Sunday, July 19, 2009


Director Fred Allen’s “Ride Him, Cowboy,” a remake of the 1926 Warner Brothers’ Ken Maynard western “The Unknown,” toplined John Wayne in his first oater for the Burbank company as a harmonica playing hero out to break up a ring of range thieves terrorizing ranches. Essentially, “Ride Him, Cowboy” was a B-movie sagebrusher where the star’s horse was smarter than most of the characters and behaved like a resourceful dog rather than a skittish mount. Aside from a cowboy orchestra strumming a tune, “Ride Him, Cowboy” contains no orchestral soundtrack, but this western boasts better than average production values and looks more expensive than Wayne’s later Lone Star westerns that he made after Jack Warner turned him loose some five westerns later. Indeed, this is John Wayne at age 25 looking skinny and rawboned as an upstanding, romantic lead. Predictable from fade-in to fade-out, “Ride Him, Cowboy” is nothing distinguished, but director-turned-editor Fred Allen makes interesting use of dolly shots and there is an interesting point-of-view shot of the sun boiling down on our hero when he is tied to a tree in the desert. Some of the scenes contain really grainy photography because Warner Brothers took scenes from "The Unknown" and inserted them into the story and then dressed Wayne like Maynard to make the scenes work.

“Ride Him, Cowboy” opens during one dark, rainy evening as the notorious outlaw ‘the Hawk’ (Frank Nagney of “The General”) a.k.a. Henry Sims and his henchmen attack the Gaunt ranch to steal money. A fierce horse storms up and drives the henchmen away. Jim Gaunt (Henry B. Walthall of “Judge Priest”) and his granddaughter Ruth (Ruth Hall of “Monkey Business”) check into the disturbance and find one of their ranch hands, Bob Webb, unconscious and in pretty bad shape. Gaunt is surprised to see Sims on his property. Sims explains he just happened to be riding along when he heard the fracas. Sims argues that the horse tried to kill Webb and ought to be destroyed. Meanwhile, the doctor thinks that Webb will pull through without harm, but the ranch hand remains in a coma for three days.

The next day in the frontier town of Cattlelow in Maricopa County around the year 1900, Judge Bartlett (Charles Sellon of “Baby Face”) convenes court to decide whether to destroy Duke or let the horse live. Sims offers compelling testimony against the horse and Duke rears up at Sims. Ruth rushes to Duke’s defense and pleads with the judge not to destroy a horse as gentle as he is. About that time, wandering cowpoke John Drury, late of the Tumblin’ Ace Ranch in Texas, rides into Cattlelow on his horse ‘Buddy’ playing a harmonica without a care in the world. When Drury leans about the impending demise of Duke, he intervenes and persuades Judge Bartlett to let Duke live if he can ride the ornery horse. Sims makes a one-hundred dollar wager with Gaunt that Drury cannot stay aboard Duke and loses. Ruth and Gaunt are overjoyed that Drury saves Duke and a bystander observes that Drury would be a great addition to the vigilantes in their fight against the Hawk. Gaunt invites Drury to their meeting after our hero says that he loves excitement and gives Ruth a loving eye.

At the vigilante meeting, Drury suggests that the best way to handle the Hawk is for one man to tackle the villain. Drury learns that nobody knows what the Hawk looks like, except the man has ridden roughshod over the county for years now. John Gaunt persuades Sims to escort Drury into the Hawk’s bailiwick. One of the best dolly shots in “Ride Him, Cowboy” occurs during this scene when Allen dollies out from a close-up of Sims to show the entire with several western characters seated around a table. The deputy, Clout (Henry Gribbon of “Yankee Doodle in Berlin”), provides top-notch comic relief as a clowning blow-hard coward. Later that evening at the Gaunt ranch, John and Ruth get to know each other and Ruth insists that John take Duke when he leaves to track down the Hawk. At the same time, Duke trots up and strips the saddle off Drury’s horse Buddy. Drury rides off on Duke and meets Sims the following day at Eagle Pass. They ride into the desert and take a breather where Drury explains that his revolver is a 38 caliber gun in a .45 caliber frame dampen the recoil. They compare their ability to make difficult shots look easy and Sims tries out Drury’s six-gun and gets the drop on our hero. He ties Drury to a tree while Duke restlessly pulls at his own reins after Drury has knotted them to nearby tree.

The Hawk gathers his men, attacks a ranch, and kills the son of the owner and wife. He burns down the buildings and frames Drury for the crime by leaving Drury’s harmonica at the scene. Sims informs Ruth that Drury left him without a word in the night and hasn’t been seen since he rode off. The vigilantes and the sheriff catch up to Drury. The only reason that Drury didn’t die from exposure of the sun is that Duke pulled himself loose from the tree and untied Drury’s bonds with his teeth. The authorities take Drury to a nearby abandoned town where Judge E. Clarence 'Necktie' Jones (Otis Harlan of “Dr. Socrates”) convenes a hearing and pretty much railroads Drury into a noose based on Sims’ testimony. Meanwhile, Webb recovers from his coma and informs Ruth that it was Sims as the Hawk who attacked their ranch. Ruth mounts up and rides like the devil to save Drury’s life. Along the way, she runs into the Hawk’s henchmen and fools them into following her to ‘Necktie’ Jones’ courtroom. Ruth arrives in the nick of time to save Drury from an inevitable hanging. A gunfight erupts but the authorities capture the Hawk before either his men or he can escape.

Clocking in at a lean, mean 55 minutes, “Ride Him, Cowboy” moves at a brisk pace and this western adventure never bogs down. Producer Leon Schlesinger is the same individual who supervised the Warner Brothers’ cartoons with Bugs Bunny and company.