"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Riders of the Rockies (Grand National, 1937)


Not a Rockie in sight




 
 
I still like Tex Ritter Westerns. Sad, I know. He was a bad actor and not even that good a singer, though OK in an old-fashioned sort of way. His pictures are almost exclusively corny. And yet… they take me back to a happy time when I, along with, I suspect, 99% of my fellow boys, were less demanding and less perceptive, when it wasn’t corn but dash and excitement. Riders of the Rockies is a classic example, fifty-six minutes of fun.

Grand National only existed from 1936 to ’39. Originally designed as a distributor of B movies, like Monogram, it started producing its own. Founder Edward Alperson invented the distinctive clock logo. The studio made a series of cheap Westerns with singing cowboys (and singing cowgirl Dorothy Page). It even made the occasional film in color (‘Hirlicolor’) but Riders of the Rockies wasn’t one of them.

Ritter’s first dozen Westerns were for Grand National (he switched to Monogram in 1938). They had similar plots, pretty well the same crew, and the cast was mighty familiar by the end of the series too. Riders was directed, as many of them were, by RN Bradbury the Great (Bob Steele’s dad), a veteran virtuoso of the B Western. Riders also credits Lindsley Parsons as ‘supervisor’: Parsons was a big fish in the small pond of Poverty Row B Westerns; as writer, director or producer he was involved in 80 oaters, big screen and little, from the John Wayne vehicle Sagebrush Trail in 1933 to the Sonny & Cher epic Western Good Times of 1967. I don’t know what he supervised on Riders of the Rockies. Did he tell Robert Bradbury what to do? I doubt it.
 
RN Bradbury (right) with son Bob Steele
 
We first see Tex riding with his pards, three abreast and singing, obviously – a helpful song which introduces the actors: Tex’s two sidekicks, both comic, are plump Doc (Horace Murphy) and handlebar-mustached Pee-Wee (Snub Pollard – who in later Grand National Westerns of this kind was demoted to bit parts as Al St. John took over sidekicking). Tex is far more dashing than they are in his dudish outfit and on second-billed star White Flash. His Stetson is even whiter and flashier than his horse, though.
 
Fifty-six minutes of fun
 
The three are Arizona Rangers, and Hollywood liked Arizona Rangers, as such pictures as Arizona Rangers with Audie Murphy and The Arizona Ranger with Tim Holt showed. I don’t know why on earth this one was named Riders of the Rockies because it is set on the unrocky Arizona/Mexico border, filmed in Western California and nary a Rockie appears, but never mind. The title has a ring to it (and permits Tex & Co to sing a song about the Rockies in which Rangers rhymes with danger).

The best thing about the picture is that Earl Dwire, my hero, is the chief villain, Jeff. Dwire usually did solid mustached sheriffs in suits but this time he lets rip as head of a gang of rustlers and is splendid in his black hat. Naturally there’s a one-on-one showdown with Tex in the last reel, and no prizes for guessing who wins it, but while bossing the badmen around Earl is excellent. His chief henchman is the unshaven thug Butch Regan (Charles King, jowly villain of countless B Westerns who had started way back on The Birth of a Nation in 1915). Briefly glimpsed as a minor henchman is Hank Worden, already in his eleventh Western – he did several of these Grand National ones with Tex. The gang’s base of operations is a cantina south of the border, filled with Mexicans in straw sombreros and a dancer who shows a daring amount of ankle.
 
Earl Dwire, rustlers' boss
 
Yakima Canutt has an unusually big speaking part as well as doing the stunts. He plays Ranger Sergeant Beef, who takes an instant dislike to Tex and his pals. I was convinced he would turn out to be a badman in cahoots with the rustlers but nay, he was just a Ranger. Still, it’s Yak so he can’t help looking pretty frightening and badguyish. Tex and the Tornadoes sing quite a nice Home on the Range six minutes in but Yak says they sound like coyotes. How rude.
 
Yak Canutt (left), sergeant of Rangers, with his captain (Jack Rockwell)
 
There’s a heroine, of course, Louise (played by Louise Stanley, 15 Westerns 1937 - 44, all B), who first appears in standard 1930s dress on the stagecoach which bandits chase in the first reel and which is saved by the three pards. Why was it that in Westerns the cowboys all wore nineteenth century range duds but the gal wore a contemporary dress? Most odd. Oh well. Louise later takes a job in the cantina as a singer (a pretty awful one in fact) and wears a gown that Carmen Miranda would have thought over-the-top. What on earth this rather proper damsel is doing singing in a ratty saloon south of the border in a tart’s dress is anyone’s guess. I thought she would turn out to be a secret government agent but no, she’s just a bad singer in a worse dress. Never mind.
 
Pretty in her 1930s outfit
 
The rustlers frame Doc and Pee-Wee, who are imprisoned as spies for the rustlers. Most unfair. Tex ‘deserts’ and crosses the border to seek out the cantina and pretend to join the gang, in order to bust up their game and prove his pards innocent. Once in the cantina we see that he has changed his Stetson to a gray one – well, he couldn’t actually wear a black hat, he’s Tex Ritter, but he is pretending to be a badman so he wears a gray one.
 
Tex sings out on the range
 
Tex rescues a captain of Rurales (Martin Garralaga) who becomes his friend for life and it’s the Rurales (goodies) who ride to the rescue at the end, not the Rangers.

There are stampedes with speeded up film. The good thing about these pictures was that you could use stock footage (in more ways than one) from any old silent movie, dub on a few moos and Bob’s your uncle. There’s a fistfight in the cantina between Tex and Butch, also speeded-up. There’s an exciting climax with much shooting and horse chasing. At the end the villains are brought to book (no spoiler here) and Tex and his pals ride off into the sunset, singing, natch. But now they are four – for Louise rides alongside. Alperson’s Grand National clock signals The End, and a good time was had by all, including your e-pal,

Jeff.

 

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