Western RoundUp: “B” Western Actresses of the ’30s
One of my favorite ways to spend a weekend is with a stack of “B” Westerns.
For me these films are “movie comfort food,” and there’s also a definite “thrill of the hunt,” enjoying coming across a short little Western which is unexpectedly stylish or original.
A “B” Western may have moments which give me a unique insight into history or the culture of the times in which the film was made, or it might simply provide some pleasant entertainment. There’s also the fun of spending movie time in familiar movie locations such as Lone Pine or Iverson Ranch.
I also love the way such films provide context for various actors’ careers; any number of well-known actors worked in “B” Westerns early in their careers, with one of the best-known examples being Robert Mitchum. It’s always interesting to see the work actors did when they were just starting out and stardom wasn’t a given.
While some think of Westerns as a male-dominated genre, I enjoy the opportunity to watch the work of favorite actresses in Westerns. Here’s a survey of some “B” Westerns I’ve recently watched with a trio of interesting leading ladies. Coincidentally all three actresses were born in 1917, and each of them graduated from dusty “B” Western locations to contracts at Hollywood’s most glamorous studio, MGM.
Marsha Hunt spent the most significant years of her career at prestigious MGM, but her early career years at Paramount included starring as the leading lady in Westerns opposite actors who included John Wayne, Bob Cummings, and Larry “Buster” Crabbe. She was still a teenager when she appeared in Thunder Trail opposite Gilbert Roland and future three-time Oscar nominee Charles Bickford.
As it happens, the 58-minute Thunder Trail was a top-drawer “B” Western thanks to a strong Zane Grey story, an excellent cast, and attractive locations including Big Bear Lake, California.
Two young brothers (Gene Reynolds and Billy Lee) are separated when their wagon train is massacred by gold robbers. The younger Bob (Lee) is found hiding and impulsively adopted by the head of the robber gang (Bickford), who admires the little guy’s feistiness, while older brother Dick (Reynolds), who’d been hunting rabbits at the time of the robbery, staggers away through the woods and ultimately finds a father figure in kindly Rafael Lopez (J. Carrol Naish). Bob and Dick grow up to be played by James Craig (his first credited role) and Gilbert Roland, whose character acquires a Spanish accent from his adoptive father; it may seem unlikely but they make it work.
The lovely Hunt plays Amy, whose love for Bob is complicated by his adoptive father’s attempts to buy out her father’s land. Unbeknownst to Bob and Amy, his adoptive father is also behind an attempt on her father’s life! Eventually Dick puts the pieces together, realizes Bob is his little brother, and avenges their father’s killing.
Hunt had only been in films for two years but with Thunder Trail, released a few days after she turned 20, she already had a dozen movies to her credit. Her role is that of a fairly standard Western heroine, but she plays the part with attractive assurance. While Hunt appreciated Paramount putting her into leading roles from the start of her career, she yearned to play a greater variety of parts, opportunities she found at MGM from 1939 to 1946.
Another future MGM actress, Ann Rutherford, also found ’30s Westerns to be a good training ground, including three films with John Wayne released in 1936. While one of those Wayne films, The Oregon Trail, is considered “lost,” The Lonely Trail and The Lawless Nineties survive.
Ann was 18 when she filmed the 56-minute The Lonely Trail, playing Virginia, a Texas girl whose romance with John (Wayne) ended when he fought for the North in the Civil War. When John returns to Texas he gradually realizes that Adjutant General Benedict Holden (Cy Kendall) is a “carpetbagger” who is cheating and killing the local citizens. John must overcome the townspeople’s distrust of him as a former Union soldier as he works to stop Holden.
Rutherford’s Virginia is clearly delighted to see John when he arrives, though she attempts to hold on to her grudge against him for a while longer. She’s spunky, helping to hide John from Holden under the bar in a saloon, telling the customers present that John saved the life of her brother (Denny Meadows) and firmly stating “I rely on your honor” to keep quiet about John’s whereabouts. Everyone complies.
In an interview with Michael Fitzgerald and Boyd Magers for their wonderful book Ladies of the Western, Ann said of John Wayne, in part: “He was a very nice man. I liked him a lot and it didn’t surprise me when he became a big, big star. He was charming, and so attractive…John Wayne had about him an aura — a presence. The only other person I know who had that was Clark Gable… He was dearly loved by every member of the cast and crew… He was a special man.“
The following year Ann began her five-year run as Polly Benedict in MGM’s Andy Hardy series opposite Mickey Rooney.
Like Marsha Hunt and Ann Rutherford, Virginia Grey would spend several years at MGM, but in Secret Valley she was the 19-year-old leading lady in a modern-day 20th Century-Fox Western opposite Richard Arlen.
Virginia’s career began as a child actress before moving into bit roles and small parts. Secret Valley gave her the opportunity to appear as a leading lady, a boost to her increasingly busy career. Virginia plays Joan, who flees to Reno hours after her wedding to Howard Carlo, aka Nick Collins (Norman Willis). It seems that after the ceremony she learned her new husband isn’t a respectable businessman, as she believed, but a gangster.
A crooked divorce attorney (Russell Hicks) refuses to help her and rats on her location to her angry hubby, but a more helpful lawyer (Jack Mulhall) comes to her rescue, including finding her a place to hide outside town, boarding on a ranch owned by Lee Rogers (Richard Arlen). Soon, however, a very mad gangster is on the trail of his runaway bride.
This is a fun little 60-minute movie with some absolutely gorgeous locations filmed outside Lone Pine, California. I loved the beautiful shots filmed in the wide open spaces with Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak in the background. Joan’s character has some moments where she’s annoyingly dense, unthinkingly making life difficult for Lee and the ranch hands, but she’s also a good sport and gung-ho to pitch in with ranch chores. The mashup of Western and gangster movie works well, and I found it an enjoyable hour.
Grey continued to pop up in “B” Westerns into the mid-50s, opposite actors like Bill Elliott and Wayne Morris. She also occasionally appeared in more prominent Westerns, such as Republic Pictures’ Alamo movie The Last Command (1955) and Universal Pictures’ excellent Audie Murphy film No Name on the Bullet (1959).
I’ll be looking at additional leading ladies of the “B” Westerns here in the future!
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.