(aka "The Pony Express Rider")
WARNER BROS. PICTURES, INC. / THE VITAPHONE CORP
Release Date: 1936 11 14
Running time: 56 minutes (6 reels)
Key book (production) number: PR-XX
"California Mail" was intended to reflect the transition from carrying the mail by Pony Express to sending it by stagecoach. Brawny redhead Dick Foran, with his great height and weight, makes a more believable coach driver than pony express rider but he plays his part with his usual enthusiasm and good humor. Tall and handsome Glenn Strange, in the unusual character of an nearly-lovable but dangerous idiot, provides the comic relief. It is refreshing to see a square dance by ordinary people instead of professional dancers. The fight scenes do not appear to be choreographed and are consequently rough. There are lots of chase scenes and great stunts.
Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers are not mentioned in the credits but they are present in a single scene, supplying music for the dance. Leonard Slye (Roy Rogers) calls a square dance and the group backs Foran as he sings. This movie is available on DVD.
Tom Brower as Sam Harkins, Fred Burns as Ferguson, Glenn Strange as Bud and Ben Hendricks as Deputy Pete Nelson
Others in the cast:
James Farley as Dan
Edward Keane as Thompson
Wilfred Lucas as the Sheriff
Cliff Saum as Jim
Underneath a Western Sky (M. K. Je rome - Jack Scholl - Ted FioRito) instrumental waltz
The story opens as Bill Harkins races his pony, singing "Ridin' the Mail" at the top of his voice. Before long he is ambushed by what appear to be Indians who shoot his horse from under him. He grabs the mailbags and manages to evade his pursuers by crawling through the brush until he comes across one of the Indian ponies. He jumps aboard and dashes off. The mail must go through!
In Gold Creek, Dan Tolliver and his daughter, Mary, drive up to the front of the Banton Brothers store. Roy Banton exchanges pleasantries with Mary and asks her if she would like to go for a drive with him. Mary pleads an earlier engagement and then their attention is drawn to the pony express rider galloping in bareback.
Bill quickly tosses the mailbag to the next rider and tells the curious townspeople how it came about that he was riding an Indian pony. It is obvious that Bill does not believe they were real Indians. Mary joins the group around him and Roy's brother takes the opportunity to make malicious remarks about pony express riders attracting the girls every time.
Bill and his father enter the Pony Express office and Mr. Harkins lets him know that the Pony Express is through, that the Post Office will not renew their contract. They decide to set up a stagecoach line on their own. Mr. Harkins wants Bill to be in Dodge City with a bid for the Harkins Stage Lines.
Bill and his father ride out to the Tolliver's for dinner. Bill and Mary stroll outside in the moonlight, chaperoned by Bill's palomino, Smoke, and and a paint pony of Mr. Harkins. Bill asks Mary to marry him and she gives him a conditional "yes". If he really and truly settles down, she is willing.
The next day, in Dodge City, the committee is meeting to award contracts. As well as the Harkins, the Banton Brothers and Hank Ferguson have submitted bids for the Gold Creek district. The chairman informs them that all three bids are much the same and that the only fair way to award the contract is to have a matched stagecoach race of about thirty miles of rough country.
As they leave the room, the Banton Brothers overhear Bill tell Hank that he intends to ride Smokey over the route tomorrow. They decide to make sure Bill does not survive that ride. Bart Banton cannot resist adding some malicious barbs at his brother's interest in Mary.
A large group of mounted riders watch for Bill and ambush him as he lopes along. Bill evades them by jumping off Smokey and hiding while Smoke goes on alone.
In a spectacular dive off a high cliff, Bill hits he water. The outlaws shoot at him and he sinks down. Congratulating himself that they have hit Bill, Roy leads his men home.
Bill surfaces and swims strongly for shore, whistles for Smoke and continues his ride home.
Bill meets his father in the front yard and, as they stand talking, three of the outlaws ride back and are horrified to see that they have not killed Bill, after all. Inside, Bill tells his father that he could not recognize anyone but one of the outlaws was riding a black horse with white stockings; a horse that would be very easy to spot.
After seeing a very much alive Bill, the outlaws head to town fast. The outlaws pile off their horses in front of the Benton Brothers store and burst in with their news. Roy realizes Bill will be at the dance and makes plans to "fix him so he won't be able to get out of bed, much less drive a race." His brother cannot resist needling him some more.
At the dance, the Sons of the Pioneers are providing the dance music including a square dance.
Bill was asked to sing. Mary asked him to sing the song for her and he agreed if she would save the first waltz for him. Bill chose "Love Begins at Evening".
While Bill is singing, Roy is very aware that Bill is singing straight to Mary and tries to engage her in conversation but she is concentrating on the song.
When Bill finishes his song and the Pioneers begin a waltz, Roy asks her to dance. She tries to tell him that she had promised the waltz to Bill but Roy swings her onto the dance floor, anyway. Bill loses no time cutting in and getting Mary back. Roy tries to look casual about it all but his brother fans his anger into fury with a few choice remarks.
When Mary's father cuts in, Bill walks outside where Roy picks a fight with him. This effectively stops the dance and everyone pours out to watch the fight.
Mary is upset because it looks as though Bill has deliberately broken his promise to her. She has her father take her home.
Back in the Banton Brothers office, Roy dabs at his injuries and furiously plans to ruin the Harkins by cutting the spokes on Bill's stagecoach. His brother eggs him on. Bud, Al and Charlie sneak into Harkins' barn but are interrupted by Bill when he puts Smoke up for the night. They wait until he leaves then finish cutting the spokes almost through.
They were almost discovered when Bud starts to sneeze but one of the other men puts a finger under his nose and stops it in time.
The day of the big race finds the whole town out and ready to be entertained. Back in the saloon big and small bets are made. Dan Tolliver puts $1,000 on Bill and Bart Banton takes the bet.
In the last few minutes before the race, Bill talks to Mary and she wishes him well. The judges read off the conditions of the race and remind the crowd that the winner will get the mail contract.
All three coaches do well until Devil's Curve when Bill's wagon rolls over the edge. He jumps in time and climbs down to the coach to discover the sawn spokes.
Dan and Mary Tolliver drive out with Sam Harkins and they all realize that Bill could have lost his life as well as the mail contract. They still do not suspect Roy Banton.
Dan Tolliver drives himself and Mary home while the Harkins borrow the buckboard and drive on to their home. Tolliver plans to catch the early morning stage. Bill changes and rides over to see Mary but he never gets there.
On his way, he hears gunfire and watches helplessly as a gang of men rob the stagecoach. He notices that one of the horses is dark with white stockings and follows them to Banton's home. He checks through the window and finally realizes who his enemies are.
Later, in the saloon, Roy discusses his plans with his brother and Bud, plans for shutting Bill up for keeps. As usual, Barton Banton eggs him on maliciously. Frank volunteers to dress up like Bill, steal Smoke and hold up the morning stage. Roy further suggests that Frank shoot someone during the holdup to make it look even worse for Bill.
Back at the Harkins' ranch, Bill wakes his father and tells him that the Bantons have been robbing their own stagecoaches. They discuss plans and decide to get together with Johnson, the banker, and get false word out that a shipment of gold is going out in the morning. Bill wants to catch the Bantons in the act of robbing the stagecoach.
The outlaws wait until the Harkins are asleep and then steal Smoke, albeit with great difficulty.
By morning, Frank is prepared and waiting for the stage. He holds it up and then shoots Dan Tolliver, apparently for recognizing him as Bill Harkens.
As the stage leaves and Frank dismounts to pick up the mailbag and the loot from the passengers, Smoke attacks and kills him.
In town, Mary is waiting for the incoming stage because she is expecting her father. She chats with Sam Harkins and asks why Bill had not come out to see her as promised the night before. He had ridden out, Bill's father replied.
The coach arrives, a doctor is called and after the doctor pronounces Dan Tolliver dead, Sam Harkins walks out through the door to find the townspeople have talked themselves into fever pitch, intending to hang Bill. The sheriff stops this temporarily. Sam races home and tells Bill what happens. He wants Bill to leave immediately but his son won't leave because he knows he's innocent. The sheriff arrests him and takes him to jail, foiling Roy's plan once more.
And so Roy must make new plans, this time involving bribing the deputy who is guarding Bill in jail. He promises him the Sheriff's job if he will let Bill go free and then shoot him for "escaping".
Sam visits his son and they decide they must go on with the plans for exposing the Banton Brothers. While the Banton brothers put ideas into Pete's head, Sam talks with the banker who falls in with the plan to send a trunk load of rocks on the stage after spreading rumours about a secret gold shipment.
Pete loses no time putting his own little plan into effect. He goes into the cell with Bill and chattily sympathizes with him. Pointing through the cell window, he indicates that Smoke is waiting for him and all he has to do is walk out. Bill listens quietly then refuses to leave. He tells Pete that he had nothing to do with the holdup and he can prove it. He walks back into the cell but slides quickly behind the wall, unseen. Pete walks in with his gun drawn and Bill disarms him then forces him to admit that Roy Banton put him up to this calumny. He locks Pete in the cell, climbs through the window and rides away on Smoke, straight to Tolliver's.
Mary is packing in preparation for leaving on the morning's stage. Jim is helping her, all the while wishing aloud that she wasn't leaving. Bill walks into the room and tries to persuade Mary to believe him but she cannot in the face of so many witnesses. Jim forces him to leave at gunpoint, wanting to return him to jail but Mary says just let him go.
On the way home, Bill passes the place where the holdup took place and finds Frank Wyatt's body. He reads the story plainly in the dropped mailbag and Smoke's hoof prints. Without touching anything, he rides to tell his father and makes sure the plans are still in effect.
Bill then rides to the Sheriff's home and awakens him. The sheriff is willing to have Bill prove his innocence, dresses immediately and leaves with him. They ride back together to the body of the outlaw.
The next morning, Jim sadly hands Mary into the stage while the bank loads a heavy chest supposedly containing gold.
From the hills, Roy gives his gang last minute instructions.
When the stage comes into view, they ride down and stop it. Bill, the Sheriff and the rest watch in satisfaction then race down to apprehend them.
Roy opens the chest to find the rocks instead of gold, realizes he has been discovered and all is lost. He has only time to mount and ride before the posse is on them.
While the posse chases down the outlaws, the Sheriff, in Mary's presence, forces one of the captives to admit that Frank Wyatt, not Bill Harkins, had shot Dan Tolliver.
Meanwhile, Bill is chasing down the Banton Brothers and in a spectacular jump, bulldogs the two men from their horses at the same time. They still have enough energy after that horrific fall to get up and fight.
Roy tries to escape but Smoke chases him down and dispatches him.
The movie ends on a happy note as the newly-married bridegroom serenades his bride in a bright new stagecoach with "Harkins Stage Lines" emblazoned on the door.
The Calin Coburn Collection © 2004
The Calin Coburn Collection © 2004
The Calin Coburn Collection © 2004
The Calin Coburn Collection © 2004
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