Wednesday, April 12, 2017

B-Western Wednesdays: Stagecoach to Denver (1946)/Vigilantes of Boomtown (1947)

After starring in sixteen Westerns (released from 1944 to 1946) as comic strip hero Red Ryder, “Wild” Bill Elliott gravitated to bigger and better things at Republic, just like another actor who had portrayed Ryder onscreen for the studio—Don “Red” Barry in the 1940 serial The Adventures of Red Ryder.  Replacing Elliott was Allan “Rocky” Lane, an actor who had become a big name at the studio on the strength of starring in four of their serials: King of the Royal Mounted (1940), its sequel King of the Mounties (1942), Daredevils of the West (1943), and The Tiger Woman (1944).  Lane had also headlined six Republic oaters between 1944 and 1945, so his western-action bona fides were never in question when he was tabbed to continue the Red Ryder franchise.

At the same time I purchased the VCI DVD containing the Red Ryder features Vigilantes of Dodge City (1944) and Sheriff of Las Vegas (1944), I bought a second Ryder disc that showcases three films from the franchise: two with Elliott (Lone Texas Ranger [1945] and California Gold Rush [1946]) and one from Lane (Homesteaders of Paradise Valley [1947Homesteaders of Paradise Valley [194x])greement between Republic and  abbed to continue the Red Ryder]), who appeared in seven Ryder films from 1946 to 1947 until a small clerical error on the option-renewal date led to a disagreement between Republic and Steven Slesinger (Slesinger wanted more money on the strength of the franchise’s success…Republic said talk to the hand) and ended the series.  (There would be four more Red Ryder features, produced at Eagle-Lion between 1949 and 1950, with Jim Bannon as Red.)  I had planned to have a look-see at this “triple feature” so that I could sample Lane’s work as Red (admittedly, my exposure to the actor has been mostly from the chapter plays mentioned in the first paragraph…well, that and reruns of Mister Ed) but thanks to Epix (Vault) on Demand I didn’t have to.  There were two Red Ryder movies available for download, beginning with Stagecoach to Denver (1946).

In Denver, Red Ryder’s aunt The Duchess (portrayed by OTR’s Martha Wentworth, who inherited the role from Alice Fleming from the Elliott Ryders) is operating a stage line out of the tiny hamlet of Elkhorn…but she’s asked by competitor Big Bill Lambert (Roy Lambert) to smash a bottle of bubbly across the bow of his newest stagecoach, making its maiden trip to Denver.  Two of the passengers on that trip, young Dickie Ray (Bobby Hyatt) and a land commissioner (Ed Cassidy) answering to “Felton,” are waylaid by outlaws while on that journey—Felton is killed (along with the driver) while Dickie is seriously injured.  Town medico Doc Kimball (Tom Chatterton) can perform an operation on Dickie to ensure he won’t be paralyzed the rest of his life…but he insists on getting an okay from the kid’s remaining relative, his aunt May (Marin Sais).  Aunt May is going to be on the next stage from Denver, along with Taylor (Frank O’Connor), a replacement land commissioner.

Emmett Lynn, Allan "Rocky" Lane, Martha Wentworth, Roy Barcroft
But May and Taylor never make it to Elkhorn…or the real May and Taylor, that is.  The stage ferrying Felton was sabotaged because unbeknownst to the good people of Elkhorn, Lambert is up to his eyeballs in a fraudulent land scheme…and the last thing he needs is someone honest exposing his nefarious doings to the antiseptic light of day.  A henchman in Big Bill’s employ, Wally (Stanley Price), impersonates Taylor…and in the role of “Aunt May” is Lambert’s lady friend, Beautiful (Peggy Stewart)—the real May and Taylor are being held hostage in an isolated hideout.  Beautiful starts to have second thoughts about her masquerade as Dickie starts his recovery; she becomes quite attached to the little nipper.

Lane, Barcroft
Stagecoach to Denver is a crackerjack entry among the Red Ryder westerns.  Lane seamlessly assumes the role from Elliott (the only difference I noticed between the two is that Lane is a little more “cowboy” in his speech patterns) and while I prefer Fleming’s Duchess to Wentworth’s interpretation (and I say this as a big Martha Wentworth fan) the franchise continued going (pardon the pun) great guns with the replacement performers.  What makes Denver so much fun is that The Baddest Serial Villain of Them All, Roy Barcroft, shines as the despicable Lambert.  Roy remains one of my favorite character actors, and as excellent as he was playing bad guys he was also exceptional when it came to representing the right side of the law (I’m always coming across Barcroft in TV reruns—he was great in a Tales of Wells Fargo I watched a while back—and old movies; I yelped with delight when I saw him execute a nice turn as a settlement shopkeeper in 1966’s Texas Across the River).  “The poor man’s Gabby Hayes,” Emmett Lynn, is also most welcome as Ryder’s adult sidekick Coonskin (a reference perhaps to Buckskin, Red’s partner in the comic strips), as are familiar faces like Ted Adams (as the sheriff in cahoots with Barcroft), Edmund Cobb, and George Chesebro.

Peggy Stewart and Allan Lane in Denver
It's Peggy Stewart who wins the acting honors in Denver, however—her Beautiful earns more exposure than many a female ingenue in a lot of these B-westerns (many of them simply stand around and wring their hands waiting for the hero to return), and in many respects, it’s more her movie than anyone else’s.  The same can be said for her turn in Vigilantes of Boomtown (1947); Peggy portrays Molly McVey, daughter of a Nevada senator and an anti-gambling advocate who’s vehemently opposed to a boxing match that will take place between the legendary “Gentleman” Jim Corbett (George Turner) and challenger Bob Fitzsimmons (Mister John Dehner).  Corbett’s manager, Billy Delaney (Roscoe Karns), has rented out The Duchess’ ranch for Corbett to train…but the real trouble comes in the form of outside bandits (headed up by Barcroft as a no-goodnik named “McKean”) determined to steal the receipts from the match.

Lane and Wentworth with Robert Blake (as Little Beaver) in Vigilantes of Boomtown

Boomtown’s plot (screenplay by Earle Snell) is loosely based on a real-life Nevada event from 1897 that was also dramatized in the 1953 20th Century-Fox oater City of Badmen (with Wells Fargo star Dale Robertson, Lloyd Bridges, and Richard Boone): a boxing event that took place in Carson City shortly after the Nevada legislature legalized prizefighting.  Again, Stewart is first-rate in her role (Barcroft is good, but not the memorable menace he was in Denver); Chuck Anderson at The Old Corral observes “Two of Peggy Stewart's most memorable performances are in this movie and Stagecoach to Denver, perhaps because in both she didn't have to pretend to like Lane.” (Allan had a reputation of being a real dink to work with.)  Having TDOY fave Dehner around is always a plus, of course, and Denver’s George Chesebro and Ted Adams (an honest lawman in Boomtown) are also along for the ride, with comic relief supplied by both Karns and Abbott & Costello “court jester” Bobby Barber (as Corbett’s “second”).  Both Denver and Boomtown were directed by R.G. Springsteen, a journeyman whose name appears on a lot of TV reruns including Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide…and Tales of Wells Fargo.

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