Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Bill Elliott serial double bill

The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (Columbia, 1938)
Famed lawman Wild Bill Hickok is assigned a U.S. Marshal post to bring peace to the town of Abilene, Kansas, to ensure that the railroad construction is free of sabotage, and to safeguard the Chisholm Trail in general and the first Texas to Abilene cattle drive in particular from cattle rustlers – much to the chagrin of Morell (Robert Fiske) and his Phantom Raiders who aim to prevent both the railroad and the Camerons (Monte Blue and Carole Wayne) from ever reaching Abilene.

Overland with Kit Carson (Columbia, 1939)
The government sends out famous scout Kit Carson to quell a series of terrorist attacks, all committed by the Black Raiders against homesteaders. Behind the crimes, it turns out, is a mystery man apparently lacking one appendage and thus known as Pegleg, who wishes to control the entire area.

Carole Wayne, a girl singer at the Brown Derby before her brief starlet career with Columbia Pictures,later toured in the musical show “Girls a Poppin'” and the drama “The Edge of Darkness.” She was married 1933-1942 to Bobby Webb, a Republic Pictures casting director.

(photo of Carole Wayne courtesy of Les Adams)

Formerly seen as lounge lizard types in melodramas, Gordon Elliott (né Nance) changed his first name to the more masculine Bill and became Columbia’s resident Western serial star with The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok and Overland with Kit Carson, both budgeted at around $200,000 each. A not too surprising tally considering that Columbia threw everything and the kitchen sink into both chapter plays, the studio's very first sagebrush serials, including location filming in the faraway Utah desert. Every genre cliché seems present: stampedes (both wild horse and cattle), saloon brawls, shootouts in the streets of Abilene, Indian attacks on stockades, fake Indian attacks on wagon trains, the crossing of rapid rivers, and on and on. Even a variation of "head him off at the pass" is heard at one point in chapter 2 of Wild Bill. Kit Carson adds a none-too easily detected mystery villain and is perhaps the better scripted of the two, but few serials had the epic sweep of Wild Bill Hickok.

The directors, Mack Wright, Norman Deming and Sam Nelson have not exactly gone down in Hollywood history as innovative, or even particularly accomplished, but they certainly knew how to achieve plenty of movement, and horses, dust, and people fill the screen at all moments, sometimes literally obfuscating the desert sun. Stagecoaches crash into rivers, prairie schooners burn, arrows whistle, and explosions light up the screen. This is B-Western filming at its sprawling best, serial or otherwise, and it is not hard to imagine that youngsters everywhere would eagerly return for a grand total of 30 weeks to learn what happened. Or that Bill Elliott, who claimed to have based his cowboy hero personality on silent screen icon William S. Hart, would emerge a major genre star, retaining his "peaceable man" motto and the gun handles facing forward for the remainder of his long career in Westerns. Both Wild Bill Hickok and Kit Carson remain thrilling chapter plays and belong to any Western serial top 10 list. Bill Elliott did a third Columbia serial, The Valley of Vanishing Men (1943), before defecting to Republic complete with a non-chapter play clause in his contract.(Elliott would later use the more grown-up designation of William Elliott when starring in Republic "A" Westerns, but never William "Wild Bill" Elliott as is often claimed.)

About the productions
Carole Wayne, Bill Elliott’s first serial leading lady, apparently only made that film but his second, Iris Meredith (1915-1980), was a former Goldwyn Girl who went on to appear in 31 B-Westerns, 20 of them opposite Columbia’s top sagebrush star, Charles Starrett. She later toiled for poverty row company PRC before leaving films to marry director Abby Berlin. Even more brave than her screen heroines, a cancer-stricken and horribly disfigured Meredith accepted an award at the 1976 Nashville Western Film Festival, her final public appearance. Appropriately, the former actress received a standing ovation.

Kanab, “Utah’s Own Little Hollywood,” St. George and Zion National Park, Utah, and Red Rock Canyon.

Uncredited appearances
As we stated before, Columbia spared no expense (well almost) making Wild Bill Hickok and Kit Carson and the generously large casts include a host of familiar faces: Silver Tip Baker, Chuck Baldra, Ed Brady, Al Bridge, Budd Buster, George Chesebro, Edmund Cobb, Iron Eyes Cody, Richard Cramer, Lester Dorr, Kenne Duncan, Earl Dwire, Frank Ellis, Eddie Foster, Martin Garralaga, William Gould, Edward Hearn, Earle Hodgins, Frank Lackteen, Ethan Laidlaw, Ed LeSaint, Tom London, Lew Meehan, Walter Miller, Jack Montgomery, Tex Palmer, Bill Patton, Jack Perrin, Pascale Perry, Carl Sepulveda,Tom Steele, Blackjack Ward, Bill Wilkerson, Charles "Slim" Whitaker, and Bob Woodward. One question remains, though: What did Bud Osborne do to not be in these serials?

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