A Tornado in the Saddle
Sony Pictures Choice Collection // Unrated // $20.95 // August 7, 2012
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted January 11, 2013
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Its title suggesting a different movie altogether, A Tornado in the Saddle (1942) is, alas, just an ordinary B-Western. The star is Russell Hayden, who'd only just graduated from his juvenile lead role in William Boyd's Hopalong Cassidy film series, then releasing through Paramount. Efficiently directed by busy William Berke, it has precious little to distinguish it from a hundred other modest oaters, but in its defense it's also reasonably entertaining and interesting in other ways.

A manufactured-on-demand, Sony "Choice Collection" release, A Tornado in the Saddle sources a fine-looking reissue print, its full-frame transfer sporting good detail and contrast, though bereft of extra features or even menu screens.

The picture co-stars Bob Wills, regarded today as one of the co-founders of Western swing music and a major influence on later stars like Buck Owens and Willie Nelson. He and "His Texas Playboys" (Tommy Duncan, Joe Holley, Harley Huggins, Millard Kelso, and Leon McAuliffe) all play ranch hands (Wills is renamed "Bob Wilson"), and together they sing four pleasant songs, a lot of music for a 59-minute movie.

After their opening number another ranch hand, Cannonball (Dub Taylor) rides in full of excitement, he having discovered gold nuggets on nearby Bear Ridge. However, ranch owner Big Bill Bailey (Jack Baxley) orders Cannonball to keep the news under his hat lest he incite a gold rush and the lawlessness sure to follow.

Not long after, the cowpokes meet the new sheriff of Crestview, Lucky Crandall (Russell Hayden), who rescues a runaway and driverless stagecoach and its sole passenger, pretty Madge Duncan (Alma Carroll). She's in town to surprise her brother, Steve Duncan (Donald Curtis). Steve, however, has fallen in with no-good saloon owner Hutch Dalton (Tristram Coffin) and is working for him under the name "Slim Stevens." After he and Hutch spot Cannonball's gold nuggets, the nefarious band plots to jump his claim.

As a movie, A Tornado in the Saddle isn't much, though this one has the strange, probably unintended effect of making Lucky appear ineffectual, Steve sympathetic, and most strangely, of turning the musical relief into a bloodthirsty cowboy bent on revenge, in constant conflict with Lucky over his failure to arrest Steve and the other bad guys in a timely fashion.

Another oddity, though more common in these kinds of movies than non-fans might suspect, is the ambiguous setting. Madge rides into town on a Wells Fargo stagecoach but steps out wearing incongruous 1940s style wardrobe, make-up, and hair. The town of Crestview clearly has no electricity with only gas lamps in sight, yet there is telephone service.

Vocalist-songwriter Cindy Walker ("You Don't Know Me") penned all four songs Bob and his Playboys sing: "You're from Texas," "He's a Barstool Cowboy," "Dusty Skies," and "We're Rough and Ready." The group appeared in about 19 films between 1940 and '43, when the war more or less broke up the act for a time.

Born with the decidedly unheroic name of Hayden "Pate" Lucid, Russell Hayden had worked behind the cameras in various capacities until someone recognized his star potential on the Hoppy set. He took the stage name Russell Hayden in honor of his friend Russell Harlan, a busy cinematographer who shot numerous B-Westerns. Hayden made his acting debut in Hills of Old Wyoming (1937), a Hoppy film in which he replaced James Ellison as the juvenile lead. Ellison's Johnny Nelson had been a tempestuous hothead, but Hayden's Lucky Jenkins was more innocent, romantic, and playful, and he looked up to Hoppy as a saint-like father figure. The Boyd-Hayden years, which usually though not always completed its triumvirate with George "Gabby" Hayes as Windy Halliday, lasted two dozen films through 1941, the earlier ones being among the best B-Westerns ever made. The Hoppy films never completely recovered from Hayden's departure; none of his replacements measured up. A Tornado in the Saddle was among the first of Hayden's starring Westerns for Columbia. In these, as in most of his later films for other studios, his character was usually named Lucky.

Similarly, iconic Western character player (and mean xylophonist) Dub Taylor spent most of his early career as comic relief "Cannonball," wearing the same costume and doing the same shtick in myriad cheap Westerns, regardless of film series, studio, or whether it was a modern or period Western. (Or, in this case, both.) He played the part in about 70 movies from 1939 to 1950. (He does, incidentally, appear in 1984's Cannonball Run II, credited as an unnamed sheriff. You'd have thought someone would have seen the potential for a great in-joke.)

Video & Audio

A Tornado in the Saddle sources what looks like a reissue crediting Gail Productions International Corp., not Columbia Pictures. (The reissue title card clumsily deletes the entire cast list save Hayden and Wills. Regardless, the image looks just fine, with impressive detail, rich blacks, and good contrast throughout. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. There are no menu screens; the movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.

Parting Thoughts

Not great but agreeable for what it is, A Tornado in the Saddle is ordinary but not bad, and the presentation for the most part excellent. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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