50 Movie Western Classics, Disc 6

Man of the Frontier, 1936, b&w. B. Reeves Eason (dir.), Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, Frances Grant, Boothe Howard, Jack Kennedy, Champion. Original title Red River Valley (1:00). 0:54 [0:55].

Gene Autry plays Gene Autry—but maybe not as a singing cowboy (although he does sing in the movie). Delivering some cattle for a fee, he finds that the Red River Valley Land & Irrigation Company, trying to build a dam and canal to irrigate the surrounding land, keeps getting locks blown up and losing its “ditch rider,” the guy responsible for keeping stuff in shape. So Autry takes the job. Naturally, there’s a conspiracy afoot. Naturally, one of the most respected men in town is behind it (the banker, I guess, who wants to foreclose on all the land, in cahoots with the office manager of the company—I think). Naturally, Gene in his white hat saves the day—and, since there’s a pretty young woman involved, you can reasonably assume that he winds up either going with or marrying her.

I’ll admit, I think of “the frontier” as something a little more primitive than an area with telephone service working on a dam and irrigation systems (with construction trains running to the dam site), but what do I know? (Now it makes sense: The original title is Red River Valley.) I haven’t seen that many Autry flicks, but he seems a bit less likable here than in some others: Sneering much of the time, with somewhat of a mean streak. Frog, his lovable sidekick, is amusing as always and gets a more interesting musical number. There’s also a fascinating novelty “hillbilly band” playing some interesting instruments. You can guess the key song for Autry, can’t you, given the setting? Oh, and the big crew building the dam all sing multipart harmony in perfect tune, as though they’re part of an oversize barbershop quartet. Interesting. In a charitable mood, I’ll give it $1.00

Riders of the Whistling Pines, 1949, b&w. John English (dir.), Gene Autry, Patricia Barry/White, Jimmy Lloyd, Douglass Dumbrille, Damian O’Flynn, Clayton Moore. 1:10 [1:08]

Gene Autry’s Gene Autry again in this tale of the new post-WWII west—cropdusters, trucks, cars, ecoterrorism, but when trouble’s afoot, everybody leaps on horses. This time, he’s a forest ranger who’s been given a new rifle as he’s leaving to run a lodge. His buddy (there’s no Crusty this time; instead, a regular-guy sidekick with a drinking problem) points to a mountain lion. Gene tries to shoot it, twice—and instead, believes he’s shot somebody completely out of sight on a horse.

But we know the truth: This dastardly lumber company has an exclusive contract to log on Federal land (when they’re allowed to)—and there’s a spreading infestation that could kill off tens of thousands of acres of forest, which would mean they could log all that timber and make a fortune. The guy was off to alert other authorities of the infestation; one of the timber honchos heard Autrey shooting and found it a convenient cover to kill this guy in cold blood. Naturally, Gene admits it; it’s an accident, but he resigns his post and sells the lodge to the couple who’ve been setting it up. (Later, his forestry buddies tell him that they messed up the sight on the gun as a prank: He could not possibly have shot the other guy, as the gun was set to fire into the ground when he aimed normally.)

But wait! The infestation’s discovered anyway—and spraying the whole forest with DDT from the air is the way to stop it. Nobody but Autry can manage the job—building the access roads and airstrip, organizing the crews to do the flying, all within 30 days—so, of course Autry says he’ll do it. Meantime, the evil timber marauders (one of them’s Clayton Moore in a distinctly non-Lone Ranger role) figure the only way to stop him and see that the forest dies off is to convince the ranchers that DDT will kill their animals. But, of course, as we all know, DDT wouldn’t hurt a fly…

So they fly another plane spraying real poison over various farms. That’s just part of a plot-heavy flick with lots of songs—apparently Autry by this time managed to be both a highly successful musician and an itinerant cowboy-of-all-trades just out to earn a living and pick up another girl by the end of the plot. (By this time, he’d done more than sixty flicks, always playing Gene Autry except for the one time he was Tex Autry.) Oh, and now when he’s singing as he’s riding along, invisible instruments and a background chorus show up from time to time.

It’s not bad, certainly not the standard formula, although in this case the bad guy’s such an obvious jerk that you’d think he’d have trouble convincing farmers to riot against the noble Feds just trying to do their job. This is also a movie of its time: Twenty years later, the concept that DDT is entirely benign might not go over quite so well. The print’s mostly OK, but there’s some choppiness, noticeable in a couple of songs. Still, I’ll give it $1.00.

Painted Desert, 1931, b&w. Howard Higgin (dir.), William Boyd, Helen Twelvetrees, William Farnum, J. Farrell MacDonald, Clark Gable. 1:25 [1:15].

I’m not sure which is more bizarre in this full-length Western: The plot or the acting. Two best friends are making their way through the old west, helping each other at every turn. They come upon a broken-down wagon (presumably the result of a raid?) and hear a baby’s cry. There’s an abandoned infant, which they take with them. Then they reach a watering hole. One person says that’s it, he’s found his grubstake (I guess this was during a homesteading period: Go there and you own it), he’s settling down. The other says no, he’s going on to find grazing land—and insists on taking the kid. End of Act 1.

Now the kid’s grown up and back from mining school. The two men are bitter enemies, and the guy with the watering hole—whose only living comes from renting access to the water to cattle ranchers taking cattle to market—forces the other guy to take his cattle the long way around, refusing water. And both of the old friends act as though zombified, for some reason. Oh, and the waterhole owner has a lovely young (that is, young woman) daughter (but no wife). And the son has found tungsten in the hill that’s part of the waterhole property. When the son tries to talk his father into mending fences, the father basically disowns him and throws him out. The son goes in with the other guy, starts the mine (on a loan), almost loses it because of various nefarious deeds…and, well, of course it all works out (albeit with both older men shooting the hero simultaneously, oddly enough).

As it turns out, the real evildoer is some fellow who would do anything to keep people from taking what’s his—and that’s not quite clear, although I guess it’s the daughter. (Apparently that’s Clark Gable. Maybe his first talkie; not his finest hour.) I don’t know. Maybe it’s a style of acting I just don’t recognize. If I hadn’t been treadmilling, I’d have fallen asleep. (Apparently the missing 10 minutes is mostly three big action scenes that were deliberately removed from the flick after its first showing, to be used in other movies—including one of them in Red River Valley.) The dozed-off acting, peculiar (not in a good way) plot and a mediocre print limit this to $0.75.

Gunfight at Red Sands, 1963, color (original title Duello nel Texas). Ricardo Blasco (dir.), Richard Harrison, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Mikaela, Sara Lezana, Daniel Martin. 1:35.

Red certainly seems appropriate as part of this movie’s title, since it’s in an odd sort of sepiacolor that only includes shades of red, browns, wood, and other faded colors—no blues or true greens that I could see. It’s apparently an early “spaghetti Western,” with decent production values but not a whole lot in the way of acting or, well, logic.

Richard Harrison is Gringo—adopted son of a Mexican family working a little gold mine in a just-north-of-the-border town, who returns from four years fighting in the Mexican civil war. As he returns, three bandits kill the father and steal all the gold (most of it supposedly hidden). The rest of the movie deals with that—and with a town whose handsome sheriff and a group of variously mean-spirited sidekicks all hate Mexicans, even though much of the town appears to be Hispanic. (The most interesting villain is a giggling sociopath who is also, of course, a deputy sheriff.)

I guess I shouldn’t expect logic in a flick like this. Seems as though the sheriff or his clearly-murderous sidekicks would have just shot Gringo in the back or in “self defense” fairly early in the plot, but that wouldn’t make for much of a movie or get us to the inevitable (and really ludicrous) showdown. Maybe I should be impressed by Ennio Morricone’s score. I guess it’s OK. Let’s see. Other than the pseudocolor, there’s a short section where there seem to be holes in the print (that is, real holes, not just the holes in the plot). I can’t see giving this more than $0.75.

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