Though a bit short on action, Rancho Grande (1940) has all the ingredients of a typical Gene Autry Western and this Image Entertainment release, like their other Autry titles, is a superbly packaged DVD with Criterion-like extras accompanying a lovingly-restored feature film. The stories, settings, and comedy relief in these singing Westerns may bemuse audiences today, but in the years leading up to World War II (when Autry became a flight officer in the Air Transport Command) no Western movie star was more popular than Gene.
Rancho Grande rigidly follows genre conventions. The cowboys and other hands at the sprawling Rancho Grande, including foreman Gene Autry (Gene Autry), are dismayed to learn that the two adult children who have inherited the property from their late grandfather - Kay Dodge (June Storey) and her brother, Tom (Dick Hogan) - are immature, spoiled brats from the Big City. They're condescending toward Gene, sidekick Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette), and the other cowboys, and are mainly interested in turning Rancho Grande into Party Central. Only Kay and Tom's gregarious kid sister Patsy (Mary Lee) arrives with the proper attitude.
Worse, Rancho Grande is in dire financial straits with the Citrus Valley Association, which stands ready to foreclose on the $500,000 property should Gene and his men fail to finish an irrigation system that the grandfather had guaranteed by a date now looming before them. And as if they weren't under enough pressure already, attorney Emory Benson (Ferris Taylor), though officially representing the grandfather's estate, is secretly conspiring against the Dodges in an effort to steal their land.
Rancho Grande is very much a B-Western in the Republic Pictures mold, with the usual mix of pleasant songs, low-brow comedy (courtesy Smiley Burnette), a barroom brawl, elaborate miniature effects by Howard and Theodore Lydecker that were a Republic mainstay, all in a Taming of the Shrew-type story popular among B-Western screenwriters with a happy resolution that was never in any doubt.
Its main shortcoming is that it succeeds only too well at making Kay and Tom so thoroughly unlikable that by the time they finally come to their senses and start behaving responsibly, you'll still want to slap 'em. (Mild Spoiler Ahead) When Gene and Kay embrace at the end, it almost comes as a shock: nothing that preceded their fade-out clinch hinted at anything more than tenuous tolerance of one another, let alone romance.
For the uninitiated, Gene Autry's Western Universe might seem rather, well, peculiar. In the majority of both Gene's and Roy Rogers' Westerns, the Old West of the 19th century happily coexists with that of 1930s/40s America: Gene, Froggy, and the other cowboys wear gunbelts and six-shooters and ride around on horseback and buckboards, while others (usually city-folk) drive late-model sedans with rumble seats. (These films contrasted sharply with rival William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd's films, which were "real" Westerns with authentic period settings.)
The story, as Variety might have put it, is "sheer hokum," but the cast, especially sunny Mary Lee, is appealing, and while Gene never had the charisma or athleticism of other cowboy stars, his songs, many an American institution, more than compensate.
Video & Audio
An endless source of frustration for fans of B-Westerns, particularly in this high-tech home video age of ours, is that vast numbers of these films have fallen into public domain, and the only way to see certain films is via awful-looking PD discs. Many of Republic's films fall into this category, including a large number of Roy Rogers Westerns.
Fortunately, the huge assets of Gene Autry's estate have ensured that at least some of Gene's films are being restored and preserved for future generations. (Note: This is the complete, 67-minute original release version of the picture.) Compared to most Republic's films from this period, Rancho Grande looks almost brand-new. There's one reel that seems very slightly dupey (as are the opening titles) and its English mono sound is a teensy bit wobbly here, but overall the presentation is outstanding, near-pristine throughout, with superb blacks and sharpness and grain. There are no subtitle options, alas.
Like all the Autry titles in Image's long-running series, Rancho Grande is fairly packed with an impressive array of supplements. Reminiscing with Gene Autry and Pat Buttram at the Melody Ranch Theater is a 12-minute segment, wraparound bits that accompanied the film when it ran on the Nashville Network in 1987. Gene and Pat (Burnette's replacement on The Gene Autry Show) talk about the film a bit, its cast, and eventually have an interesting conversation about on-set accidents. As neither was really experienced at this kind of chat show, they run out of things to say about a minute before the end and, charmingly, have to wing it: "Well you know, Gene, you were a pretty good actor." "Well, Pat - you were pretty good yourself." "Yes, well. But you were pretty good, too, Gene."
Don't Touch That Dial! Gene Autry is On the Air is a 30-minute episode of radio's "Doublemint Gene Autry Show" that originally aired on May 19, 1940 and features June Storey plugging the film.
Unlike most such features, Rancho Grande's Production and Publicity Still are really worth a look, with lots of great images. More great stuff can be found in the Poster Art and Lobby Cards section, and the Original Press Kit.
Even better is the selection of Production Reports, the kind of behind-the-scenes info even big labels like Warner Bros. are loathe to include with their classic titles. The late producer, movie buff, and die-hard Gene Autry fan Alex Gordon (Day the World Ended, Bride of the Monster) provides Trivia and Movie Facts and there also links to the Official Gene Autry Website and the Autry Museum.
B-Westerns can be an enormous source of fun if you can adjust your expectations from those of the A-Westerns of Ford, Hawks, and others. The Hopalong Cassidys, owing to their classicalism, are a good route to transition into this world, as the resolutely B-Western/singing cowboy films of Gene Autry are definitely an acquired taste and take some getting used to. Ultimately though, these great-looking DVDs have much to recommend them, and Gene Autry's movies are still entertaining audiences today.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.