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Tag Archives: Billy Cummings

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.”

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Colorado Pioneers (Nov. 14, 1945)

Red Ryder was a comic-strip cowboy created by writer Stephen Slesinger and artist Fred Harman. Red Ryder premiered in the Sunday funnies on November 6, 1938, and soon grew into one of the largest franchises in entertainment history. In the 1940s, there was nary a kid-friendly product that didn’t have a Red Ryder tie-in; comic books, novels, Big Little Books, a radio show, and the infamous Red Ryder BB Gun, which is still in production today despite the fact that Red Ryder hasn’t appeared in newspapers since the 1960s. For thousands of baby boomers, the Red Ryder BB Gun wasn’t the only way to put an eye out, but it was the most universal.

The first appearance of Red Ryder on film was in 1940, in the Republic serial Adventures of Red Ryder, which starred Don “Red” Barry as Red Ryder and Tommy Cook as his young Indian sidekick, Little Beaver. Like all Republic chapterplays, it was quality entertainment, but Barry was a bit of a pipsqueak compared with the tall, square-jawed actor who stepped into the role next, “Wild” Bill Elliott. Starting with Tucson Raiders in 1944, Elliott was paired with future ladykiller Robert Blake (at that time credited as “Bobby Blake”) as Little Beaver in a total of 16 features over the course of two years. (Blake kept appearing as Little Beaver in the series after Elliott left. Starting with Santa Fe Uprising in 1946 he was paired with Allan “Rocky” Lane in seven more Red Ryder films.)

Colorado Pioneers begins in Chicago, where Red Ryder and Little Beaver run afoul of a couple of ragamuffins who today would be called “at-risk youth.” Red Ryder intercedes on their behalf in court, and frees them from a life of petty street crime by taking them back to the Colorado ranch run by his aunt, “The Duchess” (Alice Fleming), where he teaches them the value of hard work and fresh air. Originally planning to take just the two boys who stole his money (Billy Cummings and Freddie Chapman), Red Ryder is convinced by Little Beaver to take the whole gang, including a token black member named “Smokey,” who is played by Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas (yes, he’s the Buckwheat you’re thinking of). The situation may be hokey and formulaic, but Elliott is a strong enough presence to make you believe it when the kids start following his lead. The emotional core of the film is the most recalcitrant boy, who resists Red Ryder’s mentorship, but who can’t resist a frail colt, which he feeds and talks to in secret. The boy’s journey from a hardened little thug to a young man who is able to care for something weaker than himself and tell the truth even when it’s difficult makes for a surprisingly moving story.

Colorado Pioneers is an excellent little B western. While it’s aimed at kids, Elliott is believable and tough enough as Red Ryder for adults to enjoy the film, too. He’s not quite Henry Fonda or Randolph Scott, but he’s one of the better western stars you’ve probably never heard of.