One of Gene Autry's last Westerns for Republic Pictures is a pleasant surprise. The songs are good but also integrated well into a narrative that mixes bursts of well-staged action (some of it courtesy famed second unit director/stunt coordinator/actor Yakima Canutt) with a look borrowed from film noir. Bizarrely, the film was included in Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss's (and Harry's brother Michael) infamous if influential book The 50 Worst Films of All-Time. Not only are there literally hundreds of far worse B-Westerns, Twilight on the Rio Grande (1947) isn't even bad by Gene Autry movie standards.
Gene Autry (Gene Autry) and his pals - sidekick Pokie (Sterling Holloway, who replaced Smiley Burnette, at the time busy supporting The Durango Kid over at Columbia), Gene's partner Dusty Morgan (Bob Steele), and various ranch hands (The Cass County Boys) - are on vacation across the border in Mexico. Dusty is attracted to saloon singer Elena Del Rio (Adele Mara), and when he receives a note from her suggesting a midnight rendezvous, he's there in a heartbeat.
The note, however, is a ruse. Diamond smugglers buying jewels from desperate (World War II) refugees stab Dusty in the back and, using his horse and clothes, send a confederate across the border into the U.S. with the gems hidden in Dusty's saddlebag. The next day, Gene and his gang learn from a mysterious, painfully stereotyped Mexican, Mucho (Martin Garralaga), that Dusty's being held at the local jail. They think he's in the drunk tank, and are shocked to find him dead on a slab. (This scene is unusually grim for a singing Western, the first of several noirish touches.)
Naturally, Gene is resolved to find Dusty's killer, this despite the protestations of local Mexican police captain Gonzales (George J. Lewis). Mucho's odd behavior makes him an obvious suspect, while Elena's knife-throwing precision cast some doubt on her innocence as well.
Twilight on the Rio Grande delivers the goods for Autry fans looking for escapist action and pleasant music. The songs are unusually good, with the picture opening with the enjoyable "It's My Lazy Day," written by an uncredited Smiley Burnette. "Old Lamplighter" was a big hit, while "Great Granddad" is amusingly performed by The Cass County Boys and Sterling Holloway, the latter of course chiefly remembered today as the voice of Winnie the Pooh. As a sidekick, Holloway has less to do, possibly because he wasn't the musician Burnette was, and spends much of the film chewing on his kerchief a la John Ford. (It's almost certainly not a reference to the great director, however.)
The film is short on action, but the action scenes are above average for an Autry Western; the slam-bang finish is especially good. But what really stands out is the film's noir influence - most of the film takes place at night, in the shadows, and the slightly grimmer tone, at least compared to other Autry films, is refreshing. (The noir influence extended to some other B-Westerns, including several Hopalong Cassidy entries.)
Video & Audio
Twilight on the Rio Grande is presented in a good if not quite stellar full frame format that restores the film to its original 71-minute length; for years TV prints chopped the picture down to just 54 minutes. There's an odd jump sort of cut at the 37:00 minute mark, suggesting the end of at least that scene might still be missing, but then again these 18-day Westerns were shot so fast it's a miracle that they're as coherent as they are. The English Dolby Digital mono is also clean and free from damage or distortion, though there are no subtitle options.
The impressive array of supplements include Reminiscing with Gene Autry and Pat Buttram at the Melody Ranch Theater, wraparound excerpts from a 1987 Nashville Network series with Gene and Pat telling stories that accompanied Twilight on the Rio Grandes airings on that channel. Unusually spirited this time, Gene and Pat sing the praises of Bob Steele (then still in the saddle, as it were, albeit suffering from emphysema) and notoriously unlikable Ken Maynard. The discussion then turns to Elvis's former manager "Colonel" Tom Parker, Gene's Palm Springs neighbor at the time and also a friend of Pat's. This too is interesting: Buttram says he patterned his Mr. Haney character (on TV's Green Acres) directly after Parker's bigger-than-life carny persona.
Don't Touch That Dial! Gene Autry is On the Air is a May 18, 1947 episode of radio's "The Gene Autry Show." It's accompanied by stills and other images from the film.
The Production and Publicity Stills, Poster Art and Lobby Cards, Original Press Kit, and Daily Production Reports are crammed with great archival material (all the stills, posters, and lobbies are in pristine condition), while low-budget producer and die-hard Gene Autry fan Alex Gordon provides Trivia and Movie Facts about the film, such as the fact that actress Mara was the wife of legendary TV producer Roy Huggins.
In honor of Gene Autry's 100th birthday (he was born September 29, 1907), additional "centennial" extra features include Chapter Five ("Beneath the Earth") of the bizarre 1935 Mascot serial The Phantom Empire, Gene's first starring role. (Each new Autry release this year will include one chapter.)
Of Gene's postwar pictures, Twilight on the Rio Grande (1947) overall is the best this reviewer has seen so far. Except for the noirish touches, it's not all that different from the standard Autry programmer, but this time all the various elements come together quite nicely, and the extras and restoration are top-notch. 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.