Prospectors Frank Holt and George Romero discover an ancient Indian gold mine in the Canadian northwoods–but a quarrel between the two men leads to a cave-in that buries both them and the mine. Many years later, one-half of a map showing the mine’s location comes into the possession of Jack Logan (Robert Frazer), Romero’s nephew; hoping to find either the map’s second half or the lost mine itself, Logan heads north–where he encounters Holt’s children Helen (Blanche Mehaffey) and Billy (Buzz Barton), who’ve been raised by the kindly Indian Red Eagle (William Bertram) after the loss of their father, and have been financially supported by an unknown benefactor who regularly but mysteriously provides them with gold nuggets. Logan and the Holts soon join forces to search for the map and the gold mine, but must continually battle the henchmen of smuggler and trading-post proprietor Jean Gregg (Al Ferguson), who wants the mine for himself; in this fight with Gregg’s gang, they’re aided by Red Eagle, a sagacious wild stallion named White Cloud, and the Holts’ cloaked and enigmatic benefactor, The Mystery Trooper.
Harry S. Webb was one of several “independent” low-budget serial producers who attempted to compete with Mascot and Universal during the early sound era (he’d directed several Mascot entries himself during the silent era); in 1931 he turned out a pair of chapterplays under different company imprints, but with the same basic production crew. Mystery Trooper was the first of these, and was overall one of the better independent serials. Trooper’s pacing and action scenes aren’t up to Mascot’s, and its production values and performances aren’t as strong as Universal’s, but it’s nowhere near as dull, convoluted, or cheap-looking as many other independent chapterplays.
The remote semi-wilderness setting of Trooper makes it fairly easy for Webb and director Stuart Paton to mask the serial’s budgetary constraints, at least where sets and locations are concerned; almost all of the action either takes place outdoors or against interiors that don’t need to look spruce to be effective–the Bartons’ humble cabin, Gregg’s backwoods trading-post, a ghost-town saloon, and several caves. The outdoor scenes predominate, however–which gives the serial a huge visual boost; Iverson’s Ranch and the San Bernardino National Forest–later to figure in many Republic and Columbia Mountie serials–are both heavily utilized throughout the serial, their appealing hillsides and pine forests very nicely photographed by cinematographers Edward Kull and William Nobles (the latter would go on to shoot most of Republic’s Golden Age chapterplays).
Above left: A long shot of a rugged “Canadian” (Iverson’s) cliff (the objects falling down the side are–supposedly–the hero and a henchman). Above right: Charles King rides along a forest trail in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Trooper’s screenplay, the work of Webb’s production partner Flora Douglas (“story”) and Austrian-born scenarist Carl Krusada (“continuity and dialogue”), is simple and straightforward, with few of the strange dead-end plotting detours common to many other independent serials (the long and pointless flashback to an Indian ceremony in the ancient gold mine is the only really notable example of this syndrome here). However, Trooper’s screenplay is also a bit too thin, even for a ten-chapter serial; its relentless focus on the back-and-forth battle for the map halves and the mine quickly starts to make the serial’s narrative seem excessively repetitive. The writers do add a twist to this struggle at the serial’s halfway mark–by having half the map tied to the mane of the horse White Cloud, and thus making the horse (instead of the human heroes) the object of the villains’ pursuit for the next few chapters; however, this novel variation can’t altogether prevent Trooper’s plot from seeming unnecessarily drawn-out.
A little more emphasis on the villains’ subsidiary smuggling activities (which are scarcely touched on by the script) would have provided welcome relief from the map tug-of-war, much as the rustling subplot in Universal’s Gordon of Ghost City helped to keep that serial’s similar lost-mine search from becoming too repetitious. Subjecting one of the characters to the false murder charges that beset most of Mascot’s protagonists might have freshened up the narrative as well–but, though the hero of Trooper is briefly arrested by the Mounties at one point, he’s released almost immediately afterwards, with the Mounties jovially explaining that the arrest was merely a ruse to make the villains overconfident.
Little is made of the subplot concerning the Mystery Trooper, either; there are no “suspects” presented, and the good guys rarely express more than a mild and grateful surprise when the Trooper shows up to perform his regular deus ex machina duties; the villains seem equally uninterested in learning his identity. Additionally, the climactic scene in which the Trooper finally reveals said identity is bungled, dramatically speaking: the “test” he imposes on hero and villain before unmasking–and his portentous pronouncements after the unmasking–are simply too philosophically incoherent to achieve the moving and uplifting effect that the writers were evidently aiming for. The Trooper does get one genuinely memorable moment early on, though–when he alarms the heavies by spookily playing an organ in the caves beneath their ghost-town hideout.
The muddled last-chapter sequence represents one of the serial’s few attempts at a dramatic character moment; other examples include a couple of romantic scenes between heroine and hero (who announces his love for the heroine with almost comical swiftness), the hero’s panicked reaction to the heroine’s injury in one chapter, and a short scene of playful bickering between the heroine and her brother. Overall, though, such character moments are scarcer in Mystery Trooper than in many other serials of the period; aside from the named scenes, there’s little humorous or dramatic interaction between the heroes, and there’s almost no personality conflicts between the villains. This lack of drama probably pleased more than one of Trooper’s cast members; several of the serial’s actors are so obviously uncomfortable with sound technology that they probably wouldn’t have been up to playing more individualized characters anyway (there’ll be more on that subject later).
As indicated above, the action scenes in Trooper aren’t as numerous or inventively lively as those in most contemporary Mascot efforts–understandably so, since producer Webb didn’t have the assistance of Mascot boss Nat Levine’s secret weapon, Yakima Canutt. However, Trooper still contains a fair share of energetic if rather clumsy-looking fights that are no worse than many Universal serial brawls of the era; highlights include the arm-swinging combat on the cliff-edge in Chapter Three (which continues in Chapter Four, after an impressive tumble down a steep slope), Buzz Barton’s acrobatic getaway from the heavies in Chapter Six, the fight in the saloon in Chapter Nine, and the wonderfully lengthy fight between Robert Frazer and Al Ferguson that develops from the saloon fight and spans Chapters Nine and Ten–taking them through a back room, to a roof, down to the street, back into the saloon, through a secret passage, and into a cave.
Both heroes and heavies appear to be doing most of their own stuntwork in these and other scenes; the athletic young Barton, a former child trick rider, seems to be the cast member most comfortable with this arrangement–as evidenced by his aforementioned acrobatics in Chapter Six and by several other impressive leaps in the Chapter Nine saloon fight. Trooper’s fights are supplemented by several good horseback chase sequences, all of which are greatly enhanced by the serial’s well-photographed scenery; the villains’ pursuit of White Cloud in Chapter Six and the later sequence in which they try to hunt him down with a pack of killer dogs are particularly striking. Less dramatic gallops through the wilds (like the one in Chapter Five), are nearly as pleasing, due to the same scenery.
The cliffhanger sequences in Trooper are small-scaled but effective, several of them neatly managing to imperil more than one character at a time–an example being the Chapter Three cliffhanger, which has the hero forced towards the edge of a cliff while the heroine’s brother is on the verge of blowing himself and Red Eagle up in a booby-trapped cabin. The serial’s most memorable chapter ending is a single cliffhanger and not a double one, though: the conclusion of Chapter Two, which has a marauding bear shuffling right into the heroine’s bedroom and rudely awaking her with a heavy paw. This bruin is obviously a genuine one and is just as obviously sharing the screen with the leading lady, giving the sequence more impact than many other chapterplay animal attacks; the later bear assault on the hero at the end of Chapter Four is good too, but the bear here seems to be portrayed by a man in a convincing suit (it’s hard to tell for sure, though, since the attack takes place in a darkened tunnel and doesn’t show up very well in my print of the serial).
The comments above about the apparent uncomfortableness of Trooper’s cast don’t apply to leading man Robert Frazer, who delivers one of the serial’s better performances. Though it seems a little odd at first to see Frazer (later a familiar villain and antagonistic red-herring in Mascot and Republic serials) in a sympathetic and heroic part, he does a solid job in the role–struggling stalwartly through the action scenes, delivering his lines with unfailing vocal smoothness, and effectively conveying a range of emotions–among them determination, geniality, gentlemanly outrage, and horrified alarm. He occasionally comes off as pompously hammy, but for the most part is very likable, and anchors many a dialogue scene with his self-assured acting.
Frazer’s two principal co-stars are a lot less assured in their performances. Blanche Mehaffey, a one-time Ziegfeld girl and former WAMPAS “baby star” (i.e., a starlet promoted as “most likely to succeed” by a prestigious publicists’ organization), is attractive and lively as the heroine, but sometimes fails to give her lines the proper emphasis, stumbling hesitantly as she’s delivering them. Her acting, however, is greatly superior to that of her screen sibling Buzz Barton–who’s given the type of juvenile co-hero role that Frankie Darro would have played over at Mascot, but who fails to give it any of the energy or charm that Darro would have brought to it. Barton only seems at ease during the action scenes; in dialogue sequences, he delivers his lines awkwardly and emotionlessly, and comes off as embarrassed and almost glum at times.
The usually dependable Al Ferguson is suitably tough and sly as the villainous Gregg, but his performance is fatally undermined by the French-Canadian accent that the director and writers saddle him with; the Gallic inflections that he tries to paste over his natural Irish brogue are cartoonish and utterly unconvincing, and frequently come and go within the space of a single scene; ultimately, this tortutous vocal fakery makes Ferguson’s performance seem so distractingly over-theatrical that it comes off as ineffective. Charles King, in the first of his many serial-henchman roles, plays Ferguson’s chief henchman and comes off much better than Ferguson does; his role allows him to be mean (when trying to bully information out of people), gruff (when ordering around his cohorts), and feignedly affable (when–in his single best scene–he temporarily persuades the good guys that he’s reformed) at different times, and he handles all these aspects of the role with confident ease.
The gaunt and hawk-faced character actor William Bertram, whose career stretched back to the early silent days, is sedately dignified as the benevolent Red Eagle. He stretches his lines out with solemn pauses, inserting long and frequent hesitations between words, but while this halting delivery could caused by unfamiliarity with recording equipment, it feels appropriate for Bertram’s grave, terse, broken-English lines–and might have been deliberately affected by the actor, for that reason. The horse White Cloud–who plays “himself,” and was apparently intended as Webb’s answer to Mascot’s better-known equine serial star Rex–acquits himself just as well as the more famous stallion did, chasing villains around with convincing ferocity, and striking dramatic poses against the forest scenery.
The serial’s principal backup henchmen are the rangy and memorably weaselly-looking Al Taylor, Mascot regular Dick Dickinson, former silent star Jay Wilsey, and an imposingly gigantic actor named Bill Nestell. Robert Walker (another ex-star of silent days) is a Mountie, as is James Carlisle, while minor character actor Henry Roquemorre plays a lawyer in the first chapter. The actors who portray a vampish female member of the gang and her male associate are uncredited and unidentifiable; the latter, whoever he is, is a terrible actor, while the former does a more acceptable job during her brief time on screen. Lafe McKee and Tom McGuire play (respectively) the heroine’s father and the hero’s uncle, whose unlucky prospecting find sets the plot in motion.
It’s easy to see why Harry Webb’s career as an independent serial purveyor was short-lived; The Mystery Trooper offers little in the way of action, acting, or plotting that wasn’t already being offered by Universal (with more polish) or Mascot (with more gusto) during the same era. However, while Trooper might not be remarkable in any important production department, it’s quite acceptable in all of them–making it an undistinguished but respectable and easily enjoyable serial, at least for those chapterplay aficionados with a tolerance for the standard oddities of early talkies.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to my friend Dave Miller, for providing me with a copy of this serial many moons ago (as Red Cloud might put it).
A note on the title: The Mystery Trooper was re-issued as Trail of the Royal Mounted in 1935, with its chapter titles changed (apparently as part of an attempt to convince viewers it was a new release). This dual titling used to cause some understandable confusion for serial collectors, so I thought it worth noting here; my own print is of the Trail of the Royal Mounted re-issue, which is why I’ve had to use a publicity title card for the article’s frontspiece instead of the usual main-credits screen.