#482) Melody Ranch (1940)

#482) Melody Ranch (1940)

OR “Local Cowboy Makes Good”

Directed by Joseph Stanley

Written by Jack Moffitt & F. Hugh Hebert & Bradford Ropes & Betty Burbridge

Class of 2002 

No trailer, but here’s a clip.

Shoutout to streaming service Tubi, which thanks to a partnership with Gene Autry Entertainment, offered this elusive film online for free.

The Plot: Gene Autry plays a successful country music radio and recording star not unlike himself. When his hometown of Torpedo invites him to return for their Frontier Days Celebration, Autry accepts and takes his radio show with him, including sidekick Corny Courtney (Jimmy Durante) and new leading lady Julie Shelton (Ann Miller). Once in Torpedo, Autry runs into trouble with the Wildhack Brothers (Barton MacLane, Joe Sawyer, and Horace McMahon), who threaten to wreck havoc on the town. There’s action, romance, comedy, and plenty of songs in this offering from America’s Singing Cowboy.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of the film and Gene Autry, attributing his success to his “playful humility and popular Western-tinged songs”.

But Does It Really?: While Gene Autry is (as he was then) primarily associated with his songs rather than his movies, having one of his films on the list is a testament to his popularity, and “Melody Ranch” is a perfect encapsulation of the all-in-good-fun type of movies Autry specialized in. It’s nowhere near an untouchable classic, but “Melody Ranch” has a welcomed spot in the NFR.

Shout Outs: Corny, upon being held at gunpoint: “What is this, ‘The Great Train Robbery‘?”

Everybody Gets One: Orvon “Gene” Autry got his start singing and playing guitar at local dances in southern Oklahoma. In 1929, he signed with Columbia Records, and after spending most of the ’30s as a mildly successful radio and recording star, had his breakthrough in 1939 with his re-written rendition of Ray Whitley’s “Back in the Saddle Again“. The song was a hit, and became Autry’s signature song for the rest of his career.

Wow, That’s Dated: Your first clue is that Autry is presented here as a radio star. Other than that, it’s smooth sailing…until the scene where Gene and Julie play Brave and Squaw. It’s brief, but incredibly cringe-inducing.

Title Track: In addition to being the name of Gene Autry’s real life radio program (which premiered the same year as the movie), the song “(Stake Your Claim on) Melody Ranch” bookends the film.

Seriously, Oscars?: No nominations for “Melody Ranch”, though Gene Autry would receive an Oscar nod the next year for composing (along with Fred Rose) the song “Be Honest with Me” in his film “Ridin’ on a Rainbow”.

Other notes 

  • Autry had already made dozens of films for Republic Pictures by 1940, but “Melody Ranch” was given a bigger budget in an attempt to make Autry a bigger movie star.
  • This is also the only NFR appearance for film and TV comedian Jimmy Durante (but not if I have anything to say about it). By 1940, Durante had been a star of vaudeville and radio, and was just starting to get decent parts in the movies. Aided by his raspy delivery and trademark schnozzola, Durante is still laugh-out-loud funny in this movie.
  • This is one of seven films George “Gabby” Hayes made with Gene Autry, and he is everything the later impressions of him would claim to be. The “Blazing Saddles” team did their homework.
  • Gene Autry is not the best actor, but he never claims to be and is clearly not taking himself seriously, which aids to this film’s overall fun. Be on the lookout for moments where Gene almost breaks while genuinely amused by his co-stars’ comic antics, just like Jerry on “Seinfeld”.
  • “Melody Ranch” would make a good double feature with fellow NFR entry “Under Western Stars” starring Autry’s movie cowboy rival Roy Rogers. Both films have our stars essentially playing themselves and applying their homespun personas to local politics.
  • During this viewing I realized that both Durante and Autry are associated with Christmas standards: Durante has “Frosty the Snowman“, and Autry has “Here Comes Santa Claus” (which he wrote!).
  • We hired Ann Miller and damn it, we’re gonna make her show off her legs and tap dance! I don’t think the number comes across on radio, but it’s fun to watch.
  • After beating up Gene, the Wildhack Brothers sing their own version of “Back in the Saddle” called “Go Back to the City”. Very meta, though if you’re not familiar with the original song the scene can be confusing.
  • Wow, Gene Autry was doing training montages 35 years before “Rocky“. How I long for a bluegrass cover of “Gonna Fly Now”.
  • Yes, the romantic subplot between Gene and Julie is by-the-numbers and a bit dull, but the “Call of the Canyon” sequence gave me an opportunity to stretch a bit without missing anything. Thanks, movie!
  • Shoutout to Barbara Jo Allen as local school teacher Veronica Whipple. Here, Allen plays a variation of her radio character, the perpetually oblivious Vera Vague (she’s even parenthetically credited as Vera in the opening credits). Everyone’s good in this movie, but Allen steals the show. Fun Fact: Allen would go on to voice Fauna (the green fairy) in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty”.
  • A celebrity running for public office? What a ridiculous notion…
  • That being said, the political subplot really takes over during the third act. Wasn’t Ann Miller in this movie?
  • The action scene on the trolly loses something whenever we switch to the wide-shots with an obvious model. It made me start humming the “Neighborhood of Make Believe” music.
  • Even back in the ’40s there was voter oppression? Man, we really suck at keeping that under control. Quick, someone get Richard Kiley!

Legacy 

  • Although “Melody Ranch” did not elevate Gene Autry’s movie star status, he continued to make popular western musicals throughout the 1940s. In fact, Autry was successful in practically every showbiz endeavor he attempted: movies, records, radio, television, live performance, to say nothing of his shrewd investments in real estate and TV/radio affiliates.
  • Further proof of his success: Gene Autry is the only person to receive five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for each of the five eligible categories.
  • As his film career was winding down in the early ’50s, Gene Autry purchased the Monogram Movie Ranch, renaming it Melody Ranch after this movie. The ranch has been a go-to filming spot for many a TV and movie western, and most recently doubled for the infamous Spahn Ranch in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”.

Listen to This: There’s NO Gene Autry on the National Recording Registry? That’s it, I’m filling out the form…

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