Gold Mine in the Sky (1938) marked Gene Autry's return to the screen after a six-month absence, practically a lifetime in the B-Western world, where stars like Gene cranked out new movies every six weeks. According to Douglas B. "Ranger Doug" Green's excellent Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy, Autry's musical oaters were costing Republic Studios just $15,000-18,000 to produce but brought in between $500,000 and a $1 million. Despite this astounding success, Autry's salary had risen only to $4,000 per picture. Contract aside, Autry refused to show up for work until his contract was renegotiated to more favorable terms. Studio head Herbert J. Yates threatened to find another singing cowboy to take his place, but Autry held firm, and after six months of listening to angry theater owners complain about the absence of new product, he finally caved in.
If Yates thought the fickle public would all but forget Autry in the interim, he was sadly mistaken. The film was yet another blockbuster, partly because it offers everything a Gene Autry fan could ask for: blazing guns, Chicago gangsters, smoothly-performed Autry standards, low-brow comedy and novelty songs by sidekick Smiley Burnette. As such it's one of the best of the early Autrys.
No, it's not an ad for dental bleaching, it's Gene Autry smiling after winning the first of many battles with Republic's Herbert J. Yates
Gene Autry (Gene Autry) is the foreman at Lucky Langham's (Robert Homans) Horseshoe Ranch in Wyoming. Gene is all but Lucky's adopted son, and both are concerned about Lucky's daughter, Cody (Carol Hughes), who has been living it up in the Big City. "That girl's a terror," Lucky admits.
"The only thing wrong with her," Gene replies, "Is too much money."
When Lucky is killed in a riding accident, Cody shows up to claim the property and sell the $300,000 ranch. But her father, worried about his wildcat daughter's future, has named Gene executor of the estate: she can't come into any money without his approval.
Cody also wants to marry city slicker Larry Cummings (Craig Reynolds) but Gene takes an instant dislike to the shady man from Chicago. The feeling is mutual - "Supposing something happened to Autry?" Larry asks menacingly.
While Cody establishes a dude ranch for visiting cityfolk - she goofs by hiring a classical trio (the Stafford Sisters, including soon-to-be-famous Jo) playing Mendelssohn's Fruhlingslied, but Gene and sidekick Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette) save the day with their cowboy songs - Larry brings in some of his gangster pals to rustle cattle (!) and kill Gene, pinning the crime on the honest foreman.
Though there's no gold mine in sight, the picture is 60 brief minutes of genial entertainment. Like the cowboys and guests at Cody's dude ranch, you don't watch a film like Gold Mine in the Sky for its high-brow culture. Even many hard-core fans of A-list Westerns steer clear of singing cowboy movies, but that's their loss. Viewed in the context of the period, with the country still in the grip of the Great Depression, with movie audiences in rural America hit hardest, the Autry Westerns were a welcome respite from the harsh realities of financial ruin and the threat of dust bowls. Autry's Western worlds may have been sheer fantasy (once again, men on horseback wearing six-shooters chase after gangsters driving sedans), but audiences adored these films just the same.
Besides the famous title tune ("There's a Gold Mine in the Sky"), Autry sings a charming number called "As Long as I Have My Horse," something of a tribute to Autry's horse Champion. Carol Hughes, best remembered as Dale Arden in the last Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), is appropriately rebellious, but unlike many of the actresses in this stock role, she does so with an engaging playfulness. Another pleasant surprise is Helen "Cupid" Ainsworth as Jane, Cody's chubby traveling companion, who takes to Western life like a duck to water. Ainsworth would soon quick acting to become a powerful Hollywood agent, eventually even producing several lower-end features, including the odd sci-fi drama The 27th Day (1957).
Video & Audio
Gold Mine in the Sky, in its original full frame format, appears to be a composite of perhaps the original camera negative and something else slightly less pristine. The picture alternates in quality from superb to very good, sometimes from shot-to-shot, but in any case it's never less than good. The audio is also clean and free from damage or distortion. As with the other Autry titles released through Image, Autry Entertainment and the Autry Museum, the UCLA Film & Television Archives, The Western Channel, and RPG, are credited with the film's restoration. There are no subtitle options.
More great supplements make this title highly desirable. Included is another Reminiscing with Gene Autry and Pat Buttram at the Melody Ranch Theater, a series of wraparound bits that accompanied Gold Mine in the Sky's airing on the Nashville Network in 1987. Gene and Pat (Smiley Burnette's replacement on TV's The Gene Autry Show) talk about this and that, notably the origins of another Autry standard, "Riding Down the Canyon." 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 January 5, 1947.
The Production and Publicity Stills, Poster Art and Lobby Cards, Original Press Kit, and Daily Production Reports are the usual treasure trove (or, more appropriate in this case, a gold mine) of great archival material, while producer and die-hard Gene Autry fan Alex Gordon provides Trivia and Movie Facts about the film (written shortly before Gordon's death in 2003).
Two thousand seven marks Gene Autry's centennial, and to celebrate the company is including even more extra features, notably Gene's first starring role, in the 1935 Mascot serial The Phantom Empire. Each new Autry release this year will include one chapter. Chapter one accompanied Public Cowboy No. 1; chapter two is included here. Unlike the feature, the serial is a little battered, and seems derived from a 16mm source, though it still looks better than other public domain home video versions out there.
Other "Centennial Extras" are identical to those on Public Cowboy No. 1. They include background on the serial, and two theatrical trailers advertising local Gene Autry personal appearances.
Gold Mine in the Sky is sure-fire entertainment certain to please fans of musical Westerns, and a real treat on DVD with all those supplements. 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.