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Tag Archives: Hugh Winn

Colorado Serenade (June 30, 1946)

P.R.C. western Colorado Serenade, which stars lunkheaded cowboy actor Eddie Dean, is a good movie to fall asleep while watching. Dean has a terrible screen presence, zero acting ability, one dopey facial expression, and a great voice. So the best way to enjoy him is with your eyes closed, halfway between sleep and wakefulness.

That’s how I imagine at least a few moviegoers enjoyed this picture in the summer of 1946. As a one-hour Poverty Row oater, Colorado Serenade would have played as the bottom half of a double bill. After the newsreel, the cartoon, and the feature at the top of the bill, who wouldn’t be a little bit sleepy? And with Dean’s smooth, rich baritone belting out tunes like “Home on the Range,” “Ridin’ Down to Rawhide,” “Riding on Top of the Mountain,” and “Western Lullaby,” staying awake doubtless proved a challenge to anyone who hadn’t just drunk a cup of coffee.

Because, Lord knows, the plot of the film won’t keep you on the edge of your seat. Like many of Dean’s other P.R.C. westerns, Colorado Serenade is filmed in color — a rarity for the bargain basement studio — but everything else is typically cheap. Eddie and his comical sidekick, “Soapy” Jones (Roscoe Ates) team up with an undercover lawman named Nevada (David Sharpe) to take down a bunch of stagecoach robbers, but not before Eddie and Nevada, thinking each other on opposite sides of the law, slug it out in a good old-fashioned western saloon brawl.

The fight that closes the picture is actually pretty good, too, with a few stand-out stunts, such as Nevada leaping from the balcony and tackling a black hat in the bar below him, but it’s too little, too late after a turgid, talky flick that feels much longer than its 68-minute running time.

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Romance of the West (March 20, 1946)

Romance of the West is a movie with its heart in the right place, if nothing else. It’s filmed in Cinecolor (a two-color film process, a.k.a. “not Technicolor”), which might initially fool you into thinking that it’s a high-class affair. Make no mistake, however. Romance of the West is bottom of the barrel, even by the notoriously low standards of the studio that distributed it, P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation).

In the grand tradition of singing cowboys, country and western star Eddie Dean plays a character named “Eddie Dean.” Eddie is an Indian agent sympathetic to the plight of his American Indian pals. He’s got a great singing voice, but not much else. When delivering lines, Eddie appears to be a life-size mannequin with a string in his back that somebody pulled to make him talk. He’s a lunkhead with a big, dopey mouth and zero screen presence. In a review of one of his films from the ’40s (I don’t know which one), the NY Times said, “Instead of the usual black and white, Eddie Dean’s newest western has been shot in Cinecolor, but it’s not an improvement; you can still see him.”

So why do I say that Romance of the West has its heart in the right place? Well, because it treats its Indian characters with a degree of respect, and there’s mention of all the treaties with them that the United States broke, forcing them into smaller and smaller reservations. But after lip service is paid, the plot goes off the rails. Eddie was supposedly raised by the Indians. So why doesn’t he speak their language with them, or act like them in any way? He’s also a tool of the paternalistic Bureau of Indian Affairs, and toes the line, but it’s presented as a wholly positive thing. When he informs his friend Chief Eagle Feather that the Indians’ land is being stocked with 200 head of cattle, since the buffalo are all dead, the chief acts as if it’s Christmas morning, and he just got the present he always wanted.

The tribe is never named. They’re all “Indians.” There are, however, good Indians and bad Indians. A consortium of powerful men who want the silver that exists on the good Indians’ land gin up some bad Indians to rape and pillage so the good Indians can be blamed for it and driven off their land with the government’s approval.

In a ridiculous scene following a raid by the bad Indians on the good Indians, a little boy is mourning his father’s death. Eddie asks the chief if he know the boy’s name and the chief says, “All I know is that him Indian boy,” or some such twaddle. Never mind that the kid’s at least seven years old and should probably know his own name. Eddie decides he’ll call him “Little Brown Jug” and takes him to be raised by the local monk, Father Sullivan (Forrest Taylor), even though the chief offers to take the boy in. Eddie and Father Sullivan cut Brown Jug’s long hair and dress him like a cowboy. And we’re supposed to believe that Eddie was raised by Indians?

Incidentally, Chief Eagle Feather is played by an actor listed in the credits as “Chief Thundercloud.” Chief Thundercloud was actually a part-Cherokee actor named Victor Daniels, who also had Scottish, Irish, and German ancestors. He played Tonto in two serials and the lead role in Geronimo (1939).

There’s really nothing to recommend Romance of the West aside from the songs, of which there are several; “Ridin’ the Trail to Dreamland,” “Love Song of the Waterfall,” and “Indian Dawn.” The arrangements are good, and Dean has a great voice. A great voice for radio, that is. To paraphrase the Times, the problem with this movie is that you can see him.

Strangler of the Swamp (Jan. 2, 1946)

Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp is a surprisingly good little ghost story. I don’t use the term “little” pejoratively, but as a term of affection, and in recognition of the film’s modest budget and one-hour running time. What Strangler of the Swamp lacks in lavish sets and big stars it makes up for with atmosphere, story, and pacing. Plenty of movies distributed by the Poverty Row studio P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) ranged from forgettable to completely stinko, but some were genuinely well-made films, and this is one of them.

Director Wisbar was born in 1899 in Tilsit, East Prussia, Germany (now part of Russia). After making nine films in Germany between 1932 to 1938, Wisbar emigrated to England, where he directed a television adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Telltale Heart” for the BBC in 1939, when TV was still in its infancy. In 1945, he directed his first American feature, the P.R.C. potboiler Secrets of a Sorority Girl. Strangler of the Swamp was his second film for P.R.C., and was a remake of one of his earlier films, Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria), from 1936.

Strangler of the Swamp takes place in a bayou, presumably somewhere in the American South, but, like a lot of horror movies from the ’40s, regional accents are nowhere in evidence, and geographical authenticity is an afterthought.

Old ferryman Joseph Hart (Frank Conlan) lives in a rude shack by a crossing, and ferries the townsfolk back and forth across a narrow strip of water by hauling his little craft hand over hand along a rope stretched between two trees. His passengers speak in hushed tones of the men they know who have recently died by strangulation. The denizens of the swamp believe that the previous ferryman, Douglas, was hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. They believe that his ghost haunts the swamp, strangling all the male descendants of the men responsible for putting him to death.

Ferryman Joseph does finds an actual noose hanging from a branch as a spectral warning, but most of the strangling in the film occurs in that neat ghost-story fashion in which it could just be a series of freak accidents. The spirit of ferryman Douglas (Charles Middleton) appears to ferryman Joseph with his head wreathed in clouds of dry ice, but Joseph meets his end when he panics and gets tangled up in some branches. The title of this film is the most gruesome thing about it.

After the death of ferryman Joseph, his granddaughter, Maria Hart (Rosemary La Planche), arrives in the swamp to claim her birthright. Fed up with urban isolation and happy to have a place to call her own, she takes up residence in Joseph’s shack and takes over his job shuttling people back and forth. Even though all the billowing clouds of dry ice cover up the set’s limitations, after the fifth or sixth ferry ride, even the least astute viewers will probably notice that there’s no water under the barge.

Blond, fresh-faced, and lithe, La Planche makes an appealing heroine. Her love interest, Chris Sanders, is played by the handsome but wooden actor Blake Edwards, who would end up being much more famous for his work as a director, writer, and producer (of, among other things, The Days of Wine and Roses, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, numerous Pink Panther films, and the Peter Gunn TV series).

Prior to appearing in this film, California native La Planche had lots of bit parts and uncredited roles. She was six years old when she made her first appearance on film (in the Louise Fazenda comedy short The Bearded Lady in 1930), but she never became a child star. Once in her teens, she appeared in a flurry of tiny roles and as a dance extra in many films, and was even crowned Miss America in 1941. (She was Miss California in both 1940 and 1941. The pageant rules later changed to only allow contestants to compete at the national level once.) As Miss America, she traveled extensively with the USO, and once helped sell $50,000 in war bonds in a single day. When Wisbar cast her in Strangler of the Swamp, it was her first starring role.

Wisbar brings a dreamy, European sensibility to the proceedings that sets Strangler of the Swamp apart from most of its B-movie brethren. The conclusion, in particular, didn’t fall into the ’40s cliché that anything supernatural had to eventually be explained away.