Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Thunder Pass (Lippert, 1954)

 

A modest oater

 

Back in December 2022 on this blog we looked at the career of B-movie mogul Robert L Lippert (click the link for that), who since the late 1940s churned out a good number of low-budget oaters, especially for the less glamorous end of the market, movie theaters in smaller towns (many of which theaters he owned). “There’s still money to be made in the sticks,” as he put it.  Occasionally, despite the modest production values, there was a quite good (or at least interesting) one. One thinks of Samuel Fuller’s successful I Shot Jesse James in 1949 or the dark and tense cavalry Western Little Big Horn in 1951 (see our reviews in the index). By 1954, though, Lippert was winding down this side of his business. He knew that the B-movie’s days were numbered. Audiences were dwindling as TV provided a lot of that kind of entertainment free. He did a deal with Hammer Films in the UK. Hammer didn’t do Westerns and Bob concentrated on schlock sci-fi, horror and noir. There was only one Lippert oater in 1954, Thunder Pass.

 

When The Baron of Arizona had just come to Bob’s drive-ins

 

In many ways Thunder Pass was a classic Lippert Western, a 76-minute black & white job short enough to be a second feature, just about plausible as the main picture in a modest movie house, with very limited budget, directed by a bit of a hack (in this case Frank McDonald, who had made cheap Westerns for donkey’s years) and with a cast made up of young wannabes hoping to make their way up, or has-beens on their way down, or actors just ‘resting’, anyone, in fact, who would work for peanuts. The picture had a bit of Apple Valley and Bronson Canyon location shooting (it’s notionally set in Colorado) and was shot in twelve days.

 

 

It was written, rather clunkily, I fear, by Fred Eggers, Tom Hubbard (who appears as a soldier) and George van Marter. The screenplay embraces the cliché warmly.

 

Daily Variety in April ’54 announced that it was to star Wanda Hendrix, but in the end blonde Dorothy Patrick was the leading lady. She had had small parts in Singing in the Rain and Scaramouche but was hardly a big star. The cast was headed by Dane Clark, who had got jobs at Warners in the 1940s (where it was said that Humphrey Bogart gave him the name; he’d been Bernard Zanville till then). It was, Clark said, his ‘Joe Average’ image that got him his parts: “They don’t go much for the ‘pretty boy’ type [at Warner Brothers]. An average-looking guy like me has a chance to get someplace, to portray people the way they really are, without any frills.” By ’54 he was doing low-budgeters for the likes of Lippert. Honestly, the leads were slightly less than stellar.

 

Dane and Dorothy starred

 

The picture did have some old Westerns hands in supporting parts, though, notably third-billed and by then more than amply girthed Andy Devine, keeping his shtick in check, luckily, as the Army scout Injun, raised by the Sioux, and sinister John Carradine as the gun-running villain (as you know, selling guns to the Indians was a crime in Westerns situated on the scale of awfulness somewhere between cannibalism and matricide).

 

Andy played it low-key for once

 

Winchesters sold to the Indians. Oh no.

 

There were also two Rays as ornery gold miners, Ray Hatton as Ancient (born in 1887, he was a bit ancient by then) and Ray Burr, well pre-Perry Mason, as Tulsa. They are quite entertaining. In addition we get Nestor Paiva as a non-Mexican traveling peddler, quite Ed Begley-ish I thought. So there were some familiar faces. Trying to make a buck and earn some screen time, I guess.

 

Ray Hatton is Ancient

 

And Ray Burr is his pard

 

It’s 1876 and the usually warring Comanche and Kiowa have joined forces in an uneasy alliance to defeat the white eyes. That’s a powder keg waiting to explode, opines Injun. As was traditional in B-Westerns, there’s a statesmanlike chief ready to countenance peace and a firebrand brave all for the warpath. Which shall prevail? They are, for peace, Chief Growling Bear (William Wilkerson) and, for war, Black Eagle (Kenneth Alton).

 

Growling Bear and Black Eagle

 

The excitingly-named tough Captain Storm (Clark) has the task of rounding up any whites in the danger area and shepherding them thru a canyon, Thunder Pass, which all Indians shun, for superstitious reasons. The Cap’n knows of a tunnel which can get the whites to safety, you see.

 

These variegated whites are the glam rancheress Murdock (Patrick), the two aforementioned gold-diggers (Hatton & Burr), a family of three sodbusters (Paul McGuire as Charlie Hemp, Elizabeth Harrower as Mrs Hemp and Mart Ellen Kay as their flirtatious daughter Charity), as well as the traveling salesman Slaughter (Paiva). They are then joined by dark horse Bergstrom (Carradine) and, lastly, by a badly wounded fellow (Gordon Wynn) unable to speak to identify himself, who arrives on a stage that has been attacked. Could he be the bad egg who is supplying the Indians with all those brand new Winchesters? There are a couple of cases of the guns in the stage’s boot. Most of the party seem to think so, and are all for doing him in, but the decent captain won’t jump to any conclusions until the man can speak.

 

Who is that wounded man?

 

So, with a couple of comic corporals and a trooper or two, the party is quite large. Can they get through Thunder Pass to safety?

 

Probably.

 

But the flighty settler’s daughter Charity canoodles with the soldier on guard (Rick Vallin), somewhat distracting him, as it were, so that the Indians are able to make off with the party’s horses and the wagon containing those Winchesters. Oops. So now the whites are on foot – and the Indians found time to pollute their drinking water too. It’s going to be a grueling trek to get to Thunder Pass, especially carrying the injured man, as the captain insists they do.

 

Though I give my body to be burned, and have not Charity, it profiteth me nothing, the sentry probably reckons

 

Various members of the group are killed or wounded. There’s a droll bit when Charity tears her petticoat for bandages, her pa Charlie having been hit by an arrow, lifting her skirts to do so, much to the enjoyment of the troopers. The skirt gets quite high. Injun reckons that it’s a “good thing Charlie ain’t hurt any worse.”

 

It all leads to an action climax, a battle with the Indians. One trooper has been sent off to the fort to get help, so we confidently expect the US Cavalry to come galloping to the rescue at the last minute (this is a B-Western after all), but this one is a tad unusual in that the cavalry does arrive at the last min but it’s the horsemen of Growling Bear, who has decided to stick with the paleface peace plan and drive off the bellicose Black Eagle.

 

Peace after all in the last reel

 

In the last scene there’s some neat pairing off as a couple of the female whites decide to marry a couple of the brave good guys. The End.

 

Thunder Pass is no great Western, not at all. Having said that, it’s perfectly watchable as a B-movie. One review called it a “tedious tale, filled with forced Western dialogue that comes off as downright silly at times” but I didn’t think it was that bad.

 

 

Next time, another Dane Clark Western. I bet you can hardly wait.

 

 

2 Responses

  1. I have not seen Thunder Pass, but the supporting cast resonates well enough, so anything with Raymond Burr, Raymond Hatton, or Andy Devine works for me. Dorothy Patrick was capable and with luck could have done more, but perhaps not. As for Dane Clark, my heart goes out to him, and that is not good.

    1. I thought la Patrick not bad in this one, actually. And I rather agree on Devine, Burr and Hatton.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Comments
Labels