Bill Elliott rides again
I like a Wild Bill Elliott oater now and then.
This one dates from his Republic period, after he’d handed over the Red Ryder mantle to Allan Lane, and he was beginning to look a bit, ahem, stocky but never mind. As you know, he’d made his name and fame in the late 30s at Columbia as Wild Bill Hickok in the studio’s serial (he’d been Gordon Elliott before then) and then doing those early-40s Westerns with Tex Ritter but he’d moved to Republic where he got to lead in sagebrush sagas. Later, he would move decidedly down-market to Monogram but the Republic films were no ultra-low-budget quickies. Some of them had good casts and snazzy locations. The Last Bandit, for example, had a 78-minute runtime, was in color, had train scenes shot on the Fillmore & Western Railroad and generally gloried in more than respectable production values.
It was directed by good old Joe Kane. Uncle Joe (click the link for our appreciation of him) was just the kind of director studio boss Herb Yates liked, amenable, modest and churning them out on time and on budget with the minimum of fuss. Yates rewarded him with an associate producer credit. John Wayne biographer Scott Eyman has written that Kane was “a man who made more than one hundred movies without an interesting shot to be found in any of them” but that is unduly harsh. Joe’s pictures may not have been John Ford-artistic but they were professional, solid and well turned out. They rattled along, and this one is actually a lot of fun.
As to the cast, Lorna Gray aka Adrian Booth was the leading lady, Kate, who wins our hero’s heart and hand in the last reel. She too had moved from Columbia, where she’d done a couple of Charles Starrett oaters, to Republic in the 40s, where she worked a lot with Monte Hale.
She’s a gold-digger who in the first reel is preparing to marry Jim Plummer for his money though she does not love him, but jilts him at the behest of badman Ed Bagley (not Begley) played thuggishly by our old pal Grant Withers, to go out to Nevada and rob a train of gold bullion, which is much more profitable than wedding Jim.
The fellow she leaves standing at the altar, or at the shindig anyway, is the Missouri outlaw Jim Plummer and, good news, Jim is played by Forrest Tucker, never less than excellent, especially as bad guy. It’s probably about time I did a Forrestography.
You see, Jim’s brother Frank (Missouri outlaws named Frank and Jim had obvious resonance for Westernistas) has gone straight. Well, he would, it’s Bill Elliott. He’s gone out to Nevada to work protecting gold shipments, under railroad boss Mort Pemberton, played by another old friend of ours, Jack Holt. So clearly he’s not going to take kindly to Kate trying to rob his trains, especially when Jim and Ed get in on the act, with assorted henchmen. Pemberton already has his doubts about Frank, even though it’s Bill Elliott and obviously a goody.
Brothers or not, one’s a goody and one’s a baddy, so there’ll be strife.
Frank only got the job because he was championed by his pal Casey Brown, who is the local sheriff, and this was yet another Western alumnus, Andy Devine, plump, obviously, but not yet gigantic, and keeping his propensity for shtick in check. When you add in another lawman, Bert, impersonated by Hank Bell’s mustache with Hank Bell attached, Charles Middleton, erstwhile Ming the Merciless in his last film role as the preacher scheduled to marry Kate and Jim, and sundry other players such as Stanley Andrews, Franklyn Farnum and Rex Lease, you get a line-up that was way more than half-decent.
Republic used the Trucolor process and while you can appreciate the vividness if you watch, say, the restored print of Johnny Guitar, the majority of color pictures in this format have not aged well, fading as they do to sepia, with other colors reduced to a pastel blue. It’s actually quite pleasant; it’s like watching a blue-and-white movie with all the characters dressed in blue reading the train times chalked up on the blueboard.
Despite the occasional Soledad Canyon and Vasquez Rocks location (very nice) a lot is done in the studio, especially the train scenes. At one point a character gazes wistfully out at an interior sound stage and says, “That’s the real West out there”. Never mind.
They hide a whole train in a tunnel. There’s a nifty saloon song crooned by Kate, Love is Such a Funny Thing, and any amount of gunplay and gallopin’. You won’t be bored.
I thought it was a lot of fun.