When I was growing up there were a couple of lesser-known Westerns shown on TV regularly which I loved and watched over and over. These favorites were among the key films which helped turn me into the classic film fan I am today.
One of those movies was A MAN ALONE (1955), a Western directed by and starring Ray Milland, and the other was SADDLE TRAMP (1950), a charming little Universal Western starring Joel McCrea.
McCrea plays Chuck Conner, a footloose wanderer forced by unexpected circumstances into growing up and settling down.
Chuck is on his way to explore California when he stops off to see an old friend (John Ridgely) in Nevada, only to have his pal die suddenly in an accident. Chuck resumes his trek to California -- but this time he's taking along his friend's four little boys (Jimmy Hunt, Orley Lindgren, Gordon Gebert, and Gregory Moffett). Chuck thinks maybe he'll find the boys a home somewhere and then keep on going, but it's soon clear he's growing increasingly attached to the brood. In order to provide for the boys he ends up hiding them at a campsite in the woods while he works for an ornery rancher (John McIntire) who hates children.
Before Chuck knows it he's added a runaway girl, Della (Wanda Hendrix), to his responsibilities. Della's on the run from her lecherous uncle (Ed Begley Sr.), and Chuck pledges he'll keep Della safe from having to return. And as it turns out, Della is quite the young lady once she's cleaned up, and the boys take to her mothering.
This is a short film with a lot going on, balancing moments of poignance, humor, and charm. Chuck doesn't want to be tied down, but being a decent guy at heart he also can't leave the kids to fend for themselves. He initially spends quite a bit of time yelling at his horse over his predicament! He ultimately realizes there are tradeoffs and while he loses his freedom, he gains much more in return. Still, the evocatively scored moment at the end, as he watches the birds fly away, brings a tear to the eye.
Such moving moments are counterbalanced by some delightfully funny bits. John McIntire's real-life wife, Jeanette Nolan, plays the rancher's Irish-born wife, a delightful lady who believes "the little people" are helping Chuck with his chores and causing food to disappear. They're little people all right, just not the magical sort she envisions!
The superb cast also includes John Russell as the foreman who repeatedly clashes with Chuck and Russell Simpson as an older hand with whom Chuck regularly trades nonsensical conversation. Antonio Moreno, Walter Coy, Thomas Browne Henry, and Paul Picerni are also in the cast.
Wanda Hendrix, who plays the tomboy-turned-lady Della, was a true chameleon. Her varied roles leading up to this film included a young Mexican peasant girl in RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947), an Italian noblewoman in PRINCE OF FOXES (1949), and another Italian girl in CAPTAIN CAREY, U.S.A. (1950). In 1950 she also appeared in SIERRA (1950) with Audie Murphy, to whom she was briefly married, and in the comedy THE ADMIRAL WAS A LADY (1950).
The film has a high viewer rating at IMDb, but I noticed some people there complain about Hendrix's character being too young for a romantic lead. While she might have been on the young side for McCrea in 1950, in the era depicted in the film it was quite common for girls younger than Della to be married women, and for that matter it wasn't unusual for a girl to marry a husband who was quite a bit older, for multiple reasons I won't go into here. I felt Chuck and Della's connection made total sense in the context of this story, and Chuck was fortunate to find someone who understood him.
Many other things have changed since the time this film was set. I couldn't help reflecting on things such as Chuck contemplating the possibility of riding on and leaving the kids to fend for themselves on their ranch, or his leaving them alone in the woods overnight -- armed with guns, no less. At the end he piles them all on a horse and tells them to go to school. Those were not the days of hovering parents!
When a bunch of cowboys ran roughshod through Chuck's camp near the start of the film, I immediately thought of a similar scene with Robert Mitchum's campsite overrun at the opening of BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948). I was therefore interested to realize later that the story and screenplay for SADDLE TRAMP were by Harold Shumate -- who also did BLOOD ON THE MOON.
The print I saw thanks to Encore Westerns was 76 minutes; IMDb says there's also a longer version out there, but I'm hard-pressed to think of what could be missing, if anything.
SADDLE TRAMP was directed by Hugo Fregonese, who would make the fine APACHE DRUMS (1951) with Val Lewton the following year. The movie was shot on Southern California locations by Charles P. Boyle.
SADDLE TRAMP is one of my favorite Joel McCrea films and a wonderful example of the '50s Universal Western at its best. Very much recommended.