Give Jim Warren a try
As we were saying when talking recently about the Westerns made by RKO (click the link for those pearls of wisdom), the studio made a series of one-hour programmer oaters in the 1930s starring George O’Brien and then in 1940 Tim Holt took over. Holt later recalled, “I believe George O’Brien quit over money so RKO needed another Western star and I was put forward.” With his boyish good looks and charming personality on the screen, he became one of the top Western stars of the early 1940s. But in 1943 Holt went off for war service and RKO decided to replace him with one of its other young stars, who had been serving time in Hopalong Cassidy oaters, Robert Mitchum, who did two of these pictures, Nevada (1944) and West of the Pecos (1945). But then Mitchum too was put in uniform – kind of, he starred in GI Joe – and moved on to higher things. RKO looked around for another young screen cowboy.
James Warren, just in his early 30s at the time, had been an artist, illustrating the slicks in New York. He was tall, handsome and rode well, and he tried hard for a Gary Cooper look. MGM gave him small parts in this and that but it didn’t go anywhere. However, RKO liked what they saw and decided to give him a try in its Westerns. He made three, Wanderer of the Wasteland being the first, and they also gave him a decent part in a Randolph Scott picture, Badman’s Territory, but the reception was lukewarm and RKO dropped him as Western lead. B-Westerns were in any case in decline (and so was RKO, in fact). He got small parts in a few non-Westerns in the early 50s but after the sci fi/adventure Port Sinister in 1953 he retired to Hawaii where he devoted himself to his painting. Vincent Price was a collector of his works and Katharine Hepburn bought some too.
Wanderer of the Wasteland was a 1923 Zane Grey tale, said by some to be a thinly disguised autobiography, although Grey might have been surprised to see what RKO made of it. Norman Huston, a regular Hopalong writer, did the screenplay from the Grey novel. It had already been made as a silent in 1924 with Jack Holt and a talkie in 1935 with Dean Jagger.
The picture was produced by Sid Rogell, who had made those Mitchum Westerns and deserves plaudits for the superb Blood on the Moon in 1948, and Herman Schlom, who worked on many of the Tim Holt ones. Wanderer had two directors, I don’t know why, Wallace Grissell, who helmed some of the Holt oaters, and Edward Killy, who also directed Holt Westerns as well as the Mitchum ‘Holt’ ones.
All these behind-the-scenes guys were pros, if not necessarily great artists.
Mojave, 1880. An Irish sheepherder with his Mexican wife and their young son come across another lad, Adam, and then they find Adam’s pa, slain, all his money stolen. There’s a dead horse on the scene, with a distinctive brand, a J in a crescent C. Young Adam is adopted by the Rafferty family (for yes, it is a young Chito and his parents; we are getting Chito Jose Gonzalez Bustamante Rafferty’s backstory) but vows revenge on the one who killed his dad, however long it may take.
Ten years later, and Chito is now Richard Martin (who had cheerfully sidekicked Tim and Bob without noticing that their appearance had changed and now was just as ready to sidekick Jim) and the boy Adam is grown to be James Warren.
All sorts of plot developments ensure that Adam will indeed find the assassin but not before he and Chito have crossed swords (or six-guns anyway) with a certain Jay Collinshaw (whose initials are significant), played by Robert Clarke, during one of those trad scenes where people shoot at the feet of men in a saloon to make them dance. Said Jay has a glam sis, of course, and she too is a JC for her name is Jeanie, and it’s Audrey Long, whom you will doubtless remember as Rod Cameron’s love interest in Cavalry Scout and George Montgomery’s in Indian Uprising.
These siblings have an uncle in a wheelchair (now however did he get that injury?) who is owner of the Crescent J, Uncle Jim (Robert Barrat) and the ranch foreman, Eliott (Harry Woods) has a pencil mustache and will certainly prove to be a villain, which he duly does. In fact he is in cahoots with a crooked dealer in the saloon (none other than Jason Robards Sr) in a plot to swindle that young no-good Jay out of his family fortune.
The plot certainly thickened.
There’s some nice black & white photography by Harry J Wild, who had started as one of the very many cameramen on the land rush scene in RKO’s Cimarron in 1931, of Lone Pine locations. It’s a good-looking picture.
A lot of people have to leave rooms hastily by the window, which is always hard to do without looking ridiculous.
Anyway, it all comes out fine and naturally Adam will win the fair Jeanie.