November 16, 2008
“Challenge Of The Range” begins with a couple of cowboys retrieving a note from beneath a rock in the middle of a prairie. The note reads: “Time for the Bartons to get out of Pincon Valley. You know what to do.” One of the henchmen chuckles and says, “We should. We’ve been doing it long enough.”
So should the filmmakers responsible for the Durango Kid series. They’d been doing it long enough at this point; by 1949 they had made 35 films.
And I should know what to do as well. I have now seen 113 films starring Charles Starrett. What a ride!
I’ll start this discussion of #35 then with an overdue, if obvious, observation. Most Durango Kid films start with an action sequence. Most Pre-Durango Kid films start with a song.
No fancy government job for Charley this time — Steve Roper is just an unemployed cowhand riding around and dressing up in black now and then. Once he gets involved in the range war in Pincon Valley, he becomes consumed by the excitement-free task of comparing the handwriting on discarded notes to that of various suspects.
Smiley has probably the most interesting role in the entire series: he’s a pulp western writer from back East, a real city slicker in a bowler hat and plaid suit and pants combo. His latest tome is “Dead Eye Dick And The Blond Temptress.” He’s in town doing research on the range war for his next book. Unfortunately, this promising premise is pretty much immediately ditched and he’s back in his familiar duds doing his unique brand of comedy — the kind that isn’t funny. At all.
Early on, Steve says “I never take chances when a woman is involved.” This would pretty much sum up his love life in the Durango Kid films. He has nary a romantic moment with pretty Paula Raymond. She has most of her scenes with Smiley.
A strange casting choice: former Dead-End Kid Billy Halop plays hothead Reb Matson with his Brooklyn accent intact. His take on cowboy lingo is pretty funny.
Well, I called it this time! I saw three riders chasing Durango. I checked their clothing – black shirt, white shirt, checkered shirt. It could only add up to one thing: the ol’ Durango ambush with a rope between two trees. You know the rest — shoot the gun out of one of their hands, take their boots — cut to them gingerly walking through the brush, “our feet will be worn down to the knees before we hit town.”
A quick note about Durango’s horse: we know the horse is named Raider primarily from promotional material. Durango himself almost never addresses the horse by name (unlike a number of other famous cowboy heroes). However, he does so here. “Go Raider!” It’s probably the third time I’ve witnessed it. Quite a thrill, believe me.
The mystery in this film genuinely worked for me. I had no idea who the villain was. Mainly because I never really got involved enough to care. There’s not a lot to grab you here: handwriting samples and hidden clauses in membership forms and a shy villain who hides notes under rocks.
Charley doesn’t even throw a single punch in the entire film. Maybe because Dick Curtis isn’t around.
There is a shoot out on the set of some other Columbia film. Maybe “Father Was A Bachelor”?
In the end, who saves the day? It’s not Steve. It’s not Durango. Who then shoots the bad guy at the last minute before he kills the innocent rancher? The Sheriff? The Dead End Kid? The gal?
No. It’s a minor character. One of the partners in the Cattlemen’s Association. He has maybe a dozen lines. Couldn’t tell you his name.
Not an entirely satisfying experience, watching this film. But 113, right?!