Blind rancher Juan Valdez (Josef Swickard) and his partner Burke (Frank Lanning) have discovered a valuable gold mine; villainous saloon-owner Amos Halkey (Lee Shumway) is very anxious to locate and seize said mine before Valdez and Burke can file a claim on it. The two miners are mysteriously ambushed during a desert sandstorm; Burke vanishes, and Valdez is killed–which leaves the latter’s faithful and remarkably intelligent dog Rinty (Rin Tin Tin) as the only one who knows the way to the mine. Halkey and his henchman Jenkins (Bob Kortman) set out to capture Rinty, while the dog is also relentlessly pursued by the Sheriff (Lafe McKee)–who mistakenly believes Rinty guilty of killing livestock, and has sentenced him to be shot. Valdez’s daughter Dolores (June Marlowe) and young cowpoke Buzz (Buzz Barton) help Rinty evade both outlaws and lawmen, while he in turn helps them search for the mine and for the killer of Dolores’ father. Rinty, Dolores, and Buzz are aided by two mystery men, a friendly but furtive bartender called Limpy (Arthur Morrison) and a dashing vaquero named Ramon (Walter Miller)–who is suspected of being the Cactus Kid, a notorious local bandit who seems to have been behind the killing of Valdez.
The Lone Defender, Mascot’s first all-talking serial, makes good use of the “wrongfully accused hero” plotting ploy that would figure in many of the studio’s subsequent chapterplays. By having both Rinty and Ramon hunted by the authorities, writers Bennett Cohen and William Burt lend much-needed tension to a narrative that would otherwise have been a routine back-and-forth struggle over the mine and the two keys to its location (a watch that contains a partial map, and Rinty himself). The serial’s plot also receives a boost from the reemergence of the missing Burke in Chapter Eight, and from the ensuing discovery of the gold mine in Chapter Nine. These two twists end the mine-search storyline before it can become too repetitive, and give rise to a race to claim the mine in Chapter Ten; the two concluding chapters are then devoted mostly to the clearing of Rinty and Ramon and the unmasking of the Cactus Kid.
Lone Defender’s mystery-villain angle also helps to enliven the serial’s simple plotline, although the writers make much less of this angle than they could have–and muddle their mystery into the bargain. While the climactic revelation of the Cactus Kid’s identity is less illogical than many other Mascot finales, it still comes off as annoyingly implausible–and feels rather pointless to boot, considering the identity of the guilty party. The writers do supply a reasonably believable explanation for Ramon’s occasionally suspicious behavior–but then fail to fully explain the Limpy character’s many baffling actions; they also lose track of the watch at times, as it passes from hand to hand. However, in fairness to Cohen and Burt, this narrative choppiness isn’t necessarily all their fault, since current prints of the serial aren’t quite complete; like Mascot’s second talking chapterplay, The Phantom of the West, Defender only survives in a television print that seems to have been pared down a bit; at least one scene that’s shown during a chapter-opening recap is missing from the preceding episode itself.
Like all early talkies, Lone Defender has plenty of creaky moments; dialogue sequences are typically filmed in uninterrupted medium-long shots, and too much screen time is devoted to lengthy and silent scenes of characters searching rooms or exploring secret tunnels. However, though the serial’s talking sequences tend to be static, director Richard Thorpe and cinematographer Ernest Miller make many other scenes look quite striking; outdoor establishing shots and outdoor chases are filmed with an eye for good visual composition, and “mysterious” shots of sinister prowlers are handled with stylish ominousness. This above-average camerawork, as in so many other Mascot efforts, does much to keep the serial from looking too cheap or feeling too slow.
Regularly-scheduled action scenes also keep the serial from seeming excessively slow. The wild and hurried attempts at punch-throwing in various fight sequences are not too convincing, but the sequences themselves are still enjoyably lively; the Chapter Six fight on the hacienda balcony, which incorporates some nice leaps and flips, is the best of these combats, although the Chapter One saloon fight (which culminates with an impressive double fall from a balcony) is noteworthy too; the Chapter Five bunkhouse brawl is also energetic, albeit chaotic. Hero Walter Miller’s enormous sombrero makes it hard to spot who (if anyone) is doubling him in these and other sequences; his most frequent opponents in the fights are ex-acrobat brothers Victor and Otto Metzetti, who play recurring thugs and perform their own stuntwork handily. One of the Metzettis almost certainly handles the more dangerous non-fight stunts for Miller–like the leap from the balcony in Chapter Seven.
Above left: Bob Kortman and Walter Miller awkwardly flail at each other during the Chapter One saloon fight. Above right: Walter Miller (undoubtedly doubled) is pitched off the hacienda balcony at the end of Chapter Six.
However, the most interesting action scenes in Lone Defender are the novel ones that involve its canine star Rin Tin Tin–among them his ferocious fight (in Chapters Eleven and Twelve) with the wolf actually responsible for the stock killings, his amazing door-climbing in Chapter Four (performed while racing to rescue Walter Miller), and his pursuit of villain Bob Kortman into the branches of a tree in Chapter Eight. His Chapter One saloon battle with Kortman is equally memorable, a sequence that has Rinty pursuing the villain up a set of stairs, chasing him off a balcony, and then leaping down onto his foe. Rinty was well-advanced in years by the time this serial was made, and was undoubtedly doubled by younger dogs for his more strenuous stunts, but the composite impression of canine heroism left by the work of the star and his stunt-animals is a strong one indeed.
In addition to human and canine fight scenes, Defender features many brisk and handsomely photographed horseback pursuits across the hills of Iverson’s Ranch, the posse’s chase after Buzz and Rinty in Chapter Six and the Border Patrol’s gallop after the Cactus Kid in Chapter Eleven being particularly well-shot. The Ranch isn’t the serial’s only outdoor location: the characters devote much of Chapters Nine and Ten to scrambling around the steep, barren, and unique-looking slopes of the Bronson Canyon area; the Canyon’s familiar cave also figures in these episodes. The heroine’s secret-passage-ridden ranch house, the tunnels beneath it, a Western street fronted by a peculiar series of stone arches, and the villain’s imposing hacienda are all used to good effect as well.
Many of Lone Defender’s cliffhangers feature characters being simultaneously imperiled in separate locations–a common practice in early Mascots, and one that sometimes leads to rather abrupt contrivances, like Buzz Barton’s sudden fall into a well at the end of Chapter Two. However, this synchronized imperilment gimmick also lends an exciting, everything’s-spinning-out-of-control feeling to many of the chapter endings, among them the conclusions of Chapter Seven (which has Walter Miller knocked down a hillside while June Marlowe and Buzz Barton are asphyxiated by gopher-poison fumes) and Chapter Nine (which has Miller about to be stabbed while Marlowe and Barton are buried by an avalanche). Chapter Two’s multiple cliffhanger, despite the abruptness of the above-mentioned well fall, is very effective too–with Barton taking his plunge, a posse closing in on Miller, and Marlowe and Rinty apparently being blown up inside a burning building. The Chapter One horse stampede, the Chapter Three wild-dog attack and the Chapter Eight wagon crash are three of the more memorable single cliffhangers; the latter two cliffhangers are both resolved by neat Rinty rescues.
Chapter Eleven’s cliffhanger looks to have been quite good in conception–but is wrecked by bad editing. I suspect that this mishap occurred when the serial was aired on television, not in its original release; judging from dialogue that refers to an unseen event, the episode was missing footage, and was padded out by some confusingly recycled shots and by insertions of action scenes that belonged to Chapter Twelve–thus ruining a chapter ending that would have had Rinty about to be killed by a wolf and Walter Miller seemingly being surrounded by lawmen. The serial’s single most memorable cliffhanger, however, happily survives intact: the end of Chapter Ten, a very well-edited sequence that has all the major characters (Halkey, Ramon, Dolores, Buzz, Rinty, the Sheriff, Limpy, Burke, and Halkey’s henchmen) severally riding to the land-office to file on the gold mine–only to get caught one by one in a fierce sandstorm, lose their horses, and stumble blindly through the desert. This terrific chapter ending is nicely capped by a shot of an unknown hand filling out a claim form in the land recorder’s office–indicating that one of the storm-delayed characters has reached his goal, but leaving the audience in suspense as to which one.
The cast of Defender is, for a variety of reasons, less engaging than many other Mascot serial ensembles. Walter Miller does a good job of acting cheerful, grimly tough, and slickly enigmatic as the heroic but mysterious Ramon; he overacts feverishly when declaring his love for the heroine in Chapter Six, but one can hardly blame him for not yet having adjusted to sound-film acting. Much more damaging is the ersatz Mexican accent he affects; he’s able to clearly enunciate his lines in spite of it, but it’s so obviously fake as to be very distracting, and seriously mars Miller’s otherwise commanding performance. It seems probable that Warner Baxter’s Oscar-winning (but equally hokey) 1929 turn as the Cisco Kid inspired Mascot to saddle Miller with this incongruous accent; whatever the reason behind the decision, it was a bad one.
June Marlowe, best-known for portraying the charming Miss Crabtree in Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies, shows little personality in her heroine turn here, possibly flummoxed by the new demands of the talking films; her facial expressions are fine (particularly when she’s pleading for Rinty’s life in Chapter Two), but her line delivery is almost invariably clumsy, flat, and unemotional. Trick rider and former child star Buzz Barton seems a little more comfortable with dialogue than Marlowe, but is still very stiff; his grimly blunt and outspoken demeanor when he confronts the villains is rather enjoyable, however.
Top-billed Rin Tin Tin is a good deal more engaging than most of his human co-heroes; as mentioned, his action work is truly impressive, while his alert, intelligent, and very convincing reactions to danger (as when he plays dead in Chapter Six) or distress (as when he comforts the grieving heroine in Chapter One) are something to see as well. He’s definitely very deserving of the elaborate personal introduction that he receives from the serial’s narrator in an unusual prologue sequence.
Lee Shumway is a little bland, but assured and effective as the gruffly determined and genially hypocritical Amos Halkey; he doesn’t give the character the colorfully menacing and larger-than-life aura that someone like Noah Beery Sr. could have, but does a solid job nonetheless. As his henchman, Bob Kortman delivers the most memorable human performance in the serial; his frightful face, snarling voice, and viciously vindictive efforts to kill Rinty (despite Shumway’s cautions) make him seem outstandingly despicable. The aforementioned Metzetti brothers serve as capable but pretty commonplace backup henchmen, as does stuntman Bob Reeves.
Lanky Arthur Morrison, who seems to have retired from the film business shortly after Defender’s release, does as well as anybody could have in the role of the frustratingly inexplicable Limpy, switching from affability to sneakiness as required. Frank Lanning, as the grizzled prospector Burke, is entertaining when ranting crazily about “gold! gold!” in the serial’s later episodes. Josef Swickard is studiedly and ponderously benevolent as Valdez, but is killed off before he can become too self-indulgently hammy. Lafe McKee is a welcome presence as the Sheriff, handling the role with his usual down-to-earth dignity, and Bob Burns appears in the concluding chapters as a Border Patrol officer. Julia Bejarnaro looks and sounds genuinely Spanish as the heroine’s housekeeper/duenna, but her accented and hurried dialogue delivery makes her lines very hard to understand. The suavely formal actor who narrates the serial’s “introductory forewords” is unfamiliar; he appears to have not always been on the same page as the rest of the production crew, since he often refers to the colt that Rinty is accused of killing as a “calf.”
The Lone Defender’s frequently primitive production values and its uneven acting, when combined with its typical Mascot plot confusions, make it less accessible and less satisfactory than most of the chapterplays that followed it on Mascot’s schedule. However, it’s still surprisingly well-made, for a modestly-budgeted serial of the early-talkie era–and offers a fair share of entertainment value for a Mascot devotee or a fan of sprightly canine heroics.