Happy Thanksgiving fellow thrill seekers! As has become a regular part of this site's fan based look at the exciting world of serials, a spooky serial in October is followed by a not so well thought of one for November. In the past I've highlighted such disappointments as Republic's Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936) Columbia's Brick Bradford (1947) and Universal's Lost City of the Jungle (1946). For this month I'm taking a look at another Universal serial from it's final year of production, The Scarlet Horseman (1946), a title that is universally (no pun intended) panned on many fan sites. Personally, though it has a several problems with the story, I have a certain fondness for the serial and list it as one of my guilty pleasures along with such goofy serials as Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) and Batman and Robin (1949).
The setting of the serial is Texas during the late 1800's near a town called 44. A masked rider has been plaguing a group of outlaws led by shipping agent Zero Quick (Edward M Howard) who is supplying the local Comanches on the nearby reservation with rifles so they can attack wagon trains coming into the territory. Quick himself takes his orders from saloon owner Ballou (Danny Morton), who is just a go between for the real villain, know only as Matosca.
The Masked Rider is really Jim Bannion (Paul Guilfoyle), a famous gunslinger who pretends he was crippled by a real accident he had years ago and is now in a wheelchair running a gunsmith shop in 44. In reality he is an undercover agent for Texas using his cover to investigate the impending Indian uprising. His shop has a secret tunnel that connects to an old abandoned fort outside of town where he keeps his horse and outfit. Helping Jim are fellow agents Amigo (Cy Kendall), a Mexican American who works as his assistant in the shop, and Kirk Norris (Peter Cookson), who is passing himself off as a map surveyor as well as a heated enemy of Jim for some undisclosed past event they always bring up in front outsiders.
The Comanches are led by hereditary leader Loma (Victoria Horne) after her father was secretly murdered by Zero Quick, but since she is female she cannot be Chief and Tioga (Fred Corby) is appointed Chief. Though he is the Chief, Tioga will follow Loma's guidance as she is the keeper of the sacred sword of The Scarlet Horseman, a legendary champion of her people who always appears when her people are in trouble.
Quick learns of the sword and wanting to get an upper hand so that he can force his unknown employer to cut him in for an equal share of whatever the big plan is, has it stolen from Loma while she is working at her job as the maid for Carla Marquette (Virginia Christine), daughter of a disgraced state senator and loyal friend of the Comanches.
The two thieves take the sword to their hideout where they discover a buffalo shaped whistle carved from bone hidden in the handle. Quick is given the sword but not told of the whistle. Quick goes to Ballou's office back of the saloon to try and bargain for the sword's return. Loma steps out of a secret passage connected to the hotel next to the saloon and takes the sword back at gunpoint.
The Masked Rider comes upon the secret hideout and discovers the two henchmen have shot and killed each other over the whistle. He takes it back to the gunsmith shop and shows it to Kirk and Amigo. Amigo realizes it must be the whistle of the Scarlet Horseman and explains the legend of how the Comanches would hear the whistle and know that their champion was approaching to help them when they were in trouble. His appearances would be marked with either a sign of approval or disapproval on their actions and that the Horseman would then destroy their enemies.
Jim theorizes that the Horseman must have been something invented by a distant chief and that down through the years different warriors have assumed the mantle in times of crisis through the years. Loma's father must have died before he could revel the secret to her, otherwise the whistle would never have gotten out of her hands. Kirk has an idea, they should use the legend to quell the fermenting uprising. Jim agrees and they retire the Masked Rider outfit and create a scarlet costume to replace it.
Loma gives Tioga the Horseman's sword and tells him to use it to lead his warriors to victory attacking a new wagon train coming into the territory as ordered by their wise friend Matosca. Tioga leads his warriors in the attack, brandishing the sword for all to see so that his warriors know they have right on their side.
44 hears of the attack and Jim slips away in his new costume to stop it. Tioga hears the bizarre whistle of the Scarlet Horseman and sees him appear over a ridge making the sign of disapproval. Tioga leads his men toward the solitary figure to run him down. The Horseman whips out one of his six shooters and shoots the sword out of Tioga's hands, shattering it. Spooked by the Horseman's dead aim, the warriors scatter and ride away in fear of their champion's wraith.
The Horseman's appearance causes the uprising to fall apart and a truce is signed. It looks like peace will return to 44. Elise Halliday (Janet Shaw), daughter of Texas State Senator Halliday (Al Woods) arrives as a guest and old family friend of Carla Marquette. She is kidnapped by two of Quick's men Tragg (Jack Ingram) and Kyle (Edmond Cobb). She is put into one of the coffins Quick is bringing into the territory. The Horseman rescues her and swipes a horse at gunpoint from newcomer Idaho Jones (Harold Goodman), telling him he can get it back at the Marquette Ranch. Elise uses the horse to get away while Idaho has to hitch a ride into 44 on a passing freight wagon.
Kirk is notified that the attempt on Elise is just the latest in a series of kidnappings of the wives and daughters of prominent Texas government officials, even Elise's mother (Helen Bennett) is one of the Legion of Lost Women. They are being held in an undisclosed area in the territory and guarded by Panhandle (Guy Wilkerson), a Shakespeare quoting henchman of Matosca. No demands have been made but Senator Halliday knows it is only a matter of time before they are given a ransom demand.
Kirk thinks this is just the break they need to bust up the gang operating in the territory. He has always suspected Quick of being the leader and the use of his wagon and cargo might just be the proof they need to catch him. Kirk visits Quick where he discovers the body of one of the two drivers in on the kidnapping dead, with a piece of scarlet material snagged on his clothing. Quick says the Scarlet Horseman must have killed him in retribution for the abduction. Kirk suspects that Quick did the deed himself to cover his own tracks and throw suspicion on the Horseman. Leaving Quick, Kirk heads for a wagon train heading out of the territory to talk to the other driver who had recently taken a job driving one of the wagons. Jim, watching from a window of his shop, sees Idaho grab a horse and follow Kirk. Jim heads for the secret tunnel to back up Kirk.
Kirk finds the right wagon in the train and climbs aboard to talk to his quarry. The man attacks Kirk and the two men tumble into the back of the wagon, furiously fighting each other. Meanwhile Tioga who has gotten orders from Matosca via Tragg and Kyle, sets fire to the trail so that the tribe can't be blamed for the destruction of the wagon train. Kirk and the man he is fighting with both manage to stop fighting long enough to jump out of the wagon before it runs into a wall of fire and get consumed in flames.
The Scarlet Horseman arrives, gives the sign of disapproval which makes Tioga and his warriors to flee in terror, and then leads the wagon train to safety across a nearby river. The driver tries to escape in the confusion and is gunned down by Tragg. Kirk comes upon him and the man gasps out to watch Loma and beware of Matosca before dying. Idaho overhears this from a nearby shrubbery (insert your own Monty Python joke here).
Later that night Kirk visits Carla's ranch to talk to her about Loma. This conversation is also overheard by Idaho who had been at the ranch to reclaim his horse and is listening in unobserved at a window. Meanwhile Loma is met on the trail home by the Scarlet Horseman who tries to reason with her about not following her false friend Matosca. Loma doesn't believe the Horseman is really the legendary champion of her people but an imposter trying to keep her people enslaved. She agrees to think about what he has said and will leave her answer at a rock outcropping along the trail the next day.
The Horseman finds the message telling him to meet Loma at the abandoned Rosa Rita Mine. He heads out for the meeting. Once he is gone, Quick comes out of hiding and retrieves the note only for Kirk to come out of hiding and get the drop on Quick. Then Tragg and Kyle come out of hiding and get the drop on Kirk. Quick takes delight in telling Kirk how this was all a set up to kill the Horseman at the Rosa Rita Mine and catch who ever was working with the Horseman. Just then Idaho pops up from behind a rock, throwing lead around like a man with an expense account, allowing Kirk to get away while Quick and his men dive for cover.
Kirk comes to the mine and sees the Horseman pinned down in the rocks above the mine by henchmen at the mine. Spotting a railroad crew in the distance he rides over to get help. The crew is not anxious to help, the track hasn't laid to the mine yet. How will they get there without getting cut down? Kirk has an idea. He loads the crew in the last car of the train and taking control of the engine, he guns it into the mine, derailing the front of the train. Kirk manages to jump to safety before the engine overturns and crashes. Luckily the final car is upright and the crew start peppering the henchman. Seeing they are outnumbered, the varmints vamoose along with Horseman.
Meanwhile Quick has headed into 44 and is searching the town to see who isn't in town, that person will obviously be the Horseman. He eventually comes to Jim's gunsmith shop. Amigo won't let Quick see Jim, saying his legs were bothering him and he is resting. Quick pulls a gun and forces Amigo to take him to the back room despite Amigo's pleas that it is too dangerous to disturb Jim when he is sleeping.
Quick finds Jim "asleep" in bed. Suddenly he rolls over with a gun in his hand and shoots Quick's gun out of his hand with one well placed bullet. The sound of the gunshot "wakes up" Jim who admonishes Amigo for disturbing him when he knows how dangerous it is. His suspicions allayed, Quick stammers out an apology and leaves. Kirk comes up through the tunnel and all three share a good laugh at how they fooled Quick.
Things aren't going well for the Legion of Lost Women. Elise's mother has a heart condition, she has relapse because she is without her medicine. She manages to write out the prescription for her medicine and gives it to Loma, who plans to get it filled in 44 but is told it can only be filled by Senator Harding as a local druggist wouldn't have it. Then Mrs. Harding lapses into a coma. Actually it is a trick by Mrs. Harding to give her husband a chance to plan a rescue attempt. Though really sick, she isn't as bad off as she pretends, the coma being a sham.
Unfortunately Quick isn't done scheming. He has Tragg and Kyle grab Loma
in an effort to force her to reveal who Matosca is. In the struggle she loses the prescription. Just then Idaho rides to the rescue and gets Loma away. The two outlaws plan to follow but the sight of Kirk coming up the trail causes them to head for the hills, literally.
Kirk, who had seen what happened from a distance rides up to the spot and finds the prescription. He takes it to the Marquette Ranch and shows it to Carla and Elise. Elise immediately recognizes her mother's handwriting and what the prescription is. Just then Loma arrives back at the ranch and proudly reveals she is holding Elise's mother as well as other women of importance. She is to be allowed to continue her work unhindered or the women will be killed. Carla and Elise are horrified but agree. Kirk agrees to Loma's demands and then leaves for the capital to get the prescription filled.
Kirk meets with Senator Harding in secret and proposes a plan that might allow him to trail the medicine to the abducted women. Harding agrees and Kirk leaves to head back to 44. After Kirk leaves, Harding is visited by Carla, who reveals that she is in reality Matosca. He father raised her to fulfill his dream when he knew it could not be achieved in his lifetime. The state of Texas has clause in it's charter that allow it to be separated into four separate states if the state senate chooses to. She wants Senator Halliday to draft a bill for a separate state to be formed for the Comanches around the 44 territory and for the state officials whose family members have been abducted to push it through the state senate. She also now knows that Kirk Norris is a Texas agent and orders Halliday to have him removed from the case.
Kirk receives a letter from Halliday removing him from working on breaking up the gang in the territory. The letter also informs Kirk that Mrs. Halliday's medicine is arriving on the next stage and he is to do nothing to interfere with Loma's taking it to his wife. Kirk knows that Halliday is not taking him off the case, otherwise he wouldn't have told him when the medicine is coming.
Loma collects the medicine from the stage and Kirk trails her from a distance using a compass to pick up the readings from a magnet Halliday had placed in the package. Kirk finds himself being followed by Quick and Tragg who are also trailing Loma to find out what is going on and get in on a bigger cut of the action . The three men fight and Kirk is knocked out. They think about shooting him but change their mind when they see a cattle stampede heading toward them caused by Tioga who was watching to make sure Loma wasn't followed.
Quick and Tragg leave Kirk to be trampled to death but the Scarlet Horseman appears, having been trailing Kirk himself just in case. He diverts the path of the cattle away from Kirk's prone body. Quick and Tragg decide to capture the Horseman but are quickly dissuaded when the Horseman, going at full gallop, turns around in the saddle and disarms both men with two well placed shots from an unbelievable distance.
Kirk wakes up and finds that Loma is now too far away for the compass to pick up the magnet. He returns to town to await Matosca's next move. And he has a good idea who Matosca is.
I actually like most mid-forties era western serials from Universal, though not as good as such earlier serials as Gordon of Ghost City (1933), Rustlers of Red Dog (1935), or Riders of Death Valley (1941) due to an over use of stock footage, they contain more action than the company's other serials at the time so their pace feels quicker. I don't mind the main character having to constantly change outfits to match footage of Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, and Dick Foran because the serial's plot has a lot going for it.
This is a complicated plot, even by Universal's standards. You have three government agents working a case while pretending not to like each other so they can work independently if needed. You have both the hero and villain using the Indians' beliefs for different purposes. The actual plan of the villain is kept from the audience until late in Chapter Four, and even then you aren't shown what the villain's true motive behind the scheme until Chapter Eleven. Adding to this is a main henchman who is kept in the dark, doesn't like it, and works at cross purposes to his boss to gain an upper hand. Plus I like any serial that has a masked hero, even jumbled messes like Columbia's Adventures of Captain Africa (1955).
I also like how they handle the serial's low budget. Around Chapter Ten Quick, finds the missing women and takes them out of the cave they're being kept in. Later they show up on the same set they have always been on and Tragg says no one would ever suspect they would be moved back to the same cave as before. Now that is clever, it saves money in not having to build another set and people really wouldn't think of looking again where someone has just left.
Of course the serial does have some problems. One of the things I have problems with is the whole masked rider concept introduced at the beginning of the Chapter One. He's been bugging the bad guys for months and then suddenly disappears after the Scarlet Horseman starts showing up and no one even mentions him again. It's a poor way to start a serial and I know that they had to explain the secret tunnel and dual identity of the hero but they could have done a better job of it. The Horseman outfit it self is pretty silly, probably the worst costume a cowboy avenger ever had to put on. It is a shapeless, baggy outfit with a masked hood attached to a cape. It looks more medieval European than Native American. It probably explains why he is kept in the background most of the time and only brought out for rescues.
What bothers me the most is the way they handle the mystery villain's identity. I'm used to Universal not trotting out any suspects for who the villain could be, they always did that. But they do the same thing here that pissed me off in Adventures of the Flying Cadets (1943), they introduce a mystery villain and then reveal the identity before the midway point. I know that it allows a serial to branch out in a different direction for the characters, but I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to mysteries, if you have an unknown villain you shouldn't reveal their identity till the end, otherwise what's the point of having a mystery villain in the first place?
Another minor problem is the character of Idaho. It's obvious early on that he is a good guy. Despite his skulking around, he only helps the heroes and never seems to be anything other than a detective, so that when he finally reveals what he's doing in Chapter Eleven it comes as no shock to either the audience or the characters in the serial. Though I did like his escape from Quick's office while having three guns trained on him in Chapter Six. He tosses his hat at them and in the momentary distraction gets his own guns out, admonishes them for not disarming him, then backs out the front door with a self satisfied smirk.
The serial is full of good acting. Paul Guilfoyle gives a nice multi-layered performance as the crippled ex-gunslinger/masked rider of the plains. His gunsmith cover identity is a gruff and grumpy man, obviously angry at not being able to walk and in a lot of pain. His costumed identity is a stern individual who gives no enemy a second chance. While his real identity of government agent is equal parts intrigued by the Indian's faith in his costumed self and amused at the things he does to make people think he can't be the masked rider.
Peter Cookson has the less interesting character of the typical good guy. He is tough, honest and straight forward. The only time he ever seems to have a personality is when he is conferring with Guilfoyle in private and they can share a quick laugh before getting back to work. Cy Kendall does an interesting thing, he plays a Hispanic without making him a stereotypical caricature. Despite the fake accent and sloppy clothes, he makes the character dignified. It becomes obvious early on that like his two partners he is also playing a part, in public he is the sleepy eyed, slow witted Mexican, while in private he is an intelligent man. Remember, it is Amigo who knows the entire story of the Scarlet Horseman legend. How does he know it when no else in the town does? Because it's his job to gather information and he is good at his job.
Harold Goodman is surprisingly ingratiating as Idaho. Having seen him play bad tempered sheriffs and bad tempered henchmen in late era Republic serials, it is interesting to see him as a bad tempered, quick drawing mysterious stranger. He can tough guy quip with the best of them, yet his sour expression seems more like an act to cover up what he is doing in the area than his real personality, he even smiles now and then when no one is watching. Janet Shaw is another story all together. With everything going on, she garners little screen time and few lines. She is probably pushed farther into the background than any other heroine ever.
Edward M. Howard is a different kind of henchman. Despite fighting the heroes, scheming against his own boss, and whacking his own men when necessary, he is the most easy going, ruthless villain on the planet. When things don't work out right, he merely shrugs and moves on. Even toward the end of the serial when he gets a temporary upper hand on Matosca he doesn't gloat or threaten, it's all business as usual. His helpers, Jack Ingram and Edmund Cobb, are old hands at this henchman stuff and perform admirably. Ingram's gruff and violent, favoring straight on assaults, while Cobb's more reticent about direct action, preferring to back shoot a hero when given the chance.
The best performances are by Victoria Horne and Virginia Christine. Horne is a sympathetic villain. She is only doing what she feels is necessary to help her people and on occasion voices regret about the actions she has to take. Christine on the other hand is totally ruthless. She is a cold hearted villain who can gun you down with pleasant smile on her face. It comes as no surprise that she is a master manipulator who is using her friendship with the Indians for her own purposes.
My personal favorite is Guy Wilkerson as the Shakespeare quoting guard of the Legion of Lost Women. There is just something inherently funny about a cowboy with a thick southern accent quoting the Bard. No matter the problem, he can come up with the proper quote, giving the play title, act, and scene. At one point he recites Francis Bacon, but then immediately assures his prisoners that he is a Shakespeare man, as if they cared.
Unlike other western serials with a masked hero created for the specific job on hand, this serial ends with a set up for further adventures with the title character. It is a shame that Universal changed hands and felt they were too good for such "low brow" entertainment. With a little work on the costume he could have become a popular hero for the post war serial fan.