Promoted and advertised as "The Million Dollar Serial", most of which appears to have been spent on advertising and the most elaborate pressbook ever put out by Universal on a serial (or ... See full summary »
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Promoted and advertised as "The Million Dollar Serial", most of which appears to have been spent on advertising and the most elaborate pressbook ever put out by Universal on a serial (or 95% of their feature films for that matter), Universal's 51st sound-era serial (following "Sky Raiders" and before "Sea Raiders" and, to quote the late Oliver Drake who wrote the original story,..."we were lucky they didn't call it 'Land Raiders'), "Riders of Death Valley" remains a favorite for the 7-12 year-old kids who saw in on original release in 1941, and a major disappointment for those who came later and never saw it in the 35mm version shown on a screen in a 350-seat grind-house theatre, and now question what all the excitement was about. Hey, you had to have been there. Actually, it is just one long prolonged chase after another for the most part and, even worse, it is usually the 5-6 good guys running from 2-3 of the bad guys (which even had eight-year-old kids of 1941 wondering what's up ... Written by
Les Adams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Back in 1918 Universal Studios gave the world the first feature film that cost over $1 million to make. That was BLIND HUSBANDS directed by Erich von Strohiem. It was 23 years later when Universal also made the first serial that cost $1 million. By this time the Laemmle's, Snr. and Jnr. were long gone and I wonder when Carl Laemmle the elder would have said about spending so much on a serial?
Well that is the movie I am here to-night to talk about. RIDERS OF DEATH VALLEY stars Dick Foran, best known as a singing cowboy. He's backed up by Buck Jones (Edward D. Wood Jnr's fave cowboy actor, there's a bit of trivia for you!), Jean Brooks, Leo Carillo, Noah Beery Jnr. and Guinn "Big Boy" WIlliams. On the side of the bad guys there's Charles Bickford, Lon Chaney Jnr., James Blaine and Monte Blue.
This is a western serial with 4 staff writers working on it so you just know not a single cliché will be left untapped. Characters have names like "Tombstone", "Pancho", "Smokey", "Trigger", "Tex", "Borax Bill", "Cactus Pete" and "Chuckawalla Charlie". There's even a location called "Funeral Pass" (what, no "Deadman's Gulch"? How'd they miss THAT one?). Have I mentioned the plot yet? I haven't? Sorry!
James Blaine and Monte Blue want to run all the prospectors out of Death Valley and grab all their claims for next to nothing. To do they they enlist the help of "Wolf" (Charles Bickford) and his gang. Butch (Lon) is the second in command and just as quick on the trigger as his boss. The good guys are known as The Riders and they just happen to know the location of a lost Aztec gold mine with a fortune in ore. For 15 chapters Wolf and his gang try to get it and are constantly thwarted by the Riders. Complications include framing good guy Jim (Dick Foran) for murder, sabotaging mining equipment, stampedes, explosions, shootouts and LOTS of fistfights! Sadly the cliffhangers are not as good as the ones offered by rival serial makers Republic and Columbia. One example: Jim and Mary are about to be run over by a stampede at one chapter ending but in the next chapter we see the horses have miraculously all missed them! Another one, Jim and Tombstone are going into the mine on an elevator when a minor villain sabotages the cable and they plunge to the bottom. In the next chapter they simply are pulled up again and neither has so much as a bruise!
Charles Bickford had worked as a villain for Cecil B. DeMille in movies like DYNAMITE (1929) and the rarely seen THIS DAY AND AGE (1933) so he knew how to be a convincing bad guy. For Lon Jnr this movie came after MAN MADE MONSTER and before THE WOLFMAN and he was still hoping to get more leading man roles. Noah Beery Jnr does not have much to do in this one but he and Lon would work together again, this time on the same side in OVERLAND MAIL (1944). Monte Blue and also worked with Chaney in the Republic serial UNDERSEA KINGOM (1936).
So do I like this movie? YES! It may be predictable but thanks to so many great character actors and competent direction by serial vet Ford Beebe it is never dull.
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