Friday, June 7, 2013

Under Wastern Stars (1938)

Republic Pictures
Director: Joseph Kane


Gene Autry has company in the market of singing cowboy films, and his name is Roy Rogers. Out of the small, independent studio in the market of inexpensive westerns and serials, Republic Pictures, comes a story of a small town cowboy who goes to Washington to save his community from drought and lawlessness. It’s a bit different to have a western about a cowboy putting on a business suit and heading east, but it introduces the world to a new, young face that would rival the Singing Cowboy and become equally iconic in his legacy.

Under Western Stars is a musical western of a modern day (1930s) cowboy of a small desert town that needs to gain political power in order to save his community from drought and a rise in crime with help from the federal government. A bit of a far cry from what one may think of as a premise form a western, but here Roy Rogers stars as a cowboy witnessing the corrupt, power-hungry businessman that tries to control the water supply for an entire area and vows to right the wrongs. The well loved cowboy, with the help of his trusted sidekick Frog (Smiley Burnette), first break the laws to help his fellow men get water, then runs for and wins a spot in Congress in order to convince fellow Washington officials that the government needs to aid these forcefully dry towns. As this style of singing cowboy film goes, through a choreographed song Rogers wins over his fellow men, and by gun slinging he is able to bring the will bad guys to justice.

Very much in the style of a Gene Autry singing cowboy western Under Western Stars plays out in the same manner as the shinning symbol of perfection in our hero rights the wrongs of injustice through music and frontier skill. As a matter of fact the film was originally intended as an Autry vehicle, but contract disputes with Republic and Autry would free up the leading man role. The hero would be filled in by a fresh new face, born Leonard Slye, who at times would play small parts in Autry’s earlier films, this aspiring actor and musical talent took the stage name of Roy Rogers and the rest is history.

Meant to accompany Aurty as his usual sidekick and comic relief is Smiley Burnette in this, the first Roy Rogers’ picture. Burnette too was a musically talented man, with a look of a comedic character actor. Though he would not play beside Autry as he customarily did, he work just as well with Rogers, his role was to be the buffoon, make audiences laugh, and make the hero look good.

The picture makes for a Saturday matinee that would have been eaten up by youngsters dreaming of the old west and finding a shining, handsome hero to try and emulate. In all Under Western Stars was just the run of the mill western. Director Joe Kane was a long time studio director for Republic, but really does not film action well. It looks as if all the action was filmed quickly in one or two takes, which it probably was as Republic did not have money or time to worry too much about quality. Most non dialogue is filmed from medium wide to wide shots, simply getting across all of the action of the scene in the least amount of takes and cuts.

The film does take its time on the musical numbers. Blandly shot and focusing on the smiling good looks of the 27 year old hero, the picture takes its on his near flawless country-western get up. As well as performing his own breakneck horse riding, Rogers sings on many occasions including the Academy Award nominated original song “Dust,” a ballad that shares the sorrows of the town he is trying to save in time of drought.

As the feature film introduces Roy Rogers to the multitudes, sparking a long and successful career for the man that would come to be known as the “King of the Cowboys,” Under Western Stars would be elected into the National Film Registry in 2009, preserving the film as culturally historic. This little cowboy would go from western town to Washington in the picture, but in real life, in time, this little cowboy would become a lasting name and image for generations of country western admirers.

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