Singing Cowboys Make Americana Great Again: Robots, Herb Jeffries, Dorothy Page and Tito Guizar
There's just something about the current political climate that's been making me desperately want to reclaim that feeling of truth, justice and The American Way. There's been so much negativity thrown around on all sides of the political and social spectrums, I find myself feeling sad and nostalgic for the innocence of what-once-never-actually-was. You know what I mean? The Good Old Days that only ever actually existed on the silver screen because, y'know, reality has always been a nightmare. Thus, in my quest to recapture some positive feelings towards my American identity, I've found myself gravitating towards one specific topic: singing cowboy movies.
It's hard to get more American than singing cowboys as they are the epitome of optimistic do-good Americana. The western music genre itself speaks moreso to the dream of the west than the actualities. The genre wasn't coined until the early 1900s, a couple of decades after cowboys were still really a 'thing.' Which isn't to say it's wasn't somehow authentic, the first official singing cowboys sang a mixture of genuine folk songs along with new recordings – all of which dealt with themes such as cowboy codes of honor, the rugged lifestyle, and doing a hard day's work.
The genre further expanded with the Sons of the Pioneers in the early '30s, whose romantic vision of the west – respecting nature, the lonely lifestyle, and a poetic nostalgia – helped to define the genre at large. Despite several member changes through their decades long career, they appeared in 87 films themselves, and that's not even counting the 100 films founding member Len Slye starred in, better known of course as Roy "King of the Cowboys" Rogers. However, as far as film goes, Gene Autry was the original king, transitioning from his popular radio show to making a staggering 93 films over the course of 19 years – and that's not even counting his equally popular television series, and musical rodeo shows.
For this piece, however, I want to focus primarily on singing cowboy movies that are truly unique to their genre. Movies that reflect an America that makes me proud. An America where everything is possible and the American dream is both humble and virtuous. Whether it's in the plot, the cast, or the music, there's truly some special films to be found in the more obscure corners of singing cowboy movie history. These will make you nostalgic for an America that never really existed outside of myth and music, but should have existed because I'll be damned if these aren't more fun than the reality of then and now.
Gene Autry's The Phantom Empire
Let's start with the two most obvious staples you can think of when you think of singing cowboy movies: Gene Autry and robots! Okay, one staple and one plot from crazytown but that's exactly why I chose The Phantom Empire (1935) – how better to make Americana great again than to watch radio cowboy Gene Autry battling an evil underground queen and her robot army? Yeah, you heard right, that's quite literally the plot of Gene Autry's first staring role.
Originally a 12 part serial (at 20 minutes a chapter, so it's not that long), the serial was later edited down to a 70-minute feature. Though you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you watch the edited version because most of what they edit out is the singing. The Phantom Empire follows Gene Autry as he stumbles upon the hidden civilization of Murania, an underground metropolis full of robots and ray guns, that's run by the intimidating Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy). They mine radium to keep things running in underground future world, which becomes of interest to an outsider named Professor Beeston (J. Frank Glendon) who's looking to get rich quick. Now he has to navigate between Beeston, who's framed Gene for murder so that he can take over Gene's ranch and get to the radium, as well as Queen Tika, who wants Gene dead for being an outside invader. All the while, and this is the best part, Gene still has to rush back up on to the surface everyday at 2pm in order to broadcast his radio show or else he'll get fired!
The Phantom Empire is truly crazy in the best possible way. Predating Flash Gordon and most of the popular '30s and '40s sci-fi, it's amazing that this was even considered for a singing cowboy movie in the first place. There's a bunch of wonderful Metropolis-esque cardboard sets that make the original Doctor Who pale in comparison, not to mention the hilariously stiff robot guards with built in metal cowboy hats. It's hard not to poke fun at, it's a silly movie, but it's consistently enjoyable to watch; seeing young Gene Autry rushing back to sing every day just doesn't get old. This is the America I want to remember! The one where Gene Autry stops underground world wars while wearing cute western wear outfits, and providing quality live radio performances to his loyal listeners!
Herb Jeffries, The Bronze Buckaroo
Make Cowboys Black Again! Despite the fact that there was plenty of historical basis for black cowboy films, Hollywood has dropped the ball on that concept for decades. Then came along Herb Jeffries – born and raised in Detroit, he followed in his father's musical footsteps and pursued a singing career until he eventually broke into film in 1937. Having grown up himself in a mixed race family, in a racially tolerant neighborhood, he was shocked by the segregation he saw while touring the country. After seeing how many black kids flocked to go see all-white westerns, he decided it was his personal mission to make equally exciting westerns starring black heroes. Seeing as Jeffries himself was tall, handsome, and knew how to both sing and ride a horse, he was cast as the lead in a whopping four films: Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Two Man Gun from Harlem (1938), Harlem Rides the Range (1939) and The Bronze Buckaroo (1939).
I won't lie to you, these movies are extremely low budget and fairly rough to watch – specifically in the editing, sound, and pacing. But they're also kind of amazing for the fact that there are no white people at all in any of them. There's no mention of it either, they just play out like any other western; from the sidekicks to the villains, no white people needed. It's brilliant and strangely ahead of its time. Despite this, there is unfortunately some questionable comedic sequences in these movies that play towards stereotypes – specifically with his sidekick Dusty (Lucius Brooks). In the grand scheme of singing cowboys movies the dumb sidekick is almost an institution, but the humor is clunky at best and iffy at its worst. Jeffries himself, however, is indeed a very handsome and very charming lead with an excellent voice. I only wish he could have made more of these with a better budget. Instead, he quit film to go record with Duke Ellington so hey, happy ending either way. (Fun fact: Jazz great Herbie Hancock was named after Herb Jeffries.)
Out of his four films, I most enjoyed Harlem Rides the Range. The movie follows Bob Blake (Jeffries) and Dusty as they attempt to help a rancher's daughter (Artie Young) from being terrorized off of her missing father's land. Like all of his movies, they don't sugarcoat the murders and the viciousness of the villains, it gets kinda dark. In spite of the low budget, there's still some fun action to be had, along with a cute chaste romance. I'll admit the better songs are in his other movies, but this one has the most focused plot, quick pacing, and a welcomed twist ending. Between Jeffries' genuine charm and the all black cast, it's worth watching.
Dorothy Page, The Singing Cowgirl
Another triumph of taboo-breaking singing cowboy movies can be found in Dorothy Page's equally short career. In 1939, poverty row studio Grand National, better known for introducing the world to Tex Ritter, was on the outs and desperate for a new gimmick. Thus, they turned to Dorothy Page, a singing cowgirl. Not only did Dorothy Page look great, sing great, and know how to ride a horse, but she also broke boundaries as the first non-male lead in a singing cowboy movie. Unfortunately, it was too soon for such a radical concept (as it seems to always be...) because audiences sadly rejected Page as the lead, and her movies flopped. Grand National went out of business shortly after.
However, seeing as we're making Americana great again, I'm gotta tell you that Dorothy Page's films are absolutely worth a second look. Sure, they're not high production value, and there's plenty dopey moments, but out of her three films – The Singing Cowgirl (1938), Water Rustlers (1939), and Ride 'Em Cowgirl (1939) – I'd first recommend the last. The other two are also good, but they get so dark! Including a scene in which a child watches his parents get murdered in front of him and then later gets shot in the back himself! Does include an artfully shot funeral scene though.
Anyhow, Ride 'Em Cowgirl is about a group of jerks that try and frame the father of Helen (Page) as having stolen the rodeo prize money that was being kept in his house for safe keeping. Helen knows her father is innocent, so instead she takes the fall for the robbery, and then immediately goes on the run. She has a hunch at who set her father up, but needs more time and proof. While still a fugitive, she crashes and then subsequently wins the rodeo – technically winning all of the stolen money back. She then hatches a plot to set up the bad guys to frame themselves, which ends with a nice shootout and Dorothy saving the day.
Not the most exciting plot, but hey, this one passes the Bechdel Test with Lynn Mayberry as her amusing sidekick Belle. Page herself is a shootin' rodeo ridin' outlaw singin' cowgirl – no sitting on the sidelines for her! She even gets to sing some fun songs, such as "I Love The Wide Open Spaces." Her dynamic with a female sidekick is great, I would have loved to see a longer serial about two women running a ranch together. Alas, in the other two films Belle is replaced by handsome actor Dave O'Brien, who of course has a different sort of chemistry with Page. They're all worth watching though, it feels great to see a woman's name get top billing in a cowboy flick.
Tito Guízar and Roy Rogers
Let us end then on some Roy Rogers, as it's quite impossible to talk about singing cowboys and not mention him somewhere in there. The twist, however, is that while the next two movies are indeed Roy Rogers movies, my reason for recommending them has more to do with his guest co-star: Tito Guízar.
That's right, we're gonna Make Cowboys Mexican Again! Tito Guízar was born in Guadalajara but moved to New York City at a young age in order to pursue a career in show business. He had both a successful music and film career before his foray into cowboy flicks – though he wasn't a stranger to traditional rancheras music, he'd even occasionally sing in full charro costume. He appeared in two Roy Rogers films: On the Old Spanish Trail (1947) and The Gay Ranchero (1948). (The second of which involves airplane robberies and some messed up murders!)
Tito Guízar has some real star power, let me tell you. He is super charming and handsome. Not only does he have a great voice, but he also sings some really fun songs in both English and Spanish in both movies. On the Old Spanish Trail is definitely my favorite of the two – the story follows Roy Rogers, who gets called upon to pay up on some debt accrued by the Sons of the Pioneers. Turns out every time The Sons of the Pioneers play a tent show somebody goes and robs the banks, so now nobody wants to book them anymore. The number one suspect is The Gypsy aka Rico (Tito Guízar), a rather dashing Mexican horseman, who keeps going to these concerts because he has a major crush on Candy Martin (Jane Frazee), the show's leading star. His infatuation is a point of frustration for Lolita (Estelita Rodriguez), his girlfriend, who spends most of her time cursing Candy and yelling at Rico. Roy eventually realizes Rico is innocent, and then they both team up to capture the real outlaws.
This movie is honestly everything I want out of a singing cowboy flick. From Rogers' sincerity, to Guízar's ladies-man charm, to an excellent vaudeville-esque performance by The Sons of the Pioneers and Andy Devine's slapstick comedic timing as bumbling sheriff Cookie; the best part about this movie is absolutely the characters. On The Old Spanish Trail just encapsulates the cowboy nostalgia at its best. Sure, it's cartoonish in its handling of most things, but it's still grounded by its strong sense of morality. There's a great scene in which Roy ends up in a punch out with several white guys for defending wanderer Rico against unjust arrest. It just makes you go "Heck yeah! That's America!" It also doesn't hurt that this ends with an old timey wagon shootout that totally rocks too. Really a fun little film.
If you're interested in the history of singing cowboys, both on film and off, I'd highly recommend reading Douglas B. Green's book: Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy. An excellent in-depth collection of information, first-hand accounts, and photos. Green is also better known as Ranger Doug, Idol of the American Youth and longtime member of western band Riders in the Sky (personal heroes of mine).
Until then, saddle pals...