Ghost Patrol (1936)

Ghost_Patrol_(1936)‘Not at all, if you’ll just name the date.’

A mail plane crashes under mysterious circumstances in the mountains of the old west so the government sends agent Tim McCoy to investigate. On the way, he meets a young woman looking for her father, who has disappeared. McCoy suspects it’s all connected when he learns that the old boy has invented a ‘Radium Tube’ that can stop engines at a great distance.

There aren’t a great many examples of the Science Fiction-Western genre mash up. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that ‘The Wild Wild West’ gave the idea some popularity on U.S. network television. There was also a Western themed episode of the classic TV series ‘The Prisoner’ from the other side of the pond. Since then, of course, we’ve had ‘Westworld’ (1973), the ‘Wild Wild West’ (1999) movie and even ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ (2011). There was also the little seen but rather tasty ‘Welcome to Blood City’ (1977), a personal favourite of mine. But before that? Well, Gene Autry fought cowboy robots in the bonkers serial ‘Phantom Empire’ (1935) and we had ‘Ghost Patrol’ (1936): 60 minutes of cheap horse opera wrapped around a mundane and completely underwhelming science fiction gimmick. Because that’s all it is; even if the sparking machines and fuzzing electric coils are provided by Ken Strickfaden, who outfitted a rather more (in)famous laboratory in Universal’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1931).

Tim McCoy made many Westerns but here his performance never gets out from under the large, floppy Stetson on his head. Match that with a neck scarf and he looks like he belongs at a fancy dress party rather than pounding it out on the trail. The rest of the cast is equally lifeless, with the exception of serial stalwart Wheeler Oakman as the bad guy’s lead muscle. Proceedings revolve around abduction, mistaken identity and some rather lame gunplay. Actually, it’s a mystery how our hero manages to hit any of the villains with his six shooter as he never aims it properly. I guess he’s just that good.

Ghost_Patrol_(1936)

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh at your hat, I really didn’t.’

The tired, by-the-numbers script was penned by Wyndham Gittens, who had written a couple of jungle adventures that featured a pre-stardom Boris Karloff and the tatty serial ‘The Whispering Shadow’ (1933), which marked an early career low for Bela Lugosi. Lead actress Claudia Dell was a famous showgirl of the late 1920s and an early media celebrity. She was also, allegedly, the model for the woman who is still holding the torch over half a century later as part of the familiar ‘Columbia’ studio logo.

This was also an early film in the career of director Sam Newfield, who turned out endless pictures for bargain basement studio PRC, which was helpfully owned by his brother. This included more than 200 Westerns – famously including one with a cast of midgets: ‘The Terror of Tiny Town’ (1938). He also made the logical leap to werewolves (‘The Mad Monster’ (1942)), vampires (‘Dead Men Walk’ (1943)) and nasty Aztec serpent gods (‘The Flying Serpent’ (1946)). He also made a really very interesting documentary about rock climbing that also featured some tiny toy dinosaurs (‘The Lost Continent’ (1951)).

It’s nice to see that Newfield had his mojo working right from the beginning: slight, underdeveloped stories matched to tatty productions with no budgets. Some are entertaining in a cheesy way, of course, particularly the horror pictures, but many of the others were just like this; drab, cheap and tedious.

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