Being a Rustler of Red Bull, it took Judge Steve Evans on five minutes to write this review.
"The Three Musketeers of the Old West!"
A classic Universal Pictures serial in 12 chapters, starring the inimitable Johnny Mack Brown, who in less than 40 years made more than 160 films—almost all of them westerns. Rustlers of Red Dog is top-notch serial entertainment with non-stop action and death-defying heroics. VCI Entertainment delivers another quality serial, digitally remastered, no less. Compare this product to other public-domain titles—most of them all itchy and scratchy from years of neglect. If you can find more fun and sheer adventure on a DVD (this one's packed with nearly four hours of content, plus trailers, and cast biographies)—all at an equally attractive price—then buy it.
Facts of the Case
Cowboy hero Jack Wood (Brown) and his sidekicks Larami (Raymond Hatton, Rocky Mountain Rangers) and Deacon (Walter Miller, Ghost Patrol) unite as the Three Musketeers of the Old West. Their self-appointed task is to fight across plains and mountains, protecting helpless settlers while battling Indians, rustlers, and bandits who threaten the migration west.
Villainous Rocky (Harry Woods, Beau Geste) is the main bad guy bent on rustling cattle and harassing babes. Joyce Compton (Christmas in Connecticut) co-stars as Mary, the damsel-in-perpetual-distress pursued both by Rocky and apparently half the Cherokee nation.
Every chapter climaxes with an incredible, neck-breaking stunt or some other impossible peril. When a hero cowboy tumbles from his horse, and both steed and mount go cartwheeling down a mountain slope, the feeling of real pain is palpable. This serial is chock full of truly dangerous (even foolhardy) feats that would make modern stuntmen cry for their union rep.
Johnny Mack Brown made a quartet of western serials for Universal during the 1930s. Rustlers of Red Dog was the first and probably the best. Something of an iconoclast, Brown veered from convention by wearing an all-black outfit, including his hat. Back in the day, the good guys almost always wore white and the villains were tricked out in black ensembles, but Brown knew better and he chose to make a fashion statement. So when Brown gets busy taking names and kicking ass, he always looks good. Black goes with everything.
As for production values, this serial packs a punch. Unlike some studios, especially the old poverty-row outfits like PRC and Monogram, Universal pumped money into its serials. Wanna see a cast of thousands? Check. Rustlers rampaging on the range? Check. Gun battles and fisticuffs? You know it. Indian attacks? Got 'em, in all their politically incorrect glory. Even the cliffhanger endings—a highlight of any serial—are outrageously inventive. Only the famous Flash Gordon serials come close to the creativity on evidence in this classic "oater" (slang for B-westerns).
On the flipside, Universal head honcho Carl Laemmle Jr. liked to save a buck, so expect to see plenty of stock footage from the Universal vaults going back to the 1920s when his daddy Carl Sr. ran the studio. And like many serials from this period, there's also an amusing tendency for six-shooters to fire 40 rounds without needing to be reloaded—quite a handy feature in pitched gun battles—plus the usual continuity gaffes and anachronisms we would expect with action films made on the fly (note the camera truck's tire tracks and rising dust in the many tracking shots of cowboys galloping across the prairie). Just take this in stride and you'll have a blast.
The digital video is refreshingly clean and free of artifacts. Grain and some over-exposure problems are evidenced throughout the print, although this is a factor of 72-year-old source materials. VCI bills the disc as digitally remastered and it is clear that tender loving care was taken with the print. On the downside, audio is all over the place, primarily clear and balanced during scenes shot indoors, then crackling with pops, hisses and curious low-level rumbling when the action shifts outdoors. The limitations of early sound recording complicate the problem and become obvious in the many chase sequences filmed across fields and plains, where dialogue disappears in a cacophony of gunshots and Indian war whoops. This may be just as well, since dialogue in a serial seldom reveals nuance of character; it is there purely to advance the plot. And when the plot is mostly about getting away from murderous bad guys from one chapter to the next, the images speak for themselves. VCI has probably delivered the best that can be expected from a thin audio track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This ain't Shakespeare, film fans, nor should we expect sensitive, socially conscious depictions of Native Americans. Serials were created for the sole purpose of luring youngsters back to the theater week after week to watch the main attraction during Saturday matinees. Morality is as stark as the black outfits of the bad guys and the good guys who wore white (Johnny Mack excepted). The great irony is, many of these old chapter plays are more enjoyable than the long-forgotten features they were designed to support.
As nostalgia, these old serials offer unparalleled entertainment. Chapter plays certainly had a profound influence on George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, whose Indiana Jones films are famously structured as adventure serials, albeit with colossal budgets. Spielberg has often commented on his childhood enjoyment of serials and B-pictures (as an aside, it's worth noting that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is no less racist than any depiction of Indians from the 1930s). Lucas hasn't made a movie in 30 years that didn't pay homage to a serial in one way or another. Look again at his Star Wars films, where every scene transition features slashing diagonal screen wipes that were first used for dramatic effect in serials like this one, and especially the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers cliffhangers starring Buster Crabbe.
No serious film collection is complete without a couple of vintage serials, at least one of which ought to be a western—since that was the dominant genre. This one is first rate, given the age of the materials used in the transfer to DVD. VCI presents another quality package that collectors are sure to enjoy. The company is also commended for including a generous selection of bonus materials.
Round up the Rustlers of Red Dog and throw 'em in jail. Johnny Mack Brown and VCI, the company that keeps his legacy alive, are free to continue clobbering bad guys in general and saving the Old West in particular. Yippee-ki-yay!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Classic Serial Trailers
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