Warner Archives' latest Monogram Cowboy Collection, this one being Volume 8, is cause for celebration among fans of cheap but occasionally ambitious B-Westerns. The set consists of a half-dozen rather ordinary Johnny Mack Brown series Westerns but is headlined by six of Monogram's eight "Rough Riders" films, movies starring Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, and Raymond Hatton. These movies are definitely a cut above the usual cheap oater, and are widely regarded as among the best B-Westerns ever made. The series was apparently quite popular, ending only with McCoy's reenlistment in the Army during the war and the tragic death of Buck Jones in 1942.
The twelve - count ‘em, 12! - films in the set are the Rough Riders' movies Arizona Bound, The Gunman from Brodie, Forbidden Trails (all 1941), Below the Border, Ghost Town Law, and West of the Law (all 1942), and Johnny Mack Brown's Law of the Valley, West of the Rio Grande (both 1944), Silver Range (1946), Over the Rainbow, Six Gun Mesa, and West of Wyoming (all 1950).
Spread across four DVD-Rs, the set offers excellent video transfers of film elements in variable condition, though most are in surprisingly good shape given Monogram's Poverty Row status and the complex chain-of-title through the years of that studio's library.
L-R: Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Raymond Hatton
To recap, B-Westerns were a sub-genre distinctive from A-list ones. During the 1940s and early ‘50s the As were directed by top directors like John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and Howard Hawks, and made by bigger studios like Fox and Paramount with much larger budgets for general audiences. B-Westerns were by comparison epitomized by smaller companies like Republic Pictures and Monogram, which efficiently cranked out B-Westerns whose audience consisted mainly of children and moviegoers in rural markets.
Aesthetically, B-Westerns differed subtly from their A-Western counterparts. They were formula pictures leaning heavily on genre stereotypes, with standard B-Western plots and characterizations. Some B-Western stars made virtually only B-Westerns (Gene Autry and Roy Rogers being two famous examples). Other B-Western names (e.g., William Boyd, Harry Carey, Jack Holt) transitioned to B-Westerns when their A-list starring careers, usually dating back to the silent era, faltered. A few younger actors, such as John Wayne (despite his auspicious A-Western starring debut) and Robert Mitchum, rose up through the B-Western ranks to become A-list stars, though this was rare.
Even many hardcore fans of A-Westerns scrupulously avoid B-Westerns, partly because for years they tended to exist only in the form of bargain-priced DVD sets of movies that had fallen into the public domain. These cheap collections often featured offbeat Bs, but the video transfers usually resembled battered 16mm TV prints projected onto a wall and videotaped through a dirty goldfish bowl. Recently, however, Warner Archive, Sony Choice, and Olive Films (on Blu-ray, no less) have been offering many B-Westerns that sometimes almost look brand-new.
Fans of B-Westerns tend to be older Baby Boomers nostalgic for the movies they saw in theaters back in the 1940s and early-‘50s, or later in the decade and beyond on television. Sometimes they're drawn to their very predictability and wholesomeness, while others (like this reviewer) are attracted to the subtly more ambitious B-Westerns that, rarely, are as good in their own way as the best A-list Westerns, usually because they break away from the genre's conventions.
Having pretty much exhausted the list of classic A-budget Westerns, I first ventured into the B-Western world 15 or so years ago when Image Entertainment began releasing the early Hopalong Cassidy films from the 1930s. Though the later Hoppy films of the 1940s became more conventional, more tailored for kids, these early features were intriguingly adult, serious Westerns with strong characterizations and sometimes shockingly violent action.
The Hopalong Cassidy series (sixty-six features produced 1935-1948) helped solidify one of the genre's mainstays, B-Westerns built around three stock characters: a handsome, older, and pure Western hero; his younger, more impetuous disciple, who typically provides each film's romantic subplot; and the comical sidekick, usually an uneducated old-timer intensely loyal to the older hero and the butt of everyone's jokes.
Republic soon followed suit with its much more juvenile "Three Mesquiteers" series (fifty-one movies, 1936-1943), built around a similar formula (conventional, straight-as-an-arrow hero; brasher, competitive second banana; comical sidekick), which in turn prompted even more similar series, including Monogram's "Range Busters" (1940-43) and "Trail Blazers" (1943-44), and PRC's "Texas Rangers" (1942-45) and "Frontier Marshals" (1942). The casts in these series changed quite a bit. For instance, Ray "Crash" Corrigan was an original Three Mesquiteer before moving over to Monogram to star as a Range Buster, while Raymond Hatton, briefly a Mesquiteer himself, moved on to the Rough Riders series until Buck Jones's death, then became Johnny Mack Brown's sidekick in that series.
Monogram's Rough Riders films are above average for their star power and chemistry as well as their variation from this established, three-man formula. Robert Livingston, Bob Steele, and Rufe Davis, then starring in Republic's Three Mesquiteers films, were all in their thirties while Buck Jones and Tim McCoy turned 50 during the Rough Riders series, and Raymond Hatton was already well past that milestone.
Series entries likewise have an unusual structure. In most of the films, Buck Roberts (Jones), Tim McCall (McCoy), and Sandy Hopkins (Hatton) would ride into town separately, becoming entangled the film's plot independently. They appear to be strangers of one another, only occasionally interact over the course of the story, and only reveal themselves as a team during the last 15 minutes or so. At the end of the film they typically discuss some letter or telegram that brought them there in the first place, then ride separately back to their homes in, respectively, Arizona, Wyoming, and Texas.
Compared to similar three-man series, the Rough Riders have less action, more intrigue, stronger plots and more fulsome characterizations. Most credit producer Scott R. Dunlap, who partnered with Jones and Monogram's Trem Carr, for the series' high quality. Dunlap's Monogram Westerns tend to show more care and have better production values. Film historian William K. Everson points to Dunlap's takeover of the studio's Cisco Kid series, replacing Duncan Renaldo with Gilbert Roland and uncharacteristically increasing the budgets of that flagging series with its later success. The viewer of this volume need only compare the excellent locations, careful pacing, atmospheric camerawork and good musical scores of the Rough Riders movies in this set to the Johnny Mack Brown entries made immediately after Buck Jones's death to see the striking difference.
Both Jones and McCoy had real cowboy backgrounds (McCoy as an expert horseman and Native American authority, Jones a ranch hand and Wild West show performer) and both became big established Western stars during the silent era, stardom that continued, albeit mostly in lesser B-Westerns, with the coming of sound. Amusingly, while Jones adapted well to talkies, really learning how to subtly play to the camera, McCoy, even in these early 1940s films, performs in the stylized manner of early talkies. (Reader Sergei Hasenecz adds, "Notice that McCoy also often holds himself ramrod straight, on foot or on a horse. (This may be in part due to his Army service.) It has the effect of immediately making McCoy a presence when he enters a scene, and even a moral authority. Watch when he enters a saloon full of bad guys.") In particular he often stands shock-still at a 45-degree angle or so from the camera, with his eyes darting about the room, sizing up the bad guys. The effect is at once totally ridiculous yet strangely effective.
Raymond Hatton, meanwhile, had been in films as far back as 1909, and known primarily as a comic until he eased into B-Westerns. In contrast to the broader sidekick antics of, say, Smiley Burnette, Andy Clyde, or Gabby Hayes, Hatton's clowning was strictly character-driven. He was more the grizzled old-timer aiding the more important heroes than somebody to cutaway to for comic relief.
The series came to an abrupt end when McCoy, decorated as a soldier of World War I, reenlisted after losing a Wyoming U.S. Senate race. Soon after Buck Jones was one of the 492 guests of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, trapped in a fire with a single revolving door offering the only escape from the smoke and flames. Jones suffered terribly, surviving two days before finally expiring.
Monogram decided to cancel the series rather than replace Jones and McCoy (unlike Republic, which went through what seemed like scores of "Mesquiteers"), and instead contracted Johnny Mack Brown, previously at Universal, for a new series that co-starred Hatton, again playing Sandy Hopkins. In-the-hopper scripts written for Rough Riders entries were reworked for Johnny Mack Brown, but the series from the start was far more routine, and produced on a scale more in line with Monogram's typically barely-adequate standards.
Johnny Mack Brown, like John Wayne, came to movies by way of university football, appeared in minor roles in a handful of late silent films, then made an auspicious starring debut in a big-budget Western filmed in an experimental wide screen format. In Wayne's case the movie was Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, while that same year Brown starred as Billy the Kid, directed by King Vidor. And, like Wayne, Brown quickly slipped down the ranks from A-budget studio films to B-budget Westerns. Unlike Wayne, who regained his footing with Stagecoach (1939) and Red River (1948), Brown pretty much stayed put in B-Westerns for the rest of his career, though he remained a popular star in that capacity.
Video & Audio
As a rule, the twelve features in this four-disc set consist of good transfers of weaker film elements, though some look great. Compared to Republic's B-Westerns on Blu-ray through Olive Films, the Monograms tend to be softer, muddier, and darker, though these official releases are still light years ahead of what these same movies looked like under various public domain labels. All twelve are certainly acceptable even on big screen TVs, and fans of this kind of film should be pleased. The Dolby Digital mono audio (English only, no subtitles) is acceptable and the discs are region-free. No Extra Features.
While the Johnny Mack Brown half of this 12-movie set is no better than average, the six Rough Riders entries, particularly the excellent The Gunman from Bodie, more than compensate. Highly 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.