Ghost Patrol (1936)

An oldy but goody for you today, a pre-WWII quickie about big-hatted cowboys and dastardly mad scientists with ray guns (oh my!). The fusion of Science Fiction and Westerns has a long, if largely ignored, history, stretching from Undersea Kingdom in the Golden Age of serials, through Wild Wild West in the 1960s, all the way to Cowboys and Aliens from the present day. It's maybe not as well established as other Sci-Fi genre fusions (such as Sci-Fi/Musicals, Sci-Fi/Horror, and Sci-Fi/MacNeil Lehrer Report), but it's one that deserves some representation on this site.

Before you begin your segment, Pam, any other ideas on how you can make Westerns any less lame?

Nate, in my opinion you really can't tamper with the format of a standard Western. If you try, you'll end up with something that may be good, but isn't a true Western, which has a form as stylized as grand opera (and is about as true to life). Not that you can't make a good movie about life in Texas in 1890, but it just isn't the kind of Western that Roy Rogers and Hoot Gibson starred in. Surely there's room for both movies about the real West and Westerns?

Now on to our movie. We can tell right off that this is a Western -- several men wearing cowboy hats gallop by on horses. However, it's not a vintage Western, it takes place "today." That is to say today in 1936, when the movie was made. We know this because the next thing we see is an open-cockpit biplane. Flying it is Tim Caverly, the hero of the movie, played by the stalwart Tim McCoy, 45 years old and a seasoned veteran of many Westerns. In fact, from his IMDb credits, it appears that Westerns were the only kind of movie he ever acted in, with the exception of a small part in Around the World in 80 Days. According to IMDb, he really was a cowboy in his younger days and owned a ranch during most of his career. Supposedly he could converse in Indian sign language and had a mean fast draw. With all that, I wish I could say he was a good actor, but I can't. In too many of his scenes, he sounds like a robot, and moves a lot like one, too. (If anybody's interested, IMDb says he got paid $4,000 a movie, which seems like poverty wages today but wasn't bad for 1936, considering that he made several movies a year and $4,000 a year was a comfortable middle-class income at the time.)

Tim motors along through the sky.

So what do the men on horses and the man in the biplane have to do with each other? One good thing about this kind of movie is that it never leaves you in suspense for long, as its target audience, mostly little boys, wasn't long on patience. So we find out almost immediately that the men on horses are the bad guys, who have come up with a method that will cause an airplane's engine to fail. It uses the kind of sparking machine you see in Frankenstein movies to cause the airplane to crash so the bad guys can help themselves to whatever it's carrying.


As befits a cowboy hero, Caverly remains stoic as his plane descends in what is probably stock footage of aerobatics, not of an airplane whose engine is failing, but it's an interesting display to watch, anyway. Kincaid, the head bad guy, confidently predicts that the pilot will end up dead but apparently assumes that the plane will hit the ground in good enough shape so that anything valuable it's carrying can be salvaged. An awesome invention, indeed! Kincaid, by the way, is played by Wheeler Oakman, a veteran actor who apparently wasn't picky about the kind of movie he acted in. See Escort Girl for more about him.

The Saddle Club gone bad.

Caverly has been radioing reports of what is happening with his plane to two men, presumably members of some sort of law enforcement group. It seems from what he says that this sort of thing has happened many times before in this area, and he's been sent as a decoy to investigate. He finally gives up on the airplane and parachutes out, leaving the airplane to crash.

Looks like a Boeing, a Stearman maybe, though I'm confused about the exhaust pipe under the fuselage and the tail skid.

True to Kincaid's prediction, the plane is in surprisingly good shape when he and his men reach it, upside down but basically intact and no sign of fire. Two sacks of mail and a case of bonds miraculously didn't fall out of the open cockpit but were still there for the bad guys to find. This is only one of the many minor lapses in logic in this movie, and since it's a kids' movie I'll let most of them go, but here's a huge one that I can't let pass: nobody asks, Where's the pilot? The bad guys were watching the airplane as it fell, and seemingly nobody saw the pilot bail out, or if they did, the excitement of finding the bonds has driven all thought of the pilot out of their heads. They all just gallop off, presumably back to their lair.

Who knew fabric and plywood were so strong?

We now switch to a beautiful Art-Deco style room, where a blonde girl is reading the news of the plane crash in the Los Angeles Daily Register, a newspaper that I find with no surprise seems never to have existed. Looking distraught, she goes to a desk, opens a drawer, and pulls out a newspaper clipping that announces that "Professor Brent" has discovered a new ray. We read that the Professor also has a radium tube with which he can control all electrical impulses, which makes no sense whatsoever and has nothing to do with the spark generator we saw, but hey, kids' movie, so I won't carp.

Jesus, who did the typesetting for that paper?

For Nate the fashionista, I point out that the girl has a beautiful 1930s manicure, with the tips and the half-moons of each finger left unpainted. From the concern on her face, I can pretty confidently predict that she'll turn out to be a close relative of the Professor, and I don't have to wait long to find out I'm right, for she puts down the newspaper and promptly calls Union Pacific to make a reservation to Shiloh under the name of Natalie Brent.

"And an order of cheesy sticks, please."

Shiloh, it seems, is the town where the bad guys hang out, because we see them lounging aimlessly outside the very run-down "Shiloh Hotel." We also see a nervous-looking man setting up a bulky radio with which he calls "WAD." Kincaid is summoned upstairs to another radio, and the nervous-looking man turns out to be Charlie, who delivers the sad news that he has been relieved of the bonds by a couple of men working for another local bad guy by the name of Tim Toomey. Just as Charlie begins to tell Kincaid what Tim Toomey looks like, an unsavory-looking man with a gun appears at Charlie's window and fires. Poor Charlie drops, clutching his left shoulder.

Talk radio sucked in 1936.

Kincaid leaves the radio, vowing to get Tim Toomey if he dares to show up in Shiloh, but in the next scene we learn that Charlie isn't dead after all. He's been wounded in the way so common in Westerns, in the shoulder only. I again remind myself that this is a kids' movie, and I refrain from pointing out that a bullet wound in the shoulder in real life will probably leave a man dead or permanently crippled. Surprisingly for a Western, Charlie doesn't get up and walk off, grimacing a little, but just lies there unconscious while a policeman summons an ambulance. And since I have to pick up a prescription for my dog, I'll stop here and let Nate take over.

"Just stick a dish rag in the hole, he'll be fine."

Thanks Pam, and I hope your dog gets better soon, someone has to slobber on your rug and chew your slippers and it's not going to be the cat. So Natalie the girl with the cute nails is now up in the rustic hills, wandering around alone, her bus apparently having dropped her at the end of the line. Since she's a girl, and it's 1936, she of course has to be tromping around in the woods wearing a Peppermint Patty beret, an impracticably constricting skirt, and open-toed stiletto heels.

She needs a track suit.

As she's parked on a rock trying to de-dust her blouse, along the dirt road comes a two-horse wagon. She flags it down and has what I have to admit is an amusing chat with the driver about the different ways that young ladies in distress can signal their intent to hitchhike a ride from random strangers. The actress playing Natalie seems to be quite comfortable in both her role and her own skin and she gives Natalie a real human personality (unlike most Golden Age actresses who usually flip between "hysterically useless" and "fawningly servile").

And she's pretty cute to boot.

The buggy driver is Tim, the dashing pilot from the opening scene. You'll forgive me for not recognizing him for a few minutes because he's changed his outfit from "frontier bush pilot" to "comic opera cowboy". In a very vaudvilleian exaggeration of that defining symbol of the cowboy, the ten-gallon'er, Tim has decided to don the single most insanely huge cowboy hat I've ever seen. Seriously, it's monstrously big, a towering, conical edifice in felt and suede that threatens to swallow him whole like a bullsnake with a hapless prairie dog. As the actor was king in the movie system of this era, this costume decision surely had to have been approved by him, which means that for several days on-set, he hoisted on that hat and gazed into the mirror in his trailer and said, "Damn, I'm fine!". If the hat wasn't bad enough, he's accessorized it with a jaunty silk scarf, tied devil-may-care across one shoulder to flap in the breeze. He wouldn't last ten seconds in a Louisiana biker bar with that scarf on, seriously. Hey, Tim, never forget what Coco Chanel said about accessories, "Always take off the last thing you put on." (God, I do sound like a fashionista sometimes...)

Like a blingy Guido in a T-topped Corvette, is he overcompensating for a tragically small penis?

Anyway, so Tim picks Natalie up and they bounce down the road. Hidden under a tarp in the back is Tim's partner and comic-relief sidekick Henry, who seems like someone we should know (but don't). As to why the subterfuge, who knows, but it does allow Henry a chance to peek into Natalie's suitcase and rifle through her lacy unmentionables (the cad!). He also finds those newspaper cut-outs, and once he shows them to Tim a bit later, they can deduce that Natalie is the missing scientist's daughter. If it wasn't clear before, Tim is a government agent out investigating the missing planes. Why Tim feels the need to continue to lie to Natalie about who he is is also a mystery.

Hey, cut that out.

So they rattle along towards Shiloh, chitchatting lightly in the summer sun. I will say that the San Fernando Valley scenery is gorgeous here, lush and sunny, verdant fields of grass, tall evergreens and all. This is the land where Westerns were meant to be filmed and it does help tie this movie, which is more of a "modern Western", to its more traditional genre ancestors. They talk about the planes that crashed nearby and about how Shiloh is a ghost town, and you can tell that Tim is fishing for answers. Natalie takes her leave when she gets nervous, deciding to walk on alone to the town. Tim lets her go, despite knowing that she's walking unawares into an area infested with killer raping bandits, which is very un-hero of him.

Horrid back-projection work in this movie.

Tim and Henry go to Shiloh where they are stopped by a group of thugs (a subset of the plane-robbing group from before). There's some harsh words, some pointed guns, some guy actually says "Reach for the sky!", and it looks like there's going to be some shootin'. In a bit that I didn't catch at first, Tim is mistaken for another guy named Tim, Tim Toomey the outlaw who we saw shoot the guy with the radio a while ago (I know, I don't remember either). Tim (our Tim) thinks quick and assumes the identity of Tim Toomey to get into the gang's good graces (honor amongst thieves). He says he wants to join up with the gang and get a cut of the airplane/crashing/robbing business.

"Your hat is pitiful, look at mine."

About here Natalie shows up and after coming clean to Tim in private about her missing father, he shuts her in a room and wedges a chair under the doorknob to keep her in. Natalie, being a woman, of course just sits there and sobs like a little girl, helpless to...wait, what? She does what? She jabs a stick under the door and knocks the chair away and escapes? What the hell, doesn't she know this is 1936 and women aren't supposed to think and act like that? She must be a time-traveler from 1997!

Ripley would be so proud of her.

Anyway, Tim meets up with the kingpin Dawson and they hose each other down with testosterone for a while. The movie really starts to drag here as Tim and Dawson pull up some easy chairs and talk about crime and punishment, about planes and ray guns, and about G-men and fringe scientists. I know Tim wants to be taken seriously as an allegedly dangerous outlaw here, but that Twinky the Kid hat is so distracting that I just don't see how Dawson can keep a straight face.

Do you suppose Tim has a creamy filling?

Dawson and his lieutenant Kincaid are rightfully suspicious of Tim, not quite sure he's really Tim Toomey or just some fey imposter lying about having a band of hair-trigger gunmen watching them from up in the hills (bingo). In a lull in the "action", Tim rides off to do some snooping while his partner Henry gallops back towards the hotel to use the shortwave radio he found to call HQ for reinforcements. The movie drags even more as we leave our hero Tim so that we can watch the portly, balding Henry tussle with two gangsters who are following him on horseback (I didn't pay to see secondary characters do all the shooting and punching).

Never wrestle a man wearing spurs (personal experience).

So Henry and the two most-willing-to-be-captured thugs ever go to the hotel and Henry calls in the Feds on the radio (this is where a decent nationwide 4G cellphone plan would come in handy). Watch him hand-crank that sucker like a gerbil in a cage, olde timey radio equipment fascinates me to no end. Meanwhile, Tim is out wandering around, his cowboy hat riding tall and proud like a majestic liner upon the heaving seas, and he stumbles across an old silver mine near Shiloh. Inside he finds a heavy wooden door. What's behind the door? I'll let Pam tell you.

Is it candy?!?

Anybody want to take a guess on what's behind the door? Gold? Jewels? Seven little bearded men? No, it's white-haired man in a room with a lot of random equipment, one piece of which is that spark generator we saw at the beginning of the movie. (By the way, if anybody knows what the purpose of this thing is, other than generating sparks, please let me know.) Surprise, surprise, it's Professor Brent! He tells Tim that he was captured by Dawson's men and forced to use his invention to shoot down passing airplanes.

Sooo...not candy?

Meanwhile, Natalie is stumbling around in the desert, looking for her father, still wearing her high heels and long narrow skirt. The women back then were tough, all right! It's not clear if she has any idea at all of where to find her father, or if she's just wandering aimlessly, hoping for the best. In her rambles, she has the misfortune to run into Charlie, who in time-honored Western fashion has made a complete recovery from his gunshot wound. He escorts her to Dawson's house but ungraciously leaves her outside while he talks to Dawson and Kincaid. It's Charlie who spills the beans and says that the man claiming to be Tim Toomey can't possibly be, because Toomey was arrested shortly after shooting him. Dawson promptly dispatches one of his henchmen to bring in "Toomey," while Natalie bites her lip and looks worried.

"Dug the bullet out with my own teeth, not a big deal."

The slimy Dawson then takes Natalie in to see her father, who, in order to protect her I guess, assures her that he's only there to conduct an experiment. Dawson backs him up and says that he's protecting her father, although he doesn't say from what. (Note: Professor Brent's cell is actually a room in Dawson's house, with an outer door with a barred window leading to the cavern where Tim is still lurking. Who designed Dawson's house anyway? Why have it lead into a mine? It is very convenient to the plot, though.) Natalie informs her father that people are getting killed when he causes the planes to crash, contrary to what Dawson told him, although I think the Professor was a little simple-minded to believe in the first place that a series of airplanes could crash without anybody getting hurt.

One has to wonder about the enormous amount of electrical power needed to run the Professor's machines and where it comes from. Buried fusion reactor, perhaps?

Well, there's only seven minutes to go in a 56-minute-long movie, so let's get this puppy wrapped up. I'm sure everybody knows what's going to happen, but I'll tell you anyway:

1. Tim goes into Dawson's house, Dawson pulls out the newspaper clipping about Toomey's capture, Dawson gets the drop on Tim.
2. Dawson and Kincaid leave one of the bad guys to guard Tim and go to the Professor's lab and tell him to fire up the radium tube, there's an airplane coming.
3. Unfortunately there are some frames missing here, so the action's hard to follow, but it looks as though Henry walked in with a gun, distracting the bad guy long enough for Tim to wrestle him to the floor.
4. The airplane overhead starts dipping and swaying, and the men inside start leaning and flopping around. Watch this sequence, it's hilarious. Each actor seems to have been left to decide on his own how much motion is required, so some are thrown around like the crew of the Enterprise when someone's firing photon torpedoes at it, while others are nearly still. It looks as though one actor nudged another one to remind him it was time to flop. All the while, the clouds outside the windows show the plane is flying perfectly level. Well, really, I think nobody bothered to change the cloud scene that was being projected outside the cabin windows -- I'm sure they didn't spend the money to film inside an airplane that was actually in the air.
5. Henry leads the bad guy away. Natalie, it seems, has been locked in a closet again, and Tim hears her hammering on the door. Opening it with a key that was left in the lock, he tells her to wait there while he follows the bad guys to the Professor. Tim finds the door to the lab locked and shoots the lock off. (I'm told that in real life this usually ends up with the lock hopelessly jammed shut, but I have no personal experience in shooting locks off doors so I don't know for sure.) Has there ever been a Saturday-afternoon Western movie where no locks got shot off and nobody was shot in the shoulder?
6. Tim, Dawson, Kincaid, and the nameless henchman start trading shots. The Professor tries to switch off the radium tube and gets shot, but absolutely nothing else in the lab is hit, despite the fact that it's a small room and four men are firing.
7. Dawson and Kincaid run through the other door into the mine with Tim in hot pursuit, although he pauses a moment to fire a shot into the spark generator that's standing in for a radium tube. (I think the henchman was shot, anyway he's not running with Dawson and Kincaid.) The airplane levels out and lands.
8. Henry has come into the mine from the outside entrance, so he and Tim have Dawson and Kincaid boxed between them. Tim disarms them, and the men from the airplane, who may be FBI agents, lead Dawson and Kincaid away.
9. Natalie and Tim bandage the Professor, who appears to have been shot in the standard spot, although in his case it was the right shoulder. The Professor tries to thank Tim, and Natalie, realizing she doesn't know who Tim is, asks him if he would mind giving her his name. He replies, "Not at all, if you would just name the date." And accompanied by the ghost of groans and gagging sounds from the pre-adolescent boys who surely made up most of the original audience for this film, the movie fades into the sunset. In the version I watched, there's a notice at the very end that this movie was approved by the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors, which should make us all feel better.

Nice airplane interior set, plywood and lawn chairs.

I suppose that after the G-men, if that's what they were, locked up Dawson and Kincaid, they came back for the Professor and hauled his butt off to jail, because he used his radium tube to make airplanes crash, even though he didn't mean to kill anybody. However, we don't get to see this. Even so, it's not that bad a movie. It's short enough so that it doesn't have a chance to be boring, and it must have achieved some sort of coup in its day by combining Western, detective, and science fiction cliches and cramming them into a movie that lasted less than an hour. And with romance, too, if you count the last ten seconds. A pretty impressive achievement, I would say.

Kelby wonders why there were no hookers in this film.

As a final note, I think Tim McCoy may have been wearing a girdle, and that's why sometimes he moved so stiffly. I don't think he really knew how to drive horses, either, because the only time you saw a close-up him holding reins connected to horses, the horses were coming to a stop. The other times, either all you saw was him sitting in a wagon holding reins, or a distant shot of him (or his stunt double) driving. I was told by my father, who actually did know how to drive horses, that it's much harder than you think and dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. He was a big fan of Westerns and would point out the telltale signs when the star wasn't really doing his own stunts. According to him, a lot of the so-called cowboy stars couldn't even ride.

Back projection screens make anyone look awesome.

Nate, is there anything you want to add?

Not much to add, Pam, just to say that I'm now quite willing to review an occasional Western, there seems to be more "b-move Westerns" out there that I had ever expected. Fun for all!

The End.

Written in May 2011 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.

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