Cowboy fans are probably asking "what are The Black Rider Westerns?" You might know them under a different series... In August of 1949, Ron Ormond and his associate, Ira Webb, set up a new production unit to turn out action melodramas for Screen Guild Productions, Inc. The pair was presently producing a series of Lash LaRue Westerns for Screen Guild and Ormond was just getting his foot into the door of Lippert Pictures, an independent movie studio in California that was picking up activity into 1950. In early September, Ormond proposed a series of “Black Rider” Westerns for Screen Guild, unaccepting of the fact that the era of B-Westerns was diminishing for the new medium -- television. Executives at Screen Guild decided to focus their future efforts towards television, forcing Ormond to approach other waters… namely, Lippert.
In October, Lippert announced in a press release their next two entries for Hollywood contention; also the highest budgets to date: The Baron of Arizona and Radar Patrol. Carl Hittleman produced Baron and Barney Sarccky produced Radar. Lippert also planned to produce a series of one-reel Western kid comedies. The latter of which never met fuition but Ormond, approaching Lippert at this same time, may have been perfect timing.
After looking over the prospectus by Ron Ormond, Lippert approved of six “Black Rider” Westerns, which proposed that all six movies be filmed consecutively. Location sequences for all six movies were to be filmed at the same time, then the cast and crew would move to Nassour Studios to film the interior scenes for all six movies. James Ellison and Russell Hayden, both nearing 40 years of age, were hired to play the leads. The title of "Black Rider" would eventually be dropped before production went before the cameras.
If fans of the Hopalong Cassidy movies ever wondered what happened to Lucky in his later years, following his adventures at the Bar 20 Ranch, these movies pretty much answer that question. While the Hopalong Cassidy movies were never A-class pictures, the quality of Sherman’s productions gave that impression. In these films, however, Hayden was able to be more versatile with facial expressions and character developments – including multiple love-struck interests. With this series, Hayden simply strapped on a pair of six shooters and walked around as if he was saddle sore. And the further adventures of Lucky were dramatized.
Added to the cast for most of the films were Fuzzy Knight, Raymond Hatton and Betty May Adams (billed as Betty Adams), who would later change her name to Julie Adams.
Production was originally scheduled for October 17, later pushed to November 12 due to scheduling for some of the cast. Production for all six movies was completed on Friday, December 9, after 28 consecutive shooting days, with an estimated budget of $240,000 (which comes to $40,000 per movie). The crew remained the same for all six movies; the cast rotated about and changed slightly – sometimes wearing the same costumes in the same pictures. For those who appeared in all six movies (Tom Tyler, George Lewis, Dennis Moore, Bud Osborne, etc.) a budget-saving device was applied: many of the cast signed a four-week employment contract instead of accepting a per-picture deal. Thomas Carr directed all six pictures.
“I remember shooting all six pictures,” Julie Adams later recalled in an interview at the Winston-Salem Western Film Festival. “We shot all the ranch scenes back to back, then all the stagecoach scenes back to back, then all the horse riding scenes back to back… and the only problem I had was remembering what my name was since my character changed through the day. I think I only had four costumes.” As a result of the shooting schedule, Julie Adams can be seen wearing the same dress in Crooked River (1950) and Colorado Ranger (1950). Recycling footage for use in more than one movie, the opening sequence involving the killers chasing down a covered wagon in Crooked River also served as the opening scene of Fast on the Draw (1950). When crooks attempt to break out of a locked room in Colorado Ranger (1950), the walls move when the men apply force on the door. To say the budget was kept to a minimal is an understatement. Photos hanging on the walls never changed between pictures. Many of the scenes were shot in one take. (I would estimate about ten percent of the footage in Fast on the Draw (1950) was stock footage.) Fuzzy Knight plays everything from a sheriff, a judge and a mayor, but the name of his character was “Deacon” in five of the six movies. I. Stanford Jolley plays the role of a bartender in three of the movies.
The timeline established for each of the movies jumps around from the Southwest Territory in 1860 to Larabie 1887. (No, Larabie is the actual name of the town. This was not a mis-spelling.)
Hostile Country (1950), the first film in the series to be released theatrically on March 24, was heavily promoted. Weeks before the premiere, Ellison and Hayden did a cross-country promotional tour billed as “The Irish Cowboys” because they were billed in the opening credits as Jimmy “Shamrock” Ellison and Russell “Lucky” Hayden. The pair were officially stamped by Mayor A.J. Montgomery of Shamrock, Texas, on St. Patrick’s Day.
In early April 1950, Lippert Pictures released Everybody’s Dancin’, a Western musical extravaganza, starring Spade Cooley, who also served as an associate producer. Cooley’s first name was really Donnell but referred to as “Donald” throughout the picture. How Cooley allowed this considering he vested financial interest in the picture remains a mystery. The film also featured Ellison and Hayden in a brief scene in an effort to promote their series of six Westerns.
Produced on the cheap, the films were obviously a financial success. Producer Ormond had plans to produce another six Westerns starring Ellison and Hayden in the spring of 1950, but Hayden signed a contract to star in a television Westerns, The Marshal of Gunsight Pass, which aired “live” over KECA-TV in Los Angeles. When plans for this second series of Westerns failed because of the casting commitment, Ormond focused his efforts on a series of 13 film shorts under the tag of Ghost Towns of the West, and another series titled Tales of Famous Outlaws starring Lash La Rue. (These efforts never met fruition, even though he supposedly completed six of the latter.) Ormond also had intentions of using these film shorts as part of a syndicated TV series.
Months after the last of the six movies was theatrically released in theaters, in December of 1950, Jimmy Ellison and Russell Hayden made a public appearance together at the annual Christmas show and party for the 2,000 members of the Variety’s Boys Club at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco.
All six Westerns were released commercially by VCI Entertainment in 2009 as the “Big Iron Collection,” with a small handful of bonus features: the original theatrical trailers, a photo gallery and a video interview with director Thomas Carr. Until 2009, it was difficult for anyone to view these Westerns because they were rarely screened on television and 16mm masters were few and far between. If you watch them today, don't expect high calibre Westerns produced by Republic, Universal and Monogram. They are enjoyable and meant to be viewed days or weeks apart... unless you want to observe the recycled footage and repeated use of props and costumes. The front of the DVD case listed Jimmy “Shamrock” Ellison properly, unlike the opening credits of the movie which incorrectly billed him as Jimmie “Shamrock” Ellison.
Special thanks to David Tribble for his assistance with this article. Be sure to "like" his Facebook Page.