Boston gang lord Kedge Darvis (William ‘Stage’ Boyd) starts to feel the heat in Beantown after a robbery and a killing…and so he hits upon the idea of laying low for a while after spotting an ad in a periodical inviting “capitalists” to the tiny burg of Bunsen, Idaho. Accompanied by a few of his top henchies, Darvis will get a little R&R at a ranch owned and operated by Sue Vancey (Mary Brian); the gang will get in the prerequisite hunting and fishing, and then loot everything that isn’t nailed down in town. The good people of Bunsen—most notably mayor J.K. Horton (James Durkin)—even welcome Darvis and Company with a laurel and hearty handshake as their train arrives at the station.
Cowpoke Brad Farley (Richard Arlen) isn’t quite as accommodating as Bunsen’s town fathers, however. A man who makes his living chasing and capturing wild mustangs, Farley is innately distrustful of city folk and big bidnessmen in particular. He warns Sue—he’s kind of sweet on that gal—that the Darvis party is up to no good, but she tells him to talk to the hand. When local prospector ‘Strike’ Jackson (William V. Mong) discovers a rich vein of gold on the Vancey property, Davis and his goons move in and soon control Bunsen in a tight grip of terror. It looks like Brad and his hombres have a tough job ahead of them repelling the invaders.
Gun Smoke (1931) is a dandy little pre-Code western that I purchased as part of a “Richard Arlen double feature” from the dear departed Vintage Film Buff a number of years ago. (Okay, technically I didn’t purchase this—I think it was one of the “freebies” I received for writing reviews for DVDs I had previously bought there. I’m still not convinced that this isn’t the reason why they went out of business, by the way.) As you can probably glean from the title, it doesn’t skimp on the action and ultraviolence—particularly in a rousing sequence where Brad and his boys emerge triumphant in giving members of Darvis’ mob a proper smackdown (they sneak into Bunsen concealed in a hay wagon). (The villain played by Boyd also meets a particularly nasty fate.) Gun Smoke also touches on some unusual themes for a movie many might consider a simple divertissement; there’s elements of fascism (even though Farley is the hero, he’s an unsavory one—“The only way to deal with killers is to kill ‘em!” he emphatically declares at one point) mixed with a subtle pro-ecology viewpoint (Brad don’t hold much with how developers have little regard for the environment).
Directed by Edward Sloman and penned by Grover Jones & William Slavens McNutt, Gun Smoke is one of those pleasant little surprises that are unearthed by classic movie fans from time to time—though the supporting cast of this Western should tip the viewer off it’s worthy of a sit-down. I’m a big fan of silent comedy diva Louise Fazenda, who plays ranch cook Hampsey Dell; Hampsey is crushing on Farley’s sidekick Stub Wallack, played by character great Eugene Pallette in noticeably thinner days (otherwise I’d feel sorry for his horse). Charles Winninger is also on hand as Tack Gillup, the Vancey Ranch foreman, and you’ll spot Brooks Benedict (“The College Cad” from The Freshman) and J. Carrol Naish (credited without the “J.”) among Darvis’ henchmen. Anne Shirley—still being billed as “Dawn O’Day”—is the little tyke who presents Darvis with some posies after she’s forgotten her memorized speech.
Paired with Gun Smoke is The Secret Call (1931), another Richard Arlen vehicle released that same year and directed by Stuart Walker (Werewolf of London). (It was adapted from a play written by William C. DeMille—Cecil’s older bro—by Arthur Kober and Eve Unsell.) Dick plays Tom Blake, son of machine boss Jim Blake (William B. Davidson)—who’s arranged for city commissioner Frank Kelly (Harry Beresford) to take the fall in a graft racket engineered by “Boss” Jim himself. When Kelly commits suicide not long after the scandal breaks, his daughter Wanda (Peggy Shannon) pleads with the senior Blake for financial assistance…and is soundly rebuffed. “Innocent men don’t commit suicide,” declares Boss Jim—words that will eventually come back to haunt him.
You see, a year after the death of Frank Kelly finds Wanda working as a telephone operator for the Hotel Keswick—a swanky joint where the big political deals are cut, and where Boss Jim does business. Jim is putting the thumbscrews to Senator Matt Stanton (Selmer Jackson), who’s heading up an investigation into Kelly’s nefarious activities. Boss Jim resorts to blackmailing Stanton by threatening to reveal a juicy tidbit about the Senator’s romantic past to the press, and he sends one of his stooges, Jim Neligan (Jed Prouty), to persuade Wanda into spilling the truth about the identity of Stanton’s former paramour. Wanda would like nothing more than exacting revenge on Boss Kelly…but it could jeopardize her relationship with son Tom.
Despite its melodramatic elements and the fact that the romance between the characters played by Arlen and Shannon slows the picture down (I think Arlen had better chemistry with Mary Brian in Gun Smoke), The Secret Call isn’t a bad little feature…but one can’t help but wonder what would have resulted if Clara Bow, originally slated to play Wanda Kelly, had been up to appearing in the film. (The New York Times reported at the time that the “It” Girl had a nervous collapse rehearing for Call.) As such, Shannon does a solid job in what was her first major motion picture role, and would later turn in dependable work in TDOY favorites like Girl Missing (1933) and Turn Back the Clock (1933). (Sadly, Peggy’s life and career were both cut short by alcoholism; she died in 1941 at the age of 34.)
Rick Brooks fave Ned Sparks is on hand doing what he does best: he’s sardonic reporter Bert Benedict (“Benedict of The Bulletin”), who tries to convince Wanda to give him the goods on Boss Jim (his paper has come out firmly in favor of taking the big man down). Surprisingly, Arlen isn’t integral to the plot of The Secret Call all that much—it’s mostly a showdown between Wanda and his dad (first-rate job by character veteran William B. Davidson, who played a lot of prison wardens through his cinematic career). After a prominent career in silent films (Wings, Beggars of Life), actor Arlen found that his star had diminished somewhat in the talkies (though he did appear in classics like Island of Lost Souls and Three-Cornered Moon) and he settled for a lot of B-picture work. Still, programmers would put many groceries on the Arlen family table; Richard made a slew of cheap-but-profitable action films (many co-starring Andy Devine) for the Pine-Thomas unit at Paramount throughout the 1940s (as coinky-dink would have it, Dick was a major stockholder in the production company).