display | more...

A supernatural western? Well, not quite. But there's a missing archaeologist, a lost city full of gold guarded by an ancient "cult" of Indians, murders by weapons with strange "hieroglyphics" that speak of a curse, and that Whistling Skull that provides the title. Even a sacrificial altar and a mummified Indian for good measure. (And for the ladies: Ray "Crash" Corrigan running around shirtless for about ten minutes.)

There was a time when westerns like this regularly filled out the bill as part of an evening out at the movies. Leading up to the main attraction, B movies whetted the appetite of the filmgoer. They ran about an hour (with at least five minutes of medium long shots of men on horses riding from one side of the frame to the other) and were filled with action and folksy humor. But they were also made quickly and cheaply and overly formulaic with more time spent setting up and getting to the gunfight than spent worrying about plot and character or even much of a resolution.

Which is why Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937) is such fun. It does have many of the limitations and deserved criticism of those B westerns, but it has so much more going for it. It's got a story that's more like an adventure or horror tale than your typical western. Along with good location work and excellent stunts, it stands apart from so many similar films.

The Three Mesquiteers
The movie was part of a 51 film series made by Republic Pictures featuring a number of actors in the roles of the heroes (including John Wayne in eight). They were based on stories and three novels (Riders... being one) by writer William Colt MacDonald and featured three rough and tough cowboys who were always on the side of good and law and order.

Typical white hat stuff, which is what those old classic westerns were all about. The characters also had typical wild west-type names: Stony Brooke, Tucson Smith, and Lullaby Johnson (the third being the required comic relief). Sometimes the names were varied but they were always the Mesquiteers and always the good guys.

Journey to the Whistling Skull
The film opens with a circle of people watching an Indian wearing a buffalo (bison) headdress and a skull mask. He approaches the camera until his face fills the screen then it cuts to an archaeologist holding a real skull. One with strange writing on it. The archaeologist is Betty Marsh and she is examining the inscription on the skull. She and he father have studied Indians and that kind of writing for years.

With her are some fellow professors who are searching for a lost city ("Lukachukai"). Her father (also searching for the city) has been missing for three months. She wants to look for her father and they want to press on. The owner of the trading post arranges for an Indian (Otah) to guide them in search for her father.

Before any other plans can be made, the Three Mesquiteers ride up, with Professor Marsh's partner who was found in the desert. When he sees the skull he begins raving about the whistling skull and how it "howls in his ears day and night." He says that Marsh found the city but it is guarded by the skull. It is an ancient village full of gold. Marsh has been tortured but the professor escaped and has brought back a map. The lights go out and a knife with a curse written on the handle is stuck in him. So it begins.

Since someone in the room probably killed him, the Mesquiteers request the sheriff allow them to accompany the party and discover the murderer. Suspicions are all around as they travel toward the secret city. The map is split apart to ensure no one person holds all the cards. Another member of the party is murdered by an arrow with the same "curse" inscribed on it. His portion of the map is gone. Another member disappears the same night.

As they close in, you begin to see hints that they are being watched and followed. The missing professor turns up on a horse, bound, whipped, branded, and tortured (and mapless). It is a strange cult of Indians that had him tied to an altar. Later the attack comes culminating in a great runaway wagon bit and lots of good stuntwork. And yes, that is a tripwire for the horses (a sad fact of the history of filmmaking is the way a horse would be made to fall)—but before you think you caught a flub, it's part of the plot. And designed to capture Betty.

Nearing the city, the musical score is often replaced by the single slow, but insistant, throbbing drumbeat. Highly effective as they close in on the "cult of religious fanatics." Having lost the map and without food and water, they can only search for the lost city and a watering hole. There's a daring rescue and the Mesquiteers discover who killed Marsh's partner as well as causing all the trouble on the trail. The skull is found (superimposed and done very well, almost seamlessly), perched atop the cliffs of the canyon looking down on all who enter. A strong wind fills the sound track, muting the music.

There's a great gunfight/chase through the canyon and the ominous skull becomes a place of refuge—with no escape. Then there's exciting fights (with guns and fists) along the edge of the cliffs and nicely done avalanche/rockslide. Just how much action? About the last 20 minutes (a third of the film) is almost constant action. I have a minor quibble with the end (the Mesquiteers don't save the day all by themselves) but this is quite a one hour rollarcoaster ride that is a treat for fans of old westerns.

Special Western Goodness
One of the great things about the genre is that it takes advantage of the great wide open spaces. And the location work on this film is amazing for such a B movie. The mountains and canyons and cliffs aren't just used as backdrop, the action sequences take full advantage of the scenery.

And the stuntwork is quite impressive even today. They are actually running along rocky cliffs and up sloping canyon walls. They really are jumping onto loose rocks and from boulder to boulder. It's doubtful they had anywhere near the safety measures that one would find in Hollywood even a decade later. You really can see them sliding down slopes trying to keep their balance as the rocks move under their feet.

Then there's the ambush midway through the movie. A team of horses is out of control pulling the wagon with their supplies. It's also on fire from a flaming arrow. The driver bails out (horses are going full speed) and two of the Mesquiteers ride up alongside the team and jump to the wagon. One takes control of the team and the other pulls the pin that connects the team to the wagon. The guy with the horses slows and steers them away from the ever approaching cliff, while the one on the wagon jumps off moments before the burning wagon goes over the edge. Nice work. Stunts, camerawork, editing.

There's even some good visual stuff. Even though it's hardly spactacular, the cut from the mask to the real skull is a touch that adds to the movie and sets it apart from more pedestrian westerns of its type. There's also a few shots where you see an Indian drawing back his bow—but only as a shadow on the side of the canyon.

So which is it?
Since this was 1937, one can't expect too much cultural sensitivity. In the opening scene, one of the professors is just finished referring to Indians as "ignorant dirty savages" as Otah walks in. The older female professor calls him a "primitive masterful Indian." Twice. As a compliment. Another professor agrees, calling him "a fine representitive of the early Americans." The first speaker later says "he doesn't look trustworthy to me." Indeed.


For those who demand more:

Coolest Cowboy name ever
Seriously. In the role of the Indian Otah was one Yakima Canutt—who seems pretty low key in the film but who is one of the most unsung heroes in Hollywood. Really. Born Enos Edward Canutt (not nearly so cool), he started out a a world champion rodeo rider. That's when he got the nickname, once billing himself as the was the cowboy from Yakima (though he wasn't). During that time he met the western actor Tom Mix, who had a career in movie westerns dating back to the first decade of the twentieth century. Canutt began doing both rodeos and doubling for actors in films.

In the 1920s, he even starred in a number of small budget westerns but due to illness his voice became poorly suited for the "talkies" as a star (it's kind of scratchy and gravelly and not as deep and All-American as heroes of that era required). That didn't matter because he became something of a genius in the art of stunt coordination and a fearless stuntman. He also continued to double for actors and act, himself, often as villains. Canutt was the first to do the stunt where the rider jumps off the horse onto another horse or stagecoach, the first to really choreograph largescale fights (and later on stampedes). He developed the way of shooting a fist fight from an angle so that the punch really looked like it landed even though it was safely away from the actor's jaw. He taught John Wayne this stuff.

Not enough? He did stunts or worked as the stunt coordination on almost 200 films and acted in about as many. He directed 15 of his own and did 2nd unit direction on aver 50. Still not impressed? He was the second unit director that did the famous chariot sequence in Ben-Hur (1959). In 1966, he received an honorary Academy Award for "achievements as a stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt men everywhere." Now you can say: "oh, that Yakima Canutt—the one with the coolest Cowboy name ever."

The Mesquiteers
Ray Corrigan (or Ray "Crash" Corrigan as he was later known as). As Tucson Smith, Corrigan starred in 24 films in the series—second only to Robert Livingston with 29 entries). An athlete, he got involved in Hollywood as a physical trainer to the stars. He also did some stuntwork and got the nickname from his willingness to do risky work (yet—guess who was his stunt double was on Riders...?). One of the odd bits of trivia about his career is that he played an ape/gorilla in at least 14 of his nearly 90 films (if you count the "Orangopoid" in 1936's Flash Gordon—and I do). His acting career ended with work on It! The Terror from Beyond Space. He was "It."

Robert Livingston (played Stony brooke) began following his father's footsteps (he was a newspaper editor) and became a reporter. After covering a story on the Pasadena Playhouse he going the acting bug. Sadly, his final films are I Spit on on Your Corpse! (1974), Naughty Stewardesses, and Blazing Stewardesses (depending on the source it might be 1973 and 1975, respectively; or 1974 and 1975, respectively; or both 1975), all directed by exploitation schlockmeister Al Adamson.

BONUS Trivia (because you wouldn't expect any less): Adamson's death was much like his work—bizarre and tawdry. A dispute over money with his unlicensed remodeling contractor resulted in Adamson's murder (head bludgeoned) and entombment in cement under his jacuzzi. The contractor then took his cars and checkbook and ran around forging checks under Adamson's name until he was caught. He was eventually sentenced to 25 years for first degree murder.

Max Terhune played Lullaby Joslin in 21 Mesquiteers films. In fact, these three actors made up the most stable group that played the trio: a total of 14 films together. When he made it to Hollywood, Terhune was a skilled vaudeville entertainer, knowing magic, juggling, impressions, card tricks. He specialized in ventriloquism, which is evident in Riders when he takes out his friend "Elmer." Though he primarliy did westerns, later in his career he played a ventriloquist on a 1954 episode of "I Love Lucy."

One last thing
Chief Thundercloud, who played the chief of the Indian cult, may be billed that way (as he was in many of his films) but that's not his name. His real name is Victor Daniels and the "chief" is an honory title. That said, he most certainly was an Indian of Cherokee lineage. College-educated, he was also an athlete who worked on ranches and rodeos early in his career and did stunts and doubled for actors. His final picture was an uncredited role in John Ford's The Searchers (1956). He was the Comanche Chief.

Sources:
Personal copy (DVD tranferred from VHS)
The astonishing imdb.com
"The Three Mesquiteers Trio Westerns of Republic Pictures" http://www.b-westerns.com/trio3m.htm

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.