One thing that is fun about looking at forgotten films is those times when you see iconic film stars in some not-so-iconic films. 1938’s The Renegade Ranger was a vehicle for popular B-western star George O’Brien. Appearing with him, though, was a young man named Tim Holt, who would go on to star in many of his own RKO westerns in the years to come. But overshadowing both of these big-screen cowboys is the film’s female lead; an actress would achieve sex symbol status that few others ever reach…one Rita Hayworth.
O’Brien plays Captain Jack Steele, a straight-arrow Texas Ranger who is given the task of arresting the lovely Judith Alvarez (Hayworth), a land-owner accused of murder and assembling a band of marauders who have been causing trouble for some slimey local politicians. The local tax man, Ben Sanderson (William Royle) even has a $2,000 reward out for the capture of Alvarez.
When Steele comes to town, he happens to encounter Judith and her gang in the act of trying to snatch some dough (which was rightfully hers in the first place) from Sanderson’s office. Of course, Steele suspects Sanderson is crooked, which he is, and ends up assisting Judith with her escape. I mean, if you had the chance to share a saddle with Rita Hayworth, wouldn’t you?
Steele is injured in the escape and is nursed back to health by Judith herself. He then proceeds to embed himself in Judith’s gang. This is complicated, though, by the presence of Larry Corwin (Holt), a former ranger with a grudge against Steele. Somehow, Steele must be true to his duty, though he is confident Judith is innocent of the crimes she is accused of.
B-westerns like The Renegade Ranger often make for fun, compact little bits of escapism. They usually clock in at just about an hour long and have plenty of action. I can understand why kids loved these movies. This one begins with a barroom brawl where the fists fly at a dizzying pace. Though I’m sure there was a degree of choreography employed in staging this sequence, there is something raw and haphazard about it that is just a joy to behold. I also love the way the actors bury their punches in their opponent’s faces. There’s no swinging past the chin here. These fists stay stuck in place as if the bad guys had faces made of quick-drying rubber cement. Later in the film there is a shootout on horseback that has an alarming amount of bullets being fired at incredibly close range. Yet, few of these bullets actually seem to make contact with anyone. it’s hard to aim while on horseback, even from three feet away, i guess. Regardless, these types of sequences are what brought kids back week after week and are still fun today.
Even with some crazy action moments, those don’t end up being the most memorable thing about the film. I mean seriously, folks, Rita Hayworth is in this thing. You expect us to be mot impressed by the fisticuffs? The star potential of Hayworth, just twenty years old at the time this was made, is on full display here. From the moment she first appears on the screen the movie is now officially hers. O’Brien and Holt don’t stand a chance. She pulls off being both tough and sympathetic. The movie really lives or dies on her performance. Don’t get me wrong, though, O’Brien and Holt both are in fine form, but there are some extenuating circumstances at play here. Not many a kiddie cowboy star had to compete with the likes of Hayworth.
If the film does suffer a bit, it’s in the villain department. William Royle’s Sanderson has the potential to be a classic kind of mustache-twirling meanie. Literally, in fact, as he does have a slightly epic stache. Sanderson lacks gusto as a bad guy, though. We never really get to see him doing much beyond just being a royal jerk. Opportunities to see his villainous ways in action are missed.
As a simple little western, there’s really nothing all the revolutionary about The Renegade Ranger. However, the presence of a future cinema icon certainly does elevate the proceedings. Without Rita Hayworth, the film has enough western goodness to keep the kiddies entertained. With her, though, the film has an extra spark that was more than welcome.