Fans of B-Westerns will find much to like in Kit Parker Films' Big Iron Collection, six hour-long "Bullseye Westerns" (according to the packaging) starring Jimmy "Shamrock" Ellison and Russell "Lucky" Hayden. The six movies feature the same casts and crew and were filmed back-to-back within a single, backbreaking month in 1950 (with all six released that spring and early summer) yet have decent production values, better for instance than the Donald "Red" Barry-Robert Lowery Westerns also released by Lippert at about this same time. All six pictures, Crooked River, Colorado Ranger, Fast on the Draw, Hostile Country, Marshal of Heldorado, and West of the Brazos, are remakes of equally cheap Westerns from the 1930s.
Kit Parker's transfers seem to source American dupe negatives and a British release version: the first picture, possibly cut, is preceded by a British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) seal and the Exclusive Films' logo, Lippert's British distributor and the parent company of Hammer Films. The picture quality is generally okay - Kit Parker titles through VCI tend to look better than VCI's in-house releases. A few good extras complete the package.
Russell Hayden (l) and James Ellison (r)
Teaming Jimmy Ellison and Russell Hayden was pretty inspired. Each had played the juvenile lead in William Boyd's "Hopalong Cassidy" film series: Ellison was Johnny Nelson in the first eight films, released during 1935-37, while Hayden, Ellison's replacement, played "Lucky" Jenkins in 27 films, produced during 1937-1941.
Each made a strong impression - Ellison's Johnny was something of a hothead, immature and overly confident, a talented but undisciplined cowboy that fatherly Hoppy was determined to tame.
Hayden's Lucky was a more conventional juvenile lead; a loyal disciple whose admiration for Hoppy knew no bounds and who in every film fell head-over-heels for the pretty ingénue. Yet Hayden's sincerity and incredible natural likeability always made these clichéd scenes believable. After Hayden left, the Hoppy films went through a long succession of juvenile leads but not one ever came within a mile of matching the appeal of either Ellison or Hayden.
Post-Hoppy, Ellison became a minor star with leading roles in B-pictures produced by major studios like Fox and RKO, while Hayden starred in B-Westerns of his own throughout the '40s, often playing a character named "Lucky." By 1950 both were pushing 40 and in Crooked River, Ellison's a bit too old as "Shamrock" Ellison, who in 1860 sees his pioneering parents murdered for their horses by a gang of outlaws, thus "burning their dreams into shattered shambles of hopeless nothing," according to the overripe narration. Clues lead Ellison to a gang precariously led by Lucky Hayden, who's clearly losing his grip on the hardened, much more nefarious men, especially bad-guy Kent (John L. Cason), who lusts after Hayden's beautiful sister, Ann (Julie Adams, billed in all six pictures as Betty Adams).
Crooked River is pretty standard stuff except for the atypical casting of Hayden as a not-so-bad guy. Though its first two-thirds are routine, the film comes to life after (spoilers) Kent throws something into Hayden's eyes, blinding him. (There are several awkward cuts and relooped lines of dialogue obscuring exactly what has happened; possibly whatever Kent did to not-so-Lucky was ordered cut by the BBFC.) He sends Ann to the cellar while, though blinded, Lucky sets a trap for Kent.
Besides Hayden, Ellison, Julie Adams, and Cason, actors Tom Tyler (The Mummy's Hand, Adventures of Captain Marvel), Raymond Hatton, Fuzzy Knight, George L. Lewis, Dennis Moore, and George Chesebro - and familiar B-Western actors - play supporting parts. All of them appear in all six pictures, usually playing the same character type in each film.
One final note, all six films feature opening titles superimposed over a reverse-tracking shot of Ellison, Hayden, Knight, and Hatton on horseback, heroically galloping toward the camera. Of course, this doesn't exactly match the film that follows here and in several other instances, but it saved a couple of hundred dollars not having to shoot different background plates for each movie's opening titles. (**1/2 out of *****)
Much more entertaining is Colorado Ranger, a remake of the 1937 Johnny Mack Brown oater Guns in the Dark, which itself remade The Marines Are Coming (1934). Lighthearted and clever, the story concerns three gunfighter-cardsharps - The Shamrock Kid (Ellison), Lucky (Hayden), and The Colonel (Hatton) - arriving in town independent of one another. After being momentarily concerned when stock footage rangers ride into town, they quickly accept jobs as deputies to the local Sheriff (Stanley Price), who in fact is in cahoots with Jim Morgan (Stephen Carr) in a plot to run off honest homesteaders. Unaware of this, the competitive threesome becomes friendly with homesteader Ann (Adams). So friendly, in fact, that they forget to show up for work and an annoyed Morgan hires three other gunman (Cason, Tyler, and Lewis) to take their places.
Colorado Ranger, a clever title, ultimately, fashions conventionally heroic Ellison, breezy Hayden, and wily old rascal Hatton into an amusing team of crafty rivals. Early in the film they sit down to play poker, but the game goes nowhere because each catches the others palming cards. After that, each boasts about being a better shot, and their attempts to prove their mettle leads to a cute introduction to Adams's character.
Later still, they make like the Three Stooges, so desperate to stop Ann's baby (so we're led to believe) from crying Shamrock lets the infant play with his loaded pistol, arguing the tot is much too weak to cock the trigger! The baby plays a prominent role in the story: this may be the only Western where the cutthroat villains' plans are thwarted because they wanted to spend time with a cute baby and got distracted.
Though obviously not expensive, the film doesn't look dirt cheap like most minor B-Westerns, though the same sideboard/hidden cellar entrance from Crooked River turns up here, too. Besides the stock cast, genre veterans I. Stanford Jolley (as a bartender) and Gene Roth (as a blacksmith-barber) must have had an afternoon free; they appear in this unbilled. (***)
Fast on the Draw plays like the filmmakers were running behind schedule, and in classic Sam Katzman fashion (he of cheap programmer fame) the producer must have arbitrarily ripped out five or six pages of exposition. Marauding bandits led by the mysterious The Cat have been robbing stages and terrorizing the countryside. In a bit of audacious cheapness, the very same footage that had opened Crooked River, of Shamrock Ellison's doomed parents in their covered wagon fleeing bandits, is used again here, as Shamrock Ellison's doomed parents in their covered wagon flee bandits, the single difference is that here Ellison's character starts out as a young boy who had supposedly been hiding in the wagon during the melee.
Shocked into amnesia by the cruel death of his folks, little Shamrock wanders the desert until he picked up and eventually raised by Navajos. Years pass, and the full-grown Shamrock, while fast with his fists, can't bring himself to use his gun, for reasons that don't entirely make sense.
After a short stop at a rodeo - even though it's supposed to be 1887, modern automobiles are visible in several shots - Shamrock and his pal Lucky (Hayden), a notorious liar forever goading his troubled friend into facing his fears, head for the local saloon.
Positing Shamrock as a regular Western hero, Lucky convinces the Colonel (Hatton) to appoint Shamrock the new marshal (and Lucky as his deputy), especially after the pair rescue the Colonel's daughter, Ann (Adams) from The Cat and his gang. (In a good action set piece, Shamrock leaps onto the moving stagecoach they've hijacked.)
The confusing mess of a movie, a remake of Branded a Coward, a Johnny Mack Brown Western, is enjoyable mainly for the interplay between Ellison and Hayden, the latter especially fun boasting about his pal's supposed heroics. The film is unintentionally funny in other ways. The shadowy Cat appears frequently in the form of an ominous shadow on a wall, ordering his men (Cason, Tyler, etc.) to do one terrible thing or another, but from the first time he opens his trap, it's so painfully obvious who The Cat is that the intended mystery only becomes comical. And I. Stanford Jolley must have had two hours free, because he plays the bartender in this one, too. (** 1/2)
A remake of a 1935 Bob Steele Western, No Man's Range, Hostile Country is utterly ordinary, with Shamrock Ellison (Ellison) riding into town to claim one-half of his stepfather's ranch, a stepfather, Jim Knowlton (George J. Lewis), Shamrock has never met. The pair arrive to find Ann Green (Julie Adams) unable to drive her horses to market because Knowlton's has blockaded the only pass out of town. Few will be surprised when the evil Knowlton turns out to be an imposter posing as Shamrock's father; he and his gang want Ann's valuable grazing land, and for that matter want to muscle Shamrock out of his one-half interest in Knowlton's land to boot.
It's all standard B-Western stuff, though it's nice to see Julie Adams taking charge in this one, at one point standing tall, refusing to budge when the bad guys threaten to shoot her and companions Colonel (Hatton) and Deacon (Knight).
The chemistry between Ellison, Hayden, and Adams is lacking in this one; ironically, there's a fun scene with the two cowboys both gunning for Ann's affections, but that comes literally in the last minute of the picture, much too late to save it. (**)
Marshal of Heldorado is a welcome break from the routine; it's almost a comedy, though even it makes a sharp turn into conventional B-Western action for the climax. The set-up is a lot of fun, however. In Heldorado (or Apache - someone in continuity must have messed up as the town goes by two names), a "hotbed of murder and bandits," the marshal has just quit after the latest bank robbery by the infamous Tulliver Gang.
Penniless ex-buffalo hunter Lucky Hayden is persuaded by the town's mayor (Fuzzy Knight, here in top hat) and bank president (Raymond Hatton) to accept the job, but Lucky only gives in after the local saloonkeeper offers three free drinks per day to sweeten the deal.
Soon thereafter, milquetoast Shamrock Ellison rides into town on a mule. With his straw hat and wire-rimmed glasses, Ellison looks like Rudy Vallee and plays it to the hilt. Soon Lucky's taking advantage of the tenderfoot, yet somehow Shamrock's always in the right place at the right time. When two of the Tulliver brothers accidentally shoot one another, Ellison gets the credit and he's appointed deputy marshal. Later on, it's revealed that Shamrock isn't quite the lightweight he appears to be.
It's a lot of fun watching Ellison play against type; in fact he's subtler in this comical role than the slightly hammy conventional hero he plays in most of the films. In Marshal of Heldorado Hayden has several fine moments taking advantage of the naïve easterner, and (spoilers) when Shamrock is revealed as a crack-shot government agent, there's more fun in store watching Ellison play along with Hayden's con games. (***)
By the time the last picture, West of the Brazos, rolls around, Shamrock-Lucky fatigue is starting to set in - these films are better enjoyed spaced out at least a month apart - the same casts, costumes, sets, and situations makes for some dizzying déjà vu. This one is more of the same: Shamrock (Ellison) and his pal Lucky (Hayden), the latter deaf since the war, are riding into town when they're bushwhacked by the Cyclone Kid's gang, who mistake Sham for Marshal Charlie Blythe (Stanley Price). When the Marshal is wounded, Shamrock is sworn in as a special deputy and for no clear reason assumes his identity as well.
Shamrock is heading back home to claim his family's ranch but, ironically, The Cyclone Kid (John Cason), has already filed a claim - as Jimmy "Shamrock" Ellison! He wants the ranch because of the oil recently discovered on the property, which Cyclone plans to lease to the oil company at a $75,000 profit.
Shamrock and Lucky fall in with Cyclone, resulting in odd scenes with Shamrock pretending to be the marshal Cyclone wants dead, and Cyclone pretending to be Shamrock.
West of the Brazos has more action with more varied exteriors than most of the other films, and it's fun to see Tom Tyler in a somewhat bigger part here. Tyler had been one of the big Western and action movie stars of the late-silent/early-talkie era, but bad luck and worse health relegated him to cheap movies like these for most of his later career. Toward the end he looked pencil-thin, arthritic and sickly, but here he's in pretty decent shape though sometimes he's clearly doubled. (***)
Video & Audio
All six films, on two region-free, singled-sided and dual-layered discs, look okay but a long way from pristine. As stated above, the first film sources British elements, while the others seem sourced from dupe negs. The audio is a bit dicey on the first picture, but improves on the later ones. All are perfectly watchable, however.
Extras include an audio-only interview with director Thomas Carr, conducted in the early-1980s. Presented over stills and lobby cards from the films, Carr relates a couple of interesting stories, noting that he managed to shoot all six films in just 29 days.
Only hardcore B-Western fans will want to sit through these cheap pictures, but this limited but passionate audience should be pleased to see these films released to DVD for the first time. For them this release is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, part of AnimEigo's forthcoming Tora-san DVD boxed set, is available for pre-order, while his latest book, Japanese Cinema, is in bookstores now.