Pals of the Saddle (1938), the first of John Wayne's eight "Three Mesquiteers" movies for Republic Pictures, B-Westerns he made during 1938-39, also happens to be the last released by Olive Films. Olive's Blu-ray releases have consistently been outstanding, and these lowly little movies, pictures heretofore available only via public domain labels using horrifically bad video transfers, are now high-def revelations.
Wayne himself wasn't a fan of these movies. After headlining a string of moderately more adult Westerns for Republic and other studios prior to that, becoming one-third of a trio on a series of "kiddie films" (his term) was considered a demotion. That he would star in John Ford's landmark Stagecoach (1939) in the midst of these sometimes loopy Westerns featuring wayward gorillas, a ventriloquist dummy sidekick, and other absurdities made Duke wince. What he didn't recognize, and what's been next to impossible for anyone to recognize until Olive's Blu-rays came along, is that the series was actually pretty pliable to a wide range of story material, and that the best of these films are unexpectedly adult, with several offering some real surprises.
(For the record, the other Three Mesquiteers movies featuring Wayne are, in chronological order, Overland Stage Raiders, Santa Fe Stampede,
Red River Range,
The Night Riders,
Three Texas Steers,
Wyoming Outlaw, and
New Frontier [sold as Frontier Horizon, a reissue title.])
Pals of the Saddle is, alas, a lesser entry, though its (atypically) modern setting, unusually strong female lead played by a mysterious actress of whom very little seems to be know, and especially lively climax keep it interesting. And once again, Olive Films offers up another dazzlingly pristine high-definition transfer, sourced in this case from re-release elements.
Unlike most Three Mesquiteers movies, Pals of the Saddle (not Pals in the Saddle, not that there's anything wrong with that) is set in the present, a time when war was already waging in Asia between Japan and China, and inching closer every day in Europe. A prologue mentions the 1935 Neutrality Act banning the export of war materials while headlines report of foreign agents smuggling "monium" out of the country.
Meanwhile, at the Mesquite County Dude Ranch, Ann (Doreen McKay) flirts with Paul Hartman (George Douglas), feigning a bolting horse so that he'll come after her. However, the Three Mesquiteers - Stony Brooke (John Wayne), Tucson Smith (Ray "Crash" Corrigan) and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune) - also see the runaway horse, and Stony "rescues" Ann instead, to her displeasure. She huffs off, forgetting her purse, which to the Mesquiteers' surprise contains a pistol.
They arrive at the dude ranch to return the purse and pistol, Stony and Tuscon jockeying for the honor. Ann, meanwhile, is in her room with Frank (Frank Milan). Both, in fact, are U.S. Secret Service agents on foreign agent Paul's trail. He suddenly appears and in a struggle with Frank is killed. Frank, seriously wounded himself, escapes through a back window. Stony then blunders in at the worst possible moment. Ann, not wanting to blow her clover, accuses Stony of murdering Paul during a robbery attempt. Stony is locked up but soon escapes, then after locating Ann agrees to take the mortally wounded Frank's place in contacting Henry C. Gordon (Ted Adams), ringleader of the smugglers. Ann is impressed: "You're pretty regular, Brooke," she says.
The film's climax is lively, exactly the kind of thing Republic did especially well. The Mesquiteers try to stop a massive shipment of monium - the smugglers foolishly using 19th century stagecoaches - across the border. (A plain wooden sign reading only "International Border" marks the unmonitored spot.) Filmed at the instantly recognizable Red Rock Canyon, a lively shootout ensues, the highly explosive monium blows up spectacularly (via Howard and Theodore Lydecker's miniature effects) and the (modern) cavalry rides to the rescue.
Doreen McKay is quite good as Ann. Somewhat resembling Mary Astor, McKay's acting is very naturalistic and appealing, making her inexplicably short career all the more mystifying. After an uncredited bit in the Fox picture Stars for a Night (1936) she turned up in a supporting part in The Higgins Family (1938), a Republic comedy starring the James Gleason family. After Pals of the Saddle she starred in another Mesquiteers movie, The Night Riders (1939), had an uncredited bit ("Girl at Shower") in Eternally Yours, then vanished. Sources such as the IMDb know nothing about her, even a birth or death date.
Video & Audio
Olive's video transfer of Pals of the Saddle is another eye-opening viewing experience. The black-and-white, 1.37:1 image is pristine, with only a few seconds here and there where secondary film elements had to be used. Detail, blacks, and contrast are all very impressive. The Region A disc has decent audio, English only with no subtitle options, and No Extra Features.
Hopefully this last release of a John Wayne-Three Mesquiteers doesn't mean the last of the Mesquiteers themselves, who got along just fine before Wayne joined them, and would again after his departure. (For these proposed non-Wayne entries, I hope Olive will consider releasing 2-3 movies on a disc instead of just one.) For that matter, here's hoping Olive also gets around to releasing some of Republic's great serials to Blu-ray, as well those Roy Rogers movies Paramount-Republic still owns. Poor Roy especially has had it bad on DVD. I, for one, can't get enough of these great releases, and just hope they don't stop when Olive runs out of John Wayne movies. 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.