"Stardust on the Sage" is one of six movies Gene Autry churned out in 1942 alone - a slow year for the singing cowboy at the height of his popularity. The formula here is familiar: once again, Gene plays himself and Smiley Burnette plays comic relief Frog Millhouse. There's singin', fightin', thrills and laughter, the whole mix. At a quick 64 minutes, it's complete, compact entertainment, Autry-style.
The story sounds a bit ridiculous in its slightness. Gene and Frog stroll into town and get tangled up in some business about mine stocks, and, well, that's about it. But for all its seeming emptiness, there's actually quite a lot here to keep on not only watching, but watching with a big ol' smile.
That's mainly thanks to the lighthearted nature of the entire project, which puts forth more effort to please than most A-level pictures. We get a villain who's fun to boo and hiss, a leading lady with plenty of charm, a couple of action scenes that honestly thrill, and then the whole thing wraps up with a sing-along to Autry's greatest hits, with lyrics right there on the screen so we, too, can warble along to "Deep in the Heart of Texas."
It's just good natured fun. Consider the scene midway through the picture in which Gene discovers he's been bamboozled, with means-well-but-does-wrong radio announcer Nancy (the lovely Louise Currie) making it seem as though Gene recommends buying up plenty of stock in a mine that's financially shaky. The townsfolk go nuts and purchase plenty of shares, but the stock's no good - the owner desperately need the cash to pay off gambling debts. What does Autry do? Why, he's kind enough to figure throwing the guy in prison won't help the town, so instead, he's going to have to set out and make sure the mine really does pull in a profit.
That's the sort of nice-guy magic "Stardust" has. It takes a paper-thin story about embezzlement and mining stocks and turns it into breezy amusement you can't stop watching. The screenplay (from Autry veteran Betty Burbridge, from a story by Dorrell McGowan and Stuart McGowan) is smart enough to lay it on thick with the comedy, the musical interludes, and the action (a couple of no-good city slickers aim to sabotage the mine's success, danger ensues), and the cast is engaging enough that we get involved with their little story far more than we would in most other B movies.
Once again, Image truly shines with its "Gene Autry Collection," showcasing sparkling restorations of Autry favorites, courtesy the Autry Foundation and the cable channel Starz Westerns. For this release, "Stardust on the Sage" has been restored to its original 65 minute running time.
The transfers in this collection are knockouts, and "Stardust" is no exception. Aside from the occasional stubborn print scratch or debris, the picture (presented here in the original 1.33:1 format) is remarkably clear and wonderfully crisp. The clarity of the black-and-white photography is on par with major studio releases, and in some scenes even better.
The original mono soundtrack gets the Dolby treatment, and the restoration is astounding. I didn't notice a single pop, hiss, or other distortion. The dialogue comes in wonderfully, the music even more so. No subtitles are provided.
In the late 1980s, the Nashville Network (remember them?) ran Autry classics under the "Melody Ranch Theater" banner, hosted by Autry himself, along with old pal Pat Buttram. For this disc, we get the complete set of host segments (14 minutes in all) from the 1988 airing of "Stardust on the Sage." It's about as laid back as you can get, just a couple of friends sitting around, reminiscing about old times. The anecdotes here are every bit as delightful as the movie itself. (Note: a large "Gene Autry Entertainment" watermark appears throughout in the bottom right corner. A minor nuisance.)
For vintage Autry, we get 45 minutes of the original "Melody Ranch Radio Show." The classic series plays out over production photos, posters, and stills from the film.
The collections of production and publicity stills, advertising art, and production reports (presented in three separate slideshows) is quite in-depth, so much so that we even get to look at the contracts drawn up for the cast.
A few pages of on-screen text provide us with some nifty trivia about the movie. Also included is information on a couple of Autry-related websites.
If only all vintage programmers could get DVD treatment like this. The main attraction is mighty fun, its restoration is first class, and the supplementals really do supplement. It's dandy entertainment as only Autry could deliver. Highly Recommended.
For more on this DVD series, check out DVD Talk's reviews of other Gene Autry Collection releases.