Riders of the West (1942, directed by Howard Bretherton)

In a frontier town, a gang of rustlers are stealing cattle as a part of a plot to force cash-strapped ranchers to take out exorbitant mortgages on their ranches.  Ma Turner (Sarah Padden) summons her old friend, Marshal Buck Roberts (Buck Jones), to come to town and take on the rustlers.  When the town’s corrupt banker is murdered and Ma Turner’s son, Steve (Dennis Moore), is framed for the crime, Roberts calls in his fellow Rough Riders, Tim McCall (Tim McCoy) and Sandy Hopkins (Raymond Hatton), to help him take down the gang.

In many ways, this is a familiar Rough Riders film, right down to the main bad guy being the owner of the town’s saloon and Charles King showing up as a member of the gang.  What sets it apart from the film that came before it is that, this time, Tim pretends to be an outlaw while Buck sets himself up as the new law in town.  Tim takes on the identity of Tim Steele, a sarsaparilla-drinking ne’er do well who has just gotten out of prison.  Jones and McCoy both seem to enjoy getting to switch their typical roles.  As for Sandy Hopkins, he goes undercover as a peddler of snake oil and provides the comic relief.  Riders of the West is a typical B-western but the chemistry between the three leads continues to shine through.

Previous Rough Rider Reviews:

  1. Arizona Bound
  2. The Gunman From Bodie
  3. Forbidden Trails
  4. Below the Border
  5. Ghost Town
  6. Down Texas Way

Ghost Town Law (1942, directed by Howard Bretherton)

When two U.S. marshals are ambushed and killed while searching for a group of outlaws in a nearly deserted ghost town, Marshal Tim McCall (Tim McCoy) leaves his ranch in Wyoming to investigate the crime.  He was friends with the two murdered men, making this case personal.  Of course, McCall’s two fellow Rough Riders ride into town to help McCall out.  Buck Roberts (Buck Jones) and Sandy Hopkins (Raymond Hatton) arrives separately and pretend to be prospectors.  Their investigation leads to the outlaws (led, as usual, by Charles King), a corrupt member of the community, and a network of underground tunnels that might lead to a gold mine.  As with all of the Rough Rider films, Ghost Town Law features a younger secondary protagonist who was there to appeal to audiences who didn’t remember Jones, McCoy, and Hatton from their silent and pre-code era heyday.  Virginia Carpenter plays Josie Hall, who comes to the town to search for her grandmother and brother.

Starting with the two marshals getting gunned down in the line of duty, this is one of the more violent of the Rough Riders films.  Since the Rough Riders are as interested in getting revenge as they are in getting justice, the Rough Riders themselves are quicker on the draw than usual.  The identity of the main villain will not be a shock to anyone who has watched any of the other Rough Rider films but the use of the underground tunnels adds a new element of danger to the movie.  For once, the outlaws and the Rough Riders seem evenly matched.  The film also features the very lovely and likable Virginia Carpenter, making the last of her five film appearances.

As always, the main appeal is watching Jones, McCoy, and Hatton acting opposite each other.  Due to the nature of the case, all three of them are more serious than usual in Ghost Town Law but it is still enjoyable to watch them discuss what’s been happening at their ranches since the last movie.

Previous Rough Rider Reviews:

  1. Arizona Bound
  2. The Gunman From Bodie
  3. Forbidden Trails
  4. Below the Border

Below The Border (1942, directed by Howard Bretherton)

In the fourth Rough Riders film, the boys head down to Mexico City to defend the Garcia Ranch from a gang of cattle rustlers who are also planning on stealing the Garcia Family Jewels.  (Would the Rough Riders have any legal jurisdiction in Mexico?)  This time, Buck Roberts (Buck Jones) assumes the identity of a well-known outlaw who deals in stolen goods, Tim McCall (Tim McCoy) pretends to be a cattle buyer, and Sandy Hopkins (Raymond Hatton) gets a job sweeping up the local saloon.  As with almost all of the Rough Riders films, the owner of the saloon, Steve Slade (Charles King), is also the leader of the thieves.  Slade is blackmailing a reformed outlaw named Joe (Dennis Moore) into helping Slade and Scully (Roy Barcroft) steal the family jewels.  Joe is in love with Rosita Garcia (Linda Brent).

Below the Border has much in common with Forbidden Trails, the Rough Riders film that came before it, right down to a villainous saloon owner and a former outlaw being blackmailed to return to his old ways.  As usual, the outlaws try to humiliate Sandy Hopkins, just for Tim McCall to show up at the saloon and turn the tables.  Scully is a despicable bully and it feels good when McCall forces him to grab Hopkins’s mop and clean up the bar himself.

It’s not the strongest of the Rough Riders films. The plot is predictable, Linda Brent gives a terrible performance as Rosita, and even the action scenes are by-the-numbers.  The main appeal of Below the Border is to watch the three Rough Riders themselves.  Jones, McCoy, and Hatton all seem to have genuinely enjoyed working together and that comes through in their scenes together.  You never have any doubt that, even though they live in different parts of the country, all it would take is one telegram for them to get back together.  The highlight of each film is the final scene, where the Rough Riders tell each other what they’ve been up to between adventures.  This time, Buck invites everyone to visit him in Arizona but Tim has to get back to Wyoming and Sandy’s running a hotel in Texas.  They ride off separately but there’s little doubt they will reunite as soon as there’s a new rustler who needs to be brought to justice.

Previous Rough Rider Reviews:

  1. Arizona Bound
  2. The Gunman From Bodie
  3. Forbidden Trails

Forbidden Trails (1941, directed by Robert N. Bradbury)

Marshal Buck Roberts (Buck Jones) has finally retired after a long and a legendary career.  Two men who Buck arrested are not planning on allowing him to enjoy his retirement.  Having served their sentence for robbing a stagecoach, Fulton (Charles King) and Howard (Bud Osborne) are released from prison and head to Yucca City, Arizona.  They try to recruit their old partner, Jim Cramer (Dave O’Brien), into helping them get revenge on Buck but Cramer wants nothing to do with it.  He’s gone straight and is running his own general store with his fiancée, Mary (Christine McIntyre).  Cramer considers Buck to be a friend because Buck looked after Cramer’s children while Cramer was serving his sentence.

Fulton and Howard ambush Buck and nearly kill him.  With the help of his horse, Silver (of Lone Ranger fame), Buck is able to escape but he’s seriously injured.  His two fellow rough riders, Sandy Hopkins (Raymond Hatton) and Tim McCall (Tim McCoy), head down to Arizona to bring Fulton and Howard to justice.  (Sandy even rides away from his own wedding when he hears that Buck has been injured.)  While the Rough Riders search for Fulton and Howard, saloon owner Ed Nelson (Tris Coffin) works with the outlaws to steal a shipment of goods.

The third of the Rough Riders film, Forbidden Trails is memorable for acknowledging that the three Rough Riders were older than the most of the other contemporary western stars.  Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, and Raymond Hatton were all veteran stars who began their careers during the silent era and who transitioned to B-movies in the sound era.  At a time when their contemporaries were retiring, they were still appearing before the camera and riding the range.  Like the actor playing him, Buck Howard has reached the age when most people retire but he cannot escape his past.  Neither can Jim Cramer, who can’t live the law-abiding life that he desires as long as Fulton and Howard are free.  While Cramer has to escape from his former friends, Buck is lucky to have friends like McCall and Hopkins.  The movie showcases their loyalty and their friendship together and leaves no doubt that will never change, no matter how old the Rough Riders get.  Along with showcasing the friendship of its three stars, the movie is full of chases and gunfights.  The scene where Buck is ambushed is exiting and there’s also a good saloon shootout.  Jones and McCoy are as authentically western as ever.

Dave O’Brien and Christine McIntyre both appeared in the previous Rough Riders film but they’re playing different characters here.  Tris Coffin also played a similar crooked businessman in the first Rough Riders film, Arizona Bound.

Previous Rough Rider Reviews:

  1. Arizona Bound
  2. The Gunman From Bodie

Death Rides The Range (1939, directed by Sam Newfield)

In this “modern-day” western, Ken Maynard stars as Ken Baxter. While out camping in the wilderness with his trusty horse Tarzan and his two comic relief sidekicks, Pancho (Julian Rivero) and Panhandle (Ralph Peters), Ken comes across the gravely injured Professor Wahl (Michael Vallon). Wahl is an archeologist who has been left to die. Wahl is too weak to reveal who attacked him and, when Ken gets Wahl back to civilization, he discovers that Wahl’s colleagues, Dr. Flotow (William Castello) and Baron Starkoff (Sven Hugo Bard), aren’t willing to help Wahl unless he shares the location of a helium mine.

Flotow and the Baron are working for “a foreign power” and want to smuggle the helium back to Europe so that their country can use it to fuel their dirigibles. Ken and his sidekicks have to stop the bad guys from getting control of the ranch that sits near the mine. Going undercover, Ken allows himself to be hired by Joe Larkin (Charles King), who is trying to steal the property away from Letty Morgan (Fay McKenzie).  Romance and gunfight follows.  Ken’s horse, Tarzan, saves the day more than once.

The plot of Death Rides the Range is intriguing and, for a 55-minute programmer, complex. Unfortunately, the execution doesn’t allow the story to fulfill its potential. By the time Maynard starred in this film, the once-major cowboy star had alienated most of the major studios and he had a reputation being difficult. He was reduced to working for poverty row studios, like Colony Pictures. Maynard is a convincing hero and his horse, Tarzan, was one of the most talented of the animal actors working at that time but Death Rides The Range still feels rushed.

Death Rides The Range is mostly interesting as an example of the type of anti-German films that were being made before the U.S. officially entered World War II. The film keeps it ambiguous who Flotow and Starkoff are working for but any viewer who had been following the news out of Europe would automatically know they were working for the Germans. Even when he was making movies for Poverty Row, Ken Maynard was still fighting the good fight.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Broadway Melody (dir by Harry Beaumont)


Oh, The Broadway Melody.

Where to begin?

First released way back in 1929, The Broadway Melody is a historically significant film.  You really can’t talk about the development of film — especially sound film — without taking at least a few minutes to acknowledge The Broadway Melody.  It was the 2nd film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture (or Best Production, as it was called back then) and it was the first sound film to win the Oscar.  (In fact, it would be 83 years before another silent film won Best Picture and it’s debatable whether or not The Artist can really be considered a silent film in the same way that Wings was silent film.)  It was also the first musical to win best picture and some people consider it to be the first true musical to have ever been produced.  It was such a huge box office success that it could be argued that The Broadway Melody is responsible for nearly every musical that followed it.

To say that The Broadway Melody tells a familiar story would be an understatement.  I’ve read a few reviews that have suggested that the clichés in this film really weren’t clichés until after The Broadway Melody was released but I’ve seen enough silent films to know that this is not the case.  It tells the story of two sisters who want to be stars.  After spending years working in vaudeville, they’ve been invited to perform in a revue that’s being produced by Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane).

(I assume that Zanfield was meant to be a stand-in for Florence Ziegfeld, himself the subject of a later Best Picture winner, The Great Ziegfeld.)

The sisters are Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page).  Hank is the driven one.  Hank is the one with the raw talent and she’s also the one who best understands how the business of entertainment works.  Her younger sister, Queenie (Anita Page), may not have Hank’s drive or quite the same level of talent but she does have beauty.  Guess who finds the most success?

Songwriter Eddie Kearns (Charles King) is engaged to marry Hank but soon, both he and Queenie find themselves falling in love.  Not wanting to hurt her sister, Queenie instead runs off with a notorious playboy named Jock Warner (Kenneth Thomson).

As I stated previously, The Broadway Melody has not aged well.  The fact that it’s one of the first sound films just allows contemporary viewers to hear the creakiness of the plot.  As impressive as sound film was to audiences in 1929, it’s obvious today that the cast and crew of The Broadway Melody were still struggling to figure out how to work with the new technology.  As a result the performances are still a bit too broad, which only serves to make the film seem even more melodramatic than it actually is.  As for the songs, they’re not particularly memorable.  I always enjoy backstage musicals but Broadway Melody is no 42nd Street.

I did appreciate the relationship between Bessie Love and Anita Page.  That was one of the few things about the film that felt real to me, perhaps because I have three older sisters.  Interestingly enough, when Anita Page died in 2008, she was the last surviving attendee of the first Academy Awards ceremony.

The Broadway Melody was named the Best Picture of 1929.  This was the year that the winners were selected by a committee and there were no official nominations.  Though the notes from the meeting indicate that there was some consideration given to awarding the Best Actress Oscar to Bessie Love, Best Picture was the only Oscar that The Broadway Melody received.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee and It’s Damn Important: The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (dir by Charles Reisner)


Last night, I really needed a break from thinking about this stupid, asinine presidential election that we have coming up here in the U.S.  Fortunately, TCM provided me with one by showing The Hollywood Revue of 1929!

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is probably one of the most obscure film to ever be nominated for best picture.  It’s a plotless collection of songs and comedy bits, all performed by actors who were under contract to MGM.  In fact, the movie might be best described as a two-hour commercial for MGM.  The message of the film seems to be: “Now that movies have sound, look what MGM can do!”

With the exception of Greta Garbo and Lon Chaney, every MGM star makes an appearance in Hollywood Revue.  Everyone sings a song and does a dance, even if some of them are better singers and dancers than others.  The revue is hosted by Conrad Nagel (who looks very dapper in a tux but still seems to be strangely uncomfortable with his hosting duties) and Jack Benny (who plays his violin and gets annoyed every time he’s interrupted by an MGM stock player).  Joan Crawford (who Nagal describes as being “one of my favorites”) sings, “Got A Feeling For You,” and she may be off-key but you can’t help but appreciate the fact that she’s doing her best.  Buster Keaton does a dance.  Laurel and Hardy perform a magic act that doesn’t go very well.  Marion Davies does a tribute to the military and I’m sure that, somewhere, William Randolph Hearst was smiling.  Chorus girls sit in the background and smile at the camera and, as someone who knows what it’s like to be in the chorus, I enjoyed watching as a few of the smarter and braver ones attempted to steal the audience’s attention away from the headliners.

At one point, Jack Benny reached into his suit jacket and revealed that a miniature version of actress Bessie Love was apparently living in the pocket.  He held Bessie in the palm of his hand and proceeded to have a conversation with her and all I could think about was the end of Mulholland Drive, when that tiny old couple cornered Naomi Watts in her apartment.  When Benny placed Bessie on the ground, she grew to normal height and sang a song.

During the second half of the film, silent screen star John Gilbert plays the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, opposite Norma Shearer.  First he does it in Shakespeare’s words and then he does it again in 1929 language.  Lionel Barrymore directs them.  Interestingly enough, Shearer (who was married to The Hollywood Revue‘s producer, Irving Thalberg) would later play Juliet in 1936’s Romeo and Juliet.  Barrymore, though best remembered as Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, actually was a prominent film director in 1929 and would even invent the boom mic.  As for Gilbert, legend has it that the Hollywood Revue was the first time that audiences actually heard him speak and they were so unimpressed with his voice that his career ended.  Having now seen Gilbert speak — well, he didn’t have the greatest or sexiest voice but he still sounded better than Jean Hagen did in Singin’ In The Rain.

Speaking of Singin’ In the Rain, that song was specifically written for Hollywood Revue!  The entire cast sings it at the end of the film.

Seen today, there’s something charming about how old-fashioned and corny The Hollywood Revue is.  I imagine that some people will laugh at it but, honestly, it’s still more entertaining than that stupid live version of The Sound of Music that they put on TV two years ago.  The Hollywood Revue is basically the classic film equivalent of a high school talent show, where everyone does their best and a good deal of the charm comes from seeing how silly it all is.  If you love TCM, you’ll enjoy seeing all the Golden Age performers trying to do their best.  If you don’t love TCM, then go to Hell.

The Hollywood Revue is usually listed as being a nominee for best picture.  Actually, the truth is a little bit more complicated.  For the 2nd annual Academy Awards, there were no nominees.  Instead, the awards were determined by a select committee and only the winners were announced.  Much like the Cannes Film Festival, no film received more than one award.  Broadway Melody (which starred Hollywood Revue‘s Bessie Love) was named best picture.

However, notes were kept of the committee’s meeting and those notes indicate that Hollywood Revue was considered as a possible pick for best picture.  Hence, Hollywood Revue is considered to be a best picture nominee even though there were no official nominees that year.

Anyway, if you’re a classic film lover, keep an eye out for Hollywood Revue the next time that it shows up on TCM!