Sunset in the West (Blu-ray Review)1 May, 2017 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Roy Rogers, Estelita Rodriguez, Penny Edwards, Gordon Jones.
Live long enough and someone will come through with a 4K scan of a Trucolor “oater” made after Republic Pictures improved what was its strictly in-house photographic process. True, Olive Films gave Trucolor Johnny Guitar a spectacular 4K boost last year — though when it comes to linguistic emphasis, no one would characterize the Joan Crawford-Nicholas Ray all-timer with cheap trade magazine slang when challenged to verbalize exactly what that glorious oddball is. In any event, the Sunset in the West visuals are missing the garish Guitar beauties in favor of an aesthetically pleasing almost pastel look that’s extremely soothing to the eye — and this when I wasn’t really expecting anything.
Indeed, Roy Rogers’ “busy” but form-fitting shirts look so super-cool in 1950's Sunset (even when he’s tossed from a moving train) that I’ll never again make fun of Trucolor again. Or at least off-handedly so.
Otherwise and certainly story-wise, one knows exactly what to expect, assuming some familiarity with the three “stages” of Roy’s screen career that buff-supreme Toby Roan explains on the commentary track. Sunset came late in the Western superstar’s big-screen oeuvre, and these concluding postwar pictures (Roy’s final Republic came just a year later, concurrent with his segue into TV) cut down on the musical numbers. They were also so violent at times that my late NYU film prof and nonpareil Western historian William K. Everson made note decades ago about the frequent brutality of punches to the face in the films’ fight scenes — though not exceptionally so in this case. William Witney directed most of the later Roy’s, and he was a filmmaker who could photograph horses with the best of them. (Though saying that Witney was better than John Ford, as Quentin Tarantino has done, is a good way to become a poster child for “the Heartbreak of Lobotomy.”)
Sunset’s bad guys are running a gun-smuggling ring, and you’ll recognize the heavies from a lot of other ‘B’-Westerns, including both the smoothie “brain” of the operation and his less-polished cohorts. Cast as a beleaguered sheriff is super-familiar face Will Wright, and I was shocked to hear Roan note on his commentary that the actor was 52 when made this picture. Wright always looked 102, and for a reference point, do note that Cary Grant was in his mid-50s when he made North by Northwest. And yes, in keeping with genre conventions, Wright’s character also has a pert niece (Penny Edwards), though usually in these movies, it’s more often a daughter whose presence suggests that the inevitable old-timer lawman who sired her somehow “got lucky” one night when he was about 80 with a woman of childbearing age.
Speaking of offspring, Dale Evans isn’t in Sunset because she was off raising the large Roy-Dale brood in real life. As a result, actress Edwards (at one time, a fairly serious Ronald Reagan girlfriend) got the call for her first Republic assignment after a very short stint at Warner Bros. (you can see her fourth-billed, and in Technicolor, in the Jack Carson-Dennis Morgan Two Guys from Texas, which Warner Archive has released). The other female role of note — a second-billed one, in fact — is the local cantina’s house entertainment played by Estelita Rodriguez, a singer rumored to have been one of Republic chief Herbert J. Yates’s honeys before he settled down with Vera Ralston and all the red ink her heavily promoted Republic stardom (which never took) gushed. Yates must have been a real prince because Roy, Gene Autry, John Wayne and John Ford all had money issues with him. He also wanted to slap a dumb substitute title for The Quiet Man — one whose appearance in ads and on the marquee would have blown a mild plot-point surprise right on the spot.
By this sunset-ish point in Roy’s big-screen career, the comedy relief in his movies was turning into a tolerance acid test — and despite my lifelong affection for Gordon Jones (a kind of poor man’s Jack Carson) his burlesque here as “Splinters” probably makes for rougher going now than it even did in 1950. It’s tempting to speculate on the fact that Roy called it quits in features (a co-lead and a cameo in a couple Bob Hopes aside) after wrapping up his tenure saddled with three movies that also featured Pinky Lee not long before the latter became the kind of kiddie TV host that parents hated. But the fact is that times were changing and TV was inheriting the ‘B’-Western franchise (Roy and Herb Yates apparently also got into it over his star’s tube appearances). Sunset, happily, is one of the relative handful of Republic Roy starrers (all of them, I think, the final ones) that Republic didn’t cut down to 54 minutes forever (the trims were scrapped in typical dim-bulb-ism of the day) so that local TV hosts could run his old movies in an hour’s time slot. In my hometown, the host of these was “The Wrangler” — who appeared weekdays on the CBS affiliate where I later worked in high school and college. He taught us to live clean (he’d never have said, “cleanly”) — until, of course, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis came along to offer an alternative way.
Roy himself strayed the day he yelled, “Lemme at that little son-of-a … (well, the word wasn’t ‘palomino’)” after a teenaged punk (later contrite in court) tossed either a shaving or whipped cream pie at, let’s face it, a living legend during a promotional appearance a suburban Virginia Roy Rogers Roast Beef Restaurant in the late 1970s. I was standing close to the action with my best friend, who later equated the incident (in terms of life experiences) with the first time he had sex. I was also there at my front door to grab the following morning’s Washington Post when a detailed accounting — Roy continued his rant — rated the entire above-the-fold section of the paper’s STYLE section under the headline: “Howdy There, Pardner, Here’s a Pie in Your Eye.”
Sunset, of course, is not just Roy in full glory but Trigger as well – nostalgia that transcends the dead spots here for folks of a certain age. And boy, there are truly some lulls (mostly comical and musical), though I do like one boxcar number with Roy and Foy Willing’s Riders of the Purple Sage — the group that hired on after the Sons of the Pioneers got too expensive after reaping the financial benefits of all those tumblin’ tumbleweeds. Roan notes that Trigger rated his own action doubles as he got along in years but that when these younger horses balked at performing certain stunts, “the old man” would step in and would show them how it was done (apparently, he aged as well as Jean-Paul Belmondo). It probably won’t bowl anyone over that the movie’s ending is a happy one, though Roy doesn’t stick around to spend any of Penny’s currency, which seems like a missed bet. But again, I really do dig the shirts here, which even outdo the ones in The Young Girls of Rochefort.