George O'Brien Western Collection by watching an older O'Brien film, MYSTERY RANCH (1932).
MYSTERY RANCH teams O'Brien with 18-year-old Cecilia Parker, a couple of years before she starred with Buck Jones in the recently enjoyed Western THE MAN TRAILER (1934).
MYSTERY RANCH is a little different from the standard O'Brien Western, being a creepy Gothic tale which was at times reminiscent of that same year's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932).
Undercover ranger Bob Sanborn (O'Brien) arrives at the ranch of Henry Steele, where a man was recently killed; an early shot of Steele gazing in satisfaction at the hanged murdered man sets the tone for his character. The forbidding (and deranged?) Steele is played by Charles Middleton, who was later evil Emperor Ming in the FLASH GORDON serials.
Bob discovers that Steele is holding Jane (Parker) against her will. Though Steele tells Bob that Jane is his niece, she's really the daughter of his former business partner, and he plans to force her to marry him and have both her and the ranch. It's up to Bob to find a way to rescue Jane and keep them both alive.
The plot may sound the stuff of classic melodrama, and I suppose it is, but it's played with style. Despite being an older man, Middleton as Steele radiates cruel power. As he chases down those who would escape his vast ranch and encourages Apache Indians to commit vicious acts against innocent people, Steele reminded me a bit of Zaroff (Leslie Banks) in the previously mentioned MOST DANGEROUS GAME. This is not a ranch anyone would want to visit willingly!
Of course, O'Brien, always a sunny-natured, strong and stalwart hero, is not going to let Steele and his minions stop him from rescuing spunky young Jane, who has also caught his eye romantically. Bob comes up with a plan, aided by Artie (Forrester Harvey), who is loyal to Jane. Old pal Buck Johnson (Roy Stewart) also shows up with a passel of Arizona Rangers, right in the nick of time.
That's not giving away the ending, though, as Steele has a really stunning and powerful final scene, not the sort of thing you'd expect in this kind of Western. This was a pre-Code film, which helps account for some of the surprising moments and images.
David Howard, who would direct most of O'Brien's successful RKO Westerns, directed this earlier Fox film. It was filmed by Joseph August and George Schneiderman in Sedona, Arizona.
Alfred A. Cohn's screenplay was based on a story by Stewart Edward White. The running time is 56 minutes.
MYSTERY RANCH unfortunately seems to be only available in pretty poor copies. It's a shame, as while the New York Times poked fun at the movie, it also said the film "has some of the most beautiful glimpses that have ever been seen on the screen. The photography is so good that it seems almost stereoscopic."
Incidentally, when the film premiered at the Winter Garden in New York, it was titled THE KILLER to disguise the fact it was a Western from folks in the big city!
For more on the movie, Steve gives the film a good review at Mystery File -- though anyone who doesn't want to know the ending should hold off reading it till seeing the movie -- and there's more very interesting background on the film in the comments.
It's available for purchase from Alpha DVD.