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Oregon Trail Scouts (May 5, 1947)

R.G. Springsteen’s Oregon Trail Scouts is an origin story, and tells how cowboy hero Red Ryder (Allan Lane) and his young Indian sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) first met.

If you’re expecting a grand comic book origin story like Batman Begins (2005), don’t bother. The Red Ryder film series is strictly kids’ stuff, and Oregon Trail Scouts is nearly indistinguishable from all the other entries in the series, but that’s not a bad thing. The journeymen at Republic Pictures — both in front of and behind the camera — knew how to craft solid entertainment for the Saturday-matinée crowd.

Oregon Trail Scouts takes place in the early 1890s, when the best spots for trapping along the Snake River were reserved for American Indians. (Because we all know that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal government bent over backwards to give Indians the best stuff.) This leads to various groups of trappers attempting to curry favor with Chief Running Fox (Frank Lackteen), much to the consternation of Red Ryder’s pal Bear Trap (Emmett Lynn), who fondly recalls the good old days when all you needed to do was get an Indian drunk and keep him drunk to get what you wanted … not that he ever did it himself (wink wink). Bear Trap is a western sidekick in the rootin’ tootin’ mold of Fuzzy Q. Jones and Gabby Hayes.

Meanwhile, a group of black hats attempt to get permission to trap beaver on the Willamette River from Running Fox using methods more devious than firewater. Bill Hunter (Roy Barcroft) uses reverse psychology couched in the pidgin English necessary to communicate with American Indians in B westerns. “Me come to bury hatchet,” he says. And when Running Fox doesn’t agree to give Hunter trapping rights, Hunter says, “What’s the matter with you, Running Fox? You heap big chief? Or like old squaw? That Indian agent lead you around by nose.”

Oregon Trail Scouts is packed with action, even by the action-packed standards of Republic westerns. There are shootouts galore, most of them the function of a ridiculously convoluted plot that has Bill Hunter and his henchmen going after their old comrade, the Judge (Earle Hodgins), who now calls himself the Doctor. The Judge ran off years earlier with Hunter’s money and the Indian boy Hunter had kidnapped. Hunter believes that the Indian boy is actually Running Fox’s grandson, and that if he can get him back then Running Fox will give Hunter beaver trapping rights for sure.

Guess who that little Indian boy turns out to be? If you guessed “Little Beaver, the cutest little Indian boy in the west,” you’d be correct. As if he wasn’t adorable enough, he comes equipped with a little canine sidekick named Wolf Dog, who looks like a Scotty mix with nary a bit of wolf in him. As soon as Little Beaver meets Red Ryder, he falls in platonic love with him, and wants to stay with Ryder, Bear Trap, and Ryder’s aunt, the Duchess (Martha Wentworth), forever and ever. Ryder likes the idea, but is circumspect about the prospect of adopting the Indian boy, and tells him, “I like you, too, Little Beaver, but if I don’t take you back, the Great White Father in Washington may get heap mad.”

Don’t you fret, boys and girls. If you’ve seen just one other Red Ryder movie, you know that things will turn out just fine for Red Ryder and Little Beaver, and that Little Beaver will, in his own words, “Make heap good sidekick.”

Vigilantes of Boomtown (Feb. 15, 1947)

I thought Allan Lane’s third go-round as Red Ryder was his best yet, but it could just be because I’m a boxing fan.

Or maybe I’m just getting used to good old “Wild” Bill Elliott no longer playing Fred Harman’s comic-strip cowboy in his inimitable wooden style.

Either way, Vigilantes of Boomtown was a fun way to spend an hour. It begins with a tour of boomtowns, culminating with Carson City, the capital of Nevada. The year is 1897, and a bill legalizing boxing in the state has enraged Molly McVey (Peggy Stewart), the daughter of a U.S. senator. Molly believes that Nevada crawled its way to respectability, and hosting a bloodsport will make the state look like a hotbed of savagery to the rest of the country. She’s so opposed to prizefighting that she plans to hire gunmen to stop the fight if the state legislature goes ahead with its plans.

Red Ryder (Lane) and his English-challenged young sidekick, Little Beaver (Bobby Blake), are drawn into the fracas because Ryder’s aunt, the Duchess (Martha Wentworth), is leasing her ranch out to the fight’s promoters, who plan to hold their bout on St. Patrick’s Day. The combatants are a Cornish blacksmith named Fitzsimmons (John Dehner) and a bank clerk named Corbett (George Tumer).

Corbett (the more likable and handsome of the two fighters) stays with Ryder and the Duchess at their ranch, teaching Ryder a thing or two about the sweet science. When Molly hires a couple of thugs (George Chesebro and George Lloyd) to kidnap Corbett, there’s a bit of mistaken identity, which leads to them carrying off Ryder instead of Corbett, and they stash him in that cave where all bad guys go in Republic westerns. Will Corbett’s boxing lessons stand Ryder in good stead? You’ll just have to watch and find out.

Oh, and at the very end, Corbett’s referred to as “Gentleman Jim,” just in case you hadn’t already put the pieces together.

Humoresque (Dec. 25, 1946)

In a recent NY Times interview with David O. Russell, the director of the Oscar-nominated biopic The Fighter (2010), he compared his star, Mark Wahlberg, to John Garfield. Russell said that — like Garfield — Wahlberg is “always kind of in character, because it’s always him in some way.”

Garfield might seem as unlikely a choice as Wahlberg to play a concert violinist, but Humoresque never tries to pass Garfield off as something he wasn’t. His character, Paul Boray, spends his boyhood in what appears to be New York’s Lower East Side, in an immigrant family that has neither the time nor the money for classical music. (Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where he was enrolled in a school for difficult children.) At a high society party, a tipsy young woman refuses to believe Boray when he tells her he’s a violinist. She pegs him as a prizefighter, and refuses to believe he even knows what end of a violin the music comes out of. “It comes out of the middle,” he responds. (Garfield would, however, play a boxer in his next film, Body and Soul.)

There are plenty of hoary cliches in the early sections of the film. Bobby Blake plays Boray as a child. His immigrant father (J. Carrol Naish) works hard and always has his eye on the bottom line, while his mother (Ruth Nelson) is more sensitive, and grows to believe in Paul’s desire to play music. All of these scenes are pretty laborious.

Perhaps director Jean Negulesco wanted to be explicit about how a rough young man from the slums could become a dedicated concert musician, but all of the scenes of Boray’s childhood are less effective than a short sequence later in the picture in which the adult Boray storms out of a recording studio after being forced to cut a major chunk from a piece for radio time. He returns to his apartment to play alone, and the wildness of his music is reflected in a herky-jerky montage of chaotic city streets and teeming masses of people.

Long stretches of Humoresque are told through music, which is beautifully played by violinist Isaac Stern, but there’s plenty of snappy dialogue, too. When Boray gets in an argument with his friend, accompanist, and mentor Sid Jeffers (played by pianist and wit Oscar Levant), Jeffers tells him, “You’ll do all right. You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated, and the hero of all your dreams.” Boray responds, “You oughta try a few dreams yourself, it might make you less cynical. When I look at you, I know what I want to avoid.” (And to give you an idea of the rapidity of the dialogue in the film, that exchange takes place in less than 12 seconds.)

The plot, such as it is, kick in around the 30-minute mark, when Joan Crawford shows up as Mrs. Helen Wright, a myopic, dipsomaniac socialite with a sharp tongue. Her husband is a cultured, sensitive man, but — by his own admission — very weak, and as soon as Helen takes an interest in Paul and his career, tongues begin to wag.

Garfield and Crawford have great chemistry, and both are good enough actors to give their relationship depth. It’s unclear for a time exactly what each wants from the other, but her alcoholism and his deep-seated anger make for plenty of stormy scenes. At one point, Paul blows up and yells at her, “Well, you didn’t do any of this for me, really. You did it for yourself, the way you buy a racehorse, or build a yacht, or collect paintings. You just added a violin player to your possessions, that’s all.”

In Bosley Crowther’s review of Humoresque in the December 26, 1946, issue of the NY Times, he wrote, “The music, we must say, is splendid — and, if you will only shut your eyes so that you don’t have to watch Mr. Garfield leaning his soulful face against that violin or Miss Crawford violently emoting (‘She’s as complex as a Bach fugue,’ Oscar says), and if you will only shut your ears when folks are talking other such fatuous dialogue, provided by Zachary Gold and Clifford Odets, you may enjoy it very much.”

I love Crowther’s reviews. Maybe if I’d been around when he was writing them I would have resented the stranglehold he had on public perception, but in retrospect they’re fantastically entertaining. I liked Humoresque more than he did, but I don’t disagree with his assessment. One has to take into account his longstanding hatred of Joan Crawford, of course, but by the time the credits rolled I was more moved by the music than by any of the vacuous melodrama.

Stagecoach to Denver (Dec. 23, 1946)

Stagecoach to Denver, Allan Lane’s second outing as Fred Harman’s comic-strip cowboy Red Ryder, isn’t much different from his first. He’s a solid replacement for “Wild” Bill Elliott, but he lacks Elliott’s almost comical woodenness.

The one-hour oater takes place in a town called Elkhorn (which may or may not be in Colorado). As usual, Ryder and his aunt, the Duchess (Martha Wentworth), moved around plenty — most likely to keep the series’ titles fresh. This time around, the Duchess is running a stage line that serves all points south of Elkhorn, and her friend Big Bill Lambert (Roy Barcroft) is starting up a stage line that will serve all points north.

A little boy named Dickie (Bobby Hyatt), who has lost his parents, is getting shipped out to a relative he doesn’t know in Denver. This was the old days, when an orphan was simply told his parents “Went away on a long trip,” not that they were dead.

Dickie is caught up in the middle of nefarious doings when the sabotaged yoke of a stagecoach breaks, plunging him and the rest of the passengers into a ravine. The scheme was carried out to kill the land commissioner, who wouldn’t play ball with evil land baron Jasper Braydon (Wheaton Chambers).

Everyone on the stage dies except for Dickie, who is paralyzed from the waist down. “Doc” Kimball (Tom Chatterton) tells Ryder that he needs permission from Dickie’s nearest living relative to perform an operation that could repair his spine, but that could also kill him.

The bad guys intercept the stage carrying Dickie’s Aunt May, bind and gag her in a cabin in the woods, and replace her with a beautiful ringer (Peggy Stewart).

The fake Aunt May gives her assent, but struggles with her decision. If the boy dies, she feels it will be her fault, and she wants out of the scheme.

Meanwhile, Braydon, the evil land boss, starts forcing folks off their land in a dramatic and harrowing montage of stock footage.

Will Dickie walk again? Will he get the pony Ryder and his Indian boy sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) promised him? Will the beautiful young woman masquerading as Aunt May have a change of heart and aid the good guys? Will Emmett Lynn provide his usual brand of cornpone comic relief, this time as a character named “Coonskin”? Will Big Bill Lambert turn out to be one of the bad guys and have a furniture-destroying fistfight with Red Ryder? You’ll just have to watch it and find out.

Stagecoach to Denver is directed by dependable Republic journeyman R.G. Springsteen with his usual blend of vigor and indifference.

Out California Way (Dec. 5, 1946)

In the grand tradition of singing cowboys, Monte Hale plays a character in Out California Way named “Monte Hale.”

Out California Way is filmed in “Trucolor,” a two-color film process owned by Republic Pictures, and throws Hale into a metafictional world that pulls back the curtain and allows boys and girls at the Saturday matinée to see what might be going on behind the scenes at Republic with all of their favorite cowboy stars.

Hale doesn’t sit quite as tall in the saddle as Republic’s big boys, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, but he’s self-effacing and charming enough to be believable when he says he’s “just a plain cowboy trying to break in” to the movies.

He’s assisted by little Danny McCoy (Bobby Blake, famous for playing Little Beaver in the Red Ryder series), who’s trying to get his horse Pardner into the movies.

Opposing them is the prima donna Rod Mason (John Dehner), who’s a big radio star as the “Robin Hood of the Range,” and has a career in pictures, too. Little Danny McCoy is president of the Rod Mason Fan Club, but that changes pretty fast after he actually meets the guy. Not only is Mason temperamental and nasty to his co-stars, but he hates children and animals. After threatening to whip Pardner if Danny doesn’t get him off the set, it’s clear that Danny has room in his heart for another cowboy actor. For that matter, so does his young, pretty mother, Gloria (played by Lorna Gray, who’s just 16 years older than Blake).

Hale’s an expert horse trainer, and together he and Pardner form a great team. Originally cast as stunt actors on one of Rod Mason’s pictures, they do such a good job that every rewrite comes back with a bigger role for Hale and a smaller part for Mason.

Mason and his sidekick, stunt rider Ace Hanlon (Fred Graham), are typical black hats, so they stop at nothing to foil Hale and Pardner’s success. While performing a stunt, Ace throws short-fuse dynamite at Hale that doesn’t kill him, but totally blows Pardner’s nerves.

Hale takes time off to retrain Pardner and help him over his trauma, but Mason and Ace immediately undo his hard work by sneaking into the corral at night and freaking out Pardner all over again by repeatedly firing a revolver near his head.

On his journey from “plain cowboy” to movie star, Hale is joined by special guest stars Allan Lane, Don “Red Barry,” Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and horse Trigger, all members of Republic Pictures’ stable of western stars, and all playing themselves in the sequence in which Hale gives Gloria a tour of the studios. Roy and Dale perform a nice rendition of “Ridin’ Down the Sunset Trail” for them. Not bad for a first date.

John Dehner, who would later be a recurring actor on Gunsmoke (both the radio and TV versions), was a fine actor and makes for a great villain in this picture. While Out California Way isn’t substantively different from any of the hundreds of other oaters put out by Republic Pictures, it was fun to see a slightly different plot than the dependable old “evil land baron makes a grab for smaller ranchers’ land.”

Santa Fe Uprising (Nov. 15, 1946)

R.G. Springsteen’s Santa Fe Uprising was a bittersweet viewing experience for yours truly. On the one hand, I really enjoy this series, based on Fred Harman’s comic-strip cowboy. It’s solid, fun, Saturday matinée entertainment. On the other hand, a big part of my enjoyment came from the wooden, straight-shooting acting style of “Wild” Bill Elliott as Red. Elliott’s persona was so stolid that it seemed tongue-in-cheek, and he had great chemistry with the child star who played his Indian sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake, who later in life would be known as “defendant Robert Blake [9/18/33], aka Michael Gubitosi”).

After starring in 16 Red Ryder pictures from 1944 to 1946, Elliott bowed out and was replaced by square-jawed matinée idol Allan Lane. In the title sequence of Santa Fe Uprising, in which Red Ryder and Little Beaver appear in motion on the cover of a storybook, Lane bears a striking resemblance to Elliott. Up close, however, he’s more traditionally handsome and less interesting a performer.

Still, director Springsteen is a professional, and he keeps things fast-moving and exciting despite a modest budget and familiar shooting locations.

The film takes place in Bitter Springs, New Mexico, in 1894. The action kicks off when the U.S. Marshal for the territory is murdered by stagecoach robbers. The editor of the Territorial Gazette, a man named Crawford (Barton MacLane), demands that his killers be found. There is a toll road that’s safer to travel on than the main road, but the man who owns the property through which the toll road runs demands $3 a head of cattle to use it, which few ranchers can afford. When old rancher Lafe Dibble (Tom London) is killed by bandits, his son, Sonny Dibble (Pat Michaels), vows revenge.

Red takes over as U.S. Marshal of the territory, but he finds himself in hot water when it turns out that Crawford’s motives might not be as pure as they seem. When a man is murdered, and it looks as if Sonny killed him, Crawford and his boys demand that Sonny be strung up despite the fact that he professes his innocence. Things go from bad to worse when Little Beaver is kidnapped, held as a possible exchange for Sonny, after Crawford’s crew fails to bust Sonny out of jail to lynch him.

During the last part of the picture, Red is sleep-deprived after searching for Little Beaver night and day, which leads to a lot of strange acting from Lane, who keeps opening his eyes wide and half-yawning.

But if you’ve ever seen a western programmer before, you know that neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor sleep deprivation shall keep the heroes from their appointed shoot-outs, from which they will always emerge victorious.

Conquest of Cheyenne (July 29, 1946)

R.G. Springsteen’s Conquest of Cheyenne was the last Red Ryder adventure to star “Wild” Bill Elliott. Bobby Blake, who plays “Little Beaver,” the adorable little Indian boy whose biggest challenge in life is the English language, would stay with the series for seven more films, but after Conquest of Cheyenne, Allan “Rocky” Lane took over as the stalwart comic-strip cowboy Red Ryder.

As last hurrahs go, it’s not much, which is too bad. I really like Elliott’s stolid presence in these western programmers, and looked forward to each new one that came out. Unfortunately, Red Ryder, Little Beaver, and Ryder’s aunt, “The Duchess” (Alice Fleming), are barely characters in this film. For the most part, it focuses on an ambitious young man named Tom Dean (Jay Kirby) and his dream of bringing a big oil-drilling operation to west Texas.

Speaking of locations, the Duchess’s ranch sure did move around a lot. Just look at the list of Red Ryder films with a place name in them: Tucson Raiders (1944), Marshal of Reno (1944), The San Antonio Kid (1944), Cheyenne Wildcat (1944), Vigilantes of Dodge City (1944), Sheriff of Las Vegas (1944), Lone Texas Ranger (1945), Marshal of Laredo (1945), Colorado Pioneers (1945), California Gold Rush (1946), Sheriff of Redwood Valley (1946), and Sun Valley Cyclone (1946). In a lot of cases, of course, the names of the films had nothing to do with where the action actually took place, and that’s the case here. Conquest of Cheyenne takes place in Texas, and Cheyenne refers not to the city in Wyoming, but to a young woman, Cheyenne Jackson (Peggy Stewart).

Is there a conquest of her in this movie? ‘Fraid not.

The movie starts out with plenty of action. With the classic “spinning newspapers flying at the screen” gag, we learn that masked bandits have struck in Lubbock, Amarillo, and Muleshoe, where most of the rest of the action will take place. (I guess Conquest of Muleshoe wasn’t a catchy enough title.)

Cheyenne (the Duchess’s second cousin on her mother’s side) goes missing, and is believed kidnapped by the bandits, but she soon arrives in Muleshoe driving an out-of-control automobile. It turns out she wasn’t kidnapped after all, and the whole bandit subplot is largely forgotten.

Soon, the comic relief character “Daffy” (Emmett Lynn) will be forgotten, too, but at least we are treated to a good old fashioned dousing in a water trough when he falls in while attempting to get out of the way of Cheyenne’s car. And of course he emerges spitting a stream of water out of his mouth like a fountain.

Immediately following this fracas, the sheriff tries to ban cars. Tom Dean angrily tells him that he can’t do that. “Deny their use to the harebrained women drivers, but not to the horseless carriages themselves,” he says. (The movie itself sort of makes a nod towards equality by showing that Tom has some trouble starting the car himself, and by showing that Cheyenne learns to drive just fine by the end.)

Tom believes oil is the future of west Texas. There are already oil wells in east Texas, and he believes the entire state is heading in this direction, but he’ll not only have to convince the townspeople of Muleshoe, he’ll have to contend with an evil banker named Tuttle (Milton Kibbee), who plans to foreclose on Cheyenne’s ranch and take all the oil for himself. He’s aided in his crooked scheme by dependable Republic heavy Kenne Duncan as a geologist named McBride.

As I said, Red Ryder and Little Beaver don’t have much to do in this picture. It’s mostly Tom and Cheyenne’s story. Elliott does get the last words of the picture, however, when he rides in and sees Tom and Cheyenne lying on the ground, both being sprayed with oil gushing from Tom’s well on Cheyenne’s property. “Looks like the preacher’s gonna have to take care of both of ‘em!” Red says happily.

OK, maybe that counts as a conquest. For Tom, at least.

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