Monday, May 24, 2021

"The Light of Western Stars" (1940)

The Light of Western Stars (1940) tells the sad tale of a handsome young cowhand named Danny (Alan Ladd) and his short-lived marriage to the lovely girl Bonita (Esther Estrella).

Danny has a good, steady job on a ranch, and his favorite way to spend an evening is by going to town and dancing with Bonita.  

I've long maintained that it's a crime we don't get to see Alan Ladd dance in more movies because he's got such athletic grace that he must have been a fine dancer.  The Light of Western Stars does give us several nice, longish moments of Danny and Bonita dancing together, and his easy smoothness totally matches my expectations.

Unfortunately, the crooked lawman Tom Hawes (Tom Tyler) takes a shine to Bonita himself.  He orders one of his deputies to go "take care of" Danny so Bonita will be free to dance with Sheriff Hawes.

Because this is a fairly early Ladd role, the filmmakers actually accentuate his shorter height, making him appear young and small, an easy target for the older and heftier baddies who slap Danny around and threaten him.

Luckily for Danny, his fellow ranch hand Gene Stewart (Victor Jory) stops the sheriff and deputy before anything truly awful can happen. 

Stewart tells them to pick on someone their own size next time, meaning himself, I suppose.  

This is the only really clear shot I was able to capture of Alan Ladd -- my DVD copy of this refuses to play in either of my computers even though it plays in my DVD player okay, so I had to grab shots from this online copy, which is even less clear than my none-too-spiffy DVD.  Which is why there are only a handful of screencaps here, and why they're so grainy and blurry.

Next thing we know, there's all kinds of shooting going on in the saloon, and Danny and Bonita come flying out, Danny still firing at unseen-by-us enemies.  Bonita urges him to get on his horse and ride across the border, where he'll be safe in Mexico.

Danny agrees that's the best plan, kisses Bonita, and rides away, shooting at his still-unseen-by-us enemies as he goes.  Bonita borrows a horse from Gene Stewart and rides after Danny, and they both make it safely to Mexico.  There, they get married and live in relative safety until that crooked sheriff and his crooked friends find them.

Alas, the last we actually see of Danny is his panicked flight from that gunfight because this movie isn't actually about Danny, it's about Gene Stewart and his secret marriage to Eastern gal Madeline "Majesty" Hammond (Jo Ann Sayers), plus some gun-runners selling defective rifles to insurgents in Mexico, and Stewart's own personal battle with alcohol.  All of which gets crammed into 64 minutes, so I guess it's not surprising that Danny and Bonita are sidelined so swiftly.  

Still, Danny plays an important role in the plot because (SPOILER ALERT) he gets killed by the gun-runners, which spurs Stewart into fighting them once and for all.  Or something. (END SPOILER)  The plot is so fast-paced that I've watched this twice and still don't really know what happens at the end, except a lot of shooting and riding around on very fast horses.  

This is loosely based on Zane Grey's novel by the same name, which I read a few years ago and reviewed here on my book blog.  It has a rather different plot.  This was actually the fourth movie adaptation of that novel!  There were also film versions made in 1918, 1925, and 1930.  

Interestingly, Noah Beery Jr. plays Stewart's dim-witted sidekick Poco in this film, and his father Noah Beery had a role in the 1925 version.

Is this movie family friendly?  Totally.  Do I recommend it?  Only if you love someone in it enough to sit through 64 minutes of very murky plot.  Also, it basically has no conclusion, it just ends.


  1. Oh, I've read "The Light of the Western Stars!" I didn't like it (heh), but I did read it!

    It's funny how they changed the plot from the book and crammed in so much extra stuff, especially with such a short runtime to begin with. You would think they would've focused on Gene and Madeleine. Or else told an entirely different story about Danny and Bonita.

    1. Katie, heh heh -- Danny and Bonita are a tiny side story that gets about 5 minutes of screentime, all told -- including the announcement later about Danny's fate. Bonita gets a bit more than that, but not much. Most of my review here is me telling their tiny side story with as many words as possible because I thought it'd be funny to spend all the review time on them and ignore Gene and Madeline for the most part. But that's why I said, this movie isn't actually about Danny, it's about Gene Stewart and his secret marriage to Eastern gal Madeline "Majesty" Hammond. It's really all about them -- and I was annoyed that they kinda make Gene the main character, where it was Majesty in the book, so yeah...

      I do wish they'd told an entire story about Danny and Bonita, though! I love that they actually get married and make a life for themselves in Mexico. Alas, they're only there to get used as a plot device.

    2. (Danny literally has 3 scenes -- one short one to introduce him and Bonita, the dancing one, and his escape.)

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    4. Ahhhhhhhhh. That makes sense ;) I got what you were saying about the movie being really about Gene and Madeleine--but I wasn't sure how much screentime was devoted to Danny and Bonita.

      I remember a cowboy who married a Mexican girl in the original book, but I don't think he dies?

      That IS frustrating that they'd make Gene the main character, because one of the more unique things about "Light of the Western Stars" is that it has a female protagonist, when most Western novels are about men.

    5. Katie, yeah, I think Danny's character is in the book, but I have zero memory of what happened to him.

      I agree that it's annoying Gene kind of takes over. Sigh. I wonder what the other versions are like? Two of them use totally different names for the characters, which is like ????

    6. I remember another cowboy (the older one, my favorite) died--but I'm pretty sure Danny didn't.

      So much weirdness, eh?

    7. Katie, well, maybe some day I'll reread it (I do have this lovely vintage copy on my shelves...) and see what happens to Danny and Bonita in the book itself :-)

  2. Hehehe, thanks Hamlette, you made me laugh with this review!


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