Though filmed in just nine days on a small budget (probably less than $25,000), The California Trail (1933) is a highly effective B-Western starring Buck Jones and lovely Helen Mack, here cast against type - boy, howdy - as a tempestuous senorita.
A Sony Pictures Choice Collection, manufactured-on-demand DVD, The California Trail sources reissue film elements, when this Columbia Pictures production was rereleased by Gail Pictures in 1953. Beyond that, the movie looks great, with a bright, sharp picture throughout and virtually no signs of any damage.
In 1830s Spanish California, Mayor Don Alberto Piedra (George Humbert) and his brother, Commandante Emilio Quierra (Luis Alberni), are trying to starve the poor into surrendering their land, the mayor claiming his general store's cupboards are bare when in fact he's secretly moving sacks of corn meal in sacks labeled "gunpowder" to the fort nearby while raising chickens unconvincingly out of earshot. A young boy discovers this but is shot in the back by Quierra.
Elsewhere, Don Marco Ramirez (Emile Chautard), a kindly local aristocrat, is riding with Santa Fe Stewart (Buck Jones) and others back toward La Loma, to deliver food to the starving populace. Indians sent by Emlio attack the party and Ramirez is mortally wounded, but Santa Fe continues on. Once there, however, Santa Fe is immediately charged with smuggling and thrown in jail, while Ramirez's daughter, Dolores (Helen Mack), is told Santa Fe probably murdered her father.
Santa Fe escapes from jail and teams up with Juan (Charles Stevens, reportedly a grandson of Geronimo), the father of the murdered boy, and later on meets a distinguished Hispanic gentleman (Carlos Villarías) who turns out to be Carlos Moreno, the Governor of California. Alberto and Emilio arrest Moreno, discovering the man's true identity only after torturing him. They decide to execute him anyway, lest they be found out.
The California Trail is a neat little picture, a large part of its effectiveness due to two of the more casually cruel, unscrupulous villains to turn up in a B-Western. Starving their own people with Quierra shooting the little boy in cold blood is bad enough, but add to that their unhesitatingly opting to assassinate the Governor of California to cover their tracks catapults them into the upper-echelons of screen villainy.
The movie isn't expensive but neither does it look cheap. Near the end there's a lively battle between, on one side, Santa Fe and the villagers, who have taken control of Quierra's fort, and, on the other, the displaced Quierra, the Mayor, and their soldiers who then lay siege.
Buck Jones had been a huge star of silent Westerns but by the early 1930s his fortunes had fallen to the point where he accepted a $300/week offer from Columbia, then near the bottom of the studio system food chain, to make cheap Westerns there. Not long after this Jones's fortunes began to improve, first at Universal and then back at Columbia.
Though just nineteen, beautiful Helen Mack was already a show business veteran, having appeared in silent films as a child, on Broadway and in Vaudeville after that, before returning to films as an ingénue in 1931. Her movie career wasn't a long one but it was memorable, with leading roles in The Son of Kong (she was very good in this underrated if quickie sequel to King Kong, 1933), She (1935), Harold Lloyd's The Milky Way (1936), and as Molly Malloy in His Girl Friday (1940). When her movie career fizzled Mack got into radio as a producer-writer-director, and made a successful transition to early television.
Around the 39-minute mark Mack impressively continues a love scene with Buck Jones as a fly lands on her lower lip and strolls into her mouth. She gamely tries not to draw attention to this and, amazingly, the filmmakers didn't take this shot again. It's all up there on the screen, Helen Mack, eating a fly, immortalized forever.
Video & Audio
Most of the opening credits for The California Trail, filmed in 1.37:1 full frame and in black-and-white, are for its Gail Films reissue. However, both these newer credits and the movie itself look great. The image is sharp with excellent contrast and no signs of significant damage. There are no menu screens; the movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Of the dozen or so Buck Jones talkie Westerns this reviewer has seen to date, The California Trail is one of the best, straightforward and effective, and very appealing. Highly 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.