Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Return of Wildfire (Screen Guild, 1948)


Yet another capture-the-wild-stallion Western


Maker of low-budget fare Robert Lippert made the first film for his company Screen Guild in 1945. It was a capture-the-wild-stallion yarn called Wildfire (click the link for our review) starring Bob Steele. He followed that up with two more wild-horse pics in 1948, The Return of Wildfire, the subject of this review, released in May, and then Last of the Wild Horses, click for that, December, which in fact he started directing himself but fell rapidly behind schedule and fired himself, Paul Landres taking over. And something similar happened on The Return of Wildfire: director Ray Taylor didn’t shoot enough footage and editor Landres came in to make enough to fill the flick out to its 83 minutes. Landres didn’t get the credit on either, though.


Bob Lippert made it


Lippert had his stock company of actors, Reed Hadley, James Millican and Mary Beth Hughes featuring often and with several other regulars too. But the cast of The Return was led by Richard Arlen, who would return for Lippert, and many of the other regulars, on Grand Canyon in 1949, which, you will doubtless be utterly entranced to hear, shall be the subject of a forthcoming review on Jeff Arnold’s West.


Arlen was of course a movie vet. He’d got a job at Paramount in the silent days when he crashed his motorcycle into the studio gates, breaking a leg, and the execs thought he was rather handsome and full of vim, paid for his medical expenses and gave him a contract. He made a good impression in William A Wellman’s Oscared epic Wings (he’d been a pilot in the Royal Canadian Flying Corps) and was Steve in the 1929 The Virginian. He then topped the billing in quite a few 1930s oaters, including the 1930 version of The Light of Western Stars. Later in the 1930s and thru the 40s his career waned a bit and he started doing low- and mid-budget action films. He was Buffalo Bill in a 1947 Screen Guild programmer Buffalo Bill Rides Again. By the end of the 1940s, though, Arlen was becoming deaf and that seemed to signal the end of his career. However, he had an operation in 1949 that restored his hearing and he went on to make a handful of adventures and Westerns through the 1950s and well into the 1960s – for example those 60s ‘geezer Westerns’ for producer AC Lyles who worked with the old stars making 50s-style oaters. He was actually pretty good in The Return of Wildfire, I thought.


Dick topped the bill


Lippert had splashed out for the original Wildfire by making it in Cinecolor but his later pictures proudly boasted of being in Sepiatone (brown and white, basically) and The Return was one such. Still, it’s decently shot by Ernie Miller, with quite a few Vasquez Rocks locations, not bad at all.




The movie was produced and co-written by Carl K Hittleman, about whom I have talked before. Here suffice to say he worked a lot with Lippert though is probably best known for those high-art epics Billy the Kid versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (see our reviews if you really must).


Carl produced and co-wrote


The story of The Return is actually quite similar to that of the original, with skullduggery aplenty. As I said in my review of Wildfire, the plot is one of the oldest going, the capture-the-wild-stallion wheeze. I don’t know how many times it’s been done – dozens, certainly. For some reason, no one can stand to see a splendid horse running free. As soon as they spot one, their first instinct is to rope the poor beast, and ‘break’ it – or even shoot it! It offends them to see the creature running wild, with no saddle or bridle on it. I was always, as a boy, on the side of the horse and wanted it to get away from the pesky humans, and I still am.


The skullduggers in this one are led by Reed Hadley, naturally. You can tell in the first microsecond from his thin mustache that he’s a wrong ‘un. He is Quinn, the saloon owner (why are Western villains so often saloon owners?) and he has a nefarious scheme to buy up all the horses in the area at a high price so that he can control the market. I don’t think this plan was based on sound economics really but it would do for the largely juvenile audience.


That’s Reed and his henchman on the right


Of course he has a thuggish henchman. They were obligatory for smoothy saloon owners. This one is Dirk, played by habitual heavy Mike Ragan.


Also in cahoots with the saloon man (no other word will do than cahoots) is local ranch foreman Frank Keller (James Millican), who is heavily in debt to Quinn because (a) he is a lousy gambler, (b) Quinn’s card games are crooked, and (c) Kelly’s much too ready to give an IOU. To clear his debt, Keller agrees to do the dirty on his boss, local rancher Pop Marlowe (good old Stanley Andrews) and get Marlowe’s horses into Quinn’s unscrupulous hands. “I want those horses,” says Quinn, “and I don’t care how I do it.” Keller isn’t an out-and-out villain, though (not yet anyway) and Millican handles the wavering and doubts quite well.


Millican is sweet on Mary Beth but it won’t last…


Pop has two daughters, Pat and Judy. Pat is the older one and rather maternal to the young Judy, who is somewhat flirty and flighty. Brunette Pat is played by Patricia Morison, “lovely and exotic with Rapunzel-like long, dark hair,” as the IMDb bio puts it.  She was a noted singer (the same year as The Return she got the lead in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate), and in fact she is awarded a couple of songs in The Return, notably Just an Old Sombrero, which she sings in her operetta soprano. Blonde Judy is played by Lippert/Hittleman stalwart Mary Beth Hughes, a night-club singer who did 15 feature Westerns and quite a few episodes of Western TV shows, and even got top billing over George Montgomery in The Cowboy and the Blonde in 1941, wow.


Decisions, decisions.


Now there appears a rider, Dobe Williams (Arlen of course). He’s a drifter and he says he was born on a stagecoach, and moving about the West is in his blood. He starts by helping Judy, who has fallen from her horse and hurt her ankle, you know how they do, and he takes her back to the ranch where he is hired by the grateful Pop. Of course the question is immediately posed, which of these glam dames will he fall for? Racy Judy or more mature Pat? He will be seen kissing both, invoking inter-sororal jealousy, but he will find last-reel happiness with one of them.


Oh, Chris-Pin Martin is an English-mangling ranch hand (not a bar tender, for once) so we get a bit of comic relief.


Chris-Pin not a barman for once


Now, that lowdown foreman Kelly biffs Pop over the head and fixes it that the horse herd runs over him as well. So it’s RIP, Pop. Next he gets to work on Judy, to persuade her to sell the horses to Quinn, which her dad would never do. Such villainy.


Both sides now wish to kill Wildfire, as he’s interfering with the horse sale, and Quinn finally gets him with a Winchester, the swine. But Dobe examines the fallen beast and pronounces, in deathless dialogue, “It’s only a flesh wound.” Phew.


Well, I won’t go into all the ins and outs of the plot. But there’s a good deal of galloping about, fisticuffs, shootin’ and all. They use that speeded-up film technique to move things along rapidly, which always looks a bit silly. Full marks to directors Taylor and Landres, though, because the movie nips right along. It all climaxes in a one-on-one showdown in the rocks, not quite Naked Spur or Winchester ’73 quality but not bad either. You may guess who wins.


Altogether, it was a rather satisfactory B-Western, of the old school. Variety even said it was “beautifully lensed…has been given twists that lift it above the usual Western film fare.” Gosh. Should it cross your path, you could def watch it. You can get it on a double-feature DVD with Last of the Wild Horses. An investment, I’d say.



By the way, Wildfire is played by Highland Dale, whose biggest role was Black Beauty in the 1946 version.



2 Responses

  1. I have both The Return of Wildfire and Last of The Wild Horses, and I more than like Arlen and Jimmy Ellison. other than this pair my thought is to pass on anything that has Lippert’s name, and I do know there are one or two interesting items in that mix. Arlen was always welcome even in support, such as Warlock. Ellison I applaud for building Ellison Way and coining dough. Bravo Jeff.

    1. I like Arlen too. He was good in the West, I think. I agree that many Lippert pictures were pretty standard low-budget fare but every now and then there was one which had something.

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