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HEART OF THE RIO GRANDE (director: William Morgan; screenwriters: Lillie Hayward/Winston Miller/story by Newlin B. Wildes; cinematographer: Harry Neumann; editor: Les Orlebeck; cast: Gene Autry (Gene Autry), Smiley Burnette (Frog Millhouse), Fay McKenzie (Alice Bennett), Edith Fellows (Connie Lane), Pierre Watkin (Randolph Lane), Joe Strauch Jr. (Tadpole Millhouse), William Haade (Hap Callahan), Sarah Padden (“Skipper” Forbes), Jean Porter (Pudge), The Jimmy Wakeley Trio; Runtime: 68; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Harry Grey; Republic; 1942)
“Strictly for Gene Autry fans and those who desire to complete their Autry collection.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cornball and tedious offbeat Gene Autry singing cowboy Western that has little action but plays as a teaching lesson on how a workaholic tycoon should raise a daughter. Gene sings such songs as Deep in the Heart of Texas, Dusk on the Painted Desert and Rumble Seat for Two; that’s about as good as it gets in this Western curio. This one is strictly for Gene Autry fans and those who desire to complete their Autry collection. Gene made this just before he served in World War II.

It’s insipidly directed by William Morgan (“Home in Wyomin’ “), who contrives to get some excitement through a ludicrous ending that features a stampede and an out-of-the-place shooting; the story is by Newlin B. Wildes and it’s written by Lillie Hayward and Winston Miller.

The Smoky River Dude Ranch is owned by Mrs. Forbes (Sarah Padden), who formerly was a tugboat skipper. She replaced surly foreman Hap Callahan (William Haade), now a disgruntled ranch hand, with genial Gene Autry, and converted a working ranch into a dude ranch because the times are not good. Gene’s partner Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette) also signs on as a ranch hand, and his lookalike little brother Tadpole (Joe Strauch Jr.) adds to the comic relief by doing some anti-social pranks. Gene’s other problem is the spoiled teenage daughter of a tycoon, Connie Lane (Edith Fellows). She arrives out West from NYC chaperoned by her private school teacher Alice Bennett (Fay McKenzie) and her girls’ school class. Connie tries to run away and makes all her classmates uncomfortable with her tantrums, and almost kills herself when she takes the ranch’s brakeless van on a joyride. But Gene, on his horse Champion, rescues her before it crashes. He also doesn’t rat her out, which gains her confidence and the two bond as Gene teaches her how to behave like a respectable young lady and gives her the attention she was lacking. Before she trusted Gene, she sent a letter to dad (Pierre Watkin) saying how she’s being whipped at the ranch. This brings the tycoon in his private plane to the ranch pronto, as he leaves in the middle of a business meeting. He’s so angry that he aims to remove her from the dude ranch and place her in a resort nearer home. When he arrives, he finds out that the letter was a mistake and that Gene has straightened his daughter out with TLC. He also receives a stern lecture from Gene about not putting business ahead of family. Gene in the meantime is busy courting the schoolmarm in a bland romance, where he serenades her with songs and strums on his guitar. When Frog tries to cut in, Gene resorts to trickery to cool down his rival.

The problem with Hap intensifies when Gene has to fire him for pulling a gun on him to settle a dispute, and the embittered ex-foreman only returns to try and shoot Gene from a mountain pass during a roundup. The film’s only action has Gene taking care of Hap and stopping a stampede caused by the gunshot while also saving Connie from being trampled. By this time Mr. Lane begins to bond with his daughter and chills out by going on a hayride with her and her classmates, and telling his underlings who are rushing him to return to business that they should also spend more time with their children.

At one point in the story, set in 1942 during wartime, Gene urges the ranch hands to be patriotic and buy War Bonds.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”