Judge Ian Visser rides hard, shoots straight, and cuts men from neck to nuts.
"Blazing the trail of the pioneer West!"
Fighting with Kit Carson is the kind of entertainment that, quite literally, doesn't get made anymore. It's tough to imagine in today's world of on-demand and portable movies, but in the 1930s and 40s, the only media entertainment aside from radio was the local movie theater. According to Edward Jay Epstein, in his book "The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood," by the 1940s, 90 million Americans visited a theatre on a weekly basis. Even more astonishing, at least when contrasted to today's ADD-ravaged example, was how that era's youth would return to the movie theater each week to follow the serialized adventures of their on-screen heroes.
Many serials were made during the 1930s and 40s, representing such genres as westerns, space adventure, and espionage. Made fast and cheap, they almost always concluded with a nail-biting situation that the hero seemed doomed to perish from. And sure enough, the following week, the hero would escape certain death to fight again.
Facts of the Case
The plot of Fighting with Kit Carson is simplicity itself. A pack train loaded with gold and led by Kit Carson (Johnny Mack Brown, Rustlers of Red Dog) is attacked by evil local Cyrus Kraft (Noah Beery, Zorro Rides Again) and his shadowy Mystery Riders. Carson manages to hide the gold, but must engage the raiders in repeated conflicts to prevent them from finding and carrying away the treasure.
The twelve chapters of the serial are:
1. The Mystery Riders
Johnny Mack Brown was one of the kings of the serials. Brown was already a veteran of a dozen pictures by the 1930s, and eventually starred in more than 160 films. One of four serials made by Universal in the 1930s starring Brown, Fighting with Kit Carson is a textbook example of the chapter style of films. There is plenty of riding, roping, and rustling for fans of the westerns, and the stunt work (usually done by actual cowboys) is astonishing in a time of all-CGI effects. Watching a cowboy jump from a horse to a wagon without any wires attached can still be breathtaking for a viewer.
While Fighting with Kit Carson does encompass many of the strengths of the genre, it also suffers from some of the faults. Adventure was the selling point in serials, and such concepts as realism and character really didn't enter into the picture. Good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and Indians could go either way. Fighting with Kit Carson sticks to this formula, and tends to get a little stale by the mid-point of its twelve chapters. I'd recommend that viewers stretch out the chapters over a series of viewings to make the storyline a bit more palatable.
Video and audio get marked on a curve for a release like Fighting with Kit Carson. Just having these Hollywood classics on DVD is a treat, but VCI has gone a step further and given the serial a remastering. The video isn't perfect by any means, but it is quite watchable, considering its advanced age. The audio suffers a little more, but the dialogue is generally clear and there is only a minor hiss that tends to accompany this kind of effort. By all accounts this is the best example on the market; be sure to avoid other public domain efforts with inferior picture and sound.
Special features include bios of actors Johnny Mack Brown, Noah Berry, and Betsy King Ross (The Phantom Empire), as well as directors Armand Schaefer (Desert Command) and Colbert Clark (The Mystery Squadron). Also included are vintage trailers for serials Law of the Wild, Phantom Empire, and Blackhawk.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's tough to watch Fighting with Kit Carson and not wince at the portrayal of its American Indian characters. Not that any actual Indians seem to be involved; the majority of the Indian characters appear to be played by actors sitting somewhere between "white" and "less white." Their speech and behavior is pure stereotype, and while it may be possible to forgive 70-year-old prejudices, it's also apparent that many of the opinions people have developed about Indians stems directly from such Hollywood "entertainment." If you're watching this with the kids, a little discussion about the representation of the American Indian characters may be in order before beginning.
Every DVD fan should have at least one serial in their collection. If you're looking for a western example of the genre you could do a lot worse than Fighting with Kit Carson. If nothing else, take a little trip down memory lane to a time when a movie cost a quarter, popcorn was a nickel, and kids still stared up at the big screen with awe and admiration, week after week.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Classic Serial Trailers
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