Dated but not bad
Paramount’s Zane Grey’s ‘The Light of Western Stars’ came out in 1940. It’s in the public domain, by the way, and you can easily find it – though not necessarily with good picture quality.
The 1914 Grey novel quickly became a motion picture, the 1918 silent starring Dustin Farnum, and was remade as a bigger film by Paramount (Lasky bought the rights from Grey) in 1925 with Jack Holt in the lead. It then became a Paramount talkie in 1930 starring Richard Arlen. So the story had certainly done the rounds.
The 1940 version, a Joseph W Engel/Harry Sherman production, was not quite such a big picture but a 64-minute feature directed by Lesley Selander. The same year he made a similar one, a kind of companion piece, with the same crew and many of the same cast, using another Zane Grey tale, Knights of the Range.
Selander had started as a lab technician as a teenager and gradually worked his way up the ladder, directing his first picture, a Buck Jones Western, in 1936. He worked on Hopalong Cassidy oaters and built up experience and know-how. He was no artist, I suppose, but a safe pair of hands, especially in the Western genre, and good at action scenes.
In fact news came to the cast and crew during filming at Newhall in October 1939 that Zane Grey had died, and shooting was halted for the day in his honor.
The version is noted as Alan Ladd’s Western debut, although he’s only eleventh billed as Danny, a ranch hand, and has very much a bit part – blink and you’ll miss him.
The picture is actually rather enjoyable and worth watching, though. As a certainly rather dated but not too corny black & white Western, it’s a lot of fun.
It stars the great Victor Jory (50 Westerns from Smoky in 1933 to The Mountain Men in 1980). I always liked Victor, especially as the bad guy.
The female lead is Jo Ann Sayers as ‘Her Majesty’ (whom one would cheerfully strangle, she is so snooty and posh).
Russell Hayden, Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick Lucky, is the cowhand who sweeps Her Majesty off her feet. Tom Tyler is the sheriff.
Best is Noah Beery Jr as Poco, Jory’s Mexican sidekick (Noah had in fact started as a Mexican, appearing in Viva Villa! in 1934 with his uncle Wallace), faithful as a hound and overacting in a very 1930s way but huge fun. If it weren’t 1940 and unthinkable, you’d reckon there was something almost homoerotic about the relationship. Perish the thought.
There’s Victor Young music and Russell Harlan cinematography. It’s no cheapie.
Brian Garfield called it a “dated, ho-hum meller”, and I suppose he had a point, though I don’t mind it in an old-fashioned way. And Jory and Beery are always worth seeing.
It became Border Renegade when sold to TV, so you might see it as that.
Jeff, I really like your good write-up of THE LIGHT OF WESTERN STARS(filmed 1939, released 1940), a movie I had never viewed. Anyway, I thought this would be my kind of Western Movie, because of this line you wrote, “The picture is actually rather enjoyable and worth watching, though. As a certainly rather dated but not too corny black & white Western, it’s a lot of fun.” Yessire, Bob, I have a soft spot for this type of Western. So, I headed over to YouTube and gave it a look-see and I wasn’t disappointed, whatsoever. Needless to say, I had fun viewing this fun and enjoyable oater.
I like the way THE LIGHT OF WESTERN STARS looked, thanks to the photography of Russell Harlan and art direction of Lewis J. Rachmil. As we know, landscapes are characters in Western Movies and this one has the ruggedly beautiful landscapes of the volcanic Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California and the prickly Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert. Next we move on to the ranch scenes filmed at the Rancho de la Osa near the Arizona border with Sonora, Mexico. The Rancho de la Osa was originally part of the early 1800’s Tomas and Ignacio Ortiz Spanish land grant from King Ferdinand IV of Spain. The rancho has Arizona’s oldest continually used building that was built at the Native Tohono O’Odham village in 1722 by Jesuit missionaries. The building was a mission outpost which served as a place of worship, a trading post, and an inn for travelers. Today it is used for special events and ranch gatherings. Also, in 1916 Pancho Villa raided and attempted to take the rancho. A cannon ball from that attack was found embedded in the adobe wall of the Hacienda and is on display today. In the movie, this goes along with Gene Stewart(Victor Jory) joining up and becoming a captain of a military expedition into Mexico during the Mexican Revolution(1910-20). Although, the movie takes place before the Villa raid on the ranch. Zane Grey’s book was first serialized in an 8-parter in MUNSEY’S MAGAZINE(May-December 1913). Yes, the movie is set in the 1910’s and it isn’t an “End of the West” movie, by any means, even though it does have an automobile in use. Writer Zane Grey knew that 1913 wasn’t the “End of the West.” The town scenes were filmed in the nearby small border town of Sasabe, Arizona. These filming locations made for the authentic look of the movie.
I think this is an unusual Western for a 1940 release, in the casting of Victor Jory as the leading man and he is clearly not of the Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, or William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd mold. Gene Stewart(Victor Jory) has flaws galore. Also, the ending is not a usual one, either. I think Jo Ann Sayers portrays Madeline “Her Majesty” Hammond just as she should. The movie has a lot packed into it, for a 65 minute running time thanks to the ace Western director Lesley Selander and film cutter Sherman A. Rose. I think this fun entertaining movie is well worth viewing.