Though Wheeler Oakman played several conventional henchmen (and even some sympathetic characters) in the movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s, his specialty was the independent-minded wild-card heavy–the type of character who might support other villains or even help the hero for a time, but who always kept his shifty eyes firmly fixed on his own goals. Oakman was always effective and always enjoyable in such roguish roles; he could convey incorrigible rascality with one crafty smirk or a single cynical lift of his bushy eyebrows, while his rough but cagy-sounding voice with its strong metropolitan accent ideally reinforced his shady appearance.
Wheeler Oakman was born Vivian Eichelberger in Washington, D.C.; he seems to have begun his acting career (and adopted his theatrical name) circa 1910, working with New York stock companies for several years before signing on with California’s first movie studio, the Selig Polyscope Company, in 1912. From 1912 to 1915 he starred or co-starred as both heroes and heavies in innumerable shorts and features for Polyscope (including the original screen version of The Spoilers); beginning in 1916, he also started taking leading-man and villain roles at other studios, among them Fox, Universal, and Metro. In 1918, Oakman enlisted in the US Army for World War 1 service, but promptly returned to Hollywood upon his discharge in 1919; his screen acting career continued at a steady pace during the 1920s–until, around 1924, he temporarily abandoned filmmaking to return to the East Coast stage. Oakman would make a handful of movie appearances from 1925 to 1927, but didn’t become a full-time film actor again until 1928; probably as a result of this lengthy hiatus, he spent the remaining years of the 1920s working principally for independent producers or small studios like Columbia, only occasionally winning major roles at the bigger outfits he’d worked for during the 1910s and early 1920s. He also started playing villains on a much more regular basis than he had during the earlier phase of his career, having aged out of heroic roles.
The coming of sound cemented the tough-voiced Oakman as a screen heavy; during the first half of the 1930s he found steady work as a villain in many of Tim McCoy’s Columbia B-westerns and in crime and action B-features for other production companies. In 1932 he made his first serial, Universal’s The Airmail Mystery; this outing is one of the handful of “lost” sound chapterplays, so all information concerning Oakman’s role in it must be derived from pressbook synopses. He played a standardized brains heavy for the first and only time in his serial career–a seemingly respectable rancher named Judson Ward, who led a double life as an aerial pirate called the Black Hawk and successfully plundered airborne gold shipments until pilot hero Bob Lee (James Flavin) interfered with him.
Oakman didn’t make his second serial until 1934, when he–like countless other silent-era notables–was signed by Mascot Pictures’ boss Nat Levine to appear in one of Mascot’s chapterplays. The chapterplay in question was The Lost Jungle, a vehicle for famed lion-tamer Clyde Beatty, who played himself; Oakman was cast as Kirby, a tough, scheming, and greedy ship’s mate who–after sailing to an uncharted jungle island filled with ferocious animals–led a mutiny against his captain, murdered the archeologist who had chartered their ship, and subsequently battled Beatty, other mutineers, and Beatty’s deranged former assistant (Warner Richmond) for a treasure chest, before finally becoming crocodile brunch at the end of Jungle’s penultimate chapter. A colorful and lively serial, Lost Jungle gave Oakman plenty of scope to indulge in entertainingly larger-than-life villainy; his cunning facial expressions and self-confident swagger helped him to steal scene after scene of the serial, despite the fact that he was required to share screen time with several other human and animal menaces.
Oakman soon followed Lost Jungle with another Mascot serial, the 1935 Western/science-fiction hybrid The Phantom Empire. This memorably offbeat chapterplay starred Gene Autry as a rancher and radio singer who became the target of the Muranians–a hidden, technologically advanced race determined to prevent “surface people” from learning of the existence of their underground realm, which happened to be located beneath Autry’s “Radio Ranch;” Muranian Queen Tika (Dorothy Christie) supervised her people’s efforts to eliminate Autry, and was assisted by Oakman as Lord Argo, one of her chief advisors. However, Argo was secretly plotting to seize the throne of Murania for himself, and was working against Tika while simultaneously pretending to help her; he eventually pulled off a successful revolution, only to be accidentally destroyed (along with Murania itself) by one of his own destructive weapons shortly thereafter. Oakman’s treacherous and hypocritical Argo was much more dignified and much less pugnacious than his openly thuggish Kirby in Lost Jungle, but was just as entertaining a villain–whether he was slickly pretending to obey the Queen, slyly plotting against her, nervously worrying about possible exposure, or gloating over the short-lived success of his rebellion.
Oakman’s third and last Mascot serial, The Adventures of Rex and Rinty (1935) gave him a smaller role than his two previous outings for the studio had, but he made the most of it nevertheless. As a shady character named Wheeler, he joined with two other crooks to steal the revered “god-horse” of the tropical island of Sujan, on behalf of their ruthless employer, polo-playing tycoon Crawford (Harry Woods). The theft of the horse (the titular Rex) came off successfully, but Oakman was captured by the irate Sujanese islanders in the process; the Sujanese high priest (Mischa Auer) agreed to pardon Oakman if he’d help retrieve Rex, and Oakman thus spent many of the ensuing episodes eagerly and unscrupulously aiding Auer’s emissary (Pedro Regas) in his quest for the horse, and continually interfering in villain Woods and hero Kane Richmond’s duel over Rex. In the serial’s later chapters, Oakman’s excessively thuggish methods caused a break between him and Regas, who then allied with Richmond; Oakman in turn switched back to Woods’ side, abetting him until both came by their last-chapter comeuppance. Oakman did an excellent job of underlining his changeable character’s essential shiftiness and untrustworthiness throughout Rex and Rinty; he displayed superficial enthusiasm for his mission of redemption when he was working with Regas, but at the same time conveyed to the audience that he was only really interested in escaping from the consequences of his original evildoing–and in a financial reward promised him by the Sujanese.
Oakman continued to appear frequently in B-movies during the second half of the 1930s, mostly at Columbia or at independent outfits like Conn and Puritan (where he played several heavies in a new series of Tim McCoy B-westerns); he also played bits in some A-movies for studios like Warner Brothers and Paramount, and took several more serial roles. The first of these was in Darkest Africa (1936), the inaugural serial release for Republic Pictures, which had been created by a merger between Oakman’s former employer Mascot and several other small studios. Like Oakman’s first Mascot outing The Lost Jungle, Darkest Africa starred Clyde Beatty–who, in this new chapterplay, traveled to the lost jungle city of Joba to rescue a captive girl who was being forced to serve as the city’s “goddess.” Oakman was Durkin, a venal trader who shadowed Beatty to Joba in hopes of acquiring some of the city’s priceless diamonds; Durkin and his partner Craddock (Edmund Cobb) subsequently joined forces with Joba’s high priest Dagna (Lucien Prival), agreeing to help him exterminate Beatty in exchange for a share of the diamonds. However, the two traders’ campaign against Beatty proved unsuccessful, as did a slave rebellion they later encouraged in an attempt to double-cross Dagna; they eventually were forced to make a desperate (and fatal) attempt to seize the long-sought diamonds while Joba was in the process of being destroyed by a volcano. Darkest Africa was one of Republic’s more uneven serials, but Oakman’s performance was one of its bright spots; his conniving and overbearingly self-confident Durkin was a delight to watch as he craftily bargained with Prival’s Dagna, energetically battled Beatty, and breezily brushed aside the worries of his much more cautious cohort Cobb.
Oakman’s next chapterplay, Radio Patrol (Universal, 1937) featured him in the smallest and most mundane serial role he’d played thus far; as Stevens, a research chemist on the payroll of crooked steel magnate Harrison (Gordon Hart), he had little to do but provide his boss with periodic reports on his unsuccessful investigations into the secret of a coveted flexible steel formula–a task he performed with a good mix of seriousness and perplexity; he also got to participate in a few scheming sessions with Harrison, but quickly got killed off when he finally left his laboratory to aid the latter’s plans in the serial’s concluding chapters.
Oakman played another lab-bound henchman in his next serial, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Universal, 1938), but was given many more solid villainous moments than in Radio Patrol; his character, the Martian scientist Tarnak, was supposedly the loyal subject of Martian Queen Azura (Beatrice Roberts), but was actually in league with her treacherous counselor Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), who wanted to overthrow Azura and reign in her stead. Though Ming finally did manage to ascend the throne of Mars, he was soon unseated by Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe)–and then tried to destroy the universe in frustration; this mad scheme frightened Tarnak and caused him to turn on (and seemingly kill) his former associate. Though his screen time was limited in Trip to Mars, Oakman expertly and vividly conveyed Tarnak’s wiliness and sneakiness, and managed to hold his own against the imposing Middleton in the two actors’ many conspiratorial scenes.
Red Barry (Universal, 1938) featured Oakman as Wheeler, the lieutenant of Eurasian gangster Quong Lee (Frank Lackteen); while he got to engage in several battles with hero Buster Crabbe, and received a couple of opportunities to display his trademark slyness (particularly when plotting to keep tabs on his duplicitous boss), he was more often thrust into the background by the serial’s unusually large cast of heroes, villains, and quasi-villains. The Lone Ranger Rides Again (Republic, 1939), gave Oakman a good one-chapter bit as a foxy outlaw named Manny, who was assigned to steal a ballot-box and who adopted a convincing–and amusingly boisterous–drunken pose to do so. Buck Rogers (Universal, 1939), Oakman’s last 1930s serial, featured him throughout its twelve chapters as Lieutenant Patten, one of the soldiers of 24th-century dictator “Killer” Kane (Anthony Warde); he supported action heavy Captain Laska (Henry Brandon) in skirmishes with Buck Rogers (Buster Crabbe) throughout the serial, and was not given many individual moments in the spotlight–but still made a distinctive backup henchman, playing his part with his usual combination of shrewdness and aggressiveness, and delivering occasional pieces of gruffly sarcastic dialogue with aplomb.
The years 1940 to 1945 found Oakman still plying his trade in B-movies–chiefly Columbia’s westerns and the crime and horror films (Kid Dynamite, Bowery at Midnight, The Ape Man) produced by Sam Katzman for Monogram Pictures; he made his final Universal serial in 1942, figuring in two chapters of The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack as the swaggering but sharp-witted first mate of a disguised Axis spy ship. In 1945, the aforementioned Katzman became Columbia’s serial producer, and assigned Oakman a major role in his first chapterplay offering for the studio, Brenda Starr, Reporter. Oakman actually played two parts in Brenda–that of gangster Joe Heller, who was rubbed out by his ex-colleagues in the opening episode after double-crossing them in a payroll robbery, and that of Joe’s twin brother Lew, who competed with Joe’s former cohorts, the police, and the titular reporter heroine (Joan Woodbury) in a search for the loot hidden by his deceased sibling. Though a very weak serial overall, Brenda Starr did well by Oakman, giving him his biggest chapterplay role since his turn in Darkest Africa, and allowing him to once again play a variation of his trademark “rogue villain” character. Though his now advanced age sometimes made him seem rather more vulnerable and sympathetic than in his earlier serials, he still played the incorrigibly greedy Joe Heller with gusto–entertainingly veering from furtive panic to jubilant smugness as he lost or gained the upper hand, and displaying particular verve during a sequence in which Heller impersonated a nightclub mind-reader.
Oakman by now was suffering from heart disease, and his screen appearances began to slack off precipitately as the 1940s continued; he only made about ten films after Brenda Starr, six of which were Katzman/Columbia serials. The first of these was Who’s Guilty (Columbia, 1945), a tedious and muddled “mystery” serial centering around a wealthy murder victim, his suspicious and avaricious relatives, and the police detective (Robert Kent) assigned to investigate the murder. Oakman made a welcome “guest appearance” in the serial’s middle episodes as a gangster named Smiley, who tried to collect a gambling debt from one of the more dissolute relatives (Bruce Donovan) and became entangled in the serial’s central mystery; though Oakman’s character was killed off much too early, he did manage to significantly enliven several of this lackluster outing’s sequences by performing several cheerfully self-assured acts of cunning, bullying, and general blackguardism. His mock-fatherly habit of breezily referring to Donovan’s character as “son” was particularly amusing.
Hop Harrigan (Columbia, 1946), like Brenda Starr and Who’s Guilty a decidedly sub-par serial, similarly benefited from Oakman’s presence; this time around, he was cast as a mysterious aviator and “playboy” named Alex Ballard, who continually tried to gain control of a powerful new energy source discovered by Dr. Tobor (John Merton), and resultantly came into conflict with hero Hop Harrigan (William Bakewell), the criminal known as the Chief Pilot, and the fiery Tobor himself. Though Ballard committed several crimes–kidnappings, hold-ups, and so forth–in his pursuit of the energy source, he was eventually revealed as an undercover government agent, and joined forces with Hop in the end to stop Tobor from blowing up the world. Though Oakman gave Ballard plenty of rascally slickness, he also lent the character a genial dignity that made his eventual unmasking as a good guy credible enough; his sly urbanity as he dealt with his various antagonists provided the serial with several of its more enjoyable moments.
Oakman was an undisguised good guy throughout his next serial, Son of the Guardsman (Columbia, 1946); this ill-advised attempt at a medieval swashbuckler featured him as English nobleman Lord Markham, the father of the heroine (Daun Kennedy), the target of the land-grabbing Sir Edgar Bullard (Charles King), and the eventual ally of the hero (Robert Shaw–not the British actor) against Bullard and other robber barons. Like many of the players in the disastrous Guardsman, Oakman came off as decidedly out of place in an Olde English milieu; though he tried his best to make his character seem both fatherly and aristocratic, his strong urban-American accent jarred badly with his pseudo-medieval dialogue–giving a noticeably awkward air to his performance that prevented him from really putting his character across.
Jack Armstrong (Columbia, 1947) was another of Katzman’s misfires, and gave Oakman another role that he wasn’t entirely suited for; however, he pulled it off a little more successfully than his Son of the Guardsman part. He was cast as Professor Hobart Zorn, the scientific aide-de-camp of would-be world conqueror Jason Grood (Charles Middleton), and spent most of his screen time laboriously explaining the workings of imaginary gadgets to other characters. Oakman often had trouble making Dorn’s long-winded lectures sound convincing, and sometimes wound up delivering them in a rather listless voice–but did manage to retain a gleefully confident facial expression most of the time, no matter how clumsy the technobabble he was forced to spout.
Brick Bradford (Columbia, 1948), a highly uneven but sometimes enjoyably quirky outing, again assigned Oakman to scientist duties, although this time he was on the good guys’ side. As Louis Walthar, the loyal assistant of brilliant inventor Dr. Tymak (John Merton), he received several moments in the spotlight in Bradford’s earlier chapters; with the Tymak character held prisoner on the Moon, it fell to Oakman to explain Tymak’s various fantastic inventions to the other characters–a task he performed in the same cheerful but occasionally tired-sounding fashion that marked his turn in Jack Armstrong. Once Tymak was rescued, Oakman receded to the background, but did get to occasionally participate in battles with the villains.
Above: Wheeler Oakman off-handedly informs skeptical villain Charles Quigley (far right) that Dr. Tymak is detained on the moon in Brick Bradford (Columbia, 1948). Leonard Penn, as Oakman’s assistant, is standing behind him; Fred Graham is behind Penn, and Jack Ingram is between Oakman and Quigley.
Oakman’s final serial, Superman (Columbia, 1948) gave him yet another sympathetic part; he appeared briefly as Dr. Frederick Larkin, a mineralogist who tried to help Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) capture the villainous Spider Lady by allowing Jimmy to hide in a crate of minerals slated for delivery to her hideout; Oakman smoothly palavered with the heavies who came to pick up the crate, but still wound up getting punched out by them. Superman was not only Wheeler Oakman’s last serial, but his last film as well; his poor health forced him to retire from the screen in 1948, and he died of a heart attack a year later at his Hollywood home.
Whether he was bringing a saving grace to dull serials or providing livelier ones with additional liveliness, Wheeler Oakman was such a vivid and entertaining screen rogue that he seldom failed to make an impression, whatever the quality of the production surrounding him or the size of his role. Though most of his characters were thoroughly despicable, the sheer zest with which he schemed and swaggered made him positively charismatic, in his own inimitably disreputable way.
Acknowledgments: The Old Corral’s page on Wheeler Oakman provided me with the biographical information in this piece.