Monday, December 8, 2008

Blazing the Western Trail (Columbia, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie I’d recorded off TCM immediately after Rockin’ at the Rockies: Blazing the Western Trail, a 1950 Columbia Western that was part of a series called “The Durango Kid” featuring 1930’s actor Charles Starrett (another star who, like Randolph Scott, focused exclusively on Westerns and thereby stretched out his career for a couple of decades after he stopped getting offered “civilian” roles) as a Lone Ranger-esque good-bad character who wore an all-black outfit and masked his face (the better for stunt double Ted Mapes to substitute for Starrett in the action scenes, especially one spectacular fall from the roof of a building), the difference being that unlike the Lone Ranger he had a civilian identity too, as Jeff Waring, who comes to the Quanto Valley in the middle of a war between two stagecoach companies (the year is 1870) for the rights to the U.S. mail contract.

The good stagecoach company is Halliday’s, run by Bill Halliday (Nolan Leary) and his daughter Mary (Carole Matthews, an appealingly spunky performer who probably deserved better than female leads in “B” Westerns) and her comic-relief sidekick “Cannonball” (Dub Taylor, who probably had to post-record all his dialogue — joke). The bad stagecoach company is Brent, owned by Forrest Brent (Al Bridge) and run by Jeff Waring’s uncle Dan (Steve Clark). Though Dan is a decent guy and has been kept in ignorance of this, Brent has hired a goon squad of outlaws to burn Halliday’s garage and rob his coaches — in a spectacular action highlight early on, the Brent janjaweed dynamites a bridge just as a Halliday stagecoach is traveling on it, and it falls into the canyon below (it’s a pretty obvious model shot but it’s a quite good model shot and certainly credible for a “B”) — and when Dan Waring stumbles onto the truth and threatens to expose Brent (like the typically dumb movie character he is, he tells Brent and the leader of Brent’s gang to their faces that he’s going to expose them instead of just shutting up and doing so), a Brent gang member shoots him through Halliday’s window and sets Halliday up for the fall.

Though all their drivers have quit and gone to work for Brent, Mary Halliday and “Cannonball” continue to drive Halliday’s one remaining stage — and when they’re held up by Brent’s no-goodniks, Jeff Waring and his sidekick Tex Harding (the actor’s name is the same as the character’s) come to their rescue and drive off the outlaws. Jeff takes his late uncle’s job as Brent’s manager, mainly because he suspects Brent in the death of his uncle and figures that by working inside Brent’s operation he can get the evidence he needs to nail the guy — and when Brent’s outlaws continue their campaign to harass Halliday, Jeff assumes his Durango Kid identity and not only protects the Halliday stage but pulls the same outlaw tricks on Brent’s stages, though he carefully deposits everything he steals from Brent with the town sheriff (Edmund Cobb). Eventually Mary Halliday and Brent agree to stage a stagecoach race, with the winner to get the postal contract, and though the sight of two such lumbering vehicles racing each other doesn’t sound like it would be that exciting, the race is actually staged quite well by director Vernon Keays (how do you pronounce his last name?), and the Durango Kid drives the Halliday stage part of the way and helps it win, meanwhile extracting a confession from Jim McMasters (Mauritz Hugo), Brent’s head hired gun, that he killed Dan Waring on Brent’s orders.

Jeff rides off into the sunset in the best Lone Ranger style but Tex actually stays behind and pairs with Mary Halliday for a happily-ever-after ending. What makes Blazing the Western Trail (a bit of a misnomer because no trails get blazed in the film, either literally or figuratively — J. Benton Cheney’s screenplay credit really should have had quotation marks around the word “original”!) distinctive is that it features the OTHER Kings of Western Swing, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys (he and Spade Cooley dueled for the title), as guest artists — and they’re cut so boldly into the action, with no attempt to provide any reasonable segue into their numbers or any rational pretext for why these people should be singing at this time, that I can’t help thinking that screenwriter Cheney asked producer Colbert Clark, “Don’t you want me to write cues for Bob Wills’ songs?,” and Clark replied, “Oh, don’t worry about that — just write us a Western script and we’ll stick in the songs wherever we feel like it.”

That’s precisely what they did, though the Wills songs add a great deal to the entertainment value of the film even though by then he’d largely retreated from the “swing” part of Western swing and his sole concession to jazz was a trumpet (cornet, actually, assuming the musician played the same instrument during the pre-recordings that he’s shown with on screen) player who seemed to think that if he ended each solo with an out-of-tempo legato passage in a weirdly unrelated key he’d sound like Bix Beiderbecke. (I’ve heard Wills records that sounded a lot jazzier than his playing in this film, including one called “Lyla Lou” that’s a state-of-the-art swing chart from the late 1930’s — but wasn’t actually released until the 1980’s — and others that added clarinet to the mix and sounded more like a country/Dixieland mix.) It’s still a lot of fun to hear Bob Wills in this film and see one of his most famous bands — though one wonders where their electric guitarists plugged in in 1870 — and he adds a lot to what’s otherwise a fairly standard “B” Western, though at least a well-done one with a few genuinely creative compositions from Keays and cinematographer George Meehan.