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Best known (if at all) today for its massive serial output, Mascot
Pictures was a company that was in existence for only 8 brief years (1927
to 1935), but during that time was really "blazing the way" (as
its slogan would claim) for the genre, doing more for the serial as such
than any other single studio (including Republic,
which in 1935 was formed by the combined forces of Mascot, Monogram,
& the film developing outfit Consolidated Film Laboratories [Republic
history - click here]).
To tell the story of Mascot of course means telling the story of
Nat Levine, the company's founder & head. Levine, born in New York
City 1899, got into film producing in 1926, when he, with several other
investors, financed the serial The Silent Flyer (directed by
William James Craft), which was
eventually released by Universal.
Obviously pleased by the outcome, both artistically & financially,
Levine soon thereafter formed his own production outfit, Mascot,
which started putting out serials (& some feature films, too) in 1927. In its
year of existence alone, Mascot produced 3 serials, The Golden
Stallion, Isle of the Sunken Gold & Heroes of the Wild (all
1927, Harry S.Webb).
But 1927 would also be the year of the Warner
Brothers' Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland), the first ever talkie (even though
it was only a part talkie, with silent scenes aplenty), which caused quite
some concern & insecurity among film producers (& especially
producers of B-films). Would sound films last was the question of the day
(in case you were wondering, yes it did).
For some reason though, the bigger studios were reluctant to switch
their serial production to sound, while the smaller studios more likely
than not just couldn't afford it.
So it was up to Mascot to, in 1929, produce the first sound
serial, King of the Kongo (which was, like Jazz Singer, only
a part-talkie though), directed by pre-famous Richard Thorpe, starring
Walter Miller with
pre-star Boris Karloff [Boris
Karloff bio - click here] in a supporting role (not to be confused with the
similarly titled King of
the Wild, another Mascot serial by Richard Thorpe with
Walter Miller & Boris Karloff, from 1931).
Legend has it that Levine brought the sound discs of this film from LA
to New York himself for developing, carrying them on his lap during the
whole trip by plane & train so they
wouldn't break. (Broken sound discs would have been a desaster, as extensive re-shoots for Mascot-serials were simply
out of the question, as the budgets were notoriously tight, & the
financial situation of the company not exactly rosy.)
The serial itself was typical escapist Mascot fare, where sheer
love for its pulp subject, a sense for exotica & adventure, &
general love for filmmaking would make up for shoddy, underbudgeted jungle
sets, wooden performances, & lack of narrative logic.
King of the Kongo's star Walter Miller had previously been a
serial star at Pathé (together with Universal
the leading serial producer of the silent era), whom Mascot got at a
bargain price as Pathé was experiencing financial difficulties at
the time. Miller would go on to star in several more Mascot-serials
of the early 1930's, including The Lone Defender
(1930, Richard Thorpe), Mascot's
first all-sound serial, for which he sported a phoney Mexican accent &
played second fiddle only to movie dog Rin Tin Tin, & above mentioned King
of the Wild but
soon he was relegated to supporting roles, giving way to a host of
relative newcomers (e.g. John Wayne [John
Wayne in the 1930's - click here], Frankie Darro [Frankie
Darro bio - click here]) & silent stars
with fading popularity but still strong enough drawing power (e.g. Harry
Carey, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, ...). Ultimately he would make himself
a name as a movie villain, starting with Mascot's 1931 serial The
Galloping Ghost (1931, B.Reeves Eason). Actually, Walter Miller wasn't
even supposed to star in King
of the Wild, his
role was intended for Harry Carey, as Mascot hoped to capitalize
from the publicity campaign of MGM's
similar themed Trader Horn (1931, W.S.Van Dyke), also with Carey, but when that film took extensive
re-shooting, Mascot fell back on Miller.
Carey, a popular silent film cowboy, would eventually make several
serials for Mascot, including The
Last of the Mohicans (1932, Ford L.Beebe, B.Reeves Eason) - which had Miller in a supporting
role -, The
Devil Horse (1932, Otto Brower) & The Vanishing Legion
(1931, Ford L.Beebe, B.Reeves Eason). Another silent screen
cowboy, Tom Tyler [Tom Tyler bio
- click here], got his start into sound films in Mascot's 1931
serial The Phantom of the West
(1931, D.Ross Lederman), while silent Western star Bob
Steele bio - click here] made a rare non-Western appearence for the company in The Mystery Squadron
(1933, Colbert Clark, David Howard).
In the early 1930's, Mascot also tried out a relatively fresh
actor, who had just played the lead in Raoul Walsh's A-Western The Big
Trail in 1930, but since then his career hadn't really taken off. His
name was John Wayne [John
Wayne in the 1930's - click here], & the 3 Mascot-serials he was in were The Shadow of the
Eagle (Ford L.Beebe) & Hurricane
Express (J.P.McGowan, Abernullibernullrmand Schaefer) from 1932, & The Three Musketeers
(Colbert Clark, Armand Schaefer) - a modernized
version of the classic Alexandre Dumas stories, also with Lon Chaney jr [Lon
Chaney jr bio - click here] - from 1933. Curiously enough, none of these serials was a Western.
Other Mascot serials include The Lightning Warrior
(1931, Benjamin H.Kline, Armand Schaefer) -
starring Frankie Darro [Frankie
Darro bio - click here] & Rin Tin Tin - The Adventures of Rex and Rinty
(1935, Ford L.Beebe, B.Reeves Eason) - a
serial with not one but 2 animals heading the cast, Rex, The King of
the Wild Horses, & Rin Tin Tin jr, the not quite so talented son
of Rin Tin Tin -, Burn 'em up, Barnes (1934, Colbert Clark, Armand
racecar action with young Frankie Darro -, The Lost Jungle (1934,
David Howard, Armand Schaefer) - a
jungle adventure starring popular animal tamer Clyde Beatty - & The
Whispering Shadow (1933, Colbert Clark, Albert Herman), Bela Lugosi's first
serial [Bela Lugosi bio -
These serials were the usual escapist fare, mixing action, adventure &
romance with a bit of mystery & exotica, & a host of pulp clichés,
from hooded villains to lost (& found) children/siblings, spooky
mines, hidden panels, secret passageways, wonder dogs & wonder
horses, & all sorts of technical gadgets to keep the audience
interested. Many of the serials were also murder mysteries (in various
settings, from the old West to the African jungle), where Mascot
was known to often cheat about the identity of the killer, often unmasking
him as someone, who was seen together with the (hooded or disguised)
killer in earlier episodes.
By & large, the Mascot serials were reasonably successful, & with the money made from them
Mascot could even buy its own studio facilities, the Mack Sennett studios
in 1933 (having their own studio facilities was not at all a given for B-studios
of the early to mid 1930's). But the studio really hit gold when Nat
Levine managed to lure Ken Maynard to work for the company, after he had
just left Universal
(which Maynard had done several times before, but this time for good).
Maynard was hired to do one feature film, In Old Santa Fe
(1934, David Howard), &
two serials, Mystery Mountain
(1934, Otto Brower, B.Reeves Eason) & Phantom
Empire - which did never come into being - well, not with Maynard in
Maynard earned 10.000 Dollars a week, a sum unheard of at Mascot
at the time, but In Old Santa Fe
did do good business, so Levine
decided to spend more than the usual amount on Mystery Mountain,
actually 80.000 Dollars - or twice as much as usual for a Mascot-serial ... but Ken
Maynard proved a notoriously difficult actor to work with, so difficult
indeed, that Levine, despite the success of Mystery Mountain,
decided to axe him completely from Phantom
Empire ... but more of that later.
Encouraged by the success of the Maynard-serial (if not by its star's
behaviour), Levine decided to revive the career (& drawing power) of
another silent screen cowboy - Tom Mix, who was then, at age 55,
headlining a Western circus. Mix had long retired from moviemaking, but
his life of a travelling showman with the circus left him in no
position to refuse the offer, & so he made his only serial, The
Miracle Rider (1935, B.Reeves Eason, Armand Schaefer). This serial's costs topped even those of Mystery Mountain, furthermore the shooting schedule was extended to
(incredible for Mascot standards) four weeks (normally, Mascot-serials
took 2 to 3 weeks to shoot), so, Mascot made this its only
15-chapter serial, just to get more out of rentals (a usual Mascot
serial was around 12 chapters long).
The success proved Mascot right, Miracle Rider would
become its biggest grosser to date, & the first that would exceed the
million Dollar mark.
Miracle Rider as such is a bit of a hybrid, mixing traditional
Western with (a few) science fiction elements, the fate of the Native American
race with futuristic weapons & flying machines.
But the blend of the 2 genres wouldn't come into full swing until The
Phantom Empire (1935, Otto Brower, B.Reeves Eason), where a cowboy would realize that his ranch is
situated above the futuristic underground city of Murania, a city complete
with robots (wearing cowboy hats) & the obligatory death ray. &
the Muranians want to conquer the world. On ground level however, there is
a gang of evil landgrabbers who want to get their hands on the ranch
because of its rich uranium ore.
However, after having fired Ken Maynard, this serial was left without a
star, & here Nat Levine decided to gamble: He had a reasonably popular
countrysinger under contract, who actually had bit parts in In Old Santa Fe
& Mystery Mountain
(in the latter he actually shot
Ken Maynard from the saddle at one episode's climax), & with a bit of
altering here & there, Phantom
Empire could be tailored onto him - this singer was of course Gene
Autry, & he would singlehandedly popularize the singing cowboy
Westerns in the next few years, first at Republic
[Republic history - click
here], then at
become one of the most successful singing cowboys of the late 1930's &
1940's, rivalled only by Roy Rogers (who got his start in Gene Autry
Westerns like The Old Corral
(1936, Joseph Kane]).
The Phantom Empire
would be another phenomenal success, but at the same time Mascot's
second-to-last chapterplay (the last, by the way, was The Fighting
Marines [1935, B.Reeves Eason, Joseph Kane], starring Grant Withers), as 1935 would mark the end of Mascot altogether. But it was
not an ending of the going-out-of-business sort ...
In 1935, Herbert Yates suggested to the companies, Mascot, Monogram,
to join forces with his film developing outfit Consolidated Film Laboratories
& merge into Republic
history - click here], a company with more funds (& thus bigger budgets),
both studio & developing facilities in-house, & a highly
coordinated output (instead of fighting for the same market shares).
Nat Levine was entrusted with the production of serials &
B-Westerns, & initially it looked that the transition couldn't be
smoother: the company's first 2 serials, Darkest Africa (1936, B.Reeves Eason, Joseph Kane) & Undersea
Kingdom (1936, B.Reeves Eason, Joseph Kane) looked like a direct continuation of the Mascot
output, sharing the lost city plotline as well as some sets & even a
bit of footage with Phantom
Empire, & furthermore Darkest Africa was a sort-of
sequel to Mascot's earlier The Lost Jungle & again had
animal tamer Clyde Beatty in the lead, while Undersea
Kingdom re-used Smiley Burnett as a sidekick, who was also in Phantom
Empire. & Phantom
Empire's Gene Autry would become Republic's
first cowboy star ...
However, before the end of the decade, Nat Levine was bought out of Republic.
Why ? Rumour has it that Levine's big ego clashed with the even bigger
ego of Herbert Yates, & soon it became clear that one of them had to
go. There might be some truth to that rumour, since before the end of the
decade, W. Ray Johnston and Trem Carr, formlerly of Monogram
Pictures, did clash with Yates as well & like Levine left Republic.
But while Johnston soon reformed Monogram
and Carr went on producing for Universal,
Levine decided to leave the filmbusiness behind & turn to his other
passion, betting on horses ... within 6 weeks, he had lost all his money.
An acquaintance of him (from the racetrack, incidently), Lois B.Mayer,
gave him a job as assiociate producer at MGM,
though, as an associate producer for some of the company's lesser
pictures, but that didn't make Levine too happy, as he was used to be the
boss, not to be ordered around. He spent his later years managing a movie
theatre in Redondo Beach. He passed away in 1989 in the Actors' Home - a
retirement home for movie veterans - where he had stayed since the late
So what was the legacy of Mascot though ?
True, the Mascot cliffhangers never had the polished look of the Republic
serials, a company that for later generations pecame almost synonymous
with serial-producion, but many of Republic's
studio facilities & production routines were brought into the company
by Nat Levine, who had not necessarily invented but developed &
finetuned cheap & fast methods for producing action serials, like
using 2 production units (& directors) on the same serial, one for the
actors, one for the stunt scenes, so as to carefully balance dialogue
scenes & pure action (early sound serials from other companies would
often get overly talky).
Furthermore, at Mascot, many later big names of the B-movie- &
serial-world got their start or honed their skills, like directors Ford
L.Beebe, B.Reeves Eason, Otto Brower, Joseph Kane & Armand Schaefer, writers
Wyndham Gittens, George Plympton, Barney Sarecky, & Gerald &
Maurice Geraghty, composer Lee Zahler, & of course special effects wizards Theodore &
But most of all, Mascot serials would, beneath all its
technical & financial shortcomings, show a love for the genre that
would easily transmit to a receptive audience ... something more polished
& expensive serials (or action films as such) only very rarely achieve.