Popular culture loved the Texas Rangers. Not the real ones, of course, just a highly fictionalized, not to say idealized invented version. As early as 1915 Zane Grey published The Lone Star Ranger, dedicated to Ranger Captain John Hughes, about badman Buck Duane who redeems himself with the Rangers. In 1936 Fred MacMurray was badman-turned-Ranger, in Paramount’s The Texas Rangers, a patriotic picture written by director King Vidor and his wife with Louis Stevens, based on a short story by Walter Prescott Webb but with very Zane Grey antecedents.
The early-50s radio Tales of the Texas Rangers starring Joel McCrea was set in the 1930s and there were more ‘Western’ TV series that featured the Rangers, such as the mid-50s CBS juvenile Tales of the Texas Rangers with Willard Parker and the same studio’s slightly more adult late-50s Trackdown with Robert Culp. In the 60s we had NBC’s light-hearted Laredo with Philip Carey. As late as the 1990s we had Chuck Norris as Walker, Texas Ranger. And a new TV series, Texas Rangers, is said to be in development.
Back on the big screen, Paramount made a sequel to the King Vidor picture in 1940, Texas Rangers Ride Again, and in 1949 the Vidor one was remade in color with William Holden as Streets of Laredo. There was the inevitable spaghetti Texas Ranger in 1964. There was a TV movie The Texas Rangers in 1981 and a straight-to-video Texas Rangers in 2001. It seems that the Texas Rangers are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for movie makers.
Not the least of them was Columbia’s 1951 offering, a B-Western really but a lot of fun, The Texas Rangers with George Montgomery as, you’ve guessed it, a badman become Ranger.
It was an Edward and Bernard Small production (though sadly no megalomaniac giant Small logo) and they got old hand Phil Karlson (left) to direct. Karlson had started as a prop boy at Universal and done pretty well every job Hollywood could offer. IMDb tells us that “He made his mark in the 1950s with a series of tough, realistic, violent crime films noted for their gritty location shooting and Karlson's almost fanatic attention to detail”. He only helmed seven Westerns, not a great total. The ‘biggest’ was probably Gunman’s Walk in 1958 with Van Heflin - actually quite a thoughtful picture. But he does a more-than-competent job on this shoot-‘em-up Texas Rangers tale.
George Montgomery (right) was never the most charismatic of actors. His delivery always reminds me of Clayton Moore’s, so I don’t think he was holding his breath much when the Oscars were about to be announced. He'd been tried out as Sam Spade but the plaudits were less than ecstatic, so it was back to the saddle. Still, he did a solid job as Western lead, as various Montgomery oaters we have reviewed on this blog will attest, and this time too he puts his back into the role as Rebel-turned-outlaw who, while serving time in the pen, having been double-crossed by the evil Sundance Kid (Ian MacDonald), is recruited by Ranger Captain John B Jones (John Litel) to serve in the Rangers and track down Sundance and all the rest of the gang of famous outlaws.
Yes, it’s one of those Westerns in which every known baddy is crammed in to the plot, along with a few invented ones. The leader of the bandits is smiling but ruthless Sam Bass (William Bishop) and his Number 2 is John Wesley Hardin (John Dehner), a “gentleman, lawyer and killer”, who is a bank-robber and crook. Thuggish Dave Rudabaugh is there (Douglas Kennedy); in fact he is one of the baddest of the bad men, and is billed as ‘king of the cattle rustlers’. As the snarling Sundance is a gang member, we obviously have to have Butch Cassidy with him (John Doucette). And Jock Mahoney (billed as Jock O’Mahoney) is “Duke Fisher”.
The excellent John Dehner is a rather dudish (but murderous) John Wesley Hardin
All this is set in 1876, which is a bit odd for a Butch/Sundance tale (Butch was ten years old then and Sundance nine) but never mind.
The intensely silly but amusing plot was written by good old Frank Gruber, who bashed out over 200 Westerns from The Kansan in 1943 to White Comanche in 1968.
Montgomery is Johnny Carver, “the fastest gun in Texas”. The young Ranger calling himself Danny Bonner (Jerome Courtland, later to be director of Dynasty but as an actor he would appear with Montgomery in another oater the following year, Cripple Creek) turns out to be Johnny's young brother, and he urges our hero to abandon outlawin’ and ride the straight-and-narrow trail. Johnny’s sidekick is Buff Smith (Noah Beery Jr on a rather fancy palomino), “a good boy in bad company” who gets religion, likes Ranger life and sides with young Danny in his attempts to reform Carver Sr. But Johnny is determined, Ranger oath or not, to get his revenge on that skunk Sundance.
The pards, Johnny, his brother Danny and Buff
John B Jones, by the way, 1834 – 1881, was a real Ranger captain, as you probably know, commander of the Frontier Battalion, as it was called, fighting Comanche, Kiowa and Apache. His force did indeed capture Sam Bass, in 1878. In the movie the Rangers are very advanced for 1876: they already have a telephone.
John B Jones/John Litel
In this story Sam Bass’s gang kills thirty Rangers a month though they never seem to run out and the (unnamed) governor (Charles Trowbridge) tells Jones that if he doesn’t bring Bass and his gang in by the end of the month it will be the end of the Texas Rangers. No pressure then.
Smiling Sam Bass
The real Sam Bass
There has to be a girl, of course. It’s Miss Helen Fenton, publisher of The Waco Star, who is very annoyed at Johnny Carver because her dad was killed in the shoot-out when Johnny was captured (it was Sundance’s slug that did it). Waspish and indeed pompous as she is toward Johnny, you sense that it will be nuptials in the last reel and if you do think that, you won’t be far wrong. Miss Fenton is played by Gale Storm, a Texas beauty who made it big on TV but she had done a few Roy Rogers oaters and had also been Rod Cameron’s love interest in Panhandle and Audie Murphy’s in The Kid from Texas.
George with Gale
You can spot the likes of Trevor Bardette, Paul E Burns, Byron Healey, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan, and several others in the bit parts.
Well, one by one the outlaws (and some of the good guys) are killed off (including Sam Bass, Rudabaugh, Butch and Sundance) or captured (Wes Hardin). It all climaxes with a humdinger of a train robbery (I liked the expressmen playing cards on top of the chest holding a million dollars, one raising the bidding seven cents). The whole thing is utterly preposterous and verging on the lurid but a huge amount of fun.