In the world of the B-Western, there are only so many plots to go around. You can only have a certain number of times when unscrupulous wealthy people want to rape the people’s land for precious minerals (or just take their ranches regardless of whether there’s gold, copper, silver, etc. present) or fighting Indians on the warpath or thwarting stagecoach hold-ups. Occasionally, filmmakers who churned out oaters would get a little creative…and a popular diversion would be building the movie plot around the making of a B-Western.
The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ recently aired Scarlet River (1933) as part of their month-long tribute to Myrna Loy; this Tom Keene programmer features our hero as a cowboy actor who comes to the aid of real-life ranchers, and there are very brief cameos from RKO stars like Myrna, Bruce Cabot, Rochelle Hudson, and Joel McCrea. A better example is a fun little Roy Rogers vehicle, Under California Stars (1948), in which Roy not only plays himself (he returns to his ranch after wrapping up shooting on his latest feature) but is joined by the likes of fellow Republic co-workers Monte Hale, Allan “Rocky” Lane, and Don “Red” Barry.
One of the Gene Autry features I managed to snag during our Starz/Encore/Movieplex “freeview” was The Big Show (1936); this western casts “America’s favorite singing cowboy” as both himself and a silver screen star named Tom Ford. Gene doubles for Ford’s stunts in his pictures, and is pressed upon to keep impersonating the actor at the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration when Tom takes a fishing vacation. Show is an entertaining little romp—one of the best early Autrys—though it does suffer from that irritating quality present in Gene’s films when the narrative must come to a screeching halt so that our hero (or someone else in the cast) can warble a song.
Mack V. Wright is credited as the director of The Big Show, and interestingly enough served as the production manager of a movie that’s quite similar to Show: 1937’s Hollywood Round-Up. Round-Up features Grant Withers as Grant Drexel, the box office champ of Crown Pictures, a studio that specializes in cranking out oaters. Though Drexel is the idol of many a kid who enjoys a Saturday matinee, in real life he could use some coaching in the social skills department…because he’s a bit of a prick. When Carol Stephens (Helen Twelvetrees), an on-the-wane star is loaned out to Crown because she’s “box office poison” at her home studio, Drexel starts taking a few liberties during one of their love scenes.
Grant is soon set straight on this matter by Buck Kennedy (Buck Jones), the genuine article when it comes to cowboys…and a man who’s forced to demean himself as Drexel’s double to keep groceries on the table and oats in his horse Silver’s feedbag. Kennedy has a thing for Carol himself, particularly after befriending her younger brother Dickie (Dickie Jones), and the romantic rivalry between Buck and Grant for Carol’s attentions eventually comes to a boil, prompting “the star” to have his stunt man fired. Buck is only temporarily in the unemployment line, however; he’s hired by a rival studio to appear in their production…which includes filming a hold-up on the town bank. The only problem is: the hold-up is real—the company are really a gang of outlaws, and they’ve left Buck holding the bag!
|I like Dickie Jones, so I was kind of sorry to see him in The Grey Bar Hotel. (Why don't these things ever happen to She Who Must Not Be Named?)|
I really believe Hollywood Round-Up to be a superior picture to The Big Show…primarily because there’s no musical numbers to slow down the action, and primarily because star Buck Jones is one of the most likable individuals to ever sit tall in the saddle. Buck was one of the major assets in our Serial Saturdays presentation of Riders of Death Valley (1941), a chapter play that paved the way (along with the 1941 Columbia serial White Eagle) for the former silent movie hero to appear in a series of Monogram oaters known as The Rough Riders franchise. (Jones was one of the many victims—close to 500 in all—who perished in the infamous Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston on November 28, 1942.) Jones has been described as the middle point between Tom Mix and William S. Hart, and I find myself becoming more and more of a fan with each movie I see him in. He has a wonderful sense of self-deprecating humor, and makes for a first-rate sagebrush hero without resorting to the moralizing of many of his peers.
TCM ran Hollywood Round-Up as part of a day-long feting of Helen Twelvetrees, who is also one of the movie’s pluses. The scene where Helen’s Carol Stephens is told by Federal studio boss Lew Wallace (Eddie Kane) that he’s loaning her out to Crown is very well-done (Carol is visibly upset, and Twelvetrees nails it without being mawkish), and though despondent at first, Carol demonstrates she’s a trouper by showing her professionalism and making lemonade out of her situation. (I’ll take a moment here to remind folks that if you’re interested in learning more about Ms. Twelvetrees you should check out fellow CMBA member Cliff Aliperti’s biography Helen Twelvetrees: Perfect Ingénue—available as an actual book or e-book at an Amazon near you. Yes, I could use a check this month.) Twelvetrees also has a solid chemistry with her leading man.
Hollywood Round-Up was comedian Shemp Howard’s first film for Columbia. (Shemp plays Oscar Bush, the assistant director, and generates much mirth despite Scott Clevenger’s dissenting opinion.) Howard was so well-received in Round-Up that he appeared in an additional Buck Jones vehicle, Headin’ East (1937) …and that started him on his long association with the studio—appearing in Andy Clyde shorts (often as Andy’s obnoxious brother-in-law) and The Glove Slingers comedies before starring in his own series of two-reelers and then replacing brother Curly in The Three Stooges. I am not going to lie to you: I DVR’d this film solely on Shemp’s participation, and I’ll freely admit that I’m fond of it because he’s always welcome ‘round Rancho Yesteryear. But Round-Up turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and it features familiar Columbia players in Kane and Monte Collins (perfect as Withers’ fast-talking agent).