PHANTOM VALLEY. Columbia, 1948. Charles Starrett, Smiley Burnette, Virginia Hunter, Joel Friedkin, Robert Filmer, Teddy Infuhr, Ozie Waters & The Colorado Rangers. Screenwriter: J. Benton Cheney. Director: Ray Nazarro.


   Strangely enough, there are no phantoms in Phantom Valley. But someone definitely seems determined to start a range war between the cattlemen and the local homesteaders. The mystery is who this crooked mastermind is, and it’s up to Steve [Collins] and his alter ego, The Durango Kid, to find out who.

   Assisting him is Smiley “Sherlock Holmes” Burnette, whose expertise, gained from a correspondence school manual (and a large magnifying glass), proves to be less than very valuable. Assisting Smiley, and his nemesis who easily outwits him at every turn, is a young apple-eating lad (Teddy Infuhr) who collects the clues that Smiley simply tosses away.

   When I was a kid, the Durango Kid movies were the best there were. Roy was OK, I don’t remember Hoppy at the time, and Gene, Rex and Monte were all good but second-rate. But while I was watching this one now, I started to wonder about things that never occurred to me at the time.

   Things such as, why did Steve (see below) bother even having a secret identity? It was — and still is — neat that he had a cave where he kept his white horse and DK outfit, but what good purpose did it serve in changing to and becoming the Durango Kid? (This is heresy, I know. My younger self would hardly believe my ears, hearing me say such things.)

   But how come no one recognized him, with only a black bandanna over the lower portion of his face? How come the bad guys shoot so badly and, truth be told, how come they always start shooting too soon?

   What was really neat (to me at the time) was that in almost all of the Durango Kid movie, Starrett’s character was always named Steve. Steve Langtry, Steve Norris, Steve Warren, Steve Blake. Two references on Phantom Valley disagree on which Steve it was that Starrett played in this film. One says Collins, the other doesn’t say one way or the other. After watching it, I don’t believe he ever had a last name.


   There is a girl in this one — Virginia Hunter as Yancey Littlejohn — but she’s not really a mushy romantic love interest as she would have been in one of Gene’s or Roy’s movies. She’s the daughter of an elderly and slightly crippled attorney new to Phantom Valley — Joel Friedkin as Sam Littlejohn — and along with a banker named Reynolds (Robert Filmer) her father becomes one of the primary suspects, and Yancey is his primary defender.

   And what do you know? This is an honest to goodness detective puzzler. It surprised me, but minor as it is — hidden between the songs and Smiley’s foolish antics — there it is, and it’s good in its fashion as — dare I say it? — some of the Charlie Chan movies of the same vintage.

   Additional comments: Teddy Infuhr you might remember as the mute boy in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944) and (you might not) several times over as one of the many kids in the Ma & Pa Kettle series of comedy films.

   Virginia Hunter is very pretty and attractive, but she seems to have had only a short career in films. Her roles include at least one other Durango movie, several Three Stooges shorts, and a small part in the noir thriller He Walked by Night (1948). Mostly B-movies, looking down through the rest of the list, and often small uncredited parts at that, but she makes the most of this one.

— October 2004.