Many years before Johnny Mack Brown went on a near-fatal hunting trip with Charles Starrett in 1944, but only a year after the friends met on “Three On A Honeymoon”, JMB was the star of this Mascot Pictures production.

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This 1933 serial is told in twelve parts.

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So that happened.

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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.

Johnny Mack Brown's hat at the Autry Museum

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.

As part of my ongoing efforts to familiarize myself with the other Cowboy Stars of Charles Starrett’s day, I watched the 1944 Johnny Mack Brown vehicle “Law Men”.

I know that Johnny Mack Bown’s hometown of Dothan, Alabama has an annual film festival dedicated to him. I’m also sure that there exists my counter-part in the world of Johnny Mack Brown fandom, who is equally puzzled by my myopic devotion to Charles Starrett.  However, admittedly having only seen one of his films, I don’t yet see the draw.

The two were friends, as evidenced by the auto accident they suffered together while on a duck hunting trip in 1944 (see blog entry “Auto Accident of ’44”)  And no wonder. They shared a lot in common.  They both made nearly 170 films, with the second half of their careers dominated by Western roles.   They were both football players in college (though Johnny was a much bigger star on the field than Charley ever was.)  They both appear to have been family men.

Johnny Mack Brown even has his own Smiley, Raymond Hatton.  They did fifty-one films together.

The similarities end there.  JMB is stocky with a heavy face.  In this, he wears dusty, lived-in looking clothes.  He is very deliberate in his movement and diction; he moves and speaks like you would expect a big man to move and speak.

“Law Men” features a lot of quick draws, but very little riding, and no fist-a-cuffs at all.  Familiar plot: the banker who is secretly running the gang of bank robbers so he can foreclose on all the cattle owners.   The director, Lambert Hillyer, even directed six of Charley’s films, including the 1940 “Durango Kid.”

This Monarch film has a lower budget, and is slower paced, than Charley’s films of this time.  There are some real cruddy actors in a few of the supportive roles — late with lines, flat readings.

Raymond Hatton’s clowning is pretty subdued and, compared to Smiley, low-key.  He’s also pretty smart and tough.  In “Law Men”, I would say that he got more screen time than top-billed Johnny Mack Brown.

I’m sure I’ll revisit some of Johnny Mack Brown’s other films.  Any suggestions?