Melody Ranch (1940)
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During Frontier Days celebration in Torpedo, Arizona, Gene Autry has been named honorary sheriff and he accepts the town's invitation to bring his radio show there. Torpedo looks like an 1895 western town, except that it is electrified, has pay telephone and radio, and a few automobiles. The trolley line is electrified, a plausible setting for the period. Folks wear a combination of western and eastern clothing, and there are 1930-style majorettes in the welcoming parade. A thrilling stagecoach race is featured, and there is a spectacular crash where a stagecoach crashes into the horse water trough while turning a corner; the stunt man (Yakima Canutt?) did a nice job of jumping in time and not getting killed. That scene has been used in other western movies.
Torpedo is mostly run by the uncultivated Wildhack Brothers (Jasper, Mack, and Bud). As the school adjoins the active saloon (to say the least), classrooms are often disrupted by loud noise, rowdiness, and discharged firearms. When the Wildhacks disturb the class in the presence of Gene and Pop Laramie (Gabby Hayes), charges are brought against them. A judge dismisses the charges. A funny scene is Cornelius playing the role of defendant and lawyer, resulting in a fine of $25. Nevertheless, Gene exposes the brothers' shenanigans on his radio broadcast. As the Wildhacks attempt to stop the show, there is a fist fight. Although outnumbered Gene holds his own fighting two Wildhacks (Jasper and Bud), Jasper (Joe Sawyer) clubs him over the head from behind and knocks him out. (Mack – Barton Maclane – is passive, wears business clothing, and does not engage in the fist fighting.) Nevertheless Pop says that Gene lost because he is out of shape and needs toughening up on his spread, called Melody Ranch. Gene agrees, and begins his routine of rising at 5:00 AM and working the ranch. Later Gene gets his revenge when he fights Bud (Horace MacMahon) and Jasper Wildhack individually on Pop's Torpedo trolley and wins. Cornelius calls the rounds. Now the humiliated Wildhacks are forced to sing on Gene's radio show, and they do not do a bad job. During an earlier show Ann Miller did a routine that showed off her shapely dancing legs. Originally scorning Gene, Julie begins to take a liking to him.
Meanwhile Gene decides to runs for sheriff against the corrupt Barstow, backed by the Wildhack political bloc. "A vote for Gene Autry is a vote for clean government." The bad guys try to keep out the honest faction by erecting a barricade across the main street, near the town hall. Understanding that the days of the "Wild West" are over, Mack instructs the shooters to aim high so as to avoid bloodshed (Just "scare 'em until the polls close at 7:00 PM!"). But Bud, who has already killed one of Gene's friends, aims low with intent on shooting directly at Gene's assembled relief force. Noting that the trolley track is perpendicular to the barricade (and town hall), Gene singlehandedly boards the trolley, operates it, and smashes into the barricade. Jasper Wildhack rallies his desperadoes who retreat into the town hall and shoot a stream of hot lead at the posse. But Gene sends the trolley crashing into the building, ending the Wildhack dominance of Torpedo. Cornelius helps round up the bad guys.
Of all of Gene Autry's movies, this film is deemed by The American Film Institute to be worthy of permanent movie preservation. While some viewers may feel that there are several better and more action packed Autry films, this one is worth seeing. It has better production values than the typical Gene Autry western. The back-up casting is fine all-around. Jimmy Durante, already a well-known comedian and movie actor, had his own TV show in the 1950s. Ann Miller and Gabby Hayes also made their marks in the entertainment world. Even the bad guys (Joe Sawyer, Barton Maclane, Horace MacMahon) do their best to be appropriately mean. So stake your claim on Melody Ranch!
The plot is typical of a AUTRY film. Set in a West that is a cross-breed of 1890 and 1940. GENE needs to promote his Radio career, bring 'law and order' to a town gone wrong and win the girl. This is effectively done in 84" which is rather longer then the typical Republic 'oater' of the time. The interesting thing is while GENE and the rest act like this is part of the 'Old West', MacLANE, SAWYER and McMAHON perform as if they are working with CAGNEY in N.Y.C. circa 1936 at the WB.
The better AUTRY's as well as the ROY ROGERS films are generally a good watch most coming in at a IMDb Six******Stars. They are entertaining and both Stars will easily transition to the new medium Television. Not surprising, since Republic's economy and speed of production was well suited as a training ground for T.V.
This round up of talent features: Ann Miller, Jimmy Durante, Horace McMahon and 'Gabby' Hayes as Pop Laramie and Barbara Jo Allen as 'Vera Vague'.
Instead, it's basically tongue-in-cheek. Check out bad guys Sawyer and McMahon doing a duet that's really rather charming. Or the little spoof of shoot-outs when a heedless Allen chatters her way through a supposed hail of bullets. Or a Western town named, of all things, "Torpedo". At the same time, the movie does have its moments—the great gabby Hayes and a charismatic little Mary Lee, or the trolley car rolling oddly through the desert, or an amazingly accomplished 17-year old Ann Miller. Still and all, I could have used a lot more Gene and a lot less Jimmy.
I got the biggest kick though out of Durante, playing up his persona as the 'man who knowses noses'. I couldn't quite figure out what the whole idea of the Nose Posse was all about, but with Durante you don't have to. He'll just misdirect you with his lively patter, like the hilarious cross examination of himself during the courtroom scene.
Aside from your standard round the campfire songs, this picture also offered some lively alternative entertainment, like Ann Miller's energetic tap dance routine and the surprising duet by two thirds of the Wildhack Brothers - Sawyer (Jasper) and Horace McMahon (Bud) in a duet of 'Go Back to the City Again'. It actually sounded pretty good to my tin ear.
Unusually lengthy for an Autry flick at eighty four minutes, it would have been interesting if Republic got through the entire thing without resorting to the shoot 'em up action at the finale. But that's what the matinée fans turned out to see back in the Forties, and on that score they weren't disappointed. I'm wondering though, did they ever get around to counting the final votes?
The only neative is the screenplay by Jack Moffitt, F. Hugh Herbet (norelation to the comic character actor), Bradford Ropes and Betty Burbridge: It's got a little too much comic corn.
The film boasts an unusually strong cast,including Gabby Hayes, Gene's love interest Ann Miller (who never ever looked more stunning - she's a total knockout here at age 17), bad guy Barton MacLane, and Jerome Cowan (a year before Mary Astor bumps him off when he played Bogie's Sam Spade partner Miles Archer near the beginning of "The Maltese Falcon").
Serving as Gene's back-up band...Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys! The fella who gets the lion's share of the corny jokes is that wonderful legend, Jimmy Durante. His role is similar to his Banjo in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" four years later, in 1944.
I absolutely love the two-reel B film "Oater" westerns of the '30 & '40s and the western TV series of the '50s. This one comes close to being included among them but the high corn factor keeps it off the list. But Ann Miller is really great to look at here.