Thursday, January 6, 2011

Range Defenders (Republic, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Range Defenders, one of the earlier entries in Republic’s series of Westerns featuring “The Three Mesquiteers,” characters created by William Colt MacDonald (his middle name seems incredibly appropriate for a Western writer!), and this one featured the earliest actors as the trio: Robert Livingston as Stony Brooke, Ray Corrigan as Tucson Smith and Max Terhune as Lullaby Joslin, a considerably less annoying than usual (though still not especially funny) comic-relief character. (Later in the series Livingston was replaced by John Wayne.) The plot deals with Stony’s brother George (Thomas Carr) being framed for the murder of sheep rancher John Asheton as a plot to grab the Brooke family’s cattle ranch. The plotters are the town’s corrupt sheriff, Dan Gray (Earle Hodgkins), and the man who’s corrupted him, big landowner John Harvey (Harry Woods); the idea is to seize the Brooke family ranch, offer it for auction at a sheriff’s sale, and threaten any other bidders with bodily harm so Harvey can get it at a low price and annex it to his own sheep ranch.

Asheton also has a daughter, Sheila (Eleanor Stewart), who’s portrayed as basically innocent and decent, tricked into going along with Harvey’s plans until the Mesquiteers manage to persuade her that George Brooke did not kill her father — though this being a continuing Western series she is not paired off with one of the Mesquiteers at the end — and there are some interesting situations along the way, including the decision of the Mesquiteers and their supporters in the cattle-ranching community to run Tucson Smith for sheriff against Gray so cattle ranchers will have a fair shake in the justice system. It’s just another “B” Western in an industry that churned them out like butter — the second-tier majors like RKO, Universal and Columbia had their own Western units that helped pay the bills and generate the predictable profits that enabled those companies to take occasional flyers at the “A” market, while companies like Republic, Grand National and Monogram made them a major part of their output and even smaller outfits like Puritan and Supreme did nothing but Westerns.

It’s decently staged by director Mack V. Wright, who manages to make it look like he had a bigger budget than he actually did (he had access to a marvelous series of stock shots of a sheep herd on the move, which helped) from an “original” screenplay written — or, more appropriately, compiled — by one Joseph Poland from a stock of Western clichés so hoary they were probably deeply embedded into the unconscious memories of generations of screenwriters. It’s also acceptably acted (and, in the case of Eleanor Stewart — playing virtually the only character with even a hint of moral ambiguity — better than that) — and like a lot of other “B” Westerns, it’s uncertain as to exactly when it takes place: an elaborate phonograph in one sequence suggests the (1937) present, as do the billboards for two other 1937 Republic releases, Gun Lords of Stirrup Basin and Guns in the Dark, the American Film Institute Catalog entry on this film noted were there.