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Bronco: The Complete Second Season (Warner Archive Collection)
Born down around the old panhandle,
Texas is where he grew to fame.
There ain't a horse that he can't handle,
That's how he got his name.
Tearin' across the Texas plain!
Next to a four-square Texas twister,
You'd call a cyclone meek and mild.
You've never seen a twister, mister,
'Till someone gets him riled.
Tearin' across the Texas plain!
Show me a gal who kissed him once,
I'll show you a gal who's kissed him twice.
Once any gal has kissed him twice,
She's dreamin' of shoes and rice.
Tearin' across the Texas plain!
Warner Western-making, down to a science. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Bronco: The Complete Second Season, a 5-disc, 20-episode collection of the classic TV oater's 1959-1960 season. Starring Ty Hardin as ex-Confederate officer Bronco Layne, this was technically the first stand-alone season of Bronco's, after pinch-hitting for Cheyenne the year before when Clint Walker ankled it off the set of his smash hit. If you're a fan of these Warner TV Westerns, then you'll already know that this second outing of Bronco episodes is, as expected, beautifully produced, efficiently scripted and directed, sporting polished turns from the supporting players. No extras this time out (too bad we didn't get those Will Hutchins Sugarfoot tags that were in the first season set), for these sharp fullscreen black and white transfers.
If you've read any of my previous reviews for Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, or Bronco, then you'll know that these 50s WB TV oaters had rather an involved, interconnected production history. I won't repeat all that here (for context, you can click on my previous Bronco review for a short synopsis of that backstory), nor, for that matter, will I put forth any startlingly original observations about this second string of episodes...since season two of Bronco looks and sounds exactly like season one. Some other critics dismiss this as "boilerplate" TV production, but I call it the reliably repeatable experience of "assured professionalism." Nothing has been added or "tweaked" to the formula to expand the series' reach, because it isn't really necessary: Bronco delivers exactly on its promise of tightly-constructed Western anthology storytelling. Nothing more nor less. Time and time again. The series' framework is still generic: a loner wanders from town to town, helping people he meets along the way...while persevering in the face of unfair persecution in one form or another. We still don't learn a whole lot about Bronco Layne's makeup or motivations in this second go-around; that way, he can stay mysterious and intriguing to the audience...while being anonymous enough to allow a broad range of viewers to take a shine to him by filling in the character's blanks with their own expectations. And while Ty Hardin may not look or act appreciably more accomplished in this second season of episodes, he still fits the Western "type" needed here--handsome, strapping, rough-and-tumble loner who can also be gentle and understanding--while staying true to the series' form itself: unapologetically square and solid...and quite entertaining. Let's look very briefly at the episodes.
If the season opener, Game at the Beacon Club, scripted by series producer Arthur Silver, wasn't just a thinly re-worked Maverick script--which happened all the time when these WB oaters would swap-out scripts--it should have been:
Brett Maverick Bronco gets mixed up with wiley con artist Pat Crowley (also a Maverick regular) in a high-stakes poker game. Lots of funny lines here (when a dirty, ravaged Bronco is asked if he's a member of the hoity-toity gentleman's club, he answers, "No, ma'am--I just barely made the human race,"), while old pro comedy helmsman Arthur Lubin keeps the laughs coming at a steady clip (Crowley's montage of cleaning up at the table is expertly wrought). Scripter Gerald Drayson Adams, in his first of many episodes this season, delivers up The Burning Springs, a flashback episode for Bronco fashioned into familiar but well-executed prison/espionage drama where Confederate Bronco pretends to be a Yankee to get P.O.W. Rhodes Reason to spill on Union secrets. A good change of pace from the usual sagebrush antics for Bronco, with a top-flight cast including Suzanne Lloyd, Berry Kroeger (disgusting as always), Adam West, Raymond Bailey, Morris Ankrum, and Kermit Maynard. James O'Hanlon comes up with a nifty little mystery/murder investigation outing with Bodyguard, where Bronco spars with Alan Hale, Jr. (his usual affable self, with a touch of menace this time) when a man Bronco was hired to protect, winds up dead. Scripter Arnold Belgard, contributing to the further (unwarranted) mythologizing of "Billy the Kid" as some sort of misunderstood good guy, delivers The Soft Answer, an otherwise intriguing look at Bronco's encounter with a non-violent Quaker sheepherder...played by no less than psycho Leo Gordon (the mother of all casting-against-type moves). Gordon, as expected, is effective, while Ray Stricklyn as Billy does what he can imparting some subtext of Billy's impulsive, murderous thoughts underneath Belgard's sentimental take (Belgard could have really done something with Gordon's rather interesting amalgamation of pacifists--Indians, Asians, Bronco, and Billy the Kid--but the inherent possibilities are ignored).
One of the season's best episodes, The Last Resort, from scripter Jack Laird, could have worked nicely as a big-screen effort with just a little bit more elaboration: Bronco, framed for a crime by charming schemer Marshall Thompson (who's quite fun as a rat), finds himself at the "Last Resort," a town straddling the Mexican border run by criminals for criminals, as a safe haven hide-out. Lots of weird, humorous asides in this decidedly off-beat entry, including Bronco earning his keep in town by working as a valet for Thompson...before he's strapped to a cross like Jesus and given 40 lashes by the town's ruler, "Three-Finger" Jack (Kent Taylor, smooth and nasty). If only they had given us just five or ten minutes of Bronco interacting with the town's criminal population--the idea of this grown-up anti-"Boys Town" for criminals is tantalizing--we could have had a classic here. George Slavin's The Devil's Spawn may feel familiar--good guy Mike Keene has raised his son and his brother's son as his own...and now evil outlaw bro Ray Teal wants his boy back--but it's put over reasonably well. The only drawback: Warner contract player/glamour boy Troy Donahue yet again unsuccessfully trying to play a punk (I've seen him in several of these WB TV oaters...and he's always the weakest link in the episode). Flight from an Empire, from Albert Aley, is a spirited romp that finds Bronco helping out two royal refugees from Mexico's Maximilian regime. One of my favorites, Barry Kelley (we simply don't have actors like him anymore), is a hoot as a new money cattle baron looking to acquire social status (a shoot-out at his hoity-toity soiree elicits admiration from his rowdy, gun-toting guests: "You give the best parties!"), while sexy Mary Tyler Moore makes it quite clear what she really means when, after ditching her haughty French fiance and eyeing American stud Bronco up and down, offers, "I'm tired of French pastry...I'd like a little hard-tack." George Slavin comes back with another Maverick-worthy outing in Night Train to Denver, where Bronco has to escort a fairly lively corpse who may be responsible for ripping off a lot of money from Wells Fargo. A funny, smartassed back-and-forth tone and a solid cast (Brad Dexter, Myron Healey, Robert Colbert, Charles Maxwell, a cameo by Victor Buono, and an especially amusing bit from old timer Tom Kennedy as a weary baggage porter) makes this scam entry notable, while Ty Hardin fans will no doubt mark his singing debut (it's actually quite nice--he even manages a credible Slim Whitman-like yodel at the end).
Gerald Drayson Adams returns with the action-packed Shadow of Jesse James, a "prequel" of sorts to the series proper, as we see Bronco serving in the Confederate Army, meeting Cole Younger (Richard Coogan) and Jesse James (James Coburn), and calling them friends. The zippy episode goes from this point right through to an appropriately chaotic Northfield, Minnesota shootout, with historical accuracy ranging from reasonable (James is portrayed as a remorseless killer) to questionable, at best (Cole Younger and Belle Starr, played by Jeanne Cooper, come over as an antebellum Ozzie and Harriet Nelson). Uncharacteristically, Coburn does poorly here with his whining, crying Jesse. Arnold Belgard's Masquerade, like his earlier The Soft Answer, misses out in fully elaborating on the episode's potentially most intriguing element: the teenage gang that Bronco must reform are privileged children of the town's most wealthy and influential members. Commentary on sociology, though, is dropped in favor of a Dr. Spock/Norman Vincent Peale approach to the troublesome teens: once they get to work at boring, adult jobs they really want, they become model citizens (and spare me Bronco moralizing to the negligent fathers--I don't need Bronco subbing for the Rotary). Kudos, though, to the episode's director, Herbert L. Strock, who stages a flat-out terrific fistfight that gets out of hand very quickly, with disastrous results. A tricky "whydunit" follows from Wells Root and Ron Bishop: Volunteers from Aberseen, where undercover Pinkerton agent Bronco must find the real killer who framed his friend, Karl Weber. Good cast including a young Robert Reed and Regis Toomey for this one. Even better is Every Man a Hero, from George Slavin: Bronco arrives at a besieged cavalry fort, and finds a murderous secret among the less-than-honest survivors. Combining a standard "fort under assault" storyline with a Bad Day at Black Rock deadly secret, this outing keeps you guessing as to what really happened when the fort's hated commander was knifed in the back. A-level cast included Patricia Barry, Simon Oakland, Mike Road, Warren Oates, and John Milford, with a pitiless ending for the guilty at the hands of the Indians: when Bronco and the remaining survivors walk out of the fort, leaving the cowardly villain behind for certain torture and death (he killed an Indian under a white truce flag), he screams at Bronco, "What kind of White man are you!? Leaving me with this bunch of savages!?" to which an unimpressed Bronco flatly replies, "Savages? They bleed like us; they die like us. They have a right to their justice...just like us." A thematically complex outing that compares favorably to something tricky like Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid.
Gerald Drayson Adams returns with the troubling Death of an Outlaw, when Bronco's "friend," Billy the Kid (this time played by Stephen Joyce), helps him win a range war...only to keep on rustling way past the limits of Bronco's patience. This one shows Billy to be an unrepentant criminal, but what's disturbing are the lengths the writer and director go in making Bronco a supportive, loyal friend of a notorious killer--a major break from the true-blue, moral character created over the past season and a half (Hardin seems more enthusiastic sticking up for Billy here than at any other time in any other episode this season). Well-mounted...but a serious misstep in the series. Arnold Belgard's cleverly constructed The Human Equation returns Bronco to his moral high ground: he's willing to risk getting deadly cholera to convince a truculent Army officer (Lawrence Dobkin) to make a treaty moving the Osage Indians to more fertile grounds in Wyoming--a victory for the Indians that is threatened when martinet Herbert Rudley takes command. Good plot twists keep this one interesting. Montana Passage, from Gerald Drayson Adams and Howard Browne, however, is choppily constructed in this too-familiar tale of Bronco trying to clear his name of a murder charge (there's a good Indian raid at the finale, but again the producers miscalculate when they take "good guy" Bronco and have him do something we don't like: using coercion to shut up an innocent witness threatening to go to the cops). Pro helmer Andre de Toth gets some good frames in equally accomplished scripter Jack Laird's Legacy of Twisted Creek, a solid meller with double crosses galore as he tries to bring a killer to justice (Carleton Young is excellent as a drunk coward barely hanging onto his sanity).
Randy Stuart also excels in R. Wright Campbell's and Dean Riesner's entertaining Tangled Trail, playing a psychotic fixated on having Bronco for her own (there's a great scene where she impassively watches her husband Marc Lawrence drown, withholding a life-line for him, Leave Her to Heaven-style). Gerald Drayson Adams teams up with Arthur Silver this time for La Rubia, an okay suspenser where Bronco befriends ruthless-but-fair Mexican bandito Carlos Romero, who in turn gets played by beautiful blonde school teacher Judith Castle. No surprises here, but watchable because of Romero's spirited performance. Kenneth Higgins (perhaps taking advantage of some standing The Alaskans sets?) pens a reasonably exciting Winter Kill, where Dragnet regular Virginia Gregg pulls out all the stops as a murder-bent mother who will stop at nothing to keep her son out of jail. Good to see Edgar Buchanan in something other than comedy, but Big Bad Bob Mitchum's brother, John, is laughably bad as a crybaby sidekick. Finally, the familiar-feeling End of a Rope, from Orville Hampton and..."W. Hermanos" (that's why it seems so familiar!) delivers a fun, fast story as Bronco finds himself in the middle of scam that "disappears" criminals permanently--a con job that might stretch his neck in the process. Cult B movie director Lew Landers keeps everything moving fast enough for you to not ask questions.
The previous 1958-1959 season had found Bronco's first go-around (really as a season fill-in for a re-named Cheyenne) highly rated (21st for the year). Understandably, when Clint Walker finally returned to Cheyenne, ABC and Warners were confident thinking the equally high-rated Cheyenne alternate Sugarfoot (18th) would be a good rotating match with Bronco, spinning them off together on Tuesday nights at 7:30pm, while Cheyenne was moved to Mondays on its own. Sugarfoot / Bronco still didn't have any competition from CBS (The Dennis O'Keefe Show didn't register a blip at 8:00pm), but NBC's new Western, Laramie, starring John Smith and Robert Fuller, beginning a three year run at the Tuesday 7:30pm timeslot, proved sufficiently popular enough to eat into Sugarfoot / Bronco's ratings, dropping them both out of the coveted Nielsen Top Thirty (Cheyenne, with man-mountain Walker back at the helm, did just fine as the 17th most-watched program of the 1959-1960 season). A move back under Cheyenne's anthology umbrella the following year helped Sugarfoot / Bronco's ratings a bit...but not enough.
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfers for Bronco: The Complete Second Season look sharp, with solid blacks, mostly good contrast (a few scenes from time to time look a little blown out--but nothing major), a sharpish image, and the expected level of screen imperfections (low).
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is fine, with low hiss and a decent re-recording level. No subtitles or closed-captions.
No extras for Bronco: The Complete Second Season.
The WB TV oaters roll on. Perhaps not quite as solid as the first season, this second offering of Bronco nonetheless delivers some hard-ridin', fist-flyin', hot lead-spittin' action, along with (mostly) well-executed, interesting stories. Ty Hardin is holding his own. I highly recommend Bronco: The Complete Second Season.
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.