In 1932, dominance in the movie serial business is up for grabs. The previous year, both Universal Studios and Nat Levine’s upstart Mascot Pictures released five titles. Movie serials might have been something of a diversion for Universal, but for Mascot, serials are the bread and butter of the studio.
Early in 1932, Levine signed John Wayne, a relative unknown, to star in three serials for the princely sum of $2,000. (That included his agent’s fee — and that’s $2,000 total, not $2,000 per picture.) As Jon Tuska noted in The Vanishing Legion: A History of Mascot Pictures 1927-1935 (www.mcfarlandpub.com), Wayne had no idea what he was getting into. Each serial would require a month of filming, with Wayne committed to six-day weeks and 12 hours of shooting per day.
The second of three serials Wayne filmed for Mascot was titled The Hurricane Express (available on DVD from www.oldies.com and on VHS from www.vcientertainment.com). The story involves a young pilot (Wayne) whose father has been killed in a train wreck caused by a mysterious criminal called The Wrecker. Wayne vows revenge against this foe, whose identity — in typical serial fashion — is not revealed until the 12th and final chapter. I won’t blow his cover here, but I will say that the number of red herrings and false clues on display must come close to setting a record for a 1930s movie serial.
Plenty of Action
For most of its running time, The Hurricane Express moves at an all-out pace. It never stands still, from the opening scene until the final reel. Had the film been shot today, it might have been called Trains, Planes and Automobiles. Indeed, this primitive serial, shot at the dawn of the talking-picture age, really earns that title more than Steve Martin’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1989).
The serial spends equal time in the air, on railroad tracks and on the dusty unpaved roads of Depression-era America. In several of the early car chases, the old roadsters leave the roads and roar along railroad tracks, one wheel between the rails and the other kicking up gravel just outside the track bed. Cars chase planes, planes chase trains and inevitably, cars battle each other down dirt roads that were not built for speed. Wherever the paved roads were in America in 1932, few people seemed to be filming serials on them. Wayne’s character, doubled by famous stunt man Yakima Canutt, even adds some motorcycle thrills in Chapter 5, chasing a runaway freight car on a dirt bike.
When racing metal doesn’t dominate the screen, there are plenty of punch-ups with Wayne — steadfast, loyal and true, slugging his way through an endless array of thugs and suspects. Often forced to fight two or three bad guys at once, Wayne seems to take delight in lifting one and throwing him at the others like cordwood. In fact, Wayne carries on like an early version of stunt man extraordinaire David Sharpe. He never seems to walk anywhere if running will do. Amusingly, Wayne wears a suit and tie throughout all of this roughneck action.
Cliffhangers and Takeouts
For the most part, the cliffhangers are convincingly staged, and the takeouts are plausible. However, there are some exceptions.
In Chapter 4, Wayne is run over by a train while he lies on the track bed, facing up. In the next episode, he walks away unfazed. (It’s a good thing the actor didn’t have a more prominent proboscis.) And at the end of Chapter 8, Wayne is shot in the back, but he seems to emerge without a scratch at the start of Chapter 9.
But in general, nobody gets cheated here, least of all the audience. True, no one is going to win any acting awards in this serial, but remember, this is a 75-year-old movie. Everyone on screen works as hard as the crew working off-camera. Indeed, many of these persons, such as writers Wyndham Gittens and Barney Sarecky, along with director Armand Schaefer, had notable careers in movie serials. Only the stilted narratives that precede each chapter, read in a surprisingly uncommanding voice, seem out of kilter. Mascot often used veteran character actor Lafe McKee in this capacity, but the reading here was surely done by someone else.
Masking the Truth
Some of the fight scenes show the rudiments of the graceful choreography we would come to expect in serials before the end of the decade and after Mascot Pictures had morphed into Republic Studios.
There is a subplot involving the use of masks that disguise the real identity of The Wrecker. It seems pretty clever at first, but ultimately you realize that it makes identifying the villain virtually impossible. The masks simply establish the fact that anybody can be anybody else, thereby making visual cues useless.
Even in such an ancient serial, it is instructive to see that cost-cutting measures were firmly in place. Recycling footage is one of the most grating. We get the first example about five minutes into Chapter 5. It’s not a particularly long segment, but it’s a sign of more to come. Another repeat appears in Chapter 8. This one lasts more than three minutes. Chapter 11 is probably the worst offender for rerun footage, with some of it appearing for the second or third time.
In Chapter 8, the battery goes dead in a car driven by the bad guys. One of them simply says, “Oh, the battery’s dead. We’ll have to crank it by hand.” And so he hops out of the car, operates the external hand crank under the grille, and off they go. Just when did that device cease to be a fixture on American cars?
Working on the Railroad
Although movies and stories about the railroads have a long history of commercial success, some of what we see here is a little hard to take. For example, the train that runs under the titles of each episode might look and sound romantic, but locomotives like this were also environmental hazards.
Check out the coal smoke that pours from its stack as the train rushes by. Those aren’t light gray or cloud-like puffs of smoke — that’s pure soot coming out of the chimney. That thick, acrid black smoke couldn’t have been doing anyone any good, regardless of how romantic it looked on a movie screen.
In any case, the romance of the railroads was nearly over by the time this movie was filmed in 1932. The railroad industry could feel the hot breath of aviation at its back. Planes could go a lot faster than locomotives, and they were not held to a fixed course. It is exactly this competition between trains and planes that fuels the plot of this enjoyable early serial that, as a bonus, offers a look at an actor who would become an American icon.
Hank Davis is the author of Classic Cliffhangers: Volume I, available from Midnight Marquee Books (www.midmar.com).