RSS Feed

Tag Archives: George “Gabby” Hayes

Return of the Bad Men (July 17, 1948)

Return of the Bad MenReturn of the Bad Men was the fourth and final film in a series of westerns that director Ray Enright made with legendary horse opera star Randolph Scott. The previous three were Trail Street (1947), Albuquerque (1948), and Coroner Creek (1948).

Most modern viewers will know Randolph Scott primarily for his final role — in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) — and be blissfully unaware of the roughly one hundred films he appeared in prior to it.

Ride the High Country is a great western (it co-stars Joel McCrea), but it’s not Scott’s only claim to fame. The westerns he made in the ’50s with director Budd Boetticher are highly regarded among connoisseurs of western cinema. He also appeared in plenty of workmanlike westerns like the ones directed by Ray Enright that aren’t great works of art, but are well-made entertainment, and a cut above the average B western.

Return of the Bad Men takes place in 1889, in the Oklahoma Territory. The U.S. government has just opened up two million acres of prime land for settlers. At high noon on April 22, 1889, the great Oklahoma Land Rush will begin. On the tails of the settlers, however, are a bunch of no-good outlaws (the “bad men” of the title) who only hope to prey on honest folks.

The land run sequence is exciting, although I suspect that most of the footage is taken from an earlier RKO picture, the Oscar-winning Cimarron (1931).

One of the settlers is a beautiful young widow named Madge Allen (Jacqueline White) who has a young son named Johnny (Gary Gray). She also has a boyfriend, Vance Cordell (Randolph Scott), who only wants to marry his sweetheart and move her and her son out to California.

But when Madge’s father, John Pettit (Gabby Hayes), the folksy and tough-talking president of the local bank, picks up stakes and moves from Braxton, Oklahoma, to Guthrie, Oklahoma, Vance, Madge, and Johnny follow. Once in Guthrie, a cavalry officer appoints Vance U.S. Marshal. As a former Texas Ranger and peace officer, he’s the most suitable man to keep order.

Madge just wants her son to grow up in a peaceful, law-abiding world. Her deceased husband was a peace officer killed in the line of duty, and she refuses to marry Vance until he puts things right in Guthrie, trains officers to take his place, and retires.

Meanwhile, a whole mess of outlaws is amassing against the peaceful homesteaders of Guthrie. They’re led by Wild Bill Doolin (Robert Armstrong) and there’s even a woman among them, Doolin’s niece Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys). When the rough-and-tumble bad men tell her that busting banks is man’s work, she responds that Belle Starr did OK.

The crew of outlaws includes plenty of famous names — the Younger brothers, Cole (Steve Brodie), Jim (Tom Keene) and John (Robert Bray); the Dalton brothers, Emmett (Lex Barker), Bob (Walter Reed), and Grat (Michael Harvey); Billy the Kid (Dean White); the Arkansas Kid (Lew Harvey); Wild Bill Yeager (Tom Tyler) — but the only member of the crew who has much of a chance to distinguish himself (besides Cheyenne) is Robert Ryan as the Sundance Kid.

Sundance is the most vicious of the lot and becomes Vance’s archenemy over the course of the film. Robert Ryan was on his way to becoming a big star after his memorable role in Crossfire (1947). There’s nothing particularly remarkable about his role in Return of the Bad Men, but he plays a charming villain well, and the growing antagonism between Ryan and Scott provides the dramatic push of the film.

Enright keeps the pace fast in Return of the Bad Men. The editing is quick, and the camera frequently moves within shots, which is not the case with a lot of B westerns. For a B western the production values are good, the acting is solid, and the characterizations are well-done.

Below is a clip from the film. I suppose I have to put a spoiler warning on it, since it’s the climactic fight of the film. I think the biggest potential spoiler about it is a single line of dialogue that alludes to the fate of a couple of characters, because if you consider finding out whether the guy with the white hat or the guy with the black hat wins the final fight in a B western a “spoiler” … well … let’s just say I envy your childlike naïveté:

Albuquerque (Feb. 20, 1948)

Like Randolph Scott’s last western, Gunfighters (1947), director Ray Enright’s Albuquerque was filmed in Cinecolor, which was a two-color film process that was less expensive than Technicolor.

Unlike Gunfighters, it’s punchy and fast-moving, which could have something to do with the source material. Gunfighters was based on a novel by the long-winded Zane Grey, while Albuquerque is based on the 1939 novel Dead Freight for Piute, which was written by the terse, hard-boiled western author Luke Short.

Albuquerque isn’t quite on the level of André de Toth’s Ramrod (1947), which was the best adaptation of a Luke Short book I’ve seen to date, but it’s a well-made B western.

The lean, weather-beaten Randolph Scott plays Cole Armin, a man coming to Albuquerque to do a job. On the way there, he and his fellow stagecoach passengers are robbed by a group of masked bandits. Celia Wallace (Catherine Craig) loses $10,000 to them, and a young girl named Myrtle (Karolyn Grimes, best known for playing little Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life), is put in a perilous position when the stage goes out of control with spooked horses and no driver.

It quickly becomes clear that more pernicious forces are at work in Albuquerque than just a few stagecoach robbers preying on wayfarers. John Armin (George Cleveland), Cole’s uncle and the man he’s come to Albuquerque to work for, turns out to have a stranglehold on the territory, and he expects Cole to help him carry out all manner of dirty business.

So the honest Cole Armin goes into business with Celia and her brother Ted Wallace (Russell Hayden), forming Wallace & Armin Freighting. Their freighting company moves ore from the Half-High Mine down a steep, twisting, treacherous trail. (Even higher up the mountain is Angel’s Roost Mine, but it’s so high up that no one’s sure if it’s even possible to get the ore down from there.)

Naturally, none of this makes John Armin very happy, and he dispatches forces both foul and fair — a hulking henchman named Steve Murkill (Lon Chaney Jr.), who appears to have been hired not only for his great strength and mercilessness, but also his ability to get hit in the face without losing the cigarette clenched between his teeth; and a beautiful young woman named Letty Tyler (Barbara Britton), who ingratiates herself to our heroes with her feminine charms and a revolver that secretly contains blanks.

Albuquerque is a B western through and through (look no further than the presence of the rootin’, tootin’ Gabby Hayes as “Juke”), but its production values are solid and it’s pretty entertaining, especially for fans of Randolph Scott, who for my money is the most archetypal western star of all time.

Wyoming (July 28, 1947)

The last time I saw cowboy star Bill Elliott was in the Red Ryder movie Conquest of Cheyenne (1946), in which he was credited as “Wild” Bill Elliott.

I missed the next picture he made, Plainsman and the Lady (1946), but in both that film and this one, he’s listed in the credits with the more mature moniker “William Elliott.”

Like Elliott’s name change, Wyoming reflects a B-grade product’s aspirations to A-level status.

It’s about halfway successful.

Director Joseph Kane knows how to shoot a western, and Wyoming looks great. It’s full of snowstorms, big cattle drives, and beautiful wide open spaces. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt is credited as the second unit director, and the fistfights, shootouts, and horse action are all well-done. (One fight in particular is more brutal than I ever expected from a Republic western.)

But the script by prolific screenwriters Lawrence Hazard and Gerald Geraghty never rises to A quality. It’s full of big ideas and grand themes, but the treatment of those themes is muddled, and the dialogue is hackneyed.

In Wyoming, Elliott plays Charles Alderson, an intrepid pioneer who settles in the territory of Wyoming with his pregnant wife. When she dies in childbirth, Alderson sends his daughter to Europe for an education. While she is away, he builds up an enormous cattle herd, and becomes rich. He does so with the help of his friend Thomas Jefferson “Windy” Gibson (George “Gabby” Hayes), a grizzled old mountain man who says that while he may not look it, he was originally a lawyer from Vermont. But he got too involved with another “bar.” Get it?

Alderson’s daughter Karen returns to Wyoming in 1890, soon after it has been admitted to the union. (Karen is played by Vera Ralston, who also played her own mother in the opening portion of the film.) Alderson is now a cattle baron, but all is not well. Much of his range is now open to homesteaders, who are led by John “Duke” Lassiter (Albert Dekker). Lassiter is a shady character who is involved in rustling cattle, and who is exploiting the homesteaders for his own purposes.

Alderson’s foreman, Glenn Forrester (John Carroll), cautions Alderson that resorting to violence will only make things worse, but Alderson is a prideful, tyrannical man who shoots first and thinks later.

If all of this sounds a lot like Howard Hawks’s Red River (which was filmed in 1946 but wasn’t released until 1948), that’s because it is. But Wyoming never achieves the same impact as Red River.

The biggest problem with Wyoming is Elliott himself. The character he plays, Charles Alderson, is a complicated man who is nearly undone by his own ambition and propensity for violence, but Elliott is not a nuanced actor. I loved him in the Red Ryder westerns because he was so wooden that it added to the comic-book stalwartness of the character, but in Wyoming he seems to be overreaching, and it’s a little like watching Leslie Nielsen play Othello.

Don’t Fence Me In (Oct. 20, 1945)

Don’t Fence Me In is a particularly good Roy Rogers picture. Directed by John English (who with William Witney directed some of the best Republic serials of the late ’30s and early ’40s), it’s a well-paced, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable B western.

The film opens with a western montage, accompanied by the Cole Porter song from which the film gets its title. After the credits roll, we’re treated to a cheap-looking Boot Hill set with a matte painting background that looks as if it’s about two feet away. A narrator tells us that “Once upon a time, as a matter of fact nearly forty years ago, there was a notorious western outlaw named Wildcat Kelly. He didn’t want to be fenced in either. But they stuffed him into a pine box and buried him six feet under the sod, on Boot Hill.” A masked man rises from behind Kelly’s tombstone, carrying a gun and a Wells Fargo case. The narrator, sounding surprised, says, “Wait a minute, that looks like Wildcat Kelly. It is Wildcat Kelly. There’s something mighty strange about this. I think we’d better investigate the story of Mr. Wildcat Kelly.”

And investigate we shall, but the job will fall on the pretty shoulders of a girl reporter named Toni Ames (Dale Evans). Toni has enough moxie to make an 800-pound gorilla stop dead in his tracks. When we first meet her, she’s performing the song “A Kiss Goodnight” while dancing on the table at a hot party in a big city, displaying her shapely gams to maximum effect. She’s doing it all for a story, though. A reporter for a tabloid called Spread magazine, Toni is undercover, secretly snapping shots of the party’s guest of honor, a dirty old cad named Cartwright (Andrew Tombes) who’s running for mayor as an incumbent.

The plot eventually takes Toni out west to the R Barr Dude Ranch to investigate the legend of Wildcat Kelly, who it turns out faked his own death nearly 40 years ago and has been living as a regular western Joe named “Gabby Whittaker.” He’s played by George “Gabby” Hayes, and it’s a good part for him. In a lot of these pictures, Hayes was able to just coast on his ornery persona, but Don’t Fence Me In actually gives him something to do.

Rogers plays that charming and laconic singing cowpoke character called “Roy Rogers” that he played in dozens of movies. Roy is Gabby’s friend, and the only person who knows his secret. He tries to convince Toni not to publish what she knows about Wildcat Kelly, but she goes ahead with her story, and that’s when things get interesting.

There are a group of gangsters whose motives are shadowy, but who clearly want Kelly dead once it’s revealed he is still alive. One of them is played by the great character actor Marc Lawrence, who had a very long career as a sinister-looking hood.

This is a fine showcase for all of the regulars from the ’40s Roy Rogers pictures. Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers back Rogers up both musically and when it’s time for fisticuffs. And the wonder horse Trigger does a high-stepping dance, with Rogers astride him, to an instrumental version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” and even takes a bow when he’s finished.

Roy and Dale’s relationship is more antagonistic than in many of their other pictures, but it’s still fun to watch. When she first shows up and tries to stow away in the boot of a coach, Roy tosses a hunk of stinky Limburger cheese in the back with her and takes her on a bumpy ride. She later pays him back by pushing him into a swimming pool.

Don’t Fence Me In ends with a delightful rendition of the title song performed by Roy, Dale, and the Sons of the Pioneers, with a few lines added at the beginning about Wildcat Kelly to tie the whole thing together.

Sunset in El Dorado (Sept. 29, 1945)

SunsetElDoradoA 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.

Along the Navajo Trail (Sept. 15, 1945)

AlongTheNavajoTrailThere are no Navajos to be found in this run-of-the-mill Roy Rogers picture, or American Indians of any tribe, for that matter. The title comes from a popular song that was written by Dick Charles (a.k.a. Richard Charles Krieg), Larry Markes, and Edgar De Lange in 1945, and is sung by Rogers, Dale Evans, and the rest of the gang to close the picture. No, the only people of color in Along the Navajo Trail are Spanish-speaking Gypsies, who are portrayed in much the same way Mexicans were in Hollywood westerns except that they wear funny clothes, travel in wagons, and the men wear gold hoop earrings. They also provide George “Gabby” Hayes’s character with a series of comic interludes in which he attempts to cheat the Gypsies, and is in turn cheated himself. These horse trades don’t add much to the plot, but they do result in Hayes sputtering the memorable line, “I sure have gypped that gyppin’ Gypsy!”

In Along the Navajo Trail, Rogers plays a character named “Roy Rogers” who at first appears to be an itinerant cowpoke, but whom we later discover is a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Dale Evans plays a ranch owner named Lorry Alastair, and Hayes plays her foreman, Gabby Whittaker. Lorry is skittish about Rogers when he drifts onto her property, the Ladder A Ranch, and orders Gabby to run him off. She changes her tune, however, when she walks to his relocated campsite herself to kick him off her land, but he ends up singing to her under his tarp in the rain, making up a song as he goes, and asking her if she knows a girl’s name that rhymes with “Saskatoon.”

Lorry eventually finds the Deputy U.S. Marshal badge in his boot and realizes beyond a doubt that he’s one of the white hats. The black hats in Along the Navajo Trail are the representatives of the Santa Fe Drilling Company. There isn’t any oil on Lorry’s land, but the company needs to lay a pipeline through her property, and they’ll stop at nothing to do so.

Along the Navajo Trail is heavier on action than some of Rogers’s efforts, and it should please most fans of old B westerns. As usual, Rogers solves problems with haymakers and gunplay, but stops short of ever getting too bloodthirsty, since plot contrivances take care of the worst of the bad guys. The climax of the picture occurs when the final black hat loses control of his buckboard, and it flies over a cliff and he falls to his death (in the form of an especially noticeable dummy). Rogers rides to the edge of the cliff and surveys the destruction with the same look of mild disapproval one reserves for drunks puking in Dumpsters in the middle of the afternoon.

At the end of the picture, Rogers, Evans, and the rest of the cast gather to sing “Along the Navajo Trail,” and then they all live happily ever after. Or at least, their characters do. Rogers, Hayes, Evans, and Trigger would all be back exactly two Saturdays later, when Sunset in El Dorado was released into theaters.

Utah (March 21, 1945)

RoyGabbyThe western genre may be moribund, but it refuses to kick the bucket. Singing cowboys, on the other hand, are deader than vaudeville. There was a time, however, when Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were two of the biggest film stars in America.

I saw bits and pieces of Rogers’s movies on TV when I was younger, but to be honest, his horse Trigger made more of an impression on me than he did. And I still have never seen a Gene Autry movie. As part of my obsessive-compulsive project of watching old movies in the order they were released, however, I added Utah to my Netflix queue. It stars the holy trinity of hokey singing-cowboy movies: Rogers, Dale Evans, and Gabby Hayes. I was surprised by how charismatic I found Rogers in this movie. Sure, he’s corny, but he’s charming and handsome. At a time in America when a muffin-faced hayseed like Van Johnson was considered the height of attractiveness by a lot of bobby-soxers, Rogers is refreshingly dark; almost Eurasian looking. And Dale Evans looked fantastic. I’m used to seeing her and Rogers in publicity stills from the ’50s, when they were both middle-aged, but here, at the age of 32, she looks about 19. (Rogers, too, looks younger than his 33 years.)

Utah has a predictable plot. Rogers and his singing group, the Sons of the Pioneers, work as ranch hands (along with the crotchety Hayes) on the Bar X Ranch. Meanwhile, Evans and her singing and dancing troupe of ladies are performing in Chicago when they learn their financial backing has fallen through. Fortuitously, Evans’s grandfather bequeathed her a ranch in Utah, which she realizes she can sell to make enough money to keep her show going. Guess which ranch it is?

Evans and her distaff posse have to visit Utah to take care of business (natch), and hijinks ensue. Roy and Gabby attempt some elaborate trickery to convince Evans not to sell the ranch, and there are some black hats who want the ranch for themselves. Even in black and white, the Utah landscape is rugged and beautiful, and there are a lot of musical numbers and fistfights to keep the film moving. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s enjoyable, especially if you like singing-cowboy music.

By the time he made Utah, Rogers had already starred in more than 40 films. His first lead role was in Under Western Stars (1938), when he replaced Gene Autry, who had walked out on his contract. Born Leonard Slye, he rechristened himself “Roy Rogers” for this starring role, and a matinee idol was born. After his first marriage ended in divorce, he married Arline Wilkins. They had three children together, and he was still married to her when he and Evans started making movies together. Wilkins died in November 1946, shortly after the birth of Roy Rogers, Jr., from complications due to a Caesarean section. Rogers and Evans, of course, eventually married, in December 1947. Together they adopted four children, and they remained married until his death in 1998.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 364 other followers