By B-Western series standards Laramie Mountains (1952) isn't much but for its intended audience, mostly kids*, it delivers the requisite quotient of cowboy action, lowbrow comedy, and songs. This "Durango Kid" series entry from Columbia was one of the last of its kind; The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers had already made the move to television, and a TV version of William Boyd's Hopalong Cassidy would premiere later that fall.
The series began with 1940's The Durango Kid but wasn't conceived as an ongoing series of films until 1945. After that all hell broke loose, with up to ten Durango Kid movies being released every year until 1952. In all, 64 movies were produced, most with running times of less than an hour. Unlike other popular Western series, star Charles Starrett didn't make the transition to TV, nor for that matter did the Durango Kid. (Characters called the Durango Kid do turn up in episodes of The Lone Ranger and Cheyenne, however.) Instead, Starrett happily retired from acting altogether at the age of 48.
Way back in 2004 and 2005 Sony released two Durango Kid movies, seemingly chosen at random: Blazing Across the Pecos (1948) and Bonanza Town (1951). Though their video transfers look great, who but the die-hardest B-Western buff is going to plunk down $19.94 for a 54-minute movie? At that time I suggested Sony might do better releasing the series in chronological order as double-feature sets (at least) rather than as single-movie DVDs.
Although Warner Bros.'s "Archive Collection" is doing exactly that with several popular B-series, including their outstanding 10-film set of Tim Holt Westerns made at RKO, Sony is still taking the overpriced single-movie route.
Part of Sony's terrific "Columbia Classics" line of DVD-Rs, this and The Kid from Broken Gun represent the third and fourth Durango Kid movies out on DVD. Once again they look great but are also quite short yet expensive. They run just 53-55 minutes but the retail price is $19.95. That's like paying nearly twenty bucks for a single episode of Bonanza. I bet if they went the 10-movie Tim Holt route they'd sell a lot more copies.
Laramie Mountains was the 61st film in the series. Army deserters Carson (Zon Murray) and Paul Drake (Rory Mallinson) discover wounded Cavalry Lt. Pierce (Marshall Reed) after an apparent Indian attack and take him back to Fort Tourney, though their motives are hardly altruistic. At the fort they convince its commanding officer, Major Markham (future director Fred F. Sears), that Swift Eagle (Jock Mahoney), a white man raised by Indians, is behind the attack. Markham hires them on as scouts. Further, they want to kill the Indians' leader, Chief Lone Tree (John War Eagle), despite the impending arrival of an Indian Affairs representative, Steve Holden (Charles Starrett)
The fort's wall-eyed cook, Sgt. Smiley Burnette (Smiley Burnette), recognizes Paul Drake as a deserter (and not, apparently, as Perry Mason's friend and colleague) but Drake threatens the hapless singing mess sergeant so Smiley reluctantly keeps his trap shut. He commiserates with his lone companion, a dog named Ring-Eye (owing to the black circle painted around his right eye)**.
Drake and Carson locate Swift Eagle and are about to kill him when Steve's alter ego, the Durango Kid (also Starrett), rescues him. Most of the film's brief (53 1/2 minutes) running time has Steve struggling to keep the peace while trying to get to the bottom of Drake and Carson's villainy, which involves gold-rich caverns and "brain heavy" Henry Mandel (Robert J. Wilke).
In these films the Durango Kid is basically The Lone Ranger, his face hidden behind a black kerchief but whose identity is obvious to the audience though not the characters onscreen. This effort seems counterproductive. Steve/Durango keeps separate horses, Bullet and Raider, the latter a white steed like Silver. When one considers, for example, that Swift Eagle trusts Durango but loathes Steve, all these deceptions lead nowhere. Oddly, in the series Steve's family name changes with each film - Steve Holden, Steve Rollins, Steve Reynolds, Steve Baldwin.
Charles Starrett liked to say that after he retired from movies none of his neighbors were aware of his long run as the Durango Kid - most assumed he was a retired banker. And he does rather look like one, though he's reasonably effective in the part. Mahoney was pulling double-duty at this time as both a rising star at Columbia and as a hard-working and usually uncredited stunt man. He's quite good as the white man raised by Indians, and if you squint just right you can see a bit of the Tarzan character he'd later play in two '60s films.
Smiley Burnette first gained fame as Gene Autry's sidekick, but then during the war Gene enlisted and Burnette bounced around for a while in films with Roy Rogers, Sunset Carson, and others before landing on his feet again with this series. When the Durango Kid series ended, Burnette again appeared opposite Gene Autry in his last six movies. An inventor and restaurateur, Burnette's main income besides acting was as a songwriter and performer. Among his more than 400 songs is the Western standard "Ridin' Down the Canyon (To Watch the Sun Go Down)." In Laramie Mountains, he sings two amusing novelty numbers that he wrote himself, "Come to the Mess" and "With a Slop, Slop, Slop."
Video & Audio
Laramie Mountains is presented in a crisp black and white, full-frame transfer that's on par with the high standards of the "Columbia Classics" line. There are no menu screens or options at all: insert the disc and away you go. The region-free DVD-R disc's mono audio (English only, with no subtitle options) is acceptable. There are the usual chapter stops every ten minutes (meaning five in this case), but no Extra Features.
It's pricey but, for fans of such pictures, standard B-Western series fun. Laramie Mountains was just about the last gasp of its kind (though B-westerns are generally considered to have hung on until 1956), and harmless, breezy entertainment. Recommended.
* Boys especially. Laramie Mountains is notable for not having a single female in the cast.
** With its ring-around-the-eye, the dog is perhaps related to Our Gang's Pete the Pup, though in the film Smiley suggests it's the offspring of his same-named horse!
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.