Wednesday, December 7, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Heart of the Rio Grande (1942)

You might recall my mentioning earlier that Rancho Yesteryear was the beneficiary of a Starz/Encore/Movieplex “freeview” over the Thanksgiving holidays, and this allowed me to grab some goodies from both their respective On Demand outlets (for the record, I adore how Movieplex allows their movies to play all the way through—just like those on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™’s On Demand—because I’m kind of anal when it comes to closing credits) and the channels themselves.  I tried my darndest to grab The Lone Star Trail (1943) from Encore Westerns On Demand, but it vanished before my suckass Windstream connection could download it.  (Bill Crider got to see it, and mentioned in a recent comment that he may get around to reviewing it one of these days; I suggest we start picketing his blog immediately until he acquiesces to our demands…though I cannot stress enough the importance of staying on the sidewalk because he has a thing about people in his yard.)

While I was denied a dandy Johnny Mack Brown-Tex Ritter oater, I did grab a couple of Buster Crabbe-Fuzzy St. John PRC B’s and a slew of Republic-Columbia programmers starring “America’s favorite singing cowboy,” Gene Autry hizzownself.  (Including 1940’s Melody Ranch, which was reviewed back on the blog in 2011.)  So, don’t be surprised to see a few of Gene’s moon pitchers turn up in this Wednesday space in the future—including today’s entry, Heart of the Rio Grande (1942).

You’ll find when you watch enough B-Westerns that there’s usually a wealthy bidnessman character out to screw over the townsfolk until the hero steps in to put a smackdown on those shenanigans.  Heart has such a rich character, but he’s surprisingly benign when it comes to making life miserable for the disadvantaged; in this movie, Randolph Lane’s (Pierre Watkin—billed as “Pierre Watkins”) only vice is that he’s been a little delinquent in the parenting department—which is why his daughter Connie (Edith Fellows) is spoiled rotten.  The students at the private school Connie attends will be spending two months at the Smoke River Dude Ranch—accompanied by chaperone Alice Bennett (Fay McKenzie)—and Connie would rather make other plans.  Father Randolph exercises his parental veto and Connie is soon on a train heading West.

The Smoke River Dude Ranch is technically a horse ranch—but mismanagement from ex-foreman Hap Callahan (William Haade) has necessitated that owner “Skipper” Forbes (Sarah Padden) open the place up to tourists to pay the bills.  Hap never stops pissing and moaning about this…though it probably has more to do with the fact that Skipper has hired a new foreman in Gene Autry.  Gene and loyal sidekick “Frog” Millhouse (Smiley Burnette) meet Ms. Bennett and her charges at the depot (Frog immediately falls—literally—for Alice), just in time to see Connie continue on to San Francisco.  Autry and his horse Champion catch up to the Frisco Express, and he pulls her off the train because…damn it, she’s there to have fun.

Connie behaves…how should I put this?  Well, I’ll spell it out in case there are any kids in the room: she’s a proper P-I-L-L.  She steals a truck from the ranch to make another desperate bid for freedom but the vehicle has no brakes, and she ends up crashing it in a ditch.  (She insists on walking all the way back to Smoke River even though Gene offers her the use of Champion.)  Later, she marks up her back with lipstick to look as though she’s being whipped during her stay (she sends the photos to her father, and believe me, they will come back to bite her in the derriere).  When Gene gives Connie a lecture on doing things for others without expecting anything in return, the girl gets the bright idea to tamper with the cinch on Hap’s saddle so he’ll lose a riding contest with Autry.  (Connie apologizes when Hap is seriously hurt, and when Hap draws a gun on Gene during an exchange of fisticuffs, Autry tells him to hit the road.)

Eventually, Connie begins to understand that being a rich bitch will not win friends and influence people (well…maybe not in good ways), and she starts to enjoy herself at Smoke River.  Then her old man turns up, wanting to know why his daughter is being abused (those damn pictures!) …and Gene finds himself having to teach Papa Lane a lesson as well.

If you’ve expressed concern that all these teachable moments Gene must impart adversely affects his duties at the ranch…allow me to assuage your fears.  Gene likes nothing more than being a scold; there’s even a scene where he speechifies to some of the ranch hands (played by the Jimmy Wakely Trio, including Wakely and Johnny “Ten Little Bottles” Bond) that they should be spending their hard-working wages on war bonds instead of liquor and card games…because damn it, there’s a war on.  Gene’s tendency to be a bit bossy is one of the reasons why I prefer Roy Rogers’ movie western output—I’m not saying Roy wasn’t guilty of a little preaching now and then, but he seemed to conceal it better.

That having been said, I got a kick out of Heart of the Rio Grande.  I know, I’m on the record as affirming that my preference for Autry movies are the more adult ones he made at Columbia (with serials veteran John English directing), but Heart is a great little oater, and I think it’s due to the fact that the character played by Edith Fellows (whom you may remember from those Five Little Peppers movies) is more than just a one-dimensional brat.  Fellows really makes Connie unlikable in the early frames of the movie…and yet when she realizes what an unpleasant person she’s been, her conversion to regular gal is quite realistic.  (She and Gene become great pals—he even teaches her some roping tricks!)

I know you’re going to wonder if I’ve developed a fever—but the other kiddie thesp in Heart, Joe Strauch, Jr., also didn’t cause me to retch violently like I usually do (see She Who Shall Not Be Named).  Strauch has some amusing moments as Frog Millhouse’s younger brother Tadpole (that’s a joke, son!—he’s even decked out in the same “Frog” clothing, just a Mini-Me version)—a role he initiated in the Autry oater Under Fiesta Stars (1941) and continued in three additional Autry vehicles after that (Strauch also appeared in Beneath Western Skies [1944] with Smiley and Bob Livingston).  Strauch’s main movie fame was as George “Spanky” McFarland’s double in the Our Gang comedies—he even appears onscreen (as “Tubby”) in the Our Gang short Fightin’ Fools (1941).  When I was watching Heart of the Rio Grande, I heard what I thought was one of the female students refer to Frog as Tadpole’s father and had to run it back to make sure I hadn’t heard incorrectly.  (As it turns out, I did.  Frog is a bachelor, so that family arrangement would have been very interesting.)

Heart of the Rio Grande gets a few extra points for integrating the musical numbers much better than your usual Gene Autry outing; Gene performs Deep in the Heart of Texas (the movie’s original title was to have been Heart of Texas) and one of my favorites, I’ll Wait for You, while the Wakely Trio tackle a Johnny Bond composition in Cimarron.  Even Fellows is allowed a number (I’ve previously joked that she was Columbia’s answer to Deanna Durbin…though this is a Republic release) in Rainbow in the Night.  Directed by longtime film editor William Morgan (who helmed quite a few of Gene’s Republics, including Home in Wyomin’ that same year) and scripted by Lillie Hayward & Winston Miller (from Newlin B. Wildes’ story “Sure, Money Folks, But—“), Heart of the Rio Grande is a lovely little B-oater.  It’s available for purchase (I love how Gene’s westerns have been painstakingly restored) or for rent at your friendly neighborhood ClassicFlix.

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