The song performed over the credits immediately pegs this movie's genre and approximate year of release. The lyrics are pure cowboy, but the sound is late 20’s/early 30’s pop; it could almost be Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys singing. The credits melt into scenes from a cattle round-up and - technology-wise – we’re winging it. At this stage, nobody was quite sure whether the cumbersome early sound equipment could handle outdoor shoots. But the matching of sound and image here is bracing in its “let’s try this and see what happens” vibe. There’s a hit and miss mix of live sound and post-dubbing. Everything’s about exploring the possibilities, testing the waters. Not all of it works – yet there’s the constant thrill of watching someone performing without a net. It’s a particular brand of cinematic vitality exclusive to the burgeoning talkie.
Steele’s entrance is prefaced with the words “Where’s the kid?”. Bob – like the medium he’s exploring – is new, young, alive with possibilities. That theatrical lipstick is startling for a moment, then as his character quickly settles in, register as just another facet of the vivid whole. This picture wouldn’t work without an engaging, likable character at the center – and Bob’s that character, immediately, indelibly sympathetic. Qualities that had been incipient in his silents blossom fully with sound.
Bob isn’t called Bob in ”Near the Rainbow’s End”. This time out, he’s Jim. The buddy he’s first talking to onscreen is addressed as Perry. In fact, it’s Bob’s real-life chum Perry Murdock, a guy who’d already co-starred with him in a brace of silents, who off-screen was not just Bob’s close friend (they shared an LA apartment at the time) but often worked in various capacities with Bob’s dad, R.N. Bradbury, even in non Steele films. All of this just reinforces the family feeling that permeates so many of the early Bob Steele pictures. The general comfort level’s further enhanced with the introduction of Lafe Mckee - one of the 30’s definitive grand old men, always perfection when cast as a paternal figure. A Colonel Sanders type – but minus the creepiness. He’s Bob’s dad here – and the loving relationship is quickly nailed in the way the two actors relate to one another.
Next, we switch to a neighboring ranch. A man there’s attempting to shoe a horse – with limited success. The bit has a kind of documentary, off-the-cuff feel; the fact that neither editing nor timing are razor sharp just makes it seem more like real life than a movie. The guy doing the shoeing is a mean cuss– think Brutus from the Popeye cartoons. In this case, he’s named Buck – and he immediately shows his stripe when he roughs up a defenseless Mexican ranch-hand for no good reason. Turns out this bully’s co-owner of the place, his partner a well-meaning milquetoast who’s had to team up with Buck out of financial necessity. But it’s not a happy union. Because Buck’s clearly more tyrant than partner. Milquetoast kind of sticks up for the Mexican. But it’s obvious he’s got little influence. Buck’s mad that the neighbors (Bob and his dad) are fencing off some land his sheep have been illicitly grazing on and he vows to fight back. Milquetoast, never a boat-rocker, hesitates to go along with this scheme. But it’s clear that something’s gotta give. And it won’t be Buck.
Bob rides over to discuss things with Milquetoast. Also to see the man’s daughter, Ruth. Played by Louise Lorraine, an odd child-woman who’s part Gracie Allen, part live kewpie doll. We first spot her decked out in what looks like a kid’s party dress. And she’s babbling in a kind of boop- boop-a doop fashion. She and her (never to be seen again) maid are directing the baby talk at a pet goat they’re trying to bottle-feed. Bizarrely mixing goo goo prattle with Spanish, Louise spots Bob and redirects her cooing in his direction. At this point, the two are clearly left to fill in the space with extemporized dialogue as they fawn over the little animal. It should be cloying. But its sheer spur-of-the-moment goofiness just winds up being kind of charming. They’re making it up as they go along (a mirror of what’s happening on a technical level all around them) and it’s fun to watch, whatever happens. They’re also – for all the silliness - sweetly likable. More rehearsals might have made it more professional – but it wouldn’t be half as winning.
Anyway, Buck’s got a yen for Ruth, too. So it makes him even less inclined to accept Bob’s overtures of peace. He's even more annoyed when Bob clearly aims his conversation at Milquetoast, showing little regard for what Buck sees as his own senior partner status. Tempers flare and there’s an outdoor fistfight between Bob and Buck. Incorporating some neat acrobatics, it’s the first of many entertaining dust-ups Steele would offer his fans in the sound era. They’re like the choreographed numbers in musicals – and done right – have a certain bone-crunching poetry. No CGI here. It’s home-made. What you see is what you get – but instinct and advance planning make it look pretty convincing. And it’s the first example (in his sound career) of how Bob’s pugilistic know-how made it completely believable that he could take on much larger men and – at very least – hold his own. This fight ends before there’s an actual winner because the two are pulled apart. But there’s a definite sense of ‘You haven’t heard the last of this” hanging in the air.
Life at the Milquetoast ranch-house is no rest cure. Ruth and her dad are always walking on eggshells around blustering Buck. Actor Al Ferguson, by the way, is great in the part –expertly tossing off several belligerently funny lines ( “I’m gonna tear that fence up tonight and wrap it around their necks” ), not to mention a rather good mocking imitation of Milquetoast.
Ruth overhears something and warns Bob that Buck’s gonna make trouble on the range that night. Ruth, by the way, is such a strange mix of maternal and child-like. In some shots she looks old enough to be Bob’s mom, yet everything she does has an element of little girl flounce to it. Even in her relationship with Bob she’s part mother, part playmate (at one point she sees him off with the words “Be a good boy!”)
Anyway, now that he’s warned, Bob (or maybe his stunt double) makes an impressive rear mount leap onto his horse and takes off to alert dad. Buck & company follow in pursuit. Bob’s horse takes a sudden fall. And this footage will be used again in future Steele movies. Looks very much like it was unintentional – and you’ve gotta wince for that poor horse. But the effect is so startling, it’s no surprise the movie-makers were tempted to recycle it just to elicit those Saturday matinee gasps.
Buck and his men catch Bob. But he gives them the slip, using an absolutely amazing somersault side mount that definitely demands several instant replays. It’s a bit of equestrian leger de main that’s utterly unexpected, creating a startling “did he just do that?” moment. There are a couple of similar moves in later Steeles. But none quite so out-of-the-box amazing as this one. Why Steele soft pedaled this kind of thing in later years is anybody’s guess. Was it considered too old-fashioned, too difficult, too gimmicky? Who knows? But I’m glad we got to see it here. It concentrates the dizzy impact of Astaire-Rogers' “Waltz in Swingtime” into two giddy seconds.
Meanwhile back at Milquetoast Manse, Buck’s convincing Ruth’s incredibly susceptible dad that maybe they should get tough with the neighbors. Ruth eavesdrops in horror. And when I say horror, I’m talking full-on silent movie exaggerated emotion horror. When Buck leaves, Ruth gives Milquetoast a boop-boop-a-doop pep talk that has Mr. Suggestible immediately switching gears. “You watch my smoke from now on!”, he says imitating someone with a spine.
Elsewhere, Bob’s been recaptured and tied to a tree. Luckily his horse is an expert unraveller of knots, though the animal’s onscreen manoeuvers look rather non-commital. But, whatever, Bob’s soon free again. And now-– in another one of the film’s pleasantly unexpected surprises - comes a musical number. The guys from Bob’s ranch, camped out on the range for the night, suddenly launch into a full-scale version of the song we heard over the credits. It’s called “Ro-Ro-Rollin’ Along”. And had they been giving out Best Song Oscars that early (they didn’t start till ’34), it should have been a nominee. I love it. It’s got a nice raggy swing to it. And the verse is just as catchy as the chorus – meaning that every moment’s a kick. What’s more, the picture threatens to turn into a full-fledged musical because, next morning Bob comes across Perry, who’s strumming a guitar and singing. He invites Bob to join in and they launch into a marvelous duet. It’s a Tin Pan Alley chestnut, the irresistible “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”. Dressed up in a fun arrangement Bob & Perry probably cooked up away from the set. And delivered with a spontaneous feel that reinforces the film’s ‘Let’s try anything” charm. The two guys beam, clearly startled by the fact that they’re actually pulling this thing off; they may not quite be professional singers – but they’re supremely affable amateurs. And it’s a great snapshot of the offscreen friendship between the two. I like to think that friendship endured over the years. And I have a feeling it probably did. Perry appeared in 27 of Bob’s movies , did stunt co-ordination, assistant director duty, even co-scripted some. In the late 30’s he left acting to become a set decorator, mainly at Republic, later on television. Bob worked at Republic often, so I imagine their professional paths crossed there too. And over the decades, they always lived within miles of one another. And died within months of each other, Perry in April of 1988, Bob in December of the same year.
Anyway, back to “Rainbow’s End”. A bunch of night guards have been stationed to protect the disputed fence and shenanigans ensue - rustled cattle, marauding sheep, Perry running around in an undershirt and on a more sombre note, Milquetoast getting fatally shot by Buck.
Now it might not have been a sensible decision editing wise. Yet, I love that this happens. Just a moment after Milquetoast meets his maker, the director schedules another spontaneous musical interlude for Bob and Perry. Perry’s noodling on the guitar and Bob suggests some vocalizing. It’s a reprise of “Ro-Ro-Rollin’ Along”. Once again, they seem giddy with the fact that it’s actually working out, gaining in confidence and enjoyment as the thing proceeds. The harmony’s a treat; Perry handles the higher part, but Bob’s got a nice baritone/tenor range himself. This song actually had something of a pop life in the early 30’s, with various sheet music editions and a number of recorded versions, several actually available on iTunes. There’s a terrific one by Jack Hylton’s band. I like the Layton & Johnson version even better. But for sheer impromptu effervescence, you can’t beat Bob and Perry’s take. Especially since it comes with a visual fillip; the whole thing's nicely shot through a wagon wheel. Anyway, I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that Bob was actually the screen’s first singing cowboy. The Gene Autry fueled craze didn’t take off till the mid 30’s. But I think Bob (and Perry) were pioneers here. And – for my money – lots more fun than stodgy Autry ever was.
Buck finagles things so that Bob’s accused of Milquetoast’s murder. But, with Perry ‘s help, he eludes capture. And gathers evidence that helps the sheriff locate the stolen cattle (did I mention Buck’s got a sideline in cattle rustling?) in a hidden valley called Rainbow’s End. Finally a connection to the title, something not always present in B westerns, where titles were often assigned before stories were written. There’s a lot of rather murky pandemonium as the rustlers are dispatched. Including several odd sound effects (they’re still experimenting ) ; the gunshots have an odd muffled quality and there’s a weird little moan when a man falls down wounded.
But the real climax comes in Ruth’s parlor, with a no holds barred fistfight between Buck and Bob. Full of impressive back flips, convincing looking punches, broken crockery and furniture flying all over the place. The whole thing looks like it would have taken ages to plan – yet we know these pictures were always shot in beat the clock mode. Knowing that, we in the audience have a sense anything might go wrong. That it all unfolds as effectively as it does is a bit of a miracle.
Buck’s been so entertainingly nasty that his crash-boom-bang comeuppance is a real treat for viewers. Kids in 1930 must have been cheering their heads off. Meanwhile a surprise witness has stepped forward and Bob is cleared of the murder charge, setting the stage for a happy ending with Bob and Louise in a clinch. But Perry gets the last word.“Looks like their troubles are just about to begin!”.
Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine a more genial and promising kick-off to Bob Steele’s talkie career.
MORE BOB STEELE TO COME