Western RoundUp: “B” Movie Sampler
I’ve written here on multiple occasions about my love for “B” Westerns. While I love these films at all times, over the years I’ve found that they’re the perfect thing to watch on road trips – they’re short and sweet, sometimes only about an hour long, which makes them perfect for a brief break at the end of a long day. And as an added bonus, sometimes they’re filmed in some of the same places I visit!
While traveling recently I watched several films thanks to my portable DVD player, including a couple I thought were particularly fun discoveries. Here’s a sampling of what I watched:
Wagon Train (Edward Killy, 1940)
I’m a big fan of Tim Holt’s RKO “B” Westerns, which stand head and shoulders above most other “B’s.” The Holt films, whether made before or after Holt’s service in World War II, typically have attractive production values, including top cinematographers and excellent location work. This early Holt Western tops most of his Westerns quality wise; it apparently had an extra-large budget, as all but a few of the movie’s 59 minutes were shot outdoors in Kanab, Utah. I wrote about Kanab, where Westward the Women (1951) and other Westerns were filmed, for Classic Movie Hub in 2021.
The strong story finds Tim working as a wagon train guide in the American Southwest; he’s also looking to avenge his father’s murder. Meanwhile, he meets charming Helen (Martha O’Driscoll) and quickly falls for her, not knowing she’s (none-too-enthusiastically) engaged to someone else.
O’Driscoll, a longtime personal favorite, is one of Holt’s best leading ladies, perfectly matched with him in looks and personality; she has a particularly strong scene after an Indian massacre.
The supporting cast includes singer Ray Whitley, who also cowrote several songs for the film, and Western staple Glenn Strange.
There’s an impressively staged wagon train chase across the desert which appears to have been shot for this film, rather than being stock footage, as was often done to save money on “B” Westerns. The final sequence has a few close-ups with back projections, but all in all the sequence is really well done and exciting, including a runaway wagon pulled by six horses.
This is a top Holt film which I highly recommend. It’s on DVD from the Warner Archive.
Crooked River (Thomas Carr, 1950)
This is the second in a series of half a dozen films Jimmy Ellison and Russell Hayden starred in for low-budget Lippert Pictures in 1950.
The leading lady in these six films was a newcomer named Betty Adams, later to be known as Julia or Julie Adams. Julie wrote in her memoir that she did her own hair and makeup for the movies, and said “…for each new scene [I] tried very hard to remember which ‘girl’ I was playing…It was harder than it seems because we shot scenes from all six movies in the same locations…I had to play multiple parts on multiple movies on the same set or location on any given day.” She also said it was a marvelous experience because she was so busy she became “immersed in the work” and learned a great deal.
The story finds “Shamrock” (Ellison) posing as an outlaw to break up a gang of stage robbers. He gets to know the gang’s leader, Lucky (Hayden)…along with Lucky’s charming sister Ann (Adams).
Ellison is charming as the quick-drawing Shamrock. Adams is so young and green she doesn’t even sound quite like we’re used to, but there’s something interesting about her which hints at the career she would shortly develop.
As a teen in the late ’70s I had the pleasure of playing a small role in a stage production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie starring Adams; she was a wonderful, professional woman, and her career has thus always held special interest for me. When she signed my copy of her memoir a number of years ago I reintroduced myself and she wrote “We have a history!”
The movie combines stock footage from the Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine, California, which happens to be where I watched the film, with new footage shot at Iverson Ranch. I wrote about Iverson Ranch here earlier this year.
Crooked River wasn’t a top-drawer film, but I found it an enjoyable 56 minutes, particularly for the insight it provided into the early film career of Julie Adams.
Crooked River is available on DVD from VCI Entertainment.
Death Valley Manhunt (John English, 1943)
The story this time around finds Marshal Wild Bill protecting a bunch of wildcatters, including his old pal Gabby (Gabby Hayes), from crooked businessmen headed by Richard Quinn (Weldon Heyburn). Quinn, whose character is revealed to be increasingly evil as the film goes on, is in cahoots with Judge Hobart (Herbert Heyes). Jeffreys is the judge’s pretty, innocent niece.
I’m an Elliott fan but found this one a relatively dry 55 minutes, with too much focus on men riding around on horses, which tends to be a crutch some “B” films use instead of plot; at the same time, there’s not enough of Jeffreys. We do, at least, get the pleasure of Jeffreys singing “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny.”
I also wondered why Marshal Wild Bill followed the bad guy up to the very top of an oil rig. Why not just let the man climb up there and wait him out? He couldn’t stay up there forever, after all. However, it led to a very exciting sequence with a fight followed by Bill escaping from the rig, which I’m sure is the reason it was worked into the story!
Something a little different about this film is that telephones play a big role in the story. This kind of mixing of the Western time period with more modern technology often happened in Roy Rogers films, leading me to term that kind of fantasy movie setting “Roy Rogers Land.”
This was another film shot at Iverson Ranch. It’s always fun to recognize places I’ve visited when watching these movies.
This Republic Pictures film is not available on an authorized DVD, but as is obvious from this review, copies can be found with some persistence.
Bandit Queen (William Berke, 1950)
I thoroughly enjoyed this reimagining of Johnston McCulley’s Zorro character as a female heroine named Zara.
Zara Montalvo (Barbara Britton) arrives at her family home in Old California after a long absence, just in time to witness the murder of her parents by Sheriff Jim Harden (Barton MacLane) and his gang.
After this dramatic opening, Zara seeks refuge at a mission with Father Antonio (Martin Garralaga). Initially tutored by Joaquin Murrieta (Philip Reed), she becomes proficient with a whip and, aided by her countrymen, she beomes the “Angel of the Sierras,” going after the men responsible for the murders of her parents.
The movie is somewhat unusual in that it’s the Americans, including Hinsdale (Willard Parker), who are the villains; Zara wants to reinstitute Spanish law.
With both Zara and Joaquin having dual identities, there’s much intrigue and excitement, along with some good mild comedy. The priest’s reactions as he tries to keep Zara and Joaquin’s phony identities straight are quite amusing.
I found Britton and Reed engaging as the leads, while MacLane and Parker were properly evil as the villains. Margia Dean, who I wrote about here in April, appeared in many Lippert films and has a small role in this film.
This 70-minute film was from low-budget Lippert Pictures, but it has nice production values for a Lippert film, with filming at Vasquez Rocks and plenty of background extras, not to mention chickens!
It’s available on DVD from VCI Entertainment.
This month I’m celebrating my fourth anniversary writing the Western RoundUp column, and I’d like to thank everyone once more who reads and comments! Your support and enthusiasm for the Western genre are both greatly appreciated.
– 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.