Prospector George Woods (Francis Ford) has struck it rich in the frontier settlement of Gold Creek, and asks his friend Jack Manning (Tim McCoy)–a fearless frontier scout–to journey to the eastern town of Hillsdale and bring George’s twin brother Tom (Francis Ford) and niece Mary (Allene Ray) out west to share in his newfound wealth. Jack, who’s never met Mary but who’s become smitten with her after seeing her picture at her uncle’s cabin, gladly accepts the mission–and soon finds himself beset not only by the hostile Indians that roam the land between Gold Creek and Hillsdale, but by the villainous Rance Carter (Wilbur McGaugh), a slimy profiteer who’s determined to marry Mary and seize control of her uncle’s gold mine. Fortunately, Jack’s trusty dog Pal and his daredevil friend Bill Williams (Edmund Cobb) are on hand to help the heroic frontiersman protect the Woods family and their gold from both the Indians and Carter’s gang of ruffians.
The first “all-talking” movie serial, The Indians Are Coming was a big financial success for Universal during its initial run, and firmly convinced several doubtful Hollywood producers that–despite the industry turmoil caused by the Depression and the advent of sound–it was safe to invest time and money in the production of full-length chapterplays with full-fledged soundtracks. Though all serial buffs take care to note Indians’ historical importance, they rarely discuss or review it in depth–partly because most existing Indians prints are of indifferent quality, but mostly (I suspect) because many of them have found the serial too “creaky” to watch all the way through. The Indians Are Coming undeniably is the product of a transitional film-making period, but, if a viewer takes said period into account before beginning Indians, he’ll find a great deal to enjoy in the serial.
Like practically all of the Western serials Universal released during the 1930s and the early 1940s, The Indians Are Coming features a simple central plot that becomes thoroughly involving, thanks to a strong scripting emphasis on characterization. Jack and Mary’s romance, the jocular but firm friendship between Jack and Bill, Carter’s obsession with marrying Mary, henchman Bull McGee’s disgusted reactions to Carter’s displays of cowardice, George Woods’ grieving when his generous attempt to share his gold strike with his family brings disaster on them–all of these script facets give some genuine dramatic depth to the serial, even when the dialogue featured in some of Indians’ dramatic moments sounds a lot more melodramatically stilted than would be the case in later sound-era Universal Westerns (“Rance Carter! Would you marry me, knowing that I do not love you?”). Still, this stiltedness is understandable–and forgivable–when one considers that writers Ford Beebe and George Plympton, like all other screenwriters of the transition-to-talkies era, were still learning how to write dialogue that could be spoken aloud and not just read as subtitles.
Indians’ plot–again, like those of most later Universal Western serials–benefits from the way in which the writers draw out situations over several chapters, instead of presenting new subplots in every episode; it takes almost half the serial for Jack to safely escort Mary (and the wagon train she’s traveling with) from Hillsdale to Gold Creek, with various Indian attacks and several acts of chicanery by Carter unobtrusively but effectively prolonging both their journey and the serial. Carter’s kidnapping of Mary in Chapter Seven and his efforts to trade her for the gold claim fill out the next two episodes; when this scheme is thwarted, Carter sets out to abduct the girl again–but this time enlists the aid of the Indians, a move that keeps this second kidnapping from seeming like a mere rehash of the first one, leads to unforeseen complications for both the villain and the heroes, and sets the serial’s concluding action in motion. Unfortunately, Indians’ finale (stretched out over the last two chapters) suffers from a weakness that would recur in too many other Universal chapterplays: the villains are not defeated by the heroes, but instead basically do themselves in. However, the heroes are still allowed to perform enough heroics in the concluding chapters (rescuing Mary in the face of heavy odds) to keep said finale from seeming like a serious let-down.
Henry MacRae, who both produced and directed Indians, uses quite a bit of silent-era stock footage to give additional scope to the serial’s action–blending the stock with the new footage much more smoothly than would be the norm in most of Universal’s subsequent Western serials; it helps, of course, that Indians and the silent films it borrows from were not produced too many years apart, thus making the seams between old and new footage harder to spot. The result of this effective stock-matching is several very impressive-looking large-scale action scenes, chief among them the Chapter Three prairie fire, the Indian attack on the wagon train that occupies much of Chapters Four and Five, the battle between cavalrymen and Indians in Chapter Eleven, and the mass Indian attack on a town later in the same chapter (a sequence that carries over into Chapter Twelve). Incidentally, the stock shots used in these and other scenes are not the Indian-attack footage featured in practically all later Universal Western chapterplays, but a completely different assortment of footage–which has the effect of making Indians’ action seem pleasantly fresh to those familiar with the Universal serial library.
Indians’ all-new action scenes are good too, particularly Edmund Cobb and Tim McCoy’s running horseback battle with pursuing Indians in Chapter One, the runaway-wagon sequence later in the same episode, the cliff-edge chase sequence at the end of Chapter Five, and Cobb’s protracted gun battle with the Indians in Chapter Eleven. These sequences benefit not only from good stuntwork (much of it by Cliff Lyons), but from strong photography that uses plenty of long shots to take in the surrounding scenery (the Walker Ranch and the Universal backlot) and thus effectively suggest the West’s wide open spaces. The serial’s dialogue scenes, on the other hand, tend to look rather static at times–but director MacRae and cinematographer Wilfred Cline seem to have been aware of this, and have determined to compensate by making outdoor scenes look as stylish as possible; in addition to the sweeping shots of cliffs and plains, the serial is also filled with striking tracking shots that give the audience a sense of first-person movement through the streets of towns, Indian villages, and other locations.
Another action highlight in Indians is the formal knife duel between Tim McCoy and Bud Osborne in the Indian village in Chapter Eight–a scene that benefits from being played out at a measured pace, one which gives the ensuing dodges and lunges more impact that the fast and wild-looking punches that characterize the serial’s undercranked fistfights. However, fistfights in general are scarcer in Indians than in other Universal outings of the period, and one of the few extended fight scenes is actually much less chaotic-looking than many of its contemporaries–namely, the energetic saloon combat between McCoy and Wilbur McGaugh in Chapter Six, a one-on-one fight that remains reasonably focused in its staging (unlike the lively but rather sloppy brawl between multiple participants in the Woods cabin in Chapter Nine).
The cliffhangers in Indians range from the quietly dramatic to the violent, though few of them are especially spectacular. The Chapter Two conclusion, in which the wrongfully-arrested hero walks by the side of the sympathizing heroine’s departing wagon until forced to stop by the sheriff, is the best of the dramatic endings, providing a nicely offbeat emotional cliffhanger; other dramatic climaxes are more routine, like the Chapter Eight ending in which Carter and his henchmen stalk into the Woods cabin. As for the aforesaid violent cliffhangers, some of the more memorable examples include the apparent backshooting of the hero in Chapter Six, his seeming braining by an Indian war-club in Chapter Ten, and the burning-hotel scene that concludes Chapter Eleven.
The acting in Indians–like the above-mentioned writing–is very much of its transitional time; all of the members of the cast show their unfamiliarity with the new talking films at one point or another–but most of them do a good acting job nonetheless. Leading man Tim McCoy (already a well-established Western star at this point in his career) delivers a strong and likable leading performance–using a quiet smile, a steely stare, and a strong speaking voice to convey both cheerfulness and grave dignity, and successfully making his character seem unflappably stalwart without making him seem stuffy. However, though his performance is admirably even-keeled for the most part, McCoy is sometimes guilty of physical overacting that harks back to the silent era–chiefly when his character is engaged in shootouts; he continually jerks his gun into the air while firing it, in ferociously emphatic but comically impractical fashion.
Lovely Allene Ray, the last major “serial queen” of the silent era, occasionally sounds rather stiff when delivering her dialogue–partly because she’s saddled with several of the serial’s more awkward-sounding lines (in Chapter Six, for example, she’s called on to deliver slight variations of the same lament three separate times). However, she does a fine job of registering sorrow, concern, anger, and affection by turns, and delivers a spirited, capable, and appealing performance overall. Incidentally, her voice–frequently cited as the reason for the early termination of her sound-era career–is definitely pitched rather high, but is still entirely pleasant; it’s hard to see why it caused her departure from the screen (if, indeed, it did).
Edmund Cobb is very good in what amounts to a co-hero role; his Bill Williams takes part in just as much action as McCoy’s Jack Manning does–and does so with a swashbuckling breeziness that Cobb rarely got a chance to display in later chapterplay roles. Cobb does an excellent job of making his character seem irrepressibly happy-go-lucky while simultaneously retaining an air of down-to-earth toughness, and comes close to stealing the serial more than once; he also steers clear of the overacting that some of his co-stars indulge in, only going over the top during one brief Chapter Eleven sequence.
Wilbur McGaugh (later a prolific assistant director for innumerable B-movies and television shows) frequently hams it up as the evil Rance Carter–drawing out his lines with slow, sneering pauses–but largely succeeds in making his character at once utterly loathsome and reasonably credible; he’s helped immeasurably by his fairly youthful and unthreatening appearance. As written, Carter is not only an aggressive conniver, but is also prone to outbursts of murderous rage and cowardly terror that frequently undermine his own schemes; an older and more intimidatingly sinister actor would have seemed like a sheer caricature when launching into these tantrums, but McGaugh makes the outbursts appear believable enough. His Carter comes off as a spoiled young scoundrel who’s presumably inherited wealth and social respectability from worthier forebears, and who is so accustomed to getting his way that he can’t control himself when he meets with setbacks.
The weather-beaten and pugnacious-looking Bud Osborne is a welcome presence as tough, outspoken, and self-assured chief henchman Bull McGee; both actor and character provide a good counterbalance to McGaugh’s unstable Carter. Osborne, like Edmund Cobb, plays his role in fairly naturalistic style throughout, but does engage in some overdone scenery-chewing in one sequence. Lanky, hatchet-faced Charles Le Moyne, who serves as Osborne’s principal accomplice (and does all the translating when the villains are pow-wowing with the Indians) also does a good and convincing job of playing a seasoned, down-to-earth outlaw.
Francis Ford, in his dual role as twin brothers Tom and George Woods, is theatrically blustery at times, but always entertaining to watch; he doesn’t go to any great lengths to differentiate the two brothers (who never actually share any screen time), but does make pioneer Westerner George seem more boisterous and unruly than milder and more dignified Easterner Tom. Wizened and goateed Charles Royal (who looks a little like a diminutive version of Uncle Sam) provides enjoyable comic relief as “town busybody” Uncle Amos, the first of many colorful but recognizably human sidekick characters featured in Universal’s 1930s Western serials; Amos is a garrulous braggart, but he’s also a resourceful and courageous old codger who regularly provides the heroes with genuine help.
Chief Thunderbird, a genuine Cheyenne, adds a nice touch of authenticity to the serial as the war-chief Yellow Snake–he not only looks the part, but also speaks all his lines in Cheyenne (which are then translated by other characters); the actor playing his impetuous son is not identified, but seems to be a bona-fide Indian too. Jim Corey is a background henchman, an almost unrecognizably young Frank Ellis appears as a sheriff, Monte Montague pops up as a bartender, Lafe McKee is a townsman, and the folksy but calmly dignified Buck Connors delivers the spoken plot recaps at the beginning of every episode. Last but not least, a canine actor named Dynamite plays Jack Manning’s trusty dog Pal–who, while not a Rin-Tin-Tin-style super-dog, engagingly performs a couple of heroic feats and does a convincing job of mutely mourning in some of the serial’s dramatic scenes.
Archaic as it might appear to those familiar with serials of later date, The Indians Are Coming is a well-done and handsomely-made chapterplay, when judged by the production standards of its time. For those serial buffs who aren’t repulsed by doses of old-fashioned melodrama and theatricality, and who can appreciate a sturdy Western saga, it offers plenty of solid entertainment.