Saturday, May 21, 2011

Gene Autry: Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1935)

Gene Autry Collection: Tumbling Tumbleweeds

Gene's first starring role, and his first film under the newly formed Republic banner. From the opening titles and montage of stock footage (cows! and shooting! and cows! and -- wait, is that a cannon?), we learn that there is a range war going on between the original cattlemen in the West and the recently arrived Nesters (or homesteaders). Gene's dad is one of the cattlemen, but when all-out war is declared Gene doesn't want to fight. He just wants to live in peace, play the guitar and sing, and....well, seems he's in love with a Nester gal. But Gene does show up during the fight, saving his father's life and preventing anyone from being hurt by a runaway load of explosives. Unfortunately, no-one can be bothered to tell Gene's dad that Gene did any of this, and his dad kicks him out of town and disowns him for being a weak sister. He rides out of town and we dissolve to...

...Five Years Later, as Gene returns a radio and recording star, and part of Dr Parker's medicine show (Purveyors of Phun Phrolic and Painless Panacea!) -- along with Dr Parker (played by Gabby Hayes in a rare non-Gabby performance), Smiley, Frankie Marvin, and Eugene Jackson. On their way into town, they find Gene's old pal Harry -- wearing an odd shirt with little horseshoes all over it and the strangest drawn-on mustache I've ever seen -- who's badly injured and wanted for murder...the murder of Gene's father!! And....he married Gene's girl!! They head on into town, give a great show (lots of numbers, including Gene's first hit "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" and a swell tap-dance number from Eugene Jackson) and try and sell some of Dr Parker's Panacea while Gene tries to solve the mystery of his father's murder (because of course he doesn't believe Harry did it).

There's some extremely complicated business about a land sale or transfer and a stolen receipt that meant that Gene's Silver-Haired Daddy was finally making peace with the Nesters, which the bad guys tried to stop and cover up by killing him and stealing some papers -- a plan which the bad guys couldn't possibly have actually gotten away with -- but really it doesn't matter since the good guys save the day, Harry is reunited with his wife and Gene realizes that his former crush's little sister has grown up to be quite a cutie as well.

 Sorry Gene, I married Harry while you were gone....

...but it's okay! Remember me, the little sister? I grew up cute!

This movie confused us a bit - the opening crawl mentions the "Old West" and how the range wars broke out  when settlers (the Nesters) showed up. Historically, this should set the movie in the 1880s or so (see some background here)....but once we got past the stock footage it looked like everyone was wearing modern clothes. But I thought, well, men's clothes don't change so much, so they're just being sloppy. And Gene joins a medicine show, which seemed to place it in the 1800s. But then, he has a record out! And the women in town are all wearing 1930s clothes! Did this range war last 50 years? 

Much to my surprise, it turned out that while this movie definitely takes place in the never-never-land West of Autry's and Republic's imaginations, there were still disputes going on over grazing rights and land management in the 1930s, enough so that the Taylor Grazing Act was passed in 1934 to help regulate the use of public lands. (And technically, range wars still go on today in disputes over grazing rights and land management -- although with less shooting and guitar playing, I think.) Another surprise? Medicine shows were still around in the 1930s -- in fact, they were common until WWII and the last well-known travelling show ran up until 1951. So the world of Tumbling Tumbleweeds is sort of, slightly, probable.

Definitely a good one to start with -- everyone's still a little unformed but the basic pattern and characters for the whole series is set, there's lots of action and music, and because it's a low-budget modern setting, you get to see lots of real-life 1930s dresses and hairstyles on the women.

Nice mustache, Harry. You draw that yourself?

Note: Yes, the Phantom Empire comes before this, but the Little Cowgirl refuses to watch it. I think because of the science-fiction parts - and maybe the weird robots. So we're going through it on the side. I'll post about it when we finally finish it up!

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