TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD (1950) is a late Trucolor Roy Rogers western directed by Republic Pictures' great action director, William Witney. While the plot is somewhat absurd, the film boasts a number of novel touches. First off, it features great outdoors Trucolor photography, giving it a look that only Roy Rogers westerns of 1947-50 seemed to have. Second, former action star Jack Holt is on hand playing himself as a retired western star who harvests Christmas trees on his ranch. Third, it offers a host of second- and third-tier cowboy stars, some retired, as guest stars who come to Jack's aid. Fourth, it features cute little Carol Nugent as a pre-adolescent sharpshooter. Fifth, it gives Dale Evans a break and hands female lead duties over to pretty Penny Edwards, a perennial western fan favorite.
Rogers plays Roy Rogers, head of the local office of the U.S. Soil Administration(!). When a rival timber crew crosses the land boundary and cuts down Christmas trees on Jack Holt's property, Roy enters the scene riding Trigger and carrying twin six-shooters. The rival crew is upset at Holt's plan to sell the trees at cost so that poor families can buy them. Apparently, the Christmas tree market in rural Southern California is so lucrative that villain Mitch McCall (Clifton Young) is even willing to commit arson and murder for a piece of it. Aldridge (Emory Parnell), McCall's unwitting employer, sends his daughter, no-nonsense businesswoman Toby (Penny Edwards) to check up on things. She seems to be in cahoots with McCall for much of the film, but then falls under Roy's musical spell (aided by Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage) and--presto!--becomes a homebody, cooking Christmas dinner for everybody.
When McCall's henchmen make it tough for Holt to get his trees to market, young Sis McGonigle (Carol Nugent) sends out a call for help to nine of Holt's movie star buddies, including Allan 'Rocky' Lane, Monte Hale, Rex Allen, William Farnum, Tom Keene (later to appear in the equally subtle PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE) and Tom Tyler (yes, Captain Marvel himself). They all show up on horseback in full western regalia, but all they actually get to do is drive wagons on a studio rig against a rear screen projection background.
Although this is set at the time it was filmed, 1950, it occupies an alternate Hollywood universe that was unique to B-westerns. Roy is a government officer and Mitch McCall is a company man, yet they both wear cowboy outfits, complete with gun belts, and, like most of the locals, ride horses. The main town is a standard-issue western set (not a paved road, gas station, diner, or drugstore in sight, and no cops either, except for a lone sheriff). Only one character, Toby, the city girl, rides a car (a roomy 1950 convertible). When Holt tells the kids about his old movies, they tell him they have television. (Yet, we don't see any antennas! Hmmm...) When the cowboy stars drive the Christmas trees to market, they use wagons, not pickup trucks. This was not unusual in B-westerns with contemporary settings, but the effect is triply bizarre when viewed in Trucolor.
Trucolor was a two-strip color process (as opposed to Technicolor's three-strip process), that tended to favor blue, orange and brown hues. Red usually wavered toward orange, yellow was never visible and green was only rarely glimpsed, making Trucolor an odd choice for a film in which hundreds of Christmas trees (colored a parched brown in this print) play an important role.
Roy is his usual two-fisted, righteous self, plunging into fights with the Christmas tree grabbers even when the odds are against him, in true Republic Pictures fashion. He rides Trigger at great speeds, but is ably assisted on the action front by his German shepherd, Bullet, who bares his fangs and sinks them into a steady stream of Roy's adversaries. Jack Holt is quite charming here, somewhat looser and more relaxed than when he had to play the square-jawed hero. He had started in movies in 1914 and became a top silent star of adventures and dramas in the 1920s and continued as a star, but in lower-budgeted films, well into the sound era. He had two more films in the can after this one, which was released a month before he died of a heart attack at 72.
Gordon Jones (Mike the cop on the old Abbott & Costello TV show) provides comic relief as the town handyman and buffoon, Splinters McGonigle, who gets out of numerous jams thanks to his resourceful little sister, Sis. Clifton Young is a convincingly slimy-looking villain (the actor died a year later). The Lydecker Brothers, Republic's famous special effects team, contribute a sequence showing the burning of the Red River Bridge. There are three or four forgettable songs, one with a Christmas theme. The title, TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD, is somewhat puzzling, unless Holt's act of selling his own Christmas trees at cost to needy families is seen as a Robin Hood-like act (stealing from yourself to sell to the poor?). This one pales in comparison to other Rogers Trucolor westerns, most notably THE GOLDEN STALLION (1949) and TRIGGER, JR. (1950), but it's still a must-see for Rogers fans or anyone seeking a visually striking, offbeat, action-packed western.