Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lightning Carson Rides Again (Victory Pictures, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Lightning Carson Rides Again, a film made by Tim McCoy as was working his way well down the Hollywood food chain. As a silent-era Western star he had been under contract to MGM — where David O. Selznick had cut his teeth as a producer by taking McCoy’s unit out to the conventional Western locations and shooting two films at once, thereby giving the MGM distribution arm two McCoy films for little more than it usually cost to make one — and in the talkie era he’d been through Warners (where one of his sidekicks was a then little-known actor named John Wayne), Columbia (where he made his masterpiece, the 1932 pro-Indian Western End of the Trail) and by 1938, he was down to working at Victory Pictures, an all-Western operation headed by producer Sam Katzman. The director was Sam Newfield, whom I once referred to as “the Stephen King of directors, who seemed more interested in how fast he could make them than in how good they were.” The story was standard-issue Western stuff, though set in the 1938 present — automobiles and telephones appear in the story (though most of the characters still move themselves about on horseback!) — and the American Film Institute Catalog indicates it as part of a “Lightning Bill” series and a sequel to a Tim McCoy Western called Lightnin’ Bill (note the apostrophe instead of the final “g” in the first word of the name) produced under different auspices — Excelsior and Puritan Pictures — and with Sam Newfield directing but his brother Sigmund Neufeld co-producing with someone called Leslie Simmonds.

The original Lightnin’ Bill is set in Texas, but in the interval between the two films Lightning Bill Carson (Tim McCoy) has settled in San Francisco where he’s become a federal agent for the Department of Justice. Only he gets a call to come back to Jerome, a Western town near Los Angeles, where his sister Katherine Smith (Jane Keckley) has summoned him to get her son Paul (Bob Terry) out of a jam. It seems that bandits ambushed the car being driven by Paul with $10,000 of the Jerome National Bank’s money he was supposed to transfer to a larger bank in the city. The idea was to shoot both Paul and the other man in the car, Gilroy (Wally West, a silent Western star whose career descended faster than McCoy’s did, though he occasionally got character parts under his real name, Hal Taliaferro), and steal the money, but when Paul escaped — albeit without his gun — the baddies stole Paul’s gun with the intent of using it to frame him for Gilroy’s murder. Carson arrives in Jerome and hits on a plan to infiltrate the gang by posing as Mexican bandido José Fernandez — and his “Mexican” makeup is relatively convincing though his voice isn’t (and it is a bit disappointing that the man who showed such extraordinary sensitivity to Native Americans in End of the Trail is basically playing Mexican Stereotype #101 here) — which he does by hanging out at the combination saloon and casino run by Hagen (Slim Whitaker), beating the pants off of Hagen’s henchmen at poker (don’t these guys know how to rig a game to take the sucker from out-of-town?), and ultimately winning their trust enough that they give him the $10,000 they stole from the bank so Fernandez can take it across the border and launder it. Carson is interested in proving Paul innocent — when he caught Paul he sent him to L.A. and told Tom Reynolds (James Flavin), his colleague from the San Francisco office, to catch Paul at the general delivery window of the L.A. post office and hold him until Carson could complete the job of rehabilitating his reputation — but he also wants to find out who’s the big boss of the bank robbers, who in something we’ve known all along since we’ve seen him planning the robberies turns out to be bank cashier George Gray (Karl Hackett). But before Our Hero can find that out, Chuck (Ted Adams), one of the members of the gang, traces him to the barn behind the Smith home in which Carson makes his changes of identity, and when the gang meets to steal $50,000 in payroll money from the bank, Chuck shows up with the Carson clothes ready to “out” José as Carson, and there’s a final shoot-out in which Carson uses his ability to do super-quick draws to subdue the rest of the gang until the local sheriff (Frank LaRue) arrives with a posse to take the baddies into custody.

Lightning Carson Rides Again is a pretty generic “B” Western for the period — a lot of these films were set in contemporary times and one critic ridiculed them as being set in a “never-never time in which horses, automobiles and airplanes are equally important means of transportation” (though this one doesn’t contain planes, at least) — and though McCoy is 47 he’s still a believable action figure and, perhaps because Sam Katzman’s budget didn’t extend to a lot of stunt doubles and breakaway furniture, the action scenes are unspectacular but at least realistic. As Charles said, it’s odd to see a bar fight in a Western that stays confined to the two people who start it and doesn’t “go viral” and sweep up everybody in the bar (or, in the case of The Spoilers, outside the bar and onto the streets); and only the final sequence, in which Carson ambushes one of the baddies single-handedly with the old trick of suspending his hat against a rock so he can sneak around to the bad guy while the baddie still thinks McCoy is where his hat is, strains credibility. Though hardly at the level of End of the Trail (an amazing movie that was the first period-set Western to treat Native Americans sympathetically and makes the case that the U.S. government systematically broke its treaties with the Indians that otherwise wasn’t part of American discourse until Dee Brown, Vine DeLoria, Jr. and Howard Zinn published their revisionist histories in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s), Lightning Carson Rides Again is a competent, workmanlike Western featuring a lot of behind-the-scenes people who would later go on to work for PRC (director Sam Newfield  and set designer Fred Preble) or Monogram (cinematographer Marcel le Picard).