Clay Allison’s the villain again
We’ve been looking at the nefarious career of Clay Allison (click the link for our article on him) and how he has been portrayed on screen, starting with the 1938 Hopalong Cassidy oater Cassidy of Bar 20 (click again for our review). Well, the next time Allison appeared in a Western – that I know of anyway – was the following year, when he was the chief villain of a Three Mesquiteers picture at Republic, Cowboys from Texas.
Bob Livingston as Stony Brooke had starred in fifteen of the first sixteen 3M series, 1936 – 1938. For eight of them, 1938 – 39, John Wayne had taken over the role, relegating Bob to outer darkness, but later in ’39 Duke had other fish to fry (some film or other with John Ford) and Bob came back, and would keep the role till 1941, when Tom Tyler assumed the mantle.
As for the sidekicks, Max Terhune had been Lullaby Joslin for all the first twenty-two pictures apart from the first but Raymond Hatton became Rusty Joslin from Wyoming Outlaw onwards, while in late 1939 Duncan Renaldo as the rather unimaginatively dubbed character Renaldo took over from good old Ray Corrigan as Tucson Smith from The Kansas Terrors on.
It’s not always easy to keep up with the personnel changes of the famous trio (you have to be quite nerdy). For example, Bob Steele would be Tucson Smith again from late 1940.
Anyway, in this one we get handsome hero Livingston as Stony Brooke (and occasionally as the Masked Rider), Renaldo as ay-caramba-type Mexican Renaldo, and Hatton as amusing old-timer Rusty.
The story has a faux-historical sheen to it, centered as it is around the 1902 Reclamation Act, and there’s footage of Theodore Roosevelt ordaining irrigation projects to bring new life to the Western ‘wasteland’. Of course, when the movie came out it hadn’t been long since Teddy’s namesake had opened the Hoover Dam and big government projects of this kind were all the thing.
But in reality the Reclamation Act business is just an excuse for yet another cattlemen vs homesteaders range-war kind of Western, with the sturdy farmers the goodies as per usual – this time they are especially good because they will work on the new dam, thus bringing prosperity to all, even the cattlemen, who will be able to fatten their stock on watered land, though they are too dumb to see it.
OK, but where does Clay Allison fit into all of this? Is he maybe one of the ruthless cattle barons, as in the Hoppy oater, or perhaps a hired gun? Nay. At first blush, he seems an upright type, and the Governor of Texas says he comes “highly recommended”. He is appointed director of the irrigation works. But he wears a suit, is smarmy and is played by habitual bad guy Ivan Miller, so it doesn’t take us long to work out that he’s a sidewinder. In fact, he’s in cahoots with saloon owner Belle Starkey – not Belle Starr, Belle Starkey – played by Betty Compson, a regular of one-reel and two-reel silent slapstick comedies, often paired with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, now on a downward career trajectory, but she’d done some quite big Westerns back in the day, such as the James Cruze The Pony Express in 1925 and the 1930 version of The Spoilers with Gary Cooper. Allison and Belle have a lowdown plot to encourage range war, depreciate the value of the land, then snap it up at rock-bottom price, knowing land prices will skyrocket once the dam is built. Such perfidy.
They have a henchman to do their dirty work, as was traditional, this time regular Western heavy Ethan Laidlaw (he did an amazing 215 feature oaters) as the thuggish Duke Plummer.
The leader of the homesteaders, Kansas Jones, is none other than Ming the Merciless, aka Charles Middleton, though here eschewing sinister oriental type make-up. He has a pretty daughter, obviously (it was compulsory in them days) for if not, what would we do for chaste romance? It’s June, played by Carole Landis, later to be Victor Mature’s prehistoric squeeze in One Million BC. And Kansas also has a little son (Harry McKim) who will be heartlessly shot by a cattleman, thus placing the ranchers firmly in the Baddy camp.
Yakima Canutt did the stunts (there’s a good one when ‘Stony’ leaps from his horse to one of the draft team to halt a runaway wagon) and also got a small part as Tex.
So that was a fun cast, really.
The picture was directed by George Sherman, who helmed twenty of the series, and written by Oliver Drake, using the William Colt MacDonald characters as a (very vague) basis.
Drake had been a cattle rancher, so you’d think he’d be on their side. He turned to acting in and directing Westerns in 1917, appearing with his trained horse. During the sound era he became a prolific writer and occasional producer/director of Gene Autry and Tex Ritter vehicles, among others, often for RKO, Monogram and Republic. He had a ranch which was often used for filming Westerns, though history doesn’t record if Cowboys from Texas was one. Drake retired in 1974 to publish his autobiography Written, Produced and Directed by Oliver Drake.
Together, Sherman, Drake and Canutt sure packed every Western action known to man into the very modest 55-minute runtime. There’s a land rush, a stampede, poker game, saloon brawl, blazing gunfight, and not one but two stage robberies.
The only disappointment was that Clay Allison didn’t have a derringer. It might have saved him from being shot in the saloon in the last reel. Though I doubt it.
I must say that the dialogue is amazingly clunky, and much of the acting might generously be described as wooden – any tree thereabouts would probably have done a better job. But I doubt the audience (average age probably c 10) cared.
It actually got a notice in Variety, which commented, “Generally, the yarn is poorly motivated with a number of situations left suspended, but with the type [of] audiences at which the picture is obviously aimed there should be no question.”
I enjoyed it anyway.