When he was still calling himself Leonard Slye, Roy Rogers appeared in a couple of Charles Starrett’s films as a member of the musical group Sons of The Pioneers.  In 1951, right around when Starrett was hanging up his spurs, Rogers made the move to TV with “The Roy Rogers Show.”

In between, he made pictures like “Frontier Pony Express” and, in 1949, this one.

“Down Dakota Way” features a mature Rogers, a sure-footed cowboy star comfortable in front of the camera.  It also features ALOT of re-used footage from a previous Rogers vehicle?  I can’t figure which one it is.  A little help?

Another former Sons of the Pioneers band-member, Pat Brady, plays the comic relief.  Brady learnt his comic stylings from the worst, Mr. Smiley Burnette.  Here, he’s doing a recycled Burnette bit, taking a correspondence course in detecting.  Brady would do 35 films with Rogers before joining him on his long-running TV show.  That’s him mugging in the yellow hat.

The plot involves a former schoolteacher of Rogers’ and her errant son.  Roy plays Roy Rogers, who is on his way to a Wild West show in Cheyenne. It’s set in the modern day, but Roy and co. still travel by horse.

Montie Montana plays Sheriff Holbrook.  Montana was a rodeo star who appeared in a couple dozen westerns, mostly in uncredited roles.  Besides his debut in “Circle of Death”, this is perhaps his meatiest character.  He’s filled out a bit since that film and retains his authentic drawl and ease in the saddle.  He also benefits from the much higher budget of this film (“Circle of Death” was pure Poverty Row.) He looks good in color, actually Trucolor ©.

Like other good-looking trick riders and rodeo stars before him, Montie Montana was given his shot at movie stardom.  The year was 1935 and the film was “Circle of Death.”

It’s not much of a shot.  This is one dog of a picture.  Just the cruddiest production value and, because of the plot structure (wagon train massacred, little boy taken by Injuns, years later he’s our lead), Montie doesn’t appear on screen until 12 minutes into the film.  Running time: 55 mins.

Here’s little Jim Little.

And here he is, all grown up — Little Buffalo.

Or is it Billy Jack?  Montie looks a lot like a less loco Tom Laughlin.  He dresses like him too, with a silver-brimmed black hat often adorned with a white feather.

Fans of “Billy Jack” will also find Little Buffalo’s introductory scene crazily familiar.  Montie steps out of a local store to find a racist bully humiliating a young squaw.  Montie summarily kicks this asshole’s ass.  Right before he does, he says, “When I see this little girl, who is so special to us that we call her “God’s little gift of sunshine” and I think of the number of years that she’s going to have to carry in her memory the savagery of this idiotic moment of yours, I…just…go…BERSERK!”

Well, he doesn’t exactly say that, but the sentiment is definitely there.

I can see why the folks at Willis Kent Productions cast Montana as a white man passing as a Native American.  At 25, Montie has high cheek-bones and angular features.

Yakima Canutt plays a fellow “redskin” who is mostly silent in his braided wig.  He’s lucky.  Poor Montie is saddled with dialogue like “White Man law!  Indian think it no crime to kill coyote such as you!”  Watching this film is an odd experience.  It’s real-life cowboys Yakima and Montie playing Injuns versus Hollywood character actors playing cowboys.

Does that sound like a really weird playground game or what?

Montie meets his gal just like many movie cowboys have before him — by rescuing her from a runaway horse.  In this and one other scene, the filmmakers are kind enough to showcase Montie’s real talent — roping!

In later years, Montie would become famous for lassoing President Eisenhower at his 1953 inauguration.

This started a tradition of roping politicians and Presidential aspirants.  Here he is tossing a lariat around Adlai Stevenson.

In 1963, he rode alongside Iron Eye Cody in the Hollywood Christmas Parade past a theater playing “Spartacus” directed by one Stanley Kubrick.  A sign of changing times if ever I’ve seen one.

After “Circle of Death”, Montie appeared in a couple more films, but only one afforded him a speaking role — Roy Roger’s vehicle “Down Dakota Way.”

Montana is probably best known around Southern California for his many appearances in the Rose Bowl Parade.

He died in 1998, but his legacy lives on.  Last year, we caught his daughter doing some fancy rope tricks at the Republic Pictures 75th Anniversary celebration.

My own daughter had just turned two and she was transfixed.  And it stuck.  She’s crazy for lassos!  Her granddad even got her one for Christmas.  Watch for her on the rodeo circuit in a couple years.

If I have my way, she’ll be billed as Briar Montana.