While not quite on the same scale as finding Orson Welles's original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons or the original camera negative of the long-lost London After Midnight, Olive Films nonetheless has quietly achieved something quite remarkable with their release of Overland Stage Raiders (1938) and three other relatively obscure John Wayne pictures made just prior to John Ford's seminal Stagecoach (1939).
Republic Picture's vast catalog of B-Westerns (most famously starring Gene Autry and, later, Roy Rogers) and slam-bang serials (Adventures of Captain Marvel, Zorro's Fighting Legion) until recently invariably looked tepid at best, rarely rising above washed-out mediocrity on VHS and later on DVD, even officially licensed releases through distributors like Artisan. But, even worse, most of Republic's films wound up as public domain releases, always with appallingly bad transfers, transfers that only further damaged those genres' already lowly reputations. Corporate disinterest combined with these PD releases threatened to ruin forever nearly all of Republic's entire output. There seemed a very real chance these movies would never again look presentable, and in turn never have a real chance for fair modern reappraisal.
For that reason, Overland Stage Raiders is a revelation. It's in the same league as the best HD transfers of other 1930s black-and-white movies, and in many ways it looks even better than Criterion's Blu-ray of Stagecoach. More importantly, it's light years ahead of what fans of such movies have been saddled with literally for decades.*
This is not to suggest Overland Stage Raiders is a lost masterpiece; don't expect a Rio Bravo or Searchers in this bunch. Olive's four John Wayne titles - the others being Red River Range (1938), The Night Riders (1939), and Three Texas Steers (1939) - were modest program pictures tailored for undemanding audiences. But they're fast-paced and in their own way quite amusing, fun for those able to suspend a mountain of disbelief.
Moreover, Overland Stage Raiders offers the final screen appearance of one of the great icons of silent cinema, actress Louise Brooks. Playing the ingénue, she's barely recognizable as the star of Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl.
Overland Stage Raiders was the eighteenth of 51 "Three Mesquiteers" movies Republic produced between 1936 and 1943. William Colt MacDonald's Western novels (beginning in 1933), loosely-drawn from Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers, prompted the series, which was probably also influenced by Paramount's similarly structured though far superior "Hopalong Cassidy" series.
Nearly all the early "Three Mesquiteers" movies starred Robert Livingston as Stony Brooke, Ray "Crash" Corrigan as Tucson Smith, and, for comic relief, Max Terhune as Lullaby Joslin. Ventriloquist Terhune's dummy, Elmer, usually made an appearance as well, but he rarely got screen credit.
Actors came and went. By the time it finished, Tom Tyler, Bob Steele, and future Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd were playing Stony, Tucson, and Lullaby. John Wayne, replacing Robert Livingston as Stony Brooke (Livingston and Corrigan reportedly didn't get along), appeared in just eight films, all confined to about the middle of 1938 to the middle of 1939. Stagecoach premiered in the midst of Wayne's stint with the Mesquiteers, in February 1939, instantly making him too big a star for such trifles. He left the series and Robert Livingston returned to the role he originated.**
Overland Stage Raiders, running a scant 54:59, has even less plot than the usual B-Western, and for those unaccustomed with the genre's iconography, it is a baffling mix of period and then-modern contrivances. The story is set in the present day, where the Oro Grande Mining Company entrusts its 19th century-style strongboxes of gold to ordinary passenger buses, the modern-day stagecoach. Bandits, riding horses and carrying six-shooters, stage a hold-up, but the Three Mesquiteers save the day, Stony literally parachuting to the rescue.
Stony uses the $1,000 they're offered as a reward to establish a more practical and commercially viable shipping method for the gold, convincing mining company president Frank Harmon (Roy James) to hire pilot Ned Hoyt (Anthony Marsh). (Ned is a reformed ex-con, a subplot leading nowhere.) Wanting to transport passengers as well, Stony finances the purchase of an even bigger, more modern plane, and with the help of Tucson, Lullaby, and Ned's sister, Beth (Louise Brooks), they convince local ranchers to invest in the new airline, using their cattle as collateral.
However, the bandits, aided by bitter radio operator Joe Waddel (Arch Hall, Sr., later the producer-writer-director of Eegah and other terrible films), stage a daring mid-air robbery.
After starring in The Big Trail (1930), a sprawling Western epic that regrettably flopped at the box office, John Wayne gradually slid down the Hollywood food chain until, by 1934, he was headlining the cheapest of cheap Westerns. Stagecoach, filmed in November-December of 1938, cost $531,000, a healthy A-picture budget for the time. By contrast, Overland Stage Raiders was shot over nine days the previous August, and came in at just $35,000 (of which Wayne received $3,000).
"Christ, they were awful. They were kids' movies," Wayne was to have said of these films. Juvenile they certainly were but for their intended audience they were breezy, modest entertainments viewed with fondness by old and newer fans alike. Tellingly, Wayne and Brooks deliver the worst of the leading performances, while Corrigan and Terhune get into the spirit of the thing.
Video & Audio
Overland Stage Raiders is presented in its original 1.37:1 full frame format, with the opening titles windowboxed, a bit overly so. The word "revival" is superimposed over the credits, suggesting this was sourced from a 1953 re-release, but regardless the image is for the most part dazzlingly sharp and pristine, with only a few very slightly grainier stock shots interrupting an otherwise revelatory viewing experience. The mono audio (English only, no subtitles), is likewise terrific. No Extra Features.
Not a classic or even an especially good example of what the best B-Westerns have to offer, Overland Stage Raiders nonetheless will positively astound genre fans with its video transfer, one as different from what they've been used to as lossless audio is from Edison's wax cylinder phonographs. Highly Recommended.
* In fairness, the Gene Autry estate likewise did a fine job restoring that singing cowboy's Republic movies, though Roy Rogers's films are still threatened.
** Sergei Hasenecz notes, "Livingston was the first to play the part in the Republic series. However there were three movies based on MacDonald's Three Mesquiteers books before Republic took their turn. A year earlier, none other than Hoot Gibson played Stony Brooke in RKO's Powdersmoke Range (1935), with Harry Carey as Tucson Smith and Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams as Lullaby Joslin. The movie was billed as 'The Barnum and Bailey of Westerns!' which, considering its cast of then-present and former cowboy stars, it was: Bob Steele and Tom Tyler (as you mentioned, both of whom would later become Mesquiteers themselves), along with William Farnum, William Desmond, Buzz Barton, Wally Wales, Art Mix, Buffalo Bill Jr., Buddy Roosevelt, and Franklyn Farnum ... You might [also] want to mention that in the course of the 51 Republic movies, there were twelve actors who played the Mesquiteers in nine different teams."
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.