Flaming Frontiers (1938), as it turns out, is actually quite ambitious and structured very differently from, say, the typical Republic or Columbia serial. This 15-chapter wonder was produced at Universal by many of the same key production personnel that had worked on the Flash Gordon serials and compares favorably to those films.
Johnny Mack Brown stars as scout Tex Houston, who comes to the aid of Mary Grant (Eleanor Hansen), whose father (Eddy Waller) is essentially being blackmailed by scurrilous Bart Eaton (James Blaine), who wants Mary for his wife, and who covets a valuable gold mine claimed by Mary's brother, Tom (John Archer, billed here as Ralph Bowman).
Early chapters follow Mary, her father, and Tex's arduous journey by wagon train to Gold Creek, with Bart plotting with various henchmen along the way to bump off Tex and Mary's father. Later, Bart's plans to get Tom's mine are largely usurped by Ace Daggett (Charles Middleton), conniving saloon owner.
Republic's serials had superior stunt work and special effects but by-the-numbers scripts that leaned heavily on unambitious escape-recapture plotlines that bounced like a pinball between three locations over and over: the hero's headquarters, the villain's hideout (often a cave), and a third rendezvous point (deserted pier, rocky canyon, abandoned warehouse). To its credit, Universal's serials of the 1930s seem to have aimed for odyssey-like stories with real sweep. Flaming Frontiers's wagon train adventures occupy the first four chapters, and then the film moves onto other story ideas, introducing a new villain smarter and more rascally than his predecessor.
As if in direct response to his justly famous and gloriously theatrical portrayal of Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials, Charles Middleton plays Ace Daggett in precisely the opposite way. Here Middleton essays the role with an understated intelligence, subtly plotting his strategy while playing his cards close to the chest. For those that know the actor only as Ming, his Ace Daggett will be something of a revelation.
Johnny Mack Brown has a natural charm that makes up for his limitations as an actor. Though "Tex" clearly has an Alabamian accent (Brown was an All-American halfback at the University of Alabama), at least it's authentic, and Brown's physical prowess helps during all the action set pieces.
Also in the cast is an instantly recognizable Iron Eyes Cody (actually an Italian-American born Espera Oscar DeCorti), later famous as the weeping Indian in a classic series of anti-pollution television spots. Cody was then an unknown, and this being a cheaply-made, quickly-made serial, he turns up in at least a half-dozen non-speaking roles, sometimes as a savage Indian brave fighting the settlers, at other times a chief allied with them.
A more glaring issue is Universal's dizzying use of stock footage from other Westerns, most dating back to the silent era. Scratchy, silent-vintage long shots might show a wagon train with three dozen wagons while we'll only ever see perhaps four huddled around the principal actors in first unit footage. The quality of the stock scenes is often glaringly obvious and frequently matches the new footage not at all.
And yet Flaming Frontiers doesn't look cheap, as there are lots of extras, sometimes elaborately dressed Western streets, and good use of locations throughout. (Interiors of Tom's mine sure look like redressed cave sets of the Clay Kingdom from Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars, released earlier that same year.)
Video & Audio
The overuse of stock footage makes it difficult to assess Flaming Frontier's picture quality, but suffice to say that it's a big improvement over VCI's earliest serial titles, which were sometimes quite poor. It's not up to the level of VCI's Jungle Girl, which used pristine 35mm elements from Britain, but it's okay. Opening title cards look awful and seem to come from a low-rent reissue, and several sources seemed to have been used throughout, but overall the quality is better than acceptable. The mono sound is alright, and there are no subtitle options. The first 10 chapters comprise Disc One, while the remaining five chapters are found on Disc Two along with the supplements
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, John Archer, and co-director Ray Taylor. Finally, four trailers for other VCI titles, of varying quality round out the package.
Western fans may want to give Flaming Frontiers a try. It's an entertaining and engrossing Western that admirably ambitious and hard not to like.
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.