Wednesday, September 14, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Trail Guide (1952)

In the early days of the Old West, settlers were anxious to make the trek to the Western United States in an effort to start new lives for themselves (and to outrun the various Starbucks franchises, which were too numerous even back then).  A wagon train of homesteaders led by Tim Holt (playing himself) and his sidekick Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin) reaches its final destination, so Tim and Chito make the trek to nearby Silver Springs in search of more work.  On the road to town, the two men spy a sign suggesting that homesteaders should stay away.  As he is dismantling the sign, Chito is fired at by an unknown assailant.  Chasing down the sniper reveals the culprit to be rancher Kenny Masters (Robert Sherwood), whose enthusiasm for his new neighbors measures about the same as his delight at having his horse stamp on his foot.  His sister Peggy (Linda Douglas) is solidly in her brother’s corner on the homesteaders issue.

Later, Chito has another run-in with Kenny at a saloon in Silver Springs (he was making time with Ken’s girl)—the purpose of this is to introduce us to the saloon’s owner, an oleaginous weasel who answers to “Regan” (Frank Wilcox).  Kenny hires Regan and his goons to waylay wagon master Wheeler (Kenneth MacDonald) as Wheeler heads to town with a strongbox filled with the nesters’ land claims and every cent they have in the world.  Tim and Chito ride to the rescue before Wheeler succumbs to a gunshot wound, and vow to bring the outlaws to heel with the eventual return of the money and claims.  But when Regan has his man Dawson kill the marshal in Silver Springs to keep the lawman from identifying a gun left at the scene of the robbery, Tim and Chito are forced to administer their own brand of rootin’-tootin’ justice.

When not appearing in prestige productions such as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), actor Tim Holt rode the range as R-K-O’s resident Western star from 1940 to 1952, replacing George O’Brien (whom Holt had worked with in 1938’s The Renegade Ranger).  Holt eventually churned out some 47 oaters for the studio, and though the low-budgets undeniably reflected their B-western nature, the professional gloss at R-K-O made many of them look far better than something cranked out at Poverty Row.  Eighteen of those sagebrush sagas were made between 1940 and 1943, before Holt went into the service in WW2 as a B-29 bombardier.

Hyperbole via lobby card: there is no lynch mob in Trail Guide. (Or fury, for that matter.)
I like a lot of Tim’s post-war Westerns, but not nearly as much as I prefer his early ones.  To me, he had better sidekicks then: Ray Whitley, Emmett Lynn, Lee White, Cliff Edwards.  His post-war saddle pal was Richard Martin, who played a half-Latino, half-Irish saddle tramp named Chito Jose Gonzales Bustamonte Rafferty.  (As Chito himself might explain: “The Spanish half is for loving…the Irish half is for fighting.”)  I didn’t care for Chito’s shtick because I thought Martin was far too handsome to be a sidekick…though I did chortle at the concept that Chito was unquestionably the horniest sidekick in all of Saturday matineedom.  Chito had quite an eye for the ladies, but the women could usually discourage his advances by humming a few bars of “Oh, Promise Me”—the slightest mention of matrimony, and Chito would remember he left the iron on at home.

I also didn’t care for Chito because his name reminds me of the snack food…which I can’t have anymore.  (But this is not a testament to his thespic talents, I assure you.)

Trail Guide (1952) is a fairly unremarkable B-Western.  Its plot has been beaten to death in oaters, basically boiling down to “The farmer and the cowman should be friends.”  Still, there are some positive characteristics about the movie—Tim is solid as always, and the supporting cast includes TDOY favorites like Three Stooges nemesis Kenneth MacDonald (playing a good guy) and Frank Wilcox, not to mention serial stalwarts like John Merton and John Pickard (of Serial Saturdays’ Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion [1951]).  (Tom London also has an amusing running gag as an old codger trying to train his dog to leap through a hoop.)  Martin does his sidekick thing to the best of his ability—the only really weak performance to be found belongs to Linda Douglas (in her film debut), who later married baseball great Hank Greenberg; it’s not hard to see why the wooden Douglas didn’t stay in movies too long (though she did appear in an additional Holt oater, 1952’s Target).  Robert Sherwood isn’t terrible but he really brings an admirable level of mayonnaise to his milksop role as Kenny—one look at him and you wouldn’t be too surprised if the bad guys pantsed him and tossed him into the girls’ locker room.

Produced for $89,000, Trail Guide actually lost money at the box office ($20,000).  The writing was on the wall for the Tim Holt westerns by this time; competition from TV and the increasing costs of producing something even as simple as a B-Western forced R-K-O to discontinue the franchise after three more entries.  Boyd Magers at Western Clippings gives this one two stars (which seems about right), so I’d really only recommend Guide if you’re already a Tim Holt fan.  The directorial credit goes to Lesley Selander (last seen in this space as the auteur behind Revolt at Fort Laramie), but with the amount of stock footage they recycled from Wagon Master (1950) at the beginning I think John Ford would have been well within his rights to demand a co-credit.  (Trail Guide is available on DVD, as part of the Warner Archive's Tim Holt Western Classics Collection Volume 4.)

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