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Remind Me

Trail of Robin Hood

Christmas movies don't get much more bizarre--or entertaining--than Republic Pictures' Trail of Robin Hood (1950). A Roy Rogers Western that completely embraces the holiday, it was one of six that Rogers made in 1950 alone, a normal pace for the star. And he was a star: the "Top Moneymaking Western Star," in fact, according to an important survey of exhibitors at the time. Rogers held the number-one ranking in that category for 12 straight years, 1950 included. Watching Trail of Robin Hood, it's certainly easy to see why his films drew endless numbers of kids to matinee showings for so many years: it's fun, it's funny, it's lean and it really moves.

For all of Roy's charisma as a singing cowboy, he surely appreciated the efforts of his director, William Witney, in creating those filmic qualities. Witney had directed all of Rogers' films for the previous four years, and before that, he had established himself as a superb director of serials, including The Lone Ranger (1938), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), and Spy Smasher (1942). Notwithstanding their silliness, those serials are expertly made and paced, with crescendos of action that culminate with the hero trapped in a seemingly impossible situation...until he miraculously extricates himself at the last moment (always in next week's chapter, of course). In Trail of Robin Hood, Witney applies the same skills to a film that's only 67 minutes long, constructing serial-like action set pieces every ten or fifteen minutes.

The story centers on a Christmas tree rancher, played by old silent Western star Jack Holt as a version of himself, who plans to sell his trees at cost as a way of giving back to his fans. A rival tree rancher isn't happy about this and henceforth rustles Holt's trees, which brings in Roy Rogers as a government agent to get to the bottom of the subterfuge. Along the way there are Christmas songs ("Get a Christmas Tree for Johnny," "Every Day is Christmas in the West") led by the Riders of the Purple Sage; Christmas parties; holiday decorations; a classic-movie screening; a turkey dinner; and an entertaining turkey named Sir Galahad who may or may not be an unfortunate part of that dinner. Other animals on hand--of course--are Roy's trusty dog, Bullet, and horse, Trigger.

When nine other old and new Republic Western stars (such as Tom Keene, Kermit Maynard, Monte Hale, and George Chesebro) pop up as themselves to come to Roy's aid, they are each given a proper moment of introduction that must have thrilled the kids in 1950. Even today, it's a given they'll bring smiles to audiences' faces. And they don't just appear for a moment--they get chances to show off their gunmanship, charm and long-established screen personas (which they even discuss). Another source of delight comes from the movie's offbeat time period. It looks like a standard period Western for almost 10 minutes before suddenly it reveals telephones, modern clothes, houses and cars. It's simply Roy Rogers' own unique Western dimension, a quirky mix of period and modern.

Trail of Robin Hood (which has nothing to do with the Robin Hood legend despite the head-scratching title) was shot in Republic's Trucolor process, a system that used just two strips of colors, red and blue. Despite the restricted palette, Trucolor could look quite beautiful. The only problem was that it faded badly over time. In the mid-2010s, Paramount Pictures began restoring some Trucolor titles in its Republic library, including this picture.

The movie was well received, with Variety noting "It is good to see Jack Holt in a substantial role again," and praising kid star Carol Nugent and leading lady Penny Edwards, who took the part in place of Rogers's real wife Dale Evans because Evans was pregnant.

In the end, Roy Rogers and his endearing speaking, singing, and riding are the main attraction. Director William Witney, who wound up directing 28 Roy Rogers films, was certainly impressed. He later said, "I'd have to give Roy a perfect 10 in horsemanship."

By Jeremy Arnold

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