My happiest movie discoveries this past year would have to include George O'Brien's RKO Westerns.
O'Brien's sunny, capable cowboy persona gives the viewer an "all's right with the world" feeling, and BULLET CODE is no exception. This 58-minute film, teaming O'Brien with frequent leading lady Virginia Vale, is a strong, entertaining entry in the series.
The plot is standard Western melodrama, with the nasty banker (Walter Miller) plotting to drive rancher John Mathews (Howard Hickman) and his lovely daughter, Miss Molly (Vale), off their ranch.
Enter Steve Holden (O'Brien) and his sidekick Pop (Slim Whitaker). Steve harbors some guilt over involvement in the death of Molly's brother (Robert Stanton, aka Kirby Grant), not knowing for certain that it was actually some of the same villains working with the banker who did the deed.
Steve and Pop work to bring the bad guys to justice, while in quiet moments Steve and Molly exchange subtle glances of interest. The lovely final shot is Steve and Molly gazing at one another in the distance, clearly planning their future together on the ranch, as Mr. Mathews and Pop duet "Here Comes the Bride" on harmonica.
That story may not sound like much, but it's such fun to step into the world of one of these O'Brien Westerns for an hour. He's sort of a Western "Superman," a large man of great strength who hurls bad guys around with ease; he has an impish mischievous streak, but he's an honorable, responsible man who protects the vulnerable and won't back down from a fight.
At the same time, O'Brien's characters feel "real" and possible, rather than the stuff of fantasy. It's rather nice to be reminded that there are good men like him in the world, and I imagine the audiences of 1940, watching as war clouds gathered, must have thought so too. (This is a good place to mention that O'Brien would go on to be a decorated Naval officer during WWII, and he would serve in the Naval Reserves until the early '60s.)
This is one of six films in which O'Brien and Vale were costarred. O'Brien was also nicely teamed with Laraine (Johnson) Day and Marjorie Reynolds, but I find his movies with Vale most appealing; they have a sweet, natural chemistry together.
In Boyd Magers' fascinating book of interviews, WESTERNS WOMEN, Vale said, years later, "George was just a gem of a fellow. I thought he was just wonderful." She also said, "I never saw him use a double. He was a superb athlete and very strong. He picked me up like I was a feather."
I particularly noticed that "scene finishing" technique of O'Brien's in this film, such as the amused "double look" he gives Pop when the older man suggests Steve buy Molly peppermint drops, or the "What can we do?" shrug he gives Pop when they are forced to leave the Mathews ranch. These little reaction moments enable O'Brien to convey to the viewer a great deal about his character's personality within a very short running time. The stories in these "B" Westerns may be run of the mill, but the performances aren't.
BULLET CODE was directed by O'Brien's regular director, David Howard. It was filmed by Harry J. Wild at the Iverson Ranch. I've seen so many Westerns this year, it's getting so I recognize the Western streets and ranch houses which appear in movie after movie!
The supporting cast includes Harry Woods, William Haade, Bob Burns, and a group of musicians in the opening scene comprised of Spade Cooley, Johnny Luther, and Rudy Sooter.
This movie isn't out on DVD, but since the Warner Archive previously released a three-film set with half the O'Brien-Vale movies, perhaps we can look forward to another set with the rest in the future.
In the meantime, BULLET CODE has been shown on Turner Classics Movies and is likely to turn up there again at some point in the future.
February 2016 Update: BULLET CODE is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive in the nine-film George O'Brien Western Collection. My review of the DVD is here.
Previous reviews of George O'Brien "B" Westerns: THE RENEGADE RANGER (1938), GUN LAW (1938), PAINTED DESERT (1938), BORDER G-MAN (1938), ARIZONA LEGION (1939), TIMBER STAMPEDE (1939), THE FIGHTING GRINGO (1939), THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY (1939), and LEGION OF THE LAWLESS (1940).