Really, MGM? Really? You want $19.98...for this?
I'm frequently harsh on MGM when it comes to their line of manufactured-on-demand "Limited Edition Collection" titles, and for a variety of reasons: awful cover art intent on discouraging sales, up-res video transfers, full-frame transfers of widescreen movies, etc.
The movies themselves are another matter. While often obscure and/or terrible, they are nonetheless frequently of great interest to film buffs and movie historians like myself; personally, I'd love to see about 75% of what they've released so far.
But if I paid anything close to retail on Outlaw Trail (1944), a breezy, unassuming little B-Western, I doubt I'd take my chances on another "Limited Edition Collection" title ever again.
Unlike MOD rivals Sony (and their "Choice Collection") and Warner Home Video (Warner Archive), as well as Universal and now Fox, MGM seems perfectly content in most cases to utilize existing video masters, no matter their age and incompatibility with contemporary viewing standards.
In short, Outlaw Trail looks awful. Really awful. Instead of a professionally mastered DVD from a major video label, using original or first-generation film elements, it resembles a mid-level public domain release, the kind of thing one used to find on low-wattage UHF stations at four o'clock in the morning, and these days packaged with 99 other PD movies for, say, oh, $19.98.
It's a suicidal marketing strategy. I've suggested in other reviews MGM would be wise to look to Sony, which charges approximately the same amount for similarly cheap B-Westerns, but the video transfers on that label are consistently stellar, and that at least partly offsets the hit to one's wallet. Even better, they'd do well to adopt Warner Archive's approach. Their Monogram Cowboy Collection sets retail for $34.95, but for that price one gets eight or nine Westerns, all beautifully remastered. (Outlaw Trail was produced by the very same studio, Monogram, so one assumes better film elements exist someplace.) I became an instant, enthusiastic fan of Warner's boxed sets of B-Westerns and hope eventually to buy them all. Outlaw Trail will more likely leave consumers feeling depressed and ripped-off.
Warner's approach is a lot more attractive than $19.98 for a single, 53-minute movie. That looks like dogmeat. That's on a DVD-R.
Clearly, if MGM is dead-set against remastering these titles, then either they need to bring the price down - way, way down - or, more logically, minimally package 6-8 of these one-hour movies on two DVD-Rs. After all, since they're already set on using existing masters, what difference would it make to stick three movies on a disc instead of one? What are the odds MGM is going to get around to releasing, say, the nine other "Trail Blazers" titles (of which Outlaw Trail was the seventh)?
The "Trail Busters" was a Poverty Row Western film series from Monogram that emulated its own "Range Busters" series, which itself had been inspired by Republic Pictures' "Three Mesquiteers." The main thing to remember is that all of these featured three cowboy names (some were stars, others weren't). The Trail Blazers began with Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, and Bob Steele, but Maynard was by all accounts a thoroughly miserable person and a mean drunk besides, and after a few films even longtime friend Hoot couldn't put up with him anymore. For the next several films, including this one, Chief Thundercloud replaced Maynard.*
In Outlaw Trail, Trail Blazers Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele, and Chief Thundercloud (themselves), Texas Rangers, investigate the disappearance of Carl Beldon (George Eldridge), a cattle-buyer who, armed with $20,000 in cash, disappeared shortly after arriving in Johnstown. Corrupt banker "Honest John" Travers all but owns the town lock, stock, and barrel, including the local saloon, general store, and hotel. Further, he strong-arms everyone into using (and becoming dependent upon) his own personal script rather than conventional U.S. currency. Beldon, mortally wounded, asks the Trail Blazers to look after his daughter, Alice (Jennifer Holt, daughter of cowboy star Jack Holt and brother of B-Western star Tim), and the family ranch, the Flying T.
Naturally, their snooping about leads to various ambushes and assassination attempts by Honest John's henchman, particularly Blackie (Bud Osborne) and Spike (Jim Thorpe, the renowned athlete later portrayed by Burt Lancaster), and there's also morally ambiguous Sheriff Rocky Camron (Gene Alsace, though strangely billed as "Rocky Camrom"; the inept credits also manage to misspell the names of Holt, Osborne, and Thorpe) to contend with. The movie becomes nearly plotless in its second-half, but there's plenty of action, the kind of thing undemanding B-Western audiences expected.
The picture ain't much, but the three leads have an undeniable chemistry. I never cared for Ken Maynard, who by the 1940s comes off as a pot-bellied blow-hard. Hoot Gibson, while getting old and stocky himself, is genial in a ruddy, later-Bruce Cabot sort of way. Bob Steele, the girl-chasing juvenile lead by default, makes an unlikely hero. He's short, wiry, and ferret-faced, and in all the B-Westerns I've ever seen him in, he has this pasty-faced pallor that, accentuated by the poor contrast of PD video masters, makes him almost look like the living dead. Yet Steele himself somehow is immensely likeable and among my favorite B-Western heroes, though he was equally fine in bad guy roles (notably Curly in Of Mice and Men). Chief Thundercloud was born Victor Daniels but was a bona fide Indian, a Cherokee, best known as the original movie Tonto in The Lone Ranger (1938) and The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939). He's the butt of a lot of lame Indian jokes - "If I don't get a vacation soon, I'm really going on the warpath!" - but like Steele he's hard to dislike.
Video & Audio
The awful transfer of Outlaw Trail (see also above) is thankfully free of the splice-generated jump-cuts, reel change cues, deep scratches, and warped videotape wrinkles one associates with PD releases, but the image on this region 1-encoded disc nonetheless is quite terrible. It's very soft and grainy at the same time, objects such as the tree branches at 18:00 seem to float independent of their tree trunks, creating a weird multi-plane effect. The contrast is extremely poor, and the bad Dolby Digital mono audio, English only with no alternate language or subtitle options, doesn't help either. No Extra Features.
Inexcusably poor releases like this do more harm than good, falsely creating the impression cheap B-Westerns naturally look this bad, in the same way shows like Fractured Flickers furthered the image of silent cinema as herky-jerky fodder objects of derision. Sony and Warner Bros., with their pristine home video versions of these same budget-level Westerns have been a revelation to fans who for decades had little option but the Alpha Video/PD route for most of their movies. Outlaw Trail is a regrettable step backward. Skip It.
* Sergei Hasenecz helpfully notes, "Can't tell the players without a scorecard. Maynard and Gibson appeared in the first Trail Blazers with singing cowboy Bob Baker. They did the next two without Baker. Steele showed up for number four and stayed for the remaining entries, while Chief Thundercloud replaced Maynard for seven and eight, which ended the series. Gibson and Steele did three more movies together for Monogram, but these were not part of the Trail Blazers series. As for your depiction of Maynard, I've never read a comment from any of the old-time cowboy stars, actors, or directors who contradicted it. I still wonder if Autry's evil role in The Big Show was inspired by Maynard?
"It seems that in Maynard's declining years he lived at the Shady Tree Trailer Park in San Fernando. For many years Gene Autry paid the rent on the space. Supposedly Autry paid the owner of the park directly, although it's not known if Maynard knew it was Autry helping him out. The way it seems to piece together is this: By the early '30s Maynard's behavior was fast burning bridges at studios large and small. In 1934 he was dropped by Universal and ended up at Mascot, where Nat Levine put him in a feature, In Old Santa Fe, and a serial, Mystery Mountain. Both co-starred Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette, with In Old Santa Fe being their movie debut. According to Levine, Mystery Mountain was his second highest-earning serial after Tom Mix's The Miracle Rider. Levine had originally planned to star Maynard in The Phantom Empire, but despite the profits, had had enough of Maynard and cast Autry in the lead instead. Autry was apparently grateful to Maynard for the co-starring roles and remembered him later in life."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.