HOLLYWOOD COWBOY aka WINGS OVER WYOMING (1937)
Running Time: 64 mins. Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Ewing Scott, George ‘Pop’ Sherman
Cast: George O’Brien, Cecilia Parker, Maude Eburne, Joe Caits, Frank Milan, Charles Middleton, Lee Shumway, Walter De Palma, Al Hill, William Royle, Al Herman, Frank Hagney, Dan Wolheim
This was a pleasant little surprise, a clever and entertaining programmer western. It’s a modern day western, a mix of roadsters and horse riding, familiar as the so-called Autry Fantasy. In this case it seems that some actual logic entered into the existence of these two dimensions to exist side by side. The cattle ranchers who have to round up their cattle are saddle bound. Visitors from the outside world drive cars. But that’s just one little witticism.
The picture begins with a series of newspaper headlines to the effect that the city is cleaning up the gangsters who are running the protection racket. The head bad guy, played by Charles Middleton, none other than the immortal Ming the Merciless himself, decides to lay low for a while and take their racket to the countryside and inopportune the cattle ranchers. Their techniques are very up-to-date, using an airplane to buzz the herds and scatter them preventing their going to market. So there’s that, somewhat typical western plot, somewhat updated.
There’s Maude Eburne playing the crusty old dame role to the hilt, resisting the evil entreaties of Charles Middleton. She has, wait for it, a beautiful daughter. Now throw in a joker in the form of George O’Brien, star of an enormous string of ‘30s cowboy pictures playing Jeffrey Carson, star of western movies. They are filming in the area and have just completed the last shot. A writer chum from New York (G. Gatsby Holmes (!)) running away from a divorce subpoena wants O’Brien to go camping for a few weeks and is in the habit of quoting Shakespeare. Yeah, this is a western where the Bard is liberally quoted.
The henchman of the villain rough up the beautiful daughter and O’Brien saves the day while still in character. Known as a “meet cute”. She doesn’t realize that he’s a movie star and for the rest of the film he has a wry smile on his face as people think he’s just some sort of saddle bum named Buck. Satirizing class differences lends a farcical aspect to the story.
O’Brien has a sidekick played by Dan Wolheim, for a programmer he was more than just good. He plays it as a rough precursor to Fred Mertz, grouchy. Buck and his two sidekicks have been taken on by Eburne as cowpunchers. Then we have the heat turned up on the farcical as the rancher’s beautiful daughter is being courted by a New York scion to a Park Avenue fortune for whom she has no regard whatsoever. But he is total denial. Check out his name: Westbrook Courtney, and he wears an ascot and drives the most beautiful Rolls Royce roadster.
The comedy comes when he notices beautiful daughter and “Buck” getting together and he takes Buck aside to tell him, for his own good, to know his place because he’s only going to be disappointed and hurt if he tries to romance a lady above his station. Of course George O’Brien finds the whole affair amusing. As a movie star he outranks the Park Avenue scion.
So Courtney is out in the RR roadster and come across a wanted poster with George O’Brien’s picture on it. Of course it’s a prop left over from the movie he was filming. Courtney can’t wait to tell everybody they have been harboring a criminal. Everybody, including the Cattleman’s Association, gets hot under the collar that they’ve caught a dangerous criminal, so beautiful daughter goes to warn “Buck”. More farce as she lets on that she knows his secret, which means to him that she’s found out that he’s a movie star and to her that he’s a wanted criminal with a price on his head. Courtney calls the sheriff who arrives expecting to arrest a criminal.
Now if this had been most any other programmer western, O’Brien would have spent the last twenty minutes of the film under suspicion as the bad guy in disguise, put in jail and breaking jail to capture the real bad guy and prove himself innocent. Here the sheriff walks in on this proto lynch mob and has a good laugh because he knows that he’s the actor from the recently departed film company and the wanted poster is just a prop. In these pictures the Sheriff is usually a boob willing to believe the first superficial story placed before him.
Of course it seems as though O’Brien doesn’t take anything seriously because he’s the only one aware that he’s in a movie and can rise above it. He finally speaks up and asks if anyone’s noticed that all of their cattle troubles began when Middleton, remember, he’s the villain, arrived in town and began selling protection? How many westerns, how many movies in general, is it so obvious that all of their troubles are easily identified as being a villain’s doing, yet they always focus on some innocent, usually the hero, because really without it there’s maybe 20 minutes of story? And the crime is usually the murder of the heroine’s father, which she reacts to with mere petulance and anger. Hey, it’s just a programmer western! Significantly they were referred to as “juveniles” in the day.
Then it really begins to get good. O’Brien has a plan. He calls a movie stunt friend to fly out and when they commence their cattle round up, the bad guys bring out their beat up biplane only to be trumped by this beautiful all silver Ryan ST monoplane. They force the biplane down and are told where the bad guys’ hideout is. They bomb it, sending them scurrying and they are rounded up by the cattlemen; and O’Brien and the beautiful daughter kiss and all’s right with the world.
But wait, that’s not all. The film was independently produced by George A. Hirliman (who was born in Ft. Lee N. J. where THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY was filmed) whose claim to fame was producing his first movie, TELL YOUR CHILDREN aka REEFER MADNESS. A couple of actors in that show up in HOLLYWOOD COWBOY.
The director of record was Ewing Scott, mainly a second unit director with some ten directing credits to his name. However, he was injured in an auto accident and the AD had to take over. The AD was George Sherman, later known as Pop Sherman, who became THE westerns guy in Hollywood. He has more than a hundred western titles to his name. They filmed in a favorite outdoor location Lone Pine, California, particularly the Alabama Hills, which consist of huge boulders piled upon each other that have been seen in hundreds of westerns. To see them is to instantly recognize them. While Sherman was directing, a company from Republic was just wrapping up and they were impressed with Sherman’s technique and hired him on the spot. Westerns were Republic’s meat and potatoes.
HOLLYWOOD COWBOY was later re-released by Motion Picture Ventures ten years later with the title WINGS OVER WYOMING, and this is the print shown on tv today. Aficionados of westerns will love this little picture. Others, maybe not.
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