“Thundering Frontier”

September 13, 2008

There’s nothing particularly thundering about his 1940 film.  There is a frontier in it, but then, there’s always a frontier of some sort.  C’mon, they live in the frontier.

A screenwriter must have faced many choices when writing a Charles Starrett vehicle.  One of the first choices faced (after decided Steve’s last name) when putting pen to paper or fingertips to the Underwood is this: what are the Sons of the Pioneers doing when they sing their first song?


The Sons of the Pioneers bail hay as they sing.

As will happen from time to time, Charles’ character has a father.  Jim Filmore (no Steve this time around) runs his father’s ranch, until Dad sells it.  Dad is the banker in town.  Bob Nolan wonders about Jim’s future: “Jim work in a bank? I can’t picture it.”  I can; I’ve seen “Undercover Men.”

We meet Jim being real tough — beating up a fella for whipping his horses.  “I hate to see a guy like that on the wrong end of a whip.”

Dad is a wimp – his other son controls him by keeping him in a state of fear over the future of the bank.  The brother is in cahoots with someone named Scotty (I think he runs the saloon).  They want to bankrupt the father/daughter team running a telegraph line into town.  After they seize the business, they intend to sell it to a big company back east who is merging all the little ones.  Ma Bell?

Charley’s character sides with the telegraph folk.  Why?  Because they are the little guys?  Because they are good simple hardworking folk like him?  Because they are on the side of progress and innovation in the West?  Maybe all of the above.

Dad dies and Charley gets to play a very good scene of a tough guy mourning. “He’s dead, Bob.”  He pats his horse, hangs his head, and walks off into the gathering darkness.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Having just watched a Ken Maynard film, I’m reminded that Charles chose to play these western characters without a discernible accent.  But, also having recently watched the football drama “Touchdown”, I’m aware that Charles does affect a sort of western cadence in “Thundering Frontier”.

Also, unlike Maynard, Charley is not an expert horseman.  He is, however, more than competent on the back of a horse.  It’s clearly him in the saddle for some challenging riding.  In this, he maneuvers his white stallion along a narrow and winding trail over some rocky terrain – at a near gallop.

Very little background music in this film.  Director D. Ross Lederman lets natural sounds like crickets and wind in the leaves provide the setting.  It works well.  He excercises an unusual amount of restraint for one of these films.

Interestingly, Jim says something in anger at the beginning of the film that he regrets and spends the rest of the film disbelieving — that his brother and his schemes are to blame for all that is wrong in town.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Despite this, Charles shows some real surprise when the brother is revealed as the bad guy, and real remorse when he has to kill him.

Totally strange last scene, with Pat Brady making out with a stand-up bass.  Charles and Iris laugh it off, but it’s just fucking weird.