My Introduction to B-Westerns: Lawless Valley (1938) David Howard
Lawless Valley (1938)
Directed by David Howard
Produced by Bert Gilroy, Lee Marcus
Screenplay by Oliver Drake
Based on the story “No Law in Shadow Valley” by W.C. Tuttle
Cinematography by Harry Wild
Music by Roy Webb
RKO Radio Pictures
(0:57) George O’Brien Western Collection (1938-1940) DVD (MOD) set
I may be wrong, but before yesterday, I don’t think I’d ever consciously sat down to watch a B-Western. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of B-pictures, most of them film noir, but as far as I can remember, no Westerns, at least not from start to finish. Looking at what I watched last year, I noticed a significant increase in larger-budget A-picture Westerns and I’m really at a loss to explain why. I even liked them enough to program two Westerns at the library last year, Ride the High Country (1962) and Rio Bravo (1959). But that doesn’t explain why I bought a copy of the George O’Brien Western Collection (1938-1940) last week.
I recently had an Amazon gift-return credit that I needed to use, so I thought, “Why not take a chance on something I wouldn’t normally buy for myself?” I’d heard the guys on the Warner Archive podcast talking about the recent release of the Johnny Mack Brown Monogram Cowboy Collection Volume 10, and I thought, “This sounds fun, but I should probably start with Volume 1.”
I decided to contact my friend Laura over at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, since I know from reading her blog that she’s very knowledgable about Westerns. (And you can read her thoughts on Lawless Valley.) She recommended that I bypass the Monogram collections for now and instead choose one of the George O’Brien or postwar Tim Holt sets, so I went with the O’Brien 9-film set. (There’s also a 3-film set available.)
So yesterday I sat down and watched the first film in the 9-film collection, Lawless Valley (1938). O’Brien plays Larry Rhodes, a man paroled from prison after serving just over a year’s worth of a five-year sentence for robbing a stagecoach, apparently aided by his father. Larry is the recipient of the usual “Don’t end up back here,” and “Good luck on the outside” speeches, but we know he’s on a mission: to prove that he and his dad were framed and that the senior Rhodes did not commit suicide in order to escape arrest.
Larry’s also eager to reunite with his girl Norma (Kay Sutton), but there’s a problem: A local land baron named Tom Marsh (Fred Kohler Sr.) is forcing Norma to marry his son Jeff (Fred Kohler Jr.) in order to take advantage of Norma’s land inheritance. Marsh also has the local sheriff (Earle Hodgins) wrapped around his finger. Knowing that Larry was released from prison sooner than expected, and that his presence could ruin everything, Marsh tries every trick in the book to get Larry sent back to the slammer.
For a B-picture, Lawless Valley provides a nice, subtle contrast in relationships. Larry is more interested in clearing his father’s name than his own, not only conveying the importance of the family bond, but also seeking to honor his dad’s memory. By contrast, the corrupt Tom Marsh has fathered a son with no such scruples. His son Jeff is always running to daddy with his problems, wanting him to fix everything. He reveres him only as long as he’s getting what he wants, even standing up to his dad at one point in the film. This contrast in father/son relationships is a nice “extra" (made even more interesting in that the actors playing Tom and Jeff were father-and-son in real life).
B-pictures often hold several advantages over A-pictures. There are no wasted scenes, everything moves at a fast clip, and the action is usually worth the price of admission. I found this to be true of non-Western B-pictures and also of Lawless Valley. Yet even the secondary characters of this movie are interesting: Walter Miller plays a fellow prisoner who joins Larry by hopping on a railcar, Lew Kelly plays Norma’s ornery but faithful friend, and Chill Wills surprises as the corrupt sheriff’s deputy. All of these characters (as well as the leads) are predictable, but fun to watch.
Maybe that’s part of what makes B-pictures so enjoyable. You pretty much know what you’re going to get, with maybe a surprise or two, and the film’s practically guaranteed to end in a predictable, yet satisfying way. I don’t mean it as a put-down, but you don’t have to expend a lot of energy thinking about these films. Sometimes that’s what you want: a good story presented well in about an hour.
I’ve found this to be true in watching film noir B-pictures and I’m sure watching Western B-pictures will support this, but there’s a certain art to making a B-picture. I’m convinced not everyone can do it. You’ve got to have a complete story with characters people care about, fighting against some type of problem and/or injustice that can be conquered in under 75 minutes (usually less). You have to include enough action, possibly some romance, and a couple of twists.
The problem is not unlike creating an effective daily newspaper comic strip back in the day, something like Little Orphan Annie or Terry and the Pirates or Dick Tracy. In three or four panels, you’ve got to summarize what happened the day before, advance the story, and make it so that the reader absolutely has to pick up the paper the next day.
I was recently talking with someone about a trend I saw at the library a few years ago: adults reading teen fiction. I talked with a few adults about why they were checking out and reading young adult fiction. “They all end in a satisfying way,” they’d often say. “There’s no vagueness, no ambiguity. It’s a complete ending, even if there’s another book to follow in the series.”
I wonder if that’s part of what attracts some of us to B-pictures. (And no, I’m not saying YA/teen fiction is in any way substandard in comparison to adult fiction, at least not by-and-large.) B-pictures generally contain satisfying endings and there’s certainly something to be said for that. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want and it’s nice to know there’s a wealth of B-pictures out there.
Lawless Valley was a wonderfully entertaining B-Western and I’m eager to watch the next film in the set. Stay tuned.
Photos: IMDb, Wikipedia, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, Comic Art Fans