The Star Packer (1934, directed by Robert N. Bradbury)

A mysterious outlaw known as the Shadow is terrorizing turn-of-the-century Arkansas.  He and his gang have killed the last few sheriffs of Little Rock.  No one is sure who the Shadow is or how he communicates with his gang but somehow, he is always one step ahead of the law.  However, the Shadow didn’t count on federal agent John Travers (John Wayne) riding into town and declaring himself to be the new sheriff.  Working with his Native sidekick, Yak (Yakima Canutt), Travers sets out to expose the Shadow and take him down.  Along the way, he falls for Anita (Verna Hillie), the niece of rancher Matt Matlock (Gabby Hayes).  Luckily, Anita knows her way around a gun too.

This is one of the 50 B-westerns that John Wayne made before Stagecoach made him a star.  The Star Packer is more interesting than some of Wayne’s other poverty row productions because The Shadow is a more interesting and much more clever villain than the usual greedy but dumb outlaws that Wayne went up against in these movies.  The Shadow actually has a clearly thought-out plan and, for once, Wayne can’t defeat the bad guys on his own.  In The Star Packer, it takes a community to stand up to evil.  As always with Robert Bradbury’s westerns, the fights and the stunts are impressive.  Fans of Wayne’s B-period will probably especially be interested to see the legendary stuntman, Yakima Canutt, play a good guy for once.  He and Wayne both do a good job in this 52 minute programmer.

Neath The Arizona Skies (1934, directed by Harry L. Fraser)

Chris Morrell (John Wayne) is an honest cowboy who keeps an eye on Nina (Shirley Jean Rickert), a little girl whose Indian mother died when Nina was just a baby.  When oil is discovered on land that belonged to Nina’s mother, Nina is offered $50,000 for the land.  Because Nina is only eight years old, her legal guardian will be responsible for taking care of the money.  Chris and Nina set out to find Nina’s father so that he can sign the guardianship papers and make Chris into Nina’s legal guardian.

When outlaw Sam Black (Yakima Canutt) decides that he would rather be Nina’s legal guardian, Chris sends Nina to a ranch owned by his old friend, Bud Moore, while he defeats Sam and his men.  At the ranch, it turns out that Bud Moore has died and the new ranch owner is another outlaw named Vic (Jack Rockwell) and Vic wants Nina’s oil claim for himself.  What Vic doesn’t know is that Nina’s father is one of his ranch hands.

For a 52 minute programmer, there’s a lot going on in ‘Neath The Arizona Skies.  There’s actually too much going on and, with that short of a run time, it feels as if more than a few important plot points were glossed over, like how Chris came to look after Nina in the first place.  John Wayne is stiff but likable as Chris while Yakima Canutt does his usual double duty as both an outlaw and a stuntman.  There are a few good action scenes, especially when Chris runs off Sam’s gang for the first time.  Sheila Terry plays Wayne’s love interest, who has to be first convinced that Chris isn’t actually an outlaw.  As Nina, Shirley Jean Rickert is energetic but you’ll quickly get tired of her yelling, “Daddy Chris!” whenever anything happens.  This isn’t one of the best of the 50 poverty row films that Wayne appeared in before Stagecoach made him a star but, even in this film, there are still hints of the screen presence that would later become Wayne’s trademark.

Blue Steel (1934, directed by Robert N. Bradbury)

On a stormy night, frontier Sheriff Jake Withers (George “Gabby” Hayes) and undercover U.S. Marshal Carruthers (John Wayne) both check into the same inn.  They are both searching for the infamous Polka Dot Bandit (Yakima Canutt), who has been burglarizing homes and businesses all over California.  They both figure that, on a rainy night like this, there’s no way that the Bandit is going to be out.  It turns out they are both wrong.  The Bandit breaks into the inn and robs the safe but also leaves behind one of his spurs.  The sheriff comes across Carruthers investigating the safe and mistakenly believes that Carruthers is the bandit.

Later, when Sheriff Winters goes out to Carruthers’s cabin, he’s planning on arresting Carruthers.  Before he can do so, they both hear gun shots.  Outside, another group of bandits is chasing Betty (Eleanor Hunt) and her father.  The Sherriff and Carruthers manage to save Betty but her father is killed.  The grieving Betty is taken in by a local rancher named Malgrove (Edward Peil, Jr.) but it turns out that Malgrove is the head of the Polka Dot Gang and he is planning on killing Betty in order to keep a shipment of supplies from coming to the town!  Carruthers and the sheriff have to work together to thwart Malgrove’s plan and bring the Polka Dot Bandit to justice.

This 54-minute programmer was one of the many B-westerns that John Wayne made for Monogram Pictures in the days before John Ford made him a star by casting him in Stagecoach.  Though Wayne was still learning how to act on camera, the screen presence that would make him a star can be seen in Blue Steel and he and Hayes make a good team.  The story is simple enough but there’s enough horse riding and fistfights to keep most B-western fans entertained.  It’s still hard not to imagine how much different the movie would have been if the sheriff had arrested Carruthers at the scene of the crime instead of letting him ride out to his cabin.  It’s a good thing these old programmers never had to make too much sense.

Randy Rides Alone (1934, directed by Harry L. Fraser)

Randy (John Wayne) rides his horse into a frontier town.  He is planning to pay a visit to his old friend, saloon owner Ed Rogers.  But when Randy enters the saloon, he discovers that everyone, including Ed, has been shot dead and a hand-written note has been left by the perpetrator, warning the sheriff not to come after him.

The sheriff and a posse of citizens arrive at the saloon and refuse to believe Randy when he says that he didn’t commit the crime.  Matt the Mute (George Hayes, before he became known as Gabby) hands the sheriff a note in which he suggests arresting Randy and hanging him for the crime.  Matt’s note is written in the same handwriting as the note that was left at the saloon but no one notices because Matt has a reputation for being a fine, upstanding citizen.

With the help of Ed’s niece, Sally (Alberta Vaughn), Randy escapes from the posse and makes his way to a cave, which he discovers is the hideout for a gang of thieves led by Matt the Mute, who isn’t even a mute!  When the gang kidnaps Sally, Randy has to rescue her and clear his name.

A 56-minute programmer, Randy Rides Alone is one of the many B-westerns that John Wayne made before Stagecoach made him a star.  In the 30s, every poverty row studio was churning out short westerns that would play as double features and which would entertain audiences looking for an escape from the present day.  Randy Rides Alone is one of the better examples of the genre, due to John Wayne’s authoritative presence and a better-than-average plot.  The opening, with a smiling John Wayne entering the saloon just to discover that all of his friends have been murdered, establishes the stakes early on and the movie is as much about revenge as it is about Randy clearing his name.  George Hayes, who became best known for playing comedic relief sidekicks, is an effective villain.  The film’s target audience was probably bored with Sally and Randy falling in love but they also probably enjoyed Randy climbing a mountain to rescue her.  The movie ends with Sally announcing that Randy won’t be riding alone much longer.  Randy may have settled down but John Wayne had 150 more films ahead of him.

Riders of Destiny (1933, directed by Robert N. Bradbury)

John Wayne sings!

Well, not really.  Wayne does play a cowboy named Singin’ Sandy Saunders in this early, pre-code Western but his voice was dubbed by someone who didn’t sound anything like Wayne.  Wayne was only 25 when he starred in Riders of Destiny and this was six years before Stagecoach made him a star but he already had his famous way of speaking.

Riders of Destiny starts off with Singin’ Sandy riding through the west.  When he comes across a wounded sheriff and then witnesses a stagecoach being robbed by Ms. Fay Denton (Cecilia Parker), he knows that he’s reached the town of Destiny.  The town is under the control of a land developer named Kincaid (Forrest Taylor).  Kincaid and his henchmen have been extorting the local citizens and stealing money from Fay and her father (George “Gabby” Hayes).  After Singin’ Sandy reveals his skills with a gun, Kincaid offers him a position in his gang and if Sandy accepts, Kincaid will be unstoppable.  Before Sandy’s mysterious appearance, the townspeople wrote to Washington to help and Washington has agreed to send down one of their best agents.  Could that agent be traveling in disguise as a singing cowboy?

It’s always difficult for me to take a Singing Cowboy film seriously.  (That’s especially true after watching Tim Blake Nelson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.)  John Wayne is not an actor who was ever meant to be seen playing a guitar and singing a song, even if his voice was dubbed.  But Riders of Destiny is not that bad of a programmer.  If you can overlook the singing, the story is surprisingly mature and violent and Forrest Taylor is a good villain as the oily Kincaid.  (With Kincaid demanding protection money and gunning down anyone who refuses to play it, he has more in common with the type of gangsters who were appearing in Warner Bros. crime films than with the typical western bad guy.)  Cecilia Parker, who would eventually be best known for appearing in the wholesome Andy Hardy films, is sexy as Fay and, because this is a pre-code film, she gets away with robbing a stagecoach.  With a running time of barely an hour, the action has to move quickly and there’s no need for any padding.  Finally, even this early in his career, John Wayne was a perfect western hero, whether he was on his horse chasing the bad guys or walking down a dusty street, singing a song about how the “streets will run with blood” before drawing his guns.

Wayne would go on to play one more Singing Cowboy, in 1935’s The Lawless Range.  Again, his voice was dubbed.  He later said that he abandoned the Singing Cowboy genre because the children who saw the films would often approach him and ask him to sing one of the songs and they were always disappointed to learn that he couldn’t actually a sing a note.  Of course, in 1939, John Ford would select Wayne to play The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach and Wayne would never have to sing again.

A Movie A Day #223: The Texas Rangers (1936, directed by King Vidor)

Sam (Lloyd Nolan), Jim (Fred MacMurray), and Wahoo (Jack Oakie) are three outlaws in the old west.  Wahoo works as a stagecoach driver and always lets Sam and Jim know which coaches will be worth holding up.  It’s a pretty good scam until the authorities get wise to their scheme and set out after the three of them.  Sam abandons his two partners while Jim and Wahoo eventually end up in Texas.  At first, Jim and Wahoo are planning to keep on robbing stagecoaches but then they realize that they can make even more money as Texas Rangers.

At first, Jim and Wahoo are just planning on sticking around long enough to make some cash and then split.  However, both of them discover that they prefer to be on the right side of the law.  After they save a boy named David from Indians, Jim and Wahoo decide to stay in Texas and protect its settlers.

The only problem is that their old friend Sam has returned and his still on the wrong side of the law.

Made to commemorate the Texas centenary (though it was filmed in New Mexico), The Texas Rangers is a good example of what’s known as an oater, a low-budget but entertaining portrayal of life on the frontier.   King Vidor does a good job with the action scenes and Fred MacMuarry and Jack Oakie are a likable onscreen team.  The best performance comes from Lloyd Nolan, as the ruthless and calculating Sam.  Sam can be funny and even likable but when he’s bad, he’s really bad.

Jack Oakie was better known as a comedian and The Texas Rangers provides him with a rare dramatic role.  Four years after appearing in The Texas Rangers, Oakie would appear in his most famous role, playing a parody of Benito Mussolini in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.