Universal, 13 Chapters, 1946. Starring Peter Cookson, Paul Guilfoyle, Virginia Christine, Victoria Horne, Edward M. Howard, Janet Shaw, Harold Goodwin, Cy Kendall, Danny Morton, Jack Ingram, Edmund Cobb, Helen Bennett, Al Woods, Fred Coby, Guy Wilkerson.
In 1875, a desert section of East Texas known as the “Staked Plains” becomes the scene of considerable unrest. The area derives its name from the wooden stakes once driven by the Conquistadores to mark the desert’s hidden fertile regions; the stakes have long since worn away, and now only the Comanches who live on the Plains know that seeming desert contains stretches of valuable land–the Comanches, and a ruthless woman named Carla Marquette. The daughter of a conniving Texas state senator whose schemes brought him to ruin, Carla intends to carry out her father’s plan of turning the Staked Plains into a new state called Matosca–a state that she can then control and exploit. Using saloon-owner Ballou (Danny Morton) as her front man, Carla has badman Zero Quick (Edward M. Howard) smuggle guns to the Comanches, and then agitates the Staked Plains Indians to rebellion through her devoted servant and foster-sister Loma (Victoria Horne)–a half-breed descendant of the Comanches’ hereditary chiefs, who dreams of establishing Matosca as an independent Comanche homeland, but doesn’t realize that Carla will enslave the Comanches once they’ve helped her create the new state. This ambitious scheme is interfered with by Yale surveyor Kirk Norris (Peter Cookson) and wheelchair-bound ex-gunfighter Jim Bannion, who are both secret undercover agents for the Texas state senate; Bannion, who’s actually not crippled at all, adopts the identity of the legendary Comanche champion Sangatoha, “The Scarlet Horseman,” to keep the Indians in check, and retains the disguise as he and Norris search for the “Legion of Lost Women”–the wives and daughters of Texas state senators, who’ve been kidnapped by Carla in order to force their husbands into supporting the state-partitioning plan. The greedy Zero Quick, anxious to cut in on Carla’s plans, searches for the Lost Women himself, while a mysterious stranger named Idaho Jones (Harold Goodwin) also deals himself a hand in the dangerous game.
The Scarlet Horseman suffers severely from the over-emphasis on dialogue scenes that (in varying degrees) plagued all of Universal’s chapterplays, once former screenwriter Morgan Cox took over the studio’s serial-production reins in 1944. Some of Cox’s chapterplays–Raiders of Ghost City, The Master Key, Secret Agent X-9–managed to balance their excessive talkiness with enough action and suspense to work as a whole, but Scarlet Horseman is so choked by long-winded conversations that neither directors Lewis Collins and Ray Taylor nor a competent lineup of players are able to breathe much life into it.
Above: Virginia Christine, as Carla Marquette, describes her extremely complex scheme to an assembly of state senators. Al Woods is at the head of the table, with Mauritz Hugo on his right and Joseph Forte on his left.
Horseman, like all of the latter-day Universals, presents a large and potentially interesting collection of characters–only to force them to spend far too much time in verbally recapping the serial’s central plot, or verbally re-establishing their own personalities and relationships; in chapter after chapter, important story points are emphasized as elaborately as if they were being introduced for the first time, instead of being carried over from preceding episodes. Writers Tom Gibson, Patricia Harper, and Joseph O’Donnell do their best to vary these numerous expository sessions by involving several different combinations of characters in them–but Horseman’s plot is so complicated that much of the dialogue sounds terribly forced and long-winded, no matter how it’s being delivered; this is especially true of the innumerable explanations of the villains’ ambitious and intricate political land-grab scheme.
Despite this abundance of pace-slowing palaver, Horseman’s narrative does maintain some forward momentum in the serial’s first three-and-a-half chapters, in which the heroes and the viewers gradually find out about the Legion of Lost Women and Matosca, and realize that both are connected to the Comanche trouble. However, once Carla reveals her identity to the viewers (but not to the heroes) midway through Chapter Four, Horseman’s plot basically stops developing, and devolves into a three-way struggle between Carla, Zero Quick, and Bannion and Norris, with the heroes trying to locate the Legion of Lost Women while the villains vie for control of the valuable hostages. This struggle, however, would have been more than interesting enough to sustain the serial’s remaining episodes, if (as aforementioned) it didn’t give rise to so many lengthy and near-identical scenes of the heroes discussing their investigation or the villains outlining their goals.
Horseman is so dominated by talk that much of its action takes place off-stage; kidnappings, killings, robberies, and other incidents that would have been shown–and would have given rise to fights or chases–in Republic’s serials or in Universal’s earlier efforts are instead inferred by quick fade-ins or referred to in dialogue scenes; the initial discovery of the Scarlet Horseman’s whistle in Chapter One, the murder of crooked shipper Macklin in Chapter Two, the abduction of heroine Elise in Chapter Five, and Carla’s capture of Kirk and Idaho in the final chapter are all cases in point. On another occasion, the writers even (inexplicably) arrange to have a potentially dramatic dialogue scene occur off-screen; when Zero Quick manages to get the whip hand over Carla’s gang in Chapter Six and delivers an ultimatum to Ballou, the writers don’t bother to show the two men’s confrontation, but instead have Ballou describe it later to Carla.
Horseman’s few on-screen action scenes are almost invariably short ones. Fistfight sequences are practically non-existent, with heroes and villains rarely trading more than one or two punches before knocking each other out; the only exceptions are the rather lethargic wagon fight in Chapter Two and the similarly slow-moving cliff fight in Chapter Ten. The actors do their own fighting in these two scenes; other physical clashes are so brief that it’s impossible to determine who (if anyone) is doing the stuntwork. Shootouts are pretty rare too, with villains typically fleeing as soon as the heroes throw a few shots at them; the serial’s sole protracted gunfight is the one at the mine in Chapter Three–a static sequence that begins in the middle (like so many other scenes in Horseman) and consists of nothing more than alternating close-ups of heroes and villains firing at each other. No hits are scored by either side in this encounter, or in most of the serial’s other exchanges of fire; the Horseman prefers to merely shoot the guns out of the villains’ hands–except in the first and last chapters, in which he abruptly guns down multiple villains and leaves us wondering why he chose to be so non-lethal in the intervening episodes.
The Indian attack on the wagon train in Chapter One and on the fort in Chapter Thirteen are two of the only extended action scenes in Horseman, but neither of them involve the principal characters (both attacks being halted by the Horseman’s arrival), and both of them consist almost entirely of stock footage from Rustlers of Red Dog, Heroes of the West, and various silent serials and features. The stagecoach chase and the ensuing fall onto the team from Winners of the West is recycled here as well (in Chapter Six); one of the heroes is represented as being the central character in this sequence, making it a satisfactory if familiar piece of action. The Oregon Trail cliff fight is also reprised (in part) in Chapter Ten, preceded by a short new foot chase and intercut with the listless fight scene mentioned above.
Both the Winners of the West and Oregon Trail stock sequences are part of the buildup to cliffhanger scenes; the suspension-bridge collapse from Wild West Days figures in another of these chapter endings, as do the fire scene from Oregon Trail, a cattle stampede previously featured in Overland Mail, and a train crash borrowed from the 1942 version of The Spoilers. Stock footage of Republic’s familiar exploding-barn miniature furnishes a cliffhanger too; one presumes that Universal paid to borrow this scene from their one-time rival. Horseman’s few original cliffhangers are much less spectacular than the stock-footage ones; the Horseman’s blasting by a blunderbuss at the end of Chapter Seven is routine, but is nicely foreshadowed by shots that emphasize the weapon’s muzzle. The ending of Chapter Eight, which has the Horseman apparently shot dead by Loma, and Idaho and Norris subsequently burned at the stake, is more memorable–although its resolution strains credibility.
Interior sets–Ballou’s saloon, the ranch houses of Carla and Senator Halliday, Bannion’s office, the cave where the Lost Women are being held–provide the backdrop for most of Horseman’s scenes. Its outdoor sequences are staged at Iverson’s Ranch, among them a short horseback chase that’s cut off before it can get exciting (in Chapter Four) and a similarly brief mounted pursuit that at least ends with an energetic bit of bulldogging (in Chapter Ten). The Ranch, though picturesque as ever, is somewhat “miscast” as the Staked Plains region, which is continually referred to as an apparent desert with well-hidden fertile sections; Iverson’s is just too grassy and tree-strewn to make us believe that no one recognizes it as potentially useful land.
Horseman’s actors gamely chew their way through reams of dialogue, most of them handling their endless verbal interchanges with smooth skill. Paul Guilfoyle, who specialized in playing comic or unpleasant underworld characters in B-mystery features, was a very odd choice for Horseman’s title role, but plays the part quite well–doing a good job of acting bitterly sarcastic when posing as the supposedly crippled Bannion, and conveying considerable self-assurance and shrewdness when discussing strategy with his co-heroes; the scene in which he disarms inquisitive henchman Jack Ingram is particularly enjoyable. However, Guilfoyle can’t avoid looking slightly absurd in his Horseman getup–but then, any other actor would have had the same problem; the Horseman’s silky cowl, shoulder-length cloak, and baggy Arabian-style pants–not to mention the shrill whistle with which he announces his advent–are all more bizarre than impressive.
Peter Cookson, a Broadway actor who starred in several B-pictures for Republic and Monogram, evenly splits Horseman’s leading-man duties with Guilfoyle; a bland but capable actor with a polished speaking voice, he’s much more traditionally heroic-looking than his co-star, but is also less distinctive. Whether he’s acting solemn or good-natured, he plays his part in such invariably low-key style that he fails to give much urgency or energy to dialogue that sometimes calls for it–as when he’s reminding the dispirited Senator Halliday of their mutual duty to Texas (in Chapter Six) or defiantly holding forth to Loma about the supremacy of the law (in Chapter Seven).
Virginia Christine, as in Raiders of Ghost City, makes an excellent villainess–adopting a charming air of refined affability when she’s pretending to be on the good guys’ side, but dropping her pleasantness for a cruel smile and an arrogant sneer when she engages in villainy; she does such a fine job of acting hateful that one wishes she’d received a much bigger comeuppance during the disappointingly weak final confrontation. Good as her characterization is, however, she can’t always keep her verbose speeches about her master plan from sounding clunky and tiresome–although she displays such convincingly wicked glee and vengeful anger in the longest of her dialogue scenes (the verbal showdown with the Senators in Chapter Twelve) that the sequence comes off as quite dramatic in spite of its heavy burden of expository dialogue.
Christine’s co-villain, Victoria Horne, is much less impressive–partly because of her poorly-defined character. Loma is supposed to be misguided and fanatical, but not irredeemably evil; however, the writers only belatedly attempt to morally differentiate her from Carla, and allow her to behave so ruthlessly throughout most of the serial that her eventual change of heart isn’t very believable. Horne’s performance does little to remedy this scripting flaw; though her thin and high-cheekboned face makes her visually credible as a half-blood Comanche, her acting is so one-dimensionally harsh, smug, and ill-tempered that she fails to make Loma seem at all complex or sympathetic.
Edward M. Howard is very good as Zero Quick, his slow Alabama drawl and humorously deadpan expressions giving him an air of sly and laid-back irreverence that contrasts perfectly with the haughtiness of Christine and Horne. Danny Morton, as Christine’s saloon-keeping accomplice, has little to do but stand around looking slick while serving as a dialogue sounding-board for Howard, Horne, or Christine. Jack Ingram and Edmund Cobb, as Howard’s henchmen, also tend to be relegated to the background, but both are given a few good moments–the most memorable being Cobb’s gruff grumbling about Quick and Carla’s continually shifting business relationship, and Ingram’s sarcastic sneering in reaction to a Shakespeare quotation.
Janet Shaw, as senator’s daughter Elise Halliday, makes an attractive and intelligent heroine–but is very underused; she spends over half the serial off-camera or in the background, as a prisoner of one or another of the rival villainous teams. As her mother, stage actress Helen Bennett (a frequent player in the later Universals) is even more consistently imprisoned, but actually has more dialogue–since she functions as the designated re-describer of the Lost Women situation in almost every chapter; her imperiously indignant manner suits her better to the part of an upper-crust Texas matron than it did to her supposedly subtle and scheming quasi-villainous character in Lost City of the Jungle.
Dependable character actor Harold Goodwin is suitably tough and taciturn as Idaho Jones–who’s presumably supposed to be the same heroic Wells Fargo agent first portrayed by Joe Sawyer in Raiders of Ghost City. Goodwin doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as Sawyer did in that serial, and is more sober and less flippant than Sawyer was, but does manage to be grimly and laconically humorous on occasion, as when he turns the tables on Quick’s men in Chapter Six. The phlegmatic and sinister Cy Kendall is decidedly miscast as the heroes’ jovial and talkative confidant Amigo Manana–the sort of role that should have gone to someone like Leo Carrillo. Kendall does do his best to sound cheerful and amusing, but his naturally slow and snarling voice works against him; his attempt at a Mexican accent is also less than successful.
Al Woods is fine as the worried but dedicated Senator Halliday; Hank Patterson makes his first serial appearance as one of Woods’ equally worried fellow-senators, while other perturbed legislators are played by Mauritz Hugo, Joseph Forte, and Dick Dickinson; Ellen Corby, later a prolific television and feature-film character actress, appears as Hugo’s wife. Fred Coby handles his lines competently as Comanche war-chief Tioga, but doesn’t really look the part; Rodd Redwing plays one of his lieutenants, and would have fit the role much better. Guy Wilkerson steals every scene he appears in as Panhandle, the Shakespeare-quoting badman who guards the Legion of Lost Women; the spectacle of a gangly, drawling, and seedy-looking outlaw continually tossing off lines from the Bard’s works makes for amusingly offbeat comic relief. To the writers’ credit, Panhandle’s quotes–unlike most filmic Shakespearian references–aren’t simply pulled from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, or one of the other famous tragedies; instead, the outlaw regularly recites dialogue from works with less pop-culture presence–King John, The Tempest, and the third part of Henry VI (“Not many people know that play,” as he correctly comments).
As Ballou’s bodyguard Pecos, Ralph Lewis gets to smugly brandish an intimidating blunderbuss in each chapter; as one of Carla’s henchmen, Ernie Adams appears just long enough to pick a saloon fight and then get felled by Lewis’s weapon. Rex Lease pops up as another ill-fated henchman, Frank Lackteen has a small but important bit as a renegade Comanche, Dick Curtis appears briefly as the freight-line manager Macklin, and Paul Birch (later a prolific television character actor in the 1950s and 1960s) makes an early screen appearance as a smugly genial outlaw. Chief Many Treaties is a Comanche elder, Jack Kirk a chatty townsman, Budd Buster a shifty miner, Stanley Blystone a rail-crew worker, and Beatrice Roberts the maid at the Halliday home. Marshall Reed and Jack Rockwell have noticeable henchman roles in the first chapter; Ed Cassidy, Lee Roberts, Pierce Lyden, and Hal Taliaferro have smaller henchman parts at other points in the serial. Former Universal serial hero Milburn Stone provides the voiceover narration at the beginning of each chapter–narration that recaps the plot far more succinctly than all the yammering within the chapters themselves.
While The Scarlet Horseman’s production values and cast are more than good enough to make it watchable, it’s far too insistently talky and far too light on action to ever seem more than mildly entertaining at best. In a way, it’s rather sad that Universal’s long line of generally excellent Western serials should have ended with a lackluster outing like Horseman–but the serial’s general dullness does make Universal’s 1946 shutdown of their chapterplay unit seem like less of a blow to the genre; if Universal’s production crew was no longer capable of turning out an exciting Western serial, then it was time for the studio to quit the cliffhanging game.