THE TEXAS RANGERS. Paramount, 1936. Fred MacMurray, Lloyd Nolan, Jean Parker, and Jack Oakie. Screenplay by King Vidor, Elizabeth Hill, and Louis Stevens, from the book by Walter Prescott Webb. Directed by King Vidor. Currently streaming on YouTube.

   A trio of desperadoes get separated while fleeing from a posse. Two of them join the Texas Rangers as cover, and gradually find themselves becoming committed to the Ranger mission, while the third forms a new gang and continues on his thievin’ murderin’ way, and if you can’t tell what develops….

   Despite the formulaic plot, this is far far from routine, thanks to Vidor’s assured direction and the performances from the leads. Until he hooked up with Disney and My Three Sons, MacMurray always lent a kind of equivocal edge to his roles that contrasted uneasily with his bluff good looks, and it makes him perfect as the bad guy turned hero (for now). Oakie’s good-for-little bravura makes a fine comedy relief, and Nolan’s big-city look suits his character just fine.

   But it’s Vidor’s sensitive handling of stock situations and his flair for action scenes that lifts Rangers out of its cliche’d roots.

   F’rinstance, there’s a bit where the Rangers are trapped on a cliffside, holding off angry Apaches down below. A few of the more ambitious Native Americans climb up above and start laboriously rolling boulders down at the Rangers. Vidor’s smooth way of cutting (The boulders come at intervals, thundering down the near-sheer wall like a cannon shot, as the rangers claw their way up the cliff to stop them) from long-shots, to medium exteriors, to studio “exteriors” propels the scene to epic proportions.

   Then, in quieter moments, the emotional resonance he puts into the scene where Nolan and Oakie have it out — Oakie’s braggadocio melting as he realizes how dangerous his old pal has become, Nolan losing control of himself, and visibly enjoying it — has stuck with me since I was a kid, and followed me into my dotage.

   Jimmy Stewart called moments like these “Pieces of time.” I call it fine movie-making and great fun.