B-Western Heaven: The Star-Director team of Roy Rogers and William Witney

22 Jan

This entry is part of CineMaven’s Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, which highlights star-director teams of note from Hollywood’s classical era. I have chosen to cover director William Witney and his most frequent star collaborator, Roy Rogers.

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William Witney was a director who specialized in action and is probably best known today for directing or co-directing several of Republic Pictures’ finest serials of the 1930s and ’40s, including SOS COAST GUARD, ZORRO RIDES AGAIN, FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS, DICK TRACY RETURNS, DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE, ZORRO’S FIGHTING LEGION, ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, and G-MEN VS. THE BLACK DRAGON, to name a few. He went on to devote the years 1946-1951 to directing Roy Rogers westerns in the final years of Roy’s reign as Republic Pictures’ top western star. He directed 27 Rogers westerns, including all 19 of Roy’s Trucolor westerns. Roy was the only western star to make this many B-westerns in color. Trucolor was a two-strip color process perfected by Republic’s house lab, Consolidated Film Industries, and used exclusively by Republic Pictures. (The most famous film to be shot in Trucolor is probably Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR, 1954.)

William Witney, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans on a segment of “Happy Trails Theatre”

Witney’s westerns with Roy offer a fascinating foray into a B-western alternate universe set in the modern-day era, but looking strangely like the old west. There are cars, buses and airplanes, but the streets of the towns we see are unpaved, the buildings old wooden western structures, and hitching posts stand in place of parking lots. Roy plays characters invariably named Roy Rogers, but usually working as an institutional representative of one sort or another, be it a federal agent, an insurance investigator, or a parole officer, to name three of his occupations. Yet he always wears western garb, carries a pair of six-shooters in a gun belt, and rides his trusty horse, Trigger, everywhere. (Trigger, “the Smartest Horse in the Movies,” is always billed second after Roy.) So do his buddies, usually played by cowboy singer Foy Willing and his group, the Riders of the Purple Sage, even when they work regular blue-collar jobs. The only time we see Roy driving a car is when he plays himself, Roy Rogers the movie star, in UNDER CALIFORNIA STARS. Granted, most B-westerns set in the modern era adopted this conceit, but Roy’s westerns were the only ones to offer it in color.

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The leading lady usually enters the film driving in a car, but eventually gets on a horse herself. The female lead was most frequently Dale Evans, Roy’s real-life wife, but when Dale was pregnant and then nursing her baby, western fan favorite Penny Edwards stepped in to play the female lead in six of the Witney-Roy westerns in 1950-51. Even the bad guys, who are generally more modern and ride in automotive vehicles, have their henchmen carry six-guns and ride horses. We hear about television in one film, but don’t see any antennas.

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In one film (BELLS OF CORONADO), Roy and his team have to stop a traitor and his crew from transporting uranium ore to a plane set to fly the ore out of the country to an unnamed foreign power. Do they call in the FBI and ask for teams of agents with automatic weapons in fast cars and helicopters? No, Roy and another agent leave a note for Dale and their sidekicks on the villain’s door and ride out on their horses with their six-shooters.

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The villains in these westerns are never your standard-issue western outlaws or criminals who rob banks or trains. No, they’re invariably businessmen with legitimate fronts who are secretly operating a criminal ring involved in either counterfeiting, diamond smuggling, silver smuggling or the like. When the crimes were horse thievery and gunrunning, the films felt more like traditional westerns. In one jaw-dropper, the criminals are stealing Christmas trees! And the tycoon-villains invariably have large numbers of hired henchmen who do their bidding, including even murder. The top bad guy is often a pillar of the community. If you see any character who looks successful, it’s a safe bet he’ll be fighting Roy by the end of the film. In one film, the chief business owner is, in fact, a good guy, but he’s set up from the start to look like a villain, making him a red herring to divert audience suspicion from the real bad guy, a mainstay of the community who’s known Roy since he was born!

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These films followed a certain formula that required equal portions of action, songs, and comedy relief. The best of them, of course, were the ones with the fewest songs and least amount of comedy. The plots usually involved someone needing Roy’s help, either in an official or unofficial capacity, and the villain greeting Roy cordially on the surface, while secretly ordering his henchmen to prevent Roy from impeding their criminal activity. Often, Roy gets charged with wrongdoing when he defends himself or when a horse hurts a bad guy, also in self-defense, and he occasionally gets arrested. In one film, he even goes to jail for three years to prevent Trigger from being destroyed. Roy was not the most diplomatic of western heroes. If a problem can be solved with fists or guns, those are the routes he takes. Only occasionally does he try to talk things out. This means that there are lots of action scenes in the films, whether fistfights, shootouts, chases, or daring rescues from runaway rigs or burning wagons. And given Republic Pictures’ reputation for expert stunt work and action scenes, you get the best of the B-western era in these films. Another plus: since no older Republic westerns were in color, there is no stock footage. Everything we see was shot new for these films.

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THE GOLDEN STALLION (1949)

The best of the Witney-Rogers collaborations I’ve seen is THE GOLDEN STALLION and the only one I’ve actually seen in a theater. (Film Forum ran it in 1993.) Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of this film and when he was chosen by Rick Lyman in The New York Times to inaugurate a series of articles entitled “Watching Movies,” on September 15, 2000, in which top directors chose a film to watch and discuss with Lyman, Tarantino chose THE GOLDEN STALLION, high praise indeed.

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Here are excerpts from my Amazon.com review of THE GOLDEN STALLION:

In the larger pantheon of the western, THE GOLDEN STALLION (1949) may hold a status as a minor classic, but in the world of the B-western, it stands out as a masterpiece, arguably Roy Rogers’ best film and certainly compelling viewing for anyone interested in a strong, simple story well told. This is the one where Roy goes to jail on a manslaughter charge rather than let his horse Trigger take the rap for the death of a bad guy (who’d been trying to steal a wild mare which fought back and then ran away).

Roy’s act saves Trigger’s life but cannot prevent him from being auctioned off and purchased by a corrupt businessman who then uses Trigger in an elaborate diamond smuggling-across-the-Mexican border scheme. In the course of it all, Trigger mates with the runaway mare and fathers Trigger, Jr. Dale Evans plays a local ranch owner who writes to Roy in prison every week and helps him to clear his (and Trigger’s) name. The musical numbers are not too intrusive and are enlivened by the presence of Estelita Rodriguez as Dale’s South American gal pal, Pepe Valdez. This is the best-looking Trucolor print of a Roy Rogers western I’ve ever seen. The blues are typically strong, the reds look red (not orange) and, surprisingly, the green of the foliage is actually a dark forest green, not brown as it usually registered in Trucolor. (Trucolor was a two-color process used by Republic Pictures in lieu of the more expensive three-color Technicolor process.) There is a lot of beautifully-photographed horse action here, with Trigger sharing the spotlight not only with the mare sought after by the smugglers but also with Trigger Jr. If you’re a fan of westerns devoted to horses, then this one’s for you.

And here are excerpts from Tarantino’s remarks about Witney’s work with Roy in the Times article about this film:

Appreciating William Witney begins with understanding what he did with Roy Rogers, Mr. Tarantino says. ”Roy’s movies at this time had turned into these sort of western musicals, like frontier jamborees, where he’s singing and walking around in outfits with fringes,” Mr. Tarantino says. ”After their first few movies together, Witney had gotten Roy out of his fringe-and-sparkle attire and was dressing him in normal attire, blue jeans and stuff. They stopped being these crazy musicals. He turned them into rough, tough violent adventures. Audiences loved it. Nobody had ever seen Roy fight like that, so it was kind of cool to everyone that he was such a good fistfighter. And a fistfight in a William Witney movie is a fistfight. They’re tough. People get bloody noses.”

”Look at the way he uses Trigger in this film,” he says. ”William Witney is the greatest director when it comes to working with animals. In his films, if there’s an animal, it’s another character in the movie. If a homesteader has a dog, it’s not just yapping in the background. You get to know this dog; you might even follow it on its own little adventure in the middle of the movie. And ‘Golden Stallion’ is his masterpiece when it comes to working with animals, perhaps because he’s working with Trigger, the greatest animal actor who ever was.”

The second best of the Witney-Rogers westerns is TRIGGER, JR. (1950), another horse western and one that eschews modern-day touches to give us a more traditional western, since the plot revolves around a wild horse and attempts by various parties to capture it. Excerpts from my Amazon review:

TRIGGER, JR. follows THE GOLDEN STALLION (1949), which saw the birth of Trigger, Jr. and his adoption by Roy and Dale after the wild mare who bore him dies. TRIGGER, JR. boasts a typically action-packed B-western plot enlivened by lots of horse action as Trigger and his son take on a snow-white killer horse dubbed “the Phantom” in a couple of pitched horse fights. The always reliable Grant Withers makes a suitably hard-case villain in the role of a corrupt Range Patrol boss who runs a protection racket targeting local horse ranchers. Those who don’t pay find their herds under attack by the Phantom, let loose by the Range Patrol.

Rogers plays the head of a traveling western show which sets up shop on the ranch of Colonel Harkrider (George Cleveland). Curiously, once Rogers’ wild west show is set up, it inexplicably becomes a traditional big-top circus complete with clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists and stunt bicyclists (all played by the Raynor Lehr Circus), without a roper or trick shooter in sight. A touching subplot involves adolescent Larry, the Colonel’s grandson, who must overcome his fear of horses. Dale Evans plays the Colonel’s daughter and Larry’s aunt. This is actually one of the few Rogers postwar westerns that actually looks like a real period western as opposed to the odd mix of modern implements (cars, trucks, etc.) and cowboy motifs (horses and six-guns) found in most late Rogers westerns.

Of the ones I’ve seen, the third best is NORTH OF THE GREAT DIVIDE (1950), which has a Native American theme and is set on the border with Canada where an American cannery owner uses underhanded tactics to divert salmon from its regular route, thus depriving a local tribe from its traditional catch and the Canadian government from its share and arousing the ire of the Canadian Mounties. Roy plays a U.S. agent from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and has to intervene when his friend, the chief of the local tribe (Noble Johnson), is framed and charged with murder, an act that angers the young braves and threatens to ignite a war.

Here are excerpts from my IMDB review:

NORTH OF THE GREAT DIVIDE (1950) has a fairly strong social issue at its core, which makes for a more serious Rogers entry with less comic relief and singing than usual. It also has less action than it needs, although it remains a must-see for fans of Rogers, Trucolor and pro-Indian themes.

The film is set near the Canadian border in the Pacific Northwest and deals with a tribe of Oseka Indians that suffers a loss of their food supply when Banning, a corrupt cannery owner on the U.S. side (played by Roy Barcroft), puts up traps that keep the salmon from reaching the Indian fishing waters. Roy plays an Indian agent assigned to solve the problem and works closely with Chief Nagura (Noble Johnson) and his son, Tacona (Keith Richards). Roy gets caught up in an international incident when a Canadian Mountie is killed and the Canadian cannery sabotaged and Nagura is charged with the crimes. Roy is under pressure to turn Nagura over to the Mounties while he tries to get evidence of Banning’s duplicity.

It’s not clear when the film is set. Everybody rides horses and carries six-shooters. The Mounties are stationed in an old log cabin fort from the frontier era. In a typically Hollywood bit of cross-cultural confusion, the Pacific Northwest Indians look and live like Plains Indians, complete with buckskin, feather headdresses and tepees, with totem poles planted incongruously about. The film mixes a good deal of Trucolor location photography (employing real Indians) with extensive studio work and bits of stock footage of cannery operations and salmon swimming upstream.

Two great western heavies, Roy Barcroft as Banning and Jack Lambert as his whip-wielding henchman, Skagg, make suitably nasty villains. Penny Edwards, looking quite fetching in buckskin, is the leading lady (giving Dale Evans a break) and plays a field nurse assigned to help Roy. Famed Indian actor Iron Eyes Cody is on hand to give his blessings to the proceedings but has no real role. Top acting honors go to Noble Johnson as Nagura, seen here in his final film credit after a 35-year film career. Johnson, a black American actor (and one-time schoolmate of Lon Chaney Sr.) appeared in hundreds of Hollywood films in all kinds of ethnic roles—most frequently American Indian. He is probably best known as the native chief on Skull Island in KING KONG (1933). Interestingly, the role of Nagura in NORTH OF THE GREAT DIVIDE may have been the biggest speaking part in his entire career.

The plots get a little more ridiculous in some of the subsequent westerns and my remarks get a little more critical. Here are notes on eight others, in chronological order, offering excerpts from reviews on IMDB or simply notes I made after seeing them.

BELLS OF SAN ANGELO (1947)

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On the border between the U.S. and Mexico, a silver mine is operated by shady Americans who have no silver on their side of the border, but have found a tunnel to an old Spanish mine on the Mexican side with a lot of silver left untouched, so they plunder that mine and smuggle out the silver to the U.S. side. When a Mexican agent investigates he is murdered and Roy Rogers is called in to work with the local sheriff, played by Andy Devine. John McGuire plays the mine owner and his top henchman is played by stunt man extraordinaire Dave Sharpe who, of course, needs no double in the fight scenes. It all culminates in a massive shootout at the mine, leading to a fight between Roy and the two villains on a clifftop overlooking a steep drop, all filmed on location. It’s quite a harrowing battle and may be one of the best action scenes in this entire set of films.

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UNDER CALIFORNIA STARS (1948) – excerpts from IMDB review

UNDER CALIFORNIA STARS (1948) is a fairly typical postwar Roy Rogers vehicle with a routine B-western plot enlivened by some excellent Trucolor photography. Roy plays himself, the movie star dubbed “King of the Cowboys,” and is briefly glimpsed on the Republic Pictures soundstage before the action quickly shifts to Roy’s rural property, the Double R Ranch, for the occasion of a radio broadcast celebrating the star’s tenth anniversary in movies. The event is marred by the kidnapping of Roy’s palomino, Trigger, by a group of henchmen working for Pop Jordan, a local horse trader. Ted, a boy who ran away to Roy’s ranch after mistreatment by his stepfather, witnesses the kidnapping but is warned to keep quiet or they’ll kill Ted, Trigger AND Roy.

Given the fame of Roy and his horse, it seems a mite foolhardy to go around kidnapping Trigger, especially since the event makes national headlines. But, in the insular alternate universe of the postwar B-western, the matter is left entirely up to the local sheriff of Saddleback, a town which offers no sign of a gas station, diner or paved road. Neither the FBI nor the state police nor any other pertinent law enforcement agency is called, nor do they show up on their own. (Had J. Edgar Hoover never heard of Trigger? Was he too busy chasing commies? Or did he simply not exist in this world?)

Eventually, Roy and his crew, which includes Cookie Bullfincher (Andy Devine) and Roy’s backup singers, Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, work with the sheriff to come up with a plan to trap the kidnappers when they show up for the ransom money. There is lots of outdoors action and furious horse-riding, before a couple of violent confrontations end the problem. The action is shot almost entirely on location, with none of the studio-shot closeups that one finds in a later Roy western like NORTH OF THE GREAT DIVIDE (1950).

There’s a surprising amount of bad behavior and violent death on display. Even though these films were set in the modern era, they featured typical B-western type villains who were invariably local businessmen who are secretly corrupt and embark on capers which threaten Roy in one way or another. A somewhat alarming development in this film is the constant threatening of Ted, the runaway boy, first by his stepfather, Lige, Pop Jordan’s chief assistant, and later by another henchman, Ed, who threatens to blow Ted’s head off if he says a word about who kidnapped Trigger. These darker elements serve to counterbalance the song and comic interludes. The lead villains here are authentically crusty, hefty western types, well-played by George Lloyd and Wade Crosby.

Andy Devine provides the comedy relief, a role that would be taken by Gordon Jones and Pat Brady in future Rogers westerns. Singer-actress Jane Frazee is the female lead, playing a cousin of Cookie who comes to the ranch to train horses. The catchy title song is heard more than once, culminating in a lovely duet performed by Roy and Jane. The film is not as well-plotted or packed with incident as such later Rogers Trucolor westerns as THE GOLDEN STALLION and TRIGGER JR., but it remains a must for Roy’s fans.

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SUSANNA PASS (1949)

SUSANNA PASS is easily the most bizarre B-western I’ve yet seen and offers the most convoluted plot. A newspaper publisher (Robert Emmett Keane) working with an escaped con who’s an oil engineer(!), is a greedy bastard who wants to get his brother, operator of an artificial lake stocked with trout, out of the way so he can get to the oil under the lake. Dale Evans plays an icthyologist(!) working at the fish hatchery situated on the lake and she happens to be an ex-marine who knows jujitsu! Roy is a game warden who actually arrests Dale for murder at one point—without a shred of evidence! (Or legal authority, for that matter.) In the midst of all this, Roy, Dale, and Cuban comic relief Estelita Rodriguez break into song with Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage at regular intervals. At one point, tough guy Douglas Fowley, playing the fugitive oil engineer, explains in great detail how dynamite and seismograph will prove there’s oil under the lake, never once dropping his urban tough guy twang. At another point Fowley, masquerading as a land buyer from out east, gets Dale to explain to him how the hatchery works, so she shows us, in documentary step-by-step, in glowing Trucolor, how the eggs are cultivated and hatched and turned into baby trout which are then transferred to the lake. Hey, who said these things weren’t educational? This is another of those Roy westerns set at the time it was shot (1949), but the town looks like a standard-issue western set, complete with hitching posts and sheriff’s office, and everyone rides a horse and wears a gun belt. Surreal.

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BELLS OF CORONADO (1950) – excerpts from IMDB review

I have BELLS OF CORONADO in a legit edition on DVD (released in 2004 by Lions Gate Home Entertainment and Republic Pictures), offering a beautiful print and a transfer that is far superior to most of the VHS copies I have of Roy’s Trucolor westerns. The film was beautifully photographed by John MacBurnie and shot mostly on location. The film has an odd plot about a power company and a uranium mine in the remote town of Coronado. When a shipment of uranium ore has gone missing and the mine owner found unconscious, only to subsequently die in the doctor’s office, the insurance company sends Roy Rogers to investigate by going undercover. Given how these films usually cast local businessmen as the villains, we can’t be blamed for quickly assuming that gruff power company owner Bennett (Grant Withers) has got to be the culprit. However, in a big twist, the identity of the actual mastermind, who plans to sell the ore to a foreign power, comes as quite a shock. Can no one be trusted in Republic Pictures’ baroque alternate western universe?

Dale Evans plays Bennett’s ditzy secretary, quite a far cry from her proactive roles in other Roy westerns. At one point, she provokes a brutal fistfight between Roy and three company men for absolutely no reason. Pat Brady and the singing group, Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, play linemen for the company. There are far fewer songs than usual here. Clifton Young, the chief thug in Roy’s TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD the same year, where he stole Christmas trees of all things, plays Coronado’s General Store proprietor, who works after hours carrying out the thefts of uranium ore for the traitor selling it to the enemy. Which is quite baffling given the high odds of someone recognizing him.

As usual in these later Roy westerns, the setting is contemporary, but everyone wears cowboy clothes, rides horses and carries a gun belt, even when working on the electric towers. At one point, Roy and his new ally, an undercover federal agent, ride out on horseback, armed only with six-guns, to try and stop a plane which has landed to pick up the ore from the gang. They shoot at the gang from the rocks while waiting for Dale, Pat and the “posse” on horseback to show up when what’s really needed is a full team of FBI agents with automatic weapons, cars, and a helicopter or two.

There are plenty of great bits of action and stunt work and the location shooting is as good as anything I’ve seen in these films. I just wish the plot wasn’t so far-fetched.

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TWILIGHT IN THE SIERRAS (1950) has a more straightforward plot and a lot more action [than SUSANNA PASS]. The bad guy here is a businessman (George Meeker) who buys up a mountain lodge and plans on turning it into a counterfeiting center. There’s also a mountain lion loose threatening Judge Wiggins’ sheep ranch where newly freed parolees provide the labor, all supervised by Parole Officer Roy Rogers. One of the parolees is a master engraver (from Cuba) and the counterfeiter kidnaps him and wants him to counterfeit old gold certificate plates to print up bills that are still considered legal tender in Europe but not the U.S. We even get a mini-documentary on counterfeit bills, using giant $20 bill mockups. The counterfeiters go so far as to lure the parolee’s sister from Cuba (Estelita Rodriguez again) to use her to force the parolee to do the plates. This time Dale is the acting sheriff and this time SHE gets to charge Roy with murder and arrest him. It’s obvious the dead thug was killed by both the mountain lion and a fall from a cliff but no, the lodge owner insists Roy be arrested because Roy had a fight with the henchman a day earlier. Legal niceties are nowhere to be found. And, of course, everyone breaks into song at regular intervals. But there’s plenty of action and hard riding and a great stunt bit involving Roy’s rescue of Estelita and her brother from a burning wagon where they’ve been tied up by the counterfeiters, all making full use of Republic’s estimable team of stuntmen and action directors. And the mountain lion and a collie sheep dog, not to mention Trigger, are pretty awesome co-stars.

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It’s amusing to me that the bad guys in so many B-westerns are businessmen, professional men and pillars of the community. In TWILIGHT, the parolees who make up the ranch’s work force, actual criminals who’ve served time, are all good guys. Roy always plays a government agent, but the bad guys, all establishment figures, attack him without any fear of arousing the ire of the Feds. I keep waiting for cars full of Federal Agents to show up and bring the proceedings into the modern noir/police procedural world. Did B-western heroes never encounter a habitual criminal, some lowlife who robs and steals because he’s too much of a miscreant to hold down a job? No, the guys they’re after not only hold down jobs, but really good ones, and boost the economy by creating numerous jobs for plenty of others, too! Somebody’s gotta keep all those henchmen employed.

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SUNSET IN THE WEST (1950)

The plot doesn’t really kick in till the last half-hour and then it gets exciting and action-packed, with a massive shootout and chase at the end, involving train, boats, horses, grenades, etc. Pierre Watkin is a solid citizen who runs a gunrunning ring in secret, which hijacks trains and uses them to transport the guns to a pickup point on the coast (California, presumably). Lots of cold-blooded murder, including when the town’s telegraph operator, Blinky (Paul E. Burns), working in cahoots with Watkin, shoots the train engineer and coal man at the end to take over the train but then tries to leave to go back to town and Watkin warns him not to because of the Feds heading there (presumably—we never actually see them) so he has Blinky drive the train. Who was gonna do it if Blinky hadn’t stayed? He shot the actual crew! It’s not clear when this takes place. No signs of modern conveniences. No cars, phones, etc. Only reference is to the Department of Justice, which didn’t exist in western times. Too much comedy relief from Gordon Jones and too many songs in the first 39 min. Penny Edwards sings, as does Estelita Rodriguez and, of course, Roy and Foy and the Riders of the Purple Sage. But the action at the end involving moving trains and a sprawling shootout is all well-staged.

TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD (1950) – excerpts from IMDB review

TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD (1950) is a late Trucolor Roy Rogers western directed by Republic Pictures’ great action director, William Witney. While the plot is somewhat absurd, the film boasts a number of novel touches. First off, it features great outdoors Trucolor photography, giving it a look that only Roy Rogers westerns of 1947-50 seemed to have. Second, former action star Jack Holt is on hand playing himself as a retired western star who harvests Christmas trees on his ranch. Third, it offers a host of second- and third-tier cowboy stars, some retired, as guest stars who come to Jack’s aid. Fourth, it features cute little Carol Nugent as a pre-adolescent sharpshooter. Fifth, it gives Dale Evans a break and hands female lead duties over to pretty Penny Edwards, a perennial western fan favorite.

Rogers plays Roy Rogers, head of the local office of the U.S. Soil Administration(!). When a rival timber crew crosses the land boundary and cuts down Christmas trees on Jack Holt’s property, Roy enters the scene riding Trigger and carrying twin six-shooters. The rival crew is upset at Holt’s plan to sell the trees at cost so that poor families can buy them. Apparently, the Christmas tree market in rural Southern California is so lucrative that villain Mitch McCall (Clifton Young) is even willing to commit arson and murder for a piece of it. Aldridge (Emory Parnell), McCall’s unwitting employer, sends his daughter, no-nonsense businesswoman Toby (Penny Edwards) to check up on things. She seems to be in cahoots with McCall for much of the film, but then falls under Roy’s musical spell (aided by Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage) and—presto!—becomes a homebody, cooking Christmas dinner for everybody.

When McCall’s henchmen make it tough for Holt to get his trees to market, young Sis McGonigle (Carol Nugent) sends out a call for help to nine of Holt’s movie star buddies, including Allan “Rocky” Lane, Monte Hale, Rex Allen, William Farnum, Tom Keene and Tom Tyler (yes, Captain Marvel himself). They all show up on horseback in full western regalia, but all they actually get to do is drive wagons on a studio rig against a rear screen projection background.

Although this is set at the time it was filmed, 1950, it occupies an alternate Hollywood universe that was unique to B-westerns. Roy is a government officer and Mitch McCall is a company man, yet they both wear cowboy outfits, complete with gun belts, and, like most of the locals, ride horses. The main town is a standard-issue western set (not a paved road, gas station, diner, or drugstore in sight, and no cops either, except for a lone sheriff). Only one character, Toby, the city girl, rides a car (a roomy 1950 convertible). When Holt tells the kids about his old movies, they tell him they have television. (Yet, we don’t see any antennas! Hmmm….) When the cowboy stars drive the Christmas trees to market, they use wagons, not pickup trucks. This was not unusual in B-westerns with contemporary settings, but the effect is triply bizarre when viewed in Trucolor.

Roy is his usual two-fisted, righteous self, plunging into fights with the Christmas tree grabbers even when the odds are against him, in true Republic Pictures fashion. He rides Trigger at great speeds, but is ably assisted on the action front by his German shepherd, Bullet, who bares his fangs and sinks them into a steady stream of Roy’s adversaries.

I only have one legitimate DVD edition of a Roy Rogers Trucolor western, BELLS OF CORONADO. I have several legit VHS editions, although the earliest one (from Nostalgia Merchant) is an astoundingly poor copy. The later ones are quite good, though. Everything else is public domain. I wish the current rights holder would release a full box set of Roy’s Trucolor westerns.

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After their collaboration, Roy went on to do a six-season half-hour TV western, “The Roy Rogers Show,” co-starring Dale, which I watched on TV as a child, while Witney went on to direct a series of B-westerns (in black-and-white) with Rex Allen, as well as other low-budget features for Republic Pictures, while also moving into series television, most notably Republic’s western series, “Stories of the Century,” which used tons of stock footage from Republic westerns, many of which Witney had originally directed.

I once saw Witney speak at a panel on serials at the American Museum of the Moving Image in the early 1990s. but I had an even closer encounter once with his famous star. In 1968, when I was in 9th grade, I was wandering around Rockefeller Center with some school friends and we went into the NBC building to take a look and who should be coming out but Roy Rogers! I had a handbill that I’d picked up at the Criterion Theater on Broadway advertising a road show booking of the Paramount musical HALF A SIXPENCE, so I asked Rogers to sign the back of it and he very kindly did.

SixpenceRogers A

Rogers A

And now, let’s fade out with a Trucolor sunset.

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11 Responses to “B-Western Heaven: The Star-Director team of Roy Rogers and William Witney”

  1. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) January 23, 2016 at 12:38 PM #

    I like the singing, Pardner. The more harmonizing cowpokes the better. I especially needed the break when I was a kid because, as you mentioned, the plots could get so convoluted I couldn’t tell which end was up. Not that I didn’t appreciate Roy’s riding and his dandy way with the fisticuffs, but he sure did sing purty.

    • briandanacamp January 23, 2016 at 2:21 PM #

      One thing I left out because the piece was getting so long was the fact that the songs Roy and Dale sing together (and the ones I liked best) usually had verses in Spanish, partly, I presume, as a nod to the many Latino characters who were part of the fabric of Roy’s western universe.

      • Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) January 23, 2016 at 3:01 PM #

        As a screen couple I think Roy and Dale are on a par with Astaire and Rogers, and Powell and Loy. Some people can’t see past the cowboy hats.

  2. Christy's Inkwells January 23, 2016 at 5:57 PM #

    I have to agree with Patricia Nolan-Hall. Roy and Dale are on par with Powell and Loy, and Astaire and Rogers. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans visited the Houston LIvestock Show and Rodeo 7 times from 1950 and 1972. Sometimes they brought Trigger and Buttermilk, and I was one of the lucky little kiddies who once got to see them. I never missed their television show on Saturday, and I still want a “Woodie” station wagon so I can drive to town for supplies! I even got a Roy Rogers covered Wagon one year for Christmas. One of my favorite pairings was “Sunset in Coronado,” a kind of flashback for Dale, but it was directed by Frank McDonald, I think. I also enjoyed “Heldorado” and both of the “Bells” films. A wonderful article, and a treasure to walk down memory lane with you. .

  3. Silver Screenings January 23, 2016 at 5:59 PM #

    I quite like Roy Rogers’ movies. I avoided them for years because I didn’t think they’d be any good, but I was wrong! They’re terrific fun.

    I appreciated your enthusiasm for these films, but what I liked best was your analysis of William Witney’s work. I never really noticed or appreciated his directorial style in this films – because I was having too much fun – but I need to go back and watch them with your points in mind.

    Thanks for this. I feel like a real smarty pants, now that I’ve read your post.

    • Larry E. Roe Sr. March 9, 2016 at 7:12 PM #

      I really enjoyed this read, and I am one that is particular found of Roy Rogers and Trigger. I am a proud owner of all of these Witney directed movies, and most of Roy’s movies plus TV shows. I wish these movies could be seen on a national level, so that people could see what People like Bill Witney was able to put on screen with out all of the modern day technology

      • Silver Screenings March 10, 2016 at 7:13 AM #

        Bill Witney is rather underappreciated these days, no?

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