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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #10 - October 2004

This time it really is a round-up as I look at 22 western films (actually 18 western films, 2 western serials, 1 western TV series, and 1 John Wayne biography) that have appeared mainly over the past few months.

Zorro Rides Again (1937)
Zorro's Black Whip (1944)/The Bold Caballero (1936)
(released on DVD by Image on August 3rd, 2004)

Inspired by the success of The Vigilantes Are Coming, a 1936 serial starring Robert Livingston and featuring a masked avenger, Republic decided to resurrect Zorro - a character that had lain dormant since Douglas Fairbanks's portrayals in the mid-1920s. As a warm-up, it used Robert Livingston once again in the 1936 feature The Bold Caballero, which basically played out the traditional Zorro story of the masked Robin Hood who deals with the Spanish oppressors of the put-upon natives. Livingston was being built up by Republic as a star of its more major productions at the time, but he looks uncomfortable in much of the film. The 69-minute production is a little ragged, with less-than-persuasive sword fights for example, as Republic was not yet the well-oiled western-making machine that it would soon become. It also suffers from the use of Sig Rumann as the chief villain. Rumann reminds one too much of his more comedic roles (in the likes of A Night at the Opera, To Be or Not to Be) to be taken really seriously as an evil commandant. The film was shot using an early two-colour process.

Zorro Rides AgainZorro's Black Whip/The Bold Caballero

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In 1937, Republic embarked on its first true Zorro serial - Zorro Rides Again. The 12-chapter effort features John Carroll in the title role, as the great grandson of Zorro returns to California where he must try to prevent the takeover of the California-Yucatan Railroad by a nefarious investment banker named Marsden. Duncan Renaldo appears as Zorro's loyal friend; Noah Beery Sr. plays Marsden; and Richard Alexander is the latter's main henchman, El Lobo. The plot is one of the then-popular blends of the old west with more modern elements such as planes and trucks. This allowed for a little more variety in the chapter endings than was otherwise the case with western serials. Republic was hitting its stride by this time, and with the directing team of William Witney and John English in charge, the action is plentiful and generally well-mounted. Unfortunately, the serial's resolution is handled in a rather cursory fashion, undoing some of the earlier momentum.

After another dip at the Zorro well in the superior Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939) serial, Republic took a break for five years before apparently returning to the character in 1944 with the 12-chapter serial Zorro's Black Whip. I say "apparently" because the only appearance of Zorro is in the serial's title. The main character is a mysterious avenger called The Black Whip who certainly dresses like Zorro and uses a whip, but that's as far as it goes. The Black Whip provides assistance to government agent Vic Gordon who is working undercover in Idaho where he is trying to root out a gang of outlaws intent on preventing the coming of law and order that would accompany the territory becoming a state. One of the serial's chief assets is the presence of serial queen Linda Stirling who early on assumes the role of The Black Whip. George Lewis, more often a heavy, plays the role of Vic Gordon likably and with good authority. Familiar face Francis McDonald is the brains behind the outlaws and his chief henchmen are portrayed by the likes of Hal Taliaferro and John Merton - typical roles for them. Direction this time was by the team of Spencer Bennet and Wallace Grissell who had a significantly smaller budget to work with than nearly any other Republic serial due to wartime belt-tightening. This translated into shorter chapter lengths and the use of a retrospective chapter two-thirds of the way through the serial. Action was once again well-staged, reflecting second unit work by Yakima Canutt. Overall, the serial is an entertaining outing, but no more than an average entry in the Republic serial canon.

Various Republic Zorro serials are available from many sources including Roan Group, VCI, the Serial Squadron, and Image. The latter's are the versions reviewed here and are being put out under the Hal Roach Studios imprint. All are quite watchable, although none will be mistaken for the better restorations of classic titles available from the likes of Warner Brothers or Fox. Each is described as being "mastered from original 35mm nitrate camera negative and fine grains". Zorro Rides Again is presented full frame as originally shot. The image is a little schizophrenic, ranging from reasonably crisp one minute to somewhat washed out the next. Contrast is a problem at times and numerous scratches and speckles are present. The mono sound is clear enough, but hiss and crackle are in evidence. There is no sub-titling. Included as extras are trailers for six Republic serials - Darkest Africa, Radar Men from the Moon, Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, SOS Coast Guard, The Undersea Kingdom, and Zorro Rides Again. Faring somewhat better is Zorro's Black Whip, also correctly presented full frame. The image is more consistently clear and fairly crisp, although there are occasions when it deteriorates a bit. Shadow detail is fairly good. The mono sound is once again quite workable, with less hiss than on Zorro Rides Again. There is no sub-titling. As a special bonus, the disc includes the full-length feature The Bold Caballero. The version presented is a black and white one mastered from the "red element" that survives from the original two-colour process in which the film was shot. The image is workable but overall is in the poorest shape of the three titles reviewed here. It's clear enough overall, but often suffers from blooming of the whites and general softness. Shadow detail suffers accordingly, and speckles and scratches abound. The mono sound is about on a par with that of Zorro Rides Again. For Zorro fans, however, it's a pleasure to have this available and is a strong selling point for the Zorro's Black Whip disc. It seems strange then that you only know it's on the disc if you read the back of the case. Due to its inclusion of The Bold Caballero, the Zorro's Black Whip disc is recommended.

Duel in the Sun (1946)
(released on DVD by MGM on May 25th, 2004)

Producer David O' Selznick wasn't exactly a big western fan, but in Niven Busch's novel of the McCanles family (a tale somewhat notorious for some steamy sex scenes between one of the McCanles sons, Lewt, and Pearl Chavez, a young half-breed), Selznick saw an opportunity for Jennifer Jones, with whose career he was becoming obsessed. Selznick managed to secure the film rights and set about mounting a Gone-with-the-Wind-like production. It was Selznick's feeling that combining more spectacle than had ever been seen in a western along with a violent love story would lead to great success. Nine months of shooting in 1945 characterized by endless rewrites, retakes, union disputes, and the eventual walk-out of director King Vidor all resulted in costs of almost $5 million and over 26 hours of film. An initial cut of almost four hours was previewed to unsatisfactory results, leading to further retakes and additional scenes which were massaged into a cut of 138 minutes for the film's official opening. Further cuts then had to be made to placate various censorship groups in order to ensure the film's financial success during its countrywide release. As it turned out, Selznick need not have worried. The public flocked to the film.

Duel in the Sun

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On viewing the film, it isn't hard to see why. Despite its excesses, it's a compelling story told on a broad canvas in rich Technicolor with a rousing score by Dimitri Tiomkin. The action of the plot turns on the issue of railroad access across the vast McCanles ranch, but the film's real focus is on the family relationships whose problems are heightened when Pearl Chavez, niece of Laura Belle McCanles, comes to live at the ranch after her father is hanged for murder. Both the McCanles sons, Jesse and Lewt, are attracted to Pearl, as she is to them. But it is the violently sexual relationship between Lewt and Pearl that eventually splits the family wide apart. Selznick managed to assemble a real powerhouse cast for the film including Gregory Peck (Lewt), Jennifer Jones (Pearl), Joseph Cotton (Jesse), Lillian Gish (Laura Belle), Lionel Barrymore (patriarch Jackson McCanles), Herbert Marshall (Pearl's father), Walter Huston (the sinkiller), and Charles Bickford (ranch strawboss). All are excellent in their roles although Jennifer Jones's efforts at smoldering looks are sometimes excessive. Peck is particularly effective as the lascivious Lewt. King Vidor's direction is steady although in the end he only filmed about half of the on-screen footage, as Selznick's interference finally drove him to leave the set. Others such as Joseph von Sternberg and William Dieterle directed small parts. The film's most impressive set-piece, and worth the price of admission in itself, is the spectacle of the confrontation between the McCanles cowboys and the army, truly a magnificent marshalling of riders and horses.

MGM presents the film full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio. This is apparently the same source material that Anchor Bay had for its previous (and second) release of the title. It's the roadshow version complete with Tiomkin's overture and exit music, for a running time of 146 minutes. The Technicolor image is in very fine shape with both good colour fidelity (there is a slightly heightened reddish cast to the image, but this may have been intentional) and decent shadow detail. There are very few blemishes to be seen. Some minor edge effects are the only detraction from what is quite a sharp presentation. The results are fairly similar to what Anchor Bay achieved on its disc; at most MGM's is slightly sharper. The mono sound track is quite adequate for the job although there is noticeable distortion at higher volumes. Anchor Bay's disc did not suffer from this to the same extent. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included. The only extra is the original theatrical trailer. If the sub-titles are not an important consideration, there's no reason to trade in the previous Anchor Bay disc should you have it.

Angel and the Badman (1947)
(released on DVD by Image on Oct. 29th, 2002)

A couple of superior John Wayne westerns from the mid-1940s often tend to get overlooked. One is Tall in the Saddle, which was a 1944 RKO release that is sometimes regarded as Wayne's best western work since Stagecoach. Unfortunately it's not available on DVD as yet. The second is Angel and the Badman (a 1947 Republic release) which is available on DVD from a number of sources because of its apparent public domain status. It was John Wayne's first foray into production himself. He took the plunge with this particular film because the story with its strong central character appealed to him and it was written by a good friend, James Edward Grant. Wayne plays badman Quirt Evans who is nursed to health by a family of Quakers after being shot. He and the young Quaker daughter, Penny Worth, gradually fall in love as Quirt comes to appreciate the virtues of the Quaker lifestyle. Meanwhile, old nemesis Laredo Stevens threatens Quirt's future while U.S. marshal Wistful McClintock remains watchful should Quirt revert to his old ways.

Angel and the Badman

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There's not much action in this western, but the thoughtful story and strong performances more than compensate. Wayne looks very comfortable in his role and he receives strong support from a young Gail Russell as Penny, Bruce Cabot as Laredo, Lee Dixon as Quirt's partner Randy, and especially Harry Carey as Wistful. The film is well shot with some good camerawork on the limited action sequences. Whether this is attributable mainly to first-time director James Grant (who had managed to convince Wayne to let him direct his own script) or to Wayne's control of the shoot is open to debate. The film was shot in the Los Angeles area, although it opened with some Monument Valley footage that evoked the work of John Ford. The film presents a gentle story that Ford might have directed, but there is no suggestion that he at any time had any involvement in it.

The version reviewed here is one issued by Image Entertainment as part of its Hal Roach Studios line of releases. The full frame image (in accord with the original aspect ratio) is quite workable. For a public domain release, the presentation is a mixture of sharp and soft sequences with the former dominating. Night-time sequences are rather murky. The image is free of edge effects. The mono sound is adequate, although there is plenty of hiss in evidence. There is no sub-titling. Extras include trailers for six serials. The film is also available on DVD from Roan Group, but its transfer is somewhat inferior to Image's.

Blazing Across the Pecos (1948)
(released on DVD by Columbia on Sept. 14th, 2004)

Columbia's most enduring cowboy star was Charles Starrett. His debut western was 1935's Gallant Defender and for the next 17 years he appeared virtually exclusively in westerns for the studio. In 1940, he appeared in a masked avenger story called The Durango Kid wherein he played the title role. At the time, this was a one-shot effort as far as the character was concerned, but in 1945, Columbia resurrected the Durango Kid character for Starrett in Return of the Durango Kid. Starrett would play the character in all his remaining westerns.

Blazing Across the Pecos

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Starrett certainly looked the part of the western star and managed to display a fair aptitude for western heroics, but his acting style was somewhat wooden and he really needed strong production values and good casts to compensate. Unfortunately, aside from its Gene Autry westerns, these were too often in short supply at Columbia when it came to its later western series. As the 1940s wore on, the Durango Kid westerns became repetitive and were more and more tiresome to watch. The plots were thin and unimaginative, telegraphing their stories even more than the standard series western. Blazing Across the Pecos is a perfect example. In it, the mayor of Pecos Flats is secretly supplying Indians with guns so that they can attack a rival's business concerns. The Durango Kid happens on the situation and cleans it up. And that's about it! There's nothing to compensate for the thin story, either in the main supporting players (particularly Charles Wilson as the mayor, or those playing his henchmen), the uninspired buffoonery of Smiley Burnette, or the film's action content. The latter lacks any spark of inspiration.

Columbia has just released this title on DVD. One really wonders what the thinking process is over there. You would think that if you were interested in making money from such a release, you would look to the better entries in the series and showcase them so that fans feel they're not being taken. The choice of a poor Durango Kid western, with a running time of less than an hour, alone on a single disc at a SRP of $19.95 is not going to result in much business. Why not at least pair the first two Durango Kid westerns on a single disc and see what sort of interest one might generate, rather than the market-killing approach that Columbia has taken? For those who care, the disc's full frame presentation is fine - quite a crisp and relatively blemish-free image for such a minor item. The mono sound is adequate. Extras consist of three preview trailers that can only be watched all together. One of them is for Bridge on the River Kwai, which tells you all you need to know about the amount of thought that Columbia has put into this release.

The Man from Colorado (1948)
(released on DVD by Columbia on June 8th, 2004)

Glenn Ford was one of those actors you could always rely upon for a good, steady performance. His was a career of fine if seldom scintillating portrayals and at age 88, he is now one of the few remaining stars of the Golden Age still alive. During the 1940s and early 1950s, he was under contract to Columbia and appeared in several memorable films of the period including Gilda and The Big Heat. Even from early in his career, he appeared comfortable if somewhat fresh-faced in western films such as The Desperadoes (1943) and Texas (1941), the latter with a young William Holden. In 1948, a more mature-looking Ford reteamed with Holden to make The Man from Colorado, a superior western entry for that year. The story concerns Civil War officer Owen Devereaux who comes to love killing and whose violent behaviour continues when he becomes a judge after the war is over. Del Stewart, Owen's friend and fellow-officer during the war and town marshal under Devereaux thereafter, tries to restrain Devereaux's violent tendencies. But when former soldiers find themselves unfairly dealt with by Devereaux, they take up arms against him and Stewart and Devereaux eventually find themselves pitted against each other.

The Man from Colorado

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The end of World War II signaled a change in the western film. Until that time, the emphasis had been on the B series western or A westerns that were large scale extravaganzas such as Dodge City or Union Pacific. Now westerns with more mature themes started to appear, such as Blood on the Moon, Pursued, and Colorado Territory, presaging the so-called psychological westerns of the 1950s. The Man from Colorado fit into this transition period neatly with its tale of a character mentally damaged by war and increasingly unable to control his love of killing. The film successfully maintains its focus on this character by contrasting him with his best friend in a love triangle and by casting lesser known actors to portray those opposed to him. The result was a thoughtful drama that also did right by traditional western enthusiasts by including a good measure of action highlighted by the climactic set-piece in a burning town. Ford is excellent as Devereaux and William Holden once again combines effectively with him as Stewart. Also in the cast are such stalwarts as Ray Collins and Edgar Buchanan, with Ellen Drew providing a little more spunk than the standard love interest window-dressing. The story is staged stylishly and suspensefully by Henry Levin, a director who could turn a competent hand to many genres of film.

Columbia has done a fine job on this Technicolor film. The full-frame image (consistent with the original aspect ratio) is bright and colourful, capturing the rich Technicolor palette accurately. The picture is sharp and clear with fine shadow detail. Only occasional speckles mar an otherwise exemplary effort. The mono sound is quite adequate, free from age-related hiss or distortion. English and Japanese subtitles are provided. The disc includes several trailers but none for The Man from Colorado. Recommended.

Cow Town (1950)
Sons of New Mexico (1950)
(released on DVD by Image on May 25th, 2004)

Indian Territory (1950)
Texans Never Cry (1951)
(released on DVD by Image on July 13th, 2004)

Whirlwind (1951)
(released on DVD by Image on September 14th, 2004)

In 1947, Gene Autry took his production unit from Republic to Columbia where he would remain for the remainder of his feature film career (it ended in 1953). The Columbia releases were produced under the Gene Autry Productions banner with Armand Schaefer as producer and the direction most commonly by Frank McDonald, John English, and latterly George Archainbaud. During this period, Autry's on-screen persona assumed a less flamboyant look with more conservative dress, and there was an emphasis on fisticuffs. Gene was obviously adept at the latter and demonstrated it in the films, but there was less attention to it than to elaborately staged and gritty fights. Two or three songs continued to be featured in each film. In the later Columbias, Gail Davis was usually the female lead with first Pat Buttram and then Smiley Burnette providing comic relief. Over the past five months, Image has released a half dozen more titles in its continuing collection of Autry titles. These all date from the middle of his Columbia period and range in quality from mediocre to very good in terms of entertainment value. Five of these releases are reviewed here.

Cow TownSons of New MexicoIndian Territory

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Texans Never CryWhirlwind

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Whirlwind is the best of the bunch. In it, Gene is a postal inspector who tries to crack a well-organized gang of robbers headed by rancher Big Jim Lassiter. The story is well-crafted and photographed, and is punctuated with some good action sequences. As was common with his Columbia films, Gene looks more natural and comfortable in his role than he did in many of his previous Republic outings. The supporting cast is excellent with Thurston Hall as Big Jim and the likes of Harry Lauter, Dick Curtis, and Kenne Duncan as his henchmen. Smiley Burnette replaces Pat Buttram as Gene's sidekick for this entry. In Texans Never Cry, Gene plays a Texas Ranger on the trail of a gang of counterfeiters dealing in phony Mexican lottery tickets. This one's not quite in Whirlwind's class because its story seems a little thin for the 68-minute running time and the supporting players don't particularly stand out. Pat Buttram is around and the action content is fine, however. Indian Territory is a pretty traditional entry, story-wise, in which Gene plays an undercover Indian agent intent on getting to the bottom of several Indian uprisings. The film offers attractive camera work and reasonable action, but is no more than standard Autry fare. James Griffith is not particularly effective as one of the bad guys. Gene somehow manages a rendition of "Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy". Sons of New Mexico finds Gene the guardian of a deceased friend's son who falls under the influence of gamblers. He sends the son to the New Mexico Military Institute to straighten the boy out, hence the film's title. This one offers a somewhat novel plot for a B western, and the story is well executed by director John English. Robert Armstrong makes for a good villain, and Clayton Moore (TV's Lone Ranger) makes a welcome appearance. This marked Gail Davis's first appearance in one of Gene's westerns. Cow Town is the most disappointing of this bunch. The story finds rancher Gene Autry intent on using the new invention of barbed wire to save his cattle from rustlers. Gene's performance is very perfunctory and the action (aside from a fight with Jock Mahoney) and supporting cast are not inspiring. Some of the songs are more awkwardly integrated into the story than usual.

Image's DVD presentation of each of these films is quite similar. The transfers (correctly presented full frame) are quite good with crisp images, good shadow resolution, and nicely detailed gray scales. There is very minor speckling and some grain in evidence (the latter somewhat more noticeable on Whirlwind than the others), but only minimal edge effects. Autry fans should be very pleased with what they see. The mono sound is in good shape and is generally free of significant hiss or crackle. Each disc contains the reminiscences provided by Gene Autry and Pat Buttram on the "Melody Ranch Theater" television presentations of the films; excerpts from the original "Melody Ranch Radio Show"; poster, lobby card, and production still galleries; original press kit material, and the original theatrical trailer. All are recommended for Autry fans, but if you only want one, Whirlwind is the one to get.

On to Part Two

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