Raiders of Ghost City #1: Murder By Accident

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Welcome to SBBN’s new weekly movie serial, Raiders of Ghost City (1944). This fine matinee fare is brought to you by a generous contribution from SBBN partner in crime and official alibi Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. Thank you, Ivan!

The plan, and there’s always a plan though it often doesn’t seem like it, is to post a chapter of Raiders of Ghost City every Thursday until someone bribes me to stop or we reach the final chapter, whichever comes first. Unlike The Phantom Creeps, this is not a serial I have seen before, so we’re all basically experiencing the amazing action-packed adventure at the same time, except for you weirdos who have seen Raiders already. But for the most part, when you read the cliffhanger at the end of the post, I won’t know how it’s resolved any more than you will.

 

0raiders1-21On the off chance you want to follow along — and you might, because the first chapter of this is actually pretty good, as serials go — Raiders of Ghost City is on YouTube. This link should get you to a playlist with all the parts, but two people have uploaded it so if this disappears, another should be available.

 

Raiders of Ghost City is a Western set during the U.S. Civil War. Because it was produced by Universal, it shares some of the same crew as Phantom Creeps: Alvin Todd and Irving Birnbaum, editors; cinematographer William A Sickner; actor Monte Montague, one of the poor beleaguered airplane mechanics in Phantom Creeps; Frank Skinner, composer; and actor Edmund Cobb, one of the Army sergeants at the end of Creeps who explodiated the Iron Man. I can’t guarantee I can point the actors out to you in Raiders, as they have tiny roles in both serials.

 

It’s obvious that Raiders of Ghost City is a Western, because there’s a character named Rawhide! And a character named Bart! And a doc and a Hank and this guy in the 19-gallon hat named — wait for it — Idaho Jones!

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That’s Idaho in the center. I’m pretty excited about Idaho Jones of Raiders of Ghost City, but admittedly not as excited as I get about Indiana Jones of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And now, on to the show!

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Capt. Steve Clark (Dennis “Bland” Moore) of the Union Army is stationed at this outpost that isn’t a series of two-dimensional tents painted on glass at all.

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A messenger arrives, telling the captain and his superior that he must take Clark with him on orders from the president to help find the traitorous Capt. Clay Randolph. But Clark is smart — he knows this messenger is a phony, a Confederate spy! Capt. Clark attacks him just as the messenger was about to shoot everyone dead with a gun hidden inside a hand bandage (true story) and, through means that I cannot determine despite rewinding more times than I care to admit, kills the guy dead. Clark is unarmed, so I assume he got the baddie to shoot himself, though with a gun attached to his hand semi-permanently thanks to 17 rolls of gauze, how Clark turned the messenger’s hand the right way is beyond me.

Right here, barely three minutes into the serial, is what I so very much hope becomes a running meme: Someone is lying dead on the floor and no one seems to particularly care. Blood pooling, involuntary reflexes kicking in, perhaps a few death rattles? Wevs. These guys don’t give a shit. That’s how you know they’re heroes.

As everyone in the tent pretty much goes about their business, ignoring the corpse except to rifle through his pockets, a Union soldier does come in momentarily and looks surprised at the dead guy, which I imagine was not in the director’s plans. But Universal Pictures is nothing if not frugal, so this extra’s reasonable reaction to death is left in the film. He brings the commanding officer a letter from none other than Abraham “Town Car” Lincoln:

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I thought the semi-authentic signature was a nice touch. Someone clearly cracked open their old Social Studies textbook for this. But Lincoln has written, so Cap’n Bland heads to Washington D.C., in an era where chinbeards ruled the country:

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The guy on the left has so much fake hair that I’m convinced he was entirely and completely bald. Even the eyebrows are fake. Couldn’t they have hired a dude with some of his own hair?

The chinbeards decide they must send Cap’n Bland to the town of Oro Grande, California, located right next to the big “L” on the map, so it should be pretty easy to find. The chinbeards had received intelligence that Capt. Clay is hiding out in the nearby abandoned town of Ghost City, and they know he’s behind a series of robberies and murders and other treacherous villainies.

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In the exciting burg of Oro Grande, population 147 guys named Johnson and a whole lotta cows, Cathy Haines (Wanda McKay) is the proprietor of the local Wells Fargo office. She’s capable, cheerful and in a kicky skort, so you know she’s the star.

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McKay was in a lot of Westerns in the 1940s, but never really achieved stardom, and left the biz after appearing in a few episodes of the TV shows “The Lone Ranger” and “The Cisco Kid” in the early 1950s. She’s not a bad actress, really, but it seems studios often groomed actresses for appearance while giving them very little help with their craft. People look back fondly on the studio system, but it was a haven for some rather sexist (among other) attitudes, and McKay seems very much like a female contract player kept on only for low-budget quickie flicks that needed a pretty face. I can’t help but feel she would have benefited from a little acting training and could easily have played better parts in bigger films, had the studio wanted more than to keep her sequestered in their stable of pretty girls.

The town scuttlebutt is that Cathy’s father was murdered. Jeff, pictured below in black, and Braddock to his right, overhear the Union commander taking a telegram. Union officers are stationed in the town, using the Wells Fargo office as their headquarters, and the commander is expecting Cap’n Bland to arrive shortly. Jeff and Braddock intercept and decode the Union message, then get their pals killing time playing poker to come along as they ride off.

0raiders1-9There are more extras in this one scene than in the entire Phantom Creeps series.

As a brief diversion, check out this note, the one intercepted by the baddies:

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If you can see it just barely at the top of the note, upside down and backwards, a watermark indicating that is actual parchment paper. Okay, see, if this was The Phantom Creeps, the note would be written on a half-torn piece of paper out of a Big Chief writing tablet.

Jeff and the boys head to Ghost City, which is a really lovely ghost town set on the Universal backlot, though I gotta tell ya, this is more of a town than a city. And, in fact, I have mistakenly called this serial Raiders of Ghost Town several times since watching this first chapter, because dammit, that ain’t no city.

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Also, I assume that Ghost City had a real name back when it was thriving. Surely no one would name their new town “Ghost” anything, especially during the California gold rush. That’s just asking for the swift hand of Fate to smack the shit right outta your town. But big props to Universal for setting this serial in California where you’re going to be shooting anyway. That’s some legitimately impressive foresight.

Jeff and Braddock and the boys arrive in Ghost City to find…

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Regis Toomey! Yay! Nice neckerchief, Reeg. It distracts us from those stick-on sideburns they made you wear.

I must warn all you fans of the Toomster — and who isn’t a fan of the Toomster? Even Jeff up there obviously has a crush on the guy, and you cannot blame him — that Reeg is the bad guy in this serial. And to give a tiny spoiler (that won’t be a spoiler in about three paragraphs), he isn’t even the main bad guy, but a sub-baddie. I haven’t watched ahead in this serial, but knowing that the lifespan of your average serial villain is not particularly long, I’m afraid we may be saying goodbye to Regis soon. Reeg has a tiny role though he is credited quite well, but he was also quite busy in 1944, so perhaps this will end up being more of a cameo. We’ll find out, I suppose, but it’s making me nervous. I don’t wanna lose Reeg.

Toomey and pals plan on robbing the gold from the Union Army; gold used to fund the armies of the Civil War was common enough, and where there was gold, there was theft. Again, way to put in actual effort, Universal. Your guys are really on the ball with this one. I can only assume some scolding, firings and maybe a little bit of blackmail went on in 1939 that resulted in better movie serials.

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Most of the actors in this serial appear to ride their own horses, except for the stunt riding of course. Again, I am impressed.

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Toomey and his men ride after the Union wagon, and in the shootout, henchman Jeff is seriously wounded, another henchman killed, and it appears that all of the Union guards are killed as well. The baddies take the gold and run off, and Cathy comes across the scene just moments later.

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Cathy’s expression after looking into a wagon that is supposed to be full of freshly-shot Union soldiers. This is what I mean when I say the serial doesn’t take death seriously or treat it realistically in any fashion. No gasp? No checking to see if they’re okay? No grimace over seeing a CART FULL OF DEATH?

She does see Jeff lying in the sagebrush nearby, though. Jeff and Cathy have been flirty-friendly, and of course she has no idea he’s part of the gang until she takes off his kerchief and realizes his role in the massacre-robbery, so discovering this seems to upset her. But we don’t see her for the rest of the episode, so who’s to say? Maybe it’s a turn-on.

Meanwhile, back at the Secretary of Facial Hair’s office in D.C., a chinbeard briefs Cap’n Bland on the robbery and missing gold. It seems the dead henchman had an old European coin on his person dating back to 1752. Cathy’s dad, who was killed not so long back, also had an old European coin from the same date on his body.

0raiders1-15It’s a man’s life staring at coins on a table.

There were hints earlier on that Cathy’s dad, unbeknownst to her, was the head of a spy ring, so I think we can safely say he was a bad dude. Chinbeard informs the captain that every other person he has sent to Oro Grande to investigate has gone missing. And with that little pep talk, Captain Steve is on his way to Oro Grande.

On the train, Cap’n Bland, the guy whose arms are always hanging stiffly by his sides in a completely natural manner, runs into this beautiful woman:

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Trina Dessard, played by character great Virginia Christine. You probably remember her as uber-bitch Hilary in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and in some really solid supporting roles in both versions of The Killers, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Virginia is terrific, and Ghost City is one of her first Hollywood acting gigs. I like her.

And because she’s a secret countess who is behind the gold theft ring, I like her even more! After running into Steve so she can surreptitiously check him out, she reports back to none other than…

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Lionel Atwill! Atwill is one of my favorite character actors. This is sadly one of his last performances, as his life took a really rotten turn in the early 1940s. Atwill was known in Hollywood as a bit of a party animal, a heavy drinker and womanizer often seen chauffered around town in a Rolls Royce covered in unexplained bullet holes. Over Christmas holidays in 1940, he hosted an orgy at his home, and was called into grand jury testimony for some reason. It’s unclear from the articles I’ve found what precisely he was in trouble for, as the implications are vague given the nature of the crime. Two newspapers in tiny articles say he had originally been brought in for questioning in front of a grand jury hearing about “immoral acts” involving a 16-year-old girl. A few other articles refer specifically to stag films with no mention of the girl at all.

In any case, during a grand jury investigation, Atwill lied, denying he had shown “improper pictures” and saying nothing “immoral” had happened. In 1942, enough evidence that he had lied was gathered to charge him with perjury, to which he eventually pleaded guilty, his lawyer saying he had “lied like a gentleman” to protect friends who were visiting him at the time. His admission was apparently only about the stag films; he continued to deny that any immoral acts had gone on in his home, presumably in reference to the teen girl. In 1943, the perjury conviction was overturned.

The damage, as they say, had been done, though I admit that as much as I like Atwill, if he felt lying about a rape, believing his reputation was more important than a 16-year-old girl attacked in his home, it’s safe to say he deserved a little damage. It’s complicated, though, as he wasn’t just a party animal: Immediately prior to the party, he had separated from his wife and his son had just been killed in battle. After everything that had happened, Atwill could barely get cast in anything in Hollywood, just some B-grade horror flicks and the occasional serial at Universal. He remarried in 1944 and in 1945 had a new baby, but by the time the child was born he was already terminally ill with cancer.

So if Atwill looks old and tired beyond his years in Raiders of Ghost City, there is a reason.

Back to the show: Through discussions on the train with Alex (Atwill) and Trina (Christine), we discover that Captain Clay (Regis) doesn’t realize his gold-robbing gang are really working for a secret organization. Knowing that Cap’n Bland is there to investigate like all the other captains this secret organization has apparently disposed of, a few henchmen hidden on the train are alerted to his presence. They’re dispatched to get rid of Steve, and since he is a knob, be walks right into the most obvious trap ever committed to nitrate.

Directly behind the good captain and one of the henchmen luring him into the trap is this feller:

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That’s Idaho Jones under the 97-gallon hat, played by familiar face Joe Sawyer. You know him from everything from Gilda to It Came From Outer Space to every Western on film or television from 1934 through 1962 inclusive. Before Westerns he was a thug in a few dozen pre-code gangster flicks, too.

Now is as good a time as any to mention that our ostensible star Dennis Moore, as Cap’n Steve “Bland” Clark, was also in every damn Western ever made. He is not my favorite actor in the world, being one of several bland Dennises and Donalds I routinely make fun of here on the SBBN. It seems that his personal life may have been more exciting, having attempted a career in aviation, though finding himself grounded permanently after a bad crash left him hospitalized for a year. It was also alleged by country singing star Jimmy Wakely’s daughter that Moore had once attacked Wakely with a knife out of jealousy. Apparently, no one really knew Moore, and he was usually unpleasant. I gotta tell ya, you can tell. He has the most sour look on his mug, even when smiling.

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So Cap’n Bland gets taken into the last car of the train, walking right into the evildoers’ trap. A fistfight breaks out — and I don’t care what the lobby card at the beginning of this post says, Atwill was not involved. He was instead quietly undoing the chains on the final car, unhooking it from the train. The car carrying thugs and Captain Steve rolls backward down a hill and crashes! What will happen to our hero?

Tune in next week to find out if Dennis Moore survived the crash or if he died in the first part of a 13-part movie serial that he stars in!

5 Comments

  1. Scott C. says:

    Meanwhile, back at the Secretary of Facial Hair’s office in D.C., a chinbeard briefs Cap’n Bland on the robbery and missing gold.

    Ohhh, this is gonna be good…

    To we ladies and gents of a certain age, Virginia Christine will always be Mrs. Olson, the Folgers Spokeswede.

    1. stacia says:

      You’re right, of course. I kept remembering that Folgers fact while writing this, then thinking something like, “Wait, she was in both versions of The Killers!” or, “Wait, fire is pretty!” and forgetting it again.

  2. James Vance says:

    Stacia, good to see you back on the cliffhanger trail and the Reeg patrol. Incidentally, Edmund Cobb is the doughy cowpoke playing cards in front of Jeff in the saloon photo, so that’s one Phantom Creeps vet accounted for. Looking forward to following this one…

    1. stacia says:

      Thanks James! I needed that for the next episode, which is going up in an hour or so. I just wish I remembered where he was in Creeps.

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