Monday, January 20, 2014


The last time I reviewed a Bollywood movie I speculated that the nearest American counterpart to the Indian movie format was the singing-cowboy genre that flourished for not quite 20 years, from the mid-1930s through the early 1950s. The two types of movie aren't really the same, but the singing-cowboy westerns remind us of a time when "melodrama" meant a combination of drama and music, when the drama paused for a "specialty" of song and dance. The singing-cowboy film is melodrama par excellence, particularly when it's made by Republic Pictures. Republic specialized in singing cowboys, stunts and special effects. Many of their serials are still revered today by genre fans, but the singing-cowboy films tend to get dismissed as a creative dead end. If we think of them, we think of them as bowdlerized westerns, usually set in a dude-ranch sort of west of the modern day, complete with telephones, automobiles, etc. -- and in which the hero always shoots the bad guy's gun out of his hand. But if we think of them as musicals first, they represent another evolutionary step away from Busby-Berkeleyan spectacle and the musical as a syncopated live-action cartoon, contemporary with the rise of Fred Astaire at RKO, with an emphasis on virtuoso performance rather than mass formations. At Republic, you got the musical innovation -- their films are important in the evolution of country-western music as well -- along with as much mayhem as their legendary stunt men could throw in.

Joseph Kane's Tumbling Tumbleweeds was the first feature-length starring vehicle for Gene Autry, who'd made his starring debut earlier in 1935 in the one-of-a-kind singing-cowboy/sci-fi mashup serial The Phantom Empire for one of Republic's precursors. Autry was already a radio and recording star by the time he hit Hollywood, a fact often acknowledged in the films in which he almost invariably played "Gene Autry." With him came sidekick Smiley Burnette, who in this film is "Smiley" rather than his usual alias, "Frog Millhouse." Burnette was the Curly Howard of singing-cowboy sidekicks, younger and heavier than the bewhiskered codgers who more often attended the heroes. A frequent songwriting partner of Autry, Burnette had a bizarre gimmick, earning his movie-character nickname by taking his voice down to an Popeye-like throaty rasp for humorous effect, in contrast to his more high-pitched yet mellow drawl. Speaking of bewhiskered codgers, journeyman character actor George Hayes had not yet transformed himself into "Gabby" when he took the role of a clean-chinned yet mustachioed snake-oil salesman in Tumbleweeds. His turn here is a reminder that the New York native could act and wasn't merely something Republic found in the desert.

Although we learn during the film that this version of Gene Autry has made a name as a recording artist, we find him traveling with Hayes's medicine show as it visits his old family home. The story Autry may have had a poor agent, or he may have sought the opportunity to return to the land we saw him exiled from in the film's first act. He had refused to take his father's side in the typical range war, but intervenes to save his life at the climax of a furious action sequence in which film buffs may choose to see the hand of supervising editor Joseph H. Lewis. Since Papa Autry was unconscious during the rescue, and no one else witnessed it, he still thinks of Gene as a coward and repudiates his son before the young man can account for himself. Returning, Gene and his band take shelter in a shack still occupied by a wounded fugitive our hero recognizes as a boyhood friend. After helping him evade a posse, Gene learns that his friend is accused of killing Old Man Autry, and that changes things, at least until his friend's wife sets him straight about who really done it....

In later life Autry bought up the rights to his old pictures, and his heirs have had them preserved and restored for regular play on the Encore Western cable channel. So the first surprise about Tumbling Tumbleweeds for those with dim memories of lousy public-domain prints of singing-cowboy pictures on old-time TV, is how good this picture looks. It's a twofold surprise, since apart from the crisp picture Kane's direction is often impressive, not only in the action scenes but in the framing of many more sedate scenes. He has a knack for getting a camera into tight spots and making each scene as lively as possible. A performance of Hayes's medicine show, without Autry, is a highlight, thanks to Burnette and Eugene Jackson as "Eightball," at once a performer in the show and flunky to Hayes. Jackson does a frantic tap dance during a Burnette number, then tops himself (while Kane cuts to a tighter shot) by doing a James Brown bit avant le lettre, tiring of his pace and collapsing until dosed with Hayes's remedy, which brings him back to full power or more. Ernest Miller is the credited cinematographer and Lester Orlebeck the credited editor; both deserve credit for packing this little picture with considerable energy. Autry himself was never much of an actor but he is what he needs to be here. The players bring the enthusiasm of a new project to their first of many, many more pictures, and even if you don't care for the music you can appreciate the impression Tumbleweeds must have made. It's the sort of landmark movie film buffs may have to learn to appreciate, instead of appreciating it outright, since it set a standard few of us comprehend anymore. A reappraisal of singing-cowboy films is probably necessary before we can judge them on their own terms, rather than as compromised westerns or regional musicals. We shouldn't expect to find masterpieces anywhere in such a survey, but the films themselves might find some more respect than they get today.


John said...

I'm a B-western fan and really enjoyed reading your take on the Autry film. It's unfortunate that most of Roy Rogers films exist in edited form but I think you would really appreciate some of the Rogers titles directed by William Witney. EYES OF TEXAS, THE GOLDEN STALLION and NIGHTTIME IN NEVADA are 3 Rogers-Witney films that still exist in their original length.

teddy crescendo said...

Samuel, have you read Ty E`s reveiws of "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "12 Years a Slave" over on Soiled Sinema ?, i think hes the only reveiwer in the entire world whos had the guts to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth with regards to those two movies ! ! !.