January 26th, 1908 — March 1st, 1964
Dennis Moore starred or co-starred in six different serials, but unlike most leading men with multiple serial credits, he has never had a fan following; he remains the most overlooked of cliffhanger leads. Moore had all the standard attributes of a serial hero–good looks, athletic ability, and a commanding voice–but he simply lacked the charisma of Clayton Moore, Buster Crabbe, Allan Lane, and other, more popular serial heroes. He was a sturdy but unexciting actor, and rarely managed to give his performances the extra spark of personality which can make a simply-written part seem more interesting. However, he was a reliable presence in the world of serials and B- westerns, and could always be depended on for a solid, if uninspired, performance.
Moore was born Dennis Meadows in Fort Worth, Texas. As a young man, he developed a strong interest in both acting and aviation; he worked his way towards a pilot’s license while simultaneously working with local theatrical companies. Upon earning his license, he set out to pursue flying as a full-time career, but was injured in a crash and forced to return to acting. He wound up in Hollywood around 1932, and broke into films as a stuntman and bit player in various B-movies and serials; among the latter were Gordon of Ghost City (Universal, 1933) and Burn ’em up Barnes (Mascot, 1934), which featured him in uncredited bits as a cowboy and a film crewman, respectively. He had somewhat larger but still uncredited parts in The Red Rider (as a cowhand named Slim) and Tailspin Tommy (as a pilot named Herb Slack; he probably handled some of the aerial stuntwork in this serial as well); both cliffhangers were released by Universal in 1934. Following these early entries in his serial filmography, Moore landed his first credited part, the role of heavy in the 1935 John Wayne B-western The Dawn Rider. Throughout the rest of the 1930s and into the early 1940s, Moore played villains and other supporting characters in western and non-Western B-films, and occasional supporting parts in A-films like Warner Brothers’ China Clipper; he supplemented his movie earnings with a regular job as a flight instructor at the Whitman Airport in the San Fernando Valley.
Above, left to right: Horace Murphy, an unidentified player (in far background), Walter Miller, Bud Osborne, Charles A. Browne, another unidentified player, and Dennis Moore in Tailspin Tommy (Universal, 1934).
In the early 1940s, Moore graduated from playing villains and heroine’s brothers in his B-westerns, and landed co-starring roles in three different B-western series. In 1942, he played secondary hero to George Houston in PRC’s Lone Rider films, while in 1943 he served as co-hero with Ray Corrigan in the Range Busters series at Monogram. Finally, in 1944, he played secondary hero to Jimmy Wakely in Song of the Range (also at Monogram); he would continue as a regular Wakely co-star for the rest of the 1940s. Following these leads in Western features, Universal Pictures cast him in a Western serial, 1944’s Raiders of Ghost City. This cliffhanger took place near the end of the Civil War, and pitted Moore, as Union Secret Service agent Steve Clark, against a band of Confederate raiders who were being used as unwitting catspaws by Prussian agents. The serial was a talky but interesting period spy thriller; Moore was overshadowed by the livelier performances of most of his co-stars (particularly Joe Sawyer as his roguish and wisecracking investigative partner), but handled his dialogue (and the action scenes) capably and authoritatively.
The year after Raiders of Ghost City, Moore appeared in a second Universal serial, The Master Key; like Raiders, Key was an espionage serial, but was set in the modern era. Milburn Stone starred as a federal agent battling a Nazi spy ring; the Nazis (headed by Addison Richards), were after a gold-producing machine invented by scientist Byron Foulger. Stone was the serial’s principal hero, but Moore’s character, police detective Jack Ryan, was a prominent and likable co-hero, and shared in most of the cliffhanger’s action. Moore also got to exchange some amusing banter with Stone and with heroine Jan Wiley, and delivered the liveliest performance of his serial career, leavening his typically businesslike performance with a touch of deadpan humor.
1945 also saw the release of Moore’s only cliffhanger for Republic Pictures, The Purple Monster Strikes. This chapterplay remains the best-remembered of Moore’s serials, due to its combination of a memorably weird science-fiction plot with Republic’s typically excellent action sequences. Moore played Craig Foster, an attorney for a scientific foundation and a former Secret Service agent, who found himself opposing a Martian invader known as as the Purple Monster (Roy Barcroft). The Purple Monster was out to steal the plans for a rocket designed by Professor Cyrus Layton (James Craven), with the ultimate intention of using the rockets in an invasion of Earth. To further his ends, the Monster killed Layton and assumed his body as a disguise, which made Foster’s task of thwarting him doubly difficult. While Roy Barcroft’s colorful villainous characterization was definitely the main attraction in The Purple Monster Strikes, Moore delivered another workmanlike performance, delivering scientifically implausible dialogue in the most matter-of-fact manner and not even rolling his eyes when called on to utter the rather bizarre name of his antagonist.
Moore returned to Universal in 1946, to appear in The Mysterious Mr. M. As in Master Key, he was paired with another lead, but this time Moore was the federal agent and the leading hero, while co-star Richard Martin was the supporting police detective hero; the two sleuths went up against a mysterious master criminal out to steal the plans for a new submarine. Mr. M, Universal’s final serial, featured some exciting action in its cliffhanger sequences, but was excessively talky overall. Like many of the studio’s later outings, it was burdened with an over-large cast that spent most of their time recapitulating the plot in each chapter to mark time till the chapter-ending cliffhanger. Moore, Martin, and leading lady Pamela Blake worked well together, however, and made their share of the dialogue scenes engaging enough. Moore also got to do a bit of genuine dramatic acting when registering grief over the death of his character’s brother early in the serial–briefly breaking his usual unflappable calm with a display of convincing anger and grief.
Moore continued his prolific B-western career through the rest of the 1940s and into the early 1950s; in 1952, he was nearly killed when the transport plane he was flying crashed, and took some time to recuperate; he wasn’t able to return to the screen until 1954. By that time, the B-western genre was all but defunct, and Moore began working steadily on TV Western shows instead, appearing as heavies and supporting good guys on shows like Buffalo Bill Jr., The Adventures of Kit Carson, and The Roy Rogers Show. In 1956, ten years after The Mysterious Mr. M, he also returned to the serial arena, appearing in Columbia Pictures’ two final cliffhangers–which also happened to be the two last serials made by any Hollywood studio.
The first of these was Perils of the Wilderness, in which Moore played an undercover marshal named Dan Mason, who posed as an outlaw named Laramie in order to smash the plans of outlaw boss Kenneth MacDonald. The cliffhanger was more or less a rehash of a 1942 Columbia serial, Perils of the Royal Mounted, relying heavily on stock footage from that outing and (rather incongruously) from another Columbia effort called The Mysterious Pilot. Moore was typically down-to-earth and soberly energetic; his performance seemed almost dynamic in comparison to those of co-stars like Richard Emory and Kenneth MacDonald, who came off as drearily aware that their scenes were nothing more than perfunctory threads required to hold the patchwork effort together.
Blazing the Overland Trail, Moore’s, Columbia’s, and Hollywood’s final serial, was another patchwork effort, largely cobbled together from the Columbia Western serials Overland with Kit Carson and White Eagle. Moore was second billed in the role of Pony Express rider Ed Marr, but his character (dressed to match shots of Carson’s star Bill Elliott) performed just as many acts of heroism as scout Tom Bridger (played by top-billed Lee Roberts) did; Moore also got to handle most of the dialogue in the final confrontation with the villain (Don Harvey) and shared a romantic moment with the heroine just before a last fadeout brought down the curtain on the serial genre. As in Perils of the Wilderness, Moore played his role with commendable professionalism and conviction, despite the fact that his scenes were, for the most part, short and perfunctory dialogue scenes too obviously intended to set up stock sequences.
Moore resumed his television work after concluding his serial career–as before, working chiefly as a character player on Western series, among them Sky King, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Tombstone Territory; he also landed a recurring role as a ranch hand named Hank in Walt Disney’s 1957 Mickey Mouse Club series, “The New Adventures of Spin and Marty.” Moore retired from the screen around 1960, though his last few TV episodes continued to air into 1961. He and his wife moved to the Big Bear Lake area (where Perils of the Wilderness had been filmed); they ran a gift shop there until Moore’s death from heart disease in 1964.
Dennis Moore might not have had the kind of talent that could add a special spark to a serial, but he never took anything away from his serials, either. He was the kind of actor that rarely commands the audience’s attention but can be depended on to fill almost any role smoothly and professionally. To use a baseball analogy, the competent utility player is as important a component of a team’s success as a home-run hitter, albeit a much less interesting component. Moore was a reliable utility actor, and as such deserves notice from serial historians, even though he’ll probably never be a favorite with serial fans.
Acknowledgements: For the biographical information in this article, I’m greatly indebted to the page on Dennis Moore at Western Clippings, and to a Classic Images article about Moore (by Don Creacy) linked from the Old Corral’s Moore page. Creacy’s article provides a multiplicity of Moore-related quotes from a memoir by B-western screenwriter C. Jack Lewis (White Horse, Black Hat: A Quarter Century on Hollywood’s Poverty Row; Scarecrow Press, 2002).