Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Unknown Valley (1933)

After a stint as a cavalry scout, white hat cowboy Joe Gordon (Buck Jones) learns that his father, a poor bastard who seems to only go by Pop (Alfred P. James) even to people who aren’t his son has already started their planned gold mining project by taking another elderly gentleman and riding out into the most dangerous part of the desert they could find.

Pop has never returned, and his partner came back as a supposed raving madman, though in practice, he’s just semi-comatose and babbles a bit. Of course, Joe sets out into the desert to rescue his dear old Pa, I mean Pop. After some travails that nearly kill him, our hero is rescued by members of the lamest lost civilization ever living in a fruitful valley right in the middle of the desert. Well, alright, they’re not exactly a lost civilization but rather bearded religious cranks who survived a wagon train into, if not exactly through, the desert and now pretend to have found their own little paradise where everyone follows the Word, young whippersnappers get literally whipped, nobody is allowed to leave even if he or she wants to chance the desert, and the old fogeys decide whom the young women are to marry. Preferably the old fogeys, obviously.

But there’s an even bigger snake in this particular paradise, for two of the elders are even more evil than their religion imposes on them. They have secretly captured Pop and are holding him as their very own gold-digging elderly slave, planning on killing him and absconding with the gold once he’s dug out enough. There’s also some business about one of the bad guys planning to marry one Sheila O’Neill (Cecilia Parker), one half of a sibling duo who just won’t believe in The Word – and she’s of course Joe’s love interest to be as well. Joe’s got his work cut out for him.

The era of B-western to which Columbia’s Unknown Valley  belongs isn’t really one I particularly enjoy, nor is it one I have spent much viewing time on, and I can’t say Lambert Hillyer’s film is the one that’s going to change my mind about this particular cinematic space. The film features pretty much everything I don’t like much about the era: Buck Jones – one of the biggest western stars of his time – is that most tedious mixture for a hero in that he is both wooden and bland. I’m not necessarily looking for complexity, mind you, or very deep acting but to my eyes, the film’s central character here is just too much of a nonentity, whose most visibly noticeable character trait is his liking for very big hats. But then, that’s also a thing of this era’s B-westerns.

Woodenness is generally the way of the acting here, something that is made worse by Hillyer’s approach to shooting every dialogue scene between two characters in the same, so static it borders on the absurd, way. Also bordering on the absurd – and while I’m blaming Hillyer – is how overcranked the action scenes here are shot, looking like silent movies shown at too fast a tempo. Overcranking the action was par for the course at the time, but there’s overcranking the action, and then there’s turning it into a cartoon, Hillyard very much opting for the latter. On the more positive side, the man does know how to shoot a picturesque desert landscape.

Having said this, I also have to admit the film – while certainly far from anything even I would call “good” – is generally on the entertaining side. It’s short, it’s snappy, and it certainly has a lot of bonkers ideas it is generally willing to go with. Although I have to say I am mildly disappointed the film didn’t make more of the fact that Joe is something like a certain snake in a certain mythological garden here.

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