The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Blazing Justice (Ray Kirkwood/Spectrum, 1936)

Bill Cody rides again

B-Western actor Bill Cody (43 Western
appearances, 1924 to ’43) might be thought to have assumed that very Wild-West
name but in fact he was born William Joseph Cody in 1891 in St. Paul, Minnesota
(some say in Manitoba, Canada). He was no relation to the great Buffalo Bill,
but his birth name was a happy coincidence for a star of horse operas. He
started as a stuntman and bit-part actor in 1922. Curiously, he adopted a stage
name, Paul Walters, for his early roles; you’d think he’d want to make the most
of his real moniker.
He looks a bit like John Wayne in the poster (he didn’t really though)
Then Jesse Goldburg of small-time studio
Independent Pictures decided to feature Cody under his own name in a series of
eight silent second-feature Westerns starting in 1924. Cody created his own
production company and from 1925 – ‘28 made B-Westerns released by Pathe. In
1929, he went on tour with the Miller Brothers’ famous 101 Ranch Show. Unlike
many silent Western stars, Cody made the transition to sound quite successfully
(in a minor studio way) and made Westerns in the early 30s for Monogram. As the
decade progressed, Cody alternated work with circuses and Wild West shows with
short movie contracts for real Poverty Row outfits. His Awyon Picture The Border Menace (1934) has been called
(probably unfairly) “the worst B-Western ever made”.

In 1934 Cody signed up with producer Ray
Kirkwood to make a series of Westerns released by Spectrum Pictures, and his
son Bill Cody, Jr. co-starred in four of them, beginning with Frontier Days (1934). Blazing Justice appeared in 1936, but
without his son. Bill Cody Sr.’s last movie for Kirkwood, which also co-starred
Bill Jr., was Outlaws of the Range later
that year.

Cody’s final starring picture was The
Fighting Cowboy
(1939). That year he had bit parts in John Ford‘s Stagecoach as an uncredited rancher, and
as a sheriff in the George O’Brien oater The
Fighting Gringo
. Bill Cody died at Santa Monica, California, in 1948 at the
age of only 57.

Most of his pictures were, quite
frankly, low-grade black & white 60-minute oaters with few artistic
pretensions, aimed at a juvenile market. But they were fun, and Cody’s quite
stocky frame was recognizable in them. He wasn’t at all bad at the ridin’ and
A very B Western
was a classic example. It was directed by
Albert Herman, a former bit-part Western actor who had started in Broncho Billy
Anderson silents in 1914 and later became journeyman director who churned out dozens
of Westerns from 1924 on. Through the 1930s he did Rex Lease, Ken Maynard and
Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams pictures but Blazing
and Outlaws of the Range
were his first (and last) with Cody.

It was written by Moroccan Zarah Tazil,
an actress who also wrote a few B-Westerns. It’s pretty formulaic, though, and
not helped by the wooden acting as the actors recite their unconvincing lines

It opens with a song in the saloon from
Rusty (Frank Yaconelli, a former vaudeville song-and-dance man who specialized
in songs in B-Westerns) and soon Ray Healy (Cody) appears in hair suspiciously
black and joins in the musical fare with Coming
Round the Mountain
. Then Ray, at the bar, declares that he doesn’t drink
and doesn’t gamble and there’s a comic shooting contest with old-timer barfly
Pop (Milburn Morante, another vaudevillian). It’s an unfortunate start.
He looks a bit like Hopalong Cassidy here
Then the inevitable skullduggery begins.
A sheriff bursts in on three rustlers in the saloon but is shot down by their
boss, Max (Gordon Griffith, former child actor who had the honor of being the
first ever screen Tarzan and Tom Sawyer). Max is obviously a villain because he
has a small (almost Hitlerian) mustache. Ray launches himself at the three ne’er-do-wells
with many fists flying and he captures two but evil Max escapes. Still, Ray has
done enough to win the $5000 reward and he decides to go off on holiday.
The evil Max
There is more ‘comic’ relief now as Pop
argues with his horse Annabelle, and then comes across the evil Max out on the
range and wins drinks from him with crooked dice and double-headed coin, though
Max is of course a rotter and so welches on the bet.
(Sub-)comic relief
Max and his henchpersons now hear that
nearby rancher Peterson (Budd Buster) has withdrawn $10,000 from the bank to
pay off his mortgage and Max robs and kills the old fellow. His glam daughter
in jodhpurs, Virginia (Gertrude Messinger, 18 B-Western appearances 1932 – 40)
pursues the villain but Max sneakily swaps horses with our vacationing hero Ray,
and Virginia takes him in as the murderer. Uh-oh.
Rancher’s daughter
Well, mucho plot follows (I will not
thrill you now with the ins and outs). There are a lot of fisticuffs and a
posse and ridin’ and shootin’. Ray hatches a cunning ploy to trap the villain
Max and this succeeds admirably, allowing him to lasso Max, return the stolen
money and propose to Virginia in the last scene.

To be brutally frank, it’s unoriginal,
weakly acted and cheaply staged. Doubtless the undemanding children in the
audience were pleased enough but their mums and dads may have dropped off
somewhere in the second reel. I didn’t, though. I’m still at heart a kid in the
cheap theater seats thrilling to the gallopin’ and shootin’.


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