If there is one department the American film industry was certainly not lacking a sufficient output of during the first half of the 20th century, it was westerns. With the days of the Old West only a few pages back in the history book at the time, vast barren landscapes of wide open spaces and rustic rural settings ‒ most of which were replaced by strip malls, condos, and other forms of “progress” before the millennium came to a close ‒ it was fairly easy to see why so many cowboy pictures were manufactured: they were cheap, and audiences ‒ especially young boys ‒ lapped ’em up. And now, thanks to the tireless efforts of the men and women at the Warner Archive Collection, three more titles from the vaults of yesteryear have made their long-awaited home video debuts ‒ though these are definitely not just for the boys.
Wild Bill Hickok Rides (1942), produced and distributed by Warner Brothers, is one of the few western titles from the era (if not ever) wherein a lady receives top-billing. The lady in question is Ms. Constance Bennett, whose career on the Silver Screen had started to wane by this point, to wit she received a much smaller paycheck than she would have several years prior. But that doesn’t stop Connie from delivering a fine performance as Belle Andrews, proprietress of a gambling hall (replete with lovely ladies) which burns down during the Chicago Fire of 1871. Bad guy Harry Farrel (Warren William), keen on obtaining a stretch of valuable land in Montana (apparently, such things are possible), gives the homeless and penniless woman an offer she can’t refuse: a brand new gambling hall for her and her gals, so long as she doesn’t mind Farrel’s illegal claim-jumpin’ schemes.
And whereas that’s all fine and dandy-like, there’s one factor in the equation neither party thought of: Wild Bill Hickok himself. As it turns out, Mr. Bill ‒ or rather, a fictional version of the real life western icon, who is played by Mr. Bruce Cabot ‒ is old friends with the very rancher Farrel is determined to oust (by any means necessary). And once he catches wind of the goings-on here, he is none too pleased ‒ even if he is guilty of feelin’ a mite interested in the newly-relocated Belle of the Bill. Ray Enright (Angels Wash Their Faces) directs this fun, light-hearted picture, which also features Betty Brewer, Walter Catlett, Ward Bond, and Howard Da Silva. Bud Jamison, Charles Middleton, Jack “Tiny” Lipson, and Fred Kelsey ‒ all of whom were foils for The Three Stooges and/or Laurel & Hardy ‒ can be seen briefly in certain scenes, some of which look like they were recycled from another film.
RKO’s Roughshod also focuses on a group of recently unemployed women. Though this time, they are girls from a saloon who were all-but forced to leave town due to their promiscuous nature, and are led by sultry Gloria Grahame. The 1949 film from Mark Robson (future director of blockbusters Von Ryan’s Express and Earthquake, as well as the infamously maligned Avalanche Express) stars Robert Sterling as the simple cowboy with a greenhorn kid brother (High Barbaree co-star Claude Jarman, Jr.) in tow, who stumble upon the girls after their wagon wheel breaks, and ‒ much to the unforgivingly self-righteous Sterling’s chagrin ‒ escort the dancehall escorts through an otherwise peaceful territory; save for the fact Sterling’s sworn enemy, played by the great John Ireland, has just escaped from jail and is now out for blood.
Jeff Donnell, Myrna Dell, and Martha Hyer represent the remainder of Sterling’s female fracas ‒ all of whom are given their own backstories and personal demons to battle (something that was both uncommon and unheard of in westerns at the time). One is being pursued by the man in love with her, undaunted by her previous licentious behavior; another ‒ stricken with illness ‒ finds salvation in the arms of the parents who had turned their backs on her. Another notable aspect of Roughshod is the appearance of the great character actor Jeff Corey, who had already been appearing in bit parts for several years by 1949, but who receives one of his earliest billed performances here. Peter Viertel, author of White Hunter Black Heart and screenwriter of several Ernest Hemingway adaptations, wrote the story this gracefully unusual western noir.
Lastly in this grouping is 1948’s Station West ‒ another outing from RKO that, coincidentally, features a saloon gal as a major character. In this instance, it is Ms. Jane Greer inhabiting the role of a dancehall proprietress known only as Charlie ‒ who is actually the brains behind a recent gold robbery, which has left two US soldiers dead in its wake. Enter top-billed Dick Powell as Haven: an undercover G-Man looking for the right kind of trouble. Of course, trouble never looked so good or hurt so bad, as Dick quickly learns in this cold, violent town. Especially once he and Charlie start to form an uneasy romance, which irks the femme fatale’s right-hand henchman, Prince (Gordon Oliver). Meanwhile, Haven tries to convince gold mine owner Caslon (Agnes Moorehead) to put out another shipment of valuable ore in an attempt to catch the thieves red (or should that be “gold”?)-handed.
Boasting an abundance of good verbal exchanges betwixt leads Powell and Greer, and the oh-so-memorable addition of a young Burl Ives the film’s resident guitar-strumming troubadour, Station West also benefits from a superb supporting cast of familiar faces. Veteran performer Tom Powers and future B-movie regular Steve Brodie (The Giant Spider Invasion, The Wild World of Batwoman) represent the military, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams is the stocky muscle of Ms. Greer and associates, and both Regis Toomey and a then-unknown Raymond (Perry Mason) Burr are also in the mix ‒ the latter delivering one of his most unusual performances: that of a scheming, cowardly lawyer! Luke Short (the western writer, and not the western figure of the same name) wrote the original novel that inspired this delightful hunk of ore from the RKO gold mine.
All three titles have recently landed on MOD DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection, and are each presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios of 1.37:1 with mono English audio. Though the occasional blemish may pop up on-screen, the prints used for this trio of motion picture outings are in great shape overall, and each flick ‒ every one with its own variable degree of seriousness ‒ is worth a look to both classic film enthusiasts (especially you western hounds), and to those of you who are curious as to just how long girls have been running the world.