Sunday, September 08, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Bullet Code (1940)

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."

She commented that O'Brien was "a very, very good actor...unless the scene is really serious, he played it lightly with a twinkle in his eye. Did you ever notice he hardly ever just walked out of a scene? He usually finished it with a gesture, a look, or a throw-away line, all of which were probably his idea and not in the script or suggested by the director."

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).


Blogger barrylane said...

The re-discovery of George O'Brien is jsut grand. He was effective in a wide variety of films. His son, the late Darcy O'Brien, wrote several novels, on of which -- A way of Life Like Any Other, is a fictionalized account of his life with his father, mother Marguerite Churchill, and delivers a knock out picture of the film business at that time. On apersonal note, my father had thre favoirtes film actors among the many he admired; Johnny Mack Brown, harry Carey, the eld and George O'Brien. I remember George being interviewed on a PBS show hosted by mary Msrtin and when he came, George, my old man let out a whoop I can still ehar in my heart.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's lovely. :)

The O'Brien family has certainly been filled with talent. I was very impressed when I learned George O'Brien's daughter has played with the New York Philharmonic for nearly half a century.

Best wishes,

9:47 PM  
Blogger john knight said...

A friend is really getting on my case and insisting that I must become
a George O Brien fan,he has sent me a few "off-air" copies of his films
to watch.Its kinda funny because I watched BULLET CODE only the other
night and really enjoyed it.I thought the plot was way above the B Western
norm.I rather like these plots where the hero is on a guilt trip for a killing
that was actually done by someone else.
I go off line for a day or two and there is so much happening in Lauraland.
I enjoyed your take on BATTLE OF ROGUE RIVER and am so pleased that you are
highlighting these George Montgomery Westerns.
I know these Sam Katzman Westerns are hardly classics but I kinda like them,
faults and all. At least you know exactly what you are getting with a Katzman
picture.The same goes for the Westerns made by Wallace MacDonald, Columbias
other B specialist.
Watched a couple of Republic A pictures over the weekend FLIGHT NURSE which
I have wanted to see for ages and really enjoyed. I thought Joan Leslie was
terrific in the film. Also watched one of William Elliots A pictures THE LAST
BANDIT,so unusual to see Elliott in Color as most of his films were black
and white.

6:19 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi John!

So glad you just enjoyed BULLET CODE too. As my post hopefully conveys I find the O'Brien Westerns very rewarding viewing.

In fact it's interesting you also mention the latest Katzman/Montgomery Western I reviewed, because I was thinking last night how much stronger I find the hour-long O'Brien Westerns compared to the couple Katzman films I've just seen -- the O'Briens have an authenticity and "B" charm that so far is eluding me with the Katzman films.

I know you and Toby really enjoy the Katzmans so I feel like I'm missing something -- maybe I'll like the next one more! :)

I envy you seeing FLIGHT NURSE and am glad to hear it was a good one!

Thanks, as always, for your comments!

Best wishes,

3:48 PM  
Blogger john knight said...

Hi Laura,

You are certainly not missing anything with the Katzman
films,I guess I would call them guilty pleasures at best.
Its just that I grew up watching them so that has a lot
to do with it,I guess.
I have no idea where my copy of FLIGHT NURSE came from,
no logos or Netflix credit at the end. It was a very good
watchable copy though. As I have mentioned (too) many times
on Tobys blog I have given up waiting for someone to
release all those interesting Republic A pictures so I am
sourcing "off air" copies instead.It is fortunate that
a lot of these films exist in good quality from the likes
of Netflix and Encore Westerns.
Its a shame considering the great job Warner Archive are doing preserving the legacy of RKO.Monogram and Allied
Artists. There is an outfit in England called Network
who are doing a fantastic job delving into the vaults of
British distributors like Anglo Amalgamated,British Lion
and Associated British. They are turning up some great "lost" films.
I totally agree that a good George O Brien B Western offers
far more in terms of quality than most Katzman Westerns.

4:27 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Olive films is doing a lot of restoration on Republic A material.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Glad to hear you liked FLIGHT NURSE, John. As you know, I'm keen to see this sometime--I was trying to understand what you said about getting it. If you have any tips for getting on track of it, it would be appreciated, though I'm patient and hoping Olive will come through with it yet.

5:34 PM  

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