John Farnum (Harry Todd), an American traveling in India, purchases a pair of small radioactive chains that can transmute sand into precious jewels; unbeknownst to him, the chains have been stolen from an Indian sect that holds them sacred. Farnum returns to his Western ranch with his prize, but is eventually tracked down by the sect’s emissary Prince Kuva (Edmund Cobb), who sends Farnum ominous messages urging him to return the chains. Farnum and his daughter Ruth (Virginia Brown Faire) are also targeted by unscrupulous businessman Winslow (Al Ferguson), who covets the chains and has employed Butch Kohler (Jack Mower) and his gang of toughs to steal them; Tom (Rex Lease), a neighboring rancher who’s in love with Ruth, comes to the aid of the beleaguered Farnums, repeatedly battling Winslow’s agents with the aid of his pal Bud (Joe Bonomo). Kuva himself lends a surreptitious hand in this fight against Butch’s gang–while he, Tom, Bud, and the Farnums all receive valuable assistance from the dog King, whom Farnum bought as a puppy during his Indian travels, and who (being marked with the mystic Sign of the Wolf) possesses valor and sagacity far exceeding that of the average canine.
The Sign of the Wolf was independent producer Harry Webb’s second and last sound serial; its bears a very strong family resemblance to his first chapterplay, The Mystery Trooper, despite the fact that the two outings were released under different production imprints. The resemblance is unsurprising, since Wolf not only utilizes some of the same sets and outdoor locations as Trooper, but also features many of the same behind-camera crew members: Webb, his producing partner Flora Douglas, writer Carl Krusada, cinematographer William Nobles, and editor Fred Bain.
Krusada’s screenplay for Wolf echoes his writing work on Trooper in many ways; both feature a simple, straightforward, but highly repetitive plot, and both are rather short on the dramatic or humorous character interactions found in many other early-1930s chapterplays. The latter shortage hurts Wolf more than Trooper, since the former’s fight for the wrongfully-acquired chains just isn’t as elementally involving as the latter’s search for the rightfully-inherited gold mine; a little more focus on the severely underemphasized Tom-Ruth romance, a few bits of cheerful bantering between Tom and his sidekick Bud, or some tension between the villains would have helped to give us more of an interest in the characters’ repetitious struggle over the chains–a struggle which, we realize early on, will end with neither heroes nor villains possessing the coveted treasure. Krusada–as in Trooper–does try to give the serial a dramatic finish, by having Prince Kuva deliver a gravely moral but rather obvious speech in the final chapter; fortunately, this lecture isn’t nearly as long-winded or incoherent as its counterpart in Trooper (there delivered by the title character).
Krusada also recycles another plot gimmick from Trooper; at Wolf’s halfway mark, he links King the dog directly to the chains, just as he directly connected Trooper’s map to that serial’s equine hero White Cloud; this interesting plot twist puts a welcome new spin on the back-and-forth battle over the MacGuffin. In Chapter Four, the paranoia-crazed Farnum hides both himself and the chains, and then paints King’s ear with a mysterious Eastern mark designating the chains’ location–which causes the villains (once they learn of this maneuver in Chapter Six), to shift their attention from the chains themselves to King, repeatedly attempting to trap the heroic dog and decipher the mark, while the good guys protect the dog, search for the missing Farnum, and try to figure out the meaning of the mark themselves. The villains’ deciphering attempts, meanwhile, ultimately wind up pulling Prince Kuva–largely a background figure during the first seven chapters–directly into the action in Chapter Eight, and thus give a welcome additional shakeup to the serial’s storyline in the later episodes.
Harry Webb himself directs Wolf, in tandem with Forrest Sheldon, while the aforementioned Nobles partners with Herbert Kirkpatrick for cinematography duties. They manage to make several of Wolf’s scenes (particularly the introductory temple-robbery sequence and the many outdoor chases) look visually striking–but other sequences suffer from the unfocused shooting and weak editing common to most independent serials. The camera often lingers too long on pointless bits of business; the entire impromptu saloon dance in Chapter Six falls into this category, as do the repeated and time-consuming shots of characters riding up, dismounting, saddling up, and remounting whenever anyone takes a horseback journey. The aftermath of the telephone conversation between King and Kuva (yes, you read that correctly) in Chapter Ten goes beyond pointlessness into amateurishness; the dog continue to needlessly worry the phone for many seconds after Kuva has hung up, and members of the cast or crew can be overheard laughing at this canine ad-libbing–as can the voice of someone (Webb?) urging them to be quiet. However, despite the uneven editing, Wolf never truly feels as if it’s bogging down in padding, mostly because it avoids the excessive talkiness and the irrelevant and confusing story detours that wrecked many independents; its characters remain resolutely active and their actions basically comprehensible, which allows the plot to chug along steadily enough on its semi-circular narrative track.
The actors in Wolf handle the required fistfights themselves–which makes these sequences much more clumsy-looking than the brawls performed by Yakima Canutt and his colleagues at Mascot; however, the fights are really not any worse than the similarly sloppy brawls in contemporary Universal outings. Most of the serial’s principal players (particularly strongman/stuntman Joe Bonomo) are more than athletic enough to make many of Wolf’s fistfights look enjoyably energetic, despite the scenes’ serious lack of precision; among the best of these battles are the fight at the ranch house in Chapter Four, the fight in Farnum’s basement lab later in the same episode, and the lively street fight in Chapters Five and Six. The climactic Chapter Ten fight is a good deal more static than any of the aforementioned combats, but does benefit from some unusual overhead shots.
The serial’s horseback chases (also performed without stunt-doubling), are uniformly good, with the hills of Iverson’s Ranch lending them plenty of pictorial appeal. Worthy of particular note are the Chapter Eight chase scene–which has the villains galloping after King while the heroes gallop after them–and the one in Chapter Six, which has the heavies pursuing the heroine, the heroes riding furiously after the heavies, and King being chased by a vicious back of killer dogs that the villains have sent after him. The Chapter Two riding sequence, which has Lease and Bonomo hurrying to a suburban mansion where the heroine is endangered by the villains, is interesting as well–mainly because it was obviously filmed on genuine Los Angeles streets, and thus presents the truly novel spectacle of two cowboys racing their horses through semi-developed areas, zipping past garages and over sidewalks.
Above, top left: King, Rex Lease, and Joe Bonomo race down a Los Angeles street. Top right: Virginia Brown Fair gallops her horse uphill. Bottom left: The killer dogs pour down a hillside in pursuit of King. Bottom right: King crests the top of a hill as a villain (visible at the far left of the frame) comes into view behind him.
The exterior of the above-mentioned mansion, like the streets traversed on the way to it, seems to be the real thing; the same ranch-house and hideout shack featured in Mystery Trooper are reused here, as is the Western street from that serial; the saloon where Butch and his men hang out appears to be new, however. All these sets are well-appointed enough to look appropriate as rural Western habitations, and thus effectively keep Wolf’s production values from appearing too shoddy; the first-chapter Indian scenes (surprisingly) look passably convincing as well–thanks to some strategic juggling of stock shots of the Taj Mahal (supposedly the exterior of the temple of the “Goddess of Jewels”), another stock shot of a temple assembly, a set of blocky steps, some stony-looking walls, stock-footage establishing shots of a Eastern café, and a few new medium shots of Harry Todd and others sitting at a palm-shrouded table in the cafe’s pretended back room.
A couple of the cliffhangers in Wolf are rather weak situational ones–particularly the ending of Chapter Two ending, a simple fadeout in the middle of a fistfight. Others are more impressive, like the heroine’s Chapter One plummet from a high cliff after a good car chase, or the successive cliff-falls by Rex Lease and King the dog at the end of Chapter Eight; the resolutions to both of these chapter-ending perils, however, leave much to be desired. Chapter Eight’s cliffhanger is one of several that puts multiple characters in danger; the Chapter Five ending (with heroine Virginia Brown Faire getting dragged through a barn door and King plunging down a well) and the Chapter Six ending (which has Faire sinking in quicksand while King is mobbed by the wild dogs) are two of the more memorable examples. The Chapter Nine cliffhanger–which has the heroine trying to extricate her foot from an animal trap while a cabin burns around her–is memorable as well, though a little sketchily set up (it’s not clear just how the fire breaks out). The Chapter Seven cliffhanger that has Faire trying hold a cabin door against a rampaging bear is also good, though not as elaborate or convincing as the bear attack in Mystery Trooper; the snarling head that periodically pokes in through the doorway is obviously that of a stuffed animal–but a genuine bruin (presumably the same one featured in Trooper) is used for the outside shots of the bear shoving on the door, and for the final chapter-ending closeup of the beast’s successful entrance.
Silent-era leading man and future character player Rex Lease is more slim and athletic-looking than in any of his later serials, and handles his many action chores with conviction and verve; he also snaps commands at the villains with brisk assurance. However, he’s far less adept in extended dialogue scenes, apparently hampered by a lack of experience with sound film or a dearth of rehearsals (or possibly both); though he manages to be breezily pleasant at times, he too often delivers his lines in a blank and halting manner, and never really shows much personality. Leading lady Virginia Brown Faire–who looks quite pretty whenever she manages to divest herself of her comically oversized cowboy hat–gives a markedly better performance than Lease does; she delivers her dialogue warmly and almost always gives it the proper emphasis, lending needed point and energy to her many planning sessions with Lease.
King the dog, obviously recruited by Webb to imitate Mascot’s Rin Tin Tin, makes a appealing animal co-hero, and an active one; he gets many opportunities to perform entertaining stunts–snatching the chains out of villains’ hands, jumping through windows, escaping a dry well by means of a ladder, and even shinnying up a tree to ambush a villain. Sidekick Joe Bonomo also takes part in enough action to be called a co-hero–but has only slightly more dialogue than King does; he functions as an imposing but almost entirely silent physical backup for the hero and heroine, and utters about a dozen lines all told.
The gaunt and grimacing Harry Todd goes over the top and round the bend as Farnum, reacting with exaggerated terror to Prince Kuva’s threatening messages and cackling in wildly deranged fashion over his precious jewel-making chains; we’re supposed to be worried and saddened by his growing madness, but it’s pretty hard to take his performance seriously. Edmund Cobb, on the other hand, plays things very calmly as Prince Kuva; though hardly the ideal physical choice for such an exotic role, he affects a slow, precise, and very slightly-accented voice that gives his lines a properly foreign sound. For much of the serial, he’s restricted to sending message-darts with a blowgun, but when he starts interacting with the other characters in the later chapters, he gives his Prince a rather appealing combination of formal reserve, quiet thoughtfulness, and dignified benevolence.
Jack Mower–like hero Lease, a former silent star–cuts a slick and rather dashing figure as the serial’s principal heavy, the tireless and resourceful Butch; he also delivers his lines authoritatively and confidently. However, though he gives a very capable performance, he lacks the face, voice, or facial expressions needed to make him seem distinctively sinister, and thus comes off as a bit bland. Al Ferguson is craftier and nastier in demeanor as Butch’s boss Winslow, but this character spends most of his screen time phoning in orders and takes almost no active part in the serial’s evil-doing. Oddly, Ferguson plays an additional role as a member of Mower’s henchman pack–either to fill in for an actor who didn’t show up, or simply to save Webb money; wearing a huge black moustache, he successfully keeps his identity concealed when remaining in the background, but becomes immediately recognizable during his henchman character’s one extended dialogue scene.
Robert Walker, another former silent star, plays Mower’s chief lieutenant; other recurring heavies are played by Dick Dickinson and Jack Perrin (yet another one-time star of the silent era). Josephine Hill, an attractive actress who seems to be reading her lines off of cue cards, is dreadful but endearingly enthusiastic in her occasional scenes as a gang moll named Pearl. Ed Peil pops up as a city cohort of Ferguson’s, Bob Burns appears in the final episode as the Sheriff; the droning-voiced but impressively bearded actor who plays the high priest of the Goddess of Jewels is uncredited and unfamiliar, as are the portrayers of the two thieves who sell Farnum the jewels.
The Sign of the Wolf, like its sibling The Mystery Trooper, lacks the superior production values and strong characterizations of the Universal serials of its era, while its pacing and action scenes are not comparable with those of contemporary Mascot chapterplays. However (again like Trooper), while it can’t measure up to Mascot and Universal’s efforts in the cliffhanging line, it’s well-done enough to be watchable; though too creaky to ever have a wide appeal, it’s capable of providing a decent share of entertainment for an avid serial buff.