The Painted Stallion
There’s no denying I’m a big fan of old movie serials, but I don’t love ‘em to the point where I turn a blind eye to their many sins & shortcomings.
As much fun as serials are, for a real film buff they are the cinematic equivalent of…well…popcorn.
Mind you, you can make an entire career off popcorn as the late Orville Redenbacher once proved.
And done properly, popcorn can provide a healthy snack.
But truth be told, even at their very best (Zorro’s Fighting Legion), serials are only as good as a good B-movie (no surprise, since they typically drew from the same talent pool).
On the plus side, they were often fuel by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm will get you through many a rough spot.
And oh, lordie, does The Painted Stallion have its rough spots…
First and foremost, Julia Thayer in redface as the rider of the aforementioned painted stallion, complete with inauthentic Sioux war bonnet. This sort of thing has not aged well, and when one adds on a complete mish-mosh of Anglo / Mexican / native people relations, it gives The Painted Stallion more than a few cringe worthy moments.
On the other hand, the historical mish-mosh also provides The Painted Stallion with a few good ideas. It throws Jim Bowie (Hal Taliaferro) and Davy Crockett (Jack Perrin) into a story set over a decade after they died in the Alamo, but atones for that by adding Sammy McKim as a very young Kit Carson.
Presenting a famous historical character as a youngster is a marvelous Mary Sue and I’m sure one many kids responded to when the serial was originally released in 1937.
Crash Corrigan is the erstwhile hero. Corrigan had one of the odder careers in Hollywood, starting out playing gorillas in various jungle films and serials, getting promoted briefly to leading man status by Republic and Monogram studios, realizing there was more money to be made in operating a movie ranch for Western productions (Corriganville was the name of his spread and money from The Painted Stallion helped him buy the property), semi-retiring from acting but willing to make a few bucks by donning a gorilla suit on occasion, and ending his screen career by playing the eponymous It! Terror From Outer Space.
Hoot Gibson is Corrigan’s boss and mentor in the film, and Gibson is the best thing in the picture. A charismatic rodeo champion at the early part of the 20th century, he went on to a stellar career as one of the screen’s most popular cowboy stars after WWI. By the late 30s his age was keeping him from getting as many leading roles as he once enjoyed, and though he continued working until well into the 1950s, The Painted Stallion marks his last significant role (he and other fading movies cowboys Ken Maynard and Bob Steele made a series of low budget B-Westerns during WWII when more able actors were in the armed services, but that ended with the war).
The plot is one used more than once by Republic Studios: A corrupt territorial governor (in this case a Mexican territorial governor, for a little bit of variety) learns he is to be replaced and engages in various shenanigans to keep the heroes from learning the truth.
Despite opening up with copious stock footage of huge Indian attacks, that angle is swiftly glossed over as The Rider (Julia Thayer) and her painted stallion help out the heroes by sending them warning via whistling arrows (literally that, arrows with heads designed to whistle).
This is the niftiest gimmick in the serial, and the loud incoming whistle indicates the fun’s about to really start.
Well shot and well directed, the serial gave William Witney (50% of the serial powerhouse directing team of Witney & English) his first directing gig at age 21 after one of the other directors was fired for getting drunk and attempting to harass a stunt woman.
Film historian Tom Lyon reports Witney got the job because he was the only crew member on the shoot who had actually bothered to read the entire script! “Get another director up here as fast as you can. I don’t want to be a director,” Witney later recalled saying. “I want to go back into the [film editing] rooms where I belong.”
Lyons also reports that the original idea was for the painted stallion to actually be a human character who could transform into a bullet-proof horse! Somebody at Republic thought that was too far fetched (really, guys? I’ve seen your other serials) and the plot was scaled back.
The Painted Stallion was one of the least expensive serials Republic ever made but, thanks to judicious use of stock footage and maximum use of spectacular locations, looks impressive (later Republic serials with bigger budgets looked far, far cheaper). Interestingly enough there is at least one night time shoot in which the actors’ breath is seen fogging up as they speak, a touch of realism not seen in most movies of the era (the serial was shot during the late winter and early spring in the Coachella Valley of California.
If you’re a serial fan, this is certainly a fun ride. If you’re not, you’re better off avoiding it.
© Buzz Dixon