Arizona Stage Coach
- Wide Release
- Director: S. Roy Luby
- Written by: Arthur Hoerl, Oliver Drake
- Running Time: 58 minutes
- Language: English
- MPAA Rating: G - General Audiences
- Cast: Steve Clark, Ray Corrigan, Dick Cramer, Charles King, Nell O'Day, Riley Hill, Carl Mathews, Kermit Maynard, Slim Whitaker, Steve Clark, Slim Harkey, Frank Ellis, Jack Ingram, Stanley Price, Forrest Taylor, Eddie Dean, Victor Adamson, Jimmy Aubrey, Richard Cramer, Milburn Morante, Herman Hack
In 1940, with the success of Republic Pictures “The Three Mesquiteers” series, Monogram was looking to distribute a similar kind of series and out of that the "Range Busters” were born. Like in the earlier Republic Pictures series, three unofficial lawmen -- more like guns for hire, rode the old west singing songs, engaging in horseplay and getting into the occasional violent shoot out with whatever nasty criminal element they’ve been brought in to take out. The films, often simplistic story-wise and short on any type of character depth, featured plenty of bold cliff-hanger action sequences -- specifically designed to placate its young and mostly male demographic.
Of the three, muscular stunt man turned actor, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, was the brains while ventriloquist Max “Alibi” Terhune and his smart aleck (not to mention creepy-looking) dummy Elmer, provided the comic relief. Handsome John “Dusty” King was dumped into the series pretty early, adding both his good looks (something meant to appease the females in the audience) and a baritone voice, to the proceedings. A former big-band singer with the Ben Bernie Orchestra, Dusty would often belt out a tune whenever things slowed down in the story. Both Corrigan and Terhune were regulars in the earlier Mesquiteers series but left due to salary issues. They were an easy fit for the new series, picking up, for the most part, where they left off. Dusty, on the other hand, was quite new to the acting game having only headlined a handful of films including 1939's "Gentleman From Arizona" and 1940's "Half A Sinner". Such was his worth, Dennis Moore was brought in later to replace Dusty just four films later in 1943's "Land Of Hunted Men".
Even though “The Range Busters” was clearly a cheaply produced clone of the older, more distinguished Republic Pictures series, the 24 films produced by Monogram still hold up as thrilling and occasionally great examples of Western oaters. In my opinion, “Arizona Stage Coach” produced in 1942, the last film to star the original three and the 16th entry in the “Range Busters” series, was far more exciting than it deserved to be. Although the series had become formulaic and was running out of gas at point, “Arizona Stage Coach” was blessed with some very electrifying action sequences and the kind of cool ironic and ultra-hip ending that would make postmodernist filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino sit up and take notice.
In the opening minutes we watch as Dusty is chased down by a small angry-looking posse and strung up by his ankles. His cohorts, Crash and Alibi, seem less than willing to help him. As it turns out Dusty has lost a bet and as a penance, he is forced to sing upside down. The playfulness of this first scene helps set the mood for the rest of the film, which, despite numerous shoot-outs and quite a few killings, is really quite blithe in tone. Although some of the action is quite intense and violent, the breezy nature of the film remains constant. Elmer, the strange-looking wooden ventriloquist doll -- a mainstay in the series, is intended to add some comedic zest to the film but, sadly, Max “Alibi” Terhune is sometimes not around and the doll seems to move and talk on its own. No reason is given for this and when you're supposed to be laughing, in your mind you can't help but chilled by it. I found myself wondering why people weren't reacting in shock to a doll moving and talking on its own.
Breaking up their singing fun, the three are visited by an old friend, Larry Meadows (Forrest Taylor), now a hot shot Wells Fargo Lawyer, and his beautiful niece Dorrie Willard (Nell O’Day). Over some pink lemonade, Meadows fills them in on how a band of highwaymen have been robbing stagecoaches at Stoney Creek, an Arizona town near the Mexican border. Since the insurance company Wells Fargo is on the hook for every dime taken in these hold-ups, they have a vested interest in putting a stop to it. With the sheriff unable to figure out the identities of the masked bandits and with no suspects in sight, Meadows decides to call on his old friends, the “Range Busters”, to get the job done. As expected, they agree to help their old pal. Back at Stoney Creek, Ernie Willard (Riley Hill)¸ Dorrie’s brother¸ discovers a bag of loot with 'Wells Fargo' emblazoned across the front. He quickly realizes that his new ranch partner, Tex Laughlin (Stanley Price), is one of the highwaymen and since buying shares in the ranch, he has been using it as a cover for his illegal operations. He confronts Tex and before long the two are trading more than just verbal barbs.
A little earlier, as Laughlin had just finished robbing Dorrie's stage coach, the "Range Busters" had arrived, traveling the hundred or so miles from their Flying-R Ranch. Stumbling upon a masked Laughlin as he makes his getaway -- the boys give chase but it's to no avail, as he manages to give them the slip. Later, the "Busters" travel to the Willard ranch where they discover the dead body of Laughlin, killed in a shoot-out with Ernie. “We’re gonna be right busy,” Alibi suggests. He has no idea. As Dorrie drifts home, she soon discovers that the local sheriff has a warrant out for her brother. He's wanted as a suspect in the various stage coach robberies as well as for the murder the of Tex Laughlin. Thankfully, the “Range Busters” agree to offer Dorrie and her fugitive brother a sensitive ear. As the Busters attempt to clear Ernie's name, it soon becomes clear that various rogue elements in the town, namely a Wells Fargo employee and the stage coach drivers themselves, might actually be behind the robberies. The revelation of the various suspects is, at times, confusing as the story takes a few surprising twists and turns. In one instance, in an attempt to draw the real highwaymen out into the open, the “Range Busters” stage their own daring daylight robbery. As it goes down, the real highwaymen watch from hilltop and, in an interesting turn-around, even give chase. This eventually sets up a wicked action packed finale, where the “Range Busters” converge on the lime shack where the highwaymen are holed up, with Dorrie and Ernie inside as hostages.
Forget about talking it out -- this is old school Americana Western, baby, and Dusty and Crash move in with both guns blazing. Watch for the ironic closer, as one of the highwaymen attempts to escape the hail of bullets coming his way in a stolen stage coach, only to be confronted by another pair of highwaymen hiding up on a hill. The outcome is, as expected, violent and electrifying. The ending is never in doubt, with the "The Range Busters" clearing Ernie's name and having the real bad guys thrown in jail. As the boys ride out, moving away from the camera, they stop momentarily to assure their fans that they will be back. Sadly, it was not to be, as none of the original three would ever appear on camera together again.
Something strange to watch for -- about midway into "Arizona Stage Coach", Nazi swastika's can be seen prominently stitched into the fabric of the blanket that Elmer is laying on, something that even more confounding when you consider that the film was shot the same year that Germany invaded Poland. As it were, I'd still recommend "Arizona Stage Coach" as a fun and action-packed diversion.