I came of age after Hollywood stopped making serials, but I still got to see a few during the waning days of Saturday kiddie matinees and I’ve never lost my fondness for them. That’s why I’m happy that VCI Entertainment has released a handful of newly-restored serials on DVD and Blu-ray—the same titles that Turner Classic Movies is showing in rotation on their TCM Watch app: Jungle Queen, The Vanishing Shadow, Lost City of the Jungle, Tailspin Tommy and the Great Air Mystery, et al.
VCI (www.vcientertainment.com) has long offered public domain titles but I’ve just watched their 2K restoration of The Roaring West (1935) starring Buck Jones and it’s become one of my favorites. Most serial aficionados agree that Republic Pictures made the best chapter-plays, but this Universal entry is terrific and a perfect showcase for one of the all-time great movie cowboys.
Buck Jones is easy to like. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and has an easygoing way with dialogue. His sense of humor shines through in every chapter and makes his relationships with his leading lady (beautiful Muriel Evans), his sidekick (Frank McGlynn, Sr.) and the story’s snarling villain (former serial hero Walter Miller) especially enjoyable. Incidentally, one of Miller’s henchmen is played by that stalwart bad guy Charles King.
Evans costarred with Jones several times and they obviously got along. They even have a lighthearted scene of love-play but when they move toward a clinch in the final chapter the image quickly fades to black so as not to upset kids who hated that mushy stuff. She also has pluck: when Buck tells her and her girlfriend to head back to the ranch for safety, as soon as he’s out of sight the friend asks if that’s what they’re going to do and Muriel says, “Certainly not!”
Silent film veteran McGlynn, who specialized in playing Abraham Lincoln onscreen, hams it up enjoyably as Buck’s partner Jinglebob. His brother knows the location of a goldmine and that motivates the plot through 15 twenty-minute chapters. Buck Jones’s horse Silver proves to be the equal of any equine hero, unwrapping his reins from a hitching post, following Buck’s instructions to yank away the bars of his prison cell, etc.
Producer Henry MacRae (known to his actors as “Killer” MacRae for the long hours he made them work) and director Ray Taylor, a serial specialist, make ample use of stock footage from the silent era. Some scenes are more obvious than others: establishing shots of cattle herds, wagon trains, western towns and such. There isn’t an original score but music is used throughout, taken no doubt from Universal’s library. The cliffhangers themselves are first-rate, including a dam-burst and flood (with primitive but still impressive use of miniatures), a fire in a barn, a rope-operated mine elevator cut loose, Muriel getting her foot caught in a mass of lumber that’s about to be dynamited, and a blackout brawl after Buck punches out a kerosene lamp.
The resolutions, or “takeouts,” of these cliffhangers mostly make sense. There is only one outright cheat, when a bad guy riding in a Conestoga wagon lights a keg of gunpowder and hurls it at Buck and Jinglebob’s wagon, which explodes. As the next chapter opens the “recap” shows entirely different footage —the bad guy never got to toss the bomb! (Ace serial director William Witney told me that after witnessing one youngster’s angry response to a cheat like that he vowed never to shoot anything like it again.)
Humor in serials was usually limited to often-lame comedy relief, but The Roaring West has one standout scene: a waiter sings “The Old Oaken Bucket,” bringing himself and a fellow waiter to tears and earning a very funny reaction shot of disgust from bad guy Walter Miller. This probably earned a chuckle from grownups, if any, in the audience.
VCI has also restored Buck Jones’s The Red Rider (1934) which is also well-made and entertaining, but I like The Roaring West better. My wife doesn’t understand why I indulge in such juvenile fare. My answer is that sometimes I want something simple and untaxing to watch before or after tackling a day’s work. A good serial gives me just the escape I crave.