Friday, February 28, 2014

Lost Cowboy Westerns

Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys
Did you know there are some Roy Rogers movies that are still considered missing? No? Then read on.

As with old-time radio programs, old motion-pictures are often classified as "lost" because they are not known to exist in circulation. Decades ago, the word "lost" meant the film was not known to exist in any archive or private collection. Today, with the widespread consumption of the home entertainment market, films that probably exist in studio vaults but are not known to exist in collector hands are considered "unavailable." But should that film be classified as "lost"? Many people think so. This is one of those terms that gets thrown about way too often and too loosely. And numerous websites make the mistake of citing films that are "lost" when in reality, they do exist and are available. Just because Wikipedia cites the movie is "lost" doesn't mean it is. 

With old-time radio programs, Jay Hickerson has been the keeper of the register by publishing an annual supplement for his book, citing a list existing and circulating radio programs. If you want to know if an old-time radio program exists and/or circulates among collectors, you consult Jay. If you found a recording that was once known to be "non-existent," you contact Jay. (And thankfully Jay has people who verify these claims before actually making the claim that a "lost" show really was found to exist.)

For fans of cowboy Westerns, there are a number of movies that don't exist. There is no official list per say... every time I stumble upon a list on the internet, I realize there are a few titles in my collection that they claim are "lost." A few of those lists don't count silent movies and others count some silent movies (depending on the star of the movie). It's sad that no one took up the position of making an "official" list of "lost" movies, clarifying the difference between "lost" and "non-circulating." But that would also mean being an authority on the subject, knowing all the important contacts in the hobby of cinephiles, and keeps tabs on such movies. So here's a partial list of "non-circulating" cowboy Westerns that movie buffs are seeking.

West of the Rockies, for example, a 1941 Warner Bros. two-reeler starring Richard Travis, Willie Best and Marguerite Chapman, exists in the film vaults of Turner Entertainment. Because this film is not circulating among collector hands, many have classified this movie as "lost." It's never really been lost -- it's just never been screened or telecast since the initial theatrical release. Hopefully it will be released as a bonus extra on a Warner DVD release.

Topeka (1953)
Whatever became of Westwood Productions? Robert Mitchum's low-budget production company produced a total of eight cowboy Westerns in 1953 and 1954, the majority of them being released theatrically through Columbia Pictures. (In April of 1954 he considered trying his hand in television production, but that was quickly dropped.) Only half a dozen of those movies have been televised over the last thirty years -- usually on local West Coast TV stations. Finding a viewable copy of Bill Elliott's Topeka (1953), for example, is tougher than pulling nails out of a floorboard with your teeth. Texas Bad Man (1953), starring Wayne Morris, is among the Holy Grails of Westwood Productions. Cowboy fans would flock to a film festival (East Coast or West Coast) if a print could be acquired for screening.

What is the plot of Tex Takes a Holiday (1932)? A man falls in love with a señora when he stops at her house for food and a rest. He leaves to pay a debt, but promises to return. While he is off fighting with bandits, the señora is kidnapped by his nemesis. He finds the bandit hideout, rescues the señora and captures the gang. When he learns that the baby she holds really belongs to her sister, he embraces her. Yeah, one of those low-budget Argosy Productions that probably looked like it was shot in someone's back yard in California. Wallace MacDonald played supporting roles in Tim McCoy, John Wayne and Ken Maynard Westerns. Tex Takes a Holiday was the only film MacDonald played the lead role, his only starring cowboy Western. So how did he fare when compared to the other screen cowboys? We'll never know. The movie is not know to exist in collector hands and it is "suspected" that Sony Entertainment owns a copy of the print in their film vault... but that is an educated guess and not definite.

West of the Pecos (1934 version)

Among the many Westerns adapted from Zane Grey novels is West of the Pecos (1934), produced by RKO Studios. Starring Richard Dix in the role of Pecos Smith, the status of this movie remains unknown. It is believed that Turner Entertainment has a copy of the movie in their film vaults, but nothing has been confirmed. I know of a collector in California who loves movies adapted from Zane Grey novels and he's sent me a list of two dozen movies he's still looking for. This is one of them. While we're speaking of RKO, a series of 18 film shorts was produced from 1937 to 1942 starring Ray Whitley and the Six Bar Cowboys. Mostly containing one musical performance after another, these two-reelers have occasionally popped up on Turner Classic Movies as fillers. Three of them remain unseen since their theatrical release: Prairie Papas (1938), Bar Buckaroos (1940) and Prairie Spooners (1941). More than likely Turner has these three film shorts.

Tex Williams was considered one of the few popular bandleaders of the late forties and early fifties to help in the demise of the big bands and offer a "western swing" craze best succeeded by Bob Wills and Spade Cooley. Universal Studios, then known as Universal-International, hired Tex Williams to star in a series of three-reel film shorts offering lots of musical numbers and fast-paced action sequences in Western yarns. Many of the stories were remakes of prior Universal Westerns from the 1930s, which the studio retained the option of screen rights. Honestly, these film shorts are like watching fast-paced B-Western movies and could have been re-edited into television episodes had the studio produced more shorts. Three-reel entertainment (30 minutes in length) were not common in theaters. It is also difficult to find these film shorts on DVD. I have been lucky to obtain six of them -- beautiful direct film chain transfers from 16mm masters. I know there are five others circulating in collector hands but I hesitate paying for DVDs when those vendors have reputations for selling poor quality multi-generation copies and use inferior blank DVDs. Of the 16 film shorts produced from 1949 to 1950, five of them are still sitting in the vaults at Universal Studios and based on the track record of Universal, we'll be lucky if they kept the nitrate masters preserved. We'll be blessed if those five shorts (all 16 while we're taking about it) get re-mastered in a lab from the 35mm nitrate masters and released on DVD. The five that no one seems to have in collector hands are Girl from Gunsight (1949), Prairie Pirates (1949), Rustler's Ransom (1950), Ready to Ride (1950) and Cactus Caravan (1950).

A few reference guides and magazines of recent claim Singing Spurs (1948) and Fangs of the Arctic (1953) do not exist. One cites a theory of a studio fire. Guess what? Those two Kirby Grant movies do exist an are sitting in film vaults waiting to be unearthed. Trigger Law (1944), the only film remaining of the Trail Blazers series, also exists -- again, sitting in a studio vault. So does the Keene Duncan film short, Powder River Gunfire (1948) and so does dozens of Charles Starrett Westerns housed at Sony Entertainment, owners of the Columbia Pictures library. (Columbia did a horrible job preserving their movies. Their track record can be verified with the dozens of films that truly are "lost" and a number of them without the audio soundtrack. We can only hope this is not the case with the Charles Starrett Westerns in their vaults.)

Also highly sought after is Harlem on the Prairie (1938), one of four Herb Jeffries cowboy Westerns. Jeffries broke the race barrier by starring in his own cowboy Westerns, which went over very big to black audiences. He was also an award-winning vocal singer who could play the guitar and sing just as good as Gene Autry -- in fact, his movies grossed so much money (supposedly broke box office records at the time as the highest-grossing African American film) that Sack Amusements (an independent production company responsible for producing a large number of African American entertainment on celluloid) signed Jeffries to a multi-picture contract. Three of the four movies circulate among collectors today. The first one, however, Harlem on the Prairie, is still being sought after. Supporting cast Spencer Williams (later of Amos and Andy fame) and Mantan Moreland are also among the cast. The plot isn't spectacular. Jeffrey plays Jeff Kinkaid who helps a pretty young woman find lost gold.

Did you know there are some Roy Rogers movies that are still missing? You bet chum' Red Dryder. At one time in the sixties or seventies, Roy Rogers purchased all of his movies from Republic, including the prints. Many of them were edited down from their 72 and 66 minute lengths to 54 for television airings. If you buy a 16mm print of a Roy Rogers movie, be aware that most of what circulates are the edited versions running shy of a full hour. In fact, many of those public domain labels haven't paid attention to the length of time and released many of those edited versions. (The musical numbers are not the only thing edited to shorten the length of the movie, by the way.)  A total of 36 movies are not available uncut. These include: The Arizona Kid, Badman from Deadwood, Billy the Kid Returns, Carson City Kid, Colorado, Carson City Rangers, Days of Jesse James, Frontier Pony Express, Heart Across the Border, In Old Caliente, In Old Cheyenne, Jesse James at Bay, Man from Cheyenne, The Man from Oklahoma, Nevada City, Rainbow Over Texas, Ranger and the Lady, Red River Valley, Riding Down the Canyon, Robin Hood of the Pecos, Rough Riders Round-Up, Saga of Death Valley, Sheriff of Tombstone, Shine on Harvest Moon, Silver Spurs, Sons of the Pioneers, Song of Texas, South of Santa Fe, Southward Ho!, Sunset in El Dorado, Sunset on the Desert, Texas Legionnaires, Wall Street Cowboy, West of the Badlands, Young Bill Hickok, and Young Buffalo Bill. The movie Silver Spurs was screened at the Syracuse Cinefest convention many years ago, uncut, but tracking down the owner of that print was a dead end and it is believed the owner since passed away. Darn. But if you find any of these 26 movies that are not 53 or 54 minutes in length, let me know. You may have an uncut print which people are seeking!

There were a total of 19 Roy Rogers movies filmed in TruColor (Republic's primitive method of color instead of black and white). Sadly, Apache Rose, Eyes of Texas, The Far Frontier, Grand Canyon Trail, Night Time in Nevada, On the Old Spanish Trail are available only in black and white. No one seems to have the TruColor prints. If you have any of these in color, let me know. You may have a print which Roy Rogers fans are seeking.

Roy himself released a number of his Westerns on VHS commercially in the 1980s, but most of those were the edited versions. Supposedly Paramount owns the Republic archive, purchased from Aaron Spelling before he passed away. Lionsgate has distribution rights for the Republic movies and at one time licensed them for Netflix for streaming. Before I could sign up with Netflix and check and verify the prints on Netflix, the contract expired and the Roy Rogers movies were removed. So we can only hope Lionsgate reads this and considered releasing all of the Roy Rogers movies uncut and (for those in TruColor) in their original color format. Until then, we Roy Rogers fans have to deal with the occasional 16mm prints that are unearthed, bought and transferred -- this seems about one a year. Tommy Hildreth, responsible for the Winston-Salem Western Film Festival, was responsible for the TruColor uncut version of Springtime in the Sierras a few years ago, which he spent a lot of money to buy and additional expense to have it transferred to DVD. (He had two different labs do the transfer.) Sadly, while you can still get a beautiful transfer print on DVD from Tommy, the movie has since been offered on DVD labels from companies that discovered the copyrights expired and released the movie on their own label. One takes credit for the "discovery," another inserted logos in the corner of the screen at certain times. The same company also has a reputation for adding modern day sound effects to the sound tracks of the movies they release (broken glass smashing during a bar brawl) and their "alterations" to many film buffs is sacrilege. So if you want a beautiful uncut and unaltered print, contact Tommy at comet

The Oregon Trail (1936 version)
Once a Holy Grail of B-Westerns is found, the "want list" shrinks and a different title moves up to the list. The most sought-after B-Western today is The Oregon Trail (1936), starring John Wayne and Ann Rutherford. U. S. Army Captain John Delmont (Wayne) takes a leave of absence to find out what happened to his missing father. Later he leads a wagon train to California and goes after the bad guys involved in his father's disappearance. It was produced by Republic Pictures and being a Holy Grail, it's not only the most talked about -- but the one claiming the largest number of rumors. Someone told me it's coming out on DVD later this year. (Heard that many times over the past decade regarding Disney's Song of the South.) Another rumor was that the only print exists but lacks a soundtrack. Regardless of the rumors, it is the movie that will ring bells and part the heavens when it finally becomes available on the home video market.

The list below is a sample of the many cowboy Westerns that are not known to exist in collector hands. These are the ones fans of cowboy Westerns are seeking to fill in the gaps in their collection. I figure sometimes a solution to finding a lost movie isn't browsing attics and yard sales -- it's knowing what films are lost to begin with.

West of the Rockies (1929) Art Mix
Overland Bound (1929) Jack Perrin
Santa Fe Trail (1930) Richard Arlen

Bar L Ranch (1930) Buffalo Bill Jr.
Cheyenne Kid (1930) Buffalo Bill Jr.
South of Sonora (1930) Buffalo Bill Jr.
Parting of the Trails (1930) Bob Custer
Border Legion (1930) Jack Holt
Dude Wrangler (1930) Tom Keene
Ridin' Law (1930) Jack Perrin
Beyond the Rio Grande (1930) Jack Perrin
'Neath Western Skies (1930) Tom Tyler
Trails of Peril (1930) Wally Wales
The Cyclone Kid (1931) Buzz Barton
Trails of the Golden West (1931) Buffalo Bill Jr.
Riders of the Rio (1931) Lane Chandler
Dugan of the Badlands (1931) Bill Cody
Fair Warning (1931) George O'Brien
Wild West Whoopee (1931) Jack Perrin
The Kid from Arizona (1931) Jack Perrin
The Sheriff's Secret (1931) Jack Perrin
Lariats and Six-Shooters (1931) Jack Perrin
Lightnin' Smith Returns (1931) Buddy Roosevelt
The Valley of Badmen (1931) Buddy Roosevelt
Man from Death Valley (1931) Tom Tyler
Partners of the Trail (1931) Tom Tyler
Hell's Valley (1931) Wally Wales
Man from Arizona (1932) Rex Bell
Riders of Golden Gulch (1932) Buffalo Bill Jr.
Trails of Adventure (1932) Buffalo Bill Jr.
The Battling Buckaroo (1932) Lane Chandler
The Reckless Rider (1932) Lane Chandler
Land of Wanted Men (1932) Bill Cody
The Lone Trail (1932) Rex Lease
The Gay Caballero (1932) George O'Brien
.45 Calibre Echo (1932) Jack Perrin
Wild Horse Mesa (1932) Randolph Scott
Galloping Thru (1932) Tom Tyler
The Man from New Mexico (1932) Tom Tyler 
The Vanishing Men (1932) Tom Tyler
Ranger's Code (1933) Bob Steele
Sunset Pass (1933) Randolph Scott
Helldorado (1934) Richard Arlen
Frontier Marshal (1934) George O'Brien
The Last Roundup (1934) Randolph Scott
Nevada (1935) Buster Crabbe
Wanderer of the Wasteland (1935) Buster Crabbe
Home on the Range (1935) Randolph Scott
Desert Mesa (1935) Wally West
End of the Trail (1936) Jack Holt
Code of the Range (1936) Charles Starrett
Dodge City Trail (1936) Charles Starrett
Romance of the Rockies (1937) Tom Keene
Westbound Mail (1937) Charles Starrett
One Man Justice (1937) Charles Starrett
Rose of the Rio Grande (1938) John Carroll
Land of Fighting Men (1938) Jack Randall
Call of the Rockies (1938) Charles Starrett
Law of the Plains (1938) Charles Starrett
Song of the Buckaroo (1939) Tex Ritter
Texas Stampede (1939) Charles Starrett
North of the Yukon (1939) Charles Starrett
Riders from Nowhere (1940) Jack Randall
Arizona Frontier (1940) Tex Ritter
Two-Fisted Rangers (1940) Charles Starrett
West of Abilene (1940) Charles Starrett
Prairie Stranger (1941) Charles Starrett
Medico of Painted Springs (1941) Charles Starrett
The Pinto Kid (1941) Charles Starrett
Thunder Over the Prairie (1941) Charles Starrett
Royal Mounted Patrol (1941) Charles Starrett
Riders of the Northland (1942) Charles Starrett
Overland to Deadwood (1942) Charles Starrett

Riding Through Nevada (1942) Charles Starrett
Cowboy in the Clouds (1943) Charles Starrett

Robin Hood of the Range (1943) Charles Starrett
Hail to the Rangers (1943) Charles Starrett
Law of the Northwest (1943) Charles Starrett
Riding West (1943) Charles Starrett
Cowboy from Lonesome River (1944) Charles Starrett
Sagebrush Heroes (1945) Charles Starrett
Rhythm Roundup (1945) Ken Curtis
Rustlers of the Badlands (1945) Charles Starrett
Frontier Gun Law (1946) Charles Starrett
El Dorado Pass (1948) Charles Starrett
Quick on the Trigger (1948) Charles Starrett
Horsemen of the Sierras (1949) Charles Starrett
Renegades of the Sage (1949) Charles Starrett

Outcast of Black Mesa (1950) Charles Starrett

Texas Dynamo (1950) Charles Starrett

Across the Badlands (1950) Charles Starrett

Raiders of Tomahawk Creek (1950) Charles Starrett

Lightning Guns (1950) Charles Starrett
Ridin' the Outlaw Trail (1951) Charles Starrett
Fort Savage Raiders (1951) Charles Starrett
The Kid from Amarillo (1951) Charles Starrett
Hawk of Wild River (1952) Charles Starrett
Junction City (1952) Charles Starrett