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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Well I learned something today after watching the opening scenes of
this film. Both horse drawn streetcars and black-face minstrel shows
date back to the 1830's, so they were not out of place in this story
that takes place in 1860. I would have sworn both references to be
anachronistic, so on that score I have been educated. Even so, the
black-face presentation seems a little jarring outside of an Al Jolson
type movie, but seeing it in these early pictures helps one understand
how far we've come as a country.
This is one of Gene's earliest movies, and as such he looks astonishingly young. Along with that, the story seems a bit disjointed and the characters seem to lack continuity from one scene to the next. For example, Gene (as Tex Autry) seems genuinely annoyed that he had to save Lettie Morgan (Ann Rutherford) from a runaway wagon in an early scene, but soon after is singing 'Honeymoon Trail' with her to entertain the cavalry troops. Similarly, Gene's reputation as a cavalry scout and guide is sterling, but he's summarily courtmartialed on the say so of renegade Utah Joe (Allan Sears) after trying to stop a fleeing herd of cavalry horses. With a little more exposition, these events could have been developed a bit more believably, but I guess the film makers figured that young audiences of the time could fill in the blanks themselves.
Because it's one of Smiley Burnette's early team ups with Gene, he doesn't seem to have a lot to do here. He only slips into 'Frog' mode a couple of times or three, and with no context to explain why his voice goes low key. Nor does he get to sing solo or play one of those unusual instruments he came up with from time to time in pictures with Gene or Charles Starrett. In fact, Gene actually belts Smiley a good one near the end of the picture during another runaway wagon scene; it seems that Smiley/Frog was going to off himself by blowing up a band of Indians while aboard the wagon loaded with dynamite! Makes you wonder what the writers were thinking about.
So with all that as background, I don't think you'll find this to be one of Gene's better films, but again, it was an early picture and starring role for him. The one hour run time goes by pretty quickly, and it's neatly partitioned for a handful of tunes with Gene leading the way with his Singing Plainsmen.
The opening musical/comedy skit may be a bit much and even downright offense to the modern viewer, but it does provide a historical glimpse of a dead art form, the minstrel show, which evolved into vaudeville and thus found a place in early Hollywood movies. Since the story takes place in 1860, the skit is apropos for the plot of the film. The producer takes the show westward via wagon train and with it many-a showgirl, including a runaway, Lettie Morgan (played with aplomb by beautiful Ann Rutherford, aka Polly Benedict of the Andy Hardy series), whose aunt has just told her that she is not as rich as she thought she was, to ward off an undesirable suitor. The wagon train runs smack into trouble and to the rescue ride Captain Tex Autry, aka Gene Autry, and his band of cavalry buddies, including, of course, the redoubtable Smiley "Frog" Burnette. As Rosanne Rosannadanna would say, from there if it's not one thing, it's another. Tex (Gene) is framed by the bad guy, Utah Joe, played with standout surliness by Allan Sears. And the rest of the movie involves Tex (Gene) and his buddies trying to prove his innocence and Utah Joe's guilt. This includes a rousing shootout between the cavalry and renegade Indians who have been stirred up by Utah Joe. The wagon filled with explosives provides a fitting closing for this action-packed, early Gene Autry entry that most should enjoy. Unfortunately, the songs are not up to Gene Autry standards, even though he and Frog, both talented songwriters, helped pen most of them.
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