I wouldn’t base my case for the importance of George Sherman on the series of Three Mesquiteer westerns he directed for Republic early in his career, but it’s a big surprise and a tremendous pleasure to find four of them popping up in pristine Blu-ray transfers from Olive Films. Olive is being a bit less than generous in pricing these hour-long films at $24.99 each ($19.95 on DVD), butfor those of us accustomed to seeing Republic films in smeary, edited-for-television dupes, they do look remarkably good (and they seem to be intact). All four star John Wayne during his brief tenure as Stony Brooke, the chief Mesquiteer (he replaced Robert Livingston in the part, and Livingston would replace Wayne in turn when Wayne’s career took off thanks to “Stagecoach”) and co-star Ray Corrigan as the fallible friend Tuscson Smith and Max Terhune as the comic relief coot, Lullaby Johnson. (Terhune, a former vaudeville ventriloquist, breaks out his wooden sidekick Elmer at least once in every film; Elmer, I am happy to report, is now living in serene retirement in a display case at the Autry Center of the American West in Los Angeles, in case you’d like to visit him next time you’re in the neighborhood.)
Like the great majority of 1930s B Westerns, these four films are much more reflective of Depression America than they are of the Old West, with the Mesquiteers often functioning as federally appointed agents sent in to curb the excessive free-market zeal of various corrupt bankers, businessmen and politicians. Three of the films in this collection — “Overland Stage Raiders,” “Red River Range” and “Three Texas Steers” — take place in within the magical metaphysical zone of the B western, where elements of the past and present intermingle. But the only film set firmly in the past, the 1939 “The Night Riders,” is also the one that most directly addresses current events, with the Mesquiteers taking on a con man who, with the help of some phony land grant papers, has set himself up as the “dictator” of an entire state. Unfortunately — or actually, kind of fascinatingly — the film’s anti-fascist message suffers from some odd iconographical drift toward the right, when the boys put on Klan-like hooded robes to battle the dictator and his black-shirted private army. Further impressions here, in the New York Times.