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Tag Archives: Roy Rogers

The Golden Stallion (Nov. 15, 1949)

The Golden Stallion
The Golden Stallion (1949)
Directed by William Witney
Republic Pictures

Of the more than 70 oaters that starred Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Trigger (the smartest horse in the movies), The Golden Stallion is the best known by today’s film geeks.

The reason for this is an article published in the September 15, 2000, issue of the NY Times called “Whoa, Trigger! Auteur Alert!”, in which Quentin Tarantino waxed rhapsodic about the films of William Witney.

I remember reading the article when it was first published and being immensely pleased. The writer of the piece accurately called Witney “a now all-but-forgotten journeyman director,” but I’ve been a fan of his serials since I was in high school. I watched a lot of serials when I was younger, and it was hard not to notice that the cream of the crop all bore his name as director. Along with his frequent co-director, John English, Witney made one memorable Republic serial after another, like Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), The Crimson Ghost (1946), and others too numerous to list here.

In the postwar era the market for serials started to dry up, and Witney turned to making westerns for Republic Pictures, including many with Roy Rogers. Tarantino loves what Witney did with Rogers’s films during this period.

“After their first few movies together,” Tarantino said, “Witney had gotten Roy out of his fringe-and-sparkle attire and was dressing him in normal attire, blue jeans and stuff. They stopped being these crazy musicals. He turned them into rough, tough violent adventures.”

Golden Stallion lobby card

Tarantino is absolutely right. Witney was an old hand at directing knock-down drag-out fistfights in serials, and he brought this experience to his features with Roy Rogers.

The best fight I’ve seen in a Roy Rogers film that Witney directed is probably the one in Bells of San Angelo (1947), but all of their collaborations had plenty of action, and The Golden Stallion is no exception. What I found most impressive about The Golden Stallion were not any of the fight scenes, but rather the scenes of Trigger galloping at the head of a herd of wild horses. These sequence appear to have been filmed from a jeep, and they’re full of speed and drama.

So is The Golden Stallion — as Tarantino claims — the best film that Witney and Rogers made together?

That’s hard for me to say, because their films were of such a consistent level of quality (for better and for worse). Like all of their other films, The Golden Stallion had a low budget, a tight shooting schedule, and hokey humor. But it has a better-than-average plot (about a gang smuggling uncut diamonds over the border hidden in horseshoes nailed to the hooves of wild horses), a great scene where Roy has to make an enormous sacrifice to save Trigger’s life, and some really beautiful filmmaking.

If you like B westerns — especially if you like B westerns with singing cowboys — you really can’t go wrong with any of the Roy Rogers films that Witney directed. But if you’re unsure about B westerns and you want to see just one, check out The Golden Stallion. Just make sure you watch the full version, which is 67 minutes long. There’s a truncated version that’s less than an hour long currently on YouTube, but the full color version is available to stream if you’re an Amazon Prime member.

Under California Stars (April 30, 1948)

Under California Stars is one of those “Trigger in peril” pictures in which Roy Rogers’s faithful palomino Trigger, “the smartest horse in movies,” faces terrible danger, and only his best friend Roy Rogers can make things right … with plenty of help from Trigger himself, of course. (Another “Trigger in peril” film, The Golden Stallion, was the subject of a NY Times piece in which Quentin Tarantino waxed rhapsodic about the film’s director. It’s a great article, and you can read it by clicking on this sentence.)

Like most Roy Rogers movies made in the post-war ’40s, Under California Stars was directed by William Witney, a veteran B-movie director born in 1915 who had nearly 40 westerns and serials under his belt by 1948.

Witney was a brilliant director of action. He was reportedly inspired by watching Busby Berkeley direct big musical numbers in which different takes were designed to be cut together for a coherent whole.

Before Witney’s innovative work on action serials, most directors would just train the camera on the stuntmen and let them do their thing, but Witney took a more active role, arranging action set pieces that incorporated elegant camera movements and effective cutting between actors and their stuntmen doubles.

The serials he directed for Republic Pictures were done on a tight budget and an even tighter timeline, so Witney often directed the action segments while his frequent collaborator John English handled the dialogue scenes. (Witney and English directed Adventures of Captain Marvel [1941], which I consider the greatest serial ever made.) Witney’s film work is a far cry from today’s hyperactive, chopped-to-hell action movies, but in many ways he is the father of the modern action movie.

Under California Stars isn’t wall-to-wall action, but the fight scenes are well-done, and like most Witney joints, it’s a classic example of good B filmmaking.

Like most Roy Rogers movies from the ’40s, Under California Stars blurs the line between Roy’s on-screen persona and his real life. He plays a character named “Roy Rogers,” who, when the film begins, is being told by his director, “Roy, you can be mighty proud of your ten years in pictures.” (Roy’s first starring role was in the film Under Western Stars, which was released on April 20, 1938.)

The action quickly shifts from Hollywood to the Double R Ranch, where Trigger and Roy are met by foreman Cookie Bullfincher (Andy Devine), as well as Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, who sing a hymn to Roy’s good-natured greatness. Roy is also presented with a 10-year anniversary cake and does a radio broadcast from the Double R in which he sings “Dust,” one of the songs that made him famous.

But not everyone is thrilled to pieces about Roy Rogers and his marvelous horse. Lige McFarland (Wade Crosby) and his henchman Ed (House Peters Jr.) resent the handsome do-gooder and hatch a scheme to kidnap Trigger and ransom him for $100,000 … or else.

Under California Stars is a brisk, well-made Saturday matinee western with good songs and hard-hitting action. The whole film is currently uploaded to YouTube, and you can watch it by clicking on the link below. It’s also currently available to download from archive.org.

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.

Out California Way (Dec. 5, 1946)

In the grand tradition of singing cowboys, Monte Hale plays a character in Out California Way named “Monte Hale.”

Out California Way is filmed in “Trucolor,” a two-color film process owned by Republic Pictures, and throws Hale into a metafictional world that pulls back the curtain and allows boys and girls at the Saturday matinée to see what might be going on behind the scenes at Republic with all of their favorite cowboy stars.

Hale doesn’t sit quite as tall in the saddle as Republic’s big boys, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, but he’s self-effacing and charming enough to be believable when he says he’s “just a plain cowboy trying to break in” to the movies.

He’s assisted by little Danny McCoy (Bobby Blake, famous for playing Little Beaver in the Red Ryder series), who’s trying to get his horse Pardner into the movies.

Opposing them is the prima donna Rod Mason (John Dehner), who’s a big radio star as the “Robin Hood of the Range,” and has a career in pictures, too. Little Danny McCoy is president of the Rod Mason Fan Club, but that changes pretty fast after he actually meets the guy. Not only is Mason temperamental and nasty to his co-stars, but he hates children and animals. After threatening to whip Pardner if Danny doesn’t get him off the set, it’s clear that Danny has room in his heart for another cowboy actor. For that matter, so does his young, pretty mother, Gloria (played by Lorna Gray, who’s just 16 years older than Blake).

Hale’s an expert horse trainer, and together he and Pardner form a great team. Originally cast as stunt actors on one of Rod Mason’s pictures, they do such a good job that every rewrite comes back with a bigger role for Hale and a smaller part for Mason.

Mason and his sidekick, stunt rider Ace Hanlon (Fred Graham), are typical black hats, so they stop at nothing to foil Hale and Pardner’s success. While performing a stunt, Ace throws short-fuse dynamite at Hale that doesn’t kill him, but totally blows Pardner’s nerves.

Hale takes time off to retrain Pardner and help him over his trauma, but Mason and Ace immediately undo his hard work by sneaking into the corral at night and freaking out Pardner all over again by repeatedly firing a revolver near his head.

On his journey from “plain cowboy” to movie star, Hale is joined by special guest stars Allan Lane, Don “Red Barry,” Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and horse Trigger, all members of Republic Pictures’ stable of western stars, and all playing themselves in the sequence in which Hale gives Gloria a tour of the studios. Roy and Dale perform a nice rendition of “Ridin’ Down the Sunset Trail” for them. Not bad for a first date.

John Dehner, who would later be a recurring actor on Gunsmoke (both the radio and TV versions), was a fine actor and makes for a great villain in this picture. While Out California Way isn’t substantively different from any of the hundreds of other oaters put out by Republic Pictures, it was fun to see a slightly different plot than the dependable old “evil land baron makes a grab for smaller ranchers’ land.”

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.

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.

Along the Navajo Trail (Sept. 15, 1945)

AlongTheNavajoTrailThere are no Navajos to be found in this run-of-the-mill Roy Rogers picture, or American Indians of any tribe, for that matter. The title comes from a popular song that was written by Dick Charles (a.k.a. Richard Charles Krieg), Larry Markes, and Edgar De Lange in 1945, and is sung by Rogers, Dale Evans, and the rest of the gang to close the picture. No, the only people of color in Along the Navajo Trail are Spanish-speaking Gypsies, who are portrayed in much the same way Mexicans were in Hollywood westerns except that they wear funny clothes, travel in wagons, and the men wear gold hoop earrings. They also provide George “Gabby” Hayes’s character with a series of comic interludes in which he attempts to cheat the Gypsies, and is in turn cheated himself. These horse trades don’t add much to the plot, but they do result in Hayes sputtering the memorable line, “I sure have gypped that gyppin’ Gypsy!”

In Along the Navajo Trail, Rogers plays a character named “Roy Rogers” who at first appears to be an itinerant cowpoke, but whom we later discover is a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Dale Evans plays a ranch owner named Lorry Alastair, and Hayes plays her foreman, Gabby Whittaker. Lorry is skittish about Rogers when he drifts onto her property, the Ladder A Ranch, and orders Gabby to run him off. She changes her tune, however, when she walks to his relocated campsite herself to kick him off her land, but he ends up singing to her under his tarp in the rain, making up a song as he goes, and asking her if she knows a girl’s name that rhymes with “Saskatoon.”

Lorry eventually finds the Deputy U.S. Marshal badge in his boot and realizes beyond a doubt that he’s one of the white hats. The black hats in Along the Navajo Trail are the representatives of the Santa Fe Drilling Company. There isn’t any oil on Lorry’s land, but the company needs to lay a pipeline through her property, and they’ll stop at nothing to do so.

Along the Navajo Trail is heavier on action than some of Rogers’s efforts, and it should please most fans of old B westerns. As usual, Rogers solves problems with haymakers and gunplay, but stops short of ever getting too bloodthirsty, since plot contrivances take care of the worst of the bad guys. The climax of the picture occurs when the final black hat loses control of his buckboard, and it flies over a cliff and he falls to his death (in the form of an especially noticeable dummy). Rogers rides to the edge of the cliff and surveys the destruction with the same look of mild disapproval one reserves for drunks puking in Dumpsters in the middle of the afternoon.

At the end of the picture, Rogers, Evans, and the rest of the cast gather to sing “Along the Navajo Trail,” and then they all live happily ever after. Or at least, their characters do. Rogers, Hayes, Evans, and Trigger would all be back exactly two Saturdays later, when Sunset in El Dorado was released into theaters.