Flaming Frontiers (Universal, 1938)
Indian scout Tex Houston (Johnny Mack Brown) helps Mary Grant (Eleanor Hansen) locate her brother Tom (Ralph Bowman and later known as John Archer), who has been kidnapped by a gang of outlaws desiring his rich mining property. Their leader, Bart Eaton (James Blaine), plans to force Mary into marrying him to get control over her inheritance, but another faction lead by Ace Daggett (Chas. Middleton) also wants the mine.
The Oregon Trail (Universal, 1939)
Famous scout Jeff Scott (Johnny Mack Brown) is assigned by Colonel Custer (yep, that Custer!) to safeguard an Oregon-bound wagon train that has become the target of a certain Eastern syndicate. Headed by Sam Morgan (James Blaine), the latter is determined to keep outsiders away from lucrative but illegal fur trade with the Indians.
Under contract to first RKO and then (due to her marriage; see below) 20th Century-Fox, Eleanor Hansen did her only work of any importance in Flaming Frontiers. Yet she did become part of Hollywood Royalty by extension. In early 1939, gossip maven Walter Winchell revealed that Eleanor Hansen was dating 20th Century-Fox musical star Alice Faye's brother and manager Bill. Or in Walter's inimitable way: “Alice Faye's brother Bill and Eleanor Hansen, a west coast tidbit, are impersonating the equator.” By April of 1939 there were marriage rumors and on May 10, the rumors were confirmed: Eleanor had become Mrs. Bill Faye at Tijuana, Mexico a month or so earlier. The couple apparently spent the honeymoon at Alice Faye and husband Tony Martin's Beverly Hills mansion, Alice and Tony being away on a personal appearance tour. Eleanor ended her screen career in 1942.
The wagon trains in both Flaming Frontiers and The Oregon Trail are attacked by silent era stock footage Indians – the very same Indians striking out from a picturesque settlement in Red Rock Canyon that had imperiled wagon trains in a host of Universal and other studio Westerns since Hoot Gibson’s The Flaming Frontier (1926). But what may be a bit disconcerting to a modern viewer was par for the course in the 1930s; the very obvious stock footage in Columbia’s Lost Horizon (1937), as film restoration expert Robert Gitt notes, never deterred anyone from calling that film a near-masterpiece, and moviegoers at the time, especially in rural areas, became immune to grainy and sometimes splotchy copies of even current releases. It was really less a matter of ignorance than simple convention.
With that said, however, it does take away a bit of the excitement when stock footage of a huge wagon train, cattle and all, fleeing from a blazing prairie fire suddenly turns into a few covered wagons and Johnny Mack Brown, or when a large band of “Redskins” swoops down on a Western town that looks nothing like Trail’s main backlot street. It is difficult to date most of the stock, but Ken Maynard is clearly seen on his famous horse Tarzan in both serials and pernicious Universal didn’t even bother matching Johnny Mack Brown’s shirt with Maynard’s in Trail. In operation at the same place since 1914 and churning out scores of Westerns every year, Universal owned a large amount of spectacular footage to choose from. Not that the studio stinted on the budget for extras or that the new stuff isn’t thrilling enough, what with Johnny Mack Brown duking it out with every renegade in sight, saving damsels in distress and surviving the sharing of scenes with both a pooch (Frontiers) and a tow-headed boy actor (Trail).
Flaming Frontiers, which opens with more story than action, remains perhaps the better of the two serials, but it is a close call. The attention to story content should not be all that surprising considering that the chapter play was one of the few Western serials "suggested" by a literary work, in this case pulp favorite Peter B. Kyne's "The Tie That Binds." Not that the subsequent chapters were all that "literary"; once the conflict has been established it is more or less down to business as usual.
But what surprising business it sometimes is, what with an Indian attack on a deserted shack during a windstorm interrupted only by the arrival of a cyclone. Said cyclone constitutes chapter 2's cliffhanger, a rare occasion where the second chapter is more exiting and better composed than the opener. Later, in chapters 9-10, the entire town is flooded when a damn breaks in yet another prairie storm, with hero Johnny Mack Brown seemingly trapped in a shack after a terrific fight with henchmen Charlie King and Charles Stevens.
Yet despite Peter B. Kyne, and good performances by the Universal stock company, including Roy Barcroft as Custer, of all people, in Trail, both serials come with the same problems that plagued several Universal and Columbia Western chapter plays of the 1930s: too much familiar footage, under-cranked fights that reminds a viewer of silent film comedies, and stories that simply cannot sustain 15 chapters.
A brunette starlet and B-Western heroine, Louise Stanley (1915-1982)married two of her leading men: Dennis O'Keefe and Jack Randall (aka Addison Randall). Born Louisa Todd Keys, Stanley began her screen career under contract to Paramount and later to Warner Bros., both of whom mainly farmed her out to independent companies. She subsequently went on to work for most of the B-Western producers, including Universal, Republic, and Monogram, starring opposite everyone from Johnny Mack Brown to Tex Ritter to Jack Randall, who became the second of her three husbands. Stanley appeared in a total of 15 B-Westerns before leaving films for good in 1944. She later married a navy pilot and resettled in Florida. (This essay appeared originally under my byline on the All-Movie Guide.)
About the productions
Although very similar in concept and execution Flaming Frontiers and The Oregon Trail (1939) were not actually filmed simultaneously (the latter went into production in early 1939 while Frontiers were still doing the rounds), but to Mack Brown they tended to blend together: "I'd do a scene for one,” he would remember in a late interview, “then get on my horse and ride over a hill and do a scene for the other. Back and forth I went every day until one or the other was finished. And I never once changed hats."
Next to Mack Brown, the most memorable player in both serials is Charles Stevens (1893-1964), reportedly a grandson of Geronimo and a prominent supporting player in the silent epics of Douglas Fairbanks. Reduced to smaller roles in sound films, usually as “half-breeds,” Stevens earned his best chances to shine in these two serials, promptly stealing every scene he is in with performances much more modern in tone than you have come to expect.
Universal City and Kernville.
According to an uncredited news item planted by the Universal publicity department, Johnny Mack Brown rescued his Flaming Frontiers leading lady Eleanor Hansen for real during filming:
“The film star, former all-American'football player Johnny Mack Brown, and Miss Hansen were riding horses through a crowd of movie Indians on an outdoor set of the picture Flaming Frontier.
“An Indian chief's war bonnet frightened the actress' horse and it bolted for a rocky ravine. Brown galloped his horse after her and pulled Miss Hansen from the saddle before her mount plunged into the ravine.”
Scores of familiar faces turn up without credit in both serials, including Hank Bell, Dick Botiller, Ed Brady, Budd Buster, Horace B. Carpenter, Lane Chandler, Jim Corey, Frank Ellis, Helen Gibson, Herman Hack, Kenneth Harlan, Frank LaRue, Tom London, Cactus Mack, Bud McClure, J. P. McGowan, Lafe McKee, Artie Ortego, Warner P. Richmond (as General Sherman, no less), Harry Tenbrook, Blackjack Ward, and Charles “Slim” Whitaker.