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Tag Archives: John L. Cason

Prairie Badmen (July 17, 1946)

Is wildly prolific Poverty Row director Sam Newfield’s Prairie Badmen really that much better than the last two westerns of his I’ve seen? Or is he just wearing me down?

Probably a little of both. Prairie Badmen has all the hallmarks of a shoddy P.R.C. western — incompetent use of library music by musical director Lee Zahler, insouciant use of obvious stunt doubles, and static, unimaginative camerawork — but it moves at a nice clip, has a decent story, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and features plenty of goofy physical humor courtesy of Al “Fuzzy” St. John.

As the film opens, we see Fuzzy, wearing a feathered trailer warbonnet that flows down his back and reaches the ground. He’s standing on the back of a wagon, hawking patent medicine called “Kickapoo Elixir” (subtitled “A Blessing to Mankind”) to a bunch of cowpokes and yokels. Inside the wagon lies Doc Lattimer (Ed Cassidy), who is convalescing. Lattimer tells his daughter, Linda (Patricia Knox), “Fuzzy seems to be all right on the crescendo, but he doesn’t seem to have the proper persuasive note in his confidential appeal.”

Before you can say “Jack Robinson,” a trio of no-good characters, Cal (Charles King), Lon (Kermit Maynard), and Steve (John L. Cason), surreptitiously hitch their horses to the front of the wagon and take off with it, with Lattimer and his daughter inside. Fuzzy falls off, but he quickly gets to his feet and chases after them, his headdress flying behind him, nearly parallel to the ground. (It’s clearly held aloft by an off-screen wire, since its angle is different in each shot.)

Pretty soon, Billy Carson (Buster Crabbe) rides in and saves the motley crew of good-natured scam artists from the troublemakers. They claim they were just having some fun. Prairie badmen? More like prairie frat boys.

Or so it seems. Eventually we’ll learn that those badmen are after a map that a wounded and dying outlaw named Bill Thompson (Frank Ellis) may have left with Doc Lattimer five years earlier. The map supposedly shows the location of four bars of gold stolen from an express office.

The thickening of the plot, such as it is, comes from Doc Lattimer’s son, Don (John L. Buster), who’s sick of traveling with his father and sister, making chicken feed while standing on the back of the medicine wagon and singing songs like “Prairie Pete.” Billy offers him some avuncular advice, “You don’t prove you’re a man by carrying a chip around on your shoulder.” But Don doesn’t take it to heart, and soon falls in with the black hats, attempting to finagle a half share of the loot in exchange for revealing the location of the treasure.

The plot is nothing outstanding, but it’s engaging enough, and frequently punctuated by Fuzzy’s corn-pone antics, so it never gets boring. When Billy tells Fuzzy he should know what he’s selling for a dollar a bottle, Fuzzy accidentally grabs turpentine instead of patent medicine. He pours it on his head, down his back, and then drinks it. He proceeds to make facial expressions that would make Red Skelton ashamed, spits it out, yowls, and leaps up and down like a jumping jack.

Some of the comic relief goes on too long, such as the scene in which Fuzzy attempts to string up a hammock and then get into it, but it’s mostly entertaining. He wears his Indian warbonnet for most of the picture, and it’s practically another character in the movie, snaking and flying around, constantly manipulated by that off-screen wire.

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Ghost of Hidden Valley (June 5, 1946)

When it comes to Poverty Row westerns, there’s a fine line between watchable and unwatchable.

I didn’t dislike Ghost of Hidden Valley, and even enjoyed a lot of it. I can’t say whether that’s because it’s a slight cut above other Poverty Row westerns distributed by P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) that I’ve seen lately, or because my expectations were ground down to a nub by the three other movies directed by Sam Newfield that I’ve watched in the past year.

One of the most prolific directors of all time, Newfield directed more than 250 movies in a career that spanned almost 40 years. Martin Scorsese once said, “Newfield is hard, that’s a hard one, you can’t do too much of that.” This from a man well known for his insatiable appetite for films of all kinds.

Ghost of Hidden Valley begins with some stock footage of an enormous herd of cattle. In the next scene, Ed “Blackie” Dawson (Charles King), the leader of a group of cattle rustlers, shoots an interloper so he won’t tell any tales to the law. “Well, that takes care of that,” Dawson’s henchman says. “The ghost of hidden valley will get all the blame.”

I’m a fan of economical storytelling, even when it’s outlandish.

There is no ghost, of course, and we won’t see any more cattle, either. There will be some weak-sauce comedy in which the grizzled and toothless Fuzzy Q. Jones (Al “Fuzzy” St. John) will mistake the calls of a hoot owl for the spectral cries of a wandering spirit, but that’s it.

After Dawson and his rustlers commit murder, we see cowboy Billy Carson (Buster Crabbe) and his friend Fuzzy at the post office in Canyon City, Arizona. Fuzzy has received a letter from someone named Cecil Trenton. (It comes addressed to “Fuzzy Jones, Esq.”) Cecil’s late brother, Sir Dudley Trenton, spoke well of Fuzzy, as well as his sojourn in America generally. “It was his wish that his son Henry, a young gentleman just out of Oxford, should experience a bit of the rugged life and devote some attention to the property Sir Dudley purchased in your vicinity,” Cecil writes.

“What is this Oxford he just got out of, a penitentiary?” asks Fuzzy.

“No,” Billy responds. “Some sort of a school.”

Henry Trenton (John Meredith) is exactly what you might expect. A fey, snooty-accented tenderfoot wearing a checked shirt, vest, ten-gallon hat, and ridiculous sheepskin chaps. “I always make it a point to dress correctly,” he says. He even has an aristocratic butler in tow named Tweedle (Jimmy Aubrey).

Billy sees the potential of Hidden Valley Ranch, if only someone could knuckle down and work it properly. Will Henry Trenton be that man?

Ghost of Hidden Valley is a typical P.R.C. western, with plenty of shootouts, chases on horseback, and furniture-destroying fistfights to fill out its 56-minute running time, but at least it’s briskly paced. Also, the female lead (Jean Carlin) is pretty, unlike the last Crabbe P.R.C. western I saw, and the script by Ellen Coyle is breezy and relatively entertaining.

There’s still Newfield’s trademark sloppiness and inattention to detail for the viewer to contend with. For instance, there’s one scene in which Crabbe’s skinny stunt double, his loose shirt hanging out of his pants, takes a punch, there’s a cut, and the next shot is of the real Crabbe, his chunky torso unmistakable, and his shirt tightly tucked into his jeans.

Crabbe was my main problem with this film. No longer the dashing young actor he was when he played Flash Gordon in the ’30s, Crabbe phones in his performance, has trouble mounting his horse in at least one scene, and generally looks as if he’d rather be somewhere else.

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.