Judge Steve Evans once shot a man for snoring in his sleep.
A thousand teeming thrills in 15 exciting chapters!
"Ride along! Ride along! Let us fight for law and order till the wrong is right!"—sung over the opening credits.
Universal Studios packs plenty of excitement into this 1941 serial of cowboys, rustlers, and damsels in distress. Inflate a bag of popcorn and enjoy six-shooter action galore, as the toughest hombres in Death Valley tangle on opposing sides of law and order.
Facts of the Case
Jim Benton (Dick Foran, The Petrified Forest) and his pals band together as Riders of Death Valley, vowing to protect the miners and prospectors of the lawless Old West. When Wolfe Reade and his gang of outlaws learn of a fabled treasure mine, they come thundering into town with murder in their hearts and larceny on their minds.
During the 15 consecutive weeks this serial would play in theaters, the evil Wolfe and his pack would devise inventive ways of eliminating our able heroes. Whether it was a crashing stage coach, collapsing mine tunnel, certain death in a sandstorm, or a literal cliffhanger ending, the Riders of Death Valley faced impossible peril at the close of every chapter, only to escape miraculously, ready to "fight for the right" the following Saturday afternoon.
Riders of Death Valley is a superior serial with above-average production values, clever perils, and some genuinely dangerous-looking stunts, all directed by Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor (who a year earlier had co-directed another classic serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe). There appears to be some reliance on stock footage, both recycled from other serials and cannibalized from other chapters in Riders.
In addition to sturdy contract player Dick Foran as the hero leader, there's a solid cast, with able support from Noah Berry Jr. (whose career in film began with an appearance alongside his father in the 1920 silent picture The Mark of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr.). Noah Beery Jr. would enjoy a career revival years later as the whimsically cantankerous father of James Garner's character in the television show The Rockford Files. Berry Jr. also married the daughter of his co-star in this serial: Buck Jones, a real cowboy who flourished in scores of B-westerns. Indeed, half the fun of watching these old serials involves connecting the dots and spotting young actors who would go on to become household names. Look fast for Glenn Strange, playing a rare good-guy role as Tex. Strange enjoyed a short career as Frankenstein's monster in several Universal "monster-mash" hits, culminating in 1948 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
The bad guys are appropriately hissable, but also nondescript—except for the familiar face of Lon Chaney Jr. He would go on later in the year to star as Lawrence Talbot in Universal's horror classic The Wolfman, becoming an instant celebrity and enjoying steady work throughout the 1940s in the studio's various film combinations featuring Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolfman. Fact is, Chaney was the only actor to portray all four of the studio's original classic monsters. In Riders of Death Valley, he's suitably menacing—and doing many of his own stunts, too. That's definitely Chaney in his black cowboy hat galloping like a madman across the valley in a dozen chases throughout this serial.
Maybe the simple, enduring pursuit of truth and justice is the key to the appeal of old cowboy serials in particular and chapter plays in general: the good guys wore white hats, the bad guys wore black. These blatant visual clues identified the righteous and the wicked in unmistakable terms, with stories structured to fit 15-minute weekly installments. With an incredible life-threatening climax at the end of every chapter, these glorious old serials kept children coming back to every Saturday matinee for nearly four months. There were no political and cultural complexities to cloud these tales of derring-do; just full-bore adventure. That must have provided reassuring comfort the year Riders of Death Valley was released, as the United States stood on the cusp of World War II. Each week the cowboy heroes got into a tough scrape—and the following Saturday they always managed to escape, sometimes even by credible means. More importantly, the good guys were always triumphant. Though the situation might look bleak, the promise of victory hung in the air like the smell of popcorn from the 10-cent bags rustling softly in the dark theater.
Billed as "the million dollar super serial," it is unclear whether that tagline truly refers to the Riders of Death Valley budget. Serials were typically produced inexpensively, with a B-list cast. Footage would be recycled endlessly for maximum mileage, which is evident when watching three or four chapters back-to-back. The last five minutes of chapter three, for instance, would serve as the first five minutes of chapter four the following week to reacquaint the audience with the story (and save production dollars).
Picture and sound reflect their age (65 years), although the keepcase packaging notes that the elements have been digitally mastered and restored. Video is still grainy, occasionally scratched and pocked with flecks of dirt. Though certainly not unwatchable, the video is disappointing. On the flip side of the argument, VCI Home Entertainment is commended for making many of the old serials available to an admittedly narrow segment of the film-collecting population. Given the limited demand, it is probably cost prohibitive to undertake any comprehensive restoration of an old serial. There's just not a huge profit margin on titles that probably sell less than 100,000 units, as compared to the six million copies of a new Spielberg film that fly off the retail shelves.
The audio track, presented in the original mono, has fared better through the decades and is relatively free of distracting pops and hisses.
Extras include a beautifully rendered color photo gallery of classic serial posters and black-and-white production stills from Riders of Death Valley. This feature advances by itself at the rate of one image every five seconds. Three serial trailers, talent biographies, and a promo reel for other VCI product round out the extras menu on Disc One. The second disc includes chapters 8-12 and another set of trailers for serials available from VCI. This is a generous selection of additional material not typically found on DVD serials.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Don't look for high-brow drama in a serial. The form was designed to hold a young audience captive for more than a dozen weeks as a supporting feature for new pictures that people might otherwise not bother to see. Today, the appeal of old serials is purely nostalgic, but some of them are wonderfully entertaining.
VCI presents a quality package that serial aficionados are sure to enjoy. The company is also commended for including a useful selection of bonus material. There's real value in this two-disc set.
The Riders of Death Valley are free to roam the plains, righting wrongs and plugging the bad guys full of lead. 'Nuff said.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Promo Reel for VCI Home Video Products
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