Monday, October 10, 2011

DVD: The Miracle Rider -- October 10, 2011

Tom Mix was the biggest cowboy star in silent movies.  He made a series of talkies for Universal, but the Depression prevented other studios from paying his vast salary.  In 1935, Nat Levine of Mascot Studio paid Mix $40,000 to work for four weeks.  This was half the budget of The Miracle Rider, a15 chapter serial. Mix needed the money to subsidize his circus.  This turned out to be his last movie.  I was surprised to learn that it was Mascot's only 15 chapter serial.  I had thought that 15 was the standard length after producers settled on a standard and before they went to 12 as a cheaper standard.

The first episode of The Miracle Rider, "The Vanishing Indian,"  was almost feature length.   It used an animated map to show "Indian Territory" shrinking and the United States growing over the years.  Some of the dates on the map were questionable.  Scenes showed Daniel Boone, then Davy Crockett, then Buffalo Bill Cody, then Sam Morgan trying to get European Americans to stop intruding on the territory of Native Americans.  Who was Sam Morgan?  He was the father of Tom Morgan, Tom Mix's character.

Sam Morgan was trying to defend the reservation of the Ravenhead tribe when he was murdered by a group of men who wanted to squat on their land.  Young Tom promises to join the Texas Rangers and carry on his work.  Twenty years later, Tom has aged considerably.  His hair is dyed black and his teeth are false, but he is still a heroic figure.  I only noticed one scene where he performed with is old mugging humor, when he stopped two kids from stealing a pie and then tried to steal it himself.  The Ravenhead regard Tom as a brother and give him the name "Miracle Rider."

A mysterious flying object, called the Thunderbird by the Ravenhead begins attacking their village.  It turns out to be a "rocket powered glider" controlled by Zaroff, who is secretly mining X-92, a super explosive, from the Ravenhead reservation.  I was sad to see the open cockpit monoplane Thunderbird crash in chapter 2.  Zaroff is played by Charles Middleton, about whom I still have bad dreams from Flash Gordon and Laurel and Hardy movies.  Later in the movie, Zaroff's scientist discovers a way to turn X-92 into a powerful fuel that can replace gasoline.  Image if a Native American tribe controlled all of this country's energy supplies.

Some of the cliffhangers were different compared to what later became standard in Universals.  In one, the chapter ends with a bunch of cowboys holding their guns on Tom.  There are no shots fired.  In the next chapter, Tom's horse, Tony Jr, blows a car horn and allows Tom to escape.  There are some very clear cheaters, chapters ending with Tom falling to his doom or getting shot.  The next chapters begin differently.

Tom Mix was still a convincing hero.  I didn't care that he had trouble with his lines.  He sounded like a real person.

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