The heyday of the singing cowboy came long before I was a kid. I didn’t grow up with these sort of films, but I can certainly understand why they appealed to so many youngsters back in the day. The good guys are GOOD guys…and they sing! There’s nothing realistic about the whole thing, but the films are fun. So today let’s revisit one of the great singing cowboys, Gene Autry in 1936’s “Oh Susana.”
The film starts off with a bang as Gene is traveling by train to visit an old friend, Jefferson Lee (Carl Stockdale), who he hasn’t seen for fifteen years. But nearby, authorities are chasing murderer Wolf Benson (Boothe Howard). Wolf boards the train and clubs the first guy he sees…Gene. Ducking into Gene’s cabin, Wolf swaps clothes with our hero and then dumps him out the window of the speeding train!
Wolf eventually discovers that the man he traded places with is the famous radio star Gene Autry. He also discovers a telegram in the pocket of Gene’s clothes from Lee thanking him for the loan of $10,000. Wolf now figures he can pose as Gene (knowing from the note that Lee hasn’t seen Gene for 15 years) and demand the money back. When Wolf reaches the ranch everyone thinks he’s Gene Autry, at first. But, it doesn’t take Lee long to realize something isn’t right.. Wolf’s response…kill Lee.
Meanwhile, Gene, lying by the side of the railroad tracks without even a bruise, is rescued by traveling actors Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnett) and Professor Daniels (Earle Hodkins). Together they head for Sage City. Upon arriving in town, everyone thinks Gene is Wolf Bensen…he’s wearing his clothes, after all. The sheriff moves quickly to apprehend Gene, choking him a bit in the process. Insisting that there is a case of mistaken identity, Gene is allowed to sing to prove he is who he says he is. Problem is, the choking has left him with a weak voice. But Frog and the Professor manage to get a phonograph and an Autry record which they position outside the prison window. Gene lip synchs his performance and convinces the jury of fans that he’s the real deal.
After being released, however, the sheriff spots the record player and pursues Gene, Frog and the Professor out of the city. The three start to head for Jefferson Lee’s ranch, but along the way they spot wanted posters for Gene Autry. After all, the man who shot Lee claimed to be Autry. They also encounter Lee’s niece Mary Ann (Frances Grant) who is traveling with, unknown to her, one of Wolf’s accomplices, Flash Baldwin (Donald Kirke). They all end up heading back to the ranch. By the way, Mary Ann doesn’t seem remotely grief-stricken by her uncle’s murder.
Once they make it to the ranch, Gene juggles performing duets with Mary Ann with snooping around Flash’s room. He soon learns that Wolf is on his way back to rob the ranch’s safe before skipping town. Now it’s up to Gene to foil their plot, and avoid the authorities who, after all, are still looking for the man they believe killed Jefferson Lee…Gene Autry.
As I said earlier, these movies have somewhat of a built-in fun factor. But, I must admit, this may not be one of Autry’s strongest films. It starts out promising, but there’s not a whole lot going on for most of the movie. Sure the songs are kinda fun, and Smiley Burnett’s comedy moments are always welcome, but the movie is low on action. Even the final chase, a staple of these movies, is disappointing. I mean c’mon…Gene chases down the bad guy in a car! Gene Autry’s supposed to ride a horse man! A horse! Forgive me for being a bit let down by that.
In general, I really wanted to see a bit more ropin’ and ridin’ and lovin’ in this one. Frances Grant ends up making a very appealing leading lady, but no effort is made to make her a love interest for Gene. I wanted to yell at the screen, “Gene, kiss her already!” But alas. They could’ve at least named her Susanna so that the title had some significance beyond being the name of a song sung while Gene and the boys ride across the plains. As for the bad guy, even though Wolf actually kills a man in cold blood, he doesn’t come close to being a great western villain. Gene, on the other hand, is still the consummate good guy and as likeable as ever.
Though “Oh Susanna” is a weaker outing for good ole’ Gene, it’s still a pleasant enough film. I guess it takes a lot to diminish the fun of a singing cowboy.