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Tag Archives: John K. Butler

Don’t Fence Me In (Oct. 20, 1945)

Don’t Fence Me In is a particularly good Roy Rogers picture. Directed by John English (who with William Witney directed some of the best Republic serials of the late ’30s and early ’40s), it’s a well-paced, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable B western.

The film opens with a western montage, accompanied by the Cole Porter song from which the film gets its title. After the credits roll, we’re treated to a cheap-looking Boot Hill set with a matte painting background that looks as if it’s about two feet away. A narrator tells us that “Once upon a time, as a matter of fact nearly forty years ago, there was a notorious western outlaw named Wildcat Kelly. He didn’t want to be fenced in either. But they stuffed him into a pine box and buried him six feet under the sod, on Boot Hill.” A masked man rises from behind Kelly’s tombstone, carrying a gun and a Wells Fargo case. The narrator, sounding surprised, says, “Wait a minute, that looks like Wildcat Kelly. It is Wildcat Kelly. There’s something mighty strange about this. I think we’d better investigate the story of Mr. Wildcat Kelly.”

And investigate we shall, but the job will fall on the pretty shoulders of a girl reporter named Toni Ames (Dale Evans). Toni has enough moxie to make an 800-pound gorilla stop dead in his tracks. When we first meet her, she’s performing the song “A Kiss Goodnight” while dancing on the table at a hot party in a big city, displaying her shapely gams to maximum effect. She’s doing it all for a story, though. A reporter for a tabloid called Spread magazine, Toni is undercover, secretly snapping shots of the party’s guest of honor, a dirty old cad named Cartwright (Andrew Tombes) who’s running for mayor as an incumbent.

The plot eventually takes Toni out west to the R Barr Dude Ranch to investigate the legend of Wildcat Kelly, who it turns out faked his own death nearly 40 years ago and has been living as a regular western Joe named “Gabby Whittaker.” He’s played by George “Gabby” Hayes, and it’s a good part for him. In a lot of these pictures, Hayes was able to just coast on his ornery persona, but Don’t Fence Me In actually gives him something to do.

Rogers plays that charming and laconic singing cowpoke character called “Roy Rogers” that he played in dozens of movies. Roy is Gabby’s friend, and the only person who knows his secret. He tries to convince Toni not to publish what she knows about Wildcat Kelly, but she goes ahead with her story, and that’s when things get interesting.

There are a group of gangsters whose motives are shadowy, but who clearly want Kelly dead once it’s revealed he is still alive. One of them is played by the great character actor Marc Lawrence, who had a very long career as a sinister-looking hood.

This is a fine showcase for all of the regulars from the ’40s Roy Rogers pictures. Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers back Rogers up both musically and when it’s time for fisticuffs. And the wonder horse Trigger does a high-stepping dance, with Rogers astride him, to an instrumental version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” and even takes a bow when he’s finished.

Roy and Dale’s relationship is more antagonistic than in many of their other pictures, but it’s still fun to watch. When she first shows up and tries to stow away in the boot of a coach, Roy tosses a hunk of stinky Limburger cheese in the back with her and takes her on a bumpy ride. She later pays him back by pushing him into a swimming pool.

Don’t Fence Me In ends with a delightful rendition of the title song performed by Roy, Dale, and the Sons of the Pioneers, with a few lines added at the beginning about Wildcat Kelly to tie the whole thing together.

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Sunset in El Dorado (Sept. 29, 1945)

SunsetElDoradoA lot of men were drafted during World War II. Roy Rogers was one of them. With a 1-A classification, he expected to be shipped out in the spring of 1945. Consequently, screenwriter John K. Butler (working from a story by Leon Abrams) came up with a script to showcase Rogers’s leading lady, Dale Evans. When V-E Day rolled around, however, the draft board exempted men over the age of 30 who had children, so Rogers never had to serve. Director Frank McDonald’s Sunset in El Dorado ended up starring both “The King of the Cowboys” and “The Queen of the West,” but Evans is still the central figure, and it’s a great showcase for her sunny persona.

The film begins in the present day. Evans plays a young woman named Lucille Wiley, who works for a company called “Worldwide Tours.” In the first scene, Lucille shows a filmstrip that illustrates everything visitors will see on their western tour package. As shots of a ghost town appear on screen, Lucille says, “And this is El Dorado, in its day a roaring boomtown. The Golden Nugget, El Dorado’s most famous, or infamous, fandango hall. In its day, it rivaled the halls in Dodge City or the notorious Barbary Coast. The legendary Kansas Kate was the feature attraction here. And what a colorful attraction she was.”

Although she has a good pitch, and Kansas Kate was Lucille’s grandmother, Lucille has never been west of Hoboken. In a fit of pique, she runs off on one of Worldwide’s tour buses, determined to see the little town of El Dorado. She’s having a grand old time, singing “Go West Young Man” with her fellow passengers (Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers), when her drippy fiancé Cecil Phelps, the president of Worldwide Tours (played by Hardie Albright), and her old-maid aunt Dolly show up to spirit her away. Cecil intends to marry Lucille immediately, in Yuma, but she desperately wants to see El Dorado.

Their car breaks down on the way, and any hope Cecil has of making Lucille his wife pretty much falls off a cliff when Roy Rogers and Trigger ride up to help. He finds Lucille, off on her own, and says to her, “Well, I’ve seen mirages before, but this is the first one that ever talked back. Are you a mirage?”

Trigger tows their car to the nearest town, which happens to be El Dorado. Once there, Lucille explores the remains of the Golden Nugget and discovers a painting of Kansas Kate hanging above the bar. She’s interrupted by an ornery old coot named Gabby (George “Gabby” Hayes) who’s been dropping by the saloon for 40 years to make sure nothing happens to the painting. As Lucille stares at the picture and fantasizes about what her grandmother’s life might have been like, the movie flashes back to the old west, but the narrative continues, as everyone has a counterpart. Evans plays Kansas Kate, Rogers continues to play that character called “Roy Rogers” he played in so many movies, Gabby plays his younger self, and Cecil the drip becomes Cyril the heavy.

The plot moves at a brisk pace, and hinges on the coded map to Gabby’s gold claim being stolen by a group of bandits. Roy suspects that Kate was behind the plan, especially since she originally told him she was a schoolteacher, not a saloon owner, in order to impress him.

After Roy slugs it out with the toughest guy in the bar, a heavy named “Buster” (Roy Barcroft), he takes over Buster’s position as Kate’s bodyguard. Apparently his first duty as her bodyguard is to perform “Belle of the El Dorado” with Kate and her backup singers in a fully choreographed number.

The romantic scenes between Rogers and Evans are, as always, sweet and believable. After they take a break from riding together, she asks him, “What I can’t understand is why you took this job in the first place, particularly when you thought I swindled old Gabby out of his gold mine.”

“That’s why I took the job, to find out if you did,” he responds.

“Did you find out yet?” she asks.

“Oh, just a hunch, that’s about all,” he says, chewing on a piece of alfalfa and smiling.

I won’t be giving anything away if I tell you that everything turns out all right for Roy, Dale, Gabby, and Trigger, both in their present-day incarnations and their rootin’ tootin’ old-west versions. The only question I was left with was, since Lucille looks exactly like Kansas Kate, her own grandmother, and Roy looks exactly like the old-west character “Roy Rogers” who presumably married Kate, does that mean that the modern-day Lucille and Roy are actually cousins? Well, probably not, but it couldn’t help but cross my mind.

Utah (March 21, 1945)

RoyGabbyThe western genre may be moribund, but it refuses to kick the bucket. Singing cowboys, on the other hand, are deader than vaudeville. There was a time, however, when Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were two of the biggest film stars in America.

I saw bits and pieces of Rogers’s movies on TV when I was younger, but to be honest, his horse Trigger made more of an impression on me than he did. And I still have never seen a Gene Autry movie. As part of my obsessive-compulsive project of watching old movies in the order they were released, however, I added Utah to my Netflix queue. It stars the holy trinity of hokey singing-cowboy movies: Rogers, Dale Evans, and Gabby Hayes. I was surprised by how charismatic I found Rogers in this movie. Sure, he’s corny, but he’s charming and handsome. At a time in America when a muffin-faced hayseed like Van Johnson was considered the height of attractiveness by a lot of bobby-soxers, Rogers is refreshingly dark; almost Eurasian looking. And Dale Evans looked fantastic. I’m used to seeing her and Rogers in publicity stills from the ’50s, when they were both middle-aged, but here, at the age of 32, she looks about 19. (Rogers, too, looks younger than his 33 years.)

Utah has a predictable plot. Rogers and his singing group, the Sons of the Pioneers, work as ranch hands (along with the crotchety Hayes) on the Bar X Ranch. Meanwhile, Evans and her singing and dancing troupe of ladies are performing in Chicago when they learn their financial backing has fallen through. Fortuitously, Evans’s grandfather bequeathed her a ranch in Utah, which she realizes she can sell to make enough money to keep her show going. Guess which ranch it is?

Evans and her distaff posse have to visit Utah to take care of business (natch), and hijinks ensue. Roy and Gabby attempt some elaborate trickery to convince Evans not to sell the ranch, and there are some black hats who want the ranch for themselves. Even in black and white, the Utah landscape is rugged and beautiful, and there are a lot of musical numbers and fistfights to keep the film moving. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s enjoyable, especially if you like singing-cowboy music.

By the time he made Utah, Rogers had already starred in more than 40 films. His first lead role was in Under Western Stars (1938), when he replaced Gene Autry, who had walked out on his contract. Born Leonard Slye, he rechristened himself “Roy Rogers” for this starring role, and a matinee idol was born. After his first marriage ended in divorce, he married Arline Wilkins. They had three children together, and he was still married to her when he and Evans started making movies together. Wilkins died in November 1946, shortly after the birth of Roy Rogers, Jr., from complications due to a Caesarean section. Rogers and Evans, of course, eventually married, in December 1947. Together they adopted four children, and they remained married until his death in 1998.