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Gene often named his movies after popular songs (usually to promote his
recording of the tune). Seldom did the song title have much to do with
the plot of the story. "On Top of Old Smoky" is a traditional American
folk song most likely from the Appalachians that was given a new life
in 1951 by the famous folk group The Weavers, selling over a million
records that year. The catchy call and response rendition received an
added oomph by the tongue-in-cheek interpretation of a young Pete
Seeger. Over a year later, Gene's version came out. At the beginning of
the film, Gene rides the trail alone singing a plaintive version of the
unrequited love ballad. And it's not bad. He even adds a final cowboy
verse making the song apropos to the prairie where a person is unlikely
to find a "mountain all covered with snow."
There are other pleasant songs sung by Gene with help from the Cass County Boys (you've probably heard the voice of one member of the trio without realizing it - Jerry Scoggins sang "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme to long-running (and still re-running)"The Beverly Hillbillies") and Smiley, the best being "I Hang My Head and Cry," co-written by Gene. Smiley does some great harmony with Gene on this one. "If It Wasn't For The Rain" is also a fine ditty.
For a change, Gene plays a phony rather than a real Texas Ranger as a result of a misunderstanding. Seems Gene is with group of singers known as the Rangers (Cass County Boys). Those who see the fake badge think it's real. This leads Gene and Smiley into all kinds of chases, fisticuffs, and shenanigans trying to get evidence against a band of crooks attempting to force Jen Larrabee (Gail Davis) to sell her toll road and station to them because of valuable minerals found on her land. An added oddity in this one is Gene taking Smiley's girlfriend away from him. Usually, Smiley's women were more like female frogs, but this go-around she's the lovely Gail Davis from Arkansas (TV's Annie Oakley). Shelia Ryan has a small role as a small-time thief and showgirl, but she makes every minute before the camera count. The redoubtable Kenne Duncan is around to supply meanness and mayhem.
Though this viewer favors the early Gene Autry Republic westerns, "On Top Of Old Smoky" is a winner and the music is infatuating, especially if you're already a Gene Autry fan.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you've seen enough Gene Autry films you know that the title usually
doesn't have anything to do with the story. It's generally a convenient
backdrop for the opening song, usually with Gene riding Champion into
view for the opening scene. That tradition is maintained here before
the action gets going with Gene, Smiley and the Cass County Boys
helping out pretty Jen Larrabee (Gail Davis), the proprietress of a
toll road on the way in and out of Lone Hill.
The story offers up it's expected plot elements as a couple of town villains scheme to buy out Miss Larrabee's toll station by hook or crook. Jen's father was murdered a year earlier and she's fighting an uphill battle to keep the toll station going as the local ore smelter and freight lines conspire to shut down the operation, basically by refusing to use it. This didn't seem to make a lot of sense to me, as the fifty cent toll to get through wasn't going to break the bank for anyone as far as I could tell. I know, money had a different value back in the days of the Old West, but come on.
The story gets some mileage out of a ruse that Gene perpetuates by impersonating a Texas Ranger after various folks spot the fake Ranger badge he's wearing. It's actually a part of his outfit as a member of a singing group by that name, which is a bit curious too because they're also called the Cass County Boys in the story as well. Smiley Burnette is on hand, and you'll probably wonder as I did why they ever wrote him into the story as Gail Davis's fiancée. There's really no romantic entanglement between the two, nor between Jen and Autry for that matter, even if it's implied here and there. I guess it's just something the film makers felt was necessary for matinée fans of the day.
I was following the story along pretty well until the very end when all of a sudden that huge trestle came out of nowhere engulfed in flames as bad guys Doc Judson (Grandon Rhodes) and McQuaid (Kenne Duncan) made their final play to take over the toll line. What was that all about? At the same time, I couldn't figure out why Smiley just didn't go 'Whoa' to the horses pulling the stagecoach - he could have prevented it from going over the cliff!
I don't want to get too picky here, knowing that these stories were written in a simpler time for a generally young audience. What was actually a pretty cool thing to see was one of those old time, huge circular irons used as a fire alarm early in the picture. My town had one of those on display when I was a kid growing up in the Fifties, but even by then it had already been replaced by a siren. The closest thing to a siren here was Sheila Ryan as an opportunistic saloon gal trying to stay one step ahead of the law.
The matinée western had pretty much migrated to TV by 1953. Certainly,
Gene was getting involved with producing series, such as his own show
and Range Rider (1951-53). But he still managed to pack six
feature-length movies into that year, the last year for his features.
This is one of them.
Nothing special here, except a pretty good script that uses a toll road as a crux. Freight haulers in town want to get hold of the road in order to haul without having to pay a toll, and also to mine the isinglass minerals on the land. They're led in secret by an unlikely eye doctor (Rhodes), while Gene is coming to the rescue of the besieged girl (Davis) operating the toll. One notable aspect is a general absence of gunplay, even for the showdown. At the same time, it looks like the feature was shot in the same locale as the Autry TV series, so he likely worked it in between episodes. Also, catch Sheila Ryan as tough girl Lila, who was married at the time to Gene's other sidekick, Pat Buttram.
All in all, I agree with reviewer krorieGene's best movies were his more elaborately produced early ones. Nonetheless, there is that great Old Smoky tune that topped the charts of 1951.
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