Western RoundUp: “B” Western Actresses of the ’30s

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.

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Marsha Hunt in Thunder Trail (Charles Barton, 1937)

Thunder Trail (1937) Marsha Hunt, Charles Bickford, Gilbert Roland - Movie Poster
Movie Poster for Zane Grey’s Thunder Trail (1937)

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.

Thunder Trail (1937) Marsha Hunt - Movie Poster
“A thundering drama of the frontier days in the west!”

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.

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Ann Rutherford in The Lonely Trail (Joseph Kane, 1936)

The Lonely Trail (1936) Ann Rutherford, John Wayne - Movie Poster
Movie Poster for The Lonely Trail (1936) Starring Ann Rutherford and John Wayne

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.

Ann Rutherford, John Wayne and Etta McDaniel in The Lonely Trail (1936)

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.

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Virginia Grey in Secret Valley (Howard Bretherton, 1937)

Virginia Grey hides with a gun in Secret Valley (1937)

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.

Virginia Grey and Richard Arlen in a poster for Secret Valley (1937)

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.

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5 Responses to Western RoundUp: “B” Western Actresses of the ’30s

  1. Marvelous! These ladies had the opportunity to show their worth, and we get entertained all these years later. You have me thinking about my favourite gals in this era and genre, and I’ll be checking out the titles I may have missed.

  2. walter says:

    Laura, another good article, which I really enjoyed reading. I agree with you that a favorite way to spend a weekend, especially if the weather is bad outside, is with a stack of “B” Westerns. You picked three good movies with three good actresses.

    I would like to recommend another rising young actress in “B” Westerns of the 1930’s and this one is a gem. Rita Hayworth in THE RENEGADE RANGER(1938) with George O’Brien and Tim Holt. Judith Alvarez(Rita Hayworth) is the leader of an outlaw gang in the Post-War of the Rebellion, Reconstruction Texas. It is really fun to watch Rita riding Horses and shooting pistols. She is a good horse rider and shooter, I might add. I’m not going to give away anymore.

    Rita Cansino, before her name change to Hayworth, was in TROUBLE IN TEXAS(1937) with Tex Ritter and Yakima Canutt. In this oater Rita dances and also giving us a real nifty dance number is a young Hank Worden. Hank does his dance just before Rita. A don’t miss!

    Looking forward to your next write-up.

  3. Jerry Entract says:

    Hi Laura!
    Another fine piece of writing and an interesting and worthy subject to focus upon. One of the most enjoyable things for me about ‘B’ westerns (only one of the enjoyable things, mark you) is the familiar faces of the casts of character actors that people them. That naturally includes the female actresses (I have my own favourites!!).

    One of Marsha Hunt’s early films for Paramount, and a favourite of mine is 1938’s “BORN TO THE WEST” as it stars two young westerners, John Wayne and Johnny Mack Brown. Marsha is a delight in it, considering that the female parts often were somewhat smaller than their billing might suggest.

    The only one of the three you have reviewed that I have seen is “THE LONELY TRAIL” but I ought to seek out the other two now. By the way, I second Walter’s two recommendations, especially “THE RENEGADE RANGER” which is superior, like most of George O’Brien’s RKO series.

    Looking forward to Part 2………

  4. Laura says:

    Thank you all so much for your comments! I’m a little behind on answering due to attending back-to-back film fests!

    Patricia, I’m delighted you enjoyed the piece. These are such wonderful actresses! Hope you’ll soon be visiting them in some unseen early films, if you haven’t already!

    Walter, it’s always great to hear from a fellow “B” Westerns fan! I definitely endorse your recommendation of THE RENEGADE RANGER starring the young Rita Hayworth. A great example of an actress putting in her dues in Westerns on her way up the career ladder. As it happens my dad recently lent me TROUBLE IN TEXAS which I’ve never seen. Glad to read you like it as well! Perhaps that one will make my next “B” Western actresses piece. 🙂

    Jerry, your kind words are always appreciated! I agree, I love spotting the familiar faces in “B” Westerns, from Smiley Burnette to Harry Woods to Glenn Strange and so many more, including the actresses! BORN TO THE WEST is another I’ve not seen, though happily I do have a copy in my viewing stack. I certainly love those three leads, it sounds like it should be a good hour or so! And thank you for adding your recommendation of THE RENEGADE RANGER. For those who want to seek it out, it’s in the Tim Holt Vol. I Collection from the Warner Archive. I heartily recommend “B Westerns with George O’Brien and Tim Holt, they’re my favorites!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  5. Pingback: Western RoundUp: “B” Western Actresses, Part 2 | Classic Movie Hub Blog

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