(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
C. Montague Shaw, as Professor Faxon, is on the couch while Terhune, Corrigan, Livingston, heroine Mary Russell and other cast members look on. The actress kneeling and wearing a pith helmet is Fern Emmett.
A Republic picture with a handle like RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL and a trio of great western stars is bound to be pure action packed excitement. What images does the name "Riders of the Whistling Skull" (RWS) conjure up? Let your imagination run free! Specters? Mystery? Suspense? Shadowy Figures? You won't be disappointed. For this story, maybe more appropriately a saga, contains a measurable dose of each. Unquestionably, the name of the fourth Three Mesquiteers' movie clearly conveys its main theme. I gotta believe Republic loosened its tight purse strings to pour some extra cash into this production. Money well spent!
The first question a neophyte would ask is what is the Whistling Skull? It's a rock formation resembling the skeleton of a human head, situated high atop a mountain overlooking the lost city of Lukachuke. The eerie sounds of the desert winds weaving their way through this rock formation create a strange whistling sound which scares away strangers. In the shadow of the skull is a gang of idol worshiping Indians who covet a treasure of gold and silver and enjoy torturing any strangers not frightened away by the skull. We're getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
I am sure you all remember that two story hacienda with the tiled roof and the large porch that was required to be in nerly every Republic western. That's the starting place for our tale. This time around, it has been "converted" into Rutledge's Trading Post. In the shade of the porch, a group of archeology professors have gathered for a special mission --- find one of their colleagues, now missing, in quest of the lost city. The expedition leader is Betty Marsh, the daughter of the lost professor. But, first they need a guide and supplies.
As negotiations are in progress, up ride the 3M with Tucson carrying a limp body slung over his horse. This almost lifeless person is Professor Thaxton, a member of the Marsh expedition. The Professor, half delirious, starts to relate the tale of the expedition when an Indian dagger finds its mark in his back. The dagger bears distinctive signs and symbols of the inhabitants of the lost city. During the sheriff's interrogation of the group of suspects, like a typical 1930s film, they exchange fleeting glances and suspicious looks as the camera rapidly shifts from face to face. But there is no indication of who the bad guys are. Atypically in RWS, that revelation is reserved for the end of the movie.
The expedition finally gets underway with Rutledge and his faithful Indian assistant Otah (Yakima Cannutt) as their guides. The 3M have also joined the group after promising the sheriff that they would track down the murders, but not before Stony and Tucson have an argument. Tucson feels that they have work to complete on their ranch, while Stony wants to play detective. Obviously Stony wins out. I wonder how the 3M make a living. They never seem to be working on their ranch. Do they ever work there at all? How do they support themselves? In a later 3M movie with John Wayne as Stony we will get a chance to see their spread first hand!
Another interesting aspect of RWS is the development of a love interest for Lullaby. Goes to prove that you are never too old!
As the expedition casts off, suspense builds. We are treated to scenes ofIndian smoke signals, and shadowy figures silently following close by observing every move made. Night descends to find that the expedition has circled its wagons. Tucson reveals that a diary discovered where they ran across Professor Thaxton contains a map to the lost city. They cut the map into pieces giving one to each person. Our heroes are getting ready for bed when the action starts. Did you ever notice that cowboys always slept in their clothes? Another Indian arrow with the same marking as the dagger, is launched from the shadows and kills an expedition member while another member silently disappears. Has he runaway to get a head start on the rest or has he been kidnapped?
Undaunted , the expedition forges on. The nature of the terrain has changed (probably from the Republic lot) as they are now riding through a desert environment. The persistent shadowy figures are still trailing the expedition and the background music has changed to a steady tom-tom beat.
As the group rounds a mountain trail, they come upon the missing member of their expedition. Seems that he was kidnapped, beaten, tortured, and branded. Of course he no longer has his fragment of the map. Apparently he was freed to give one final warning to the intruding party.
Silently, from the crevices of the surrounding rocks, come flights of flaming arrows with one landing in the supplies wagon. The team of horses takes off as the driver also catches an arrow in the back. Both Stony and Tucson are in hot pursuit. Got to save those supplies. Eventually they catch up to the wagon which is now engulfed in flames. They leap from their horses onto the blazing vehicle. When it appears that the wagon cannot be saved, Tucson jumps while Stony unhitches the horses and rides them to safety. Look closely at that scene, Stony's stunt double must have been twice the weight of Robert Livingston. With no food or water, the expedition regroups to plan its next move. Additional members are missing, and we learn that both Lullaby and Betty Marsh are no where to be found.
In a search of the area, Lullaby turns up but Betty has been captured by the Indians. The 3M follow her tracks to a cave where the Indians are conducting a ceremony with Betty at the center. That's just too much for Stony to bear. Covered by Tucson and Lullaby, he leaps to Betty's rescue. Among the Indians are a young Iron Eyes Cody as well as Chief Thunder Cloud, who will later be Bob "Lone Ranger Rides Again" Livingston's faithful Indian side kick Tonto. Not only was he the definitive Stony Brooke but Livingston was also a great Lone Ranger.
By this time, any normal expedition would have pulled up stakes and headed home. But not these stalwarts. Without water and food, they contrive a plan to expose the traitors in their midst. Sure enough, the plan finally reveals the identity of Rutledge and Otah as the heavies. Rutledge is a half breed who wants to keep strangers away from the area. In a way I cannot blame him. Following Rutledge and Otah, Stony and Tucson learn the location of the nearest waterin' hole. They bring the rest of the party to the water and discover the Skull at the far end of the canyon.
Like our undaunted expedition, the Indians have regrouped for another attack under the direct command of our unmasked bad guy leaders Rutledge and Otah. On foot, the Indians pursue the dismounted expeditioners toward the Skull. There they take refuge after climbing what seems like a five story ladder. When the last member has reached the Skull, the Indians remove the ladder trapping the group in a seemingly inescapable location.
Taking advantage of the respite, the group explores the chambers within the skull only to discover the lost Professor Marsh. Another interesting occurrence reminiscent of the clay people in the Flash Gordon serial --- an Indian mummy who seems to be a part of the walls comes to life, knife in hand, and lunges at Tucson. Lullaby comes to the rescue again as he drops the blade wielding brave with a single shot.
Leave it to the 3M! They finally concoct a way to escape by lowering a long rope down the side of the mountain. The plan is for Tucson to rappel down the mountain and go for help. As Tucson is lowering himself, an Indian surreptitiously appears and starts to cut the rope. Stony is following Tucson and levels the Indian with his 44 but the rope has been sufficiently slashed so that Tucson falls and Stony is captured.
Tucson is not out of the woods just yet. He is now involved in a major foot race over rugged terrain with three Indians racing after him and looking to lift his hair. This segment of RWS clearly catapults him to center stage to showcase his physical abilities and his physique. Discarding his ragged shirt, Tucson starts the race. Minard Coons has kindly provided us with interesting aspects of this race as told to him by none other than Tucson himself. Again, if you look closely, you will notice that Tucson is wearing tennis shoes. In earlier takes Tucson had sustained serious blisters and resorted to tennis shoes as a means of easing the pain. Additionally, Minard passes along Tucson's comment that he felt this was one of the better 3M movies. I am sure we would all agree.
Back to the foot race. Tucson manages to knock off two of his pursuers. When a third is just about to deliver a fatal fling of his tomahawk, a shot rings out. And there are no more pursuers. A sheriff's posse which had been trailing the expedition has ridden to Tucson's rescue. And just in time, I might add.
Meanwhile, back at the Skull, Rutledge and his minions have Stony bound to a stake, threatening to burn him alive unless Professor Marsh discloses where the treasure is hidden. Again, it's Lullaby who comes to Stony's aid. He manages to leave the Skull and positions himself high above the assembled bad guys. At that moment more shooting breaks out as the posse arrives on the scene. The bad guys take up firing positions in the rocks just below Lullaby's vantage point. Lullaby gets things rolling by starting a rock slide which starts a major avalanche entombing Rutledge and company forever as fossilized inhabitants of the lost city.
The next scene is back at the hacienda and opens with Tucson now reading "Master Detective" while Lullaby, dressed in a pith helmet and archeologist clothing walks arm in arm with his love interest. And so the picture ends where it had begun.
For its action filled 58+ minutes, this movie gets a well deserved 3 six gun rating. For the western movie fan, especially those 3M fans, permit me to make some observations. I would love to hear your reactions to these observations too.
While the movie was overflowing with action, the ending was a let down. It abruptly moved from the lost city back to the hacienda. I was "flyin' high" and enmeshed in the action, and all of a sudden the movie was over. There could have been a better transition easing you into the ending. As an example, consider the ending in PALS OF THE SADDLE when, after a gun fight and chase, the 3M ride along with the cavalry and captured bad guys, engage in some light conversation with the heroine and the ride off into the trail dust. That should have been done here.
Tucson and Lullaby were given ample opportunities to showcase their diverse skills. Not only was Lullaby involved with Elmer, he also played a key role in saving both Tucson and Stony. Who caused the avalanche which buried the heavies at the movie's end? He also had a love interest which was rare for a comedic side kick. Based on the conclusion of this movie, one could ask if Lullaby had actually forsaken his cowboy role and become an archeologist. What magic did his girl friend apply to get him out of his polka dot shirt, black vest and black hat and into a pith helmet? Has he run off with his "girl"? Tucson's foot race was a classic scene and showed his physical abilities. Strangely, Stony was low key throughout the movie. His main scene was the wagon chase where he actually appeared on the boot of the runaway. Was this role for Stony meant to be?
There were no major brawls or saloon fist-a-cuffs, which had been an essential feature of the previous three films. Then again, there were no saloons in this movie. I guess if there is a saloon in the flick, there will be a brawl. This movie also straddled the time line between the 1930s and the 1890s. Though we did not see any cars, the clothing style was certainly right out off the depression era. Other than a later 3M movie with Livingston-Davis-Steele, I don't remember Indians ever being cast as bad guys in any 3M movies. Any comments or possible explanations out there on this issue?
This write-up might be a little on the long side and for that I apologize. Sometimes a person gets carried away when writing on a favorite topic. To that I plead guilty. Hope that you enjoy reading this article as much as I enjoyed preparing it. Again a special thanks to Minard Coons for his valued contributions.
(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
Above is a still from RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL (Republic, 1937), the fourth film in the Three Mesquiteers series. On the far left is stuntman Yakima Canutt portraying "Otah", a bad Indian. Wearing the pith helmet is John Ward. In the center, wearing the tallish cowboy hat and vest is Roger Williams, who plays Rutledge, the other main baddie. Max Terhune is behind Williams and Ray Corrigan (holding John Van Pelt) and Bob Livingston are on the right. The lady in the background is heroine Mary Russell.
About eleven years after RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL, screen writer Oliver Drake adapted the plot for the Charlie Chan mystery THE FEATHERED SERPENT (Monogram, 1948). And a graying and moustached Bob Livingston was in that film. From L-to-R are Keye Luke, Beverly Jons, Nils Asther, Roland Winters (as Charlie Chan), Carol Forman, Bob Livingston and Erville Alderson.
If you're a cliffhanger fan, does the name Carol Forman strike a bell? She portrayed the evil villainess "Sombra" in THE BLACK WIDOW (Republic, 1947) chapterplay.
B western expert Les Adams added some additional tidbits about this Mesquiteers' film:
RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL was based on MacDonald's characters but Oliver Drake did the original and later dusted it off again and sold it to Monogram for THE FEATHERED SERPENT. Bob Livingston was in both versions, albeit totally different roles. One of Drake's passions was going to Mexico and digging around in the various Indian ruins sites, and this affinity for that country also carried over to how he populated his films with Mexican characters --- Julian Rivero (and others) as second lead good-bad guys in most of his scripts turned out for Kent, RKO and Majestic during the 30's, in addition to giving a lot of the heroines a spanish name, including Jennifer Holt in some of the Brown/Ritter and Cameron Universals.
Another one of those nondescript "B" western movie titles is HIT THE SADDLE. Abusing saddles has nothing to do whatsoever with the story line. They "hit the saddle" in every western, don't they? What makes this movie unique "IS" who is in those worn out and bruised leather horse chairs. None other that Tucson, Lullaby and Stony.
Speaking of riding, did you ever notice that , unlike Stony and Lullaby who constantly wear gloves when riding, Tucson never dons any? To another western series, Hopalong Cassidy. He only wore his left glove and held the reins in his left hand for what little riding he did. But he always had his right glove tucked in his gun belt just beyond his right holster. A question for your riders out there --- does riding a horse really require gloves?
The central theme of the fifth 3M movie is horse rustling with a sort of novel twist. It seems that the chief villain, Rance Macgowan (played by J. P. McGowan) and his gang of henchmen, captained by Mesquiteer regular Yak Canutt, are rustling wild horses from a protected government reservation. To provide cover for these nefarious shenanigans, Yak trains a black horse named Volcano to trample on command. He paints Volcano to resemble a local wild pinto stallion who has control over a herd of reservation wild mustangs. The game is to use Volcano in his disguised role to run wild with the herd and destroy local property. After a few rampages and much destroyed property, local public opinion will turn against the preserve to open it up to a roundup. With the Macgowan mob ready to take advantage of that opportunity!
Another item of interest in the movie is the appearance of 19 year old Margarita Carmen Cansino, AKA Rita Hayworth, as a saloon tart who throws a rope around Stony Brooke. We also hear Stony sing a duet with Rita. Was Bob Livingston actually singing? Bobby Copeland posed that question to Livingston at a 1985 film festival and got a positive response. And so we see another facet of this multitalented actor.
The story opens with the 3M and the sheriff rounding up the Macgowan gang caught red handed rustling on the reservation. The smooth talking Macgowan manages to pry them from the law's grip, but they all agree that the sheriff and the 3M are their major obstacles to a successful rustling career. How to remove these obstacles , at least in the first attempt? Get them in a saloon brawl. What else? A lot of things happen when fists fly.
Stony has gone over to the saloon to visit and sing with Rita. Mid tune, Tucson and Lullaby enter the establishment and approach the stage. They both know Rita wants to become a partner, via a marriage to Stony, in the "mystical" 3M Ranch that we have yet to see. But alas, love has blinded Stony and his common sense. At the conclusion of the duet, Tucson makes a ridiculing comment about singing cowboys. Was he taking a dig solely at Stony or was he commenting on singing cowboys in general? Very few of the 3M movies had singing, yet in Republic's star stable were cowboy crooners Gene Autry and soon to be super cowboy Roy Rogers. Remember, as Dick Weston, Roy had a singing role in WILD HORSE RODEO, a later 3M movie. Obviously, Stony is not at all receptive to Tucson's comments and resents his meddling. As this drama unfolds, the Macgowan mob enters the saloon, and a brawl erupts when one of the gang grabs Rita. The ensuing donnybrook ends with the 3M in control after a knife nearly parts Stony's hair.
Lullaby takes center stage at this point as he does at other times in the movie. To me, this flick proves beyond a doubt that Lullaby is the glue keeping the 3M together. While Tucson and Stony argue on screen (and off ), Lullaby did his best to reconcile their differences. You actually believe that Lullaby loved them both and was loved by them in return. That's the sincerity of the real Max Terhune coming through in his character. Without a doubt, he is the central figure in the 3M. After some animal calls and bird whistles, Lullaby gets the drop on the now battered Macgowan mob and forces them to offer a humiliating apology to a sway back horse for their rustling activities. The scene is punctuated with some comedy, some seriousness, and three rounds from Lullaby's six shooter. Was that the same sway back nag from Ghost Town Gold?
In the meantime, the black Volcano, now disguised as the pinto, has been rampaging with the local herds and destroying crops and scattering cattle. With local residents clamoring for action, the 3M and Sheriff Miller set out to trap the pinto on the same evening that the Macgowan crew is out rustling again. As the Sheriff attempts to lasso the disguised pinto, a whistle from Yak turns the horse into a killer who stomps the Sheriff to death.
With the public in an uproar, Tucson is appointed temporary Sheriff. No one but Stony seems to notice that the killer horse wore shoes. Wild horses are not shod. After listening to Stony's concern which he dismisses, Tucson organizes a hunt for the pinto. Rita, standing next to Stony, tells him not to participate in the horse hunt. Another Stony-Tucson confrontation ensues with Stony participating in the hunt only when threatened with a jail sentence. It is strange that no matter how reluctant Stony was when initially asked to go, he does participate enthusiastically in the capture of the pinto. Stony is immediately convinced of the innocence of the real pinto when he realizes that it is unshod. He further proves his point by approaching the wild horse, stroking his neck and walking away unharmed. Despite his pleas for mercy, the pinto is to be shot at dawn. Bigger things are in store for Stony ...
Knowing the horse is innocent, Stony meanders over to the saloon and the comfort of Rita's company. Surprise!! Surprise!!! The 3M, including Stony, are informed by Rita that she and Stony will walk the aisle on that day. Viewers are then treated to a superb exhibition of Rita's dancing skills. Meanwhile Tucson and Lullaby concoct a scheme to rescue Stony from Rita's clutches. After her dance is completed, Lullaby corners Rita in her dressing room. He tells how nice it will be for the dozen or so cowpokes at the 3M Ranch to finally have a women to cook for them six days a week. He also mentions the washing, cleaning and other chores that will become her job as Mrs. Stony Brooke. Furthermore, he confides that he and Stony have given Tucson power of attorney for any cash disbursements. As Rita's smile turns to a deep frown, Lullaby offers her $1500 in relocation expenses if she will break off with Stony and be on the next eastbound stage. How can Rita resist $1500 over Stony?
Minard Coons relates a moment with his long time friend Max Terhune who at age 82 could still recall his lines from this and many other 3M scenes. Here is another example of Lullaby's vital 3M role. Keep the 3M together even at the cost of $1500! Keep Stony out of the lustful clutches of this siren! I guess there could be clutches more unpleasant than Rita's ... somewhere!
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above from left to right are Max Terhune (as Lullaby Joslin), Bob Livingston (as Stony Brooke), and Ray 'Crash' Corrigan (as Tucson Smith) in HIT THE SADDLE (Republic, 1937). The pretty lady is Rita Cansino (a few years before a name change to Rita Hayworth).
(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
Above, Ray Corrigan as Tucson and Bob Livingston as Stony aren't very happy with each other, as Max Terhune looks on.
Stony did not have to be a rocket scientist to realize what the deal was after Rita dropped the word on him. Yet his wrath is directed solely at Tucson. I wonder how Lullaby escaped unscathed? In a fit of rage, Stony slaps Tucson and challenges him to draw. Being the "big brother type", Tucson can only look on Stony with sympathy and regret as he storms out of the saloon.
From the saloon, Stony dashes to the stable and rescues the pinto. As they ride furiously out of town, Tucson and a large posse follow in hot pursuit. I just love those close-up scenes of Bob Livingston riding his white horse at speed with the pinto in tow. No stunt man here! Just a solid actor doing his job. Alerted by Macgowan, Stony is intercepted on the trail by members of the gang, and he willingly accepts their offer of a hiding place at the Macgowan ranch.
Sammy McKim, making the first of his many 3M appearances, sees Stony going to the ranch and reports his observations to Lullaby and Tucson. Soon after his arrival at the ranch, Stony is taken captive when he sees the fresh paint on one side of Volcano. His punishment is to be staked on an open range and stomped to death by Volcano. However, the real pinto comes to Stony's rescue and a horse brawl with Volcano ensues. At the moment Tucson and Lullaby arrive on the scene. A fire fight with the Macgowan mob develops with some great Republic action music in the background.
As rounds are flying back and forth, Lullaby feigns a fatal wound. As his "death bed wish", he asks Stony and Tucson to shake hands which they do. Just as their hands clasp, Lullaby springs to life, raises his 45, and drops Yak who had drawn a bead on them from a nearby overhanging ledge. Both are stunned but happily surprised that only Lullaby's boot heel was shot off. Nothing fatal!
Stony catches a glimpse of Macgowan attempting a getaway. His shrill whistle activates the killer instinct in Volcano. And like Frankenstein, Macgowan is killed by his own creation.
Story wise, this was an average movie. I would rate it at two six guns. The primary focus of this movie is character development.
This is the fifth movie where there has been a romantic interest for Stony. So we should know by now that he considers himself a "lady's man". He tends to a be a hot head as we have seen in this movie and in the first one. He is at times impulsive and spontaneous, yet he can also be in control and logical. He likes a good time and he seems to enjoy the company of his partners, Tucson and Lullaby. He only seems to have differences with Tucson. We will never see any confrontation between Bob Livingston as Stony and Max Terhune as Lullaby.
I have already mentioned my outlook on Lullaby with his key role as the binding force in this threesome. He has had ample time to showcase his skills as a ventriloquist, a bird caller, and a card player. The act of adopting that young boy in ROARIN' LEAD might also exhibit the same compassion and concern for Stony that we saw in HIT THE SADDLE. Lullaby would be the type of guy I would want to be my best friend.
What about Tucson? What do we know about him? Other than the revelation of his being a boxing champ in WWI when he was in France, we know very little except that he is loyal and very tolerant of the actions of Stony and Lullaby. Tucson is the strong, silent type who always seems to be there for his partners. Maybe that's all we need to know!