17 May 2008 | JohnHowardReid
Alas, One of Autry's Least Interesting Republics!
"Heart of the Rio Grande" must be one of the least entertaining pictures Gene Autry ever made. Never have I seen such obvious substitutions of doubles for the principal players, nor such an inept use of the process screen. The direction throughout could not justly be described as merely routine, for this level of mediocrity represents the peak of Mr Morgan's achievement. At its nadir, the handling is embarrassingly inept for example in the way Morgan has heroine Fay McKenzie grin inanely at the camera in a reaction shot to Mr Autry's serenade.
Alas, the defects of the direction are not the picture's only handicap. Probably its chief blot on the average fan's barometer is its fatuous script. As the synopsis makes plain, the story winds around an old, tiresomely familiar theme. Worse, it's encrusted with reach-me-down dialogue and patronizing platitudes, such as Gene Autry's "Don't forget what I said about bein' pardners with your horse when you go ridin' the trail!" and "Maybe other parents don't put their business ahead of their children!"
But even worse still, "Heart of the Rio Grande" rates just about zero on the action scale. Admittedly, near the start, Gene's stuntman gallops after a train and then rescues Miss Fellows from a runaway truck. But that's the end of any action spots until five minutes before the end when the script suddenly stages a revenge shooting practically out of nowhere. The gun-shot activates a wild horse stampede, but it turns into a very mild affair with a couple of stuntmen playing leapfrog a fair distance away from the not-too-wildly onrushing herd.
Oddly enough, despite the dearth of action, there's also little comedy relief. Smiley Burnette's foolery is mercifully constrained. But sandwiched in between all the sermonizing twinkle are eight or nine songs. Autry handles most of them, Burnette has one, Miss Fellows one, The Jimmy Wakely Trio one, and even Miss McKenzie joins Gene in a duet.
Needless to say, Miss Fellows lays it on as the spoiled brat. Jean Porter hovers around in the forefront of the background. Haade emerges as a quite likable villain which makes his sudden and unexplained action at the finish all the more incredible. Rounding out the cast are Sarah Padden in a tiny role, Eddie Cobb in a one-line bit, and Smiley's horse, "Ring-Eye", in a brief scene.
"Heart of the Rio Grande" is billed as a so-called "modern" western. Realistic! Yet the cowboys all wear Victorian six-shooters and a full orchestra suddenly sprouts up, audible but invisible, in the middle of the desert to accompany a chance song.
Sadly, production values rate as exceptionally mediocre. The photography is so flat as to make even the picture's actual locations look uninteresting. Sound recording comes over as tinny, art direction drab, costumes unattractive, and film editing heavy-handed.