Even by 1946 standards, Ambush Trail looks like a relic of an earlier time. The film stars cowboy actor Bob Steele, who played in more than a hundred westerns from the silent era onward, but Ambush Trail is the first film starring him that I’ve seen. He was a supporting player in The Big Sleep (1946), which I have seen, but I couldn’t have picked him out of a crowd if you paid me. Even though it’s a talkie, Ambush Trail has all the hallmarks of a bad silent film; stilted acting, awkward pauses, and lame comic relief from a rubber-faced sidekick (Syd Saylor). It’s also blocked and edited like a silent movie, and only really comes alive during the fistfights, of which there are many.
A small, trim man (his listed height is 5’5″), Steele had dark, curly hair and a neat little mustache. (Check him out in the lobby card above. He’s the one with the whitest hat, the bluest jeans, and the fanciest shirt.) Steele’s earliest roles were in a series of shorts directed by his father, Robert N. Bradbury. He originally went by his birth name, Bob Bradbury, Jr., and his first film role was at the age of 14, in the Pathé short The Adventures of Bob and Bill (1920), which also starred his twin brother, Bill Bradbury. The two young men went on to star together in more than a dozen semi-documentary nature adventure shorts with titles like Trapping the Wildcat (1921), Outwitting the Timber Wolf (1921), and Trailing the Coyote (1921). As he grew older, Steele became a star in his own right, and a box office draw as a star of westerns.
By the mid-’40s, however, his star was fading, and it’s not hard to see why. Steele may be the best actor in Ambush Trail, but that’s only because everyone else is so God-awful. He plays a cowboy named Curley Thompson who has just purchased the Flying A Ranch. To his surprise, Curley learns that the ranch comes with a pea-brained foreman named Sam Hawkins (Saylor), who can’t even ride a horse. (He can handle a buckboard, however, which will come in handy later in the picture.) Curley quickly runs afoul of the local boss, freight owner Hatch Bolton (I. Stanford Jolley). Bolton is systematically ruining the local ranchers so he can buy them out cheap and sell their ranches to a grain combine in Chicago.
After Sheriff Tom Gordon (Henry Hall) is ambushed and disappears, his brother, Deputy Walter Gordon (Kermit Maynard) takes over. Gordon and his gal pal, Alice Rhodes (Lorraine Miller), join up with Curley and Hawkins in their fight against Bolton. When a local rancher named Joe Moore (Al Ferguson) is shot through a window and murdered while he’s meeting with Curley, Bolton and the crooked Marshal Dawes (Ed Cassidy) pin the murder on Curley. After Deputy Gordon frees him from the local jail, Curley hunts for evidence against Bolton that the missing sheriff may have left behind, and the fight is on.
Throughout the picture, Steele moves and emotes as though he’s in a silent film. He delivers his lines in a competent fashion, but he still looks as if he’d be more comfortable with heavy makeup and a live piano accompaniment. His character is a bit of a wet blanket, too. Curley drinks lemon soda instead of liquor, and even weans his sidekick, Hawkins, off the hard stuff, too. Steele’s not terrible, and neither is Ambush Trail, but it’s not very good, either. It’s a passable B western, but only if you really like B westerns.