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Mascot Pictures

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2005

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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, Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield/Invincible & 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 first 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 [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 Schaefer) - 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 - click here]

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 it anyways. 

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 Columbia, & 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, Liberty, Chesterfield/Invincible & Majestic, to join forces with his film developing outfit Consolidated Film Laboratories & merge into Republic Pictures [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 1960's.

 

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 & Howard Lydecker.

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.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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