By Ed Garea
By Ed Garea
Scarlet River (RKO, 1933) - Director: Otto Brower. Screenplay: Harold Shumate. Cast: Tom Keene, Dorothy Wilson, Lon Chaney, Jr. (as Creighton Chaney), Betty Furness, Edgar Kennedy, Roscoe Ates, Billy Butts, Hooper Atchley, Jack Raymond, Jim Mason, & Yakima Canutt. B&W, 54 minutes.
Looking at a rough synopsis, one would simply assume this is just another run-of-the-mill B-Western directed by someone no one’s ever heard of and starring the usual bunch of bad actors. The Ranch Foreman is plotting with the Evil Banker, who controls the mortgage on the ranch, to ruin the ranch financially and force ranch owner Judy Blake to sell it to said Evil Banker so he can later make a killing by selling to developers. Meanwhile, Judy meets a handsome stranger who comes to her rescue and defeats the baddies. However, this film sets itself apart with a nice little plot twist, which makes for interesting viewing: The hero and his pals are actors filming a Western using Judy’s ranch as their location.
I have to give this film kudos for having the courage to kid the genre (it was one of the first to do so), and to do it effectively. Credit for this must go to writer Shumate for his witty and perceptive script, and to star Keene for pulling off an excellent performance. Keene, who was RKO’s resident B-Western star at the time, was not known for his acting prowess. But then, in these sorts of films, he didn’t need to be. All he had to do was ride, shoot, punch the bad guy, kiss the leading lady, and look good doing it. As his Westerns rarely went over an hour, the formula was to keep him busy. He could also fare somewhat well as a supporting actor; again, as long as he could be kept busy. When King Vidor cast him as the male lead in his ponderous Our Daily Bread (1934), Keene’s flaws and lack of ability were on full display. But when it came to Westerns, all the producer had to do was place a white 10-gallon hat on Tom’s head, give him a sleek horse to ride, a few good gunfights, a girl to kiss at the end, and let it go from there.
Scarlet River opens with Tom Baxter (Keene) and his crew trying to find a suitable location to film their latest Western, but it seems that whenever they find a good location, events transpire to drive them out. In one scene, cross-country runners interrupt their filming. Returning to the studio to check for a new location, Tom runs into Joel McCrea outside the studio commissary. Tom tells Joel of his troubles only to have Joel make a couple of bad puns by way of advice. Inside the commissary, Tom says hello to Myrna Loy and sits at a table with Bruce Cabot, Rochelle Hudson, and Julie Haydon to order lunch. Once the cameos are finished, Tom sees a photograph of Scarlet River Ranch, which was sent to the studio by ranch hand and would-be screenwriter Ulysses Mope (Ates), the picture’s Comic Relief. The ranch is picturesque, it’s remote, and the owner, Judy Blake (Wilson), is in need of the location fees because the place is in trouble.
We know from experience that when a ranch, especially one owned by a young, beautiful woman, is in financial trouble, it’s because there is a fly in the ointment. The fly in this case is none other than Judy’ s foreman, Jeff Todd (Chaney). It seems that Jeff is a really confused fellow. One moment he’s courting the pretty Judy, whose younger brother idolizes him, and in the next he’s scheming with the crooked “Clink” McPherson (Atchley) to defraud Judy out of her ranch, squaring this in his mind by figuring that, once broke, she’ll marry him. But we know there’s no way she’ll marry a man who, even at this early date, comes off like Lenny in Of Mice and Men. It’s an acting trait he never lost.
But Jeff hasn’t counted on Tom. After all, he’s the hero of the story. After meeting Judy and her brother, Buck, and hearing her tale of woe, Tom comes to realize that the ranch’s problems are due to ranch hands like Ulysses writing film scripts all day when they should be working, and foremen like Jeff whose persona just doesn’t ring true to Tom. Tom is rather put off by Jeff’s boastful and uncooperative demeanor. The boastfulness is easily fixed when the film’s director, Sam Gilroy (Kennedy in a marvelous turn), challenges Jeff to perform the classic taking-control-of-the-runaway-stagecoach-horses stunt. Jeff, already jealous of Judy’s attention to Tom, assumes the task is a piece of cake, but ends up having to do the Yakima Canutt dive between the rows of horses to avoid being trampled. Tom then “reappears” to do his own stunt. (Actually, stuntman Canutt, who also has a bit role as one of the movie crew, performed both stunts and reportedly broke his shoulder in the process.)
What’s interesting about this is that, when Westerns usually send up Hollywood, the hero is an authentic True Westerner who completely shows up the phony actor. In Scarlet River, the joke is that Tom the actor playing a cowboy is actually more of a cowboy than the men who actually do the work, such as Jeff.
Tom decides to follow Jeff on his horse and catches Jeff shooting a steer. Jeff tries to explain the shooting by telling Tom that the steer drank contaminated water. When Jeff calls the bluff by saying that he’s sending for a veterinarian to confirm Jeff’s story, Jeff runs off in a panic to consult with McPherson, who comes up with the answer: they’ll kidnap Judy and force Tom and his crew to leave. Meanwhile, things are not going so swimmingly for Tom and Judy, as Judy, in a puzzling scene, catches Tom in the act of spanking Buck, who Tom caught smoking. But when Tom leaves it to Buck to tell the truth, Buck lies like a rug and denies everything. Later, though, he gets a conscience and apologizes to Tom, promising to make amends. This film was shot in the environment of Pre-Code Hollywood, but Keene is coming off more like the Hopalong Cassidy of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Perhaps it’s that Tom has to drive out the influence of Jeff on young Buck. Who knows?
McPherson kidnaps Judy and sends gang member Dummy (Mason), a mute, to deliver a note to Tom and his crew that Judy will be released unharmed only when Tom and his crew leave Scarlet River. But unbeknownst to McPherson, when Dummy returns, it’s not Dummy, but Tom in disguise. He and Judy almost escape, but are captured. While McPherson plans the “accidental” death of Tom and Judy, Jeff tries to stop him from killing Judy, but is killed himself by McPherson. Tom and Judy attempt another escape, and are saved when Edgar and the film crew ride to the rescue. Using blanks, movie grenades and Tom’s riding and fighting skills (natch) they’re able to capture McPherson and his gang and save Judy’s life - and ranch.
One of the film’s more interesting facets is the look at how moviemaking was done back then. The cameras and the lights were huge, as were the boom mikes that resembled telegraph poles. It’s also great to watch the crew themselves walking around the set in jodhpurs, leather jackets and silk scarves. We also get a glimpse as to how a stunt like a “pickup” was done - where the girl is “injured” and a cowboy gallops up on his horse, grabs her, and swings her into the saddle behind him.
As noted earlier, Keene put in a fine performance, but was also aided by solid performances by his supporting cast. Wilson, who played Judy, began her career as a secretary to director Gregory LaCava. Preparing to cast his upcoming RKO film, The Age of Consent (1932), he took note of Dorothy’s photogenic looks and set her up for a screen test. Amazingly, she won one of the two female leads. Later that year she was named as a “WAMPAS Baby Star of 1932” (WAMPAS stood for “Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers.”), along with Ginger Rogers, Gloria Stuart, Patricia Ellis, and Toshia Mori. In 1936, she married screenwriter Lewis Foster and retired from the screen.
Other notables in the cast include Furness, who played Babe Jewel, the female lead in Tom Baxter’s movie, and the aforementioned Kennedy, who does a good turn as the harried director Sam Gilroy. Creighton Chaney was appearing in only his sixth film at the time (two of his appearances were unbilled), and would continue to work under his real name until 1935, when he adopted the stage name “Lon Chaney Jr.”
Speaking of changing one’s stage name, Keene entered films under his real name of George Duryea before RKO gave him the moniker of “Tom Keene” in 1930. Tiring of working Westerns, he returned to the stage, but when he was short on cash he would work Westerns for Republic and Monogram into the ‘40s. Beginning with the Danny Kaye vehicle, Up In Arms in 1944, Keene took the name “Richard Powers.” However, that didn’t stop him from sliding further down in the credits. Most film fans remember him today from his association with Ed Wood, playing Colonel Edwards in Wood’s 1956 masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space. He had earlier worked for Wood in the 1953 TV pilot Crossroad Avenger.