Tall (Tales) in the Saddle: THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE (RKO 1938)

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Cowboy star Harry Carey had been around since motion pictures were knee-high to a cactus. He made his first film in 1908, working with pioneer director D.W. Griffith. He was already one of silent film’s biggest sagebrush stars by the time he made 1918’s STRAIGHT SHOOTER, the directorial debut of John Ford. When the  talkies rolled around, Carey was over fifty and his leading man days were behind him. He transitioned into a fine character actor, and his talents are given a good showcase in the low-budget Western THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE.

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Carey is champion liar Bill Barker, a charming rascal who spins tall tales of his bravery fighting bloodthirsty Indians. The old windbag gets himself thrown out of New York circa 1881 when he tries to run a con on Wall Street tycoon Sam Kent. Not even his ex, a former saloon girl now passing herself off as continental singing sensation Clary Martinez, can save him. Bill travels to El Paso and manages to get tossed out there too, but the judge, who’s been raising Bill and Clary’s daughter Nitta, will wipe the slate clean if Bill can bring in the daring highwayman known as The Tonto Kid.

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The Kid is played by Tim Holt, son of action star Jack Holt. Young Tim was just getting his career started, and THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE gives him a chance to shine as well. Holt was noticed in this film by John Ford, who cast him in his classic STAGECOACH  . This led to an RKO contract, and a popular series of budget Westerns that made Tim one of the biggest box-office cowboys of the late 40’s/early 50’s. The actor displays a boyish charm here that served him well throughout the years, and he has great chemistry with the veteran Carey.

Bill, after bushwhacking Tonto and rescuing daughter Nitta (who believes her father was killed “carrying the Stars & Stripes at Gettysburgh”), gets elected mayor of Martinez, Arizona, where the railroad has gone through. The eloquent old scoundrel appoints himself judge, and opens The Texas Rose Café, where he dispenses whiskey and justice ala Judge Roy Bean. There’s a dispute over water rights with the low-down McQuinn brothers, who are old enemies of Bill. The events culminate in a shootout, with Bill and Tonto victorious. But some of the town elders have grown tired of Bill’s tall tales and frontier justice, and an election is held. Is this the end of the line for the boastful Bill? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Carey has a field day as the blowhard Bill, with his yarns about Indian fighting and being a personal friend of President Garfield. A particularly tense scene has Bill and Tonto at odds, with the older man taking a pistol with one bullet and goading the Kid into shooting at each other. With one last shot, The Tonto Kid backs out of the challenge, but we soon discover there was NO ammo after all. It’s a cool scene and works thanks to Carey and Holt.

Evelyn Brent
                                                                       Evelyn Brent

Jean Rouveral  is Nitta, and she’s a good match for Holt. Esther Muir plays Madame Moustache, leader of Bill’s dance hall girls. Silent siren Evelyn Brent gets a plum role as Clary Martinez. Clarence Kolb does his usual fine work as rich Sam Kent. The rest of the cast is a cowboy movie lover’s dream, with Allan “Rocky” Lane, Ward Bond, Bob Kortman, Bradley Page, Monte Montague, Martin Garralaga, Kermit Maynard, Charles Middleton, Bud Osbourne, and Chief Thundercloud all taking part in the action.

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Former actor Glenn Tryon keeps the comedy and the action equally balanced as director. THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE attempts something different from the usual sagebrush saga, and succeeds largely due to Harry Carey’s charisma. I can see where John Wayne learned a lot of his screen tricks, including the way Carey pronounces “cat-ridges” for cartridges, and some of his small bits of business. The movie is a testament to the acting chops of one of Hollywood’s first cowboy stars, and an unpretentious, fun little ‘B’ that Western fans will certainly enjoy.

 

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