Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Overlooked Films: A Western Trio

Some years back I picked up the entire Great American Western series of public domain Westerns on DVD, including the separate John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry sets issued by the same outfit.

Since then, every time I’ve seen a new, affordable (meaning cheap) collection of Westerns, it’s been a repackaging of those same films. Until now. I recently came across this 50 movie set called The Way West, and near as I can tell, only one of those 50 films - the Roy Rogers oater Hands Across the Border - was already in my possession.

The guy pictured on the cover is Bob Steele, and rightly so, because he stars in eleven of the 50 flicks. Ken Maynard is featured in five, Bill Cody and Tom Tyler in four each, Jack Randall and Tex Ritter in three. Most stars, including some of my favorites like Tim McCoy and Clayton Moore, appear only in one.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist popping in disc 1 (of 12) and checking out the films. Skipping over Hands Across the Border, first up was Bob Steele in Arizona Gunfighter (Republic, 1937). Nothing wrong with this one. Steele hooks up with a bandit leader, who - to the disappointment of his gang - turns out to be sort of a Robin Hood. It took a while to get used to the lack of musical soundtrack, though they did play some dramatic music during the climactic fist fight.

Next comes Tex Ritter in Hittin’ the Trail (Grand National, 1937). Though I still listen to a Tex record now and then, it’s been a while since I’ve seen him on screen. Interesting to compare his looks to that of his son, John Ritter, and grandson, Jason Ritter of The Event. Tex’s sidekick in this one is long, tall, slow-talkin’ Hank Worden (here billed as Heber Snow), who is more familiar for his later roles in The Searchers, McLintock, Red River and The Alamo. Again, no musical soundtrack, but thanks to Tex and his Texas Tornados, The Range Ramblers and The Phelps Brothers, we’re treated to plenty of tunes, including some Western swing. This film just happened to be directed by Bob Steele’s father, R.N. Bradbury.

Finally, we have the Three Mesquite’s (Robert Livingston, Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Max Terhune) in Come On, Cowboys! (Republic, 1937). Finally, a film with a real soundtrack. Made it go down easier. And this one had a lot more humor, including a scene where Tucson dresses up in a gorilla suit to scare a bad buy. This film is set in that magical Old West of 1937. In the beginning, as Tucson, Stony and Lullaby are performing in a circus, we see men in fedoras in the audience. And when the circus owner’s niece comes to town, she arrives on a bus instead of a stage. But from there on in it’s all horses and buckboards and Stetsons and six-guns. Has anyone read the William Colt MacDonald story that introduced these guys? Was it set the real Old West or not?

More Overlooked Films on display at Sweet Freedom!


Todd Mason said...

I haven't read the Mesquite story yet...and I've been perhaps excessively leery of these sets...is the reproduction quality good in the films? I certainly remember how bad public-domain prints of even the likes of PERSONA, much less NIGHTMARE CASTLE, used to be on discount home video (someone made a vest-pocket career of duping from a screen that had a prominent hole in it near the top right corner).

Blogorilla said...

Davy, I'm afraid you're wrong about Tex Ritter being Canadian. When I was in collage in the early 70's my girlfriend's family lived in Carthage Texas. I drove up there a couple of times with her, and remember seeing a roadside commemorating Ritter's birthplace. Wikipedia says "Ritter was born in Murvaul, Texas, the son of James Everett Ritter and Martha Elizabeth Matthews. He grew up on his family's farm in Panola County and attended grade school in Carthage. He attended South Park High School in Beaumont. After graduating with honors, he entered the University of Texas at Austin; he studied pre-law, majoring in government, political science and economics." No mention is made of any time Ritter spent in Canada.

Evan Lewis said...

I stand corrected, Blogorilla, and have removed that line. I have old Tex confused with somebody, and can't figure out who.

Quality varies, Todd. The first two films were in surprisingly good shape, though some of the night scenes are a bit muddy. Come On, Cowboys was OK too, except that the title was missing, and replaced with a still shot of the Mesquiteers. I'm now watching an earlier Bob Steele film, The Law of the West, which flickers a little here and there, and the soundtrack crackles. Doesn't bother me, though. These are films I'll probably want to see only once, and none are exactly John Ford material.

Oscar Case said...

There is no comparison of the films of today with those old one-camera oaters, but they sure excited the folks in my old town, and me, too, even though a lot of it went over my head back then.

Richard Prosch said...

A fortunate find! I got tired of the same two-score lineup and have practically given up on these cheap sets. Where did you find it?

Evan Lewis said...

Got this at Bi-Mart. They also had (I say had) the complete three-season collection of Wanted: Dead or Alive from the same outfit. Also cheap.

Anonymous said...

Quite a few years ago, I read several of the MacDonald Three Mesquiter novels. All were set in the real Old West. I can't remember much else about the stories, except that I enjoyed them.