The titles of Gene Autry's movies rarely give you much of an idea of what's going to happen. Most of the time they're song titles like Round-Up Time in Texas, most of which is actually set in South Africa, believe it or not. In Old Monterey isn't as misleading a title as that one, nor is it a song title, but it really gives no hint of the film's interesting historic context. Joseph Kane directs this "super" Republic production, which runs a good ten minutes longer than the typical Autry vehicle. Like most such, it's set in a present day in which parts of the west may as well be in the 19th century except for the occasional automobile passing through or, in this case, the increasingly frequent airplanes flying overhead. Released a month before Hitler invaded Poland, In Old Monterey is at once propaganda for American preparedness and an account of early ambivalence toward the idea. The Army needs land for a proving ground for its new bombers and wants to buy out the local ranchers in Gene Autry's home town. Gene himself is an Army man as the picture opens, as is his stooge Frog Milhouse (Smiley Burnette) and their musical buddies (the Hoosier Hot Shots). Frog drives a tank; indeed, he makes it practically fly despite his concerns about his weight -- he hooks himself up to a scale and dangles like a side of beef to see whether his newest weight-loss scheme is working. Frog and the Hot Shots want out of the Army, but Gene guilt-trips them into re-enlisting by singing "My Buddy." Gene himself is then demobilized so he can go back home and persuade the locals into selling out, and his buddies tag along.
Not many of the locals want to sell out. At the forefront of resistance is cantankerous Gabby Whittaker (George Hayes was given the "Gabby" name by Republic this very year for playing the same character in their new Roy Rogers series). The local industrialists aren't selling either, but they're only waiting for the government to raise their offer. These double-dealers want the ranchers to hold out, playing on resentment of explosions and planes flying loudly overhead. They're not above stirring up trouble to keep tensions high between the ranchers and the military. Meanwhile, Gene faces distrust from the community -- this is one of the films in which he's not known as a radio star -- while befriending a young woman (frequent Autry love interest June Story) and a small boy (Billy Lee). It's perhaps in keeping with the "super" ambitions of Old Monterey that the plot takes a drastic turn. The evil industrialist starts dropping bombs of his own, expecting the ranchers to blame the Army and stiffen their resistance, and in one of these incidents Gene's little pal is blown to bits. To repeat, a small boy in a Gene Autry musical western is killed stone dead. I still haven't seen many Autry films but I don't expect to see that happen very often, and I expect it must have come as a wallop to the familiar Autry audience.
Gene soon figures out that something was fishy about the bombing, but he also has to take drastic steps to reconcile the ranchers to the preparedness campaign. His strategy is to take over the local movie house and force the audience to watch newsreel footage of the Japanese invasion of China as he narrates the horrors of modern war. Soon enough, war comes to "Old Monterey" as the ranchers realize how the industrialist has been manipulating them. Horses, cars, trains, planes and Frog's tank, not to mention a crack army of stuntmen, are all deployed in the patented Republic action climax.
Before embarking on my Autry viewing, I had assumed that once you'd seen one singing-cowboy movie you'd seen them all. I continue to be surprised, however, by the individuality and occasional eccentricity of at least the early Autry films from before Pearl Harbor. None of these films are classics -- none even come close -- but some, at least, have more character than I would have given the whole series credit for before. I still can't say much for Autry as an actor, but there's often interesting stuff going on around him. Apart from the propaganda element in Monterey you have the rare and dangerous experience of Smiley Burnette and Gabby Hayes in the same picture. The Gabby character in this picture has a pathological disregard for truth that wouldn't be seen again until Heath Ledger's Joker; he tells at least a half-dozen different stories about how he won the medal he wears all the time. Hayes is too old to compete with Burnette in slapstick, but there's a frantic moment of one-upmanship as Gabby tells one of his tall tales while Frog performs some of his reducing exercises. Almost compulsively, Hayes begins doing deep knee bends parallel to Burnette while rambling on with his story. Additional physical comedy is provided by the Hoosier Hot Shots who go on an avant-garde instrument-destroying rampage during an impromptu performance. Between the slapstick and the stuntmanship In Old Monterey is a typically energetic Republic programmer with an added level of historic interest that puts it on a shortlist of Autry films to watch just to say you've watched one.