Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mr. Haney is sure handy with that whip!

One of the reasons the B-movie cowboy heroes were so popular was that they were so gosh-darn likable. We can't help but think of Hopalong, Roy, Gene and Tex as friends. And in a very important sense, they were our friends.

But another reason was that their movies were nearly always excellent examples of good basic storytelling. The B-movie Western had well-constructed plots, interesting situations, superbly choreographed action scenes and excellent use of location photography. Even if you were to set aside the appeal of the heroes, we can watch one of these films and simply enjoy a well-told story.

For instance, the 1951 Gene Autry oater titled Silver Canyon gives us a really nifty tale. It's set right at the beginning of the Civil War. A Confederate guerilla band led by Wade McQuarrie (who is clearly modeled after William Quantrill) is pillaging and raiding the area around Gateway, a U.S. Army post and mining town. Gene and his sidekick Cougar Claggett want to join the Army, but an officer talks Gene into tracking down McQuarrie.

What follows is a fine story in which Gene uses his tracking skills and deductive reasoning while searching for McQuarrie's trail. In the meantime, McQuarrie's men attack and steal a box of silver from an Army wagon train, then later steal some horses from a Pony Express station.

It unfolds that Walt Middler, the son of Gateway's military commander, is working with McQuarrie--not out of greed or thuggery, but because he sincerely supports the Confederate cause. Walt's sister Dell knows this, but can't bring herself to turn him in.

All this builds up to a satisfying conclusion  when McQuarrie and his men--dressed in Union uniforms--boldly ride into Gateway with the intention of looting the town. But Gene is hot on their trail with an idea of how to trick them into leaving town. Also, Walt witnesses McQuarrie's ruthlessness and begins to wonder if he's chosen the right side.

It's an entertaining movie from start to finish, made all the better by a fine supporting cast. Gail Davis (who would play Annie Oakley a few years later in an Autry-produced TV series) plays Dell Middler as capable and occasionally fiery, lifting her above a mere damsel-in-distress status. McQuarrie is played with a calm ruthlessness by Jim Davis. Dell's brother Walt is played by Bob Steele, who had his own career as a B-movie hero during the 1930s & 40s.

It's a great movie because we like and admire Gene Autry and I'm not underestimating this. But it's also a great movie simply because it spins a really good yarn.

By the way, Pat Buttram was Gene's sidekick in many of his films and on Gene's TV and radio shows. He does a fine job in the sidekick department, providing sincerely funny moments while still remaining competent enough to provide Gene with actual help when needed. The scene I'm including below, in which Gene prevents a man from being lynched for supposedly helping McQuarrie, is a good example of this. Pat's character jumps right in to the fight and more than holds his own. In fact, his use of the whip right at the beginning of the fight is nothing less than epic.

Buttram went on to play the persistent salesman Mr. Haney on Green Acres in the 1960s and was an important element in what made that show so darn funny. In fact, Silver Canyon gives us two connections to absurdist 1960s sitcoms. Bob Steele was a member of F Troop (and was an important element in what made that show so funny).

Pat Buttram was a great comedic actor, but by golly you wouldn't want to go up against him in a fist fight. If he'd brought that whip along to Hooterville, he probably could have convinced Mr. Douglas to buy a lot more of his stuff.

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