March 9, 1892 — March 30, 1940
A leading serial hero during the later years of the silent era, Walter Miller also played heroic roles in more than one talking serial. However, the majority of his sound-era chapterplay turns were villainous ones: Miller played more 1930s serials heavies than any other actor, and invariably played them well. Handsome and distinguished in appearance, he nevertheless conveyed menace just as effectively as far more sinister-looking actors did; his intensely steely glare, grimly authoritative voice, and coldly aggressive manner made each of his serial villains seem like a truly formidable force to be reckoned with.
Walter Miller was born in either Dayton, Ohio, or Atlanta, Georgia; neither official records nor Hollywood directories give a decisive answer as to which town, but the most logical scenario (judging from census records) would seem to be that his parents moved from Ohio to Georgia not long after his birth. In any case, he and his family were living in New York by 1910; Miller seems to have launched his acting career in that city shortly after finishing high school. He worked with various theatrical stock companies from 1910 to 1912, and also made some initial film appearances in several shorts for Reliance Pictures in 1911. In 1912 he went to work for Biograph, D. W. Griffith’s Manhattan-based movie studio; for the next two years, he would play prominent parts in innumerable short Biograph films (including Griffith’s well-remembered The Musketeers of Pig Alley). In 1914 he left Biograph to freelance, and spent the remainder of the 1910s (save for a year in the Army) and the first half of the 1920s starring and co-starring in films–principally romantic dramas–for various studios, among them Victor, Fox, and Rolph-Metro. In 1922 and 1923, he starred in a series of mystery shorts produced by A. M. Putnam and directed by William Burt; this series seems to have caught the notice of Burt’s former boss, the Pathé Exchange’s leading serial director George B. Seitz. In 1925, Seitz recruited Miller to co-star with Pathé’s new serial queen Allene Ray in the silent chapterplay Sunken Silver; the serial and the Miller/Ray pairing both proved extremely popular with audiences, and Miller was thus firmly established as a major cliffhanger hero. From 1925 to 1929, Miller would devote most of his acting time to Pathé chapterplays–re-teaming with Ray in Play Ball, The Green Archer, The House Without a Key, Snowed In, Melting Millions, Hawk of the Hills, The Man Without a Face, The Terrible People, and The Black Book, and starring opposite other leading ladies in Police Reporter, The Mysterious Airman, and Queen of the Northwoods; he also played second lead in Gene Tunney’s Pathé serial vehicle, The Fighting Marine.
Pathé called a halt to serial production in 1929, just after the release of Miller and Ray’s final chapterplay, The Black Book. However, the much smaller outfit Mascot Pictures was still committed to making serials, and quickly signed the now-famous Miller to topline several of their cliffhanging ventures. Miller’s first Mascot assignment was the role of hero Larry Trent in 1929’s King of the Kongo–a jungle adventure that was essentially a silent serial, but which also featured several dialogue sequences; in these scattered scenes, Miller displayed a strong speaking voice that guaranteed his continued success in the talkie era. Mascot followed Kongo with their first real sound serial, The Lone Defender (1930); this Western chapterplay co-starred Miller with another prominent action star of silent days, the legendary Rin Tin Tin. Rinty portrayed the faithful dog of a murdered prospector, while Miller was a mysterious vaquero named Ramon–who was suspected of the prospector’s murder by the authorities, but who joined with the sagacious Rinty to track down the real culprits; in the end, Ramon turned out to be undercover US lawman Marco Roberto. Miller delivered a commanding and lively performance in his first all-talking serial vehicle, making Ramon seem slickly enigmatic, cheerfully swashbuckling, and toughly authoritative by turns; however, his performance was somewhat hampered by the exaggerated and distractingly cartoonish Mexican accent that his character was forced to affect until the serial’s closing scene.
Miller did not actually appear in Mascot’s second sound chapterplay, The Phantom of the West (1931), but his voice was heard throughout the serial–narrating recapitulations of the serial’s plot at the beginning of each episode, and occasionally dubbing (with appropriate grimness) the menacing dialogue of the Phantom, the titular mystery villain. Miller was back before the cameras in King of the Wild (Mascot, 1931), his final starring serial; this involving and colorful adventure saga featured Miller as Robert Grant, an American who was wrongly accused of murdering an Indian rajah, and who escaped prison to recover a letter that would clear him. His quest for the letter led him to Africa, involved him with a beleaguered brother and sister who’d been targeted by diamond thieves, and pitted him against a crooked animal trader, a scheming Arab sheik, a ferocious ape-man, a mysterious killer in dark glasses, hostile natives, and various wild animals. Miller did an excellent job of lending his fugitive protagonist a proper air of worried desperation, while at the same time making him seem stalwartly heroic; he also did a good job in his short-lived secondary turn as the ill-fated rajah (whose uncanny resemblance to Grant started the whole plot rolling), affecting a dignified but affable demeanor and an understated accent.
Above: Walter Miller gets the drop on villain Tom Santschi and seemingly recovers the vital letter in King of the Wild (Mascot, 1931); Arthur McLaglen, as Santschi’s trained man-ape Bimi, is at far right.
Above: Mischa Auer (far left) watches as Walter Miller as the Rajah of Rampur (second from left) greets Walter Miller as Bob Grant (second from right), in a convincingly doctored publicity still for King of the Wild.
Miller by now was close to forty years old and starting to look his age; he’d already played several supporting roles in various 1930 features (among them Warner Brothers’ On the Border and Tiffany’s The Utah Kid), and apparently decided that it was time to embrace such roles permanently; save in a few 1930s crime shorts, he would play no more starring parts after completing King of the Wild. Following another recap-narrator assignment in Mascot’s 1931 chapterplay The Vanishing Legion, Miller took on his first non-starring serial role since his secondary hero part in 1926’s The Fighting Marine–playing the seemingly respectable but villainous adventurer Ben Arnold in Universal Pictures’ Danger Island (1931). Unfortunately, this chapterplay is one of several early Universal serials that has been lost since its original release; all information about Miller’s first major serial-heavy part must be gleaned from pressbook summaries. It seems that his character pretended to friendship with heroine Lucile Browne, and joined her search for a priceless cache of radium (discovered by her late father) in hopes of seizing it for himself–only to eventually have his plans thwarted by heroic skipper Kenneth Harlan.
Above: Walter Miller (far right foreground) confronts Andy Devine and Kenneth Harlan (left to right, foreground) as Lucile Browne looks perplexed in Danger Island (Universal, 1931). William L. Thorne is in the background between Browne and Miller.
Miller’s brief but well-received turn as a slimy businessman in the prestigious 1931 United Artists feature Street Scene (one of the few sound A-films in which he played a credited part) probably helped to cement his determination to pursue heavy roles. Before 1931 was over, he had followed his Danger Island characterization with another villainous serial performance in Mascot’s The Galloping Ghost. A starring vehicle for famous football player Red Grange, this chapterplay cast Miller as George Elton–a wealthy society sportsman who was also the secret boss of a ruthless gambling ring. The ring bribed college football star Budd Courtland (Francis X. Bushman Jr.) to throw a game, but corruption charges wound up being accidentally fastened on Buddy’s teammate Red (Grange, using his own name) instead; Red set out to clear himself and protect Buddy from Elton’s gang–who were determined to cover their tracks by eliminating Courtland. Miller, whose character pretended to assist the good guys for almost all of Ghost’s running time, expertly balanced gentlemanly politeness with chilly, sneering harshness–dropping the former for the latter whenever he abandoned the protagonists’ company to plot with his henchmen.
Above: Walter Miller kindly offers Francis X. Bushman Jr. a drink of water–in an attempt to disrupt Bushman’s dangerous speculations about the boss of the gambling ring in The Galloping Ghost (Mascot, 1931).
After villainous performances in several B-westerns, and leading turns in several of the above-mentioned crime shorts, Miller returned to Mascot’s serials in 1932 to play Danby–one of the semi-villainous directors of an airplane factory in The Shadow of the Eagle, all of whom were suspected of being the mysterious airborne criminal of the title. The directors in turn suspected carnival owner Nathan Gregory (Edward Hearn) of being the Eagle, and launched almost as many attacks against Gregory, his daughter Jean (Dorothy Gulliver), and their pilot defender Craig McCoy (John Wayne) as the Eagle’s gang did. Miller’s Danby spent more time in the background than some of the other factory directors, but this failure to take a particularly active part in the persecution of the Gregorys made Danby come off as more level-headed and less antagonistic than several of his colleagues–an impression reinforced by Miller’s decisive but coolly controlled demeanor. It seemed quite believable that his character was the first director to definitely come over to the hero’s side in the climactic chapters; cleared of suspicion (along with all but one of his associates) in the final episode, Miller finished the serial firmly on the side of the angels.
Miller remained on the angels’ side in his next–and last–Mascot serial, 1932’s The Last of the Mohicans. Loosely based on James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel, this unusual and entertaining chapterplay starred Harry Carey as frontier scout Hawkeye and awarded Miller the assistant-hero role of the impetuous but noble British colonial officer Duncan Hayward. Definitely too old for his role (the other characters’ continual references to Hayward as “lad” and “young paleface” came off as decidedly incongruous), Miller nevertheless attempted to convey youthful energy by delivering his dialogue in a fervently eager manner, whether earnestly defying hostile Indians or dramatically declaring his love for Alice Munro (Lucile Browne). His performance often came off as almost hysterically hammy, but also had its effective moments, and retained an endearing sincerity at all times.
The years 1933-1935 would constitute the most serial-intensive period of Miller’s sound-era career; though he continued to play co-starring parts in B-features and small character bits in higher-budgeted features during the said years, chapterplays–all of them Universal releases–definitely dominated his filmography. Gordon of Ghost City (Universal, 1933), a solid Western effort, began this long string of serials; the titular range detective was played by cowboy star Buck Jones, while Miller was featured as his antagonist–trusted ranch foreman, secret rustler, and would-be claim jumper Rance Radigan. As in The Galloping Ghost, Miller in Gordon skillfully switched between assumed honesty and open villainy, adopting a bluntly straightforward manner when conferring with rancher William Desmond, and craftily and self-assuredly plotting with his henchmen. He also did a good job of conveying repressed anger when dealing with the inquisitive and frequently facetious Jones–continually displaying snappish ill-temper in reaction to Jones’ wisecracks or questions, and then intently choking down his annoyance.
The action-packed serial Pirate Treasure (Universal, 1934) featured Miller as yet another two-faced villain: aviator and attorney Staley Brasset, who plotted to get his hands on a treasure map owned by hero Dick Moreland (Richard Talmadge). The first half of this serial gave Miller little to do but issue occasional orders to his henchmen via radio and periodically chat with Talmadge at their characters’ mutual club, but he performed both duties well, delivering the orders with confident terseness and engaging in the chats with polished suavity. The second half of the serial, in which Brasset joined the unsuspecting Moreland’s treasure-hunting voyage, gave Miller more screen time, allowing him to display a lot more terseness and suavity while interacting extensively with both his fellow-villains and the hero; he also managed to convey a growing obsession with the pirate treasure, briefly becoming wild with irrational greed when a henchman tried to talk him into giving it up in order to save their lives.
The Vanishing Shadow (Universal, 1934), an absorbing crime chapterplay with strong characters and interesting science-fiction trappings, gave Miller the most complex of his serial-villain roles. His character, Wade Barnett, was a ruthless big-city utilities tycoon and political boss who was determined to seize control of the one newspaper opposing him, the Tribune; before the serial began, he had hounded and harassed the Tribune’s owner into an early grave, only to find himself forced to deal with the late publisher’s avenging son and heir, Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens)–who joined forces with brilliant but eccentric scientist Professor Van Dorn (James Durkin) to bring down Barnett’s empire. Stanfield and Van Dorn were aided by a girl named Gloria (Ada Ince), who turned out to be Barnett’s estranged daughter; though angered by the girl’s opposition to his villainous activities, Barnett retained a soft spot for her and strictly ordered his henchmen to leave her unharmed during their campaign against Stanfield. When Barnett’s chief henchman Dorgan (Richard Cramer) rebelled against his boss in the final chapter and took Gloria hostage, Barnett atoned for his past villainy by rescuing the girl, Stanley, and Van Dorn, dying in the process but also winning a final reconciliation with his daughter. Miller handled the customary villainous aspects of this role with his usual flair, icily but intensely laying plans and snapping out orders; he also did an excellent job of handling his role’s more unusual aspects–displaying bitter resentment in his conversations with his daughter, briefly dropping his steely demeanor to react with emotional anguish to a false report of her death, deciding on his final act of redemption with resolute calm, and conveying both regret and relief in his death scene.
Miller followed his portrayal of the ultimately sympathetic Wade Barnett with a turn as an utterly unsympathetic heavy in the 1934 Western serial The Red Rider, one of Universal’s very best chapterplays. Miller’s character was Jim Breen, a conniving rancher, rustler, and smuggler who murdered a double-crossing associate in Chapter One, and who resultantly found himself pursued by cowboy “Silent” Slade (Grant Withers)–who was falsely charged with the killing–and by former sheriff “Red” Davidson (Buck Jones)–who’d given up his badge to help his friend Silent escape hanging. Miller played Breen’s treacherousness, ruthlessness, arrogance, cowardice, and utter selfishness to the hilt, and made his villain a thoroughly hateful one–whether he was smugly trying to force his attentions on the heroine, slyly scheming against the heroes, coldly plotting the betrayal of one of his own henchmen, or reacting with feverish panic to the threats of his lieutenant Joe Portos (Richard Crame), who turned against him in the later episodes.
Miller’s next serial villain, double-dealing pilot Bruce Hoyt in Tailspin Tommy (Universal, 1934), was not as completely vile as his Breen in Red Rider; an expert flyer in the employ of the Three Point airline, Hoyt was likably jaunty and good-natured in his dealings with his fellow-flyers, veteran Milt Howe (Grant Withers) and rookie Tommy Tompkins (Maurice Murphy), and showed some genuine fondness for airfield waitress Betty Lou Barnes (Patricia Farr). However, the seemingly affable pilot was secretly in league with rival airline owner “Tiger” Taggart (John Davidson), and did his best to sabotage Three Point’s planes before finally dying in a crash. As Hoyt, Miller was properly slick and crafty, but was also so believably congenial at times that one got the impression that Hoyt’s friendliness towards his unsuspecting co-workers wasn’t entirely feigned; the determined coolness with which his character encountered aerial danger also suggested that Hoyt, though a thoroughly untrustworthy man, really was an talented and courageous flyer.
Miller received a respite from villainous roles in The Rustlers of Red Dog (Universal, 1935), an action-packed and well-written Western serial that starred John Mack Brown as frontier lawman Jack Wood. In this outing, Miller played “the Deacon,” a sarcastic, cynical, but completely reliable cardsharp who wielded a dangerous shotgun and served as Wood’s trusty sidekick in his many encounters with hostile Indians and the titular rustlers–making many a wry quip in the process, and entertainingly trading verbal barbs with his co-sidekick, the grizzled scout Laramie (Raymond Hatton). Miller seemed to relish this offbeat part, and together with Hatton came close to stealing the serial at times; dropping his usual intense seriousness, he adopted an entertaining air of easygoing mock dignity, facing danger with drolly deadpan facial expressions and delivering waggish remarks with tongue-in-cheek solemnity.
Miller was back to villainy in The Call of the Savage (Universal, 1935), a solid jungle adventure in the Tarzan vein. He played an unscrupulous doctor named Frank Bracken, who was bent on winning wealth and fame by stealing a polio cure developed by a less mercenary colleague, Dr. Harry Trevor (Bryant Washburn); the cure formula was inscribed on a bracelet worn by Trevor’s son Jan (Noah Beery Jr.), who’d been lost in the jungle as a child and grown up to be a Tarzan-like wild man. Bracken determinedly hunted Jan through the jungle in hopes of recovering the bracelet, only to finally be outwitted and electrocuted by an equally ruthless rival villain, the usurping ruler (John Davidson) of the lost city of Mu. Miller was well-cast as the intelligent but overbearing and fiercely impatient doctor, and played the part with characteristic vigor–pursuing Jan with single-minded relentlessness throughout the serial, and harshly rejecting suggestions by his more cautious accomplices.
Miller’s final 1935 serial was The Roaring West (1935), in which he once again opposed Buck Jones. Much weaker than Gordon of Ghost City and The Red Rider–indeed, one of Universal’s weakest 1930s serials–West was a meandering affair with too many undeveloped characters; its thin storyline pitted Jones (as cowpoke Montana Larkin) against Miller (as rustling ranch foreman “Gil” Gillespie) in a repetitive fight over the map to a gold mine. However, Miller played his part with aplomb despite a subpar script; his character was exposed as a villain early on–preventing him him from engaging in the same two-faced behavior that had marked his similar characterization in Gordon–but he still ordered around his henchmen with his usual grim terseness and threatened the good guys with his usual domineering aggressiveness.
In a 1935 newspaper interview given to promote Roaring West, Miller confessed that he was (understandably) getting a little tired of serial acting, and hoped to take more feature-film roles in the future. He would indeed concentrate on features during the remaining years of the 1930s–playing heavies in B-westerns for Universal, Republic, Harry Sherman’s Paramount unit, and other outfits, taking small parts in various A-features, and winning a couple of good character roles in the medium-budgeted RKO dramas Flight from Glory and Saturday’s Heroes. He did make three more serials during this final period of his career, however–the first of which was the excellent Wild West Days (1937), his last Universal serial. Though he was cast as a villain once again, his character, crooked saloonkeeper “Doc” Hardy, was decidedly different from most of his earlier heavies. For one thing, Hardy was not the leader of Days’ villain team; he was instead one of the chief accomplices of newspaper editor and secret outlaw boss Matt Keeler (Russell Simpson), providing his boss with shrewd advice and coolly back-shooting his enemies for him when necessary. Relieved of the burden of villainous command, Miller was able to make his character laid-back and smoothly sarcastic instead of intently fierce, and spent much of his screen time merely commenting on Simpson’s plans in an entertainingly casual manner, making good use of a cigar and a continually flipped coin for scene-stealing purposes; overall, he made the character came off as an evil version of his Deacon in Rustlers of Red Dog.
The Secret of Treasure Island, Miller’s only chapterplay for Columbia, gave him his last leading villain part–and the most memorable one of his entire sound-serial career. This top-notch chapterplay cast Miller as Carter “the Shark” Collins, a retired shipping magnate who was obsessed with finding a fabulous pirate treasure buried somewhat on an island off the Mexican coast; to this end, Collins recruited a band of henchmen, shanghaied a crew of treasure diggers, set himself up as absolute ruler of the island, and imprisoned or killed any outsiders that ventured into his realm. He also assiduously tried to steal a treasure map belonging to heroine Toni Morrell (Gwen Gaze), but met with continual resistance from both the girl and intrepid reporter Larry Kent (Don Terry); after many clashes with these two and with rival treasure-seekers, Collins finally found the pirate loot–only to wind up sealed inside the treasure chamber as a volcanic eruption destroyed it around him. Most of Miller’s previous serial heavies had come off as intense, ferociously driven, and arrogant, but in Secret of Treasure Island Miller accentuated this intensity, ferocity, and arrogance to such a degree that Collins came off as a frightening megalomaniac; the curt and angry impatience with which he snapped out his tyrannical commands made it seem like he was barely holding back an insane frenzy. Collins finally lapsed into just such a frenzy in the concluding chapters, laughing insanely when he found the treasure and attacking the hero with deranged fury when the latter entered the treasure room; Miller handled this mad scene with an energy that made it genuinely terrifying–and then managed to make the viewer feel almost sorry for Collins in his ensuing death scene, as he pounded on the walls of his treasure-chamber tomb, screamed for help, and tried desperately but futilely to escape his ironic end.
Miller’s turn as the Shark would have made a fitting conclusion to his serial-villain career, but he played one more chapterplay heavy after Secret of Treasure Island–Sandoval, the henchman of master spy Zarnoff (Irving Pichel) in Dick Tracy’s G-Men (Republic, 1939). Though a first-rate serial, G-Men gave Miller one of his least distinctive roles; he enjoyed a lot of screen time, continually battling Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) on Zarnoff’s behalf, but rarely got to do more than snap out commands to subordinate henchmen in the midst of fights, chases, and gun battles. Still, he performed this task with flair, and established more than enough of a presence in the serial to avoid being overshadowed by the arrestingly sinister Pichel, who received all of G-Men’s really meaty villainous scenes.
Dick Tracy’s G-Men probably hints at the path Miller’s serial career might have taken in later years; like most prominent 1930s serial heavies, he would in all likelihood have given way to a new generation of chapterplay menaces, played some lesser villainous roles in 1940s serials, then ultimately switched to sympathetic character parts–heroines’ fathers, sheriffs, scientists, and the like. However, his career instead came to a sad and abrupt end in 1940: early in that year, he died of a heart attack while working on Republic’s Gene Autry B-western Gaucho Serenade.
When serial buffs discuss the genre’s greatest villains, Walter Miller is often overlooked–largely because the bulk of his talking chapterplays were made during the first half of the 1930s, an era that tends to receive far less attention from fans and critics than the 1936-1945 period of serial history does. However, most of his chapterplays, though less frequently seen than some of their successors, were excellent productions–and Miller’s performances in them were invariably excellent as well; his strong, commanding, and intimidating villainous characterizations definitely made him one of the best heavies of the entire sound-serial era.
Acknowledgements: Much of the information in this article is derived from the Old Corral’s page on Walter Miller, an article on Miller in the online version of Boyd Magers’ Serial Report (Chapter 25), another online Serial Report issue (Chapter Five) that reprints Miller’s 1935 Roaring West newspaper interview, and Ed Hulse’s book Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders: Cliffhanger Serials of the Silent-Movie Era (Murania Press, 2014).