Riding With Buffalo Bill

Riding with Buffalo Bill--titles
Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1954. Starring Marshall Reed, Rick Vallin, William Fawcett, Shirley Whitney, Jack Ingram, Michael Fox, Joanne Rio, Gregg Barton.

Prompted by a tough old prospector named Rocky Ford (William Fawcett), former Pony Express rider Bill Cody (Marshall Reed) assumes the identity of the legendary masked man “The Ridin’ Terror,” in order to battle a gang of outlaws led by the ambitious rancher King Carney (Michael Fox). Southern drifter Reb Morgan (Rick Vallin) first forms an alliance with Carney’s outfit, but soon breaks with them and joins forces with Cody; Bill and Reb subsequently take turns serving as the Ridin’ Terror, working in tandem under the direction of Rocky as they thwart the outlaws’ schemes at every turn.

Riding With Buffalo Bill marks the beginning of Columbia’s last phase of serial production. Unlike the bulk of Columbia’s post-war serials, it features a very thin storyline built around enormous chunks of stock footage from earlier chapterplays; the three final Columbia serials that succeeded it would follow the same production formula. Bill is a little better than some of these subsequent efforts, however–largely because the two principal sources of its stock footage (Deadwood Dick and The Valley of Vanishing Men) were both period Westerns, allowing writer George Plympton to tie their action scenes together with a minimum of illogicality–unlike the Arabian Nights sword battles (from The Desert Hawk) and modern-day gunplay (from The Phantom and Jungle Menace) that he had to fit into the narrative of Adventures of Captain Africa, or the Indian attacks (from Perils of the Royal Mounted) and airplane dogfights (from The Mysterious Pilot) that he was compelled to ludicrously conjoin in Perils of the Wilderness.

Plympton still engages in some awkward narrative shoehorning in Bill, however–particularly when he has the villains launch a poorly-motivated attack on an Indian village that accomplishes absolutely nothing, aside from providing an excuse for a replay of the oft-seen “burning-of-the-teepees” sequence originally filmed for White Eagle. Other villainous activities are less pointless, but are somewhat uninteresting; unlike the heavies in the Republic Western serials from the same era–or those in near-contemporary Columbia Westerns–the serial’s heavies have no clear-cut central objective such as “grab the oil land,” “steal the ranch,” “put the Indians on the warpath,” or “stop the railroad.” Instead, the Carney gang merely commits repetitive and unconnected stagecoach holdups, rustling raids, and bank robberies–or at least try to commit said crimes; once the heroes enter the picture, they thwart the villains’ plans with such repetitious regularity that Carney and his henchman Ace start planning to cut their losses and flee the territory by Chapter Twelve–with three episodes still to go! Making the villains simultaneously unfocused, perpetual failures, and early quitters doesn’t exactly make the serial’s storyline seem very compelling.

Riding with Buffalo Bill--villains
Above: Michael Fox as Carney (left) and Jack Ingram as Ace conclude that their luck has run out.

Plympton also handles Bill’s protagonists in rather uncompelling fashion, especially weakening his ostensible hero Cody through a peculiar plot setup. Instead of taking charge of the action–as one would expect a serial hero to do–Cody basically serves as the unquestioning henchman of Rocky throughout the serial; the old prospector devises nearly all of the good guys’ strategies, continually telling Cody what to do and where to go next. Having Reb Morgan randomly alternate with Cody as the Ridin’ Terror further weakens the supposed hero, by making it seem as if anyone can be the Terror once given the proper instructions. Morgan himself begins the serial as a more unusual and interesting character than Cody–an embittered ex-Confederate whose bitterness at first leads him to side with the heavies, but who soon halts his descent into villainy when his sister is threatened by his new outlaw cronies. Unfortunately, Morgan’s intriguing character arc is concluded by the middle of Chapter Three–after which he becomes almost literally interchangeable with Cody; the pair not only wear matching Ridin’ Terror outfits (really copies of Deadwood Dick’s old costume), but also don identical buckskin shirts when unmasked (duplicates of Bill Elliott’s outfit from Valley of Vanishing Men).

Riding with Buffalo Bill--heroes
Above: Marshall Reed (left) and Rick Vallin, in identical outfits atop near-identical steeds.

The stock-footage incorporation in Bill–as in the Columbias that followed it–is not handled with anything approaching the smoothness that the blending of old and new scenes in Republic’s 1950s efforts was. The serial frequently replays near-complete sequences from Deadwood Dick and Valley of Vanishing Men–but without any of the process-screen work or new medium shots that Republic’s production team used to tie the old scenes more effectively into new narratives; closeups of Bill’s cast members are occasionally inserted into the stock, but such shots are so scarce and so tight that they don’t do much to convince us that Bill’s principals are really present. Resultantly, though the recycled footage includes many good and exciting scenes, they feel oddly disconnected from the new action–a few examples including the Chapter Three stagecoach chase, the shootout near the rail-camp in Chapter Four (both from Deadwood Dick), the Chapter Six fight in the wagon, and the Chapter Nine cattle stampede (both from Vanishing Men).

A couple of Bill’s action scenes–like the shootout at the shack in Chapter Eight, which has Bill’s heroes entertainingly launching dynamite sticks at Deadwood Dick heavies–manage to effectively combine new material with the older scenes; the excellent ladder-climbing scene from Vanishing Men is also skillfully fitted into the serial. All-new pieces of action are extremely rare, although director Spencer Bennet is given occasional opportunities to stage brief but pleasantly energetic fistfights (particularly the ones in Chapters One and Twelve), as well as some respectable short gun battles (like the one at Rocky’s camp in Chapter Four). Needless to say, all of Bill’s chapter endings are derived from earlier serials; among the more memorable retreaded endings are the excellent collapsing-roof/cattle-stampede cliffhanger from Vanishing Men and Deadwood Dick’s railcar/cabin collision and handcar-off-the-cliff scenes.

Riding with Buffalo Bill--explosion Riding with Buffalo Bill--dynamite launch
Above left: Outlaws (led by Jack Ingram) flee an explosion set off by the two Ridin’ Terrors’ arrow-launched dynamite.

The bulk of the action is filmed at Iverson’s Ranch–which helps old and new footage to mesh well where scenery is concerned, since both Deadwood Dick and Vanishing Men were shot there as well. As in all of Katzman’s later Western serials, indoor shooting is scrupulously avoided throughout Bill, leading to absurd visual contrivances in some sequences (most notably the cabin scene in Chapter Fourteen). Even exterior sets are in short supply this time around: the good guys confer outside Rocky’s mine/cave, while we never see a single establishing shot of the “big ranch” that King Carney supposedly owns–and at which he confers with Ace, in carefully-shot scenes that prevent the audience from getting a real look at the background.

Most of the actors in Bill do a very capable job with the minimal dialogue required to connect the stock-footage sequences–and also perform the little stuntwork required. Perennial serial second-banana Marshall Reed finally gets a chance to play a hero and does so quite credibly, his muscularly athletic frame and commanding voice lending themselves to the part–although, as aforementioned, the threefold division of heroic chores prevents him from ever really taking center stage. Rick Vallin affects a noticeable but unexaggerated Southern accent (no easy feat for an actor) in his co-hero role, and does a fine job of conveying both surliness and cheerful heroism when necessary–providing a bit of contrast to the unfailingly sober and upright Reed, despite the fact that their characters basically become clones of each other after the first few episodes.

Lively character actor William Fawcett is entertaining as ever as the crusty, colorful, and canny Rocky Ford; though his ostensible sidekick character usurps too much of the hero’s function, he’s still a pleasure to watch as he grumbles about the outlaws, folksily reminisces about the great deeds of the original Ridin’ Terror, and occasionally trades barbed remarks with his young assistants. It’s briefly revealed in one later chapter that the first Terror was Rocky himself, but the revelation is treated as a mere throwaway; had the writers made more of this idea, it would have made Fawcett’s overseeing of the good guys’ campaigns seem more dramatically natural and more satisfying.

Riding with Buffalo Bill--last
Above: William Fawcett presents the Ridin’ Terror’s costume to Marshall Reed.

Graceful brunette Shirley Whitney, as Reb Morgan’s sister Ruth, makes a very attractive leading lady–effectively and charmingly registering both concern and affection for her initially wayward brother, along with a touch of irritation; unfortunately, she drops almost completely into the background as the serial progresses. Joanne Rio, though billed above Whitney, is definitely a secondary heroine, belatedly entering the serial in its second half as Maria Perez, sister of a victimized Mexican rancher. Though pretty and pleasant, she’s so laid-back as to sound a bit vacant at times, while her attempt at a Spanish accent is decidedly unconvincing.

Riding with Buffalo Bill--Vallin and girls
Above, left to right: Shirley Whitney, Rick Vallin, and Joanne Rio.

Michael Fox’s slickly shark-like face and deep, smooth voice lend him the sinister presence required of a villain, but he’s given almost no opportunity to interact with or menace the good guys, or (as above-mentioned) outline any ambitious schemes; he spends most of his limited screen time engaging in brief and perfunctory scheming sessions with his henchmen–a pity, since he handles the occasional shrewd or sarcastic remark well, and would have made a memorable brains heavy if given half the chance. Jack Ingram, in his final serial, is his usual dependable self as Fox’s gruff and sardonic chief henchman–and wears the same outfit as his action-heavy character in Deadwood Dick, allowing him, unlike Bill’s other actors, to appear in closeups taken from that serial.

Gregg Barton is suitably tough and mean as Ingram’s chief auxiliary; Pierce Lyden and Steven Ritch are other recurring thugs. Ed Coch plays Joanne Rio’s brother–using an accent that doesn’t sound quite Mexican but does sound indeterminately foreign, while Lee Roberts eschews his usual thuggishness to play one of the local vigilantes who periodically assist the heroes. John Truax is another vigilante, Terry Frost plays two bit parts (as a fatally wounded townsman and a rebellious railroad worker), and veteran heavy Al Ferguson pops up as a henchman in a couple of scenes. The energetic Knox Manning, who began narrating the previews and recaps for Columbia’s serials way back in 1940, performs that duty for the last time here.

Riding With Buffalo Bill is never insultingly stupid, unlike the above-mentioned Perils of the Wilderness and Captain Africa–but neither is it particularly interesting. Lacking the streamlined running time, the slicker production values, and the more focused plotting of Republic’s similarly pedestrian and stock-filled Western serials of the 1950s, it’s pretty dull going overall–though it’s made endurable by a competent cast and director, the Iverson’s landscape, and the original strength of the many action scenes that it recycles.

Riding with Buffalo Bill--final

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