The Western is a comparatively narrow genre, limited as it generally is to a specific time and place, despite the occasional genre hybrid (e.g., 1983's Outland) and modern Western (e.g., Lonely Are the Brave). Writer Frank Gruber listed seven basic Western plots: The Union Pacific Story (encompassing all modern technologies and transportation), The Ranch Story, The Empire Story, The Revenge Story, The Cavalry and Indian Story, The Outlaw Story, and The Marshal story. I don't necessarily agree with that list, but it's true that 99% of Westerns have stories rooted in but a handful of basic conflicts.
Sometimes though, a truly oddball Western emerges out of nowhere. Unknown Valley (1933), an otherwise modest Buck Jones "B" produced by Columbia Pictures, has one of the strangest plots I've ever seen in a Western, and it's eccentric in other ways, though not really good. Still, where genre fans can usually guess the plot of such films ten minutes in, Unknown Valley earns points for throwing a few curve balls.
Sony's manufactured-on-demand "Choice Collection" release, sourcing reissue elements, looks great though it includes no extra features.
Joe Gordon (Charles "Buck" Jones, so billed) learns that a now-mad prospector named Zeke (Harry Todd) was found at Skeleton Rock near Dead Man's Valley. Joe is anxious to learn the fate of his father, Charlie, who had accompanied Zeke. After finding a gold bullet in one of Zeke's shoes Joe, with his trusty horse, Silver, makes the arduous trek across the desert, collapsing on the other side of dehydration.
However, two orphans, marriage-age Sheila O'Neill (Cecilia Parker, later Andy Hardy's sister) and her younger brother, Shad (Bret Black), looking through a telescope into the "Forbidden Zone," spot him. (They do not, however, catch sight of a half-buried Statue of Liberty.) Sheila and Shad are residents of a band of religious zealots presumed lost years before when their wagon train went missing. They not only survived, but also established a secret, hidden community where they can practice their austere, archaic conservative religion (never defined, though they look Amish) undisturbed. Residents aren't allowed to leave the community, and the rare outsider like Joe who happens to stumble upon them are integrated into the community and not allowed to leave, either.*
Another outsider, Tim (Arthur Wanzer), initially tries to hide Joe's presence, but he's discovered and sentenced by the village elders to remain in the village, albeit isolated from the others so as not to infect the rest of the community with his worldly ways.
Life in the community is harsh. Shad is flogged for allegedly showing disrespect to one of the elders, and Sheila is compelled to submit to an arranged marriage to another. Meanwhile, the elder Sheila is to marry, Crossett (Wade Boteler), and another, Snead (Ward Bond), have secretly imprisoned Joe's father at the bottom of a steep cliff, forcing him to mine for gold in exchange for scraps of food they lower down to him. As Joe, Sheila, and Shad prepare to escape, Crossett and Snead plot to murder Tim and steal all the gold they've secretly amassed.
The plot of Unknown Valley may be unique among B Westerns, though the script doesn't really do anything with the idea of a long-lost isolated community of religious extremists after introducing it. Running just shy of 68 minutes, the film barely has enough running time for Joe to arrive before almost at once deciding he needs to get the heck out, nor does the film provide clues as to how the community has survived for as long as it has, or even how long its people have been missing.
Though released in May 1933, Unknown Valley plays like a crude, early talkie from the late 1920s. It's very static visually, and dialogue is delivered at a snail's pace, with reaction shots lasting an eternity.
The movie is also unintentionally funny in numerous ways. Joe finds a map to the gold mine among Zeke's possessions, surely among the crudest in cinema history. On a worn piece of leather are a couple of indistinct squiggly lines representing mountains, an "X" in the middle of the lines, and the words "DEAD MAN VALLEY" (sic). Nothing else.
When Sheila tries to revive the ailing Joe, hidden away in Tim's shack, she tries to entice him with "squirrel's broth, to give you strength!" When Joe begins his trek across the desert, he sets out not only with Silver but two mules hauling water he later sends packing back to Skeleton Rock. The mules' names? Tom & Jerry. (This, of course, is not the film's fault as the cartoon characters were still seven years away. But could William Hanna and/or Joseph Barbera been Buck Jones fans?**) Later, Joe takes a big drink of water from a small cask, and then offers it to Silver, whose nose nearly gets stuck. Unglued from the container, Joe then downs more water, Silver's backwash and all.
Video & Audio
Unknown Valley sources otherwise pristine film elements from an undated reissue distributed by Gail Pictures International Corp., one that replaces the Columbia Torch Lady with a crude new title card. But the rest of the film looks and sounds great for its age, with much fine detail visible and strong blacks. The mono audio (English only, not subtitle options) is also fine. The disc has no menu screens, simply starting up after the usual FBI and INTERPOL warnings, restarting the picture as soon as it ends. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Not particularly good but engagingly odd, Unknown Valley is a welcome curiosity for B-Western fans, and the transfer doesn't disappoint. Recommended.
* Reader Sergei Hasenecz notes, "This is likely inspired by Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage. In that case they were Mormons, but there was some controversy about the way Grey depicted them in the book, which would account for the vagueness of the religion in Unknown Valley. In fact, Unknown Valley takes several elements from Grey's book, including pressure for the woman to marry and the introduction of an outsider who upsets the elders and challenges their power."
** More from Sergei: "Well, they might have been, but there was an earlier cartoon series, concurrent with this movie, called Tom and Jerry (1931 - 1933), sort of a Mutt and Jeff pair, made by the Van Bueren Studio and distributed through RKO. Those names go back to 19th century London slang for any pair of mischievous kids, coming from an 1823 novel, Life in London, or Days and Nights of Jerry Hawthorne and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom by Pierce Egan. And since we're loading up the trivia here, Tom and Jerry is also the name of a Christmas drink (eggnog and rum) devised by the same Pierce Egan. When they started out, Simon & Garfunkel were called Tom & Jerry. In 1957, under that name, they had a minor hit with 'Hey, Schoolgirl.'"
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.