The Lawless Frontier (1934) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Lawless Frontier (1934)

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Most Western films, those aimed and made at a base level, are intensely boring. I mean no offense by this, but when there's a genre that's popular solely for its tropes, it becomes saturated with a number of like minded film to the point of tedium. Go to your local videostore and count the number of hitmen/strippers with a heart of gold fighting the mob movies you can count. My guess is that you'll give up before the movies do.

But, Westerns. White hats, black hats, and maybe some Indians for good measure. While the Western genre says a lot about the American consciousness, most Western movies don't mean much outside of some gun play unless the attached director is named Ford, Mann, Leone, or Eastwood.

When a genre is sufficiently insular, its tropes go past cliched to become dependable. The hero of The Lawless Frontier is a good man seeking revenge on the man who killed his father. The squadron of bandidos who did it are bad. He defeats them, gets the girl, saves the day. Huzzah.

"I am the villain! Let me twirl my mustache again for good measure!"

Only five years beforeĀ Stagecoach transformed John Wayne into "John Wayne, American Institution(C)", our future American icon was still living film to film. This picture was released by Lone Star, one of those small studios that has a camera, a guy to write a script, and the ability to make just enough money to put out another film next week. If Wayne weren't in these pictures, I doubt they'd be remembered for much else besides their cheapness.

The best example I've got for this is from the opening scenes of the film, which contains a fair amount of stock footage and intercuts between daytime and nighttime. Though I know of several great films that start with confusion in order to prevent the audience from becoming grounded in the narrative, a story this bland deserves nothing this frustratingly chaotic.

Other noticeable signs of 'time is money':

  • Stock footage.
  • Shots repeated.
  • The musical score doesn't match the film's tempo, and sounds like it's from one guy on a piano.
  • Instead of filming a sign a character is reading, we are instead treated to a picture of it.
  • In one scene, you get to watch an unconscious guy help pull himself onto a horse.

"Boots! My only weakness!"

Most of the film's plot relies on the villain being both completely random and a complete idiot, always a good character to create when writing. Luckily, everyone but Wayne in the film also strives towards these traits, including the town's sheriff who decides to take the lead bandit and handcuff him to his bed via his boot.

He'll never escape that! As long as he doesn't take off his boot....

The bandido is trying to rape the daughter of a local prospector, and the father and daughter discover using a secret passage to eavesdrop on their plans. The use of this passage brings to mind a lot of the Old Dark House movies, where these dwellings were filled with mysterious rooms and hidden corridors. This one isn't nearly as exciting as in any of those, but the corridor is the most interesting thing in the movie. We never see the inside of it! It's a mystery!

The woman in this movie is an interesting deconstruction as to how female protagonists are portrayed in Westerns then as compared to the 40's and the 50's. Here, she's clearly rustic, and owns no petticoats or other fancy clothing. She's down to earth, and can run from the bandits with the best of them.

She's like Meryl Streep in denim.

Wayne himself is fine in his role, although replace him with a cardboard cutout of himself and you'd barely notice. Weirdly, I don't think I've ever seen him so young, and as such he kept bringing to mind a young Montgomery Clift. But take that whatever way you want.

God, look, I know this review is rough. This movie is rough. It's no budget, the minimum amount of talking, some good horse stunts, but absolutely nothing remarkable or memorable. I always feel awful for lambasting a movie with no budget for being bad, but even for that, we're talking Ed Wood levels of clarity here. I didn't care.

Note: This was originally written as an entry in my Pre-Code Follies series, but, as an attentive reader generously pointed out, this was actually released in November 1934, putting it well past the cutoff of the Pre-Code era. This review has been modified to reflect that. Thank you.

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Posted by Danny

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