Sunday, March 12, 2017


It’s been quite a while since my last gallop through Bob Steele country. The focus that time was on “The Sunrise Trail”, released in February of ’31. “The Ridin’ Fool” followed about 12 weeks later.  And it’s a definite upgrade on its predecessor, with Bob in fine form, a couple of really engaging turns from other players and some sharp dialogue, stuff that wouldn’t have been out of place in a big studio A.  The picture may emerge a bit short on action but it’s long on charm.
Things kick off with an artistic flourish – a close up of liquor being poured into a shot glass. The camera pulls back revealing the imbibers - Bud and Nikkos (Eddie Fetherston and Al Bridges); their bar-room conversation gets the plot rolling with some quick exposition.  Jittery Bud’s pretty much dominated by bully Nikkos. They’ve committed a robbery, in the course of which panicky Bud’s killed a guy.  Someone else has apparently been accused of the crime and Bud plans to hotfoot it out of town while he can.  Nikkos announces he’s coming too. Clearly not to comfort and console.  But because he needs a pliant second banana to help him continue his crime wave.  Plus he just plain gets a bang out of watching  Bud sweat bullets 24/7. 
Elsewhere- at the same moment – the wrongfully accused, Boston Harry, is being hustled off on horseback to his lynching. Boston protests his innocence.  But the lynch mob’s not interested in legal deliberation when there are wisecracks to be delivered.  “You might as well save your breath” says one of the party.  Another yells out  “What for? He ain’t gonna have much use for it.”
Boston’s played by Ted Adams, who’d started in vaudeville as a child. A fit looking 40 when he made “Ridin’ Fool”, this was a guy who exuded dapper authority, equally adept at flavoring his lines with a twinkle or a touch of menace. Always an asset in Steele pictures (he made 13 of them), Adams makes an especially good impression in this one.
In a gesture of affable resignation, Boston gives his gun, watch and a wallet full of money to a couple of the lynchers (he knows most of them), requesting only that they pay for a decent funeral and give the rest to his girl, Juanita. One undiplomatic type suggests that someone called Steve Kendall will no doubt be around to repair this Juanita’s busted heart.  At which point, we spot a smiling Bob on horseback (he’s Steve Kendall) eyeballing the action from a distance. With the noose placed around Boston’s neck, someone slaps the back of his horse into motion; whereupon Bob performs that familiar long-range maneuver (did it ever once happen in reality?) of cleanly shooting the rope, allowing Boston to just keep on riding. Brandishing his gun, Bob gets the lynchers to toss down their weapons while Boston, hands still tied behind his back, makes his escape. Then Bob, smile firmly in place, takes back the bequests (“That funeral’s been cancelled, boys”) and gallops away.
Next, we’re inside the shack of long-haired hot tamale, Juanita , a Latin fireball stereotype. She’s a shameless gold-digger who follows the bank roll like a heat-seeking missile.  And when Bob shows up carrying Boston’s wallet, Juanita’s all over him. And does he love it! This Bob’s a little different from the one we’ve seen in previous pictures. Something of a teenage horndog,  beaming at the thought of the frontier lap-dance Juanita seems to be offering. What heat there is in the scene, though, comes mainly from Bob, who’s got actual acting talent. Juanita (played by one Josephine Velez) not so much. This lady had a bit in the Spanish “Dracula” that year, one of her 3 imdb credits (all from 1930/31). She flounces around, chattering up a storm like Hollywood’s better-known Velez, Lupe - but with the dial turned up even higher. The director clearly just wants a cartoon – and our girl obliges.  Suddenly Boston shows up, none too pleased to see Juanita in Bob’s arms. The two rivals get set for a fistfight, but not before Boston, slightly dishevelled from his recent brush with the noose  -and ever the Beau Brummell - carefully  straightens up his fancy outfit. The two go at it, with Bob getting the upper hand. Verbal sparring continues throughout and when Bob blurts out that he never should have rescued him, Boston realizes he’s battling with his deliverer. The two are instantly buddies again – Bob reveals the wallet and Boston says, had he known, he’d never have given him such a licking. Prompting a whaaat? look from our Bob. Meanwhile, Juanita recalculates her options and throws herself all over Boston.  Bob barely has time to register his shock when who should break in but Nikkos, the bully from the bar. Never one to pass up a chance at robbery, he trains his gun on the two men and demands the wallet. Bob passes it to Boston, Boston gives it to Nikkos, who hustles the two of them into a closet and locks it.  With the transfer of the wallet, Juanita senses greener pastures and immediately launches  herself at Nikkos.  Leaving  Bob and Boston to eavesdrop as she pitches the same salsa falsa she’d ladled out to them, word for word (“I am so fooool o’ love for yew!”). Nikkos momentarily responds to her just to infuriate the captive audience,  then blows her off - much to her Latin fury. He saves his final words for Boston:
“Look out for tight collars ... and keep your feet off the ground”, then takes off, leaving Juanita a steaming  kettle of rage. With clear evidence that the senorita’s at very least a two-timer, Bob and Boston successfully fight their way out of the closet. At which point Juanita spots  the lynch mob coming over the horizon. Bob and Boston escape under an exploded piñata of invective from Juanita, who wishes the lynchers good luck. But Bob and Boston ride away in different directions, eluding the pursuers.      
The action moves to Poker City, whose cramped main street is just an interior set – but deftly used. Sally Warren arrives on the stagecoach. Returning from a trip to Kansas City, she’s coming back to to mom, proprietress of the Warren Trading Company,Poker City’s all-purpose emporium. Sally’s played by Frances Morris, in later years a familiar character actress (you’d probably recognize her face in stills from 50’s and 60’s movies and TV shows). Morris the elder was always pleasantly professional. But there's little to connect her to the young girl here, whose appeal is quite different. Looks-wise, she’s a neat amalgam of two 30’s Jeans, Parker and Arthur. What’s more her voice is beguiling, very Jean Arthur-ish,with that warm,throaty I-need-a-coughdrop tremble. Oddly enough, Arthur didn’t really perfect her screen persona till  ’34 or ’35 and here’s Morris several years earlier seemingly on the very same road.  Obviously soon-to-be-superstar Jean Arthur won the race. But if you look at an Arthur performance from ’31, you’d be tempted to think that – as far as screen presence (and promise) were concerned  - Morris and Arthur were at this point running pretty much neck and neck. 
Boston Harry’s disembarks from the same stage – more dapper than ever but now calling himself Mr. Jones. Obviously smitten by Sally during the trip, he’s doing his best to sweep the girl off her feet. But Sally’s mother is there to greet her and at the moment young miss is more interested in the surprise her mother says is waiting inside the store. That surprise is Bud, who turns out to be the family’s prodigal son. This is where he’s relocated after the Beckworth business. Now in the welcoming bosom(s) of mother and sister, he’s a lot less of a nervous Nellie, though with  his Cliff Edward-ish look and gutless vibe no one was ever going to mistake him for a two-fisted hero. For her part, Sally’s in full “everything’s up to date in Kansas City” mode, excitedly displaying her purchases, twirling around in her big city fashions. You can almost see Gene Nelson and Charlotte Greenwood on the sidelines waiting for their musical cue.
Meanwhile, outside the store, Boston’s having a fun exchange with the local sheriff who’s greeting the stage.
Sheriff: “What brings you to Poker City”
Boston: “I ’ve had some real throat trouble. And I’ve got to be careful of my health.”
Sheriff: “You a gambler?”
Boston: “Oh ... occasionally”
Sheriff (suspicions confirmed) “They often need a change of climate”
Of course, what gambler worth his salt wouldn't consider the name of this town alone (Poker City) an
engraved invitation?
Inside the store, it’s Old Home week as Boston enters and spots Bud. The two both know an unhealthy amount of back story on one another – but, for the moment, each has his own reasons to keep mum.  Boston recovers his cool. Bud, of course is once more rattled to the core.
Meanwhile, Bob/Steve (now calling himself Smith) has signed on to work at a nearby ranch. The same suspicious sheriff who grilled Boston shows up making inquiries about any new ranch hands. There’s been an attempted stage holdup and Bob’s injured arm matches up with the fact that that the culprit may have been winged while escaping. Bob has an innocent explanation for the injury. A wild horse he was breaking “tried to scrape me off on a fence”. And employer Colonel John Butterworth backs him up, adding emphatically that Bob’s “the ridin’est fool you ever saw”. There’s the movie’s title taken care of.
The not totally convinced sheriff leaves, with a final glance in Bob’s direction:
“I’ll be watching you”
When Bob’s alone with the other ranch hands, they fill him in on their employer. Seems the colonel’s got what they call “heart trouble”.  Specifically, he wants to propose to Sally’s mom, the widow Warren. But the old guy’s caught up in a romantic Catch 22. He can’t work up the nerve when he’s sober and she won’t let him when he’s drunk. Observes one of the cowhands:
“That’s the only good curse ol’ likker ever done me. When this outfit’s gets to be run by a woman, I’m gonna take up sheep herdin’ ”.
A bit later, back in Poker City, the colonel’s rolling out of the local hotel roaring drunk and making a beeline for the widow’s store. The sheriff tries to talk him out of it. And Bob turns up to do some convincing too, good guy persona coming to the fore. The colonel won’t be talked out of it but Bob tags along, trying to keep a lid on the situation. At the store (widow and daughter both in attendance), Bob pretends that he and the boys forced liquor down the old guy’s throat for medicinal purposes.
“The colonel caught a cold and the boys thought a little drink’d be good for him”
The widow isn’t buying:“He gets the same cold every Saturday night”.
 But Sally, sympathetic to both men - and seeing’s the colonel’s in no fit state to ride - convinces Mom to put him up at their place (spare room) for the night.
Exit widow and colonel, as Sally, preparing to shut up shop, calls out to mom “ Mr. Jones’ll  walk me home”. Setting the stage for a great  flirtation scene.
The name’s Smith”, says a cocky Bob.
“I’m waiting for Mr. Jones” comes the frosty reply.
“I’ll walk you home”
 “You needn’t trouble”
“it’s okay; I haven’t anything else to do”
“Well, couldn’t you find someplace else to do it”
“Sure – but you wouldn’t be there”
“Is there anything you want?”
“Yes, but I don’t know you well enough to ask for it”
She‘s all affronted and Bob tries another ploy.
“What’s up on that top shelf?”
“Nerve tonic – but you don’t need any! “
He claims he wants it for his horse and makes her climb a ladder to get it. While she’s up there, he spots a guitar and gives out with a chorus or two of a sparking song. Getting Sally so rattled she knocks a bunch of products off the shelf.  Bob offers to help pick them up and while he’s bent out of sight behind the counter, Boston ambles in to walk Sally home. He’s already started on the sweet talk when suddenly a grinning Bob pops up like a jack in the box.
“How about a corn plaster? We have a floor full of corn plasters”
Boston’s momentarily flummoxed. And Bob continues.
“Hello Mr. Jones – haven’t I seen you before? Oh, yes, it was at a farewell party. You were going away in a hurry. How about a necktie?” (Bob holds out a rope shaped into a noose).
Boston finally recovers enough to say “I wish I had your nerve”.
And Bob – without missing a beat – stretches out his hand and offers Boston a big bottle of nerve tonic.
Fade out.
Another day. Outoors, far from town.  Bob, on horseback, spots Sally out for a ride with Boston. Ever the resourceful rival, Bob covertly tosses a pebble at Boston’s horse. When the startled animal throws Boston and takes off, Sally’s left to chase the runaway.  Johnny- on- the- spot  Bob joins in and recaptures the animal for her. She beams with gratitude. Mission accomplished. And when Boston trudges into view on foot, a mocking Bob starts whistling the old Laurel and Hardy theme “Dance of the Cuckoos”. Seems Sally’s  making a delivery to a backwoods woman. She figures to be there awhile and doesn’t want to keep the boys waiting. So Bob and Boston reluctantly turn back. But they soon spot Nikkos and Sally’s brother on horseback, the two engaged in a suspicious looking confab. When Bud leaves, Boston and Bob both ride in to confront Nikkos. They’ve got the drop on him and Boston demands the money he’d snatched at Juanita’s. He winds up taking Nikkos’ bankroll and a necklace the man’s got stashed on him. What Boston doesn’t know is that both are loot from a stage robbery Nikkos pulled an hour before. Our duo sends the grumbling bad guy on his way with a warning to stop hanging around Sally’s brother. Then, with Boston holding both money and necklace, Bob pipes up “What do I get out of this?” 
Boston’s comeback: “A bottle of nerve tonic!”  
Back in Poker City, a gaggle of townspeople huddle together (they have to; the set’s so small).  Word’s out the stage has been robbed and someone named California’s been killed. Bob’s there too. His working hours at the ranch must be awfully flexible, because he seems forever available for witnessing things and buzzing around Sally at the store. As for Sally, her feelings toward Bob appear to be warming up.  He’s thrown for a loop when she tells him the new necklace she’s wearing is a gift from Boston.  When Sally sees his reaction, she gently coaxes an admission from the suddenly tongue-tied  Bob that he’s jealous.Then kind of lets him know it’s Bob’s she prefers. And Sally’s no Juanita – so she means it.
Joining the townspeople in front of the store is our old friend Fern Emmett (from” Land of Missing Men”).  This time she’s gussied up city-style and mixing her Irene Ryan with some Margaret Hamilton. Which turns out to be an upgrade from her usual yokel act. She’s  supposedly come west for her health – and wouldn’t you know it, was among the plundered in the stagecoach fracas.  Definitely not good for the blood pressure. As a matter of fact, she’s mad as a wet hen because the robber stole her favorite necklace. Naturally Fern spots the item hanging around Sally’s neck and complications ensue, implicating Boston and Bob in the hold-up. Nikkos pops up to identify them as the wanted men involved in the Beckman killing. The two protest their innocence and insist Nikkos is the likely stagecoach culprit. But Bud, scared stiff as usual, gives Nikkos a phony alibi. So it’s off to the hoosegow with Bob and Boston. Moments later, Nikkos is out on the (soundstage) street trying to orchestrate another lynching.  For her part, Sally –despite her brother’s words - can’t quite believe the boys are guilty. With ladylike dispatch, she effects a jailbreak. But the fugitives don’t get far and are soon holed up at the Warren Trading Company (there aren’t that many sets to choose from).
Outside, sheriff and townspeople surround the place, preparing to lay siege.
The sheriff’s pessimistic. “It’s no use;  they’ve got enough canned goods in there to hold out for months”
Offers one of the townsfolk, “ Why don’t you go in? You’ve got enough men”
The sheriff’s comeback:  “Yeah, we’ve got enough to go in – but we might be a little short handed comin’ out”
During the ensuing shootout, Nikkos sees Bud pitying his sister’s distress and – worried he might recant the alibi - shoots him in the back. A distraught Sally holds the expiring Bud in her arms. And in the confusion Bob and Boston get away.
An unusual wrap-up sees the two fugitives sitting around a night-time campfire in the forest. Out of the dark emerges Sally. Maybe it was just budget and time constraints that made them end the picture this way, But it works beautifully as she quietly explains to them that, before he died, Bud confessed everything and cleared them of all charges. They’re no longer wanted men. She melts into Bob’s arms – and a resigned Boston looks at Bob. The two share an emotional handshake; Boston makes as if to leave but Sally joins his hand tightly to hers and Bob’s. Is she telling him there’s no reason to move on? Will they be the three musketeers from now on ... or, better yet, is it turning into “Jules and Jim” out west?  Probably not. But the scene still carries an unexpected, enigmatic poignancy, ending the film on a final, poetically elevated moment.

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