There’s nothing the least bit ambiguous about Trigger, Jr., a 1950 Western starring the legendary cowboy crooner Roy Rogers. Released by Republic Pictures, this musical matinee is a swift, 68-minute jaunt through the lighter side of the wild west, where good guys are good, bad guys are bad, and horses, as is seen in the film’s most unusual ploy, can be both. Joining Rogers is his faithful steed, Trigger, billed as “The Smartest Horse in the Movies,” as well as the famous palomino’s titular offspring. Directed by William Witney, a regular at Republic and director of more than 25 films with Rogers, Trigger, Jr. doesn’t limit it equine focus there, however. Squaring off against the lot is a wild, deadly stallion, unleashed at the criminal behest of shady patrol officials who manipulate and exploit the film’s ranching community.
Republic Westerns like Trigger, Jr. didn’t have the time, money, or the inclination to bank on elaborate plots and complex characters. So, true to form, here things are simple and certain. Heading a travelling circus, the affable Rogers is good-humored, hardworking, and, of course, steadfast in his decency, and despite torrents of blowing dust and a bombardment of tumbleweeds, the fine attire of he and his crew remains relentlessly impeccable. Goofy antics abound, primarily from Rogers’ bumbling press agent, Splinters, played by Gordon Jones, who was most famous for his starring role in the 1940 serial, The Green Hornet. George Cleveland also appears as the cantankerous, wheelchair-bound Colonel Harkrider, and his sprightly, one-of-the-boys daughter, Kay, is played by Rogers’ high-riding wife at the time, Dale Evans.
Besieged by a storm, Rogers and company are forced to stop over at the Harkrider estate, where Roy meets the colonel’s timid son, Larry (Peter Miles). Standing in for all the young boys in the film’s Saturday morning audience, the lad finds inspiration in the tutelage and heartiness of this stalwart male lead. The respite also lands Roger squarely in the midst of a territorial feud between ranchers like Harkrider and corrupt horse patrol agents led by a ruthless man named Manson (Grant Withers). All involved are one-dimensional, serviceable types; Rogers and his team are sociable and familiar while the scheming baddies are little more than passable foils. And it works just as it should.
Released by Republic earlier in 1950, Singing Guns is weighty by comparison. Directed by R.G. Springsteen, another B-movie mainstay at Republic, this picture’s claim to fame is that it’s the silver-screen debut of singer-turned-actor Vaughn Monroe, a celebrated big band leader. He stars as Rhiannon, a fugitive who has stashed away a coveted cache of stolen gold and is wanted throughout the region. Early on, a stagecoach robbery results in Rhiannon’s shooting of Sheriff Jim Caradoc (Ward Bond), an incident that also manages to reveal the outlaw’s inherent civility — he is still the protagonist, after all. Rhiannon takes the wounded man to Johnathon Mark (Walter Brennan), a preacher and part-time doctor, who performs a blood transfusion between the assailant and his victim, and, for good measure, shaves the hitherto bearded Rhiannon, gives him a change of clothes, and essentially grants him a new lease on life.
As Caradoc recuperates, unaware of who this fresh-faced savior really is, Rhiannon assumes the position of Sheriff, all the while keeping one eye on future gold prospects (he’s now in charge of the town aptly named Goldville), and another eye on seductive saloon singer Nan Morgan (Ella Raines), a woman on the stage that started it all. Conveniently unrecognizable, Rhiannon proceeds along a path of moral ambivalence. There is reasonable tension as his identity is left uncertain — how much does the doctor know, what about Nan? — and though he does get found out, and his gold lust never seems to wane, he also proves himself to be brave and selfless, at one point saving some trapped miners, and his justification for the thieving isn’t wholly unreasonable: he was wronged by an unscrupulous mining company. Ultimately, such is the easygoing tone of Singing Guns, one begins to back nearly all involved, hoping for a way in which they can all succeed, from Dr. Mark, who advocates charity and redemption, to Rhiannon, who struggles with his ethical and judicial quandary.
While just over twenty minutes longer than Trigger, Jr., Singing Guns seems to have an extra hour’s worth of story and character expansion. It’s an interesting premise, well worked out by screenwriting siblings Dorrell McGowan and Stuart E. McGowan (based on a novel by Max Brand), and the film has its fair share of quirk and originality, enough to keep the whole thing entertaining. Moments of amusing impudence were easily achieved in a Republic film like this, given the low budgets and minimal risks, so Singing Guns gets a whole shtick about Nan keeping cash strapped to her leg by her garter, and a coach passenger observing the “bank” and asking about the “other branch,” wanting to make a deposit. There is also a scene where Rhiannon humiliates Caradoc by dressing the sheriff in Nan’s bloomers and sending him sashaying down the main street of Goldville; and there is one sardonic moment when Nan plants a lit cigarette in Rhiannon’s neck, just as he gets a little too fresh. Springsteen displays some creative cinematic economy, as well, like when he tracks along a cell full of drunks from Rhiannon’s first Saturday on the job, a testament to how good he is as sheriff, or at least what kind of town Goldville is. But Singing Guns can also be brutal, as when Nan says she didn’t expect to see Rhiannon and he, growing bitter by their rocky relationship, gives her a slap and declares, “Here’s something else you didn’t expect.”
As for Trigger Jr., its highlights run the more genial gamut, filling a surprising amount of idle time (considering its length) with acrobatics and scenes of slapstick humor, exploding cigars and clowns on horseback, a hilarious sight simply glossed over as if it were perfectly normal. At the same time, though, the film’s most astounding curiosity is the insertion of this dangerous killer horse, initially condemned to an isolation barn. In the day-for-night photography by Jack A. Marta, this “Phantom Horse,” as a newspaper headline dubs it, appears as a ghostly white specter, leaving a trail of fallen horses in its path of destruction, eventually going head to head with a temporarily blinded Trigger in one of several bizarre boxing horse sequences. They’re brief and fundamentally inconsequential, but Trigger, Jr.’s allusions to the era’s shifting political and social standards are also notable, as characters observe the dwindling remount station and the fact the Army doesn’t need horses anymore, and Rogers self-consciously questions the precarious state of contemporary entertainment.
Exuding irresistible charm and energy, which fed the nature of his work generally – he made around 80 pictures with Republic – Rogers leaps and jumps and punches with prodigious aplomb (Trigger, Jr. boasts some wildly impressive stunt work), all the time remaining keen for show. Bright eyed and smiling, he first sings alongside the Riders of the Purple Sage about 17 minutes in, and Evans later gets in on a tune for the birthday of Kay’s horse-fearing brother. On the other hand, while Monroe is by no means a bad singer (his rendition of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” is famously featured in the first two Die Hard films), his performing sequences, especially the abrupt first one, are laughable at best, downright awful at worst. They are wooden, sudden (after about 40 minutes into the film), and odd. He simply isn’t a natural fit for film, certainly nothing next to the effortless Rogers. Monroe does fare better as a straightforward actor, offering up endearing words of advice to a wayward child, pleading his rationale for why he stole the gold, and maintaining his rebellious lawless streak, telling Brennan’s preacher/doctor, “You’re not stamping a cross on this maverick”
Though not released as a single package, Trigger, Jr. and Singing Guns make for a complimentary double feature from Kino Lorber. The Trucolor photography is nicely transferred for both films, although Trigger, Jr. has issues of yellowing skin and depleted reds and overwhelming blues. And whereas Trigger, Jr. often resembles a cartoon, Singing Guns’ sharp picture is richer, with an earthier texture; moreover, Springsteen makes the most of the splendid Sedona scenery. Both Blu-rays feature an audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan, who is briefly joined by Jay Dee Witney, William Witney’s son, for Trigger, Jr. Jay Dee’s comments are obviously written and rehearsed, but are sincere all the same, and he adds an audio clip of his father as he talks about directing action scenes. For both films, Roan provides ample Poverty Row history and places these two samples within that context. He talks about Rogers’ penchant for always playing the good guy, even when he appeared as Billy the Kid, and he touts the unsung, character-actor virtues of Bond and Brennan, noting that Bond has more films on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 great films than any other actor (seven) and that Brennan obtained his distinct vocal projection due to mustard gas damage when serving in World War I. Together, Trigger, Jr. and Singing Guns are fine examples of what Republic Pictures had to offer. The former is basically what you would expect; the latter is perhaps better than expected.