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Return of the Frontiersman (1950)

At just seventy-four minutes, this Technicolor feature from Warner Brothers proves to be an easy western to squeeze in on most any night of your choosing. If you happen to be a fan of Rory Calhoun outdoor adventures than even better. This time out Rory gets third billing slotted below leading man Gordon MacRae and lovely Julie London. I already know what you’re thinking. It’s a musical and how can I blame you with Gord and Julie on board this Richard Bare directed effort. Despite a guitar strumming scene in jail with Gord, it’s a fun, action oriented western with Gord caught up among outlaws and mistaken identities leaving him on the run from his own father, the local Sheriff as played by Jack Holt.

Utilizing some recycled footage of what I’m guessing is 1939’s big budgeted Errol Flynn adventure Dodge City to set the tone of a wild frontier town, our narrator places us in Laramie of 1872. Things have turned peaceful with Holt’s Andy Tayllor like Sheriff and just like Andy, Holt has a son though his name isn’t Opie. It’s a fast on the draw, clad in black MacRae. He’s young and wild and gets himself into a slugfest in the saloon that nearly ends in a killing. Holt handles it in a similar fashion to Andy and sentences his own son to ten days in the county jail. No Barney Fife isn’t pulling duty as a deputy.

In an unlucky turn of events after his release, MacRae, comes across the man he fought just seconds after he’s been gunned down and is left standnig over the body held at gunpoint by Fred Clark. He wants to chase after the man on horse fleeing the scene but Clark is sure that he’s captured the real killer in MacRae. With little choice in the matter, MacRae, will overpower his captor and pick up the chase in order to clear his name.

While most every able bodied man in town (or at least in the budget) believe Macrae to be guilty, Holt isn’t swaying just yet and as for Rory Calhoun, he’s positive his friend MacRae couldn’t commit such a heinous act. Rory’s a suit and tie type in this oater who doesn’t carry a gun. He’s a man of peace and means. None of this will matter when MacRae is recaptured and locked up to await trial with the circuit judge.

Not to worry as Rory is on hand to smuggle a six shooter in to his saddle buddy. Time for an escape but again the timing is bad. As he’s escaping a bank robbery is happening and damned if the main rider isn’t dressed to look exactly like MacRae. Well he’s on the run as a fugitive once again so it’s time to pick up a hostage and find…. yeah you know it, find romance with a frontier lass played by Miss London. Still to come are a chance encounter with a young, drunken, Richard Egan, who foolishly makes a play for Julie, tangling with his look-a-like and unconvering an outlaw gang that had set him up and just who’s behind it.

Could it be the quick tempered Fred Clark or is he just a big mouthed red herring?

Oh yeah, and we need to reunite Andy and Opie just before the fade out where our young couple will embrace and live happily ever after.

Fast paced, you might be surprised to see that the singing star MacRae isn’t really out of place here in a western. But then we need to remember this is before Carousel, Oklahoma!, and a quartet of Doris Day sing-a-longs that have made him identifiable to the musical genre. Julie London on the other hand appeared in a number of westerns opposite top leading men like Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper and Robert Mitchum. It’s rather ironic that she was a successful recording artist with numerous albums to her credit yet never starred in a big studio musical like those that featured MacRae.

Rory Calhoun was about to embark on a decade and a half of western adventures and though he’d appear on occasion in other genres he’d mainly be remembered as wearing a six shooter under a cowboy hat. He’d already appeared in a smaller role alongside Miss London in the not to be missed Eddie G. Robinson thriller, The Red House.

If casting directors had any sense and the studio wasn’t attempting to hype MacRae, Tim Holt could have been called in to play the lead role. He’s Jack Holt’s real life son. Yeah he was getting long in the tooth after countless “B” westerns but it would have made for a nice piece of trivia. Then again I guess it still does knowing that Tim was the son of a former silent film star still in the picture making business.

Richard Egan was uncredited so his appearance came as somewhat of a surprise and like Rory, he was just getting started and would make a name for himself in 1950’s features that included Underwater, Demetrius and the Gladiators and starring opposite that upstart from Memphis in Love Me Tender.

Fred Clark plays it cranky just the way we like to remember him and yes that is western regular John Doucette in there as well. It would appear as if this was a rare opportunity to direct a feature for Richard Bare. Looking over his credentials, this assignment is right in the middle of a long run of over sixty Joe McDoakes shorts that he helmed between 1942 and 1956. Incredibly he’d direct 166 episodes of Green Acres before calling it a career.

This new to me western may not be all that memorable but any time I can see a technicolor western with some familiar faces is a challenge I’m up to. It’s available via the Warner Archive Collection if you’re looking to locate a copy.

9 Comments »

  1. You are right, I bypassed it thinking its a musical from Gordon n Julie. From your review this warrants viewing as it is also stars studded. Thank you. Best regards.

  2. Strange to see Julie London so young…I only know her from Emergency! in the 1970s. And I literally scrolled down after the shot of the disc box expecting to see a photo of you holding the one-sheet poster, with Brando perhaps sneaking into the scene…and it wasn’t there! I was mortified!

    • I vaguely remember Emergency and Robert Fuller walking up and down hallways with his white smock and someone saying Rampart an awful lot. So I don’t recall Miss London in the show at all. No one sheet but let’s give it time….

  3. I knew going in this was a Western so that was no big surprise but it turned out to be a little tough to track down. I love Gordon MacRae and this was the final one of his films I hadn’t seen, albeit not a huge number. He’s fine in the film, and since he was a burly guy he doesn’t seem out of place however it was hardly the best use of his talents. But then Warners never really seemed able to show him to his best advantage. They took advantage of his very fine voice and extreme good looks but I wouldn’t say the properties they put him were geared to spotlight him so much as his female counterpart, often Doris Day but also Jane Powell or June Haver. It’s no surprise that his two best films and parts in Oklahoma! and Carousel came at 20th Century Fox after his Warners contract expired, the unfortunate thing there is they came along just as the musical was going out of fashion.

    Anyway this was an okay time passer with a good cast, especially for this sort of programmer, but nothing I’ll go running back to see.

    • That pretty much sums up the film as far as not running back for a second look. If MacRae hadn’t had a singing voice he may have found a home in the westerns of the 1950’s that Universal International were to put out on a regular basis.

  4. I’m a Richard Egan fan and was surprised and amused to see him play a rather unattractive, drunk redneck here. He normally had a very sexy screen persona, even as a villain.

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