The second of two B-Westerns producer and star Gene Autry made in Cinecolor, The Big Sombrero (1949) offers a superior, near-perfect transfer that betters the often-misaligned hues of The Strawberry Roan (1948), but this overlong singing Western isn't nearly as good. Though Gene's many songs are pleasant, the film's South of the Border tale has been done a hundred times before and the absence of strong comedy relief only draws attention to Autry's limitations as an actor.
Out-of-work Gene Autry (Gene Autry) learns from fellow ex-Wild West Show sharpshooter Angie Burke (Vera Marshe) that an old acquaintance, James Garland (Stephen Dunne) is engaged to Mexican spitfire and ranch owner Estrellita Estrada (Elena Verdugo), where Garland hires Autry as the ranch foreman. What Gene doesn't know is that his old pal is plotting to evict the poor Mexican rancheros, and that he's in league with thuggish Ben McBride (Gene Roth), who plans on taking over the ranch after the wedding, with Garland getting a $25,000 commission.
Autry catches on pretty quick, and after signing a binding six-month guarantee with Garland, conspires with the rancheros to keep their land and to convert Estrellita, who has forsaken her Mexican roots in favor of a more modern American lifestyle at a nearby border town, back to traditional ways.
The Big Sombrero is a simple grafting of the hoary old Autry storyline where Gene tames a Big City girl to stop her from selling her ranch and putting a lot of people out of work with the kind of Good Neighbor policy films of earlier in the decade. The Mexicans in the picture are the broadest of stereotypes, with lots of suave Gilbert Roland-wannabes and the like. Verdugo (House of Frankenstein, TV's Marcus Welby) was hopelessly typed in such pictures; she dyed her naturally blonde hair so often during this time, most moviegoers assumed she was a brunette. Still, that her character would turn her back on traditional ways, and that Gene has to embarrass her with his worldly appreciation of Latin family values gives the film it's only real dramatic interest.
Neyle Morrow offers nominal comedy relief as Tico, a kind of juvenile Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez. The character's typical mangling of English and hero-worship of Gene is pretty hard to take. By this time Autry's old sidekick, Smiley Burnette was supporting Charles Starrett, The Durango Kid, in that Columbia film series, though Smiley would be back for a couple of Gene's last features, by then both looking well past their prime.
Autry's songs, including the all-Spanish "La Golandrina," are pleasant, and Cinecolor's good browns, reds, and blues fit the setting well, and the pictures are pretty, but at 78 minutes the film seems to go on forever; 15 minutes easily could have been trimmed without harming the picture.
The film opens with a notably odd scene, which finds Gene serenading an old man (Sam Bernard) suggestively taking long drags on a cigarette, with "You Belong to My Heart." Though apparently intentionally humorous, the double-entendre nature of the scene seems to have escaped Gene and his writers.
Video & Audio
The Big Sombrero, presented in full frame format, is a beauty, with none of the color-alignment issues of The Strawberry Roan. The Cinecolor process wasn't perfect, but it has never looked better on DVD than it does here. The English Dolby Digital mono is also clean and free from damage or distortion, though there are no subtitle options.
"Centennial Extras" marking Autry's 100th birthday lift this already fine series of DVDs into the stratosphere, supplement-wise. The big draw here is a massive collection of Gene Autry Movie Trailers, some 23 in all. The first three - Red River Valley (1936), Sioux City Sue (1946), an Saddle Pals (1947) - date from Autry's years at Republic. The rest are all productions for release through Columbia: The Last Round-Up (1947), The Strawberry Roan (1948, in B&W), Loaded Pistols*, Riders of the Whistling Pines, Riders in the Sky (1949), Mule Train (which includes avalanche footage from The Big Sombrero), Cow Town, Beyond the Purple Hills, Sons of New Mexico (1950), Texans Never Cry, Hills of Utah (Gene sings "Here Comes Peter Cottontail"), Valley of Fire (1951), The Old West, Night Stage to Galveston, Wagon Team, Blue Canadian Rockies (1952), On Top of Old Smoky, Goldtown Ghost Riders (more avalanche footage from Sombrero!), Pack Train (yes, even more avalanche footage!), and Saginaw Trail (1953). Many are "Parade Pictures Reprints" or Columbia reissue trailers, but the majority of these look outstanding, and the long list of B-Western actors appearing here make it worth the price of the disc just for this extra alone.
Also included is the usual Reminiscing with Gene Autry and Pat Buttram at the Melody Ranch Theater (nine minutes), excerpts from a 1987 Nashville Network series with Gene and Pat providing anecdotal wraparound bits that accompanied The Big Sombrero's airings on that channel. Buttram expresses his displeasure at colorization while Gene rhapsodizes about all the Gene Autry merchandising of everything from guitars to cowboy hats.
Don't Touch That Dial! Gene Autry is On the Air is a April 30, 1949 episode of radio's "The Gene Autry Show," and runs about 30 minutes
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, including an interesting note that, while Gene made only two pictures in color, his subsequent films for Columbia were all Sepia-toned.
In honor of Gene Autry's 100th birthday, additional extra features include Chapter Seven of the bizarre but very entertaining 1935 Mascot serial The Phantom Empire, Gene's first starring role. (Each new Autry release this year will include one chapter.)
The Big Sombrero sure looks great and the extras more than make up for the feature film's lackluster script. Unlike The Strawberry Roan, great fun for the whole family, The Big Sombrero will appeal mainly to B-Western and Gene Autry fans. To them this DVD is Highly Recommended.
* In this trailer sheriff Chill Wills breaks up a fight between Gene and some villain. When Wills demands to know what's going on, Gene quotes from the old Three Stooges gag: "We were playing post office." "But 'post office' is a kids' game!" Wills says, incredulous. "Not the way I play it!" is Gene's retort. Considering "post office" is a kissing game, and comics like the Stooges always did the scene with pretty girls, the line in this context is notably peculiar.
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.