50 Movie Western Classics, Disc 5

Close observers (if there are any) may wonder why this isn’t Disc 4 of the Hollywood Legends set. It has to do with the six-disc cumulations I run in Cites & Insights: I don’t want to have two of them in the same month, so when I’m splitting viewing between two sets, I “get ahead” on one of the two. Given the number of short flicks in this set, it was an easy choice.

American Empire, 1942, b&w. William C. McGann (dir.), Richard Dix, Leo Carrillo, Preston Foster, Frances Gifford, Jack La Rue, Guinn Williams, Cliff Edwards. 1:22.

The setup: Just after the Civil War on the Sabine River between Texas and Louisiana, with Dan Taylor and Pax Bryce running a riverboat freight company. The boat gets grounded where Dominique Beauchard is driving a “there for the taking” herd of cattle across the river from Texas to Louisiana, and offer to transport the cattle if he’ll get the boat back afloat. Beauchard stiffs them on the fee—and they take off with a bunch of the cattle, which they sell to buy Texas land, then sell all the “free for the taking” cattle on the land to buy more land, then…

Anyway, the two build an “American empire” of Texas rangeland—but lose lots of cattle to Beauchard’s continuing attitude that any cattle his men can take are his property. They believe they’ve killed Beauchard because he falls off his horse into a river after a shot: Gee, apparently nobody but Dan’l Boone ever thought of hiding underwater breathing through a straw. When thousands of cattle keep disappearing, one increasingly-arrogant partner decides it must be the other cattlemen and says they can no longer drive their herds across his range. That leads to a forced stampede and the death of the partner’s son—which is not the climax of the movie (as one IMDB reviewer claims), although it helps make the rancher more bitter and difficult to deal with. That’s just part of a fairly large and plausible plotline, with Beauchard a continuing and nearly unstoppable villain and one of the two empire-builders as, well, a horse’s ass. There’s an odd mix of tones, as Beauchard (Leo Carrillo, perhaps best known as Pancho on The Cisco Kid) seems as much comic relief as town-destroying villain.

The climax is a remarkable and extended three-way battle after the rancher (his partner’s asked to be bought out) orders up barbed-wire fence, the rest of the cattlemen decide to attack him, as Beauchard’s gang decides to destroy the town…it’s quite something. My biggest problem with this otherwise-interesting flick, other than the curious way Beauchard’s character is played and yet another sheriff too stupid to prevent a jailbreak, is something I’ve never seen in a DVD transfer before: motion ghosts, the kind you’d get on old LCD displays. They’re sometimes pretty bad, with streaks trailing behind the action. That problem (and some sound distortion early on) reduce this to $1.

Billy the Kid Trapped, 1942, b&w, Sam Newfield (dir.), Buster Crabbe, Al St. John, Bud McTaggert, Ann Jeffries, Glenn Strange, Walter McGrail, Ted Adams. 0:59 [0:55].

This one’s a little different. Billy the Kid (Buster Crabbe) is a good guy, with Crusty and another sidekick (the first sidekick’s not named Crusty—actually “Fuzzy Jones”—but he’s yet another crusty ol’ sidekick), but three real outlaws are dressing up as Billy and his cohort and running around robbing and killing. An evil mastermind who runs Mesa City, a hideout for criminals, is behind it all, of course. (Note: I usd actor’s names as credited in the film, not as in IMDB.) Enough missing frames to interfere with continuity keep this from getting more than $0.75.

Vengeance Valley, 1951, color, Richard Thorpe (dir.), Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru, Sally Forrest, John Ireland, Hugh O”Brian, Will Wright. 1:23. [1:21]

This is more like it: Full (and very good) color, some serious acting (and serious actors), cowboys who herd cattle (you know, like cows), grand scale and scenery, an interesting and adult plot. The basic plot: An aging and ailing cattle baron has a son who’s pretty much worthless—and a foster son (Lancaster) who tries to keep the bad seed in shape while acting as ranch foreman and being far too loyal for his own good. The rotten kid’s married—but also impregnated a good local woman, for which her rotten brothers blame the innocent foster son. Various treachery ensues, all of it making a lot more sense than many western plots. Good narration and more detail about (and footage of) spring and fall cattle drives than you might expect. Some damage to portions of the print, but it’s still worth $1.50.

The Sundowners, 1950, color. George Templeton (dir.), Robert Preston, Robert Sterling, Chill Wills, Cathy Downs, John Litel, Jack Elam, Don Haggerty, John Barrymore Jr. 1:23

No, not the 1960 Deborah Kerr-Robert Mitchum flick; this one came ten years earlier. Also full color, with significant star power, some well-written dialog and pretty decent acting—Robert Preston makes a great villain. Distinctly filmed on location: It starts with a screen identifying the four Texas ranches used by name and brand!

The plot, as far as I can tell, is that two guys have a cattle ranch but are under siege from their neighbors (who formerly used the land as free grazing country) and keep losing cattle to nightriders. The Wichita Kid (Preston) shows up and, with the help of the younger guy and a ranch hand, starts stealing back cattle—and also shooting people when he feels like it. The “good guy” (Robert Sterling), the older of the two ranch owners, approves of the new thefts but isn’t quite so hot for the casual shootings. There’s a deep dark secret (given away fairly well, but I won’t mention it) that prevents Sterling from gunning down Preston to save his own hide. It all leads up to a three-way gun (and whip!) battle (three groups of people) and an ending of sorts.

I have two problems with the movie, one of them specific to this print. First, there really aren’t any good guys in the flick (although one woman seems honorable enough), but there are lots of movies that set various shades of badness against one another, so that’s OK. Second, it’s a choppy print: While the color and sound are both good, there are enough missing frames and words to interfere with continuity, even though it’s not even a minute short. I’ll give it $1.00.

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