February 18th, 1901 — September 19th, 1959
Powerfully built, with a backbone like a steel ramrod and a harsh, rasping voice, John Merton spent most of his screen career playing heavies that could best be described as villainous versions of a Marine drill sergeant. A lot of his movie work was in B-westerns, where he occasionally played brains heavies but was more typically cast as henchmen; his imposing appearance, commanding voice, and murderous scowl made him ideal for growling threats at good guys or berating the thugs unlucky enough to serve under him. Merton played this same type of confident, overbearing henchman in numerous 1930s movie serials, while also playing some offbeat character parts in the serials of the late 1940s.
John Merton was born Myrtland La Varre in Seattle, Washington, but grew up in Washington, D.C. He came of a distinguished Virginia family, which ultimately disowned him for choosing acting as a career; he served in the Navy during World War 1 and headed for the New York stage after leaving the service. He worked on Broadway and in several touring companies throughout the 1920s, and got his first film experience in Paramount’s silent W. C. Fields comedy, Running Wild, which was filmed in New York.
Merton, who had married during his New York acting years, moved his growing family out to California in 1932. He apparently hoped to make it in Hollywood, but found the going hard; he began his picture career as an extra and bit player, not winning his first credited part until 1934, when he appeared in the first chapter of the Universal serial The Red Rider. He played a belligerent ranch hand named Banty, who mistakenly accused supporting hero Grant Withers of murdering his employer. Merton’s role was small, but he played it with an impressive aggressiveness that he would soon turn to good account in bigger roles.
Merton spent much of 1935 playing bit roles in B and A films, but the year also saw him land his first sizable henchman part in producer Harry Sherman’s second Hopalong Cassidy B-western, The Eagle’s Brood. In 1936, Merton began establishing himself as a prominent B-Western heavy–following his turn in Brood with more noticeable parts in additional Hopalong films and some of Tim McCoy’s cowboy movies for Trem Carr Productions. Also in 1936, he played his first major serial role, although it was surprisingly not a villainous one. Republic Pictures’ Undersea Kingdom, an uneven but exciting science-fiction adventure set in the submerged but still-functional land of Atlantis, cast Merton as Moloch, one of the soldiers of Atlantean tyrant Unga Khan. When hero Ray “Crash” Corrigan (a US naval officer who led an expedition to Atlantis) spared Moloch’s life in the arena of Unga Khan’s enemies the White Robes, Moloch abandoned Khan’s service and spent the rest of the serial as Corrigan’s right-hand man in the fight against the Black Robes, finally dying in a heroic attempt to stop Khan launching a tower for the conquest of the “surface world.” Merton handled his first (and practically his only) large sympathetic part with flair, giving his character a properly stalwart bearing and conveying more enthusiasm and energy than the serial’s star Ray Corrigan–who, though an excellent B-western hero, seemed ill-at-ease in the sword-and-science milieu.
Despite his success as a good guy in Undersea Kingdom, Merton continued on a villainous trail in B-westerns for the rest of the 1930s, appearing frequently as heavies in cowboy films from Republic and many small independent studios. He followed the same course in the rest of his 1930s serials, beginning with The Vigilantes Are Coming (Republic, 1936). This Western chapterplay cast Merton as an outlaw named Talbot, one of the chief henchmen of renegade general Fred Kohler, who was plotting to make himself dictator of California. Merton had to split “action heavy” duties with Bob Kortman as the leader of Kohler’s Cossack auxiliaries, but was distinctively nasty throughout, whether he was harshly shoving underlings or victimized peasants around or viciously growling out lines like “let him burn” (addressed to heroine Kay Hughes, when she tried to get Merton to release hero Bob Livingston from a flaming church tower).
Merton didn’t work in another serial until 1938, when he appeared in three of Republic’s four releases that year. The first of the three was The Lone Ranger, one of Republic’s best serials, which featured him in a part similar to his role in The Vigilantes Are Coming but gave him more screen time. As “Captain” Kester, the henchman of a bogus Texas administrator (Stanley Andrews), Merton led a troop of a troop of mercenaries in oppressing the ranchers of Texas, and handled a large share of the serial’s villainy, since Andrews almost never left his fortress. As in Vigilantes, the aggressive, jut-jawed Merton was ideal for the part of a bullying quasi-military villain, and made a formidable antagonist for the avenging Lone Ranger.
Above: John Merton tries to convince Allan Cavan (seated) of charges against (from left to right) Lane Chandler, Lee Powell, Herman Brix, and Hal Taliaferro, all suspected of being The Lone Ranger.
The Fighting Devil Dogs, Merton’s second 1938 serial, featured him in a one-chapter bit as a thug called Thompson, who engaged heroes Lee Powell and Herman Brix in a fistfight and got the worst of it. Dick Tracy Returns, however, gave him a major role as ex-prizefighter Champ Stark, the oldest son of gangster Pa Stark (Charles Middleton) and his father’s chief muscle in his war against Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd). Merton played Champ as dim-witted but tough, an intimidating figure with a pugilistic swagger and a brutishly self-confident smirk.
Daredevils of the Red Circle (Republic, 1939), gave Merton a small role as a crooked plant worker engaged in sabotage; he got to engage in a forceful bit of lying at hero Charles Quigley’s expense, but only appeared in a single chapter. He took a much bigger role in Republic’s Zorro’s Fighting Legion the same year; as a Mexican commandant named Manuel, he was one of four crooked counselors secretly arming the Yaqui Indians against the Republic of Mexico; Merton’s character used his army position to persecute the counselors’ opponent Zorro (Reed Hadley) as an outlaw, but was exposed two-thirds of the way through the serial and subsequently killed off. Merton again made a very credible rogue soldier, barking out his lines in gruff and arrogant fashion.
Above: Accused of treason, John Merton makes a dramatic exit from the council chamber in Zorro’s Fighting Legion (Republic, 1939). Leander De Cordova is seated at the head of the table, while Reed Hadley (as Don Diego/Zorro) is standing.
The 1940s found Merton continuing to work steadily as a B-western villain at Republic, Monogram, PRC, Harry Sherman Productions, RKO, and other outfits, while occasionally playing parts in bigger movies; one of his first films of the decade was the classic 1940 MGM action film Northwest Passage, in which he had an unusually large role as one of Spencer Tracy’s Ranger officers. Also in 1940, he took his most memorable serial role in Republic’s atmospheric and suspenseful Drums of Fu Manchu. As Loki, the murderous mute henchman of the titular Oriental arch-fiend (Henry Brandon), Merton had no dialogue but was exceedingly menacing as he carried out Fu Manchu’s orders, grimly and ferociously fighting the heroes with knives and fists, and occasionally breaking into a grin that was as sinister as his stoic glare.
Merton took only a small one-chapter thug part in The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1940), his first Universal serial; White Eagle (1941), his first Columbia serial, featured him more prominently as Ronimo, a renegade Indian who assisted crooked frontier businessman James Craven in his efforts to precipitate a potentially profitable Indian war. Though Merton was a bit chunky for the part of an Indian, he gave Ronimo a suitable combination of stoicism and ferocity, and–unlike several of White Eagle’s other villains, Craven included–didn’t play his character for laughs, an approach that White Eagle’s director James W. Horne (who helmed many great Laurel and Hardy comedies) typically tried to elicit from his actors.
Merton took small parts in Sea Raiders (Universal, 1941), Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (Republic, 1941), and Don Winslow of the Navy (Universal, 1941), as—respectively—a guard at the island hideout of a villainous foreign navy, a pilot for secondary villain John Davidson, and (for a change) a dependable helmsman aboard the hero’s Navy destroyer. Merton made no serials at all in 1942, but 1943 saw him appearing in Universal’s The Adventures of the Flying Cadets as Blaine, one of the leading henchmen of treacherous spy Robert Armstrong; however, he was only prominent in the serial’s last three chapters, after the action reached Armstrong’s secret jungle hideout.
Zorro’s Black Whip (Republic, 1944) gave Merton his biggest serial part since White Eagle, although—as in Eagle—he was not the principal action heavy. As Harris, the assistant of chief henchman Baxter (Hal Taliaferro), he participated more or less equally in almost all of the serial’s active evildoing, battling masked heroine Linda Stirling and hero George J. Lewis on behalf of brains heavy Francis McDonald. This was the last henchman role Merton would play at Republic, and though the character was not nearly as memorable as his earlier parts there, he still played it with plenty of snarling energy.
Jungle Queen (Universal, 1945), gave Merton a miniscule single-chapter bit as a Nazi agent; he received a scant two lines and only showed his face for a second before getting into a fight and getting blown up at the end of the episode. Brenda Starr, Reporter (Columbia, 1945) was the first of many chapterplays Merton would do for Columbia’s new chapterplay producer Sam Katzman; as a gangster named Schulz, he spent most of his time serving as an inactive headquarters assistant to chief villain George Meeker, plotting with him and with field operators Jack Ingram and Anthony Warde. When Warde’s character was killed off in Chapter Ten; Merton became a little more active for the serial’s remaining episodes–receiving a couple of opportunities to bully people in characteristic style, and a chance to (more uncharacteristically) assume a hypocritically jovial manner when trying to recruit slippery crook Ernie Adams for a safecracking job.
The Master Key and Secret Agent X-9 (both Universal, 1945), gave Merton small but noticeable roles as a Nazi agent named Vogel who died in a plane crash and an expendable thug named Brent who was coldly gunned down by his ex-employers, a gang of Japanese spies. With one exception, these two outings would be Merton’s last non-Columbia serials.
Who’s Guilty (Columbia, 1945), a confusing old-dark-house chapterplay, featured Merton in a one-chapter bit as a police officer, while Hop Harrigan (Columbia, 1946), gave him the first of his latter-day serial character parts as the unbalanced, bald-headed genius Dr. Tobor–a brilliant but highly eccentric scientist whom hero Harrigan (William Bakewell) tried to protect from a mystery villain called “The Chief Pilot.” However, Tobor–stubborn and secretive from the start–grew more and more irritable in the face of ongoing villainous harassment; in the final chapter, he went completely over the brink and tried to destroy the world, but only succeeded in getting himself destroyed instead. As Tobor, Merton easily stole the show in Harrigan; his increasingly deranged-sounding denunciations of his various enemies’ real and imagined acts of perfidy, and his megalomaniacal proclamations about his own genius, gave welcome infusions of energy to a serial that was otherwise a dull one.
Above: John Merton surrounded by the Chief Pilot’s men in Hop Harrigan (Columbia, 1946). The heavies are, left to right, Tiny Brauer, Bud Geary, and Bobby Stone.
Son of the Guardsman (Columbia, 1946), set in medieval England, featured Merton prominently in its final six chapters as Lord Hampton, a corrupt Duke who served as the agent of an (unseen) evil Regent. Though Charles King as a treacherous noble had much more screen time, Merton’s character (who entered late in the serial) was the chapterplay’s highest-ranking villain; he was tailor-made for the role of a haughty but tough robber baron. Guardsman itself, like Hop Harrigan, was very lackluster, but Merton was as emphatically energetic as ever.
Above, from left to right: I. Stanford Jolley, Wheeler Oakman, Daun Kennedy, John Merton, an unidentified man-at-arms, Robert Shaw (not the British actor), and more men-at-arms in Son of the Guardsman (Columbia, 1946).
The same was true of Merton’s contribution to Jack Armstrong (Columbia, 1947). Here he appeared as a shifty businessman named Gregory Pierce, a supposed friend of heroes John Hart and Pierre Watkin but secretly an accomplice of would-be world conqueror Charles Middleton; when Middleton tried to double-cross Merton midway through the serial, Merton decided to imitate him and recruited several of Middleton’s lower-level henchmen to aid him in taking over Middleton’s entire setup. The plan didn’t come off, and Merton was zapped by one of Middleton’s death rays at the end of Chapter 12. Jack Armstrong was yet another weak entry in Katzman’s serial resume, but Merton once again did his best by his part. For the only time in his serial career he was cast as an outwardly-respectable villain, and he handled the novel part well, affecting a heartily genial façade when posing as the heroes’ friend. He also outlined his doublecrossing scheme with such assurance that he somewhat obscured the patented idiocy of his character’s attempt to commandeer a complicated scientific project with the help of only a few goons.
Brick Bradford (Columbia, 1948), an embarrassingly low-budgeted but quirkily amusing serial, cast Merton as Dr. Tymak, a bald-headed inventor not too different from Merton’s earlier Dr. Tobor in appearance. However, Tymak, unlike Tobor, was thoroughly sympathetic, a brainy but benevolent scientist dedicated to bringing peace to the world with his missile-interceptor ray, and determined to keep the ray out of the hands of criminals. Merton played this part–the second and last major non-villainous role of his serial career–with commanding dignity and intense seriousness, rattling off descriptions of his character’s many impossible scientific devices with convincing authority; he also showed unusual joviality on occasion, as when he temporarily surprised his fellow good guys with his invisibility device.
Merton’s final Columbia serial was The Adventures of Sir Galahad, a medieval chapterplay like Son of the Guardsman but far more enjoyable than that serial. George Reeves starred as Galahad, while Merton played Ulric, King of the Saxons, who was plotting to conquer King Arthur’s Britain; he and his Saxons caused a lot of trouble for both the Knights of the Round Table and the mysterious and treacherous Black Knight, with whom they eventually allied only to be defeated. As in Guardsman, Merton’s combination of ferocity and arrogance suited him well for the part of a war lord; he had a lot more screen time here than in his first medieval-serial role, and made the most of it–gloating, glaring, and snarling with entertaining gusto.
Merton made his last serial for Republic in 1949, playing a full-fledged brains heavy for the first and final time in his chapterplay career. The well-made but pedestrian Cold War thriller Radar Patrol vs. Spy King featured him as the Spy King of the title, a master of espionage named John Baroda who was trying to disrupt the construction of a chain of radar stations on the US border. Although the character never left his hideout (which was located inside a stationary bomber plane), Merton made Baroda one of the more interesting villains in Republic’s later serials, lowering his usually robust voice to a sharp hiss as he outlined his schemes or dropped sarcastic remarks, and remaining smugly confident no matter how many setbacks he was handed by hero Kirk Alyn.
Merton kept up his B-western appearances into the early 1950s, but when that genre completely died in 1953, Merton’s film work became scarcer and he found himself supplementing his acting work with a job driving supply trucks for Hollywood film labs. He made a few television appearances (on The Cisco Kid, The Roy Rogers Show, and other Western series) in the mid-1950s before taking on a full-time job cutting film negatives in the MGM labs in 1956; afterwards, he only made a handful of feature and TV appearances, remaining at MGM until his death in Los Angeles in 1959.
Among serial heavies, only Roy Barcroft managed to keep playing major cliffhanger roles for a longer period than John Merton did. He will always be best-remembered by chapterplay buffs for his 1936-1940 roles in Republic serials (particularly Loki in Drums of Fu Manchu), but his work was equally strong in his later, more mediocre outings for Sam Katzman. As gangster, outlaw, Chinese assassin, evil ruler, or mad scientist, Merton always delivered a strong performance, using his assertive presence to make his henchmen’s persistence and his higher-ranking villains’ confidence much more menacing than they might otherwise have seemed. No matter how many times one of his characters lost a skirmish with the good guys, Merton seemed so aggressively certain of his triumph in the next round that he forever kept matinee audiences worried about how that next round might come out.
Acknowledgements: My thanks for biographical information goes to both the Old Corral’s John Merton page and to Western Clippings’ very informative Merton section.