A lot of men were drafted during World War II. Roy Rogers was one of them. With a 1-A classification, he expected to be shipped out in the spring of 1945. Consequently, screenwriter John K. Butler (working from a story by Leon Abrams) came up with a script to showcase Rogers’s leading lady, Dale Evans. When V-E Day rolled around, however, the draft board exempted men over the age of 30 who had children, so Rogers never had to serve. Director Frank McDonald’s Sunset in El Dorado ended up starring both “The King of the Cowboys” and “The Queen of the West,” but Evans is still the central figure, and it’s a great showcase for her sunny persona.
The film begins in the present day. Evans plays a young woman named Lucille Wiley, who works for a company called “Worldwide Tours.” In the first scene, Lucille shows a filmstrip that illustrates everything visitors will see on their western tour package. As shots of a ghost town appear on screen, Lucille says, “And this is El Dorado, in its day a roaring boomtown. The Golden Nugget, El Dorado’s most famous, or infamous, fandango hall. In its day, it rivaled the halls in Dodge City or the notorious Barbary Coast. The legendary Kansas Kate was the feature attraction here. And what a colorful attraction she was.”
Although she has a good pitch, and Kansas Kate was Lucille’s grandmother, Lucille has never been west of Hoboken. In a fit of pique, she runs off on one of Worldwide’s tour buses, determined to see the little town of El Dorado. She’s having a grand old time, singing “Go West Young Man” with her fellow passengers (Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers), when her drippy fiancé Cecil Phelps, the president of Worldwide Tours (played by Hardie Albright), and her old-maid aunt Dolly show up to spirit her away. Cecil intends to marry Lucille immediately, in Yuma, but she desperately wants to see El Dorado.
Their car breaks down on the way, and any hope Cecil has of making Lucille his wife pretty much falls off a cliff when Roy Rogers and Trigger ride up to help. He finds Lucille, off on her own, and says to her, “Well, I’ve seen mirages before, but this is the first one that ever talked back. Are you a mirage?”
Trigger tows their car to the nearest town, which happens to be El Dorado. Once there, Lucille explores the remains of the Golden Nugget and discovers a painting of Kansas Kate hanging above the bar. She’s interrupted by an ornery old coot named Gabby (George “Gabby” Hayes) who’s been dropping by the saloon for 40 years to make sure nothing happens to the painting. As Lucille stares at the picture and fantasizes about what her grandmother’s life might have been like, the movie flashes back to the old west, but the narrative continues, as everyone has a counterpart. Evans plays Kansas Kate, Rogers continues to play that character called “Roy Rogers” he played in so many movies, Gabby plays his younger self, and Cecil the drip becomes Cyril the heavy.
The plot moves at a brisk pace, and hinges on the coded map to Gabby’s gold claim being stolen by a group of bandits. Roy suspects that Kate was behind the plan, especially since she originally told him she was a schoolteacher, not a saloon owner, in order to impress him.
After Roy slugs it out with the toughest guy in the bar, a heavy named “Buster” (Roy Barcroft), he takes over Buster’s position as Kate’s bodyguard. Apparently his first duty as her bodyguard is to perform “Belle of the El Dorado” with Kate and her backup singers in a fully choreographed number.
The romantic scenes between Rogers and Evans are, as always, sweet and believable. After they take a break from riding together, she asks him, “What I can’t understand is why you took this job in the first place, particularly when you thought I swindled old Gabby out of his gold mine.”
“That’s why I took the job, to find out if you did,” he responds.
“Did you find out yet?” she asks.
“Oh, just a hunch, that’s about all,” he says, chewing on a piece of alfalfa and smiling.
I won’t be giving anything away if I tell you that everything turns out all right for Roy, Dale, Gabby, and Trigger, both in their present-day incarnations and their rootin’ tootin’ old-west versions. The only question I was left with was, since Lucille looks exactly like Kansas Kate, her own grandmother, and Roy looks exactly like the old-west character “Roy Rogers” who presumably married Kate, does that mean that the modern-day Lucille and Roy are actually cousins? Well, probably not, but it couldn’t help but cross my mind.