Entertaining, meat-and-potatoes Monogram programmers for "Northern" enthusiasts. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released the Kirby Grant and Chinook Adventure Triple Feature, Volume 2 set, which consists of 1949's The Wolf Hunters, and 1950's Snow Dog and Call of the Klondike, all rather loosely based (at best) on the adventure novels of James Oliver Curwood. Featuring the second, third, and fourth entries in Kirby "Sky King" Grant's ten-movie Monogram Pictures series (1949-1954), featuring the intrepid Royal Canadian Mounted Police Corporal Rod Webb and his faithful companion, Chinook the Wonder Dog, the Kirby Grant and Chinook Adventure Triple Feature, Volume 2 set will please most fans of this particular studio and genre...while newcomers, particularly the small fry, should enjoy the simple, clean storytelling, set to a quick pace. No extras for these super-sharp fullscreen black and white transfers.
Having been a fan of the sub-genre of "Northerns" since I was a kid--westerns and adventure movies set in the vast, rugged Canadian wilderness, often featuring Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen as the heroes--I was fortunate enough several years ago to review the first two seasons of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, the classic kiddie adventure series that ran on NBC from 1955 to 1958. And while I haven't read any of James Oliver Curwood's works (apparently, he was quite popular in the 1920s, during the height of the "Northern" fad), my understanding is that the "Corporal Rod Webb" series from Monogram Pictures has little to do with these source novels, and far more to do with Sergeant Preston of the Yukon's originator: Challenge of the Yukon. That radio serial, which began broadcasting in 1938 at the original home of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet, Detroit's WXYZ, lasted nine years in that particular local market, before it was brought to the networks (via sponsor Quaker Oats), where it ran on ABC from 1947 to 1949 (the start of Monogram's "Corporal Rod Webb" series), before moving to Mutual until 1955. Highly influential in setting up many of the conventions we associate with the "Northern" sub-genre--the brave, honest, incorruptible Mountie, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, who "always gets his man," his fearless, loyal canine companion, King, who understands remarkably subtle human commands, the notion of the lawless Great Northwest Territories being inundated with killers, thieves, claim-jumpers during and after the famed gold rush--it's pretty clear that the comparably-structured The Wolf Hunters, Snow Dog, and Call of the Klondike, with their vaguely indeterminate timelines pushed up to the present, are trying to cash in on some of that Sergeant Preston Challenge of the Yukon gravy. Produced by Lindsley Parsons, the "Corporal Rod Webb" series needed an actor who could anchor the concept, with former singer-turned-B-Western-star Kirby Grant over at Universal eventually chosen (the success of these Mountie Bs would directly lead to Grant's most enduring role: TV's Sky King). Since there's not too terribly much going on in these three very similar Bs, let's look very briefly at each one.
THE WOLF HUNTERS
French-Canadian fur trapper Paul Lautrec (Edward Norris) has made a horrible discovery: in their isolated cabin by the lakeside, Gaston LaFontaine and his wife have been murdered, their bodies lying in view of their screaming infant daughter, with their winter cache of furs stolen. Lautrec takes the baby back to the settlement, where he hopes that his girl, spitfire Frenchy Renee (Jan Clayton), will not only care for the child, but marry him. This doesn't sit well with J.L. McTavish (Charles Lang), the factor for the settlement's trading post. He's sweet on the unresponsive Renee, despite the presence of pretty-but-sullen "maid," Minnetaki (Elizabeth Root), so he's got a little surprise in store for Lautrec: he's going to offer Lautrec $500 dollars to transport furs across the dangerous pass...where McTavish's stooge, the evil Muskoka (Ted Hecht), will kill him. That way, McTavish can get Renee, while also making Lautrec the fall guy for McTavish's real crimes: the murder of trappers like the LaFontaines, and the theft of their furs. McTavish needs to do this, because his company's superintendent, Edward Cameron (Luther Crockett), is arriving to see why the supply of furs is drying up. As well, Edmonton is sending a Mountie to investigate: RCMP Corporal Rod Webb (Kirby Grant), and his faithful sidekick, Chinook (Chinook the Wonder Dog), a white German Shepherd/wolf mix. McTavish's plan goes awry when Webb, on his way to the settlement, sees Lautrec injured; now it's just a matter of time before the Mountie gets the evidence necessary to bust the crooked, murderous factor.
No doubt the most interesting aspect of The Wolf Hunters' production to today's viewers is the fact that it was directed by auteur darling, Budd Boetticher, here still toiling away at B-programmers billed under his real name, Oscar. I'm certainly no expert on Boetticher's oeuvre or style (I've seen a couple of his better-known Randolph Scott Westerns, and that's about it), so perhaps I didn't "read" The Wolf Hunters the way a student of his work could do. Since Boetticher himself disowned a lot of his own early efforts as merely impersonal assignments, that dismissal may hold more weight than anything I might write in determining whether or not there are genuine flashes of his artistic signature here. It can get dicey for the reviewer who's frantically trying to "see" something in an early effort from a labeled "auteur," while failing to take into account the absolute budgetary limitations, time restrictions, and most importantly, the necessity for strict adherence to a studio pre-approved script, that would work against a director's auteurist urges in these true bare-bones B productions like The Wolf Hunters.
Still, I can't argue with the fact that The Wolf Hunters plays the best out of the three entries here, with a reasonably sure handling of the sometimes repetitive storyline (how many times does Lautrec almost buy it?), along with some sprightly performances that do indicate there's someone at the helm of this production who at the very least knows how to delivery a snappy little programmer. Scripted by old pro Scott Darling (Charlie Chan at the Opera, Mr. Wong in Chinatown, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon), The Wolf Hunters frequently demonstrates a lightness of touch that you don't often get in these ground-out Bs. Humor, nicely played, comes through broadly at times (Lautrec's friend Coonskin laughing so hard he falls into the lake, sulky Minnetaki deliberately putting her thumb in the food she serves), while sweeter moments pop up now and again, such as the scenes with Norris and Clayton as they work out their domestic relationship with their adopted baby, or one-time singer Grant's chance to croon with Clayton on a lullaby, with the tough Mountie wistfully remarking about the last time he heard that tune, from his mother: "It was a long time ago," (Grant's polite-but-manly demeanor is just right for this role). Darling and Boetticher have fun with Helen Parrish's bitch-in-heat wife of Superintendent Luther Crockett ("I assure you I'll find a companion for my next walk," she openly taunts him, eyeing strapping Charles Lang up and down, Parrish's real-life husband at the time), while leaving things intriguingly vague between Lang and his, ahem, "maid," sloe-eyed Elizabeth Root (if she's not dusting, she's doing something else...). Boetticher even manages to slip in some camera angles one doesn't necessarily see in a shoestring B like this one (a down-angle over-the-shoulder shot during the frontier surgery scene may not be the equivalent of that long single take in Touch of Evil, but anything outside a full shot was potentially risky to the budget in these programmers, so it should be noted), while the action is tight (Chinook has a good fight on the floor--he actually looks pretty mean--while Grant and Lang have a spirited foot chase and fistfight in Big Bear Valley--where all three movies shot location work--to round out the story). The Wolf Hunters is primitive in design and execution, to be sure...but it's solid storytelling, just the same.
SNOW DOGFur trapper Louis Blanchard (Rick Vallin) sees a mauled body and believes it to be the work of the "Phantom Wolf," a supernatural wolf guarding the "White Woods," where Indians will not hunt. RCMP Corporal Rod McDonald (why it's not "Webb" this time I have no idea) sees the same wolf...as does Chinook, his own preternaturally intelligent dog/wolf mix, who immediately attacks the identically-looking "Phantom," pulling off a collar in the struggle. Heading into the settlement, Chinook is mistaken for the killer "Phantom" by Andree Blanchard (Elena Verdugo), Louis' sister, but when Louis grabs a gun to kill Chinook, McDonald steps in, fighting Louis until Andree realizes she knows McDonald from a visit to the city the previous year. During a coroner's inquest for the latest "Phantom" victim, Andree foolishly lets it slip that her Uncle Henry--the "Phantom"'s first victim--left her a treasure map to the White Woods...a map which is promptly stolen by brutish trapper Biroff (Richard Karlan). Set upon by Biroff and the stirred up locals when Chinook is mistaken for the "Phantom," Rod is beaten up, with his wounds tended by Dr. McKenzie (Milburn Stone). Determined to solve the mystery, Rod soon discovers that there's more going on in the White Woods than anyone ever suspected.
Still entertaining, Snow Dog, however, is a bit of a come down from The Wolf Hunters. Scripted by first timer William Raynor (who would go on to write many B Western, horror, and comedy movies, including Six Gun Decision, Killers From Space, Francis in a Haunted House, The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm, as well as countless episodic TV outings), there's isn't much going on below the surface mechanics of this standard oater plot. The humor is ladled out with a much heavier hand this time around, with Verdugo and Vallin playing more like the "Battling Bickersons" than brother and sister (Verdugo at least is cute and charming, but Vallin...not so much). As for the direction here from Frank McDonald (over 100 films...and not a truly "exceptional" one in the bunch, including Isle of Fury, Flying Blind, Lights of Old Santa Fe), he gets the job done, but in a completely anonymous fashion...which is just what he was hired to do. Some good moments, including Rod losing a vicious fistfight, Chinook ripping a guy's throat out (am I crazy or does that dog really look unfriendly...), and Gunsmoke's Milburn Stone made up to look like Lenin, complete with Russian hat and beard (jesus he's such a sour-faced performer). No surprises with Snow Dog...which is just what the producers (and probably the kids at the Saturday matinee) wanted here.
CALL OF THE KLONDIKEWhen loner miner Mencheck (Marc Krah) finds a man lurking outside his cabin at night, they fight and Mencheck kills him, burying him in a shallow grave. Meanwhile, back at RCMP district headquarters, Corporal Rod Webb (it's back to "Webb"...) is getting ready for a one month furlough...until Major Robertson (Roy Gordon) tears up his papers and assigns him special duty: head up to Healey's Crossing and see if he can solve the mystery of several missing miners. His special cargo? Nancy Craig (Anne Gwynne), whose father is one of the missing men. At Healey's Crossing's trading post, old salt Andrew McKay (Russell Simpson) thinks he knows who's behind all the trouble: unfriendly loner Mencheck, an opinion seconded by nice miner couple Paul and Emily Mallory (Tom Neal and Lynne Roberts). When Rod and Nancy arrive, no one seems to remember her father being at the Crossing, so when Rod goes to interview Mencheck, on McKay's advice, he needs more evidence than the body he found near Mencheck's place to arrest him. Nancy, searching Mencheck's place, finds her father's wallet, and that's enough evidence for everyone else...but not Rod, who suspects something fishy is going on at Paul's mine.
Noticeably sharper than the previous Snow Dog, Call of the Klondike is a solid little mystery that won't surprise you, certainly, as it unfolds...but which doesn't try your patience, either, owing to its fast pace and familiar but eventful storyline. Written by the actor, Charles Lang, who played the villain in our first movie, The Wolf Hunters (in addition to acting, Lang also wrote movies like The Magnificent Matador, Desire in the Dust, and Tess of the Storm Country), Call of the Yukon feels at the beginning like it's going to be the most amusing of the trio, with a funny opening bit where Grant sings a song about a "pretty little gal to do his wash" as he does his laundry...which is revealed to be actually Chinook, getting a bath. Some well-played romantic comedy elements then come in, with Grant and Gwynne "meeting cute" over their trip to Healey's Crossing (she has too much luggage for his birch bark canoe), and Grant having to change out of wet clothes in front of her, before all that is unfortunately dropped in favor of the mystery. Frank McDonald is back at the helm, and he does an efficient if unremarkable job here (he has one or two nice little shots, like someone drawing down a bead on Grant, with the rifle in the extreme foreground).
More familiar faces help keep your interest, too; The Grapes of Wrath's Russell Simpson does his standard crotchety old timer to good effect, while future train wreck Tom Neal (just one year away from smashing Franchot Tone's face in) comes off no doubt exactly how he was in real life: not nice. Speaking of not nice, how much do you want to bet that Kirby Grant stayed as far away from that goddamn dog Chinook as he could, inbetween shots? That thing is a menace (watch him viciously snap and latch onto a stuntman, with Grant having to yank him off). Besides...any movie with a fake mine shaft set is an automatic winner for me (I'm having one of those built in my mansion when I hit the Powerball); that set-up works every time, no matter how phony it looks (it's the claustrophobia--you know someone's going to wind up getting trapped). Call of the Klondike can't be called remotely original...but it gets the job done in entertaining, unpretentious B-movie fashion.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.