Business as usual at Lone Star Studios 1935: A solid John Wayne anchors a leaden production about foiling bad guys out west.
Wayne is John Martin, who shows up one day at an isolated town named Rainbow offering to help with their road problem. Since the existing road was washed away by a cloudburst, the town has been at the mercy of a gang of desperadoes, one of whom, Rogers (LeRoy Mason), plays the part of an upstanding citizen. Martin organizes the town to build a new road. As time passes, people wonder whether Martin's on the level.
This is a pretty novel idea for a western, road engineering as a plot point. But the slipshod manner of the story's development creates more potholes than the finest engineer could work around.
The story opens with Martin in a store, buying guns and a horse. The sequence establishes that there's a town named Rainbow that lost its road, but serves no other purpose, especially as this exposition is basically repeated shortly after when Martin meets a mail courier named George (George Hayes), who pretty much says the same thing. If you know the work of director Robert N. Bradbury on these Lone Star westerns, you won't be surprised by the padding.
There's also a protracted, silly subplot about a bad guy named Butch who's been sent away to prison but is magically freed when Rogers somehow gets the townspeople's signatures on a petition for clemency. Why we need Butch in this production is never explained, nor is the reason for Martin having a suspicious prior relationship with the felon. Since it doesn't figure in the story, it's just more padding.
But "Rainbow Valley" does stick out in a better way. In addition to the road idea, Wayne is in very good form here, natural and enjoyably reactive in his work with the other actors. Just as good in his own more colorful way is Hayes, not yet known as "Gabby" here but in that zone. He and Wayne play well off each other here, establishing a baseline of charm that assuages the weakness of the storyline.
There's a fun bit where Martin is trying to talk up a pretty mail clerk who, suckered in by Rogers, has no time for him. As she cuts Martin off and walks away, George looks on, impressed: "She's fallen for you already."
If you like Wayne and Gabby Hayes, you will like this movie at least a bit. But even they aren't enough to make me think it's good.
The supporting performances are better than usual, with Mason making a mark despite a one-note role. There's clever use of an automobile (Lone Star westerns usually seem to be set in the beginning of the 20th century, though it's never stated clearly) which George carries mail in, a springy jalopy called "Nugget Nell." Dynamite explosion stunts add some excitement. And no horses seem to have been killed in the making of this film, which is good to see.
But the negatives pop up too frequently. It's true these were short films, made as casual entertainments to run under an hour as part of a larger movie-house program, but "Rainbow Valley" is too casual that way, suffering from a typical lack of continuity and characters turning on a dime.
At least Wayne is good, as said, and in a way that helps you see why he became such an overnight sensation just four years later. He's got the charm, the toughness, and the presence that keeps you watching even when the rest of "Rainbow Valley" lets you down. He's just playing an engineer here, but he builds a decent bridge to the future all the same.