February 17th, 1902 — February 5th, 1972
Kenneth “Kenne” Duncan played occasional sympathetic parts (sidekicks, sheriffs, and the like) during his lengthy career in B-westerns, serials, and television, but always tended to specialize in henchman parts. Though not particularly large, Duncan had a harsh voice and a rather military bearing that made him seem tough enough to repeatedly tangle with the heroes, while his somewhat furtive face made him seem too diffident to challenge his boss’s leadership; this combination of aggressiveness and shiftiness made him an ideal secondary villain.
Duncan was born Kenneth Duncan MacLachlan in Chatham, Ontario. He attended Toronto’s St. Andrews College and then the Royal School of Infantry in London, Ontario, before apparently deciding to abandon a military career for an acting one sometime in the mid-1920s. He did some stage work—either in Canada or the US—before turning up in California in 1928, where he played supporting roles in several silent Western shorts for Universal Pictures. He stayed in Hollywood until 1932, playing bit roles and a few major parts in silents and early talkies. In 1933, he returned to his home country and worked in multiple Canadian-American joint productions, “quota-quickies” made to satisfy international film distribution agreements (one of these titles was Duncan’s first B-western, a 1934 Charles Starrett Mountie picture called Undercover Men, in which he played the heavy). After a brief return to American B-films (during which he appeared in another Starrett B-western, Gallant Defender) in late 1935, Duncan went to England for the next two years, playing major roles in several Anglo-American quota-quickies. The globe-hopping actor returned to California late in 1937, taking a henchman role in the Bob Steele B-western The Colorado Kid and settling down to a long career in matinee fare.
Duncan made his first serial in 1938, Universal’s Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. He appeared throughout the serial in the minor but noticeable role of the Martian Air Marshal, an executive officer to the tyrannical Queen Azura (Beatrice Roberts); most of his scenes had him barking the Queen’s orders to subordinates in person or over two-way transmitting devices. The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (Columbia, 1938), gave him a much smaller role as a sympathetic town blacksmith; he appeared in one chapter as an apparent replacement for actor Lee Phelps, who had played the blacksmith (in an identical costume) in earlier episodes.
Above: Kenne Duncan smirks over Frank Shannon’s (far right) unfamiliarity with a Martian “light bridge” in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Universal, 1938). Buster Crabbe, disguised as a Martian officer, is in the center.
Also in 1938, Columbia gave Duncan his first big chapterplay part in The Spider’s Web. Probably the studio’s best serial, Web was based on a popular series of pulp novels and starred Warren Hull as Richard Wentworth, a millionaire who secretly donned the guise of “the Spider” to fight crime. Duncan played Ram Singh, Wentworth’s trusty Sikh chauffer and bodyguard, who was aware of his master’s dual identity and served as a formidable ally to the Spider. Though somewhat oddly cast, Duncan played Ram Singh with gusto, growling out vituperative Eastern insults (“Dog with a pig’s face!”) with conviction and balancing stoic reserve with rather murderous aggressiveness (Ram repeatedly killed heavies with thrown knives, not standard behavior for a serial sidekick).
By 1939, Duncan had already begun to establish himself as primarily a heavy, in B-westerns for Republic, Columbia, and various independent studios. He would follow this career path in serials, too, with a few exceptions. For example, in Buck Rogers (Universal, 1939), Duncan played the non-villainous Lieutenant Lacy, one of the officers of the Hidden City rebels opposed to 25th-Century world dictator Killer Kane, who helped to rescue 20th-Century hero Buck Rogers (Buster Crabbe) from suspended animation in the first chapter. Duncan’s role was largely a background one, but he provided Crabbe with loyal support throughout the serial. Duncan also played a good guy—a frontier trapper—in Overland With Kit Carson (Columbia, 1939), but his part here was pretty small. Deadwood Dick (Columbia, 1940), featured him in a one-chapter bit as a henchman named Two-Gun, who briefly impersonated the serial’s masked hero.
The Green Archer (also Columbia, 1940), let Duncan come as close to a hero role as he would during his entire serial career. This mystery chapterplay featured Duncan as Michael Bellamy, the owner of a transplanted-to-America castle, who was framed by his brother Abel (James Craven) and sent to prison so Abel could use the family fortress as headquarters for his jewel-robber gang. Michael was apparently killed in an Abel-engineered train crash in the first chapter, but shortly after the crash, a mysterious masked bowman called the Green Archer appeared on the scene to help hero Spike Holland (Victor Jory) battle Abel’s gang. The Archer served as a dependable deus ex machina for Spike and the other good guys throughout the serial, and of course turned out to be Michael in the final chapter, when the Archer unmasked and saved all the leading protagonists from death. Green Archer was largely played for laughs by its director, James W. Horne, but Duncan (who only appeared undisguised in the first and last chapters and had a few masked dialogue scenes in the interim) played his role perfectly straight, giving some pathos to his character’s parting with his wife in the first chapter and infusing some actual drama into Michael’s final confrontation with the cartoonishly hysterical Abel.
The 1940s found Duncan continuing his B-western henchmen work for multiple studios, while doing similar turns in serials. White Eagle (Columbia, 1941), another tongue-in-cheek James Horne serial, featured Duncan as a henchman “pack member” named Kirk, who remained largely in the background (sneering and snarling to good effect whenever he was given dialogue) until he was killed off by his own boss in Chapter Nine. Republic’s classic 1941 release Adventures of Captain Marvel gave Duncan a more prominent role as Barnett, the gangster lieutenant of a masked criminal called the Scorpion. Duncan received a lot of screen time in this outing and handled it well, sadistically smirking as he threatened to torture recalcitrant professors and reacting with pop-eyed chagrin when confronted by the super-powered Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler). Oddly enough, his character was never punished on-screen, being left behind in America when the Scorpion went to Asia in the later chapters and thus missing the chief villain’s Waterloo.
Duncan reprised his Ram Singh role in The Spider Returns (Columbia, 1941), but this sequel was yet another James Horne chapterplay and featured much more laughs than thrills, focusing chiefly on the Spider’s masquerade as a comic crook called Blinky McQuade and the bumbling antics of the leading villain, the Gargoyle. Duncan, unlike virtually all his co-stars, played things completely straight–but his screen time was severely diminished, while Ram Singh’s character was decidedly defanged when compared to his Spider’s Web incarnation; he didn’t throw a single knife in the entire chapterplay, and uttered only one Eastern maxim (a decidedly un-ferocious one at that), even though Duncan gave him the same grim bearing he’d displayed in the first Spider serial.
The excellent Western chapterplay King of the Texas Rangers (Republic, 1941), featured Duncan as an outlaw named Nick, one of a gang of modern-day badmen in the pay of a Nazi spy ring. Though not the designated lead henchman, he took a prominent part in the gang’s activities throughout, until he was apprehended by Mexican Rurales in Chapter Nine and put out of action. Perils of Nyoka (Republic, 1942), cast him as a tough Arab named Abou, the loyal retainer of heroine Kay Aldridge. Though his role was much smaller than in Spider’s Web, he delivered Middle-Eastern type dialogue with the same conviction he had given Ram Singh’s lines; he was also allowed to participate in a few rescues of Aldridge and tangle with the villains on his own occasionally.
The Secret Code (Columbia, 1942), a World War Two spy adventure starring Paul Kelly as the masked “Black Commando,” had Duncan as a Nazi agent named Marvin, whose henchman career was terminated in Chapter Six when Kelly dressed him in the Commando costume and let him be gunned down by his fellow Nazis. Valley of Vanishing Men, (also Columbia, 1942) gave Duncan a small role as an outlaw named Logan, one of the badmen recruited by ambitious frontier tyrant Kenneth MacDonald. Duncan entered this serial in the fourth chapter, and exited three chapters later after only a few henchman activities; he was captured by hero Bill Elliott and then shot dead by a cohort when about to divulge the location of the villains’ hideout.
Daredevils of the West (Republic, 1943), gave a one-chapter bit as a henchman named Hooker, who was recruited to pose as an Indian agent and rescue principal action heavies George J. Lewis and William Haade from some angry Arapahos. His role in Batman (Columbia, 1943) was also small, although more sympathetic; he played a hapless airplane mechanic captured by Japanese spy J. Carroll Naish and electrically turned into a “zombie.” The zombie-fied Duncan and an equally unfortunate colleague were then assigned to steal a new airplane prototype but perished in a plane crash after a tussle with Batman (Lewis Wilson).
Batman would be Duncan’s last Columbia serial; in the summer of 1943, he signed a “Term Player” contract with Republic that would keep him working exclusively at the studio for the next three years. Duncan, hitherto a freelancer at multiple B-western studios, now became one of the primary faces of Republic villainy, playing heavies in an enormously high percentage of their cowboy films and many of their serials as well. His first Republic chapterplay under the new contract was Captain America (1943), which only gave him a small one-chapter role as a crooked radio store owner.
After playing another small part—a thug named Gentry who popped up in a few chapters of The Tiger Woman (Republic, 1944)—Duncan tackled a major role in the enjoyable South Seas adventure Haunted Harbor (also 1944). He played a crook named Gregg, who did all the dirty work for outwardly-respectable mine owner Roy Barcroft. Duncan gunned down the heroine’s father, tried to impale the heroine, blew up a friendly native chief, and performed other heinous acts with energy and a mean-spirited smile, but was killed himself in the final chapter when Barcroft shot him and (unsuccessfully) presented him to hero Kane Richmond as the sole proprietor of the two villains’ gold-stealing operation. Duncan made his character thoroughly despicable in Harbor, but still evoked a little audience pity in his death scene, thanks to his puzzled and trapped expression when he realized he had been betrayed, and his rather frantic appeal to Barcroft’s loyalty just before being plugged.
Duncan again served as Roy Barcroft’s hard-working but put-upon henchman in the colorful Manhunt of Mystery Island (Republic, 1945). As a villainous sailor named Sidney Brand, Duncan executed the orders of “Captain Mephisto,” a modern-day island businessman who could scientifically transform himself into the likeness of a piratical ancestor (Barcroft). Barcroft’s Mephisto was much more active than his Haunted Harbor character, and Duncan served chiefly as his accessory rather than his emissary in Manhunt. The two made an excellent team, with Duncan serving as the vicious but continually browbeaten jackal to Barcroft’s swaggering lion.
The Purple Monster Strikes (Republic, 1945) allowed Duncan to play a good guy, a researcher named Mitchell, in the first chapter. He refused to divulge astronomical secrets to the titular Martian invader (Roy Barcroft again) and managed to get out a phone warning to hero Dennis Moore, thus preventing the theft of a rocket engine. The Phantom Rider, Republic’s last 1945 chapterplay, returned Duncan to villainy as a badman named Ben Brady. Brady was the field commander of an outlaw gang that made its headquarters on an Indian reservation outside the law’s jurisdiction; his secret boss was fake Indian agent LeRoy Mason. The duo tried to block attempts to form a reservation police force to deal with the situation, but they were stopped by frontier doctor Robert Kent. The sneering, hard-bitten Brady was the type of frontier heavy Duncan had been playing in B-westerns for years, and he handled the part effortlessly; it would be his final villainous role in a cliffhanger.
Duncan played his last serial role in Republic’s The Crimson Ghost. This 1946 outing, the studio’s best post-war release, featured Duncan as Professor Chamber, the distinguished inventor of an anti-atomic device called the Cyclotrode. Chambers was kidnapped, and his invention stolen, by a masked criminal called the Crimson Ghost. The resourceful professor worked towards his own escape, however, setting up a death trap for the villain that would have worked had well-meaning hero Charles Quigley not come to Duncan’s rescue; Duncan saved Quigley from walking into the trap, but at the cost of his own life. Although he only appeared in the first two chapters, Duncan made a strong impression in Crimson Ghost, fearlessly standing up to the villains and giving his role a kind of beleaguered dignity.
After his Republic contract expired in mid-1946, Duncan began freelancing again, working in B-westerns features and shorts for Universal, Republic, and Monogram. Beginning in 1949, he worked mostly at Gene Autry’s Flying A Productions, whose films were released through Columbia. Duncan acted in most of Flying A’s features and also made innumerable appearances on Flying A television series like Range Rider, Adventures of Champion, and The Gene Autry Show, still playing plenty of heavies, but also taking roles as sheriffs, comical “old timers,” and other sympathetic types. When B-westerns died out of theaters around 1953, Duncan became primarily a TV actor, working on the aforementioned Flying A shows, Adventures of Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp, and many other Western series. He still worked occasionally in features during the 1950s, playing bits in Columbia’s A-westerns and later taking major roles in some zero-budget sci-fi films like 1957’s The Astounding She-Monster or Ed Wood’s Night of the Ghouls (filmed in 1959). Duncan’s health began to break down around 1960 (mostly due to his heavy drinking), forcing him into retirement; his last theatrical venture was another picture for his personal friend Wood, 1961’s Sinister Urge. However, he made one more film in 1965, which served as a much more fitting valedictory to his career: Superman vs. the Gorilla Gang, a short fan movie produced by serial and movie buff Don Glut, which had Duncan once again playing henchman to his old friend and perennial co-star, Roy Barcroft. After several years in retirement, Duncan suffered a stroke in 1971; he passed away the following year from a barbiturate overdose.
Kenne Duncan was by no means the scariest or most threatening of the serial genre’s henchmen, but he remains one of the most fondly-remembered among buffs. Undersized compared to most cliffhanger thugs, he compensated by playing his villains as human weasels—sneaky and nervous, but vicious and tenacious at the same time. Though his Ram Singh portrayal was memorable as well, Duncan’s popularity with matinee fans will always rest chiefly on his turns as harried and harrying emissaries of evil.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to William C. Cline’s book In the Nick of Time (MacFarland, 1997) for the information on Duncan’s pre-Hollywood life, and to the Old Corral’s Duncan page for additional biographical information (particularly the dates of Duncan’s Republic Term Player contract).