By the late 40s, the Roy Rogers pictures had become relatively elaborate musicals, reducing the action to make room for production numbers — complete with pretty girls and orchestras — and with Roy’s outfits looking more chorus than corral. The story goes that the head of Republic, Herbert J. Yates, had been wowed and inspired by seeing Oklahoma on Broadway.
Of course, glitz, glamour and music rights come with a pretty hefty price tag, especially compared to two guys in western wear punching each other in the face. So with the smaller budgets came fewer songs — and more action. Good thing Roy’s director at the time was William Witney.
Witney fan Quentin Tarantino describes it like this: “After their first few movies together, Witney had gotten Roy out of his fringe-and-sparkle attire and was dressing him in normal attire, blue jeans and stuff. They stopped being these crazy musicals. He turned them into rough, tough violent adventures.”
Such was the state of the Roy Rogers Movie when Trail Of Robin Hood (1950) went into production. It’s in Trucolor, Roy’s traded his Nudie suits for plaid shirts, and the action comes fast and furious. Oh, and in spite of its title, it’s a Christmas movie.
Here, Roy works for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and comes to the aid of cowboy star Jack Holt, who’s retired and growing Christmas trees — which he intends to sell at cost, so every kid can have one. A large Christmas tree conglomerate doesn’t like Holt’s business model and takes to stealing Holt’s trees, sabotaging his operation and threatening his workers. Naturally, Roy, Trigger and Bullet will have none of this.
I don’t want to give too much away. Just know that the whole thing is actually goofier than it sounds — and that it’s full of fights, chases, fires and other mayhem. Along the way, Roy and the Riders Of The Purple Sage sing a couple Christmas songs, there’s a young girl (Carol Nugent) with a pet turkey named Sir Galahad, and a number of Republic cowboy stars turn up to help save Holt’s farm. On hand are Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane, Monte Hale, William Farnum, Tom Tyler, Ray Corrigan, Kermit Maynard, Tom Keene, Rex Allen and George Chesebro.
Roy’s daughter Cheryl Rogers-Barnett, who has a small part in Trail Of Robin Hood, points out, “They used that formula of putting all their cowboys into one as sort of a promo for the other cowboys. Rex Allen was not a big name yet, and it was a way of promoting him.”
With Trail Of Robin Hood and the other late-period Rogers films (his last Republic picture came out in 1951), William Witney did more than just cut the music and stir in more violence — he turned up the pacing. He creates excitement, builds suspense and sets the pace through skillful editing. And the story is told visually whenever possible. The comedy (from Gordon Jones this time) and songs don’t get in the way or slow things down. And maybe most important, Witney keeps things simple. There’s not an ounce of fat in the picture’s 67 minutes, and camera movement is always purposeful, never flashy. As Tarantino explains, “These guys were storytellers. They knew how to move the camera to convey information so they didn’t have to shoot another dialogue scene to explain something.”
Cheryl Rogers-Barnett says of Witney: “He was a great action director, and loved Trigger. He was always trying to come up with extra things for the Old Man to do.”
Dale Evans, of course, was Mrs. Roy Rogers and his steady co-star. But she was on maternity leave. So Penny Edwards appears in Trail Of Robin Hood — in a part obviously written with Dale in mind. Penny transitioned from singer to actress, was under contract at Warner Brothers, made six films with Rogers in 1950-51, and left the picture business in 1954 to serve the Lord. She returned a few years later, appearing in lots of TV shows and commercials.
Gordon Jones plays Splinters McGonagle, the usual broad sidekick part you expect in a B Western. He was in six Rogers pictures, made a few other Republic films (including Woman They Almost Lynched) and would soon appear as Mike The Cop on The Abbott & Costello Show. Carol Nugent is quite good. And of course, Jack Holt and all the guest stars are terrific.
Trail Of Robin Hood is wonderful, and it’s a shame it’s not better known as a Christmas movie. We can thank the title for that. It was available uncut on VHS from Republic back in the day. But what you’ll find on DVD is cut by at least 10 minutes. Roy, and this great little movie, deserve better than that.
Sources: Quentin Tarantino from a 2000 NY Times piece; Cheryl Rogers-Barnett from a recent phone conversation.