Tuesday, March 14, 2017

BOB STEELE "THE NEVADA BUCKAROO" (1931)



“The Nevada Buckaroo” opens on three men in a blacksmith shop. The subject of discussion’s a wild youngster called the Nevada Kid, who’s been sent to prison for his troublemaking ways. Apparently the kid was the junior member of an outlaw gang, the rest of whom  have eluded capture.  Judging from their line delivery, at least two of the guys in this scene have no talent. The third preserves some mystery on that score by walking away without a word.
New locale, different trio. This time we’re at the town express office. B western regular John Elliott plays the boss in solid fashion.  Heroine JoAnn ( Dorothy Dix), who presumably works the counter, is presentable enough in a downcast Ruth Etting sort of way and she’s got a lovely speaking voice. But her acting – well, it kind of comes and goes. Third member of the trio is the guy who left the blacksmith shop without saying anything,  eventually identified as  Alex;  he’s  Dix’s unlikely and unwanted suitor.  The part’s played by Artie Ortego, who – following on the heels of actor #2 from the blacksmith scene - offers the second serious bid in five minutes for worst line delivery ever in a Steele picture. Though reigning champ C.R. Dufau from “Land of Missing Men” ‘s unlikely to relinquish his crown. Topic of conversation onscreen is still the Nevada Kid. Dix kind of sticks up for him; the boss and the sore loser suitor just stick it to him.
New scene: a town meeting where everybody (including a couple of Chinese roped in for some creaky, non PC comic relief) sign a petition to have Rattlesnake Gulch (yes, that’s where we are) named county seat. As the meeting climaxes in a spirited, albeit out of left field, singalong (“There’ll  Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”), we spot someone peering in the window and eavesdropping.  It’s George Hayes (pre-Gabby, but let’s call him Gabby anyway). And he’s obviously hatching a plan.
Next we see that plan in action.  Gabby’s in the governor’s office posing as a representative from Rattlesnake Gulch. He’s stolen the town petition from a courier and doctored it to look like it’s requesting the pardon of the Nevada Kid. This is before text messaging and twitter. So Governor Gullible does no checking.  Just buys into Gabby’s snake oil and grants the pardon.  Says Gabby, with perfect delivery, as they shake hands, “I promise you the citizens of Rattlesnake Gulch will give you the surprise of your life come next election”.
Next up, Bob finally appears, riding into town, happily brandishing his pardon – grateful for everybody’s faith in him, ready to make amends. Of course, everyone he meets either runs the other way or showers him with abuse. Only Dorothy leans toward giving him another chance. For some reason (probably Dorothy), the legally pardoned Bob - who could obviously just move on (after all, the world’s now his oyster) – determines to stay in Rattlesnake Gulch, get a job and prove he’s turned over a new leaf. Employment opportunities in Rattlesnake Gulch are scarce though, especially for him. But this does lead to a playful little scene as, launching into an unsolicited job audition,  Bob snatches the razor from local barber Frenchie and proceeds to give a very close shave to blowhard customer Alex, who’s just been badmouthing him.  It’s funny when the guy, swathed in towels, doesn’t realize who’s shaving him (Bob initially co-opts the real barber’s French accent), even funnier after he does. Bob’s solid comedy chops are on winning display here and even Alex, such a dud in his scene at the express office, turns out to be a good scene partner. Several townspeople witness the goings-on. And the fun mood seems to have mellowed express boss Elliott a bit; he offers Bob a job riding shotgun for the express coach. 
                                
Bob soon figures out that Gabby’s the one that flimflammed that pardon. Turns out Gabby’s leader of the outlaw gang Bob belonged to. So – after a graceful  side-mount (a wistful echo of those beautiful mounts and dismounts  from “Near the Rainbow’s End”) he rides out to Gabby’s  secret cabin in the woods. Once there, Bob  announces himself  with some amusingly fractured biblical humor:
 “The fatted calf has returned!” .
 When our boy reveals that he wants to go straight, though, Gabby and company (it’s currently a gang of four, if you count Gabby’s live-in girl friend, Rosita) are not pleased. The nastiest one, named Slade, even tries to plug him from behind. But he’s foiled by Bob’s impressive lightning draw.  Bob tells the gang about his new express company job. But former mentor Gabby just  sends him away sternly.
“You picked your trail. Follow it”.
Still, for all his outward coldness, Gabby is clearly conflicted. It goes without saying that the marvelous Mr. Hayes is one of the best all-round performers ever to appear in a Bob Steele western and happily he stuck around for several subsequent ones.  It also should be noted that “Nevada Buckaroo” is one of the best-looking Steele pictures. The outdoor scenes are nicely conceived for the camera and –unlike its predecessor “The Ridin’ Fool,  which was occasionally soundstage-bound to the point of claustrophobia,  this movie boasts a sunny fresh air sparkle.
As I said, Gabby’s conflicted. So much so, that he opts out of a projected plan to rob the express coach, knowing that Bob will be riding with it. Which leaves Slade and his shadow Elmer to pull off the job alone. They do –and somehow suspicion falls on Bob (who was scouting ahead when the hold-up happened) as a possible collaborator in the heist. But without real evidence they can’t arrest him. Bob, assuming Gabby was part of the robbery, races to the cabin to recover the money and warn him to make tracks before the law catches him. But Gabby thinks it’s a frame-up and hesitates. Which gives the posse (that’s been secretly trailing Bob) time to arrive and arrest him. I mentioned earlier that Gabby has a girlfriend, Rosita, in this one. And she’s a firecracker, by far the best of the Mexican senoritas that turn up with frequency in early Steeles. The actress is called Tina Menard and – looks-wise – she gives off an elegant Mona Maris vibe. Plus the emotional breakdown she pitches when Gabby’s taken away  should have netted her several extra dollars in her pay packet. Imdb reveals she had a long career stretching into the 80’s and - according to some online observers – was still striking sparks in “Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell”, a Richard Crenna/Yvette Mimieux TV movie from 1978. It’s on youtube. Must watch it. Have watched it. Of course, this “satanic thriller” is filmed for barely out of the Brady Bunch era consumption so it’s got the squeaky clean tackiness of a Spin and Marty episode. Suburban dad Crenna continues to play house with wife and two kids even after all three start acting like emissaries from Hell (under the control of canine title entity ). Foxy villainess Martin Beswick, who – oddly – looks a lot like Tina Menard does in “Nevada Buckaroo”, adds some spice. And Tina herself is the family housekeeper, first one to twig to the infernal danger. The devil dog rattles her Catholic beads right from puppyhood. But her warnings go unheeded – and she’s soon victim number one. Forty-seven years had passed since “ Nevada Buckaroo”; she’s stout, weathered and pretty much unrecognizable. But highly effective, nonetheless.  Clearly, Tina Menard ‘78 still had plenty left in the tank.
Anyway, move the clock back to 1931 and “The Nevada Buckaroo”. Did I mention that Steele regular Perry Murdock’s on hand to do some standing around, occasionally aiming muttered imprecations Bob’s way?  Turns out he was multi-tasking; apparently the guy was also in charge of the pic’s stuntwork. Meanwhile, Bob and Rosita combine forces to break Gabby out of jail and Bob’s hustled right into the same cell for his part in the plot. A proposed lynching prompts a couple of good lines:
“Get goin’, you, you’re gonna stretch some hemp”
And “It’s the law, Miss JoAnn, without the trimmin’s”
Gabby, reformed to the point of trying to bring back the loot his boys have pilfered, unfortunately gets fatally knifed in the back by sneaky Slade. The townspeople more or less authorize Bob to play vigilante for them and he sets out to avenge Gabby and get back the stolen express money. Finally tracking down snake Slade, Bob settles his hash once and for all. Smoothing the way for a redemptive fadeout. “The Nevada Buckaroo” ends with a shot of Bob riding silhouetted against the setting sun, presumably (he’s been talking about honeymoons) in the direction of Dorothy Dix. 

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