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Legends of the West - Volume 1 (36 Movies)

Platinum // R // September 27, 2005
List Price: $9.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 14, 2007 | E-mail the Author
It was with considerable trepidation I plucked Legends of the West, Volume 1 from DVD Talk's screener pile. Though attracted to the sheer number of mostly arcane B-Westerns, Spaghettis, and forgotten obscurities included on its eight single-sided discs - "36 Features, Over 43 Hours" boasts the cover art - I also knew I was perilously riding headlong into Public Domain Territory. With their copyrights not renewed or never properly copyrighted in the first place, these movies have all become fair game for anyone with a little ambition and a DVD burner; no painstaking restorations of original camera negatives here.

Perhaps more than any other movie genre, the B-Western exemplifies the problem of movies falling into the public domain. On one hand, protected films like Warner's early John Wayne movies (The Telegraph Trail, Somewhere in Sonora, etc.), Image Entertainment's "Hopalong Cassidy: The Early Years" line, and the Image/Gene Autry Entertainment releases (Tumbling Tumbleweeds, Gold Mine in the Sky, etc.) look just great, almost brand new, and in the latter's case, are crammed with useful and entertaining extras culled from studio and estate archives.

Conversely, other cowboy stars, most notably Roy Rogers, have seen lots of their movies released to DVD - but only through public domain labels like Alpha Video and others. There are those who advocate the movie-hungry public would be better served if all old movies fell into the public domain. If this were to happen, they argue, many titles the Big League studios decline to release themselves would be made available through smaller boutique DVD labels, including doubtlessly many of the B-Western and B-Western series that the majors have so far opted to ignore.

On the other hand, as this set makes clear, PD releases don't necessarily serve these pictures or their stars very well. Typical of such DVDs, the three dozen movies in this package vary widely in terms of video and audio quality, from fair to downright unwatchable. Looking at the broad picture, one wonders how in the long run this disparity will influence the standing of certain stars and movies doomed to PD Hell versus those legally protected and carefully nurtured and marketed by their owners. Will, for example, the dearth of copyright-protected Roy Rogers movies gradually diminish the stature of this "King of the Cowboys," one of the iconic heroes of American popular culture?

There's no question that many of the movies included in this first volume probably would never see the light of day were they not PD titles. Two reference sources, Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide, and Phil Hardy's The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western don't even have entries on more than half of them, even though Maltin's book seems to cover every single Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers movie.

This reviewer sat down and watched 10 of the set's 36 features, sampling the rest to gauge the quality of their transfers and print sources. The DVDs aren't labeled any particular way, but are generally grouped by star, era, or country of origin. Here's the breakdown, noting the original releasing company and cast, along with a word or two about the transfer of each film:

 

Disc 1: Randolph Scott

Rage at Dawn (RKO, 1955) with Forrest Tucker, Mala Powers, J. Carrol Naish, and Myron Healey. A public domain perennial, this is one of Scott's better high-end B-Westerns, the actor cast here as an agent dispatched from Chicago to capture the infamous Reno Brothers. It's pretty good overall, though Tucker, Naish, and Healey look about as related as Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick did in Family Business. The full-frame transfer is average by PD standards, and inferior to the Roan Group's 16:9 enhanced job from 1999. Video Rating: (**)

The Fighting Westerner (Paramount, 1935) with Charles "Chic" Sale, Kathleen Burke, Ann Sheridan, Willie Fung. This is actually a reissue version of a Zane Grey adaptation originally released as Rocky Mountain Mystery, about a mining engineer (Scott) trying to solve the Ten Little Indians-style murders at an old mine rich with radium. B-Western fans seem to like it, not leastwise because of Sheridan's early starring role, but I found this unpretentious B exceedingly dull, particularly its nearly static first reel, which has Scott and Sale sitting at a table yapping for what seems like hours. Video quality is pretty good, however; it might have been sourced from digital cable. Video Rating: (** 1/2)

Abilene Town (Guild Productions/United Artists, 1946) with Ann Dvorak, Edgar Buchanan, Rhonda Fleming, Lloyd Bridges. It's cattle barons vs. homesteaders in this oater, modeled after 1939's Dodge City, considered above-average by genre historians. The film sourced here looks like a scratch-filled 16mm TV print. Video Rating: (**)

To The Last Man (Paramount, 1933) with Esther Ralston, Jack La Rue, Buster Crabbe, Barton MacLane, Noah Berry (Sr.), Fuzzy Knight. The obscurity of this Western (it's not listed in Maltin) is surprising given its cast and especially its director, genre master Henry Hathaway. The story concerns a Hatfield-McCoys type feud that continues even after one family moves to Nevada. Scott and Ralston play star-crossed lovers. Print is a little scratched-up and dirty with a few splices, but is reasonably sharp. Video Rating: (** 1/2)


 

Disc 2: Lee Van Cleef Spaghettis

God's Gun (Irwin Yablas, 1976) with Jack Palance, Richard Boone, Sybil Danning, Leif Garrett. Very late-era Italian Western (co-produced with Israeli moneys), also known as A Bullet from God (original title: Diamante Lobo), is a vigilante tale about twin brothers (Van Cleef), one of whom is gunned down by gunman Sam Clayton (Palance). Image is soft with weak, pinkish color. Video Rating: (* 1/2)

Beyond the Law (Cinema Shares, 1973) with Antonio Sabato, Gordon Mitchell, Lionel Stander, and Bud Spencer. Made in 1968, this Italian-Western German co-production is a typical macaroni Western, with Van Cleef a supposedly reformed outlaw posing as a sheriff, perhaps to rob a silver shipment ahead of ex-partner Sabato. Filmed in Techniscope, this is another pan-and-scan job. Video Rating: (**)

Death Rides a Horse (United Artists, 1967) with John Phillip Law, Anthony Dawson, Mario Brega. Years after witnessing the murder of his family by a four gunman/robbers, a young man (Law) forms an uneasy alliance with one of them (Van Cleef), to hunt down the other three. One of Van Cleef's better non-Leone spaghettis, though the film, originally in Techniscope, is alas thwarted by another lousy panned-and-scanned transfer. Video Rating: (* 1/2)

The Grand Duel (Cinema Shares, 1972) with Horst Frank, Alberto Dentice, Marc Mazza. A grizzled sheriff (Van Cleef) teams up with a fugitive (Dentice) to bring down a corrupt family that framed Clayton for murder. The 4:3 unenhanced letterboxed transfer is welcome, but the print sourced is in terrible shape; cracklin' and-a popping abounds. Video Rating: (**)


 

Discs 3 & 4: John Wayne's Lone Star Westerns plus Angel and the Badman

All Lone Star/Monogram unless otherwise noted:
Blue Steel (1934) with George "Gabby" Hayes, Yakima Canutt, and George Cleveland Video Rating: (**)
The Dawn Rider (1935) with Marion Burns, Dennis Moore, and Yakima Canutt Looks like someone took a camcorder and pointed it at a TV! Video Rating: (0 Stars!)
The Lawless Frontier (1934) with Shelia Terry, Gabby Hayes, and Yakima Canutt. Audio is especially poor. Unwatchable. Video Rating: (1/2 *)
The Lucky Texan (1934) with Barbara Sheldon, Gabby Hayes, and Yakima Canutt. Video Rating: (**)
'Neath the Arizona Skies (1934) with Shelia Terry, Shirley Jean Rickert, and Yakima Canutt. Audio is terrible, contrast is awful. Video Rating: (*)
Randy Rides Alone (1934) with Alberta Vaughn, Gabby Hayes, and Yakima Canutt. Audio is full of hiss, but picture is slightly better than most of these. Video Rating: (**)
The Star Packer (1934) with Verna Hillie, Gabby Hayes, and Yakima Canutt. This one looks and sounds okay. Video Rating: (**)
Hell Town (originally released as Born to the West, Paramount 1937) with Marsha Hunt, Johnny Mack Brown, and Monte Blue. Video Rating: (**)
The Desert Trail (1935) with Mary Korman, Paul Fix, and Eddy Chandler. Video Rating: (**)
The Man from Utah (1934) with Polly Ann Young, Gabby Hayes, and George Cleveland. Horrible audio - sounds like it's being amplified from inside a shoebox in the room next door. Video has horizontal bar visible at the top of the frame throughout the picture! Video Rating: (0 stars!)
Angel and the Badman (Republic, 1947) with Gail Russell, Harry Carey, Sr., and Bruce Cabot. Generally good video likely pinched from an official release. Video Rating: (** 1/2)

Made near the nadir of John Wayne's rocky early career, these Lone Star Westerns were the cheapest he ever made; all were shot in a matter of days on budgets between $11,000-12,000. Even Wayne's $25,000 Westerns at Warners a few years before look lavish compared to these films as the earlier movies benefited from the use of stock action footage from some Ken Maynard silent Westerns. The Lone Star films are little more than glorified home movies; even the same stagecoach that turns up again and again in most of these pictures looks like it was made out of particle board.

Nevertheless, these films are sometimes interesting to watch simply to trace the development of Wayne's screen persona. Legendary stuntman and unlegendary actor Yakima Canutt and future Wayne movie regular Paul Fix taught him how to walk, how to talk, how to stand still and not look fidgety (which he does in his earliest pictures). Further, cheap as these movies were they were constantly in release throughout rural America if not major cities, and this helped establish the actor as a friendly, familiar face audiences grew to like, and in their own small way these films buttressed his star status as much as his breakthrough hit Stagecoach would a few years later.

Angel and the Badman, by contrast, is one of Duke's better Republic films. By 1947 the actor had become a genuinely big star but that was mainly through his loan-outs to other studios rather than his homegrown films at Republic. Directed by Wayne's frequent screenwriter, James Edward Grant, this story of a hardened outlaw humanized by Western woman Russell is very well done, and presages themes found in many postwar Westerns to come.


 

Disc 5: Gene Autry

Riders of the Whistling Pines (Columbia, 1949) with Patricia Barry, Douglass Dumbrille, Clayton Moore, Jimmy Lloyd. Environmentally savvy (if dated) film has Gene working for the Forestry Service, where he's on the trail of logger Dumbrille and his henchman, who are destroying wilderness, and who have Gene framed for cattle poisoning. One of several dozen Bs Autry made independently for Columbia after World War II. Notable also for the woman who appears in a photograph as Lloyd's wife: Marilyn Monroe! Video Rating: (** 1/2) 

The Big Show (Republic, 1936) with Smiley Burnette, Kay Hughes, Max Terhune, Sons of the Pioneers. This is a 54-minute reissue (or perhaps TV syndication) version of a 71-minute feature reportedly in the works from Gene Autry Entertainment. A must for B-Western fans, it's a fascinating, funny, and action filled story set in the world of B-Western moviemaking, with Gene playing both singer-stuntman Gene Autry and Hollywood star he doubles: an arrogant, talentless SOB named Tom Ford. Gene's especially amusing as the latter, and the film offers some great location work. Besides some fascinating glimpses of Republic's North Hollywood studios, most of the exteriors were shot in Dallas, at the Art Deco-rich Fair Park, then in the midst of celebrating the 1936 Texas Centennial. Roy Rogers is in this one, too as one of the Sons of the Pioneers. Video Rating: (**)

Springtime in the Rockies (Republic, 1937) with Smiley Burnette, Polly Rowles, Ula Love, Al Bridge. Not to be confused with the later Fox musical, this routine early Autry Western centers on Rowles' animal husbandry skills and nefarious sheep ranchers, not the stuff of exciting B-Western action. Another reissue print, this one running 53 minutes. Video Rating: (**)

Boots and Saddles (Republic, 1937) with Smiley Burnette, Judith Allen, Ronald Sinclair, Bill Elliott, Stanley Blystone. Another typical Autry Western, with a premise common to many of his early films, in which a spoiled, wealthy young woman or city-bred boy tries to boss Gene around, but his humble Western ways eventually win them over. This one has Gene contending with a young British Earl (!). This is a reissue print, running just 52 minutes, and is in rough shape. Video Rating: (* 1/2)


 

Disc 6: Roy Rogers

King of the Cowboys (Republic, 1943) with Smiley Burnette, Bob Nolan, Peggy Moran, Gerald Mohr. After Gene Autry enlisted into the army despite the frantic pleas of Republic Studios head Herbert J. Yates, the movie mogul sought revenge by appointing Roy Rogers (who had been starring in a string of "historical" Westerns before this) as Gene's heir apparent, and the very title of this movie made clear who now wore the singing cowboy crown. The film is an entertaining, very typical Rogers Western with Roy and Smiley after opportunistic crooks (or are they Nazi saboteurs? Two versions were shot and the alternate takes are included here as an extra) operating out of a traveling show. Transfer is mediocre, but watchable. Video Rating: (**)

My Pal Trigger (Republic, 1946) with Trigger, Smartest Horse in the Movies, Gabby Hayes, Dale Evans, Jack Holt, Roy Barcroft. Sweet family film about the origins of Trigger, in a story that has Jack Holt framing Roy for the death of Gabby Hayes' horse. A neat little picture, good for the young'ins. Print seems superior to the Alpha Video version, and is the complete 79-minute cut. Video Rating: (** 1/2)

Song of Texas (Republic, 1943) with Shelia Ryan, Barton MacLane, Harry Shannon, Pat Brady. Featuring the future wife of Gene's later sidekick, Pat Buttram, and the father of Citizen Kane, this average Rogers picture has former radio star Shannon talking Roy into letting him lie to his daughter that he's half-owner of Roy's ranch - which she promptly sells to perennial B-movie villain MacLane. Filled with singing cowboy standards and Roy's genuine warmth. A TV print, running 53 minutes, and substandard video-wise. Video Rating: (**)

Under California Skies (Republic, 1948) with Jane Frazee, Andy Devine, House Peters, Jr.. Filmed in glorious Trucolor, movie star Roy Rogers returns to his ranch after shooting his latest picture only to have Trigger kidnapped and held for ransom! Image is a little soft, but film elements are in good shape, and the Trucolor probably pretty close to its original hues. Complete version. Video Rating: (** 1/2)

Utah (Republic, 1945) with Gabby Hayes, Dale Evans, Peggy Stewart, Vivian Oakland, Grant Withers. Roy tries to stop musical star Dale Evans from selling a ranch she's inherited. TV version, running 53 minutes, and a washed-out print. Video Rating: (**)


 

Disc 7: Potpourri, Part One

Any Gun Can Play (Golden Eagle, 1967) with Edd Byrnes, George Hilton, Gilbert Roland, Stefania Careddu, Jose Torres. Average Spaghetti Western (originally titled Vado...l'ammazzo e torno riffs The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with bounty hunter Hilton, Mexican outlaw Roland, and tenderfoot bank clerk Byrnes all after loot hidden after a daring train robbery. Byrnes isn't Spaghetti Western material, but Roland's understated performance is fine, and the imitation Ennio Morricone score is excellent. One of only two letterboxed titles in this collection, (the film was shot in Techniscope) the presentation is a real oddity: it has a slight squeeze but not enough of one for 16:9 enhancement. On my Japanese set 16:9 titles are projected "full" but by using the less severe "cinema size" I was able to get an undistorted screen shape. Video Rating: (** 1/2)

She Came to the Valley (RGV Pictures, 1979) with Ronee Blakley, Dean Stockwell, Scott Glenn, Freddy Fender, Anna Jones. Albert Band directed this cheapo production, the most recent of the bunch, featuring an eyebrow-raising cast, which includes Freddy Fender as Pancho Villa! Possibly released only in the south. Filmed in Panavision, this is panned-and-scanned, with bad telecining that crops screen information off the top and bottom as well. Video Rating: (* 1/2)

Northwest Trail (Screen Guild Productions, 1945) with Bob Steele, Joan Woodbury, John Litel, Raymond Hatton, Madge Bellamy, Charles Middleton. I had seen Bob Steele supporting dozens of films and TV shows (he was a regular on F Troop late in his career) but never any of his starring movies. This filmed-in-Cinecolor tale has Steele a Canadian Mountie uncovering a gold-smuggling ring, and Steele's performance made me an instant fan. His underplayed manner comes off as very likeable and authentic, as opposed to the homogenized screen persona engineered by Republic for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Definitely not great video quality, but okay. Video Rating: (**)

The Naked Hills (Allied Artists, 1956) with David Wayne, Kennan Wynn, Jim Backus, Denver Pyle, Fuzzy Knight. One of several bottom-of-the-bill '50s Westerns, this one with almost-leading man Wayne as a prospector with gold fever, which in turns puts a strain on his family life. Backus is cast against type as an ornery villain. Shot for 1.85:1 theatrical projection, this full frame release holds up okay when reformatted for wide screen TVs. Faded color, but not terrible. Video Rating: (**)


Disc 8: Potpourri, Part Two

Mohawk (National Pictures Corp./20th Century-Fox, 1956) with Scott Brady, Rita Gam, Neville Brand, Lori Nelson, Allison Hayes, John Hoyt, Mae Clarke, Ted de Corsia. Goofy "Eastern" pitting Iroquois vs. settlers, and an incredible phony "fort" exterior set vs. reams of stock footage from Drums Along the Mohawk. Scott Brady plays an artist and irresistible ladies man, torn between fiancee Lori Nelson, slutty, seasoned settler (and future 50 Ft. Woman) Allison Hayes (incredibly sexy here) and blue-eyed, light-skinned Indian Rita Gam. Incredible cast of B-movie veterans make this a guilty pleasure. Like The Naked Hills, its full frame transfer crops nicely to approximate the original 1.85:1 release. Colors are good. Video Rating: (** 1/2)

Tulsa (Eagle-Lion, 1949) with Susan Hayward, Robert Preston, Pedro Armendariz, Chill Wills, Ed Begley, Sr. In attempting to avenge her father's death by getting into and rising up within the oil business, former cattlewoman Hayward eventually loses all sense of morality in her bid for money and power. Video Rating: (**)

Fair Play (Releasing company undetermined, 1972) with Paul Ford, Robert Middleton, Terry Wilson, Paul Glaser, Richard Webb. What is this thing? Your guess is as good as mine. It looks like it was shot as a theatrical feature, but may have been shown only as a TV movie-of-the-week, or perhaps not at all. Whatever it is, it looks much cheaper than even the cheapest of TV movies. I was climbing the walls after just 15 minutes and had to turn it off. Looks like crap, too. Video Rating: (* 1/2)

The Young Land (Columbia, 1959) with Patrick Wayne, Yvonne Craig, Dennis Hopper, Dan O'Herlihy. Intriguing Western more for its behind-the-scenes credits than the movie itself. Produced by John Ford's son Patrick and C.V. Whitney (The Searchers) and supposedly intended for release by Disney in 1957, it features many cast and crew members who were regulars in John Ford's and John Wayne's films (Ken Curtis, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, DP Winton Hoch, etc.) and, of course, stars Wayne's youngest son Patrick. Another full-frame release probably projected at 1.85:1. It looks okay. Passable video quality. Video Rating: (** 1/2)

Video & Audio

See above for comments on individual titles. All eight discs are single-sided and dual-layered, but the bit-rate is poor and, needless to say, these aren't progressive transfers, so line-doublers and the like are a big plus when watching these on big monitors. Everything is mono and acceptable except where noted. Likewise, there are no alternate audio or subtitle options on anything, and the only extras I caught was material added to the end of King of the Cowboys, material not mentioned anywhere and inaccessible via the main menu.

Parting Thoughts

So what's it boil down to? If you're a fan of Italian Westerns, I'd avoid this release because of all the panning-and-scanning and the generally poor shape of those titles. The full-frame B-Westerns from the '30s through the '50s hold up best, except for the John Wayne Lone Star titles which, for the most part, look truly awful. If you're a fan of B-Westerns and have a high tolerance for bad prints and transfers, the movies themselves and the sheer volume of material for the money make this worthwhile, which is why I'm giving this a barely-passable Recommended rating.

Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.

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