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Gene Autry Collection 11 (The Singing Cowboy/Guns and Guitars/Round-Up Time in Texas/Springtime in the Rockies)
The major studios tried to woo Gene away from Republic but, perhaps realizing his strengths and weaknesses, never made anything but B-Westerns his entire career. When that genre petered out he made a fortune starring and producing Western shows during the early days of television. He was a radio star and a prolific songwriter of roughly half his 640 recordings ("Back in the Saddle Again," "Here Comes Santa Claus," etc., as well as more daring country blues and hillbilly-style records totally different from his more familiar sound) and a major influence on the country music genre. He made more millions owning radio and television stations and, later, the California Angels. He was worth, perhaps, hundreds of millions of dollars when he died in 1998 at the age of 91.
Seen today, Autry's movies are entertaining relics of a bygone age. Though among the very most popular B-Westerns they're not by any means the best, though consistently well made. (I favor William Boyd's "Hopalong Cassidy" Westerns from the same period, and later the Tim Holts for RKO, to name two.) Autry's have standard B-Western plots and characters, and are virtually interchangeable. But during the Great Depression especially, for rural audiences, the easy-going predictability of a Gene Autry Western was like movie comfort food, a cinematic baked potato oozing with sour cream and butter.
The four films in Gene Autry Collection 11 - The Singing Cowboy (1936), Guns and Guitars (1936), Round-Up Time in Texas (1937), and Springtime in the Rockies (1937) - all restored to their original length, an hour or less, are quite enjoyable, especially when one approaches these films in the right frame of mind and perhaps with an awareness of what they meant for Depression-era audiences all those years ago.
In virtually all of his films Gene Autry played "Gene Autry," blurring the lines between the actor-songwriter and the Western hero. This was a wise move on the part of Republic's writers because though Autry was an excellent singer-songwriter, he was merely blandly handsome and notably limited as an actor. The movie Autry was usually a ranch hand or foreman. An expert shot and a superb rider (always faster, in the end, than the 1930s automobiles he sometimes chases down), he had exceptionally good manners and, stubbornly, remained unfazed. In Guns and Guitars, for instance, Gene's part of a traveling medicine show when the bad guy threatens to gun him down at precisely five o'clock. The gunman approaches the front of the stage, but Gene goes on singing until the fatal hour as if nothing were wrong. Everyone scatters but, incredibly, Gene transitions directly to a sales pitch, tossing bottles of elixir at the bad guy until, exhausted, the man ponies up four bits and walks away, understandably perplexed by what has happened.
Autry's sidekick, in all of Gene's films from this period, was roly-poly Smiley Burnette, as a character named Frog Millhouse, which the ol' Smiler continued to play in other movies long after Gene left Republic to enlist in the Army during World War II. (Later on, like Autry, Smiley's characters became, simply, "Smiley Burnette"). And, like Autry, Burnette was an extremely talented and prolific composer himself of more than 400 songs, most famously "Ridin' Down the Canyon (To Watch the Sun Go Down)." Autry and Burnette typically composed most of the songs heard in Gene's movies, usually aided by others. In every Autry picture Frog Millhouse sings a novelty song or two. "I've Got Fine Relations," similar to Tom Lehrer's darker "My Home Town," is especially funny.
The supporting casts are pretty much the same from film to film as well, with Earle Hodgins playing virtually the same character (a barker, pitchman, con artist) in three of the four pictures here.
The plots are standard stuff for singing cowboy films and B-Westerns generally: Gene's boss is murdered, Gene becomes the guardian of his little girl (paralyzed in a fire while trying to rescue kittens!), and is determined to find the man's killer in one; struggles with a know-it-all female who takes over foreman Gene's prosperous ranch in another; battles crooked cattle drivers in a third.
The odd man out in this batch unquestionably is Round-Up Time in Texas. B-Westerns almost always had meaningless titles that had little to nothing to do with their actual plots, but this entry takes this practice to new heights of absurdity. How so? Except for the opening scene, the entire film is set in South Africa, where Gene uncharacteristically battles Zulu natives and a monster gorilla while searching for his brother, missing after discovering a diamond mine. Even with that bizarre plot, the picture still manages to adhere to B-Western iconography pretty closely.
Video & Audio
Gene Autry Collection 11 is a good value for the money, with four hour-long movies presented on two single-sided DVDs. All have been fully restored to their original lengths and, except for the opening titles and a few short scenes apparently edited 60-odd years ago when they were cut for television syndication, look great. The English Dolby Digital mono is also clean and free from damage or distortion and closed-captioning is offered. The discs are Region 1 encoded.
The impressive array of supplements include Reminiscing with Gene Autry and Pat Buttram at the Melody Ranch Theater, wraparound excerpts from a 1987 Nashville Network series with Gene and Pat (Gene's TV sidekick) telling stories that accompanied airings of each film on that channel.
Also included are radio episodes of "The Gene Autry Show." It's accompanied by stills and other images from the film. Autry superfan producer Alex Gordon provides several pages of text trivia for each film.
A nicely presented set of four enjoyable restored films packed with an unusual amount of extra features, Gene Autry Collection 11 is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, will be released this September.