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Melody Ranch

Melody Ranch(1940)

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Crying Boy

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Home Video Reviews

Gene Autry, the master of the B-western stepped into the A picture class with Melody Ranch (1940), his biggest budget film, now available on DVD by Image Entertainment.

Made at the height of Autry's fame when he was the fourth-biggest box-office attraction in the country, Melody Ranch brought in big-name co-stars and a top-of-the-line production crew to create a 'special' to encourage exhibitors to book the full line of Republic Pictures. The result is something of a hybrid, a typical Autry western at times, at others a musical comedy with a sophisticated flair.

Gene Autry plays "Gene Autry," a singing cowboy on a Los Angeles radio show also called Melody Ranch. His major headaches are his sponsorship by a cold remedy called "Nose Posse" and a leading lady (Ann Miller) who is the producer's girlfriend. Made honorary sheriff of his hometown Torpedo, Wyoming as a ratings stunt, Autry finds the town run by a crooked boss. Hopes for a typical Autry righting-of-wrongs get dashed as the bad guys not only beat up Gene on his own radio show but also sing a parody of his signature tune "Back In The Saddle Again"! Can the singing cowboy shake off his big-city softness and clean up Torpedo?

On the regular Autry movie side are Autry and his horse Champion along with George "Gabby" Hayes and Autry's teenage singing discovery Mary Lee. The musical comedy side is headed by leading lady Ann Miller (Easter Parade, On The Town). Naturally, she gets a chance to show her famous tap-dancing skills, but Miller is also excellent as the film's primary love interest. Miller was mostly consigned to second-banana parts in many movies and Melody Ranch makes that seem a waste, as she is both funny and sexy. Why did she not get more romantic lead roles?

Replacing Autry's usual sidekick 'Smiley' Burnette is Melody Ranch's most offbeat casting, New York comedian Jimmy Durante (The Man Who Came To Dinner, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). This was a bit controversial at the time with Autry fans and Burnette quickly returned. Durante does a fine job in a Western setting and is well paired with a love interest provided by a ditzy schoolmarm played by Barbara Allen, known on radio and in Columbia film shorts as "Vera Vague."

Fans of good Western action may be a little put off by Melody Ranch as the comedy and romance are more dominant here than in other Autry films. There is an annoying tendency to cut away to Durante's comedy in the middle of action scenes. Nevertheless, the photography by Joseph August (Gunga Din, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame) is gorgeous and location scenes feature beautiful Western landscapes.

The image on this DVD could hardly be improved. In addition there are a fleet of extras including Autry and Pat Buttram's discussion of the movie from the 1987 Nashville Network airing of Melody Ranch, a half-hour radio play version, actor biographies, trivia and movie facts, production and publicity stills, production notes, poster art and lobby cards, original press kit material and home movie footage of a cross-continent flight taken by Autry's horse Champion at the conclusion of shooting.

Added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry of important American movies in 2002, Melody Ranch not only preserves the Western legend of the singing cowboy but also a point when country and western music and stars were in the mainstream of American entertainment.

For more information about Melody Ranch, visit Image Entertainment. To order Melody Ranch, go to TCM Shopping.

by Brian Cady