50 Movie Western Classics, Part 1
Roy Rogers is riding tonight…and Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, John Wayne and a slew of others, some singing, some not. This is one of the early 50-Movie Packs: You can tell by the silent still TreeLine logo that starts each side. (Somewhat later ones have the same logo with motion effects and stereo music. More recent ones have an animated MillCreek logo with stereo sound effects.)
Many of these movies were one-hour second features, “oaters” to fill the second half of a double bill. Not all, by any means, but the total running time for the 50 movies is just under 60 hours (59:57)—more than the original Family Classics (56:36) but a lot less than, say, the Classic Musicals (66:50) or the Hollywood Legends I’m interleaving this with (73:44, about as long as any 50-pack is likely to get). Those timings come from the Mill Creek Entertainment website, which now seems extremely forthcoming about what’s in each set and its actual length (although lots of the disc sleeves are inaccurate).
Some of the discs cluster films with the same star. That can be a trifle disconcerting. For starters, five early Tex Ritter movies right in a row is at least two too many.
Tex Ritter did an awful lot of movies in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and you can read that any way you want. How many? Forty “Tex” movies between 1936 and 1942—in all of which his character’s first name was “Tex.” Then he did another 20 between 1942 and 1945, movies where he learned a different name for the role. Ritter was important as a country singer and may be best known today for singing “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” for High Noon—and, of course, as the father of John Ritter.
As an actor and singing cowboy, particularly in these five movies from the first three years of his movie career (1936-1938), including the first? Not so much. You could count on several things in these pictures: Ritter doing fancy (and fast) shooting, typically shooting some gunslinger’s gun out of his hand. A big fight scene, where Ritter triumphs—and the bad guy’s cohorts don’t try to draw their guns until Ritter’s done (at which point Ritter’s companion draws on them, of course). Ritter wearing a white hat (and riding his white horse White Flash) and the well-dressed lead villain (usually) wearing a black hat. A young woman deeply involved in the plot, and Ritter riding away or otherwise ending up with her (and companion, sometimes) at the end of the film—sometimes married, sometimes not.
Oh, and Ritter singing with a big smile on his face. In the first two movies here and to some extent in the others, I’d call it “singifyin’” more than singing—akin to speechifyin’ as compared to speaking. He overdoes it, going for extra effects and becoming a parody of country singing—sometimes with songs that seem to be twelve-bar compositions repeated over and over again. It’s clear that Ritter could sing well and without overdoing it, particularly since he does that (sometimes) in his very first movie. I can only assume that the over-the-top style was what his director or audience wanted.
Rollin’ Plains, 1938, b&w, Albert Herman (dir.), Tex Ritter, White Flash, Horace Murphy, Snub Pollard, Harriet Bennet, Hobart Bosworth, Ed Cassidy, Karl Hackett, Charles King, Beverly Hillbillies. 0:57
Texas Ranger Tex Lawrence is tracking down a troublemaker who’s causing grief between the sheep farmers and the cattlemen. (This time, the villains are the sheep farmers.) While gang leader Trigger Gargan is the obvious culprit, the real culprit’s a leading citizen. Smilin’ Tex and his goofy sidekicks save the day after getting in various sorts of peril, and of course he gets the girl.
One of those with a huge battle on horses, where it’s really not clear who’s shooting at who—just lots of stunt men on lots of horses shooting, once in a while one of them falling over. Dark, choppy, damaged. Very charitably, $0.75.
Sing Cowboy Sing, 1937, b&w, Robert N. Bradbury (dir.), Tex Ritter, White Flash, Al St. John, Louise Stanley, Horace Murphy, Snub Pollard, Karl Hackett, Robert McKenzie, The Texas Tornadoes. 0:59.
This time, the ruthless gang leader shoots the man running a “freight company” so they can get the contract and take over the town. The woman in peril is the daughter. Tex (not a Ranger this time) and a different goofy sidekick save the day, after getting thrown in jail. Note cast overlaps: White Flash always plays a horse, but the sidekick on one picture may be the sheriff in the next, and so on…even the villains tend to reappear. Also the murky gun battle. This one’s damaged, choppy, and really pretty awful. Purely for historical value, a token $0.25.
The Mystery of the Hooded Horseman, 1937, b&w, Ray Taylor (dir.), Tex Ritter, White Flash, Iris Meredith, Horace Murphy, Charles King, Earl Dwire, The Range Ramblers. 1:00.
My notes here consist of “arrggh…” But that may be unfair. Slightly different plot (this time it’s a bunch of hooded horsemen—not just one—terrorizing folks and in particular a should-be-worthless mine), same-as-usual woman in distress and Tex with a sidekick. Once again he gets arrested. Once again there’s a different villain than you’d expect. Once again…oh, never mind. At least the singing’s a little more normal. $0.50.
Arizona Days, 1937, b&w, John English (dir.), Tex Ritter, Sid Saylor, William Faversham, Eleanor Stewart, Snub Pollard, Horace Murphy, Earl Dwire, Bud Buster. 0:57 [0:41]
This one’s truly frustrating. Tex and yet another sidekick join up with a traveling show (essentially buying their way in—Tex pays debts owed by the show in its last town), so Tex gets to sing on a stage for a change. Then, suddenly, Tex is out trying to collect delinquent taxes from some villainous types.
What happened here? What happened here is 16 minutes—a missing reel in the middle of the movie, during which (apparently) the show’s wagons get burned down and Tex has to become a tax collector to make ends meet. Better singing and a different plot (sort of), but messed up pretty badly by the missing reel. Assuming that you pay any attention to the plot in these anyway… Even so, $0.75.
Song of the Gringo, 1936, b&w, John P. McCarthy (dir.), Tex Ritter, Joan Woodbury, Fuzzy Knight, Monte Blue, Ted Adams, Forrest Taylor. 1:02.
The first of the lot and the most unusual. Tex (a Ranger again, I think) is sent to investigate the deaths of a bunch of miners and goes undercover to infiltrate the gang that’s probably murdering them. Most of this is set in a Spanish (or early California?) ranchero with the beautiful senorita as love interest, and the true villain a business partner of the head of the ranchero.
Lots of singing, with one song wildly over the top but most pretty good. Oh, and this time Tex gets blamed for several murders, stands trial, and does a Perry Mason bit, sort of. Choppy and damaged, but in some ways the best of this lot. $0.75.
Two other singing cowboys also made loads of westerns in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond, winding up with their own TV shows: Gene Autry and Roy Rogers (who both died in 1998, Autry 91 years old, Rogers a mere 86). This disc includes five more one-hour oaters, apparently with slightly better budgets and certainly more skillful production and acting than the Tex Ritter quintet on Disc 1. All five are Republic pictures directed by Joseph Kane; four of the five have dual timings on IMDB (original and a slightly shorter TV-edited time), and in most cases the version here is the shorter one.
It’s interesting to compare the three heroes, noting that these movies aren’t necessarily characteristic for their careers—particularly not for Roy Rogers. Where Tex Ritter plays some character with the first name Tex, a cowboy who also happens to sing a little, Gene Autry always plays Gene Autry, a singing cowboy—who might also have some other job (he’s a ranch foreman in one of these but also an entertainer), and pretty much always has a group of singers with him. He sings far more naturally here than Tex Ritter does in his early flicks and also acts considerably better. Oh, and his sidekick’s always Smiley Burnette, clearly a costar with high billing and his “Froggy” character name and vocal abilities.
Then there’s Roy Rogers. In his early movies (1938-1939—there are earlier ones but he’s not credited except as part of the Sons of the Pioneers), he plays a character named Roy Rogers. In his later movies, from 1942 on (he did more than 100 in all), he plays Roy Rogers, frequently with his wife Dale Evans. In these three 1940 movies and in a group of other 1940 and 1941 movies, he plays entirely different characters—and he hadn’t met Dale yet. While Gabby Hayes is a costar of all three films, always as a boastful lovable old coot, he isn’t always Rogers’ sidekick (but always has the same character name, Gabby Whittaker). There isn’t all that much music in these; then again, none of Rogers’ characters is a musician as such.
If you remember the later Autry and Rogers, both consistently fine singers but a little more weathered, the young Autry and the very young Rogers (freshfaced and 29 years old) are remarkable. Rogers is instantly recognizable, particularly with that voice and smile. My last (and lasting) memory of Roy Rogers comes from 1990: His duet with Randy Travis on “Happy Trails” (written by Dale Evans)—and his voice at age 78 or 79 was still fine.
Round-Up Time in Texas, 1937, b&w, Joseph Kane (dir.), Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, Maxine Doyle, LeRoy Mason, Champion. 1:03/0:54 [0:55]
Here’s a curious one. The title is the name of the song under the titles and elsewhere in the movie—but the movie, at least most of it, is set in South Africa. Seems Gene Autry’s brother has found a big diamond mine and needs horses, so Gene and his sidekick have to take a whole bunch over by boat.
Naturally, evildoers intervene…and, sigh, a “native” tribe gets involved, with a bunch of kids who instantaneously learn five-part harmony singing flawless English. As with the next flick, this is supposed to be contemporary. While the singing is great and the acting’s decent, the plot’s even more ridiculous than most and the stereotypes are unfortunate. $0.75.
Springtime in the Rockies, 1937, b&w, Joseph Kane (dir.), Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, Polly Rowles, George Chesebro, Champion. 0:56/0:54 [0:55]
Were cattlemen still fighting against incursion of sheep in 1937? I thought the range wars were pretty much over by 1920 or so, and maybe this flick is set slightly in the past (but it does mix seemingly 1930s-vintage cars and horses). Anyway, Gene’s the foreman at a cattle ranch and an entertainer.
The young woman who actually owns the ranch shows up fresh out of college with an animal husbandry degree. Somehow she buys a bunch of sheep—and the cattlemen will gladly kill her and Autry to get rid of them. Autry convinces her that a dilapidated, worthless farm (which he won in a poker game and can’t give away) is her ranch and too poor even to raise sheep. Lots of action ensues, including the usual “frame the hero for murder” bit. Well played, and apart from historical issues the plot’s pretty good too—as is the music. $1.00 as a one-hour flick.
The Carson City Kid, 1940, b&w, Joseph Kane (dir.), Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, Bob Steele, Noah Beery Jr., Pauline Moore, Francis McDonald, Hal Taliaferro. 0:57 [0:53].
The jacket copy says “Roy Rogers, posing as The Carson City Kid, is determined to exact vengeance on his brother’s killer, Morgan Reynolds.” The way it looked to me, Roy Rogers played the Carson City Kid, an “outlaw” who stopped stages only to look for a particular letter leading him to Reynolds. Unfortunately, his sidekick (not Hayes) is a thorough scoundrel. Fairly typical plot, but Rogers brings flair to the role and the rest of the cast is good as well. $1.00
Colorado, 1940, b&w, Joseph Kane (dir.), Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, Pauline Moore, Milburn Stone, Maude Eburne, Arthur Loft, Hal Taliaferro. 0:57/0:54 [0:53].
Set in the Civil War, with Rebs posing as a Preservation of the Union group in Colorado financing Indians and renegades to keep the troops too busy to go fight. Rogers is Lieutenant Burke, sent to investigate. Among other things, he finds that his brother’s one of the problems—but Burke eventually saves the day. Another good cast, fine acting, a coherent plot, and Roy Rogers—who here as in the other pictures gets the girl (except that Rogers tends to marry the girl as well). Even for a short flick, this gets $1.25.
Young Bill Hickock, 1940, b&w, Joseph Kane (dir.), Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, Julie Bishop, John Miljan, Sally Payne, Hal Taliaferro. 0:59/0:54 [0:53].
Also set in the Civil War, near its end. Rogers is Bill Hickock, sent with his sidekick Calamity Jane to investigate Indian uprisings that threaten to cut communications to the West Coast. The villain is a highly respected townsman who’s actually an agent from some unnamed country, out to seize California and its gold while the Civil War’s progressing. Some great stunts and solid acting; if you can ignore the “history” it’s a nice little movie. $1.25.
Three more second features, albeit none with singing cowboys—and a fine full-length movie.
Phantom Rancher, 1940, b&w, Harry L. Fraser (dir.), Ken Maynard, Dorothy Short, Harry Harvey, Ted Adams. 1:01.
Apparently this flick was late in Maynard’s career of trick riding and solid acting. The acting’s solid—but the film’s gimmick doesn’t make a lot of sense. Maynard’s uncle is gunned down, and he arrives to take over, finding that his uncle was universally loathed and he’s inherited mortgages on most of the farms. Naturally, an evil gang is behind this; naturally, the most respected man in town is the villain.
Maynard plays an odd game: Telling the sheriff to foreclose on Ranch X the next day if the money’s not there, then showing up in a mask and cloak at Ranch X that night, dropping off enough money to pay off the mortgage—while Maynard’s character is also joining the gang. Of course it all works out: It’s an old-time one-hour Western. Good enough for $1.00.
Broadway to Cheyenne, 1932, b&w, Harry L Fraser (dir.), Rex Bell, Marceline Day, Matthew Betz, Huntley Gordon, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes. 1:00 [0:51].
Truly strange. Rex Bell plays a New York cop who gets injured in a gang shootout and sent home to recuperate—“home” being a ranch near Cheyenne. One of the gangs has hightailed it to Wyoming and is setting up a ranchers’ protection racket—and in the process, riding around in a car with a gunsel using a machine gun to kill off cattle. Naturally, the honorable cowboy/cop on his horse (and several other outraged actual cowboys/ranchers) manages to defeat the gang and their machine gun. The print’s very choppy and missing nine minutes of dialogue. George Hayes wasn’t “Gabby” yet, just another rancher. At best $0.75.
Stagecoach to Denver, 1946, b&w, R.G. Springsteen (dir.), Allan Lane, Martha Wentworth, Roy Barcroft, Peggy Stewart, Robert Blake. 0:56 [0:53].
Allan Lane is Red Ryder in this odd story of character doubles and corrupt sheriffs and land commissioners. The sleeve says “Star: Robert Blake,” but that’s nonsense: 13-year-old Bobby Blake plays a minor (if pivotal) role as a sick child. It’s decent entertainment if you don’t look too closely. $1.00
Angel and the Badman, 1947, b&w, James Edward Grant (dir.), John Wayne, Gail Russell, Harry Carey, Bruce Cabot, Irene Rich, Lee Dixon, Tom Powers, John Halloran. 1:40.
The first full-length film in this set—and it’s a beauty. It’s also the first film John Wayne produced and has been called Wayne’s most romantic Western. I can believe that. I almost didn’t watch this because I already reviewed it in another set—but then realized that set was not one of the 50-Movie Packs (it was the “DoubleDouble Feature Pack” given away with subscriptions to the doomed InsideDVD). When I reviewed that disc (C&I 4:12, October 2004), I complained about the print quality but found the movie good enough to get past the problems. Fortunately, this pack has a much better print, with no apparent noise, scratches, or missing frames—one of the best prints I’ve seen in these megapacks.
What about the movie? John Wayne is a fast-shooting bad man, Quirt Evans, who winds up injured and in a Quaker household. The girl of the household (Russell) cares for him and falls for him—and the way Wayne looked at age 40, it’s not hard to see why. (In one or two scenes he smiles an open smile instead of his usual hard-ass half-smile: It’s a revelation.) After a series of situations and tribulations, some of them involving other bad men out to get Wayne, all ends well. The movie’s generally well acted (although the cynical old Doctor does do a bit of scenery-chewing), with a particularly good job by Harry Carey as the sheriff who waits patiently for Quirt to screw up so he can hang.
What makes the movie remarkable, other than good plot, good acting (I’ve never been a big Wayne fan, but maybe that’s my mistake, and Russell’s excellent as well—as are Cabot, Rich, and the rest), and good filmmaking, is the gimmick. This isn’t exactly a plot spoiler—the movie’s 60 years old—but skip this sentence if you feel it will lessen your enjoyment: Wayne never once fires a gun during the picture (except maybe under the title). A fine picture and a good print—I enjoyed watching it again. $2.
Paroled—To Die!, 1938, b&w. Sam Newfield (dir.), Bob Steele, Kathleen Eliot, Karl Hackett, Horace Murphy, Steve Clark. 0:55.
The title covers the last five or ten minutes of a short oater that could have been shorter, in a timeless West with telephones but without cars, in an unnamed state where a small-town banker would be the wealthiest man in the state if he managed to finish drilling an oil well. (I did say “without cars,” didn’t I?) Seems like there’s a lot of footage of one man or another man or three men on horses galloping full tilt; much of it’s close-up, so it’s not clear whether they’re simply using five seconds of footage over and over.
And, of course, it follows typical one-hour-oater habits: Lots of badly-staged fistfights, the villain is also the most respected man in town (and runs the town), even though he bears a striking resemblance to Snidely Whiplash, the hero gets framed—except this time he gets sent off to prison (framed because the banker’s looting his own bank to pay for the oil well, and the banker and hero are after the same girl) for 21 years, but immediately paroled by the governor because…well, if I include that, I’d be giving you pretty much the whole screenplay.
Not terrible but not very good. Bob Steele isn’t much of an actor (and neither is anyone else), but makes up for it by not doing trick shooting or trick riding either. Generously (it’s a decent print), $0.75
The Oklahoma Cyclone, 1930, b&w. John P. McCarthy (dir.), Bob Steele, Rita Rey, Al St. John, Charles King, Slim Whitaker, N. E. Hendrix. 1:06 [1:03].
This time, Bob Steele does sing (a lot)—and preens, and makes much of himself, and generally behaves in such a manner that he seems like a pretty good villain. That’s not how things turn out, but for most of the movie he’s playing a thief on the run (the Oklahoma Cyclone), holing up with a gang of thieves who also play ranchers at Santa Maria.
If anyone plans to see this (which I don’t advise), I won’t give the plot away; it’s no sillier than most other early Westerns. The big problem here, other than sheer implausibility and the likelihood that anyone who’s as much of a jerk as Steele plays would have been gotten rid of somehow long before the end of the flick, is that the first portion of the print’s dark and difficult to watch. It improves, but it’s never very good and there are enough bad cuts to be annoying. Generously (again), $0.75.
Daniel Boone, Trail Blazer, 1956, color. Albert C. Gannaway and Ismael Rodriguez (dirs.), Bruce Bennett, Lon Chaney, Faron Young, Kem Dibbs, Jaqueline Evans. 1:16 [1:14].
Color! (Sort of—sometimes the scenery fades to grayscale, but people and foreground items are always in color.) Singing! (Four songs, odd for a movie that’s definitely not a cheery musical.) The Shawnee protagonist, Chief Blackfish (played by Lon Chaney!) sees Boone and his ilk as “white men,” but doesn’t treat the villainous French renegade or a whole bunch of uniformed British Redcoats as white men, particularly when he’s declaring war on the white men. (Boone and Chief Blackfish did have dealings, but there’s not much in common between apparent history and what’s in this flick.)
Daniel Boone tries to convince the Shawnee that the French villain is lying to them when he says the settlers are out to run them off their land. That may not have been true in 1775, when the movie’s set, but down the road a bit… Anyway, lots of action and, of course, the hero eventually saves the day. $1.00.
Kentucky Rifle, 1956, color. Carl K. Hittleman (dir.), Chill Wills, Lance Fuller, Cathy Downs, Sterling Holloway, Henry Hull, Jeanne Cagney. 1:24.
There’s a Conestoga wagon train headed west—with a hundred Kentucky rifles in one wagon, along with their owner (and would-be gunsmith/gun shop owner), who’s hitched a ride with a wealthy settler who distrusts him. With good reason: The wealthy guy’s fiancée decides she prefers the handsome young gunsmith. This wagon keeps breaking spokes on one wheel, and finally breaks a rear axle—in Comanche territory.
The wagon train proceeds; the group left behind (including one very pregnant settler) tries to find a tree for a replacement axle while coping with Comanches who demand tribute. The wealthy guy wants to give them everything—specifically including the rifles—in return for safe passage. The gunsmith (and his crusty old sidekick) don’t trust the deal. Various stuff ensues (based on this movie, it was nigh impossible to miss with a Kentucky rifle).
You won’t be surprised to learn that the rifles stay on the wagon, which eventually gets moving. You probably also won’t be surprised that the Comanches are portrayed as double-dealers, whereas the settler’s attitude (“this is public land, no matter how long you’ve been here or what you might say about it”) is of course honorable. Lance Fuller makes an interesting hero/gunsmith, given that he was part Cherokee. Sterling Holloway does a cute job as a nervous young settler (who keeps a still on the side).
I’ve always thought “your money or your life”—the deal offered here—was a stupid situation: Choose “my life” and the enemy winds up with both. Choose “my money” and you’re trusting that someone willing to kill you will choose not to. The picture’s sort of in color, fading to gray in some (not all) nature shots—and it has a problem with nighttime action, in that scenes suddenly turn to full daylight when we need to see what’s going on. Ah well. Chill Wills makes an amusing crusty old coot, going a little (well, a lot) overboard about the virtues of Kentucky rifles and singing a mean “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” accompanying himself on a zither. It’s a mess, but I’ve seen worse. I’ll give it $0.75.
American Empire, 1942, b&w. William C. McGann (dir.), Richard Dix, Leo Carrillo, Preston Foster, Frances Gifford, Jack La Rue, Guinn Williams, Cliff Edwards. 1:22.
The setup: Just after the Civil War on the Sabine River between Texas and Louisiana, with Dan Taylor and Pax Bryce running a riverboat freight company. The boat gets grounded where Dominique Beauchard is driving a “there for the taking” herd of cattle across the river from Texas to Louisiana. Dan and Pax offer to transport the cattle, for a fee, if he’ll get the boat back afloat. Beauchard stiffs them on the fee—and they take off with a bunch of the cattle, which they sell to buy Texas land, then sell all the “free for the taking” cattle on the land to buy more land, then…
Anyway, the two build an “American empire” of Texas rangeland—but lose lots of cattle to Beauchard’s continuing attitude that any cattle his men can take are his property. They believe they’ve killed Beauchard because he falls off his horse into a river after a shot: Gee, apparently nobody but Dan’l Boone ever thought of hiding underwater breathing through a straw. When thousands of cattle keep disappearing, one increasingly arrogant partner decides it must be the other cattlemen and says they can no longer drive their herds across his range. That leads to a forced stampede and the death of the partner’s son—which is not the climax of the movie (as one IMDB reviewer claims), although it helps make the rancher more bitter and difficult to deal with.
That’s just part of a fairly large and plausible plotline, with Beauchard a continuing and nearly unstoppable villain and one of the two empire-builders as, well, a horse’s ass. There’s an odd mix of tones, as Beauchard (Leo Carrillo, perhaps best known as Pancho on The Cisco Kid) seems as much comic relief as town-destroying villain. The climax is a remarkable and extended three-way battle after the rancher (his partner’s asked to be bought out) orders up barbed-wire fence, the rest of the cattlemen decide to attack him, as Beauchard’s gang decides to destroy the town…it’s quite something.
My biggest problem with this otherwise-interesting flick, other than the curious way Beauchard’s character is played and yet another sheriff too stupid to prevent a jailbreak, is something I’ve never seen in a DVD transfer before: motion ghosts, the kind you’d get on old LCD displays. They’re sometimes pretty bad, with streaks trailing behind the action. That problem (and some sound distortion early on) reduce this to $1.
Billy the Kid Trapped, 1942, b&w, Sam Newfield (dir.), Buster Crabbe, Al St. John, Bud McTaggert, Ann Jeffries, Glenn Strange, Walter McGrail, Ted Adams. 0:59 [0:55].
This one’s a little different. Billy the Kid (Buster Crabbe) is a good guy, with Crusty and another sidekick (the first sidekick’s not named Crusty—actually “Fuzzy Jones”—but he’s yet another crusty ol’ sidekick), but three real outlaws are dressing up as Billy and his cohort and running around robbing and killing. An evil mastermind who runs Mesa City, a hideout for criminals, is behind it all, of course. (Note: I usd actor’s names as credited in the film, not as in IMDB.) Enough missing frames to interfere with continuity keep this from getting more than $0.75.
Vengeance Valley, 1951, color, Richard Thorpe (dir.), Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru, Sally Forrest, John Ireland, Hugh O”Brian, Will Wright. 1:23. [1:21]
This is more like it: Full (and very good) color, some serious acting (and serious actors), cowboys who herd cattle (you know, like cows), grand scale and scenery, an interesting and adult plot. The basic plot: An aging and ailing cattle baron has a son who’s pretty much worthless—and a foster son (Lancaster) who tries to keep the bad seed in shape while acting as ranch foreman and being far too loyal for his own good. The rotten kid’s married—but also impregnated a good local woman, for which her rotten brothers blame the innocent foster son. Various treachery ensues, all of it making a lot more sense than many western plots. Good narration and more detail about (and footage of) spring and fall cattle drives than you might expect. Some damage to portions of the print, but it’s still worth $1.50.
The Sundowners, 1950, color. George Templeton (dir.), Robert Preston, Robert Sterling, Chill Wills, Cathy Downs, John Litel, Jack Elam, Don Haggerty, John Barrymore Jr. 1:23
Also full color, with significant star power, some well-written dialog and pretty decent acting—Robert Preston makes a great villain. Distinctly filmed on location: It starts with a screen identifying the four Texas ranches used by name and brand!
The plot, as far as I can tell, is that two guys have a cattle ranch but are under siege from their neighbors (who formerly used the land as free grazing country) and keep losing cattle to nightriders. The Wichita Kid (Preston) shows up and, with the help of the younger guy and a ranch hand, starts stealing back cattle—and also shooting people when he feels like it. The “good guy” (Robert Sterling), the older of the two ranch owners, approves of the new thefts but isn’t quite so hot for the casual shootings. There’s a deep dark secret (given away fairly well, but I won’t mention it) that prevents Sterling from gunning down Preston to save his own hide.
It all leads up to a three-way gun (and whip!) battle (three groups of people) and an ending of sorts. I have two problems with the movie, one of them specific to this print. First, there really aren’t any good guys in the flick (although one woman seems honorable enough), but there are lots of movies that set various shades of badness against one another, so that’s OK. Second, it’s a choppy print: While the color and sound are both good, there are enough missing frames and words to interfere with continuity, even though it’s not even a minute short. I’ll give it $1.00.
Man of the Frontier, 1936, b&w. B. Reeves Eason (dir.), Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, Frances Grant, Boothe Howard, Jack Kennedy, Champion. Original title Red River Valley (1:00). 0:54 [0:55].
Gene Autry plays Gene Autry—but maybe not as a singing cowboy (although he does sing in the movie). Delivering cattle for a fee, he finds that the Red River Valley Land & Irrigation Company, trying to build a dam and canal to irrigate the surrounding land, keeps getting locks blown up and losing its “ditch rider,” the guy responsible for keeping stuff in shape. So Autry takes the job. Naturally, there’s a conspiracy afoot. Naturally, one of the most respected men in town is behind it (the banker, I guess, who wants to foreclose on all the land, in cahoots with the office manager of the company—I think). Naturally, Gene in his white hat saves the day—and, since there’s a pretty young woman involved, you can reasonably assume that he winds up either going with or marrying her.
I’ll admit, I think of “the frontier” as something a little more primitive than an area with telephone service working on a dam and irrigation systems (with construction trains running to the dam site), but what do I know? (Now it makes sense: The original title is Red River Valley.) I haven’t seen that many Autry flicks, but he seems a bit less likable here than in some others: Sneering much of the time, with somewhat of a mean streak. Frog (Burnette), his lovable sidekick, is amusing as always and gets a more interesting musical number. There’s also a fascinating novelty “hillbilly band” playing some interesting instruments. You can guess the key song for Autry, can’t you, given the setting? Oh, and the big crew building the dam all sing multipart harmony in perfect tune, as though they’re part of an oversize barbershop quartet. Interesting. In a charitable mood, I’ll give it $1.00
Riders of the Whistling Pines, 1949, b&w. John English (dir.), Gene Autry, Patricia Barry/White, Jimmy Lloyd, Douglass Dumbrille, Damian O’Flynn, Clayton Moore. 1:10 [1:08]
Gene Autry’s Gene Autry again in this tale of the new post-WWII west—cropdusters, trucks, cars, ecoterrorism, but when trouble’s afoot, everybody leaps on horses. This time, he’s a forest ranger who’s been given a new rifle as he’s leaving to run a lodge. His buddy (there’s no Crusty this time; instead, a regular-guy sidekick with a drinking problem) points to a mountain lion. Gene tries to shoot it, twice—and instead, believes he’s shot somebody completely out of sight on a horse.
But we know the truth: This dastardly lumber company has an exclusive contract to log on Federal land (when they’re allowed to)—and there’s a spreading infestation that could kill off tens of thousands of acres of forest, which would mean they could log all that timber and make a fortune. The guy was off to alert other authorities of the infestation; one of the timber honchos heard Autrey shooting and found it a convenient cover to kill this guy in cold blood. Naturally, Gene admits it; it’s an accident, but he resigns his post and sells the lodge to the couple who’ve been setting it up. (Later, his forestry buddies tell him that they messed up the sight on the gun as a prank: He could not possibly have shot the other guy, as the gun was set to fire into the ground when he aimed normally.)
But wait! The infestation’s discovered anyway—and spraying the whole forest with DDT from the air is the way to stop it. Nobody but Autry can manage the job—building the access roads and airstrip, organizing the crews to do the flying, all within 30 days—so, of course Autry says he’ll do it. Meantime, the evil timber marauders (one of them’s Clayton Moore in a distinctly non-Lone Ranger role) figure the only way to stop him and see that the forest dies off is to convince the ranchers that DDT will kill their animals. But, of course, as we all know, DDT wouldn’t hurt a fly… So they fly another plane spraying real poison over various farms.
That’s just part of a plot-heavy flick with lots of songs—apparently Autry by this time managed to be both a highly successful musician and an itinerant cowboy-of-all-trades just out to earn a living and pick up another girl by the end of the plot. (By this time, he’d done more than sixty flicks, always playing Gene Autry except for the one time he was Tex Autry.) Oh, and now when he’s singing as he’s riding along, invisible instruments and a background chorus show up from time to time.
It’s not bad, certainly not the standard formula, although in this case the bad guy’s such an obvious jerk that you’d think he’d have trouble convincing farmers to riot against the noble Feds just trying to do their job. This is also a movie of its time: Twenty years later, the concept that DDT is entirely benign might not go over quite so well. The print’s mostly OK, but there’s some choppiness, noticeable in a couple of songs. Still, I’ll give it $1.00.
Painted Desert, 1931, b&w. Howard Higgin (dir.), William Boyd, Helen Twelvetrees, William Farnum, J. Farrell MacDonald, Clark Gable. 1:25 [1:15].
I’m not sure which is more bizarre in this full-length Western: The plot or the acting. Two best friends are making their way through the old west, helping each other at every turn. They come upon a broken-down wagon (presumably the result of a raid?) and hear a baby’s cry. There’s an abandoned infant, which they take with them. Then they reach a watering hole. One person says that’s it, he’s found his grubstake (I guess this was during a homesteading period: Go there and you own it), he’s settling down. The other says no, he’s going on to find grazing land—and insists on taking the kid. End of Act 1.
Now the kid’s grown up and back from mining school. The two men are bitter enemies, and the guy with the watering hole—whose only living comes from renting access to the water to cattle ranchers taking cattle to market—forces the other guy to take his cattle the long way around, refusing water. And both of the old friends act as though zombified, for some reason. Oh, and the waterhole owner has a lovely young (that is, young woman) daughter (but no wife). And the son has found tungsten in the hill that’s part of the waterhole property.
When the son tries to talk his father into mending fences, the father basically disowns him and throws him out. The son goes in with the other guy, starts the mine (on a loan), almost loses it because of various nefarious deeds…and, well, of course it all works out (albeit with both older men shooting the hero simultaneously, oddly enough). As it turns out, the real evildoer is some fellow who would do anything to keep people from taking what’s his—and that’s not quite clear, although I guess it’s the daughter. (Apparently the evildoer is Clark Gable. Maybe his first talkie; definitely not his finest hour.)
I don’t know. Maybe it’s a style of acting I just don’t recognize. If I hadn’t been treadmilling, I’d have fallen asleep. (Apparently the missing 10 minutes is mostly three big action scenes that were deliberately removed from the flick after its first showing, to be used in other movies—including one of them in Red River Valley.) The dozed-off acting, peculiar (not in a good way) plot and a mediocre print limit this to $0.75.
Gunfight at Red Sands, 1963, color (original title Duello nel Texas). Ricardo Blasco (dir.), Richard Harrison, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Mikaela, Sara Lezana, Daniel Martin. 1:35.
Red certainly seems appropriate as part of this movie’s title, since it’s in an odd sort of sepiacolor that only includes shades of red, browns, wood, and other faded colors—no blues or true greens that I could see. It’s apparently an early “spaghetti Western,” with decent production values but not a whole lot in the way of acting or, well, logic.
Richard Harrison is Gringo—adopted son of a Mexican family working a little gold mine in a just-north-of-the-border town, who returns from four years fighting in the Mexican civil war. As he returns, three bandits kill the father and steal all the gold (most of it supposedly hidden). The rest of the movie deals with that—and with a town whose handsome sheriff and a group of variously mean-spirited sidekicks all hate Mexicans, even though much of the town appears to be Hispanic. (The most interesting villain is a giggling sociopath who is also, of course, a deputy sheriff.)
I guess I shouldn’t expect logic in a flick like this. Seems as though the sheriff or his clearly-murderous sidekicks would have just shot Gringo in the back or in “self defense” fairly early in the plot, but that wouldn’t make for much of a movie or get us to the inevitable (and really ludicrous) showdown. Maybe I should be impressed by Ennio Morricone’s score. I guess it’s OK. Let’s see. Other than the pseudocolor, there’s a short section where there seem to be holes in the print (that is, real holes, not just the holes in the plot). I can’t see giving this more than $0.75.
Only four flicks out of 26 broke the “mediocre” $1.00 mark—and one of those, the only $2 rating, was a duplicate from another set, Angel and the Badman. Otherwise? Vengeance Valley is pretty good, with Burt Lancaster and a strong cast. Roy Rogers does a decent job as Young Bill Hickock, implausible as the plot may be, and again as Lieutenant Burke in Colorado.
Nine flicks might marginally be worth watching again, on a very slow weekend with nothing else to do. A fair number of those “barely tolerable” $0.75 ratings were acts of generosity on my part. The first half totals up to $24 (for 26 movies), but if you limit it to movies worth at least a buck that goes down to $15, not a great showing. Let’s hope the second half’s better.
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