There is this stigma outside the film community that there were no good Westerns made in Hollywood during the 1930s before John Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach. However, that is clearly incorrect. Yes, Ford did bring the genre out of B-movie hell, just like he did for John Wayne, but A-list directors still made Westerns in the ’30s. One of these was the great King Vidor, who made The Texas Rangers for Paramount in 1936.
The film is very episodic in nature, despite its short running time. A young Fred MacMurray is paired with Jack Oakie, who play two criminals who decide the best way to make some fast money is to join the Texas Rangers, with the eventual goal of leaving. But when one of their former cohorts returns to crime, Jim (MacMurray) and Wahoo (Oakie) stay on to free Texas from criminals. Of course, there’s also a lady involved, Amanda, played by the beautiful Jean Parker.
Vidor directs the film with vigor, putting together a string of fantastic action sequences. A climactic battle with Native Americans should be remembered as one of his best sequences.
Clearly, The Texas Rangers isn’t a movie made with lofty ambition – far unlike Vidor’s best films – but it is more enjoyable than you might expect. Oakie (best known today for his role as Chaplin’s Mussolini stand-in in The Great Dictator) gives a particularly poignant performance as Wahoo. MacMurray is also pretty good, before he would really meet stardom. However, it’s clear that he lacks a certain punch that Western stars like Wayne, Henry Fonda or even Randolph Scott had.
The Texas Rangers is currently available on DVD in a Universal four-pack, thrown together with three sub-par Westerns. (The pack includes Raoul Walsh’s sadly awful The Lawless Breed with Rock Hudson, although Jacques Tourner’s Canyon Passage is decent.) It alone was worth the $5 I paid for the set.
Adolph Zukor presents “The Texas Rangers”
Starring Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie, Jean Parker
Written by Louis Stevens, Based on the book by William Prescott Webb
Produced and Directed by King Vidor
98 minutes, 1.33:1