BluRay/DVD Reviews

MONOGRAM COWBOY COLLECTION, VOLUME 8 (WB Archive Collection)

By • Jun 26th, 2014 •

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The WB Archives are treating us big time to the ‘B’s of yesteryear, and not just the Westerns. Check out the five Bill Elliot near-noirs from Allied Artists (all in 2.35:1 aspect ratios), featuring such co-stars as Beverly Garland, Timothy Carey, a pre-KILLER SHREWS James Best, and a post-MONSIEUR VERDOUX Almira Sessions. Elliot is exceedingly low key, and the camera set-ups are simple and style-less, but it’s infectious watching nonetheless. I recommend it, and the second film in the series (with Garland) is a doozy.

This 12-film Monogram package contains a sampling of the low ‘B’s from one of the poverty row studios, and compared with the high ‘B’s starring Tim Holt from RKO, one can instantly sense the shorter shooting schedules and less polished screenplays. Which isn’t to say these aren’t watchable, or that there aren’t little jewels for the sifting. And in one case, art foretells life in a tragic way.

The first six flix star Buck Jones as part of a recurring trio or protagonists called ‘The Rough Riders.’ Portraying government agents, they descend on towns run by evil manipulators and, using false identities, etc., expose the perpetrators and bring them to justice. I was unaware of this arrangement, and so, when Jones appears in the first film I sampled, THE GUNMAN FROM BODIE, dressed in black, entering a ramshackle prairie hovel and finding a man and woman dead and a baby still alive, I took him to be a desperado who, as in the many versions and iterations of THE THREE GODFATHERS, will save the kid at risk to his own freedom. Jones’ has a great, chiseled face and a tough, grim exterior, and I bought him as one of the bad guys until his disguise was revealed. Then I bought him as a terrific western hero. Of all the cowboy stars of this period that I’ve seen – Johnny Mack Brown, Tim Holt, etc., Jones is the most believable. He’s the real thing. And he was 5 ft 11 ¾ inches tall – same as me!

Jones’ sidekicks were Tim McCoy – who was more of a Gene Autry type, and Raymond Hatton, the Walter Brennan/Gabby Hayes clone, along for comic relief, but he could rise to an occasion when it came to shoot-‘em-outs and face-downs.

Buck Jones’ horse, Silver, is listed on IMDB as having appeared in 75 films, and not one of them was with The Lone Ranger, even though he’s a white stallion and bears the same name. How odd.

The screenwriter of several of these was Adele Buffington, and the script for this one was all over the place. The energetic score pops on during a riding scene, and it’s truly exciting. A while later, in a slower paced scene, the same score pops up again, and this time it’s ridiculous.

GHOST TOWN LAW, released in 1942, is an odd one. When the music kicks in, and the bad guys and good guys are appearing out of trap doors, falling into caves, running up and down stairs, first I thought I was in THE CAT AND THE CANARY. Then I felt like I’d been transported to Laurel & Hardy’s WAY OUT WEST. Instead of Raymond Hatton I expected to see James Finlayson tied to a chandelier, and the boys come crashing through a banister with a mule. It was absurd.

FORBIDDEN TRAILS in 1941 is a decent entry, but it’s the creepy similarities to Jones’ real life demise the following year that make the 54-minute ‘B’ stand out. In one scene he’s trapped in a burning cabin and is rescued in spectacular fashion by Silver. “They thought they had me cremated,” he jokes.

A year later, on November 28th, 1942, at a party in his honor at the Cocoanut Grove in Boston, a fire broke out, killing 500 people, and fatally burning Jones. His injuries were so severe that when the FBI tried to take his fingerprints for ID purposes, the skin adhered to the fingerprint card and separated from the bone. He was 50 years old.

Outside of this prophetic incident, which might compel Hollywood history buffs to own the collection, another thing the Rough Riders scripts have is a bead on ‘raising the stakes.’ The Riders plan how to nab outlaws, but sudden snags force them to re-think their schemes on the spur of the moment, which is fun for the audience.

After Jones’ death, the Monogram’s Western leading man became 6’1” Johnny Mack Brown. An affable type, whose background was as an All-America halfback at the University of Alabama, he had a comfortable screen persona: he was the kind of good-natured guy who would beat you up if you crossed him, but then would pat you on the shoulder as if to say “No hard feelings,” which he actually does in one of the films. The best of his work in this collection is due to Lambert Hillyer. Hillyer, a good director who specialized in Westerns but dabbled in bigger, off-genre productions (THE INVISIBLE RAY and DAUGHTER OF DRACULA for Universal), got far better performances out of his casts than were extracted for the other Johnny Mack Brown productions. Of course the blocking is just as weak as it is in the others – time and $ crunches are in evidence in all twelve oaters. But it’s the detailed characterizations where he was able to make a difference.

In Hillyer’s WEST OF THE RIO GRANDE, Raymond Hatton is back without his Rough Rider buddies, working with Brown, but Tim McCoy isn’t. Hatton gets to expand his skills, playing a dual role quite effectively. Mack Brown appears after the fifteen minute mark, and the way Hillyer introduces the villain – we don’t know which of them is which until that moment – is dramatically quite powerful. At the 48:15 mark the image becomes muddy and soft, as if dupe footage was inserted. At 48:50 it kicks back in. Not that any restoration was done on these prints – they’re in decent but slightly age-worn shape, particularly during the opening title sequences.

The weirdest thing occurs at 51:50: a strident music cue kicks in that sounds just like James Bernard’s familiar motif for some of the Hammer films of the 50s.

The usurped identity plot used here was used before – in one of the Tim Holt westerns from another WB Archives collection (#4). Dennis Moore as Danny Boyd, son of the sheriff, is stiff, but is given the best one-liners in the script.

Having warmed to Hillyer’s directorial flourishes, I immediately put on another one that he directed from the collection, 1946’s SILVER RANGE. Unfortunately, this time his work was pedestrian.

WEST OF WYOMING, directed by Wallace Fox, finds Brown in the saddle in 1950. Convoluted and a bit slow, the film still has its moments. Caught without his horse saddled, he jumps on his mount and chases his enemies bareback, which is pretty cool.

Brown plays a government agent come to inform the ranchers that the govt. is breaking up their land to make room for homesteaders. Personally I felt sympathetic with the ranchers, and found the cold government dictum to be insensitive, uninformed, and provocative.

Milburn Morante as ‘Panhandle’ Jones, an old coot of a horse wrangler, a role usually clichéd and used for comic relief, gives an excellent, nuanced performance, infusing his scenes with real drama and tension, with an occasional lighter touch dropped into the mix.

The ending has a foolish joke, and a recent widow (Gail Davis) too quickly recovered from her loss, but otherwise the second half of the 57-minute oater is better than average for the series.

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