Adventures in VOD: William Witney & Roy Rogers

In December, a truckload of William Witney-directed Roy Rogers films were dumped onto Netflix Instant. I was clued into this trove by a conversation between Jaime Christley and Vadim Rizov on Twitter, an indication of why I’m addicted to this unruly microblogging service. As a source of cinephile news-gathering, it’s essential, and more than enough reason to endure the self-righteous posturing that flares up every so often.  Witney’s one of the anonymous artisans who pumped out movie serials for the Mascot and Republic studios, often in tandem with John English. He’s credited with 130 film and television projects at IMDB, and it’s a rather daunting corpus to approach without direction. With supporters as diverse as Quentin Tarantino and Dave Kehr, I took this Netflix cache as a sign I should dig in further (the only one I’d seen before is his so-so Apache Rifles, which I wrote about here). So I sat down with the earliest films on the list: Roll On Texas Moon (1946) and Home In Oklahoma (1946).

As usual, the quality control on these streams leaves something to be desired. First, the version of Roll on Texas Moon presented is the 53 minute television cut. The theatrical version runs 68 minutes. Poking through the site, it seems most of them contain the television versions, although there are a few full edits, which run closer to 70 minutes, including Home In Oklahoma. The first thing to strike me about these programmers is they’re deceptively dark tone. Roy Rogers is an aw shucks stand-up gentleman, and Dale Evans a bright-eyed sprig of independent femininity, but the world they inhabit is violent and strange.

In Roll on Texas Moon, there is a long standing feud between the sheep-herders and the cattle-men that once exploded into a bloody range war. Gabby Hayes, the lovable old coot axiom of the Rogers films, is a cow man, and can’t stand those “dag blasted woolies.” Someone is rustling the sheep on the Ramshead farm, threatening to escalate tensions into a shooting battle once again. Eventually an evening of dinner and song ends in a Mexican standoff. The culprits are eventually brought to justice, but not before a ram is shot in the face offscreen, and a vigilante force led by Rogers faces down the band of desperadoes. Each side suffers heavy losses in the shootout. These are remarkably grim images for a lightly comic Western-musical.

While it’s been cut down, it’s obvious Witney has a natural flair for framing action. When a chase ramps up, he lays down a blazing fast tracking shot (aided by some under-cranking) that pulls back right in front of a pursuing Rogers, or his stuntman pulling off some incredible side-saddle riding. Then he cuts to the reverse angle, zooming forward towards the dastardly evildoer. The sense of danger, for both the cameraman and the rider, is palpable. In isolating each figure in their tendon wrenching moment of tension, and by using an unusual head-on angle, he has the riders speeding right at (or away from) the audience. It’s an enveloping kind of action cinema.

This continues in Home In Oklahoma, which is presented in its uncut 72 minute length. This time the chases are necessitated because of the muckraking journalism of Rogers, here the editor of the Hereford Star. Evans is the city girl, an impulsive Torchy Blane type, from a St. Louis paper reporting on the death of a big-time ranch owner. The set-up is pure Nancy Drew, with the defining clue coming in the family hymnal. But the pleasures of these films are not in the story-telling, as Witney has to speed through gobs of exposition before he can break out an arcing crane shot of a rollicking ranch breakfast or capture Rogers crooning the bittersweet, unsatisfied tune, “I Wish I Was a Kid Again” (short form: as a kid I dreamed of adulthood, as an adult I dream of my childhood).

In keeping with the incipient brutality of the worlds Rogers and Evans must live in, the main villain, a lovely sadist named Jan (Carol Hughes), attempts to kill a small boy in order to inherit his ranch. She also ruthlessly shoots a few less-able men in the back. These hapless corpses take their tumbles in some extraordinary stunt work by Witney’s crew, who are seemingly game for anything. One brave soul falls over a small waterfall, while two bruisers take turns tackling each other on an open-air platform on a moving train. This is rough and tumble cinema made with fearlessness and charm, as well as the inimitable tones of the Sons of the Pioneers.

I’m very curious to explore the rest of his career – and if anyone has recommendations of essential titles, or a copy of Witney’s autobiography they’re able to sell at a reasonable price, I’m all ears. In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase is only available at upwards of $40, and the samples available on Google Books are tantalizingly rich. Another exciting subject for further research.

24 Responses Adventures in VOD: William Witney & Roy Rogers
Posted By Toby : January 11, 2011 2:43 pm

Roy and Witney are coming up a lot these days.

You can’t go wrong with any Witney/Rogers picture, but to me, Trail Of Robin Hood (1950) is the one to beat, with Trucolor, a host of guest stars and a Christmas setting — all with the usual Witney touch.

Spoilers Of The Plains (1950) is also excellent, and it includes an environmental message.

And there’s The Golden Stallion (1949), which Quentin Tarantino has declared his love for. It seems that they really hit their zenith right before Roy defected to TV.

The best way to see these later Rogers films — especially the Trucolor ones — is to search out the old Republic VHS tapes. Republic out Bells Of Coranado out on DVD, but that’s it. VCI has a nice Trucolor double feature.

A sadly overlooked Witney non-Rogers picture is Stranger At My Door (1956), with MacDonald Carey, Patricia Medina and Skip Homeier. It was one of Witney’s personal favorites.

Posted By Toby : January 11, 2011 2:43 pm

Roy and Witney are coming up a lot these days.

You can’t go wrong with any Witney/Rogers picture, but to me, Trail Of Robin Hood (1950) is the one to beat, with Trucolor, a host of guest stars and a Christmas setting — all with the usual Witney touch.

Spoilers Of The Plains (1950) is also excellent, and it includes an environmental message.

And there’s The Golden Stallion (1949), which Quentin Tarantino has declared his love for. It seems that they really hit their zenith right before Roy defected to TV.

The best way to see these later Rogers films — especially the Trucolor ones — is to search out the old Republic VHS tapes. Republic out Bells Of Coranado out on DVD, but that’s it. VCI has a nice Trucolor double feature.

A sadly overlooked Witney non-Rogers picture is Stranger At My Door (1956), with MacDonald Carey, Patricia Medina and Skip Homeier. It was one of Witney’s personal favorites.

Posted By john august smith : January 11, 2011 5:52 pm

The book is available at your local library, just ask one of the librarians. I read it and it is worth reading.

Posted By john august smith : January 11, 2011 5:52 pm

The book is available at your local library, just ask one of the librarians. I read it and it is worth reading.

Posted By Tom Winmill : January 11, 2011 7:25 pm

By a happy coincidence there is currently over at MovieFanFare, the Movies Unlimited blog, a splendid article on Roy Rogers woven into an excellent review of “Under California Stars” and all sprinkled with some insightful behind-the-scenes commentary: http://www.moviefanfare.com/fanfare-guests/roy-rogers-under-california-stars/ Surely Roy was indeed the real thing!

Posted By Tom Winmill : January 11, 2011 7:25 pm

By a happy coincidence there is currently over at MovieFanFare, the Movies Unlimited blog, a splendid article on Roy Rogers woven into an excellent review of “Under California Stars” and all sprinkled with some insightful behind-the-scenes commentary: http://www.moviefanfare.com/fanfare-guests/roy-rogers-under-california-stars/ Surely Roy was indeed the real thing!

Posted By AL : January 11, 2011 7:50 pm

Roy Rogers was my childhood Hero untill I was ten years old and discovered Rudolph Valentino…is that weird?

Posted By AL : January 11, 2011 7:50 pm

Roy Rogers was my childhood Hero untill I was ten years old and discovered Rudolph Valentino…is that weird?

Posted By John : January 11, 2011 7:52 pm

“Eyes of Texas” is one of my favorites. A very grown-up story line filled with violence and a extremely brutal scene where Roy is whipped and beaten by Roy Barcroft’s gang. I saw this when I was little and it still amazes me that this made it into a B-western.
“Night Time In Nevada” opens up with a noir-type voice over from villain Grant Withers that is an interesting touch. Try to catch the uncut versions of both of these!
Witney also did some of Rex Allen’s better films including “Colorado Sundown”.
Witney also wrote another book titled TRIGGER REMEMBERED. This book focuses on a lot of behind the scenes stories of working on the Rogers pictures.

Posted By John : January 11, 2011 7:52 pm

“Eyes of Texas” is one of my favorites. A very grown-up story line filled with violence and a extremely brutal scene where Roy is whipped and beaten by Roy Barcroft’s gang. I saw this when I was little and it still amazes me that this made it into a B-western.
“Night Time In Nevada” opens up with a noir-type voice over from villain Grant Withers that is an interesting touch. Try to catch the uncut versions of both of these!
Witney also did some of Rex Allen’s better films including “Colorado Sundown”.
Witney also wrote another book titled TRIGGER REMEMBERED. This book focuses on a lot of behind the scenes stories of working on the Rogers pictures.

Posted By John : January 11, 2011 8:14 pm

I just checked the Netflix version of “Eyes of Texas” and it is uncut.
“Night Time in Nevada” is not on VOD yet. I have a nice uncut Nostalgia Merchant VHS tape of it that I watch quite often.

Posted By John : January 11, 2011 8:14 pm

I just checked the Netflix version of “Eyes of Texas” and it is uncut.
“Night Time in Nevada” is not on VOD yet. I have a nice uncut Nostalgia Merchant VHS tape of it that I watch quite often.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 11, 2011 8:52 pm

Roy Rogers was my mom’s hero when she was a kid, well, he and Mickey Mantle. Her prized possession is an autographed picture he signed for her himself at a personal appearance.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 11, 2011 8:52 pm

Roy Rogers was my mom’s hero when she was a kid, well, he and Mickey Mantle. Her prized possession is an autographed picture he signed for her himself at a personal appearance.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 12, 2011 11:11 am

Thanks for the notes everyone, this is what I needed. I’ve heard a lot of good things about STRANGER AT MY DOOR, Toby, so I’ll definitely track down a copy of that.

And sadly my library’s copies of both Witney books are non-circulating, so I’d have to read the whole thing there. Which doesn’t sound like a bad weekend option.

And John, it is the violence and dreamlike atmosphere of these films (Gabby has a nightmare that predicts an accident, and in another the maid believes ghostly presences are haunting her ranch) that attract me to them, along with Witney’s flair for directing action. “Eyes of Texas” sounds interesting, I think I’ll queue that one up next.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 12, 2011 11:11 am

Thanks for the notes everyone, this is what I needed. I’ve heard a lot of good things about STRANGER AT MY DOOR, Toby, so I’ll definitely track down a copy of that.

And sadly my library’s copies of both Witney books are non-circulating, so I’d have to read the whole thing there. Which doesn’t sound like a bad weekend option.

And John, it is the violence and dreamlike atmosphere of these films (Gabby has a nightmare that predicts an accident, and in another the maid believes ghostly presences are haunting her ranch) that attract me to them, along with Witney’s flair for directing action. “Eyes of Texas” sounds interesting, I think I’ll queue that one up next.

Posted By Dave Kehr : January 14, 2011 6:28 pm

A very nice appreciation, Mr. Sweeney! For me, the defining features of Witney’s style are the visual elegance you describe so well(I love the way he begins a shot with one well-considered composition, then pans with the action to end on another, equally well-balanced image) and the hard, unglamorous violence of his fight scenes. I sense more wrenching violence and genuine anger in a bare-knuckled Witney fist-fight than I do in the most of the choreographed, CGI-enhanced gun play that you see in contemporary action films. He has, of course, a vast body of work before and after the Rogers films; I’d particularly recommend his 1939 serial “Daredevils of the Red Circle,” co-directed with the less personal but technically skilled John English, and the odd-ball, ultra-cheap films he made in the late 50s and early 60s, particularly the stark, surly “The Cat Burglar” from a screenplay by the veteran supporting thug Leo Gordon.

Posted By Dave Kehr : January 14, 2011 6:28 pm

A very nice appreciation, Mr. Sweeney! For me, the defining features of Witney’s style are the visual elegance you describe so well(I love the way he begins a shot with one well-considered composition, then pans with the action to end on another, equally well-balanced image) and the hard, unglamorous violence of his fight scenes. I sense more wrenching violence and genuine anger in a bare-knuckled Witney fist-fight than I do in the most of the choreographed, CGI-enhanced gun play that you see in contemporary action films. He has, of course, a vast body of work before and after the Rogers films; I’d particularly recommend his 1939 serial “Daredevils of the Red Circle,” co-directed with the less personal but technically skilled John English, and the odd-ball, ultra-cheap films he made in the late 50s and early 60s, particularly the stark, surly “The Cat Burglar” from a screenplay by the veteran supporting thug Leo Gordon.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 15, 2011 2:13 pm

Thanks for the recommendations, Dave. I can’t wait to dig in further. I was really struck by the intensity and destructive force of those fight scenes. Every punch seems to register – there’s a brutal one in HOME IN OKLAHOMA where a coroner’s office is completely dismantled.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 15, 2011 2:13 pm

Thanks for the recommendations, Dave. I can’t wait to dig in further. I was really struck by the intensity and destructive force of those fight scenes. Every punch seems to register – there’s a brutal one in HOME IN OKLAHOMA where a coroner’s office is completely dismantled.

Posted By Doug Dibbern : January 17, 2011 6:44 am

I concur about Daredevils of the Red Circle. I’m a huge fan of the Witney-English serials made at Republic. I know many people will say it’s sacrilegious to say so, but I’ve always thought that in some ways they’re even better than Feuillade. I also have seen and liked Drums of Fu Manchu, Jungle Girl (a little campier than the others), and Spy Smasher. And the random episodes of others I’ve managed to see here and there have all been good.

William K. Everson collaborated on a serial with friends called Captain Celluloid vs. The Film Pirates inspired, it seemed to me, in part by the Witney-English movies. A rare cinephile treasure.

Posted By Doug Dibbern : January 17, 2011 6:44 am

I concur about Daredevils of the Red Circle. I’m a huge fan of the Witney-English serials made at Republic. I know many people will say it’s sacrilegious to say so, but I’ve always thought that in some ways they’re even better than Feuillade. I also have seen and liked Drums of Fu Manchu, Jungle Girl (a little campier than the others), and Spy Smasher. And the random episodes of others I’ve managed to see here and there have all been good.

William K. Everson collaborated on a serial with friends called Captain Celluloid vs. The Film Pirates inspired, it seemed to me, in part by the Witney-English movies. A rare cinephile treasure.

Posted By Frank James Davis : February 8, 2011 12:11 am

Because he just couldn’t stand the thought of such a magnificent animal merely turning into a pile of dust, when Roy Rogers’ fancy, full-of-tricks horse, Trigger, died, the heartsick cowboy promptly had him stuffed. Later, when his beloved dog, Bullet, unexpectantly went blank, the emotional Mr. Rogers made yet another trip to the local taxidermist.
I’m thinkin’ it’s a damned lucky thing that Roy didn’t outlive Dale.

Posted By Frank James Davis : February 8, 2011 12:11 am

Because he just couldn’t stand the thought of such a magnificent animal merely turning into a pile of dust, when Roy Rogers’ fancy, full-of-tricks horse, Trigger, died, the heartsick cowboy promptly had him stuffed. Later, when his beloved dog, Bullet, unexpectantly went blank, the emotional Mr. Rogers made yet another trip to the local taxidermist.
I’m thinkin’ it’s a damned lucky thing that Roy didn’t outlive Dale.

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