Monday, March 07, 2016

Tonight's Movie: Lawless Valley (1938) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Few DVD releases this year will make me as happy as the George O'Brien Western Collection, just out from the Warner Archive.

It's a three-disc, nine-film set of O'Brien RKO Westerns. I described the set in detail when it was first announced in January.

The O'Brien Westerns are simply very well-made, good-looking films which provide a terrific hour's entertainment for anyone who enjoys the genre. They have especially appealing leading ladies, including first and foremost Virginia Vale and Laraine (Johnson) Day.

Best of all there's the star himself, George O'Brien. O'Brien is a superb actor -- this is, after all, the star of the silent classic SUNRISE (1927) -- and he always seems to be having a grand time in these films. His sunny good nature and sense of humor are some of the things I like best about O'Brien and these films.

The movies also show off his notable strength and riding ability, doing his own stunts; for instance, LAWLESS VALLEY includes a scene where O'Brien jumps on a horse without benefit of stirrups, riding bareback. As noted by leading lady Virginia Vale, who is in three of the films in this set, "I never saw him use a double."

LAWLESS VALLEY is a typically enjoyable 59-minute O'Brien film. He plays Larry Rhodes, paroled from prison a little over a year into a five-year sentence.

Larry had been framed (what else did you expect?) for a stagecoach robbery, and he heads home to clear his name, as well as that of his father. Larry's father supposedly committed suicide rather than be arrested, but Larry knows he was murdered.

Also waiting for Larry back home is Norma Rogers (Kay Sutton), who is being forced by Tom Marsh (Fred Kohler Sr.) to marry his son Jeff (Fred Kohler Jr.). The casting of the Kohlers as father and son was a nice touch; sadly the senior Kohler passed away before this film was released.

Larry is aided by Bob North (Walter Miller), whom he met when hitching a ride home from prison on a railcar, as well as by Tim Wade (George MacQuarrie) and Norma's loyal friend Fresno (Lew Kelly). I was pleased to correctly guess a significant plot point regarding Larry's new friend Bob.

Like some of O'Brien's other Westerns which costar singer-songwriter Ray Whitley, there's a nice musical moment in this film, as a group of black singers called the Four Tunes sing in the boxcar.

Unlike most of the O'Brien films I've seen to date, LAWLESS VALLEY is set in what I like to call "Roy Rogers Never Never Land," where the characters wear more modern dress and there are hints at modern conveniences, mixed with a more traditional Western setting.

I couldn't determine what year it was supposed to be, but there's an old truck in the background of a shot and tire tracks on the road as Larry walks home -- yet he was sent to prison for robbing a stagecoach, and everyone gets around on horseback. The suits worn by Larry and the prison warden in the opening scene seem of a "later" era, though Larry's Western clothing would fit in the old West; Norma, on the other hand, is completely in modern dresses which seem to be of the 1930s.

Chill Wills makes the first of several appearances in O'Brien's Westerns in this, playing the deputy who constantly shadows the sleazy sheriff (Earle Hodgins). Wills would later typically play O'Brien's sidekick, but here he's one of the villains.

David Howard, who directed, worked frequently with O'Brien, with their most recently reviewed collaboration being the Fox film MYSTERY RANCH (1932). Sadly, Howard, who wasn't much older than O'Brien, died in late 1941, right around the time O'Brien was heading back into the Navy; O'Brien served throughout WWII, earning decorations and retiring as captain.

The screenplay, from a story by W.C. Tuttle, was by Oliver Drake, who wrote a number of O'Brien's Westerns. Drake's decades-long writing career also included DRAGOON WELLS MASSACRE (1957), reviewed here in January.

The movie was shot in black and white by Harry J. Wild. Exteriors were shot at the Corriganville movie ranch.

For those like me who can't get enough of O'Brien's Westerns, be sure to check out the previously released George O'Brien 3-Film Collection. All three films costar the lovely Virginia Vale, and the set includes what is probably my favorite O'Brien Western, THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY (1939).

LAWLESS VALLEY is a beautiful print. There are no extras.

Stay tuned for reviews of more O'Brien films from this set; I'll be taking a look at titles which are brand-new to me while also revisiting old favorites.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD collection. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.


Blogger Jerry E said...

I look forward to further reviews by you from this set, Laura, as I know you and I both love O'Brien's work. I think 'LAWLESS VALLEY' was one of the very best of the series.

11:38 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Jerry! I'm sure there will be more soon. :)

I thoroughly enjoyed LAWLESS VALLEY!

Best wishes,

4:06 PM  

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