The Law of Contact

Under Western Stars (April 20, 1938)

Under Western Stars

Released on April 20, 1938: The first Roy Rogers movie, about farmers coping with drought and dust next to a dam and lake owned by a man that will not share his water.

Directed by Joseph Kane

The Actors: Roy Rogers (Roy Rogers), Smiley Burnette (Frog), Carol Hughes (Eleanor Fairbanks), Maple City Four (singers), Guy Usher (John Fairbanks), Tom Chatterton (Congressman Edward H. Marlowe), Kenneth Harlan (Richards), Stephen Chase (Tom Andrews), Brandon Beach (Senator Wilson), Earl Dwire (Mayor Biggs), Jean Fowler (Mrs. Wilson), Dora Clement (Mrs. Marlowe), Dick Elliott (William P. Scully), Burr Caruth (Larkin), Slim Whitaker (Tremaine), Jack Rockwell (Sheriff), Frankie Marvin (Deputy Pete), Chuck Baldra (rancher), Roy Bucko (deputy), Fred Burns (rancher Rankin), Bob Card (deputy), Tommy Coats (holdup man), Tex Cooper (townsman), Art Dillard (water-gate guard), Curley Dresden (amused townsman), Herman Hack (holdup man), Henry Hall (man at meeting), Earle Hodgins (announcer), Jack Ingram (water-gate guard), Art Janes (member of the Maple City Four), Jane Keckley (Mrs. Larkin), Jack Kirk (water wagon driver), Merrill McCormick (peddler), Fritz Meissner (member, Maple City Four), George Montgomery (cowhand), Milburn Morante (repairman), George Morrell (rancher), Jack O'Shea (amused townsman), Pat Petterson (member, Maple City Four), Al Rice (member, Maple City Four), Rudy Sooter (townsman), Duke Taylor (henchman), Bill Wolfe (townsman).


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The great American west dust storms of 1930-1940, and the drought and famine that accompanied them have been noted to great detail, so I don't need to say too much about that period here. This is the first feature film for singing cowboy Roy Rogers. If you enjoy western music, this motion picture has more than most of his later films. Singing cowboy movie star Gene Autry was wanting more money than the studios were comfortable with in 1938, so Republic Pictures wanted a new, less expensive singing cowboy, and they chose Roy Rogers, who was singing with the Sons of the Pioneers music group.

The movie opens with flying newspapers alerting us to the dustbowl and drought conditions in the desert west. Then we see a gun fight at the dam that is holding back a great lake of fresh water. Local ranchers are fighting to get the dam owner to open the flood gates and allow some of his water to hit their land for free. The owner of the dam is charging more for water than the local farmers and ranchers can afford, so they take the water they need at gunpoint. The owner of the dam calls the Sheriff and asks him to intervene and help protect his dam property. About the same time, local rancher Roy Rogers hears the gun fight also, and he rushes to the aid of the ranchers that are trying to steal some water from the dam, and between him and his side kick 'frog' Smiley Burnette, they manage to hold the guards at the dam at gunpoint while they open the flood gates. When the Sheriff shows up, Roy holds the Sheriff at gunpoint so that Smiley can keep the gates open. So who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys? Take your pick. Both Roy and his buds, and the dam owner and his henchman enforce the law of the gun - all's fair in love and war, and this looks like war.

Soon we learn that Roy's papa was the Senator for this western state before he died, but now the dam owner has backed a Senator that will do his bidding. So of course Roy runs for Senator and wins, and goes to Washington to try to get the government to intervene and provide water for the west. A couple of side-notes here . . . this is the time when the federal government did intervene in the water rights of the west, and many dams were built by the government to harness and supply a dependable source of water to lands that nature never provided water to. Sometimes today we look at the cowboy movies of the 1930's and 1940's and think that they are stories about times many years before, but this one and many more were meant to be contemporary films. This picture was released in 1938, around the peak of the dust bowl droughts of the desert western lands, and was intended to inform the rest of the country about the need for water, and their desire for the U.S. Government to step in and provide that water somehow. As the east is fighting their way out of the Great Depression, the desert west is fighting for water and more.

There is also, of course, a love interest for Roy, and this time it is the daughter of his opposition, the owner of the Great Western Water and Power company. Roy, with his friends and their guns, manage to get the job done, and it looks like he'll get the girl also. Pop some corn, grab a soda, and watch the young Roy Rogers, just as America was first introduced to him in 1938. You'll not only enjoy his fighting, but his singing, yodeling, and even calling a square dance.