Weird Westerns: Haunted Ranch (1943)
The Three Mesquiteers turned into the Range Busters in a series of films mostly identifiable by their accidental weirdness. In this case, the heroes investigate a haunted ranch house.
By Max Sparber
Even though this film is identified as being a Range Busters movie, it's basically a Three Mesquiteers movie, the same folks who gave us "Riders of the Whistling Skull" six years earlier. Or, at least, two of them: Frontier ventriloquist Max Terhune and stuntman Crash Corrigan, who doesn't appear in this film, but is still important to it. Allow me to explain.
Corrigan built his own Western backlot with profits from his early cowboy movies, and when he got into a contract dispute with Republic, who produced the Three Mesquiteers films, he simply took his spurs and went home, to his own ranch, and started his own series with Terhune. He appeared in some, but the Range Busters tended to swap one performer out for another without much concern. It happens in this movie: Series regular David Sharpe just leaves the film midway through, deciding to join the military to fight in the Spanish-American War. He is instantly replaced by Rex Lease, who just wanders onto the movie, as though that were the most natural thing in the world.
And this is what I would like to discuss with this film, and this series. It's something that I call, if you'll excuse the language, the accidental surrealism of not giving a shit. The Range Busters were produced quickly and sloppily, and, as a result, one story might take place in the Old West and another in modern times, as though the Range Busters were immortals who traveled through time unchanged and the films were shown out of order.
This film is ostensibly about a haunted ranch house, but in a Scooby Doo way — we immediately twig to the fact that it's actually a group of bandits who are pretending to be ghosts because they are convinced there is gold hidden there. The head of the gang is the towering, menacing Glenn Strange, who previously played Frankenstein's monster and is immediately identifiable as a villain. But his cohorts are two plump, mustachioed middle-aged men who are essentially indistinguishable from each other and look to be Jewish bakers.
One of them is sent to the basement of the house to playact at being a ghost, which he does by playing the accordion and sometimes doing something that seems to be clog dancing, so I suppose the house is haunted by some sort of deranged vaudevillian. Nobody seems especially frightened by it, except for African-American film comic Fred "Snowflake" Toones, on hand to be the frightened black man, a weird film convention of the time that is never welcome.
I don't know that I can describe the plot, as it doesn't really follow logically. The Range Busters are trying to have a vacation, which mostly involves riding their horses and demonstrating their trick shooting. They uncover the plot, so one poses as the deceased ranch owner while Terhune uses his ventriloquist dummy to try to suss out the villains plans. He does this by pretending the dummy is psychic, which must be one of film's more novel uses of a ventriloquist dummy.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there is an organ with a safe in it that can only be played by performing a specific song, causing literally every character who passes it to declare that they used to play, and, by God, they used to be pretty good, then sitting down and fingering what sounds to be the opening chords to "Purple Rain."
It gets resolved, sort of, in that the villains run away and the heroes figure out what song will open the safe. I haven't watched a lot of Range Buster films, but I am given to believe they are all like this: 60 minutes of nonsensical plotting, low comedy, and Western stunts acted out on the same set over and over again.
Crash Corrigan would eventually give up on Westerns. He owned his own gorilla suit and worked occasionally as a movie monkey in films like " Tarzan and His Mate," and he essentially retired to doing little but occasional appearances in his ape costume, which seems a fittingly weird ending to a man who accidentally was responsible for some very strange Westerns.