “Rhythm Rhapsody.”

The twists and turns of Riverboat’s plot are enhanced by a good assortment of action scenes; Johnny Daheim doubles for hero Robert Lowery, and teams with Eddie Parker and Tom Steele for several good fistfight sequences–most notably the fight in the riverboat hold in Chapter Three and the brawl on the docks in Chapter Six, both of which are enlivened by much toppling of boxes, barrels, and other props; the Chapter One shack fight, the grapple on the boat deck in Chapter Three, the brief fight at the Duval mansion in Chapter Five, and the climactic battle on the oil-rig platform are good as well. The pair of shootouts at the derrick in Chapter Twelve are less successful, due to confusing staging; the hillside behind the rig and the scrub bushes in which some of the combatants take cover are obviously two completely different locations, and it proves impossible to get a coherent idea of where good guys and bad guys are standing. The car chase to the oil rig just before the final fistfight is solid, though, as is the foot chase through the swamp in Chapter Nine.

Mystery of the Riverboat--dock fight Mystery of the Riverboat--oil-rig fight
Above left: Johnny Daheim sends Eddie Parker flying off the dock as Tom Steele tackles him from behind, during the Chapter Six fight scene. Above right: An interesting up-angled shot of Parker slugging Daheim during the climactic brawl.

The serial’s action highlight, however, comes in Chapters Eight and Nine–a sequence in which a “shanty-boat” containing the hero’s father and the heroine is set adrift on dangerous flood waters by the villains, the hero swims out through a raging storm in a seemingly vain attempt to stop the boat from going over the levee, and the heroine’s father makes a spectacular last-minute rescue with the aid of his riverboat and a towline. These scenes almost certainly make use of footage from a bigger-budgeted film, but the presumed stock is combined seamlessly with new shots, creating a unique and gripping sequence. The earlier flood scene in Chapter Seven, the car chase in Chapter Ten, and the pair of runaway bus sequences in Chapter Eleven also make creative and exciting (if less memorable) use of stock footage, some of it from other serials like Green Hornet and Frank Merriwell, some of it–like the striking shots of the bus careening through the rain–from feature films.

Mystery of the Riverboat--swim through storm Mystery of the Riverboat--shanty adrift Mystery of the Riverboat--poling Mystery of the Riverboat--rescue
Above, top left: Robert Lowery (probably doubled by Daheim here) swims out to the endangered shanty-boat. Top right: The boat careens along on the floodwaters. Bottom left: Lower and Marjorie Clements try unsuccessfully to pole the boat to safety. Bottom right: The rescuing riverboat overtakes the shanty-boat on the brink of the levee.

The bus-in-the-rain scene leads up to an exciting cliffhanger (a crash into some high-tension wires) that’s resolved by a lamentable cheat; other chapter endings are equally strong but are given more honest resolutions, like the hero’s imperilment by the riverboat’s paddlewheel in Chapter Three, the above-mentioned Chapter Eight cliffhanger in which the shanty-boat is about to go over the levee, and the hero’s slow engulfment by quicksand in Chapter Nine. The stock-footage-aided Chapter One cliffhanger (which has a villain driving the riverboat into a shanty in which the hero is fighting a thug) is excellent as well, but features one of Universal’s typical “lived-through-it” resolution, as do Chapter Seven’s flooded-jail cliffhanger, the Chapter Ten car crash, and (to a lesser extent) the impressive Chapter Twelve oil-rig explosion.

Mystery of the Riverboat--quicksand cliffhanger
Above: Francis McDonald gloats as Robert Lowery sinks in the quicksand at the end of Chapter Nine.

Universal’s variegated and well-appointed sets, along with its capacious and versatile backlot, assist MacRae and his directors to give a passably Louisianan look to most of the serial’s exteriors and interiors; the boggy swampland area, the dockyards, the Duval mansion, the ramshackle shanty-boat, its riverside anchorage, and the riverboat itself (originally built for Universal’s 1936 Show Boat feature) all help to provide a proper sense of atmosphere. The hills surrounding the oil-drilling site and the roadside cliff in Chapter Five don’t match the serial’s supposed location, however, being a bit too precipitous to convince as part of the river country; Louisiana does possess uplands of its own, but most of them are in the northern part of the state, far from the swamps which here are shown as adjacent to the hills.

Mystery of the Riverboat--swamp 1 Mystery of the Riverboat--swamp 2
Above: Robert Lowery and Marjorie Clements call to each other through the convincing backlot swamp.

Though unusual for its era in many respects, Riverboat does have one thing in common with other mid-1940s Universal serials–an excellent cast. As Steve Langtry, the likable and talented Robert Lowery is given more opportunities to actually act than in his two later serials for Columbia, and handles a range of emotions quite convincingly; he gets to be earnestly indignant, shrewdly inquisitive, wryly humorous, and even loudly jubilant by turns (when the oil well finally comes in). Marjorie Clements is pleasantly chipper and easygoing as heroine Jenny Perrin; she possesses a girl-next-door attractiveness and a quietly capable and self-assured demeanor that both seem appropriate to a heroine who’s supposedly grown up in the rural river country.

Mystery of the Riverboat--Robert Lowery Mystery of the Riverboat--Marjorie Clements
Above left: Robert Lower. Above right: Marjorie Clements.

Lyle Talbot is perfectly cast as the shady promoter Toller, exuding an ideal combination of dignified suaveness, jovial smugness, and calculating intelligence throughout the serial. The gaunt but distinguished-looking Arthur Hohl does a great job as the broodingly sinister Paul Duval, so effectively conveying bitterness and regret over his banishment from his hometown that the viewer often starts to feel sorry for him–only to have any feelings of sympathy quickly shattered by the harsh and cold ferocity with which he ruthlessly removes anyone who stands in his way. Francis McDonald is enjoyably disreputable as Hohl’s tough, weasel-like Cajun henchman Baptiste, affecting a French accent that doesn’t really sound Louisianan but which does lend even more color to his vivid performance. First-rate thug portrayers Anthony Warde and Joe Devlin play Lyle Talbot’s henchmen–but have comparatively few lines and serve principally as background muscle; Devlin’s best individual moment comes when he flippantly gloats over an impending boiler explosion, while Warde’s most memorable scene is his surreptitious invasion of the oil-workers’ bus.

Mystery of the Riverboat--Warde, Devlin, and Talbot Mystery of the Riverboat--Hohl and McDonald
Above left: Anthony Warde, Joe Devlin, and Lyle Talbot (left to right). Above right: The bearded Arthur Hohl with Francis McDonald.

Black ex-vaudevillian Mantan Moreland, best-remembered for his energetic comedic performances in innumerable horror films and mysteries at Monogram Pictures, is quite good in his basically non-comic character turn as the genial and dependable riverboat steward Napoleon, who serves as Robert Lowery’s sidekick for a sizable portion of the serial; more subdued than in his Monogram features, he’s still given a few good jokes and amusing bits of physical comedy (like his gingerly tinkering with the riverboat’s red-hot boiler valves) and handles them with characteristic aplomb. Excellent character actor Oscar O’Shea is a lot of fun as the heroine’s riverboat-captain father, always displaying a degree of befuddlement over the mysteries that surround him, but never losing his good-natured feistiness or the perpetual twinkle in his eye. Eddy Waller is more solemn but equally appealing as the hero’s father, resignedly reflecting on lost family fortunes, feistily blasting away at villains, and expressing heartfelt concern for his son when the latter becomes a fugitive from justice.

Mystery of the Riverboat--Moreland and O'Shea Mystery of the Riverboat--Waller
Above left: Mantan Moreland and Oscar O’Shea. Above right: Eddy Waller takes aim at off-camera heavies (O’Shea is behind him).

Eddie Quillan, another ex-vaudevillian, is likably chipper and scrappy as riverboat entertainer Jug Jenks–but has little screen time despite being second-billed, and spends most of the serial’s midsection recovering from a gunshot wound inflicted by Lyle Talbot; nothing is made of his stated desire to get even with Talbot or of his unrequited affection for villainess Marion Martin (an intriguing plot thread that vanishes as quickly as it appears). However, his comic dancing routine in Chapter Two is quite entertaining, as is his humorously exasperated reaction to the faked bus breakdown later in the serial. The aforementioned Martin–an adept portrayer of brassy blondes in numerous B-films–is quite prominent in the serial’s first third, singing songs in between acts of skullduggery and even flirting with Robert Lowery at one point (much to heroine Marjorie Clements’ irritation); however, she has little to do in the ensuing episodes but serve as a breezily sarcastic sounding-board for Talbot’s schemes (and deliver one priceless wisecrack about the “atmosphere” of a seedy hotel).

Mystery of the Riverboat--Quillan and Martin
Above: Eddie Quillan confronts Marion Martin.

The serial’s minor roles are filled by a stellar array of character actors.  Cy Kendall has an atypically non-villainous part as the honest (but rather lazy) police chief, and Ian Wolfe is excellent in his short-lived turn as the sly and crooked land-grabber whose machinations set the whole plot in motion; Byron Foulger plays the scientist who discovers nitrolene, and for his pains is bumped off in the serial’s very first dialogue scene. Earle Hodgins is crabbily flustered as Jean Duval (the villainous Paul’s wealthy and respectable brother), Scottish actor Alec Craig is entertainingly quirky and querulous as the riverboat’s harried engineer, Charles Evans is the villains’ lawyer in the final chapter, and Jay Novello is exuberantly oily as a voluble French-accented hotel clerk.

Dick Curtis is Ian Wolfe’s brutish goon, Jack Clifford a garage proprietor, Raphael Bennett a henchman, Budd Buster a Cajun swamp-dweller, George Lloyd a shady labor boss, Kernan Cripps and Jack Overman cops, Dan White a townsman, and Perc Launders the highly competent head driller on the good guys’ nitrolene well. Future Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd plays an unnamed performer on the riverboat, leading a small group of musicians in accompaniment of Marion Martin’s numbers and also singing two songs on his own–both of them written by himself.

Though a bit more toughly violent than the bulk of Henry MacRae’s 1930s Universal serial productions, Mystery of the Riverboat is in other respects a throwback to those earlier efforts; like them, it presents a relatively simple story, but is seasoned with enough action and more than enough interesting characterizations to make it a fully involving and enjoyable chapterplay–and a good and fitting capstone to the veteran chapterplay producer’s long career.

Mystery of the Riverboat--last

One thought on “Mystery of the Riverboat

  1. ***1/2 out of ***** This one got a big lift out of the stock footage. The chapter 8 flood is terrific. A fine cast put over a functional but ordinary plot. I thought they wasted Marion Martin who could have made things much more interesting. And the last chapter confession came out of nowhere for me, with the fight exciting but I didn’t understand why Napoleon or the policeman didn’t just rip out the burning fuse. Still, a fun serial on balance.

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