Sunset Trail (1939)

Directed by Lesley Selander
Written by Norman Houston

Part of the joy of a marathon like this, with a subject so niche that you have to dive deep into the film archives, is the opportunity to uncover films like Sunset Trail, which is a B-movie western starring William Boyd, who I hadn’t really heard of before. But I have heard of his on-screen character: Hopalong Cassidy. Hopalong Cassidy is a name known to many in Columbus, Ohio, although not for the reason you might think at the beginning of this film review. You see, Columbus is home to Ohio State, whose football team is basically religion here, and one of the programs most famed players is Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, a Heisman Trophy winning running back who got his nickname from Boyd’s beloved serial character. So while I know different Hopalong Cassidy, adding Sunset Trail to my poker movies list offers a great chance to be introduced to both William Boyd and the OG Cassidy, and all the adventures that made him famous in the first place, famous enough for a famous football player to adapt the nickname as well.

After selling his cattle to Monte Keller (Robert Fiske), a shady rancher, John Marsh hopes to set out to the frontier with his family to start a new life, but is ruthlessly murdered, with his profits from the sale stolen. His widow Ann (Charlotte Wynters) and daughter Dorrie (Jan Clayton) are now forced to stay on the ranch, hosting tourists looking for an authentic Western experience to make money. Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd), famed cowboy, poses as a clueless Easterner guest of the ranch to get the opportunity to investigate the murder and find Marsh’s killer. After first suspecting Keller, he takes up the trail of the case which leads to a high stakes poker game where he attempts to win the bills stolen from Marsh, hoping to compare the serial numbers and finger Keller as the culprit.

Sunset Trail feels like a B-movie serial through and through, and I mean that as a highest compliment. One could argue that this style of movie today is just developed into all of these cheaply made, quickly produced streaming service movies, but that’s not true, they truly don’t make movies like this any more. There is a formula at play here, but it’s applied against a crew that elevates that formula into a very easily consumable and entertaining product. I could see the charm of watching every next Hopalong adventure. And surely, this formula is what was parlayed into television as series once that format became widely available, so perhaps that is the better comparison. But even television these days is slanting towards the prestige limited series. Consistent weekly adventure television series are few and far between anymore. But I had a ball spending time with Hopalong, Lucky (Russell Hayden) and Windy (Gabby Hayes). Gabby Hayes is a particularly enjoyable character, and one who feels so familiar to the now well-trodden sidekick tropes that many after him has popularized. His sense of humor and comedic timing was a perfect fit.

One, perhaps minor, qualm I might have with the film is how the villain is known upfront with the murder of John Marsh. All along we know Keller is the baddie, and we follow Hopalong as he slowly figures it out, gathers evidence and eventually nabs him. However, I wonder how much more effective the film might have been had the villain been kept a mystery? It seems a little too upfront to reveal such an important story point so quickly in the story, which means the film becomes less about figuring out whodunit, and more about spending time with Hopalong and seeing his process. I guess from that perspective I can’t blame the filmmakers for taking this approach, as Hopalong is the known commodity, the reason butts will be in seats in the movie theaters. But is it possible to have it both ways? To give Cassidy the screen time and scenery to chew, while also holding that mystery close to the vest. The film is a joyous triumph, no doubt, but that added mystery could have boosted it just a hair more. But otherwise, this is a western movie that has everything you could possibly be looking for: cowboys, bad guys, gambling, adventure, singing, fighting, romance, and comedy. And it manages to do each fairly well.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Hand Analysis

The circumstance of the game is well conceived, as Hopalong hopes to play in a game of poker with Keller in hopes of getting his hands on the bills that were potentially stolen from Marsh in the beginning of the film. By acquiring these bills, he and Mrs. Marsh will be able to verify the serial numbers against those that were stolen and implicate the killer. Depicted as a rather doofy character, Hopalong seems an easy target in a game of poker, but he surprises all with his well hidden chops.

The Game: Five Card Stud
I’ll be brief as this game was covered for the first time in our last movie, Smart Money. Five Card Stud is a game where each player is dealt two cards, one face up and the other face down. After betting, another card is dealt face up, more betting, etc until each player have five total cards, with the final four shown face up for the table to see. The best five card poker hand wins at the end, if more than one player is still in the hand.

Hand #1
As has happened with many hands already in this marathon, we join the action partially underway, in this case on the “River” or final card dealt. Hopalong bets $100 on the final card, with 9922 showing, two pair. His opponent, Keller, raises the bet to $500 with 4 spades showing, a potential flush. Hoplalong, with his table image as that of a dummy, plays stupid like he can’t remember the hand rankings and whether a full house (three of a king and a pair) beats a flush (five cards of one suit). After contemplating this, he decides to re-raise Keller to $1500, which causes Keller to disgustingly fold his hand face up, revealing he had an Ace high flush, figuring Hop for an obvious Full House. Hopalong, in a moment of shock, turns over this down card, revealing a 7! He didn’t have the Full House, but was able to bluff Keller off his powerful flush hand.

This is a fun hand, the type you see in movies where the hero makes a HUGE bluff and gets away with it. It is set up fairly well though, even joining the hand part way through. It’s tough going for Keller, who didn’t have a made hand until the river, drawing to five spades, but in all honestly, his fold shows that he had a plan on the river, which was to raise for value, and fold to any additional aggression, figuring only a hand that could beat him, especially with a perceived idiot player incapable of bluffing, would raise. Of course, we know Hopalong is not an idiot, and if Keller knew that too, he could find a fold against a good opponent who he might think capable of running a bluff like this without the Full House. As it stands, we get the joy of watching our hero outsmart the villain. But also, he probably should not have shown Keller his hand (he doesn’t have to once Keller folds), because now he has given him valuable information on how he plays poker when he wasn’t forced to do so.

Hand #2
This is a very swift hand with little commentary, but it does continue to paint the picture of the game. We join the hand at the very end, when Keller calls a bet by Hopalong, who reveals he has an Ace in the hole for merely Ace high, which is still good enough to beat Keller. Keller is obviously getting very frustrated to make this play, calling with a much worse hand merely hoping to catch Hop bluffing. This is where the previous hand, and showing the big bluff, might actually be beneficial to Hopalong long term. He has potentially put Keller on “tilt”, which is a poker term when a player is extremely frustrated and begins playing far less than optimally. Instead of using logic to make decisions, Keller is using emotion, hoping to get back at Hop. In addition to tilting Keller, showing the bluff also shows your opponent that you’re capable of making a bluff, which will make it more likely your opponent will call you later when you actually have a strong hand. Of course, in this specific case, Hopalong didn’t have a strong hand with only Ace high, but it was still good enough to win a small hand.

Hand #3
The final hand is an example of what is called a “flip”, where the players decide to put a pre-determined amount into the pot and then no more betting occurs. Instead, the hand is dealt out in full and whoever has the best hand at the end, wins the pot. This type of hand can sometimes been seen in casual or fun poker games, as it requires no skill whatsoever. It’s completely luck, so in that respect, we don’t get to see our hero flex his skills and beat his opponent.

In this specific scenario, they agree to a winner-take-all flip, where all the money is up for grabs. Despite having no luck involved, the hand still plays out quite dramatically, especially when Mrs. Marsh is called in as a third party to deal the hand, with her husband’s money and killer potentially at stake. In the end, Keller ends up with AAKK3, hitting his second pair on the river card. Meanwhile, Hopalong ends up with 22274, a better hand with three of kind after hitting his third and final deuce on the river as well to beat Keller and take all the money.

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