Saturday kiddie matinee oater to be sure...and there's nothing wrong with that. Sony Picture's Choice Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Trail of the Rustlers, the 1950 B-Western from Columbia, the 43rd (!) entry in that studio's long-running Durango Kid series starring Charles Starrett. Backed up humorously by loyal sidekick Smiley Burnett, Starrett is square-jawed and serious...just like Trail of the Rustlers, with its clean, uncomplicated lines, and its primitive--but entertaining--storytelling. No extras for this nice-looking fullscreen black and white transfer.
That masked avenger of Old Texas, The Durango Kid (Charles Starrett), has another target on his back, courtesy of the Mahoney clan. You see, The Kid, forever fighting on the side of justice, captured the mysterious outlaw, "Big Slim," who was then subsequently killed in a failed jail break. "Big Slim's" family, the Mahoneys, now want revenge on The Kid. Mrs. J.G. "Ma" Mahoney (Mira McKinney), proprietor of the Rio Perdido Hotel, may seem like a kindly matron, but in reality, she's Ma Barker of the Old West, bent on swindling all the nice folk of the Perdido Valley out of their land, with the help of her vicious sons, Chick and Ben (Don Harvey and Myron Healey). Hoping to kill two birds with one stone, Ma hatches a plan: Chick, disguised as The Kid, will terrorize the landowners into picking up stakes--most of them ready to sell anyway because of severe drought--with the attending publicity hopefully bringing the real Durango Kid to Rio Perdido to fix his good name...where he'll be killed by the Mahoney boys. With the blame on The Kid, the Mahoneys, through the unwitting help of local blacksmith, Smiley Burnette (Smiley Burnette), whom they've tricked into believing he's an authorized land agent for an out-of-state development company, will own the Perdido Valley for a song. Too bad they underestimated The Kid's savvy, or the loyal help of hero-worshipping Todd Hyland (Tommy Ivo), who just knows the real Kid didn't kill his rancher father.
I'm certainly no expert on B Western series from Hollywood's Golden Age (I've seen a lot of them, though), but I do know that at one time, the Charles Starrett Durango Kid movies from Columbia Pictures had an almost fanatical following among devotees of the genre, many of whom grew up on seemingly endless Saturday afternoon matinees featuring The Kid and his horse, Raider. Where that fan base is now, I don't know, but I would imagine those viewers that still hold these titles dear are happy to see Sony's Choice Collection DVD line dip into the series' 64 titles. Although it took Columbia about five years to figure out that their successful 1940 B oater, The Durango Kid, should have been turned into a low-budget series, once the studio did gear up with 1945's The Return of the Durango Kid, the entries came at a fast clip--about 7 to 9 titles every year-from 1945 to 1952. After just a few years into that stretch, though, B series at most studios were already in the stages of decline, due to the changing economics of B movie production (below-the-line costs were rising, forcing a slow-down in production and a gradual squeezing off of the traditional double-bill...where Bs resided), and television's inroads (old B Westerns were being re-run for free on the tube; new Western series like The Lone Ranger would eventually garner big ratings, while in Columbia's case, its successful Screen Gems television division in essence transformed its big screen B production for its small screen product demand). Columbia's Harry Cohn, survivor of Poverty Row, knew the frequently life-saving monetary value of his short subjects, Bs, and serials, but economics are economics, then and now, and by the time Trail of the Rustlers rolled out in 1950, the writing was on the wall for The Durango Kid series, with Columbia series stalwarts like Blondie, Boston Blackie, The Crime Doctor, and The Lone Wolf already gone (Jungle Jim, Columbia's last B series, would end in 1955, serials in 1956, and two-reel comedies in 1957).
Directed by series regular Ray Nazarro, his ninth movie in release that year (it's not at all ironic that this super-efficient helmer's first short subject was pithily titled In and Out), with a script by Victor Arthur, Trail of the Rustlers can't be taken as anything more than a meat-and-potatoes oater, aimed mostly at the kiddie matinee trade--nor should it have to be anything more than that. Unselfconscious in its straight-ahead, unambiguous storytelling, Trail of the Rustlers has a simple story to tell, and it does so modestly, without pretense or embellishment. It may not provide anything close to a layered story or complex characters, but it's reasonably busy and active within its short 55 minute runtime, blending together several unfussy subplots--The Kid clearing his name; Todd losing then gaining back his idolized hero; the Mahoney clan's murderous land snatch scam; and amusing, talented Smiley Burnett's sandwiched-in comedy and song interludes--with professional (if impersonal) dispatch. Would I have liked to see some playing around with the potentially perverse inversion of Ma Mahoney, that seemingly kindly mother figure (a sacred stereotype in these simple Westerns) who's really a murderous, money-grasping thug? Of course. Would it have been interesting to see The Kid really sweat a little bit over the appropriation of his steam-cleaned, wholesome image? Sure.
But that's another movie, not this one. Trail of the Rustlers was made for those rowdy, Western-obsessed American kids who swooned at the sight of future hot-rodder Tommy Ivo effortlessly jumping on his beautiful white pony, Raider, Jr. before tearing off into the
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.