June 18th, 1885 — November 26th, 1947
Possessed of a swaggering exuberance that contrasted amusingly with his diminutive size, as well an amusing and mobile face that he could use to register both boundless overconfidence and furtive panic, Ernie Adams was admirably well-equipped for playing hoboes, con men, stool pigeons, and other colorful but not exactly upstanding types. He was firmly typecast in such parts for most of his Hollywood career, and worked steadily in B-features and occasional A-films–playing mostly uncredited but always noticeable character bits. He also appeared in many serials, several of which gave him villainous, quirky, or even sympathetic parts much bigger than those he usually played in features. In these larger roles, as in his many smaller ones, Adams repeatedly and entertainingly stole scenes through his energetic displays of shiftiness, cockiness, timidity, and humor–frequently combining all the aforesaid qualities into a single characterization.
Ernie Adams was born Ernest Dumarais to French immigrant parents in San Francisco. Details on his early life are scarce, but he appears to have spent many of his pre-Hollywood years as a traveling vaudeville performer, living in Chicago but touring as far west as California, as far south as Oklahoma, and as far east as New York City. Adams started to dabble in motion-picture work around 1919, his film appearances increasing as the 1920s progressed. He played supporting roles (and a few co-starring ones) in myriad silent comedy shorts for Fox, Century, and other studios in the earlier years of the decade, before settling into a career as a character actor in features. By 1930 he was living in Los Angeles and was well-established as a reliable portrayer of shady minor characters; the coming of sound to Hollywood had no effect on his career, since his assertive but reedy voice matched well with his persona.
In 1931, Adams made his first serial, Mascot Pictures’ The Galloping Ghost–playing a typically shifty but atypically large part. This action-packed chapterplay dealt with the efforts of a college football player (none other than the famed Harold “Red” Grange) to clear himself of a bribery charge and save his best friend from the clutches of a game-fixing gambling ring. Adams was cast as Brady, the chief agent of the gamblers’ secret leader Elton (Walter Miller), and played his outrageously crooked character with enjoyable gusto–grinningly plotting ways and means of rigging football games, accusing the hero of dishonesty in vehement and brazenly hypocritical fashion (“football is one sport that’s got to be kept clean!”), determinedly trying to kill Grange, and reacting with a mixture of irritation and nervousness whenever the brusque Miller bawled him out for his failures to eliminate the dynamic football hero.
Mascot’s serials were produced on tight budgets and even tighter schedules, making a seasoned and reliable trouper like Adams a definite asset to the studio; after Galloping Ghost’s release, Mascot boss Nat Levine soon brought Adams back for another chapterplay turn–in the overly-complicated but entertaining The Shadow of the Eagle (Mascot, 1932). The plot of Eagle centered around a conflict between Gregory (Edward Hearn)–a flying ace turned impoverished carnival owner–and his well-to-do wartime colleagues, whom he suspected of trying to kill him in order to steal a valuable aeronautical invention. Gregory’s ex-friends in turn suspected him of being a master criminal called the Eagle; Gregory’s daughter (Dorothy Gulliver) and carnival stunt pilot Craig McCoy (John Wayne) were forced to sort out the tangle, and finally did so with the assistance of Adams as friendly carnival barker Pat Kelly. It turned out that Kelly, Gregory’s aide during the war, had sold the plans of the invention after Gregory’s supposed death in combat, thus unintentionally creating the conflict between the ace and his friends. Kelly also knew the identity of the real Eagle, who had threatened to kill him if he revealed it; he was shot before he could name the culprit, but recovered in time to help McCoy bring the villain to justice. Adams’ role here was the most sympathetic of his 1930s serial turns; he did an excellent job of conveying fear, shame, and repentant determination in the Chapter Ten scene in which his loyalty to his “skipper” Gregory finally triumphed over his fear of the Eagle; he made his regretful explanation in the final chapter seem moving as well–and managed to make the convoluted explanation of the serial’s mystery surprisingly understandable. Adams also handled the lighter aspects of the part with flair, volubly ballyhooing carnival acts in his character’s capacity of barker.
Adams would remain a regular member of Mascot’s serial stock company until 1935, while continuing to appear in features ranging from the Monogram B-mystery The Sphinx to the famed romantic comedy It Happened One Night (which gave him a bit as a bag-snatcher). His third chapterplay outing was The Hurricane Express (Mascot, 1932)–which, like Shadow of the Eagle, starred John Wayne. Here, Adams was a crook named Barney, the chief henchman of a mysterious railroad saboteur known as the Wrecker; Adams’ character here was one of his most determinedly tough serial heavies, and the actor played said toughness to the hilt–strutting around imperiously, curtly rattling off orders to far bulkier underlings, and aggressively attacking Wayne himself–despite being hurled through the air by the hero on multiple occasions.
Adams received only a single scene, albeit a juicy one, in his fourth serial assignment, Fighting With Kit Carson (Mascot, 1933). As Wade, a member of an outlaw band called the Mystery Riders, he was unmasked and captured by hero John Mack Brown in Chapter Six. He belligerently refused to talk until Brown threatened to hang him–after which he aptly registered growing nervousness and indecision, only to be shot by fellow-villain Al Bridge before he could break down entirely. Adams’ next chapterplay role was even smaller that his part in Carson; The Lost Jungle (Mascot, 1934) gave him a bit in its opening episode as a friendly circus roustabout named Pete; Adams’ voice was heard here (as his character agreed to take some kids on a elephant ride), but he was on screen so briefly that he received no chance to even turn his face towards the camera.
Adams returned to serial prominence with a major villainous role in The Law of the Wild (Mascot, 1934), a modern-day Western chapterplay that centered around horse racing; he played a flashily-dressed racetrack tout named Raymond–the lieutenant of the serial’s chief villain, crooked gambling boss Frank Nolan (Richard Cramer). Ernie’s character spent most of the serial attempting to steal a valuable race horse (played by Rex, Mascot’s “King of the Wild Horses”), continually battling with hero Bob Custer, canine co-hero Rin Tin Tin Jr., and Rex himself in the process. Adams’ part in Wild allowed him plenty of opportunities to display his characteristically mercurial brand of villainy; his Raymond was by turns cheerfully sly, aggressively bullying, and loudly apprehensive.
Adams’ final Mascot serial was 1935’s The Miracle Rider, another modern-day Western chapterplay. Playing a sneaky store clerk named Stelter, he received several good moments in Rider’s first half, as he spied on hero Tom Mix on behalf of his boss, secondary villain Edward Hearn–but also reported on Hearn’s activities to principal villain Charles Middleton. He exited the serial in memorably dramatic style in Chapter Seven; after discovering that Middleton intended to turn him into a fall guy, Adams first panicked, then displayed the ferocity of the proverbial cornered rat–slugging another henchman and angrily storming into Middleton’s headquarters with gun in hand, only to be shot down by the master villain.
Mascot merged with several other small studios to form Republic Pictures in 1935–and although many of Mascot’s old serial personnel remained regulars in the new studio’s chapterplay department, Adams was not among them; instead, he spent most of the second half of the 1930s playing bits in big features and major roles in B-westerns for Republic, Monogram, Columbia, Supreme, Harry Sherman Productions, and other outfits. He did take a few serial parts during the latter years of the decade, however, beginning with a pair of small roles in two chapterplays for Universal Pictures. The first (Radio Patrol) gave Adams an amusing bit as a hobo, while in the second (the excellent jungle serial Tim Tyler’s Luck)he played Becker, one of the henchmen of ivory poacher Norman Willis–appearing just long enough to struggle for a rifle with heroine Frances Robinson, accidentally wound kindly old professor Al Shean, and then be attacked and thrown from a cliff by a vicious gorilla; one suspects that Tyler’s director Ford Beebe (who had worked with Adams at Mascot) cast the actor in this small but memorable bit due to his small size (which allowed the slender Robinson to beliveably hold her own against him) and his talent for conveying terror (which added greatly to the scariness of the gorilla sequence).
Adams played another bit in the 1938 chapterplay The Spider’s Web, his first serial for Columbia Pictures; he appeared briefly as a gangster who posed as a blind beggar to help trap hero Warren Hull. His first Republic serial, 1939’s The Lone Ranger Rides Again, gave him somewhat more screen time in its first two chapters; he played a shifty character named “Doc” Grover, who faked his death so an outlaw group could frame upstanding settler Jed Scott (William Gould) for his “murder.” When the Lone Ranger (Bob Livingston) demanded that Grover’s body be produced, the pragmatic heavies prepared to do Doc in–but were stopped by the Ranger, who then received a full confession from the panicky Grover; Adams’ slow transition from chuckling amusement (over the law’s fruitless search for his “body”) to wide-eyed alarm (as he realized that he was about to die for real) was priceless.
Mandrake the Magician (Columbia, 1939), featured Adams in two chapters as a henchman named Brown, who was captured by the titular magician-detective (Warren Hull) and questioned as to the whereabouts of a kidnapped scientist; after grabbing an electrified gun in an attempt to escape and being bluffed into thinking that he had swallowed some poison, Adams was reduced to a hysterical bundle of nerves and was ready to give Hull the information he sought–but was murdered by another henchman before he could talk. Overland With Kit Carson (also Columbia, 1939) gave Adams the biggest of his late-1930s serial roles; he appeared throughout the serial as Thor, a gnomish gunsmith serving an ambitious outlaw leader known as Pegleg. His principal function here was to insistently remind Pegleg (and the viewers) of the villains’ all-important need for more iron ore with which to manufacture the rifles needed aid their conquest of the Far West. Adams’ character spent most of the serial in his forge in the Raiders’ cave hideout–which exploded in a memorable scene towards the end of Carson, sending Adams fleeing from the cave while hollering “it’s going to blow” at the top of his voice.
Though Adams was by now getting on in years, the 1940s found him still working as steadily as he had in the 1930s, playing many minor roles–and a few major ones–in features and serials. His first 1940s chapterplay was Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Universal, 194o), in which he had a non-speaking role in the opening chapter as a dying victim of the dreaded Purple Death plague. He was much livelier in Riders of Death Valley (Universal, 1941) as a helpful old desert rat called Cactus Pete, who appeared on the scene in Chapter Fourteen and briefly played an important part in the plot. The heroes (headed by Dick Foran) enlisted him to spread false rumors about a gold strike in order to temporarily trick the villains (headed by Charles Bickford) into leaving town; Adams performed this risky task with roguish enthusiasm, and wisely cleared out of town (and out of the serial) before the villains could take revenge on him for his piece of heroic lying.
Sea Raiders (Universal, 1941)–a starring vehicle for Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, and other former “Dead End Kids”–featured Adams as a grizzled sailor named Zeke, one of the seagoing agents of foreign spy Reed Hadley. He served as a minor but very noticeable henchman throughout the serial–delivering his lines with a touch of nautical-sounding hoarseness, while dodging around dockyards and ships in a cautious and furtive fashion that contrasted well with the gruff, down-to-earth confidence of chief henchman Stanley Blystone.
In 1942, Adams landed his only prominent credited role in a major A-film, playing real-life baseball manager Miller Huggins in Samuel Goldwyn’s The Pride of the Yankees. This assignment didn’t alter the established pattern of his career, however; the same year he appeared in the Columbia serial The Valley of Vanishing Men, playing a cocky but jumpy bartender named Stubby who acted as a lookout man for villain Kenneth MacDonald. Adams had at least a couple of minutes of screen time in most of Vanishing Men’s chapters; his best moment came when he tried to worm the truth about a gold strike out of comic sidekick Slim Summerville, continually choking down his growing irritation over Summerville’s willful thick-headedness.
Adams appeared briefly in Republic’s 1943 wartime espionage serial The Masked Marvel as an honest warehouse manager named Wilson who assuredly described his security measures to the heroes–only to be stalked and knifed shortly thereafter by an Axis agent who had already managed to enter the warehouse. He also played a good guy in The Phantom (Columbia, 1943), but enjoyed much more screen time and avoided being killed off. He was cast as a tough but good-natured trapper named Rusty Fenton, who provided the titular jungle avenger (Tom Tyler) with vital assistance at several points in the chapterplay–even bringing down several of the key villains himself in the climactic episode. Adams made the most of this unusually heroic role, giving his character a combination of dogged courage and cheerfulness that made him very appealing.
The Desert Hawk (Columbia, 1944), a very well-done “Arabian Nights” chapterplay, gave Adams the most offbeat role of his serial career; he seems to have been handed the part at the last minute, substituting for another actor named Egon Brecher (who’s inaccurately credited with the role in all of the serial’s pressbooks and in several online sources). Despite going unbilled, Adams figured prominently in the serial’s later episodes as a friendly enchanter called the Grey Wizard, who lived in a remote underground cavern and lent assistance to Kasim (Gilbert Roland), an exiled Caliph battling the tyranny of his usurping twin brother (also Gilbert Roland). Adams played this unusual character in delightfully droll fashion, giving him both kindly dignity and sly good-humor; his Wizard always seemed to have a knowing twinkle in his eye, whether he was modestly deprecating his own mystifying powers or shrewdly using those powers to benevolently manipulate both good and bad characters.
Raiders of Ghost City (Universal, 1944), an unusual spy story set in the Civil War era, gave Adams what at first seemed to be his fourth sympathetic serial part in a row. As Bill Jasper, the garrulous and obliging handyman at a Wells Fargo stage station run by leading lady Wanda McKay, he provided the undercover-agent hero (Dennis Moore) with cheerful assistance, despite an amusing tendency to comically eavesdrop on secret conferences. In Chapter Nine, however, it turned out that his eavesdropping was not as harmless as it had seemed; he was revealed as the inside man for the serial’s villains (a gang of Prussian spies) and the murderer of the heroine’s father. Arrested, he stubbornly refused to divulge any information to the hero’s Army superiors, but was still poisoned in Chapter Ten by his superior Lionel Atwill, who regarded him as a security risk.
Brenda Starr, Reporter (Columbia, 1945) featured Adams in one of his more prominent and colorful 1940s chapterplay roles. As a crafty and untrustworthy underworld character named Toothpick Charlie, he formed a tenuous alliance with a small-time crook named Heller (Wheeler Oakman) in a search for a cache of stolen money–while simultaneously selling information to other interested parties, among them reporter Brenda (Joan Woodbury), the police, and a dangerous group of gangsters. Brenda was a pretty dull serial, but Adams’ performance in it was highly entertaining; his seedy but swaggering characterization made him great fun to watch as he coolly engaged in double-crosses of Heller, the gangsters, the good guys, and everyone else foolish enough to trust him–all the while chewing on a toothpick, and talking out of the side of his mouth in a way that made him come off as an amusing and knowing parody of actors like Humphrey Bogart or George Raft.
The Master Key (Universal, 1945) gave Adams a minor but memorable part as an irritable small-time crook named “Flash” Faust, who was blackmailed into retrieving some important records by a gang of Nazi spies. Pursued by the law, Flash was forced to take the heroine (Jan Wiley), but his attempted escape was thwarted by a police dragnet and he wound up dying in a car crash. Adams was typically lively during his time onscreen in Key–displaying grumpy frustration as the Nazis put pressure on him, snapping angrily at Wiley as he fled from the police, and reacting with characteristic alarm when he realized he was cornered.
Federal Operator 99 (Republic, 1945) gave Adams a one-chapter appearance as a chipper photographer–who first seemed to be harmless, then revealed himself as an emissary of master criminal Jim Belmont (George J. Lewis), and then turned out to be an undercover Federal agent. Jungle Raiders (Columbia, 1945) rather absurdly cast Adams as Charley, the obsequious but jittery native servant of villainous jungle trading-post proprietor (Charles King). However, although Adams didn’t look remotely like a jungle inhabitant, he still delivered a quirkily amusing performance–particularly in a sequence in which he tricked the hero (Kane Richmond) and his father (John Elliott) into entering a crocodile-filled river; his gleefully sneaky expression when he proclaimed the river safe for crossing was hilarious, as was his self-congratulatory boasting when he (inaccurately) told the villains that his ruse had succeeded in eliminating the good guys (“Charley fix ’em good!”)
The Scarlet Horseman (Universal, 1946) featured Adams in a brief bit as a scruffy and gabby henchman named Farrow, whose outlaw bosses had him start a fight as cover for a murder attempt, but who accidentally wound up taking the blunderbuss charge intended for the villains’ victims. In King of the Forest Rangers (Republic, 1946), he had a slightly more extended bit as a feisty farmer named Hiram Bailey, who was cheated of his land by a crooked card sharp but who quickly snatched back his forfeited land deed when Ranger King (Larry Thompson) exposed his opponent’s unfair play.
Hop Harrigan (Columbia, 1946) cast Adams as Retner, the surprisingly loyal assistant of the unbalanced scientist Dr. Tobor (John Merton); Adams’ role allowed him to display both nervousness (when reacting to Tobor’s increasingly paranoid rants) and ferocious anger (when attacking the villains who were threatening Tobor and his inventions). Ultimately, Tobor went completely crazy and decided to blow up the world, a plan that the mindlessly faithful Retner went along with; Hop Harrigan (William Bakewell) managed to avert the planned catastrophe–but the mad doctor and his equally daffy helper wound up getting gunned down and exploded in the process.
Adams made his final Columbia serial appearance in 1946’s Chick Carter, Detective, playing a small bit as a night-watchman who helped reporter sidekick Eddie Acuff out of an industrial pond after the latter had survived a murder attempt. The following year, Adams took on his biggest Republic serial role, playing one of the three principal heavies in the excellent Son of Zorro. As a corrupt frontier judge named Hyde, Adams presided over the villains’ plotting sessions, frequently relaying the orders of the villains’ mysterious chief to his two co-conspirators (Roy Barcroft and Ed Cassidy). Though cunning, the Judge was also very excitable–continually worrying over the threat posed by the masked avenger Zorro, and becoming comically flustered whenever Zorro’s alter ego–lawyer Jeff Stewart (George Turner)–countered his judicial chicanery with legal moves of his own. Adams played this weaselly and self-important bureaucrat with zest, making both plotting scenes and courtroom confrontations very enjoyable to watch.
Adams’ final serial was The Black Widow (Republic, 1947); his part here was a minor but colorful one, and served as a fitting valedictory to his chapterplay career. He played a slangy and jovial street photographer named Blinky–who was actually a lookout for the sinister villainess Sombra (Carol Forman), and who popped up at regular intervals throughout the serial–convivially chatting with potentially dangerous visitors to Sombra’s fortune-telling parlor, then alerting Sombra to their presence (via two-way radio) as soon as the intruders left him alone. In the final chapter, hero Bruce Edwards tumbled to Adams’ double-dealing–causing Adams to drop his cheery manner and unexpectedly attack the much larger and younger man before being taken into custody by the police.
Ernie Adams only appeared in about half-a-dozen more films after The Black Widow; he died of heart disease in a Los Angeles sanitarium in the autumn of 1947. His final few movies were released posthumously–the last of them being the 1948 RKO A-western Return of the Badmen, in which he had a bit as a characteristically nervous telegrapher.
In large parts or small ones, as cowardly rats or tough cookies, as bad guys or good guys, Ernie Adams invariably enlivened each serial he appeared in. Physically small as he was, the irrepressibly energetic ex-vaudevillian was blessed with an outsize screen presence that made him impossible to overlook–and highly entertaining to watch.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to Chuck Anderson’s wonderfully informative page on Ernie Adams at the Old Corral, which provided links to a World War One draft registration form and several government censuses, and supplied me with almost all of the above information on Adams’ pre-movie life and career. The Internet Broadway Database was also of assistance; it lists our Ernie Adams as appearing in a 1918 Broadway musical comedy.