Wednesday, March 28, 2012

B-Western Wednesday: Brand of Fear (1949)

One of my Facebook saddle pals offered up this editorial comment on last week’s review of Sons of New Mexico (1949): “Gene Autry...UGH.”  I told him that I’d be sure to warn him when the next Autry flick was spotted on Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s B-Western horizon…but I’m thinking that it might not be a bad idea to give him a heads-up that today’s movie features the poor man’s Gene Autry, B-western/country music legend Jimmy Wakely.  Jimmy actually appeared with “America’s favorite cowboy” in one film, 1942’s Heart of the Rio Grande, but today he’s probably best remembered as Gene-Lite in a series of 28 oaters he made for Monogram between 1944 and 1949.  Commenting in retrospect on the comparisons between him and Autry, Wakely observed: “Everybody reminds somebody of someone else until they are somebody.  And I had rather be compared to Gene Autry than anyone else.  Through the grace of God and Gene Autry, I got a career.”

Born James Clarence Wakeley on February 16, 1914 in Mineola, Arkansas (he dropped the second “e” when he became a teenager), Jimmy fulfilled his aspirations for a singing career in 1937, when he formed a musical aggregation known as The Bell Boys (named after their sponsor, Bell Clothing).  This group underwent a few permutations but generally, as a rule, was known as The Jimmy Wakely Trio.  (One of the members of the group at one time was country singer Johnny Bond, who would have his own successful music career as well as roles in films and on TV.  His biggest hit was the novelty tune Ten Little Bottles in 1965.)  The man to whom Wakely would later be compared, Gene Autry, hired the group to appear on his Melody Ranch radio program in 1940, after seeing them on a tour of Oklahoma in 1937.

It was Autry’s rival Roy Rogers who gave Jimbo a chance to break into the movies; his film debut was in the “King of the Cowboy’s” Saga of Death Valley in 1939, and after that he and the Trio made appearances in B-westerns featuring Hopalong Cassidy, Charles “The Durango Kid” Starrett, Don “Red” Barry, the Range Busters and Johnny Mack Brown and Tex Ritter.  With Song of the Range in 1944, he graduated to his own starring series of Westerns for Monogram, with solid support from such sidekicks as Lew “Lasses” White, John “Dusty” James, and the straightest serial hero of them all, Dennis Moore.  With 1947’s Ridin’ Down the Trail, Jimmy inherited Dub “Cannonball” Taylor as his saddle pal (Taylor had previously backed up Starrett, Barry, Russell Hayden and “Wild” Bill Elliott) and the two men appeared in a total sixteen features.  I had thought about looking at Oklahoma Blues (1948) for today’s choice of oater, but one of my two go-to compadres for the B-Western genre (the other is Chuck Anderson at The Old Corral), Boyd Magers at Western Clippings, has singled out Brand of Fear (1949) as being one of Wakely’s best.

Jimmy plays himself in a stirring sagebrush saga that finds longtime B-Western player Tom London as “Black” Jack Flint, the tough sheriff of an Arizona town called Oreville…presumably because there’s a lot of that precious metal about.  (London, by the way, played more lawmen in movie westerns than most of us have had hot dinners.)  Black Jack has coaxed his ward, Anne Lamont (Gail Davis), into taking a job as the new schoolmarm in Oreville…though I’m not entirely certain why this is the case because the only other female in the cast of this movie is Davis—and if what my father says is true, I don’t know where the heck the kids will come from.  (Okay, I just gave that a little more thought…and maybe I’m sorry I did so.)

Trouble starts in Oreville when a tough hombre named Jeffers (Myron Healey) shows up in town, and Black Jack runs his butt out of that burg faster than you can sing Streets of Laredo.  Jeffers, it would appear, is stoogeing for a guy named Tom Slade (William Ruhl), an outlaw who has designs on shaking down Oreville because he can’t find a legitimate line of work.  Slade and another one of his goons, Butch Keeler (Holly Bane), eventually arrive in Oreville and there’s a confrontation between Flint and Slade in the local saloon, thanks to blacksmith Cal Derringer (Marshall Reed).  You see, Derringer’s actually running a racket of his own in that sleepy little hamlet, but he has the common courtesy to do it on the fringes of town.  Slade just wants to come and foul his nest, and he can’t have that. 

Flint shoots Slade and goes after Keeler (with Jimmy’s help) and as Slade is drawing his final rations, he tells Derringer that he knew Flint when he was Jack Lamont, a notorious outlaw who’s been wanted nearly 20 years for the murder of a lawman.  The good news is—Flint is innocent of the murder; it was actually Slade who did the deed.  (It is also revealed that Anne is Jack’s daughter, whom he sent east as a child so that she would be free of the taint from her outlaw pa’s name.)  Derringer quickly surmises that Slade’s information could come in handy in his own racket, and so he speeds Slade along toward his dirt nap.  Later, Cal tells Black Jack that he knows he’s innocent…he knows about Anne…and he knows that if Jack knows what’s good for him, he’ll allow Cal to depend on him from time to time for “favors.”

Cal and his gang are in the process of robbing a stagecoach when Jimmy and his trusty sidekick Cannonball (Dub) put the smackdown on that little plan.  They manage to capture one of Cal’s gang members, Jed Mailor (Boyd Stockman), and naturally Jed is going to have to be set free, explains Derringer to Marshal Jack, otherwise Anne is going to get an earful.  Later, as Jed is making good on his attempt to flee his jail environs, he’s caught by Jimmy but Jed is shot before he can reveal who he’s working for.  When Cal gets word from the stagecoach driver that another important shipment is going out (a $15,000 payroll) he and his men once again go into action, and Flint helplessly stands by and allows Cal to ride off with the swag.

Jimmy and Cannonball have the horse sense to let C.B. trail the mount of one of the bandits shot and killed during the pursuit, who leads him back to Cal’s stable.  They then question Cal, only to learn that the horse originally belonged to Derringer before he sold it to the dead bandit guy…and he conveniently produces a bill of sale in the crook’s saddlebags.  Jimmy, keeping his cards close to his chest, is still not convinced Cal isn’t involved.  Meanwhile, Flint is relieved of his position by town head (not a banker, and not in cahoots with Cal, surprisingly) Frank Martin (William Bailey), and Flint goes to confront Cal because he no longer cares about his outlaw past; he won’t put his friends in jeopardy.  Cal and his henchies are getting ready to dispose of Black Jack when Jimmy and Cannonball arrive on the scene, engage in a spirited round of fisticuffs, and then end up giving Cal his just desserts by shooting him.  (As Cal prepares to ride off to the corral in the sky, he clears Jack’s name…and they all live happily ever after.)

Maybe I was expecting a little more from Brand of Fear than it was capable of delivering (Boyd gives it 4 stars, and I think that’s a little generous) but I thought in the long run that despite some good casting the movie isn’t something you need to rush right out and see.  I was amused by the fact that in this picture Jimmy inherited Gene Autry’s favorite leading lady in Davis, but I’ve seen her do more memorable work in other pictures.  London is solid but unremarkable as Black Jack, and though I am well aware that Marshall Reed had a lengthy and prosperous career in films and TV (he was one of the stars of the TV version of radio’s The Lineup, also known as San Francisco Beat) I can’t help but scratch my head in amazement as to why (he’s more wooden than Kaw-Liga).  I take a backseat to no one in my love and admiration for Dub Taylor (“I always did say that whorehouse was a gold mine!”) but if Dub didn’t have the material (and he doesn’t here), there’s only so much he can do.

The highlights of Fear are two musical numbers performed by Wakely (with an off-screen assist from Ray Whitley), one of them the Sons of the Pioneers standard, Cool Water and the other a tune written by SOP Tim Spencer, There’s a Rainbow Over the Range.  And with the writing on the wall that the TV western was going to sound the death knell as far as movie B-oaters were concerned, Jimmy went back to performing, racking up huge hits in the process.  Wakely was the artist who originally had the big hit with the Eddie Dean-penned One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart) in 1948 (I forgot to mention it in the write-up for Dean’s Check Your Guns) and he also scored another country chart topper that same year, I Love You So Much It Hurts.  But the following year (about the same time as Fear’s release), Wakely recorded a duet with pop diva Margaret Whiting that hit the top spot on both the country and pop charts, Slippin’ Around.  The duo racked up an additional eight country smashes between 1949 and 1951, two of them also landing in the pop Top Ten (I’ll Never Slip Around Again and A Bushel and a Peck).  Wakely finished out his career wearing many hats—TV star, Grand Ole Opry performer, record producer, comic book icon(!)—before his death in 1982, and though Brand of Fear was described by All Movie’s Hans J. Wollstein as a “tightly packaged piece of Western hokum” it’s as good an introduction as any to a certified Western movie legend.  

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