A curious but not terribly exciting B-Western starring Buck Jones, Men Without Law (1930) was an early talkie from Columbia Pictures, and it has much of the technical and aesthetic creakiness of that era. Still, taking this into consideration, the film is pretty lethargic and uninspired, even by early talkie standards. However, B-Western fans may still find the short, 64 1/2 -minute second feature worthwhile for Jones's presence alone.
A manufactured-on-demand, Sony "Choice Collection" release, Men Without Law looks fantastic for an 83-year-old B-movie from the least of the Hollywood majors. Sony's deep catalog feature film releases consistently look great, and this is no exception.
Unusual for a Western, Men Without Law opens in the mud-soaked trenches of the European battlefield during World War I, where 23rd Infantry Sgt. Buck Healy (Buck Jones) saves the life of a fellow doughboy, Ramon Del Rey (Donald Reed). The lad writes to his family back home about Buck's heroism, and they respond with a heartfelt letter of appreciation. Later, however, Del Rey dies in hospital of his wounds.
Back home in Gunshot after the war ("Gunshot Welcomes Back It's [sic] Heroes" says one banner), Buck's silver-haired mother (Lydia Knott) is distressed that her youngest son, Tom (Tommy Carr, later a prolific television director), has disappeared. Buck soon learns that the boy has been arrested after falling in with the Murdock Gang, now wanted for a recent bank robbery. ("I thought I'd get a kick out of it," Tom explains.)
Buck convinces Sheriff Jim (Fred Burns) to let him take Tom's place in jail for an hour so that the boy can square things with Ma, but on his way back home he's intercepted by Murdock (Harry Woods) and his gang, who hold him hostage because he "knows too much." After an interesting if pointless scene where Buck and Sheriff Jim look for Tom at Ma's house, then sit down for a big meal that Ma has prepared ("Oh boy, is this pie or what!"), Buck is thrown in jail but later escapes from the dumb deputy (Fred Kelsey) charged with guarding him.
Buck is easily captured by Murdock's men - he spends more running time getting caught and held prisoner than as a free man - and in Buck's wallet Murdock discovers Francisco Del Rey's (Hector Sarno) letter of appreciation concerning Buck's treatment of his son. As it happens, Murdock has been staking out the Casa Del Rey, planning to steal the family's priceless heirloom, some centuries-old jewels from Barcelona. Murdock decides to impersonate Buck, ingratiating himself with Francisco as well as the Mexican rancher's daughter, Juanita (Carmelita Geraghty).
Buck Jones became one of the biggest film stars of the 1920s, but his career went up and down like a rollercoaster after the coming of sound. Men Without Law was made during one such slump, with Jones earning $300/week at Columbia. Those films, however, reestablished him as a major if B-Western star for most of the next 10 years. He entered another slump after singing cowboy movies became popular and went to work for Poverty Row producer Monogram Pictures. Not long after, Jones was one of the 492 victims of the hellish Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, Massachusetts, with the actor, horrifically burned, clinging to life for two days before finally succumbing. The apocryphal but widely believed at the time story that Jones heroically rushed back into the burning building trying to save lives secured his cult hero status. Though largely forgotten today, Buck Jones's fans are a famously loyal bunch. (Bill Cosby, also a big Hopalong Cassidy fan, was one, building one of his famous routines around a childhood memory of watching Buck.)
His screen charisma and screen persona are readily apparent in Men Without Law, particularly in the lengthy scenes of Buck Healy's unfailingly gentle treatment of his aged mother. The movie, however, tells an already overly familiar story with little energy and much awkwardness.
Buck's brother is in jail and then Buck is jail. He makes for the villains' hideout and is quickly captured. When Murdock assumes Buck's identity Buck heads for the Casa Del Rey and is captured and locked up. When Buck is finally let out, the gang almost immediately knocks him off his horse, Silver, and tie him up.
That last bit was clearly written in to show off Silver's trick of using its teeth to untie Buck. ("C'mere, son!" Buck says, strangely.) Francisco is portrayed as hopelessly na´ve, as he's completely taken in by Murdock-as-Buck with no evidence, yet without hesitation and much evidence to the contrary throws the real Buck into the casa's convenient jail cell. Elsewhere, Indiana-born actress Geraghty tries her best to sound like a native Spanish-speaker but isn't at all convincing, while her character comes across as needlessly snooty and unappealing.
And while the film clearly takes place after World War I, like other B-Westerns Gunshot is anachronistically stuck in the 19th century, with the no sign at all of automobiles, electricity, etc., while the women all wear clothing that was out of fashion by 1880.
Video & Audio
Men Without Law sources a reissue print with newer titles (probably from the late-1940s or '50s) reflecting its release through distributor Gail Pictures International. Otherwise, the movie looks great with nary a scratch on it, and with blacks, contrast and detail all getting high marks. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. There are no menu screens; the movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Unmemorable but still worth a look for B-Western followers generally and Buck Jones fans specifically, especially because of its fine video transfer, Men Without Law comes very mildly Recommended.
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.