Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Song of Old Wyoming (PRC, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I decided to screen a movie I’d downloaded from archive.org: Song of Old Wyoming, a 1945 PRC Western that in one respect followed in the 1930’s tradition — the hero, Eddie Dean (playing a character simply named “Eddie”), sings and has (at least until the end) a pretty sexless relationship with his leading lady, Vicky Conway (Jennifer Holt — and it’s a measure of the relative unimportance of his part that she’s billed fifth). When the film opens he’s singing a song called “Hills of Old Wyoming” (by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, considerably more illustrious songwriters than we expect to see contributing to a PRC movie; the song, as I suspected, was originally written in 1937 for a Hopalong Cassidy movie at Paramount called Hills of Old Wyoming) as he and Vicky are riding together in front of a herd of cattle belonging to Vicky’s (adoptive) mother, Ma Conway (Sarah Padden, whose gutsy no-nonsense performance makes this movie). One thing that distinguishes Song of Old Wyoming from most “B” Westerns is it was shot in color — the Cinécolor process, which wasn’t as vibrant and bright as three-strip Technicolor but at its best (the color preservation in this print is quite variable) it has a burnished, painterly quality reminiscent of two-strip at its best even though Cinécolor was ahead of Technicolor in the early 1930’s in its ability to reproduce blue. The color probably upped the production budget (imdb.com estimates this film’s cost as $36,000, which was cheap even then) if only because they almost certainly had to hire their own cattle to represent Ma Conway’s herds because no stock shots of cattle would have been available in color. Aside from that it’s a pretty typical old-Western plot except for one interesting character, the Cheyenne Kid, in which Robert Emmett Tansey (producer and director, though he lopped off his last name and was billed only as “Robert Emmett”) and Frances Kavanaugh (“original” screenwriter) actually created a multidimensional character, genuinely torn between evil and good, though they did too little with him.

The film takes place in 1890 and deals with an attempt by a crooked banker, Jesse Dixon (Robert Barron), and a crooked territorial politician, Lee Landow (Ian Keith, on the downgrade since being considered for Dracula in the 1931 film and playing Saladin in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades in 1935), who want to drive Ma Conway’s ranch out of business, shut down her paper — the Laramie Bulletin, which despite the disinclination of her editor (Horace Murphy, who comes off so much like Erskine Sanford in Citizen Kane one wonders if he moved out West and took the job at the Bulletin after Charles Foster Kane fired him from the New York Inquirer) runs scathing exposés about the crookedness of the territorial government and is pushing for the admission of Wyoming to the U.S. as a state (the reverence in Kavanaugh’s script for the federal government as a force that will provide the honest administration hitherto lacking in Wyoming definitely dates this film!) — and, if necessary, kill him. To this end they hire the Cheyenne Kid (Lash LaRue, still billed here under his first name “Al” before his spectacular technique with a bullwhip — shown here in one thrilling sequence — led him to spin off into a brief “B”-Western career of  his own), only the Cheyenne Kid first encounters Ma Conway on the trail and is helped by her and Eddie. She offers him a job, and so he’s uncertain (to say the least!) when he then meets Landow and Dixon (who communicate with each other via a wall-mounted telephone that didn’t exist in 1890 — indeed, it’s hard to imagine that there was any sort of phone service in frontier Wyoming just 14 years after the telephone had been invented!) and finds that Ma is the person he’s supposed to ruin and kill. He takes the job with her anyway, telling Landow and Dixon he’ll do better at destroying her if he can work from the inside, and he discovers her cash stash (behind a brick in the fireplace — not that old trick again!) and manages to work with Landow’s and Dixon’s other gang members (including a green-shirted man named Ringo, played by “Rocky Camron,” t/n Gene Alsace, who struck me as the sexiest guy in the film) to rustle Ma’s cattle and make it look like they drowned.

The baddies end up dynamiting the water hole so Ma’s cattle will die of dehydration, and for good measure they blow up the office of the Laramie Bulletin — only the Cheyenne Kid finally turns against them, partly because he’s discovered that he’s Ma Conway’s long-lost son (not that tired old gimmick again!), who was kidnapped by the white desperadoes who ambushed her wagon train two decades earlier when he was just a boy, and partly because instead of paying him the money they’d promised in gold, Dixon tries to palm him off with paper from his bank. Realizing they’re trying to cheat him, the Kid holds up Dixon’s bank, taking only enough gold to cover what he was supposed to be paid, then gives the money to Ma and dies in a shoot-out between Landow’s and Dixon’s gang and the ranch hands at Ma’s ranch. Much more could have been done to dramatize this character’s crisis of conscience, but he’s still the most interesting member of the dramatis personae — without him (and the Cinécolor) this would be just another “B” Western, with Eddie Dean singing three songs that sound like just about every other song written for a singing-cowboy film, with lots of mentions of old strays, corrals, cayuses (I guess it just had more rhymes than “horse”) and roundups. Apparently Song of Old Wyoming was the first of five Cinécolor Westerns Eddie Dean made for PRC, and at least one of the others, Romance of the West, sounds like it would be worth seeing if only because it’s sympathetic to Native Americans. The imdb.com synopsis reads, “The happy Indians live in Antelope Valley and Eddie is the new Indian Agent. Everything seems fine until the town selectmen want the valley occupied by the Indians because it contains silver. So they hire outlaw Indians and Chico to start trouble hoping that the army will forcibly remove them from the valley and they will claim it. But Father Sullivan and Eddie believe the Indians are being wronged even though they cannot convince anyone else.” Now that sounds like it would be worth watching!