“Rough Ridin’ Justice”

September 3, 2008

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Everything is topsy-turvy in this one.  For one thing, Steve wears the black mask.  (Seeing how this is his last film before “Return of the Durango Kid”, it probably was the actual DK mask.)  For another, Steve is a bad guy, at least at first.

Steve Holden is the leader of a gang of outlaws, but he’s still basically a good guy.  He interrupts a stagecoach robbery to tend to a wounded driver.  He instructs his men to shoot in the air.  He dumps their liquor.

It occurs to me that this is the sort of role William S. Hart might play.   A villain but with a moral code carried close to his heart.  Steve even quits the gang when he gets a chance to go straight, which would play in a Hart film.

The Rancher’s Association hires Steve to provide armed escorts for their gold shipments.  It’s a job with the potential for advancement, from local shipments to national ones.

The old gang, led by his rival Nick (Jack Ingram), is doing everything to discredit Steve (another dynamite montage from editor Paul Borofsky).  They even frame him for murder.

You know the old phrase “you don’t know what you’re missing…”?  Well, after seeing William S. Hart’s films, with their heavy, often biblical, morality, I am more aware of the lack of any real consequences for the characters in these films.  No one really pays for their crimes, not on any sort of meaningful level.

When the newly-straight Steve encounters all these troubles, even the charge of murder, he doesn’t seem to show any remorse, or pause for a moment to consider if all of this is his due for years of lawlessness and bad behavior.  No, just like quitting the outlaw way wasn’t because of any moral qualms — there was no turning point, no revelation, he just got a better offer — he blandly sets out to clear his (blemished) name, blind to the hypocrisy of the venture.

Of course, Steve emerges with his heroic image intact (through a rather clever device to reveal the inside man), but there is not a lot of vindication in this this.  His character was never really in question, his soul in jeopardy.

And, then, to let themselves completely off the hook, the storytellers insert a ‘big twist’ in the, literally, final seconds of the film — Steve shows the gal his wallet — he’s a Special Investigator for the Inter-State Rancher’s Association.

Cannonball is barely in this, though he does have a cool bit where he is dispatched by the sheriff to deliver a message to Steve when he’s still an outlaw.  We find old Dub blind-folded, wearing a sign that says “I want to see Steve Holden.”

Another plus for this film is a quick draw shoot-out with the bad guy.  I always love those.

Jimmy Wakely leads the band, featuring a heavy set fella who can sing like an angel.

The gal is played by Betty Jane Graham, a New York model who came to Hollywood the year before.  This would be her last (of 4) films.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures