Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sheriff of Tombstone (1941)

Roy Rogers (1911-1998) had starred in over 20 B-westerns when this film was made. Before that, he was already known as a singing cowboy, performing as Leonard Slye with the Sons of the Pioneers. Co-star George “Gabby” Hayes (1885-1969) had been in countless movies, with and without whiskers, since 1931.

While the copy of this film is not first quality, it’s a cut above the typical low-budget B-western. Roy and Gabby know what they’re doing in front of the camera. Their characters are believable, even if the plot and situations aren’t.

The plot. In a nutshell, like Wyatt Earp before him, Sheriff Brett Starr (Roy) has cleaned up Dodge City and is on his way to Tombstone to do the same there. Arriving in Tombstone, he’s mistaken for a gunman and put to work by a crooked mayor who is trying to seize the silver mine of an old lady.

When Roy and Gabby learn of this scheme, they attempt to save the day. But difficulties arise when the real gunman shows up in town and puts himself at the service of the villains. All gets sorted out after some gunplay and Roy has a minute of film stock left to spirit away the town’s attractive and more-than-willing dress shop owner.

 Gabby Hayes and Roy Rogers in The Carson City Kid, 1940
Added value. The songs are extras (you could say extraneous) to the plot. But Roy has a fine voice, and it’s fun to watch him sing. A curious addition is Sally Payne as Gabby’s daughter, a saloon girl who does a couple turns as something of a cabaret singer, with a quartet of waiters as backup. Some day someone will explain to me how this convention of the stage musical found its way into the western.

Gabby is clearly present in the story as a comic foil, though Roy is so consistently bright and cheerful, the balance between the two takes on a character of its own. Instead of the buffoonery of a Fuzzy Q. Jones, Hayes has a measure of gravitas. In this film, he plays a judge, who seems to know the law, and there are times when he almost carries the weight of a scene. Opposite the idealistic and youthful confidence of Roy, he stands for a more developed knowledge of the world that comes with age to some men.

Curiously, there are no stunts and little physical humor in the film. A chase on horseback with a hail of gunfire finds stuntmen taking a dive off their galloping horses. But beyond that, the action is played pretty straight.

The women in the film are not cast just because they are marginally talented girlfriends of the director (a suspicion I have about some of these B-westerns). Sally Payne as Gabby’s daughter seems to fully occupy her role; Elysse Knox as the dressmaker convincingly portrays her social standing and her budding interest in Roy, mostly through reaction shots; and Zeffie Tilbury is great as a shotgun toting granny.

The film precedes Dale Evans’ arrival on the scene, so we see Roy unattached by a cowgirl partner. Hard to say what would have happened to his career had he not teamed up with Dale. In Sheriff of Tombstone, he seems to be doing fine on his own.

By the way. Sheriff of Tombstone is one of the classic westerns I was lucky enough to win at Laurie Powers’ It’s in a box set of DVDs that came from OutWest, Bobbi Jean and Jim Bell’s well-stocked online western store.

Picture credit:

Coming up: Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters (1899)


  1. I always had a soft spot for Gabby Hayes! Loved him in Tall in the Saddle with JW, His whiskers were always a signal for some sort of fun.

  2. I always went to see the Roy Rogers movies when they were in town, but never could stand the singing.

  3. Cheyenne, I read that Hayes was a retired vaudeville actor who got work in the movies after the 1929 Crash.

    Oscar, with only 60 minutes to tell a story in those B-westerns, I'm surprised they wasted any of it on musical numbers.

  4. Opposite here - the music is one of my favorite parts, which is why I prefer Roy's later films after the Sons of the Pioneers joined the cast. But among the early ones, I like Sheriff of Tombstone because it seems a little more complex than most. For instance, it's kind of unusual to see Roy with a family (even odder to see Jack Ingram playing his brother when he was usually a bad guy) and some of the cast, like Sally Payne for instance, play slightly different roles than their usual ones.