I’ve repeatedly pointed out when pressed that if I could only have one genre to watch and enjoy for the rest of my days, I’d take the western. Yes it’s the many tales of cowboys and wild frontiers that fueled my imagination as a child. Movies with Duke, Audie, Burt, Kirk, Rory, Glenn and a whole posse of others. I’ve always been aware of the names that populated the low budget sixty minute specials and a good reason for that was the Statler Brothers country music chart favorite, “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?” It’s just that I’ve never really gone out of my way to watch any of them. Until now. Time to experience a few firsts from the hundreds of low budget quickies including cowboy heroes with those fancy duds, guitars and gimmicky names.
So let’s get at it cause “we’re burning daylight.”
Oklahoma Blues (1948)
From the studio I associate with Lugosi thrillers, Monogram put out this Jimmy Wakely oater from director Lambert Hillyer who I also identify with Lugosi’s Invisible Ray and the 1936 thriller Dracula’s Daughter. At just 56 minutes this is a fast paced western tale with Jimmy playing himself but more widely known as The Melody Kid thanks to his sidekick Dub “Cannonball” Taylor spreading false stories about “the kid’s” exploits.
When the pair ride into a frontier town known as Rainbow’s End they’ll be riding into a hotbed of outlaw activity. The local sheriff is getting on in years and Jimmy might be a good fit to take on the role of town tamer. Virginia Belmont as Judy who runs the local restaurant isn’t overly happy with a supposed outlaw killer as town tamer but maybe a song or two from Jimmy and his back up band might melt her tough exterior. He’ll even sing her a special birthday ballad, “You’re My Angel Judy.”
Let’s just say she’s quick to smile at Jimmy from here on out.
I. Stanford Jolley who is instantly recognizable thanks to 374 IMDB credits plays one of the town locals looking to make a career in politics but of course he’s dirty and controls the local gang that’s been robbing stagecoaches and itching to snag the 40K that Jimmy is to deliver to the big city. I don’t think I need to explain just how this is all going to turn out for Jimmy and Dub.
By my count this is the first film I’ve seen starring Wakely. I’ll be the first to point out he’s got a nice voice and smooth singing style while strumming his guitar. Long time character player Dub infuses a heavy dose of Curly Howard into his Cannonball the sidekick role. It would appear as if the character was Dub’s main source of movie income up till 1950 as he has 51 acting credits as “Cannonball” between 1939 and 1950.
Love the attractive Virginia’s comeback line near the end of the film. When Wakely threatens to drop by for some of her home cooking in the future her response is a sexy, “Try me and see Cowboy.”
Looking for this one? You’ll find it as part of the Monogram Cowboy Collection Volume 1 from Warner Archive.
Another film that is part of the same collection stars another cowboy I’ve long heard of but never taken the time to see in action, Johnny Mack Brown.
Texas Lawmen (1951)
Director Lewis Collins kicks this 54 minute special off with the tried and true angle of outlaws attacking a stagecoach. A trio of masked men pull the coach over, kill the driver and shoot the lock off the strongbox. They’ll need to work a might faster cause a shot rings out and three new riders are hot on their trail until one of the masked men shoots down one of our would be heroes. As it turns out the dying man is an aging sheriff who utters his final words, “make outlaws fear it.” as he passes his badge along to a much younger deputy played by Jimmy Ellison. Cliched I know but hey, it’s a Monogram picture.
Back in the nearest frontier town that sees Ellison take the sheriff’s job, our leading star Johnny looking a might pudgy around the middle rides in. Turns out he’s a U.S. Marshall on the trail of the trio of killers/robbers. Ellison is happy to see him but definitely short on answers concerning the men responsible for the recent death of the elderly sheriff. Time for our plot to kick into overdrive.
Ellison is the wayward son of I. Stanford Jolley. Wayward meaning he’s gone good while his father and brother, Lee Roberts, are two of the three killers. Jolley figures on blackmailing Ellison into letting him have his way in the territory threatening to report to the authorities that at one time Ellison was a member of the gang. He’d best tell his old pappy about that gold shipment coming through the territory via the hard working miners who have brought it to the surface.
Of course Johnny Mack Brown knows there’s a secret to be unwound and between his six shooter and his fists he’ll get to the bottom of this and haul in the killers, dead or alive. Sure it’s simple minded fun that could easily have served as an episode of Gunsmoke in later years. As it is it’s an easy hour on the senses that even allows Brown a rousing fist fight that for money doesn’t feature a stunt double. That alone impressed me more than anything else the film had to offer.
A trio of firsts for me ends off with an earlier George O’Brien western that is also available in a set of westerns from the Warner Archive Collection…..
Stage to Chino (1940)
That stage heading into Chino at the start of this 59 minute RKO release has a pre Universal Monsters Glenn Strange holding the reins while he’s serenaded by The Pals of the Golden West atop the coach. Inside and seated for the journey is Nora Lou Martin who sings along. Looking a bit shifty, Glenn pulls the coach up to check out an imagined problem and sure enough there’s a gang of coach robbers upon them. Who should happen by but our hero Mr. O’Brien who fires a few trick shots sending the masked men riding off for a safer pastures.
Apparently Glenn’s broke a wrist so O’Brien takes over the coach duties and brings it in to the next town. The coach is owned by a young woman, Virginia Vale, and her Uncle. The town is run and practically owned by Dick Elliott and he has a coach line of his own. Turns out O’Brien is a postal agent looking into thefts while both Elliott and Miss Vale are vying for the same U.S. Mail contract. In other words Elliott is the villain behind the coach robberies and his henchman are Strange and Harry Cording.
Let’s head over to the saloon for a little more music and some good old fashioned yodeling from our singing songstress. With that out of the way let’s now get back to some fisticuffs and gunplay. Serving as comic relief is a traveling salesman played by Hobart Cavanagh. Not quite the sidekick we might be accustomed to but he’s clearly on O’Brien’s side and in between sales pitches to the locals he’s armed and ready to back his man when he’s caught in a tight spot. A poor man’s Walter Brennan.
O’Brien is going to have to prove Elliott’s behind the coach robberies if Miss Vale and her somewhat crooked Uncle are going to win the government contract to transport the mail. Not only that but if he’s to win her hand he’s going to have to stay alive when he takes on big Glenn Strange near the fadeout of this Edward Killy directed effort.
O’Brien who was at one time a leading man for John Ford in silent films like 3 Bad Men and the early talkie Seas Beneath seemed relegated to the low budget western throughout the 1930’s before acting sporadically between 1940 and his final credit in 1964. Again for John Ford in Cheyenne Autumn. Stage to Chino is another easy western to take in and at a short running time was easy to shoehorn into my schedule. Not only that but it proved to be a likable flick and I’ll look forward to some of the other titles in that collection from Warner Archive.
To be continued with more of those lesser known cowboys and western heroes….