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Tag Archives: Republic Pictures

The Black Widow (13 chapters) (July 28-Oct. 20, 1947)

Spencer Gordon Bennet and Fred C. Brannon’s The Black Widow is a typically thrilling chapterplay from Republic Pictures. With its shadowy, semi-mystical antagonists and plucky male-female pair of protagonists navigating their way through a slam-bang adventure with plenty of sci-fi elements, it hits a lot of the same notes as The Crimson Ghost (1946), which Brannon co-directed with William Witney.

The Black Widow of the title is the darkly beautiful fortune teller Sombra (Carol Forman), who uses her crystal-gazing business as a front for her espionage activity. Like Fu Manchu’s daughter, she’s the henchwoman for an evil foreign mastermind bent on world domination. Her father, Hitomu, is played by grim monologist Brother Theodore, a.k.a. Theodore Gottlieb.

Hitomu is a weird character, and Theodore’s performance is suitably bizarre. Hitomu looks like a stage hypnotist wearing a turban with a fez on top. His plan for world conquest involves stealing the atomic rocket that Prof. Henry Weston (Sam Flint) is working on. Most of the time Hitomu pulls the strings from the background, giving Sombra his orders, then disappearing the same way he appeared — in a puff of smoke.

To do her bidding, Sombra has a pair of loyal henchmen, Dr. Z.V. Jaffa (I. Stanford Jolley) and Nick Ward (Anthony Warde). She’s also a master of disguise. With just a floppy rubber mask and a camera dissolve, Sombra can assume the appearance of any woman she pleases. It should come as no surprise — if you’re familiar with the conventions of serials — that this talent comes in handy week after week.

Opposing the Black Widow Gang at every turn are plucky Daily Clarion reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lee, who’s listed in the credits as Virginia Lindley) and amateur criminologist and mystery writer Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards), the creator of the fictional detective “Rodman Crane.”

Joyce and Steve have a mildly antagonistic relationship that’s supposed to be flirty and playful, but it never quite works because Lee and Edwards are such stiff actors. Occasionally, however, it reaches such insane heights that it’s hard not to go along for the ride, like the scene in which Steve handcuffs Joyce to the steering wheel of their car so she won’t follow him, but she detaches the steering wheel and ends up saving Steve from a gunman by attacking the gunman with the steering wheel.

The Black Widow is full of nifty pseudoscientific malarkey like the “Sinetrone,” which uses sound vibrations to destroy atomic rockets, and a tube of rocket fuel that contains “phosphoro,” a deadly chemical that can only be neutralized by “ciprocyllium acid.”

There’s plenty of action, but none of it’s meant to be taken very seriously. And in case you thought it was, the final chapter of the serial ends with Joyce rushing off to investigate a hot tip that Hitler is hiding in the Florida Everglades and Steve calling after her, “Wait for me!”

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Exposed (Sept. 8, 1947)

Exposed
Exposed (1947)
Directed by George Blair
Republic Pictures

I wish that George Blair’s Exposed was a better movie, because it’s got a great setup. It’s one of those rare movies from the 1940s — like Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) — that features a woman in a traditionally masculine role. In Molly X it was June Havoc as the leader of a heist crew (and later tough gal behind bars). In Exposed it’s cute-as-a-button Adela Mara as Los Angeles private eye Belinda Prentice.

Prentice is a stylishly dressed young woman who eats in the best restaurants and drives a Lincoln Continental Convertible. She has an office with marble walls and blond wood furniture. The door to her office has “B. Prentice” stenciled on pebbled glass. Her fee is $75 a day plus expenses.

When a dignified gentleman, Col. Bentry (Russell Hicks), who is looking to engage the services of a private investigator is surprised to discover that B. Prentice is a woman, she responds, “You were expecting maybe Senator Claghorn?”

Prentice is full of quips like that. When a tough little gunsel named “Chicago” (Bob Steele) sits down at her table at the Deauville Restaurant and places his fedora down with a gun under it, she says, “Take your hat off the table. I’m allergic to dandruff.”

When a waitress at a cocktail lounge warns Prentice that the man she wants to talk to is a bad egg, she responds, “Don’t worry, I’ll scramble him.”

Her dialogue may be hard-boiled, but she always comes off as cute and impish, not like a bull dagger who talks out of the side of her mouth. She achieves this by backing up all of her wiseacre comments not with her fists or a pistol, but with her assistant, a hulking ex-Marine named Iggy (William Haade).

Like I said, Exposed has a great setup. The problem is its execution.

Exposed was a B feature from Republic Pictures, but it’s top-heavy with plot, which is tough to handle with a running time of only 59 minutes. Consequently, the dialogue is nearly all exposition. The shooting schedule was obviously tight, allowing for a limited number of takes, which results in the actors all being stiff, reciting their lines without flubbing any of them, but without injecting much life into them either. (Compare, for instance Bob Steele’s performance as a gunman in this film with his similar role in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep.)

The plot, in a nutshell, is that Col. Bentry’s stepson, William Foresman III (Mark Roberts), has been making very large withdrawals from the family business without telling anyone. The bluenosed Col. Bentry doesn’t want to ask him anything directly because he doesn’t want to seem like he’s prying.

So he employs the services of Belinda Prentice. But by the time she arrives at the Bentry estate, Col. Bentry is dead, seemingly stabbed with a letter opener. But there’s very little blood. Could it have been a heart attack — or poison — that caused him to collapse on the letter opener? The police are called in, including Inspector Prentice (Robert Armstrong), who’s Brenda’s father.

William Foresman III seems like a nice enough young man, but that never ruled anyone out as a suspect in a murder mystery. There are also all number of creeps crawling around in the woodwork, including Prof. Ordson (Paul E. Burns), Bentry’s physician, who’s working on a chemical cure for alcoholism.

If you can overlook the stilted dialogue and the overly involved mystery, Exposed is a fun second feature. Bob Steele’s fight scene with the much-larger William Haade is pretty good, and the film’s unpretentious shooting style is a great way to see what Los Angeles looked like circa 1947.

Jesse James Rides Again (13 chapters) (June 2-Aug. 25, 1947)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Republic Pictures made the best serials in the business. While you could sometimes find better acting in the Saturday-afternoon chapterplays from Universal and Columbia, neither could top Republic when it came to pure slam-bang entertainment. They employed the best stuntmen in Hollywood, and their serials were action packed.

Jesse James Rides Again, which was directed by Fred C. Brannon and Thomas Carr, could have gone the Poverty-Row route and used its western setting as an excuse to deliver a cheap finished product. They had the Iverson Ranch and plenty of reusable costumes, after all. Throw in some chases on horseback, some fistfights, some gunfights, and you’re golden.

Instead, Brannon and Carr delivered a fast-moving serial with lots of pyrotechnics. Some chapters are more exciting than others, obviously, but I still wasn’t expecting so many blown-up barns, flaming logs pushed down hills, exploding riverboats, and burning oil derricks.

Every chapter opens with a shot of men on horseback. They’re all wearing black robes and black hoods. The exciting theme music by Mort Glickman incorporates elements of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna.” The black-robed riders look exactly like members of the Ku Klux Klan in photo-negative, and they’re called — not terribly creatively — the Black Raiders.

The Black Raiders are secretly working for a man named James Clark, who’s played by Tristram Coffin, a dependable Republic villain playing the most dependable villainous archetype in westerns, the greedy land baron. Clark knows that the farmers who live in Peaceful Valley, Tennessee, are sitting on a rich vein of oil, and it’s only a matter of time before they find out about it.

Clark’s plan is to have the Black Raiders drive all the farmers out of Peaceful Valley by using violence and intimidation; good, salt-of-the-earth people like Ann Bolton (Linda Stirling) and her crippled father Sam Bolton (Tom London).

So in classic western fashion, into the Boltons’ lives rides Jesse James (Clayton Moore). The ex-Confederate outlaw is on the lam for a crime he didn’t commit (the robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota) along with his buddy Steve Long (John Compton).

Jesse James is traveling under the name “J.C. Howard,” and he’s a modern-day paladin, ready to take up arms in defense of the helpless, like Mr. Bolton and his daughter.

If you know anything about the real-life Jesse James, you’ve probably already realized that Jesse James Rides Again plays fast and loose with the facts.

But who cares? It’s all just an excuse for action and feats of derring-do, and as such, it succeeds admirably. Most of the chapters follow a predictable arc — J.C. Howard ( Jesse James) gets out of whatever scrape the previous chapter left him in, then it’s off to the James Clark Land Office, where Clark and his beefy henchman Frank Lawton (Roy Barcroft) discuss their nefarious plans for the oil under Peaceful Valley, just in case any of the kids in the audience are seeing the serial for the first time. Then Jesse James, Steve Long, and Ann Bolton become embroiled in another of Clark and Lawton’s plans, and have to fight their way out. (Clark’s role as villain is unknown to the protagonists until the last chapter.) And finally, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, like Ann Bolton unconscious inside a cotton compress, or Jesse James knocked out and left behind in the boiler room of a riverboat that’s about to explode.

As the weeks go by, Jesse James and the farmers eventually discover the oil they’re sitting on, and it becomes a race to register their land, sink wells, and get the oil out of the valley. All the while, Lawton and his boys commit one act of sabotage after another.

The most explosive and exciting chapter is the penultimate one, “Chapter Twelve: Black Gold,” in which Steve Long leads a wagon train carrying barrels of oil through a prairie set afire by Lawton and his boys. There are crackups and explosions galore. It’s not quite The Road Warrior, but it’s still an impressive set piece.

Clayton Moore, who plays Jesse James, is probably best known for playing the Lone Ranger on TV from 1949 to 1957. His role in Jesse James Rides Again sometimes seems like a dry run for playing the Lone Ranger.

Moore isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he’s a solid choice to play a stalwart western hero. Also, I really like the outfit he wore in this serial. Unlike the leather vests and dungarees favored by plenty of B western heroes, Jesse James wears a black hat, a black top coat, a black long string tie, and a dark vest over a white shirt. It’s what every Southern gentleman with a price on his head should be wearing.

Republic would make two more serials featuring Jesse James as a character; The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948), which again starred Moore as Jesse and co-starred Steve Darrell as his brother Frank, and The James Brothers of Missouri (1949), which starred Robert Bice as Frank James and Keith Richards as Jesse James. (No, not the Keith Richards you’re thinking of.)

Wyoming (July 28, 1947)

The last time I saw cowboy star Bill Elliott was in the Red Ryder movie Conquest of Cheyenne (1946), in which he was credited as “Wild” Bill Elliott.

I missed the next picture he made, Plainsman and the Lady (1946), but in both that film and this one, he’s listed in the credits with the more mature moniker “William Elliott.”

Like Elliott’s name change, Wyoming reflects a B-grade product’s aspirations to A-level status.

It’s about halfway successful.

Director Joseph Kane knows how to shoot a western, and Wyoming looks great. It’s full of snowstorms, big cattle drives, and beautiful wide open spaces. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt is credited as the second unit director, and the fistfights, shootouts, and horse action are all well-done. (One fight in particular is more brutal than I ever expected from a Republic western.)

But the script by prolific screenwriters Lawrence Hazard and Gerald Geraghty never rises to A quality. It’s full of big ideas and grand themes, but the treatment of those themes is muddled, and the dialogue is hackneyed.

In Wyoming, Elliott plays Charles Alderson, an intrepid pioneer who settles in the territory of Wyoming with his pregnant wife. When she dies in childbirth, Alderson sends his daughter to Europe for an education. While she is away, he builds up an enormous cattle herd, and becomes rich. He does so with the help of his friend Thomas Jefferson “Windy” Gibson (George “Gabby” Hayes), a grizzled old mountain man who says that while he may not look it, he was originally a lawyer from Vermont. But he got too involved with another “bar.” Get it?

Alderson’s daughter Karen returns to Wyoming in 1890, soon after it has been admitted to the union. (Karen is played by Vera Ralston, who also played her own mother in the opening portion of the film.) Alderson is now a cattle baron, but all is not well. Much of his range is now open to homesteaders, who are led by John “Duke” Lassiter (Albert Dekker). Lassiter is a shady character who is involved in rustling cattle, and who is exploiting the homesteaders for his own purposes.

Alderson’s foreman, Glenn Forrester (John Carroll), cautions Alderson that resorting to violence will only make things worse, but Alderson is a prideful, tyrannical man who shoots first and thinks later.

If all of this sounds a lot like Howard Hawks’s Red River (which was filmed in 1946 but wasn’t released until 1948), that’s because it is. But Wyoming never achieves the same impact as Red River.

The biggest problem with Wyoming is Elliott himself. The character he plays, Charles Alderson, is a complicated man who is nearly undone by his own ambition and propensity for violence, but Elliott is not a nuanced actor. I loved him in the Red Ryder westerns because he was so wooden that it added to the comic-book stalwartness of the character, but in Wyoming he seems to be overreaching, and it’s a little like watching Leslie Nielsen play Othello.

Saddle Pals (June 6, 1947)

Of the movies Gene Autry made after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Saddle Pals is my favorite so far.

That’s not to say that I loved the picture. I think Gene Autry is a great country singer, but as a leading man, I find him flat. But Saddle Pals is funnier and generally more entertaining than the last few Autry pictures I’ve seen, and it wasn’t a chore to sit through.

The picture begins when the beautiful, wealthy, and devil-may-care Shelly Brooks (Lynne Roberts) buzzes Gene, his boys, and their cows with her brand-new Lincoln. Of course, she blows a tire not long after, and Gene’s such a gentleman that he doesn’t hold her bad behavior against her, and changes the tire for her.

Shelly’s brother Waldo T. Brooks Jr. is raising rents on all the ranches in the valley so his wealthy family can be even wealthier. Not only is it unfair, it’s downright illegal, says attorney Thaddeus Bellweather (Irving Bacon), and he’ll handle the case for Gene just as soon as he gets back from trout season … which is going to last a long time.

So Gene and the Cass County boys (his backup band/ranch hands) head to the Brooks ranch to talk to Waldo, who turns out to be an effeminate, hysterical, rubber-faced hypochondriac played by Sterling Holloway. It turns out that Waldo is barely in control. It’s the Brooks Land Corporation that’s raising rents, under the direction of their evil leader Bradford Collins (Damian O’Flynn).

Waldo gives Gene control of his money. Gene tells Collins that he wants to buy into the corporation. Gene is then forced to come up with $50,000 in 30 days. He comes up with most of the money by selling off the Brooks’s show horses, and then decides to throw a rodeo to raise the rest of the money.

Shelly and Waldo have an adorable little sister, Robin (Jean Van), who wants desperately to be a cowgirl. She’s got the skills to pay the bills, so Gene puts her in the rodeo, but Collins uses the fact that she’s a minor to get Gene in trouble with the law.

Collins doesn’t stop there. If you’ve ever seen a B western from the ’30s or ’40s before, you know those greedy land-grabbing real estate barons never stop at legal malarkey, and sure enough, by the end of the picture there’s an out-of-control wagon on fire with Robin inside, and Gene and his horse Champion Jr. in hot pursuit.

The songs in Saddle Pals are generally good, even though there’s no single stand-out number. The songs include “You Stole My Heart,” “Which Way’d They Go,” “The Covered Wagon Rolled Right Along,” “Amapola,” and “I Wish I Never Had Met Sunshine.” Also, Sterling Holloway, who’s sort of like a less-funny, more-irritating version of Jim Carrey, is used judiciously in the picture, and most of his scenes are humorous, if not exactly hilarious.

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.”

Bells of San Angelo (April 15, 1947)

Bells of San Angelo
Bells of San Angelo (1947)
Directed by William Witney
Republic Pictures

Bells of San Angelo was Roy Rogers’s second western filmed in “Trucolor,” a two-color film process. (The first was Apache Rose, released earlier in 1947.) It was also the fifth film he made with director William Witney, who I’ve been a big fan of since high school. Witney directed my favorite Republic serials (often with John English), such as Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), and Spy Smasher (1942). Witney had a sure hand with pulpy material, and never made a picture that was less than entertaining. The stunt work in his films was always a high point. His action scenes — especially the fights — were incredibly well-staged, and still hold up pretty well.

There are currently a few ways to see Bells of San Angelo online. It’s available on YouTube, at Internet Archive, and on Netflix instant watch. The version on Netflix is the version that was edited for TV. It’s in black and white, not color, and shaves more than 20 minutes off the running time. Among the scenes that are lost is a really good fistfight between Roy and one of the bad guys. So if you want to see this movie, I recommend downloading the version from Internet Archive or watching it on YouTube. (You can click the links above to go directly to this movie.)

In Bells of San Angelo, Roy plays — as usual — a character named “Roy Rogers.” In this one, Roy is a border investigator. There are nefarious goings-on down at the old Monarch mines, which are run by a man named Rex Gridley (John McGuire), a handsome, dark-haired gentleman with a pet bird named “Cinderella.” In the first of many exciting action scenes, Gridley’s right-hand man, Ulrich (David Sharpe), shoots a man fleeing by stagecoach, then plants some silver ore in his pocket. Ulrich’s official story is that he was shooting down a thief, but Roy smells something rotten.

Roy’s comical sidekick in Bells of San Angelo is a big fat guy named Cookie Bullfincher (Andy Devine), who’s San Angelo’s mayor, sheriff, and official dog catcher (but the soft-hearted Cookie is really more of a “dog keeper”). Cookie may have a passel of titles, but Roy is the real authority, and his reach extends down into Mexico.

When Roy learns that western pulp writer Lee Madison is coming to town, and will be observing him work, he exclaims, “I don’t mind chasin’ thieves and murderers, but this is too much.” Madison is the author of numerous western potboilers, including one called Murder on the Border, and Roy thinks Madison will just twist reality to suit the tastes of a bloodthirsty readership.

It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone when it’s revealed that Madison is actually a woman, or that she will hide her identity from Roy as long as she can, creating all manner of humorous misunderstandings.

Madison is played by Dale Evans, Roy’s real-life wife, and they’re really cute together. They always seem to be having fun in their scenes, which softens things when he’s being a chauvinist and threatening to spank her, or calling her “the nosiest girl I’ve ever met.”

Director Witney is more concerned with packing the film full of entertainment than with narrative coherence. But who cares? There are songs aplenty, subplots galore, and lots of action, some of it pretty rough for a Saturday matinée picture aimed at kids.

Bells of San Angelo was filmed in Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, and the scenery is spectacular. Of course, it looks nothing like San Angelo, Texas, which — by the way — is in the heart of Texas, not anywhere near the Mexican border. But whatever. If you like Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Trigger, you’ll love this movie.