Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1935)

Republic Pictures
Director: Joseph Kane
Starring: Gene Autry

It would be somewhat the birth of a new sub-genre known as the western musical, and the introduction of the “Singing Cowboy” when Gene Autry takes his place on the screen in Tumbling Tumbleweeds. The young country-western singer/songwriter was still a novice to the motion picture world, appearing in small, uncredited roles and later in an unthinkable science fiction/western that is not well remembered. This film, however, would be the official start of what would forever be his persona as the Singing Cowboy in the first motion picture of a small newly formed production company in a film made for next to nothing. Considering its cost the film would be a respectable success launching a career that would turn Autry into a country/western legend.

Tumbling Tumbleweeds is a musical western about a son returning home and his pursuit of the man that murdered of his father. In the days of the old west where ranch owners battled to keep their land from “nesters,” Gene Autry (who commonly used his own name for his character) is the son of the area’s big ranch owner vulnerable by intruders, and is shunned for not wanting to kill those threatening his father in respect of these people just looking for a place to live. After years away from his father Autry returns home while touring the old west on traveling minstrel, doctor/musical act only to discover his father had been murdered. Deeply saddened by the loss Autry works with his band of friends to find the killer. The short picture has Autry performing his own original music as a showman while continuing the search through the small town for the killer. In tow is a his small band of friends that help him, including Smiley (Burnette), who provides side humor of finding the man with only one spur which he believes is the guilty party, turning out to be him. We watch the murders try to keep their secret as Gene ultimately finding their trail and captures them. It is a simple film with little to no mystery, played straight forward, accompanied by the tunes of the gifted star.

The picture is a rough and rather crude piece of feature film production, with shaky camera work, hammed up acting, poor editing, and rather uncreative writing. Its saving grace is the original music by a young Gene Autry, which to this day makes for tunes people may remember. Director Joseph Kane was a neophyte director for the newly formed Republic Pictures, and it shows just how unpolished he, his crew, and the studio were at the time with their filmmaking. Cameras over-pan and correct themselves in many shots. The acting is overly played by many no-name side actors. Edits at times are choppy. The writing was too rapid and un-fluid, not allowing for smooth understand in plot, but characters coming to proper realizations with no reason. Quickly noted lines were more spat out than recited. On top of that is the tacked on ending where Autry ends up being married to a girl he just met for less than a minute in the picture, having next to no relationship with in the story besides knowing of each other when they were young. The camera does however does get respectable moving shots of Autry on horseback in a couple of scenes, but nothing marvelous to save the other unfixed imperfections, and only worth noting because of the overall crudeness of the production. Despite all these problems, the sound is good enough to present Autry’s music in a clean, fluid manner, showcasing the star of the picture.

Autry at this time would have been a very little known actor. With really one credit to his name in film (two other non-credited bit roles), his past work would not spread his name around by any means. The little known singer had worked hard just to be heard and sign a recording contract eventually. In time he was discovered for his skill and handsome demeanor and here be portrayed as both a heroic cowboy and a musical talent. Tumbling Tumbleweeds is an obvious vehicle for the small Republic Pictures to showcase what they believed would be a reasonably good talent. Autry’s moral deeds and musical serenades, accompanied by his longtime musical companion and sidekick Smiley Burnette, show promise of perhaps better films in the future, even through this cheaply produced picture. Here Autry would also be supported by character actor George “Gabby” Hayes, who served a long career in movies and television. Also featured is a black character named Eightball, who plays a stereotype jolly black boy that dances with a huge grin on his face. This look as African American characters is sad in its style in retrospect, but for its time was not uncommon, nor was it hurtful, for the boy was never really looked down on, but rather was made to be an entertaining side character, despite his clear lack of refinement or education.

Tumbling Tumbleweeds may not have been a success for the small studio in the big cities like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, but in middle America the film was embraced enough to make over $1 million, after costing under $13,000 to produce, making well more than its money back.  With no-name actors and shooting in the middle of nowhere throughout Southern California, it was not difficult to keep costs down in this cheap feature. This served to be only the beginning for Autry as he would continue to drive his persona as the singing cowboy, all the way through the twentieth century.

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