Action of the Tiger: Mascot Pictures’ Sound Serials (1930-1935)
Mascot Pictures had its beginnings in 1926, when Nat Levine, a former secretary of theater-chain owner Marcus Loew, recruited investors to finance his independent production of a serial called The Silent Flyer and sold it to Universal Pictures for distribution. The success of this venture encouraged Levine to stay in the serial business; he created Mascot Pictures in 1927, and continued to make chapterplays through the last years of the silent era. In 1929 he turned out an experimental part-silent/part-talking serial, The King of the Kongo, and in 1930 stepped firmly into the talkie era with a Western serial called The Lone Defender. Despite budgets substantially thinner than those of Universal Pictures–the only other major purveyor of sound serials during the first half of the 1930s–Levine was able to make Mascot a force to be reckoned with in the chapterplay world.
The key to Mascot’s success was Levine’s astuteness in assembling a talented production team capable of accomplishing a lot for a little. Some of the key members of this team were cinematographers Benjamin Kline, Ernest Miller, and William Nobles, who all had an excellent eye for good pictorial compositions and who regularly managed to come up with strikingly scenic or eerily atmospheric shots that gave Levine’s serials visuals superior to those of other “Poverty Row” chapterplays (and often to those of Universal itself); skillful special-effects artist Howard Lydecker, who devised miniature buildings and vehicles for use in cliffhanger sequences; director B. Reeves Eason, who had overseen large-scale battle scenes in several epic silent features and who could pace and stage even low-budget battles and chases with an inventiveness and dynamism that made them seem “bigger” than they were; and, most important of all, former cowboy and silent-Western star Yakima Canutt, who performed and coordinated the stuntwork in Mascot’s serials, filling their fight scenes with vigorous punches, tosses, and falls far surpassing the more static arm-flailing “brawls” seen in Universal’s contemporary serials.
Levine’s writing team was talented too, albeit somewhat erratic. Its most regular and prolific members were Ford Beebe, Wyndham Gittens, Bennet Cohen, Colbert Clark, Armand Schaefer, and Barney Sarecky (who eventually rose to associate-producer status under Levine). Sherman Lowe, John Rathmell, Al Martin, Maurice and Gerald Geraghty, Norman S. Hall, and Ray Trampe were other recurring contributors to Mascot’s scripts. Eason also received writing credits from time to time, while Beebe, Clark, and Schaefer all did frequent directorial duty in addition to their screenwriting chores, helming nearly all the Mascot serials that weren’t directed by Eason, Richard Thorpe (later an MGM A-film director), David Howard (later an RKO B-western director), or Otto Brower (later a second-unit director on many big pictures at Twentieth-Century Fox).
The Mascot writing formula tended to stay the same from serial to serial, no matter who was doing the writing or directing; it could best be summed up as melodramatically intense, sometimes to the point of absurdity–but almost always compelling as well. Mascot heroes were typically beleaguered figures pitted against overwhelming odds; nearly every Mascot hero was at some point in his adventures framed for murder and forced to evade the law, with practically every other character thinking him guilty. The narrative shifts used to put the heroes in such desperate situations could be contrived (Fighting With Kit Carson and The Three Musketeers were particularly guilty of this), but the situations themselves lent greater urgency to the action and helped to maintain audience interest even when the plot was going around in circles–which it usually started doing at some point in Mascot’s serials, although the writers would typically start it circling in a new direction eventually, often by making a surprising, plot-altering revelation about a supporting character and/or killing him off.
Between the writers’ habit of piling up the odds against the hero and the unpredictability with which characters changed allegiance or met sudden ends, the “world” of Mascot serials always felt a lot more tough and threatening than the more placid and rational universe inhabited by Universal’s serial characters. The Mascot world was often made even more threatening by the seemingly all-powerful mystery villains who were featured in over half of the studio’s chapterplays. While these menaces always helped to further enliven Mascot’s serials, they also managed to hopelessly tangle up their plots; Gittens, Beebe, and the other Mascot writers loved to pile on layers and layers of misdirection and mystification, having every supporting character act as if he was the villain at some point–except for the one actually exposed as the villain in the final chapter. They would usually try to explain in the final episode exactly why the “innocent” suspects had been dressing up in the villain’s costume, spying on everyone, trying to obstruct justice, or attempting to kill the hero, but the explanations were too often either insufficient or utterly unconvincing in light of the suspects’ often extreme past actions.
Despite their frequently repetitive storylines and frequently illogical plotting twists, Mascot’s serials seldom failed to entertain; their swift pacing, frequent and well-staged action scenes, and their high-stakes plot setups made it very easy to get caught up in a Mascot adventure and happily go along for a logically bumpy but exhilarating ride. The path of such rides typically ran through interesting places; Mascot went without any regular backlot of its own until Levine purchased the former Mack Sennett lot in the early 1930s–which meant that Levine’s production crews had to do a lot of on-location filming, not only at Bronson Canyon, Iverson’s Ranch, and other locations used by all B-western and serial producers, but also inside real working factories and office buildings, on actual Los Angeles city streets and California country roadways, and in genuine railyards, dockyards, and garages. This unusually extensive on-location shooting not only helped to cut costs; it also gave great visual variety and an authentically gritty Depression-era atmosphere to most Mascot serials (and made them additionally interesting, from a historical point of view, to later generations of serial watchers).
Levine’s casting practices were likewise economical, interesting, and historically fascinating. He made a regular habit of hiring one-time “name” actors who were suffering career or financial difficulties or who were no longer able to capitalize on their names in bigger films–sometimes because of age, and sometimes because of voices or acting styles that handicapped them in the talkie era. These performers were often floridly hammy, but always fun to watch; typically, the most over-the-top players were relegated to supporting or villainous parts, with more down-to-earth and relatable actors taking the lead role and providing a solid anchor for the melodramatics surrounding them. Among these sturdy Levine leads were Harry Carey, John Wayne, Tom Tyler, Johnny Mack Brown, George Brent, Bob Steele, and child actor Frankie Darro.
Mascot’s inaugural sound serial, the above-mentioned Lone Defender, provided a typical example of Levine recruiting an aging silent star to top-line a serial. The star in question was the famous canine performer Rin Tin Tin, Warner Brothers’ biggest box-office attraction during the 1920s; the serial itself was a Western centering around a search for a lost gold mine and the murderer of a prospector. Defender had one of Mascot’s less complicated storylines, some very good stuntwork–much of it involving its four-footed hero–and was well-directed by Richard Thorpe (particularly an impressive sandstorm cliffhanger sequence); it also did a good job of maintaining suspense by having both its animal hero and its human hero (former silent-serial star Walter Miller) unjustly pursued by the law. However, it still suffered from an inadequate resolution to several of its plotting “mysteries,” from the unfortunate decision to saddle Miller with an unconvincing Mexican accent for much of the serial, and from the obvious unfamiliarity of several other cast members with sound-film acting.
The Phantom of the West (1931), Mascot’s second all-talking serial, still suffered from early-talkie creakiness, but did a much better job with its mystery plot; writers Beebe, Gittens, and Cohen actually provided a believable last-chapter explanation for the wildly shady and suspicious behavior of the serial’s supporting characters, and did a better job than usual of concealing the identity of the serial’s mystery villain. The serial’s action scenes (directed by D. Ross Lederman and executed by both Canutt and leading man Tom Tyler) was also excellent. Action scenes were unusually scarce, by Mascot standards, in Levine’s next serial release, the Thorpe-directed King of the Wild (1931), being relegated mostly to the beginnings and endings of each chapter, in the style of Universal’s contemporary releases. Fortunately, the plot of Wild (a fugitive hero’s adventures in Africa while searching for a letter clearing him of a murder charge) was gripping enough to compensate for the lessened action. The serial’s cast (including Walter Miller and Boris Karloff) also turned in strong characterizations, while the writers–as in Phantom of the West–managed to resolve the serial’s mysteries satisfyingly in the last chapter.
Mascot’s next serial, the modern-day Western The Vanishing Legion (1931), was over-confusing at times, involving as it did a mystery villain and three competing sets of characters (one good, one bad, one mysterious); however, it was never hopelessly illogical, and was also involving (thanks in large part to compelling lead turns by Harry Carey and Frankie Darro) and action-packed (the serial was B. Reeves Eason’s first directorial assignment at Mascot). The Galloping Ghost (also 1931, and also directed by Eason) eschewed mystery villains but still featured a confusingly contradictory last-chapter “twist;” however, this contemporary crime saga was one of Mascot’s most entertaining efforts; it was packed with even more well-done action than usual at Mascot, and featured a melodramatic but irresistibly involving story: a disgraced college football hero battling a gambling ring to prove that he did not take a bribe and to protect his best friend (who did take the bribe). Real-life football star Harold “Red” Grange, the first of several non-actor celebrities recruited by Levine to appear in his serials, played the hero competently if somewhat stiffly at times.
The Lightning Warrior was the last of Mascot’s strong string of 1931 serial releases; cinematographer Ben Kline advanced to the director’s seat for this outing (working in collaboration with Armand Schaefer), and embellished this tale of a cloaked Western bandit called the “Wolf Man” and his ghostly Indian followers with properly spooky camera angles. The serial’s action was also fierce, frequent, and inventive, thanks to the invaluable Canutt; Rin Tin Tin, George Brent, and Frankie Darro made a very appealing trio of leads, while the group of Wolf Man suspects was a distinctive and colorful one. Only the resolution to the serial’s mystery was disappointing, since it gave rise to (in typical Mascot fashion) several bothersome but unanswered questions.
Mascot began the 1932 season with The Shadow of the Eagle, the first of John Wayne’s three starring serials for Levine. Featuring one of Mascot’s flimsiest and most repetitious “mystery” plots, and one of its duller groups of mystery-villain suspects (a board of interchangeable corporate directors), the serial nevertheless derived interest from its unique carnival backdrop, a lot of exciting action (directed by Ford Beebe), Wayne’s quietly energetic presence, and Wayne’s three unforgettably colorful carnival sidekicks–a hulking strongman, a resourceful ventriloquist, and a pugnacious midget. Eagle was followed by the excellent The Last of the Mohicans (1932), a loose adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel; its plot was somewhat simple and repetitive, but was also (most unusually for Mascot) blessedly logical and uncomplicated–while its extensive outdoor photography was extremely attractive, its hero and villain (Harry Carey as Hawkeye and Bob Kortman as Magua) very strong, and its action scenes outstanding (thanks to director B. Reeves Eason, who managed to make the serial’s French-and-Indian-War battles look impressive despite his low budget).
Mohicans’ successor, The Hurricane Express (1932) was another of Levine’s best; the plot setup was compelling (the hero seeking to avenge his father’s death by unmasking a railway saboteur known as the Wrecker), the use of a novel gimmick (masks that allowed the mystery villain to impersonate anyone he wanted) provided a nice catch-all explanation for otherwise inexplicable suspect behavior, the cast (headed by John Wayne) was strong, and the action was both exciting and distinctive–being mostly shot in, around, and aboard numerous railyards, railroads, and trains by directors Armand Schaefer and J. P. McGowan (the latter had directed innumerable railroad action shorts in the silent era).
The Devil Horse, Mascot’s last 1932 serial and the first Levine chapterplay directed by Otto Brower, lacked a mystery villain or any absurd plot twists. Instead, writers George Morgan, Barney Sarecky, Wyndham Gittens, and George Plympton (a regular Universal writer in his only Mascot assignment) kept their focus on a slightly odd but simple and involving plot: an orphan boy raised by wild horses and a state ranger team up to bring down the villain who murdered the boy’s parents and the ranger’s brother, and to thwart the villain’s theft of a priceless racehorse. Frankie Darro and Harry Carey brought real emotional depth to their performances as the boy and the ranger, and Noah Beery Sr. was a scenery-chewing delight as the villain; action scenes staged by Yakima Canutt and the acrobatic Richard Talmadge were also terrific. The serial’s only serious flaw was its its later chapters’ unnecessary flashbacks to earlier episodes; Levine would use this budget-saving “cheat” in most of his subsequent serials.
The Whispering Shadow, Levine’s first 1933 release, was as tangled in its plotting as Devil Horse had been straightforward; its storyline centered on a mystery villain, a trucking company threatened by sabotage, and a huge assortment of shady characters pursuing some stolen crown jewels, each for their own secret purposes. Action and pacing were up to Mascot’s usual standards, and Ernest Miller and Edgar Lyons’ cinematography was properly spooky–but the serial was a few notches below Mascot’s three previous releases in entertainment value, due to the excessive plotting mystification, more unnecessary flashbacks, and a hammier-than-usual hero (former silent star Malcolm McGregor) who didn’t provide the usual Mascot contrast to the enjoyable over-theatrics of the supporting players.
The Three Musketeers (1933), a French Foreign Legion adventure, was another mystery-villain serial that had several noticeable loose ends in its plot and included the now-standard Mascot flashbacks–but the presence of John Wayne in the lead role (a pilot framed for gun-running and murder), the colorful performances of Jack Mulhall, Francis X. Bushman, and Raymond Hatton as his Legionnaire buddies, plus strong action photographed against convincing desert locations (some of them in Yuma, Arizona) made it a lot of fun. Fighting With Kit Carson (1933) had no mystery villain and a much more simple plot; in fact, the plot was a bit too thin to comfortably fill out the serial’s episodes. However, Carson received a big boost from some especially memorable action setpieces, beautifully photographed outdoor locations, and an unforgettable performance by Noah Beery Sr. as perhaps the most outrageously untrustworthy villain in serial history.
The Wolf Dog (1933), the tale of a long-lost heir battling an evil guardian for control of a shipping line, starred Frankie Darro, George J. Lewis, and Rin Tin Tin Jr., and benefited from a smoothly straightforward plot as well as from typically energetic action scenes. The aviation adventure The Mystery Squadron, Mascot’s last 1933 release, was a bit more confusing in its plotting, thanks to the presence of a mystery villain–but the mystery plot was cleared up more cleanly than usual, while the serial’s action–taking place in the air, in Bronson Canyon, at a big construction site, and in a secret-passage-riddled hotel–was varied and exciting, and well-directed by David Howard.
Levine retained the services of famous lion-tamer Clyde Beatty for his first 1934 serial, The Lost Jungle. Beatty made a rather under-energized lead, but a likable one, while the action (much of it involving wild animals) was good and the setting (a jungle island crammed with ferocious critters) was colorful; however, the isolated nature of the aforesaid setting also made the action scenes feel much less varied than the Mascot norm, and as a consequence the studio’s typically repetitious plotting became more noticeable than usual. The next Mascot release, Burn-‘Em-Up Barnes (1934) took place stateside, which meant that its many action scenes could be filmed against a much broader array of locations; it also benefited from a completely uncomplicated plot and enormously likable heroes (Jack Mulhall and Frankie Darro)–and overall ranked as one of Mascot’s most entirely satisfactory efforts.
The Law of the Wild (1934) teamed Rin Tin Tin Jr. with the equine star Rex, King of the Wild Horses (who had earlier appeared in The Vanishing Legion). Director B. Reeves Eason, in his first Mascot assignment since Last of the Mohicans, staged some inventive action scenes (most of them involving the animal co-stars), and the basic plot (cowboy fights a murder charge and tries to recover his stolen horse) was compelling–but also so thin that the narrative wheels were spinning hopelessly in circles by the serial’s third chapter. Also, although the supporting cast was strong, the serial’s human hero, silent cowboy star Bob Custer, was painfully wooden.
Levine retained a bigger and much more charismatic cowboy star, the popular Ken Maynard, for his next serial, Mystery Mountain. This modern-day Western, despite its revival of the useful mask gimmick from The Hurricane Express, still managed to tangle its mystery-villain plotline in illogicality–but Maynard’s ingratiating performance, extensive location work, and the action scenes (handled by Eason, Brower, Canutt, and Canutt’s fellow-stuntman Cliff Lyons) made the plotting flaws easy to overlook. Levine had also planned to star Maynard in his next serial, the Phantom Empire, but Maynard was a very difficult actor for producers and directors to deal with (which was why he had found himself forced into doing a serial in the first place), and Levine wound up dropping him in favor of a newcomer to the movie business.
That newcomer was the enormously popular Western radio singer Gene Autry, whom Levine–in one of his most savvy business moves–brought out to Hollywood and signed to a contract. Autry was an indifferent actor, and looked nothing like a standard cowboy hero–but his singing voice and laid-back personality quickly won him a large national following. The Phantom Empire was Autry’s first starring vehicle and Levine’s first 1935 chapterplay; this fascinatingly offbeat combination of the Western and science-fictional genres had Autry–playing himself–clashing with the inhabitants of a technologically-advanced underground civilization (brought to convincing life by Howard Lydecker’s effects work)–while fighting to hold on to his ranch and his radio singing contract in the face of a false murder charge. Very weird at times but consistently entertaining and exceedingly memorable, Empire was an enormous hit for Mascot and remains probably the studio’s single best-known serial.
Levine pulled off his single biggest casting coup in his next chapterplay, The Miracle Rider–paying an enormous sum to bring famed silent Western star Tom Mix to come of retirement. Mix, despite advancing age, made a strong and charismatic hero, and the serial surrounding him was also very strong, despite a badly padded first chapter and a handful of “cheat” cliffhanger resolutions (in which the chapter-ending action was altered for the resolution in the next chapter). The action and location work was typically excellent, the plot was atypically logical and uncomplicated (even reasonably linear), there were no unnecessary flashbacks, and the lineup of villains (headed by Charles Middleton) was an impressive one. Levine’s investment in Mix proved a sound one; the serial did tremendous business for Mascot.
After two resounding successes in a row, Levine turned out his weakest Mascot chapterplay, The Adventures of Rex and Rinty. Although B. Reeves Eason directed, action setpieces were surprisingly scarce in this second team-up of Rin Tin Tin Jr. and Rex the horse; Levine was probably trying to cut corners in order to make up for all the money spent on Phantom Empire and Miracle Rider. The serial’s story was also one of the only Mascot narratives that failed to give its hero (Kane Richmond) any personal stake in the action; the serial’s thin and repetitive storyline thus became very noticeable, in the absence of a typically involving Mascot plot and typically plentiful Mascot action scenes.
The final Mascot serial was The Fighting Marines (1935); excessive flashbacks, some cheating cliffhangers, and an undernourished storyline (with an uncomplicated but disappointingly perfunctory mystery-villain subplot) weakened this effort–but some spectacular Eason-directed action sequences, varied locations, good Lydecker effects, and breezily likable lead performances by Grant Withers and Adrian Morris strengthened it, making it on the whole a respectable finale to Mascot’s run as a serial-maker.
Levine was not done with the serial business, however; in 1935 he joined in a merger of Mascot with five other small studios and with Consolidated Film Industries, which handled the lab work for all six outfits. The studio created from this merger was Republic Pictures, which was built chiefly on the foundation created by three assets–Gene Autry (whose Mascot contract was transferred to Republic), John Wayne (who had left Mascot to become a B-western star at Monogram, another of the studios involved in the Republic merger), and Levine’s successful serial-making team. Levine stayed in charge of Republic’s early chapterplays; his work on those titles will be covered in a subsequent article. In 1937 Herbert Yates, the boss of Consolidated, bought Levine out of his share of Republic; Levine sadly lost the buyout money to his great weakness, racetrack gambling, and had to take a subordinate producer position at MGM. This job did not last long, and Levine wound up managing a small movie theater for about twenty years. He eventually retired to the Motion Picture Home, where he passed away in 1989.
During Levine’s retirement years, he was contacted by many serial fans who recognized him as perhaps the single most important figure in the history of the American sound serial; his Mascot years were not long, but they cast a long shadow, due to the subsequent activities of the team he assembled at Mascot. Most of the members of that team–among them Yakima Canutt, Howard Lydecker, Norman Hall, William Nobles, Edgar Lyons, and William Witney (who began as a Mascot script boy and worked his way up to film editor)–would become key contributors to Republic’s Golden Age of serial-making. Other team members–like Barney Sarecky, Sherman Lowe, Benjamin Kline, Wyndham Gittens, and B. Reeves Eason–would help to make some of Universal and Columbia’s best serials. The Mascot serials were not just notable for historical reasons, however; rough-edged as their plotting typically was, they consistently provided (and continue to provide) very generous helpings of excitement and entertainment.
Above: A shot of the cast and crew of The Phantom Empire, originally published in Chapter 27 of the magazine Those Enduring Matinee Idols. Nat Levine is standing at the far left in the foreground, next to Betsy King Ross; the old gentleman next to Ross is Charles French (not Fred Burns), and the rest of the people are as identified in the attached TEMI caption. Click it to enlarge it further.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to Chuck Anderson’s Old Corral page on Nat Levine and Mascot for supplying me with much of the information in this piece.