Strictly for B-Western buffs, Death Valley Rangers (1943) is a low-budget and routine oater of interest mainly for its cast. The fourth of eight "Trail Blazers" films, all of which were hastily shot during 1943-44, Death Valley Rangers teams three Western stars already past their prime: Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, and Bob Steele. Patterned after Monogram's own Range Busters series (1940-43), itself inspired by Republic's "Three Mesquiteers," the first three "Trail Blazers" films starred Maynard and Gibson. The next three added Steele to the mix, but Maynard departed after that. He was replaced by Chief Thunder Cloud in series numbers seven and eight, after which Gibson and Steele continued with three more movies together at Monogram, but those were not billed as Trail Blazers. (A tip of the ten-gallon hat to Sergei Hasenecz for clarifying this point.)
Death Valley Rangers is genial but ordinary, and while Maynard and Gibson have a relaxed, quasi-Hope & Crosby camaraderie, the acting is pretty sloppy with awkward pauses, as if the stars learned their lines moments before the cameras rolled, which might well have been the case. (More on this below.) The underrated Bob Steele is good, however, and prolific character actors Charles King, George Chesebro, and Glenn Strange (his name once again misspelled in the credits) lend able support.
Part of MGM's "Limited Edition Collection" of manufactured-on-demand titles, Death Valley Rangers gets a disappointingly soft transfer that's barely a notch above the kind of public domain releases one usually associates with low-budget B-Westerns. It's certainly a far cry from the pristine B-Westerns emanating from Sony's MOD line. That combined with the short (59-minute) running time and lack of extra features makes this pretty pricey, considering.
After his Death Valley Stagecoach line is robbed of its gold shipments, Edwards (Bryant Washburn) enlists the aid of government agents Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson (Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson). Another agent, Bob Steele (Bob Steele) happens to catch a ride on one such stage after his horse goes lame and, predictably, that stage is ambushed as well. Bob tries thwarting the robbers by tossing the strongbox overboard but the villains find it anyway, though Bob still comes out ahead. He falls head-over-heels for the stage's only other passenger, Lorna Ainsley (Linda Brent), daughter of Ranger Captain Ainsley (Forrest Taylor).
Bob eventually goes undercover, infiltrating Jim Kirk's (Weldon Heyburn) gang, whose numbers include henchmen Blackie (Charles King) and Red (George Chesebro). The film has very slight sci-fi elements, as Kirk is essentially stealing the gold and hiding it in a spent gold mine by means of a chemical process. Once poured back into the rock it becomes indistinguishable from virgin ore.
Death Valley Rangers came at the tail end of Ken Maynard's stormy career, one that peaked in the late-silent/early-talkie period. Maynard had been hugely popular but was by all accounts a singularly mean drunk and, by 1943, was pot-bellied, pissed, and pissed-off, and especially unhappy to be working at Monogram. Maynard made only a handful of films after this, and his attitude and/or drinking may account his awkward delivery in his dialogue scenes, most of which are with Hoot.
Hoot Gibson was pals with Maynard for many years. He even crashed his airplane and was seriously injured while racing Maynard in the National Air Races. And like Maynard, Hoot was by this point overweight and had squandered his fortune. By the 1950s he was reduced to working as a greeter in Vegas.
Wiry Bob Steele had better luck, and in a wider range of movies, including memorable roles in Of Mice and Men (1939), The Big Sleep (1944), and as a regular on TV's F Troop. Though a bit ferret-faced and, for some reason, in these pictures invariably so overly made-up that he looks almost cadaverous, Steele nonetheless makes a fine addition to the team and he's surprisingly good in the juvenile lead role.
The movie is too cheap to be much more than five reels of filler, however. One gets the sense it was made in a hurry. Ken Maynard's character is introduced in a shot where he rides smack-dab into a tree branch, probably unintentional. (Drunk-riding, perhaps?) Later, a signboard for Jack's Chop House advertises 15-cent "stakes."
Video & Audio
The full-frame transfer of Death Valley Rangers compares very unfavorably to Sony's MOD B-Westerns of similar vintage. This transfer sources soft and worn film elements that might even be 16mm. It certainly doesn't look any better than an old TV print. Mono English audio (only, with no subtitle options) is adequate on this region 1 disc. No Extra Features.
Unless you're a big Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, or Bob Steele fan you can probably live without ever seeing Death Valley Rangers. Had the transfer been better, or had there had been some interesting extras, or if two more "Trail Blazers" entries been included on the same disc, I might have Recommended this. Instead, most will be more than content with Renting It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is presently hard at work producing special features content for sci-fi extravaganzas from two different home video labels.