Red Ryder Double Feature: Volume 10 (DVD)

“When you kill a man, you’ve done something you can’t undo.”
—Red Ryder

Think there are too many sequels these days? Well, in a two-year period from 1944 to 1946, Republic Pictures released a grand total of 16 Red Ryder films, all with rodeo star turned action hero William “Wild Bill” Elliott in the title role. Red Ryder: Double Feature Volume 10 features the second and 14th films in the series. Time to hit the open trail.

Criminals of the Old West, beware. Red Ryder is coming to town, and his only goal is to hunt down and lock up any troublemakers he comes across. In Marshal of Reno, Red has to protect an innocent young man framed for murder, while also preventing the kid from going vigilante on his accusers. Then, in Sheriff of Redwood Valley, Red is assisting a town with dynamiting a tunnel through a mountain for the railroad when the Reno Kid, an escaped convict, shows up. But there might be more to this crook than meets the eye.

These Red Ryder films are enjoyable simply because they’re from another time. These days, the myths of the old west have been deconstructed and reconstructed so many times that a lot of the fun has been drained from modern westerns. The “B-westerns” of the 1940s, on the other hand, are pure fantasy, in which a lone hero can ride into a corrupt town, and chase out all the black hat-wearing crooks on his own, with a grin on his face while he does so. Just how quaint and traditional are these movies? At one point, Red enters a saloon, and “Camptown Races” is actually playing on the piano. Now that’s a good old-fashioned western!

Elliott has the hero routine down to a science in these movies. His Red Ryder is a flawless do-gooder, a “man of peace” at heart, but one who can dish out righteous frontier justice with his two fists or his trusty six-shooters if needed. Western staple George “Gabby” Hayes shows up a few times as the comedy relief “old timer” who loyally watches Red’s back. Another regular in the series is Alice Fleming as “The Countess,” who always has a comeback ready for any of Hayes’s jokes. And then there’s Little Beaver, Red’s prepubescent Native American sidekick, played by Bobby Blake, who would grow up to become Robert Blake, star of Baretta, In Cold Blood, and Lost Highway, not to mention countless tabloids after being accused of murder. As a kid, though, Blake does a solid enough job as the hero’s resourceful pal, even if he has to deliver his lines in non-culturally sensitive broken English (“Me takem you to see medicine lady!”). I’ll go ahead and let you all think of your own jokes about the name “Little Beaver.”

Although the stories here are fairly simplistic, each movie has its own little twist that’s just enough to keep the plots from getting dull. There’s not a lot of background on Red himself. He’s just a random hero, riding from town to town fighting bad guys. All of the character development in these films takes place with the people Red helps, but not with Red himself. Now, I’m not asking for a long, overwritten origin story, but at least a little bit of background about who Red is would have helped.

All the action scenes here might not impress some of today’s viewers, used to high-octane CGI thrills, but the filmmakers have actually done a decent job with making each of these films as thrilling as possible. The fist fights are often captured in one long take, with the actors throwing each other over bars and into breakaway furniture with as few edits as possible. There are also plenty of horse chases with cowboys speeding along at full gallop, and elaborate gunfights with life and death on the line. These are elements that western fans adore, and there are plenty of them here.

The picture quality here is mostly good, considering the age of the films. The black and white image tends to be fuzzy or too dark at times, but that appears to be the fault of the low budget, on-the-fly filmmaking and not the DVD transfer. The mono sound is hit or miss. Marshal of Reno sounds clear enough, but the dialogue on Sheriff of Redwood Valley is so muffled that it’s hard to understand. For bonus features, there’s chapters 9 and 10 of the 1940 matinee serial The Adventures of Red Ryder, starring Don Barry as Red and Tommy Cook as Little Beaver. There’s some nice cowboy action here, too, but it would be nice to have the entire serial on one disc to watch from the beginning. There’s also a slideshow of photos and Red Ryder comic book art, and promos for other classic westerns.

New math: This is the 10th volume in this series, and it features the second and 14th of Elliott’s Red Ryder films? And on the main menu, it gives the option to watch the 14th and then the second? It’s not like there’s a lot of continuity from one film to the next, but I’m sure fans would prefer the movies be presented in order.

These films are dated and simplistic, but they’re also some charming fun. I can see why Ralphie wanted that BB gun so badly.

The Verdict

No need to form a posse. Not guilty.


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