Cowboy Christmas: TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD (Republic 1950)

There’s no sign of Robin Hood to be found in the Roy Rogers vehicle TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD. However, the film has gained a cult following among sagebrush aficionados for the plethora of cowboy stars gathered together in this extremely likable little ‘B’ Western directed by Republic Pictures workhorse William Whitney , with plenty of songs by Roy and the Riders of the Purple Sage to go along with that trademark Republic fightin’ and a-ridin’ action (thanks, stuntmen Art Dillon, Ken Terrell, and Joe Yrigoyen!).

Some rustlers have been stealing Christmas trees from ‘retired actor’ Jack Holt’s tree farm. The benign Jack raises his trees to sell at cost to parents of poor kids, but avaricious J.C. Aldridge (Emory Parnell ) and his foreman Mitch McCall (former Our Gang member Clifton Young ) want to put an end to it and corner the Christmas tree market! U.S. Forestry Agent Roy is out to stop the varmints, along with his goofy sidekick Splinters McGonigle (Gordon Jones )  and his kid sister, whose name, appropriately enough, is Sis (Carol Nugent)!  Aldridge’s purdy but haughty daughter Toby (Penny Edwards) is sent to get Jack to sell out, and when he refuses, the baddies use every dirty trick in the book (including murder!) to put him out of business!

Toby has a change of heart when she learns McCall has kidnapped her pappy  after the villains resort to arson, causing Jack to be overcome by smoke inhalation. Things look bleak, as the tree wranglers are scared to bring the firs to market, so Sis gets the idea to call in the troops: Western icons Rex Allen, George Cheseboro, Crash Corrigan , William Farnum, Monte Hale, Tom Keene , Allan “Rocky” Lane, Kermit Maynard, and Tom Tyler ! They rush the trees by wagon over a burning bridge (with special effects courtesy of Republic’s Lydecker Brothers), the baddies are defeated, and Christmas for them thar poor kids is saved!

Anyone familiar with these Roy Rogers Westerns knows about the weird mix of Old West cowboys in modern times, and this one is no exception. Roy’s overgrown Boy Scout character is pure corn, but he was a big box office draw for the kiddies, and the film sure looks good in Trucolor (Technicolor’s poor cousin). Jack Holt, older and balding, is still as square-jawed as ever, and it’s a treat to see him along with all the other former cowboy stars under one Western sky. They don’t actually get to do much besides a little shooting and riding, but that’s okay, their mere presence helps up grade the material. Despite all these cowboy heroes appearing together, it’s Roy’s palomino Trigger, “The Smartest Horse in the West” , who receives second billing (his German Shepherd Bullet is featured, too)!

Roy gets to sing a few songs with Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage (“Home Town Jubilee”, “Get a Christmas Tree for Johnny”, “Every Day is Christmas in the West”), and there’s a cute subplot involving Sis and her pet turkey Sir Galahad, who Splinters envisions as a tasty Christmas dinner! Nobody did these things better than Republic, and it’s all harmless fun from the waning days of the Saturday matinee Westerns. The glimpse of cowboy heroes past makes it more than worth your time, and while it’s no classic, it sho’ nuff is a lot of fun!

Merry Christmas from Roy and Trigger!

 

Familiar Faces #7: Gordon Jones, Working Class Hero

Brawny actor Gordon Jones (1911-1963) was never a big star, but an actor the big  stars could depend on to give a good performance. Stars like John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Abbott & Costello knew Gordon could deliver the goods in support, and he spent over thirty years as a working class actor. Not bad for a small town kid from Alden, Iowa!

Gordon as The Green Hornet with Keye Luke as Kato

Jones originally came to California on a football scholarship, playing guard for UCLA. Like his fellow Iowan John Wayne , Gordon began his film career in uncredited parts, and soon moved up in casts lists with films like RED SALUTE (1935), STRIKE ME PINK (1936), and THERE GOES MY GIRL (1937). Gordon’s big lug persona made him ideal for second leads as the hero’s pal, though he did get some leading roles in Poverty Row vehicles like THE LONG SHOT (1938), opposite Marsha Hunt. His big break came in the title role of THE GREEN HORNET, a 1940 serial based on the popular radio program, with Charlie Chan’s #1 Son Keye Luke playing his aide Kato.

‘The Wreck’ menaces Richard Quine as Janet Blair & Rosalind Russell look on in “My Sister Eileen”

Gordon displayed a flair for comedy, and one of his best parts was in 1941’s MY SISTER EILEEN as “The Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech”, neighbor to sisters Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair. He made his first film with The Duke in 1943’s FLYING TIGERS as Alabama, a member of Wayne’s volunteer squadron fighting the Japanese in China before the onset of Pearl Harbor. Like many actors of the era, Jones served in WWII, and returned to the screen with 1947’s THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, starring Danny Kaye as James Thurber’s notorious daydreamer.

Gordon as Mike the Cop on “The Abbott & Costello Show”

Also in 1947, Jones made his first appearance with Abbott & Costello in THE WISTFUL WIDOW OF WAGON GAP, with Marjorie Main co-starring. Gordon’s the comic villain of the piece, and his work here led to his being cast as antagonist Mike the Cop in the team’s TV series. He makes the perfect foil for Costello’s zany antics, becoming more frustrated and exasperated every time Costello does something stupid… which is always! Jones was one of two cast members retained after A&C revamped the show in its second season, along with vaudeville vet Sidney Fields, a sure sign the boys appreciated his talents.

Lobby card from 1950’s “Sunset in the West”

Along came Roy Rogers, who employed Gordon as a comic sidekick in six of his cowboy movies. Jones played the character ‘Splinters’ McGonigle in TRIGGER JR, SUNSET IN THE WEST, NORTH OF THE GREAT DIVIDE, TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD (all from 1950), SPOILERS OF THE PLAINS, and HEART OF THE ROCKIES (1951). TRIGGER JR. is considered by many sagebrush aficionados to be Roy’s best, while TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD is an All-Star ‘B’ Western featuring veteran cowboys Rex Allen, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, George Chesebro, William Farnum, Monte Hale, Jack Holt, Tom Keene, Kermit Maynard, and Tom Tyler all playing themselves, as Roy and Gordon help save Holt’s Christmas Tree farm from poachers!

The 1950’s found Gordon again supporting John Wayne in the anti-Communist film BIG JIM MCLAIN (1952) and William Wellman’s plane crash drama ISLAND IN THE SKY (1953), but most of his work was now on television. Besides the Abbott & Costello show, Gordon had recurring roles in three other sitcoms: MEET MR. MCNULTEY (also known as THE RAY MILLAND SHOW) cast him as a friend of Ray’s all-girls-college professor; SO THIS IS HOLLYWOOD found him as the stuntman boyfriend of Hollywood hopeful Mitzi Green; and he was one of a succession of neighbors to OZZIE AND HARRIET. Of course, there were plenty of guest shots, too: THE GENE AUTRY SHOW, MY LITTLE MARGIE, WYATT EARP, LARAMIE, HAWAIIAN EYE, SURFSIDE-6, PERRY MASON, THE RIFLEMAN, THE REAL MCCOYS, MAVERICK, etc, etc.

Gordon and Strother Martin in 1963’s “McLintock!”

Jones made his Disney debut in 1959’s THE SHAGGY DOG as a police captain, and followed it with THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) and it’s sequel SON OF FLUBBER (1963), playing the football coach in both. His last role was again with The Duke, as the smarmy land agent Douglas in 1963’s MCLINTOCK. This comedy Western features another All-Star cast (Maureen O’Hara, Stefanie Powers, Chill Wills, Jerry Van Dyke, Yvonne DeCarlo, Edgar Buchanan), and Gordon’s right in the thick of things. Unfortunately, Gordon Jones was felled by a heart attack five months before the film’s premiere, passing away at age 52.

Gordon Jones may not have been a big star, but his contributions to film and television did not go unnoticed: That’s right, he has his own star on the fabled Hollywood Walk of Fame! Like I said earlier, not bad for small town kid from Alden, Iowa!