BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Apr 18th, 2014 •

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The Great Depression spawned many attempts to lure people back into the darkened movie palaces. Plates were given away. There were contests. Nurses were in attendance for horror flicks – making movies minimally interactive in the manner of Sir William of Castle (who had Lloyds of London insure patrons for a thousand dollars before letting them into the theater for MACABRE). And the first theatrical double-bill occurred in 1930. Adding an extra ‘B’ feature clearly gave audiences more for their moolah, and slowly the exhibition model caught on. Many of these short, inexpensive second features were Westerns.

In the coffee-table book ‘The RKO Story’ by Richard Jewell (with Vernon Harbin), the authors treat the Tim Holt ‘B’ Westerns with respect. They rate them individually as they would any of the library titles, some scoring highly, others regarded as less successful. It indicates that the Holt/RKO stable was a comfortable assembly line to be part of. There’s a gap of several years between the first seven films and the last two in this collection, allowing in part for his aberrational participation in Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, followed by a stint in the armed forces, and then roles in John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE and John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE.

A few of the 40s oaters are charmingly written and well-shot, and in fact the only thing wrong with them is Holt. Replacing former RKO Western star George O’Brien, Holt wears a patently false smile, is dressed too neatly, and rides awkwardly with his elbows held out. In the two later films in this collection, produced in the early 50s, he has become more at ease and more believable, but the scripts aren’t as good.

WAGON TRAIN, the first of his Western series, with Holt leading said procession through perils galore, benefits from an extra dry comic performance by Margaret Hamilton clone Ellen Lowe as Amanthy, a tough frontier woman who contends with a grizzled liar of a boyfriend, an abandoned child, and sundry other prairie impediments. Emmett Lynn (who appeared in 17 films in ’42 and 18 in ’43), plays the hirsute ‘Whopper’ opposite Ms. Lowe, and he’s less funny and more irritating in this film than he is in the following one – THE FARGO KID – in which he is quite amusing and displays deft comic timing, even though, oddly, they were filmed simultaneously?

THE FARGO KID, also a 1940 release, sports two musical numbers, provided (and written) by Ray Whitley, a regular throughout the series (and formerly a singing cowboy in the George O’Brien westerns). Westerns integrated singing, and occasionally dancing, into their plots in a way that was more uncomfortable than when such interludes were worked into comedies and dramas. These artificially staged numbers almost always seem to weirdly interrupt the plot for a few minutes. It’s kind of a Bollywood thing in the way musical mini-productions suddenly appear. It works in saloons, obviously, better than in other Western milieus.

Paul Fix appears in TFK as a nicely fleshed-out villain here, and he and Holt meet in a clever way, enabling the plot to unfold logically regarding their mixed identities. Both films were written by Morton Grant who, from what I’ve seen in this collection, was the Holt Westerns’ best screenwriter, constantly going for fresh ideas, avoiding clichés, and re-invigorating the Western paradigm.

LAND OF THE OPEN RANGE. I don’t know how they thought they could afford to do this one, about a land rush, on the limited budget they must have had, even by using out-takes from the 1931 RKO version of CIMARRON. It’s a pretty sprawling story with lots of characters. But they pulled it off, and it’s full of fun, courtesy of another of Morton Grant’s clever screenplays.

Of interest perhaps only to me, it was amazing, amusing, and slightly distracting to hear music cues from my first film, THE PROJECTIONIST (1971), sprinkled throughout the Tim Holt films. Igo Canter and Irma Levin scored the Captain Flash silent sections of the Harry Hurwitz-directed film with music from the RKO library. As Holt chases one of the bad guys up a mountainside, for instance, one can hear some of the music accompanying Captain Flash (Chuck McCann) as he chases The Bat (Rodney Dangerfield) up a sheer rock incline near New Paltz, New York.

A wonderful title song, “Land of the Open Range,” is performed by Ray Whitley and about a dozen other guys around an evening cook-out. Whitley, incidentally, wrote “Back in the Saddle Again” for one of the Holt films, which Gene Autry later made his signature TV intro.

Ten years later, in 1951’s OVERLAND TELEGRAPH, our protagonist introduces himself to someone thusly: “My name is Holt. Tim Holt.” So unlike the earlier installments in the collection, he is now playing himself. As mentioned earlier, an inverse effect is felt in both this film and the following one in the collection, 1952’s TRAIL GUIDE: Holt is good, his squeaky-clean demeanor reduced, but the script is less imaginative. Plus he’s got this imbecile of a womanizer (Richard Martin as Mexican/Irish Chito Rafferty) tagging along, straining the narrative’s logic to the bursting point. The screenplay is written by Adele Buffington, and an attempt to sculpt a good woman’s role for Gail Davis is evident, but doesn’t succeed. I much preferred Marjorie Reynolds in CYCLONE ON HORSEBACK (1941), whose character has a genuine arc.

TRAIL GUIDE, the last mini-feature in the collection, has some negative wear, livable except when one remembers that the cinematographer was Nicholas Musuraca, who previously gave us remarkably photographed noirs such as OUT OF THE PAST, THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, BLOOD ON THE MOON and WHERE DANGER LIVES.

Holt eventually retired to ranching and rodeoing, but please let us not forget his late career appearance, a bit bloated and aged but still game, battling giant mollusks from the depths of the Salton Sea in 1957’s nifty THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD. I like that little horror flick a lot.

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One Response »

  1. Thanks for the to the point reviews of Tim Holt B’s. Context is all
    when discussions of B westerns happen. These May have been
    some of the best shot and produced of a half century of these
    things . RKO dough was spent here, but one wonders whether
    the ROI was comparable to the poverty row offerings. Given
    the box office considerations in the hinterland hard tops of the
    time, it would be interesting to see B.O. Figures on these features.
    Thanks again.

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