WAGON WHEELS (aka: FIGHTING CARAVANS)
(director: Charles Barton; screenwriters: based on a Zane Grey story/Jack Cunningham/Charles Logan; cinematographer: William Mellor; editor: Carl A.Buss; music: John Leipold; cast: Randolph Scott (Clint Belmet), Gail Patrick (Nancy Wellington), Billie Lee (Sonny Wellington), Raymond Hatton (Jim Burch), Olin Howland (Bill O’Leary), Jan Duggan (Abby Masters), Leila Bennett (Hetty Masters),Monte Blue (Kenneth Murdock); Runtime: 56; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Harold Hurley; Lions Gate Home Entertainment; 1934)
Reviewed by Dennis SchwartzSuperior B-Western. Director Charles Barton (“Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”/”Dance With Me, Henry”/”The Shaggy Dog”) keeps the Zane Grey story pioneer spirit alive and friendly. It’s a remake of the successful 1931 Fighting Caravans that starred Gary Cooper (with Wagon Wheels liberally using stock footage from the original and altering the original in many ways, including with a romance).The crisp screenplay is by Jack Cunningham and Charles Logan. It was shot on location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
In the 1840s, a wagon train leaves from Independence, Missouri, for Powder River, Oregon, with the lure that the hearty settlers are granted free land by the government. The wagon train is led by the no-nonsense chief scout Clint Belmet (Randolph Scott) and the old geezer scouts Bill O’Meary (Olin Howland) and Jim Burch (Raymond Hatton), who reared him. Joining them are the beautiful widow Nancy Wellington (Gail Patrick) and her outgoing 4-year-old son Sonny (Billie Lee), whom Nancy snatched from her wealthy in-laws after they took custody of Sonny when his father died. Nancy goes despite Clint being opposed (but fear not, by the end of the ride they’re planning on getting hitched!). The other central figures who join the wagon train are the sister spinsters just off their dad’s farm in Indiana–the bookish Abby and the hard-working Hettie Masters (Jan Duggan & Leila Bennett)–and the film’s heavy Murdock (Monte Blue). He’s an evil fur trader who is a half-breed who hates whitey and doesn’t want the Oregon Territory settled, which he believes will ruin his profitable fur trading enterprise. Murdock is willing to do anything to prevent the settlers from reaching Oregon, and arranges for the Indians to attack the caravan on the plains. But when that’s stymied, after several settlers lose their lives before Murdock can get the scared settlers to turn back, the treacherous fur trader arranges for an ambush by Indians as the caravan crosses the river into Oregon after spending some time ducking the rain at the Beaver Parks Trading Post. The drunken settlers quickly get sobered up by Clint and fight for their lives to stave off the attack.
There are several lively “campfire” songs, including Duggan performing “Snowy Daisies” and the title track “Wagon Wheels” sung in a group singalong.
REVIEWED ON 3/2/2010 GRADE: B+