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Tag Archives: Wild Bill Elliott

Conquest of Cheyenne (July 29, 1946)

R.G. Springsteen’s Conquest of Cheyenne was the last Red Ryder adventure to star “Wild” Bill Elliott. Bobby Blake, who plays “Little Beaver,” the adorable little Indian boy whose biggest challenge in life is the English language, would stay with the series for seven more films, but after Conquest of Cheyenne, Allan “Rocky” Lane took over as the stalwart comic-strip cowboy Red Ryder.

As last hurrahs go, it’s not much, which is too bad. I really like Elliott’s stolid presence in these western programmers, and looked forward to each new one that came out. Unfortunately, Red Ryder, Little Beaver, and Ryder’s aunt, “The Duchess” (Alice Fleming), are barely characters in this film. For the most part, it focuses on an ambitious young man named Tom Dean (Jay Kirby) and his dream of bringing a big oil-drilling operation to west Texas.

Speaking of locations, the Duchess’s ranch sure did move around a lot. Just look at the list of Red Ryder films with a place name in them: Tucson Raiders (1944), Marshal of Reno (1944), The San Antonio Kid (1944), Cheyenne Wildcat (1944), Vigilantes of Dodge City (1944), Sheriff of Las Vegas (1944), Lone Texas Ranger (1945), Marshal of Laredo (1945), Colorado Pioneers (1945), California Gold Rush (1946), Sheriff of Redwood Valley (1946), and Sun Valley Cyclone (1946). In a lot of cases, of course, the names of the films had nothing to do with where the action actually took place, and that’s the case here. Conquest of Cheyenne takes place in Texas, and Cheyenne refers not to the city in Wyoming, but to a young woman, Cheyenne Jackson (Peggy Stewart).

Is there a conquest of her in this movie? ‘Fraid not.

The movie starts out with plenty of action. With the classic “spinning newspapers flying at the screen” gag, we learn that masked bandits have struck in Lubbock, Amarillo, and Muleshoe, where most of the rest of the action will take place. (I guess Conquest of Muleshoe wasn’t a catchy enough title.)

Cheyenne (the Duchess’s second cousin on her mother’s side) goes missing, and is believed kidnapped by the bandits, but she soon arrives in Muleshoe driving an out-of-control automobile. It turns out she wasn’t kidnapped after all, and the whole bandit subplot is largely forgotten.

Soon, the comic relief character “Daffy” (Emmett Lynn) will be forgotten, too, but at least we are treated to a good old fashioned dousing in a water trough when he falls in while attempting to get out of the way of Cheyenne’s car. And of course he emerges spitting a stream of water out of his mouth like a fountain.

Immediately following this fracas, the sheriff tries to ban cars. Tom Dean angrily tells him that he can’t do that. “Deny their use to the harebrained women drivers, but not to the horseless carriages themselves,” he says. (The movie itself sort of makes a nod towards equality by showing that Tom has some trouble starting the car himself, and by showing that Cheyenne learns to drive just fine by the end.)

Tom believes oil is the future of west Texas. There are already oil wells in east Texas, and he believes the entire state is heading in this direction, but he’ll not only have to convince the townspeople of Muleshoe, he’ll have to contend with an evil banker named Tuttle (Milton Kibbee), who plans to foreclose on Cheyenne’s ranch and take all the oil for himself. He’s aided in his crooked scheme by dependable Republic heavy Kenne Duncan as a geologist named McBride.

As I said, Red Ryder and Little Beaver don’t have much to do in this picture. It’s mostly Tom and Cheyenne’s story. Elliott does get the last words of the picture, however, when he rides in and sees Tom and Cheyenne lying on the ground, both being sprayed with oil gushing from Tom’s well on Cheyenne’s property. “Looks like the preacher’s gonna have to take care of both of ’em!” Red says happily.

OK, maybe that counts as a conquest. For Tom, at least.

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Sun Valley Cyclone (May 10, 1946)

Sun Valley Cyclone, another entry in the Red Ryder film series directed by the dependable R.G. Springsteen, tells the story of how Ryder got his horse, Thunder. These kinds of stories are classic; how Sgt. Preston of the Yukon got his dog King, how the Lone Ranger got Silver, and so on. I don’t know if there was ever a film that told the story of how Roy Rogers got his horse Trigger, but if there wasn’t, then Republic Pictures really dropped the ball.

When Sun Valley Cyclone begins, Ryder (Bill Elliott) is tracking a man who last went by the name of “Blake” in Wyoming, but has probably changed his name several times to evade the law. Ryder is accompanied, as always, by his pint-sized Indian sidekick, Little Beaver (Robert “Bobby” Blake). While discussing the issue with the sheriff of a sleepy Arizona town, Blackie Blake (Roy Barcroft) draws a bead on Ryder from his hiding place. Just in the nick of time, however, the black stallion Thunder rushes to Ryder’s aid, trampling Blake. Blake is basically uninjured, but the townspeople see only a killer horse that must be put down. Ryder intervenes, and says that Thunder must first receive a fair trial.

In the best Saturday matinee tradition, this trial comes in the form of a flashback that takes up most of the running time of the picture, and which tells the story of how Ryder and Thunder came to be acquainted.

When Theodore Roosevelt (played by Ed Cassidy) was putting together his Rough Riders, Ryder headed straight for the recruitment office. In the corral, he saw a black stallion. The horse breaker told Ryder, “He’s got a mean streak in him so deep and wide that nobody’s ever going to be able to ride him. He’s black as a thunder cloud, and as violent as lightning.” Ryder responded, “Well I’ve seen a lot of horses, but not any one of them as ornery as you claim that stallion is. Fact is, horses are like most people. You get to understand them, and they understand you, you get along somehow.”

Colonel Roosevelt arrives just as Ryder is being flung back and forth atop Thunder, but managing to stay in the saddle. Roosevelt admires the man’s bronc-busting ability, and says he’s only known one man in all his years who could break a horse like that. It turns out that Ryder and Roosevelt are old friends (who knew?), and the colonel decides that Ryder’s talents would be better served fighting range outlaws in Wyoming than waging war with the Rough Riders.

I really enjoy the Red Ryder series. Bill Elliott’s moniker of “Wild Bill Elliott” might have helped establish his western bona fides on movie posters, but he’s about the least wild actor I’ve ever seen. In fact, he’s so stolid that after watching him in several films, I can’t help but feel there’s a joke, and that he’s in on it.

For instance, after a long sequence in which the bad guys try to break Thunder, whip him viciously, and then watch him escape with the fancy new saddle belonging to black hat Dow (Kenne Duncan), the scene cuts back to the present, and Elliott, his arms crossed, says, “Of course, some of the things I’m telling you I got second hand. And a considerable time later.” And then it’s back to the flashback. His delivery is perfect, and it’s a funny line. Was it meant to be? It’s hard to say, but I couldn’t help feeling that if Elliott hadn’t died in 1965, he might have found work in Airplane!-style comedies with other deadpan funnymen like Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack.

Sun Valley Cyclone is an enjoyable picture, and not just because of Elliott’s impossibly straight-shooting persona. There’s also a delightful equine love triangle between Thunder, a white mare, and a paint stallion. Their story is told through body language, which means there are plenty of lips curled back from teeth on the part of the guys, and some come-hither hoof pawing on the part of the lady.

Sheriff of Redwood Valley (March 29, 1946)

I really like the Red Ryder movies with “Wild” Bill Elliott and Bobby Blake. Sheriff of Redwood Valley is the third one I’ve seen, and watching it after a couple of really bad P.R.C. westerns drove home an opinion I’ve long held; a low budget is no excuse for a bad movie.

I have no idea what the budget was for Sheriff of Redwood Valley, or how it compared with the budgets for contemporaneous P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) westerns starring actors like Buster Crabbe, Bob Steele, and Eddie Dean. Sheriff of Redwood Valley was released by Republic Pictures, which was a more prestigious outfit than the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., so it’s likely the budget was higher, but it’s still clearly a low-budget programmer.

But Republic specialized in low-budget programmers and weekly chapterplays, and made some of the best ones in the history of Hollywood. Most of their stars weren’t great actors, but they were likable and fun to watch. Most of their scripts weren’t brilliantly written, but they were nicely paced and had enough twists and turns to keep you watching. And, like all low-budget productions, they cut corners and used stock footage, but they used it judiciously. Most importantly, their movies had a sense of fun and excitement, and were tailor-made for Saturday matinée viewing down at the local bijou.

It didn’t hurt that Republic employed directors who could put together a watchable movie, like William Witney and John English. The sheer number of pictures directed by Sam Newfield for P.R.C. should tell you something about the studio. (The name “Sam Newfield” isn’t as well-known among connoisseurs of bad movies as “Ed Wood,” but it probably should be.)

All of this is not to say that Republic Pictures never released a bad movie; they released plenty. And P.R.C. distributed a few very good films (including Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, for my money the best film of 1945, and one of the best film noirs of all time). But most Republic films are object lessons in how to make a very entertaining movie in spite of a small budget, actors who aren’t that talented, and a limited shooting schedule.

R.G. Springsteen’s Sheriff of Redwood Valley takes place in 1895. The first shot is of San Quentin at night. A shadowy figure runs along the ramparts and jumps down to safety. We learn from a newspaper headline in the next shot that this man was the notorious stagecoach robber the Reno Kid.

The scene shifts to the Redwood Valley, where the big question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the railroad is going to come through their town. If it does, it will be an economic boon. If it doesn’t, their town just might wither up and die. Red Ryder (Bill Elliott) is presiding over a meeting with town leader Bidwell (James Craven), the sheriff (Tom London), and Red Ryder’s aunt and ranch owner the Duchess (Alice Fleming). The townsfolk have raised the $50,000 necessary to dynamite a tunnel through their mountain and bring the railroad to them, so naturally the best way to deliver it to the right people is to hide it in a cowboy boot and get Red Ryder and the sheriff to transport it in a buckboard.

As you might guess, things go wrong. Red and the sheriff are ambushed, both are badly wounded, and the money is stolen. Circumstantial evidence points to the Reno Kid, but Bidwell and his henchman are actually behind the robbery.

It turns out that the Reno Kid (played by the diminutive cowboy actor Bob Steele, last seen in the P.R.C. cheapie Ambush Trail) isn’t such a bad guy after all. He broke out of prison to see his pretty wife Molly (Peggy Stewart) and their sick child Johnny (John Wayne Wright), and to clear his name.

Red Ryder and the Reno Kid’s paths cross after the robbery, when Red’s adorable, pidgin-English-speaking Indian sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) trusses the injured Red to his horse Thunder and leads him to Molly’s cabin to recover from his wounds. It doesn’t take long for Red to suss out who Reno really is, but he plays it cool in order to apprehend him with a minimum of bloodshed. Eventually, of course, Red realizes that Reno isn’t the villain he’s reputed to be, but it took a lot longer than I was expecting, which added a good amount of suspense to the story.

The Red Ryder series is clearly aimed at kids. Each film begins with an enormous storybook slowly opening, followed by Elliott and Blake stepping out of its pages, Elliott’s guns blazing. (Red Ryder was a long-running character in the Sunday funnies, so it might have made more sense if they’d stepped out of a newspaper, but what the heck? It works.) Also, little Bobby (later Robert) Blake was a veteran of the Our Gang comedy series, and he’s really cute, although to fully enjoy the Red Ryder movies you have to be O.K. with the ridiculous stereotype that Little Beaver is, as well as put out of your mind for a little while the details of Blake’s tragic and violent personal life.

Elliott is fairly stiff as an actor, but I think he’s great in this role, mostly because he acts like someone who’s stiff and plainspoken in real life, not like someone who’s acting that way because he’s a bad actor. His playful relationship with Blake is especially enjoyable to watch. (There’s a running gag in Sheriff of Redwood Valley about Red getting Little Beaver to take medicine and eat food Red finds distasteful.) While the intended audience was kids, I think the Red Ryder series stands up as great B western entertainment for anyone.

Colorado Pioneers (Nov. 14, 1945)

Red Ryder was a comic-strip cowboy created by writer Stephen Slesinger and artist Fred Harman. Red Ryder premiered in the Sunday funnies on November 6, 1938, and soon grew into one of the largest franchises in entertainment history. In the 1940s, there was nary a kid-friendly product that didn’t have a Red Ryder tie-in; comic books, novels, Big Little Books, a radio show, and the infamous Red Ryder BB Gun, which is still in production today despite the fact that Red Ryder hasn’t appeared in newspapers since the 1960s. For thousands of baby boomers, the Red Ryder BB Gun wasn’t the only way to put an eye out, but it was the most universal.

The first appearance of Red Ryder on film was in 1940, in the Republic serial Adventures of Red Ryder, which starred Don “Red” Barry as Red Ryder and Tommy Cook as his young Indian sidekick, Little Beaver. Like all Republic chapterplays, it was quality entertainment, but Barry was a bit of a pipsqueak compared with the tall, square-jawed actor who stepped into the role next, “Wild” Bill Elliott. Starting with Tucson Raiders in 1944, Elliott was paired with future ladykiller Robert Blake (at that time credited as “Bobby Blake”) as Little Beaver in a total of 16 features over the course of two years. (Blake kept appearing as Little Beaver in the series after Elliott left. Starting with Santa Fe Uprising in 1946 he was paired with Allan “Rocky” Lane in seven more Red Ryder films.)

Colorado Pioneers begins in Chicago, where Red Ryder and Little Beaver run afoul of a couple of ragamuffins who today would be called “at-risk youth.” Red Ryder intercedes on their behalf in court, and frees them from a life of petty street crime by taking them back to the Colorado ranch run by his aunt, “The Duchess” (Alice Fleming), where he teaches them the value of hard work and fresh air. Originally planning to take just the two boys who stole his money (Billy Cummings and Freddie Chapman), Red Ryder is convinced by Little Beaver to take the whole gang, including a token black member named “Smokey,” who is played by Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas (yes, he’s the Buckwheat you’re thinking of). The situation may be hokey and formulaic, but Elliott is a strong enough presence to make you believe it when the kids start following his lead. The emotional core of the film is the most recalcitrant boy, who resists Red Ryder’s mentorship, but who can’t resist a frail colt, which he feeds and talks to in secret. The boy’s journey from a hardened little thug to a young man who is able to care for something weaker than himself and tell the truth even when it’s difficult makes for a surprisingly moving story.

Colorado Pioneers is an excellent little B western. While it’s aimed at kids, Elliott is believable and tough enough as Red Ryder for adults to enjoy the film, too. He’s not quite Henry Fonda or Randolph Scott, but he’s one of the better western stars you’ve probably never heard of.