Wednesday, November 23, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: The Renegade Ranger (1938)

Texas Ranger Jack Steele (George O’Brien) gets an assignment from his superior, Major Jameson (Guy Usher): he’s to travel to Pecos City and bring back a woman named Judith Alvarez (Rita Hayworth), the chief suspect in the murder of wealthy rancher Sam Dunning.  Dunning’s partner, Ben Sanderson (William Royle), is the county’s tax commissioner and—not to put too fine a point on it—is crookeder than a dog’s hind leg.  Sanderson has levied high taxes on the ranchers in the area—back taxes they can’t possibly pay, and so the property owners are forced into selling their spreads to meet their financial obligations.  This is precisely what happened to Judith, and she’s formed a “gang” for the expressed purpose of being a constant spur underneath Sanderson’s saddle.

Steele’s original plan was to have fellow Ranger Larry Corwin (Tim Holt) go after Ms. Alvarez…but after seeing Larry participate in a barroom brawl, Jameson drums the youngster out of the organization.  (Unaware that Jameson witnessed the fracas, Larry is convinced that Jack ratted him out.)  In Pecos City, Steele and a Ranger named Happy (Ray Whitley) glean from some of the locals that Judith might be innocent of the Dunning killing—and when Alvarez and her gang storm Sanderson’s office to rob the jernt, a fight breaks out…prompting Jack to save Judy’s life while winding up injured in the process.  Jack is nursed back to health and decides to go undercover as one of the Alvarez Gang so that he can take its leader into custody.  The problem is: Larry has also joined Judith’s organization—and he’s threatening to reveal Steele’s real occupation.

Before dancer Rita Cansino got Anglicized by Columbia Pictures studio head Harry “White Fang” Cohn as glamour gal Rita Hayworth, the aspiring starlet did a lot of B-picture work, particularly in the Westerns arena.  She appeared alongside Tom Keene in Old Louisiana (1937), the Three Mesquiteers (Robert Livingston, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, Max “Alibi” Terhune) in Hit the Saddle (1937), and Tex Ritter in Trouble in Texas (1937)—previously seen in this space in February of 2012.  At the risk of incurring the wrath of Hayworth fans—Rita wasn’t much of an actress, but she was undeniably a presence onscreen.  She greatly impressed her Renegade Ranger co-star George O’Brien, who recalled in later years that the young ingénue took her craft very seriously, often asking for advice on how to play certain scenes during filming.  "Rita carried herself beautifully," O’Brien remembered.  "She walked and moved with such grace!  Cliché though it might be, she was poetry in motion."  Variety was also impressed with Hayworth’s turn in Ranger, opining that Rita “turns in one of the finest femme sagebrush performances seen in a long while.”  The Hollywood Reporter concurred, noting that Ms. Hayworth “is a pretty eyeful who turns in an endearing performance.”

Rita’s presence in The Renegade Ranger makes this RKO B-Western a little better than your average oater; the film was originally made in 1932 with Tom Keene as Come on Danger! (1932), and would be done a third time with that same title (minus the exclamation point) in 1942 starring Tim Holt.  So, it’s rather fortuitous that Holt appears in the O’Brien version (Holt’s first feature for RKO) as the hotheaded Larry—and to be honest, I was a lot more impressed with Tim’s acting than I was Rita’s. 

One aspect of Ranger that left me puzzled was that there didn’t seem to be any attempt to capitalize on Hayworth’s terpsichorean prowess save a slow dance she does with O’Brien in a scene where the Alvarez Gang throws a barbecue bash.  The big dance number—performed to the strains of Cielito Lindo—is executed by Cecilia Callejo, who plays Holt’s love interest in the movie.  Ray Whitley, who would play Tim’s sidekick in a few of his later starring westerns at RKO, also performs a ditty in Move Slow, Little Dogie with Ken Card and the Phelps Brothers.

Ranger features a lot of familiar B-Western faces like Monte Montague, Bob Kortman, and Tom London (homework assignment: how many Lone Ranger episodes was this guy in?), with some decent villainy from William Royle (as the despicable Sanderson) and Jim Mason (as a disgruntled rancher who’s secretly working for Sanderson).  Directed by David Howard (Trouble in Sundown) and scripted by oaters veteran Oliver Drake (from a story by Bennett Cohen), The Renegade Ranger will be of great interest to those classic film fans anxious to get a gander at the young Rita Hayworth still learning her craft.  (Ranger is available on the Warner Archive MOD compendium Tim Holt Western Classics Collection, Volume 1…even though George O’Brien is the star!)

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