Last century’s headlines produce today’s blank stares. Superstars become unknowns or answers to trivia questions almost overnight.
The star of The Galloping Ghost, a 1931 Mascot serial, was Red Grange, arguably the best college football player in history. He was also the most famous athlete of his era and the man who almost single-handedly legitimized pro football. He was voted an All American three years running, and his face was on the cover of Time magazine on Oct. 5, 1925.
Today, few Americans remember his name. Those who do are likely sports trivia buffs or historians. But serial fans might remember Grange for his appearance in this early cliffhanger, which was explicitly named for him. Grange was nicknamed “The Galloping Ghost” by legendary sports writer Grantland Rice.
Casting With a Purpose
Nat Levine, the boss of Mascot Pictures, knew what he was doing when he signed Grange to star in this 12-chapter serial about a college football player accused of taking a bribe. Grange had already appeared in two silent movies while still a student at the University of Illinois. His appearance here coincided with his playing for the Chicago Bears, which continued until Grange’s retirement in 1934.
The Galloping Ghost was an exciting and energetic serial. Grange seemed an earlier-day version of ace stunt man Davey Sharpe. His credo seemed to be, “Never walk when you can run, and never run when you can leap through the air.” That agility makes this serial the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner. It’s hard to take your eyes off the screen as Grange climbs up the walls of buildings, races down fire escapes and leaps over obstacles.
But let’s face the obvious — Grange couldn’t act. Of course, it wasn’t so obvious in his silent movie roles. But here, he has to deliver dialogue, and those moments lie somewhere between painful and laughable.
And there’s one other thing — Grange is simply too old for the role. He doesn’t look anything like a college student. Grange was 28 years old during the filming of this serial, at least 10 years older than he should have been as a fresh-faced college student. Worse yet, Grange looks like what they call a “hard 28.” He could more easily pass for 38 than 18. When you see him lounging around his dorm room in a three-piece suit and tie with a book in his hand, you really have to suppress a giggle.
The Galloping Ghost took all of 17 days to film during the summer of 1931. It was originally scheduled to be directed by Reeves Eason, but studio boss Levine brought in a second director, Armand Shaefer, in case Eason’s growing reputation as a problem drinker proved true. Eason and Schaefer alternated days behind the camera, a practice that became fairly standard within several years.
One day, Eason breezed in four hours late (his nickname was “Breezy”) and decidedly hung over. Levine fired him on the spot and promoted camera-man Ben Kline to alternate with Schaefer for the duration. Stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt was already responsible for directing the action scenes. To this day, Eason’s name appears as primary director of The Galloping Ghost, despite the fact that Shaefer, Kline and Canutt really had matters well in hand.
The plot is standard “unjustly accused” fare guaranteed to arouse audience sympathy. Grange’s college roommate, Buddy (played by Francis X. Bushman Jr., son of the famous silent movie star), has taken money from gamblers to throw a game. It seems that Buddy got drunk one night and got married. If word gets out, he will be thrown off the team. Apparently, you can’t play college ball — or perhaps even go to college — if you have a wife. And what a wife! Played by Gwen Lee, Irene is almost pure evil. It’s her threat of going public with their marriage unless he pays her $1,000 that drives Buddy into the hands of gamblers.
Then things get complicated. When the gamblers realize Buddy can identify them, they kidnap him. Somewhere along the way, Buddy gets knocked on the head and suffers from amnesia. Meanwhile, Grange is trying to rescue Buddy, clear his own name, foil the gamblers and get Buddy’s sister (played by Dorothy Gulliver) to fall for him. That’s a lot of subplot to keep track of, but at least it keeps the characters motivated.
In his history of Mascot Pictures (The Vanishing Legion, McFarland Publications), author John Tuska suggests that if the two female leads of this serial were any indication, “Women are either vicious parasites or virtuous fools.” That is certainly the case here, although in numerous early silent movie serials, women were portrayed with a more varied palette.
Theodore Lorch appears as a classic silent movie villain, scowling and dressed in black. In fact, Lorch is so good at his job that his scenes become comic. Lorch is plainly having the time of his cinematic life. His character is referred to during each pre-chapter summary as the “Mysterious Cripple.” Lorch walks with a cane and is so bent over that he is literally longer than he is high. Serial fans will see a strong similarity between Lorch’s work here and John Piccori’s role as Moloch in the classic Dick Tracy serial (1937).
Some of the photography in this serial is quite noteworthy. The gridiron scenes are well shot and inter-cut with actual game footage. When the players huddle, the camera is placed on the ground, looking up at their faces. This worm’s-eye view adds authenticity to the scene.
The first few cliffhangers are actually quite stunning. In Chapter 1, Grange drops from a parachute and plummets to the earth, hands and legs flailing. It’s a pretty impressive scene, light years beyond what most contemporary serials offered. The second chapter ends with a cliffhanger that foreshadows a highlight from Dick Tracy — a small wood boat is crushed (along with our hero?) between two tankers drifting slowly together at the pier. The third chapter ends with disturbingly real footage of Grange being run over by a cab while brawling in the street.
Perhaps the most annoying feature of this otherwise entertaining early serial is its excessive use of “slow-cranking.” The technique produces a speedup in what we see when the film is projected at normal speed. It’s a gimmick that works well in occasional car chases, but it appears too often here. Just about every action scene has been artificially speeded up. Nobody walks or runs — they all walk fast and run fast. The effect looks like an endless Keystone Cops routine.
Mascot Pictures was still feeling its way with the serial format. The studio wasn’t big on making its audiences read. Rather than summarize previous events with scrolling text or a series of title cards, a painstakingly detailed summary is read to us (by veteran serial actor Lafe McKee) over filmed highlights. Whoever wrote those summaries was a literary giant — they couldn’t have been more stylish or precise, but talk about overkill!
The Galloping Ghost features some really unusual and effective scenes. Before it degenerates into a silent movie comedy sketch, the Chapter 3 melee filmed on a real street draws an audience of equally real onlookers. This is nothing like a backlot segment with a handful of extras. Similarly, a car chase in Chapter 7 uses real city streets and is quite a stunner.
Finally, look for Stepin Fetchit doing his usual slow-witted shtick. Yeah, I know. You can’t blame the man for the racist attitudes of the day, and he was just out to make a buck like everybody else. But it doesn’t make those moments of so-called comic relief any easier to watch. We also get to laugh at stutterers and fearful people. Life was just a bowl of giggles in 1931.
There is enough shame thrown around this serial to keep a dozen shrinks in business. Grange is repeatedly shunned by his untrusting teammates, doubted by his coach and rejected by his girl, who also doubts his honesty. He is told things like, “You’ve betrayed your college!” or “You’ve crippled your team.” Just how much can the poor guy stand? No wonder he lets go of the parachute at the end of Chapter 1 and takes his chances on the air currents over southern California.
When the dust finally clears (along with his good name), Grange forgives everybody and leads his team to victory. Shucks, it’s OK that you doubted me for the past 11 chapters, abandoned me and treated me like an ax murderer. I don’t blame you at all. Everything’s OK now, so let’s pretend it never happened and go out there and win one for the Gipper!
Hank Davis is the author of Classic Cliffhangers: Volume I, available soon from Midnight Marquee Press.