It's cowboys vs. gangsters, ranch hands vs. city slickers in "Call of the Canyon," one of the last films made by Gene Autry before he shipped off to fight in World War II.
"Canyon" is, as all Autry films are, notably simple, yet its simplicity paves the way for grand entertainment. Here, Gene (playing himself, as always) tries to straighten out some problem at a local packing company - a slickster named McCoy (Edmund MacDonald) starts by fleecing some cattlemen, and ends by attempting to sabotage a cattle drive. Meanwhile, "Kit" Carson (Ruth Terry) rents out Gene's ranch in hopes of getting a music show on the radio, and if her band (Roy Roger's own Sons of the Pioneers, although Rogers himself had left the group by this point and is not in the film) needs to switch to cowboy music to do so, then fine by her.
In typical Autry fashion, the movie offers up a mix of thrills, drama, comedy, and plenty of songs. (Heck, the whole thing wraps up with a medley of hits, including a swing dance number.) "Canyon" packs on the action more than his other musicals of the time, and the result is a doozy of popcorn excitement. Director Joseph Santley (Autry's "Melody Ranch") stages the action scenes quite well; as Autry's films took place in the (then-) present and not the Old West, there's a mix of technologies, and Santley finds the right balance between old fashioned oater and modern adventure. Stampedes and automobiles both manage to work in the story's favor, while, in a gambit that will make fans of "The Sting" grin, radio plays a key role in outwitting the baddies.
As for Autry himself, he's such a dynamic presence (despite an aw-shucks sensibility) that he alone could carry the picture. Of course, he gets plenty of help anyway: Smiley Burnette returns as Frog Millhouse, here spending much of his time with a look-alike junior version, Tadpole (Joe Strauch, Jr.); Thurston Hall earns laughs and cheers as the bombastic (yet kindly) packing mogul; MacDonald and his cohorts make for hissable villains; and Terry turns on the charisma in the female leading role.
Put it all together, and "Call of the Canyon" is one of those movies you can watch on a lazy weekend afternoon and get instant smiles. It's casual entertainment that gives you just a little of everything you want.
It seems that Image can do no wrong with its "Gene Autry Collection," which offers up dynamite restorations of Autry classics, courtesy the Autry Foundation and the cable channel Starz Westerns. For this release, "Call of the Canyon" has been restored to its original 71 minute running time.
The restoration of "Canyon" isn't quite up to par with some of the other Autry Collection releases - the image is a bit softer (mainly in the outdoor scenes), and there are a few print warbles (namely, some shimmering here and there, and, in one scene, a lens flare) that seem inherent to the photography itself and therefore unfixable. Even so, "Canyon" looks pretty darn impressive, with many shots coming through in commendable clarity. Presented in the film's original 1.33:1 format.
The original mono soundtrack, here in Dolby, is top notch all the way, free of the slightest of distortions. Low budget oldies aren't supposed to sound this good. 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 (12 minutes in all) from the 1987 airing of "Call of the Canyon." 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. In the industry, they call them "bugs." Because they bug you, apparently.)
For vintage Autry, we get 29 minutes of the original "Melody Ranch Radio Show," sponsored by Doublemint Gum. This 1942 episode, featuring "Sgt. Autry," plays out over production photos, posters, and stills from the film.
The collections of production and publicity stills, production reports, advertising art, and press kit material (presented in four separate slideshows) is so in-depth that it'll keep any Autry historian busy for a good while.
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.
It's big, Autry-sized fun, and with an admirable presentation to boot. Image truly has something special on their hands with this DVD series. Highly Recommended.
For more on this DVD series, check out DVD Talk's reviews of other Gene Autry Collection releases.