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Monday, April 15, 2013

The Reno Brothers Gang in fact and fiction: Rage at Dawn (RKO, 1955) & Love Me Tender (Fox, 1956)

Those Reno boys

The fact

The Renos of Jackson County, Indiana were the original outlaw gang in the James, Younger and Dalton tradition. They carried out the first three peacetime train robberies and kind of started a Western trend…  Frank, John, Simeon (Sim) and Bill were reprobates in their youth, known for arson, cardsharping and horse stealing. One brother, Clinton, known as 'Honest Clint', took no part in these depredations; nor did the sister Laura.

With local inhabitants fingering lynch ropes, the four brothers thought it safer to remove themselves to the Civil War when it broke out but only Bill actually completed his service for the North. The others were paid to enlist in the Union ranks, deserted and were paid again to enlist, enough times to make money without actually fighting.
Robbing trains

In 1864 Frank was back and he formed a gang with other no-goods which robbed a post office. They were arrested and a gang member agreed to squeal but he was killed (pure coincidence, naturally) and Frank was acquitted. They then robbed and murdered travelers. In 1866 John and Sim held up the Ohio and Mississippi Railway near Seymour, netting $16,000. A passenger stepped forward later, identifying two of the robbers, but when he too was murdered, no one else testified and the Renos got off again.
Frank Reno

However, the robbery brought the Pinkertons in and that eventually was the downfall of the gang.

In 1867 the gang robbed the Treasury of the County Courthouse in Gallatin, Missouri but John Reno was identified, arrested by Pinkertons and served ten years in the State Penitentiary. The other three brothers, along with various accomplices, continued robbing. The gang members were arrested by Pinkertons in Iowa in March 1868 but escaped jail.

A grisly end

In the end, though, in three separate incidents in 1868, a total of ten members of the gang, including Frank, Sim and Bill Reno, were lynched by vigilantes. No one was ever charged with or even investigated for these hangings.

John, behind bars, avoided the grisly fate and lived to write his autobiography in 1879, dying in 1895.

Such were the facts of the Reno Brothers Gang.

They haven’t received the fame that other outlaws such as the James Gang or the Daltons have. I know of no good book on them (though there probably are some) and only a couple of Westerns were made about them: Rage at Dawn (RKO, 1955) and Love Me Tender (Fox, 1956) - see below. You’d think that it would be rich material for Hollywood and that there would have been more movies.

But the gang only operated effectively for about two years. And they weren’t exactly Robin Hoods (none of the gangs was, though some of them pretended to be). They had no favorable press, as Frank and Jesse James did in Missouri, and they were acutely unpopular in their time and in their home state. Maybe it was that, though being nasty types didn't stop Hollywood making other outlaws into heroes.

Rage at Dawn

Randolph Scott made no fewer than four Westerns in 1955 (Ten Wanted Men, Rage at Dawn, Tall Man Riding, A Lawless Street) and it was unsurprising that they weren’t all great classics. Rage at Dawn was probably the most interesting in that it told the story of the Renos.
When a Western movie starts with the first words on screen “This is the true story of…” you pretty well know it’s going to be complete bunk historically. And Rage at Dawn is no exception. In this version of the facts, James Barlow (Scott) is working under cover for the “Peterson” detective agency (Westerns often thinly disguised the name) and inveigles his way into the gang, cunningly trapping them. He has enough time, however, to romance the Renos’ sister Laura (Mala Powers). Randy bravely tries to stop the lynching but is too late.

This was director Tim Whelan’s second oater with Randolph Scott (the other being Badman’s Territory in 1946) but he only did three Westerns altogether and was no specialist. The direction of Rage at Dawn is rather pedestrian although there are some good action scenes.

The screenplay was by Horace McCoy who had done Western Union with Scott in 1941 and went on to do RKO's excellent rodeo picture The Lusty Men. The story was by Frank Gruber, well known for Denver and Rio Grande, Pony Express (therefore perfectly happy to abuse history) and later for creating and writing 71 Shotgun Slade episodes on TV. Despite these credentials, however, the writing of Rage at Dawn is pretty routine.
Forrest as Frank
As far as the acting goes, we have Forrest Tucker as gang leader Frank, who was always a dependable heavy. I always think he looks like a young Gene Hackman. Actually, he was born in Indiana so that was appropriate. J Carrol Naish is Sim, seen in the opening title shots hunched and darting his eyes like some Victorian melodrama villain but then he turns out to be about the best actor among the Reno family. He was, however, 60 and looked it, whereas the real Simeon Reno was 25 when he was hanged. Never mind. Myron Healey is a slightly bland John, and Bill (Richard Garland) is sidelined and doesn’t do much. As for Mala, as the sister, Laura, why is it that in films disreputable and common lowlife outlaws always have such posh sisters? Howard Hughes had taken an interest in Ms. Powers and put her under contract at RKO. She was in quite a lot of lower-budget Westerns.

Denver Pyle is ‘Honest Clint’, the brother who kept to the straight and narrow. Good old Denver. Actually he acts quite well in this. For him.

Denver Pyle was in fact succeeded by Elvis Presley as Clint Reno the following year, when Elvis did Love Me Tender, the other Reno gang Western. People might easily have mixed them up. Denver, Elvis. Elvis, Denver. Who could tell the difference?

The best acting came from the rascally trio of judge, prosecuting attorney and sheriff in the ample shape of Edgar Buchanan, Howard Petrie and Ray Teal, respectively. What an excellent combination! Buchanan was the scoundrel judge; you wouldn’t get better. He was Judge Roy Bean, after all. Howard Petrie (Tom Hendricks in Bend of the River) is splendidly slimy and crooked. Good old Ray Teal (117 Westerns!)  was perfect as the corrupt sheriff. Their parts are the best thing about Rage at Dawn.

Randy does a deal with corrupt Judge Buchanan, Sheriff Teal and Attorney Petrie
Pinkerton (I mean Peterson) hero Scott is backed up by red-haired Kenneth Tobey, who had been in The Gunfighter and Rawhide (the 1951 Fox movie) and was to become a stalwart of TV Westerns all through the 1960s.

The actors supporting Scott were thus strong, which was a good thing because as in To the Last Man, he doesn’t appear till half an hour of the movie has elapsed. You’re beginning to wonder if he is in it after all.
Pinkerton man Randy
The look of the picture is high class. It was shot in Technicolor by Ray Rennahan on location in Columbia State Historic Park, and some of the scenery is really beautiful and very Western.

The Paul Sawtell music is quite nice, too.

Rage at Dawn (which presumably refers to the anger of the lynch mob and the time of day it acted) is a pretty standard Randolph Scott oater for a fading RKO and no great shakes. But he never did a bad one (well, except Belle of the Yukon) and while this may not be of the quality of, say, Ride Lonesome or The Tall T, it’s still worth a watch.

Love Me Tender

Love Me Tender does not start with “This is the true story of…” and a good thing too because that really would have been a claim too far. At least Randolph Scott’s version featured the Reno brothers, Frank, John, Sim and Bill. Love Me Tender is a nominal Reno Brothers picture in that some of the characters bear the surname Reno but in no other regard.
Rotten title for a Western
Probably in deference to Elvis Presley, whose first film this was, the whole story has been transposed to the South. The Reno brothers’ place is in Texas and they all (except Honest Clint, played by Elvis) go off to fight on the Confederate side. Right at the end of the war they rob a train of its Union gold and, hearing then of Lee’s surrender, Capt. Vance Reno (this must be Frank, I suppose), and the rest of the guerrilla band decide to keep the loot.

On returning to the family farm, Vance finds that he had been reported killed and young brother Clint has married Vance’s sweetheart Cathy (Debra Paget, for once not an Indian in a Western). Vance is awfully decent about it and pretends he doesn’t mind but of course Cathy and Vance still love each other so there are going to be ructions. Then the authorities come demanding back the money from the robbed train and the Reno boys are arrested. Vance thinks they should do a deal and give the money back.
Happy to be home: before he discovers that Debra has wed Elvis
Well, this stuff is all very well but what has it to do with the Reno brothers? Even their names have been changed: Clint is there but their brothers are Vance (Richard Egan of Kansas Raiders and These Thousand Hills), Brett (William Campbell of Escape from Fort Bravo and Man Without a Star) and Ray (a pre-Virginian James Drury in only his second Western). There is no sign of sister Laura for anyone to fall in love with and there is an aged Ma Reno, played by Mildred Dunnock (only 54 in fact) who looks alternately bored and bemused by the whole affair (especially when Elvis sings), as well she might, frankly.

The detective tracking the stolen money is a “Mr. Siringo” (Robert Middleton, 13 Western movies and loads of TV shows; I remember him most in A Big Hand for the Little Lady). Could this be the famous Western detective Charlie Siringo, one wonders? If so, what’s he doing in 1865 Texas chasing down the Renos? And why is he such a fat man in his late 40s? Charlie was ten years old then. It’s all very confusing.
It couldn't last...
Neville Brand is good as the Reb fighter who is all for keeping the money and not giving it back. LQ Jones is hidden away in the movie as Pardee Fleming (but blink and you’ll miss him). But of course the attention is focused mostly on Elvis.

Not that the movie was designed as a star vehicle. He only came in later (the role had been slated for Cameron Mitchell) and he only got third billing after Egan and Paget. Elvis turned out to be, perhaps surprisingly, a rather good Western actor and Flaming Star (1960) is an excellent little movie but here he has little to do in the action apart from pose questions such as “What happened?” and “Why?”, and then sing. The Poor Boy he does at the school-raising picnic is hilarious: he does all his pelvic gyrations and there are rows of nineteenth century teeny-boppers squealing with delight. Real authentic, huh.
The Reno boys: back from the war
I won’t describe the ending in the slightly unlikely event that you’ll want to see it but I can reveal they aren’t all lynched by vigilantes.

Direction is by Robert D Webb who did Guns of the Timberland with Alan Ladd but nothing else of note. It is pretty tame.  The movie is written by Robert Buckner, who did a lot of Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn oaters, from a story by Maurice Geraghty (low-budget Westerns dating back to 1935). There’s unspecial photography by Leo Tover of the Fox Ranch and studio locations (in black & white: at least Rage at Dawn the previous year was color), and equally unspecial Lionel Newman music.

Well, I like Elvis, who doesn’t, so I’m not knocking the film on that account but as a Western it’s pretty stodgy fare, the title is rotten and as history, well, forget it.

So that’s it for the Renos. So long, e-pards.


  1. There is only one book about the Reno Brothers gang that I know of, and that is "The Masked Halters" by Edwin J. Boley. Copies are hard to find, though I have found them listed on online bookstores and some libraries have them, though they're not likely to allow them to leave the library. Here is a photo from Amazon.com:


    1. You'd think novels and movies would have picked up on the Renos and made more of them.

  2. Looking very interesting family article.

  3. Not sure if Johnny Reno - Dana Andrews - is family related as he is a US marshall in the 1966 RG Springsteen film of the same name but I hope to read your prose about itbone day. JM