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Tag Archives: Fred Harman

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.”

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.

Stagecoach to Denver (Dec. 23, 1946)

Stagecoach to Denver, Allan Lane’s second outing as Fred Harman’s comic-strip cowboy Red Ryder, isn’t much different from his first. He’s a solid replacement for “Wild” Bill Elliott, but he lacks Elliott’s almost comical woodenness.

The one-hour oater takes place in a town called Elkhorn (which may or may not be in Colorado). As usual, Ryder and his aunt, the Duchess (Martha Wentworth), moved around plenty — most likely to keep the series’ titles fresh. This time around, the Duchess is running a stage line that serves all points south of Elkhorn, and her friend Big Bill Lambert (Roy Barcroft) is starting up a stage line that will serve all points north.

A little boy named Dickie (Bobby Hyatt), who has lost his parents, is getting shipped out to a relative he doesn’t know in Denver. This was the old days, when an orphan was simply told his parents “Went away on a long trip,” not that they were dead.

Dickie is caught up in the middle of nefarious doings when the sabotaged yoke of a stagecoach breaks, plunging him and the rest of the passengers into a ravine. The scheme was carried out to kill the land commissioner, who wouldn’t play ball with evil land baron Jasper Braydon (Wheaton Chambers).

Everyone on the stage dies except for Dickie, who is paralyzed from the waist down. “Doc” Kimball (Tom Chatterton) tells Ryder that he needs permission from Dickie’s nearest living relative to perform an operation that could repair his spine, but that could also kill him.

The bad guys intercept the stage carrying Dickie’s Aunt May, bind and gag her in a cabin in the woods, and replace her with a beautiful ringer (Peggy Stewart).

The fake Aunt May gives her assent, but struggles with her decision. If the boy dies, she feels it will be her fault, and she wants out of the scheme.

Meanwhile, Braydon, the evil land boss, starts forcing folks off their land in a dramatic and harrowing montage of stock footage.

Will Dickie walk again? Will he get the pony Ryder and his Indian boy sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) promised him? Will the beautiful young woman masquerading as Aunt May have a change of heart and aid the good guys? Will Emmett Lynn provide his usual brand of cornpone comic relief, this time as a character named “Coonskin”? Will Big Bill Lambert turn out to be one of the bad guys and have a furniture-destroying fistfight with Red Ryder? You’ll just have to watch it and find out.

Stagecoach to Denver is directed by dependable Republic journeyman R.G. Springsteen with his usual blend of vigor and indifference.

Santa Fe Uprising (Nov. 15, 1946)

R.G. Springsteen’s Santa Fe Uprising was a bittersweet viewing experience for yours truly. On the one hand, I really enjoy this series, based on Fred Harman’s comic-strip cowboy. It’s solid, fun, Saturday matinée entertainment. On the other hand, a big part of my enjoyment came from the wooden, straight-shooting acting style of “Wild” Bill Elliott as Red. Elliott’s persona was so stolid that it seemed tongue-in-cheek, and he had great chemistry with the child star who played his Indian sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake, who later in life would be known as “defendant Robert Blake [9/18/33], aka Michael Gubitosi”).

After starring in 16 Red Ryder pictures from 1944 to 1946, Elliott bowed out and was replaced by square-jawed matinée idol Allan Lane. In the title sequence of Santa Fe Uprising, in which Red Ryder and Little Beaver appear in motion on the cover of a storybook, Lane bears a striking resemblance to Elliott. Up close, however, he’s more traditionally handsome and less interesting a performer.

Still, director Springsteen is a professional, and he keeps things fast-moving and exciting despite a modest budget and familiar shooting locations.

The film takes place in Bitter Springs, New Mexico, in 1894. The action kicks off when the U.S. Marshal for the territory is murdered by stagecoach robbers. The editor of the Territorial Gazette, a man named Crawford (Barton MacLane), demands that his killers be found. There is a toll road that’s safer to travel on than the main road, but the man who owns the property through which the toll road runs demands $3 a head of cattle to use it, which few ranchers can afford. When old rancher Lafe Dibble (Tom London) is killed by bandits, his son, Sonny Dibble (Pat Michaels), vows revenge.

Red takes over as U.S. Marshal of the territory, but he finds himself in hot water when it turns out that Crawford’s motives might not be as pure as they seem. When a man is murdered, and it looks as if Sonny killed him, Crawford and his boys demand that Sonny be strung up despite the fact that he professes his innocence. Things go from bad to worse when Little Beaver is kidnapped, held as a possible exchange for Sonny, after Crawford’s crew fails to bust Sonny out of jail to lynch him.

During the last part of the picture, Red is sleep-deprived after searching for Little Beaver night and day, which leads to a lot of strange acting from Lane, who keeps opening his eyes wide and half-yawning.

But if you’ve ever seen a western programmer before, you know that neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor sleep deprivation shall keep the heroes from their appointed shoot-outs, from which they will always emerge victorious.

Conquest of Cheyenne (July 29, 1946)

R.G. Springsteen’s Conquest of Cheyenne was the last Red Ryder adventure to star “Wild” Bill Elliott. Bobby Blake, who plays “Little Beaver,” the adorable little Indian boy whose biggest challenge in life is the English language, would stay with the series for seven more films, but after Conquest of Cheyenne, Allan “Rocky” Lane took over as the stalwart comic-strip cowboy Red Ryder.

As last hurrahs go, it’s not much, which is too bad. I really like Elliott’s stolid presence in these western programmers, and looked forward to each new one that came out. Unfortunately, Red Ryder, Little Beaver, and Ryder’s aunt, “The Duchess” (Alice Fleming), are barely characters in this film. For the most part, it focuses on an ambitious young man named Tom Dean (Jay Kirby) and his dream of bringing a big oil-drilling operation to west Texas.

Speaking of locations, the Duchess’s ranch sure did move around a lot. Just look at the list of Red Ryder films with a place name in them: Tucson Raiders (1944), Marshal of Reno (1944), The San Antonio Kid (1944), Cheyenne Wildcat (1944), Vigilantes of Dodge City (1944), Sheriff of Las Vegas (1944), Lone Texas Ranger (1945), Marshal of Laredo (1945), Colorado Pioneers (1945), California Gold Rush (1946), Sheriff of Redwood Valley (1946), and Sun Valley Cyclone (1946). In a lot of cases, of course, the names of the films had nothing to do with where the action actually took place, and that’s the case here. Conquest of Cheyenne takes place in Texas, and Cheyenne refers not to the city in Wyoming, but to a young woman, Cheyenne Jackson (Peggy Stewart).

Is there a conquest of her in this movie? ‘Fraid not.

The movie starts out with plenty of action. With the classic “spinning newspapers flying at the screen” gag, we learn that masked bandits have struck in Lubbock, Amarillo, and Muleshoe, where most of the rest of the action will take place. (I guess Conquest of Muleshoe wasn’t a catchy enough title.)

Cheyenne (the Duchess’s second cousin on her mother’s side) goes missing, and is believed kidnapped by the bandits, but she soon arrives in Muleshoe driving an out-of-control automobile. It turns out she wasn’t kidnapped after all, and the whole bandit subplot is largely forgotten.

Soon, the comic relief character “Daffy” (Emmett Lynn) will be forgotten, too, but at least we are treated to a good old fashioned dousing in a water trough when he falls in while attempting to get out of the way of Cheyenne’s car. And of course he emerges spitting a stream of water out of his mouth like a fountain.

Immediately following this fracas, the sheriff tries to ban cars. Tom Dean angrily tells him that he can’t do that. “Deny their use to the harebrained women drivers, but not to the horseless carriages themselves,” he says. (The movie itself sort of makes a nod towards equality by showing that Tom has some trouble starting the car himself, and by showing that Cheyenne learns to drive just fine by the end.)

Tom believes oil is the future of west Texas. There are already oil wells in east Texas, and he believes the entire state is heading in this direction, but he’ll not only have to convince the townspeople of Muleshoe, he’ll have to contend with an evil banker named Tuttle (Milton Kibbee), who plans to foreclose on Cheyenne’s ranch and take all the oil for himself. He’s aided in his crooked scheme by dependable Republic heavy Kenne Duncan as a geologist named McBride.

As I said, Red Ryder and Little Beaver don’t have much to do in this picture. It’s mostly Tom and Cheyenne’s story. Elliott does get the last words of the picture, however, when he rides in and sees Tom and Cheyenne lying on the ground, both being sprayed with oil gushing from Tom’s well on Cheyenne’s property. “Looks like the preacher’s gonna have to take care of both of ’em!” Red says happily.

OK, maybe that counts as a conquest. For Tom, at least.

Sun Valley Cyclone (May 10, 1946)

Sun Valley Cyclone, another entry in the Red Ryder film series directed by the dependable R.G. Springsteen, tells the story of how Ryder got his horse, Thunder. These kinds of stories are classic; how Sgt. Preston of the Yukon got his dog King, how the Lone Ranger got Silver, and so on. I don’t know if there was ever a film that told the story of how Roy Rogers got his horse Trigger, but if there wasn’t, then Republic Pictures really dropped the ball.

When Sun Valley Cyclone begins, Ryder (Bill Elliott) is tracking a man who last went by the name of “Blake” in Wyoming, but has probably changed his name several times to evade the law. Ryder is accompanied, as always, by his pint-sized Indian sidekick, Little Beaver (Robert “Bobby” Blake). While discussing the issue with the sheriff of a sleepy Arizona town, Blackie Blake (Roy Barcroft) draws a bead on Ryder from his hiding place. Just in the nick of time, however, the black stallion Thunder rushes to Ryder’s aid, trampling Blake. Blake is basically uninjured, but the townspeople see only a killer horse that must be put down. Ryder intervenes, and says that Thunder must first receive a fair trial.

In the best Saturday matinee tradition, this trial comes in the form of a flashback that takes up most of the running time of the picture, and which tells the story of how Ryder and Thunder came to be acquainted.

When Theodore Roosevelt (played by Ed Cassidy) was putting together his Rough Riders, Ryder headed straight for the recruitment office. In the corral, he saw a black stallion. The horse breaker told Ryder, “He’s got a mean streak in him so deep and wide that nobody’s ever going to be able to ride him. He’s black as a thunder cloud, and as violent as lightning.” Ryder responded, “Well I’ve seen a lot of horses, but not any one of them as ornery as you claim that stallion is. Fact is, horses are like most people. You get to understand them, and they understand you, you get along somehow.”

Colonel Roosevelt arrives just as Ryder is being flung back and forth atop Thunder, but managing to stay in the saddle. Roosevelt admires the man’s bronc-busting ability, and says he’s only known one man in all his years who could break a horse like that. It turns out that Ryder and Roosevelt are old friends (who knew?), and the colonel decides that Ryder’s talents would be better served fighting range outlaws in Wyoming than waging war with the Rough Riders.

I really enjoy the Red Ryder series. Bill Elliott’s moniker of “Wild Bill Elliott” might have helped establish his western bona fides on movie posters, but he’s about the least wild actor I’ve ever seen. In fact, he’s so stolid that after watching him in several films, I can’t help but feel there’s a joke, and that he’s in on it.

For instance, after a long sequence in which the bad guys try to break Thunder, whip him viciously, and then watch him escape with the fancy new saddle belonging to black hat Dow (Kenne Duncan), the scene cuts back to the present, and Elliott, his arms crossed, says, “Of course, some of the things I’m telling you I got second hand. And a considerable time later.” And then it’s back to the flashback. His delivery is perfect, and it’s a funny line. Was it meant to be? It’s hard to say, but I couldn’t help feeling that if Elliott hadn’t died in 1965, he might have found work in Airplane!-style comedies with other deadpan funnymen like Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack.

Sun Valley Cyclone is an enjoyable picture, and not just because of Elliott’s impossibly straight-shooting persona. There’s also a delightful equine love triangle between Thunder, a white mare, and a paint stallion. Their story is told through body language, which means there are plenty of lips curled back from teeth on the part of the guys, and some come-hither hoof pawing on the part of the lady.

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.