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Category:    Home > Reviews > Serial > Western > Adventure > Red Ryder (1940 serial/VCI DVD)

Red Ryder (Serial/VCI)


Picture: C     Sound: C-     Extras: C-     Chapters: B-



If there 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. 


Originally 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. 


As 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.      


Although 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.    


The 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 narrative choice.       


My 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


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