“Daredevils of the Red Circle and Other Cliffhangers” is a blog on serials by Geoffrey Mayer, the author of Encyclopedia of American Film Serials (McFarland, 2017).
The Good Lord really made this place [Lone Pine] for movies. There’s everything there. There’s sand, there’s rivers, its made for motion pictures. – Budd Boetticher
Lone Pine, or more correctly the Alabama Hills near the small town of Lone Pine, 215 miles east of Los Angeles, is a magical place for filmmakers. After Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War named their mining claims after the sloop CSS Alabama, following victories against the North, the hills became known as the Alabama Hills, or the “Alabams.” Later Lone Pine became a popular movie location as the area offered a wide variety of locations – desert, sand dunes, hills, forested areas, prairies and grassland, rivers and river basins. The first movie to film in the Alabama Hills/Lone Pine area may have been the comedy western The Roundup (George Melford, 1920) starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Since then many genres have filmed at Lone Pine including Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939), High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941), Tremors (Ron Underwood, 1990) and Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008). It was also a popular location for the Paramount series of Hopalong Cassidy films starring William Boyd and RKO’s post-war Tim Holt films. More recently Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained, 2012) have filmed in the Alabama Hills.
The scenic beauty of the distinctive contoured Alabama Hills, consisting of two types of rocks – weathered 150-million-year-old volcanic rock and the 85-million-year-old elongated, sometimes described as potato shaped (Biotite Monzogranite), boulders, gave filmmakers the opportunity to film the “alien shapes” of the Alabama Hills in the foreground framed by the snow covered Sierra Nevada Mountains, often showing Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States, in the background. Occasionally, directors would reverse the angle and film towards the bleak Inyo Mountains, as director Ida Lupino and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca did to emphasise the harsh world of their film noir, The Hitch-Hiker (1953).
The producers of film serials, hampered by limited budgets and short shooting schedules, were reluctant to allow filming in the Alabama Hills. Instead, as a way of conserving their small budgets, they usually preferred the Iverson Ranch or the Corriganville Movie Ranch, locations less than an hour drive from the studios. This often imposed a certain drab familiarity on many serial productions, particularly those filmed within the distinctive rocks of the Iverson Ranch, a 600-acre rocky area situated above the northwest San Fernando Valley suburb of Chatsworth. Thus, when Republic permitted (limited) filming of their 1943 serial Daredevil of the West in the Alabama Hills, the visual impact was striking.
In 1941 William J. Sullivan replaced Hiram S. Brown Jr. as head of Republic’s serial unit and Sullivan’s tenure marked a substantial, if gradual, shift in key aspects of studio’s approach to their serials. The basis for these changes were ostensibly financial as evidenced by the studio’s decision to bypass copyright characters from other mediums, notably the comics and radio, and so avoid hefty licensing costs. The studio also reduced the amount of location filming, preferring instead to situate their repetitive, prop-breaking fist fights and shootouts within the confines of the studio, including the backlot. Hence the wide variety of locations found in their earlier serials, such as dockyards, industrial plants and dams, began to disappear.[i] While this shift was gradual, it is noticeable in the studio bound action packed Secret Service in Darkest Africa (1943), the serial that followed Daredevils of the West. This policy dominated Republic serials from 1943 until the studio ceased production of serials in 1955.
While there is some signs of this shift in policy in Daredevils of the West, the high quality action sequences filmed in the Alabama Hills more than compensate. The decision to take the cast and crew to Lone Pine added to its budget of $140,550 by nearly $27,000 and the shooting period, from January 9 to February 13, 1943, was extended an extra week. Nevertheless, some of the less important action sequences were filmed at the Iverson Ranch and assimilated into the Alabama Hills footage.
John English, William Witney’s co-directing partner, from Zorro Rides Again in 1937 to Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. in 1941 – a total of 17 serials during Republic’s “golden years of serials” – returned, temporarily, to serials with Daredevils of the West. This serial, however, is proof of English’s skill as an action director. While acknowledging that Witney was the finest sound serial director, and that most of the credit of the Witney-English partnership has been directed at Witney, one should not underestimate English’s contribution. While it is often reported that during their partnership Witney concentrated on the outdoor and action scenes with English working on the interiors, this is an overly simplified description of their working relationship. In his 1996 biography In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase, Witney testified that both men shared a similar visual approach.[ii] After English announced in 1941 that he was leaving the serial unit to focus on feature films, Witney rejected an offer from Republic’s newly appointed serial producer William O’Sullivan for a replacement director. As Witney explained to O’Sullivan, English was virtually impossible to replace, as the two men shared the same approach and they often had trouble picking out their own sequences during the editing process. Witney concluded that the images in their serials seemed to flow as if they were made by one director.[iii]
The decision to film in the Alabama Hills was crucial. Working with experienced cinematographer Bud Thackery, English was able to film the action sequences in a way that would have been impossible on the Iverson Ranch. In the spacious valleys and plains of the Alabama Hills, broken up by distinctive rock formations and framed by the spectacular snow-capped Sierra Mountains, English and Thackery exploited the mixture of open and high terrain to place their camera so that Republic’s camera truck could travel at high speed alongside wagons, stagecoaches and fast riders while juxtaposing these rapid images with static high angle shots capturing the entire action amidst the grandeur of the surrounding hills and mountains. Producer Sullivan may have been motivated to seek English for the serial as he was familiar with filming in the Alabama Hills, having worked with Witney on Republic’s most profitable serial, The Lone Ranger (1938).
The emphasis in the serial on unrelenting action involving stock characters and little dialogue was not an accident. Screenwriters Ronald Davidson, Basil Dickey, William Liveley, Joseph O’Donnell and Joseph Poland were instructed to produce a screenplay loaded with action while reducing the number of interpolation sequences normally required to set up each action sequence – thereby avoiding “extravagant expenditures.”[iv] The screenwriters accordingly came up an elemental B western plot involving a greedy cattle broker, Martin Dexter (Robert Frazer) who, in conjunction with his unscrupulous lawyer Silas Higby (Ted Adams), covets prime land, the Comanche Strip, owned by the government. Fearing that the construction of a stage-line owned by Foster (Charles Miller) and his daughter June (Kay Aldridge) will open up this area to new settlers, Dexter and Higby plot to destroy the stage line. When Foster is killed in the first chapter (“Valley of Death”), Captain Duke Cameron (Allan Lane), a family friend, takes leave from the army to assist June and her line foreman Red Kelly (Eddie Acuff) to complete the project despite repeated attempts by Dexter and Higby, and their henchmen Ward (William Haade) and Turner (George J. Lewis), to stop the Comanche Strip project.
The action begins in chapter 1 with two prolonged action sequences, the first lasting more than 8 minutes, filmed in the Alabama Hills interspersed by two fist fights involving Duke Cameron – the first with Ward in a saloon and the second when Miller (Tom London), one of Dexter’s men, corners him in a blacksmith shop. The serial begins with a series of brief dialogue exchanges that concludes with Dexter boasting to Higby that he is going to destroy the Foster line: “My hand won’t show. This is going to be the work of a lot of renegade Indians.” The serial then cuts to unrelenting action, beginning with June and Red in a supply wagon chased by a party of Indians. This sequence, the best among many fine examples, shows English filming stunt man Bill Yrigoyen (doubling for Eddie Acuff) and stunt woman Babe DeFreest (doubling Kay Aldridge) from a variety of angles in the wagon, interspersed with studio inserts of Acuff and Aldridge. However, the most spectacular angle involves the camera truck pulling ahead, and then suddenly cutting across, the wagon with the horses in full tilt heading towards the camera. Although June’s wagon makes it to the work camp, the Indians encircle the workers and kill her father. They are saved by the cavalry, led by Captain Duke Cameron. A brief respite from this breathtaking sequence follows with the two routine fistfights followed by an action sequence that sets up the cliffhanger when Ward, Turner and Blackie (Bill Yrigoyen again) rob the Foster payroll. The sequence concludes with June, unconscious on a wagon loaded with explosives, careening into a hillside and exploding when the kingpin in the wagon pulls loose and separates it from the horses.
Unlike some serials where the major action sequences are reserved for the first three chapters to impress exhibitors, the action continues unabated throughout Daredevils of the West. To knit these action sequences together, the screenwriters cleverly fashion what Jack Mathis describes as a “domino formula” of storytelling whereby narrative segments continue for two or three chapters.[v] Hence the theft and recovery of the Foster payroll extends over the first three chapters to be replaced by a similar device, the theft and recovery of 50 horses rented from Dexter for road grading, followed by the theft and recovery of an arms shipment and Dexter’s capture of the Territorial inspector. The serial concludes with Dexter’s unsuccessful attempt to stop June’s initial stagecoach run through the Comanche Strip, culminating in a gunfight in Canyon City where Dexter, Ward and Turner perish in an explosion. While dialogue exchanges are perfunctory, and the plot slight, the serial is rarely repetitive and the cliffhangers are original and uniformly good, partly due to excellent miniature work from Howard and Theodore Lydecker.
Although some of the Republic serials released prior to Daredevils of the West had stronger characterizations, more varied locations and a more compelling emotional basis, none matched the sustained quality of its action sequences. The spectacular footage from chapter 1 was re-used in the 1949 serial Ghost of Zorro where hero, Clayton Moore and heroine, Pamela Blake, wore costumes to match Allan Lane and Kay Aldridge. Strangely, however, Daredevils of the West was never re-released, an unusual occurrence as the serial did not present any copyright issues, as the characters and the plot were conceived by the studio’s screenwriters. Similarly, it was not re-edited in 1951 when Republic released many of its serials to television in six half-hour episodes. Nor was its included in the studio’s Century ’66 package of re-titled and re-edited serials for television in 1966. For many years, it was considered a lost serial until a 16 mm print was discovered in the Jack Mathis Republic collection after it was bequeathed to Brigham Young University following his death in 2005. It is now available, with minimal dialogue dubbing, from Serial Squadron.
[i] Ed Hulse, “Daredevils of the West,” Blood ’n’ Thunder 25 (2010), 36.
[ii] William Witney, In a Door, into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase: Movemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door (Jefferson, N.C., McFarland, 1966), 200.
[iv] Hulse, 37.
[v] Jack Mathis, Valley of the Cliffhangers (Northbrook, Illinois, Jack Mathis Advertising, 1975), 234.
Geoffrey Mayer teaches film studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Encyclopedia of American Film Serials (McFarland, 2017), Historical Dictionary of Crime Films (Scarecrow, 2012), Encyclopedia of Film Noir (with Brian McConnell, Greenwood, 2007), and Roy Ward Baker (Manchester University Press, 2004).