About the only people watching Gene Autry movies today are hardcore fans of B-Westerns, but back in the late-1930s and early-'40s Autry was a Top Ten box office star, at various times ranking higher than the likes of Bette Davis, Judy Garland, and Gary Cooper. Even among Western genre fans, the names Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers carry little weight; many Western movie fans refuse to even sample their films, rigidly sticking to A-list genre classics by Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah, and Leone. It's their loss.
B-Westerns have their own particular charm, and though usually adamant in adhering to established formulae, the best ones are solidly-made, highly enjoyable movies by any measure. Sunset in Wyoming (1941) is a typically fine Gene Autry Western that sticks to its finely-tuned mixture of song, adventure, low-brow comedy and B-movie spectacle. The Searchers it ain't, but viewed in the right frame of mind Sunset in Wyoming can be enormous fun, and the group effort to restore the film and supplement it with a truckload of extra features make this an especially enticing DVD.
It's loggers vs. ranchers when the Wentworth Lumber Company strips Mt. Warner bare, leaving the ranchers in the valley below susceptible to ruinous flooding with rainwater running uncontrollably down the mountainside. The angry ranchers, led by Jim Hayes (Monte Blue), are ready to lynch the lumber company's ruthless manager, Bull Wilson (Stanley Blystone), but Gene Autry (Gene Autry) intercedes. Reluctantly, Hayes agrees to let Autry try to resolve the conflict.
Accompanied by dopey sidekick Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette), Autry is a fish out of water amidst Wyoming society (Wyoming society?), who live in palatial estates and hang out at swanky country clubs. (Much of this footage was actually shot in and around Pasadena, California.) They find a surprising ally in Asa Wentworth, the lumber company's founder, who ceded most of his power to his headstrong, snobbish granddaughter, Billie (Maris Wrixon) and her fiance, slimy general manager Larry Drew (Robert Kent). "Gramps" Asa doesn't think much of Larry, and decides to help Gene surreptitiously.
As was common to most of Autry's and Roy Rogers' Republic Westerns (as opposed to the Hopalong Cassidy films released through Paramount and United Artists), Sunset in Wyoming is set in the Old West of the 1940s, where cowboys ride horses and wear six-shooters and gunbelts out on the trail, but drive Buicks on modern highways for longer trips. And like several of Gene's films from this period (such as Rancho Grande), rich, lazy snobs are unflatteringly contrasted with Gene and Smiley's unpretentious, plain-talkin' cowpokes. Watching Autry put these wealthy bores in their place must've been a real crowd-pleaser as the audience for this kind of film felt they had a lot more in common with Gene Autry than Larry Drew.
Sunset in Wyoming is a bit surprising today for its pro-conservation / anti-deforestation stand. A number of Autry's films from this period seem to have had a bit of a New Deal or pro-conservation spin, but they were still ultimately Bs that merely used these timely issues from which to hang their stories.
The songs are pleasant, with "Sing Me a Song of the Saddle" a standout, and Howard and Theodore Lydecker contribute some nifty special miniature effects near the end. The cast includes many familiar faces, including Dick Elliott, Sarah Edwards and, uncredited, Earle Hodgins and Gino Corrado.
Video & Audio
Sunset in Wyoming is presented in its original 67-minute cut via source material that's in good shape if far short of perfection. Many of Republic Pictures' original camera negatives from this period don't appear to have survived, and that may be the case with Sunset in Wyoming as well. Still, the image looks far superior than many other Republic titles from the early-1940s and shows signs of having been clean-up considerably during the restoration phase, a joint effort between Autry Entertainment and the Autry Museum, the UCLA Film & Television Archives, The Western Channel, and RPG. The English mono sound is also clean and clear; there are no subtitle options.
Gene Autry Entertainment has done yet another knock-out job not only with the film's restoration but also in packing this disc with great extra features. First up is Reminiscing with Gene Autry and Pat Buttram at the Melody Ranch Theater is a charming 12-minute segment, wraparound bits that accompanied the film when it ran on the Nashville Network in 1987. Gene and Pat (Smiley Burnette's replacement on TV's The Gene Autry Show) are awfully old and Gene's voice is sadly rather frail, but they seem to be enjoying themselves, and some of their anecdotes are amusing.
Don't Touch That Dial! Gene Autry is On the Air is a 24-minute episode of radio's "Doublemint Gene Autry Show" that originally aired on August 3, 1941. In a nice surprise, the radio show is presented over animated ad art and stills from the movie, giving the viewing something to look at while the show unfolds.
The Production and Publicity Stills, Poster Art and Lobby Cards, Original Press Kit, and Daily Production Reports are a gold mine of the kind of great archival material one wishes labels like Warner Home Video would include on its classic movie DVDs all the time.
The late low-budget movie producer and die-hard Gene Autry fan Alex Gordon provides Trivia and Movie Facts about the film, which in this case consists mostly of short bios of various cast members.
Both the movie and the DVD of Sunset in Wyoming and all its special features will delight Gene Autry fans while those willing to give this long disreputable genre a try probably will find much to like. Highly Recommended.
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.