I really like the Red Ryder movies with “Wild” Bill Elliott and Bobby Blake. Sheriff of Redwood Valley is the third one I’ve seen, and watching it after a couple of really bad P.R.C. westerns drove home an opinion I’ve long held; a low budget is no excuse for a bad movie.
I have no idea what the budget was for Sheriff of Redwood Valley, or how it compared with the budgets for contemporaneous P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) westerns starring actors like Buster Crabbe, Bob Steele, and Eddie Dean. Sheriff of Redwood Valley was released by Republic Pictures, which was a more prestigious outfit than the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., so it’s likely the budget was higher, but it’s still clearly a low-budget programmer.
But Republic specialized in low-budget programmers and weekly chapterplays, and made some of the best ones in the history of Hollywood. Most of their stars weren’t great actors, but they were likable and fun to watch. Most of their scripts weren’t brilliantly written, but they were nicely paced and had enough twists and turns to keep you watching. And, like all low-budget productions, they cut corners and used stock footage, but they used it judiciously. Most importantly, their movies had a sense of fun and excitement, and were tailor-made for Saturday matinée viewing down at the local bijou.
It didn’t hurt that Republic employed directors who could put together a watchable movie, like William Witney and John English. The sheer number of pictures directed by Sam Newfield for P.R.C. should tell you something about the studio. (The name “Sam Newfield” isn’t as well-known among connoisseurs of bad movies as “Ed Wood,” but it probably should be.)
All of this is not to say that Republic Pictures never released a bad movie; they released plenty. And P.R.C. distributed a few very good films (including Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, for my money the best film of 1945, and one of the best film noirs of all time). But most Republic films are object lessons in how to make a very entertaining movie in spite of a small budget, actors who aren’t that talented, and a limited shooting schedule.
R.G. Springsteen’s Sheriff of Redwood Valley takes place in 1895. The first shot is of San Quentin at night. A shadowy figure runs along the ramparts and jumps down to safety. We learn from a newspaper headline in the next shot that this man was the notorious stagecoach robber the Reno Kid.
The scene shifts to the Redwood Valley, where the big question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the railroad is going to come through their town. If it does, it will be an economic boon. If it doesn’t, their town just might wither up and die. Red Ryder (Bill Elliott) is presiding over a meeting with town leader Bidwell (James Craven), the sheriff (Tom London), and Red Ryder’s aunt and ranch owner the Duchess (Alice Fleming). The townsfolk have raised the $50,000 necessary to dynamite a tunnel through their mountain and bring the railroad to them, so naturally the best way to deliver it to the right people is to hide it in a cowboy boot and get Red Ryder and the sheriff to transport it in a buckboard.
As you might guess, things go wrong. Red and the sheriff are ambushed, both are badly wounded, and the money is stolen. Circumstantial evidence points to the Reno Kid, but Bidwell and his henchman are actually behind the robbery.
It turns out that the Reno Kid (played by the diminutive cowboy actor Bob Steele, last seen in the P.R.C. cheapie Ambush Trail) isn’t such a bad guy after all. He broke out of prison to see his pretty wife Molly (Peggy Stewart) and their sick child Johnny (John Wayne Wright), and to clear his name.
Red Ryder and the Reno Kid’s paths cross after the robbery, when Red’s adorable, pidgin-English-speaking Indian sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) trusses the injured Red to his horse Thunder and leads him to Molly’s cabin to recover from his wounds. It doesn’t take long for Red to suss out who Reno really is, but he plays it cool in order to apprehend him with a minimum of bloodshed. Eventually, of course, Red realizes that Reno isn’t the villain he’s reputed to be, but it took a lot longer than I was expecting, which added a good amount of suspense to the story.
The Red Ryder series is clearly aimed at kids. Each film begins with an enormous storybook slowly opening, followed by Elliott and Blake stepping out of its pages, Elliott’s guns blazing. (Red Ryder was a long-running character in the Sunday funnies, so it might have made more sense if they’d stepped out of a newspaper, but what the heck? It works.) Also, little Bobby (later Robert) Blake was a veteran of the Our Gang comedy series, and he’s really cute, although to fully enjoy the Red Ryder movies you have to be O.K. with the ridiculous stereotype that Little Beaver is, as well as put out of your mind for a little while the details of Blake’s tragic and violent personal life.
Elliott is fairly stiff as an actor, but I think he’s great in this role, mostly because he acts like someone who’s stiff and plainspoken in real life, not like someone who’s acting that way because he’s a bad actor. His playful relationship with Blake is especially enjoyable to watch. (There’s a running gag in Sheriff of Redwood Valley about Red getting Little Beaver to take medicine and eat food Red finds distasteful.) While the intended audience was kids, I think the Red Ryder series stands up as great B western entertainment for anyone.