Monogram Cowboy Collection, Volume 7 (1945-1952) DVD Review: There’s Gold on That There Poverty Row

In late 2011, the Warner Archive unveiled its first nine-film volume of the Monogram Cowboy Collection. Well, it’s been just over two years now, and here we are with the fresh MOD three-disc release of Monogram Cowboy Collection, Volume 7 in our saddlebags – which features nine more B-Western goodies from the ’40s and ’50s starring (respectively) the talents of the portly Johnny Mack Brown, country crooner Jimmy Wakely, and the wacky Whip Wilson. The latter star dishes out the largest bulk of fare here, with four films, while that legendary crooner Jimmy Wakely only gets two entries to his name.

If you’ve done the math there, you should have come up with a total of three movies attributed to a certain Johnny Mack Brown, who – if nothing else – could best be remembered in cowboy picture history as one of the few western stars who sported a few extra pounds. Disc One represents the exact sum of that little trilogy: Trigger Fingers, Whistling Hills, and Man from the Black Hills.

The 1946 quickie Trigger Fingers – as directed by veteran B-Movie mogul Lambert Hillyer (the same man who helmed the very first theatrical outing of Batman in 1943) – starts out with young impetuous Jimmy Peters (Riley Hill) winging a card cheat (stuntman/stand-in extraordinaire Eddie Parker) in a poker game. Naturally, the resident bad guy (Steve Clark) decides to alter the facts so that it appears the victim has been flat-out murdered – sensing that is the winning ticket to at long last claiming Jimmy’s father’s property. Jimmy’s father (Raymond Hatton), on the other hand, has a different idea: he enlists the aid of his old pal Sam “Hurricane” Benton (Mr. Brown) – who soon gets to the bottom of these crooked shenanigans. Jennifer Holt is the heroine here and the assortment of familiar faces includes Ted Adams, Pierce Lyden, Cactus Mack, and Ed Cassidy.

Fast-forwarding a few years, 1951’s Whistling Hills finds us at that point in our hero’s career wherein the writers of his projects rarely bothered to assign him a name or identity other than his own. Strolling into a town one day, Johnny discovers his own cherished stolen horse – as well as a community besieged by the legend of a whistling phantom, whose screeching seems to have some sort of connection with numerous stagecoach robberies in the vicinity. Western regular James Ellison co-stars as the local sheriff, who gets particularly irked by Brown’s presence when he is asked by stagecoach operator I. Stanford Jolley (The Crimson Ghost himself – one of two actors featured in a lot of this set’s titles) to investigate the ghostly holdups, and even more when Brown starts livin’ up to his middle name with his girlfriend (Noel Neill). Marshall Reed is up to his usual bad guy trickery, and Bud Osborne (the other actor featured in a lot of this set’s titles) also star in this welcomed unusual entry in the genre.

Lastly for Disc One and Mr. Johnny Mack Brown himself is 1952’s Man from the Black Hills, which finds our lead (once more as playing a fictionalized version of himself) teaming up with James Ellison again, who plays a character named Jimmy Fallon (!) here. When the pair are called to Rim Rock by Fallon’s uncle – who has located Jim’s long-lost father – they discover the very man who summoned them has been fatally wounded in a stagecoach holdup (these things happened a lot back then). Worse still, Jim’s father (Ray Bennett) has not only been blinded in an accident, but it seems an impostor Jimmy Fallon (Rand Brooks) has taken up residence as the rightful heir to the Fallon fortune. Lane Bradford (and his big meaty face) is the sheriff, and supporting roles are filled by I. Stanford Jolley, Denver Pyle, and Stanley Price (another regular). Strangely, there is no love interest for either lead in this one, and bottom-billed Bud Osborne does not even appear in the film. (Monogram Pictures, kids.)

Disc Two starts up with Saddle Serenade from 1945, the earliest entry in this entire set – made during a time when it was still OK for singing cowboys to wander around the west strumming on their guitars, and who amazingly enough seemed to invoke full musical accompaniment out of nowhere. Jimmy Wakely (who stars as Jimmy Wakely in both movies he headlines in this set) works at a touristy dude ranch, whose customary cliché of welcoming new arrivals with a fake holdup routine results in an undercover US Marshal being shot dead by an unknown assailant. Nancy Brinckman is the co-owner of the ranch, who has to rely on Jimmy and his pals Lasses (Lee White) and Dusty (John James) to uncover the truth about a smuggling ring operating right under her nose. The legendary Riders of the Purple Sage; Jack Ingram, Claire James (who was once married to Busby Berkeley), Pat Gleason, Kay Deslys, and Roy Butler co-star in this, the weakest film in the set (in my opinion).

Mr. Wakely returns in 1949’s Across the Rio Grande – one of the last four films he starred in as a leading character, wherein he is pitted with soon-to-be legendary character actor Dub Taylor (or “Cannonball” Taylor, as he was commonly billed as back then) during his goofy B-Western sidekick/second banana days. Smuggling once again comes into play here, with the baddies of the flick bringing silver real cheap-like in from Mexico and selling the goods in the States for a higher profit. Riley Hill (again) is a scared-of-guns good guy who gets framed for murder by villain Dennis Moore (he steals from the poor and gives to the rich?). Reno Browne is Riley’s onscreen sister heroine, western/serial/future Ed Wood regular Kenne Duncan is Moore’s henchman, and Bud Osborne (who also popped up in a few Wood flicks), Ted Adams, and Myron Healey co-star. Polly Bergen appears (as a Mexican lass) and gets to sing a duet with Wakely. Speaking of songs, Wakely’s “I’m Lonely and Nobody Cares” (written by Wakely along with the one and only Ray Whitley) is a featured highlight.

But enough of Mr. Wakely’s exploits, it’s time to take a good long look at the last star of Monogram Cowboy Collection, Volume 7, Mr. Whip Wilson. Much like the vast majority of his counterparts’ titles in this set, Whip plays a fictionalized version of himself in these adventures, starting with Gunslingers from 1950. When a well-meaning-but-misguided young lad (Riley Hill, again) makes the fatal mistake of holding up a payroll wagon, his dying confession to Mr. Whip Wilson is that the hero-to-be travel to a nearby town in order to save his father from the corrupt marshal/townspeople who have framed him for cattle rustlin’. And when your name is Whip Wilson, how can you not? Andy Clyde co-stars as a character named Winks McGee, while Sarah Padden, Reno Browne, and Steve Clark represent the good guys. Bill Kennedy, Dennis Moore, George Chesebro, Frank McCarroll, and Carol Henry represent the other faction. If nothing else, Gunslingers is memorable for having one of the most amusingly anti-climactic finales ever filmed.

Disc Three begins with Silver Raiders (also from 1950), wherein Whip is actually given a different name: that of Ranger Larry Grant. As you may have guessed by the title, silver is once again the key precious metal involved here. And there’s a little Mexican mine-swapping involved in this one, too! Going undercover as a bad guy, Whip – excuse me, Larry – gains the trust of the gang responsible for the wrongdoings in question, as organized (secretly) by Leonard Penn (who fans of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial will no doubt recognize), and carried out by Dennis Moore (again). Patricia Rios is the young Mexi beauty the baddies kidnap at one point, while Riley Hill (yup) and Reed Howes play Wilson’s Ranger buddies. Andy Clyde gets the funky name of J. Quincy Jones in this one, while Virginia Herrick and Marshall Reed co-star.

Arizona Territory (another one from ’50) finds Wilson – once again assigned an actual character name, Jeff Malloy – drifting into that land west of New Mexico, where a gorgeous young lass (Nancy Saunders) runs a trading post with her uncle (Dennis Moore – surprised?). What our heroine doesn’t know, however, is that her uncle is running a counterfeit currency operation under her very nose (what, Dennis Moore, a bad guy?). Andy Clyde (once more) plays an undercover marshal this time ’round, assigned to find out how and where the phony bills are emerging from, and John Merton and Carol Henry denote the better part of the villains in this shorter-than-your-usual-Monogram-quickie, short-staffed production – which also features Bud Osborne in a short part as a short stableman.

Finally, to conclude with this magnificent assortment of black-and-white western gems, we have 1951’s Lawless Cowboys. Strangely enough, Andy Clyde does not appear in this one – replaced here by an even louder, less-funnier Fuzzy Knight. The crime being committed in this entry (a remake of John Wayne’s The Man from Utah) is the bribing of rodeo performers so that some crooked bets can be won. Whip Wilson (as Whip Wilson) is asked to investigate the goings-on, to wit the ex-Texas Ranger encourages his rodeo pal Jim Bannon (as Jim Bannon) to “agree” to the lucrative advances of the story’s scoundrels, Lee Roberts and Richard Avonde. I. Stanford Jolley gets to play the sheriff for once, and – even odder – veteran heavy Lyle Talbot gets an unbilled part of nice guy for a change. Pamela Duncan is the heroine of the story (though there isn’t much for her to do), while Marshall Reed, Stanley Price (yay!), Steve Clark, and just about every other supporting actor I have mentioned up to this point pop up in this one.

Like all Warner Archive titles, this three-disc set presents the best possible picture for each film and – for my money – these mostly-forgotten movies look very well overall. The nine movies are presented in their original 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio with mono English audio, and no extras are included. But when you consider you get nine movies starring three B-Western legends, and more Riley Hill, Dennis Moore, I. Stanford Jolley, Stanley Price, and Bud Osborne than you ever dreamed possible – all for a measly retail price of $34.95 – you can’t argue with the Monogram Cowboy Collection, Volume 7.

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Luigi Bastardo

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