Tuesday, April 09, 2019


During its brief run in the early-to-mid 1940’s, PRC Pictures (Producers Releasing Corporation) made a lot of westerns, featuring Bob Steele, Buster Crabbe, Lash LaRue, and a number of others. Though the films were a rung below Monogram in terms of production level, they usually delivered the goods in just under an hour, had supporting casts full of western veterans, and were made by people who could produce this kind of thing in their sleep.

Because of the success of The Three Mesquiteers team over at Republic, beginning in 1937, there were imitation Western trios over at Monogram….The Range Busters, with Ray Crash Corrigan, John Dusty King, and Max Alibi Terhune (with his ventriloquist dummy Elmer, someone I need to devote an entire review to in the future), and The Trail Blazers, with Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, and Bob Steele. PRC also jumped into that world with The Texas Rangers, with Dave O’Brien, James Newill (replaced by Tex Ritter in the final eight films), and BTC fave Guy Wilkerson as “Panhandle Perkins.” PRC had another trio series, though, which released six films in the 1942 season, THE FRONTIER MARSHALS. They’ve received little attention over the years, although the combination of talent on offer was quite successful and gave the films a lot of variety within their 56 or 57 minutes. Even by PRC standards, the films had a ramshackle look to them, and they are not well-remembered today-- it took me years to collect all six of them on VHS back in the 80’s and 90’s.

PRC took original Lone Ranger LEE POWELL, who’d also starred in the US Marines-oriented serial FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS (a man with a tough demeanor, a gruff and manly voice, and a strong screen presence), and paired him with two Western Swing musicians then popular throughout the South and Southwest and Midwest, BILL BOYD, who led a band called the COWBOY RAMBLERS, and his vocalist (who was to Bill what Tommy Duncan was to Bob Wills) ART DAVIS. Boyd and Davis had successful radio programs and dozens of RCA-Bluebird 78’s and were veteran entertainers—taking their shtick to the movie screen was undoubtedly not too difficult. Generally, the plots involved Powell, the “tough guy” and hero of the films, working independently from “the boys” toward the same goals to round up some outlaw gang or stop some evil-doer. I haven’t watched most of the films in decades, but as I remember, in most of them the three were all marshals….it’s just that Boyd and Davis would be posing as cowhands or entertainers or whatever, and their affable, joking personas kept anyone from ever suspecting they were undercover marshals. Of course, being successful radio and record and live performance stars of western swing, they performed a number of songs in each film (SIX in the one under review, five in the actual film, and one in the closing credits), and played themselves (as did Powell in this film). The mixture of western action, gunfights, fistfights (VERY loosely choreographed, if it all----this is certainly NOT a Republic western!), comedy from Boyd and Davis as well as their songs, and Powell’s charm with the ladies, as well as fine casts of villains (this one features Kermit Maynard, Ken’s brother, as well as Charles King, John Merton, and I Stanford Jolley, with Maynard doubling as a stuntman), makes the films move at a good clip and provides a lot of variety within the short running time. It’s solid Western entertainment, done quickly and cheaply by people who knew what they were doing. Truly, this was the Golden Age of B-Western series, when something like this was tossed off as a disposable piece of product, playing second-and-third-run houses and small towns for a week, and then vanishing until revived for late night TV in the 1950’s and 1960’s. PRC features like this don’t even survive in decent form. PRC’s classic film noir from 1946, DETOUR, starring Tom Neal and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, only survives in one 35mm print, which the Austin Film Society borrowed from its owner a year or two ago and I had the privilege of viewing. And that was one of the most acclaimed PRC features! One doubts any effort was put into preserving the Powell-Boyd-Davis FRONTIER MARSHALS films.

For the record, there were six films in this series released in 1942: TEXAS MANHUNT (where Powell played “Marshal Lee Clark,” in all the others he played himself, Marshal Lee Powell), RAIDERS OF THE WEST, ROLLING DOWN THE GREAT DIVIDE, TUMBLEWEED TRAIL, PRAIRIE PALS, and ALONG THE SUNDOWN TRAIL. Powell then enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 1942 and served in the Pacific in WWII against the Japanese, including the battle of Tinian, in the Northern Mariana Islands, where he died in 1944. Powell had also worked in circuses doing trick riding and the like after his Lone Ranger fame, and before this series of films, and certainly a man who was the original Lone Ranger, had his own western series of feature films, starred in a circus act, and fought with honor in World War II, passing away during his service in Asia, is the kind of REAL hero who should have had his own comic book (had he lived after WWII, he might have, and we’d be reviewing it here at BTC).

PRAIRIE PALS was the fifth in the FRONTIER MARSHALS series (available for free online), and it’s a fine introduction to the pleasures of this series. The surviving print is a bit rough, but that just shows how road-worn it is from multiple small-town showings back in the day, and for me it just adds to the charm, like the surface noise on the sole surviving “fair condition” copy of an obscure blues 78, released only on Paramount Records’s dime-store subsidiary Broadway Records. When the film starts, Boyd and Davis croon the jaunty title song under a tree, with gang members Kermit Maynard and John Merton looking on. Expository dialogue after the song (thanks, guys, for cluing us in) tells us that the boys have joined an outlaw gang, and with their “aw shucks” vibe, you KNOW that they aren’t REAL outlaws. They are undercover. Later, Marshall Lee Powell arrives in the area, and arrests and takes the boys into custody, in front of the whole town AND their criminal cohorts…just to prove they really are outlaws. Of course, they escape (with Marshal Powell’s help), get back into the gang, and continue to feed Powell info whenever they can. The plot here is somewhat outrageous, with lead bad-guy I. Stanford Jolley having kidnapped a scientist who has a formula to turn some element called Vanadium into gold, and he’s being forced to practice this outlaw alchemy at the gang’s hidden hideout. All the while, the scientist’s daughter (stop me if you’ve heard this plot device before), played by the spunky and charming Esther Estrella (who also appeared in two Hopalong Cassidy films, with the other and the better-known Bill Boyd, William Boyd, whose Hoppy films were two or three or four rungs above PRC in the grand scheme of things), is working as a waitress at the local café, looking to gather information about her father’s whereabouts. She and Powell discover they are after the same thing and begin to work as a team. Meanwhile, Boyd and Davis alternate comic relief and good-natured, toe-tapping western swing songs, and before you know it, the hour is up, and the magic has concluded.
Bill Boyd and His Cowboy Ramblers recorded hundreds of sides from the 1930’s-1950’s and were huge here in Texas—his brother Jim Boyd was also in the band (and made solo records). In the mid-50’s, as with many country music stars whose hits began fading, Boyd moved into radio DJ’ing, where he worked until the 1970’s. The British BACM (British Archive of Country Music) label has released a few fine Boyd CD’s, as has the Cattle/Bronco Buster family of labels in Germany. And of course, you can find much of their material on You Tube and in some of the collections of 78’s at the Internet Archive. I’m surprised Bear Family never released a massive Bill Boyd and related recordings box set. Why not listen to some of the Cowboy Ramblers excellent 78’s online, pop open a Foster’s oil-can beer, and find the 1942 film PRAIRIE PALS on You Tube. Get some microwave popcorn at the local dollar store, turn the lights down, and pretend you’re in some backwater Oklahoma Panhandle hamlet in 1942, in town for the evening from the ranch. It will be an hour well-spent, in a world much preferable to the one in which you’re reading this review.

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