January 8th, 1903 — July 19th, 1976
During a lengthy career in feature films, television shows, and movie serials, Gene Roth played his share of sympathetic parts, but was most frequently cast as heavies or other antagonistic characters; his intimidatingly bulky frame and his craggy face (usually embellished by either a stern scowl or a cagy smirk) were well-suited to such parts. However, though Roth was threatening in appearance, he was quite laid-back in demeanor, moving at a lazily deliberate pace and delivering his lines in an easygoing drawl; he even seemed relatively calm when he was snarling or sneering at opponents or cohorts. This ultra-relaxed manner limited Roth as a screen villain; he wasn’t energetic enough to play action heavies, and also wasn’t flamboyant enough to portray the more ambitious and power-hungry type of brains heavy. However, his placid craftiness was ideally suited to another type of brains-heavy role–that of the corrupt, shrewdly practical, and outwardly respectable businessman or politician; he played several specimens of this villainous species in B-features, and contributed similar characterizations to a pair of post-war serials (one Republic, one Columbia). These two outings gave Roth his best cliffhanger showcases, but they were by no means his only serials; he portrayed many other major villains, minor villains, and minor good guys in the chapterplays of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Gene Roth was born Eugene Stutenroth in the rural South Dakota town of Redfield, but by 1920 was living in Minneapolis, where his mother (a Swedish immigrant) ran a boarding house. One source (see the Acknowledgements) credits him with some stage work and silent-film appearances (in Mack Sennett’s shorts) during the 1920s, but this seems doubtful, since contemporary motion-picture exhibitors’ journals show that he devoted most of the 1920s to a career in the movie-theatre business–first working as an assistant movie-theatre manager in Duluth, and then moving on to Los Angeles’ theatres, where he rose from assistant manager to full manager. Circa 1929, he relocated to New York, where he temporarily abandoned management chores to work as a builder and installer of theatre pipe-organs; by 1933 he was managing a movie house again, one of Warner Brothers’ Philadelphia theatres. He stayed in the management line during the remaining years of the 1930s and the first few years of the 1940s, operating theatres in the New York/Philadelphia/New Jersey region, for Warners and (later) for Loew’s. Around 1942, Roth left the East Coast and the theatre business for California, where he applied his building expertise to a wartime plane-manufacturing job with the Lockheed aircraft factory.
While working at Lockheed, Roth began dabbling in the acting end of the movie business; with World War 2 in full swing, his forbidding and very Teutonic appearance soon started winning him bits as Nazi heavies. One of these bits was in the 1943 Universal serial, Adventures of the Flying Cadets, Roth’s first chapterplay and one of his first films. This wartime espionage chapterplay gave Gene a small role in three of its chapters as a German spy named Brunner, one of the cohorts of principal villains Eduardo Ciannelli and Robert Armstrong; he only got to exchange a couple of lines with the higher-ranking heavies, hang around in the background of their laboratory, and briefly clash with the young titular heroes before dropping out of the serial altogether.
Roth balanced film assignments and his Lockheed job during the remaining years of the war, and remained more or less typecast as Nazi heavies (in both A and B films) for the duration, although he occasionally played other character types. Most of Roth’s war-era roles were bit parts, save for two credited turns in the 1944 Monogram B-films Charlie Chan in the Secret Service and The Sultan’s Daughter; he played enemy agents in both movies, and played yet another one in his second serial, Raiders of Ghost City (Universal, 1944). This Western chapterplay was set in the 1860s, but still capitalized on the current war by making its heavies undercover Prussian spies; Roth had a small bit as one of these Prussians, a confident thug who went by the name of Gratton, and who appeared just long enough to rough up hero Dennis Moore and then get shot by him during a scuffle.
Above: Gene Roth calls up through a trapdoor (not visible) for instructions on disposing of the groggy Dennis Moore–who’s just fallen through the same trapdoor in Raiders of Ghost City (Universal, 1944).
Although German agents were again the villains in Roth’s next serial, The Master Key (Universal, 1945), Roth was not actually associated with them; instead, he had a single scene as a vengeful but sardonic American crook named Pete Clark, who was tipped to the location of a supposed double-crosser by some Nazi agents (who wanted the man dead for their own reasons), but was arrested before he could rub out his victim. Roth returned to screen Nazism one more time in his final wartime serial, Secret Agent X-9 (Universal, 1945), playing a Third Reich naval officer named Yogel. Although had fairly little dialogue in this chapterplay, he received more screen time than in any of his preceding serials; his character was an aide-de-camp to Captain Grut (Arno Frey), one of the principal villains, and thus appeared in nearly every chapter–standing grimly in the background while Grut and Japanese spy Nabura (Victoria Horne) made plans, occasionally getting a chance to take part in their conversations or receiving an opportunity to threaten heroes X-9 (Lloyd Bridges) and Ah Fong (Keye Luke).
Following the end of World War Two, Roth began receiving a wider variety of roles, and also began getting credited parts (under his full name, at first) on a regular basis; he continued to play bit parts in A-movies, but was given many prominent roles in B-films, serials, and comedy shorts at Universal, Monogram, Columbia, and Republic during the second half of the 1940s. He received his first credited serial role in Lost City of the Jungle (Universal, 1946); this chapterplay, unlike his wartime serials, gave him more to do than simply stand around looking mean. As Hammond, the police chief of the small Asian polity of Pendrang, he assisted Pendrang’s shady ruler Indra (Helen Bennett) in monitoring the activities of secret-agent hero Rod Stanton (Russell Hayden) and arms-broker villain Sir Eric Hazarias (Lionel Atwill), but eventually got quietly liquidated by Indra’s right-hand man (Ted Hecht) after disloyally making a side deal with Hazarias’ faction. Roth’s part here was well-suited to his screen personality; his commanding physical appearance and his sneeringly casual demeanor combined to give an appropriate air of compromised authority to the venal chief.
The 1947 Republic serial Jesse James Rides Again was Roth’s first non-Universal chapterplay, and also gave him his first non-villainous serial role–as a stolid but dependable Tennessee sheriff named Duffy, who periodically helped a heroic gunslinger named “Mr. Howard” (Clayton Moore) in his fight against the ruthless Black Raiders, but never realized that Howard was actually the famous former outlaw Jesse James. Later in 1947, Roth made his first Columbia serial appearance in The Sea Hound, playing a very small bit as a friendly island storekeeper–and beginning a long association with Columbia’s chapterplay producer, Sam Katzman.
The Black Widow (Republic, 1947), a crime serial with some unusually humorous touches, featured Roth throughout in the minor but noticeable role of newspaper editor John Walker, who hired mystery novelist Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards) to investigate the “Black Widow murders” and the sinister espionage ring behind the murders; Roth did a good job of acting gravely thoughtful when discussing the Widow case with Colt, and also did a good job of acting genially amused when intervening in the continual arguments between Colt and sharp-tongued reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lindley). The extremely uneven science-fiction serial Brick Bradford (Columbia, 1948) returned Roth to villainy; as Akbar, the captain of a contingent of militaristic moon-men, he carried out the orders of lunar tyrant Zuntar (Robert Barron) until Chapter Six, when Zuntar was overthrown and Brick’s plot left the Moon behind. Roth’s low-key but self-assured manner stood him in good stead in the frequently bizarre Brick; he operated weird gadgets in convincingly matter-of-fact style, and didn’t visibly display the embarrassment he probably felt at having to wear a lunar “uniform” consisting of a T-shirt, Bermuda shorts, a cape, and an unwieldy-looking helmet.
Above: Lunar guardsman Gene Roth ignores Earthling intruder John Merton’s proclamations of friendliness in Brick Bradford (Columbia, 1948).
The 1948 Columbia serial Superman featured Roth in a one-chapter bit as a train conductor who bemusedly marveled at the miraculous prevention of a train wreck, unaware that Superman (Kirk Alyn) was responsible for the apparent miracle. Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (Republic, 1948), a sequel to Jesse James Rides Again, cast Roth in the small but amusing character part of a cranky and near-sighted marshal who arbitrated a land dispute, and almost discovered that two of the parties in the dispute were the notorious James brothers (Clayton Moore and Steve Darrell); the serial centered one of its cliffhanger scenes around this situation, deriving both humor and suspense from Roth’s protracted search for his spectacles (which he needed to read some potentially incriminating documents).
Above: Gene Roth questions a workman (Jack George, far left) and a stationmaster (unidentified) about an averted train crash, while Noel Neill (as Lois Lane) tries to cut in on the conversation and Tommy Bond (as Jimmy Olsen) watches in Superman (Columbia, 1948).
Ghost of Zorro (Republic, 1949), gave Roth his first serial brains-heavy role; as in two earlier Republic B-westerns (Marshal of Cripple Creek and Oklahoma Badlands), he was paired with Republic’s most prolific heavy Roy Barcroft, and was cast as an ostensibly upright frontier businessman–specifically, one George Crane, the blacksmith, undertaker, alderman, and all-around leading citizen of the town of Twin Bluffs. The supposedly honest Crane was operating a lucrative haven for outlaws in Twin Bluffs, and–in order to preserve this setup–secretly masterminded the wanted badman Kilgore’s (Barcroft) attempts to sabotage a telegraph line that threatened to bring law and order to the town. Ideally cast as the cunning and pragmatic blacksmith, Roth gave the character a convincing air of earthy joviality that made the protagonists’ (Clayton Moore and Pamela Blake) misplaced trust in him seem believable, but easily dropped this joviality when it came time to gruffly but calmly hatch schemes with his accomplice Barcroft–whose aggressive and irritable demeanor contrasted nicely with Roth’s laid-back coolness.
Roth’s last 1940s serial was The James Brothers of Missouri (1949), the third and final entry in Republic’s series of Jesse James chapterplays. As in both of the two previous James outings, Roth played an honest and capable lawman (a marshal named Rand), and, as in Adventures of Frank and Jesse James, figured in an unusual cliffhanger sequence: tipped to Frank and Jesse’s (Robert Bice and Keith Richards) real identities by the villains, he grimly arrested the brothers at the conclusion of Chapter Eleven–only to apologetically let them go in the next episode, when the heroine (Noel Neill) surreptitiously forced the shady identifying witness (Ted Hubert) to withdraw his testimony at gunpoint. Roth’s character then helped the James brothers battle and defeat the heavies in the final chapter–and, as in Jesse James Rides Again, never found out who his allies really were.
During the first half of the 1950s, Roth began working on television as the theatrical B-movie started dying out, appearing on shows like The Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy, Boston Blackie, and Space Patrol. He also played a steady succession of character bits in A-films, and took larger parts in lower-budgeted features for Monogram and Sam Katzman’s Columbia outfit. He also made all but two of his 1950s serials for Katzman; the first of these was Pirates of the High Seas (Columbia, 1950), one of Katzman’s best serials; in this outing, Roth played chief villain Frederick Whitlock, the owner and governor of the small Pacific island of Taluha, and the secret leader of a high-tech band of modern-day pirates. When the serial began, Whitlock and his gang were already preying on Kelly Walsh’s (Tommy Farrell) island shipping company, but went after bigger game after learning that a cache of stolen diamonds was hidden somewhere near Taluha; in their pursuit of this loot, the pirates wound up vying not only with Walsh and his old war buddy Captain Jeff Drake (Buster Crabbe) but with several other treasure-seekers–including Drake’s greedy first mate, a canny beachcomber, and the fugitive Nazi who’d originally stolen the diamonds during the war. Roth was in his element as the complacently corrupt Whitlock, and was highly entertaining to watch–whether he was cheerfully and hypocritically pretending to be a respectable pillar of authority, lazily but alertly bargaining with the serial’s secondary villains, or smugly and carefully monitoring the activities of his henchmen and his enemies by means of various electronic devices.
Don Daredevil Rides Again (Republic, 1951), gave Roth a nice one-chapter character turn as Caleb Brown, a good-natured and garrulous rancher who struck gold on his property, and cheerily but unwisely blabbed about it to eminent local villain Stratton (Roth’s old colleague Roy Barcroft), while celebrating his find in the town saloon. Unsurprisingly, Brown was gunned down by Stratton shortly afterwards–but lived long enough to tell hero Lee Hadley (Ken Curtis) of the gold strike’s location, thus securing the new-found wealth for his surviving relations.
After this short-lived Republic sojourn, Roth rejoined Sam Katzman’s serial stock company to play a major villainous role in Mysterious Island (Columbia, 1951), one of Katzman’s weakest 1950s serials. This dull, cheap-looking, and largely plotless period sci-fi saga, a loose adaptation of a Jules Verne novel, starred Richard Crane as Captain Harding, the leader of a band of Civil-War-era castaways trapped on an uncharted island with pirates, strange and hostile natives, a deranged “wild man,” and invaders from the planet Mercury. Roth was cast as Captain Shard, the leader of the pirates, and served as one of the serial’s two lead villains for a good portion of its running time; he and his pirates, who used the island as a supply base, regarded the castaways as a security threat and repeatedly tried to destroy them. However, the pirates eventually joined forces with Harding’s group to fight the serial’s other chief villain–the Mercurian leader Rulu (Karen Randle)–after realizing that she and her followers threatened the whole world; Shard was ultimately killed in an explosion, while helping Harding scout around the aliens’ headquarters. Shoddy though Mysterious Island was, Roth’s performance was solid throughout; he made his pirate captain seem properly tough, cagy, practical, and level-headed, and also reacted in amusingly grouchy and sarcastic fashion to the often ludicrously weird denizens of the island.
Above: “Captain Shard…don’t you know me?” “Who’d want to know you?” Gene Roth flippantly rebuffs “wild man” Ayrton (Terry Frost), a marooned former member of his crew, in Mysterious Island (Columbia, 1951).
Captain Video (Columbia, 1951), an adaptation of a popular early science-fiction TV show, gave Roth his last leading serial-villain role–as Vultura, the dictator of the planet Atoma, whose plans for conquering the entire solar system were thwarted by interplanetary crimefighter Captain Video (Judd Holdren). Video was an absurd and very flawed serial–and one of its flaws was the miscasting of Roth; though he delivered the serial’s technobabble-laden dialogue with offhand conviction, and also engaged in some enjoyable sardonic gloating, he wasn’t able to give his character any militaristic ferocity or grandiose self-importance–qualities that the supposedly power-mad alien tyrant, surrounded as he was by goofy gadgetry, badly needed in order to come off as truly threatening. Instead, Roth’s incongruously even-tempered performance–and his bizarre and extremely unflattering costume–wound up making Vultura seem merely silly.
Above: Gene Roth orders a henchman to blow up an oncoming rocket in Captain Video (the red tinting was used to differentiate scenes set on Atoma in the original print of Video, and has been restored on the current DVD release).
Roth played another science-fictional menace in his next serial, The Lost Planet (Columbia, 1953); this chapterplay was even more crammed with technobabble–and even more laughable–than Captain Video, but did at least make better use of Roth. Instead of casting him as a supposedly hard-driving would-be conqueror, the serial featured him as Reckov–the down-to-earth and cautious lieutenant of a would-be conqueror, the megalomaniacal mad scientist Dr. Grood (Michael Fox). The self-possessed Roth’s wary interactions with the bombastic Fox were quite enjoyable, whether Roth was insincerely flattering his crazed boss or covertly sulking in reaction to his angry reprimands; the laid-back Reckov almost came off as likable at times, when contrasted to the unhinged Grood–although Roth also did an effective job of underlining the character’s nasty side, quietly but overbearingly bullying the mind-controlled human “robots” that served as Grood’s minions.
Lost Planet was the last serial in which Roth played a prominent part, but he would take small roles in three more chapterplays. The first of these was The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd (Columbia, 1953), in which he had a single scene as Nardo Thompson, a weary and cynical prisoner in a pirate-ship brig who told the similarly-incarcerated heroes (Richard Crane and David Bruce) about one of the piratical exploits of the famed Captain Kidd (John Crawford), narrating a short flashback sequence in the process. Gunfighters of the Northwest (Columbia, 1953), Roth’s last Katzman serial, gave him several short scenes in its later episodes as RCMP Superintendent Drake, who came to a backwoods Mountie post to check on the progress of RCMP Sergeant Ward’s (Jock Mahoney’s) battle against the dangerous “White Horse Rebels.” Roth’s final serial was Panther Girl of the Kongo (Republic, 1955), in which he figured briefly as an affable and prudent barkeeper who avoided getting involved in a fight between the hero and heavies, but who kindly helped patch up the hero afterwards.
Above: “None of my business.” A shrugging Gene Roth bows out of an argument between hero Myron Healey (far right) and heavies Mike Ragan (far left) and Johnny Daheim in Panther Girl of the Kongo (Republic, 1955).
Roth worked principally as a television character actor during the remaining years of the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, occasionally venturing back to the big screen to play bits in major features and supporting roles in independently-produced Westerns and sci-fi movies. His TV appearances became more sporadic in the mid-1960s, and by 1968 he had retired from the screen. For several years afterwards, he held a part-time counterman job at a Hollywood drugstore/liquor-store; he also made contacts with fans of his film work, and attended at least one film convention–where he was pleasantly surprised to find himself well-remembered by serial and B-film buffs. Sadly, his twilight years were cut short in the summer of 1976; he was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing a street near his Los Angeles home.
Gene Roth’s acting style lacked the dynamism that marked the best and most memorable serial villains; though a solid character actor, he simply wasn’t theatrical enough to command the screen in the way that predecessors like Charles Middleton or contemporaries like Lyle Talbot could. However, though he can’t be called one of the great chapterplay heavies, he still made a thoroughly good one–whenever he was given a villainous role that fit his sly, tough, phlegmatic, and unique screen personality.
Acknowledgements: The 1920 and 1930 federal censuses, the Old Corral’s Gene Roth page, an entry at John McElwee’s Greenbriar Picture Shows site (which displays some interesting documents from Roth’s theater-manager days), and a discussion thread on the Internet Movie Database’s message boards provided me with the information utilized in this article. Chuck Anderson’s Old Corral page, which reproduces some Roth-related pages from exhibitor publications of the 1930s and 1940s, was particularly helpful. My first version of this page drew on an entry at Bill Cappello’s blog, which reproduces a page on Roth from a film-history book on character actors, The Versatiles; however, the Old Corral page (as aforementioned) calls the Versatiles blurb into question, and makes me suspect that said blurb might be derived from misleading studio publicity pieces, concocted to make it seem as if Roth had a more extensive background in acting than he actually did.