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

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson

Back to the 1980s in the Longmire story

Coming after The Serpent’s Tooth, the thirteenth episode in the story of Walt Longmire, Wyoming county sheriff, Spirit of Steamboat, (Viking, 2013) is neither a novel nor a short story (the saga hitherto has been told in nine novels and three short stories). Author Craig Johnson says that it started out as a short story but outgrew that form, not, however, reaching the status of full-blown novel. It’s a novella.
Episode 13
It’s an aviation story, and a return to the time when Walt had just become sheriff. Wife Martha is still alive and daughter Cady just a child. Walt’s predecessor Lucian Connolly is more active than in the later books, though still legless. Lucian was apparently a pilot in the Second World War and flew bombers over Japan. Now (Christmas Eve 1988) there is a little Japanese girl who has suffered terrible burns and she needs to get to hospital in Denver urgently. But there’s a humdinger of a storm moving rapidly down from Canada and emergency helicopters can’t fly. In fact nothing can, except maybe a geriatric B25 that had been used by General Eisenhower. And that was exactly the aircraft that Lucian used to fly.

Steamboat was a Wyoming bucking bronc at the turn of the 20th century, a horse that couldn’t be ridden, and it is an appropriate name for an airplane which will lurch and twist in the high winds all the way down into Colorado. Steamboat’s story didn’t end well, though: the horse fell victim to blood poisoning caused by some old barbed wire and the poor beast was shot with a rifle. The airplane named for him fares slightly better.
Gary Holt on Steamboat, Laramie, 1903
The doc, Isaac Bloomfield, goes along to nurse the child and he performs heroically on the flight to keep the girl alive. The patient’s Japanese grandmother is also there. Walt is needed up in the cockpit to pump a handle to keep the hydraulic pressure up but has to crawl back now and then to act as nurse to the surgeon.

As with all Longmire stories, there is an Old West tinge to it despite the modern setting. The eccentric (and bibulous) Lucian is described and Johnson says “Slim Pickens as pilot. We were doomed.” The gun that was used to put down Steamboat, we are told, once belonged to Tom Horn. When the doc has no surgical equipment and must improvise, he says he is going to “get western”.

Well, there’s much danger and excitement before they reach Denver and Lucian gets there on a wing and a prayer.
A B25
There are occasional infelicities of style. Mr. Johnson is one of those who believes that off is not adequate as a preposition but must have an of added to it: “…some wiseacre had hung an old keychain of the state emblem off of the yellow escape hatch…” We also get, “I wondered at the turn of the fates that would put a hurt Japanese child in such a beast like Steamboat”. These are exceptions. Generally, the English is sound and the style literate.
Craig Johnson. Nice hat.
Like all the Longmire stories, this one is enjoyable. It can pretty well be read in a sitting, or two anyway. Next in the series came Any Other Name, a full novel, in 2014, which we will read another day.

So long for now, e-pards.


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

True Grit: A Further Adventure (Paramount TV, 1978)

Rooster rides again

Made-for-TV Westerns in the 1970s were not often very good. It was pre-Lonesome Dove and major big-budget miniseries were still to come. Studios with TV company spin-offs thought they could get viewers by cheaply remaking some classics from their back catalogue, with minor stars. True Grit got the treatment in 1978.

The 1968 novel by Charles Portis was so splendid and the 1969 movie with John Wayne so fine that it was inevitable that a TV version in the 1970s would be doomed to derision. And indeed, reviews have been pretty well universally bad. Even John Wayne’s own big-screen attempt at a sequel in 1975, Rooster Cogburn, had none of the magic of the novel or the ’69 film, and a small-screen treatment a couple of years later wasn’t going to fare better.

The TV version had an indifferent director in Richard T Heffron, and writer Canadian Sandor Stern was no Marguerite Roberts – and he hadn’t even the original novel to adapt, for two of the characters (Rooster and Mattie) are the only link. And a major weakness of the TV movie was Lisa Pelikan as Mattie. It wasn’t so much her age (she was 24, playing a sixteen-year-old girl) for after all Kim Darby had been 22 (and a mother) when she played the teenager in 1969. Nor was it Ms. Pelikan’s part, for screenwriter Stern had made an attempt at Portis-ish dialogue for her. It was her delivery. She spoke the words unconvincingly, sometimes gobbled and too often shouted. Furthermore, she had pure 1970s hair of a Farrah Fawcett Charlie’s Angels kind and 70s cosmetics to match.
Warren as Rooster but a poor Mattie
Still and all, despite all these obvious failings, I will say that Warren Oates was pretty damn good as Rooster. He has a Jeff Bridges look about him and I wonder if Mr. Bridges had taken him as a model almost more than he did Wayne when he was Rooster in the Coen brothers’ True Grit in 2010.
Bridges as Rooster, 2010
It was actually Oates’s last Western. He’d been a mainstay of TV oaters since 1958 and of course was taken up by Sam Peckinpah. By 1978 he was still only fifty but then the ‘real’ Rooster was only in his forties; it was only John Wayne that makes us think of him as an older man. Anyway, bearded Oates does a good job in this TV version and makes a memorable cantankerous curmudgeon.

Both big-screen True Grits benefited from fine locations and cinematography and while this TV one was certainly not in the Lucien Ballard class, it was shot around Buckskin Joe in Colorado, by Stevan Larner of Badlands and Twilight Zone fame (this and another TV movie were his only Westerns). There’s nice snowy scenery, and South Pass City (the story is set in Wyoming) looks pretty good.

There’s a rancher (Lee Meriwether, rather too glam and soft-complexioned to be a Wyoming widow living a life of hardship) who has three young sons who want to fly the nest (James Stephens, Jeff Osterhage, Lee Montgomery, all OK, I guess). Reuben takes them under his wing, reluctantly, as they sign on to guard a gold shipment from bandits. That’s pretty well the plot. Mattie (who has both arms in working order) tags along, annoyingly. Rooster is supposed to be escorting her to her grandfather in California because her mother has now died and she is an orphan but Rooster has gambled away the money Lawyer Daggett had given him for the purpose and so he needs a job.

The title was pretty dumb. True grit is a quality and it can’t have a further adventure. There’s a bridge in South Pass City that looks very like the one Keith Carradine got shot off in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. One of the outlaws is named Henry Bast but his wanted poster reads Henery Bast. Rooster has a pepperbox derringer which comes in handy. There’s a cabin and an ultimatum lifted from 1969.

Well, well, people have been dismissive of this movie, and with some justification, but it isn’t as bad as all that and if it comes on, you could watch it.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Lawless Valley (Willis Kent/Progressive Pictures, 1934)

The poor man's Coop

He was born at the turn of the twentieth century and brought up on a ranch near Helena, Montana, where he learned roping and riding. As a youth he had a job driving a tourist bus in Yellowstone National Park. Tall and rangy, and handsome too, with a deep drawl, he started stunting and as an extra in silent Westerns in Hollywood, then Paramount noticed him and groomed him for stardom. Sound familiar? You may well think I am writing about Gary Cooper, but I am in fact talking about Lane Chandler.
Vaguely Gary Cooperish
Chandler, born 1899, died 1972, was, for a brief moment, a cowboy star. But his career followed the opposite path to Coop’s: he never really made the transition from silents to talkies, and he had to take ever-smaller roles until he was reduced to uncredited bit parts and, later, TV. Sad, really, because in many ways he had what it takes.

Willis Kent was an independent producer who made cheap silent and talkie Westerns in the 1930s. He often used as director JP McGowan, one of those who could churn out low-grade pictures on time and under budget without caring too much if they were any good (mostly they weren’t). By 1930 Lane Chandler was reduced to working for Kent and McGowan (at least he had top billing; he would have further to fall). He made six Westerns in 1932 and five in ’33. Lawless Valley (which would be remade by RKO in 1938 with George O’Brien in the lead) was a 1934 effort.
JP McGowan
McGowan directed it and also appeared as the chief heavy (an economical measure). The story tells of a young Texas lawman (Chandler) hired by a stockmen’s association and come north, to Wyoming perhaps (it is not specified) to track down the notorious rustler El Lobo (McGowan) who heads up a gang of cut-throats in a canyon guarded by a narrow pass.

The direction was poor and the pace very uneven. Scenes of rustlers driving cattle go on far too long and key action moments are rushed. Continuity and editing were very weak. Of course it was the early 1930s and acting was pretty wooden and false by modern standards. The Oliver Drake script was just as wooden – at one point McGowan announces that they must chase the hero. “We’ll head him off at the pass!” he yells. Yup, it’s that corny.

Still, for early 30s B-Western corn, it isn’t that bad. Chandler isn’t Coop but in certain lights he looks a little like him and his voice isn’t a million miles away. (Chandler appeared in a couple of early Cooper Westerns so maybe he learned something). He was athletic and good at scrambling over rocks and so forth. He has rather silly dude chaps but they all did then. He has one of those tiresome clever horses, Raven, that comes when he whistles and unties his master, freeing him from the tree where he had been bound and left by the cruel-hearted villain.
Good opening shot of the hero
Big Mike, aka El Lobo, is a tough boss but strangely democratic, leaving every significant decision to a vote by his henchmen. This tendency leads to his downfall when said henchpersons elect stocky and unshaven thug Bull Lemoyne (Dick Cramer, rather good by 1930s standards) to replace him. There’s a Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader moment when (spoiler alert) it transpires that El Lobo is the hero’s dad. Father and son end up fighting the gang together and Mr. Lobo sacrifices himself to save his boy in a way that involves dynamite.

The several fistfights are scrappy inelegant scuffles, as they tended to be in early Westerns, rather than the more balletic (and choreographed) free-swinging punching affairs they became later.

There’s a damsel for the hero to fall for, Rosita (former child actress Gertrude Messinger in cupid’s bow lipstick) and Lane duly does. He is greatly helped by Gertie’s amusing old-timer pop Zeb (Si Jenks) who sides with his daughter and her lover.

Well, all’s well that, as you may imagine, ends well, and Lane gets to ride off into the sunset with Gertie. Sadly, a slowly declining career awaited him over the horizon and who now remembers Lane Chandler? Sic transit gloria mundi occidentali.


Friday, March 25, 2016

Noose for a Gunman (United Artists, 1960)

The original of The Quick Gun

A few weeks ago on this blog I wrote a review of an Audie Murphy Western, The Quick Gun, and a kind reader, Boppa, left a comment to say that The Quick Gun was in fact a remake of a Jim Davis Western of only four years before. I didn’t know that, so I sought out the original and watched it, and can now tell you about Noose for a Gunman.

The Quick Gun was pretty well a straight remake; the story and even some of the dialogue (Robert E Kent and Steve Fisher) are the same. Noose is in black & white while the remake was in color but the original can hold its head up – it is as least as good as the Murphy vehicle in my estimation. There are a few small differences: the hero does not meet up with the bandit leader before hitting town in Noose, and there is no plot device of coming back to reclaim daddy’s farm. Case Britton (Davis) is the gunman rather than Clint Cooper (Murphy) in the Columbia picture. The sheriff is not the hero’s rival for the hand of the fair maid in the first movie. But these are minor tweaks. And the gang boss (Cantrell/Spangler) is played by the excellent heavy Ted de Corsia in both!
Jim is the gunslinger the town wants to hang
In fact as far as the cast goes, I would say honors are even. Davis is the equal of Murphy as the gunman who wants to hang up his irons and settle down with his true love. The part of the ruthless town boss is stronger in Noose and is excellently played by Barton MacLane, Western heavy par excellence, so that gives the edge to Noose, and what’s more, Leo Gordon the Great is his principal henchman, Link Roy, a huge plus. But on the other hand James Best is better as the sheriff in The Quick Gun (Walter Sande in Noose is solid but no more) and the Murphy picture also benefits from good old Frank Ferguson as the heroine’s dad, a figure absent from Noose. But the ally of the hero in Noose is Harry Carey Jr., so you pays your money and you takes your choice. One thing I will say, Merry Anders as the gunman’s intended in The Quick Gun was much superior to Lyn Thomas in Noose; Thomas was a poor actress.
Leo was beaten up in fistfights in pretty well ever Western he was in. In reality, he would have been the one doing the beating up.
Edward L Cahn directed Noose. A former editor (he had worked on the 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front), he knew about pace and building tension. An imperturbable pipe-smoker, he would quietly turn his hand to every genre under the sun, including Westerns, starting with the famous Law and Order of 1932.

De Corsia is Cantrell, brigand chief, and we find many bandits with this moniker or a similar one in Westerns - take for example Walter Pidgeon's Cantrell in Dark Command. This Cantrell is said to be an ex-Confederate guerrilla leader and of course the Western movie model is William Quantrill or Quantrell (1837 – 65). Ted is great, though, and plays the part with gusto – in both movies.
William Quantrill
Afficher l'image d'origine
Ted de Corsia is ex-guerrilla bandit Cantrell
(though the picture is of him as Shanghai Pierce in Gunfight at the OK Corral)
The opening shots of Noose are classic as the notorious gunman rides into town watched fearfully by the townsfolk. The gunman’s brother used to be marshal but was killed by Barton MacLane’s no-good sons, said sons being then dispatched by Jim. It’s a Wyoming setting: Rock Valley is between Casper and Laramie (Rock River is between those two towns today so maybe Rock Valley is that). It was filmed up on the Iverson Ranch in California, though, so it’s not that Wyomingish.
Good gunslinger hero Davis faces off with bad guys Maclane and Gordon
Jim and his lady love, the couple now espoused, set off in a buggy in the final reel, in High Noon style. Jim doesn’t want to be marshal of Rock Valley full time, thank you very much. Well, who can blame him, for the townspeople were pretty mean to him. They kept a noose waiting just for him. But anyway Jim wants to hang up his guns and farm. His wife spent most of the film trying to persuade him not to do what a man’s gotta do, in true Western-movie tradition, though, also High Noonishly, she intervened (with an eight-gauge) to save her fiancé during the three-way Ted/Jim/Leo final gunfight – which is rather good, in fact.
Above him, hanging from the tree, is the eponymous noose
Decidedly, Noose for a Gunman is not the poor relation of this pair of movies and I would recommend either or both to you. I may have been ever so slightly generous with the revolver rating on this one but well, with Leo Gordon and Harry Carey Jr. in it, what you gonna do?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Gallowwalkers (Boundless Pictures, 2012)

OK if you like trash movies

Gallowwalkers starts with a rape and a decapitation, so is not for children or the squeamish. It has a distinctly spaghetti tone to it and is an example of what is fast becoming a genre, twenty-first century post-spaghettis which border on the pastiche (see for example Sukiyaki Western Django or Django Unchained). But it is also a horror movie. We’ve had Cowboys & Aliens: now we get Cowboys & Zombies (horror adepts tell me there is a difference between the undead and zombies but I’m afraid I’m not aware of it). There are also echoes of Mad Maxery. It looks as though it was filmed in Spain, in the best spag tradition, though in fact it was shot in Namibia (in 2006). It was a big-budget affair.
It stars, in his only Western, action-man Wesley Snipes, the sole actor in the cast whose name I knew, as a Clintish taciturn lone gunman. Wesley is nice to his horse so is obviously a goody, as far as goodiness goes in these pictures. In the best spag tradition, he seems to be bent on revenge but he also seems to be cursed by the devil, or someone. Anyone he kills comes back to life, which must be inconvenient for a gunslinger. Snipes occasionally lapses into anachronistic modern urban street-talk, which is off-putting, but generally manages OK.
There are strange red-robed armed clergymen who arrive on a railroad push cart. They have their lips sewn together for some odd reason, though they are able to mutter. Other characters have no skin (though they sometimes borrow other people’s). It’s all rather odd.

There are quotations of Once Upon a Time in the West, especially when Wesley dispatches the three holy gunmen at a railroad halt. 
The movie was directed and co-written by the rather splendidly named Andrew Goth, about whom I know nothing. The direction of Gallowwalkers is patchy, though, and it’s one of those films where you have to pretty well guess what the plot is, and your guess could be as good (or bad) as the next guy’s.

The women are all saucily-dressed, and just sex objects, as they were in spaghetti westerns. It’s unpleasant in that way.
You feel that the second w in the title ought to have been capitalized, even though the words are run together but for me it’s an entertaining illustration of how in English a plural noun becomes singular when used as a pre-positioned adjective, in the same way that you can have scissor-sharpeners or a trouser pocket. The posters used all-caps to get round the issue. But anyway, where was I?

I suppose you could watch this movie, if you are a fan of trash.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Sukiyaki Western Django (First Look International, 2007)

For a Fistful of Yen


Sukiyaki Western Django is a way cool, 21st century spaghetti Western in the Quentin Tarantino mold. In fact Mr. Tarantino seems to be the godfather of the picture and appears in it as the lantern-jawed gunman/narrator in a poncho.
Quentin is MC
The movie is bloody, garish and has a derivative plot, there are stretches of tedium between the over-the-top action, and it has lousy dialogue, so in these respects it is pure spaghetti. But it’s spaghetti (sukiyaki is a Japanese foodstuff in the same way spaghetti is in Italy) in that knowing modern way, with plenty of references for the Western fan to pick up on, a pastiche perhaps, even a parody, or, if you are being generous, a homage.
Eastern Western (or Western Eastern)
It’s yet another Yojimbo story and in a way that is fitting because that theme is archetypal of the spaghetti genre. A lone gunman comes to a town dominated by two criminal gangs and vacillates between the two. Carnage is the inevitable outcome. Of course Sergio Leone got into legal hot water for making A Fistful of Dollars (though I bet he made enough fistfuls to pay off his lawyers) because he did not credit or seek the permission of Akira Kurosawa, who had made the same story, as Yojimbo, in 1961. It was in many ways a ridiculous quarrel (“culture theft”, how absurd) because Kurosawa himself was more than a little influenced by American sources and if you read Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key of 1931 (or see the subsequent film noir) you will see how. The story has flitted back and forth between America, Japan and Italy, and doubtless other countries too, and why should it not?
Hideaki Itô as Clintish gunman with no name
The film was directed and co-written by Takashi Miike, an alumnus of the cranked-out straight-to-video pulp genre in Japan who broke through into trendy mainstream pictures, often containing much violence and sex, and developed what is known as a cult following (code for making trashy as well as entertaining films). Mr. Miike is probably an auteur, heaven help us. He speaks no English yet decided to have his actors (including Tarantino) do the picture in ‘English’, a phonetically rendered screenplay that sounds always bizarre and often unintelligible, perhaps in reference to the shocking dubbing of many Italian Westerns. I was reduced to watching it with subtitles, and as I live in France and dear old Netflix, in its wisdom, only gives me the choice of French subtitles or none, I watched a Japanese film in English with subtitles in French, a slightly odd experience. Still, I needed the subtitles and, I suggest, if you watch this movie you will too (preferably in your own language). It sounds especially weird when the actors use American colloquialisms.
Takashi Miike
The story is either set in a very Japanese-looking Nevada or a very American-West kind of Japan (it was shot in Yamagata, Japan). The characters have samurai swords and 1960s gunbelts and Colts, and they wear robes and dusters, and headbands and Stetsons.
Swords v Colts
There is some use of stylized painted backdrops. A very saturated yellow coloration dominates, perhaps a reference to the lurid colors of 1960s Italian Westerns. ‘Musical’ whistling tells us it’s a spaghetti (as if we hadn’t guessed) and there are those stupid phew-phew noises when they twirl guns or holster them. The two gangs who infest the town are the reds and the whites, and there are several references to the Wars of the Roses in fifteenth-century England. In fact the boss of the reds, Taira no Kiyomori - apparently the characters were named after actual historical figures in the Tale of the Heike - (Koichi Sato) decides that henceforth he will be known as Henry in honor of Henry VI.
There’s a little boy born of a Romeo & Juliet-ish love match between a red and a white. The reds remind us of the gang of thugs in Django and later we see a casket towed in the mud with a cross on it (the rather unJapanese cross symbol is used a lot in the movie, and the cross that finally impales the unfortunate sheriff bears the name Mercedes Zaro, as the one in Django did) – and of course the coffin contains a machine gun. We all know how keen Quentin was on Django (five years later his own tribute, Django Unchained, appeared). Sukiyaki Western Django is as much Corbucci as it is Leone. But there are also geeky references to Rambo and The Quick and the Dead (the hole shot through the middle of a character).
The pusillanimous sheriff
There’s a Japanese degüello played by a lone trumpeter, and the Clintish no-name ‘hero’ (Hideaki Itô) announces that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Mr. Miike has obviously seen a Western or two. The saloon is called Eastwood’s. There’s a dwarf (hope that’s an acceptable word; not sure). One character has a saddle roll of guns like Colonel Mortimer. There’s a Djangoesque cemetery. The red boss wears a protective breastplate. There’s certainly no shortage of spag references. Even more happily, a derringer figures in the last reel, so that put the picture up in my estimation.
 Yüsuku Iseye is leader of the whites
It all ends with Japanese djangly music and we are told that the little boy goes off to Italy when he grows up and becomes Django.

Sukiyaki Western Django is quite fun, even for spaghetti-loathers, and it does repay a watch, if you like gory pastiche. But it does rather labor the point, I think. It’s 121 minutes long and, for me, the joke wore off well before the end.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Stagecoach Kid (RKO, 1949)


Tim Holt’s Westerns for RKO were quite fun. Most were juvenile programmers and as such hardly great art but they had a certain zip about them. Holt had a youthful appearance and a winning smile (as he and his partner Chito run a stageline in Arizona we must assume that the film’s title applies to him). His first appearance in an RKO Western was as the Tonto Kid in The Law West of Tombstone (in which he was second billed after Harry Carey). His first RKO Western lead was as the Fargo Kid in the movie of the same name in 1940. One look at his boyish face will tell you why he got ‘kid’ roles. All through the 1940s the entertaining (if innocuous) Westerns came thick and fast.
Tim Holt
Occasionally he did a more serious film: he worked twice for John Ford, as the young cavalry lieutenant in Stagecoach in 1939 and as Virgil Earp in My Darling Clementine in 1946. Most notably he showed that he could really act in a serious picture when he was Curtin, one of the gold seekers, for John Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948. But he will be mostly remembered for his black & white hour-long second-feature oaters, especially those in which his sidekick was Chito Jose Gonzalez Bustamante Rafferty (Richard Martin), the amorous swain who, however, runs a mile whenever matrimony looms. And indeed, these Westerns are fun.
It probably satisfied the juvenile audience in '49
Sadly, though, Stagecoach Kid was one of the weakest of them. It followed the same plotline as usual, i.e. Tim and Chito foil a skullduggerous plot with much gallopin’ and shootin’, but it seemed to lack the usual get up and go. This may be because the director was Lew Landers. Usually Holt had Edward Killy or Lesley Selander at the helm, both more than competent, but Landers hadn’t got the same ability. He was one of those directors known for churning out programmers on time and on budget without much interest in whether they were any good.
You'd be better off with another in the series
Stagecoach Kid was quite unusual in that at the end Tim got the girl. He didn’t usually. Chito flirted with them but Tim remained chaste. But in the last reel of this one he has Jessie on his arm and married bliss beckons. Jessie was played by Jeff Donnell, who, unlike me, took her first name from 50% of the duo with Mutt in the cartoon strip. Apparently she was besotted with the characters. She specialized in tomboy or bobbysoxer parts and indeed, in Stagecoach Kid she dresses up as a boy (most unconvincingly) and calls herself Jesse James. All the cowpokes around are fooled by the rambunctious youth (they must have been seriously dumb) and it gives Tim the chance to spank her, daringly, which Hollywood loved. Later, though, she is unmasked and changes back to a dress and rides sidesaddle.
A myopic Tim with 'Jesse'
Her dad is a rich businessman from San Francisco (Thurston Hall) who has brought his daughter out to Arizona to a ranch he owns to get her away from an unsuitable suitor. She is a spoiled brat. However, crooked ranch foreman Thatcher (reliable heavy Joe Sawyer) and his henchmen Parnell and Clint (Robert Williams and Robert Bray) have taken over the hacienda and drunk all the whiskey and smoked all the cigars, not to mention sold off the cattle. They want to kill the owner before he arrives and discovers the naughtiness but the henchmen are singularly incompetent and every attempt fails (mostly foiled by Tim & Chito).
Tim and Chito nab a villain
Kenneth MacDonald is the sheriff and Harry Harvey is the clerk of the stageline, so that’s all good. The music is by Paul Sawtell so that’s OK too. But honestly, I wouldn’t bother. Try Guns of Hate instead. Or better still, Rustlers - that one has a derringer in a cake.



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, who also churned out oaters for Monogram. Riders also credits Lindsley Parsons as ‘supervisor’: Parsons, another a Monogram regular, 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, because, well, it's Yak, but nay, he was just a Ranger. Still, it’s Canutt 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 these Westerns the cowboys all wore nineteenth century range duds but the gal always 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 Bradbury’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,