Monday, April 6, 2009

Yippie-kai-yay! A Chapter Play

The Oregon Trail
VCI Home Video // 1939 // 296 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“With smoking guns he held off bandits to save the wagon trains…and the girl he loved!” ~ From the promotional poster.

Another ancient Universal Studios serial finds new life on DVD with VCI Home Entertainment, which now owns the licensing rights to many of these old chapter plays. Decent bonus materials compensate for a mediocre print and a creaky storyline in 15 chapters padded with plenty of stock footage from the Universal vaults.

A bit of plot…
Mysterious bandits intercept wagon trains laden with settlers en route to Oregon. The Cavalry calls in trail scout Jeff Scott (bad-ass Johnny Mack Brown) to crack the case in his own two-fisted way. Back east, bad guy Morgan leads a syndicate that controls the Pacific Northwest fur trade. They don’t want Oregon overrun by settlers as this will only cut into their profits. The evil corporation men order their hired thug Bull Bragg and his gang to stop the wagons from getting through. Bull and his boys reroute the simple settlers by changing trail markers, guiding innocent people into hostile Indian territory, across dangerous rivers, and down the wrong roads. It doesn’t take too long for Scott, Col. Custer, and our other cowboy heroes to figure out what’s going down, but it does take 15 chapters for them to prevail. Jingling and jangling their spurs to the rescue, Scott and his crew manage to capture Bull several times, but the sadistic brute always escapes to fight another day — at least until the final installment of this not-bad serial.

Historical Context
Directors Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind cranked out dozens of serials for Universal in the 1930s and ‘40s. Beebe would go on to direct the first classic Flash Gordon serial with Buster Crabbe in the title role. To hold down costs, Universal Studios and the boys often raided older films and other serials for action footage, be it train wrecks, large-scale Indian attacks, or unusual stunts such as covered-wagon crashes. These were cost-cutting measures not likely to be noticed, since folks probably wouldn't remember films or serial chapters they saw a year or even a month ago, and remote controls with rewind buttons were still half a century away (and anything like it would be the stuff of science fiction serials like Buck Rogers — also with Buster Crabbe).

The real stars of these old serials were the stuntmen, whose feats of daring-do were actually incredibly dangerous; reckless even by lunatic standards. When we see a cowboy playing chicken with a locomotive or falling over a cliff, that’s the real deal, film fans. There’s no slick CGI to gloss over the illusion; some of the early stuntmen got mangled for their art. The horses didn’t have an easy time of it, either. Horsing-around stunts that were routine 75 years ago would never pass muster with the SPCA today, so when you see a cowboy and his pony go whoopsie! — cartwheeling across the prairie in one of these old cowboy shoot-’em-ups — you’re watching shenanigans from a bygone era.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The print used for this transfer of The Oregon Trail is quite hazy. Considerable damage is also evident throughout the picture in the form of scratch lines and specks of dirt popping up here and there. Since this is the only known DVD available of The Oregon Trail, fans must take what they can get. Holding out for a better print seems a dubious strategy, as the market for vintage Hollywood serials is already narrow. A crystal-clear print of almost any title from the golden age of serials would be worth watching, but the restoration would be prohibitively expensive — and so there’s no money to be made for the people who own the rights to these cinematic anachronisms. It’s simple economics, borne on demand. Even the finest examples of the genre, like the Flash Gordon serials, look like a glass of muddy water on DVD. If the companies that own the rights to the greatest serials aren’t willing to restore them, don’t bet the ranch that an obscure Johnny Mack Brown cowboy flick will be returned to its former glory on state-of-the art telecine equipment. Even in this presentation, prepared from apparently ancient film elements, VCI suggests a retail price of $30 for the two-disc set.

The mono audio crackles with age, but the dialogue comes through.

Chapters 1-10 occupy the space on Disc One; the remaining five chapters and supplements are on Disc Two. Extra features include a nice poster gallery that advances automatically, plus cast biographies, and a quartet of trailers for other films in the VCI catalogue. There are cool animated menus, too — a thoughtful touch.

The Contrarian View
Don’t look for scintillating screenwriting or trenchant drama in the old serials. This was shoot-’em-up-action for the preadolescent crowd (now the aging cognoscenti — like my beloved father — who will fondly recall the joys of Saturday matinees long ago).

Characters in this serial are either dumb as cement or prone to violent outbursts that can be settled only by guns or a fistfight. This is what audiences of the 1930s paid to see. They got their money’s worth.

The Oregon Trail
offers nearly five hours of breathless, hell, hyperventilating excitement and death-defying thrills that go perfectly with popcorn and a cold drink on a rainy Sunday afternoon. VCI does a better job of packaging and presenting these old serials on DVD than anyone in the business.

Now, then, cowboy: Seein’ as I’m in charge of this-here website, I say ol’ Bull Bragg is guilty as sin and sentenced to swing — if big, bad Johnny Mack Brown can ever catch him.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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