Under Western Stars (1938)
Set agains the backdrop of the Dust Bowl crisis, Under Western Stars sees Roy Rogers squaring off against the water company who’s trying to charge the citizens for their precious H2O in a time of drought. In doing so, he gets himself arrested, but the townsfolk love him because he’s a man of the people. Before you know it, he’s nominated to be a congressman. His good looks and smooth voice make him a lock for the female vote, while his tenacity and grit give him wide appeal to the men. Smiley Burnett, Gene Autry’s old sidekick, appears alongside Roy for this adventure, but his gimmick—a frog-voiced multi-instrumentalist—is virtually identical. Carol Hughes plays the female lead here but, as with many of the roles at the time, there's not much for her to do other than be occasionally feisty and have the hero fall in love with her in the last reel. I also note that, just like Gene Autry in his films, Roy Rogers plays “Roy Rogers.” Under Western Stars was filmed during a Republic walk-out from Gene Autry (presumably over money), affording Roy Rogers this first starring role at Republic.
I must confess that I’ve avoided the films of Roy Rogers until now because I held the opinion that he was toothless and saccharine. After viewing this film, I’m sad to say that my opinion hasn’t changed; in fact, it’s been affirmed. Fans seem to want to debate who was better, Gene or Roy, with many people landing in the Roy camp for a reasons I’m not quite sure of—though I suspect the Roy Rogers references in Die Hard have a lot to do with it. The Gene Autry films I’ve seen have more of an edge to them: there’s usually a murder or at least one gun battle at some point. Roy’s first outing is less western action, more political drama--though, to be fair, the movie opens with a gun battle and there are a few chase scenes on horseback. There's even an exploding wagon in the finale. Most of the film is about water rights and the federal government representing the will of the people, but that’s not really what I’m looking for in a western, though I certainly understand it was a subject on the mind of a lot of people in 1938 and has historical context and value. The music is good, and in fact, one song, “Dust," was nominated for an Academy Award. Wikipedia tells me that this film was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. I assume this is because of its depiction of the Dust Bowl, but the cynic in me also believes it’s because of the film’s heroic look at a regular-Joe-turned-congressman. Are other movies about congressmen also selected for preservation by The Library of Congress? I ask mostly rhetorically.
Under Western Stars was directed by Joseph Kane, the filmmaker who helmed Gene Autry’s first two outings Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Melody Trail. I liked both of those movies better than this one.
I watched the film via a DVD release from Alpha Video which presents the 65-minute feature uncut, a real miracle due to the poor state of elements for most of Roy Rogers' film work. Alpha Video has watermarked the opening and closing title screens (tsk tsk), but the film itself is quite watchable. I suspect it may be taken from a kinescope--essentially pointing a camera at a screen that’s playing the movie)--since the first few minutes appear to be cropped too tightly (a newspaper headline extends beyond the left and right borders of the screen).
In all honesty, I was hoping for a little more from this Roy Rogers outing. As both his first film and my first experience with him as a singing screen cowboy, I could have used a lot more frontier action and a lot less politics.