Directed by John English
Screen Play by Gerald Geraghty
Director Of Photography: William Bradford
CAST: Gene Autry, Gloria Henry (Anne Lawson), Pat Buttram (Chuckwalla), Mary Beth Hughes (Julie Stewart), Robert Livingston (Rock McCleary), Steve Darrell (Ralph Lawson), Alan Hale, Jr. (Marshal Riggs), Tom London (Old Man Roberts), Hank Patterson (Luke).
South Of The Border (1939), The Strawberry Roan (1948) and a few others are really terrific, but as I see it, Riders In The Sky (1949) is Gene Autry’s best film. It’s a bit darker than the typical Autry entry, even though the plot’s pretty standard (Gene’s friend has been framed for murder by one of those sinister gambler/saloon owner types). But it makes inspired use of Stan Jones’ hit song “Ghost Riders In The Sky” for a moving scene where a dying man sees the ghost riders coming for him.
I’m not going to name any names — don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. Just know that this is territory very few B Westerns rode into, and you won’t forget it. The writers of these later Autry pictures seemed to be going for something a little different, even if they started with a basic plot. Some say this one was retooled a bit (and retitled) to work in the song. If so, it was done brilliantly. It’s seamless and it makes the movie.
The cast is tops in this one, too. This was Pat Buttram’s first outing as Gene’s sidekick, though he had appeared in The Strawberry Roan. Gloria Henry is spunky as the daughter of the framed man. Bob Livingston makes a great bad guy. Mary Beth Hughes does all she can with the usual saloon girl role. Hank Patterson’s fun as a stage driver. Of course, he and Buttram would appear together on Green Acres over 15 years later. But the acting honors go to Tom London as a grizzled old prospector. He rarely got meaty parts like this one, and he’s marvelous.
Riders In The Sky looks heavenly on DVD, one of the four films in Gene Autry Collection #8, benefitting from that large-scale Autry restoration project. The others in the set look just as good. Timeless Media Group gives us plenty of extras, including the Nashville Channel intros from Gene and Pat Buttram, at a terrific price. Highly, highly recommended.