Trail of the Vigilantes (1940)

Directed by Allan Dwan
Written by Harold Shumate

Some of the early silent’s in the marathon marked a few of the titles that were really underseen by most everybody. Little did I know that a title like Trail of the Vigilantes, with just 49 votes on IMDb, would be one of the more rare films included in this marathon. While it shouldn’t surprise me based on just how hard it was to find a place to watch it (I found it streaming on YouTube in passable quality), and how few choices I had when selecting an image to use in this review, it shouldn’t surprise me that it was a great find! Having come recommended (I did my research for the list so long ago, I cannot recall where it was recommended), I was actually really excited to see Trail of the Vigilantes, and with good reason, it has a sneaky good cast of characters I have seen before and will likely continue to see.

After a newspaper man goes missing, Kansas (Franchot Tone) is sent to a rough midwestern town to investigate undercover. Upon arriving, he finds the sheriff (Porter Hall) tied up, the deputy tied up, and the deputy’s deputy tied up. With the local hotel having just burnt down, Kansas finds his way into a local saloon where a fight breaks out. Afterwards, he finds himself signed up to be a cowboy for a local rancher, Thornton where Thornton’s young daughter (Peggy Moran) begins to fall for him, and with the help of a few other ranch hands (Andy Devine, Mischa Auer), begins to uncover the mystery behind the disappearance, and the other shady dealings between Thornton, Swanee (Broderick Crawford) and Dawson (Warren William).

Seeing Andy Devine (StagecoachLaw and Order) and Mischa Auer (Destry Rides Again) back gave me a bit of an easy mind entering this film I knew very little about, with main stars I knew even less about. Even Porter Hall (The Plainsman) is a welcome sight as perhaps the most likable bad guy in westerns I’ve seen to this point. All of this works quite well within the niche of the comedy western, which this film certainly a little more so than the recent Destry Rides Again. Like Destry, the plot in the heart of the film is full of dramatic heft, but the real treat of this efficient, 75 minute film is the comedy struck by its wonderful ensemble. Right out of the gate, we are treated to a wonderful exchange in the saloon, and Devine and Auer certainly provide ample comedic relief throughout.

There are definitely some memorable moments in the film, which differs from some of the other, rather forgettable entries in the marathon. For one, the saloon scene I mentioned already is a great introduction to the characters and the general tone of the film. The jailbreak is another great example of what this film is, allowing Mischa Auer to provide some of the best comedy this marathon has yet seen. “Hayes, Hayes, Hayes…and Hayes”. In general, this is the best I have seen Andy Devine, mostly because he just fits into what Trail of the Vigilantes is trying to do more so than any of the other films I have yet seen him in.

I was also quite pleasantly surprised by Franchot Tone, who I learned is not a western regular, yet plays the lead here quite well. Sometimes it is the lesser known or even unknown films which make the greatest treats, whether coming from low to no expectations, or even just coming into the film with no preconceived notions of what it ought to be. Whatever the case with Trail of the Vigilantes, it serves as a breath of fresh air into this marathon as being something a little bit different from everything else, and all the better because of it. Discovering hidden gems like this film is the joy of the process of a marathon like this, and I hope more people will seek it out as a result.

*** – Very Good

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