Wednesday, April 25, 2012

B-Western Wednesday: Oklahoma Justice (1951)



Earlier last week, I had scheduled a Johnny Mack Brown western, Desert Phantom (1936), for our weekly B-western feature…but I bumped it in favor of last week’s Rawhide (1938; with Smith Ballew and Lou Gehrig) because I was in a baseball mood.  I had planned to return to Phantom this week but as I mentioned last Thursday, my very good friend and Facebook saddle pal Lloyd of mardecortesbaja.com fame was nice enough to bequeath an extra copy of the Warner Archive’s Monogram Cowboy Collection Volume 1 my way, and since there are several Brown westerns on that set, I once again called an audible and substituted Oklahoma Justice (1951).

As with many B-oaters, the action starts off with the robbing of a bank—this time it’s the depository in Lynwood, which has been knocked off by Deuce Logan (Lane Bradford) and two associates (Zon Murray, Richard Avonde) who clearly fell in with bad companions during their formative years.  Deuce has been injured in the heist (took a slug in the shoulder), and he decides to seek medical attention in his home base of Coldwater.  His cover story will be that he was cleaning his gun when it went off (well, it happens to everybody at one time or another)…and besides, the peacekeeper in Coldwater—Sheriff Barnes (Kenne Duncan)—is too busy making goo-goo eyes at Widder “Ma” Posey (Barbara Woodell—billed here as “Barbara Allen”) to put two and two together.  Fortunately, sharp-eyed stagecoach driver Clancy (James “Jimmy” Ellison) has no romantic entanglements in his life; he recognizes Deuce as one of the bandits…but when he informs Barnes, the sheriff tells him they’ll need more evidence to convict Logan.

We get introduced to our hero Brown (he appropriately plays a character named “Johnny Mack Brown”) when he robs the bank in Coldwater.  Yes, indeedy do—he gets away with some bills and gold, shooting and killing teller Jim Redding (Bruce Edwards) as he makes his getaway.  Johnny meets up with Deuce after eluding the sheriff’s posse, and reveals to Logan that he knows Logan was in on the Lynwood caper.  Now…before you start to wonder as to why Brown has suddenly turned over to the dark side—he’s really a representative from the U.S. Marshal’s office who’s investigating all these holdups…and he’s hoping by posing as a bank robber, Deuce will provide the necessary introduction to the leader of the gang.  Johnny is spending his ill-gotten gains in the saloon of Blackie Miller (Marshall Reed), and when he places a gold piece to bet on a card game he’s recognized as the bank bandit by Goldie Vaughn (Phyllis Coates), Redding’s fiancée.  Blackie tries to cheat Johnny in the card game, forcing Brown to kick his ass and embarrass him in front of the saloon crowd.

Goldie confronts Johnny at gunpoint the next day after finding evidence to tie him to the robbery in Clancy’s place, so the two men are forced to take her into their confidence (they also reveal that her fiancé isn’t dead—just hiding out in a cabin in the woods).  It’s a good thing they do, however—Goldie has overheard some useful information that Miller is having Deuce and the boys holdup a stage carrying a $50,000 payroll…so Johnny and Clancy get to the stage and rob it before Deuce and Company get there.  Blackie then realizes that an alliance with Johnny may be his only option…so he takes our hero to meet the mastermind behind all these holdups—Ma Posey!

Johnny makes a deal with Ma, Blackie and the third member of their “axis of evil,” an auditor named Sam Fleming (I. Stanford Jolley) whose ability to obtain inside banking information allows the outfit to strike at banks quickly and efficiently.  He sends Clancy out with Blackie and some men to retrieve the hidden payroll…and that’s when Sheriff Barnes and his posse swing into action, capturing the lot of them.  Ma and Deuce helplessly watch from a distance, and she aims to kill Johnny Mack for his treachery.  They ride back to Ma’s ranch just as Johnny as attempting a getaway (he killed Fleming in a struggle for his gun)—when the two villains trap Johnny in the foothills, Ma rides off toward town to rescue her gang, leaving Deuce in charge of keeping watch on Johnny.  Clancy comes to Johnny’s rescue and after our hero capture and tie up Deuce the two them race back to town.

Sheriff Barnes is, of course, unaware that the woman he’s been macking on throughout the picture is actually the one in charge; she’s able to get him to send his posse off on a wild goose chase and then, holding him at gunpoint, commands him to release Blackie and the other members of her gang,  Sprung from behind bars, Blackie repays Ma for her consideration by shooting and killing her, and then heads for the border…but fortunately Johnny, Clancy and the others arrive to mow them down in an exchange of gunfire and restore sanity to Coldwater once again.

Every year around September, the city of Dothan, AL holds a festival in honor of their native son John Mack Brown—who was born there on September 1, 1904.  An avid hunter and fisherman, Brown was also wild about sports; he played football at Dothan High until his graduation in 1922, and then became an All-American running back at the University of Alabama, even scoring two of the Crimson Tide’s three winning touchdowns in their famous 1926 Rose Bowl contest against the (heavily favored) Washington Huskies.  After graduation, he briefly considered a career as a coach…but soon drifted out to Hollywood by 1927.

Even classic film fans with only a sketchy background in B-westerns are probably familiar with Brown; because of his good looks he was able to work his way up from small role in silent films to leading man status opposite such silver screen icons as Joan Crawford (Our Dancing Daughters), Norma Shearer (A Lady of Chance) and Greta Garbo (A Woman of Affairs).  Johnny’s problem was that with the advent of talkies, his southern drawl didn’t particularly suit the roles in which he’d been cast, and so M-G-M gave him his walking papers in 1931.  For a time, however, Brown was still able to get good parts at other studios (in films like Female, Son of a Sailor and Belle of the Nineties) but by the mid 1930s Brown was in need of steady work…and he found that at a Poverty Row studio called Supreme Pictures, under the aegis of owner-producer A. William Hackel.

Hackel cast Johnny in a series of B-western pictures just as he had another cowboy star, Bob Steele.  It proved to be a rather fruitful association for all three men…and in fact, with the formation of Republic Pictures in 1935, that company was in such need of product that they contracted Hackel to supply them with westerns, so Brown made an additional eight oaters for Republic between 1936 and 1937.  In addition, Johnny started appearing in western-oriented serials for Universal beginning with Rustlers of Red Dog in 1935 (or as my pal Laughing Gravy so humorously tagged it, “Rustlers of Wet Dog”) and after finishing his fourth serial for the studio in 1939 with The Oregon Trail, Brown was officially on Universal’s payroll.  He would make 28 western features for the studio between 1939 and 1943—seven of them with fellow cowboy hero Tex Ritter.  Fuzzy Knight was Johnny Mack’s comic relief sidekick in most of those movies, with Nell O’Day and Jennifer Holt frequently cast as his leading lady.

The Johnny Mack Brown westerns cranked out at Universal were quite popular…but the studio was concentrating more and more on reviving its horror franchise and so its sagebrush star began to look elsewhere for a studio to accommodate him.  The answer came in the form of Monogram, who was anxious to sign up Johnny after the death of Buck Jones in the famous 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston and the recent redeployment of (Colonel) Tim McCoy to Army duty in World War II.  Losing the services of Jones and McCoy put an end to the studio’s Rough Riders series, and Monogram’s other cowboy trio, The Range Busters, were bidding the silver screen fare-thee-well as well.  So Brown went to work for Monogram, and that became his home for nearly a decade, beginning with The Ghost Rider in 1943 and finishing out with Canyon Ambush in 1952.  Johnny Mack Brown made over sixty westerns for the studio, a pair of them even featuring the would-be cowboy star mentioned in last week’s western, Smith Bellew (1946’s Under Arizona Skies and Drifting Along).

In 2010, the Encore Westerns channel scheduled a tribute to Johnny Mack Brown on his birthday (September 1) with a handful of the oaters he made with Ritter and Knight at Universal, and I was really entertained by these westerns…so I was kind of hesitant about watching some of his Monogram product.  But Oklahoma Justice is an entertaining little picture; short and sweet (it runs 56 minutes) in a handsome print with a script by Joseph O’Donnell and direction from one-half of the Serial Saturdays Jungle Queen team, Lewis D. Collins.  Johnny Mack was by this time a lot older (and a good deal heavier) than he was back in his days of riding the range in the 1930s but he’s one of those screen personalities you just cannot dislike.  (It’s no mystery that he and Ritter—another likable screen star—worked so well together during their brief time at Universal .)

The novelty of having a female villain certainly makes this one worth a watch; Ma Posey is played by Barbara (Allen) Woodell, an actress who had the distinction of playing Zee James in Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949)…and then reprising the part in another Jesse flick four years later, The Great Jesse James Raid.  Woodell is ably assisted in her villainy by reliable no-goodniks like Lane Bradford, Marshall Reed (whose acting was much better here than the last film I saw him in, Brand of Fear) and I. Stanford Jolley, and even though I wondered how Kenne Duncan managed to keep his sheriff's job he’s always reliable in the thespic department.  James Ellison, who was once sidekick to William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd, made his debut as Brown’s aide-de-camp in this movie and would go on to do five additional oaters in that capacity…oddly enough, I remember him more for non-Western roles like in Charley’s Aunt (1941) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943).  And of course, for us Superman and Joe McDoakes fans, there’s the lovely Phyllis Coates as the leading lady (I thought it amusing that she doesn’t have romantic designs on the hero) though I sort of wish she had a little more to do.  (She also has a declaration in Justice that she’s “a working girl,” which prompted a snort from my father…who decided to join me when I watched this earlier this morning.)

A dime would not only get you into the movies to see Johnny Mack...but it would also get you a copy of his comic book adventures as well.

“Whatever happened to Johnny Mack Brown…?” the Statler Brothers sang in their classic paean to the B-Western heroes of yesteryear, Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott.  He appeared in cameo roles in a few Westerns made during the 1960s (The Bounty Killer, Requiem for a Gunfighter) but for the most part was content to live out life in retirement after a quarter of a century of regular film appearances…he experienced both financial troubles and health problems in later years, finally succumbing to kidney failure on November 14, 1974.  His prowess on the gridiron afforded him induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1957 (and posthumously, the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2001) and by all accounts from the people with whom he worked, Brown was the epitome of the true Southern gentleman.  He made many films with the above mentioned Marshall Reed, who once related to a fan at a western film convention that Johnny would always tell his cast at the wrap: “Thanks for letting me make this film with you.”  That, my friends, is class.

1 comment:

KimWilson said...

He was lucky to fit a type after the advent of sound pictures. So many silent film actors did not have this luxury.