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Blue Canadian Rockies (1952)
Two Jim Bridger's
A change of settings - at least story-wise - makes this Gene Autry entry interesting to watch. Though actually shot at Big Bear Lake, California, the scenery looks Canadian to some degree although the mountains are a bit low. Gene and comical sidekick Pat Buttram (Rawhide), are sent northward to check on the boss' daughter, Sandra Higbee (played by Arkansas' own Gail Davis, TV's "Annie Oakley), who has opened a dude ranch must to the chagrin of the local lumber jacks. Gene and Rawhide uncover more than just a feud between the lumber company and the dude ranch and must find the real culprit behind the shady goings-on. There is a hilarious fisticuffs among Gene, Rawhide and two lumberjacks, played by veteran character actors, Gene Roth and John Merton, when Gene and Rawhide first arrive at the dude ranch, that's not to be missed.
Another gal from Arkansas, Carolina Cotton, gets to strut her stuff and even sings two songs she composed, "Yodel, Yodel, Yodel" and "Lovin Ducky Daddy," showcasing her talents as an early rockabilly performer. But, alas, this was her final film. Gene gets to croon the Eddy Arnold standard, "Anytime," and performs the title tune written by the legendary songwriter, Cindy Walker. The Cass County Boys are in good form singing a modernized version of the authentic trail driving folksong, "The Old Chishom Trail." Gene joins them in "Mama Don't Allow No Music," one of the "Honey Babe" variations that permits each member of the band to show off his musical talents on different instruments.
This was one of the last films Gene would make (he made only six more), but it still holds up well and Pat Buttram is always a treat to watch. There's a funny skit in this one when he and the boss show up at a masquerade party unknowingly wearing similar Jim Bridger outfits including a skunk-skin cap and a fake beard.
Pack Train (1953)
One of Gene's Last Movies Is Sadly At Best Routine
One of Gene's final Saturday matinée outings (his big screen tenure would end with "Last of the Pony Riders" later that year) before he devoted his time to his TV shows and other business activities to make him one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood. Sadly, "Pack Train" is at best a routine low budget oater. Even the action sequences, except for the last one which takes place aboard a speeding locomotive, are poorly edited and often the topography of the bad guys shooting at Gene is different from the topography of the Gene returning their fire. The story is meager, the humor lame, and even the music is sparse. The three songs are not bad being written by Gene and gifted songwriter Smiley Brunette. "God's Little Candle," by Gene and Smiley is pleasing and the harmony easy on the ears. Novelty tunes were Smiley's forte and "Hominy and Grits" as performed by Smiley is light-hearted and fun to hear. The other one, "Wagon Train," is lackluster but passable.
One plus for the film is seeing Gene, Smiley, and Gene's new leading lady from Arkansas, Gail Davis, together. Pat Buttram's wife, Sheila Ryan, makes a believable lady outlaw whose in collusion with veteran character actor, Kenne Duncan. Tom London who plays Gail Davis' father in the film is always a treat for western fans. In a change of roles, Harry Lauter plays a good bad guy who because Gene spares his life sells out his boss so Gene can nab him. And then there's always Champion, who often upstaged the human actors.
The plot centers around a group of settlers sponsored by Gene who are in dire need of supplies or face starvation and disease. The only supplies in town are controlled by the crooks who attempt to cheat the new arrivals. For a change the title of the movie actually describes the story as Smiley uses a pack train to get the supplies where needed.
I would recommend this shoot-em-up for Gene's multitude of fans who are interesting in seeing his last three westerns. His TV shows of 1953 are actually better made. Other viewers beware.
Gene & Smiley, Postal Inspectors
This action-filled western has Gene playing a postal inspector investigating a gang empire headed by the nefarious Big Jim Lassiter (veteran character actor, Thurston Hall) who help finance their operations by robbing the mail stage. Gene poses as a robber known as the Whirlwind because he moves surreptitiously across the prairie like a dust devil. Gene hooks up with a fellow undercover postal inspector who turns out to be Smiley Burnette. It's a treat for fans to see the two together in the twilight years of the Saturday matinée cowboys. The romantic duties are performed this time around by the captivating lady from Arkansas and TV's Annie Oakley, Gail Davis, playing Elaine Lassiter, niece of Big Jim, who took her in following the mysterious death of her father, Big Jim's brother. In the process of getting the goods on Big Jim, Gene and Smiley tangle with some of the toughest of the budget western badmen including the likes of the unflappable Dick Curtis who was also adept at slapstick comedy. Playing henchman Lon Kramer, Dick and Smiley have a grand old time, especially in their first encounter where Smiley whips Lon and his buddies in a fisticuffs filled with belly laughs. Harry Harvey as the crooked sheriff, Harry Lauter as a shyster attorney, and a bevy of bad guys, including Bud Osborne and Kenne Duncan, make for a delightful outing. Stan Jones, who wrote the title song, has a bit part. A talented singer/songwriter and member of the classic Sons of the Pioneers, Stan is today best remembered for penning the oft-recorded "Ghost Riders in the Sky." Also in the music department, Gene and Smiley harmonize beautifully on the novelty ditty "Twiddle O'Twill," co-written by Gene with help from Fred Rose who is credited with discovering Hank Williams Sr.
A note of interest, Gene shows off his skill as a telegrapher, a job he was doing in Oklahoma when discovered by Will Rogers.
On Top of Old Smoky (1953)
On Top of Action
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.
Home on the Prairie (1939)
Watch for the Elephant
There's plenty of action including a scene where Gene & Champion try to catch a speeding locomotive in this entertaining oater. As expected, Smiley "Frog" Burnette is along for a few belly laughs but unfortunately doesn't get to show off his musical talents much, mainly just observing Gene (one time throwing him a guitar) and a group called the Sherven Brothers Rodeoliers, sort of a budget Hoosier Hot Shots. Frog does have a novelty tune at the beginning called "There's Nothing Like Work," which is fun. The romantic interest is provided by the lovely June Storey as Martha Wheeler whose father's ranch stands to lose a lot of money if the herd has to be destroyed because of the hoof and mouth disease. Gene and Smiley are government inspectors who report finding a diseased animal to the main official who drives out to check out the story. In reality, the Belnap ranch (Belnap is played with just the right amount of insidiousness by Walter Miller)has in reality the only infected herd, but Belnap is in collusion with the equally sinister H. R. Shelby (Gordon Hart). Both villains are determined to put the blame on Gene, Smiley, and the Wheeler herd. Gene loses his job and spends the remainder of the film trying to prove himself innocent and the villains guilty. There is still enough time for a few musical outings, none up to the usual Gene Autry standards, but a few pleasing to the ears, the standout being one written by Gene called "I'm Gonna Round Up My Blues." With two of the best songwriters around why didn't Republic let Gene and Smiley compose more songs for their films? An added attraction is Earle Hodgins playing a film-flam man as only he could do.
Oh, I forgot to mention, an elephant plays a key role in the plot. And where's the prairie?
Git Along Little Dogies (1937)
Romance, Fun, Music, & Action
This is a fun-filled romp for Gene and Smiley, and there's plenty of action to go along with the shenanigans. Gene & his leading lady, Judith Allen (Doris Maxwell), are a good match with a seemingly love-hate relationship that naturally ends in love. In the meantime, Gene and Judith keep the audience guessing as to what next crazy trick one will play on the other. Smiley is along to provide the juvenile comedy. This outing he also provides some fine music, showing off his versatility by playing both the piano and the accordion (his favored musical instrument). Smiley "Frog" Burnette was also adept at inventing musical contraptions. This time around it's the Maple City Boys who play on some of these concoctions. Smiley provides one of the songs, "Honey Bringing Honey To You," a clever play on words, written by Frog. Though mostly traditional music from the time period (using authentic western music was mainly the reserve of Tex Ritter in those days), the soundtrack is a winner. "Git Along Little Dogies," the title of the movie (Gene often used song names - usually his latest hit - for his film titles) is a true song of the cattle drive and has several variations. The one Gene, Frog, and the Mape City Boys sing during the opening credits is the standard version.
The story has Gene at first promoting the cattlemen's water rights over the oil company's rights to drill, which is polluting the streams where the cows drink. Influenced by his attraction to Judith, who has a radio station above a Chinese restaurant (yes, that's right) that is sponsored by the oil company, and by a new revelation, Gene begins to have second thoughts.
The Chinese restaurant is run by Sing Low (Willie Fong)who steals part of the show from Frog, especially when Sing Low sings high his version of "Git Along Little Dogie," with a Chinese "Woopie Tie Ya Yo." Gene even sings "China, My Chinatown," at least a sliver of it.
Added attractions are The Cabin Kids, sort of a precursor do-wop harmony group, and a song and dance from Gladys and Will Ahern. The "Stock Selling Song (We're the Boys From the Circle A)" by the Maple City Boys may be a bit much, but does foreshadow later musical innovations such as the opening number in "The Music Man." This oater has romance, fun, music, and action. Who could ask for anything more?
The Singing Vagabond (1935)
Action Packed Oater That Should Please Gene Autry Fans
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.
The Lone Prairie (1942)
Don't Call Me Stranger
One of Hoppy's old sidekicks, Russell "Lucky" Hayden, rode tall in the saddle...and he could really ride, one of the best in the west. Following his success playing Lucky Jenkins in 27 Hopalong Cassidy oaters, Lucky was lucky enough to land his own series at Columbia during the war years, 1942-1944. These proved to be action-packed horse-opera fodder that entertained young and old alike.
Dub "Cannonball" Taylor as the comic relief was, as always, a hoot and in "The Lone Prairie" is given some clever lines. When the stagecoach carrying money for rancher Jeff Halliday is attacked by outlaws at the beginning of the film, Cannonball holds a shaky gun on two of the robbers. His warning to them, "The way I'm aiming, I kin kill both of you at once." And when Lucky, who with Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, capture the robbers, killing one of them, calls Cannonball "stranger," he retorts, "Don't call me stranger. My name is Cannonball." Too bad Cannonball doesn't get to play his xylophone in this picture. Today, Dub is perhaps best remembered as the backstabbing, abusive father in "Bonnie and Clyde," Ivan Moss.
A special treat are the film's musicians, also playing important roles along side Lucky, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Bob shares some good-natured banter with Lucky in several scenes, especially when Bob tries to "make time" with Lucky's romantic interest, Rancher Halliday's feisty daughter, Joan. Bob and the boys also aid Lucky in rounding up the bad guys. If the paint Bob rides in the show looks familiar to western fans, it's because it was Diablo, later ridden in many a TV-show by Duncan Renaldo as the Cisco Kid. The only let-down for Bob Wills fans is his choice of songs for the film. The opening/closing song is mediocre at best as is the love song in the middle of the movie. The only selection that should please Bob Wills' legion of admirers is the fiddle breakdown done at the dance during the jailbreak. Bob also throws in a follow-up called "Fiddle Man" that's almost up to par. The breakdown is the old standard "Liberty," done with a particular western swing flair by Bob, as only he could do it.
The plot has a few unusual twists to it for a budget western. The bad guys, the inimical John Merton being one of them, want to grab the Halliday ranch because of a railroad coming through - a traditional ploy - but what makes this one different is the bad guys are robbing the stagecoaches carrying mortgage money for Halliday so he can't pay off the lien holder. Even Cannonball, the stranger, plays a role in the land grab. A revenge motive is added when Lucky kills Merton's brother at the first of the story. Determining just who is the boss of the heavies is another interesting sidelight for there is a power struggle going on involving at least two of the henchmen.
It's too bad that Lucky was eventually released by Columbia to make way for Charles Starrett, for his series including "The Lone Prairie" was a winner all the way. As usual for budget westerns, the title has nothing to do with the plot.
Check Your Guns (1948)
Eddie Dean, Town Tamer
In this action-filled budget western, Eddie Dean rides into Red Gap to visit his pal, soapy, who has opened a barber shop and finds his old singing buddies (The Plainsmen) have found ranch jobs near the town. This calls for a song and Eddie was one of the best singing cowboys around and an even better songwriter. He gets to warble three in this film, none of them standouts - Maybe it's because Eddie only wrote one of them and he was a co-composer on it. Leave it to the Hollywood moguls to have others write songs for one of the best songsters of the day.
Soapy was funny-looking, but not very funny, although he did appeal to the kids. Soapy is not as dopey as usual and is actually a help rather than a hindrance to Eddie this go-round.
There is a bevy of cowboy character actors with Stan Jolley leading the pack as the heinous Taggert, the boss of the town...or is he? Bill Fawcett is possibly the most recognizable of the bad guys, this time playing a corrupt judge in collusion with Taggert. Others such as Marshall Reed as a gunslinger have only brief parts but make the most of their short time before the camera. A standout performance is given by henchman Mikel Conrad. One wonders why his film career was so short-lived.
The title actually has to do with the plot for a change. Determined to clean up Red Gap, Eddie becomes sheriff and demands that everyone check his guns while inside the town limits. Those who refuse must pay the price. Cleaning up Red Gap is not as easy as first believed. There are twists and turns along the way that make room for plenty of shoot-outs, gun plays, and one fisticuffs between Eddie and Mikel Conrad (Ace) that actually looks real with Eddie almost being bested by Ace.
The love interest is provided by Nancy Gates as Cathy Jordan, whose father was killed by the Taggert gang and who now wants justice. Nancy was a beauty and does a rousing job at the end of the film helping Eddie sing the closing number.
Even non-Eddie Dean fans should enjoy this one...that is those who like Saturday matinée fodder the way I do.
Law of the Ranger (1937)
Bob Allen Rides Again
Only his ardent fans remember Bob Allen today, and they are becoming fewer all the time, but Bob Allen fit the part of a Saturday matinée hero, even his duds were somewhat outlandish compared with other movie cowboys of the times. Mainly in 1937, Bob Allen made six ranger films for Columbia: "The Unknown Ranger," "Rio Grande Ranger," "Reckless Ranger," "Ranger Courage," "Law of the Ranger" -this one, & "The Ranger Steps In." According to pundits of the genre, Bob Allen's fondest movie memories were of the Ranger series. And it's easy to see why.
"Law of the Ranger" has all the traditional elements of a good budget western. The plot is a typical land-grabbing one with the mustachioed villain (John Merton) obviously enjoying his role. (His dastardly deeds are shown at the beginning of the movie adroitly edited with his image continually popping up to reveal to the audience the lead bad guy.) Bob Allen and his saddle pal, Wally (Hal Taliaferro), must stop the night riders led by Bill Nash (Merton)from taking over a key piece of land for water rights. Along the way, Bob Allen has time for dalliance with the daughter (Elaine Shepard) of the local crusading newspaper editor. All this leads to action aplenty that should please Saturday matinée fans.
Of special note is the appearance of Hal Taliaferro, aka Wally Wales, as Bob Allen's sidekick, not really a comical sidekick in the traditional manner. Wally is more of a buddy in the saddle, but he is a superb actor and handles the part with ease, making it an enjoyable performance. Unfortunately, Hal Taliaferro's acting talents were basically ignored by the Hollywood establishment and he was relegated to playing bit parts (mainly as a bad guy)in budget westerns.
Legendary cowboy character actors appear in the film that all fans will recognize. Tom London, later the sheriff on many-a Gene Autry TV show, plays one of Bill Nash's henchmen. Others include Slim Whitaker, Lane Chandler, & Bud Osborne.
Bob Allen may not have succeeded as a cowboy hero, but his six Columbia ranger oaters are all worth seeing.