Other Cowboy Stars – Johnny Mack Brown in “Desert Phantom”
December 19, 2009
Charles Starrett and Johnny Mack Brown were friends. They apparently hung out, and, on at least one occasion, they went hunting together. In fact, they were involved in a near fatal car accident while on that hunting trip. I wrote about this here.
They may have met on the set of “Three on a Honeymoon“, a 1934 romantic comedy from Fox which I have not yet seen. From the billing, it appears that Charles and Johnny Mack Brown played supporting roles to Sally Eilers and Zasu Pitts.
I’ve seen one other Johnny Mack Brown film. That was the 1944 Monogram production “Law Men”. I was less than impressed with JMB in that film and was puzzled by his enduring popularity.
Watching this 1936 film, I understand his draw much better. He’s quick with the gun, a top rider and throws a convincing punch. He looks smart in his city-slicker-type duds up top, and pretty authentic in his lived-in cowboy clothes for the rest of the picture.
Unfortunately, this Supreme Pictures production is a loser. It’s cheap with bad sound and cruddy cinematography. As the title suggests, it has one foot in the horror genre…actually, let’s call it a toe.
We meet JMB as a traveling salesman for Gigantic Shells. This allows him to show off his quick draw skills, which are considerable, and to meet a pretty gal played by Sheila Manors.
It’s getting late, so won’t he spend the night at the inn? Well, he overhears a troubling story about a ghost who is killing cowhands out at the gal’s ranch, so he rides out there and offers to work for her.
She says, “You’ll be in terrible danger.”
He says, “I’ve always been interested in ghosts and this will give me a chance to learn more about them.”
How’s that for motivation? The story lurches along with this sort of laconic drive. He quits his salesman gig. The ghost takes a shot at him. The spooky step-dad asks him if he’s ready to quit, “Kind of losing interest in your job on account of it?”
He replies, “Not at all. As a matter of fact, I figure it’s going to be right interesting.”
At some point, we discover that he has a back-story. Local thug Salazar killed his sister’s husband and JMB has been searching the country ever since, hell-bent on revenge. That is until he got more interested in finding ghosts. For a driven man, he sure changes course on the merest of whims.
Much of the final chapters of the film takes place in a cave. This set is reminiscent of the one where Durango saved Smiley in “Streets of Ghost Town.” Yep, it’s that cheap and fake looking.
Poor Johnny Mack Brown. I understand he made some mid-budget films for Universal in the late-30s and early 40’s, but he sure spent the beginning and the end of his career on Poverty Row. The cheap production value does allow for some cool invention — there’s a long, seemingly hand-held, tracking shot of a pair of muddy boots walking across the cave floor and climbing a wooden ladder. You never see that kind of camera movement in a Starrett Western.
The film also suffers from some incredibly bad storytelling. For example, when JMB finally catches the man he’s been hunting for revenge for so long, he blithely turns him over to Tenderfoot to take to the Sheriff. Why? He’s tired.
Another plotting failure involves JMB taking a nap before the final showdown. Seriously! Our hero on a couch, snuggled up under a blanket, while important things are taking place. Like plot.
Fortunately, he wakes up in time to end this stinker.