Dick Foran Western Collection DVD Review: The Singing Cowboy Who Could Actually Sing

If the all of the westerns from early 20th Century America were to be enshrined in a museum ‒ presented in such a way that each title had its own three foot wide partition exhibiting its original theatrical movie poster directly above a small 12-inch television set that presented the corresponding motion picture in a perpetual loop ‒ the black and white B westerns (usually referred to as “oaters” by anyone with a sliver of a passion for the subgenre) would fill up a building the size of the once wild west itself. And it would be there, down one very long hallway that feasibly would stretching the gap of the Grand Canyon, that curiosity seekers from all over the world could gain an insight into the forgotten, oft-hokey realm of singing cowboy movies.

Routinely produced throughout the ’30s and ’40s by filmmakers who truly had to ensure they tried everything with the whole “we have sound now available in motion pictures” concept, the singing cowboy was introduced to audiences as a sort of antithesis to that which reality had bloodily carved into the living flesh of the world not too terribly long before then. These well-groomed heroes of the dusty trails not only sported immaculately clean attire (with morals to match), but were often able to summon up an entire orchestra of musical accompaniment whenever they found themselves in the mood to sing. Which, of course, was quite often; not even an impending duel to the death would prevent a bit of crooning.

It was during these brighter moments of America’s darker times that the likes of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Ken Maynard, and Bob Steele were introduced to inspire young boys to dress up in pretty outfits and then go parade about in public places in ‒ much like their slutty granddaughters and great-granddaughters do at da club every weekend night today. But one of the western genre’s greatest contributors to the singing cowboy picture was that of a red-headed actor by the name of Dick Foran. Dick had a habit of standing out amongst his peers on several notable accounts, such as the fact he was a musically trained performer who could sing ‒ unlike a good personal friend of his, John Wayne, who wisely refused to do any more singing cowboy pictures once his contract in such filmfare was up.

Second, Dick ‒ who started out in minor film roles as Nick Foran ‒ had a better hold of that whole acting thing than many other men who adorned ten-gallon hats. But perhaps most important of all, Dick knew when to quit while he was ahead and move on. Unlike many of his contemporaries ‒ who would wind up being typecast for years to come, forced to croon corny western ditties up until their very dying breath ‒ Dick Foran was only “contractually obligated” to appear in twelve singing cowboy movies for Warner Bros. over the course of two years. After that, the Dick rode off into the sunset from one studio to sign up with Universal ‒ where he appeared in a western comedy with Abbott and Costello (Ride ‘Em Cowboy) and took the lead in a personal favorite of mine, the 1940 horror classic The Mummy’s Hand. (Interestingly, Dick was cast as The Wolf Man before being replaced by Lon Chaney, Jr.)

Of course, that chunk of lesser-known film history has been easily viewable over the years (although not in museums), while Mr. Foran’s singing cowboy movies have remained rarely seen outside of late night television broadcasts. Thankfully, the Warner Archive Collection has sought to correct this oversight by bringing us the Dick Foran Western Collection: a welcomed four-disc set featuring all of the aforementioned specialty genre musical photoplays (featuring many a song by M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl) starring the ginger-haired actor, and featuring his one true friend in the whole wide world, a Palomino horse named Smoke (the Wonder Horse). Outwardly, this assortment of budget-friendly flicks from Warner’s B unit department may seem like just a handful of silly old cowboy movies. And indeed they are ‒ but there’s just something so genuinely innocent and appealing about these films!

The adventures begin with Moonlight on the Prairie (1935), the first of Dick’s 12-picture legacy, one of the first films where he went by the name of Dick Foran, and the first time he was billed as “Dick Foran, the Singing Cowboy.” As basic of a story as can be ‒ and filled with lots of stock footage of livestock to boot – the premise here finds Dickie-poo as a medicine show performer accused of murder. Naturally, he didn’t do it: bad guys Joe Sawyer and Robert Barrat are responsible for the crime, and are anxiously awaiting the arrival of widow Sheila Bromley to come to town with her son Dickie Jones, the rightful heir of the Bar B Ranch (and whose character just happens to be named Dickie Roberts!). George E. Stone is Dick’s comical sidekick with a permanent case of the munchies, and B western stalwarts Glenn Strange, Bud Osborne, and Milton Kibbee pop up.

1936’s Song of the Saddle, the second entry in this series, finds a young Frank Wilson, Jr. (George Ernest) traveling out west with his pappy in search of new life. Instead, they find only death ‒ as Frank, Sr. (Addison Richards) is conned and subsequently killed by a local nefarious businessman with the unscrupulous name of Phineas Hook (the great Charles Middleton). Years later, a growed-up Frank (Foran) returns to town in seek of vengeance as The Singing Kid (really). In-between a song or two (including a nice little Spanish-sounding ditty about revenge, as well as an uncredited appearance by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers!), Foran wipes out chalk caricatures of his enemies on a shack wall as he systematically, meticulously brings about their respective demises.

Sound familiar? Sure, it’s positively Alexandre Dumas-ian. But the story contains many a shade of the revenge movie that would later come to full light in the ’70s following more significant contributions to the roots of the exploitation subgenre (see: François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black). Foran has a ragtag gang of comical misfits assisting him in his morally wrong (but oh, so right) obligations to justice. Years later, this assortment of freaks would become the very type of miscreants being tracked down and dispatched by the revenge movie’s female leads. Sadly, Smoke does not get any on-screen billing this time around, and Glenn Strange is mysteriously absent here as well (Bud and Milton are on-hand, so don’t panic). Alma Lloyd ‒ the love interest of the story ‒ popped up in an Al Jolson movie entitled The Singing Kid that same year.

The following two features, Treachery Rides the Range and Trailin’ West (both 1936), both find Dick Foran as a G-Man attempting to save whatever region of the untamed land from whatever the peril of the month was. In the first title, Foran is Capt. Red Taylor (no, not Rod Taylor), who is out to stop a group of greedy buffalo hunters from inciting his Indian brethren from going on the rampage after the US Government signs one of the many treaties it would later break with the Native Americans. In the second film, Foran is cast as Lieut. Red Colton, who is sent out west by President Lincoln himself (Robert Barrat) to identify and stop a gang of outlaws. Paula Stone is the heroine in each title, and both Milton Kibbee and Bud Osborne appear (while Glenn Strange ‒ along with another B western hero, Bill Elliott ‒ pop up in the latter picture). Once again, poor Smoke the Wonder Horse receives no billing in either film.

But every horse has his day, and Smoke’s grand moment would come in the next film, California Mail (the last of the series to be released in 1936). While it may not be as well known as “California Dreamin'” or “California Love”, this fifth film in the Dick Foran Western Collection finds Dick and his pappy (Tom Brower) as stagecoach operators eager to win a bid to carry mail for the United States Postal Service as it makes preparations to expand into that final stretch of Indian and road agent-laden western territory. Alas, the real villains here are a the operators of a rival stagecoach business: a pair of brothers who were evidently raised without very many morals – and who are, naturally played by the likes of Milton Kibbee and prolific B movie heavy Edmund Cobb (the latter making his first of many appearances in this set).

After sabotaging Dick’s wagon during a race for the job, they hire a man to impersonate Dick and murder the father of our hero’s love interest, Linda Perry! But good ol’ Smoke (who gets third billing here!) isn’t going to take this lying down, especially when the fake Dick (what a dildo) makes the fatal mistake of riding Smoke to do his dirty deed ‒ only to discover hell hath no fury like a charger scorned. It’s actually a well-done scene, too, and expresses a side of cinema we rarely see in cinema: that of a vengeful steed. Glenn Strange makes an appearance as a henchman named Bud, while Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers make a more noticeable contribution this time around. Bit player extraordinaire Jim Farley plays Miss Perry’s doomed patriarch in this fun little oater.

In Guns of the Pecos, our man Dick is cast as a Texas Ranger for a change. But he’s no ordinary Texas Ranger: he’s one of the first! When a regional judge who eliminates the middleman (and who is played by Robert Middlemass) by serving as both law and disorder really oversteps his bounds by murdering Major Burton (Gordon Hart) and taking the hundreds upon hundreds of horses he has been raising for the government. While the deceased Major’s daughter (Anne Nagel, who co-starred with Glenn Strange in Poverty Row studios PRC’s rip-off of the The Wolf Man, MST3K favorite The Mad Monster in 1942 ‒ thus loosely connecting the dots between B western and horror movies) worries over what to do, an undercover Dick slides in to set things right in a land where Rangers “are as popular as rattlers.”

Nearly all of the B western supporting greats are in this one: Smoke, Monte Montague, Bud Osborne, Milton Kibbee, and of course, Glenn Strange. The latter actor receives a less sinister role here for a change ‒ a gradual change in casting that will culminate in one of his best co-starring roles as we gallop along through these titles. But the true standout performer here by and far is Foran’s co-star Eddie Acuff. Best known for his iconic role as the poor mailman in later entries of the Blondie films, Acuff made numerous stage and screen appearances throughout his career (including a recurring part in the original Dr. Kildare series), but it was somewhat uncommon for the quick-witted comedian from Missouri to pop up in a western. Nevertheless, he positively shines in all of his scenes, whether he’s making a snide comment or helping save the day.

Speaking of saving the day, sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s on the right side ‒ as Mr. Foran finds out in Land Beyond the Law, where he actually starts out as a hellraiser. Not badman, mind you, but just very rowdy. Some of his fellow riders, on the other hand ‒ led by one of Hollywood’s greatest bad guys, Harry Woods (who looks like a cross between Nick Cave and Slim Whitman) – are so devoted to their shady employer (Cy Kendall, another great villain of the silver screen) that not even the stealing of livestock from and the subsequent murdering of Dick’s father (Tom Brower, again) is likely to raise a red flag of morality in their eyes. It isn’t long before a vengeful (orphaned) son is ready to switch sides, which he is able to do when he is handed a silver star on the behalf of Governor Lew Wallace (Joe King, in a cameo).

Another great supporting cast highlights this very enjoyable Land Beyond the Law, starting out with Linda Perry (again) as the hot-headed visiting daughter of local iron-fisted “saloon” (a G-rated brothel, if you will) owner Irene Franklin. Interestingly, Milt Kibbee is cast as a comic relief sheriff (with Frank Orth taking center stage as his cowardly deputy), Glenn Strange ‒ along with Wayne Morris (as a good-natured rival for Foran’s love interest) is one of Foran’s righteous pals, and even Bud Osborne is even cast as a regular townsperson for a change! But at least Edmund Cobb plays a bad guy. Our Gang matriarch Dorothy Vernon can be seen as a villager in this story that had previously been made in 1927 with Ken Maynard and again in 1932 (as The Big Stampede) with John Wayne.

In Blazing Sixes, Dick Foran is once more cast as a G-Man (as a character named Red, of course). Sent in to figure out how bad guys John Merton, Milt Kibbee, and Bud Osborne (to name a few) are smuggling out the gold they keep stealing from stagecoach deliveries ‒ a smelter in a dried up mine on a local ranch comes in mighty handy ‒ Foran gets more than he bargained for when the heirs of the ranch (Joan Valerie and Mira McKinney) show up to claim their inheritance. But it is here that we really get a good look at Glenn Strange as a supporting character. Cast as Foran’s secret agent sidekick, Glenn pretends to be a local goofball (and double date love interest for Ms. McKinney) before breaking out his guns to join Dick in a climactic shoot out that shows a side of the mysterious, talented Strange one we (sadly) saw very little of in film.

Though released before Blazing Sixes, 1937’s The Cherokee Strip is presented as the ninth film in this four-disc set, and is another standout title. The movie begins with some of the same stock footage we witnessed in Song of the Saddle, with a group of settlers being given the greenlight by the government to race across a newly-sanctioned frontier (the titular chunk of land) in order to expand the nation. This time, however, Dick is cast as a ‒ wait for it ‒ lawyer (yes, Dick gets a chance to shoot his mouth off) in the old west. After accidentally making the acquaintance of lovely Jane Bryan and her bratling redheaded little brother Tommy Bupp while on the way to meet up with longtime pal Robert Paige, Dick and Smoke also meet up with trouble in the guise of that ne’er-do-well, Edmund Cobb.

As bizarre as it sounds, The Cherokee Strip is not only a fairly standard oater, but also doubles as a courtroom drama to boot! After someone sees to it Dick doesn’t have a third leg to stand on in the race for the formation of Red Rock (because that someone ties a wire around poor Smoke’s before the big rush, you see), Foran sets up shop as an attorney in a town that had been preset for corruption from the get-go by the evil Mr. Cobb himself. But when Cobb’s dealings start to threaten Miss Bryan’s father (yup, you guessed it: Tom Brower), Foran literally takes the law into his own hands with his legal knowledge. Joan Valerie appears once more (for the first time) as Paige’s wife, while the B western firm of Kibbee, Osborne and Strange also make an appearance. Theodore Lorch ‒ who popped up in many short of The Three Stooges ‒ can also be seen near the finale of this fascinating oater.

Yet another aspect of the law comes into play in Empty Holsters, where Dick is pitted against prolific B movie character actor Emmett Vogan (in his thinner days). Though he has successfully stuck his dirty mitts in most aspects of the community, Vogan has yet to get his hands on two things: the bank (as owned by Wilfred Lucas), and the bank owner’s daughter (Patricia Walthall). Standing in his way of both is our hero, Mr. Foran, and a simple frame-up for robbery and the murder of the sheriff’s brother is more than enough to send the wrong man (the good guy) to the slams. Released for good behavior a few years early, Dick returns for revenge, but soon learns the hard way that an ex-convict cannot be in possession of a firearm. Glenn Strange is once more cast as Dick’s pal, Edmund Cobb is the sheriff, and series newcomer George Chesebro is also featured as a heavy.

A good ol’ fashioned frame-up comes into play yet again in The Devil’s Saddle Legion ‒ which could well be the most misleading title of all. But don’t fret, Satan worshippers: this one’s still good fun. Having explored the possibilities of lead man Foran playing a lawyer in a courtroom oater and then as a paroled innocent, the producers of The Devil’s Saddle Legion explored newly commissioned middle ground. Here, the Dick ‒ framed for the murder of his own father in Texas whilst he was away in Montana ‒ rides into the lawless land of private correctional facilities, where he is promptly accused of another killing (committed by the guards) and put away so that the bad guys can build a dam in order to divert the local river onto his dead father’s land, thereby marking it as lawless territory so that they can… Christ, that’s a hard one to explain!

So anyway, after being sentenced to ten years hard labor, Dick (using a false name so no one will realize who he really is) soon begins to hatch a plan to get out of the mess he and a number of other innocents (including Glenn Strange and British import Ernie Stanton) have been wrongfully placed in. Yes, that’s right: it’s an oater that serves as a prison break-out flick! Anne Nagel is the heroine once more, with Bud Osborne and Milt Kibbee making their regularly scheduled appearances. Future Tales of the Texas Rangers star Willard Parker makes his film debut in this odd little movie. Frank Orth ‒ every the funnyman ‒ plays the corrupt judge who sends Dick up the river, and the aforementioned George Chesebro returns for his second outing in this, the penultimate film of the Dick Foran Western Collection.

Lastly on our list of feature films is Prairie Thunder, which seems to be made up of mostly stock footage from other (older) films. Sadly, this bugle call for taps ‒ wherein Dick, joined by Frank Orth, discover telegraph troubles set forth by a baddie (Albert J. Smith) using the local Indians to his advantage – does not feature any of the many familiar faces we had grown to love (or at least recognize) over the course of this 12-picture series. In fact, several actors credited in the film do not even appear as the characters they are attributed to playing ‒ having been replaced by other actors! But at least the great George Chesebro gets a chance to show us his dynamic henchman skills, as well as getting a nice amount of short screen time for a death scene.

And so, almost just as quickly as they began, the Singing Cowboy pictures of Dick Foran came to an end. Bud Osborne ‒ who would take a detour from B westerns to briefly work with a demented, devoted fan by the name of Ed Wood, returning to his craft afterward until his death in 1964. Milton Kibbee also kept on-a-workin’ in Hollywood, appearing alongside just about every type of actor imaginable, from James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life to El Brendel (!) before his death in 1970. Glenn Strange also hit Universal for a stint, most notably playing the famous creation of Dr. Frankenstein, appearing alongside horror movie icons Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, and Bela Lugosi, before settling down to tend bar in Dodge City on Gunsmoke before he passed away in 1973.

As for Mr. Foran himself, well, he did indeed ride off to right wrongs with his fists, while wooing the ladies with his marvelous baritone voice. He even stopped to make two Universal serials atop a certain uncredited palomino horse (who disappeared into equestrian obscurity shortly thereafter) before moving into the world of television. His final film appearance was in 1963’s Donovan’s Reef, where he was cast with his longtime pal (and one time fellow singing cowboy), John Wayne. Mr. Foran would depart for that great range in the sky in 1979, but not before leaving behind a minor legacy in the realm of B westerns that can only now be fully appreciated in this Warner Archive Collection release.

More over, the WAC presentation of the Dick Foran Western Collection not only includes the original theatrical trailer for each of the 12 features spread out over four dual-layered discs, but it also includes a charming bonus short! While the 1936 short film The Sunday Round-Up may not include the likes of Milton Kibbee or Bud Osborne, the lighthearted musical comedy western short is nevertheless notable for being presented here in beautiful vibrant Technicolor. The story finds a newly-appointed small town preacher trying to build up a congregation, but finding defiance from saloon owner. The variety showcase also features Glenn Strange (who starts out as MC, but becomes the frightened participant of a knife-throwing act), Linda Perry, and Jane Wyman.

And who’s that as the determined saloon owner who also happens to be looking for a new baritone for his barbershop quartet? Why, it’s Edmund Cobb ‒ making his first official onscreen appearance with Dick Foran, but joining our leading man onstage for a harmonic roundup finale that is the perfect way to wrap up this wonderful wing of B western movie history.

Nice shootin’, Warner Archive. Very nice shootin’ indeed.

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Luigi Bastardo

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