The second of two Johnny Mack Brown serials newly-released to DVD by VCI, The Oregon Trail (1939) is another 15 chapters of breathless Western action, though it's not as good as the previous year's Flaming Frontiers, nor is it recommended that viewers watch one on the heels of the other, as both films pilfer the same action footage from ancient-looking silent Westerns.
This much less ambitious entry has expert scout Jeff Scott (John Mack Brown, as he's billed here) and sidekick "Deadwood" Hawkins (Fuzzy Knight) drafted by the U.S. Cavalry to determine just who's behind the many disasters along the Oregon Trail, 2,000 miles where some of the biggest wagon trains have been thwarted in their attempts to reach Paradise Valley in Oregon. With the help of Col. Custer (a wildly cast-against-type Roy Barcroft), the pair join a wagon train heading west. John Mason (Edward LeSaint) leads the band of settlers, whose numbers include John's virginal daughter, Margaret (Louise Stanley, looking very Hollywood '30s, despite the period bonnet) and young Jimmy Clark (Bill Cody, Jr.**), whose father is killed by the bad guys in Chapter One.
Jeff and his Cavalry superiors rightly guess that behind it all is a land-grabbing syndicate also out to control the fur trade. Sam Morgan (James Blaine) outrageously cheats local Indian trappers buy making them stack $2,000 worth of furs the length of every rifle they want in trade. "It's cheaper to steal from the Indians," one of his henchmen says, "than to buy from the trappers." To prevent the settlers from reaching Paradise Valley, Morgan has dispatched Bull Bragg (Jack C. Smith) to stop the settlers at any cost. (With a name like Bull Bragg, what else could he be but a henchman?)
Bull and his men trick the (extremely) gullible and too trusting settlers to take the wrong roads, to ford overly dangerous rivers, and to run smack-dab into angry Indian war zones.
The Oregon Trail isn't as compelling story-wise as Flaming Frontiers, nor are any of the supporting characters up to the level of those in that film. Blaine was better in the earlier serial, while Smith is no match at all for Charles Middleton's intellectual villain. Louise Stanley's Margaret isn't the woman of action Eleanor Hansen had been in Flaming Frontiers, and even longtime favorite Fuzzy Knight, despite his many films with Johnny Mack Brown, is somehow less appealing than Brown's faithful dog Sudden (a real crowd-pleaser) in Flaming Frontiers.
This was the last of Johnny Mack Brown's Western serials, and it has a rushed quality with certain story elements crudely mapped out without much thought. In the first chapter, Margaret twice is sent flying into the drink only to be rescued by Jeff, while in chapter two she manages to drive two different out-of-control wagons into oblivion, sending the heroine rolling into the dirt twice within 20 short minutes.
The overuse of the same stock shots, sometimes even within the same chapter, is especially noticeable to this critic, having just wrapped up 15 chapters of Flaming Frontiers. Much of the music is recycled as well.
Still, Johnny Mack Brown remains appealing, even when given archly-modest dialogue like this, after saving the wagon train from yet another disaster: "Aw, gee," he says, "I was just lucky to be on hand when someone was needed."
Video & Audio
The Oregon Trail's picture is pretty unimpressive, soft with a fair amount of negative damage; it's really a shame that so many serials exist (or only ever get released) using these nth generation film elements, probably 16mm television prints or preprint material. As Hi-Def technology continues to improve these serials only look worse and worse. The sound is equally unimpressive, and presumably derived from the print's optical track. There are no subtitles options. Pretty soon only die-hard serial buffs will have the tolerance for such murky images. This element bears a Commonwealth Pictures Corp. logo, presumably from a later reissue. The first ten chapters, running about 20 minutes apiece, are on Disc 1; the remaining five chapters and DVD supplements are on Disc 2.
Extras include a Classic Cliffhanger Poster Gallery, with about a minute of nicely-reproduced, beautiful one-sheet posters. Also included are okay Biographies of Johnny Mack Brown, Louise Stanley, Fuzzy Knight, and co-director Ford Beebe. Lastly, Trailers for The Oregon Trail, Winners of the West (1940), The Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), and Tim Tyler's Luck (1937) round out the package.
The Oregon Trail will appeal to serial and B-Western fans, though others probably won't have the patience for such fare. Flaming Frontiers is a bit better, but in any case viewers are advised to space these two serials apart.
**Bill Cody, Jr. was apparently not related to William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, though he was the son of Bill Cody, Sr., Western film star.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.