Ghost Patrol

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(1/10) Tim McCoy’s really big hat delivers the best performance in this derivative and uninspired sci-fi-tinged modern western. The Poverty Row production sees a G-man in a 10 gallon Stetson infiltrate a gang of criminals using a death ray to shoot down mail planes. Of you like your B movies on the far side of really bad, this is just the thing for you. 

Ghost Patrol. USA, 1936. Directed by Sam Newfield. Written by Wyndham Gittens. Starring: Tim McCoy, Claudia Dell, Walter Miller, Wheeler Oakman, James P. Burtis, Lloyd Ingraham, Dick Curtis. Produced by Sigmund Neufeld & Leslie Simmons. IMDb: 4.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1936_ghost_patrol_001The 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). The death ray or weapon of mass destruction saw a first wave of popularity on the verge of WWI and in the twenties, when Italian Giulio Ulivi and Harry Grindell Matthews both claimed to have invented such a device, the first in 1913 and the second in 1921. They turned up to some extent in European films like The Death Ray (1924, review) and The City Struck by Lightning (1924, review), but before that in a number of American film serials (review). In American feature films they were, however, still rare. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Chandu the Magician (1932, review).

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Lloyd Ingraham as Professor Brent.

Ghost Patrol follows the template set forth in pulp stories and film serials of a scientist working for the good guys who builds a terrible weapon, only to become kidnapped by a bunch of bad guys so they can squeeze the secrets of the death ray out of him. And just as in every other death ray story, the scientist is appalled by the idea that the villains are planning to use his weapon in the exact way that it was originally designed to be used. However in this film we’re not exactly talking about a laser capable of levelling cities with the ground, but but it’s rather based on Harry Grindell Matthew’s original claim that his ray could stop airplane engines. The baddies in this film inhabit the Western prairies, so naturally we also get a western hero, in this case Tim McCoy, sporting a really, really big hat (it is really big). Yes, this is another example of the science fiction western. Fortunately, unlike the serial The Phantom Empire (1934, review), there is no singing cowboy involved. Another thing that this films lacks is anything resembling a ghost. And there aren’t really any any patrols in it, either. There is some indication, however, that the term ghost patrol has been used to describe military infiltration units, so that’s one possible explanation as to where the title of the film is derived from, as the plot description below will explain.

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Apparently, this is what the inside of a plane looks like at Puritan Pictures.

Professor Brent (Lloyd Ingraham) 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 (Strickfaden is listed as responsible for the special effects in the film). If there was one thing that was more common than Strickfadens in sci-fis of the era, it was the radioactive substance radium. In the movies, it could be used for absolutely everything. Invisibility? Radium. Death ray? Radium. Space flight? Radium. Time travel? Radium. It was almost as popular as it was in real life. 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.

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Tom McCoys and his big hat.

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) become 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 …), assisted by his burly 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 serial The Vanishing Shadow (1934), 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.

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Tom McCoy, Tim McCoy’s hat and Claudia Dell.

The direction is of cheapo film serial quality – which may be forgiven in a serial but not in a feature 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 film has the dubious honour of being the first film on this blog to be awarded just one out of ten stars.

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. Others, 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), The Monster Maker (1944) and Lost Continent (1951).

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Sam Newfield (on the left with actress Bernadette O’Farell in 1952).

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 MonsterLost Continent, and the wonderfully bad Robot Monster (1953).

Ghost Patrol was made for Poverty Row outfit Puritan Pictures and produced by Sam Newfield’s brother Sigmund Neufeld. This was not the usual kind of movie that Puritan made, as they generally focused on sensationalist social issue films and war films. The studio’s owner Sam Katzman had another outfit called Victory Pictures, which specialised in westerns, and it’s a mystery why the movie wasn’t made for them.

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The novel Renfrew Rides the Sky, and posters for its two later film adaptations, Sky Racket (1938) and Sky Bandits (1940).

Literature at the time was full of death rays in one form or the other. They featured in future war novels, crime mysteries, juvenile fiction and of course in science fiction. Ghost Patrol partly follows the plot of Laurie Erskine York’s 1928 juvenile novel Renfrew Rides the Sky, in which a Canadian Mountie solves a similar mystery in which a villain is using a radio beam to shoot planes with gold shipments out of the sky. I haven’t been able to get my hands on the book yet, and can find no plot synopsis online. However, two films were made based on the novel, Sky Racket (1938, review) and Sky Bandits (1940, review). Both have also been called “remakes” of Ghost Patrol, and the plot in both of them are very similar to this film.

Tim McCoy was 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). 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.

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James P. Burtis, Tim McCoy and Slim Whitaker.

Wildest West writes that in his enormous hat and his likewise gigantic neckerchief, McCoy looks like a “French satire magazine’s conception of a cowboy” in Ghost Patrol. But the author Max Sparber continues: “But after a while, it starts looking sort of badass. There is always something impressive about men who go too far with their fashion, like Elvis with his pompadour and gold lamé suit or David Bowie in his Ziggy Stadust [sic!] costume.” Nate Decker at Million Monkey Theater suggests that the reason McCoy is sto stiff in the film might be that he was wearing a girdle. This is pure speculation, however, and I haven’t found any indication that McCoy generally wore a girdle in his films.

Ghost Patrol, 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.

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The death ray.

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. 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 AlynLloyd 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 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).

According to Sparber, most of Ghost Patrol was “filmed on a decrepit Western backlot (the Brandeis Ranch, built by playboy Omaha department store scion John Brandeis as a sort of Western-themed playground).

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A typical shot from the film.

If I’d use a single word to describe Ghost Patrol, it is trite. It is badly scripted, badly acted, badly directed and badly produced. Still, it’s not amateurish enough to turn it into a so-bad-it’s-good film. The people involved are all seasoned professionals. It hasn’t got the endearing naivety of an Ed Wood movie, nor the devil-may-care sly smile of a Roger Corman production. There’s no hammy Bela Lugosi or sincere Boris Karloff to liven up the proceedings. Not even a singing Gene Autry. It feels as if no-one involved cared one way or the other about the movie, nor does anyone seem to have had any fun making it. It’s just boring. This has to be one of the worst science fiction movies ever put on screen. But for all it’s worth, it does have Tim McCoy’s really, really big hat.

Janne Wass

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. 

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