Lots of serials feature trains. They were a staple of the silent days, and carried over to the sound era. Trains were so popular that they remained a prominent cliffhanger devise right up till the serial’s demise in the late fifties. Yet for all of their popularity, only a few serial story lines were ever centered around a rail road. One of the best of these was Mascot’s “The Hurricane Express” (1932), starring John Wayne.
John Wayne plays Larry Baker, an airline pilot for Walter Gray’s (Lloyd Whitlock) airline. There is some animosity between the two men as they both are romantically interested in Gloria Martin (Shirley Grey), a secretary for the L & R Railroad. Larry’s father Jim (J. Farrell MacDonald) is the engineer on the Hurricane Express, the fastest train L & R has.
Jim is chugging the Express through on his usual run. Coming from the opposite direction is #59 with Jordan (Matthew Betz) at the wheel. Jordan is supposed to pull off on a siding to let the Express through, but a mysterious man sneaks up behind him and knocks Jordan out. The miscreant opens the throttle all the way and then jumps off the train.
Gloria, who is riding Larry’s transport plane on railroad business, spots the impending disaster and rushes up to the cockpit to tell Larry. Larry decides to land his plane in a field near a switchback and divert the other train. Gray hears this over the radio and orders Larry not to make the attempt. Larry ignores the order and lands the plane anyway. He rushes to the switch and manages to get #59 onto another track, but not soon enough and the Hurricane Express crashes into the back of the other train. Jim is killed. Larry is fired from the airline, but he doesn’t care, all he wants now is to find the man responsible for his father’s death.
Gloria rushes to a cabin up in the hills. There she finds an escaped convict named Stratton (Edmond Breese). He is in fact her father, though no one else knows this. Stratton was sent to prison by the railroad. He has always believed that the company withheld evidence that would have cleared his name. Gloria took a job at the railroad under the name Martin to try and find this evidence. She asks him if he was responsible for the wreck because of his hatred for the company, but he denies doing anything so terrible. Gloria believes him.
Larry goes to the inquiry on the train wreck presided over by company president Edwards (Tully Marshall) and company lawyer Stevens (Conway Tearle). Jordan claims he was knocked out but this is refuted by depot station master Carlson (Al Bridge), who claims he saw Jordan in the engine cab when it blew though the station. Jordan is fired and he vows revenge. Larry tells Gloria that he noticed something fishy about Carlson’s testimony and plans to talk to him at the depot that night.
Gloria listens in on her employers who are discussing the series of strange accidents that have been happening to the company. Though they both believe Jordan’s story, Edwards decided to let him take the rap so that the public won’t get wind that someone is trying to destroy the railroad as this could cost them their lucrative contracts. Stevens voices his opinion that Gray is responsible for the acts so that his airline can get their transportation contracts. Edwards disagrees, thinking it is their disgruntled ex-employee Stratton. Just then Edwards receives a phone call done completely in Morse code. It warns them that their gold shipment for that night will be stolen by The Wrecker. Edwards immediately assigns Railroad Detective Matthews (Joseph Girand) to the case.
That night while Matthews is working out the guard placement on the train, Gray boards as a passenger, followed by Jordan who sneaks aboard. Gloria spots her father sneaking aboard and does the same. After the train pulls out, the conductor is knocked unconscious and replaced by The Wrecker wearing a mask of the man.
Larry arrives at the depot where he finds Carlson tied up. Carlson warns that The Wrecker is on the train. Before Larry can do anything two henchmen (Ernie Adams and Al Ferguson) jump him from behind. Larry beats them off and jumps in his car. The henchmen follow in their car, shooting at him. Larry comes upon the train and sees who he thinks is the conductor shoot the engineer. Larry jumps aboard and they fight, but he is knocked out.
The Wrecker discards his mask and climbs on top of the train where a plane swoops down to take him off. Larry comes to in time to see that the train is headed toward some rail cars set in their path. He immediately applies the breaks and stops the train before it crashes. Matthews comes up to the cab and thinks Larry is The Wrecker. He scoffs at Larry’s story it was the conductor as Matthews found the man tied up in a compartment right before the almost wreck. He plans to arrest Larry until they find the discarded mask that proves Larry’s story.
While this is going on Stratton disconnects the engine and cargo car from the rest of the train and steals them. Gloria sees this an jumps into the cab. Larry spots the engine leaving and runs after it. He climbs aboard and is promptly knocked out by Stratton. The two henchmen have also seen this and after being joined by two more confederates (Charlie King and Glenn Strange), they hop into the plane they were planning on using to transport the gold and follow.
While this is going on Jordan jumps Gray as he is trying to sneak off into the darkness and brings him to Matthews, telling the detective that gray is The Wrecker. Matthews doesn’t believe Gray’s story that he was flying overhead, saw the wreck, and landed to see if he could help, even though Matthews saw a Gray plane leaving the area (the henchmen’s plane), since the man happens to have a ticket for the train on him and it was punched by the conductor. Matthews decides to have the man held for questioning. Spotting the henchmen’s car nearby, he commandeers it and heads out after the engine.
Larry wakes up and is told by Gloria that Stratton is her father and that he is trying to save the gold from The Wrecker. What he isn’t told is that Stratton plans to use the gold to blackmail Edwards and Stevens into producing the evidence that will clear his name. The plane flies over head and strafes the train with a machine gun. The boiler is hit, causing the three of them to jump to safety to avoid being scalded to death by steam.
The plane lands and the henchmen run to the now stopped train and unload the gold. After it is loaded onto their plane, Larry knocks out the pilot, gets Gloria and her father aboard, and takes off. The henchmen fire at the departing plane, hitting a fuel line. The plane erupts into flames but the three of them manage to grab parachutes and bail out before it crashes.
After landing they return to the crash. Larry says they need to get a car to collect the gold. Stratton agrees but then fakes an injured leg. Larry goes on alone to find a car from one of the farmhouses in the area while Gloria stays with her father. After Larry is out of site, Stratton talks Gloria into helping him hide the gold then walks her to a train depot to get a train back to town.
Meanwhile the henchmen are trying to fix the engine so that they can get to the crashed plane. Matthews shows up and the crooks steal back their car. When they get to the wrecked plane, they come upon the just returned Larry. Larry is held at gunpoint while they search the wreck. Larry knocks the gun out of his guard’s hand and gets away in his borrowed car. Not having found the gold they reason Larry must have it and head out in pursuit.
Larry takes his car onto a rail line with the men following. When he comes upon a fast approaching train Larry veers off over an embankment to safety. The henchmen aren’t so lucky as their car is on a bridge. They pile out right before the collision. The train stops and the conductor has them put aboard to answer questions about what they were doing on the tracks. Larry follows the train.
Once aboard they spot Gloria and recognize her as having been with Larry in the plane. One them gets off at a stop and phones The Wrecker for instructions. Once the train is back in town, Gloria is grabbed after she leaves the station. Larry sees this and follows them to a nearby building in the rail yard. There Gloria is questioned by The Wrecker, who is apparently Gray.
Larry bursts in and sends Gloria for help, while he holds them at gun point. Larry’s gun is knocked out of his hand and a fight starts. Gray escapes. Larry fights off his four attackers and heads after him. Catching Gray, the two men fight, but the pursuing henchmen pile on Larry, letting their boss get away. Once out of sight The Wrecker pulls off his mask of Gray and discards it.
The henchmen knock Larry out and dump him onto the tracks in the path of a train before making their own escape. Luckily Gloria returns with several railroad workers who quickly pull Larry to safety. Once she is sure that Larry isn’t hurt, she leaves him in the care of the workers and gets away herself.
Mascot serials can sometimes be a hard road to travel. They tend to carry over the twisting, overly complicated plots from their silent days and they cheat horrendously on both cliffhanger resolutions and on the final reveal of the mystery villain. Happily this is almost not the case with “The Hurricane Express”. Oh sure there are plenty of cheats when it comes to the cliffhangers, but that is to be expected from Mascot. And the plot line is complicated with lots of twists and turns, as everybody in the cast seems to be skulking around and acting suspicious at one point or another as they always do in Mascot serials. But it is here that the script writers come up with the perfect answer for that, instead just having it all forgotten about at the end of the serial, they introduce up front a plot twist that would be later reused in “Mystery Mountain” (1934), the villain has innumerable masks and can be disguised as anyone. This is very liberating for a viewer. Now when someone who might or might not be a good guy starts doing something suspicious, you can’t just assume it is an attempt to mislead, but have to ask yourself is that really him or the bad guy in disguise. Very smart.
The plot also gives many characters an interesting motive for their actions. Larry Baker is out to avenge his father’s death, a staple of pulp fiction and comics, and something the audience can understand. Gloria is conflicted. She wants to help Larry because she loves him, but sometimes has to turn against him in order to help her father clear his name. Usually serial heroines don’t have such complicated problems to contend with. Jordan, like Larry, is out for vengeance though his is fed by his being punished for something that wasn’t his fault, something all kids can relate to. Most interesting is Gray. He is conflicted by a desire to have his business succeed over the railroad and by the fact that he is himself in love with Gloria. This leads to his doing acts that in the long run will cancel each other out.
There is lots of action is this serial involving, as it is centered around a railroad, lots and lots of trains. With only a few exceptions, mainly the massive train wrecks that periodically occur where models are employed, the participants tangle with each other inside, outside, and on top of real moving trains. There is something inherently fascinating about speeding trains for young children. How many of us had a train set when we were younger. “The Hurricane Express” taps into this perfectly, and ups the excitement by having the hero constantly battling the villain’s men on the trains, continually taking the risk of being knocked beneath the wheels. This also leads to most of the cliffhangers involving a train. Many chapters end with the hero or heroine about to get run over by or stuck inside a train about to crash. Consequently after the first few times the novelty starts to wear thin.
The acting is much better than usual for an early talky serial. John Wayne, though early in his career, shows that he has talent to burn here. He gets a great moment in the first chapter when he bends over the dead body of his father and cries, then jumps up and starts to strangle Jordan until he is told Jordan was knocked out and he just sort of loses all strength and is on the verge of collapse at the realization his father was murdered. For the rest of the serial he exhibits an inner smoldering intense hate covering an innate sadness. Take that those who say the Duke couldn’t act. Shirley Grey is also very good. She has an expressive face that is easy to read as she is constantly trying to reconcile helping out the two men in her life she loves but they seem to be at odds in how they want to accomplish their goals. She makes you really feel for her through out.
Former silent star Tully Marshall is the ultimate ruthless businessman. Though not the official villain he garners a great deal of animosity from the audience by his callous attitude toward his employees and always fostering off blame for any problems onto a scapegoat. Ironically the more things change the more they seem the same as this image of a businessman seems closer to the truth even today in light of the public scandals of Enron and Martha Stewart. Lloyd Whitlock is his usual oily shifty eyed self as he plays the suspicious acting airline owner. Whether he is the villain or not doesn’t matter, he is obviously guilty of other nefarious things. The only difference with this performance is the occasional longing glance he throws at Shirley Grey. It almost but not quite makes him sympathetic. Edmond Breese plays Stratton as a crotchety old vagabond with a heart of gold. So impassioned are his speeches about his innocence and how the (excuse the pun) railroad railroaded him into prison, you can’t help but believe him.
The villain’s henchmen are some of the best bad guys actors in the business. Charlie King, Al Ferguson, and Glenn Strange have all done countless serials and westerns playing various types of thieves and thugs. They all give solid performances that mainly involve looking tough and getting the stuffing knocked out of them by Big John Wayne. But the stand out among this crowd is Ernie Adams. Usually cast as a weaseling cowardly underling who takes orders grudgingly but will turn states evidence at the drop of a hat, here he is the toughest of the tough guys. Though much shorter than the other three he is clearly the leader and doesn’t hesitate to berate one of them for screwing up, and so forceful is his personality that the other three will take it even though anyone of them could snap him in two with one hand. Adams is also the most gung ho henchman in the serial. He is always the first one to jump on Wayne, even though it always ends the same with Wayne pasting him one, then picking him up and throwing him into the other three men. But this doesn’t deter Adams, even after being swung around to take a chair shot intended for the hero, he gets back up, shakes his head, and jumps on Wayne again. He’s like a tenacious little chihuahau, all bark and all bite.