Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Let a tune be your guide

Whenever I tune into Encore Westerns I do so mostly to watch the classic television oaters like Gunsmoke and Maverick—but I have to admit I’ve been enjoying another popular offering on the channel: namely, the B-westerns that singing cowboy star Gene Autry made for Republic and Columbia between 1935 and 1953.  These sagebrush sagas have the added benefit of being fully restored to their original silver screen glory, a project that was partly funded by Encore and jointly undertaken by Gene Autry Entertainment, RPG and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Now, I have to come clean here and admit that in the singing cowboy sweepstakes I’ve always been more of a Roy Rogers partisan than Autry.  Autry was a talented singer and songwriter but onscreen he was really not much more than a personality (though certainly an engaging one—and he certainly had his fans, seeing as how he’s the only celeb with five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame); I thought Roy was a far better actor, with his bad guy role in Dark Command (1940) lending a lot of heft to his thespic chops.  (Plus, Roy’s in Bob Hope’s Son of Paleface [1952], so he gets major props there.)  But Gene’s westerns are surprisingly entertaining; my personal preference is for the oaters he made with serials veteran John English at the helm because they’re a bit more adult…oddly enough, his fans didn’t care much for these and he soon went back to his tried-and-true formula.  (I’ve always found it interesting that English’s directing partner, William Witney, was doing the same thing with Roy Rogers at Republic at the same time—the Witney-Rogers collaborations are also among my personal B-western favorites.)

In 1940, Gene made a sprightly and tuneful feature entitled Melody Ranch—a vehicle that differed a great deal from the usual Autry product in that it featured a very impressive supporting cast and was budgeted higher than his usual romps ($500,000 price tag on this baby).  The result was that Ranch was the first Gene Autry film to be booked into first-run theaters…a strategy that Republic planned from the get-go, and which paid off handsomely at the box office.  Our hero plays himself (naturally): a singing cowboy with a popular weekly program that features his western ditties and a larger-than-life dramatic presentation before the close of each show.  (In real life, Autry was doing the same thing on radio; his program Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch premiered over CBS that same year and would become a fixture on the Tiffany network until 1956.)  Sponsored by a cold remedy dubbed “Nose Posse,” Autry and his musicians (Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys!) are singing as the picture gets underway, and after finishing their number the listening audience (and the audience in the studio) are subjected to a spiel from Autry’s sidekick, Cornelius J. Courtney—played by none other than Jimmy Durante (in person!).

Gene’s in the middle of a dramatic sketch when it becomes apparent that his leading lady—Julie Shelton (Ann Miller)—is nowhere to be found; she’s stuck in a taxi cab tardily on its way to the studio because she was at a cocktail party and lost track of the time.  Finally making her entrance, the studio audience gets a hearty chuckle at Julie—her character is supposed to be a simple country girl in gingham and calico but the actress portraying her is decked out in furs.  After the show is over, Gene complains to the show’s sponsor, Tommy Summerville (Jerome Cowan), that Julie’s antics are ruining the program—even “Corny” gets into the act by remarking: “Yeah…since that dame walked into our lives, our Crossly rating not only dropped to zero…but we owe ‘em ten pernts…”  But because Julie and Tommy are friends with benefits, Tommy pleads with Gene to give her a little more time…and because Tommy took a chance on him when he was just getting a leg up in show bidness, Gene acquiesces.

Gene gets a visit from a crusty old codger named Pop Laramie (George “Gabby” Hayes—was he on loan from Autry’s rival Rogers?) and a too-cute-for-words kid named Penny Curtis (Mary Lee) who inform him that his hometown of Torpedo, AZ has made him an “honorary sheriff” for their Frontier Days celebration.  Gene modestly turns down the offer but Corny argues that his appearance at this clambake just might be what the program’s falling ratings needs.  So Autry & Company pack up their travelin’ radio show and journey out west, where they are met by a delegation headed up by schoolmarm Veronica Whipple—played by TDOY fave (and fellow birthday celebrant) Barbara Jo Allen…otherwise known to radio fans as “Vera Vague.”

The town of Torpedo has a sheriff (character great Dick Elliott)…but the burg itself is run by three no-account brothers whose surname is “Wildhack”: Mark (Brent McKee fave Barton MacLane), Bud (Horace “Naked City” McMahon) and Jasper (Joe Sawyer).  During Gene’s “induction” as honorary constable in the schoolroom where he learned the three R’s as a kid, there’s a ruckus going on in the saloon next door (this was apparently before laws were put on the book prohibiting liquor and/or drug sales so-many-feet within an institution of higher learning, I’m guessing) and when those lovable rascals Bud and Jasper start a little tarrrrrget practice by shooting at Gene’s picture on the wall that adjoins the classroom Autry rounds up these ornery cusses for disturbing the peace and endangering the life of Torpedo’s citizenry.

Unfortunately, the judiciary—represented by our old pal Clarence Wilson—is in the pocket of the Wildhacks, and the corrupt old magistrate lets the two men off scot-free.  Gene then decides to dramatize the event on his radio broadcast that evening, demonstrating how the rule of law in that hamlet is a joke, but Bud and Jasper barge in on the proceedings and begin to open up a forty gallon drum of whup-ass on our hero.  To add insult to injury, they subject us to a rendition of Gene’s signature tune, Back in the Saddle, with bowdlerized lyrics.  Because he’s gotten “soft” from all those years of city livin’, Pop invites Gene to work out at his spread (the titular ranch) in some sort of Rocky scenario and while doing so Julie begins to grow quite fond of our hero and the two of them fall in love. 

At a broadcast the following week, Bud and Jasper are ridiculed on the air (Gene has given them their comeuppance during a rowdy tussle on Pop’s trolley car) but their humiliation is only a temporary stopgap because when the brothers murder one of Gene’s sidekicks (poor William “Billy” Benedict) they escape the long arm of the law because the sheriff and brother Mark provide them with an alibi.  Gene is then convinced by Pop and others to run against the corrupt sheriff in the town’s upcoming election; his victory will guarantee that Bud and Jasper will be spending the rest of their days…in the Big House.  (The question of whether Autry sufficiently meets the residency requirements is conveniently sidestepped here, I might add.)  Because the Wildhacks understand little outside of getting their own way by any means necessary they attempt to disenfranchise the good people of Torpedo by bullying folks at the polls—and in Ranch’s rousing conclusion, Gene rides to the rescue (along with a mess of other ranchers), thus thwarting the Wildhacks and making the West safe for women, children and other decent folk.

I realize that B-westerns are not everyone’s cup of Orange Pekoe but Melody Ranch is an enjoyable little romp that deftly mixes comedy, music and two-fisted Western action.  (The film, incidentally, was added to the National Film Registry in 2002.)  I’ve seen Vera Vague in a good many movies but I think this is one of her finest showcases; the scene where she performs “Little Red Riding Hood” (with Durante) for some schoolchildren is a lot of fun, and I love exchanges like these:

VERA: Oh my, Mr. Laramie—you look positively heroic…so western…
GABBY: Well, I…I reckon that’s because I spent most of my life in Montana
VERA: Montana?
GABBY: Yeah…Butte
VERA (blushing): Well, thank you…you look kind of cute yourself
GABBY: You know, you look right pretty, Miss Veronicky…that bonnet makes you look like an old paintin’…an old Botticelli…
VERA: An old what?
GABBY: Botticelli…
VERA: Oh—for a minute I thought you said an old pot of chili

I will warn you, however, that you have to wait until thirty-eight minutes into the film before Ann gets to do some of her signature hoofing but overall she makes a good leading lady for Autry (I think it’s charming how he sometimes chuckles at her even when he supposed to be ticked off at her)—and I was kind of impressed with how the writers of Ranch avoided making Cowan’s character the bad guy; he pretty much gives Ann up without a fight and lets her know that the door is always open should things not work out.

As for Jimmy Durante…well, I have to be honest—a little of him goes a long way, which is why I never really cared for Schnozzola outside of his radio show (which typically ran a half-hour—the requisite amount of time for toleration).  He does make a great foil for Vague, but throughout most of the film he’s a bit on the abrasive side (he sort of veers off into the same territory he explored when M-G-M insisted on teaming him with Buster Keaton…and you know that can’t be good)—the only time I really gave out with a hearty guffaw was when Gene referred to Jimmy as “that well-dressed man on horseback.”

In 1953, Autry purchased the 112-acre Monogram Movie Ranch (the site where nearly 750 B-westerns were filmed) and renamed it “Melody Ranch” after the movie (and radio show) and sold off most of the property with the exception of 12 acres…which became a mini-studio used for location shooting for motion pictures and TV westerns such as The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Annie Oakley and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.  (A fire swept through the area in 1962, destroying most of the standing sets…although the rubble proved to be useful in shooting locations on TV’s Combat!)  For years afterward, the acreage was used as a romping area for Gene’s beloved horse Champion until 1990 when Autry sold the remaining property to some buyers who rebuilt the “western street” and renamed the area the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio.  Seventy-two years after its namesake was released to theaters, the studio is still in business, offering the needed location space to film modern-day boob tube oaters like Deadwood and The Magnificent Seven.


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2 comments:

Scott said...

One of the writers on Melody Ranch was Betty Burbridge, an ex-silent film actress (she started in the Nickleodeon era) who became a screenwriter in the sound era, and -- unusual for a woman -- spent almost her entire career writing westerns.

In addition to the Three Mesquiteer movies and a bunch of Cisco Kids, she penned a number of Autry films, starting with Melody Trail in 1935. Her last few credits were episodes of Gene's TV series in the early 50s.

I wrote a postt on Betty's extraordinary career back in 2007.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Thanks for pointing me toward that post, Mr. C! It made for astoundingly good reading at this early hour in the a.m...