The second "Durango Kid" movie released to DVD by Columbia/TriStar Home Video, Bonanza Town (1951) was made near the end of that 65-feature film series' run, and is a singularly odd choice to release on DVD at this time. This reviewer enjoyed Blazing Across the Pecos, Columbia's previous Durango Kid release, but complained then that at $19.94 the short (54 minutes) film was overpriced and that Columbia, in its selection and marketing of the title, was blowing an opportunity to make the Durango Kid movies more attractive to consumers than they might. Bonanza Town, thankfully, is less expensive but the choice of this particular entry even more puzzling.
You'd think with 65 Durango Kid movies to choose from, Columbia's home video people would a) start at the beginning of the series to give viewers some background on the character; or maybe b) select the best and/or c) most popular entries. Bonanza Town, conversely, seems to have been chosen at random, or perhaps because its original negative was closest to the vault door. It's technically a direct sequel to an earlier entry, West of Dodge City (1947), and includes a great deal of footage from that film. Nonetheless, West of Dodge City doesn't appear to have even been released on VHS, let alone DVD. The result in an awkward and confusing viewing experience.
The Durango Kid movies are, obviously, nothing more or less than B-Westerns, but you'd think someone at Columbia would put, say, five minutes thought into choosing which films to release, and how to best market such products to consumers. I was told a story, probably true, about a home video decision maker at a major studio label who was asked why a particular film, a quite famous and acclaimed one, hadn't yet been released on DVD. The reply was that previous home video sales hadn't met expectations. But when it was explained that previous home video sales were exactly zero because the title had never been released to home video at all, in any format, the studio rep nodded as if such non-data thereby supported his decision.
Bonanza Town finds Steve Ramsey / the Durango Kid (Charles Starrett) working on behalf of the Treasury Department, on a mission to recover $30,000 stolen by Henry Hardison (Fred F. Sears, who also directed the picture**), with whom the Durango Kid had once tangled in River Bend. With the help of barber Smiley Burnette (Smiley Burnette), Durango soon learns that a local judge (Luther Crockett) has been dishing out injustice under orders from Hardison and local land baron Krag Boseman (Myron Healey), including the frame-up of an innocent man for the murder of a marshal actually shot dead by Hardison.
The entire middle third of the picture, some 20 minutes worth, consists of flashback footage narrated by the Durango Kid and detailing his previous battle with Hardison over the robbery of the River Bend Loan Co., and subsequent frame-up for that crime. Though Starrett, Burnette, and Sears appear in these stock scenes from West of Dodge City none of the actors exclusive to that footage is credited, nor is that film's director, Ray Nazarro. The use of all this old footage was purely budgetary -- Columbia at that time, in its B-Westerns, serials, and two-reel comedies shamelessly recycled footage, and its blatant practice here does neither Bonanza Town nor West of Dodge City any good. The new film stops dead for 20 twenty minutes, while the old scenes are so taken out of context as to become almost schematic.
The DVD, then, isn't likely to win any new Durango Kid fans; maybe if Columbia had released both films as a double feature it might have worked, but as a stand-alone title, under these circumstances, choosing Bonanza Town as only its second Durango Kid title seems downright perverse.
All this is a shame because based on Bonanza Town's new scenes and all of Blazing Across the Pecos (itself considered a lesser Durango Kid movie), star Charles Starrett clearly has a winning personality, and the films were fast-paced, Saturday matinee fun.
Bonanza Town's new scenes lean heavily on sidekick / comedy relief Smiley Burnette, who sings two novelty songs, both pretty good for such things: "Rooty-Toot" and "It All Goes to Show You," the latter performed with Harry "Slim" Duncan. As a comedian, Burnette is of much less interest. He's broadly unfunny in Bonanza Town, though in one scene gives a shave to none other than comedy veteran Vernon Dent, longtime foil of The Three Stooges, Larry Semon, Harry Langdon, and others.
Video & Audio
Bonanza Town is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio, in a very nice transfer with good grain and deep blacks. Except for some very minor speckling at the beginning, the image is near-flawless. As with Blazing Across the Pecos, the bit-rate is surely not an issue: the film runs just 56 minutes and has no subtitle options, alternate audio tracks, or Extra Features of any kind.
Parting Thought or: I Said It Before and I'll Say It Again Department
Columbia/TriStar Home Video: If you decide to release any more Durango Kid movies, why not save yourself embarrassments like this and release 'em as double features in chronological order, or maybe confer with B-Western historians and pick the best/most representative entries? It's great you're putting these titles out, and the pristine transfers are especially appreciated, but please put a little thought into the next batch, okay?
**Sears' credits as director include Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Don't Knock the Rock (both 1956), and the gloriously funny The Giant Claw (1957).
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.