#133) Under Western Stars (1938)
OR “The Roy Rogers Follies”
Directed by Joe Kane
Written by Dorrel McGowan and Stuart McGowan and Betty Burbridge. Original Story by the McGowan Brothers.
Class of 2009
Republic Pictures folded in the ‘50s, long live Public Domain Theater!
The Plot: At the height of the dust bowl, ranchers lose their water rights when the local water company builds a dam near their ranches. With a congressional election coming up, the ranchers endorse Roy Rogers (Roy Rogers) to help take their case to Washington. Roy tries to win over the Washington elite with strong moral values and far more songs than the average member of congress.
Why It Matters: The NFR cites “Under Western Stars” as the film that “turned Roy Rogers into a movie star”. There’s also a detailed essay by Roy Rogers experts Howard Kazanjian and Chris Enss. Fun Fact: Kazanjian produced “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Return of the Jedi”!
But Does It Really?: Historically, sure. It’s cheap and a bit contrived, but you can see Roy Rogers’ screen appeal on display. Plus, like most B-movies, it’s short. Roy Rogers should be on this list somewhere, and this film might as well be it.
Everybody Gets One: Before he was Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys was a singer named Leonard Slye. A founding member of Sons of the Pioneers (still going, by the way), Leonard was groomed by Republic Pictures to replace their other singing cowboy Gene Autry during a contract dispute. Slye received his new surname as homage to the late Will Rogers.
Wow, That’s Dated: Besides the film’s obvious dust bowl roots, “Under Western Stars” features candlestick phones, steel guitars as a western instrument, and joking references to spousal abuse. Yeah, definitely want to preserve that.
Title Track: Not only does no one say (or sing) the phrase “under western stars” in this film, but most of the film doesn’t even take place at night. What gives?
Seriously, Oscars?: “Under Western Stars” is one of the rare B-movies to receive an Oscar nomination: an Original Song nod for the stirring and timely “Dust”. Due to the aforementioned legal issues with co-writer Gene Autry, only Johnny Marvin got the credit and, subsequently, the nomination. No matter: the song lost to “Thanks for the Memory” from “The Big Broadcast of 1938”.
- This is also the only NFR appearance for Roy Rogers’ faithful horse Trigger. In all honesty, Trigger doesn’t do anything in this film to warrant his moniker of “The Smartest Horse in the Movies”. Maybe he just tests well?
- Among the countless B-movies helmed by Joe Kane is the serial “Undersea Kingdom”. And now I have that song stuck in my head.
- Like many a low-budget western, “Stars” was filmed in Lone Pine, California. That’s weird; I thought it was called Twin Pines, California.
- Ladies and Gentlemen, Frog Milhouse! Frog is played by Lester “Smiley” Burnette, because I guess Andy Devine and Pat Buttram were unavailable.
- Flying headlines are an acceptable alternative to spinning headlines.
- Pit stains. I feel you, Smiley.
- I don’t care who you are; it’s always impressive to watch someone leap onto (and off of) a horse.
- I miss aggressive winking.
- “Vote for Rogers” is a fun precursor to “I Like Ike”. Also, no lip-synching here, go on about your business.
- Roy is giving me Cal Worthington flashbacks.
- Is fox hunting still a thing?
- What a downer “Dust” must have been when they performed it at the Oscars.
- “Evidently you still believe in motion pictures”. How meta.
- Despite the film’s low-budget, they picked a lovely day-for-night to shoot.
- I hope Roy uses his political power to help the Joads out.
- Roy met his future third-wife Dale Evans during filming of 1944’s “Cowboy and the Senorita” (Yes, she was the senorita. Different times.) What followed were a 50-year marriage, a successful radio and TV program, and the reason you inexplicably know the words to “Happy Trails”.