B westerns are seldom the place to look if you’re on the trail of front-to-back cinematic perfection. The folks who made them were never given the time, money, resources or, indeed, the directive to make great art. These people needed their paychecks pronto. And - to get them - had to quickly produce something that would satisfy the rudimentary but voracious needs of the Saturday matinee crowd. Something that could be hitched on to one movie program or another – like a boxcar switched from train to train, the print journeying from one town to the next till it was torn to shreds in a projector or simply left to disintegrate, forgotten, in some dusty cupboard. There was little thought people might still be watching nearly a century later. But in spite of all the impediments to Oscar grabbing glory, these pictures had their moments of perfection. A spirit, a spark, a straight from the shoulder directness, a kind of happy momentum that – in the best of them - still grabs us and makes us smile. I know I tend to send up a lot of aspects of the Bob Steeles. But I hope it’s clear, I’m doing it with affection. There’s something – many things – about these films that I love. I talk about them not to pursue some Mystery Science Theater type agenda, not because I want to take them to task over technical shortcomings. I do it to celebrate them. To thank them, in a way, for all the fun and fond memories they’ve given me - and keep giving me. Sometimes you love your friends for their faults as well as their virtues. That said, let’s proceed to Bob’s third sound era western.
Right off the bat, the director’s in the mood to have some fun with the camera. The picture kicks off with an unexpected overhead shot of a stagecoach, townspeople milling around it. The birds’ eye perspective catches you off-guard, evoking a kind of giddy pleasure. We’ll be treated to more high angle boom shots throughout the movie. As if the film-makers have just unwrapped a new toy and can’t stop playing with it.
Returning in “Land of Missing Men” is actor Emilio Fernandez, who’d had a throwaway part in “Oklahoma Cyclone”. In that picture, he’d been granted a character name (Gomez) but his barely there plotline was left to dangle, unresolved. This time he’s Lopez, and – as before – he’s on hand to give off bandido vibes and stir up some trouble. But ”Land of Missing Men” will at least give his storyline a little more attention. The most interesting thing about Fernandez is not his acting, which - at least here - is nothing to write home about. It’s the fact that he eventually became a legendary film director in his native Mexico. The 40’s are usually regarded as the golden age of Mexican cinema – and Fernandez stands as one of its most revered figures. In collaboration with cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (a student of Hollywood camera wizard Gregg Toland), he created some of the most beautiful black and white movies ever made. Do yourself a favor and track down “Maclovia” “Maria Candelaria” or “Enamorada”. They’ll make you swoon. An odder point of interest re Fernandez is the fact that some say he’s the man that posed for the original Oscar statuette. The guy apparently knew Dolores del Rio, then a big noise on the Hollywood scene. She was married to MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, the man assigned by the Academy in 1927 to design its trophy. Gibbons envisioned it as a golden male nude – and del Rio (for whatever reason) thought Fernandez would make an ideal model. This is all apocryphal. But worth citing, if only because you so rarely get the chance to connect a Bob Steele B with the Oscars.
There’s another intriguing cast member introduced in the opening sequence. The man with the most to say among the townspeople is played by Al Jennings. In real life, Oklahoma born Jennings was something of a self styled celebrity. A former lawyer turned western train-robber (yes, you heard right), he served several years in prison (1899 to 1902). After his release, an O. Henry short story inspired by Jennings’ train-robbing days drew considerable attention. Working hard to maintain the new-found fame, Jennings published his own self-glorifying book and appeared in a couple of silent films, recreating those questionable exploits of his. Eventually he wound up in politics, even running for governor of Oklahoma. Finally, in the early 20’s he moved to California, establishing himself there as a technical adviser on westerns, a minor actor and a major teller of tall tales. A highly fictitious Technicolor film of his life even popped up in 1951; Dan Duryea did the honors. But judging from the evidence on view in “Land of Missing Men”, Jennings was no Dan Duryea. Granted, he was closing in on seventy when it was made. But he neither looks nor sounds like somebody Dan Duryea could ever have turned into. As an actor, Jennings is adequate; think Fred Mertz minus the comic timing.
Al Jennings’ onscreen wife is played by professional biddy, Fern Emmett, an ongoing annoyance at the periphery of many 30’s and 40’s films. She was only 31 here – but already fully embarked on her one irritating specialty. Playing a kind of badly conceived early sketch of Granny Clampett. No matter how many pictures she repeated it in, it always came off as amateur hour. She’s not convincingly old – and she’s definitely not funny. Still, I like one of the lines the script gives her, describing the general situation in the lawless town -“A man’s life ain’t worth more’n a second hand chaw o’ tobacca”. She also gets to give a rather unsettling description of what’s happened every time the bandits raided - “if the wimmen was good lookin’, they went missin’”. One other cast member has to be mentioned –though not in a very flattering way. Given just as much opening scene prominence as Jennings and Emmett is someone called C.R. Defau (which sounds like a name George Costanza would make up). According to imdb he’s from Mexico and that jibes with the accent we hear. Obviously this guy isn’t too familiar with English and that’s the language he has to speak here - so one’s tempted to cut him a bit of slack. But it’s equally clear that acting’s not what he was put on earth to do. When he stands he’s stiff; when he moves he’s awkward. Give him a line to speak and he’ll find six ways to butcher it. Let someone address him and he radiates incomprehension. It’s neither the first nor last example of sideline role-mauling in a B-western. But, off hand - for sheer perfectly concentrated incompetence - I can’t think of one that tops it. But God bless him, he made it into pictures.
We discover Bob camped just out of town. He’s called Steve this time and he’s got a moustache – which is cool. But he’s also singing, right off the bat. And unfortunately the song (I think it’s called “Way Out at the Prairie’s End”) is no world-beater. But there is better news. Al St. John’s back as sidekick, this time with the name Buckshot. And as we actually mourned St. John’s passing in “Oklahoma Cyclone”, it’s good to see him resurrected. He calls for a musical encore but that's a pleasure we’re denied. Because crooked sheriff Eddie Dunn, in full we-don't cotton-to-strangers mode, arrives to grill them. When the pair are questioned about what they’re up to, fast-thinking Buckshot says they’re off to visit his aunt. Really? But the sheriff seems to buy it and decamps. Once he’s gone, Buckshot turns to Bob and tosses off one of my favorite lines in the picture, “You know somethin', Steve? I bet if I’d had an aunt, she’d be mighty good lookin’”.
Bob/Steve, by the way, reveals early on that his father was shot in the back – so right away we’re in familiar Steele territory; the family unit’s been torn apart. And we know Bob’s never one to take that lying down. Payback’s on the menu. We’re then presented with a set-up that’ll be used again, most prominently in the John Wayne starrer “Randy Rides Alone”. Bob and Buckshot stumble into a strangely secluded saloon only to find it strewn with corpses. But the player piano’s still clattering on at full tilt, (playing, rather slyly, “After the Ball”). Unlike in the Wayne version, there’s one guy still not quite dead and he whispers some words to Bob (Lopez...stagecoach ... Nita... Santos) ; words that obviously mean more to Bob than they do to us. Because he’s immediately off on a mission. In “Randy Rides Alone” Wayne is quickly caught by lawmen and accused of the mass killing. Bob and Buckshot skedaddle before anyone can point the finger at them.
Now Bob embarks on a marathon ride to Santos (turns out it’s a place), frantically changing horses at relay posts. At the first, he shares a brief but tender parting scene with his own horse. He’s only leaving it temporarily, but plays the moment with such heartfelt sincerity, you’d think they were at the doorway of the glue factory. Anyway, Bob goes through several mounts on his hell-for-leather ride to Santos. And one of them takes an awful spill (time to insert that dramatic equine tumble from “Near the Rainbow's End”). Bob makes it to Santos just in time to encounter heroine Caryl Lincoln (she’s Nita and she’s in a stagecoach). The stage is about to take off for whatever that town’s called where “a man’s life ain’t worth more ‘n’ a second hand chaw o’ tobacca”. Bob climbs on as a passenger and is pretty soon making cow eyes at Nita. The get-up she’s wearing may be authentic. But, boy, is it unflattering! But then Caryl Lincoln herself is no bargain. Her voice is thin gruel, her line delivery clueless. There is an amusing moment when, having learned of his dad’s death, she’s heard off camera saying the phrase “I’m sorry” to Bob. And it sounds for all the world like Betty Boop was called in to dub the line. Lincoln’s an example of the kind of drab wren who had no real shot at stardom but somehow wandered onto the outskirts of the Hollywood scene and - against all odds - scored a job as leading lady in a quickie. Now, a B western gig was usually grueling – especially for a girl – rough surroundings, brutally fast shooting schedule, generally doing your own hair and makeup under far from ideal conditions. In short, no picnic. Granted, there were a few lovelies who managed to carve out honorable careers for themselves in B westerns, ladies fully deserving of expanded career horizons that somehow never materialized. And occasionally the major studios might loan out one of their own girls, a Maureen O’Sullivan or an Irene Hervey, for a B western - maybe as punishment, but usually just to keep them working while the studio pocketed their outside salaries. But these girls already had studio contracts in their pockets. Hopeful that their next assignment might find them rubbing shoulders with Clark Gable or Cary Grant, not a bunch of hard-living roughnecks out in the middle of nowhere. Still, hats off to Ms Lincoln; turns out she hung in there and appeared (mostly uncredited ) in tons of other films and TV shows till the mid 60’s. So I'm assuming her acting got better. She also married Barbara Stanwyck’s actor brother Bert Stevens. Which certainly solidified her standing in the twenty feet from stardom club. The marriage endured too. And hubby also managed a thirty year career of largely uncredited bits that not only helped pay the bills but also put a lot of nifty titles on his resume (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”, “Citizen Kane”, “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “The Sound of Music”). So Hollywood did, in fact, work out pretty well for Caryl Lincoln.
It wouldn’t be a full-on early 30’s Bob Steele movie unless Perry Murdock was in the mix somewhere. So Perry gets a briefly spotlighted moment as a random holdup man who finds he’s been tricked (no money in the stolen strongbox). Hello. Goodbye. There’s more gunplay, more horseplay, more hectic comings and goings and - at one point - Bob has to kidnap Nita for her own good (it’s complicated). But events eventually find Bob and Buckshot heading toward bandido Lopez’s mountain lair. Cue more crane shots. This is where, among other things, Bob will finally pull off that payback for his father’s death.
At the rather entertaining climax, faux Granny Clampett shows up leading a women’s auxiliary to battle the bandits; Al Jennings and the men of the town are practically just tagalongs. But by this time Bob and Buckshot, a little bullet riddled but triumphant, have the situation in hand. A sombrely effective fadeout has an (overhead, of course) shot of wounded Bob and sidekick being carried away in a wagon, their heads cradled gently by feminine hands. The women spearheaded the attack; now they’ll handle the nurturing. And clearly, Bob and his pal will live to fight another day.
MORE BOB STEELE TO COME