Western Wednesdays: The Range Busters (1940)

After a series of mysterious murders at the Circle T Ranch, owner Homer Thorp [Horace Murphy] decides it is best to enlist some outside help to track down the phantom killer. When Thorp himself is shot, his daughter Carol [Luana Walters] insists there be action taken. In comes the Range Busters consisting of “Crash” Corrigan [Ray “Crash” Corrigan], “Dusty” King [John “Dusty” King] and “Alibi” Terhune [Max “Alibi” Terhune] with his dummy Elmer to unravel the mystery and they immediately engage in a brawl with Torrence [Leroy Watson] and his henchmen.

The Range Busters are informed by local doctor Stengle [Frank LaRue] of the legend of the Circle T mine, that the original owner placed a curse over the land and one by one anyone who dared to work the spread was murdered. The three heroes head out to the ranch and settle in as ranch hands. The next day, after hearing a series of shots, Crash and Dusty hit the trail and stumble upon the old mine, only to discover they aren’t alone. As it turns out, Torrence and his men are there too, but they promptly escape before being identified.

Dusty trails Torrence but is ambushed by his crew. Meanwhile, back at the ranch Crash and Alibi are discussing Carol’s blind uncle Rolf [Earle Hodgins], who insists that Carol sell the ranch, however she refuses. Crash talks with the doctor about Rolf’s condition and how he refuses to see a specialist. Dusty’s horse comes back to the ranch alone, leading Crash and Alibi to head out in search of their comrade.

As it turns out Torrence’s men have laid out a trap for Crash and Alibi, but our heroes are wise to this and spread out. Alibi gets the drop on Torrence’s lookout and Crash handles the other two marauders, rescuing Dusty in the process. While Dusty and Crash are serenading Carol, another shot is fired. Dusty and Alibi go in search for the shootist and end up back at the mine. Carol is bound and gagged by Torrence who starts a scuffle with Crash, while Dusty and Alibi trail the phantom. Torrence is cornered and reveals everything but has no clue about the killings and is shot before he can speak further. Dusty and Crash trap the phantom and he is revealed to be…

“The Range Busters” was an enjoyable western whodunit from Monogram Pictures, one of Poverty Row’s more popular studios. Featuring some stellar outside photography and genuine performances as well as an engaging storyline, this is one of the most robust westerns I’ve seen since starting this column. The title characters are a great group of heroes and this film proved so popular that it ushered in a series of 24 films featuring the trio that lasted from 1940 to 1943. My favorite performer being Earle Hodgins who plays the blind Uncle Rolf with a sinister touch.

My one negative remark about the experience has nothing to do with the story or acting, but the condition of the film itself. I rarely discuss the condition of the films I discuss as most, if not all of them are orphaned productions, forever doomed to languish in the Hell that is the public domain and as such have been duped and copied so many times that the source material remains a splicy, near-unwatchable mess. This is certainly the case for The Range Busters, which I viewed via Mill Creek Entertainment’s “Western Legends” 50-movie collection. There were many times during the viewing of the film that I almost canceled this review due to the many splices and jump cuts present in the material. This goes to show why I am an advocate for restoration of these westerns of the past, this ages-old material has been neglected for so long that many of these films have faced severe decomposition and have fallen in to disrepair.

The Range Busters is one of a handful of western film series to feature a trio of heroes, other examples of this are the Three Mesquiteers series for Republic, the Rough Riders for Monogram as well as the Trail Blazers also for Monogram. In fact, The Range Busters series are viewed as ripoffs of the earlier Three Mesquiteers series which also feature Corrigan and Terhune. Many of these series were tremendous successes and also provided many veteran western stars the opportunity to ride in to the sunset while giving way towards newer talent.

Within the Range Busters, of special interest is Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Corrigan, born Raymond Benitz, is a legendary figure in the history of pulp motion pictures. In addition to his work in westerns (as part of not only the Range Busters, but also the Three Mesquiteers), he is most well-known to legions of horror movie fans for his many uncredited performances in his many gorilla suits. He was a prominent gorilla suit performer and can be seen in films such as “Captive Wild Woman” (1943, Universal) and “Nabonga” (1944, PRC). Additionally, Corrigan also bought the Santa Susana Mountains Foothills in Simi Valley and converted it into a movie ranch christened “Corriganville.” It was destroyed by wildfires in 1976. Corrigan died in 1976 at the age of 74.