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One of my favorite Gene Autry films is 1939's "South of the Border."
The title song around which the film was based was one of Gene's best.
It was actually written by Michael Carr and Jimmy Kennedy two men from
the United Kingdom who had never set foot in the Americas. Yet there is
beauty in its simplicity and melody. Plus it makes the listener think
of exotic Mexico with its Spanish missions, Native American cultures,
and pretty senoritas dancing. "South of the Border" was also successful
at the box office. And Gene's recording of the title song was a best
seller. "Down Mexico Way" two years later with some of the same actors
hoped to repeat the success of "South of the Border." Gene even sang
the title song once more. Alas, "Down Mexico Way" is not nearly as
One weakness of "Down Mexico Way" is the story. Even though written by one of the same writers, Dorrell McGowan, it is not much of a story. It seems a crew of scam artists purporting to be big-time Hollywood producers are fleecing naive locals out of their savings, then moving on. After fleecing Gene and his friends the charlatans feeling the heat cross the border into Mexico to join partners in the same scam there. Gene and Frog try to head them off. One of the intended victims happens to have a beautiful daughter who catches Gene's eye. Not too much happens until near the end when there is a wild chase involving motorcycles with sidecars, a getaway automobile, and men on horseback, including Gene who does some outlandish riding on Champion including some daredevil leaping which ends with a fisticuffs in the backseat of a runaway car.
Another weakness is the unfunny shenanigans of Harold Huber who plays Pancho Grande, sort of a Mexican Frog Millhouse, as if Frog's humor wasn't lame enough already. Too bad the talented actor Duncan Renaldo (The Cisco Kid) wasn't given a larger role. He is wasted in a bit part toward the end of the movie.
There are a few notables in the cast. One is Sidney Blackmer as one of the bad guys. This distinguished actor is now best remembered for his role as Roman Castevet in "Rosemary's Baby" toward the end of his career. The character actor Joe Sawyer plays one of the heavies. The viewer will remember his face if not his name. And future singing cowboy star and country music songwriter Eddie Dean can be seen briefly as one of the barbecue guests.
The music is good even though there are no songs written by Frog who was a much better songwriter and musician than he was a clown. Gene even sings the old standard "Beer Barrel Polka," cleaned up for the kids to "Role Out The Barrel." There are three Spanish-flavored songs included, the enchanting "Maria Elena," which is also the name of the pretty senorita, "Guadalajara," and "A Gay Ranchero."
Though this is not one of Gene's best, his many fans should still enjoy it.
This Gene Autry film was the first to use Faye McKenzie as Gene's leading lady, and she was excellent as Marie Elaina. Gene also was dashing as the movie's hero and the perfect gentleman. This movie included Smiley Burnette as Gene's usual side kick and Harold Huber as the duo's guide. You would not want to miss that comical combination. Another notable member of the cast is Duncan Renaldo who has a small role in this movie. He was also in other Gene Autry films and was later known for his role as the Cisco Kid. Last of all, the music in the movie was stunning. The title song "Down Mexico Way" was written by Michael Carr and Joseph Kennedy the same song writers that wrote "South of the Border" which is also sung in the movie. All around an excellent movie that no Gene Autry fan should miss.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The only other time I ever heard a polka in a Western I would have bet
that it was the only time it ever happened. That was 1951's Charles
Starrett/Durango Kid programmer, "Snake River Desperadoes". So I guess
that leaves Smiley Burnette with the unique distinction of having
appeared in the only two Westerns to feature a polka, but knowing that
lightning struck twice, I'll have to keep my eyes open for perhaps one
more. The tune featured here by the way, was the Beer Barrel Polka,
more easily identified as that Roll Out The Barrel song.
This is one Gene Autry flick that I would like to have seen in color had the technology been more readily available and affordable at the time. There are a number of scenes featuring lively Mexican dance and costumes to go with a fair amount of pageantry. That would have been a nice backdrop for the title song, performed a couple of times throughout the story by Gene.
One of the things that distinguishes the film from most B oaters has to do with the plot, as it has nothing to do with your traditional evil town boss attempting to cheat local ranchers out of their land rights, water rights, or mineral deposits. The bad guys in this one attempt to bilk the citizens of Sage City out of a collected sum of thirty five thousand dollars as an investment in a big time Hollywood picture. Joe Sawyer and partner Murray Alper (looking a lot like a young Don Rickles) even go so far as to name the celebrity the phony studio has hired to star in the picture - John Wayne! That caught me off guard a bit, as Wayne's only memorable film to that point would have been 1939's "Stagecoach", most of his other work was in similar B Westerns like Autry.
Also unusual here is that Gene is given two sidekicks, Smiley and Harold Huber doing a gimmick as their Mexican guide, Pancho Grande. In hindsight, it would have made more sense to give that role to Duncan Renaldo, who appeared later in the story as Pancho's friend in San Ramon. Speaking of Pancho, keep an eye on that scene when one of the bad guys takes a gunshot at him, knocking his hat off. Pancho's horse was standing directly behind Pancho and he didn't get hit!
Gene and his partners make the save for the citizens of Sage City of course, following a Keystone Kop style chase through the Mexican highlands. Champion deserves a lot of credit for his work in this picture, he does some tremendous downhill footwork maintaining his balance while on the chase after the bad guys. I hope he got a little bonus in his feedbag for this one.
Also helping Gene out in the story was Fay McKenzie as a pretty senorita who provided the romantic interest. Her help was needed to set up the villains, as her father was also on the hook for a pile of pesos in the crooked movie scam.
The plot of Gene Autry's 49th (out of 94) film revolves around that old
"The Producers" gag in which suckers are fleeced by con men who are
purporting to make a money-making movie. The robbers flee to Mexico, so
naturally Gene and Frog follow suit.
At least this development give Gene a chance to sing his hit number, "South of the Border", early on in the piece. And this outing certainly proves a must-see for fans of Harold Huber (at his hammiest worst) and vivacious Fay McKenzie (whom Autry said on his "Melody Ranch" TV program was here making her movie debut. Not strictly true, although all her many previous parts were no more than bits. Gene also made a big point of the fact that Billy Gilbert was her uncle).
In other respects, the movie is extremely well produced. In fact production values are exceptionally lavish by "B" standards, with lots of colorfully-dressed extras running around strikingly designed sets, followed by a really extended action climax, packed full of picturesque shots of riders against stand-out natural backgrounds.
We are also treated to some thrilling stunts, although some are marred by obvious process screen effects. Particularly disconcerting is a manifestly fake climactic shot in which Gene is supposed to jump off a cliff into the back seat of a speeding convertible!
Perhaps it's just as well there's no action at all for the first half-hour, although we are handed a fair amount of stylish local color, including a fast track of Gene and his lady love strolling through the local markets and an even larger slice of ho-hum comic tomfoolery with Smiley Burnett playing stooge to the egregious Senor Huber.
I usually limit my B westerns comments to Hopalong Cassidy films, but I watched this one right after I watched "Wide Open Town" (which was not a great Hoppy film, but still far superior to this film). None of the B westerns are known for a high degree of realism, but a certain degree of realism could have been easily achieved in this film (as well as other Autrey films, Roy Rogers films, etc.) without hurting the plot or the enjoyment of the movie. In one scene, Gene asks the Mexican police (who are riding motorcycles) how he could catch up with the baddies, who have a head-start in a car. The police tell him about a shortcut through the hills. Gene then takes off aboard Champion, leading the police in the chase! He doesn't even know exactly where the shortcut is, yet he (on a horse no less), outdistances police who are familiar with the shortcut & are riding motorcycles, amazing! He ends up jumping from a 20 foot high boulder into a car speeding along a road at 40 miles per hour, & of course lands right in the back seat without so much as a bump or a scratch. Superman has no advantages over this cowboy! When I was a kid, I just knew I liked Hoppy better than Gene or Roy, but couldn't explain why. Ironically, despite the lack of realism, this is probably the best Gene Autrey film I've seen, so if Gene's a favorite of yours, this is a relatively good one. I rate it 5/10.
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