Because generally they're so time- and place-specific, Westerns have always been limited to fewer story variations compared to other movie genres. And because B-Western stars like Gene Autry were cranking out three- to six times the number of movies as their A-list counterparts, their films especially tended to be pretty repetitive. Indeed for a while there, in the late-1930s and early-'40s, it seemed like Gene was making the same movie over-and-over again. The story goes like this: Gene's a ranch foreman whose late boss has bequeathed his land to a daughter/granddaughter, a spoiled city girl. She's urbane yet undisciplined and irresponsible, with no interest at all in running a ranch out west, and easy prey for a ruthless banker (or some such disreputable type) eager to swindle her out of her inheritance. In trying to save his ranch hands' jobs, Gene must tame the city girl and - always within a limited time period - win her over to simpler pleasures of life on the range.
The Singing Hill (1941), just one of more than a dozen pictures Gene Autry made during 1940-41, rigidly adheres to the proven formula, but who's to argue with success? Repetitive or not, these movies helped make Autry the biggest draw among B-Western stars. More significantly, in 1940 Gene placed fourth on Quigley's Annual List of Box-Office Champions, the only B-Western star to do so (in B-Western movies), and ahead of such Hollywood heavyweights as Tyrone Power, James Cagney, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, and Judy Garland.
In this outing, the Cattlemen's Association is "ready for a showdown" with Circle R ranch foreman Gene Autry (Gene Autry) after they receive notice that their free grazing privileges on the Circle R's 50,000 acres are being rescinded. Gene eventually learns that spoiled city girl Jo Adams (Virginia Dale), who inherited the ranch, has sold on option on the property to shady banker John R. Ramsey (George Meeker).
Accompanied by sidekick Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette), spunky teenage orphan cowgirl Patsy (Mary Lee), and cowhand Cactus Mack (Cactus Mack), Gene heads for the Big City to confront Jo. They arrive in the midst of a lavish birthday party she's throwing for herself (Jo has no real friends) are the foursome are mistaken for musicians, "Gene Autry and His Frogs." Frog is especially bemused by rich folks' cuisine. Noting a plate of caviar, Frog exclaims, "Look, Cactus - buckshot! These folks must be cuckoo."
In classic screwball comedy tradition, the four kidnap Jo (as well as her prissy butler Dada, who looks and talks a lot like Gore Vidal) and whisk her back to the Circle R, where they then have her declared mentally incompetent (!). But Jo is, as she insists, "Free, white, and 21!" and soon enough has an army of psychiatrists and attorneys on her side. Will Gene be able to save his fellow ranch hands' jobs, and keep his word with the Cattlemen's Association?
Autry's box-office assurance prompted Republic Studios to up The Singing Hill's budget; though still modest by other studios' standards, its production values are comparatively lavish against most B-Westerns and, at 75 minutes, it was one of Gene's longest films. Unfortunately, this only stretched out its thin story even more and, oddly, there are fewer solo numbers for Autry and more ensemble pieces, as well as a lavish Afro-Cuban Jazz number sung by Dale, "Tumbled Down Shack in Havana." Gene does sing "The Last Round-Up" and "Blueberry Hill," later popularized by Fats Domino, but despite the erroneous claim in Maltin's Classic Movie Guide, Gene doesn't even get to sing the title song ("The Singing Hills"), nor does Smiley Burnette get to do one of his trademark novelty numbers.
In its place is a lot of early-'40s style screwball comedy, unusual for a Republic "B," misplaced broad slapstick complete with Three Stooges-style sound effects, and more than the usual quotient of sentimentality.
There is one impressive action set-piece, a dam burst and Gene's race (through familiar Red Rock Canyon) to rescue the ranch's beloved patriarchal figure, Pop Sloan (Wade Boteler). As was usual at Republic at this time, Howard and Theodore Lydecker created some extremely elaborate miniatures comparable to similar scenes in much bigger, later films like Earthquake (1974) and Superman (1978), and the results are impressive.
Video & Audio
The Singing Hill is presented in full frame format, restored to its original length of 75 minutes. (TV and/or reissue versions run just 54 minutes.) It's fairly easily to tell what was cut, as the reinstated scenes are a bit less sharp and have poorer contrast compared with the near-pristine condition of the rest of the picture, but Image, Autry Entertainment and the Autry Museum, the UCLA Film & Television Archives, The Western Channel, and RPG have done good work once again, and few will notice the slight shifts in picture quality. The English Dolby Digital mono is also clean and free from damage or distortion, though there are no subtitle options.
As has become the standard for these high quality releases, the set includes the usual treasure trove of extra features. Included is another Reminiscing with Gene Autry and Pat Buttram at the Melody Ranch Theater (12 mintues), excerpts from a 1987 Nashville Network series with Gene and Pat providing anecdotal wraparound bits that accompanied The Singing Hills airings on that channel. Among other things they discuss the origins of Smiley's horse, "Ring Eye" and Pat's mule, "Dandruff."
Don't Touch That Dial! Gene Autry is On the Air is a July 6, 1941 episode of radio's "The Gene Autry Show."
The Production and Publicity Stills, Poster Art and Lobby Cards, Original Press Kit, and Daily Production Reports are crammed with great archival material, while low-budget producer and die-hard Gene Autry fan Alex Gordon provides Trivia and Movie Facts about the film, which he wrote just prior to his death in 2003.
In honor of Gene Autry's 100th birthday (he was born September 29, 1907), additional extra features include Chapter Three of the bizarre 1935 Mascot serial The Phantom Empire, Gene's first starring role. (Each new Autry release this year will include one chapter.)
Other "Centennial Extras" include a fascinating five-minute short (the same one included on Home in Wyomin' promoting Gene's impending personal appearance at the Royale Theatre in Dublin, Ireland.
The Singing Hill is enjoyable despite an overwhelming air of déjà vu. The unusually high production values add some novelty, while the dam burst set piece is exciting, even epic, and the Autry estate's commitment to excellence with its restorations and mountain of extra features make this release 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.