Probably a little of both. Prairie Badmen has all the hallmarks of a shoddy P.R.C. western — incompetent use of library music by musical director Lee Zahler, insouciant use of obvious stunt doubles, and static, unimaginative camerawork — but it moves at a nice clip, has a decent story, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and features plenty of goofy physical humor courtesy of Al “Fuzzy” St. John.
As the film opens, we see Fuzzy, wearing a feathered trailer warbonnet that flows down his back and reaches the ground. He’s standing on the back of a wagon, hawking patent medicine called “Kickapoo Elixir” (subtitled “A Blessing to Mankind”) to a bunch of cowpokes and yokels. Inside the wagon lies Doc Lattimer (Ed Cassidy), who is convalescing. Lattimer tells his daughter, Linda (Patricia Knox), “Fuzzy seems to be all right on the crescendo, but he doesn’t seem to have the proper persuasive note in his confidential appeal.”
Before you can say “Jack Robinson,” a trio of no-good characters, Cal (Charles King), Lon (Kermit Maynard), and Steve (John L. Cason), surreptitiously hitch their horses to the front of the wagon and take off with it, with Lattimer and his daughter inside. Fuzzy falls off, but he quickly gets to his feet and chases after them, his headdress flying behind him, nearly parallel to the ground. (It’s clearly held aloft by an off-screen wire, since its angle is different in each shot.)
Pretty soon, Billy Carson (Buster Crabbe) rides in and saves the motley crew of good-natured scam artists from the troublemakers. They claim they were just having some fun. Prairie badmen? More like prairie frat boys.
Or so it seems. Eventually we’ll learn that those badmen are after a map that a wounded and dying outlaw named Bill Thompson (Frank Ellis) may have left with Doc Lattimer five years earlier. The map supposedly shows the location of four bars of gold stolen from an express office.
The thickening of the plot, such as it is, comes from Doc Lattimer’s son, Don (John L. Buster), who’s sick of traveling with his father and sister, making chicken feed while standing on the back of the medicine wagon and singing songs like “Prairie Pete.” Billy offers him some avuncular advice, “You don’t prove you’re a man by carrying a chip around on your shoulder.” But Don doesn’t take it to heart, and soon falls in with the black hats, attempting to finagle a half share of the loot in exchange for revealing the location of the treasure.
The plot is nothing outstanding, but it’s engaging enough, and frequently punctuated by Fuzzy’s corn-pone antics, so it never gets boring. When Billy tells Fuzzy he should know what he’s selling for a dollar a bottle, Fuzzy accidentally grabs turpentine instead of patent medicine. He pours it on his head, down his back, and then drinks it. He proceeds to make facial expressions that would make Red Skelton ashamed, spits it out, yowls, and leaps up and down like a jumping jack.
Some of the comic relief goes on too long, such as the scene in which Fuzzy attempts to string up a hammock and then get into it, but it’s mostly entertaining. He wears his Indian warbonnet for most of the picture, and it’s practically another character in the movie, snaking and flying around, constantly manipulated by that off-screen wire.