RKO B Westerns

RKO B Westerns

RKO Radio Pictures made dozens of B Westerns with either George O’Brien or Tim Holt in the lead role; they even made one (The Renegade Ranger (1938)) that starred both of them with Rita Hayworth (the year before she had her breakout role as Richard Barthelmess’s wife in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939) with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur)! O’Brien had been a silent film star in director John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) and even the Academy Award winning Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) opposite Janet Gaynor. Holt married Anne Shirley’s character while her mother (Barbara Stanwyck as Stella Dallas (1937)) watched anonymously from outside in the rain and had roles in several other well-known films – Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – even as (and after) he’d begun making B Westerns.

One of the great things about TCM is that they air these (black & white) B movie Westerns which typically run an hour in length and aren’t available anywhere else (e.g. not DVD nor VHS). Since the stories are short their plots are fairly straightforward: the protagonist is good guy (e.g. O’Brien or Holt) who more typically with (but sometimes without) a sidekick saves the day by resolving some issue caused by an easily identifiable villain or gang which earns our hero the gratitude of a comely female character (and her father unless he was killed in the conflict). Each story includes many of the requisite elements associated with the genre: open range cowboys vs. homesteaders land or water rights issues saloon fights stagecoaches and railroads shootouts cattle drives and/or rustling rocky terrain chases in and out of town on horseback and some downtime for romance and a song or two before the climactic in-the-nick-of-time rescue or resolution. Unlike some established customs in vaudeville (or even silent films) the bad guys aren’t always the ‘men in black'; in fact both O’Brien and Holt seemed to prefer this color for their own apparels.

As you might expect given the factory nature of the studios of the time the same directors and writers were responsible for most of these movies. David Howard directed more than two dozen of O’Brien’s features many of which were written by (or adapted from) Zane Grey and/or Oliver Drake. Howard also directed a few of Holt’s pictures who more or less took the reins from O’Brien and directors Edward Kiley (in the early 1940’s) and Lesley Selander (after World War II through the early 1950’s) kept the cameras rolling. Kiley most often worked with screenwriter Morton Grant who gave way to the prolific Norman Houston who not only collaborated with Selander on more than a dozen with Holt but also worked with a handful of other interim overseers like Lew Landers. Though Stanley Fields Chill Wills singer Ray Whitley or Virginia Vale (among others) occasionally appeared with O’Brien his characters could work alone whereas Holt was usually paired with a sidekick: first with Whitley and/or a buffoon Lee ‘Lasses’ White or Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edwards (in the earlier films) and then exclusively with Richard Martin (after WW II) who appeared with him in more than thirty features as the comic relief eye-for-the-ladies-man Chito (Jose Gonzalez Bustamante Rafferty).

Another B movie cowboy you can see on TCM though even less frequently is Dick Foran who along with Smoke the Wonder Horse was a Warner Bros. version of Republic’s Gene Autry and Roy Rogers & Trigger; Foran was even dubbed the “Singing Cowboy“. Like Holt Foran would periodically appear in other celebrated studio films like The Petrified Forest (1936) as Bette Davis’s hick boyfriend that doesn’t quite measure up to Leslie Howard’s wayward writer nor Humphrey Bogart’s holed-up gangster Duke Mantee or as one of the suitors of Claude Rain’s Four Daughters (1938).

© 2006 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog

For a complete list of the B Westerns I’ve reviewed follow the link (or click Obscure Films).

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