Oh, Susanna! (1936)
Director: Joseph Kane
Cast: Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, Frances Grant
Synopsis: While riding to Mineral Springs Autry is robbed by thieves and then tossed off the train.
Two years into his movie career and the formula for singing star Gene Autry’s westerns was already pretty much set in stone. Autry was Poverty Row studio Republic’s cash cow back in the 1930s and ‘40s, and Oh, Susanna! provides a decent example of exactly why. The storylines were simple and fast-paced — at just 53 minutes long, Oh, Susanna! barely qualifies as a feature — and provided a reliable mix of action, songs, comedy and rodeo stunts.
As usual, Autry plays himself, only in Oh, Susanna! he becomes an early victim of identity theft when he’s clubbed on the bonce by escaped bad guy Wolf Benson (Boothe Howard, who would die in a road accident a couple of months after this movie was released). Not only does Benson steal Autry’s ID, he also swaps clothes before throwing the singing cowboy from the moving train onto which he’d climbed when escaping a pursuing posse. Amongst Autry’s papers, Benson finds a note from Jefferson Lee thanking Autry for lending him $10,000, even though they hadn’t seen one another for fifteen years. Seeing as how Autry’s clothes fit him perfectly, it’s only natural that Benson should feel confident about passing himself off as Autry and reclaiming that loan from Benson.
While Benson’s making nefarious plans, Autry’s being rescued from the trackside by the obligatory comic relief in the form of Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette) and Professor Daniels (Earle Hodgins — Cause for Alarm!, East of Eden). To be fair, Frog and the Prof are a lot less annoying than most of the comic relief you find in 1930s movies, and prove useful in aiding Autry’s release from jail when a dunderhead sheriff (Walter James — Little Annie Rooney, Battling Butler) mistakes him for Benson (presumably, Benson’s clothes were more famous than him because, although Autry and Howard look nothing alike, everyone in Sage City runs a mile when they see Autry striding down the Main Street). By then, Autry has cottoned on to the fact that Benson has assumed his identity and is no doubt on his way to Jefferson Lee’s place to get his hands on that $10,000. “Do you know the way to Mineral Springs?” he asks Frog. “Sure,” replies Frog, pointing to his left, “It’s 300 miles that way.” Autry’s right, as well, because as they’re travelling to Mineral Springs, Benson is hooking up with his old partners-in-crime and making a beeline for that money.
Oh, Susanna! is a modern day Western that throws up all kinds of curious hybrids, so that we get a guy like the Professor wearing 19th Century Western garb in a town in which 1930s motor cars traverse the streets. The movie even ends with an incongruous car chase — complete with what sounds like aircraft sound effects at one point! — that somehow only adds to its cockeyed charm. It’s just a shame that things slow down so badly in the middle section while we’re ‘treated’ to a succession of musical numbers that start off as quaint but which quickly lose their charm as we wait for the plot to recommence. At 53 minutes, though, it’s worth a look…
(Reviewed 4th April 2014)