A fun sampler for fans of vintage TV oaters. Shout! Factory has released Howdy, Kids!! A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup, a 3-disc, 24-episode collection of "children's television" Westerns (as the disc cover describes them) that were either syndicated or network broadcasted in the 1950s. Titles included here are: The Lone Ranger, The Range Rider, The Rifleman, The Adventures of Rick O'Shay, Fury, The Roy Rogers Show, Annie Oakley, The Adventures of Kit Carson, The Adventures of Champion, The Cisco Kid, Sergeant Preston of The Yukon, Sky King, Red Ryder (really just a pilot, not an actual series), and Buffalo Bill, Jr.. Almost all of the episodes featured here have what look to be proper run times (except for The Lone Ranger), while the transfers (no doubt taken from syndication prints and VHS dubs) range from fair to middling...to pretty poor. However, for a fan of vintage Western television like myself, Howdy, Kids!! A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup is a great way to actually see a few notable titles one might only know from the history books. No extras for the collection.
If you're a regular reader of my reviews (and god help you if you have that much free time on your hands), then you know the fondness and affection I have for the "adult" TV Westerns I grew up watching in reruns (or have newly discovered on DVD), such as Gunsmoke, Maverick, Zane Grey Theater, Bonanza, and Rawhide. As for the "kiddie" Westerns included in the Howdy, Kids!! A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup collection, you could make a fair argument that while series like The Roy Rogers Show, Sergeant Preston of The Yukon, and Buffalo Bill, Jr. where specifically aimed at kid audiences, something like The Rifleman was not--while all the titles included here could be and probably were watched and enjoyed not just by the small fry, but also by their parents and grandparents and older siblings, as well. By the year I was born, all of the titles included in this collection had long-since ceased production, but even into the early 1970s a few of these shows were still staples of off-market syndication. I distinctly remember catching reruns of The Lone Ranger on a regular basis, along with The Cisco Kid, The Rifleman, and The Roy Rogers Show. However, the other titles had disappeared off my TV dial when I was growing up, so seeing them here (some for the first time) was pretty cool.
I watched all of the episodes here in Howdy, Kids!! A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup in two big chunks...and that may not be the best way to view these particular types of formulaic (not a pejorative) oaters, particularly when plots and characters and even the horses all start to look the same at hour nine or ten. The two Lone Ranger episodes included here, The Renegades and Six Gun's Legacy, come from the beloved, iconic Western's first season on ABC, in 1949...and they're just as trim and as entertaining storytelling as one can ask for in a "kiddie" oater. I may love an early Rawhide outing for a stylistically complex narrative, or an early Maverick for its sophisticated, perverse black humor, or a thematically rich early Bonanza episode; however, I get just as much aesthetic pleasure out of a super-clean, efficient bit of basic good guys vs. bad guys storytelling in your typical Lone Ranger episode, as I do from those "serious" Westerns. Watch The Lone Ranger gets his face viciously bullwhipped in the first outing, while the second episode has a line of dialogue that always catches me up when delivered by sincere Clayton Moore: "Who are you?" asks a wounded young man, and The Lone Ranger responds simply, "A friend." How many kids watching this at home, wished that were true for them, too?
I had never seen The Range Rider before, but I enjoyed the two episodes included here from this 1951-1953 syndicated Western: Convict at Large and Bullets And Badmen. A product of Western legend Gene Autry's Flying A Productions company, these two episodes of The Range Rider moved quickly, with good action, some nice location shooting, and the athletic, amusing pairing of expert stuntman Jock Mahoney and expert horseman Dick Jones. They seemed to be having a good time together, and that comes across nicely on the screen, giving The Range Rider a genuine sense of humor often missing from these Westerns. On the other hand, there's nothing funny about Day Of The Hunter, the second season episode from the hit ABC network series, The Rifleman. Typically for this underrated drama/oater, the storyline is thought-provoking--the always-excellent John Anderson is a frontier hero and legend out of his time...and he's willing to bait Lucas (Chuck Connors) into killing him--and the execution razor-sharp. One of the best TV Westerns of the late 50s and early 60s, this episode of The Rifleman stands out in sharp thematic contrast to the relatively simpler fare here.
Speaking of simple...the episode Stagecoach To Danger, from The Adventures of Rick O'Shay, is a terrible example of a "kiddie" Western, with atrocious, cheap sets, amateurish acting, and surprisingly inept camerawork. Remarkably, I couldn't find any information on this series during an admittedly short perusal of the net--not IMDB, and not even Wiki (which I avoid like the plague). Where this show originated or how long it lasted, I can't say...but I can say it's awful. Far, far better was Killer Stallion and Scorched Earth from Fury, the NBC modern-day Western that ran from 1955 to 1960. Similar to Lassie, substituting a horse for a collie, Fury was new to me, but I'm sold on it after these two entertaining episodes. Killer Stallion is textbook professional A-B-C exposition and execution, culminating in a super-cool duel between two horses that will make you wonder where the ASPCA rep was at the time, while Scorched Earth is even better: an exciting forest fire episode with some solid suspense (but what's up with that ending, which seems from an entirely different story?). Bobby Diamond is a natural, unaffected performer, with Peter Graves and William Fawcett offering good support (now I get why they named the kid in Airplane! "Joey" for all those Peter Graves pervert jokes...).
What can I say about Roy Rogers and Dale Evans except that they're gods in the Western pantheon? I don't care how good an actor you are (or aren't): you can't fake sincerity on-screen. Roy and Dale exuded that quality in spades, as well as innate goodness, friendliness, and when together, a playfulness that's infectious. So it's a real treat to see them again after so many years in The Roy Rogers Show's episodes Bad Neighbors and The Setup. Watch Roy and Bullet the Wonder Dog get the crap beaten out of them in the first episode (with Trigger saving them), and Old Granny get shot at before pretending a stamp machine is a one-armed bandit. Episode 2 has its Jell-Oï¿½ and Post Cerealsï¿½ title cards over Roy ridin' and shootin', before Pat Brady tries unsuccessfully to hang wall paper and Dale gets into a little tussle. It's a clichï¿½, I'm sure, for fans of Roy and Dale, but when they sign-off each episode harmonizing on Dale's Happy Trails, I get choked up. I had heard about Gene Autry's Annie Oakley series, but had never seen it; the two episodes here, Sharpshooting Annie and Outlaw Brand, were mildly entertaining. Pretty Gail Davis has just the right amount of spunk, and she looks good in the saddle, while Jimmy Hawkins is amusing as Annie's trouble-prone brother, Tagg. The Adventures of Kit Carson, a syndicated series that ran from 1951 to 1955, went down quite well, too, mainly because handsome mug Bill Williams had such an easy-going, loose-limbed charm about him (as well as good chemistry with funny Don Diamond as his Mexican sidekick, El Toro). Episodes included here are Thunder Over Inyo and The Desperate Sheriff. My two young daughters enjoyed The Adventures of Champion, the one season CBS effort from 1955-1956, about a wild stallion named Champion, and the boy, Ricky (Barry Curtis), who could tame him. This was apparently a spin-off of The Gene Autry Show (as well as a radio version), and the episodes included here, are a fair approximation of Lassie Goes West.
Another great favorite of mine growing up was The Cisco Kid, the color-soaked adventures of O.Henry's Mexican desperado/Robin Hood, roaming the Old West on his horse, Diablo. I hadn't seen this in years and years, but very much like The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid "shoots straight" in terms of its execution, combining clean, efficient direction and surprisingly nimble dialogue, with two stellar performances from handsome Romanian-born (not Hispanic) actor Duncan Renaldo (single best Western costume ever) and funnyman Leo Carrillo. Episodes here are Freight Line Feud and Ghost Town, the latter a particularly good, suspenseful outing (who as a kid didn't yell back at their final send-off, "Goodbye, amigos!" "See you soon, ha!"???). One of my top ten vintage TV series I'd love to see cleaned up and restored. The inclusion of Sergeant Preston of The Yukon in the Howdy, Kids!! A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup collection, while always welcome, seems a tad strange to me, since I always considered it a "Northern," not a Western, so it's a bit of a stretch to have episodes Crime at Wounded Moose and Trapped here. However...as one of my all-time favorite television series period, Sergeant Preston of The Yukon can reside in any vintage TV collection it wants to (you can read my extensive reviews of that series here).
Sky King is a series referenced quite often as one of those "boomer" shows everyone seems to love; I had never seen it before, so I was looking forward to it (particularly with that fantastically pulpy episode title, Bullet Bait). However, I'm going to have to reserved judgment on it, because I was a little underwhelmed by this outing. The premise is certainly fun--Kirby Grant taking to the skies in Songbird, his sleek twin-engine Cessna, protecting his Flying Crown Ranch--and Kirby Grant is perfect in the role. But for some reason, this episode seemed a little short on excitement. I'm certainly not giving up on Sky King...but this episode didn't sell me. Unless I really screwed up in my research, from what I can gather, the episode Whiplash from Red Ryder isn't really an episode from the series...because there was no series. This, apparently, is one of two pilots commissioned for a Red Ryder TV show, both of which didn't sell. It's entertaining enough, with a good cast (Jim Bannon does well here, and there's a solid supporting cast, including Lyle Talbot, Dick Curts, and Monte Blue), but I guess this is strictly a one-shot deal. Finally, Gene Autry's Buffalo Bill, Jr. episodes Blazing Guns and Legacy of Jesse James play well enough with Dick Jones (of The Range Rider) getting his own chance to carry a series...which he does nicely. The tone of the shows is aimed squarely at the little kids in the audience, and on that level, it works just fine, with some mild action and mild comedy to keep them interested.
This is not Blu-ray quality...but then you knew that already. Some nice looking transfers, but problems galore elsewhere, from bad VHS dubs, to bad VHS dubs taken from 16mm prints that were out of frame (haven't seen that since my high school projector days), to ghostly, contrasty, blown-out images, to lots and lots of screen noise and print damage. Vintage TV fans won't blink, though.
Same with the sound. Annie Oakley, in particular, I could barely hear. Lots of hiss and pops, too, with these Dolby Digital English mono audio tracks. No subtitles or closed-captions.
Even though it was the early 70s, I was still one of those little kids who sat on the living room rug, in his horsey jammies, with my cowboy hat and my polished real chrome six shooter cap guns strapped on, watching the Saturday afternoon Western on our local TV station. Only difference from those kids in the 50s was the length of my hair. As a one-stop sampler for that time period, Howdy, Kids!! A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup ain't too bad, combining some more well-known series with the harder-to-find stuff for an all-around good representation of what everyone thought was a much simpler time...at least on their TV screens. Now if only someone would follow my suggestion and make these episodes truly complete by inserting five minutes of vintage commercials during the station breaks. I'm recommending the Howdy, Kids!! A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup collection.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.