When a friend informed me he’d purchased Classic Westerns: 50 Films, I felt I had to give it a try, too. What follows are the films as I viewed them in the order they play on the DVDs. Although I’m calling this a B-Western Round-up, there are some Italian Westerns and a few Hollywood A-Westerns than fell into public domain included as well.
The round-up starts after the jump.
(Will I do this next year with other megapacks? Maybe, I dunno...)
The first one out of the chute is a very typical B-Western from the 1930s. Tex plays a Texas Ranger named Tex who goes undercover (i.e., doesn’t bother telling anybody he’s a Texas Ranger) to investigate a war between sheep herders (boo!) and cattle men (yea!). The plot is pretty nonsensical: At one point one of Tex’s friends is framed for murder and they jump straight from that to the sheriff telling Tex there’s nothing he can do about it ‘cuz they’ve already gone and printed up the flyers announcing the hanging and what the #%@& happened to the trial?!?!? Anyway, the movie is pretty cheap, mostly stock footage (but damned exciting stock footage, I’ll give ‘em that!) with cheap cutaways to the actors pretending to react to what’s going on just off camera. Tex is a singin’ cowboy (of course) and the original Beverly Hills Billies (note spelling) also show up to sing a tune. The title has nothing to do with the actual story, and by all rights this should be a dull dumb boring programmer but ya know what? Tex for all his low energy acting chops actually has some on screen charisma, we get to see the great silent comedian Snub Pollard supplying comedy relief, the stock footage is pretty exciting, and for me a big hunk of the fun was identifying the very rocks that Tex & company scamper around in the Chatsworth Hills.
So this one gets a six-gun salute.
We open with Tex Ritter, playing a cowboy, singing; title is thus achieved at 0.4 seconds. Another one of Tex’s Grand National Westerns, Sing, Cowboy, Sing is a bit of a letdown after Rollin’ Plains. Apparently this film was made before Rollin’ Plains and much of the action scenes in that film came from this one; in that case, somebody on the Rollin’ Plains team spent at least a few minutes in the editing room eliminating the most egregious stunt duplications. While Sing, Cowboy, Sing has a somewhat larger budget -- there are several spacious main street scenes with extras walking around in the background, a far cry from the sparse, claustrophobic feel of Rollin’ Plains -- it’s not as well made nor half as entertaining. The plot has something to do with the habitués of the local saloon hijacking freight wagons for fun and profit, but the film is very sloppily put together: The stock footage is incorporated apparently unedited from the master stock footage reel, with the same cowboys falling back-to-back off the same horses from two different angles, and copious footage simply reused within seconds of its first inclusion. The 2nd string baddies are the same bunch of actors in the same costumes from Rollin’ Plains, right down to the facial scar on one. (Which makes pragmatic sense from a production POV: Easier to match stock shots that way.) The saloon has several of the same props seen in the previous film as well. Tex tries to be charming, and he sings well, but Snub Pollard basically has just a single extended bit, not a real supporting role. Al St John handles most of the comedy relief behind a beard that makes him look like some hideous mutant.
Call this a misfire.
A good entry marred by a bad dupe print in this collection. More action than usual and on a large scale for a Grand National Picture (the cheapness of Rollin’ Plains is due to the studio going under after an ill-fated attempt to make big budget movies; when they stuck to medium budget fare they could turn in quite good looking pictures). A small army of masked riders is trying to take a gold mine away from the young woman who inherited it so of course Tex is going to wade in and set things straight.
A six gun salute for the original film; a raspberry for the transfer.
#4 Arizona Days
What a delight! This is the best of the Tex / Grand National pictures so far, one with an oddball story perfectly suited for Tex’ unique combination of talents. He and Syd are drifting cowpokes who get involved with a traveling show, collect admissions at gun point from some ornery cowboys who try to sneak in, and because of that Tex gets appointed as tax collector! The camaraderie between Tex and Syd seems genuine and unforced, Syd is one of the better comedy sidekicks in these films, the budget is adequate for the story’s needs, John English (half of the powerhouse serial directing team of Witney & English) directs with a strong eye towards character, the script has some good dialog, and future Frankenstein monster Glenn Strange is the #2 bad guy. Snub Pollard was apparently in a now missing reel; this print jumps abruptly from Tex collecting admissions fees from the cowboys to a later confrontation while he’s collecting taxes from the same bunch! (The missing material also included Tex being recruited as a tax collector).
A two six-gun salute for this one!
Tex’s first picture, and one with a rougher, tougher, edgier feel than his later, more light hearted efforts. In a plot that prefigures both A Fistful Of Dollars and Donnie Brasco, Tex is a Texas Ranger who goes undercover to expose a murderous gang of claim jumpers. The opening scenes in which he passes himself off as a bearded desperado on the run are quite effective, and though he cleans up after that he still comes across as a dangerous character. He gets to sing a drunken song with a burro and in the end participates in a massive shoot out during a trial (the judge is played by Al Jennings, a bonafide Old West outlaw who went straight after his release from prison and became one of the early silent cowboy stars!).
Good movie, bad print; it still earns a six-gun salute.
They spend five minutes rounding up horses in Texas, then the rest of the movie takes place in South Africa. As cringe worthy as it sounds. The Phantom Empire is an embarrassment but it’s just dumb and inept, this one is blatantly offensive.
We’re giving it a big steaming cow pie.
One of Gene Autry’s better efforts. The print in this megapack is a muddy 16mm TV dupe, but it still shows what must have been truly spectacular footage in the original 35mm theatrical run. It’s sheep herders vs cattle men again, this time with the added complication of the sheep herders being four agricultural college co-eds come to claim a ranch as an inheritance (they pass the Bechdel Test, by the way). Gene Autry comes across as a bit of a jerk in this one, but makes up for it in the end. Enjoyable fun.
A six-gun salute.
A convoluted, complicated story in which most of the cast ends up pretending to be somebody else at one point or another in the plot with Roy trying to pass himself off as a Spanish speaking Mexican-American bandit throughout the film. Bob Steele, who had a brief career as a B-Western star himself, shows his acting chops and versatility as a eminently detestable villain (he ended up playing Pvt Duffy on TV’s F-Troop). Film is spectacularly anachronistic: Set during the California Gold Rush of 1849, not only do the characters wear wrong period costumes and employ props not built until the latter part of the 19th century, but the incessantly robbed Wells-Fargo stagecoach belonged to a bank that wasn’t opened until 1852 and Carson City itself wasn’t founded until 1858! Movie doesn't come to a climax so much as it just ends.
Calling this one a misfire.
Confederate spies in Colorado are stirring up trouble in order to distract Union troops from the Civil War, so General Ulysses S. Grant sends Roy Rogers to straighten things out. Here’s the twist: The rebel spies are led by Roy’s brother, Milburn Stone (later more famous as Doc Adams in TV’s Gunsmoke). There’s a lot of confused chasing going on in this picture and the fact the print in this megapack is a TV edit designed to cram the movie into an hour long slot doesn’t help. Film has a surprisingly grim conclusion as Roy captures Stone then has to decide whether to take him in for hanging or let him get shot trying to escape.
Grudgingly giving this one a six-gun salute.
Another nonsensical historical Western, the kind of a picture where Roy is accused of gold robbery, chased, captured, escapes, gets chased some more, captured again, asks the marshal to give him a chance to catch the bad guys, and the marshal says sure. Good action and strong performances overcome a multitude of sins, however, with Hal Taliaferro as a ruthless outlaw and Sally Payne as a spunky teenage Calamity Jane (she and Gabby Hayes have several good scenes together). Filmed in and around Vasquez Rocks, so Star Trek:TOS fans should spot a lot of familiar scenery. Film covers the Civil War with stock footage and newspaper headlines, but that’s how they did information dumps back in the day.
Earns its six-gun salute.
Shot in 1940 but looking like it was made a decade earlier (compare to the Roy Rogers films cited previously). Yet another variation of the masked-avenger-helps-embattled-homesteaders sub-genre. Good action, lackluster story. For once one of the cowboy stars’ horses actually does something germane to the plot. Maynard, a former circus trick rider and stunt man, is a tragic figure in Hollywood Western history: His rugged good looks are going puffy here as alcoholism takes its toll; in 5 years his movie career would be over and he’d be a ruined man (rumor has it Gene Autry was the secret benefactor who kept him off the streets until his death in the early 1970s).
Starring: Rex Bell, Gabby Hayes
A badly written, ludicrous story not helped by a jumpy, splicy print that renders many scenes incomprehensible. Wounded New York police detective goes home to Cheyenne to recuperate only to discover the gangsters who shot him are hiding out there as well. Okay action, and the Vasquez Rocks location is put to good use, but the film itself is just too goofy: Cliched tone-deaf dialog, wild bits of business such as Bell lassoing a tommy gun and turning it on the gangsters, Gabby Hayes not in his trademark whiskers but a huge walrus mustache (indeed, his character is called Walrus). Worse still, the movie ends with Gabby organizing a lynching! Bell comes across as a smart alec but that may have been the character he was playing; in real life he was apparently a well liked person, happily married to former silent star Clara Bow until his death 30 years later, retired from Hollywood in the mid-30s to run a working ranch in Nevada where he and Bow entertained various celebrities, and dabbled in politics, being elected lieutenant governor of Nevada (and winning re-election even though his running mate was defeated!).
That would have made a far more interesting film; call this one a misfire.
I must confess: The Red Ryder character / comic strips / movies never resonated with me. I know there are people who love ‘em and who think the series of films starring Lane are among the best B-Westerns ever, but I have never connected with them. I can acknowledge they are technically well done and have a competent supporting cast, but that’s about as far as I can go. In this one Roy Barcroft (did he ever play anything other than the villain in a B-movie or serial?) is messin’ with surveyor stakes and sabotaging stagecoaches to keep the telegraph from going through, crippling a little boy in the process. The boy needs an operation but somehow this involves kidnapping his real aunt and substituting an impostor (but the impostor has a change of heart and sacrifices herself to save the kid). The first half is talk-talk-talk, the second half has some good action, including an office smashing brawl between Lane and Barcroft (or rather their stunt doubles). However, the whole thing looks more like a TV episode than a feature film: There’s a confined, limited sense to all the scenes as opposed to the expansiveness of even such cheap movies as Rollin’ Plains and Broadway To Cheyenne, and the pacing and story beats seem more in tune for an hour long episodic than a theatrical film. Bobby Blake, halfway between Our Gang and In Cold Blood, plays Red Ryder’s Indian sidekick, Little Beaver; that doesn’t help this movie age well.
Giving it a six-gun salute for all you Red Ryder fans out there.
Yowza! How did an A-Western -- a good one and with a decent print to boot! -- end up in this bargain basement megapack? The answer is that almost all movies on all megapacks are orphan films: They’ve either slipped into the public domain or their original owners have gone bankrupt and dissolved, leaving the films unclaimed. In this case somebody at BatJac (John Wayne’s production company) failed to anticipate the upcoming cable and home video revolution and neglected to file the proper copyright renewal forms in 1976, releasing one of Wayne’s best movies into the wild. And boy howdy, this is a good ’un! The basic story of an outlaw redeemed by a good woman’s love is one that could easily fit into the B-Western genre but with a good script by a good writer/director, superlative casting, a great location used well (Monument Valley, Utah), and an adequate budget and shooting schedule the result is pure gold. Time and money may not guarantee a good movie, but they sure improve the odds! Made by Wayne’s own production company through Republic, it’s clear Wayne was an apt pupil and paid close attention to the lessons taught by mentors John Ford, Howard Hawks, and even Herbert W. Yates.
A rowdy two six-gun salute!
The title and opening credits makes one think this will be a hard boiled prison drama, but instead it’s a typical B-Western programmer. Starts off well with an interesting double-twist during a barn dance that does a good job of setting up the plot, but then just muddles through for the rest of the picture. Bob Steele was well liked and admired by other professionals, and he enjoyed a long career in the business, but this film shows he was not cut out to be leading man material (he served much better in supporting roles).
Give this one a slow on the draw six-gun salute.
Early sound era Western still bears traces of studio’s lack of faith in talkies; the film is spotted with intertitles explaining what had just been discussed in dialog. Steele is a desperado who takes refuge on a hacienda and seduces the rancher’s daughter, but in reality he’s an undercover lawman trying to expose the gang that uses the ranch as a base of operations (if that sounds familiar, it’s because it was remade as The Song Of The Gringo with Tex Ritter). Steele is okay but lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that makes an effective lead. He sings a couple of songs (or perhaps had them dubbed in). Script careens from cliché to clever and back again, and the print is so contrasty it could almost pass for a Sin City movie.
A six-gun salute if for no other reason than somebody actually says “Head him off at the pass!”
An indie / international co-production released thru Republic, Daniel Boone, Trail Blazer vacillates wildly in quality. The good stuff isn’t exceptional, but it does give one a flavor (albeit inaccurate in details) for the era. Bennett as Boone establishes a fort in the middle of Shawnee territory and the Shawnee, to no one’s great surprise, take umbrage at this. Filmed in Mexico (!) it does a fair job of simulating the Appalachian Mountains, Bennett is convincing as Boone, Chaney isn’t wholly embarrassing as the Indian chief Blackfish, and Faron Young drops by to sing a song and offer moral support en route to his country-music singing career. Filmed by two directors, the story telling style jumps from pedestrian to imaginative if oddball and back again (film historian Bill Warren reports Mexican director Ismael Rodríguez is credited for legal reasons only). Strange artifacting problems in the transfer give several scenes a bizarre, almost 3D quality. Not a bad film by a long shot, but extremely uneven in tone: The ending is straight out of a horror movie! Kem Dibbs is the French-Canadian half-breed helping the English stir up trouble for Daniel by telling the Indians what is in store for them if white settlers move in. He may be a bad guy but he sure as hell wasn’t wrong!!!
A muzzle-loaded six-gun salute.
#18 Kentucky Rifle
Holy shamolley! I thought The Mystery Of The Hooded Horsemen and [From] Broadway To Cheyenne had lousy prints but this is a damn VHS download from cable broadcast! At the reduced recording speed favored by megapacks this film is virtually unwatchable in several places, nothing but vague smears of colored pixels. Chill Wills gets top billing but Lance Fuller (who?) is the hero trying to get a wagon load of Kentucky rifles through Comanche territory (a.k.a. Vasquez Rocks). Sterling Holloway is the comic relief; he and Wills are the only reasons to watch this movie. Produced by HowCo, a distribution / production company representing Southern theater chains (Jail Bait, Mesa Of Lost Women, and Brain From Planet Auros are their best known films), Kentucky Rifle was doubtlessly their high water mark.
A wet powder misfire.
#19 American Empire
Another entertaining film handicapped by an awful video transfer of a murky 16mm TV edit. Dix and Foster are riverboat operators who double cross rustler Carrillo (playing a character named Dominique Beauchard[!]) and start a stock footage empire in post-Civil War Texas. Entertaining, with plenty of thrills and comedy though it veers into plagiarized Gone With The Wind tragedy in the middle (any time they make a big deal about a kid getting a pony in a Hollywood period piece, it’s a sure sign that kid won’t be reading the end credits). Rebounds with what must have been an incredible spectacle in the original theatrical release: A epic night time battle between cowboys and rustlers with the rustlers being ambushed by giant flaming bales of hay! Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Cliff Edwards are Sailaway and Runty, two comic relief sailors turned comic relief cowboys. Etta McDaniel (Hattie’s sister) has some cringe worthy moments as a cook but thankfully doesn’t veer into the outright offensive.
Bonus points for being the first non-porn film in which three male leads all wear mustaches.
A Navy Colt .45 six-gun salute for the original, a dud for the print.
This may be Buster Crabbe’s best performance in anything including the Flash Gordon serials! He’s Billy The Kid, a laid-back easy-going drifter with a sly sense of humor. Film opens with him and pals Al “Fuzzy” St. John and Malcolm “Bud” McTaggart awaiting hanging for a murder they did not commit; they’re rescued by a mysterious gang who then tries to frame them for a series of holdups and murders by an identically dressed trio of impostors (St. John gets a couple of surreal comedic encounters with his own double). Glenn Strange is the chief bad guy, Buster performs prairie heart surgery, and the Chatsworth Hills are used to great advantage. It’s all school boy nonsense but it’s glorious school boy nonsense.
A six-gun salute.
#21 Vengeance Valley
Another A-Western gone public domain (MGM dropped the copyright renewal ball this time). Based on a novel by Luke Short, it’s more soap opera than horse opera (though the how-to-run-a-ranch aspect is well done and germane to the plot). Robert Walker impregnates waitress Sally Forrest but her brothers come gunning for Burt Lancaster on the assumption he’s the cad responsible (it’s one thing for your sister to lack morals, I suppose, and quite another to lack good taste). Strong performances, worn print. Roy Rogers never made a movie like this!*
A faded Technicolor six-gun salute.
* Which is ironic considering Roy’s own complicated marital history; his first marriage was in name only to a cousin who found herself in the family way (a divorcee with a young child facing a far less problematic life in the 1930s than an unwed mother).
#22 The Sundowners
Another virtually unwatchable VHS-dupe-from-cable, more the pity because the film was shot entirely on location in and around Abilene, thus providing new and authentic scenery. It’s range war time in Texas and the Wichita Kid (Preston) shows up to help. More talk than action, and hard to follow at times due to transfer quality. Novelist/screenwriter/producer Alan Le May was responsible for several excellent Westerns (including The Searchers) but this ain’t one of ‘em.
A half-empty six-gun salute.
#23 Red River Valley
Starring: Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette
Good location work gives this movie a different look from most B-Westerns. Gene is a “ditch rider” whose job is to see that the dam being constructed to irrigate the Red River valley doesn’t get blown up (because dams don’t get built in movies without somebody wanting to blow then up). He comes across rougher and tougher and frankly a lot meaner in this mid-30s Republic feature than he does in later films. Good miniature work by the fabulous Lyedecker Bros, “Red River Valley” gets sung several times (once by a bad guy at gunpoint under Gene’s urging), Smiley Burnette sings a song about his .45 while brandishing said weapon so recklessly even the NRA would object, and the rough ‘n’ tumble construction workers sing and dance on their way to not getting paid (yes, you read that right). A muddy TV print undercuts the fun but it’s still enjoyable.
A six-gun salute.
After his WWII service, Gene came back to Hollywood to find Roy Rogers firmly ensconced as Republic’s singing cowboy, so he willingly went over to Columbia to star in a successful series of well made B-Westerns there. The Columbia films, more so than the Republic movies, are the epitome of what’s been referred to as “the Gene Autry fantasy”, a wild west that never ever really existed and populated by stalwart stereotypes always eager to break into song and starring a hero whose Nudie shirts were never wrinkled or dirty. Riders Of The Whistling Pines (caveat: No pines actually whistle in the course of this picture) is jammed packed with action and incident; it’s as if screenwriter Jack Townley was afraid he’d never get to write another movie and wanted to cram every idea he had into this one. It’s not every B-Western that features alcoholism and suicide as major subplots so it’s really jarring to find them in a Gene Autry movie. Gene discovers a killer moth infestation in the North Woods and plans to stop it by spraying DDT, but the baddies who want to harvest the timber for their lumber mill decide to frame him for murder. Luckily Gene rigs up a dummy in a rocking chair to escape ambush and his boozy sidekick crashes an airplane into the baddies’ lair to save him. Awful transfer spoils what must have been gorgeous location scenery in the original theatrical release.
A six-gun salute.
A mash-up of Three Godfathers and Romeo & Juliet. Boyd (listed here as Bill Boyd, long before his days as Hopalong Cassidy) is found as an infant in an abandoned covered wagon and grows to be the young man whose love for Helen Twelvetrees (a talented perennial starlet of the era whose career failed to ignite) finally patches a lengthy feud between their fathers, but it’s a young actor in his first movie who steals the show as the #2 bad guy. Filmed on location in Arizona, The Painted Desert focuses on the struggles of the people with the land; the print is okay and shows off the scenery to great effect. A hard luck production, The Painted Desert saw several cast and crew members die or get injured during the production (the child who played Boyd as an infant got sick and died shortly after his part wrapped, and two crew members were killed in a premature explosion that injured several others, including the director). It’s a well made film for the early sound era and probably deserves to be listed as an A-Western. Oh, and that young actor who stole the show? Clark Gable.
A noisy six-gun salute.
#26 Duello nel Texas
Starring: Richard Harrison
Most Americans don’t realize the Europeans were making Westerns decades before Sergio Leone first draped a serape over Clint Eastwood. Duello nel Texas was made a year before A Fistful Of Dollars but all the hallmarks and tropes of the spaghetti Western were already in place. Harrison is Gringo, the adopted Anglo son of the besieged Martinez family, who returns from the revolution in Mexico to track down his father’s killers in Texas. The Italians learned their lessons well from Hollywood, and Duello nel Texas is action packed from beginning to end, but featuring a much more complex and shaded morality than is found in American B-Westerns (it also has scenes that prefigure if not outright inspire similar scenes in later, better known movies including Once Upon A Time In The West and Quigley Down Under). Everybody dies as if their Oscar chances depend on it. An awful print, torn and scratchy with everything in varying shades of rose, doesn’t spoil the fun.
Bonus points: Ennio Morricone’s first score for a Western! “Put your hand on your GUN! Don’t you trust anyONE!”
Un saluto di pistola
Starring: Warren Oates, Jenny Agutter, “and introducing Sam Peckinpah”
Monte Hellman has a long, jack-of-all-trades career in movies, including directing several low budget / cult films. His high water mark was Two-Lane Blacktop, an existentialist road story about two drifters racing for pink strips across the US. China 9, Liberty 37 (a road sign outside Warren Oates’ homestead) is a Spanish / Italian co-production that looks like a low rent version of Once Upon A Time In The West. Fabio Testi is a condemned prisoner who is offered an amnesty if he will kill homesteader Oates so the railroad can acquire his land (ignore the fact that homesteaders weren’t let in to new territories until after the railroad had secured their right of ways, and if a railroad ever needed private property they just got the government to seize it under eminent domain). Agutter is Oates’ wife, whose household duties consist of bathing and skinny dipping at every available opportunity (don’t get your hopes up; this is a lousy cut-for-broadcast TV transfer). She falls for Testi and instead of him killing Oates, the two lovers run off to attend a circus operated by acclaimed director Sam Peckinpah (‘cuz, hey, you can’t have an Italian Western without little people circus performers, right?). There’s a big shoot out at the end that’s so low energy everybody seems to be firing Quaaludes at one another, then Testi rides off without Agutter, and Oates burns down his homestead to make sure there isn’t a sequel. Not a stupid movie, just a really bad one.
A major misfire.
Starring: James Caan, Stefanie Powers, Sammy Davis Jr.
As the closing credits rolled, one thought filled my mind: “What the #&$% did I just see?!?!?” Originally filmed in 1969 under the title Man Without Mercy but not released until years later (i.e., after The Godfather made Caan a big star), Gone With The West represents an era of American film making in which it seems everybody lost their taste, their ability to tell a coherent story on film, and their mammy-jammin’ minds. Look, I get it that experimentation is good for any medium, but not all experiments are successful. Gone With The West is a cracked, scorched, radioactive test tube with toxic sludge caked on the bottom. Nothing links up in this film, nothing flows together, nothing fits. Everybody is acting as if they are in entirely different movies (a pity, because Powers exhibits some pixie-ish charm, and Davis does well in his brief scenes as uber-cool gunslinger, Kid Candy [!]). Plot starts with Caan escaping the territorial prison to track down the town boss who sent him there (Aldo Ray, in a role that requires him to do nothing except play a human pig). Along the way Caan encounters the mostly mute Little Moon (Powers) and together they besiege the town by catapult [!!] from nearby Vasquez Rocks. In the end they blow up the town real good then, as they’re walking away, realize they’ve killed everybody but the cameraman so they turn and shoot him.[!!!] My question is whether Quentin Tarantino saw this film before scripting Natural Born Killers. How bad is this movie? I’ve seen Death Curse Of Tartu, Manos The Hands Of Fate, and The Godmonster Of Indian Flats: Worse than that.
A desiccated dried up cow pie.
#29 The Outlaw
Well, we knew this one was coming and here it is: Howard Hughes’ legendary “What the #&$% were you thinking?” Western. Aims for the mildly erotic but only achieves the wildly erratic: It’s a good movie, it’s a bad movie, it’s a deep movie, it’s a shallow movie, it’s every kind of movie imaginable all crammed into two hours. And the good stuff is good: Walter Huston as Doc Holiday and Jack Buetel as Billy The Kid trying to hornswoggle each other over a horse are entertaining and if the whole picture matched that tone it would be a delight, but the moment Jane Russell gets introduced into the mix things go south ASAP (and through no fault of Russell’s; she struggles to do her best with the material). Russell wants to ambush Buetel for killing her brother so Buetel rapes her (rape being a “good” thing in these kinds of 1940s movies) and naturally she falls in love with him only she’s supposed to be Huston’s girl so things move quite speedily from love triangle to unrequited homoeroticism. And, no, I’m not reading that into the script: You get to the end with Huston shooting big chunks of Buetel’s ears off but Buetel refusing the fire back because Huston is the only guy who ever cared about him while Thomas Mitchell as Pat Garrett sits fuming on the sidelines because his best friend Doc Holiday has been stolen away by Billy The Kid (and he says so!) and you want to say, “Guys, go pitch a tent on Brokeback Mountain; you’ll all be happier for it.” Hughes produced several movies but only directed two, this and the original Hell’s Angels (which is pretty much the same story only told far more entertainingly with spectacular air battles and jaw-dropping special effects). Sledge hammer over-the-top / belabor-the-obvious music cues would have been rejected by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera for lacking subtlety. Could anybody have made this material work? Yeah, Russ Meyer in his glory days. A good print for a change.
A major, major misfire.
The Range Busters were Monogram’s low rent knock-off of Republic’s successful Three Mesquiteers series (talk about damning with faint praise). Arizona Stage Coach is a fairly typical B-Western, briskly paced, good humored, and entertaining enough. Star Ray “Crash” Corrigan was a pretty remarkable Hollywood player: Originally groomed for leading roles in serials and action films, he realized there was money to be made operating a movie ranch and thus established Corriganville, a perennial popular filming location for Westerns including this one (and located not far from both Roy Rogers’ homestead and the soon-to-be infamous Spahn Ranch). You’ll recognize lots of very familiar trees and rocks in this movie. Corrigan also had no oversized ego to get in the way of his making a buck: He started out playing gorillas in movies (he owned his own ape suit) and as his movie star status started to fade he cheerfully returned to playing gorillas in movies (he also played the eponymous monster in It! Terror From Beyond Space, a 1950s precursor to Alien). The plot here is standard who’s-robbing-the-stage? with Corrigan and fellow Range Busters John “Dusty” King (supplying the singing cowboy chores) and Max Terhune (supplying the ventriloquist cowboy duties) tracking down the desperadoes responsible. Elmer, Terhune’s dummy, takes the film into surreal-bordering-nightmarish territory: Several times he is shown moving and talking wholly independently of Terhune and at one point they try hiding stolen loot by shoving it down his mouth while he yells in protest! Opening credits are pretty clever, too, though the otherwise good print is badly damaged at that point (leads and tails of film reels typically took quite a beating with repeated showings).
A six-gun salute.
#31 Blue Steel
Starring: John Wayne, George Hayes
People forget that many of Wayne’s most entertaining early B-Westerns were also pretty goofy (the B-Western genre never took itself all that seriously). Blue Steel is a good example of same: Thoroughly entertaining (and with a good print for a change!), several strong performances, top notch location work (the Alabama Hills and Death Valley), good stunts by Yakima Canutt & co., and one of the most oddball openings of any Western (including a newlywed joke that could only be done in pre-code Hollywood), yet marred by bad scripting, including huge information dumps spun off the most casual comments, cliché’ dialog, and people just not yelling for help in situations where a single word would bring assistance (they save that for the end when the heroine finally realizes “Help!” will bring Wayne and Hayes a’runnin’). It’s uneven, as if writer / director Robert N. Bradbury can’t keep his story straight. Hayes is introduced as the sheriff in the opening then everybody forgets about that until the very last scene, he later shoots a bad guy off the roof of a barn then everybody immediately forgets what just happened to make up and become pals. Hayes does get a better, meatier part this time around and actually contributes actively to advancing the plot instead of being just the comedy relief (as happened once he adopted the “Gabby” moniker). Plot has something to do with the Polka Dot bandit (!) and his gang trying to drive homesteaders off their land so the evil speculator can buy it for the gold vein running through it. One of Wayne’s best B-Westerns.
A blue steel six-gun salute.
#32 Santa Fe Trail
An abomination in the eyes of God and man. Story is about gallant future Confederate J.E.B. Stuart (Flynn) single handedly standing up to mean ol’ abolitionist John Brown (Massey) with the occasional assist from George Custer (Reagan). The bare bones of history are touched on -- Robert E. Lee was the commandant of West Point when Stuart was a cadet there, Stuart encountered John Brown while serving as a lieutenant in Kansas, Lee and Stuart put down Brown’s ill-conceived attack on Harper’s Ferry -- but the skin draped over them is ugly and artificial. We think of Warner Brothers as a “progressive” movie studio but truth be told they were in it for a buck just like anybody else and if there was a buck to be made peddling revisionist history to bigoted Southerners, well, hey, hold your nose and dive into the cesspool. It’s hard to judge which movie is more offensive, this or Round Up Time In Texas.* The latter mocks Africans but does so by refusing to acknowledge their existence as human beings; Santa Fe Trail acknowledges the humanity of African-American slaves but basically says their suffering, persecution, and enslavement is wholly justified if it keeps white bigots from feeling uncomfortable. Screw that noise. Film went into the public domain in the 1960s because apparently nobody at Warner Brothers at that time wanted to claim ownership.
A big gooey, steaming cow pie with flies circling it.
* Turns out it’s neither; ref The Kansan and Judge Priest noted below.
John Wayne movies don’t come any John Wayne-ier than this. McLintock! is a pivotal film in Wayne’s career, marking a formal acknowledgement from him that he was indeed well past the traditional leading man age range and had to settle into a new role of Action Grandpa. It is also the purest non-overt propaganda distillation of any single individual’s personal / political / moral philosophies, thankfully filtered through James Edward Grant’s typewriter into the form of a vastly entertaining film. And for all its sins and shortcomings, for all its patronizing and chauvinistic attitudes, it is tons o’fun. Wayne never really got the props due him as an actor; he was much more adept at comedy than audiences realized. McLintock is his idealized self-image: A wise, benign, slow-to-anger-but-quick-on-the-draw cattle baron trying to help both homesteaders and Comanches from rapacious government agents while at the same time trying to talk his wife (O’Hara) out of a divorce while organizing a homecoming for his co-ed daughter (Stefanie Powers) and the town’s 4th of July festivities -- whew! Individual scenes and set pieces are great, but the movie as a whole has not aged gracefully. We get it that this is a 1963 version of the early 1900s and as such is trying to reflect both the mores of pre-WWI America and the then contemporary culture (and thank goodness for that; one can only imagine what this would have looked like if it had been made four years later in the Summer of Love). We get it that some of the attitudes, both 1900 and 1963, have been shown to be archaic and in need of replacement. Even in that context, it’s still hard today to accept spousal abuse as a viable means of conflict resolution, or think much of a father who hands a male employee a fire iron shovel to paddle his adult daughter. Despite that, there’s a serious scene between Wayne and Powers in which he speaks of his love for the land and because of his love for her, his desire to give her a chance at building a life of her own but not a fortune to squander. It’s in there because Wayne wanted it in there (his company produced the film and Grant was his go-to screenwriter); as such it shows Wayne was far more complex than most give him credit, and that whatever his values they were sincere and internally consistent. The movie is crammed with other B-Western actors including Chill Wills, Bob Steele, Strother Martin, Bruce Cabot, Hank Worden, and Edgar Buchanan; the print is an adequate broadcast TV pan-and-scan transfer (the film is public domain, so while better prints are available, this megapack can’t afford ‘em).
A starter gun salute.
#34 Sagebrush Trail
In a coincidence worthy of classic Greek tragedy, Wayne is an innocent man falsely convicted of murder who escapes prison to seek the real killer only to be befriended by the outlaw responsible, with neither man knowing the other’s true identity. Cheap even by B-Western standards: The oft robbed stagecoach never carries passengers, there are virtually no extras in any exterior scenes, several scenes seem to be built around much older stock footage, and the bulk of the outdoor action takes place at Bronson Canyon. Wayne and outlaw pal Lane Chandler project an easy and appealing camaraderie on screen, they have several good scenes together including a nice comedy turn in a grocery store. Yakima Canutt plays the outlaw leader and stunt doubles for Wayne (did Canutt ever board a wagon or stagecoach by conventional means?). Adequate print.
A six-gun salute.
#35 In Old Caliente
A Roy Rogers’ Western with a few unusual touches: Set in California just after it became a state, the film features several beach scenes (including Roy and his romantic lead camping out under the stars with a dog between them as chaperone, then later a fight in the waves with the bad guy), an earthquake (which Roy as a long term resident simply shrugs off), and in an unusual display of gravitas, a major theme about how the U.S. westward expansion was at the expense of the people already living in the land the Anglos came to homestead. Not your standard B-Western fare where such concerns were ignored or dismissed if not lauded as manifest destiny! Muddy TV print, but not so bad as to keep one from enjoying the film. As anachronistic as any Roy Rogers’ programmer of that period. (Full disclosure: I grew up with Roy Rogers on TV, and when Trigger takes a tumble in this film my heart jumped!)
A wrong era six-gun salute.
Five minutes of Roy and his fellow Rough Riders returning home from the Spanish-American War to justify the title, then it’s off to join the border patrol and stop Anglo outlaws from using Mexico as a base to raid Texas. There’s a gold mine and a ghost town involved, and a young woman who is running away to marry the cad she loves over her father’s objections. In the end Roy suggests he, the gal, and her dad protect themselves from the outlaws by blowing up the entrance to the mine with themselves still in it thus securing Roy’s spot in the Cinematic Badass Hall Of Fame. Chatsworth stands in for Mexico, and the Mexican population is represented by a single official who is more than happy to let the Anglos kill each other so long as he doesn’t have to get involved. Gabby Hayes was apparently busy that week so Raymond Hatton steps in for the grizzled sidekick duties. Murky TV print, but a fast paced entertaining story.
A smuggled across the border six-gun salute.
#37 Born To The West
Starring: John Wayne, Johnny Mack Brown, Syd Saylor, Alan Ladd
Reissued under a new title to cash in on Alan Ladd’s blink-and-you-miss-it minor bit, Born To The West is a cheap B-Western talkie re-make of an earlier A-Western silent epic, using copious stock footage from the latter but not bothering to adjust for the difference in silent and sound running speeds so the old stuff is painfully obvious. For a change Wayne is not the self-assured hero who can do no wrong but a cocky cowboy with a gambling jones who gets cleaned out periodically in the course of the movie. B-Western stalwart Johnny Mack Brown plays his older cousin who entrusts him with the ranch payroll but it’s not long before Wayne is losing his shirt -- again! Syd Saylor, previously seen in Tex Ritter’s Arizona Days, plays Wayne’s lightning rod salesman sidekick and again he is a delight; why didn’t they cast him in more roles like this? Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe has a cameo as a barfly. Barely adequate VHS taped off TV print -- at one point the cable company’s logo bug appears in the lower corner!
A dubbed in six-gun salute.
#38 The Kansan
Willie Best at his worst. Every time this film starts to get entertaining, the makers undercut it by going to Best acting out the worst stereotypes imaginable. What would have been merely deplorable if limited to only one or two scenes becomes intolerable over the run of the feature. That’s all you need to know.
A big steaming cow pie.
#39 White Comanche
Starring: William Shatner, Joseph Cotten
An Italian Western with William Shatner playing half-breed twins, one a good guy gunslinger, the other the eponymous villain. Armed with that information, you have already made up your mind if you want to see this movie or not: There is nothing I can add that could further persuade or dissuade you. Adequate video transfer.
A phaser set on stun salute.
An entertaining if somewhat melodramatic movie built around stock footage from 1939’s Drums Along The Mohawk, but the performances and new dialog are sharp and fun. And what an oddball story! Scott Brady is a Boston artist come out West to paint the scenery, Lori Nelson is his long suffering fiancé come to collect him, Allison Hayes is the cheeky tavern maid who enjoys posing in her undies, and Rita Gam is the Mohawk girl who finally gets him. Nelson and Hayes exchange some great catty dialog, Neville Brand and Ted De Corsia try to lend some dignity to the proceedings as long suffering Mohawk warriors, and film buffs will be delighted to see Mae Clarke -- grapefruit recipient, Dr. Frankenstein’s bride, and Rocketman’s main squeeze -- as Minikah, the tribal medicine woman. Not great but still lots of fun. Old but not bad Pathecolor print.
A flintlock pistol salute.
Roy Rogers ventures into Gunfight At O.K. Corral / My Darling Clementine / Tombstone territory. Playing Brett Starr (presumably there were legal worries about using Wyatt Earp’s real name), he and his two brothers set off with their families to tame Tombstone. Gabby Hayes tags along as a combination Doc Holiday / Judge Roy Bean, and that explains the fun and appeal of this movie: There’s not a single new or original idea in it, but they’ve been assembled in a somewhat novel fashion. For example, the Carson family -- which includes Roy’s romantic interest in this film as well as her feisty Ma Joad grannie -- are the obvious Clanton faction, yet Roy’s on their side! The town fathers are the real villains of this piece, and character actor Jay Novello plays a crooked Wells-Fargo agent who robs his own stages disguised as a Mexican bandito. Chatsworth and Vasquez Rocks are both used as locations, Roy forces three rowdies to dress as women at shotgun point, and the final battle through the streets of Tombstone may not reflect the actual events of the O.K. Corral but are probably a reasonable approximation of what a real Old West gunfight was like. Roy and Gabby are both rougher and tougher and leaner and meaner and much more lethal in this movie than in their other films. That doesn’t keep Roy from singing a couple of songs (this was when his movies were Westerns with some singing, not musicals with a Western setting) or Gabby from having some good comedy scenes with Sally Payne as his saloon singer daughter. There’s some penny pinching going on (a couple of major plot events occur off camera and are merely discussed), the print is pretty muddy, but all in all the most entertaining Roy Rogers film so far in the megapack.
A two six-gun salute.
#42 Judge Priest
Stepin Fetchit and Hattie MacDaniel’s career choices were and continue to be sources of controversy. I’ll leave it to others to pass a final verdict. I will say the characters they played here, in combination with the film’s own false claim of tolerance, its deliberate deception about the origins and nature of the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as its patronizing attitude, make this movie virtually unwatchable today. A lousy print and it’s not even really a Western: It’s set in Kentucky in 1890.
#43 The Grand Duel
Starring: Lee Van Cleef
A solid, entertaining, and typically weird spaghetti Western. Lee Van Cleef, playing yet another variant on Col. Mortimer, is a sheriff trying to bring in a falsely accused man and find the real killer despite the efforts of an army of bounty hunters to claim the reward. Some good action scenes bordering on the loopiness of Hong Kong movies. A faded but watchable pan & scan TV transfer provides a fun ride.
Un saluto di pistola.
Starring: Jack Palance, Bud Spencer
A delirious mess of a movie, not making a lick of sense but still filled with amusing bits, clever scenes, and oddball characters. Jack Palance is a gunslinger / pimp [!] with a traveling bordello [!!] who is tracking down Bud Spencer (best known as Bambino in the Trinity movies) to force him to do the right thing by marrying Palance’s sister [!!!]. It’s as nutty as it sounds, but unlike other films (looking at you, Gone With The West and China 9, Liberty 37) it’s entertaining and with some genuinely funny moments (at one point vigilantes threaten to lynch Spencer “from the nearest tree” and Spencer’s slow take on the endless expanse of treeless desert is priceless). Sub-par video transfer doesn’t distract from the fun. It’s a little jarring that much of the finale takes place at Claudia Cardinale’s desert domicile from Once Upon A Time In The West, but hey, gotta re-use those sets.
A dubbed in six-gun salute.
#45 Abilene Town
A sturdy, entertaining post-war Western, far more nuanced and complex than most examples of the genre, and a good print on top of that! No cut & dried / black or white simplistic morality here: Scott plays a town marshal who has to walk the fine line between keeping Abilene open for free spending cowboys fresh off the trail while protecting the local town folk who want to capitalize off the cowboys without actually having to associate with them -- and then Lloyd Bridges moves in with a bunch of homesteaders and upends the community dynamics. As a sign of how much World War Two changed American culture, this film ends with Scott getting bad girl saloon singer Ann Dvorak instead of good girl shopkeeper Rhonda Fleming. Good supporting cast, good script with plenty of humor, and one of the most brutal fight scenes ever filmed. Gary Cooper ripped off Scott’s outfit for High Noon six years later.
A rowdy two six-gun salute.
B-Westerns had lots of juveniles as fans, but for the most part they were aimed at general all-ages audiences. This is an exception, a film aimed very specifically at young boys, inviting them to participate in the make-believe. Tex, Snub, and Horace stumble over a gang of train robbers using a deserted mine as a hide out, so of course they recruit a troop of Boy Scouts camping nearby to help them investigate and bring the evildoers to justice. Low budget even by Grand National standards, the film opens with a lengthy narrated documentary sequence on the Boy Scout movement before actually kicking off the story. That being said, there’s some ingenious low budget film making going on here: They stage a train robbery with five unrelated stock shots and sound effects!
A cap gun salute.
#47 My Pal Trigger
Arguably Roy’s best picture and presented here with a decent print. It’s a much more complicated / convoluted story than is typical for a Roy Rogers movie, but that works in favor of telling the (wholly fictional) story behind Roy Rogers acquiring Trigger. Set in a Never Never Time where Roy is a traveling blacksmith in a covered wagon but crooked casino owners have mid-century modern furniture in their offices, it traces the origin of Trigger from Roy being accused of his sire’s death, Roy’s subsequent flight across several Western states with Lady (his mare now pregnant with Trigger; if this film was as obsessed with human sexuality as it is with equine, it would have been rated X), the death of Trigger’s mom, and eventually the moment of truth when the real killer is brought to justice so Roy and Trigger can ride off happily together. If it sounds sappy, who cares? Roy and Gabby show some previously unrevealed acting chops (I’m not being snarky when I say it’s probably because they could relate better to animals than they could to other actors), the story isn’t something we’ve seen a million times before, there are some good scenes and production values, and it’s Roy Rogers and Trigger.
A rowdy two six-gun salute.
Another one of Roy’s better efforts and with a fairly good print. More comedy oriented than his earlier movies, it marks both his switch from Westerns-with-music to musical-Westerns, and more importantly, his first teaming with Dale Evans. She plays the senorita in question, the older half-sister of teenage Chip (Mary Lee), a runaway girl whom Roy and sidekick Guinn “Big Boy” Williams are accused of kidnapping. Chip’s trying to find the secret treasure her late father hid before Dale’s crooked fiancé gets his hands on it. Of course Roy helps her find the treasure, exposes the baddie, and wins Dale (because thankfully somebody at Republic realized it would be just a tad creepy for him to end up with a teenage girl). The Sons Of The Pioneers, Roy’s backup group, gets to actually participate in the story this time instead of just playing musical accompaniment: They help form several of the posses that go chasing after Roy at various points in the story. Lots of fun; the dialog is kind of weak but the physical comedy and action makes up for it.
A two six-run salute.
Give Republic Studios credit: Once they found the sweet spot for a Roy Rogers’ picture, they kept things fresh by throwing in all sorts of oddball story curves. Here he’s a border inspector helping Sheriff Cookie Bullfincher (Andy Devine) solve a series of murders around a silver mine; the oddball curve is Dale Evans showing up as Lee Madison, an author of Western novels. Complication #1: Roy hates the books. Complication #2: Roy thinks author “Lee” is a male and Dale hides her true identity from him for the bulk of the picture. By this time Roy Rogers movies were openly not taking themselves seriously and tossing in all sorts of in-jokes and oddball characterization: The rough, tough mining foreman obsesses over a pet canary, Bob Nolan (of The Sons Of The Pioneers) packs a “sixteen-shooter”, Andy Devine turns out to be long lost English nobility, and Fred “Snowflake” Toones plays the goofy comedy relief cook in a refreshingly non-stereotypical manner. A good but splicy Truecolor print means everything is in shades of teal and orange, and while some musical numbers and side bits are missing from this edited-down-for-TV-broadcast transfer, for the most part the story remains coherent. Directed on location in Arizona by William Witney, the other half of the powerhouse serial directing team of Witney & English.
A “sixteen-shooter” salute.
Roy Rogers was into meta before meta was cool. Here he’s Roy Rogers (as he tended to be in all his post-WWII movies), star of the world famous Roy Rogers movies (the film opens with a shot of the old Republic Studio lot; many of the stages and buildings are still there only it’s CBS Studio Center now). Taking some well deserved time off, Roy returns to his ranch (actually located in Chatsworth, a short distance away, but depicted as hundreds of miles in the middle of nowhere in the film) where Andy Devine is not playing himself but rather Cookie Bullfincher, the same character he played in Bells Of San Angelo and seven other Roy Rogers Westerns! (In fact, in this movie Devine also plays his identical-but-bearded cousin, Alf Bullfincher!) At some point in the proceedings Trigger gets kidnapped by an exceptionally ruthless band of horsenappers who demand a ransom and Roy has to decide if he’s going to pony up or go all Liam Neeson on them. Of course Roy gets Trigger back and bests the baddies by the end, but before that there’s some stuff that doubtlessly traumatized youngsters into several weeks of nightmares. Good Truecolor print, jumpy edited-for-TV transfer.
A two six-gun salute.