Wednesday, March 21, 2012

B-Western Wednesday: Sons of New Mexico (1949)

Well, a month has gone by since I introduced this new weekly feature to TDOY…and it seemed only appropriate that I should settle in today with an oater starring “America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy”—none other than Orvon Grover Autry himself.  I’ve made no secret in the past of my preference for Gene’s rival Roy Rogers (hey…Roy was in Son of Paleface—it wasn’t even close) but when I was still getting Encore Westerns as part of my cable package I got to see a lot of Autry’s westerns and some of them are really first-rate.  I like Gene’s Columbia oeuvre a little better than the Republic entries (though there are certainly some good’uns in that bunch), though, and I think it might have something to do with the fact that the first two Autry westerns I ever watched were his Cinecolor releases, The Strawberry Roan (1948) and The Big Sombrero (1949), which had been restored and presented during American Movie Classics’ first film preservation festival.  When Gene jumped ship to Columbia in the fall of 1947, his movies were similar to his former Republic rival Rogers’ in that they were a little more adult in nature.  But for some reason, audiences didn’t care much for the “new” Autry and the films gradually slipped back into the previous formula.

Sons of New Mexico (1949) is an example of Autry trying to do something different.  Gene plays himself, of course, and we find him driving into New Mexico (with Champion, the World’s Wonder Horse, chillin’ in his trailer) as the picture gets underway.  Two punks of the snot-nosed variety, Randy Pryor (Dickie Jones) and ex-jockey Gig Jackson (Frankie Darro) decide to welcome our hero with an air rifle (“BB gun”)…and when Gene suffers a boo-boo on his hand, he first suspects a contingent of horse-bound cadets from the New Mexico Military Institute, led by Lt. Chuck Brunton (Russell Arms).  Brunton straightens out the misunderstanding and, spotting Randy and Gig, rides after the delinquents with the entire platoon of cadets following.  (I know that sounds like excessive…but Gene saddles up “Champ” to get it on the fun, too.)

Gene, Brunton and the cadets catch up to the two doofuses…and while Gene introduces himself to Randy (he knew Randy’s father Jim, and is in New Mexico to act as executor to the late Jim’s estate) Brunton opens up a 40 gallon drum of whup-ass on Randy, much to the cadets’ (and Gene’s) delight.  (Later, Gig tells Randy Brunton “just got in a lucky punch” when it was actually more like three lucky punches.)  Gene stops Randy from splitting Brunton’s skull open with a large tree limb and he and the boy make nice after Brunton and the cadets ride off.  Arriving at the ranch, he makes the acquaintance of Randy’s cousin, Eileen MacDonald (Gail Davis), and learns from her that Randy is basically a decent kid but because his mother died when Randall was a young tad Jim had a tendency to spoil him rotten…explaining why he’s a bit of a buttmunch at times.

After dinner, Randy tells Gene he’s going to see some friends at a place called The Crazy Q.  It’s a spread owned by Pat Feeney (Robert Armstrong), who combines his ranching activities with a bit of gambling on the side, and with the twirl of his moustache he’s managed to put Randy $600 in debt.  Gene is tipped off to Feeney’s unsavory character by Eileen, and while planning to ride down to have a look, has a run-in with an even more unsavory hombre: Rufe Burns (Clayton Moore), one of Feeney’s goons.  Burns is discovered by Gene monkeying around with Randy’s horse out in the barn and so he escorts Rufe back to the Q (after giving him a righteous pummeling) since…well, it’s on his way, after all.  Arriving at Feeney’s, Gene learns that Pat has challenged Randy to a horse race—if Randy wins, he can sell Feeney’s horse Indian Chief for enough money to cover the amount he’s in the hole.  If Feeney wins, Randy’s beloved horse Blue Bell is his to keep.

Because Blue Bell can ride like the wind, it’s considered among folks in the area that Feeney has made a sucker bet—even the hands at Randy’s ranch, led by foreman Chris Dobbs (Irving Bacon), bet heavily on Randy and his horse…much to the displeasure of Mrs. (Hannah) Dobbs (Marie Blake), Chris’ better half.  It’s a close race, all right—but Indian Chief “wins by a short nose,” and Randy must forfeit Blue Bell.  After the race, Blue Bell’s limping reveals that a stone was wedged in her hoof…Gene now knows exactly what Rufe was up to in the barn the previous night, but he has no concrete proof.

Convinced that Feeney and his henchies are a bad influence on Randy, Gene decides that the NMMI would be just the thing to build the boy’s character.  Randy isn’t keen on the idea but he does cotton to the polo and horse-riding aspects of the academy, and agrees to give it a try.  During a polo match against Brunton, Randy’s short fuse gets the better of him when he’s bumped off his steed and he engages in a fistfight with the guy who made him cry at the beginning of the movie, and Major Hynes (Roy Gordon), the school’s commandant, tells Gene and Eileen that Randy is no longer welcome there because (this is the part that made me laugh out loud): “We’re not running a reform school.”  Before Randy can be officially escorted off the school grounds, he leaves on his own volition and seeks refuge at his old hangout, The Crazy Q.

During Randy’s NMMI stay, we learn a few more unpleasant details about Mr. Feeney—he’s carrying a grudge against Randy’s father, who had Feeney arrested for “running a game” and then later married Feeney’s fiancée when Pat was safely ensconced in the Grey Bar Hotel.  It also turns out that Randy’s pal Gig was working for Feeney as well…but he’s had a change of heart and comes clean to Randy, telling him of his involvement with Feeney the crook.  Randy does not take this at all well, his temper flares and he gets involved in a fight with Gig, knocking him unconscious.  Feeney, Rufe and the rest of Feeney’s boys arrive on the scene and Pat pronounces Gig dead; he’s not really but in introducing the jockey’s noggin to the business end of a gun stock Feeney wins the argument…and Randy is convinced that he is responsible.

Rufe the Goon is ordered by Feeney to help Randy “escape” in order to allow him and his men to gun the kid down like a rabid dog.  They hadn’t reckoned on Randy’s grabbing Rufe’s rifle as he rides the heck out of the Crazy Q, and pursue him to where he’s trapped by the gunmen in the hills.  Fortunately for our young numbnut, Gene and Eileen have arrived at the Q to find the deceased Gig, and Gene—because he is Gene—is able to piece together how Gig was croaked.  They pick up the trail of Feeney’s men, and while Gene tries to help Randy since the kid is outnumbered, Eileen rides back to the ranch for help.  She lucks onto discovering the cadets out on maneuvers again, and they ride cavalry-like to the rescue.  Randy ends up wounded in the fracas but Feeney and his men are rounded up by Gene and presumably carted off south of Santa Fe to serve out their terms for western villainy.  Randy, in the meantime, has returned to NMMI to become not only a productive societal citizen but a better sport in the game of polo.

Gene Autry’s initial Columbia output was helmed by former Republic director-editor John English, and to this day the Autry-English collaborations are among my favorite of all B-Westerns.  English is best remembered by film buffs for the large number of serials he directed in partnership with William Witney, many of them considered the gold standard for cliffhangers (including Zorro’s Fighting Legion, Drums of Fu Manchu and The Adventures of Captain Marvel).  The British-born English also rode herd on much of Republic’s Western product, and finished out his career (he died in 1969) working on many of the top TV oaters including Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater and Daniel BooneSons of New Mexico doesn’t skimp on any of the action for which English is renowned; there are several fast-and-furious fistfights between Gene’s stunt man and his adversaries, and sequences like the horse race and the climactic race-to-the-rescue are very well done.

Sons was also the first film that Gene Autry appeared in with his “protégé,” Gail Davis—who would become Autry’s favorite leading lady, appearing in thirteen additional oaters in that capacity, and also making a number of appearances on his television show.  She would later become the star of TV’s Annie Oakley, which was produced by Autry’s Flying ‘A’ Productions, but I’ve always preferred her in Gene’s movies to Oakley—she was a spunky, take-no-guff heroine who was also a real beauty and charmer (the scene where Gene sings Honey, I’m in Love With You is really sweet).  Young Dick Jones (who celebrated his 85th birthday this past February 25, the same day as my Mom’s), as the bratty Randy, was also an Autry favorite; he made a total of five Westerns with Gene and after appearing on Autry’s TV series got work in two Autry-produced programs, The Range Rider (where he played sidekick to Jock Mahoney) and Buffalo Bill, Jr.

My Mom isn’t ordinarily a B-Western fan (she likes TV oaters okay, though) but she really was entertained by this one due to the presence of Robert Armstrong (she always calls King Kong “the monkey movie”) and Clayton Moore (she loves The Lone Ranger) as the villainous element.  Irving Bacon, whose c.v. at the IMDB threatens to devour precious bandwidth with each passing day, is fun substituting for the Smiley Burnette-Pat Buttram comedy relief, even if I always have trouble seeing him as anything else but the Bumstead’s postman.  Only Frankie Darro is out of place here—I like Darro, but he always seems more at home somewhere in the Bowery.

It took me a minute to wonder why Frankie Darro sits in a chair the entire time Gene and Robert Armstrong's stuntmen are duking it out in this fight sequence...but part of Autry's First Cowboy Commandment does state "[never] hit a smaller man..."

There’s plenty of room for music, too, in Sons—Gene warbles several tunes and even the New Mexico Military Institute gets into the act with the New Mexico Military Institute March.  If I have a nitpick with the movie, it’s only because I’m always leery of any film or TV show that tries to teach kids to behave by shipping them off to military school (yes, even though I joke about sending Mayberry R.F.D.’s Mike “Idiot Boy” Jones there).  My prejudice is due to the fact that a college friend of mine and I had a mutual acquaintance who got sent to one of those places in the hope that it would eliminate his dickish behavior…and all it ended up doing was making him an even bigger douchebag in the process.

Young Randy (Dick Jones) isn't angry about meeting up with his nemesis Brunton (Russell Arms) at NMMI...he's disillusioned that Gene has tricked him into enrolling in a military school that's nothing but a process screen.
A couple of IMDb commenters take issue with Sons of New Mexico because of the obvious discrepancy between the NM backgrounds and the SoCal “scrublands” in filming…since I’m not a native of either area, that kind of errata generally sails over my head.  (I do agree with them about the embarrassing overuse of rear projection, though.)  But all in all, it’s a wonderful Autry vehicle…a great one to sit down with as an introduction to a beloved icon and performer.  It’s available on DVD or you can look for it the next time it gets an airing on Encore Westerns.

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