The Million Dollar Serial! I can't think of a better publicity gimmick than that phrase. It hardly matters that in looking at the production values you know that the film didn't cost a million dollars as it looks no different from any other serial made from that time. But when you look at the cast, there is definitely some validity in the claim. Never has there been a gathering of such onscreen talent; Dick Foran, Buck Jones, Leo Carrillo, Charles Bickford, Lon Chaney, Jr., Noah Berry, Jr., Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, James Blaine, Monte Blue, and Glenn Strange. Why it's enough to make a serial fan's mouth water before the credits have finished rolling.
The Riders of Death Valley are a group made up of miners in the area who have banded together to keep conniving saloon owner Joseph Kirby (James Blaine) and his chief flunky Rance Davis (Monte Blue) from taking over all the mines in Death Valley. The Riders are Jim Benton (Dick Foran), Tombstone (Buck Jones), Pancho (Leo Carrillo), Borax Bill (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams), Smokey (Noah Berry, Jr.), and Tex (Glenn Strange).
The serial opens with Jim, Pancho, Borax, and Tex heading for the town of Panamint to deposit the latest gold they've managed to scrape out of their claims. They are met on the trail by Smokey, who tells Jim that Kirby is holding a meeting at Panamint to start a Miners Protection Association. Knowing most of the miners are working their claims during the day, Jim realizes this is a sneaky attempt of Kirby to grab all of the mines without the miners knowing it by having his cronies be the only ones there to vote. Leaving Smokey at the watering hole to rest up his horse, Jim and the Riders head for Panamint at top speed.
Meanwhile in Panamint Kirby has another iron in his fire. He wants local outlaw Wolf Reade (Charles Bickford), who is secretly in his pay, to hit the stage due in at three o'clock. Wolf learns that Kirby holds a fifty thousand dollar note from banker Hogan (Jack Clifford), and if he can't pay it by three o'clock, Kirby can take control of the bank. Wolf demands a fifty/ fifty split from now on. Davis tries to intimidate Wolf into backing down, but Kirby knows that if Wolf is unstable enough to kill them both before they could get to their guns if he's pushed too far, and gives into the demand, proving to Wolf what a coward Kirby really is he doesn't have the upper hand.
Once Wolf has been placated Kirby goes out to the bar room to put one over on the miners. As he starts outlining his "generous" offer some miners who have made it in from the fields start to protest with legitimate questions. These men are quickly beaten down by "other miners", literally, and Kirby starts to ask for a vote. He almost gets away with it but then Jim and the Riders appear and demand that if a vote is going to be made all the miners have to be there, if any one doesn't like they can deal with them. Kirby again backs down, reschedules the meeting at a time more convenient for everyone, then tries to save face by buying the house a round.
Just then Smokey comes into the saloon carrying Chuckawalla Charlie (Frank Austin), who is near death. Over a restorative whiskey Charlie tells Jim that he has found the Lost Aztec Mine. He wants Jim to have half of the mine for grubstaking him all these years and for the other half to go to Mary. Chuckawalla hands Jim a map and then dies before telling him who Mary is.
While dealing with Chuckawalla no one other than Kirby notices the map fall to the floor when the old prospector dies. He tries to sneak it away from the group unseen, but is spotted by Tex who immediately steps on the paper, causing Kirby to skitter away.
After Chuckawalla has been taken away to the undertaker, the Riders wonder who Mary is. Jim decides he will ask Tombstone when he gets in, Tombstone was closer to Chuckawalla than anyone else and would probably know who she is and how to contact her. Jim then goes to the bank to make his deposit. Once there He learns from Hogan about the much needed fifty thousand dollars coming in on the stage, and that Wolf was spotted in town getting his men together for a job. Jim gathers the Riders and heads out to meet the stage.
Meanwhile out on the trail, Tombstone is heading towards Panamint, when he spots the stage. Wanting to give his horse a rest from the long trip, he has the animal fake a limp and cons the drivers into letting him hitch a ride into town. Aboard the stage he meets the two men who are transporting the money for Hogan, and Mary Morgan (Jeane Kelly). During the conversation Tombstone learns that Mary is Chuckawalla's niece, who is going to Panamint to help him with his prospecting, despite it being an occupation unsuited for a young woman.
Up ahead Wolf has gathered up his boys; Butch (Lon Chaney, Jr.), Pete (Richard Alexander), Dirk (Roy Barcroft), Trigger (Jack Rockwell), Rusty (Ethan Laidlaw), and assorted red shirted cannon fodder. They attack the stage where they unexpectedly have to contend with Tombstone's trusty Winchester and his deadly aim. But this is not too bad a problem as they exchange gunfire, after all it's only one man. But when the Riders show up it turns into a full fledged running gun battle on horse back.
The stage drivers are both shot and fall off the stage, which is now running wild. Both Jim and Wolf race for the stage. Climbing aboard the two men punch each other furiously trying to beat the other to a pulp and gain control of the stage. Jim eventually kayos Wolf with punch hard enough to down a mule and the outlaw drops off the stage. Grabbing the reins, Jim tries to bring the runaway horses under control, but they break free from their reins and the stage coach flies off a cliff dooming all aboard...
I really like this serial. It has a nice build up in the first chapter as everything gets set up, but once the stage coach robbery takes place it is balls to the walls action for the rest of the fifteen chapters, with shootouts, fist fights, kidnappings, mine explosions, jail escapes, and being trapped in burning buildings. You know, all the things that make up a good western serial.
I also like the way the serial is broken down. The first five to six chapters deal with Wolf and his gang trying to learn the location of the mine and preventing the riders from getting there first. Once there they then try to prevent the Riders from getting back to Panamint and filing a claim. The next five chapters or so are set in Panamint, and concern Kirby's attempt to prevent the Riders from getting the money together to work the mine while trying to finagle a legal way to take the mine away from Jim and Mary. That's where the murder frame comes in. The final third has a welcome return of Wolf and their attempts to prevent the Riders from getting their gold into town to pay off their loans and retain control of the mine. This section has some of the most exciting action as there is not only a confrontation between the Riders and Wolf's gang but there is also a showdown between Kirby and Wolf as the festering resentment between the two men and their ideas on how to run a criminal enterprise erupts into a bloody showdown. No real surprise on who comes out of that one the winner.
One of the most interesting elements that runs through the serial is humor. While most serials might have humor run throughout a serial, it is usually a physical slapstick style where one of the sidekicks is a buffoonish klutz who stumbles into things to get a quick laugh from the audience, like Smiley Burnette in Phantom Empire (1935), or William Newell in Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940).
But here the humor comes from the character's personalities. The most prolific is the banter between Leo Carrillo and Big Boy Williams, playing like a sage brush Abbott and Costello, Carrillo mangles the English language while Williams grows flustered and frustrated trying to grasp what Carrillo means. They constantly have exchanges centering on Carrillo's tendency to end questions with a no, causing Williams to say yes followed by several minutes of arguing before Williams finally yells at Carrillo and storms off, leaving the other man wondering what his friend is so upset about.
Other cast members get into swing of things as well. Buck Jones has a great time ragging on the others. In the resolution of the first cliffhanger, he has gotten out of the stagecoach okay, but Foran is hanging off the side of the cliff needing help. Jones starts nonchalantly chitchatting with him instead of getting a rope. When Kelly tells him to help the man, Jones cracks "What's your hurry he can hold on for a least another ten minutes." When they have had another of their escapes from the pursuing outlaw gang and everyone else is looking in the direction the pursuers have gone, Jones will tap the nearest man to him and ask him "What are you looking over there for? Did you lose something?" The man will start to reply then see Jones is practically laughing at him and get mad at Jones, usually saying some like this is no time for jokes.
The only one he can't get the better of is, of course, Carrillo. When Jones tries to correct his vocabulary, telling him he has trouble with his I's, Carrillo immediately says "There is no trouble with my looking." But then what do you expect from a man who says things like, "Quiet I hear footprints" and "Let's went!" (A catch phrase that the other Riders eventually all adopt before the end of the serial.)
Noah Berry, Jr. gets to put a little campy humor into the proceedings as well. During a gun battle at the mine in Chapter Five Jones and Foran start arguing over a plan of action. Kelly tells them to stop quibbling. Berry stops shooting and asks what quibbling means. Foran and Jones both stop shooting and start to explain, but then realize what they're doing and immediately return to the gunfight after giving the still perplex Berry a nasty look.
But of course the best joke is left to the end with Carrillo and Williams. The sight of these two getting all duded up is moderately amusing. But when Williams snarls like he's facing down a firing squad without a blindfold, "I'm through with fighting, I'm into romance!", well, to quote Larry the Cable Guy, "I don't care who you are, that's funny".
The acting is all top notch, but how could it not be with this cast. The heroes all look like they are having the time of there lives, seemingly following Foran's philosophy on dealing with villainy from Winners of the West (1940), "If you have to put up with this kind of thing, you might as well make a joke of it." This doesn't mean they don't get serious when the time comes. Foran is the best at going from being laidback to a steely eyed, take no crap gunfighter in a heartbeat. He was always an under appreciated actor.
Charles Bickford steals the serial as the aptly named Wolf. One of the few main henchman who is actually the real villain, for all of Blaine's posturing and scheming, Bickford is the real menace. He is not a man who hides behind respectability while plotting his schemes. Wolf goes out and does them. Big and brawny, Bickford is the only villain I've ever believed could actually intimidate his own henchmen into staying in line. And when you are dealing with bruisers like Lon Chaney, Jr., Richard Alexander, and Roy Barcroft you better be able to back up your threats. Bickford can and does. A man with a hair trigger temper, and gun, he is not a man to cross... ever.
I'm not really going to go into critiquing the rest of the cast, there are just too many people. And I just can't bring myself to write page after page of praise. Watch the serial and you will see some of the best acting and action ever put on the serial screen.
On a last note I would like to mention a real standout moment the film makers did with the opening of the first chapter. The title credits have a vocal song, Ride Along, sung by Dick Foran backed by a chorus. The song opens every chapter with footage of Foran and his men galloping through the desert and singing while the credits roll, but in Chapter One when the opening finishes, Foran and the rest ride right into the actual beginning of the story. It is a neat little visual trick that lets you know right from the start that you are in for something special with this serial.