Directed by Joseph Santley
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2002
What It’s About:
In Melody Ranch, Gene Autry plays himself as the star of a weekly western musical adventure radio show. Two old friends from his hometown travel to the city to invite him to come home to act as the honorary town sheriff during an upcoming celebration. While there, he has a run-in with some local bullies who are causing trouble in the town. He decides to stay in order to stop these troublemakers, and eventually runs for the actual elected position of sheriff. The bullies won’t go down without a fight, and they’re determined to do anything to get him to leave town. Along for the ride are the cast and crew of his radio show (including his co-star and love interest, Julie, and her would-be suitor and the producer of the show, Tommy) who have traveled with him in order to continue doing their weekly broadcast.
Context and Significance:
Gene Autry was known as “The Singing Cowboy,” and was a key figure in the popularization of country music. He started his career as a musician, and later starred in several western films and television shows. In addition to country music, he’s also known for several still-popular Christmas songs, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
The film Melody Ranch seems to have had a large impact on Autry’s career. A few months before the film was released, Autry recorded a pilot episode for a radio show also titled “Melody Ranch”, which was picked up for sponsorship by Doublemint Gum. The radio show continued until 1956 (with a two-year hiatus during World War II when Autry served in the Army). It later became a television show in 1964 that ran for 9 years, though Autry himself only appeared on the television show a few times, having retired from acting by that time.
Autry also purchased a movie ranch (which is pretty much what it sounds like: a ranch where movies are made) in 1953 and renamed it “Melody Ranch” after the film. Melody Ranch is still in operation today, and many movies and television shows have been filmed there, including Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and HBO’s Westworld.
For me, this film surprisingly works. Melody Ranch is so cheesy that it should have been painful to watch. Instead, it was somehow charming. It felt like a live-action version of the fictional television show “Woody’s Roundup” that appears in Toy Story 2. While that was probably more directly parodying shows like “Howdy Doody,” it was hard for me not to notice some similarities. The good guys act like proverbial boy scouts, and while the clean-shaven bad guys lack any mustaches to twirl, they do things like knowingly endanger children, and literally attempt a violent voter suppression. The romance in the film is intentionally kid-friendly (apparently, the studio executives even cut out the one onscreen kiss that was originally filmed, because they thought the kids in the audience wouldn’t want to see it.) Even the obligatory romantic triangle gets resolved with no hard feelings between the three individuals involved. This movie is about as clean-cut and safe as you can get, but because of that, it feels like an amusing window into what “family-friendly entertainment” used to be like.
Melody Ranch (1940) is available to stream for free here: https://tubitv.com/movies/524892/melody_ranch
You can view a spreadsheet that details how you can find every film in the Registry (and also notes how you can help me, if you feel so inclined) here: https://tinyurl.com/NFRDirectory
These blog posts are being compiled into a (very much work-in-progress) book, which you can view here: https://tinyurl.com/NFRCompletistBook
Information sources and additional resources:
- Wikipedia page for Melody Ranch film: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melody_Ranch
- Wikipedia page for the Melody Ranch radio show: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Autry%27s_Melody_Ranch
- Wikipedia page for Gene Autry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Autry
- Official website for the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio: http://melodyranchstudio.com/index.html