Other Cowboy Stars — Bill Cody in “The Border Menace”

January 15, 2011

Pick a Durango Kid film.  Any Durango Kid film.  It’s almost certainly going to begin with some variation on the following legend, either appearing on a title card or read aloud:

“During the gold rush of 1871, most prospectors dug in the ground for the precious metal, some sought it over gaming tables, others chose to get theirs by outlawry.  But, when the focus of violence became a flaming menace of the law — there appeared a mysterious masked rider known as THE DURANGO KID!”

Here is the opening of 1934’s “Border Menace” starring Bill Cody.

Under this final image Bill pats his horse. “Hey Buddy, it’s great to be back on the old home range again.”

Unlike the Durango Kid who clocked in 48 appearances between 1940 and 1952, the “Shadow” didn’t take off.  Bill Cody would play many “Bills” over the years, but never again would he play Bill the “Shadow” Williams.  It’s not clear if he even played the “Shadow” here.  Cody is never referred to as the “Shadow” in the film.  No one mentions the “Shadow.” The general idea of shadows doesn’t even come up.

This is a remarkably bad film.  It’s pure Poverty Row.  It sinks below the generally poor quality of those films.  More on that later.

We meet “Shadow” on the run from a posse of lawmen.  It’s a ruse to allow him to get in with a gang of outlaws.  He’s a Texas Ranger, see.  There’s a ticking clock of a former confederate on his tail.  It all ends with a damsel in distress and an explosion.

Bill Cody is Mr. Sunshine, once again making with the smiling and the chuckling, even when he’s trying to impress the bad guys that he’s a bad ass desperado who is out for bloody revenge.  Cody was a minor silent cowboy star and he brings a jaunty Douglas Fairbanks style of mirthful bravado to his later films.  At this point in his career, he split his time between stints in Hollywood and performances with traveling Wild West shows.  “Border Menace” marks his return to the screen after a three year absence.  He was 43.

This Aywon Films production is my number one contender for the “Plan Nine From Outer Space” of B-Westerns.  Clumsy tracking shots and jarring cuts are the tools of this genre’s trade, but “Border Menace” finds new ways to confound and confuse.  The plotting is bizarre, featuring an oddly-placed series of flashbacks told from a jail cell by a mumbly-mouthed narrator.  Stock footage repeats again and again while never quite fitting the action of the film.  The damsel in distress struggles to make her poorly tied shackles seem believable.

This picture is just weird.

Despite this, the director Jack Nelson, (who helmed one of the worst-ever horror western hybrids, “The Rawhide Terror“), seems pretty proud of his work on “Border Menace.”  Check out how he signs his name.


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