Weird Western: Ghost of Hidden Valley (1946)


Buster Crabbe plays a dour cowboy helping out an unconvincing Englishman who has inherited a ranch that rustlers claim is haunted.

By Max Sparber
There were a lot of cheapo oaters that told of criminals who tried to hide their crimes by faking a haunting, but "Ghost of Hidden Valley" offers a someone novel take on this. Not only is the Hidden Valley Ranch (here an actual ranch, and not a salad dressing) haunted, but the ghosts are ornery enough that they kill anyone who shows up.

This is just a cover for a cattle rustling operating, and it somewhat beggars imagination to be asked to believe that old timey cowboys were so superstitious that when people died, they just shrugged and decided it must be ghosts. But that's the conceit of the film, and so we're stuck with it.

The film stars Buster Crabbe, a former Olympic swimmer turned brawny movie star who played everyone from Tarzan to Buck Rogers to Flash Gordon, always looking muscular and slightly peevish. He plays a character named Billy Carson here — he had played Billy the Kid in 13 films for Producers Pictures, and, for whatever reason, switched the name of the character to Carson for another 23 movies.

His Billy the Kid wasn't the historic character anyway, In the early films, Crabbe was a bit of an outlaw, but mostly traveled about with his longtime companion, Fuzzy Q. Jones, a sort of deranged miner played by comic actor Al St. John. You see this sort of character in a lot of Poverty Row Westerns, a irascible bearded character who mostly acts as a comic foil. Not only was Al St. John one of the first, but, if you see that sort of a character, there is a good chance it is St. John. He made 346 movies.

These movies occasionally touched on supernatural themes, and, god damn it, I'll probably watch all of them: "Wild Horse Phantom," which has a haunted mine; and "His Brother's Ghost," in which Fuzzy pretends to be a spook. This was the last of them, and I expect the others are similar, in that they don't even bother to pretend the ghosts are real. We know they're rustlers from the opening shot. They don't even bother to do anything spooky. It's apparently enough just to declare a place haunted, and from that moment on everybody will just presume ghosts are behind any act of villainy.

The rustlers have their plans tripped up. It doesn't happen all at once, and some of it must be pretty embarrassing for them. First, an English man and his valet show up, claiming ownership of the ranch. I believe the English man is played by John Meredith, a Canadian actor who, if this film is any indication, had never heard an English accent. This despite the fact that the valet is played by Jimmy Aubrey, an actual Englishman.

Crabbe and St. John decide to help out the Englishman, mostly, it seems, as bodyguards. This results in several enjoyable fishtfights, often with St. John leaping upon his opponent like a frenzied chimpanzee. In the end, the men are outnumber and outsmarted by the rustlers.

It's not usually the case that the heroes of one of these films turn out to be no match for the villains, and I am not sure why this happens here. It does seem unexpectedly realistic, though, as none of the main character seems especially bright and Crabbe is the only one who seems especially handy in a fight.

Fortunately, the rustlers have made the bad decision to take on a real villain, played by John Cason, who would himself have a career as a rather brutish television version of Kit Carson. He's decided to take over the gang, but his ambition is only exceeded by his bad timing, and he makes his move right at the moment when the gang should probably be keeping an eye on Buster Crabbe.

The film ends oddly, in a saloon, with both Cason and Crabbe accusing each other of being rustlers and demanding the drunks in the bar form a spontaneous hanging posse. If I had been in the bar, I expect I would have just split the difference and hanged the both, but nobody in the bar seems eager to hang anybody.

It goes unsaid, but I think they were afraid that if you hang someone, he might come back as a ghost.


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