My love of classic black-and-white b-westerns is not a film fetish I try to hide. Anytime I get a chance to check one out, I take it. If my local art theater decided to show one every day until the day I died, I would probably only miss, well, none. Likewise, when the Warner Archive issues another entire set of old cowboy movies, I am always eager to mount my metaphorical steed and write off into the sunset (like what I did there?). But in the instance of the Tim Holt Western Classics Collection, Vol. 4 (please, say it five times fast – I dare you) – my introduction into this particular territory, I noticed something was different right from the get-go.
For starters, these movies were produced by RKO – a studio who allotted larger budgets to their B unit department than what we have come to know (and love) in the case of Poverty Row manufacturers such as Monogram Pictures, whose biggest production was probably still cheaper than RKO’s least-expensive one. As such, there’s a certain essence inherent here – and the appearance of Tim Holt, a cowboy actor who could actually act, and who worked with such greats as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles when he wasn’t wandering out into the rocks above Los Angeles to fire off a six-shooter.
Still more, the uniquity of these titles is present in the nine-film, three-disc collection’s first offering: 1940’s Wagon Train. For starters, it’s much more violent than its lesser-financed counterparts, on-par almost with the work of John Ford (whom Holt also worked with, just for the record) – especially when we reach the bloodless bloody shootout at the end. It’s a forgotten moment in film history that makes one wonder if an adolescent Sam Peckinpah just happened to catch the flick at the bijou one Saturday morning, setting the wheels for The Wild Bunch in motion at an early age. Or maybe I’m reading too much into this. But still, it’s interesting.
As the entries in this Warner Archive set span across your television screen, the movies become more of what we’re accustomed to expect from this particular genre, but still manage to maintain an integrity and maturity that we simply can’t help but tilt our heads at and say “Huh!” a lot of the time. Other titles in this fun set include The Fargo Kid (also from 1940), a movie of a lighter tone where our man Holt rides into town on the horse he rightfully snatched from a hired killer (the great Paul Fix), and gets hired to assassin a rancher by the bad guys; and Cyclone on Horseback (1941), which has about as standard of a storyline as can be.
Riding the Wind, Land of the Open Range (another dark one), Thundering Hoofs, and Red River Robin Hood (seriously) were all released in 1942, made shortly before Holt himself went off to war to serve his country (where he was decorated several times over). The last two titles in this set – Overland Telegraph and Trail Guide – were made in the early ’50s, by which time Holt’s career was not as prolific, but he still gave it his all just the same.