My notes on the early talkie western The Utah Kid (1930)
Like everyone else who’s watched this poverty row western in the last seventy or so years, I bothered with it because it’s a pre-Frankenstein credit for Boris Karloff … actually, it’s also a pre-Criminal Code/Scarface Karloff credit, and finds him working at lowly Tiffany as the Number Two bad hat (Tom Santschi is the boss baddie, Butch) in a 57-minute film (though the cut I saw was about ten minutes shy of that) made well away from the major studios. In the silent days, Karloff had dozens of roles like this – though he was featured in The Bells, a more significant production – and presumably he’d have kept playing secondary thugs if James Whale and Jack Pierce hadn’t got their hands on him.
There are a few other items of interest in the film – which I’d suspect are typical of westerns of this vintage – from cowboy hats that might well hold the full ten gallons (I’d suspect they’re more authentic than the trim brims sported by later screen western stars) to an implied threat of outlaw gang rape against the heroine that seems out of place in something that blends sentimental Victorian melodrama with kid-friendly riding and shooting action.
Handsome, good-at-heart outlaw Cal Reynolds (Rex Lease), whom no one ever actually calls the Utah Kid, is introduced in mid-chase scene, pursued by Sheriff Jim Bentley (Walter Miller) and a posse. He gives them the slip and makes his way to Robbers’ Roost, a Hole-in-the-Wall style hideout/saloon in the lea of a big rock, where bullying Butch is still bitching about the dice game he lost to the kid. Baxter (Boris) drags in Jennie Lee (Dorothy Sebastian – kicked out of MGM for asking for a raise), a jodhpurs-clad lass who has been inexplicably wandering nearby in the mountains.
Butch knocks Baxter down and claims right of prima noce, so Cal says she’s his fiance – and the villain calls his bluff by forcing a kidnapped parson (Lafe McKee) to marry them. We don’t get a wedding scene and I’d suspect it’s not in any longer version, because after the ceremony the leads still don’t know each other’s names. Jennie is actually engaged to the Sheriff, but – and here we have to take a lot on trust – she and the Kid fall chastely in love, and Cal promises to reform and stop all his outlaw ways (none of which we’ve seen) … so a happy ending is in view, after more riding and shooting en masse, with a low body count and a lot of not-quite-properly-timed pop pop pop gunshot effects. There’s also a scene where the Kid and the wounded Sheriff share a double bed for the night, which underlines the fact that they seem a hell of a lot more fixated on each other than the girl they’re married or engaged to.
Though it’s a talkie, it feels like something that might have been greenlit in 1908. Scripted by Frank Howard Clark, who’d been around since The Hazards of Helen in 1914; directed by Richard Thorpe, who stuck around a long time, rising to Tarzan movies and slightly stuffy 1950s A swashbucklers like Ivanhoe, The Prisoner of Zenda and Knights of the Round Table. A few touches show directorial ambition – the introductory tracking shot through Robbers’ Roost, overhearing snatches of outlaw dialogue, and a later pan over the lust-crazed bad men’s faces as they catch sight of Dorothy Sebastian.
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