Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Law West of Tombstone (RKO, 1938)


Harry Carey rides again


In a deliberate allusion to ‘the law west of the Pecos’, in RKO’s 1938 picture The Law West of Tombstone, Harry Carey plays a Judge Roy Bean-like figure, a blowhard who dispenses ‘law’ from a saloon in Arizona. The picture also contains a sort-of Lily Langtry, a Billy the Kid-ish character, a vaguely Calamity Jane-like gal and some Clanton-esque lowlife ranchers. In fact the writers shoveled pretty well every stock character they could into the story, including simple-minded Indians who are easily hoodwinked. I’m afraid it’s actually pretty dire.


Those writers were John Twist with Clarence Upson Young, from an Upson Young novel. Twist would actually later write a quite similar RKO picture, Best of the Badmen in 1951, which would improbably feature Clantons, Youngers, Frank and Jesse James and Ringo all in one story, and he had also penned an oater titled West of the Pecos back in 1934. Upson Young would write the stories for a couple of Randolph Scott Westerns, including Badman’s Territory, another which combined famous outlaws in the same yarn, this time the James boys, the Daltons, Sam Bass and Belle Starr.


The Law West of Tombstone was directed by Glenn Tryon, pretty well a hack, I fear, and this was one of only two Westerns he helmed.


Tryon tried it on


Carey was of course one of the great figures of the Western movie, going right back to silent DW Griffith oaters in the 1910s, working a lot with Jack Ford, at Universal, where he was the biggest star Carl Laemmle had. Many of these pictures featured Carey as the character Cheyenne Harry. Carey also occasionally directed pictures himself. He made the change to sound very well, having, as the Wikipedia bio puts it, “an assured, gritty baritone voice that suited his rough-hewn screen personality”. His last Western was as Melville the cattle buyer in Howard Hawks’s Red River.


Cheyenne Harry


He does a good job as the boastful and blustering Judge Roy Bean-ish Bill Barker, or at least as good as the clunky script and stolid direction allowed, investing the character with a lot of energy and playing a ‘Wild West’ gun-totin’ windbag with gusto.


The plot is way too complex and it’s easy to get lost if you don’t concentrate and concentrating isn’t too easy because the film is bad. But it opens in 1881 in New York, where William ‘Bonanza Bill’ Barker has come with a bag of gold nuggets to persuade tycoon Sam Kent (Clarence Kolb) to invest in his (clearly very dubious) mining scheme. It turns out that Kent’s mistress, Clara Martinez (Evelyn Brent) is an ex-flame of Barker’s. The scheme flops and the nuggets turn out to be worthless. Later, Barker will set himself up as judge/sheriff in a town he will call Martinez in her honor, dispensing ‘justice’ from the Texas Rose Café.



Back In El Paso, Barker is deputized to bring in the young outlaw the Tonto Kid, played by Tim Holt, looking very boyish (but then he always did) in what is sometimes touted as his very first Western, though as a kid (an even younger kid) he’d been in a couple with his dad Jack in the 1920s. The Tonto Kid is one of those good badmen, on the wrong side of the law, OK, but charming and basically good. It is said that John Ford saw this film and cast Tim as the young lieutenant in Stagecoach the year after as a result.



On the way, Barker runs into his estranged daughter Nitta (Jean Rouverol who really ought to have been Jeanne) who is on her way to wed a rancher (Allan Lane, in his first proper Western role) but the Tonto Kid holds up the train she’s on and steals her engagement ring. Nothing daunted, she pulls a derringer (so that’s one-up for the movie) on the Kid to get her ring back.


Harry’s daughter


Tonto kills Nitta’s intended, who is apparently a skunk. There’s a monkey. Esther Muir plays Madame Mustache, leader of Bill’s dance hall girls. Paul Guilfoyle and Bob Kortman are the Clantons, I mean McQuinns. The local Indians, led by Chief Little Dog (‘Chief Thundercloud’, aka Victor Daniels and not terribly Indian) are particularly gullible and easily hoodwinked into giving up their land. Ward Bond is a Mexican whose accent often slips into Irish brogue. Roy and Buck Bucko are barflies. Charles Middleton is the newspaper editor. And so on. Really, the whole thing is a confused mess with too many characters.


Quite a bit was shot on the RKO Encino Ranch but there are too many fake studio ‘exteriors’. It all looks quite cheap.


It’s pretty well a comedy Western, or verging on one anyway, but much of the comedy falls flat on its face.


I’m sorry to say it, because I like Harry Carey, but this one is a dud.




4 Responses

  1. I could not disagree with you more, starting with your view of Glenn Tryon who as an actor has a place in Hollywood history. So does the cast, not just Harry and Tim, but Evelyn Brent and others.

  2. Maybe it was just the pleasure of seeing Harry Carey and Tim Holt in the same movie, but I enjoyed this one far more than you did. Either that or I’m getting undiscriminating in my old age.

    1. I agree, a good line-up. I did enjoy it.
      I rather think we get MORE discriminating as we age, not less, but maybe.

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