(From Old Corral image collection)
Above from left to right are Max Terhune (as "Lullaby Joslin"), Ray 'Crash' Corrigan (as "Tucson Smith") and Bob Livingston (as "Stony Brooke").
Released in June of 1938, this eclectic movie preserves the tradition of owning a title, which bears absolutely no relationship to film content, location or theme, and the word DAKOTA is not even mentioned in the movie. It borrows from three previous 3M flicks. Remember the train robbery in CALL THE MESQUITEERS? Well, this film does offer a less elaborate version. From its immediate predecessor, OUTLAWS OF SONORA, it assumes the concept of a double or impersonator. This time around, instead of the double being a human, it is a horse. Remember Cyclone from WILD HORSE RODEO?
Here we have a Mesquite, a beautiful black stallion that our heroes have captured on their range. He is the exact likeness of Black Knight (BK), a famous 1930s racehorse that has triumphed at every major racing event in the country. All of his winnings and all the financial resources of his owners, Mrs. Garth and her niece Joyce, have gone to support and maintain a children's hospital, their favorite charity. Now we have the central theme of the movie, a dual role for a horse as Mesquite impersonates the horse-napped Black Knight at a major race with a $100,000 purse. There could have been some concern among the movie censors of the 1930s with this theme. The real significance could be an unhealthy moral message that the end (winning the race with a ringer even though for a good cause) justifies the means (substituting Mesquite for Black Knight).
The movie makes no pretenses about time warp. It's the 1930s all the way, which really makes our heroes look so out of place in their 1880s garb. From airplanes to movies to radios, all you would have to do is get the 3M to swap their boots and hats for business suits and you would be seeing a film noir detective story. But, in a way, maybe this was Republic's way of getting people in modern times to feel that they were an integral part of the story. I have come to like it. What about you?
The ubiquitous level of comedy we enjoyed throughout the previous OUTLAWS is not found in RIDERS. This outlaw gang is no group of comedians. However, among the cast members is Roscoe Ates, a genuinely funny man. Once you get past his stuttering, he was just funny by virtue of his facial expressions, his gestures, and interactions with others. When matched with Lullaby, who unsuccessfully tries to teach him some 'slight of handcuffs' tricks, Ates' humor shines like a beacon. Perhaps, in Republic's eyes, one primary comedian per hour-long B western was considered adequate. Also in the cast is Fred 'Snowflake' Toones. Unfortunately, he does not get too much of a chance to entertain. What a loss to us, the viewers!
In further scrutiny of the cast, we find Bud Osborne, a stalwart, dependable owl hoot, making his 3M bad guy debut. I always think of him and Charlie King as partners, having played in so many films together. As usual he is a rank-and-file member of the gang, speaking few lines, following orders, shooting at the good guys, and, as expected, getting caught in the end. His real expertise was handling stagecoaches with 4 and 6 ups.
Let's consider something really radical. How about role reversals for the 3M with some of our great owl hoot friends stepping up to the Stony, Tucson and Lullaby roles. Who would be Lullaby? I would vote for Charlie King. How about Tucson? Maybe Morris Ankrum or Harry Woods? The tough role to fill would be Stony's. Maybe a young Ted Adams. Perhaps a Leroy Mason or John Merton without their moustache? Who would your choices be?
Tom London returns to the screen, but this time around, he is a bookie name Red Stevens, second in command of the mob. Also laboring in the gang is steady Jack Ingram. Apparently having no recognizable 'outlaw skills or leadership abilities', he seemed condemned to serve forever as a lowly mob member never ascending to any owl hoot management position.
Getting to the movie --- after seeing many film shorts portraying Black Knight's winning ways at all tracks nationwide, we see him on board a Santa Fe Passenger train headed west to his next gig. At the side of the railroad track is Tom London and his cohorts who manage to stop the train and 'horse nap' Black Knight. The steed is held for a $25 grand ransom. News is spreading country wide of the incident. The mastermind behind all this skullduggery is Don, the fiancÚ of Joyce Garth.
At a local movie matinee in Mesquite, Tucson and Lullaby are comfortably seated enjoying the show. Returning with some popcorn is Stony who is totally mesmerized when he sees a newsreel with Joyce Garth pleading for the return of Black Knight. Completely distracted, and not looking where he is sitting, he plops down in the lap of John Merton's wife. Rather than being a bad guy, Merton, just an average theater patron enjoying the show, is not pleased with Stony's choice of seats. Here is where the obligatory brawl commences. Observe the contrast --- as fists and bodies fly, on screen is a short film encouraging people to get getting along with one another.
Deciding that an afternoon at the movies was not such a good idea, the boys get down to some serious ranch work. Using in part stock footage from WILD HORSE RODEO, we see our heroes capture a beautiful black stallion, which they appropriately name Mesquite. On the way back to their ranch, they stop a neighboring homestead to water their horses where they are warmly greeted by a smiling and friendly Tom London.
Continuing on their way, a plane appears overhead. In the copilot's seat is Dave Sharpe, a stunt man and future member of the Range Busters. He is a part of the Black Knight search effort. Thinking he has spotted the stolen steed, he radios the local sheriff who sets out in pursuit. With six shooters firing away, the sheriff's posse gives chase without identifying themselves or rendering a Miranda warning. Fortunately the boys give them the slip by hiding in a large gully, which parallels the trail. We will see that same trail under a canopy of low hanging trees with the paralleling deep streambed in many more Republic films. Does anyone know where that trail was located?
The boys head for town to report the incident and, upon arrival at the calaboose, are charged with horse napping, and thrown into jail. Joyce and Snowflake claim the horse and return to their estate.
Anxious to clear their names and recover their property, the 3M escape from jail when Lullaby hood winks the sheriff, Roscoe Ates, with a handcuff trick he supposedly learn from Houdini. It's off to the estate where Mrs. Garth affirms that Mesquite is not Black Knight unburdening our heroes from the charge of 'horse napping'.
Passing up a luncheon invitation from the Garths, our heroes are seated in a local beanery eating beans and discussing things. Lullaby notices that the picture of the suspected ringleader of the gang on the front page of the paper is the same guy who greeted them at the watering trough the other day.
Their plan is to return to that homestead after dark and rescue Black Knight. The best laid plans ... you know the old saying. When the boys approach the homestead, Black Knight has already been removed to another location and a brief firefight ensues. (The most frequently seen action photograph of the Livingston-Corrigan-Terhune 3M trio was taken from the firefight scene at this point in the movie.) Obviously some one tipped off the crooks, but who? Probably Don of course.
In the meantime a call from Jack Ingram demands a $25,000 ransom for the safe return of the horse. Because of tight financial circumstances, the Garths are unable to cough up the additional cash.
Stony to the rescue again! Realizing the superior racing qualities in Mesquite and knowing that the $100 grand will go to a good cause, he suggests that Mesquite 'pretends' to be Black Knight for the big race. The scene changes to Santa Anita racetrack in southern California where a few timed turns around the track confirm Stony's belief. With Don present, the Garths agree that the good cause of supporting the hospital prevails over the 'ringer' status of Mesquite and possible criminal problems if ever discovered. I was able to identify the racetrack by the presence of trolley wires belonging to the Pacific Electric Railway. If you look closely when this scene opens, they are located on the right just beyond the white fence. I am told that this rail line has since been removed. Nothing like a day at Santa Anita for the cast and crew!
Later that day, as the bad guys are listening to their car radio, they hear a strange message that Black Knight will be entered in the upcoming race. How can that be, they remark when they are holding Black Knight? After an explanation from Don, they decide to update the ransom to $100K.
There was never the least doubt that Mesquite would win the big race, not withstanding some help from Lullaby. With the prize money in hand, Joyce Garth and the 3M are heading back from San Francisco, the apparent location of the big race (a San Francisco newspaper, not the customary Mesquite Sentinel, flashes across the screen listing the winning race). Maybe at Bay Meadows?
Just about this time they return home, a vicious rumor, probably started by Don, alleging that a ringer was substituted for BK is making the rounds. Having heard that story, officials of the racing commission will be at the Garth estate in a few days to confirm BK's identify. As if that were not enough. The call boosting the ransom to $100K hits the Garths like a landslide. Fear not! The 3M are at hand.
Under the watchful eyes of the 3M who are concealed in a hill top observation post, Joyce makes the drop at a dried tree stump in the middle of nowhere. A moment or two later, four gang members arrive to snatch the ransom. How routine! Couldn't Republic have added some flare and more excitement by putting a little more cinematic imagination and creativity into this scene?
Certainly the bad guys are not imaging things when the 3M set out in rapid pursuit. In an attempt to evade them after exchanging a few rounds, the bad guys split off into pairs.
By now the bad guys should have heard that once the 3M are on your trail, there is no escape. It's just a matter of time until you are done. A few tosses of the lasso and a couple of well aimed rounds finding their mark in the tires of a fleeing open top car end the criminal careers of the horse nappers. One confrontation remains, albeit a brief one at that. Our primary hero against the chief bad guy. Was there ever a western where this did not happen? With minimal effort, Stony overpowers and snags Don.
(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
Above are Max Terhune on the left and Ray Corrigan on the right. And all trussed up in the center are, from L-to-R, Bud Osborne, unidentified player and Art Dillard.
BK is released and returned to the Garths in time to pass muster by the racing commission officials. I wonder if they bothered to ascertain any of the details of how the Garths were able to obtain BK's release so that he could participate in the big race. After all his horse napping made national headlines! The winning purse is given to the children's hospital. Who can argue with that? The bad guys are incarcerated. Everything seems to fall in place. Lovely Joyce Garth, who does not seem at all upset that Don was the chief bad guy, is free from her engagement and available. In true heroic fashion, however, as much as Stony would have liked to 'replace' Don, the bond between the 3M is more compelling than any that might exist between Stony and Joyce. Off into the sunshine our heroes ride to meet their next adventure, the last for this wonderful threesome.
I would like to see one movie where, at this point, the hero takes a strong stand for his own romantic interest. Here, Stony should say adios to Lullaby and Tucson, walk Joyce to the altar and settle down to run things for the Garths. But then the 3M would be down to the 2M!
A two six-gun rating for this film. Nothing more. And those six-guns would be of the smallest caliber, maybe 32s. A routine movie at the most --- predictable with nothing that we have not seen before. Oh yea, there was something new, Stony wore a stain-free shirt!
Above, Bob Livingston has a rope around pretty Priscilla Lawson, who is best remembered as 'Princess Aura' in the first FLASH GORDON serial.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
One of our heroes will be riding off into those hills. Sadly, this is the last 3M movie for the great Terhune-Corrigan-Livingston trio. Something in the magic and charisma of the 3M unquestionably vaporized with the departure of Robert Livingston for other Republic films, notwithstanding the subsequent arrival of John Wayne. In my estimation they were the best of the many threesomes which bore the title of the Three Mesquiteers.
I am sure that Bob Livingston was anxious to move on to promised bigger and better roles. He had served his time in B westerns and had paid his dues. What was in line for him? A few of those non-western Republic movies, like LARCENY ON THE AIR, to name one, are available for sale and worth seeing. Speaking of LARCENY, his costars were Smiley Burnette and Grace Bradley, the wife of Hopalong Cassidy. In a year or so, probably very unhappy and disappointed, Livingston would return to the 3M, but with a different pair of sidekicks.
In light of the above, let me share a few observations. Together, this team could function like a well-oiled Colt 45. Yet, individually, the boys possessed and demonstrated unique on-screen personality traits and characteristics. Each contributed toward making the 3M a solid 'front line' team, to borrow a football term. More importantly, they were so convincing at it that they made the audience believe what they saw.
Two gun Tucson was a big brother type, compassionate, too solemn, rarely angry or impulsive, infrequently the lover, always seemingly in full control of himself, and the others when the situation required. He was the voice of reason that could put a lasso around any of Stony's hair brain schemes. It helps to have a person like that around. On the other hand, I cannot say that Corrigan revealed as much about his personality as did the others. Maybe he was just more of a private person both on and off screen. Could we say that he was the George Harrison of the 3M?
Lullaby was a blend of a Dutch uncle and a caring, compassionate father. Perhaps being the eldest of the three permitted him to assume that responsibility. Like a good daddy, he reconciled any differences between 'his two sons'. He too at times was the voice of reason and good counsel. He was sensitive and kind, never angry, though he did on occasion like a swig or two. He had a heart of gold. He could be serious and believable and comical and believable. You cannot say that for too many sidekicks. When on the trail, he always rode in the middle, which conveys the importance of his role within the trio. No one could ever fill the Lullaby boots but Max Terhune.
Livingston gave the Stony character the imprint of his own personality. He created an extremely likable fellow. I'd bet that he was an interesting guy to hang out with! His 'Stony' was fun loving, adventurous, romantic, gregarious, outgoing, and, at times, maybe too impulsive. That's where Tucson and Lullaby came in. He was regularly the first of the trio to develop a plan to solve their latest caper. Usually he was the leader of the three, but at times the others would assert themselves and assume that role. You will not see that with John Wayne as Stony. But that's a topic for an upcoming review.
In marked contrast, I did not experience the same feeling of synergy when I saw Corrigan and Terhune in the Range Buster movies regardless of who the third member was. The same could be said for Livingston in any of his other western movies. The one and only 3M team of Livingston-Corrigan-Terhune gave meaning to the term "synergy'. Working as a team under the 3M banner, they were dynamite --- much greater than the individual contributions of each actor. However, when they were acting in other movies, they were just average or slightly above. Their 3M magic was gone forever.
So enjoy this gem. It's the last one and, fittingly so, one of their better films. It deserves a fully loaded and cocked 3 six guns. Listening closely, you will note a new musical score has been introduced for the Livingston-Terhune-Corrigan finale. Was this a musical tribute to this team's final film?
This is the second 3M film taking on a social theme. Remember ROARIN' LEAD where the boys took an active role in saving an orphanage from the greedy hands of the head of the Cattlemen's Protective Association? In Heroes we have some wayward souls but they are state prisoners who taste the hospitality of the 3M ranch, which will be turned into a prison farm. Bet their neighbors liked that! Surprisingly, the in-movie discussion of prison overcrowding and alternatives to managing that overcrowding almost seem contemporary.
Just as the boys are exiting their ranch vacation bound, the phone rings. It's the sheriff requesting their participation in a manhunt for two escaped state prisoners. Only the 3M would sacrifice their vacation to participate in a dragnet! On the hunt the 3M capture the prisoners who disclose some compelling inside facts about prison life.
Little do the prisoners know and, for that matter, the audience as well, that the 3M are members of the State Prison Board. Overwhelmed with sympathy and having a deep understanding for the plight of the prisoners, the boys present the prison board with a plan. On a month long trial basis, with a dozen or so prisoners, they will offer the 3M ranch as a prison farm experiment to deal with the overcrowding conditions noted above.
Compassionate LeRoy Mason, a convict named Red with less than six months to serve, has helped a young prisoner, affectionately called 'The Kid', who suffers from some respiratory ailment aggravated by prison conditions to escape to clean air and more healthy surroundings. By the way, this is the first movie I can remember where Mason played a decent person. He did the same in a cameo appearance in the FIGHTING SEABEES. More appropriately he's a 'good' bad guy! As the movie unfolds, we learn that his character is a solid person dedicated to helping his young friend regain his health and making the prison farm concept successful, even it means policing and strong-arming his fellow convicts.
The baron of bad guys, Roy Barcroft, heads the ARBEE Construction Company (think the ARBEE stands for Roy's initials?), which would like to get the contract to build that new prison. They see the prison farm plan as the major impediment to their proposal. There, in a nutshell, is the basic plot of the film. They will do anything to derail the prison farm.
Their first attempt comes when the 3M and the prisoners, moving by horseback from the jail to the ranch, are subjected to gunfire, which scatters the group. The boys are further surprised with the instantaneous arrival of the sheriff and his posse who had been fore warned by an anonymous phone call. . In the meantime an aggressive Mason has rounded up any wayward prisoners and has them headed toward the ranch. These circumstances convince them that someone, namely the ARBEE Construction Company, is out to wreck their prison farm idea.
Listen for some comical quips from LeRoy (like making a comment that the sheriff resembles a fellow convict). I did not know he had it in him! Speaking of comedy, in the next scene we are treated to a panorama of convicts singing and working on the 3M Ranch.
ARBEE, which is also working on roads in Mesquite County, has not given up on their intent to wreck the prison farm. Their next plan is to have a group of their men in convict uniforms pillage the neighborhood. But first they must gain some information and then lure the 3M away from their ranch.
Most folks, including the ARBEE mob, know that females are Stony's weak point. So Barcroft and company send a sweet young thing out to scout the 3M Ranch and capture Stony's eye. She accomplishes both overwhelmingly with a minimum of effort. That night as she and Stony are enjoying an evening of dancing at a local Mexican place, she slips a few knock out drops into his coffee. [I think the group providing the music here is the same band we heard at Steve's Place in OUTLAWS OF SONORA.] As he falls to floor, Stony is scooped up by Barcroft and a few of his henchman who take him to an up stairs room in the Larson Hotel.
After liberally dousing the 'sleeping' Stony with gin, Barcroft calls the 3M ranch to report that Stony is sick and should be picked up at the Larson Hotel immediately. Reacting to their compatriot's situation, Lullaby and Tucson light for town. On the way, bandits steal their horses and leave them to complete their journey by foot. Finally, many foots steps later, at daylight, Tucson and Lullaby arrive at the hotel and awaken a sleeping Brooke.
Meanwhile, the prisoners, unsupervised by the 3M, are already hard at work under the hot sun. Sent back from the work area to get some water, the 'Kid' enters the bunkhouse catching the real bad guys as they are planting the stolen goods. Connors, foreman of the ARBEE Construction Company, shoots him. Hearing the shot, Red runs to the bunkhouse where the 'Kid' dies in his arms but not before pointing a condemning finger at the construction gang.
Back in town, the boys scurry off to the sheriff's office where they encounter a raucous group of local residents who have been victimized by the phony convicts. The 3M with a posse are off in a flash to the 3M ranch. On their way they are passed by a group of hard riding ARBEE construction people, who, unknown to the posse, are returning from the 3M ranch themselves.
When the posse arrives, at muster two convicts are missing --- Red who rode off to the construction company and the 'Kid' who is dead.
The 3M swing into action. Stony will pursue the girl while Tucson and Lullaby ride over to the construction company's camp.
After riding into Mesquite, Stony learns that the girl has just left town on the mid day train. Off he goes down the Southern Pacific tracks, chasing the express until he finally swings from Starlight on the train. Following a brief conversation with the uncooperative female, he pulls the emergency brake line to slow the express down and jumps from the vestibule, uninjured mind you, with her under his arm. To get her to talk, Stony makes her walk back to town until she tells all. At long last after arriving at the sheriff's office, she recants and accuses Stony of kidnapping. Following a brief flap with the law, Stony rides for the 3M ranch with the sheriff in pursuit.
At the construction camp, Lullaby and Tucson have subdued a vengeance seeking Red and brought him back to the ranch. Stony arrives a few moments ahead of the sheriff and shares with Tucson and Lullaby what he has learned from the girl. A plan is formulated to convince the still skeptical sheriff who by now is also at the ranch.
(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
Above from L-to-R are Forrest Taylor, Livingston, Corrigan and Terhune.
(Courtesy of Bart Romans)
Above from L-to-R are Roy Barcroft, Corrigan, LeRoy Mason, Terhune and Livingston.
With a little coercive help from Stony, the sheriff calls Barcroft to tell him to come to the 3M ranch to claim what was stolen from him. Upon arrival, a pistol packing angry Red confronts the Baron of Bad Guys. Anxious to save his life, Barcroft readily makes a complete confession which is over heard by the sheriff. Barcroft played a true wimp in Heroes! I thought he was much tougher!
The ARBEE gang, smelling a rat, set off for the 3M ranch as well. They manage to get the drop on the 3M, the sheriff, and Red, locking our heroes in a paper-thin closet. It takes Tucson all of a second to put his massive shoulder through the door. And the chase is on!
After a running firefight, almost all of the gang has been subdued. It remains for Connors, the actual killer of the Kid, to face Stony in hand-to-hand combat atop a high cliff. In a great fight scene reminiscent of HEART OF THE ROCKIES, and as one has come to expect in B westerns, a struggling, fighting Connors falls over the edge. He has paid with his life for murdering the Kid.
In conclusion, the 3M ranch prison farm experiment is successful. We see more convicts working away and singing at the top of their lungs. Their bellowing is still ringing in my ears!
As the screen slowly descends on HEROES OF THE HILLS, the memorable trio of Livingston-Corrigan-Terhune rides off into the California trail dust for the last time. A wonderful part of the B western milieu has unfortunately drawn to a close.