Law Men, 1944, b&w. Lambert Hillyer (dir.), Johnny Mack Brown, Raymond Hatton, Jan Wiley, Kirby Grant, Robert Frazer. 0:58 [0:54]
If this movie was about 15 years older, I might excuse the awful quality of the print (missing frames, generally dark, some cases where it sure looks as though they’re swapping in old stock footage when they change views) on the grounds of early movie history. But this one’s from 1944, making it fairly late in the game for the “B” westerns.
The plot: two U.S. marshals are sent to a town that’s been having a lot of robberies, working undercover. One rides into town, sees one such robbery with four bad guys riding away and shooting things up, shoots the fourth—and becomes an instant hero. (There’s no sheriff in town.) He claims to be a cobbler (because that’s the first business he sees), and suddenly—turns out the cobbler was shot some months back—he’s in business as a cobbler, much to the eventual woe of anybody who needs boots repaired. The other marshal trails the bandits to their lair and works his way into the gang.
Doesn’t take long for us to find out that the reason every gold shipment from the bank (robbed three times this year itself) gets robbed is that the banker’s running the banditry. Of course, nobody ever suspects a banker. Meanwhile, the banker and gang conspire to set up his honest assistant and almost manage to do so. Naturally, it all turns out OK after some fancy draws and shooting and a few deaths here and there.
It’s just…not very good. Not even by the relaxed standard of these sub-hour programmers. Maybe $0.75.
West of the Divide, 1934, b&w. Robert N. Bradbury (dir & screenplay), John Wayne, Virginia Brown Faire, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Loyd Whitlock, Yakima Canutt. 0:54.
I like this for possibly the wrong reasons—there’s an innocence and sweetness about it, or maybe that’s mostly low budget. Set in the 20th century Old West (most folks ride horses but the town doctor drives a car), it features John Wayne as an orphan—with his sidekick (Hayes in a very early role—Canutt’s a henchman in this flick and the stunt double for some remarkable stunts) who rescued him when his father was shot and the killers believed they’d shot him too. (OK, I’ve only seen that plot basis a dozen other times.) Oh, and just as Roy Rogers is the spittin’ image of Jesse James, Wayne is the spittin’ image of a killer who stumbles onto him and his sidekick, dies from the poisoned waterhole he drank at, and has in his pocket an introductory letter to a local rancher (Whitlock, an almost Snidelyesque villain)…and the Wanted poster showing he’s a killer. So, since they want to know more about this rancher anyway…
The rancher’s trying to buy another ranch, whose owner—with the best water around (never heard that one before!)—doesn’t want to sell. That’s OK: the bad guy first arranges to steal the money the beautiful daughter takes to the bank (and fails, but his henchmen wing the poor girl, against his direct orders—and Wayne and friend manage to get the money deposited), then to rustle all the rest of the good guy’s cattle while killing off the good rancher (a killing left to Wayne).
More plot, lots of horseriding (and one good runaway-team sequence), some really crappy henchmen (who, among other things, accidentally gun down their boss), culminating in happiness all around and, of course, Wayne marrying the daughter. (One example—repeated twice—of what I assume was really low budget work: As the cattle are being herded out of the compound, in one of those midnights where you can see everything clearly, I would swear I could cattle turning after leaving the compound on a course to re-enter the compound at the back so that 20 or 30 cattle can look like hundreds.) The sweetness, in addition to all the charming plot duplications, is partly that this is the young babyface Wayne, partly that the Big Fistfights (with acrobatics included) are remarkably hamhanded examples of “I’ll hit somewhere five inches to the left of your face, in midair, then you’ll do the same to me, then…” with almost no sound effects to even try to sell the fights. By the way, if you’re an IMDB review reader, this is not a print with the new and deproved score; it has very little incidental music. Great cinema? No, but I’ll give it $1.00.
In Old Santa Fe, 1934, b&w. David Howard (dir.), Ken Maynard, Tarzan (horse), Evalyn Knapp, H. B. Warner, Kenneth Thomson, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Gene Autry. 1:04.
A tale of the New West—fast cars, phones and electric lights are standard, he cowboys riding in are mostly going to a dude ranch for an annual race, the horse-and-carriage is carrying dude ranch guests. Except that the ranch owner also uses the horses-and-carriage to deliver $20,000 of gold (he owns a nearby mine) to the bank—with a driver and no guards.
Anyway…Kentucky (Ken Maynard) and his crotchety old sidekick (Hayes, who else?—and in fine fettle) are riding in, he’s singing a really pretty bad song, the ranch owner’s beautiful daughter drives by too fast and winds up ramming a tree (but apparently with no real damage), and meanwhile two city slickers come by in the carriage—contemplating plans to mess with the rancher. Oh, and the bad guy in charge also wants the girl.
Lots of plot. Attempted blackmail based on the rancher having changed his name after fleeing parole on phony charges—but charges, as it turns out, that he’d long since been cleared of. The crusty sidekick betting Kentucky’s horse and all their money against one of the crooks—as they make sure he doesn’t win, both by loosening his saddle (which doesn’t help) and stringing up a wire along the course on the assumption he’ll be in the lead (which does). Of course the good guys win in the end, after various plot turns. (The sleeve plot description is pretty much wrong.)
The real oddity here: The movie’s title credits feature Gene Autry first, all by himself, before introducing the cast with Ken Maynard and the rest. But as far as I can tell, Autry only appears as a singer doing one song—along with Smiley “Froggy” Burnette in an uncredited role. (Apparently, it was the first picture for both of them.) The picture’s title? That’s Autry’s song. To be honest, I didn’t find Maynard all that appealing as a singer, a cowboy or the hot male lead—but the film’s reasonably good for its genre: good horse-riding, reasonably clever plot and all. I’ll give it $1.00.
Days of Jesse James, 1939, b&w. Joseph Kane (dir.), Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, Don ‘Red’ Barry, Pauline Moore, Harry Woods, Arthur Loft, Wade Boteler. 1:03 [0:53]
This one—another B programmer with the singing cowboy—surprised me. I was expecting a variant on the “Roy Rogers looks exactly like Jesse James” theme used in one other picture, but didn’t get it. This time around, nobody knows what James looks like—except for the granddaughter of Gabby Whitaker (Hayes), who in this case is returning to Missouri with $40,000+ after 16 years of placer gold mining in California. (The James gang holds up the train they’re on; a brief scuffle with their dog results in James’ kerchief-as-mask being pulled down briefly; James chooses not to take the $40,000 in Gabby’s valise.)
That’s just the start. Once they reach town, the granddaughter convinces Gabby to deposit the money in the local bank (the banker was also on the stage). The banker can’t resist that amount of money, so stages his own holdup, pretending to be the James gang. The Banker’s Association wants Roy Rogers (peace officer) to help track James; the railroaders have their own person, who mostly wants to get the $50,000 reward for James before anybody else does.
Lots more plot, and Rogers (his character name is of course Roy Rogers, and of course there’s a song) and Gabby wind up pretending to be outlaws or, rather, ex-cons with no jobs to get in with James’ gang. One interesting plot twist has the banker fleeing town on the train…and Rogers and Gabby, pretending to be the James gang, robbing the train specifically to get back the bank-robbery loot, which they then return to the depositors as the sheriff watches.
Not bad. Seems tobe missing a few minutes. As is frequently the case, Jesse James comes off as more Robin Hood than robber and far too honorable to shoot a man in the back. I’ll give it $1.00.
Psst: If you don’t like the old one-hour (more or less) B programmers, you won’t like Discs 10, 11 and 12 of this set. If you like early John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers (and once in a while others), you’ll like them just fine.