7 November 2010 | BrianDanaCamp
Peculiar mix of cowboys and atomic age treason bathed in Trucolor
I watched BELLS OF CORONADO (1950) on Friday, November 5 in commemoration of what would have been Roy Rogers' 99th birthday. I have it in a legit edition on DVD (released in 2004 by LionsGate Home Entertainment and Republic Pictures). It's a beautiful print and the transfer is far superior to most of the VHS copies I have of Roy's Trucolor westerns. The film was beautifully photographed by John MacBurnie and shot mostly on location. I've now seen eight of Roy's Trucolor westerns and have reviewed four on IMDb, the others being TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD, NORTH OF THE GREAT DIVIDE, and UNDER California STARS. Trucolor was a two-color film process developed exclusively for Republic Pictures and was used from 1946-1957.
BELLS has got an odd plot about a power company and a uranium mine in the remote town of Coronado. When a shipment of uranium ore has gone missing and the mine owner found unconscious, only to subsequently die in the doctor's office, the insurance company sends Roy Rogers to investigate by going undercover. Given how these films usually cast local businessmen as the villains, we can't be blamed for quickly assuming that gruff power company owner Bennett (Grant Withers) has got to be the culprit. However, in a big twist, the identity of the actual mastermind, who plans to sell the ore to a foreign power, comes as quite a shock. Can no one be trusted in Republic Pictures' baroque alternate western universe?
Dale Evans plays Bennett's ditzy secretary, quite a far cry from her proactive roles in other Roy westerns (see SUSANNA PASS, for instance). At one point, she shows an irrational fear of nice, gentle Roy and provokes a senseless fistfight between him and three company men. It's so completely out of character for Dale's usual screen persona. Other Roy Rogers regulars in the cast are Pat Brady and the singing group, Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, who play linemen for the power company. Despite their presence, there are far fewer songs than usual here. Clifton Young, the chief thug in Roy's TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD the same year, where he stole Christmas trees of all things, plays Coronado's General Store proprietor, who works after hours carrying out the thefts of uranium ore for the traitor selling it to the enemy. Which is quite baffling given the high odds of someone recognizing him.
As usual in these later Roy westerns, the setting is contemporary, but everyone wears cowboy clothes, rides horses and carries a gun belt, even when working on the electric towers. At one point, Roy and his new ally, an undercover federal agent, ride out on horseback, armed only with six-guns, to try and stop a plane which has landed to pick up the ore from the gang. They shoot at the gang from the rocks while waiting for Dale, Pat and the "posse" on horseback to show up when what's really needed is a full team of FBI agents with fast sedans, automatic weapons, and helicopters.
There are plenty of great bits of action and stunt work and the location shooting is as good as anything I've seen in these films. I just wish the plot weren't so far-fetched. I also wish Republic had made some color westerns with Roy in a traditional western period setting. Why couldn't he have done something along the lines of what Randolph Scott was doing at the time over at Warner Bros. or Audie Murphy at Universal? Heck, even Republic was making some fine period westerns in Trucolor at the time, but they usually put 2nd-tier stars like Bill Elliott (HELLFIRE, BRIMSTONE) or Forrest Tucker (ROCK ISLAND TRAIL, JUBILEE TRAIL) in them. Would it have hurt to try out Roy in one of them?