George O’Brien Western Collection DVD Review: Nine Oats and a Lot of Grain

Generally, the star of vintage cowboy pictures ‒ or “oaters,” as they are commonly referred to as ‒ tended to be a big hulking lunk of a feller who was quicker with his fists and side irons than he was with his grey matter. And I say that referring to the actual actor, not the character he would portray. In the case of George O’Brien, however, there was something more than a big dumb oaf: a personality. The son of a San Francisco police officer set out for Hollywood at an early age to be a cameraman, only to find himself heading off a John Ford picture during the silent era. Unlike many cowboy stars who failed to make the transition to talkies, O’Brien’s natural charisma and imposing (for the era) physique kept him busy well throughout the heyday of the western genre.

Following on the spurred heels of a previous Warner Archive Collection release, the George O’Brien 3-Film Collection, the three-disc George O’Brien Western Collection presents oat-starved rustlers and li’l doggies alike with nine of the muscular B-movie star’s last starring vehicles from RKO (before enlisting to serve in World War II, all but disappearing from film afterward). Originally released to bijous within the mind-numbing span of November 1938 to July 1940, this recommended set of delightfully simplistic stories includes Lawless Valley (1938), Arizona Legion, Trouble in Sundown, Racketeers of the Range, Timber Stampede, The Fighting Gringo (all from 1939), Bullet Code, Prairie Code, and Stage to Chino (from 1940).

Mostly directed by David Howard (who specialized in B westerns), this assortment of black-and-white goodies features many a familiar face (and sometimes voice) from low-budget pictures, the most notable (and famous) or which being the legendary Chill Wills, who co-stars as O’Brien’s wise-cracking compadre in a bulk of the outings. Kay Sutton, Laraine Day, Rosalind Keith, Marjorie Reynolds, Lupita Tovar, and Virginia Hale represent Georgie Boy’s female companions. Additional co-stars throughout the set (credited or uncredited) include Glenn Strange, Monte Montague, Ward Bond, Robert Fiske, Bud Osborne, Bob Burns, Billy Benedict, Bill Cody, Kirby Grant, and Slim Whitaker (no, not that Slim Whitaker, the other one!).

Much like the overall memory of George O’Brien in general, his films have been partially erased from existence by the sands of time. This has not prevented the Warner Archive Collection from gathering the best sources available in order to present us with this fun gathering of flicks. There are the occasional instances of film quality changing drastically from one scene to another, but of course, we can’t look a gift horse in the mouth ‒ especially when there’s such a likeable fellow like George O’Brien atop said animal. Highly recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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