The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Reno Brothers Gang in fact and fiction: Rage at Dawn (RKO, 1955) & Love Me Tender (Fox, 1956)


Those Reno boys


















The fact

The Renos of Jackson County,
Indiana were the original outlaw gang in the James, Younger and Dalton
tradition. They carried out the first three peacetime train robberies and kind
of started a Western trend…  Frank, John,
Simeon (Sim) and Bill were reprobates in their youth, known for arson,
cardsharping and horse stealing. One brother, Clinton, known as ‘Honest Clint’, took no part in these depredations; nor did the sister Laura.


With local inhabitants fingering lynch ropes,
the four brothers thought it safer to remove themselves to the Civil War when it
broke out but only Bill actually completed his service for the North. The others were paid to
enlist in the Union ranks, deserted and were paid again to enlist, enough times to make money
without actually fighting.
 
Robbing trains

In 1864 Frank was back and he
formed a gang with other no-goods which robbed a post office. They were
arrested and a gang member agreed to squeal but he was killed (pure coincidence, naturally) and Frank was
acquitted. They then robbed and murdered travelers. In 1866 John and Sim held
up the Ohio and Mississippi Railway near Seymour, netting $16,000. A passenger
stepped forward later, identifying two of the robbers, but when he too was murdered,
no one else testified and the Renos got off again.
 
Frank Reno
 
Pinkertons

However, the robbery brought
the Pinkertons in and that eventually was the downfall of the gang.





In 1867 the gang robbed the
Treasury of the County Courthouse in Gallatin, Missouri but John Reno was
identified, arrested by Pinkertons and served ten years in the State
Penitentiary. The other three brothers, along with various accomplices, continued robbing. The gang members were arrested by Pinkertons in
Iowa in March 1868 but escaped jail.


A grisly end

In the end, though, in three separate
incidents in 1868, a total of ten members of the gang, including Frank, Sim and
Bill Reno, were lynched by vigilantes. No one was ever charged with or even
investigated for these hangings.

John, behind bars, avoided the
grisly fate and lived to write his autobiography in 1879, dying in 1895.

Such were the facts of the Reno
Brothers Gang.

They haven’t received the fame
that other outlaws such as the James Gang or the Daltons have. I
know of no good book on them (though there probably are some) and only a couple
of Westerns were made about them: Rage at Dawn (RKO, 1955) and Love Me Tender (Fox, 1956) – see below. You’d think that it would be rich material for
Hollywood and that there would have been more movies.


But the gang only operated effectively for about two years.
And they weren’t exactly Robin Hoods (none of the gangs was, though some of them
pretended to be). They had no favorable press, as Frank and Jesse James did in Missouri, and they were acutely unpopular in their time and in their
home state. Maybe it was that, though being nasty types didn’t stop Hollywood making other outlaws into heroes.

 

 

Rage at Dawn
 
 
 





Randolph Scott made no fewer
than four Westerns in 1955 (Ten Wanted Men, Rage at Dawn, Tall Man Riding, A Lawless Street) and it was
unsurprising that they weren’t all great classics. Rage at Dawn was probably the most interesting in that it told the
story of the Renos.

 
 
When a Western movie starts
with the first words on screen “This is the true story of…” you pretty well
know it’s going to be complete bunk historically. And Rage at Dawn is no exception. In this version of the facts, James
Barlow (Scott) is working under cover for the “Peterson” detective
agency (Westerns often thinly disguised the name) and inveigles his way into the gang, cunningly trapping them. He has
enough time, however, to romance the Renos’ sister Laura (Mala Powers). Randy
bravely tries to stop the lynching but is too late.

This was director Tim Whelan’s
second oater with Randolph Scott (the other being Badman’s Territory in 1946) but he only did three Westerns altogether and
was no specialist. The direction of Rage
at Dawn
is rather pedestrian although there are some good action scenes.

The screenplay was by Horace
McCoy who had done Western Union with
Scott in 1941 and went on to do RKO’s excellent
rodeo picture The Lusty Men. The
story was by Frank Gruber, well known for Denver and Rio Grande, Pony Express (therefore perfectly happy to abuse history) and later for creating and writing 71 Shotgun Slade episodes on TV. Despite
these credentials, however, the writing of Rage at Dawn is pretty routine.

 
Forrest as Frank
 
As far as the acting goes, we
have Forrest Tucker as gang leader Frank, who was always a dependable heavy. I always think he looks like a young Gene Hackman.
Actually, he was born in Indiana
so that was appropriate.
J
Carrol Naish is Sim, seen in the opening title shots hunched and darting his
eyes like some Victorian melodrama villain but then he turns out to be about
the best actor among the Reno family. He was, however, 60 and looked it,
whereas the real Simeon Reno was 25 when he was hanged. Never mind. Myron Healey
is a slightly bland John, and Bill (Richard Garland) is sidelined and doesn’t
do much. As for Mala, as the sister, Laura, why is it that in films disreputable and common
lowlife outlaws always have such posh sisters? Howard Hughes had taken an interest in
Ms. Powers and put her under contract at RKO. She was in quite a lot of lower-budget Westerns.


Denver Pyle is ‘Honest Clint’, the brother who kept to the straight
and narrow. Good old Denver. Actually he acts quite well in this. For him.


Denver Pyle was in fact succeeded by Elvis Presley as Clint Reno the following year, when Elvis did Love Me Tender, the other Reno gang Western. People might easily have mixed them up. Denver, Elvis. Elvis, Denver. Who could tell the difference?

Identical

 

The best acting came from the
rascally trio of judge, prosecuting attorney and sheriff in the ample shape of
Edgar Buchanan, Howard Petrie and Ray Teal, respectively. What an excellent
combination! Buchanan was the
scoundrel judge; you wouldn’t get better. He was Judge Roy Bean, after all. Howard
Petrie (Tom Hendricks in Bend of the River) is splendidly slimy and crooked. Good old Ray Teal (117 Westerns!)  was perfect as the corrupt sheriff. Their parts are the best thing about Rage at Dawn.

Randy does a deal with corrupt Judge Buchanan, Sheriff Teal and Attorney Petrie
 

Pinkerton (I mean Peterson) hero Scott is backed
up by red-haired Kenneth Tobey, who had been in The Gunfighter and Rawhide
(the 1951 Fox movie) and was to become a stalwart of TV Westerns all through the 1960s.

The actors supporting
Scott were thus strong, which was a good thing because as in To the Last Man, he doesn’t appear till
half an hour of the movie has elapsed. You’re beginning to wonder if he is in
it after all.

 
Pinkerton man Randy
 
The look of the picture is high
class. It was shot in Technicolor by Ray Rennahan on location in Columbia State Historic
Park, and some of the scenery is really beautiful and very Western.


The Paul Sawtell music is quite nice, too.

Rage at Dawn (which presumably
refers to the anger of the lynch mob and the time of day it acted) is a pretty
standard Randolph Scott oater for a fading RKO and no great shakes. But he never did a bad one
(well, except Belle of the Yukon) and while this may not be of the quality of, say, Ride Lonesome or The Tall T,
it’s still worth a watch.

 

Love Me Tender
 
 

 
 
 
Love Me Tender does not start
with “This is the true story of…” and a good thing too because that really
would have been a claim too far. At least Randolph Scott’s version featured the
Reno brothers, Frank, John, Sim and Bill. Love
Me Tender
is a nominal Reno Brothers picture in that some of the characters
bear the surname Reno but in no other regard.

 
Rotten title for a Western

 

Probably in deference to Elvis
Presley, whose first film this was, the whole story has been transposed to the
South. The Reno brothers’ place is in Texas and they all (except Honest Clint,
played by Elvis) go off to fight on the Confederate side. Right at the end of
the war they rob a train of its Union gold and, hearing then of Lee’s
surrender, Capt. Vance Reno (this must be Frank, I suppose), and the rest of the
guerrilla band decide to keep the loot.

On returning to the family
farm, Vance finds that he had been reported killed and young brother Clint has married
Vance’s sweetheart Cathy (Debra Paget, for once not an Indian in a Western). Vance is awfully decent about it and
pretends he doesn’t mind but of course Cathy and Vance still love each other so
there are going to be ructions. Then the authorities come demanding back the
money from the robbed train and the Reno boys are arrested. Vance thinks they
should do a deal and give the money back.

 
Happy to be home: before he discovers that Debra has wed Elvis
 
Well, this stuff is all very
well but what has it to do with the Reno brothers? Even their names have been
changed: Clint is there but their brothers are Vance (Richard Egan of Kansas Raiders and These Thousand Hills), Brett (William Campbell of Escape from Fort Bravo and Man Without a Star) and Ray (a pre-Virginian James Drury in only his second
Western). There is no sign of sister Laura for anyone to fall in love with and
there is an aged Ma Reno, played by Mildred Dunnock (only 54 in fact) who looks
alternately bored and bemused by the whole affair (especially when Elvis sings),
as well she might, frankly.

The detective tracking the
stolen money is a “Mr. Siringo” (Robert Middleton, 13 Western movies and loads
of TV shows; I remember him most in A Big Hand for the Little Lady). Could this be the famous Western detective Charlie
Siringo, one wonders? If so, what’s he doing in 1865 Texas chasing down the
Renos? And why is he such a fat man in his late 40s? Charlie was ten years old then.
It’s all very confusing.

 
It couldn’t last…
 
Neville Brand is good as the
Reb fighter who is all for keeping the money and not giving it back. LQ Jones
is hidden away in the movie as Pardee Fleming (but blink and you’ll miss him).
But of course the attention is focused mostly on Elvis.


Not that the movie was
designed as a star vehicle. He only came in later (the role had been slated for
Cameron Mitchell) and he only got third billing after Egan and Paget. Elvis
turned out to be, perhaps surprisingly, a rather good Western actor and Flaming Star (1960) is an excellent
little movie but here he has little to do in the action apart from pose
questions such as “What happened?” and “Why?”, and then sing. The Poor Boy he does at the school-raising
picnic is hilarious: he does all his pelvic gyrations and there are rows of
nineteenth century teeny-boppers squealing with delight. Real authentic, huh.

 
The Reno boys: back from the war
 
I won’t describe the ending in
the slightly unlikely event that you’ll want to see it but I can reveal they
aren’t all lynched by vigilantes.

Direction is by Robert D Webb
who did Guns of the Timberland with
Alan Ladd but nothing else of note. It is pretty tame.  The movie is written by Robert Buckner, who
did a lot of Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn oaters, from a story by Maurice Geraghty
(low-budget Westerns dating back to 1935). There’s unspecial photography by Leo Tover of
the Fox Ranch and studio locations (in black & white: at least Rage at Dawn the previous year was
color), and equally unspecial Lionel Newman music.

Well, I like Elvis, who doesn’t,
so I’m not knocking the film on that account but as a Western it’s pretty
stodgy fare, the title is rotten and as history, well, forget it.

So that’s it for the Renos. So
long, e-pards.




4 Responses

  1. There is only one book about the Reno Brothers gang that I know of, and that is "The Masked Halters" by Edwin J. Boley. Copies are hard to find, though I have found them listed on online bookstores and some libraries have them, though they're not likely to allow them to leave the library. Here is a photo from Amazon.com:

    http://www.amazon.com/Masked-Halters-Edwin-J-Boley/dp/B0006CZCIC/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1431964541&sr=1-1&keywords=the+masked+halters

  2. Not sure if Johnny Reno – Dana Andrews – is family related as he is a US marshall in the 1966 RG Springsteen film of the same name but I hope to read your prose about itbone day. JM

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