"Gene Autry's Vagabond Troubadors" (that would be Gene, Frog and a donkey loaded with instruments) are yodeling through the sagebrush when they reveal that they have evidence that will hang somebody....and it's their job to track that man down! (The evidence is a broken-down swaybacked horse...and a guitar string.) Why, they're not wandering troubadors at all! They're Rangers, sent out to solve the murder of "old" Frank Martin.
On their way to the Martin ranch, they're forced off the road by a coach being driven recklessly by a young lady; Gene jumps aboard, pulls the wagon to a stop and then gives the young lady a paddling!
This is what you get when you are reckless with good horses.
But it seems he's made a bit of a faux pas when they discover the young lady is Joan Martin, the granddaughter of the murder victim (she's returning to the area after being back East for a long time, apparently since she was a young girl). As Smiley says, "That just proves that you shouldn't spank girls before you're introduced to 'em."
In town, Joan is practically barraged by men -- her uncle John, greets her, old friend Lon Dillon declares his intention to start courting her, and then she's whisked off to see lawyer Nolan. He tells her that her grandfather had secrets, which he was murdered for. He then reads the will and John, who was the foster son of Frank Martin, is shocked to learn that he gets just $5,000 while Joan gets the rest of the estate, including the ranch. However! If she dies, John gets everything. And if she and John die? Lawyer Nolan gets everything! Intrigue ahoy!
Meanwhile, Gene and Frog have caught up and gotten into town, where they immediately begin to get offers for the swayback horse...because everyone believes that Frank Martin discovered gold on his ranch and that the horse can lead them to it. (Don't forget the guitar string, though -- because somewhere there is a guitar missing a string and clearly, it will lead to the murderer!) They turn everyone down, which results in Uncle John telling Joan that he insists she throw a dance party and hire Gene and Frog as musicians for it. She thinks this is not super-appropriate, considering that her grandfather was just murdered, but Uncle John insists, claiming that Gene is the murder suspect. (Because he plays the guitar, and somehow everyone knows that old man Martin was killed with a guitar string, even though Gene has it in his pocket!) She asks them, and they agree to follow them to the ranch right away and perform that night.
A weird bit of business follows - someone is shown loosening the wheel of the wagon that Joan is sitting on, and all we see is a male hand and jacket sleeve. It can't be the lawyer, he's by his office. It can't be John's henchman Pablo, he's on the other side of the wagon and is wearing something totally different. It's not Gene or Frog, obviously, and it's neither the "boyfriend" nor the stable owner. And Uncle John's sleeve is different as well. Who can it be? Pablo appears to know what's about to happen, he looks at the wheel as it loosens and jumps from the wagon before it comes off. And when Gene rescues Joan, he takes a shot at the two of them. (Which Uncle John and Lawyer Nolan seem to find funny.) My guess is that you're supposed to think it's Pablo, but when you attempt intrigue in a low-budget film with sloppy continuity sometimes you raise more questions than you mean to!
Gene serenades Joan while she....hides behind that tree branch?
Gene tells everyone he's locking the horse in the barn (to see who makes the first move), but he actually rides off with it to find out just where it does go. When he gets back, all the men trying to get to the mine have joined forces and have called the sheriff and accused him of the murder. He pulls a nifty bit of business to rescue Frog and they ride off to try and figure out how to sneak back into the party that night. Luckily, Lon Dillon and Hank the stable owner (part of the new partnership) are drafted into playing for the dance, and they happen to be just Gene and Frog's sizes! Gene and Frog take their places during a helpful distraction number, "Hurdy Gurdy Man" (song by a little boy in a monkey suit, seated on an organ grinder's music box!) so they can keep an eye on Joan.
Got 'em! Now to steal their clothes!
Luckily, this insanely cute number was going on , so no-one noticed.
When he sees someone sneaking around, Gene reveals his identity to Joan, then asks to dance with her so he can explain what's going on - seems that because old man Martin was practically blind, he needed the horse to know the way to the valuable gold mine he discovered; and now anyone that gets the horse can follow it to the mine, which has not yet been registered. She actually responds with the line, "Grandad depended so on that wise, old horse...."
It's hat versus hat on the dance floor!
Lawyer Nolan correctly observes "Hmm, I never saw Lon dance like that before!" Joan goes out for some fresh air and gets attacked by....well, once again the low budget makes this confusing, but I think you're supposed to think it's her Uncle John. Gene rescues her from the attempted strangulation (of course), but then needs rescuing himself -- when he goes back inside he's asked to sing and, well, Lon never sang like that before either!
An adoring Joan has mysteriously lost her strangulation marks and gained a huge bruise on her arm.
Then the party is told to unmask; and then Hank and Lon show up and point them out. Yes, their identities are revealed three times, just in case you missed a reveal, I suppose. A guitar is smashed over Uncle John's head and Gene and Frog take off with the posse in hot pursuit, Uncle John and Pablo following the swayback horse to the mine, and Joan locked in the barn. Gene heads back to get evidence from the ranch and releases Joan but tells her to stay put. But remember that she drives wagons like a crazy person? So she follows him and lots of action ensues as everyone heads to the mine for a classic "now that we're all locked in here I'll tell you that one of you is....the...murderer!" moments.
"The killer is among us! And no-one is allowed to crack a smile at my outfit!"
Gene reveals to our assembled suspects that he's a Ranger, assigned to the murder case - and that his fellow Ranger Frog is...a fingerprint expert! (He seems to actually have a little trouble getting that tidbit of news out). And not only that, but the murder weapon/guitar string shows signs of being played....with a pick! And this conclusively reveals that the murderer is...."You'll never take me alive!" shouts the murderer, attacking Gene and totally falling for Gene's bluff. The ensuing fisticuffs reveal the entrance to the actual gold mine, and the remaining suspects begin to fight over who will get to town first to register the claim. As the culprit is arrested, the rest of the gang races off to town to try and get the mine -- but the last laugh will be on them, as Gene has had the mine registered in Joan's name already!
Happy ending all around, as Ranger Gene proposes to Joan in song and she accepts. Gene kisses Joan, Frog kisses the swayback horse, and we fade out.
Gene proposes in song....
Joan accepts! And Gene gets his first screen kiss!
And so does the swayback horse.
More than one source (including Gene himself) claims that he only had one screen kiss, and that it was with Ann Rutherford. But no, this is his first kiss, and he definitely had more than one.
You may be wondering if the reveal of the murderer's identity clears up the previous confusion cause by sloppy continuity....well the answer is no. I still could not figure out who on earth was supposed to have actually loosened that wagon wheel or attacked Joan. Presumably the villain had at least one confederate/henchman, but the movie doesn't bother to clear that up.
Barbara Pepper plays Joan Martin with a sort of low-rent Jean Harlow vibe, I thought she was okay here, but only okay. She is replaced with a double in a good bit of the movie, so that doesn't help. Her story is a sad one, she never really succeeded in films despite a bright start as a Follies Girl and favored ingenue. She had a less-than happy personal life and ends up running a laundromat by the 1950s. She did end up with one last major role - Doris Ziffel on Green Acres. The transformation from deco starlet to ravaged tv "hillbilly housewife" tells you all you need to know about how her life went, really.
She was truly stunning, wasn't she?
The cute kid in the monkey suit is Tommy Gene Fairey, who sings a song written by Smiley Burnette. He was a 4-year old from Texas who made just this one film and then went back home. He didn't vanish though, and he had a very good life! I always wonder what happened to kids who pop up in just a film or two, but in this case I actually know - I've recently exchanged emails with Mr. Fairey and I hope he'll let me post some of the amazing photos he has of his days on set and after!
Difficult moments: there is an offhand remark (by bad guy Hank the stable owner) that "the boys killed a chinaman the other day" but no more is said about it. And at the party, if you look closely (I didn't even see it the first time - he's always in the background and the scene is a little murky) one of the guests is in costume as Jolson. In blackface. Both of these moments are brief and went completely over the kid's head, but they did make us wince.