The Law of the Wild

Law of the Wild--titles
Mascot, 12 Chapters, 1934. Starring Bob Custer, Lucile Browne, Ben Turpin, Richard Cramer, Edmund Cobb, Ernie Adams, Slim Whitaker, Rex (King of the Wild Horses), and Rin Tin Tin Jr.

Rancher John Sheldon (Bob Custer) has managed to capture and tame the magnificent wild stallion Rex, but the horse is stolen from him by his treacherous ranch-hand Lou Salters (Richard Alexander)–who nearly kills Sheldon and his faithful dog Rinty (Rin Tin Tin Jr.) in the course of the theft. Salters begins secretly training Rex as a race horse–not realizing that the horse’s speed trials are being watched by racetrack gambler Frank Nolan (Richard Cramer), who spots Rex’s racing potential and determines to acquire the horse by hook or crook. In the meantime, the recovered Sheldon and Rinty have picked up the trail of Salters; they manage to find the horse thief just after he’s been mysteriously murdered–leading Nolan, who’s prepared a forged bill of sale giving him claim to Rex, to promptly pin Salters’ killing on Sheldon in order to keep the rancher from pressing his own claim to the coveted horse. However, Sheldon escapes with the aid of Rex and Rinty, and sets out to clear himself, while simultaneously trying to keep Rex out of the clutches of Nolan and his gang.

Like so many other Mascot serials, Law of the Wild features a simple but compelling central storyline; the hero’s fight to save his trusty horse, elude the law, and prove his innocence may not be the stuff of epics, but is nevertheless very involving on a basic emotional level. However, this storyline really needed to be embellished with a few subplots in order to comfortably fill a twelve-chapter serial–and Wild’s writers (Ford Beebe, John Rathmell, and Al Martin for story, Sherman Lowe and director B. Reeves Eason for screenplay) unfortunately fail to provide the needed embellishments. After a first chapter packed with interesting twists, the serial’s narrative turns into a highly repetitive series of skirmishes between Sheldon and Nolan over Rex and the bogus bill-of-sale (an important piece of evidence for both hero and villain).

Law of the Wild--bill of sale
Above: The bill of sale, second only to Rex as a tug-of-war object.  

Giving the villains a secondary objective, or adding a third-party villain to the plotting mix (Salters’ cohort Luger could have filled the latter function, but allies with Nolan instead) would have lent Wild’s narrative some much-needed variety. As it is, though the serial’s relentlessly repetitious plot never becomes painfully tedious (thanks partly to the involving central premise), it still wears itself pretty thin before finally taking a long-overdue new turn in Chapter Eleven–in which both Sheldon and Nolan are jailed, causing heroine Alice to enter Rex in a race in order to raise money for the hero’s legal defense, and causing Luger and Nolan’s other henchmen to double-cross their boss and attempt to capitalize on Rex themselves. The double-crossing subplot (disappointingly) doesn’t pay off–but the heroine’s racing scheme does, and leads to an exciting and satisfying climactic sequence in Chapter Twelve.

Law of the Wild--Browne cheers up Custer in jail
Above: Lucile Browne reassures an incarcerated Bob Custer.

As in other thinly-plotted Mascot serials like The Shadow of the Eagle and The Lost Jungle, brisk pacing and a steady succession of lively outdoor action scenes help to distract from Law of the Wild’s excessively circular storyline. The excellent Chapter One chase sequence–which has the hero leaping from a stable roof onto Rex’s back, galloping down a road with a car full of pursuers right behind him, and then riding out on to a railway trestle and encountering a train–is one of the serial’s most memorable pieces of action, although the exhilarating sequence that concludes Chapter Three matches it: this setpiece begins in a small way, with a foot chase around the heroine’s ranch, but then gradually builds in energy as the hero fights and flips villains, is dragged behind a moving horse-trailer, leaps from the trailer into the car that’s pulling it, fights the car’s driver, and finally gets into a head-on-crash with an oncoming truck to close the sequence and the episode.

Law of the Wild--train Law of the Wild--trailer
Above left: Rex and his master try to outrace a train. Above right: Bob Custer leaps from the horse trailer on to an unsuspecting Edmund Cobb.  

The latter sequence is further enlivened by the participation of Rin Tin Tin Jr., who leaps into the car and attacks its driver before the human hero does; though the younger Rinty never performs any feats as striking as those contributed to The Lone Defender and The Lightning Warrior by his distinguished father, he likewise enlivens other action scenes in Wild, repeatedly attacking villains and providing enjoyable variations on standard serial fight sequences–like the Chapter Ten hillside clash, in which he and Bob Custer engage in simultaneous combats with separate antagonists. Rinty’s equine co-star Rex also frequently contributes to the action–rescuing Custer more than once, and regularly making ferocious charges that scatter villains in all directions (as during the conflict on the road at the end of Chapter Five).

Law of the Wild--Rex attack Law of the Wild--Rinty attack
Above left: Ernie Adams flees an angry Rex. Above right: Edmund Cobb is tackled by Rinty.

The Chapter Ten sequence in which the heavies try to lasso Rex, only to be taken down by Rinty, Custer, and Rex himself, provides an entertaining example of all three heroes–human, canine, and equine–working in tandem. A quieter but even more interesting piece of cooperation between the three stars is the unusual and ingenious rescue scene at the start of Chapter Four, in which Custer–pinned underneath a car–uses Rinty and Rex to extricate himself from the predicament; it’s refreshing to see a serial hero go to some physical and mental pains to escape from the aftermath of an auto crash, instead of just walking away from it.

Law of the Wild--rescue 1 Law of the Wild--rescue 2 Law of the Wild--rescue 3
Above: Rinty passes a rope over a tree branch (left) for leverage, and then helps Rex tug on it (center) in an effort to lift a car off of the trapped Bob Custer (right).

Wild’s animal action doesn’t always stay on the same level of quality as the above-mentioned scenes; Rex’s fierce fight with an antagonistic pinto inside a corral in Chapter Two starts out well, but is damaged by a few needless and jarring insertions of stock-footage shots that show identically-colored horses fighting in an obviously different canyon location. Even more jarring is the dreadful process-screen work used to depict Custer attempting to break up this fight; substandard process-screen work also mars the stampede sequence in Chapter Seven. The stock-footage horse fight (also seen in The Vanishing Legion and The Devil Horse) from which the out-of-place Chapter Two clips were borrowed is shown in full in Chapter Ten; here, it’s presented in a wilderness setting and thus fits in smoothly enough in visual terms–although it feels somewhat shoehorned into the main narrative.

Law of the Wild--corral fight Law of the Wild--stock fight
Above: Rex fights his pinto foe in new footage (left) and old footage (right); as you can tell by their respective backgrounds, these shots should never have been combined in a single scene.

Like most of Mascot’s Western serials, Law of the Wild is filled with well-photographed horseback chases; directors Armand Schaefer and B. Reeves Eason–and cameramen Ernest Miller and William Nobles–deliver consistently attractive panoramic shots of heroes and villains galloping across the expanses of Iverson’s Ranch and through the Lake Sherwood forest. Yakima Canutt, Tracy Layne, Bud Pope, and other expert cowboy stuntmen undoubtedly perform some of the bulldogging and falls that frequently conclude these scenes, but hero Bob Custer and heavies Edmund Cobb and Slim Whitaker (all expert horsemen) can be seen doing much of their own riding; future director William Witney also did at least one horseback scene, the gallop on the railway trestle (see the Comments). Less scenic than the horseback chases, but equally exciting, are the car/horse chase along the road in Chapter Eleven and Chapter Twelve’s climactic car chase.

Law of the Wild--horseback 2 Law of the Wild--horseback 1
Above left: Edmund Cobb and Richard Cramer gallop after Rex, Rinty, and Bob Custer. Above right: Lucile Browne and her horse race up a hill, with off-camera villains close behind.

One of the serial’s more memorable cliffhangers also involves a car–the conclusion of Chapter Five, which has Rex, tethered to a driverless auto, being dragged violently downhill by the runaway machine. The process-screen work mentioned above makes the horse-trampling cliffhangers of Chapters Two and Seven far less satisfactory; in both of them, the process shots are so out-of-proportion that it looks as if Custer is being stomped by elephant-sized equines. The train-trestle cliffhanger of Chapter One, on the other hand, only uses a snatch of (properly-scaled) process screen work, and as a result comes off very well; Chapter Three’s head-on truck/car crash cliffhanger is strong too, managing as it does to simultaneously imperil Custer, Rex, and Rinty. Other notable chapter endings include the double cliffhanger of Chapter Six (which has heroine Lucile Browne taking a fall from her horse while Custer is on the verge of being lynched), the Chapter Eight cliffhanger (which has Browne plunging from a cliff after a tussle with the villains), and the Chapter Nine cliffhanger (which has Custer, sidekick Ben Turpin, and their horses getting tripped by the villains and taking a nasty spill down a steep hillside).

Law of the Wild--hill pull Law of the Wild--cliff fall
Above left: A runaway car zips over the brow of a hill, tugging Rex behind it at the end of Chapter Five. Above: Lucile Browne dramatically drops from a cliff, to the horror of Ernie Adams at the end of Chapter Eight.

Law of the Wild receives a further boost from an engaging cast–leading man Bob Custer excepted. Custer, a former silent Western star with actual cowpunching experience, is very convincing when called on to mount horses and ride off at high speeds, and does a respectable job of registering various emotions through facial expression–but is a lot less believable whenever he attempts to deliver dialogue. In his interactions with the villains, he snaps out threats and accusations in earnest but hopelessly stiff and clumsy style, giving his lines none of the vigor and anger that they call for; he’s similarly wooden and amateurish when discussing strategies with the heroine–or, later, when trying to convey affection for her. Only in his interactions with his animal “pals” does he seem relaxed and natural, albeit still very low-key. That said, Custer’s performance is not nearly as tooth-grindingly awful as critics have often made it out to be; his awkward sincerity, pleasant Southern drawl, and equestrian skill do at least make him come off as an appealingly authentic cowboy–if not a proficient actor.

Law of the Wild--Bob Custer
Above: Bob Custer confronts off-screen heavies.

Pretty and perky Lucile Browne (in her final serial role) is charmingly energetic as the heroine, and does much to compensate for Custer’s stiffness. Her enthusiastic proclamations of her confidence in Custer’s innocence, her affectionate attitude towards Rex and Rinty, and the spirited scorn with which she confronts the villains are all highly endearing; she’s given a particularly extended chance to shine in the last two chapters, as she cheerily but determinedly carries out her plan to acquire Rex and race him in the “grand sweepstakes.”

Law of the Wild--Lucile Browne
Above: Lucile Browne pleads the hero’s case.

As aforementioned, Custer’s animal co-stars Rex and Rin Tin Tin Jr. turn in lively performances after their fashion, their actions even managing to convey “personalities” of a sort–quick-tempered and tough in the horse’s case, easygoing but alert in the dog’s. Jack Lindell was responsible for training Rex, while Lee Duncan put Rinty through his paces; both animals interact pretty smoothly with both the human actors and with each other (although Rinty, amusingly, keeps jumping against villain Edmund Cobb–after Cobb has surrendered to Custer–in one scene).

Law of the Wild---Rex and Rinty
Above: Rex nudges an injured Rinty.

Ben Turpin, once a famed silent comedian (he receives billing over both Custer and Browne here), plays Browne’s ranch-hand Henry and serves as the serial’s designated comic relief. His frequent cross-eyed stare (his trademark during his silent days) strikes me as more grotesque than funny (much like Syd Saylor’s wagging Adam’s-apple)–although the scene in which he confuses a henchman and a deputy by insulting one while looking at the other is rather amusing. His periodic pratfalls are pulled off with a robust flair that makes them seem less tiresomely perfunctory than most serial slapstick; he also provides the heroes with real help on a consistent basis; this helpfulness, combined with his perpetually flustered but buoyantly feisty delivery of his lines, ultimately makes him seem rather lovable.

Law of the Wild--Ben Turpin
Above: Ben Turpin tries to argue with a mob of lynchers.

Wild’s villains are played by an wonderfully colorful collection of expert screen heavies. Portly Richard Cramer sneers, smirks, and swaggers to delightful effect as the scheming Nolan–glibly and confidently brushing off the hero’s accusations, gloating exuberantly whenever he manages to capture Rex, and admonishing erring henchmen with gruff sarcasm. The invariably entertaining Ernie Adams plays Cramer’s runty lieutenant Raymond, who continually veers between shrill nervousness and cocky smoothness; this mercurialness makes him an ideal contrast to the unflappably self-assured Cramer, a contrast stressed further by the strong physical dissimilarity of the two actors.

Law of the Wild--Cramer and Adams
Above: Richard Cramer and Ernie Adams.

Edmund Cobb has one of his biggest villainous roles as the nasty Luger, who performs a large share of the serial’s active villainy. Cobb takes full advantage of the extended screen time, and turns in an excellent and somewhat uncharacteristic performance that’s rather in the Bob Kortman vein; he makes his character seem so convincingly surly, bad-tempered, and vicious that Adams and even Cramer come off as genial by comparison. Veteran cowboy actor Slim Whitaker serves as the serial’s other principal henchman, his laid-back and down-to-earth demeanor providing a good balance to Cobb’s aggressive harshness.

Law of the Wild--Edmund Cobb Law of the Wild--Slim Whitaker
Above left: Edmund Cobb draws a bead on the hero. Above right: Slim Whitaker watches Rinty attacking one of his associates.

Richard Alexander is intimidatingly mean in his short-lived but meaty turn as the despicable Salters–angrily beating Rex, coldly trying to murder Custer, cunningly lying to the authorities, and affecting an overbearingly arrogant manner when he briefly triumphs at the racetrack. Lafe McKee is his usual dignified but affable self in his occasional scenes as the heroine’s rancher father; his best moment comes when he calmly defies Cobb in Chapter Twelve. Jack Rockwell–as in so many other B-westerns and serials–is a grave but honest and basically kindly sheriff; Hal Taliaferro has a good bit as a deputy who comically outsmarts Ben Turpin. George Chesebro makes his sound-serial debut as a cohort of Alexander’s, but is unfortunately killed off very early in the first chapter; Curley Dresden has a couple of scenes as another shady associate of Alexander’s, Bud Osborne pops up very briefly as a friendly cowboy, Edmund Breese is a harried veterinarian, and Hank Bell and his monumental moustache can be glimpsed in the background of the lynching scene. J. Frank Glendon, the villain of Universal’s The Lost Special, appears towards the end of Wild as the slick but not unsympathetic lawyer retained by Lucile Browne.

The Law of the Wild has received extremely negative reviews from many chapterplay buffs–largely, I think, because the serial’s unimpressive leading man and its lack of exotic or mysterious elements tend to make its critics less forgiving of its plotting flaws than they are of the equally weak plots found in many Mascot serials with more imaginative trappings or more charismatic stars. However, while Wild is definitely one of Mascot’s less colorful and less memorable serials, it’s far from the unbearable mess that it’s sometimes been dismissed as. In fact, it makes for undistinguished but very pleasant viewing, thanks to good-looking location work, enjoyable action scenes, an appealing heroine, an interesting pair of animal co-heroes, and a stellar lineup of villains.

Law of the Wild--last
Above: Bob Custer and Rex detour through the woods.

2 thoughts on “The Law of the Wild

  1. I thought Bob Custer was one of the weakest serial heroes of talkies. Can’t deliver a line at all. In William Witney’s autobiography, he claims he did the stunt on the train trestle in chapter one, so it wasn’t stock.

    • Thanks very much for the info about the train scene, Pa; that must have been a risky one to pull off indeed. As for Custer, I honestly didn’t think he was that much worse than Clyde Beatty or Gene Autry in their Mascot serials–and wasn’t as bad as some of the later Republic stiffs like Richard Bailey or the Masked Marvel “suspects;” unlike Bailey, who I didn’t buy as a brilliant detective for a minute, Custer at least came off as what he was supposed to be (a cowboy).

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