Tuesday, May 4, 2010

THE MIRACLE RIDER

Between 1910 and 1935, Tom Mix was America's favorite film cowboy, starring in over 300 movies - all but a few of them silent. At the peak of his popularity, his distinctive features and outrageous Western costumes appeared on an astounding variety of merchandise. There was a hugely popular radio show that bore his name (although other actors portrayed him on the air), and even a long-running comic book.

In 1935, Mix starred in his last movie, a 15-chapter cliffhanger serial for Poverty Row studio Mascot Pictures, called THE MIRACLE RIDER. Clocking in at over five hours (!) with a first chapter nearly an hour long, RIDER was the longest sound movie serial ever made. It was also a huge gamble financially for producer Nat Levine, because Mix's salary alone was more than most entire budgets at Mascot! It paid off, though, because kids flocked to the Saturday matinees to see their hero in what turned out to be his farewell to the screen.

In RIDER, Mix plays Tom Morgan, an upright Texas Ranger out to avenge his father's death and foil a criminal organization that is illegally mining a rare mineral on Indian land to formulate a powerful explosive called X-94. For 15 weekly episodes, Tom battles the sinister Zaroff (Charles Middleton, best known as Ming the Merciless in Universal's three classic FLASH GORDON chapterplays) and his gang, all the while fighting to protect his Indian friends and their land rights.

The serial is particularly interesting as it is a "modern" Western, set in the then-present of the 1930s, so there are cars and telephones and other contemporary trappings mixed in with the six-guns and horse riding. There are plenty of exciting stunts, and Mix - then in his 50's - makes a very convincing, if slightly wooden, action hero. His famous steed, Tony Jr., figures prominently in the action, and the stunt riding is particularly impressive, even today. Unfortunately, the treatment of the Native-American characters in the serial is a bit cringe-worthy, as they are played as overly superstitious and somewhat cowardly.

VCI's two-disc DVD set presents THE MIRACLE RIDER in its original, 1.33:1, fullscreen aspect ratio. The print quality is fairly decent. There is considerable print damage and debris, and a few dropped frames here and there, but overall, it's quite watchable. It's definitely better than the gray market VHS copy I watched back in the 90s. The mono sound is serviceable, with an omnipresent background hiss - but then, this was made in 1935, and sound films - and the technology involved - were still relatively new.

The only extras are a text biography of Mix, a still photo gallery, and trailers for other serials offered on DVD by VCI. The public domain nature of the title means that it's available on several budget labels, but I believe VCI's disc looks and sounds the best.

Western fans with an interest in the history of the genre might want to pick this up. Not a whole lot of Mix's films are easy to come by, and THE MIRACLE RIDER is a solid Thirties serial, well worth watching.

BUY: Miracle Rider