One of Gene Autry's most enjoyable B-Westerns, Public Cowboy No. 1 (1937) is an entertaining mix of action, comedy, and songs boosted by a surprising number of references to other films. The Autry Foundation, in addition to their usual bevy of fine extras, have added even more bonus material in celebration of Gene's centennial this year (he was born in 1907 and lived to the ripe old age of 91) that make this package irresistible to fans of the genre and Autry in particular.
This time Gene Autry (Gene Autry) and sidekick Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette) are deputies working for aging Sheriff Matt Doniphan (William Farnum), under pressure from local ranchers to stop the sudden outbreak of cattle rustling. Early on it's established that Jack Shannon (Arthur Loft), president of the Chicago & Western Packing Co., has been employing an elaborate system of plane spotters, short-wave radio, and a convoy of refrigerated trucks, along with another vehicle to tow the rustlers' horses, to head off cattle drives. Eliminating the middle man, they slaughter the cattle on the spot, rushing the refrigerated sides of beef directly to the packing plant. As one henchman puts it, "This modern method is making saps out of the ranchers!"
Meanwhile, the already palpable tension between Doniphan and the ranchers is exacerbated when a young newspaper editor, Helen Morgan (Ann Rutherford) begins writing editorials calling for Doniphan's ouster. Gene eventually wins her over, but not before a depressed Doniphan is replaced by city slicker detective Eustace P. Quackenbush (James C. Morton, frequent foil of the Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy).
Public Cowboy No. 1 is 61 breezy minutes of escapist entertainment with especially good songs and fun references to both older and contemporary movies. In addition to the Autry standard "Wanderer of the Wasteland," Gene sings a charming little number called "The West Ain't What It Used to Be" that gently pokes fun at the entire singing cowboy genre. Smiley Burnette, an acquired taste in terms of his lowbrow comedy antics, was undeniably a very talented songwriter and his two songs, "I Got the Heebie-Jeebie Blues" and "The Defective Detective from Brooklyn" are pretty funny and he performs both quite well. The latter prompts several costume changes, with Smiley dressing up as and impersonating Charlie Chan, Nick Charles (of The Thin Man series) and Sherlock Holmes.
Better still, Gene sings a sweet tribute to Farnum (and, by extension, all the silent era cowboys) in a song called "Old Buckaroo." Farnum had been one of the biggest stars of the early silent era, headlining such films as A Tale of Two Cities (1917), Les Miserables (1917), and numerous Westerns such as The Orphan (1920), Moonshine Valley (1923), and The Gunfighter (1923). A severe injury on the set of The Man Who Fights Alone (1924) abruptly ended his starring career, though he continued to act until 1952, appearing as the King in the wretched Abbott & Costello musical-comedy Jack and the Beanstalk. Though his performance here is more in the grand silent manner than a late-'30s talkie, and he's incongruously wearing silent movie style makeup, his screen presence remained undimmed, and there's a genuine sweetness in his character's relationship with Gene.
Video & Audio
Public Cowboy No. 1, in its original, full frame theatrical aspect ratio, gets off to a shaky start, with opening titles derived from a reissue version that looks like it's being projected through cheesecloth, but fortunately the feature itself looks great, almost brand new. At around the 38-minute mark, at the beginning of a new reel, the picture gets jittery for about a minute, but goes away before it gets too irritating. The audio is also clean and free from damage or distortion. Autry Entertainment and the Autry Museum, the UCLA Film & Television Archives, The Western Channel, and RPG, deserve high marks for the film's restoration. There are no subtitle options.
Though high profile labels like Criterion and Warner Home Video grab all the glory with their supplements-laden special editions, Gene Autry Entertainment's commitment to their titles is really unsurpassed; beyond the restoration of their features consumers couldn't ask for more in terms of the extra features.
First up is another Reminiscing with Gene Autry and Pat Buttram at the Melody Ranch Theater, this 15-minute-long collection of wraparound bits that accompanied Public Cowboy No. 1 when it ran on the Nashville Network in 1987. Gene and Pat (Smiley Burnette's replacement on TV's The Gene Autry Show) are joined this time by Ann Rutherford (whom MGM loaned to Republic Studios at $400/week), who tells several very funny anecdotes about working with eccentric character star Marjorie Main (of the Ma & Pa Kettle films) and how she came to replace Penny Singleton on the "Blondie" radio series. Don't Touch That Dial! Gene Autry is On the Air is an episode of radio's "The Gene Autry Show" that originally aired on July 14, 1946.
The Production and Publicity Stills, Poster Art and Lobby Cards, Original Press Kit, and Daily Production Reports are the usual gold mine of great archival material one wishes other labels would include on their classic library titles as a matter of course.
The late low-budget movie producer and die-hard Gene Autry fan Alex Gordon provides Trivia and Movie Facts about the film (which he apparently wrote just weeks before his death in 2003).
Centennial Extras include chapter one of Gene's first starring role, in the 1935 Mascot serial The Phantom Empire. As outlined in the DVD's menu, Gene Autry Entertainment intends to put a new chapter on each subsequent Autry release, with chapter two included as a bonus feature on Gold Mine in the Sky. This is a pretty shrewd move on their part, as the title seems to have fallen into public domain, so it's both a good way to market the serial, which has likewise been restored to good if not pristine condition.
Ten-year-olds watching The Phantom Empire when it was new must have felt they had died and gone to heaven. A surreal mix of singing cowboy western and sci-fi fantasy, radio cowboy Gene Autry (Gene Autry), along with pre-teens Frankie and Betsy Baxter (Frankie Darro and champion trick rider Betsy King Ross) discover the legendary Mu Empire (also seen in the Japanese film Atragon) somehow ended up buried deep in the caverns of the old West, with the futuristic metropolis Murania corrupted by greedy outlaws from above. Produced one year prior to the seminal Flash Gordon serial, The Phantom Empire has got great special effects (for its time), Autry standards (chapter one includes "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine"), and bizarre plot machinations. (Mu Empire aside, Autry keeps having to dash back to Radio Ranch for his two o'clock broadcasts!)
Other Centennial Extras include background on the serial, and two theatrical trailers advertising local Gene Autry personal appearances.
Though it might be argued that Autry's and Roy Rogers' singing cowboy movies haven't aged as well as, say, the authentically period, harder-edged Hopalong Cassidy films, they're still enormous fun when viewed with an open mind and put into pop culture context. Public Cowboy No. 1 is one of Gene Autry's best, and the DVD's extra features can't be beat. Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.