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Three Minor Cowboys

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John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers, and Alan Ladd -- all major contributors to the Western Genre. But what about matinée idols like Lash La Rue? Lash La Rue and Fuzzy (Al St. John), out prospecting, find themselves obligated to ensure a town stays clean and on the up and up. At least that, in a nutshell, is the plot of Law of the Lash (1947). In addition to a gun, Lash wields a bullwhip. It might seem unfair, as if the Code of the West were being flagrantly undermined, but Lash can whip a gun from a man's hand within striking distance. He also plays his character straight, maybe more than a little square. So much the better to allow for Fuzzy's comic relief. At times, the movie can do without, as in the case of Lefty (Lee Roberts), actually called by name during a stage holdup. Later, told to glom ammunition from the General Store, Lash knocks some bare-fisted sense into him. The varmint then tries to pay with stolen rings! Later, up to no good, he is captured by Lash in the wild, guarded by Fuzzy, scratching and chewing tobacco all the while. Let go, he hears voices. Lefty seems destined to serve a life sentence in honky-tonk saloons feeling low, while Lash winds up, somehow or other, with the girl from behind the counter of the General Store.

Trouble in Texas (1937) is a Tex Ritter vehicle. His film brings up the notion that a circus-like atmosphere works well with cinema. Trouble centers a great deal on a rodeo in which cowboys rope steer, ride broncos, disappear during a Native American dance, and then reappear for additional arena acts. A gang of outlaws, however, works this venue. While the whole town is away, they bust into the bank and rob it -- going for the rodeo purse. Tex has more than good citizenship in mind while in pursuit of these bad hombres. It is personal, too. It was in a rodeo event long ago that his brother was killed. As it turns out, this same gang deliberately sabotages the high-priced riding competition, targeting the top contender. Tex chases after the outlaws as they escape, horse hooves kicking up dust. It has been five years, but Tex now gets closure. The main feature, however, is the music. Tex is a consummate balladeer. He has quite a repertoire of songs, too. As a singing cowboy, Tex is different from Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey. He is a bit louder and blustery. Hard to believe, but Rita Hayworth plays the girl -- a dancer. His sidekick is another hayseed type, Lucky (Horace Murphy).

Tom Mix is yet another significant Minor Cowboy. Probably earlier on, he was more major than minor. But the fickle fate of popularity that gives way to the stuffy edicts of the history boys is often enough quite merciless. Still, that should not stop anyone from seeing fun movies. They are not a waste of time, not for the Western fan. In fact, in this respect, they are must-sees. It is a good movie experience, if a little out of the ordinary, to watch The Law and Outlaw (1913). Innocence and guilt are jumbled up in this narrative. Dakota Jim Wilson (Mix) is being blamed for a crime his brother committed. He has a price on his head. He eventually gets an honest job and wins the loving attention of a cowgirl. But then, as his identity becomes known, he is cuffed and put into jail. What distinguishes Mix, in part, from other cowboys are his stunts. He does them himself. Even today, at touristic western towns, cowboys shooting, falling from roofs, or engaging in fisticuffs and performing other acrobatics make for quite a show. All part of the Western tradition, it is up to the individual to determine how much in terms of high jinks to enjoy.

The only drawback in all of the above is that most of these silent films have visually deteriorated. This is where film restoration and preservation come in. I think, like other underfunded, archival activities, that it is worth the while to rescue and salvage American film heritage. This is especially the case with Westerns, which historically had much to do with getting the rudimentary film business off and running.

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