Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Mystery Ranch (1934)

This movie has maybe the weirdest opening of any B-Western I've ever seen. It starts with a shot showing part of a Western pulp cover (more about this later), then a close-up of a page from a Western manuscript, then a voice-over as an actor reads from this story while the action takes place on screen. The bad guys have captured the beautiful girl and have her tied up, and then the stalwart hero shows up to rescue her. It's all silly and deliberately terrible, as we find out when we see that the old-timer reading the story is the protagonist's father, said protagonist being Western novelist Robert Morris (played by Tom Tyler). Never mind that what the guy is reading is clearly a pulp, not a book.

Anyway, the old-timer makes fun of his son's writing and says that it's not realistic. The son explains that he's been invited to visit a real Western ranch and so he'll find out first hand whether or not his stories are authentic. However, the ranch in question--the Mystery Ranch of the title--is actually a dude ranch and the people running it intend to stage a lot of phony Western action to impress the visiting author. Of course, none of this works out as planned, and then a real bank robbery happens, and naturally enough, the author has to turn hero . . . and you can write the plot from that point on just as well as the actual scriptwriters did. Possibly better.

Don't get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, although the bizarre opening sequence is the real highlight. Nobody would mistake Tom Tyler for a great actor, but he's okay and has enough screen presence to make up for a lot. Veteran heavies Charles King and George Chesebro are on hand to liven things up, and blond Roberta Gale, an actress I'm not familiar with, is really good-looking. There's some decent stunt work by Tyler and others. As usual with Hollywood, the screenwriters have no real idea how publishing works, but I'm used to that. The whole thing is a little off-kilter, but in this case, that's good.

Note that there's a better known B Western from a couple of years earlier called MYSTERY RANCH. That one stars George O'Brien. There's also a Max Brand novel with the same title. This movie doesn't have anything to do with either of those.

Now, about that pulp . . . As soon as I saw the opening shot, I thought it was a real pulp featured in it. You can't see anything except the middle part of the front cover, with some of the art and the word "Magazine" visible, along with the bottom of the word "Western". But something about it seemed familiar to me, and I realized it looked like it might be a cover from an issue of ALL WESTERN, published by Dell. So it was off to the Fictionmags Index, and sure enough, it's the cover from the June 1934 issue, which was probably on the stands when the movie was filmed. So somebody went down to the newsstand, bought a copy, brought it back to the studio, and ALL WESTERN made what may well be its only movie appearance. You can see the cover, which is a pretty good one and was painted by R. Farrington Elwell, below. And if you want to watch MYSTERY RANCH, the whole thing is available on YouTube, although I watched it as part of a DVD set of public domain Westerns.


Rittster said...

I love these kind of these self-referencing “meta” movies; and it’s so rare to find one from an era this early. You’ve really piqued my interest; and I’m not even a fan of westerns, particularly.
Great review!

James Reasoner said...

There's one called SCARLET RIVER from 1933, starring Tom Keene, that has to do with the filming of a B-Western, and of course Keene, playing the lead of the movie within the movie, has to perform real-life cowboy heroics when trouble breaks out. I saw this many years ago and ripped it off--I mean, paid homage to it--in my Stagecoach Station novel, THE LAST FRONTIER. I recall it being a pretty good film. Lon Chaney Jr., still billed as Creighton Chaney, plays the bad guy. It doesn't seem to be on YouTube or DVD, but if you ever run across it, it's worth watching.

Always good to hear from you, Rittster.

Peter Collinson said...

I can't recall another example of a film with this kind of meta-flavor, but I always watch for magazines and newsstands in old movies.
In one of the latter Thin Man movies William Powell is lounging in a hammock reading an issue of Nick Carter.
Argh, I forget which film but it's the one where he literally busts the buttons on his vest in pride.

michael said...

The third man featured a cover of a pulp novel called Oklahoma Kid...