12 February 2006 | aimless-46
Predictable But Pleasant
"Heart of the Rio Grande" (1942) is probably the most lyrical of Autry's movies and therefore has held up better than his more action oriented films. When ranch owner Skipper Forbes hires Gene as her new foreman, the old foreman Hap Callahan (William Haade) is allowed to stay on as a ranch hand. Hap resents Gene and his plans turning the place into a dude ranch. There is a lot of friction between them culminating in a fight and Hap's dismissal. He plots revenge.
Early in the film a girls' school arrives at the dude ranch for the summer. The teacher Alice Bennett (Fay McKenzie) serves as both Gene's tame romantic interest and his sidekick Frog's (Smiley Burnett) unrequited love. Their dueling serenade of Alice is the best of a whole bunch of pretty good musical elements in the film.
All the girl students look about high school age which gives the film a lot of charm that would be missing if they had populated the cast with 20 something starlets. The most prominent of the students is Connie Lane (Edith Fellows best known as Polly Pepper in all those Pepper films of the 30's), the spoiled daughter of a rich businessman. At first Connie makes a lot of trouble for everyone but eventually she takes to Gene and works to improve his opinion of her.
Burnette can lay claim to originating the mini-me concept. In "Heart of the Rio Grande" Frog Millhouse is shadowed by a fat little boy, appropriately named Tadpole (Joe Strauch, Jr.). Tadpole dresses just like Frog including the same hat style (front brim turned up). He has a lot of precocious lines and a very bass singing voice. Jean Porter plays another of the students (mysteriously named Pudge) and soon becomes young Tadpole's first crush. The vivacious Porter is drop dead gorgeous, in the image of Vargas redhead Jean Dean.
"Heart of the Rio Grande" is mostly music and comedy, what action there is consists almost entirely of Gene rescuing Connie from an assortment of dangers. This is not a bad thing.
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.