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Bad Man of Deadwood (1941)
Joseph Kane called "Action!" and never said "Cut!"
All you need to know: If you have to pick a single movie to introduce someone to B westerns, Bad Man of Deadwood is a good choice.
Bad Man of Deadwood starts off with Roy, Gabby, and the always likable Sally Payne putting on a show with Roy singing a song. They meet the bad guys soon into the story and Roy is shooting it out with the bad guys for the rest of the movie in one gun fight after another. Each shootout fits into the story. Nothing is wasted.
Roy Rogers was a big star, and his movies got extra attention. Bad Man of Deadwood has the look of the perfect cowboy movie in the way scenes are set up and edited together. This one never slows down, hits a lull, or has any filler.
Dental Follies (1937)
Quick Comedy Drill
Dental Follies is short on plot as it really is more of a showcase of contemporary singing, dancing, and comedy talent than an actual story. As competing dentists advertise different attractions to get customers, Pinky Lee wins the customers with the promise of a floor show so great that patients will feel no pain because of their fascination with the show. What we see are quick performances by talented singers and dancers typical of the 1930's. No performer is shown for too long, thus providing a succinct segment of entertainment that does not wear out its welcome. Pinky Lee himself is never truly dominant once his character is introduced, but his antics move the scenes forward. This short was well edited because it never drags or leaves the viewer waiting. Instead we are moved through the dentist's office quickly and laughing the entire time.
Harlem Rides the Range (1939)
Average B Western With Above Average Music
Immediately noticeable in the opening credits was the name Spencer Williams, Jr. This should have been a guarantee of good quality, but Mr. Williams' acting skill was not matched by much of the cast nor was his screenplay as good as it could have been. The premise of the story was standard, and the dialog was at times too simple as if it had been written quickly with intent to fix it later. Some scenes had clever or natural spoken parts along with attempted humor that was consistent with other B westerns. Too often the actors spoke far too simple lines with far too long pauses between lines. Too bad.
Talent as a singer, rodeo champion, or athlete does not always qualify one to attempt acting as many movie cowboys had done. Often it was acceptable as a matter of authentication for the real cowboy to make it as a western movie actor. The same leniency is afforded to singers who make the leap into acting. Herb Jeffries and the Four Tones were definitely capable singers. Acting was not their forte. Sadly, the same is true for much of the cast. Herb Jeffries looked good as he filled the cowboy suit, and his acting was no worse than early Gene Autry entries into motion pictures. Maybe it was a little worse, but it worked for a cowboy movie. As the faithful sidekick, Dusty, Lucius Brooks had a likable presence that paralleled many sidekick performers. Perhaps if there had been more acting opportunities he could have become a better actor.
Musically, this movie had three song performances including the opening credits. It fit the feel of western music while the Four Tones added an Ink Spots style. Mr. Jeffries singing voice put him among the better cowboy singers. Had he wanted to continue to build a larger repertoire in the western music field he would be admired for that work today. We are all lucky that he left movies to work with Duke Ellington.
As Bob Blake, Jeffries is the hero of Harlem Rides The Range while the actual heroism is shared between Blake and Cactus (John Thomas). Blake is the singing cowboy dressed better than everyone else as he investigates a possible crime and pursues the only girl in the movie. Cactus is the vigilant ranch hand who ultimately delivers justice with a gun. While Blake plays the happy cowboy, Cactus plays the determined man of righteous pursuit. Had the two characters been combined the viewer would have seen a character closer to Hopalong Cassidy or Buck Jones.
As a B western, Harlem Rides The Range is an average movie. It is enjoyable, just not outstanding.
The Man from Utah (1934)
Rodeo Racketeers Run Out of Luck!
Even if The Man From Utah looks like a cheap production with its spliced in scenes from a rodeo, it still is a lot of fun to watch. Having been to a rodeo the night before viewing this John Wayne western, the movie was all the more interesting for me. Those old rodeo scenes are exciting because they are real! It is also interesting to compare the calf roping techniques of seventy plus years ago to the way rodeo competitors do it today.
Looking too deep into the story shows its flaws. Flowing with the scenes as they are presented makes viewing easier. What is really missing most is the background of the character, John Weston. We know nothing about him, and for that reason it is odd that the marshal immediately hires him to go undercover at what is suspected to be a fixed rodeo. We know John Wayne is playing a good guy, but when the marshal just says he knew that John Weston is a good guy after having met him minutes before a robbery... that is a bit of a stretch. It is possible that the original story had more depth, but a little more revealing dialog about the character of John Weston would have helped the final product of this movie. At least The Man From Utah was not haphazardly edited together like The Lawless Frontier, leaving some continuity holes to ponder.
If you want to see an outstanding performance by George Hayes before he was to become known as "Windy Halliday" or "Gabby Whitaker" this is a great example. Even if Hayes did not have any more screen time than normal, he had perfected what it took to look good on screen by 1934.
In contrast, John Wayne looked good on screen, but in The Man From Utah he sometimes tripped through some of his lines. Usually this is attributed to Wayne's "delivery." Not this time. That in itself is not a bad thing. The more the an actor looked like a genuine cowboy trying to play one in a movie, the better he was liked. Wayne was working through another quickly made low budget production, and he was always improving. The Man From Utah was another stepping stone in John Wayne's path to greatness.
Taxi Tangle (1931)
Ten Minutes of Fun
Taxi Tangle was made about a year before Jack Benny would begin his historic run as one of radio's biggest stars. Of the six or so characters in this short, every one of them is played to perfection. Jack's lead as an arrogant smooth talker makes one wonder why his film career did not go farther than it did. Instead, fate put Jack Benny in radio where he became its biggest star.
The jokes begin with Bill, the driver of Jack's cab, arguing with a police officer at a traffic light. There is a great turnaround in the dialog that makes the interchange pay off. From there we see Jack seduce the young lady in the cab next to his while traffic is stuck. An entire romance with a beginning, middle, and end is played out for the audience. The absurdity of the story and irony at the end are what makes this short sketch memorable.
The Dawn Rider (1935)
John Wayne was just about there...
The Dawn Rider has all the right elements for a great movie: a love triangle, loyalties between friends and relatives, revenge, right versus wrong, and a strong-willed hero. Packaged into an hour long cowboy package, everything was right for a great movie. As with nearly all B westerns the time and money required to make a great movie were not there.
As John Mason, Wayne never loses focus in his pursuit of his father's killer. At the same time he is oblivious to the yearnings of his best friend's girl, Alice Gordon. Alice is unaware of her brother's criminal doings. Ben McClure is suspicious of Mason when he is around Alice. Rudd Gordon needs to stop Mason before being revealed as a murderer. All the while Yakima Canutt oversees everything as the evil saloon owner.
While the story is very straight forward with no plot twists, every scene works toward the climax. While it may have been the intention of Robert Bradbury to do this, too often a cheap western got bogged down with mindless action scenes. The Dawn Rider holds up very well as a movie that clearly tells its story and gets to the point without losing the viewer.
John Wayne was a strong figure on screen by 1935. His trademark swagger and delivery was still in the making, but he was genuinely the John Wayne of legend by that time. It took another four or five years for Hollywood to notice, though.
Spoilers of the Plains (1951)
Roy Rogers and Rocket Scientists
Even if western fans never tire of recycled western plots, it is always good to see a fresh idea. Roy and his pals are working for an oil company in Spoilers of the Plains with not a single head of cattle in sight for the whole movie. Instead of a fight over oil being the focus, this time the story is about rockets and an experimental guidance system. Of course, Roy finds himself battling thieves who want to steal the experimental parts for unnamed interests. That may not be an entirely new concept for movies, or even westerns, but it made a good change of direction in the Roy Rogers series.
Some things were very different in Spoilers of the Plains from other Roy Rogers movies. Penny Edwards character, Frankie Manning, garners sympathy more than she acts as a romantic interest. It seems that Roy was beaten up more times than in other movies. A story device that is usually irritating is having supporting characters win the hero's battles for him. In this case Bullet comes to Roy's rescue as does Trigger. One time would be good. More than once brings doubt to the hero's ability to defend himself. In the end Roy ends up winning his fight, but even then it is due to a mistake made by the villain, Camwell.
Gordon Jones may not be Roy's best known sidekick, but he was great in every scene. Again, Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage take a backseat in the story, but they provide some excellent music.
William Witney made Spoilers of the Plains an excellent action filled western from beginning to end. Starting with a dangerous fire fighting scene and never letting the momentum of the action die down, there is no shortage of excitement. During the wagon chase at the end several cowboys are jumping from one wagon to the other. Look closely and you will see that one of them missed his jump and fell very close to a wheel. Real men! Real action! This was not a movie made by sissies!
Susanna Pass (1949)
Cattle? Sheep? Nope! This time Roy saves a bunch of fish!
The later Roy Rogers movies tended to have a conservation and education message. In the case of Susanna Pass the plot is built around a feud between two brothers with differing ideas on how a piece of land should be used. One brother wants to use the land for a fish hatchery while the other wants to drain the lake and drill for oil. Roy's movies were strong in their message to carefully manage wildlife for hunting and fishing, and some of what is said in Susanna Pass would easily fit into a short film on raising fish for recreational and commercial fishing.
Russell Masters (Lucien Littlefield) who seeks to make life better for everyone with a fish hatchery. He is joined by Doc Parker (Dale Evans) in his venture. Dale Evans was always feisty toward any villain and usually kept Roy in check whenever he became mischievous. This time around she pulls no punches, literally speaking, because she plays the part of a marine! As far fetched as it may sound for tiny Dale, she is dead serious and no-nonsense in her role.
Newspaperman Martin Masters (Robert Emmett Keane) has to find a way to ruin the fish hatchery and eliminate his brother so that he may take the oil from underneath the lake. He and his hired thugs nearly succeed, but when facing Roy Rogers and a marine the task becomes difficult.
Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage were doing their own western adventures on their radio program, so they certainly were no strangers to acting. While they do get to partake of the action in Susanna Pass, they just do not have the flair of the Sons of the Pioneers. Perhaps it is because they were not as comfortable on screen, or it may be a nostalgia for seeing Roy with his original group.
There is a different feel to the polished production of Roy's last years of B westerns. In some ways it takes away from the "shoot 'em up" aspect that was so much fun, but it establishes a strong sense of right and wrong. Roy was no longer the cowboy who did good deeds; he had a purpose that was made clear to everyone.
Southward Ho (1939)
Roy Rogers' career as a leading man had been going for less than two years when he teamed with his soon-to-be friend and mentor George "Gabby" Hayes. The pairing was perfect. Roy summed up all that had come before him in the way of cowboy stars. Gabby would set the high mark for what a sidekick should be, mostly because of his superb abilities as an actor.
The story begins with Roy and Gabby serving in the Confederate army as they encounter a small group of Union troops under the leadership of Colonel Denbigh, played by Wade Boteler. Gabby and Colonel Denbigh exchange words before Gabby and Roy return to their own camp. Back at camp Gabby tells Roy about his inheritance of half a cattle ranch in Texas, and the two make plans for their new life as ranchers after the war. Upon arriving in Texas Gabby soon finds out that the person who owns the other half of his ranch is none other than the Union colonel with whom he had eluded during the war is his partner. The colonel also happens to have a beautiful daughter named Ellen, played by Mary Hart. As Gabby tangles with the colonel, Roy pursues Ellen.
The bad guys are Yankees! Or, at least they appear to be Yankees. Colonel Denbigh has been put in charge of restoring order during the era known as Reconstruction. Having been instructed that a detail of soldiers would arrive to help enforce laws and aid in tax collection, he does not suspect that the soldiers that arrive are all crooked men who were thrown out of the Army. As the outlaw gang operates under the guise of enforcing the law, Roy must find a way to help the ranchers that are being robbed and defeat the crooks. Of course he does it with great charm and lots of excitement.
Southward Ho is an excellent movie from the Roy Rogers series of western movies. The movie does not rely on too much singing and romance. Instead it moves along nicely with the plot getting thicker and the action getting better. This one is definitely a must-see!
Fighting hero of the west on a motorcycle!
There is a simple irony that the lead character travels everywhere on a motorcycle, yet the story revolves around horses. The Vigilante: Fighting Hero of the West is based on one of DC Comics' lesser known, but interesting characters. In the comics and the serial Greg Sanders was a singing cowboy, but there is only one real singing cowboy song when Ralph Byrd performs "Saturday Night In San Antone" during the first chapter. There is much more music in the night club that shows up many times, and Ramsay Ames' singing is by far one of the highlights of this serial. Later chapters do present more western action, but there is no more western music.
I wish this had been a Republic serial because at times it seems to drag a little. The mandatory fights scenes take place often enough, but they lack the "oomph" that Republic was able to add to every serial. A mistake that cannot be missed is the two visits to the blacksmith's shop. It is trashed the first time, but totally rebuilt the second time. The clue for which everyone searches cannot be found in the first visit, but is totally visible and accessible in the second visit. This is too obvious to be forgivable. Experienced viewers may guess the identity of X-1 early on, but the build up to the villain's unmasking is part of the fun.
Although I have a problem with the continuity there are a lot of positives for The Vigilante. The plot was a combination of the best Gene Autry westerns and the many secret agent serials of its time. Mystery surrounds the stolen horses and the meaning of "100 tears of blood." Arabs, gangsters, cowboys, and secret agents are enough to hold my attention. Anything with Lyle Talbot is worth watching, too.