Francis Ford (left), best known as John Ford’s older brother and character actor in such classics as “The Ox Bow Incident”, was a director of note himself in his early career. Among his credits, a number of serials of the silent screen—such chapterplays as “Lucille Love, A Girl of Mystery”, “Broken Coin”, “Adventures of Peg O’ the Ring”, “The Great Reward”, “Fighting Skipper”, “The Purple Mask” (also scripted), “Silent Mystery”, “Officer 444” ,“Power God”, “Mystery of 13”, “Mystery Ship”, “Perils of the Wild”, “Thunderbolt Jack” and “The Winking Idol”. He acted in all of these accept the last four.
The 10 chapter “Winking Idol” was filmed in the summer of ‘25 at the Poverty Flat movie town near Boulder Creek, CA, about five miles from Santa Cruz, CA. The film starred William Desmond and Eileen Sedgwick with Jack Richardson as the mysterious death-dealing arch villain known as The Owl. Others in the cast included Ford’s former partner and co-star Grace Cunard, Helen Broneau, Bert Sutch (assistant director for nine years to D. W. Griffith), Frank Bacon and Les Sailor. Sailor, a comedian, was a recent newcomer to movies, having come over to films from the vaudeville circuit. He later modified his name and became character actor Syd Saylor.
Local newspaper, THE SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL, printed an article titled “Screen Players Arrive at Boulder.” A portion of the article reads, “Smiling Bill Desmond, Universal western star, lately here as a member of the board of judges of the California Statewide Beauty Pageant held last month, has returned to this locality. Reports reaching THE SENTINEL indicate the company will be headquartered at Boulder Creek where they’ll be engaged in filming scenes for a wild west thriller directed by Francis Ford. The troupe was attracted here through the wonderful scenic film obtained by the Jack Hoxie company that locationed here slightly over a year ago.”
Another article from the paper revealed “‘The Winking Idol’ was taken from a story upon which the late Charles Van Loan was working at the time of his death. The rights to this and several other of his works were purchased by Universal. The present is Ford’s second serial since returning to Universal, his first being ‘Perils of the Wild’, featuring Joe Bonomo, the screen’s greatest strong man.”
And what was the winking idol of the title? Francis Ford answered the question in an interview: “A sacred Indian relic which holds the key to the secret of an ancient Indian mine.”
The reporter wrote in an article of watching an exciting scene where Desmond jumps from an exploding boxcar. Another exciting scene was witnessed by many spectators according to a July 20th special run in THE SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL. “A good many spectators were present along Boulder Creek last Friday and witnessed a thrilling scene in the making of a movie, a spectacular dive from a high bank into the creek made by Helen Bruneau. William Desmond was in a canoe below, supposedly wounded and unconscious. Beside him was Eileen Sedgwick, attempting to steer the boat with a broken paddle. As it swung into the rapids just above the dam, the girl, clad as an Indian maiden, dove from her pinnacle into space. There was a splash, then she came up, grabbed the canoe as it neared the dam and towed it to shore. It was an act which made the spectators gasp and one which will make a thrilling scene on the silver screen.”
During their off-time, Bill Desmond and Les Sailor made a personal appearance at the California Theater in Watsonville in connection with the showing of an episode of Desmond’s last serial, “The Riddle Rider”. The theatre was packed. Desmond and others were also able to get away from their work long enough to go to Salinas to take part in a rodeo and were given quite a reception.
Jack Richardson and Bert Sutch, who by day were pursuing one another in the picture, spent their nights in a two man chess tournament in the lobby of the Alpine Inn in Boulder Creek.
Francis Ford, commenting on the scenic wonder here for his production, stated, “I am converted now to this region. How I failed to discover this beautiful country before, I’ll never understand. I’m coming back after this picture is finished and vacation on the spot I just purchased at Felton Acres.”
Ford’s other acting roles in serials he did not direct include: “Haunted Valley”, “Chinatown Mystery” (also scripted), “The Indians are Coming”, “Jade Box”, “Battling With Buffalo Bill”, “Heroes of the West”, “Lost Special”, “Clancy of the Mounted”, “Gordon of Ghost City” and “King of the Mounties”.
Accomplished actor and director Irving Pichel (pronounced Puh-shel) only made one serial, but he left an indelible mark in chapterplay history as Nicholas Zarnoff, the master spy without a country and mystery figure of several nations in Republic’s “Dick Tracy’s G-Men” (‘39). Pichel perfectly embodied the ruthless saboteur who resided in a mansion where he commanded a global spy ring. In an opening film within a film, Dick Tracy describes Zarnoff as “a rat gnawing at the foundation of democracy.”
Born June 24, 1891, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after attending Harvard Pichel drifted through a number of jobs before becoming a Shakespearean stage actor. Coming to Hollywood in ‘27 as a script clerk at MGM, he soon found his way before the cameras beginning with “An American Tragedy” in ‘31. In ‘32 he directed and co-produced RKO’s “The Most Dangerous Game”. Throughout the ‘30s he continued to mix acting (turning in an especially sinister role in “Dracula’s Daughter” [‘36]) with directing—“Before Dawn” (‘33), “She” (‘35), etc.
Following his role as Zarnoff, “The most hated man on earth,” Pichel devoted nearly all his efforts to directing and producing, turning in some remarkable work in the noir thriller “They Won’t Believe Me” (‘47) and the sentimental “Miracle of the Bells” (‘48). Among his later directorial work was Mickey Rooney’s “Quicksand” (‘50), the first space exploration film, “Destination Moon” (‘50) (he also narrated off screen the Woody Woodpecker cartoon used within the film), and Randolph Scott’s “Santa Fe” (‘51) in which he also played a minor role. As a matter of note, Pichel was the uncredited narrator for John Wayne’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (‘49).
He died of a heart attack July 13, 1954, in Hollywood.
Gracious Marion Shilling was born December 3, 1910, in Denver, CO, and launched her film career in MGM’s “Wise Girls” in ‘29. In the ‘30s she began to co-star in B-westerns. As for serials, Marion co-starred with Buck Jones in “The Red Rider” (‘34 Universal) and with Jack Mulhall in “The Clutching Hand” (‘36 Stage and Screen). Marion recalled, “Ruth Mix and I became good friends during ‘The Clutching Hand’. She was sincere, unaffected, honest. A natural beauty, but unaware of it. She had flawless, creamy skin, long dark hair and her eyes sparkled. Liked by everyone.”
Also, “I was terrified of horses, but I like animals and with subsequent experience and some riding lessons, I learned to enjoy riding very much. While on location with ‘Red Rider’, I got on my horse and went to an isolated place to practice riding. I soon became aware of someone following me. I looked around and there was Buck Jones. When he knew I was aware of him, he burst out laughing. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is the best example I’ve ever seen of a horse riding a girl!’ He then gave me some coaching and eventually I even learned to do a flying mount.”
After appearing in some 40 films, Marion left the business in ‘36 at 25 and married a Philadelphia real estate owner.
At 93, she died of natural causes November 6, 2004, at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California.
“Flying Disc Man From Mars”
Not to be discouraged by a single failure in their interplanetary campaign to conquer the Earth—initially depicted in an earlier Republic serial “The Purple Monster Strikes”—the rulers of the Red Planet send yet another dangerous and similarly attired advance emissary named Mota to finish the job. This is the plotline of “Flying Disc Man From Mars” produced by Republic in ‘51, directed by Fred Brannon and written by Ronald Davidson.
All of Republic’s later ‘50s science-fiction serials have a similar thematic blueprint and utilize many of the same plot devices, the same music and the same archival footage all designed to pad things out and substantially reduce budgetary costs. Usually the intrepid hero faces some sort of threat to the earth, internal or external, and the race is then on to prevent the miscreant, usually endowed with superior scientific acumen (and weapons), to carry out his plan. However, said villain unfortunately finds himself shy of funds and materials necessary to accomplish his scheme and invariably must recruit a few underworld earthlings in suits and fedoras to help him out.
In this particular instance Mota, played with scene-stealing aplomb by the leering and heavily accented Gregory Gay—who early on sheds his form-fitting space suit and cowl for a pinstripe suit and bowler—requires additional uranium to build the weapons essential to conquer the Earth. Before he can set his plan in motion, however, it’s necessary to recruit an influential terrestrial figurehead partner, and the devious Martian immediately finds one in Dr. Bryant, the designer of experimental planes who is in fact a former Nazi sympathizer. The power-mad Bryant only requires roughly 15 seconds to agree to the Martian’s plan of the takeover of his home planet with the proviso he will be allowed to rule it.
Bryant is played by serial veteran James Craven (who had also dealt with a Red Planet interloper in the aforementioned “Purple Monster Strikes”), another actor never known to embrace subtlety with any enthusiasm. Craven is irritable, cranky and moody throughout the proceedings and snaps at will at both his underlings and his Martian betters. After all, helping to take over the Earth can be a stressful business.
Adding to said stress is Kent Fowler, portrayed by the familiar Walter Reed, an actor who spent a great deal of his lengthy career playing second bananas but who here is given the opportunity to assume the part of the main hero. Fowler is an aviator and owner of a private plane patrol who Bryant initially hires to help guard his plant but later becomes a hindrance when Fowler gets wise to the invasion plan. Reed was always a solid and dependable player with a good range (he could also play whiney spineless cowards quite well) but emerges here as the typical serial lead of the era, colorless, sincere and dedicated. He is no better or worse than a dozen other actors who filled similar cliffhanger boots over the years.
Other cast members include Lois Collier, sexy and sultrier than most serial heroines, as Helen, the titular secretary/office girl with little to do. Sandy Sanders is Steve, Kent’s assistant and one of the dullest sidekicks to ever hit the screen. Plus there are a handful of reliable faces from the Republic stable including Harry Lauter and Richard Irving as the two main henchmen, ace stuntmen Tom Steele, Dave Sharpe, John Day, Ken Terrell and Dale Van Sickel in small parts, and Michael Carr, George Sherwood, Lester Dorr and Dick Cogan filling out the ranks. Interesting enough, Clayton Moore also appears in unbilled archival footage culled from his appearance in the studio’s earlier cliffhanger “The Crimson Ghost”. In both serials he is referred to as Ashe.
For all its familiar trappings, leftover sequences, lack of originality and borrowed format, “Flying Disc Man From Mars” emerges as fast-paced and entertaining. Serial fans have seen it all before, of course, and it will never stand up next to the truly terrific cliffhangers of the past, but there is something quaint and satisfying about the earnestness of the players and the outrageous situations that makes it pleasantly diverting and often a lot of fun if you don’t take a second of it seriously.
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