Weird Westerns: Border Phantom (1937)
Bob Steele plays a sassy cowboy in this novel film about a murdered entomologist and a Chinese picture bride smuggling ring.
by Max Sparber
When dealing with a haunted mine movie, all one can really hope for is novelty. There wwre just so many movies about frontier desperadoes covering up wrongdoing bypretending that the place was cursed. They're almost entirely Poverty Row film, shot quickly and cheaply, and frequently pretty rough.
"Border Phantom" is novel in a few ways. First of all, it barely remembers that it is a haunted mine movie — there's only a few scenes that try for any sort of spookiness, and they both revolve around unexplained noises in an abandoned hacienda. But the film also has an unlikely victim — an entomologist who has gone into the desert, presumably to collect scorpions or something. After he is murdered, another entomologist, this time German, shows up to hector his memory, claiming the man had stolen research.
There's no good explanation for the film's obsession with entomologists. No bugs show up the film at all. I went through the works of the screenwriter, Fred Myton, to see if he had some sort of interest in insects and had been sneaking them into his films, but no luck.
Usually these films are about rustling cattle, but here the movie also swerves: Instead, the abandoned hacienda has a secret basement, full of Chinese picture brides, preparing to be sent to their future husbands by a sinister Chinese man, played by Miki Morita, a Japanese actor.
It's pretty hard not to sympathize with Morita's character. There was a law, the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, that suspended Chinese immigration to the United States. This left thousands of Chinese men who has legally immigrated to the United States without the possibility of marrying and settling down, especially as many states had anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited them from marrying anyone of a different race.
But this isn't a nuanced film, and Morita kills the entomologist when it seems he may discover the picture bride smuggling ring, and might have got away with it to were it not for Bob Steele.
Bob was the child of vaudevillians who had grown up in Hollywood, and, in fact, had been a juvenile star with his twin brother Bill. He was a legitimate star of Poverty Row Westerns, working for doxens of studios, managine to be a Three Mesquiteer for Republic and Billy the Kid for Producers Releasing Corporation (a role later taken by Buster Crabbe, who had his own haunted mine film, "Ghost of Hidden Valley.")
Here Steele plays an uncommonly sassy cowboy — in fact, he spends roughly the fist quarter of the film sassing a local sheriff about how bad the man in as his job, and is kicked out of town for it. Steele smiles the entire time, as though somebody had told him he had a nice smile and he figured he might as well use it all the time. It drops briefly later in the film, when the entomollgist's niece is blamed for his murder and the sheriff show's up to arrest her. Steele smiles at a lot of things, but his sassiness boils over into real impatience here. It's the only exciting moment in the film.