Not long ago I stumbled upon a particularly strong B-Western, Across the Sierras, (1941), the fourth of 12 "Wild Bill Hickok" movies produced at Columbia Pictures during 1940-1942. It was quite ambitious for such a film with many surprises in its second-half, at least compared to other Bs. That in mind, I had high hopes for Hands Across the Rockies (also 1941), the sixth film of the series.
Unfortunately, while it's not terrible it's also in no way memorable. As with The Kid from Broken Gun, released to DVD at about the same time from the same label, a big chunk of Hands Across the Rockies' running time gets bogged-down in courtroom melodramatics, perhaps a cost- and time-saving measure - not unreasonable considering seven of these features were shot in 1941 alone.
The strengths of Across the Sierras and the weaknesses of Hands Across the Rockies add fuel to my suggestion Sony stop releasing these piecemeal and instead as multi-film sets, much as Warner Archive has done with its chronologically-released RKO-Tim Holt Westerns. For one thing, it's hard to justify $19.95 for a single, 56-minute movie, and from what I can tell, the two Sony has released so far were seemingly chosen at random, unless based on the condition of their original film elements. For the consumer it's an expensive crapshoot. I'd feel I got my money's worth with Across the Sierras but not with Hands Across the Rockies.
In any case, this "Sony Screen Classics by Request" DVD-R is presented in a sharp black and white transfer. However, the entire film is window-boxed, curiously so. Not only do thick black borders surround all four sides of the frame from beginning to end, to my naked eye the picture also seems to have been flattened out slightly. Faces appear slightly squished, like early CinemaScope's infamous "mumps."
After Marsha Crawley (Mary Daily) witnesses the murder of Dan Taylor, his killer, saloon owner Juno (according to the TCM Movie Database, "Juneau" per the IMDb) Jessup (Kenneth MacDonald), vies for her hand in marriage; that's because as his wife Martha legally couldn't testify against him. Martha's family - patriarch Rufe (Frank LaRue), Martha's uncle, and his adult sons Hi (Tim Moray) and Dade (Donald Curtis) - mull over Juno's $2,000 offer for Martha's hand just as cowboy Johnny Peale (Stanley Brown) appears. He loves Martha but Rufe is opposed to any union.
In a slight twist from the usual B-Western, the murdered man turns out to have been the sidekick's pappy. Cannonball Taylor (Dub Taylor) asks his friend Wild Bill Hickok (Bill Elliott) to accompany him to the town of Independence to help him locate his father's killer, though Cannonball insists that, when the time comes, he wants to face off with the killer himself.
Hickok and Cannonball arrive just as Martha and Johnny also ride into town, and Rufe immediately has Johnny arrested for kidnapping. There follows the aforementioned and quite long-winded courtroom trial, which has a lot of talk and hardly any action. There's not much of a payoff at the end of, nor is the trial itself remotely believable. Even Judge Roy Bean would have found this pretty laughable.
The film has the air of having been cobbled together in a hurry, or compromised severely for reasons unknown. The lengthy courtroom sequence stops the film dead in its tracks, while other story elements, such as Hickok's encounter with an unrelated fugitive aboard the stagecoach to Independence, seem shoehorned into the shaky narrative.
The idea of having Cannonball, the sidekick, out to exact justice for a murdered parent is intriguing but it's a squandered opportunity. Dub Taylor, later an excellent character actor, plays it broadly comic for nearly the entire picture. The pain of losing a father to a senseless murder is barely hinted at.
The rest of the picture is simply ordinary, though Three Stooges fans might enjoy seeing pencil-mustached, velvety-voiced MacDonald, a fixture of the team's two-reel comedies later in the decade, essay a similar part here.*
Video & Audio
Hands Across the Rockies is sourced from near-pristine film elements, this despite the fact that the title card bills this as a "Hygo Television Film, Inc." presentation, suggesting the original negative may have been cut when this was first sold to television. The aforementioned window-boxing of the entire film is less annoying than the vertical squeeze apparently given the image, squashing slightly everyone's faces. There are no menu screens or options at all: the inserted disc starts and stops on its own. 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 but no Extra Features at all.
B-Western fans will want to see this, though the high SRP is a big deterrent. The movie isn't half as good as Across the Sierras though some, this reviewer included, will want to see the entire series. Rent It.
* Sergei Hasenecz adds, "You also might want to mention that movie cowboy Art Mix is in the cast as 'Henchman Red.' Art Mix started out in silents, where he had a few starring roles in some of the most impoverished and incompetent of the poverty-row westerns. This continued into the talkies, but eventually he settled into playing character roles and bit parts. His real name was George Kesterson. In the early '30s he fought with actor/producer Victor Adamson, aka Denver Dixon, over the name Art Mix. Apparently, Adamson had used the name when he did early silent Westerns, then hired other actors to play 'Art Mix.' There were four different men who appeared as 'Art Mix' and Kesterson was one of them, although he was 'Art Mix' more often than anyone else. Despite Adamson, Kesterson remained Art Mix for the rest of his career. By the way, The Mix himself, Tom, sued over the use of the name Art Mix, which Adamson supposedly got around by hiring a man actually named Art Mix to play 'Art Mix' in a movie. Just to confuse things further, if that is possible, Victor Adamson also used the name Al Mix on some of his Westerns. And keeping it all in the family, Victor Adamson, whose reputation for cheap, awful Westerns is almost unsurpassed (it's been said he shot them for $2,000, which he then sold on a states-rights basis), was the father of schlockmeister Al Adamson (Brain of Blood, Blood of Ghastly Horror, etc.) You're not going to learn this stuff at USC Film School."
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.