The Lawless Frontier, 1934
Where do I begin? I have barely even begun my journey through the world of B-westerns, and already I have come up against one that is more of a C-western, or perhaps even a D-. If anyone had been watching me watch this movie (in fact my wife was in the room, but was engrossed in sorting out Avon orders), she would have heard my constant exclamations of "wait...what?...Hold on, I gotta...Where'd that come from? Rewind...rewind...rewind..." We jump from scene to scene with only a bare pretense of continuity, like a book from which someone has torn out every fourth and seventh page, we are required to guess at what has happened off-screen, the dead apparently come back to life...but I am getting ahead of myself. I almost forgot, the main theme here is (unlike everything else about the movie) very simple: "evil villain wants to kill people and have his way with the girl."
The Lawless Frontier stars John Wayne as the hero, George (not yet actually but still somewhat Gabby) Hayes as the intended victim/co-hero/loveable zombie, and the almost ubiquitous Earl Dwire as the villain. In previous movies that I have written about, Dwire plays a looming, shifty-eyed hired gun or head henchman who doesn't get to talk much but always gets shot in the end. In this movie, he is the Main Bad Guy who has plenty of lines. Unfortunately.
He plays an infamous outlaw named Pandro Zanti. Pandro? Anyway, he's half white, half Apache, but poses as a Mexican and allegedly speaks fluent Spanish, although he really seems to speak English with a fluent hackneyed Mexican accent. Our story begins with an unexplained gun battle/cattle stealing scene, with two people inside a darkened house firing at the rustlers. Zanti sneaks up behind the house and shoots the two defenders in the back through a window. After the bad guys are all gone, John Tobin (John Wayne) arrives to find his mother and father dead in their house. Thus we must assume that from here he begins hunting Zanti. He knows it's Zanti even though he didn't see it happen, somehow.
Here is Zanti first laying eyes upon Ruby, our damsel, and he gives her a good look-over from toes to head.
She looks like she just rolled out of bed and threw some loose clothes on, so I can't really blame him. I mean, I wouldn't have looked at her like that, but I would have been leering on the inside. Played by Sheila Terry, who is one of those actors who I wish I new more about. She had a very active career for only six years, then abruptly quit the biz in 1938. She died in 1957, at the young age of 46.
Please, if you have any charity at all in your heart, forgive me for the following paragraph.
While Zanti is talking to Dusty (George Hayes--the character and his daughter Ruby have no last name), Ruby sees two suspicious characters (Zanti's henchmen) on a ridge behind the house, so she slips out a secret passage in their house (picture above), hidden behind a cabinet that is mounted on hinges and exits into a gully just below the ridge where the henchmen are, just in time to hear Zanti (who has since departed) plotting evil machinations with his two Main Henchmen. (Henchman #1 is Yakima Canutt, henchman #2 is Jay Wilsey, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, Jr., but who wasn't really the son of Bill Cody. I don't think). Since she hears their nefarious plans to kill her father and have their way with her, she and her father devise a ruse to escape the next day. Ruby is bundled up in a large bag over the back of a donkey so that she appears to be a load of something and they go to town. They encounter Zanti and his gang on the way, but Zanti lets them go because at first he doesn't realize the girl is hidden in the bag. As Dusty and Ruby cross a river, the donkey spooks and spills Ruby into the water, still wrapped up in the bag. Fortunately Tobin happens upon the scene just in time for Dusty to yell to him that his daughter is in the bag "and I can't swim" (What? You risked a plan like that and you can't swim?) So Tobin jumps in and rescues Ruby. Zanti sees everything from a distance through his telescope, and realizes he has been duped. Zanti's gang gives chase, which results in the first of the weirdly monotonous horse chases in this movie. The girl's horse (of course) takes a nosedive, spilling her. Tobin scoops her up onto his horse, and then for some mysterious reason pulls his gun and switches it to his left hand before grabbing a tree limb from the back of the horse and swinging up into the tree. Personally, I would have left the gun in the holster if I were planning any horseback-to-tree limb acrobatics. He drops out onto the rear-most bad guy as they pass beneath him, and the rest of the gang doesn't notice. His gun is now mysteriously back in the holster, but for some reason he removes it and then puts it back while struggling with the bad guy for control of the horse. Tobin catches up with another bad guy and knocks him off his horse as well. Two down, and the gang still hasn't noticed. He shoots at them a couple of times from behind and they break off chasing Dusty and Ruby in order to chase Tobin. And how does he get away? Well, it took almost 20 minutes this time, but he uses the ever-popular downhill slide.
Which I have mentioned before.
And rides the horse off a cliff into a pool of water. Does this still look vaguely familiar? It should. If this isn't the exact same footage that was used in Riders of Destiny, I'll eat my hat. In that movie, it's how the bad guy was killed. In this movie, it's how the hero escapes.
And then some other stuff happens. Marshall Walton (played by Jack Rockwell, who has a chin that would make Dick Tracy hide his face in embarrassment) calls a town meeting about the Zanti problem. He doesn't trust anyone, and suspects that Tobin is "in cahoots" with Zanti. Tobin slips away to go visit some afflictions upon the Zanti gang. Which leads to this odd scene.
He ties this gun up in some rocks and attaches a long string to the trigger. Is it a double action? Maybe. It looks like it could be one, but it's hard to tell. Watching it again in stop-action, I believe it is a double-action.
He hides some distance away and pulls the trigger several times with the string as the gang rides by, for no apparent reason other than to mess with their heads. As unlikely as this is, it would have been several orders of magnitude more unlikely if the gun had been a single-action, which is why I studied it so closely. The gang heads for where the gun is firing from, except for Zanti himself, who ends up going after Tobin. And here we have another oddly boring horse chase. Zanti catches Tobin, but Tobin wins the fight and captures Zanti, taking him to Marshall Walton.
And now I must remind you that Dusty and Ruby are now in town, not out at their ranch. Zanti is cuffed by the ankle to a bed in town, but the cuff is enormous. So enormous that he can slip out of it by simply removing his boot.
A knife materializes in Dusty's back. Although it appears to have penetrated only far enough to slit his vest, he falls dead.
A few minutes later, Zanti sneers knowingly. Tobin is blamed for Dusty's death, since Zanti was apparently cuffed to the bed. Then Zanti slips his cuff again, kills a deputy (for which Tobin is blamed again), and escapes.
Everyone is gone, and Dusty rises from the dead. He now has a big bloody wound on his head. Apparently someone whacked him on the head with a rock after he died. "Died."
Marshall Walton captures Tobin and cuffs him to the bed at Dusty's house, this time using a regular wrist cuff from which he can't slip out of. Zanti is going to kill Tobin as he lies cuffed to the bed, but the resurrected Dusty creeps back through the secret passage and shoots Zanti from behind the cabinet.
But only wounds him. Zanti once again escapes. Dusty shoots the cuff holding Tobin so he can get away. Tobin chases after Zanti. Another monotonous horse chase. But then we get to the weirdest scene in the whole movie. John Wayne on a boogie-board.
He comes across this thing...I don't know what it is. A log sluice? But the only trees are small scrub brush, not the kind of timber you would need a sluice for. Besides, there's only a half-inch of water running through it, not enough to float a tree trunk on. An aqueduct? Maybe. Anyway, it's something made out of large, smooth planks in the middle of the desert with some water running in it. Tobin finds this flat piece of wood.
And rides it about a hundred a yards to try and head Zanti off at the...uh...the aqueduct or something. He pops out of it just in time to miss Zanti zipping past on his horse, but since Zanti is wounded, he falls off.
And they have this slow-speed walking chase through the desert. [41-minute mark...Note to self: No O.J. jokes.]
After a couple of minutes of walking, Zanti stops at a mud puddle to get a drink of water. Unfortunately, he misses this large sign right by the puddle.
And that's the end of Zanti--because of the odd Hollywood proscription (back then) against the hero actually killing the evil villain. But the gang is still on the loose, so Tobin tricks them into thinking that he's hidden in a cave, which is actually the opening to the secret passage to Dusty's house. They all run inside to catch him. Fortunately, there is a case of dynamite hidden in a small crevice just beside the cave opening.
BOOM!!! And they're sealed in.
Aaiiieeee!!! It's the Zombie Gabby!!! "Aw shucks," he says, "I weren't shot, and for the knife, it was only a scratch." But what he really means is, "Durn tootin' I want to eat yer brains, ya whippersnappers!" P.S. Shot? Who said you were shot? (Rewind...nope, no shot...what are you talking about?)
The gang is let out of the secret passage one by one and taken into custody. Personally, if I had such a cool hidden secret passage going out of my house, I would have been pretty miffed to have the entrance blown up with a case of dynamite.
A 25-second phone conversation at the end of the movie tells us: yes, John Wayne got the girl; also, he is now the sheriff.
Should you watch this movie: No. I spent all this time watching it and writing this post just so you wouldn't have to. Please don't disappoint me. Unless you really just want to see John Wayne boogie-boarding. I'll let you have that.
Source: A John Wayne double feature DVD that my wife found at Dollar General.
Runtime: 52 minutes.
Amazon search: The Lawless Frontier