Haunted Gold (1932)
"Looks to me like somebody was getting a dirty deal..."
13 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
If you're a fan of these old time B Westerns, you'll probably get a kick out of a minor sub-genre of ghost themed oaters that cropped up from time to time back in the day. "Haunted Gold" just might be the earliest, at least the earliest of a handful I've come across in recent years. There's 1936's "Ghost-Town Gold" with the Three Mesquiteers, a 1945 programmer with Buster Crabbe and Fuzzy St. John called "His Brother's Ghost", Fuzzy again with Lash La Rue in 1947's "Ghost Town Renegades", and 1950's "Streets of Ghost Town" with Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid. Oddly, this early John Wayne flick for Warners might be the best of the lot, with decent production values and some interesting elements to elevate one's interest. For one, Wayne's sidekick in the picture was a black man, portrayed by Blue Washington as John Mason's (Wayne) self appointed bodyguard and day time cook at Mason's ranch. Another was Wayne's horse Duke, who got shared billing with him at the top of the credits. I'll get back to Duke in a bit.

The haunted theme gets an early workout with some cartoony bat images during the opening credits sequence; seeing Leon Schlesinger's name associated with the picture as producer made sense at that point, as he went on to helm Warner's Looney Tunes unit shortly after. There's also good use of a howling wolf, a darkened cemetery, mysterious shadows and a lights out sequence at the villain shack. Blue Washington's presence was undoubtedly meant to personify the wide eyed, scaredy cat stereotype, though his physical stature didn't seem to lend itself much to comic relief. As others have mentioned on this board, some uncomfortable and demeaning racial slurs were directed at him, like darkie, smoky, and a reference to his watermelon accent. He even had a line - "Lordy boss, a spook, the Phantom himself done snitched it" - that seemed to cast a racial tone. Of course this was not uncommon during the Thirties and Forties, with films that often used epithets with characters of ethnic origin; just catch a Charlie Chan flick for some more examples.

As for the story, it pretty much boils down to one of your classic B Western plot elements, with evil villain Joe Ryan (Harry Woods) attempting to swindle John Mason and Janet Carter (Sheila Terry) out of their shares of the long abandoned Sally Ann gold mine. Both had been summoned to Ghost City by an unknown letter writer revealed by the end of the story, but you'll have to watch to find out who.

Back to Duke, the horse that is. You know, he had quite a bit of quality screen time in the picture, and in a move I haven't seen before, he uses his horsepower (sorry, couldn't resist) to help rider Mason pull down a shack on the bad guy posse. Later on, he comes to the other Duke's rescue in the stalled cable car by knocking one of the henchmen off a cliff (yikes!), and absolutely going berserk to pull the rope tether off the hitching post. I think Duke might have given Trigger a run for the Smartest Horse in Movies.

Interestingly, Wayne portrayed a character named John Mason in one of his programmers for Monogram's Lone Star unit in 1935, "The Dawn Rider". In another harbinger of things to come, Wayne closes out the picture in a smooch with his leading lady, Sheila Terry, in about the same way he does with her in 1934's "Neath the Arizona Skies". That same year, "The Lawless Frontier" has Wayne's Sheriff Tobin calling the new Mrs. Tobin by phone to close out the story, so in that one, they actually wound up getting married.
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