Monday, December 27, 2010

Ghost Patrol (Excelsior/Puritan, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Ghost Patrol, a really quirky 1936 production from Excelsior Pictures, distributed by Puritan Pictures, which was almost exclusively a Western label. It was one of those weird genre-benders, a modern-dress Western with a sci-fi twist: star Tim McCoy (a performer I wish I’d seen more of — I watched a documentary about him in the 1970’s that mentioned the 1932 Columbia film End of the Trail, a pro-Indian Western in which McCoy played a Native American 20 years before the film Broken Arrow supposedly started the trend for Indian-sympathetic Westerns, and that’s a movie I’d dearly love to see) plays undercover federal agent Tim Caverly, who flies a plane to patrol the Western canyon lands (the ultra-familiar L.A.-area locations that appeared in literally thousands of these films) looking for a group of outlaws on horses.

When we first see the gangsters we assume they’re out to ambush a train and Tim is trying to spot them from the air before they can do so, but it turns out the plane is actually their target — that and the mail cargoes it carries, including half a million dollars worth of negotiable bonds. The head of the gang is Ted Dawson (Walter Miller), and he’s kidnapped a noted scientist, Brent (Lloyd Ingraham), and is holding him prisoner and forcing him to use his latest invention, a radium-powered ray gun (“played” by some of Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical equipment familiar to any Frankenstein movie buff), to bring down planes by conking out their engines, so they crash and the bad guys can help themselves to their cargoes. They bring down Tim’s plane in this fashion (though, oddly, the ray that manages to stop the electrical impulses that fire the plane motor’s spark plugs has no influence on the electrically powered radio, which Tim is able to use to warn his superiors about what’s going on) but he escapes, parachuting down to earth and later infiltrating the gang under the alias Tim Toomey, a known criminal, only (stop me if you’ve heard this before) the real Tim Toomey, an incarcerated convict, escapes and Our Hero is “outed” when the real Toomey’s escape hits the papers.

Meanwhile, Brent’s daughter Natalie (played by Claudia Dell, who was the female lead in the 1932 version of Destry Rides Again with Tom Mix and whose opening close-up looks appropriately Dietrich-esque, given that Dietrich played her role in the much more famous 1939 remake), shows up trying to figure out what happened to her dad, whom she hadn’t heard from in some time, and the action leads predictably to a shoot-out inside the lab where Brent has his ray set up and Tim shoots the mechanism just when it’s about to bring down another plane containing the government agents that are flying in to arrest Dawson and his gang. The direction is by Sam Newfield (needless to say, his brother Sigmund Neufeld was involved in the production) and the “original” story and script by Wyndham Gittens, who was almost certainly, shall we say, “influenced” by Air Hawks, the marvelous Columbia movie from 1935 (written by Griffin Jay and Grace Neville, and directed by Albert S. Rogell) that didn’t have the Western trappings of this one but also was about a gang using a scientist’s mysterious ray to bring down planes for criminal purposes (though in Air Hawks the scientist was himself a part of the gang and not an innocent victim forced to help the bad guys) and was much more interesting than Ghost Patrol.

Not that there’s anything really bad about this movie; it’s just mediocre, wasting a provocative premise on something that turns out to be yet another “B” Western with nothing but the ray-gun gimmick and the modern setting (interestingly, horses and planes figure prominently in this one but there are no automobiles — perhaps, as Charles suggested, because cars would have been useless in the rugged locations in which it’s set) to set it apart from a million other films being made in the genre and providing the bread-and-butter profits of many a movie company at the time.