January 11, 2011
In December, a truckload of William Witney-directed Roy Rogers films were dumped onto Netflix Instant. I was clued into this trove by a conversation between Jaime Christley and Vadim Rizov on Twitter, an indication of why I’m addicted to this unruly microblogging service. As a source of cinephile news-gathering, it’s essential, and more than enough reason to endure the self-righteous posturing that flares up every so often. Witney’s one of the anonymous artisans who pumped out movie serials for the Mascot and Republic studios, often in tandem with John English. He’s credited with 130 film and television projects at IMDB, and it’s a rather daunting corpus to approach without direction. With supporters as diverse as Quentin Tarantino and Dave Kehr, I took this Netflix cache as a sign I should dig in further (the only one I’d seen before is his so-so Apache Rifles, which I wrote about here). So I sat down with the earliest films on the list: Roll On Texas Moon (1946) and Home In Oklahoma (1946).
As usual, the quality control on these streams leaves something to be desired. First, the version of Roll on Texas Moon presented is the 53 minute television cut. The theatrical version runs 68 minutes. Poking through the site, it seems most of them contain the television versions, although there are a few full edits, which run closer to 70 minutes, including Home In Oklahoma. The first thing to strike me about these programmers is they’re deceptively dark tone. Roy Rogers is an aw shucks stand-up gentleman, and Dale Evans a bright-eyed sprig of independent femininity, but the world they inhabit is violent and strange.
In Roll on Texas Moon, there is a long standing feud between the sheep-herders and the cattle-men that once exploded into a bloody range war. Gabby Hayes, the lovable old coot axiom of the Rogers films, is a cow man, and can’t stand those “dag blasted woolies.” Someone is rustling the sheep on the Ramshead farm, threatening to escalate tensions into a shooting battle once again. Eventually an evening of dinner and song ends in a Mexican standoff. The culprits are eventually brought to justice, but not before a ram is shot in the face offscreen, and a vigilante force led by Rogers faces down the band of desperadoes. Each side suffers heavy losses in the shootout. These are remarkably grim images for a lightly comic Western-musical.
While it’s been cut down, it’s obvious Witney has a natural flair for framing action. When a chase ramps up, he lays down a blazing fast tracking shot (aided by some under-cranking) that pulls back right in front of a pursuing Rogers, or his stuntman pulling off some incredible side-saddle riding. Then he cuts to the reverse angle, zooming forward towards the dastardly evildoer. The sense of danger, for both the cameraman and the rider, is palpable. In isolating each figure in their tendon wrenching moment of tension, and by using an unusual head-on angle, he has the riders speeding right at (or away from) the audience. It’s an enveloping kind of action cinema.
This continues in Home In Oklahoma, which is presented in its uncut 72 minute length. This time the chases are necessitated because of the muckraking journalism of Rogers, here the editor of the Hereford Star. Evans is the city girl, an impulsive Torchy Blane type, from a St. Louis paper reporting on the death of a big-time ranch owner. The set-up is pure Nancy Drew, with the defining clue coming in the family hymnal. But the pleasures of these films are not in the story-telling, as Witney has to speed through gobs of exposition before he can break out an arcing crane shot of a rollicking ranch breakfast or capture Rogers crooning the bittersweet, unsatisfied tune, “I Wish I Was a Kid Again” (short form: as a kid I dreamed of adulthood, as an adult I dream of my childhood).
In keeping with the incipient brutality of the worlds Rogers and Evans must live in, the main villain, a lovely sadist named Jan (Carol Hughes), attempts to kill a small boy in order to inherit his ranch. She also ruthlessly shoots a few less-able men in the back. These hapless corpses take their tumbles in some extraordinary stunt work by Witney’s crew, who are seemingly game for anything. One brave soul falls over a small waterfall, while two bruisers take turns tackling each other on an open-air platform on a moving train. This is rough and tumble cinema made with fearlessness and charm, as well as the inimitable tones of the Sons of the Pioneers.
I’m very curious to explore the rest of his career – and if anyone has recommendations of essential titles, or a copy of Witney’s autobiography they’re able to sell at a reasonable price, I’m all ears. In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase is only available at upwards of $40, and the samples available on Google Books are tantalizingly rich. Another exciting subject for further research.