Wednesday, February 15, 2017

B-Western Wednesdays: Vigilantes of Dodge City (1944)/Sheriff of Las Vegas (1944)

Fans of the Sunday morning newspaper “funnies” might remember that Red Ryder rode the comic strip range in those pages from 1938 to 1964.  The strip was illustrated for most of its run by artist Fred Harman, who drew upon inspiration from an earlier strip he did from 1933 to 1938 entitled Bronc Peeler.  Ryder was a “peaceable” cowpoke who lived on the Painted Valley Ranch owned by his aunt—known as “The Duchess” (not my best friend from high school, of course)—in the Bianco Basin of the San Juan Mountain Range out Colorady way, and engaged in two-fisted western heroics assisted by Little Beaver, his young Native American sidekick…who unfortunately spoke in the same pidgin English that plagued the Lone Ranger’s Tonto.  (Little Beaver’s phrase “You betchum, Red Ryder” eventually made its way into the pop culture vernacular—I will sheepishly admit that I use it myself from time to time though I probably shouldn’t.)

Red Ryder was not only a popular newspaper strip, it was also a mainstay in the comic book racks from 1940 to 1957 under various titles (Red Ryder Ranch Magazine, Red Ryder Ranch Comics)—though for a brief period during its lengthy run those books were comprised of reprints from the comic strip.  Red Ryder was a merchandising fool: clothing, sporting goods, books, toys, etc.  The strip’s longest-lasting contribution to pop culture was the “Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time”—featured, of course, in the Yuletide movie perennial A Christmas Story (1983).  (A friend of mine was completely unaware of Red’s history, once remarking: “I thought that was just something they created for the film.”)  Red Ryder also appeared on radio, airing on the Blue Network and Mutual (mostly on the West Coast) from 1942 to 1951, and featuring at various times the likes of professional narrator Reed Hadley, Carlton KaDell, and Brooke Temple as “America’s favorite fighting cowboy.”

Red Ryder came to the silver screen in 1940 in a twelve-chapter Republic serial entitled (what else?) The Adventures of Red Ryder, with Don Barry playing the titular hero…and making such an indelible impression that he spent the remainder of his movie career frequently billed as “Don ‘Red’ Barry.”  By the time Republic committed to a B-western series based on the property in 1944 (the first entry being Tucson Raiders), however, the studio cast “Wild” Bill Elliott in the part…and after making a total of 16 Red Ryder features Elliott was replaced by Allan “Rocky” Lane for seven more outings (the studio wanted to move “Wild” Bill into bigger and better things).  Republic’s Red Ryder series ended in 1947…but only because of a clerical error on the option-renewal date; the owner took advantage of this loophole to hold out for more money.  (Republic decided “Nuh-uh” and continued to make thirty-eight non-Red Ryder films with Lane until 1953.)  There was one last gasp at resurrecting the Ryder franchise at Eagle-Lion between 1949-50 with Jim Bannon as Red; these four films were made in Cinecolor and two of the features that survive in this process were released as a “double feature” from VCI in 2004.

VCI is the reason why I’m doing a “B-Western Wednesdays” post today, by the way.  I received an e-mail flier from the company back in the latter part of December, and though I know better not to do this I clicked on the link for their “Clearance Sale” just for a browse.  (I’m an idiot, I know.)  Ostensibly, I had planned to just buy a copy of Chariots of the Gods (1974) for my fadduh (it was on sale for $3.00) because…well, in addition to his obsession with reality TV shows and MSLSD, he also watches a lot of those UFO-themed programs—you know, the ones where the narrator refers to people as “ancient astronaut theorists” because he’s too polite to say “wacko birds.”  Anyhoo, while browsing the stacks I also found copies of two of their Red Ryder volumes (11 and 12) for sale at $6 each and before you could say “Classic movies never go out of style” all three were nestled snugly in the online shopping cart and on their way to the House of Yesteryear.

Volume 11 kicks off with Vigilantes of Dodge City (1944), an excellent example of how the Red Ryder series represents Republic at the apex of their B-western powers.  Red does not reside in his usual Painted Valley environs (I think they only used that locale in the first film in the franchise), but rather in the hamlet that required a U.S. marshal with “a chancy job” that “makes a man watchful…and a little lonely”: Dodge City.  Red is breeding horses for a U.S. Cavalry contract, and while inspecting his stock with Little Beaver (Robert “Bobby” Blake) and cowpoke Denver Thompson (Tom London), hears gunshots not far from where his horses are situated.  The trio rides hard towards the source of the shooting, but arrive too late to stop the robbery of $40,000 from a freight wagon (and the murder of two men, including the driver).

The wagon belongs to The Duchess (Alice Fleming), who operates a freight line in addition to her ranch; she and Red are unaware that the robberies are being staged by Luther Jennings (LeRoy Mason), a local banker (what else?) who very much wants to buy out “Auntie” Duchess but she refuses to sell.  (Jennings hopes that the robberies will result in the freight line’s inability to continue obtaining insurance…and fortunately, he’s enlisted the help of Walter Bishop [Hal Taliaferro], the man who’s collecting the policy premiums.)  With the help of his chief goon Ross Benteen (Bud Geary), Jennings concocts an eevill scheme to rustle Red Ryder’s horses…and then pin the theft of those equines on Red himself!  Our hero is in a sticky situation…but it all comes out in the wash, as he rounds up the bad guys and brings them to justice.

Boyd Magers at Western Clippings gives Vigilantes of Dodge City four stars and calls it “high energy, non-stop action.”  He’s not exaggerating, either; the highlight of the movie is a climactic chase where bad guys Jennings and Bishop have kidnapped Little Beaver and are making a run for it in a wagon while Red and Denver give chase with a stagecoach.  The wagon is carrying a shipment of dynamite, and at one point in the action the vehicle is set ablaze as Red and Jennings fight to the finish.  The stunts in this little programmer are incredible; it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the second unit director on the movie was one of the motion picture industry’s finest stuntmen, Yakima Canutt.  It’s got a great cast of oater veterans: Mason, Taliaferro (he played a good guy in the Red Ryder serial), London, Geary, Kenne Duncan, Stanley “The Old Ranger” Andrews, and The Man with the Perpetual Sneer—Bob Wilke.  (TDOY fave/Republic serial queen Linda Stirling plays the ingénue in this one—she was in quite a few of the Ryder films—but she doesn’t get much to do, sadly.)

Paired with Vigilantes is Sheriff of Las Vegas (1944); Magers isn’t quite as enthusiastic about this one (two stars) but it’s not all that terrible.  In this entry, Red is appointed sheriff of that titular berg (this was before the casinos, of course) and has his hands full trying to solve the murder of prominent jurist Homer T. Blackwell (John “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Hamilton), who gets croaked shortly after announcing to The Duchess and schoolteacher Ann Carter (Peggy Stewart) that he’s having banker-lawyer Arthur Stanton (Selmer Jackson) write his no-account son Tom (Jay Kirby) out of his will.  Suspicion in Blackwell’s demise falls upon Tom, of course—though it was really Tom’s disreputable buddy (and saloon owner) Dan Sedley (William Haade) what done the dirty deed.

I was entertained by Sheriff even though I’m convinced the movie’s major flaw is that you never really understand the motivation behind Sedley’s killing of Judge Blackwell (it’s sort of explained at the end, and even that clarification is weak).  (Then again, the only reason why Shakespeare had Don John in Much Ado About Nothing is that he needed a bad guy.)  Geary, Duncan, and Wilke are on hand for this one (playing different characters, natch), and the movie also benefits from the presence of old pros like Hamilton and Jackson.  There’s a bit more emphasis on comic relief in Sheriff (much of it at the expense of Little Beaver) …but I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I didn’t say I smiled at some of the lighter moments from time to time.

The Red Ryder westerns run a little less than an hour (slightly longer than a TV episode from that 50s era) but when they’re en fuego with the action and stunts they’re entertaining as all get out.  Robert Blake, fresh off being an obnoxious kid (sorry, Baretta fans—but it’s true) with the Our Gang comedies at MGM, would play Little Beaver throughout the Bill Elliott and Allan Lane incarnations of the franchise—Don Kay “Little Brown Jug” Reynolds replaced him in the Bannon Eagle-Lion Ryders.  (Alice Fleming portrayed The Duchess in the Elliott films, Martha Wentworth in the Lane entries, and Marin Sais in the Bannon vehicles.)  I highly recommend these unpretentious little oaters for the dedicated B-western fan, and will hopefully return to some more of them on the blog in the future.

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