There were, effectively, two Tim Holts. The first was the A-picture actor probably best known for his strong performances in two classic American films: Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Other notable roles included parts in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946, as Virgil Earp), and Hitler's Children (1943, as a Nazi).
The other Tim Holt, the one which 1940s audiences knew best, was as the star of a long-running, prolific series of high-caliber B-Westerns. Somewhat unusually for a B-Western star, Holt was able to alternate between these quickly produced oaters and more ambitious projects like those noted above.
Holt isn't much remembered today, a shame really. He held his own opposite Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston in Sierra Madre, no small feat, and was very good in the difficult part of the indulged, snooty and intolerant mother's boy resistant to change in Ambersons. Welles really took a chance with Holt, who'd never played anything like that part before, but Holt came through just fine.
The son of silent/early-talkie star Jack Holt (who, after 1940, eased into character parts, often in Westerns), Tim worked less after the coming of television killed the market for B-Westerns, though he did star in the very minor cult sci-fi film The Monster That Challenged the World (1958). He died young, of bone cancer, in 1973. Holt was only 54 years old.
Tim Holt Western Classics Collection, Vol. 4 is a strong compilation of nine feature films, each running about an hour, presented over three discs. They span most of Holt's RKO years, and include the following: Wagon Train, The Fargo Kid (both 1940), Cyclone on Horseback (1941), Riding the Wind, Land of the Open Range, Thundering Hoofs, Red River Robin Hood (all 1942), Overland Telegraph (1951), and Trail Guide (1952)
Holt's B-Westerns were superior to most. As produced by RKO, the series enjoyed slightly higher budgets than most B-Westerns of the period and the writing overall is a bit better. And they were comparatively serious and adult. Though probably still targeting young boys, Holt's aren't as juvenile as, say, Republic's "Three Mesquiteers" series or Roy Rogers's later films.
Holt himself is a big part of their appeal. Most B-Western stars were warm and friendly: Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers, Ray "Crash" Corrigan, Gene Autry, etc. charmed audiences with their geniality. Holt was a bit different. His characters were usually a bit more cynical and serious, and he wasn't adverse to occasionally showing displeasure or frustration. If Gene and Roy and the others were often too good to be true, Holt's cowboys were rooted in a more believable, imperfect humanity.
It was virtually required that every B-Western star be accompanied in such films by a comedy relief character, and while Holt's series was no exception, his sidekicks also weren't as broadly comic as many others. In Wagon Train and The Fargo Kid the comic relief was played by Emmett Lynn, a poor man's Gabby Hayes, but later on he was paired with Lee (Lasses) White, a lower-key but effective former Minstrel performer who later on teamed with Jimmy Wakeley for Monogram's imitation Gene Autry films. After that Holt was paired for a time with Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, whose jazz recordings of the 1920s were immensely popular, but who by the 1940s, facing multiple bankruptcies and alcoholism, took work where he could get it. (He's remembered today mainly as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and for introducing "When You Wish Upon a Star" in that film.) In Holt's Westerns, he'd typically perform at least one number, always delightful.
When RKO revived the series after Holt's wartime service (reader Sergei Hasenecz notes, "Holt was a lieutenant in the US Army Air Force, a bombardier on a B-29. He was wounded over Tokyo and received the Purple Heart."), Holt was paired with blandly named actor Richard Martin, who created the anything but bland half-Mexican, half-Irish Chito Jose Gonzalez Bustamonte Rafferty, a charming rogue always with an eye on the ladies. Martin himself had no Spanish blood but was raised in Los Angeles where he learned to imitate, quite well, his Hispanic friends. This dynamic, of the mostly humorless, all-business hero paired with the breezy and handsome Latin lover, works surprisingly well.
The movies otherwise aren't all that different from other B-Westerns. The Fargo Kid has more comedy while Land of the Open Range is slightly grimmer than usual, but it's mostly the same old-same old, though well done here. The supporting casts are good, including future Annie Oakley Gail Davis in one and prolific future cartoon voice actress Janet Waldo in another.
Video & Audio
Tim Holt Western Classics Collection Vol. 4 presents nine feature films on three discs. Of the original big five studios (MGM, Fox, RKO, Warner Bros., and Paramount) RKO's library is probably in the worst shape, with the film elements here never better than just okay, closer in appearance to Warner Archive's Monogram releases than, say, Olive Film's pristine Republic titles. The Dolby Digital mono is fine however. No Extra Features.
Modest but engaging little second features with star Tim Holt striking a chord for those (like me) who prefer more adult, less juvenile B-Westerns, this set is heartily Recommended.
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.