Sun 21 Jun 2009
THE MYSTERIOUS RIDER. Paramount, 1938. Douglass Dumbrille, Sidney Toler, Russell Hayden, Stanley Andrews. Weldon Heyburn, Charlotte Field, Monte Blue. Based on the novel by Zane Grey. Director: Lesley Selander.
Douglass Dumbrille is the kind of actor one vaguely remembers as a perennial nasty who never really scaled the heights.
He had his moments, though: pushing bamboo shoots under Gary Cooper’s fingernails in Lives of a Bengal Lancer, chasing Jackie Cooper up the rigging in Treasure Island (center right), or looking down his nose at the Marx Brothers in The Big Store, happy times in a busy career that somehow never achieved the status of, say, Lionel Atwill or Vincent Price.
Imagine my surprise, then, when he turned up as the out-and-out hero of an engaging B-Western called The Mysterious Rider. Dumbrille stars here for his first and only time as Pecos Bill, the nom du rue of a legendary highwayman who gets a hankerin’ to revisit the old homestead he left twenty years ago, wanted for murder.
From this point, the story veers toward The Odyssey, with Pecos returning to his old ranch unrecognized, greeted by the dogs and finding his daughter beset by unworthy suitors-then setting about to put things right.
Mysterious Rider shows what magic can be done by a capable director with familiar material. Lesley Selander spent thirty years in Bronson Canyon, Gower Gulch and other stomping grounds of the B-Western, churning out vehicles for Hopalong Cassidy, Buck Jones and Tim Holt, and he always took it seriously, investing his work with inventive camera angles, capable stunting and (most important) snappy pace.
Here given a modestly off-beat story and an unlikely star, he turns out a fast, fun film, enlivened considerably by Dumbrille’s evident delight in playing a good guy — although his typecast background makes it easy to believe that he may well have been a road agent.
One additional note: in 1957 Dumbrille, at age 70, married the 28 year old daughter of his friend and fellow character actor Alan Mowbray. They were still married at the time of his death, seventeen years later.