I have always liked b-westerns, even though the plots are generally predictable, the characters one-dimensional, and technique fairly crude. However, they have a cool 'aesthetic,' especially in the early rustic talkies of the 1930s that is appealing. In this sense, they can be as evocative as the pulp magazine covers of the same era.
The movies are historically interesting in that they are one of the precursors of the serialized TV show (along with radio drama and movie serial), often following a single character/star through a series of formulaic genre stories. In fact, the early TV western is essentially a half-hour version of the earlier b-western.
As with my spaghetti western list, my ratings are genre-relative. To compare "Phantom Thunderbolt" with "Citizen Kane" or "The Red Desert" along a single scale is silly . . . though this is how most critics seem to rate films. I think most non-critics rate movies based on how much they enjoy them . . . which makes a lot of sense. However, this means that things that are unfamiliar may be rated more harshly than familiar types of movies. Most people are not familiar with silent films or Bollywood which means that they don't enjoy the movie because it is strange to them, not that it isn't a good or interesting movie. The oldest b-westerns were made almost 100 years ago, making them somewhat strange and unfamiliar.
I think about rating a movie differently: Given the expectations of the genre's audiences, how does each film stack up to the others? So if I give "Tombstone Canyon" an 8 rating it means that this is a great and successful example of a b-western. A 5 indicates a fairly average film while ratings lower than 5 are given to films that are remarkable in their badness.
I will be updating the list as I go, so check back in a few weeks!
In the 18th entry of Monogram's 24 "Range Buster" films, the bank of Gila Springs is robbed by Ace Alton and his gang... (55 mins.)
“ Standard Range Rider b-western for a presumably juvenile audience. These movies were all in the 3 Mesquiteers mold and are fairly entertaining, if unsurprising and mindlessly following the established formula. Does have the bizarre touch of a series of scenes involving ventriloquism.
B-Western Rating Scale: 5 of 10 ” - rmahaney4
In Old Santa Fe
Kentucky loses his horse in a rigged horse race and gets framed for the murder of a stagecoach driver. (64 mins.)
A cowboy called The Thunderbolt Kid comes to the aid of a town that is being threatened by outlaws who don't want a railroad to go through the town. (63 mins.)
The Whispering Skull
A mysterious night rider, who wears a mask and rides a horse that makes no hoof-beat sounds, has been terrorizing the countryside... (56 mins.)
Custer's Last Stand
When some men are attacked by Indians, a survivor obtains an Indian medicine arrow. An Indian tells... (328 mins.)
Maynard hears the cry of the weird masked "phantom" of Tombstone Canyon. The plot thickens when Maynard discovers a man with a key to his past has been murdered by the phantom. (62 mins.)
“ Cool Ken Maynard movie. The 'texture' of the movie is perfect b-western including the crusty actors, early-talkie technology, sets and staging, and costumes. There are some fun shots of characters moving ominously toward the camera or seen at a distance through binoculars. B-westerns really don't get much better than this one.
Basically, Ken's returns to his birthplace to discover the secret of his birthright. He becomes entangled in feud between the crooked crew of the Lazy S ranch and the mysterious black-clad figure called the Phantom who is killing them off one after the other.
The locations, especially "Tombstone Canyon" are incredible. The opening to the movie is evocative and fun. Gothic or pulp touches like the mysterious Shadow-like Phantom character are cool in this rugged landscape. Interestingly, 3 years before director Alan James helmed another movie called The Phantom (1931). Like many b-western directors, he had deep roots in the silent era.
B-Western Rating Scale: 8 of 10 ” - rmahaney4
The San Antonio Kid
Red Ryder tries to expose murderous crooks who are terrorizing ranchers into selling their land because they contain secret, oil rich deposits. (59 mins.)
“ Standard Red Ryder b-western from the late 1940s when the genre was increasingly focused on an audience of children. It is cool to see how they attempted to capture the feel of the newspaper comic strip, especially in the opening when Red Ryder and Little Beaver emerge from the pages of huge book. For the most part this movie is anonymous, but there is a cool fist-fight in a flaming cavern.
B-Western Rating Scale: 5 of 10 ” - rmahaney4
Rancher Reynolds has fired his men and hired killers and is now using a crooked land deal to put the other ranchers off their land. Calico finds the reason why when he runs into his old nemesis Porter. (56 mins.)
“ IMDB commenters have been a little too-harsh in their judgements about this movie. It really isn't that bad. It is a bit leisurely, but that fits its unusual and effective use of close-ups that emphasizes the realistic, rustic character actors. Johnny Mack Brown is good as the reasonable man trying to mediate between parties in a gathering crisis. Altogether, the movie has enough of the early 1930s b-western texture to make it satisfying enough . . .
. . . until the ineffective last 15 or minutes of the films, which are filled with a lot of pointless scenes of riders racing around the landscape. The movie never really builds to a showdown, which makes it ultimately fall a little flat.
B-Western Scale: 6 of 10 ” - rmahaney4
The Montana Kid
A cowboy whose friend has been swindled out of his ranch and then murdered must take care of the man's son, then he goes after the killers. (60 mins.)
“ Good Bob Custer western. The costuming is terrible in this movie, the acting unusually poor, and some aspects of the plot are incredibly sappy. However, when the hero turns to crime in order to correct a wrong the movie become much more interesting.
B-Western Scale: 6.5 of 10 ” - rmahaney4
When Colt kills the men that murdered his father, he escapes his pursuers and joins Wolf and his outlaw gang... (58 mins.)
Kincade and Blake cause a mail plane carrying a payroll to make a forced landing in the desert. When they try to get the money... (59 mins.)
Jet Cosgrave returns home to claim the ranch that was stolen from him, after his father's death. (90 mins.)
Riders of the West
Corrupt businessman Mason and larcenous banker Miller combine to rustle the cattle and foreclose on the mortgages of local ranchers to gain control of the valley. but the undercover Riders thwart their plans. (58 mins.)
“ Solid b-western in the Three Mesquiteers mold, this time with the Rough Riders. By this time, the programmer was pretty streamlined and this one hits its beats without distractions. However, the streamlined programmers of the 1940s and 50s are, to my taste, less satisfying than those of the 1930s, which had a more rustic feel and which were still aimed at adults as well as children. 5 of 10 B western scale. ” - rmahaney4
Son of the Renegade
In a throw-back to the worse of the 1930's indie westerns, Red River Johnny gathers his friends (most... (56 mins.)
“ This inept b-western has gotten a lot of attention due to its many connection to Ed Wood, but this was not the reason I was interested. Director Reg Browne also directed many episodes of the western TV series 26 Men. His episodes on that show are solid, with some dynamic direction. However, this was his first project and it is pretty amateur...a so-bad-its-good type of experience. 2 of 10 B western scale ” - rmahaney4
A trail guide leading a wagon train to the West in the 1840s discovers that the U.S. and Mexico are at war. (68 mins.)
Under Texas Skies
Three cowboys try to stop a crook from defrauding an orphan girl out of her money. (57 mins.)
The Stranger from Arizona
Buck and Skeeter have been sent to investigate cattle rustling. Posing as cowhands they take jobs on... (55 mins.)
Ellen has the contract for the South West Stage Line through the panhandle. Her father had the run for years and Haney... (57 mins.)
Jesse James, Jr.
The telegraph is coming to Sundown and Martin, Carson, and the crooked Sheriff are out to stop it. But Johnny Barrett is there to help bring it in and he is assisted by the bicycle riding Pop Sawyer. (56 mins.)
Silver City Kid
Molybdenum deposits can make a man rich, but Stoner finds that the deposits run under the Clayton Ranch... (55 mins.)
Winds of the Wasteland
The arrival of the telegraph put Pony Express riders like John Blair and his pal Smoky out of work. A race will decide whether they or stageline owner Drake get the government mail contract. (54 mins.)
“ One of the best western programmers made by Wayne in 1930s, with real humor, fun characters, some great stagecoach driving, and a fun plot. It is more detailed than most b-westerns. 9 of 10 B Western scale ” - rmahaney4
Sent to investigate a payroll robbery, Marshall Rocky meets his old friends Ken, Eddie, and Max. He... (57 mins.)
“ Ken Maynard's last western, made after leaving the Monogram Trail Blazers series, is pretty mediocre. Most of the screen time is filled with a medicine show or Eddie Dean singing, with little action and an unimaginative plot. The action-filled finale is pretty poorly done. Maynard career went out with a whimper, not a bang. 3 of 10 B western scale. ” - rmahaney4
Skinner and his gang are grabbing land from the ranchers. When they go after Kerry's ranch Ken stops them... (61 mins.)
“ Average Ken Maynard programmer, probably made later in one his KBS/World Wide series. There are a few nice touches, but for the most part there is nothing special in this b-western. 5 of 10 B Western scale. ” - rmahaney4
Marshal Reb Russell (Reb Russell
), working for the Cattleman's Pretectice Association, is sent into... (57 mins.)
“ Ex-football star Reb Russell is not that great at delivering his lines this poverty row oater. However, there is a good gunfight in a saloon and a few funny moments, so this may be worthwhile for b-western fans. 5 of 10 B western scale. ” - rmahaney4
The Grey Vulture
Fired from his job for shirking his duties, the 'Knight of the Plains' Bart Miller stumbles across a... (58 mins.)
“ Funny, enjoyable Ken Maynard silent western about a day dreaming cowboy. Reminds me of Don Quixote. Action is well done and the plot is brisk. 8 of 10 B Western Scale ” - rmahaney4
Cattleman Flint cuts off farmer Sims' water supply. When Sims' son Ted goes for water, one of Flint's men kills him. Cheyenne is sent to finish off Sims, but finding the family at the newly dug grave, he changes sides. (57 mins.)
The Night Rider
Officer John Brown is after the outlaw known as the Night Rider. Posing as Jim Blake he takes a job on the Rogers ranch... (72 mins.)
“ Late Harrey Carey b-western shot for Supreme Features. The actors are fun, but most of the production is a bit slap-dash ... except for a few nicely staged shots. Overall, a decent programmer. The caped villain and secret passages are a nice touch. Not a lot of action ... Carey was an old man by the time this film came out. ” - rmahaney4
Just after Kramer goes to Wyoming to start his protection racket, cowboy actor Jeff Carson finishes a picture and goes camping... (64 mins.)
“ I usually don't enjoy b-westerns set in the (then) contemporary world, but this George O'Brien movie was a fun surprise. The main characters are a b-western star and a Hollywood scriptwriter on a hunting trip after shooting on a film wraps up. They make an unusual, goofy pair of heroes. The story itself combines features of late-30s life like organized crime, a labor strike, movie culture, and aerial acrobatics ... all in a western setting. There is a great sequence in which an airplane stampedes a herd of cattle ... very enjoyable. This movie gets an 8 of 10 on a b-western rating scale. ” - rmahaney4
Wolves of the Range
Dorn is after the rancher's land and is trying to stop Banker Brady from helping them. When his man Hammond kills Brady... (60 mins.)
“ Barebones PRC programmer with Bob Livingston. Not too much to distinguish this from other b-westerns except for a plot complication involving the lead's amnesia. ” - rmahaney4