In his final case Dr. Ordway (Warner Baxter) attempts to solve a murder in a highly interesting place: a sort of call-in jukebox where bar customers may request a particular record to be played. (The same gimmick, incidentally, used in the 1945 Republic serial "Federal Operator 99.") Although Baxter looks near exhausted (the veteran actor died less than 2 years later), the whodunit zips along nicely and the solution to the puzzle is not telegraphed too far in advance. Acting honors this time go to Whit Bissell as a slightly demented song-writer and, especially, future Miss Moneypenny of 007 fame, Lois Maxwell, as the decidedly active ingénue. Based on a popular radio show by Max Marcin, the 1943-1949 "Crime Doctor" thrillers were typical of series-happy Columbia, produced with economy but generally well-written and peopled by the studio's great (and very busy) stock company.
Law of the Rio Grande (1931)Bob Custer at Syndicate
20 December 2004
If nothing else, "Law of the Rio Grande" demonstrates what you could buy for a couple of bucks and a box lunch back in 1931. There is certainly no lack of saloon extras or henchmen in this low budget affair from Syndicate Pictures, a forerunner of sorts of Monogram, niceties that would become prohibitive later in the decade. The cast is familiar and mostly made up of silent screen actors now down on their luck. It is not that Bob Custer and the others were necessarily terrible performers, but they were audibly unfamiliar with dialog and obviously received no help from a direction steeped in silent era film-making. The surviving print of "Law of the Rio Grande" is rather grim in places, a fact that adds to the overall ennui of the too-familiar story. Mark this down as an interesting piece of independent film-making in an era of transition.
The Law Commands (1937)A Crescent Picture!
19 December 2004
Produced by E.B. Derr, a former adviser to Joseph P. Kennedy, the Low-budget Crescent Pictures productions starring Tom Keene were not advertised so much as Westerns but as historical adventure yarns. "The Law Commands," however, is the usually sagebrush tale of an upstanding citizen battling a criminal protection syndicate in Iowa at the time of statehood. As such, it isn't half bad and the surviving print remains watchable if slightly on the scratchy side. Of interest to B-Western fans is a large role for good old Horace B. Carpenter, a character star for Cecil DeMille in the 1910s who was offered mostly one-line bits in the talkie era. Always a bit of a ham, Horace chews the scenery with abandon here as well as the head of the local farmers cheated out of their land by greedy Robert Fiske. Budd Buster plays the comic sidekick role in ersatz Gabby Hayes style and Tom Keene is his usual stoic self. The leading lady, Lorraine Hayes, was the sister of B-Movie femme fatale Bernadene Hayes and not, as some sources suggest, the future Laraine Day.
Pioneers of the West (1927)Dick Carter and the Pony Express
15 December 2004
Who, you may be asking yourself, is Dick Carter? Truth be told, no one really knows but he may in fact be one William Mix, the producer of this little silent western. But who, pray tell, is William Mix? "Pioneers of the West" was directed by Marcel Perez, a Frenchman and a former slapstick comedy star, and penned by Mrs. Perez, one Dorothy Earle. It is not bad as far as low-budget silent westerns go, and although neither Mr. Carter nor Miss Earle seems to have possessed much in the way of acting ability, they are rescued at the finishing line by that big-nosed prairie femme fatale Gene Crosby and the ever-popular Bud Osborne. The surviving print is not very good, needless to say, but, then again, "Pioneers of the West," which appears to have been made in the very early 1920s rather than the official release date of 1927, probably wasn't all that great to begin with.
The White Outlaw (1929)Dusty Trails
14 December 2004
THE WHITE OUTLAW is the kind of quickly thrown together silent western where they never watered down the trails with the result that horses and riders disappear in huge clouds of dust. It is also the kind of film where the interior of a rather large saloon doesn't exactly resemble the exterior, which is a mere shack, where the heroine is especially dowdy-looking, and where the director (in this case the famous one-legged Bob Horner) takes time out to photograph the antics of an annoying and completely superfluous child actress. That aside, this is also one of the few chances to see a genuine silent cowboy star, Art Acord, shortly before hard living finally killed him; and it is definitely the ONLY chance to see Acord with two lesser cowboy heroes, Bill Patton and Al Hoxie. The latter always denied ever having worked with Acord, and his footage is probably lifted from another movie altogether. Which is again typical of the kind of slipshod rural film-making that produced westerns like THE WHITE OUTLAW.
Ambush Valley (1936)A Reliable Picture!
12 December 2004
You get two former silent screen stars for the price of one with this ultra low-budget Reliable Western (three if you count that Jack-of-all-trades Denver Dixon, whose name is misspelled "Dickson" in the credits). But while Wally Wales, here playing a beleaguered nester, went on to become a busy character player under the name of Hal Taliaferro, the overly stoic Bob Custer failed to appeal to sound audiences and his three Reliable Westerns proved the end of a starring career begun back in 1924. Custer is his wooden cigar store Indian self in Ambush Valley but is of course given less than stellar material by director Franklyn Shamray, who is actually producer Bernard B. Ray in disguise. That Ambush Valley remains as entertaining as it is depends solely on the supporting cast, especially mustachioed Eddie Phillips as one of those wastrel sons endemic to melodramas like this, and Vane Calvert as the redoubtable Mr. Wales' vengeful maw. Founded in 1934 by movie pioneers Bernard B. Ray and Harry S. Webb, small-scale Reliable Pictures Corp. issued a total of 45 films during its 3½-year existence, including five 2-reel "Bud'n Ben" Westerns. The studio was located at Sunset Blvd. and Beachwood Dr. in Hollywood and later became home to the Three Stooges and the Columbia short subject department. It remains a rental facility to this day.
Love's Prisoner (1919)A typical silent programmer
11 December 2004
Is "Love's Prisoner" the newly discovered classic that some romantic silent film fans would like you to believe? Why, far from it. Rather, this commonplace crook melodrama starring the already waning Olive Thomas remains a perfect example why the once so proud Triangle Film Corp. dismantled its talent roster and sold all physical assets to Sam Goldwyn mere months after it was released in June of 1919. Here's the downtrodden Olive with a father in prison and two younger sisters to care for. She obtains a job hawking cocoa in a drugstore but before you can say "gold digger" she nabs herself a titled gentleman who obligingly leaves her a wealthy widow. Then she remembers how the other half lives and decides to play Robin Hood. Does she fall in love with the detective (Joe King) assigned to hunt her down? We don't really know; "Love's Prisoner" survives sans the final reel. But bad melodrama being what it is, she probably does. Of course, anything with the star-crossed Olive Thomas has a certain historic value -- even if she appears far from the raving beauty of legend -- but "Love's Prisoner" is hopefully not a typical example of the lady's cinematic oeuvre.