Friday, September 25, 2015

Rhythm on the Range (1936)

Bing Crosby musicals have become a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. Rhythm on the Range, a 1936 Paramount release, is a very lightweight effort but then all Bing Crosby musicals are pretty lightweight. That’s OK by me.

Singing cowboy movies were remarkable popular in the 30s so it seems that someone at Paramount had the bright idea of casting Bing Crosby as a singing cowboy. He plays Jeff Larabee who, along with his buddy Buck (Bob Burns), works at Penelope Ryland’s Frying Pan Ranch in Arizona. At the moment though they’re in New York for a big rodeo at Madison Square Gardens. Jeff and Larabee are hoping to win enough money to buy Cuddles. Cuddles is a bull. A very fine bull. They want the bull because they have a small ranch of their own.

Doris Halloway (Frances Farmer) is a rich girl engaged to a dull but very rich Wall Street banker. After hearing Penelope Ryland (who is I think supposed to be some kind of relation, possibly an aunt) waxing lyrical about the virtues of pioneer women in the West Doris decides that instead of marrying a dull rich man she doesn’t love she should head west to become a pioneer woman. So she hitches a ride on a freight train headed for Arizona. And she ends up sharing a boxcar with Jeff Larabee and Cuddles.

The train ride becomes something of a disaster and Doris, Jeff and Cuddles are stranded in the middle of nowhere where they have the sort of adventures that always befall people in lightweight musical romantic comedies. Their biggest problem is a gang of very disreputable hoboes who have heard that Doris’s father has posted a reward for his missing daughter and they’re determined to snare the reward money, by fair means of foul.

Meanwhile Buck is having an adventure of his own, having hooked up with the eccentric Emma (Martha Raye) on the train. Along the way Buck also invents a musical instrument which he calls a bazooka, which later gave its name to the US Army's famous WW2 anti-tank weapon.

Of course we know that Jeff and Doris are going to fall in love since this is after all a musical.

As you would expect the songs have a definite country and western flavour and Crosby handles them with his usual effortless aplomb. The songs are actually not too bad, and let’s face it Crosby could make any song sound good.

On the acting side Crosby deploys his customary easygoing charm, and he manages to do the singing cowboy stuff while still projecting his usual ultra-cool persona.

Frances Farmer is better remembered today for her troubled and tragic personal life than for her rather abbreviated film career. She makes a reasonably engaging if slightly bland heroine. Bob Burns is there for comic relief which he provides quite effectively. Personally I find that a little bit of Martha Raye goes a very long way indeed and in this instance she becomes positively irritating.

Cuddles is a remarkably good-natured bull and steals quite a few scenes. He’s certainly funnier than Martha Raye.

I imagine that one of the attractions of this movie from Paramount’s point of view is that it was a musical that did not require elaborate sets or costumes (in fact that had always been one of the attractions of the western genre - westerns were cheap to make). The rodeo scenes are quite well done though.

Director Norman Taurog had a very long career, being efficient and thoroughly reliable. This is really not a movie that makes exacting demands on either the cast or the crew but it’s a typically well-made mid-range Hollywood production.

Universal presented this movie and another Crosby musical, Rhythm on the River, on a single-disc two-movie budget DVD release. The transfer is quite satisfactory.

Rhythm on the Range has decent songs, it has romance, it has a fairly generous leavening of gentle comedy and overall it’s just thoroughly pleasant and undemanding entertainment (although it would have been better still without Martha Raye). It’s not Bing Crosby’s best musical and it’s not as good as Waikiki Wedding or Double or Nothing but if you like Crosby you should like this picture. Recommended.

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