(1/10) In a nutshell: Tim McCoy’s really big hat delivers the best performance in this awfully derivative and amateurishly made sci-fi-tinged modern western. Ghost Patrol marks the beginning of the surge of American death ray films, and fortunately the demise of the first wave of sci-fi westerns.
Ghost Patrol. USA, 1936. Directed by Sam Newfield. Written by Wyndham Gittens. Starring: Tim McCoy, Tim McCoy’s really big hat, Claudia Dell, Walter Miller, Wheeler Oakman, James P. Burtis, Lloyd Ingraham, Dick Curtis. Produced by Sigmund Neufeld & Leslie Simmons for Excelcior Pictures Corp. IMDb score: 4.8
The second half of the thirties saw a brief upturn in the interest of science fiction with the rising popularity of pulp magazines, long-running comics in newspapers, and of course cinema serials like Flash Gordon (1936, review). The mad scientist theme had also taken hold, starting with Frankenstein in 1931 (review). Although the serials The Voice from the Sky (1930) and The Whispering Shadow (1933, review) had toyed with the concept, the classic serial concept of the megalomaniac villain threatening the world with outlandish weapons had not yet taken root fully in 1936. In Ghost Patrol we therefore get a perfectly sane scientist, who nonetheless has created a ray that can shoot planes from the sky, who gets kidnapped by a band of bandits. Oh, should I say western bandits. We also get western star Tim McCoy with a big hat (it is really, really big). Oh, and there are no ghosts in the film. Nor really any patrols, either. It is slightly unclear where the name comes from.
Basically, this is a modern western film with tacked-on sci-fi elements derived from the mythical death ray supposedly developed by Harry Grindell Matthews in 1921 – which he said could be developed into a weapon to stop the engines of airplanes. The fact that he shopped the idea around, and went underground after the British government refused to pay out 25 000 pounds on an unproven idea, made the death ray headline news for years.
The film involves the kidnapped Professor Brent (Lloyd Ingraham), who is kidnapped by a gang of bandits led by Dawson (Walter Miller) and Kincaid (Wheeler Oakman). The Professor has invented a ray that can shoot planes from the sky. It works by way of a radium tube, and more specifically one of those spark generators that Kenneth Strickfaden liked to design (oh, whaddayaknow, Strickfaden is listed as responsible for the special effects in the film). If one thing was more common than Strickfadens in sci-fi’s of the era, it was radium. I mean really common. It was used for everything. It was almost as popular as it was in real life in 1936. Back in the twenties people thought it was really healthy – they put it in chocolate and toothpaste; radium water was considered a health tonic up until 1932, until socialite Eben Byers became famous for dying of radiation poisoning.
Anyway, after The Professor disappears and mail planes carrying bonds start falling out of the sky near a ghost town called Shiloh, both Brent’s daughter Natalie Brent (Claudia Dell) and government agent Tim Caverly (Tim McCoy) get suspicious and decide to take a closer look at Shiloh. Brent does so by getting caught and locked up and Caverly by being shot down in a plane, and then infiltrating the gang by posing as the hitman Tim Toomey (everybody’s called Tim these days …), along with fat comic sidekick Henry Brownlee (James P. Burtis). Caverly has the fastest draw in the west, but more importantly, the biggest hat (seriously – it is big!). After introductions are made, planes shot down and girls kidnapped, there is not time for much of a plot, since the film is barely an hour long. But Caverly and Dawson play cat and mouse around the false identity of Tim Toomey, and some derivative western action ensues. Tim McCoy shows off his big hat. In the end The Professor is shot, but survives and the cavalry comes to the rescue after a shootout in a mine. Hats all around!
There are not many redeeming qualities to this film, apart from Tim McCoy’s big, big hat. One is that the leading lady actually turns out to be both resourceful and brave, and not just a fainting doll. Tim McCoy does know how to wear a big hat, but he isn’t much of an actor, in fact he walks around stiff as a board the whole movie through. He gets no help from the other actors either. Walter Miller reprises his villain from The Vanishing Shadow (1934, review), but unfortunately much worse. He frowns a lot, which means that he is a bad guy. Burtis is just annoying. Lloyd Ingraham actually passes for an actor, but unfortunately he doesn’t get very much screen time – Claudia Dell is the other redeeming quality of the film.
The direction is of cheapo film serial quality – which may be forgiven in a serial but not in a film. The editing is nondescript and the special effects consist of Strickfaden’s gadgets and nothing more. The sound effects of the planes’ motors failing are blatantly obviously made by simply putting silent cuts in the middle of engine sounds. Occasionally there are entertaining stretches, and the film is certainly watchable, but mainly because it is short and things move along fairly breezily. But that doesn’t help much: this is actually the first film to make it to my list of awful films.
Ghost Patrol was directed by the legendary B-film director Sam Newfield, sometimes called the most prolific director of sound films – something of a Roger Corman before Roger Corman. Between 1926 and 1964 he directed nearly 280 films, serials or series. Most of them were westerns, many starring Tim McCoy, but he dabbled in basically all genres, although sci-fi wasn’t one of his favourite ones. Some of his films were quite adequate, especially his work on TV-series like Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion (1955, with Buster Crabbe of Flash Gordon fame) and Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans (1957, starring Lon Chaney Jr.) is well regarded. Other, like Ghost Patrol, are utter crap. Newfield’s forays into sci-fi generally tend towards the latter category, the other ones being The Mad Monster (1942, review), The Monster Maker (1944, review) and Lost Continent (1951).
Screenwriter Wyndham Gittens also wrote for the serials The Whispering Shadow and Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938). Cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh worked on The Mad Monster, Lost Continent, and the wonderfully bad Robot Monster (1953, review).
Tim McCoy was by this time one of the biggest stars of the cheap B-westerns of the thirties, along with other notables like John Wayne, Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele and Buck Jones, and a rising star called Gene Autry (The Phantom Empire, 1935, review). How or why is unclear, since Wayne was the only one of these who could actually act his way out of a 10-gallon hat. But McCoy, famous for his riding skills, military prowess, and his close ties to Native Americans, had basically recharged the whole western serial genre when he played the lead in the 1930 serial The Indians are Coming – proving that western serials could be profitable even after the increased production cost brought on by sound cinema. McCoy is still fondly remembered as one of the legends of thirties’ and forties’ cheapo westerns.
The film, produced by the minor Excelsior Pictures, is otherwise filled with B-rate staple actors. Claudia Dell’s Hollywood career began promisingly with the lead in the lavish musical comedy Sweet Litty Bellairs in 1930, but the decline of film musicals brought her mostly roles in B-movies – first as a leading lady in westerns, but steadily lesser roles. Walter Miller was a staple character actor, often playing villains. He appeared as such in The Vanishing Shadow, and in the serial The Secret of Treasure Island (1938). He appears in a bit-part as a derelict in the 1936 film The Invisible Ray (review), starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Wheeler Oakman actually starred in the other sci-fi/western hybrid of the thirties – The Phantom Empire. He also appeared in the second Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, as well as in the Buck Rogers series in 1939. In 1943 he played a police detective in the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Ape Man (review). He returned to the sci-fi serials in his last two acting roles – he appeared in the 1947 serial Brick Bradford and in an uncredited role in the 1948 Superman series starring Kirk Alyn (review). Lloyd Ingraham had a long acting career, appearing in over 300 films and serials, best known perhaps for his films with John Wayne. He also directed over 100 lesser known silent films, mostly romantic comedies and westerns. The tall Dick Curtis was a staple as a brutal henchman in many films and serials, primarily westerns. He did, though, appear in some Three Stooges films. He also appeared as a crew member on the ship in King Kong (1933, review) and in the first Batman serial in 1943. The film also makes room for a very staple henchman in a tiny part – Slim Whitaker. Although about 97 percent of his around 230 films or serials were westerns, he also had bit parts in Flash Gordon and The Mad Monster (1942).
Ghost Patrol. USA, 1936. Directed by Sam Newfield. Written by Wyndham Gittens. Starring: Tim McCoy, Tim McCoy’s really big hat, Claudia Dell, Walter Miller, Wheeler Oakman, James P. Burtis, Lloyd Ingraham, Dick Curtis. Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh. Editor: John English. Production management: Bert Sternbach. Special effects: Kenneth Strickfaden.