Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Riders of the Whistling Skull (Republic, 1936/37)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked a film Charles had just downloaded from archive.org, Riders of the Whistling Skull, a 1936 (the copyright and release date was January 4, 1937 but the production was obviously in the previous year) film from Republic Studios (when Nat Levine was still head of production) featuring their series characters “The Three Mesquiteers,” created by Western writer William Colt MacDonald. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, RKO shot two “Three Mesquiteers” movies in 1935 before turning over the rights to the characters to Republic, which had made their first in the series, called The Three Mesquiteers, in the summer of 1936 with Ray Livingston as Stony Brook, Ray Corrigan as Tucson Smith and Syd Saylor as the comic-relief Mesquiteer, Lullaby Joslyn. By the time of Riders of the Whistling Skull — whose credits rather awkwardly claimed it was an “original story” by Bernard McConville and Oliver Drake, turned into a screenplay by Drake and John Rathmell, but also claimed a basis in MacDonald’s 1934 novel of the same title (and the AFI Catalog claimed that this film drew on another MacDonald novel as well, The Singing Scorpion) — Max Terhune had replaced Saylor as Lullaby Joslyn, a lineup which lasted until later in the series when Livingston was replaced, at least briefly, by John Wayne.

Surprisingly, the Mesquiteers characters add little to the story of this film, directed with workmanlike skill by Mack V. Wright and coming in at just 52 minutes (I had wondered if this was one of Republic’s re-edits of their old films for TV in the 1950’s, but according to the catalog the original theatrical running time was 55 to 56 minutes, so this is probably a complete or near-complete version); instead it’s basically a ripoff of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, with leading lady Betty Marsh (a quite personable Mary Russell) attempting to organize an expedition to find her missing father, Professor Marsh (John Van Pelt), who disappeared while trying to find the mysterious lost city of Luckachakai (pronounced “LOO-kah-CHOO-kai,” by the way). Betty, her friend Henrietta McCoy (Fern Emmett as the comic-relief girl), the Mesquiteers, trading post owner Rutledge (Roger Williams), his Indian guide Otah (Yakima Canutt, looking surprisingly hunky for someone who spent most of his career as a stunt double — indeed, Henrietta briefly oohs and aahs about the “handsome primitive” before transferring her affections more appropriately, at least by Hollywood standards, to her fellow white comic-relief partner, Lullaby) and Professor Marsh’s traveling companion, Professor Faxon (C. Montague Shaw), are all in Rutledge’s trading post when Faxon is killed by a ceremonial Indian knife inscribed with so-called “Indian hieroglyphic” writing that only Betty (who learned how from her dad and their joint studies of Indian traditions) can read.

The inscription, natch, is a curse that declares death as the penalty for anyone desecrating the site of the lost city — from which Betty has shown a gold artifact to demonstrate that the claims of a buried treasure are true, and in fact she and her dad dug up the treasure and hid it elsewhere. Rutledge tries to blame Faxon’s killing on an Indian attack, even though it happened with the door closed in a building with no other exit and therefore the murderer had to be one of the people in the room at the time. Betty hits on the idea of taking all the suspects along on the planned expedition to find her father, and they split up the map to the “Whistling Skull” where the treasure was hidden so that four people each hold pieces of it, all useless without the others. One of the other professors, Fronc (George Godfrey) is abducted, and his piece of the map stolen, and though he’s found alive his shirt is gone and his chest is criss-crossed with scars (indicating that he’s been tortured) and branded with the insignia of a fanatical Indian cult.

Another professor, Cleary (Earle Ross), has earlier been killed with an arrow inscribed similarly to the knife that killed Faxon, and eventually the killers turn out to be Rutledge and Otah — so much for the hope that there might be any “good Indians” in this film! It turns out Rutledge is half-Indian and the secret leader of the cult trying to keep the whites away from the treasure of Luckachakai, and it ends with Stony kidnapped (and also, in a move beefcake fans will find welcome, stripped of his shirt to be prepared for torture and branding) but the sheriff’s deputies forming a sort of ersatz Seventh Cavalry to come to the rescue of the good guys just in time and get them out of the Whispering Skull — actually a rock formation that looks like a skull and “whispers” when the wind blows through it — where they’ve found Professor Marsh but where the bad guys have trapped them by taking away the ladder they used to get in. (Charles noted that the good guys should have pulled up the ladder after them, but this is a Republic Western so no one there thought of that!)

Riders of the Whistling Skull — a great title that deserved a better movie (it sounds like one of those Western/horror hybrids John Wayne made at Monogram before it got absorbed into Republic) — is the sort of film that literally got churned out by the yard in Hollywood’s glory days and always had a reliable audience, so there’s not much point in criticizing it aesthetically. It’s got good acting — at least from the women — and director Wright and cinematographer Jack Marta take advantage of the picturesque canyon locations (they went farther afield for this film than Republic usually did) and get some quite interesting images when they’re outdoors (notably a periodic appearance of an Indian, entirely in shadow, to symbolize the threat that is stalking Our Heroes), but when they have to shoot an interior the scenes become dull and tableau-like, more like a film from 1912 than 1936. Curiously, the AFI Catalog said the story rights were acquired by Monogram and used for one of their last Charlie Chan movies, The Feathered Serpent, in 1948 with Roland Winters as Chan and Robert Livingston playing the villain this time!