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Singer, actor, and member of both the Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, Tex Ritter made his screen debut as a singing cowboy in Song of the Gringo (1936). It was the first of 12 B-movie westerns he made for Grand National Pictures and of 40 singing cowboy films he made for various studios over the next two decades. Born Woodward Maurice Ritter in 1905, he began his career singing cowboy songs on the radio in Houston, Texas, and moved to New York City in 1928, where he appeared on Broadway (he played a supporting part and sang four songs in Green Grow the Lilacs, the basis for Oklahoma!) and on radio, appearing in New York City's first radio western series among other shows. He picked up the nickname Tex from his role as a singing sidekick on "Cowboy Tom's Roundup" and adopted it as his professional moniker.
The coming of sound brought a new sensation to the movies: the "singing cowboy," a genre that featured upright, clean-cut cowboys who sang songs of life on the range between dramatic scenes. Ken Maynard popularized the genre and Gene Autry, a successful recording artist before he appeared in onscreen, became a star in a series of westerns produced by the newly-created Republic Pictures. Grand National Pictures, a short-lived producer of low-budget movies, decided to create their own singing cowboy and producer Edward Finney found him in New York City. After a screen test, Finney signed Ritter to a personal contract and put together his debut feature.
Ritter moved to Los Angeles in late 1936, and had barely settled into his new Hollywood apartment when he was handed the Song of the Gringo script, whisked off to wardrobe, and sent to the recording studio to pre-record his songs. He crooned four of the seven songs featured in the film, including "Rye Whiskey," which he originally recorded a few years before, and "My Sweet Chiquita," which he composed for the picture. He received a real Hollywood welcome on his first day of shooting on location at the Monogram Ranch, where he was promptly bucked off his horse in front of cast and crew in his very first shot. Co-star Glenn Strange, who played an uncredited henchman, wasn't sure if it was the result of a practical joke or simply a mishap, but he noted that Ritter took it with good humor: "He merely sat there until the laughter died down then said, 'Oh well. That's 'bout what I expected'." His baptism complete, he climbed back in the saddle.
Finney wanted to give his neophyte leading man as much support as Grand National could afford and surrounded him with veterans. Director John McCarthy, who had made dozens of westerns in the silent and early sound eras, also developed the script, a simple story that sent stalwart lawman Tex (he used his own moniker in most of his leading man roles) undercover to get evidence against a gang murdering mine owners and taking their claims. Joan Woodbury, a dancer and former bit player recently promoted to featured roles, is the love interest Lolita, daughter of a Mexican-American rancher. Character actor Fuzzy Knight provides comic relief and former silent movie stars Money Blue and William Desmond stand in as the authority figures. Al Jennings, who plays the judge, arrived with the most interesting credentials. Before he came to Hollywood, he was a cowboy outlaw who robbed banks and trains, finally going straight after serving time in prison. According to Ritter biographer Johnny Bond, Jennings taught Ritter how to handle his six-guns for maximum visual effect on screen.
Song of the Gringo was shot on a breakneck five day schedule and released to theaters in November, 1936, with Ritter promoting the release with a series of personal appearances before returning for his next film, Headin' for the Rio Grande (1936). Grand National tried out a number of singing cowboys but Ritter, a natural for the genre., was their only success. His twang was authentic and he grew up riding horses in Texas, and his years acting and singing on the radio and the stage was better preparation than many other performers who were thrust into the role of singing cowboy. He was stockier than most romantic leads but he had a baby face, a good voice, and a solid knowledge of American folk music and cowboy songs. And while he never found the big screen stardom that Autry and Roy Rogers earned, he had a solid career in the movies as one of the definitive singing cowboys of the short-lived era. He had even more success with his recording career, which took off in the 1940s when he signed with Capitol Records and released a string of chart-topping hits. He sang the Academy Award-winning theme song to High Noon ("Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling") and continued recording through the 1970s. And to later generations, he's best known as the father of TV star John Ritter.
The Tex Ritter Story, Johnny Bond. Chappell & Co., 1976.
Riders of the Range: The Sagebrush Heroes of the Sound Screen, Kalton C. Lahue. A.S. Barnes and Co., 1973.
Singing on he Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy, Douglas B. Green. Vanderbilt University Press, 2002.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
By Sean Axmaker