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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.

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Sheriff of Redwood Valley (March 29, 1946)

I really like the Red Ryder movies with “Wild” Bill Elliott and Bobby Blake. Sheriff of Redwood Valley is the third one I’ve seen, and watching it after a couple of really bad P.R.C. westerns drove home an opinion I’ve long held; a low budget is no excuse for a bad movie.

I have no idea what the budget was for Sheriff of Redwood Valley, or how it compared with the budgets for contemporaneous P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) westerns starring actors like Buster Crabbe, Bob Steele, and Eddie Dean. Sheriff of Redwood Valley was released by Republic Pictures, which was a more prestigious outfit than the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., so it’s likely the budget was higher, but it’s still clearly a low-budget programmer.

But Republic specialized in low-budget programmers and weekly chapterplays, and made some of the best ones in the history of Hollywood. Most of their stars weren’t great actors, but they were likable and fun to watch. Most of their scripts weren’t brilliantly written, but they were nicely paced and had enough twists and turns to keep you watching. And, like all low-budget productions, they cut corners and used stock footage, but they used it judiciously. Most importantly, their movies had a sense of fun and excitement, and were tailor-made for Saturday matinée viewing down at the local bijou.

It didn’t hurt that Republic employed directors who could put together a watchable movie, like William Witney and John English. The sheer number of pictures directed by Sam Newfield for P.R.C. should tell you something about the studio. (The name “Sam Newfield” isn’t as well-known among connoisseurs of bad movies as “Ed Wood,” but it probably should be.)

All of this is not to say that Republic Pictures never released a bad movie; they released plenty. And P.R.C. distributed a few very good films (including Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, for my money the best film of 1945, and one of the best film noirs of all time). But most Republic films are object lessons in how to make a very entertaining movie in spite of a small budget, actors who aren’t that talented, and a limited shooting schedule.

R.G. Springsteen’s Sheriff of Redwood Valley takes place in 1895. The first shot is of San Quentin at night. A shadowy figure runs along the ramparts and jumps down to safety. We learn from a newspaper headline in the next shot that this man was the notorious stagecoach robber the Reno Kid.

The scene shifts to the Redwood Valley, where the big question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the railroad is going to come through their town. If it does, it will be an economic boon. If it doesn’t, their town just might wither up and die. Red Ryder (Bill Elliott) is presiding over a meeting with town leader Bidwell (James Craven), the sheriff (Tom London), and Red Ryder’s aunt and ranch owner the Duchess (Alice Fleming). The townsfolk have raised the $50,000 necessary to dynamite a tunnel through their mountain and bring the railroad to them, so naturally the best way to deliver it to the right people is to hide it in a cowboy boot and get Red Ryder and the sheriff to transport it in a buckboard.

As you might guess, things go wrong. Red and the sheriff are ambushed, both are badly wounded, and the money is stolen. Circumstantial evidence points to the Reno Kid, but Bidwell and his henchman are actually behind the robbery.

It turns out that the Reno Kid (played by the diminutive cowboy actor Bob Steele, last seen in the P.R.C. cheapie Ambush Trail) isn’t such a bad guy after all. He broke out of prison to see his pretty wife Molly (Peggy Stewart) and their sick child Johnny (John Wayne Wright), and to clear his name.

Red Ryder and the Reno Kid’s paths cross after the robbery, when Red’s adorable, pidgin-English-speaking Indian sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) trusses the injured Red to his horse Thunder and leads him to Molly’s cabin to recover from his wounds. It doesn’t take long for Red to suss out who Reno really is, but he plays it cool in order to apprehend him with a minimum of bloodshed. Eventually, of course, Red realizes that Reno isn’t the villain he’s reputed to be, but it took a lot longer than I was expecting, which added a good amount of suspense to the story.

The Red Ryder series is clearly aimed at kids. Each film begins with an enormous storybook slowly opening, followed by Elliott and Blake stepping out of its pages, Elliott’s guns blazing. (Red Ryder was a long-running character in the Sunday funnies, so it might have made more sense if they’d stepped out of a newspaper, but what the heck? It works.) Also, little Bobby (later Robert) Blake was a veteran of the Our Gang comedy series, and he’s really cute, although to fully enjoy the Red Ryder movies you have to be O.K. with the ridiculous stereotype that Little Beaver is, as well as put out of your mind for a little while the details of Blake’s tragic and violent personal life.

Elliott is fairly stiff as an actor, but I think he’s great in this role, mostly because he acts like someone who’s stiff and plainspoken in real life, not like someone who’s acting that way because he’s a bad actor. His playful relationship with Blake is especially enjoyable to watch. (There’s a running gag in Sheriff of Redwood Valley about Red getting Little Beaver to take medicine and eat food Red finds distasteful.) While the intended audience was kids, I think the Red Ryder series stands up as great B western entertainment for anyone.

Gentlemen With Guns (March 27, 1946)

Another week, another bargain-basement western from P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation).

Chances are, if you were starring in westerns for P.R.C. in the ’40s, you were either a has-been or a never-was. I guess Buster Crabbe falls into the first category. The last time I remember seeing Crabbe, he was cutting a dashing figure as Flash Gordon in the Universal Pictures serial from 1936. Here, 10 years later, his face haven’t developed any character, and his acting certainly hasn’t improved. He’s just older and a little bit fatter.

In Gentlemen With Guns, which should get an award for “most generic title for a western,” he’s listed in the opening credits as “Buster Crabbe, King of the Wild West,” but just saying it doesn’t make it so. While he’s not the worst cowboy I’ve ever seen, Crabbe doesn’t exhibit any of the qualities I think of when I think of a western star, except earnestness. He earnestly seems to wish he were starring in a better movie.

Alas, only a fool would have cast him in one. While neither unattractive nor truly overweight, by 1946 Crabbe was just far enough over the hill to bear an eerie resemblance to the comedian Bob Odenkirk, of Mr. Show. While there’s nothing wrong with looking like Odenkirk, he’d never be anyone’s first choice to play a cowboy.

The plot of Gentlemen With Guns, such as it is, involves a bunch of black hats attempting to pin a murder on Fuzzy Q. Jones, who is played by Al “Fuzzy” St. John. Fuzzy is the type of bearded, toothless old coot who will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a few western programmers from the ’30s or ’40s. (“Gabby” Hayes made a whole career out of playing this type of character.) The frame-up is fairly ingenious. A man is shot while Fuzzy is talking to him, then the evil sheriff (Budd Buster) moseys on over, his gun drawn, and inspects Fuzzy’s revolver. He switches them and produces a weapon with a single round fired; the round that killed the man. At this point the audience is clued in to the fact that the sheriff is the one who actually did the killing. But wait, it turns out that the supposedly dead gentleman was just playing possum, and he spends the rest of the movie hiding out so Fuzzy can be lynched nice and legal-like. Meanwhile, it’s up to Fuzzy’s friend Billy Carson (Crabbe) to fight the bad guys and eventually discover the ruse.

If the bad guys are so ruthless, however, I’m not sure why they didn’t just murder someone they had it in for and pin it on Fuzzy. But I guess without a faked death there wouldn’t be a movie.

Along with all the fistfights and shootouts, there’s a light-hearted subplot about a mail-order bride named Matilda Boggs (Patricia Knox) who arrives in town thinking that Fuzzy is a young, strapping man who owns a huge ranch. In fact, as soon as she sees Billy, she exclaims, “Fuzzy! Oh, you great, big, wonderful man,” and throws her arms around him.

Gentlemen With Guns was certainly better than Romance of the West, the last P.R.C. western I saw. Unlike Romance of the West, the acting isn’t godawful, and the production values are a little better, even though it’s filmed in regular old black & white, not Cinecolor.

It’s still not anywhere close to being an A-list production. At times, it seems as if the actors are struggling to make their lines heard over the blaring, canned music on the soundtrack. Since the music in a movie is usually added last, however, that can’t possibly be the case, can it? It must just be that their lines are terrible and their delivery is wooden, right?

Maybe I’m being too hard on Crabbe. He can ride a horse without falling off, fire a revolver without dropping it, sit a hat atop his head, and vault over a three foot-high fence and then mount his horse in just two attempts. But as far as former champion swimmers turned western actors go, he’s no Timothy Olyphant.

Ambush Trail (Feb. 17, 1946)

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.

The Flying Serpent (Feb. 1, 1946)

George Zucco was born in 1886 in Manchester, England. He appeared in nearly 100 movies during his 20-year career. He was a fine actor, but he appeared in a lot of bad movies. Case in point: The Flying Serpent, which was directed by prolific schlockmeister Sam Newfield under the pseudonym “Sherman Scott.”

Like White Pongo (1945) — the last steaming pile of celluloid by Newfield that I saw — The Flying Serpent begins with an onscreen prologue that raises more questions than it answers. The viewer is told that the “wiley [sic] Emperor Montezuma,” in order to outsmart Cortez, hid his treasure somewhere far to the north of San Juan, New Mexico, where the Aztec ruins are located, and implored his guards to protect it.

I’m pretty sure none of that is true. And I’m pretty sure the filmmakers are confusing San Juan County in New Mexico, where the Aztec Ruins National Monument is located, with the town of San Juan, which is in a neighboring county. I’m also pretty sure they either didn’t know or didn’t care that the name of this national monument is a misnomer, since the ruins are actually ancestral Pueblo structures, and have nothing to do with the Aztecs. But I digress.

Before you can ask how anyone sent by Montezuma to protect treasure 500 years ago could still be around to fulfill his duty, enter Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. First seen in the shadows (or possibly just the murk of the lousy print used for the public domain DVD I watched), Quetzalcoatl is a puppet of indeterminate size locked safely behind iron bars in a secret mountain lair attended to by the archaeologist Dr. Andrew Forbes (Zucco). When Dr. Forbes pulls a lever, the stone roof of the cage opens, and the flying serpent takes wing. In flight, with nothing to give the puppet a sense of scale, it looks a little like the giant flying monster in the Japanese film Rodan (1956).

The only other appearance of Quetzalcoatl on film I can think of right now is Larry Cohen’s B movie classic Q (1982), in which the enormous Mesoamerican deity terrorizes Manhattan. Unlike Rodan or Q, however, the monster in The Flying Serpent turns out to be ridiculously small once it appears in the same frame as a human. When it lands on its first victim, Dr. John Lambert (James Metcalf), it looks as if he’s being attacked by a feathered Labrador Retriever with wings.

The Flying Serpent isn’t nearly as bad a film as White Pongo, but it never quite reaches the level of craziness I demand from an entertaining bad B movie. Zucco is always entertaining to watch, though, no matter how far down in the gutter he’s slumming.