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Christmas Watch: Trail of Robin Hood (1950)

It's time for holly berries, cinnamon, listening to Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Elvis, and snuggling up under a thick blanket to watch great old movies together. Join us once again for our annual Christmas Watch.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Okay, let’s see if we can get this straight. Roy Rogers is the head of the Soil Conservation Service and is friends with Jack Holt (playing “himself” for the second time in his long career--see Holt of the Secret Service for the first time, and I highly recommend it) who has retired from the movies and has settled in to a second career as a Christmas tree farmer. However, Holt feels that he’s made all of the bucks he needs and has decided to sell his trees at cost to poor families. A competing Christmas tree farmer (Emory Parnell) doesn’t like this one bit and sends his daughter Toby (lovely Penny Edwards) out to persuade him. After Jack gets injured in a fire, Sis McGonigle (Carol Nugent) gets pretty much anyone that was hanging around the Republic lot that day to come out and help bring in the trees.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Although it involves the selling and theft of Christmas trees, this movie doesn't look or feel much like Christmas. There isn't any warmth or genuine sentiment.

RB: B-westerns are never much on plot, but I’d say that this one is pretty different all things around and that’s a good thing. Roy was riding high at Republic and was actually one of the top box office draws in 1950 when this film was released (it was the last of six oaters that Roy churned out that year). Republic sunk some extra cash into these by filming them in Trucolor, which was a process sort of like Cinecolor, relying on red and blue hues to create the color palate. Unfortunately, the process was also prone to fading, and only now are we starting to see a few Rogers Trucolor films restored and released on blu-ray so we can see what it is supposed to look like. Unfortunately, our movie today is not one of them. Republic would continue to tweak this process eventually launching a three-strip color process, and that’s what we saw when we screened Come Next Spring at the ’23 Picture Show.

SG: I'm astounded that the Roy Rogers estate sanctioned the release of a shoddy, faded, cut print of this film in the Happy Trails Collection.

RB: Roy is fine here, and while some reviewers have remarked that Penny Edwards was no Dale Evans (this is true) she fits in capably in this and the other films that she subbed for Dale, while she was pregnant. I cannot say the same for Gordon Jones, who appeared in about half a dozen of these films as Splinters McGonagle and is frankly insufferable and will leave you dearly wishing that Gabby Hayes or Smiley Burnett would wander onto the set.

SG: Gordon Jones. The thought of his performance makes me shiver in disgust. His overacting and unfunny delivery make watching this movie a chore. Carol Nugent, a burgeoning actress playing her scenes with natural earnestness is met with Jones talking down to her and trying to upstage her. This is something I cannot abide.

"What I lack in brains I make up in ignorance."

I found most of the actors to be wooden and forgettable. Jack Holt at least shows some personality, though I imagine it is a faded representation of what it was during his heyday. (I don't know. I don't watch many westerns.)

It was interesting to see Bonedust (Clifton Young), the kid who sells the kids joke answers in School's Out, as a villain.

RB: The film is capably directed by William Witney, an incredibly prolific and reliable director that helmed an awful lot of B-westerns including all of Roy’s 1950 releases. Witney is probably best known today as a favorite director of Quentin Tarantino, who has been known to order rare Witney films from one of the Picture Show dealers. I like the way Witney directs and I always perk up a little when one of his trademark all-out, anything goes fights starts up. The ones in this one aren’t as good as in many of the serials that he directed (especially the ones with John English) but they’ll do.

SG: The action scenes are utterly ridiculous and take up far too much time. The perilous situations are entirely avoidable, but they're constructed (poorly) to give Rogers an excuse to save the day. Men fight each other one at a time even if it is multiple people against the hero. I have a tendency to tune out during fight scenes in movies, and I glazed over many times watching this film.

The movie is full of cliches. The men are shocked to learn a woman can shoot. The little girl raises a turkey for the Christmas feast but gets attached and doesn't want to eat him. The dog susses out the bad guy. Cliches sometimes become that because they're done so well the first time that other people copy them again and again until they're too familiar to be pleasant. I don't get the feeling that this movie was trying to be innovative. These people are obviously reading lines. They're moving around by rote because they've made dozens of these films before. Film Bulletin wrote, "Performances... par for this type of film... The songs are treated in the usual manner." Stick to a formula that works; I get it. But there isn't even warmth when all the movie cowboys show up to save the day. Instead it is a stiff as a butler announcing the names of some titled couple as they enter a drawing room in a historical movie.

"Look, a stranger in town."

RB: In the not so distant past, B-westerns were so popular that some rabid film fans seemingly exclusively watched them. There were conventions where ONLY B-westerns and serials were screened (which I suspect is why Cinevent neglected the genre so much). Now, those events are gone, and I’m not sure that there is much interest in these sorts of movies these days as many of those who grew up on them are sadly gone.

SG: There is a Roy Rogers Museum in Portsmouth, Ohio which does a festival, though it seems to be more music driven than movie focused. Indeed the bright spot in this movie was the song, "Ev'ry Day is Christmas in the West." It moved lazily along in the way a Lawrence Welk show does, comforting and warm and nostalgic.

RB: Trail of Robin Hood is not likely a great western and it’s an even poorer Christmas movie to be sure, but to watch a film that harkens back to a time when kids would crowd into theaters to watch their heroes and would later crowd into hotel ballrooms to meet the same that wowed them in their youth is always something that I’m up for. Three stars for me.

SG: I hate to be the downer, but I really struggled watching this movie. I was the one who suggested it for our Christmas Watch because I love Christmas movies and this was one I saw listed in Christmas in the Movies by Jeremy Arnold that I had never seen or heard of. You would think a Christmas movie also featuring a movie star playing himself, signing autographs and screening prints of movies made during his glory days (appearing to be something specifically shot for this film) would be a home run for me. The emotional detachment ruined it for me.

I know I'm in the minority in my reaction. Motion Picture Daily's reviewer said, "The action in this Trucolor picture is sustained, the music is pleasant and the introduction of the top Western stars into the story should appeal to Western fans, particularly the younger group." The Kiwanis Club ran the film in 1954 at the Paramount Theatre in Hamilton, Ohio and collected used retail tax stamps to raise money for activities benefiting kids. Maybe I missed my shot at being a western fan since I didn't see them growing up. One star.

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