C Sound: C- Extras: C- Chapters: B-
is one thing to lament about the studio system and the Golden Age of Hollywood,
it is the decline of the western. As
generic fare, the western provided little philosophical or social insight, and
yet it was often a delightful cinematic romp through the scenic frontier that
attracted loyal viewers of all ages.
Unfortunately, relatively few westerns are produced today, and even
fewer are remembered (Unforgiven). While one can mourn the disappearance of the
western, it is comforting to know than one can revisit some of the most popular
classics available on DVD. Republic
Studio’s The Adventures of Red Ryder (1940),
distributed by VCI Entertainment, provides that nostalgic look back at the
heyday of the western.
released in 1940, Red Ryder was one of the more popular western serials, which
was “based upon the famous NEA Newspaper Cartoon.” The story follows Red Ryder (Donald “Red”
Barry) as he uncovers a plot to expel innocent ranchers from their farms to
make way for a transcontinental railroad.
Unlike many other serials, the plot is rather complex (although it is an
amalgamation of a number of different plotlines utilized in other westerns),
especially given the intended audience of kids.
The local ranchers in Mesquite, Arizona are beset by anonymous raiders;
as a result, many are selling off their property to settle their ballooning
debts. Unbeknownst to the locals, Ace
Hanlon (Noah Beery) and his henchmen are behind these attacks; they wish to
acquire the farmers’ land rights only to sell the property to Western Pacific
Railroad at an inflated price. The
ranchers’ lack of income and risk of defaulting on bank payments complicates
their decision to sell their property.
Red fights gallantly to protect his friends from attackers and assist
them in making good on their debts. Red
is further motivated by the murder of his father and sheriff (which is a rather
violent moment, considering the time period) at the hands of Ace’s
henchmen. However, the conspiracy runs
deeper than Ace; the mendacious banker, Calvin Drake (Harry Worth), who feigns
sympathy and claims to be shackled by bank protocol, is actually at the driving
force behind the land speculation.
typical with all serials, Red continually finds himself facing certain doom or
the demise of a close friend. Indy,
sorry, Red is regularly galloping to the rescue, being drug by a stagecoach, or
crossing a rope bridge. Despite the
generic quality of the situational danger, a persistent viewer is rewarded with
clever cinematic tricks and inventive cliffhangers. However, Red Ryder’s loyal companion, Little
Beaver (Tommy Cook), is always conveniently present when Red is in danger or
Hanlon’s henchmen are devising a devious plot.
the plot devices are commonalities in the western genre (railroad coming
through town, land speculations, contested water rights, cattle rustling,
shoot-outs and stagecoach chases), they are adroitly spun into a competent and satisfying
story. Red Ryder may not be the sole inspiration to many future westerns,
but the influence of serial westerns is clearly seen in countless films (The
Indiana Jones films, High Noon, Blazing Saddles to name a few). Unfortunately, the film promotes stereotypes
that have echoed throughout the western.
While not a damning critique, Little Beaver is depicted as a clichéd
Native American, speaking in third person with little attention to verb tense;
yet, he is a very loyal companion and he is never patronized by the other
characters. Naturally, I did not expect
a western filmed in 1940 to champion the rights of Native Americans, but it was
a little jarring to my modern liberal sensibilities.
historical significance of such a film is also seen in the context of
production. My guess is that it is no
accident that the banker is the primary malefactor, whose machinations injure
the hardworking, honest common folk. And
yet, the big railroad company escapes culpability while it is the government
land commissioner, who, along with Red, advances the cause of justice. For a nation convalescing from the Great
Depression and resting on the precipice of war, valorizing the government and
“progressive” big business over unsavory banking practices is an understandable
enjoyment of the film, however, was tempered by scant bonus feature offerings
and an underwhelming transfer. The
special features include bios of the main players, a small photo gallery,
trailers, and an interview with “Red” Barry (a nickname he loathed). As expected, the interview is the most
rewarding feature, where Barry reveals his past experiences working with John
Wayne and Roy Rogers, his desires to be a more “legitimate” actor (something I
figure haunted many serial players), and his reluctance to play Red Ryder. Like the extras, I was hoping for a higher
quality transfer. There is only one side
of one disc used for all twelve chapters.
Breaking it up into two and thereby having more disc space for extras
and enhanced picture quality would be a marked improvement. The full frame 1.33 X 1 picture is rather
grainy, and at times too dark. Although
the film used a good deal of stock footage (which was rather well edited into
the original), the quality of the transfer announced further the differences
between the two. Likewise, the sound has
a tendency to fade out. It is presented
in 2.0 Dolby Digital Mono, but the mix could be better. Although, I am not certain if there exists a
large enough market to warrant the effort to improve its quality. But all told, I am glad we have available to
us an often overlooked, but influential, piece of cinema history.
- Ron Von Burg